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sadism, n. Enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others; spec. a psychological disorder characterized by sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviour involving the subjection of another person to pain, humiliation, bondage, etc. [OED]

The dictionary definition above tells only part of the story in regards to the role of sadism in BDSM. The pain, humiliation and bondage of BDSM aren't inflicted on another person just to see them suffer. In fact, it's common for BDSM activities to serve as ways for both people involved to achieve hotter sex, cathartic release, recreation after a hard day's or week's work, increased intimacy with their partner, and to constructively explore feelings of power. For a more complete discussion about why people engage in BDSM see Motivations.

Indeed, rather than referring to the more ambiguous term sadism, many people involved in BDSM instead talk about erotic sadism because of the frequent use of BDSM activities as adjuncts to sex play.

The difference between true sadism and BDSM sadism

While on outside spectator might not at first glance see any physical difference between true sadism (as defined at the beginning of this article), and either erotic sadism or what goes on in many BDSM scenes, the difference can be seen to do with the sharing of goals. That is, BDSM has to do with achieving mutually shared goals of the participants, while true sadism is the selfish achievement of the sadist's own goals.

For example, a bondage scene might have the goal of allowing the person being tied to experience the common physiological relaxation response associated with tight, full-body restraint.

A BDSM flogging scene may have the goals of:

  1. The top using the flogger to control the feelings of their partner (i.e., to feel power over their partner), and at the same time
  2. The bottom feeling the attentions of their partner through the thuds and stings of the flogger (i.e., feeling their partner controlling them).

Generally, a BDSM scene or relationship is experienced as positive and constructive by all concerned. Of course, sometimes scenes go wrong or relationships turn sour, but perhaps the most important thing here is the good intent of the people involved.

In true sadism however, there is no positive or constructive intent towards the person being assaulted or abused. It is---as stated above---purely selfish on the part of the sadist.

Sadistic play

Some people involved in BDSM use the term sadistic play to refer to pain play and it can be useful to consider why the pain play you practise with your partner isn't true sadism.

  1. Is it cooperative? Is your partner present to be hurt because they freely choose to be hurt by you?
  2. Is it exciting or does it turn you on to see your partner suffering? Or is it that you want to see them having a good time in your hands?
  3. Alternatively, is it exciting for you because of the control you have over your partner through the pain you inflict on them? Do they want to be controlled?
  4. Is the excitement coming just from what you're doing to them, from how they are reacting, or from both?

See also