The Sadomasochistic Perversion: The Entity and the Theories

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In this book Franco de Masi examines the terminology used in the analysis of sadomasochism and surveys in detail the theories of other psychoanalysts. He explores the relationship between sadomasochism and other conditions, such as depression, psychosis and borderline states, and discusses the nature of evil in the broadest way possible.

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CHAPTER ONE: Introduction

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“In Diderot’s tale, the good genie Cucufa discovers at the bottom of his pocket, in the midst of worthless things-consecrated seeds, little pagodas made of lead, and moldy sugar-coated pills—the tiny silver ring whose stone, when turned, makes the sexes one encounters speak. He gives it to the curious sultan. Our problem is to know what marvelous ring confers a similar power on us, and on which master’s finger it has been placed; what game of power it makes possible or presupposes, and how it is that each one of us has become a sort of attentive and imprudent sultan with respect to his own sex and that of others”

Foucault, 1976, p. 79

This book arose principally out of the acute dissatisfaction I felt when, wishing to investigate in depth the nature and significance of the various forms of perversion observed in the material or fantasies of many analysands, both male and female, I attempted to compare my own views with the available psychoanalytic literature. I was surprised to find that there is no single, clear-cut psychoanalytic position on this subject.

 

CHAPTER TWO: A precursor

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The study of deviant sexuality began at the end of the nineteenth century with the publication of the first edition of Krafft-Ebing’s voluminous treatise Psychopathia Sexualis (1886-1902), in which the sexual aberrations were for the first time deemed an object worthy of psychiatric study. The book contains an abundance of case histories covering the entire range of sexual deviations, including the most extreme.

It has been pointed out (Grossman, 1986) that the definition and scientific study of the sadomasochistic perversion predated the birth of psychoanalysis by a decade and decisively influenced the development of that discipline.1

For Krafft-Ebing, whose oeuvre resembles a huge fresco many times revised and extended, the fundamental form of all deviations was reflected in sadism and masochism, which represented the active and passive aspects respectively of the drive of subjugation. The choice of perversion was always latent, even where its onset could be documented in specific episodes in infancy. Krafft-Ebing believed that an event in infancy, such as the young Rousseau’s excitement when he was beaten (which Freud also mentions), was only a secondary factor in the aetiology of masochism—the occasion for its emergence rather than its cause.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Problems of terminology and definition

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In the field of deviation, any behaviour falling outside the social norm was traditionally deemed pathological. This was the case with sexual perversion. The concept of perversion is ambiguous and open to criticism on many accounts—in particular, because in the course of time its definition has increasingly been characterized by moral or normative considerations.

The term perversion, which denotes a deviation from the norm, tells us nothing about the origin, context or nature of the process concerned. The descriptive criterion, which refers to the sum of the usual behaviours leading to procreation, does not facilitate understanding of the problem. If the norm of sexual behaviour consisted only in sexual relations ending with coitus and the introduction of the penis into the vagina, many sexual experiences—for example, simple masturbation—would be perverse in character. A century ago, Krafft-Ebing pointed out that the key to the diagnosis of perversion was not so much the act itself as the entire personality of the individual concerned and the specific motivation of the perverse act.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Sadomasochism and depression

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A ccording to Abraham’s contributions on depression (1912,

/\ 1916, 1924), the suffering of melancholia arises out of the

J. \. patient’s perception of a self capable of hating rather than loving. That is why melancholia, unlike mourning, includes conscious hate for the subject’s own self.

In “Mourning and melancholia” (1916-1917g [1915]), Freud takes up this essential aspect of unconscious hate and places it in the perspective of a sadomasochistic relationship that is both internal and external.

Unlike a bereaved person, the melancholic feels not only that his world has become meaningless but also that his ego has been emptied out. In confirmation of his own unworthiness, he attributes to himself not merely guilt but all the negative qualities of the world, too. Freud points out that, in melancholia, it is not just the relationship with the lost love object that is altered, as in mourning, but in addition the relationship with the subject’s own ego. Whereas in mourning the loss concerns the object, in melancholia it is the ego itself that is affected.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Feminine masochism, or the case of the Wolf Man

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To assist further in resolving the confusion between perversion and neurotic behaviour, let us now examine the use and meaning of the sadomasochistic position in the clinical treatment of the neuroses as inspired by the theory of psychosexual development.

In my view, Freud gives a clearer and more scientifically consistent description of the sadomasochistic relationship when he considers the object relationship of the melancholic or moral masochism (“The economic problem of masochism”, 1924c). Conversely, where he describes personality aspects bordering on constitutional characteristics (male/female or active/passive), as in the case of feminine masochism or the homosexual position, his hypotheses appear far shakier and less useful.

