Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Masochism and motivation

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Masochism and motivation:
What motivates engagement in physically or psychologically painful practices?
Figure 1. Mémoires d'un Flagellant de Marque, an example of typical masochism


Masochism has many varied meanings, from the extremes of people taking sexual pleasure from severe physical pain and humiliation, to the tamer ideas of people simply tolerating small amounts of pain or discomfort as a means to an end. In any context it will often come with a large amount of stigma attached to it because, for many people, it defies common sense that a positive experience can arise from negative stimuli such as pain or discomfort.

So what exactly is masochism?

What activities can be considered masochism?

And what motivates people to engage in masochistic activities, which often seem to defy the physiological purpose of pain and discomfort, and go against social norms?

Definition: What is Masochism?[edit]


Masochism is most often defined as a person finding a painful experience pleasurable or desirable (Klein, 2014). Masochists are people who actively seek out pain and other sensations which are normally seen as undesirable, while avoiding serious injury (Baumeister, 1997, 1988). Common sense would dictate that, by their very definition, painful and pleasurable experiences cannot exist together (Katz, 1990), and it goes against the idea of pain helping to protect you from damage. Despite this, the fact that some people go back to repeat these experiences supports the idea that they find them enjoyable on some level (Klein, 2014).

The feeling of pain or discomfort is very subjective, and its exact experience is unique to the individual (Baier, 1962). Pleasure and pain can be seen as simply different mental interpretations of sensations, and masochistic pain is usually only pleasurable to a point (Klein, 2014). Masochists still experience pain as painful, while taking some satisfaction from it (Weinberg, 2006). People who identify as masochists usually only enjoy certain types and levels of pain in particular situations (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983), and most people who don’t identify as masochists will have found pleasure in pain at some point in their life (Klein, 2014). Tolerance of pain or discomfort in order to receive a reward or the removal of greater pain or discomfort has even been shown in many animals, and in these experiments tolerance of pain persists after the reward has been removed (Sandler, 1964). People can also be trained to tolerate or enjoy sensations which are normally considered unpleasant (Baier, 1962).

There is debate as to whether engaging in a pleasant activity which entails some irremovable aspect of pain, for example eating a large amount of your favourite food knowing that you will probably get a stomach ache, is true masochism (Klein, 2014). A more extreme definition of masochism is when the pain itself is the reason for pleasure, and the person takes pleasure in the pain itself, not the reason behind or the reward for the pain (Klein, 2014). Most activities we engage in entail some pain and have some masochistic elements, and it is theorised that it may depend on how much reward there is as to whether the pain can be tolerated or enjoyed (Sandler, 1964). But a deeper interpretation of masochism is about seeking out pain for its own sake, not just tolerating it for a reward (Klein, 2014).


Masochism is remarkable in its absence from history. It is observed in some aspects of ancient Egyptian culture (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983), but is not documented in the church's early condemnation of various sexual practices, and is not seen as a feature in any documentation in Europe until around 1500, but there were well-established practices by the 1800’s (Baumeister, 1997, 1988). There are some theories that this development of masochism may be a result of Western societies becoming more individualistic, therefore increasing the burden of self as separate and resulting in heightened self-awareness and anxiety (Baumeister, 1988). The term masochism is derived from the name of an author of the 1800s, Leopold Ritter von Sacher Masoch, who wrote erotic novels with a focus on pain and submission (Weinberg, 2006). This shows that the term was originally used primarily for sex-related pain-seeking behaviour.

Masochism was interpreted by Sigmund Freud and other early psychological theorists as a mental illness, psychopathology or serious disturbance (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983; Weinberg, 2006), and linked to neurosis and acts such as cannibalism (Baumeister, 1988). By the mid 1900’s it was for the most part an accepted sexual practice (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983). At this point it was considered by psychologists to be simply an abnormal response to what is normally considered punishing stimuli, which covered variations from desensitisation to pain-seeking behaviour (Beattie, & Wake, 1964; Sandler, 1964) though for a short time it was a diagnosable disorder (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983).

