A number of years ago, in conjunction with my work with treating sexual addiction, a number of masochistic or submissive men began to come to me for help. The clients I saw did not seem immature or inferior. In fact, the reverse seemed to be true. They were successful by social standards: professionally, emotionally, and culturally, in marriages or out. They were frequently individuals of inner strength of character, possessed of strong coping skills and an ethical sense of individual responsibility.

I was initially at a loss. From these men came stories of contracting to be whipped, caned, verbally humiliated and more by a professional dominatrix. From these men came stories of having the dominatrix put a catheter up their penises, a procedure that is excruciatingly painful. More followed. The usual canning and whipping by an attractive young woman garbed in the traditional black leather garb, garter belts, spike high heels and wielding the ever-phallic whip. Over the years, the stories ensued: the cock-and ball torture, the hot, dripping wax on naked skin, the diaper fetishist who wants the Dom to be the babysitter; the writer who handcuffed himself to the radiator and had the Dom put safety pins in his anus; the man who wore a ribbon around his penis and, at the behest of the Dom, ate her birthday cake out of a dog bowl; the very heterosexual man who was obsessed with penises; the fellow who’s dominant fantasy was to be a human toilet; wrestling fetishes with a strong woman who bests them; the business man who required extensive verbal humiliation prior to having the Dom put his head in the toilet.

A client of mine once called me naïve. Didn’t I know that there were probably 25 “dungeons” within a five-block radius of my 40th Street office? Dungeons? You mean like bats and rocks and dripping water? No, it seems, in luxury apartment complexes where the Dominatrix will have a “special” room for her torture and play.

The internet has fast blossomed to become the hottest sex show in town. A single dominatrix website offers thousands of eager ladies offering their fare. And there are hundreds of sites. If demand equals supply, it would seem that the search for the right dominatrix is a part of a significant number of American men. Is this condition of submitting fully to another may counter lives that, in our Western society are ego- centered, constrained, rational and competitive. Masculinity can be a burden.

I thought of the quantity of guys who leave for their lunch break, see the Dom, get the be-Jesus beat out of them and return, relaxed and focused, to take up their afternoon work assignments, and then go home to the wife and kids.

Does any of this even resemble sex? Is there an orgasm in this picture? How it is that humiliation and/or excruciating physical pain is the exclusive sexual delight for so many unfortunate fellows? And who is this “dominatrix” figure who yields such power (at $250 a throw, much more than my hourly fee!) – what DOES she represent? How is it that my clients consistently seek for “her”, find “her” but are continually disappointed and disillusioned at the end of the session?

I wasn’t the only one who was confused. One client who, giving me a written masochistic fantasy after months of therapy, said, “Here it is. This is what I came to therapy for. It’s terrible. It’s sick. It’s wonderful. I hate it; it’s my favorite fantasy. I can’t stand it, I love it. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to stop it.”

Viewed from the perspective of what I knew about the nature of the individual self, masochism puzzled me by flying in the face of everything rational about the nature of the human personality. People want to be happy and avoid pain and suffering. They seek to maintain and increase their control over themselves and their surroundings. And they desire to maintain and increase their prestige, respect, and esteem. Viewed from the perspective of these principles about the self, masochism/submission is a startling paradox. The self is developed to avoid pain, but masochists seek pain. The self strives for control, but the submissive seek to relinquish control. The self aims to maximize its esteem, but masochists/submissive deliberately seek out humiliation.

Why is it that so many shame-filled and desperate men scurry to the dungeons and dominatrix sites, longing to be dominated, hurt, tortured and humiliated by strong, dominant women? What is the basis of this compelling urge to surrender and serve, to relinquish control, to accept physical pain and emotional humiliation?

I began to see masochism and submission as a metaphor through which the psyche speaks of its suffering and passion. The connection between suffering and pleasure continued to intrigue me. Clients spoke of the rapturous delight in submission, the worship, in wild abandon and the deliverance from the defining bondage of “normalcy”.