As stated earlier, Freud’s theory of feminine masochism is based on a scientific prejudice typical of his time—so much so that it was shared even by Krafft-Ebing. Freud uses this concept in an attempt to explain one of the components of sexual masochism and certain aspects of homosexuality: the homosexual is unconsciously identified with a woman who passively submits.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Ascetic masochism

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Ascetic masochism

The phenomenon of ascetic masochism is worthy of separate consideration. M. R. Bell’s book Holy Anorexia (1985) includes an account of the life of the late-thirteenth-century Dominican nun Benvenuta Boianni, whose biography had come down to us through the notes taken by her confessor. Benvenuta embarked on her ascetic career in the conviction that she could achieve union with God only by following the path of suffering.

The masochistic determination by which Benvenuta characterized her life first became evident in adolescence: from the age of 12, she began to practise systematic self-flagellation and to bind her body tightly with a rope that cut into her flesh and injured it. Every so often, St Dominic would appear to her and interrupt her torments; advising her to speak to her confessor, he offered her a voice that removed her temporarily from the instruments of torture. Divine and demoniac presences alternated in her, with the demon as a being impelling her towards sexual desire and pleasure. Benvenuta refused food for long periods, and in one of these prolonged fasts she fell seriously ill and nearly died.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: The clinical area of perversion

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In view of the extensive nature of the concept and the multiplicity of its components, as indicated by the large number of relevant clinical pictures and the voluminous contemporary psychoanalytic literature, the sadomasochistic perversion is difficult to define. It might, in fact, be better to speak of a multiplicity of sadomasochistic pictures, all differing from each other.

I shall now attempt to highlight certain clinical characteristics that will help us distinguish some areas of differing significance and severity.

Perversion and perverse-compulsive sexuality

A person who enjoys inflicting cruelty also likes to undergo it.

The Marquis de Sade, who has given his name to the aggressive side of the perversion, sometimes likes to adopt the role of its victim. He is recorded as having asked to be flagellated or penetrated anally during the cyclic sexual excesses that laid him open to criminal prosecution. In “The one hundred and twenty days of Sodom” (1784), the libertines enjoy undergoing the same tortures as they administer to the young people in their power.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Theories of sadomasochistic perversion

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“The advance of science is not comparable to the changes of a city, where old edifices are pitilessly torn down to give place to new, but to the continuous evolution of zoologic types which develop ceaselessly and end by becoming unrecognizable to the common sight, but where an expert eye finds always traces of the prior work of centuries past. One must not think then that the old-fashioned theories have been sterile and vain”

Poincare, 1982, p. 208

Today’s psychoanalysts, unlike those of the past, do not see themselves as members of rival elites each claiming to be in sole possession of the truth; they have learned to coexist and to tone down the intensity of the debate and of their ideological controversies. For this reason, the various movements and the associated theories, while clearly distinguishing themselves from one another, stand in a relationship of contiguity, pursuing different routes towards understanding the reality they seek to investigate. Confining the field to a single sexual perversion, sadomasochism, I shall attempt to show that a number of different theoretical viewpoints on this subject coexist in psychoanalysis.

 

CHAPTER NINE: After the theories

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“Is man master of his penchants? One must feel sorry for those who have strange tastes, but never insult them. Their wrong is Nature’s too; they are no more responsible for having come into the world with tendencies unlike ours than are we for being born bandy-legged or well-proportioned”

de Sade, 1795, p. 188

“But, it may well be asked, can a person be so completely false to his own nature? even for one moment? If the answer is no, then there is no way to explain the mysterious mental process by which we crave things we actually do not want at all, is there?”

Mishima, 1960, p. 81

A valid theoretical hypothesis cannot close itself off and disregard a part of the phenomena it sets out to explain, but must be open to all the constellations present. If any element cannot be integrated into the construction, that construction will thereby be weakened.

What unites the three theoretical paradigms identified in the previous chapter and what divides them? What remains unexplored? What distortions and ambiguities in clinical and therapeutic practice are observable?

 

CHAPTER TEN: Areas of contiguity

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Borderline structures and perverse defences

I should like here to develop some ideas which I have already touched upon in connection with the distinction between perverse-compulsive sexuality and structured perversions.

It is well known that fear and terror, the legacy of infantile impotence, can be used as a source of excitation.

A characteristic feature of many borderline patients is the curious mixture of anxiety, terror and sexual excitation they deploy in order to confront the sense of persecution and the fear of annihilation. In borderline pathology—the borderline being that between the neuroses and the psychoses—the patient has never succeeded in overcoming the persecutory and annihilation anxieties of earliest infancy; he has not had the help of an object capable of assisting him in this task. In these patients, terrifying fantasies, together with the reading of certain kinds of books or the viewing of horror films, often serve as a means of tackling persecutory anxieties or constitute an attempt to overcome or treat them. The anxiety sequences are traversed and contained in excitatory fashion, and as such afford pleasure. The pleasure obtained may be perverse in nature, since it entails a degree of cruel excitation, but does not amount to an actual perversion.1

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Infantile trauma and perversion

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Infantile trauma and perversion

A psychic trauma is an action, either sudden or repeated, that proves harmful because the defences required to protect the individual who undergoes it are not yet ready. It is typical of the traumatic situation that the subject is confronted by a crushing event that cannot be understood or coped with mentally.