Although the severity of the stigma attached to this behaviour had lessened, until very recently it was still seen as deviant behaviour which may have required therapy (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004). The terms masochism and sadomasochism are still sometimes used by news media and the public in relation to such things as criminal sex acts (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983). While some masochistic behaviour is thought to be due to psychological issues (Katz, 1990; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983), and severe masochistic thought processes can be extremely self-damaging (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004), masochism itself is no longer considered a psychological disorder (Klein, 2014).


Masochism was originally thought to be a primarily feminine attribute, but has not been found to be specific to any gender (Baumeister, 1997). It has been found to be more prevalent in higher earning and more educated people, and in general it is found that masochists tend to be competent and successful people (Baumeister, 1988). While some have postulated that masochism is a form of self-directed sadism (Katz, 1990), cruelty or aggression (Beattie, & Wake, 1964), masochists appear normal in most aspects of their lives (Baumeister, 1988). Rather than having inherent psychopathology, self-identified masochists have been found in many cases to be better at coping with life’s problems than the general population (Baumeister, 1997). This does not appear to be the case for masochistic behaviour in those seeking psychological treatment though, as in these cases masochistic thoughts and behaviour can impede therapy (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004).

Still, for most people, desiring pain defies rational thinking (Goldstein, 1983) and is seen as deviant behaviour (Stiles, & Clark, 2011) and a sign of mental disturbance (Baumeister, 1997). Masochism is commonly thought to be a result of negative events in early life (Ghent, 1990). It is often thought of as connected to sexuality or as a psychological problem (Baumeister, 1997; Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983; Weinberg, 2006) but in fact it is not intrinsically connected with either sex or psychopathology (Klein, 2014; Sandler, 1964). Still, most of the time masochism is tainted with a stigma and is seen as taboo (Baumeister, 1997; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983) so people engaging in masochistic activities must be highly motivated to do so.

What might be considered Masochism?[edit]

What might be considered masochism depends on the definition which is used. Under the broader heading of behaviours in which pain or discomfort of different intensities are enjoyed or tolerated at varying levels, masochism could include:

  • Exercise, violent sports, and other body intensive activities such as ballet
  • Frightening activities such as extreme sports, getting close to dangerous wild animals, watching horror films
  • Body modification such as tattoos and piercings, and elective surgery such as breast surgery
  • Eating very hot and spicy foods
  • Sexual or erotogenic masochism
  • Deep tissue massage and chiropractic therapy
  • Religious activities which entail guilt and punishment
  • Physically or emotionally abusive relationships
  • Childbirth and parenthood
  • Fashions such as high-heeled shoes and corsets

In all of the above activities, some amount of normally negative stimuli is enjoyed or at least tolerated, in order to achieve a goal or receive some reward or reinforcement. A more typical view of masochism is behaviour which actively seeks out what is usually a painful or unpleasant sensation, in which other gains or rewards are not obvious. These may include:

  • Typical masochism including activities such as whipping, bondage and humiliation
  • Picking at scabs, prodding loose teeth, stroking sunburn, pressing bruises
  • Profound abstinence, celibacy and castration
  • Self-harm
  • Obsessive emotions such as anger, jealousy and guilt

In these circumstances, the motives for enduring the sensations are not readily apparent to an observer of the behaviour.

What might motivate Masochism?[edit]

The motivations for masochistic behaviour differ between people, and other situational factors such as the specific activity, the intensity of the experienced sensations and the person's emotional state (Weinberg, 2006).

