I am writing this from the standpoint of introducing these ideas and concepts as part of a discussion group and may include ideas and concepts that I have discussed in earlier posts. I should note that this post wasn’t really part of my plan for discussion topics but I plan to reference these topics in my other posts and I wanted to have something to reference. While I have written about this at length in the past, like the post on mental spaces, I wanted a singular post that would feel complete as a reference point.
I. What are emotional masochism and emotional sadism?
An emotional masochist is someone that achieves a positive sexual response from experiencing emotional, mental, and psychological suffering and pain.
By text definition, a sadist derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others. This definition includes the emotional/mental/psychological side of things. However, in the BDSM-realm, you will find people that go under the term sadist that:
- Only enjoy inflicting physical pain.
- Only enjoy inflicting emotional/mental/psychological pain.
- Enjoy inflicting both physical and emotional/mental/psychological pain.
Even though the term emotional sadist is rather redundant, it is useful as a concept because of those who exist in #1 and #2.
This creates the modified definition: An emotional sadist derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting emotional, mental, and psychological suffering and pain on others.
I should note that emotional sadism can be difficult to differentiate from dominants that thrive on control. An authoritarian-type dominant will respond to wielding control/power over another in its own right. An emotionally sadistic dominant may respond to wielding control/power over another because they are able to inflict emotional suffering by restricting freedom, denying pleasures/privileges, and controlling morale with intentional unfairness or inconsistency. While both types may display similar behaviors on the surface, they may differ greatly in their intent.
II. Emotional Masochism and Sadism are rarely understood.
Within the BDSM community, emotional masochism is rarely understood. I can think of a few primary reasons for this:
- It is often difficult for an emotional masochist to adequately describe the process that is going on within them.
- It is difficult to safely consent to emotional masochism because without perfect information, it is difficult to gauge the line between what the sub finds pleasurable and what will cause actual damage.
- Witnessing emotional masochism/sadism in practice can often be an abuse hot-button for those who do not understand what is going on within the sub and that the sub is okay with what they are experiencing.
- Emotional masochism isn’t impact play so there is very little interest in it.
III. Emotional Masochism
A. How does emotional masochism work?
Emotional masochists do not respond to every type of emotional suffering/pain. Emotional masochists respond to specific kinds of emotional suffering/pain.
The crux of emotional masochism is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is mental state consisting of conflicting thoughts and emotions, often focused on a specific subject.
This primarily happens in one of two ways:
- The sub is faced with something they know to be true, but hope that it isn’t.
- The sub is faced with something they hope to be true, but know that it isn’t.
The key is that for cognitive dissonance to occur, there has to be truth involved.
For most emotional masochists, these truths are deep-rooted fears that have caused them significant amounts of emotional anguish over the course of their lives. In most of these cases, the sub has been able to come to terms enough with the unpleasant truth that they have reluctantly accepted it. A part of them still holds out hope that it isn’t true, and the process of triggering emotional masochism is crushing that hope and forcing them to face the cold, harsh reality.
Emotional masochists have found a way to fetishize this process and create a sexual association with it. This also frequently acts as a trigger for submissive mental space.
To illustrate the two types, I will list some examples.
A sub is faced with truth, hopes it isn’t true:
- They are treated in a way that shows them they are worth less than “other people.” The sub deeply wishes they were worth the same as others, but reluctantly accepts they are not.
- They are treated in a way that emphasizes their sexual inferiority compared to others. The sub deeply hopes they are not sexually inferior but reluctantly accepts this truth.
- They are told that they are only worth keeping around because they are willing to be used and exploited. The sub hopes this is not true but accepts this truth.
A sub hopes for truth, but accepts that it isn’t:
- They are asked if they “deserve” to cum. If they answer yes, they are told they don’t deserve anything because it is up to the dominant to decide what privileges the sub will receive. The sub reluctantly accepts this is true.
- A sissy that is put on display for others may have some glimmer of hope that they will be accepted and treated kindly, but accepts the truth when they are humiliated and degraded.
