The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism

Few personality traits are so puzzling, or so disturbing, as sadism and masochism. Sadism in particular is so frightening that most prefer not to think about it, and if they do, will dismiss it as abnormal and rare. In reality, however, everyone has their sadistic and masochistic side.

The Basics

Even the most optimistic know that human nature has its dark side. And yet sadism is unique. Plenty of individuals are spiteful and cruel, of course. But they bully and torment others in order to gain money, power, promotion, etc. The terrifying thing about sadism, at least in its purest form, is that it is an end in itself. The sadist inflicts pain, psychological as well as physical, for pleasure, not in pursuit of something else.

Moralists and idealists often fail to take sadism into account. To such people, sadism is incomprehensible because it is irrational. The sadist seems to gain nothing by it. Some socialists, for example, imagine that by re-distributing wealth and ensuring justice, sadism will disappear, since it arises only when people are poor and resentful. And yet the true sadist inflicts pain not because he is himself in pain, or because he is bitter about poverty and inequality, but because it gives him pleasure to do so.

The masochist is also in search of pleasure, but he (or she) derives pleasure from having pain inflicted on him. This need not mean simply a whipping or a beating. For a masochist to derive real pleasure, there often needs to be humiliation and degradation as well. The individual wishes to be helpless, to be ground down to nothing.

Everyone has such traits. And these can be revealed in numerous, often trivial, ways. The British novelist Edward St Aubyn perfectly captures this in his novel Never Mind. The character David Melrose, who is based on St Aubyn’s own sadistic father, even stops a family helper as she staggers past under a pile of heavy washing. He chats to her in a friendly way, aware all the time that her arms are hurting from the weight of the washing and taking pleasure in her discomfort.

Tickling, for example, seems the very opposite of sadism. When we think of a sadist, we think of a serial killer or, at the very least, of a vicious school bully. And yet even tickling has a sadistic edge. Consider what a strange act it really is. Observe someone tickling a child or girlfriend and you will notice the pleasure they take in their victim’s helplessness and discomfort.

You may also notice the masochistic pleasure experienced by the person being tickled. After all, in spite of gasping and begging for it to stop, they don’t leave the room. They seem to both hate and like the experience, and to find pleasure in the torment.


Most relationships include a certain amount of sadism and masochism. Even within friendships, one person tends to be more devoted or committed than the other. And the harder the devoted one tries to please, the more the other tends to dominate or belittle him. It is as if their devotion awakens some latent sadistic streak in the less committed friend or lover.

Indeed, this is true more generally. You may have noticed that the harder people try to be liked, the more irritable others become and the more likely they are to cut them down with sarcastic remarks. A good example of this can be found in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, where the sycophantic Uriah Heep’s constant self-abasement and claims to be “humble” revolts and provokes the other characters. David himself, though kind by nature, even fantasizes about attacking him.

And the more spiteful one individual is, the more passive and eager to please his partner often becomes. Their latent masochism has woken in its turn. A particularly nasty example is the violent and abusive relationship, in which one partner physically assaults the other. Time and again, those who love the abused partner look on in disbelief as he or she returns to the abuser. Often, this is because the relationship has settled into a sado-masochistic ritual of abuse and submission.

The Sadistic Personality

Some argue that sadism can so dominate an individual’s character they develop an “SPD,” or “Sadistic Personality Disorder.” Unfortunately, those with an SPD often seem heroic. In an essay on Chivalry, for example, C. S. Lewis notes how schoolchildren quickly discover that their parents were talking nonsense when they assured them that bullies are always cowards. As Lewis adds, the Captain of the school team often turns out to be an unbearable thug.

Whether or not the sadistic personality really exists is still debated. The American psychologist Theodore Millon, for example, not only argues that it does but that there are several different types.

First, there is the “tyrannical sadist,” whose cruelty is mixed with a love of power and control. Such an individual would take pleasure, for example, in yelling at a dog to “come here,” then watching it cross the room, frightened but obedient, knowing it is about to be beaten. He would take pleasure in the dog’s slow, reluctant walk, and in the anticipation on its face. Tyrannical sadists can often be found exercising power within a closed space, like a boarding school or family home.

Second, Millon described the “enforcing sadist,” who relishes authority and uses rules and regulations to hurt others. Needless to say, such people make dreadful Judges, Prison Guards, and Police Officers. A traffic warden, for example, who had such traits would delight in handing out fines, especially if the victim had only parked somewhere briefly, or seemed poor and vulnerable.

The “explosive sadist” is unpredictable. He or she frightens and unnerves other people with their sudden change of mood: laughing and joking one minute, raging and lashing out the next. And, as with most sadists, the fear they instill brings them pleasure, unlike someone who simply has anger issues. Some people cannot control their temper and feel guilty for the pain and fear they cause. The explosive sadist is different. He delights in the fear and tension.

The “spineless sadist” combines cruelty with cowardice. Such people fear violence and retaliation and prefer to inflict pain when hidden within a group. Think back to school and you may remember how the nastiest bully hung around with the biggest, toughest kids, laughing at their jokes, etc, and then persuading them to attack other children while he watched and laughed.

The Masochistic Personality

Millon also argued for the existence of a “Self-Defeating,” or “Masochistic,” personality disorder. Such individuals indulge in self-destructive patterns of behavior, as if they were seeking to hurt or punish themselves. So, for example, a quiet introvert rejects a job in a library in favor of a busy sales office. She would have liked the calm, friendly atmosphere of the library, which was just as well-paid, and yet she opts for the noisy, aggressive sales office instead – a career in which she has no interest and to which she is temperamentally unsuited.

You can also see this self-destruction in their relationships. For example, they seek out partners, friends, and even bosses, who mistreat and humiliate them. Even more bizarrely, they provoke kind and supportive people to hurt and reject them. And when they do, they make sure of an audience so that the retaliation humiliates them as well.

Another classic sign is their obvious disinterest in people who like or praise them. This is not the same as someone with low self-esteem, however. People with low self-esteem may reject praise, but they will still be grateful, and may even long to believe it. The masochist is different. He, or she, is irritated by kindness. Whereas the person with low self-esteem may reject it but be grateful, the masochist will reject both the praise and the person who praises them.

Their constant failure also puzzles friends and work colleagues. For example, someone clever and well-read returns to college as an adult. She finds the classes easy and her in-class comments are much admired. A friend is stressed and cannot keep up, so she helps him out, correcting his essay and offering advice. When he hands it in, he gets his highest ever grade. And yet when she writes her own essays, they are dreadful. Her professor is astonished that someone so bright writes such nonsense.

Millon even identified four sub-types of masochistic personality. The “Oppressed Masochist” tends to be a depressive as well. The “Self-Undoing Masochist,” on the other hand, is avoidant and sees defeat as a kind of victory. Success, however, leaves him feeling exposed and frightened. Third, there is the “Possessive Masochist,” who manipulates and controls others by making himself indispensable. Finally, there is the “Virtuous Masochist,” who plays the martyr and seems to enjoy her status as a victim.

Sadism and masochism confuse us because they are so irrational. And yet, though we may prefer not to think about them, most of us have noted such traits not only in others but also in ourselves.

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