Goals and rewards[edit]

People may put up with pain just to receive a corresponding pleasant experience, but not actually take pleasure from the pain itself (Klein, 2014; Sandler, 1964). In these cases it is the end state of achievement that is desired, not the journey which involves the unpleasant sensations. Pain that is endured for the sake of the goal, which would not be engaged in if the goal could be achieved another way, may not be considered truly masochistic (Klein, 2014).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of body modification, body intensive activity for fitness or physique sake, parenthood, masochistic fashion, elective surgery, deep tissue massage and chiropractic therapy, some religious activities, some physically or verbally abusive relationships and some sexual masochistic behaviours.

Challenge and self-control[edit]

A person may engage in masochistic behaviour, not so much out of the pleasure they receive from the actual act, but because of the pleasure which they may gain from challenging themselves and exercising self-control. There is pleasure to be gained in delaying or denying simple gratification in favour of self-mastery of less pleasant stimuli, and engaging in frightening and dangerous practices (Katz, 1990). Self-control and the pushing of personal boundaries can give the sense of personal growth (Klein, 2014). Marathon runners have been found to often engage in the lifestyle, not necessarily to achieve a particular goal, but simply to push oneself (Klein, 2014). For many people masochistic behaviour serves to help in ‘Finding the edge of bearability’ (Klein, 2014, p. 7), and in exercising the self-control to push to, and past, a person’s limits (Klein, 2014).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of wiggling loose teeth, eating spicy food, fear seeking behaviour, body intensive activity, body modification, deep tissue massage, masochistic fashion, [what?]abstinence, and typical masochistic behaviour.

Endorphins and arousal[edit]

Pain and other extreme sensations can trigger the release of endorphins in the body, which results in a pleasant feeling which is separate from the pain (Klein, 2014). The pain can have an almost narcotic effect (Baumeister, 1988). Pain may also lead to a heightened state of physical and psychological arousal (Klein, 2014; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983). The heightened state of arousal is partly transferable to sexual desire, and possibly accounts for some of the motivation behind sexual masochism (Klein, 2014; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983; Weinberg, 2006). The intensity of the sensations in masochism can open a person up to experiencing other sensations more extremely (Baumeister, 1997; Beattie, & Wake, 1964), as pain partially shuts down higher awareness and emphasises the physical sensations (Baumeister, 1988). This may also result in a pleasant feeling of well-being after the pain and discomfort has ceased (Baumeister, 1988).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of fear seeking behaviour, body intensive activity, self-harm, obsessive emotionality, eating spicy foods, sexual masochism, and typical masochistic behaviour.

Learning principles[edit]

Over time, undesirable sensations may be paired with pleasant stimuli in an example of classical conditioning, to the point that the undesirable sensation itself becomes desirable without the pleasant stimuli (Katz, 1990; Sandler, 1964). Seeing and hearing other peoples reactions to negative stimuli can also shape our own reactions through observational learning(Baier, 1962). Therefore observing positive reactions from others to normally negative stimuli, such as pain, may induce positive reactions in ourselves. Especially in sexual masochism, pairing pain with the pleasure of sex will reinforce the receiving of pain to the point that pain will become desirable (Baumeister, 1997; Baumeister, 1988). Pain can eventually become synonymous with love (Beattie, & Wake 1964). The positive association can lead to persistence and escalation in masochistic behaviour, sometimes to physically or psychologically damaging levels, causing some to liken it to an addiction (Baumeister, 1988; Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004).

Masochism may also be a result of attempts to maintain object relations, which have been established in early life and now dictate how we relate to people and things in our world(Katz, 1990). It may also be based on the following [missing something?]of social or cultural norms regarding who is seen as powerful and aggressive, and who is seen as weak (Beattie, & Wake 1964). In certain groups of people who practice masochistic activities regularly, this pattern of activity can become part of certain behavioural scripts in their lives (Weinberg, 2006). Habits which are well formed will persist in the face of adverse influences (Sandler, 1964).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of repeated body modification and surgery, some religious activities, physically or verbally abusive relationships, masochistic fashion, and sexual masochism.

