From Freud to America: A short history of sadomasochism

The Marquis de Sade might have given his name to sadomasochism (SM), but responsibility for the terms might be more accurately handed to Freud.The terms sadism and masochism were only coined during the rise of psychoanalysis in the 1880s, but sexual historians agree that the behaviors have existed for far longer; activity that could be classified as sadomasochistic appears often in medieval stories of courtly love, for instance. Despite research that shows that 15 percent of the American adult population has engaged in SM at some point, bondage remains a marginalized activity. A history of humanity’s long liason with leather.

1785 - Comte Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade, publishes Les 120 Journes de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom). His fantasy novel, along with the works Justine and Juliette, depicts graphic sexual violence. In his time, the Comte de Sade was better known as a philosopher and revolutionary; but today he’s forever entangled with fetish.

1869 - Austrian noble Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-95) publishes “Venus im Pelz” (Venus in Furs), a semi-autobiographical work about a man who convinces a woman to make him her slave. The beautiful woman, the Venus in furs of the title, becomes cruel and abusive while trying to sexually please. The Romantic era work caused an outrage in Sacher-Masoch’s home city of Lemburg and has been subject to frequent bans ever since.

1885 - German psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing publishes Psychopathia Sexualis, which coins the terms “sadism” and “masochism” and describes sexual disorders in which acts of cruelty and bodily punishment become sexually pleasurable. At this time, the two “sexual anomalies” are understood as distinct: sadism involves finding sexual pleasure in inflicting pain on another person; masochism involves ceding control of a sexual situation to another person.

1889 - The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, analyzes sadomasochism as part of a number of disorders arising from the repression of the subconscious. Freud describes masochism as a perversion common in women and sadism as a perversion common in men, arising from pent-up violent energy.

1929 - British psychologist and founder of sexology Havelock Ellis finishes his seven-volume polemic Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Ellis refutes Freud and Krafft-Ebing by arguing that there is little distinction between sadism and masochism as the two are complementary emotional states. Ellis creates the modern conception of SM, noting that sadomasochists use pain to create pleasure and violence to express love. Ellis also refutes Freud and Krafft-Ebing’s claims that sadism is a stereotypical male sexual response and masochism a stereotypical female sexual response.

1947 - Alfred C. Kinsey, a former Harvard professor of zoology, founds the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in Bloomington (now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction).One year later he publishes the infamous Kinsey Report, in which 12 percent of female and 22 percent of male respondents say they experience an erotic response to a sadomasochistic story, and 55 percent of females and 50 percent of males report having responded sexually to being bitten.

1954 - French author Pauline Rage publishes L’Histoire d’O (The Story of O), a fantasy of female submission to unknown sexual dominators. The work wins the French literary prize Le Prix des Deux Magots and spurs a revival of popular sadomasochistic fiction common (in weaker forms) in the early 1800s.  

1972 - BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) arises as part of larger gay male culture. Affiliated with the leather and biker subcultures, the BDSM practitioners described by Larry Townsend in the popular book “The Leatherman’s Handbook” create an “old guard” culture with formal rules and fixed playable roles. Sadomasochism becomes increasingly affiliated with the American gay community. 

1978 - Lesbian feminists in San Francisco, including writer Pat Califia, found Samois, an organization that garners national attention for its sexually explicit manual on BDSM. Samois becomes the torchbearer for a number of BDSM organizations that gain popularity in the 1970s and 80s.

1981 - Scientists identify AIDS, sparking widespread fear in the gay community and increased homophobia among Americans. The rise of BDSM coincides with the spread of AIDS. Activists suggest that BDSM reduces the risk of disease by providing an alternative to actual intercourse.

c. 1990 - The Internet allows people with specialized sexual interests to explore otherwise taboo activities and to connect anonymously. This brings an explosion of interest in and knowledge about SM, dramatically changing the culture to become more inclusive and less secretive.