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Is It Okay To Be A Masochist?

Question:

Is it okay to be a masochist? I don’t do anything to myself that can cause permanent damage, like burning and cutting. Also, how do you think my family will respond if I tell them I’m a masochist?

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Answer:

There are several senses of the word “masochist”. There is Sexual Masochism, which is considered to be a paraphilia (or sexual disorder) within the DSM (consisting of “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer”, which suffering may be self or partner-induced), and then there is a more general and informal sense of the word which probably just refers to someone who someone who seeks out pain in physical and emotional forms.

Most people aren’t masochists for the simple reason that it hurts physically and/or emotionally to participate in masochistic acts, and most people avoid painful activities. Those people who seek out pain may have a variety of reasons for doing so. People who self-harm (which you say you do not do) typically report, for instance that they want to punish themselves, or that they require the pain to ground themselves again (after being dissociated, for instance). The former explanation suggests that a considerable amount of shame is involved in many masochistic acts, while the latter explanation suggests that masochists may have endured abuse at an earlier age (from which they needed to escape mentally). There may be other reasons too. Sexual masochism adds a whole other layer to the mixture, in that it is acted out with a partner. Mild masochism (and sadism) may be played out as a thrill-seeking venture. For some people, it is thrilling to be in someone else’s power (or to have power over others. The fear of being harmed and the pain itself are highly arousing/activating states to experience, and some people’s fear and pain arousal carries over into their sexual arousal. This is why sexual masochism is considered to be a paraphillia, which is a group of “disorders” wherein people require special circumstances in order to become sexually aroused (such as pain, or vinyl/leather/latex, or children, or cross-dress clothing or whathaveyou).

All of the paraphilias are considered to be clinically relevant (e.g., therapy-worthy), but you need to take this with a grain of salt. Some paraphilias (like transvestism) are harmless, while others (such as pedophilia) are fairly monstrous. If you are able to act out your thing without harming anyone else or yourself in the context of an exclusively adult and consensual relationship, AND you aren’t particularly bothered by being stuck with your paraphilia, then you are probably okay. If your thing requires you to harm yourself in a way that debilitates you in any significant fashion (such as carving your arms or burning yourself, or exposing yourself to repeated humiliating acts that disturb you (even if they fascinate you too) that is not really okay, and psychotherapy with an understanding therapist would appear to be a good idea. Likewise, if your masochism comes out of past abuse experiences that you are trying to recreate and/or master, I don’t know that acting out sexually is going to help put that stuff to rest. It would be a better (safer, healthier, more empowering) idea to explore feelings about abuse in a therapy relationship.

Not knowing your family, I have no idea how they might respond to your secret. If I venture an educated guess, I would think they won’t easily understand (just as most people don’t and can’t, not having experienced whatever it is that draws people into masochism).

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