Emotionality, surrender, and escape[edit]

In some masochistic activity, especially typical masochism, there can be a feeling of being completely taken over by the sensations and emotions being experienced, and the depth of trust required of the person inflicting such pain promotes a deep connection (Klein, 2014). Surrendering or submitting to a person or sensation is felt to be desirable, and facilitates growth and discovery of self, through transcendence of worldly concerns (Ghent, 1990). Giving up autonomy for a period is actually felt to be freeing, and it can take a person out of their head and into the sensations of their body (Baumeister, 1988; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1983). The idea of surrender to a higher power may a contribute to some religious masochistic activity (Ghent, 1990).

The pain itself can also promote a feeling of catharsis, and help people cope with the psychological distresses of everyday life (Baumeister, 1988). This may also be experienced as an escape from concerns about self and the world, and from the stress involved with life in general (Baumeister, 1997). Masochism can provide an escape from the reality of the self and self-awareness that is experienced in daily activities (Baumeister, 1988) and a distraction from psychological sensations (Beattie, & Wake, 1964). It has been noted that people in positions of high power or responsibility tend to be more likely to exhibit masochistic tendencies (Baumeister, 1997).

It has also been postulated that masochism can be used as a defence mechanism, to manage developmental conflicts (Katz, 1990), and in some cases to cope with negative life events (Ghent, 1990). This may be achieved through approximate recreations of traumatic events (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004) in ways that help the person to relive the event, with control over the specific characteristics of the event, in order to recreate it in a way that is less overwhelming (Katz, 1990). This has been found to be primarily associated with what is termed pathological masochism, occurring in people who exhibit psychological disturbances in addition to masochism (Katz, 1990).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of body intensive activities, body modification and elective surgery, sexual masochism, deep tissue massage, some religious activities, childbirth and parenthood, typical masochism, abstinence, and self-harm.

Self discovery and expression[edit]

Through abandonment of pleasures and experiencing something less than pleasant, some people are able to find a deeper part of themselves (Baumeister, 1988; Ghent, 1990) and express some hidden part of the self (Ghent, 1990; Stiles, & Clark, 2011). There is also an aspect of self-acceptance in a person having their own shortcomings fully exposed (Katz, 1990). For those with masochistic tendencies, taking the step of engaging in these activities can be a confirmation of their individual identity (Stiles, & Clark, 2011) and an expression of their true self (Katz, 1990).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of body intensive activities, body modification and elective surgery, sexual masochism, childbirth and parenthood, typical masochism, abstinence, fear seeking behaviour, and masochistic fashions.

Guilt and deserving punishment[edit]

For some, masochism may be a way of avoiding or atoning for feelings of guilt (Baumeister, 1988; Haliparn, & Haliparn 2004; Katz 1990). This is similar to Freud’s theory of moral masochism as separate from sexual masochism (Katz, 1990) and is often seen as a sign of an overactive super-ego (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004). If a person feels guilty, and that they deserve punishment, suffering may seem rational, but some masochists may feel this guilt without justification (Goldstein, 1983). The feeling of deserving undesirable sensations may lead people to put themselves into situations which they know will be likely to have undesirable consequences, such as physically or emotionally abusive relationships (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004).

The guilt and need for punishment may result from achieving or attaining more than the person perceives they should, having thoughts and desires which are not considered to be acceptable (Katz, 1990), or setting unrealistically high standards for themselves (Beattie, & Wake, 1964; Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004). These standards which lead to guilt can be internally generated, but are more commonly initially imposed by family, religion or cultural norms (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004). The idea of masochism being a result of guilt, rage and other negative frames of mind is largely based on theory, and studies of sadomasochists seeking mental health treatment (Weinberg, 2006). These influences have not proven to be a motivator for masochists who are not in treatment for psychological issues (Baumeister, 1988).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of some religious activities, physically or verbally abusive relationships, self-harm, obsessive emotions, abstinence and castration, and typical masochism.