There is a third method of triggering emotional masochism but it requires a few stipulations to be met. This third method is a technique known as mind-fucking. Mind-fucking relies heavily upon cognitive dissonance and generally can only be performed if 1) a sub is immersed in their submissive mental space and 2) the sub is in a state where they have recognized the dominant as their authority figure.
Mind-fucking uses the threat or reality of something the sub will find extremely unpleasant but also feels helpless to stop. This creates a sense of fear/terror/anticipation that clashes with their attempts to accept the inevitable. In most cases with mind-fucking, the fear that “it could happen” is enough to trigger emotional masochism, without the event actually being forced to happen.
An example of mind-fucking with emotional masochism would be a dominant telling the sub that they plan to invite friends over and out the sub to the friends before allowing the friends use the sub sexually in any way they would want to. When the sub recoils with reluctance, the dominant may counter by pointing out that the sub doesn’t have the power to refuse the dominant and that the sub’s preferences are unimportant. While the dominant may not have any intention of actually inviting friends over, triggering the fear and reluctant acceptance is the same type of cognitive dissonance that leads to an emotionally masochistic response from the sub.
I will note that I use the word “truth” quite a bit in this section. I realize this word choice is strong since in many cases, the perception of truth is quite variable. This is especially applicable when the topics involve insecurity. Feel free to replace “truth” with “the potential to be true” if that makes it easier to digest. What I do want to point out is that for emotional masochism to work, a statement or idea cannot be absolutely false. For example, you cannot call an intelligent sub stupid and expect that to trigger their emotional masochism because that would be inherently false. However, a dominant could say that what that intelligent subs thinks is of no importance if it disagrees with the dominant, and this may work within the framework of their dynamic.
B. Why emotional masochism isn’t abusive.
Most emotional masochists carry with them a history of emotional damage. This may have been the result of abuse, bullying, controlling behavior, or extensive rejection over the course of their lives. Many find ways of coping with this damage without fully healing from it. That is, they learn to live with their fears and insecurities.
For most emotional masochists, there is a worst case scenario: rejection. That is, the most unpleasant outcome possible is to have the source of their fears be the reason that they are rejected by someone that they deeply care about. Rejection is the place where the real damage can happen. Anything less than rejection…. is safe.
Thus, emotional masochism provides a safe place for those fears to be explored and brought to the surface. It allows a sub to confront the ugly truths that reside within them, without the fear of rejection coming into play. This can be a great relief for the sub.
Because of the truth aspect (or at least the absence of absolute falseness), emotional masochism doesn’t involve anything that the sub doesn’t already know. In many cases it involves aspects that they see as the worst and most undesirable parts of themselves. By taking these subjects into the realm of emotional masochism, a sub is granted the stipulations under which those worst parts of them are okay. This actually makes it easier to accept those parts of themselves even if the wounds will never heal.
I wanted to share an extreme example that was mentioned at a discussion where this topic was brought up because I think that it illustrates a concrete example of this. I was told about a M/f couple where the submissive wife was unable to conceive children. The wife deeply wished to bear her husband children. The husband greatly wanted to have children.
In their sessions he would punish her for being unable to have children. He would spank her while telling her how much she had failed him and how much joy in his life he was missing out on by not having children. She would sob and break down under both the physical pain and the pain of his words. This would also turn her on and get her off.
When they did this at a play party, people were absolutely irate. They couldn’t believe how cruel and abusive he was behaving. They couldn’t believe that she would consent/accept the way she was being treated. People physically attempted to stop him while crying out about their outrage. What the onlookers didn’t understand is that this was how they coped and purged any type of build up of resentful or hurt feelings. What people didn’t understand is that she needed this and it was her truth.
What people didn’t understand was that the husband could have divorced her and married a woman who could have children. This would have been the true cruelty. He chose not to. They found a way to explore those feelings while staying together. It was safe.
C. Why do subs engage in emotional masochism?
Subs willingly engage in emotional masochistic activities because it turns them on, gets them off, and takes them into mental spaces that they find desirable. I will note that some subs will get extremely aroused in the moment while events are happening. A small percentage will have a much milder response in the moment but end up incredibly aroused by reflecting upon the experience in its the aftermath.
