“The facts of masochism are certainly among the most interesting in the domain of psychopathology.” With those words, Richard von Krafft-Ebing began the first attempt at explain the pathology of human sexuality he coined as ‘masochism’. Although common hyperboles add a sense of grandiosity to a text, it seems that Krafft-Ebing was being sincere in his estimation of masochism as being ‘among the most interesting’. After all, 80 out of 650 pages of the American edition of his most famous work, Psychopathia Sexualis, are devoted to the description and analysis of masochism. Only sexual inversion (i.e. same sex desire) takes up more space in an already massive tome. The subject of masochism was of clear interest for Krafft-Ebing, and in a way, became a crucial part of his legacy. If he is mentioned at all today, then it is usually in texts dealing with the issues relating to sadism and masochism.
As the man who first gave masochism its name, it is no surprise that he is often described as a founding figure in the field of inquiry in that practice. However, this association aside, his original framing of masochism is largely disregarded today. Given the overall obscurity of Krafft-Ebing’s legacy, this should not be surprising. Yet, it does not take away from the fact that it is to him that we owe the word. Krafft-Ebing first definition of masochism exposes, not only Krafft-Ebing’s attitude, but also cultural attitude towards non-normative sexual practices.
First, however, a few basic facts need to be established: Krafft-Ebing first dealt with masochism in the work Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis, (1890), and later incorporated into the sixth edition of Psychopathia Sexualis in 1891. The name for this “perversion” was provided by the figure of Galician author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a mediocre author known for writing borderline pornographic books filled with fur-clad dominating women and groveling, subservient men. He based his description on both the material gained during his long personal practice as a clinical psychiatrist, as well as case histories provided to him by his professional colleagues, such as another famous German psychopathologist, Albert Moll. In subsequent editions of Psychopathia Sexualis, he also included material provided by various, anonymous people publicizing their experiences in the name of science. Within his classification, masochism was placed as one of the paraesthesia, which he defined as a “perversion of the sexual instinct, i.e., excitability of the sexual functions to inadequate stimuli).” Out of 37 case histories provided all but one were of masochism in men, with female masochism being disregarded as a fringe phenomenon. Finally, while Krafft-Ebing referred to masochism as a “perversion”, his usage of the term was significantly different from what we commonly understand by it today. For him, a vital distinction existed between perversion (a disease) and perversity (a vice).
Perversion of the sexual instinct, as will be seen farther on, is not to be confounded with perversity in the sexual act; since the latter may be induced by conditions other than psycho-pathological. The concrete perverse act, monstrous as it may be, is clinically not decisive.
The above fragment not only expresses Krafft-Ebing’s general view of perversion, but also exposes one of the foundational assumptions about the nature of masochism presented in Psychopathia Sexualis.
The separation perversity and perversion, renders the “pervert” (and so, the masochist) merely an object of the clinical condition ravaging them. Such approach serves a double purpose. Not only does it de-subjectify those that Krafft-Ebing perceived to be afflicted by various sexual pathologies, but also further reinforces another core assumption for a classification system of “perversion”. Under the framework presented in Psychopathia Sexualis perversion is not a trait one acquires, but rather a congenital one, usually having source in some form of hereditary taint. The very first case history of masochism he presents starts with a description of hysteric and psychopathic conditions plaguing the family of the patient – it is here that Krafft-Ebing sees the source of his plight.
Masochism, therefore, is a hereditary disease, which turns the afflicted person into a pervert – that is, someone who suffers from a perversion, a drive to monstrous acts which are nonetheless not decisive, and thus happening outside his freedom and dignity. It is a foundation: a description which could be applied to any of the “perversions” that Krafft-Ebing describes. What then is particular to masochism, what distinguishes it?
The oft-quoted definition provided in Psychopathia Sexualis reads as follows:
By masochism I understand a peculiar perversion of the psychical vita sexualis in which the individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused.
Interestingly, this definition is not too far off from modern-day readings of the term, particularly the ones which attempt to distance themselves from the colloquial usage of masochism as meaning “drawing pleasure from pain”. It frames masochism as chiefly a psychological experience, a drive to submission and suspension of one’s freedom to act. For those acquainted with modern-day ideas within various BDSM communities, it is bound to have a familiar ring to it. Importantly, it also establishes fantasy (“idea”) as a crucial element of the masochistic drive, which could be linked to the ubiquitous practice of role-playing within contemporary scenes of dominance and submission. The fantasy and the need to live it through are at the heart of Krafft-Ebing’s definition. Can it be said, then, that aside from its context as a hereditary illness, the definition is still viable today? To answer the question, one needs to take a look at a few other less immediately obvious elements of his theory.