For some people, engaging in masochistic activities is about experiencing a new and interesting sensation, finding things which surprise them, and fully exploring themselves and the world (Klein, 2014).

This may be a motivating factor for cases of frightening activities such as extreme sports, getting close to wild dangerous animals and watching horror films, body modification such as tattoos and piercings, eating spicy foods, sexual masochism, masochistic fashions, and typical masochism.

There is always the possibility that to some people, what is normally experienced as pain is simply experienced as pleasure (Baier, 1962).


The term masochism, while being loaded with stigma, can cover a vast array of common behaviours which entail intentional pain and suffering. These can include the minor discomfort of wearing restrictive clothing to achieve a specific look, prodding at painful bruise for no reason, seeking out relationships which are bound to disappoint, or receiving extreme torture for personal satisfaction, among other activities. While there are similarities between all of these behaviours, there are definitely different themes and variations in the patterns of motivation.

Masochistic behaviour in which discomfort and pain is endured as a secondary function of an activity which is pursued for another reason, such as body modification or exercise, will most likely be motivated by goals and rewards, challenge, endorphins and arousal, self-expression, and novelty.

Intentionally seeking out physically painful or uncomfortable experiences for the sensation of the pain or discomfort itself, such as typical masochism and abstinence, is more likely to be motivated by emotionality, surrender and escape, self-discovery and expression, challenge and self-control, endorphins and arousal, and learning principles.

The seeking out of psychologically harmful situations is more typical of people who suffer from genuine psychological distress and includes behaviour such as obsessive emotions and self-harm, and is sometimes termed moral masochism. The motivation for this behaviour is more commonly a feeling of guilt or deserving punishment, emotionality, surrender and escape, and endorphins and arousal.

While masochism is largely a misunderstood and taboo topic, masochistic tendencies appear in many every day activities. The reasons for engaging in these activities will vary greatly between different people and situations, but are not necessarily inherently irrational or detrimental to the individual.

See also[edit]


Baier, K. (1962). Pains. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 40(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/00048406212341001

Baumeister, R. F. (1988). Masochism as Escape from Self. Journal Of Sex Research, 25(1), 28. doi:10.1080/00224498809551444

Baumeister, R. F. (1997). The enigmatic appeal of sexual masochism: Why people desire pain, bondage, and humiliation in sex. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 16(2), 133-150. Retrieved from

Beattie, K., & Wake, F. R. (1964). Physical cruelty: A review of the literature. Canadian Psychologist/Psychologie Canadienne, 5a(4), 233-244. doi:10.1037/h0083037

Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, submission, surrender: Masochism as a perversion of surrender. Contemporary psychoanalysis, 26(1), 108-136. Retrieved from

Goldstein, I. (1983). Pain and masochism. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 17(3), 219-223. Retrieved from

Hailparn, D. F., & Hailparn, M. (2004). The Song of the Siren: Dealing with Masochistic Thoughts and Behaviors. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 34(2), 163-180. doi:10.1023/B:JOCP.0000022315.87074.b7

Katz, A. W. (1990). Paradoxes of masochism. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 7(2), 225-241. doi:10.1037/h0079153

Klein, C. (2014). The Penumbral Theory of Masochistic Pleasure. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 5(1), 41-55. Retrieved from

Sandler, J. (1964). Masochism: An empirical analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 62(3), 197-204. doi:10.1037/h0040597

Stiles, B. L., & Clark, R. E. (2011). BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis of Sacrifices and Delights. Deviant Behavior, 32(2), 158-189. doi:10.1080/01639621003748605

Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., & Moser, C. (1983). Social Constituents of Sadomasochism, Social Problems, 31(4), 379-389. Retrieved from,+The&title=Social+problems+%28Berkeley,+Calif.%29&volume=31&date=1983&spage=379&issn=0037-7791

Weinberg, T. S. (2006) sadomasochism and the social sciences: a review of the sociological and social psychological literature. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 17-40. doi:10.1300/J082v50n02_02

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