D. Why do subs struggle with understanding their emotional masochism?
Many subs struggle with articulating the ins and outs of their emotional masochism. There are a number of reasons for this that vary from person to person. People in a rational state frequently do not like to dig into their deepest and darkest fears and insecurities. Subs frequently do not know why this turns them on. Subs frequently are ashamed that this turns them on.
A common description is something along the lines of, “I don’t like this but I like what it does to me.”
That is, there is a conflict of “yes” and “no,” where the sub battles with their desire to feel something while simultaneously feeling screwed up about wanting the process that brings that feeling. For many subs, the process of their emotional masochism hits them like a truck and buries them into the depth of their submissive mental space. In this state the mind is often a lot less coherent and they process more in impulses. In turn, if a sub doesn’t have a lot of experience with their emotional masochism, they will likely have a great deal of difficulty communicating what they want and how it works to their dominant.
IV. Emotional Sadism
A. Why do people engage in emotional sadism?
Emotional sadism works pretty much the same as physical sadism, in that the dominant derives pleasure from inflicting pain/anguish/suffering on the sub. The difference here is that the pain/anguish/suffering hurts them on the inside.
B. Why is emotional sadism more rare in the BDSM community?
Emotional sadists tend to be a bit more rare because accepting themselves as emotional sadists is a bit more complicated than accepting themselves as physical sadists. This might sound strange, but impact play provides a very simple system of consent and boundaries that make this type of activity okay. By the time a dominant has accepted they wish to engage in this play, they have generally figured out the parameters that keep them from feeling like a terrible monster. e.g. the sub must want it and enjoy it.
With the exception of consensual humiliation outings, other forms of emotional masochism do not have the same type of clear cut start and end times during which the parameters can be negotiated clearly. Without the limits and source of pleasure being clearly defined, it becomes a lot more difficult for dominants to feel like they can safely explore this realm. In many cases, the thought of emotional sadism, the examples they read about it, and the portrayals of it may seem needlessly cruel and abusive, without a true payoff for the sub to understand why. This keeps some dominants away from the realm of emotional sadism and masochism.
Some dominants find it a strong violation of their ethics to do anything that can hurt a sub on an emotional/mental/psychological level. They want to build people up and not tear them down and cannot or will not find reasons that this sort of interaction is beneficial in any way.
Additionally, there are dominants that seek subs of the strong submissive/alpha sub/warrior princess type that seek out a sub that is “worthy” as an equal partner that chooses to submit. These types will also avoid any acts that would humiliate, degrade, denigrate, or in any way cause the sub to appear as something lesser.
Overall, this leaves a limited number of dominants that partake in emotional sadism.
C. Who practices emotional sadism?
The practitioners of emotional sadism are generally the more extreme sadists that have managed to form an ethical/moral balance with their emotional sadism. They often have a particularly deep interest or understanding of subs that are emotional masochists and understand that they people who want it are the ones where they can feel okay about enjoying themselves.
In a lot of cases, these dominants are driven heavily by both their Sadistic and Authoritarian Personas and enjoy wielding power/control to inflict emotional suffering upon a sub. Many of these dominants enjoy putting a sub into situations that have biased and unfair rules. Others will enjoy tormenting subs with inconsistent whims and decisions, e.g. what was okay yesterday is not okay today.
The dominants that maintain a strict D/s dynamic with extensive rules and protocols that keep a sub heavily immersed in submissive mental space are frequently those who hold a great enjoyment of emotional sadism.
In any case, dominants that engage in emotional sadism tend to do so because it gives them pleasure, turns them on, gets them off, and caters heavily to their dominant personas.
I do want to note that there is another demographic of people that do regularly practice emotional sadism, frequently without knowing they are doing it. If you have encountered someone that “likes messing with people” and has a natural instinct to tease, make incisive observations, or push people’s buttons, these people are practicing a mild form of emotional sadism. They may also enjoy things like leading a person on, getting false hopes up, or making jokes at another person’s expense. While they aren’t the ones who aggressively inflict anguish, these types often make the most natural emotional sadists when they enter the dominant role.