Infancy, of course, is the time of greatest exposure. When the trauma is occasioned by the child’s care-givers—e.g. the parents— the harmful effect is greater.

Views differ on the significance of early infantile traumatic experiences in the development of the pathologies or forms of suffering that will later emerge in adulthood. The uncertainty begins with the type of experience to be seen as traumatic in any individual case. An appraisal perhaps may be possible only retrospectively.

The systematic administration of beatings or humiliations has lasting adverse effects on the victim’s personality. An ill-treated child may develop a state of evacuation or masochistic passivity or, conversely, may readily, by identification, turn into a sadistic aggressor. There is a great deal of evidence that abused children become violent parents when they grow up.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Final notes on the three paradigms

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Iust as the sexual deviations are very diverse psychic experiences that cannot readily be subsumed under a single common denominator, so too the sadomasochistic sexual version cannot be classified under one heading owing to its multiplicity of levels and psychodynamic implications.

Of all the perversions, this one (in which the polymorphism of symptoms is an expression of different kinds of mental suffering) is surely the most complex and difficult to interpret. Sexual sadomasochism, after all, may be the outcome of infantile traumas, but also of a climate of excessive affective coldness or distance in the environment of the growing child. Finally, perverse mental states, whether temporary or permanent, may be observed in borderline pathology, in certain psychotic experiences, or in criminal acts.

Understandably, given the often complex and contradictory clinical data (one need only think of the significance of trauma), the various analytic models have had to simplify the complexity of the subject, blurring certain aspects and emphasizing others. It seems to me that this is the price to be paid by all authors who have sought to formulate a general theory of the perversions. I also believe that the various models refer to differing mental states or psychopathological structures.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Psychoanalytic therapy of the perversions

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So far I have systematically discussed the problems posed by the clinical aspects of perversion, but have had little to say about psychoanalytic therapy with the relevant patients.

I explained at the beginning of this book why analysts have difficulty in presenting clinical accounts of the therapy of perversion in their scientific publications. This limitation, which seriously impedes the exchange of experience among analysts, applies to this study too. However, the presentation of a few psychoanalytic case histories would not only tend to restrict my proposed canvas and its general context, but would also exceed its intended scope. I shall, therefore, confine myself to a few general considerations.

The therapeutic approach to a patient with perversion problems is no different from other forms of therapeutic encounter, except that in these cases the analyst is aware from the beginning of the complexity of the clinical situation and of the analysand’s problematic position.

In deciding to embark on therapy with a given patient, the analyst formulates reconstructive hypotheses (on the patient’s infancy, the objects at his disposal for growth, the causes of blockage in his development, the type of infantile withdrawal that can be identified, and so on), and seeks to understand the level and kind of suffering that can be relieved through the mutative experience of therapy. The historical-reconstructive hypothesis, which serves as our guide for establishing the elements that are present and capable of development, is an indispensable component of the decision to accept a patient in analysis. The psychoanalytic encounter presupposes the existence of two persons who are both involved in a relational situation; this is essential if there is to be any possibility of transformation, and attention must not be confined to the symptom. In this case, however, the symptom remains a territory to be explored. Symptomatological and structural considerations prove to be very useful in cases of perversion.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Evil and pleasure: a psychoanalytic view

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A lthough psychoanalysts are seemingly not well placed to /\ pronounce on the question of evil, since they seldom if J. \. ever treat criminal or seriously perverse patients, they nevertheless have the good fortune to investigate, systematically, with due involvement and the appropriate degree of distance, some of the boundary conditions entailed by destructive processes, which I shall now briefly discuss. Over the years, in contact with seriously ill patients in psychoanalytic treatment, I have often come up against silent, self-destructive processes which oppose change and trigger an involutional tendency that cannot easily be halted. The turning point in certain pathologies such as anorexia, drug addiction or psychosis coincides with the moment when the self-destructive impulse ceases to be perceptible to the patient, and the pleasure of physical or emotional self-annihilation takes over from the fear of death.

In this chapter, I should like to present some ideas that took shape in my mind during the composition of this book. These stem from my reflections on and comparison of the various psychoanalytic paradigms and from my clinical experience of “pleasure in evil”—an entity frequently encountered in certain pathological constellations that present themselves to our psychoanalytic observation.

 

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