It’s been mentioned previously that the bulk of the cases of masochism described by Krafft-Ebing come from male patients. That is no accident, and stems from another core assumption made by the Austrian psychiatrist: that masochism is a pathology mainly suffered from by men. The logic behind it is simple: it is a psychological and a (in keeping with his general framing of sexuality and its manifestations physiological) fact that the drive to submission is a trait that characterizes female sexuality. It is then not only understandable but also natural that women draw pleasure from submitting to men, and see it as something desirable. Especially in those societies he deems less developed (and thus closer to the natural state of man), this inherent feminine masochism is made explicit. Again, a quotation is in order:
A Hungarian official informs me that the peasant women of the Soinogyer Comitate do not think they are loved by their husbands until they have received the first box on the ear as a sign of love.
The progress of civilization served to reduce, or at least soften, this impulse in women of the Occident, but it remained an integral part of their sexuality nonetheless, in the same way that a drive to conquer, dominate and take by force was inherently masculine. Therefore, masochism in women, always present to some degree, could only be diagnosed it is most extreme forms, when a natural tendency was bloated to a gargantuan proportion. By the same token, however, masochism in men was both far easier to spot, and significantly more dangerous. If a man was a masochist, he was suffering not just from a perverted sexual impulse. He was exhibiting a pathological, feminine sexual impulse, and so his sexuality was irrevocably taken over by a drive which belonged to a different sex. Masochism was more than a simple pathology: it could, and often did, lead to an absolute destruction of one’s nature. Afflicted men were deprived of an integral part of their very sex, and instead carried in themselves something of a woman. This manifested outside of their erotic life: they often had feminine personality traits, or even, in some cases, androgynous body features. A masochistic – submissive? – man was then, at least sexually, a woman. In some of the works that drew heavily from Psychopathia Sexualis, this theory is taken to a logical extreme. For example, Jean de Villot, in an essay about masochism from 1907, speculates that the masochist is a person with a male body, but a female brain.
A man – a masochist – was doubly damned. Not only was he made to suffer from a congenital disease which made his sexual drive overpowering and monstrous, but the very same disease undermined and endangered his social position of a man itself, rendering him to the sad, wretched existence of someone who could not even be considered fully of his own sex. How could then it be of any surprise that the case histories cited by Krafft-Ebing often end on a note of despair, such as the of a masochistic man admitting that “his present existence he considered a misery, and his life a burden.” And yet, it was not the end of the woes of masochism; not only did it undermine masculinity, but also barred the way to intimacy.
Krafft-Ebing did not view every desire for submission as inherently masochistic. After describing numerous cases of masochism, he contrasted it with what he dubbed the “sexual bondage” which, alas, had nothing to do with ropes and cuffs. In his understanding, this term denoted an unhealthy attachment that men could form to their female spouses, becoming subservient and weak towards them, living the age-old figure of the henpecked husband. It was an unfortunate position, and one worthy of condemnation, but not clinical scrutiny. After all, it was just natural, albeit revulsive, evidence of a failure of man’s will. However, at its core, it sprung from misapplied love and attachment: the husband became henpecked due to his obsession with pleasing the spouse. Such a state was alien to a masochist: his attachment was not to a person, but to the subservience and submission itself. “The tyranny itself” is what the masochist craved. Any emotion, any intimacy happened only as a by-product of this impulse, and his enslavement to it.
The picture of the masochist painted by Krafft-Ebing is not a happy one: he is a hereditarily tainted man with a female sexual character attracted to the fantasy of subservience and humiliation, bereft of an ability to form intimacy towards people. A tormented victim of a deplorable condition.
At a glance, one would be inclined to say that this picture is also a discarded one. Even in those modern depictions of masochism which (intentionally or not) pathologize it, the condemnation is not that severe. And yet, this is the source from which our contemporary use of the term springs. I have previously written about how Krafft-Ebing’s framing of perversion and sexuality allowed the next generation of psychiatrists and sexologists to move away from his inherently pathological understanding of non-normative sexual practices. There is flip-side to it: that our understanding of them began as an understanding of deplorable pathology. The terms we use today to describe them were once used to condemn and persecute and this heritage is not without its impact.
 In the American edition of the book, based on the twelfth German edition, the last one worked on by Krafft-Ebing before his death in 1902.
 Emphasis as in the original text.
 While some passages in Psychopathia Sexuals seem to contradict this (such as when Krafft-Ebing stresses the psyching nature of sadism and masochism), it should be remembered that he wrote under the assumption that neurology was a sub-field of psychiatry, and therefore there was little quantifiable difference for him between a somatic and a psychic process.
 Hungary serving as an example of an undeveloped, borderline land might be surprising for a man coming from what was, after all, an Austro-Hungariam monarchy, it should be remembered that in the eyes of people from large, European cities, eastern and southern Europe were little better than Asia when it came to the subject of societal development.
 The distinction between sex and gender is not present in Krafft-Ebing’s works. Thus, I am using the term “sex” in a meaning that is true to Psychopathia Sexualis usage of it: encompassing elements of both modern “sex” and “gender”.
 Amusingly, the essay was published prefacing an anonymous work on the usage of whips for sexual stimulation.