Ritualized suffering seems to be a way they have of giving meaning and value to human infirmities. After all, there is no lack of suffering in human life. None of us need go looking for pain. The suffering of helplessness, disappointment, loss, powerlessness and limitation, is part of the human condition. This passionate longing to surrender and suffer comes into play in masochism. Submission, losing oneself to the power of the dominatrix, becoming enslaved to the Mistress is a defense against the displeasure of strong feelings of fear of being re-traumatized.

To understand the under workings of this phenomenon, we need to understand the role that the unconscious mind plays in driving behavior. Most of us vastly underestimate the scope of the unconscious mind. Here is an analogy that might give a better appreciation for its pervasive influence. In the daytime, we can’t see the stars. We talk as if they “come out” at night, even though they are there all the time and we underestimate the sheer number of stars. In reality the hundreds of thousands of stars that we see on a clear moonless night are only a fraction of the stars in the universe. So it is with the unconscious mind: the orderly, logical thoughts of our conscious mind are but a thin veil over the unconscious, which is active and functioning at all times.

The unconscious mind holds the remnants of all of our childhood wishes and wounds. The unconscious knows no past; everything that happened years ago (including the frustrations, humiliations and anger of childhood) is still very much alive in our day-to-day lives.

The Dominatrix is a type of imago (Greek for image) that resides in the unconscious mind. She is the primary love object — the one to be pleased through the ritualized act of offering up suffering. She is the one who can choose to give or withhold that which is most longed for – be it discipline, punishment, humiliation, pain, teasing, foot worship, trampling or what have you. On the one hand, she’s a fantasized vision of what they want a woman to be – powerful, strong, dangerous, beautiful, in control, and sexual. The reality is that she’s a dehumanized and debased object because the masochist uses her only to serve his narcissistic needs. Her humanity is reduced to the function she serves for the “client”.

Masochistic eroticism is completely divorced from loving a real “other”. It is a way of hating without risk. It is a technique of control. As master of the script, the submissive is no longer a victim: he can decide for himself when to suffer pain rather then having it strike without warning. Childhood trauma is converted into adult triumph. In the enactment with the Dom, the victim becomes the victor.

The sub/Dom torturous scenario is an attempt, repeated over and over, to undo childhood traumas and frustrations that threatened the development of one’s sense of masculinity. What contributes to the sexual excitement are various factors: mystery, secrets, shame, risk, illusion, revenge, reversal of trauma or frustration to triumph. And all delectably stitched together into the final whole – the surge of intense sexual excitement. Now the outcome is marvelous, for not only does one escape the threat of feeling the terror and powerlessness of the past, but immense sensual gratification is attached to the consummation.

Unfortunately, this intensity is hard to match when sexual gratification is associated with a real and loving person. “Vanilla” sex starts to seem boring and the significant other senses this lack of interest. The price paid in terms of marital satisfaction is significant.

In reality and in fantasies, the masochist/submissive builds his impregnable structure. His unconscious conflicts, torments and humiliations are enacted in his story line – with its cast of characters, action, mise-en-scenes. The script is then taken to the Dom and experienced as “living out his fantasies”. He secretly invents himself as victor behind the unending suffering; he does not primarily enjoy pain but accepts it as a preliminary to some now- earned pleasure and the imagined love and acceptance of the Dom for enduring the suffering. He feels potent and victorious over his inner demons.

The masochist sets up only the appearance of being passive and victimized. In fact, he runs his own show. The scene is a staged repetition. A change or a disturbance of this masochistic ritual diminishes it value. It can even destroy it. It has to be kept as in ceremonies of the church. First this has to be done, then that: words have to be pronounced in a certain manner, and so on. All of these stage directions may appear to be haphazard, but within the ritual, there are recognizable meanings and connections. These scripts are the actualization of fantasies woven long ago in the pains of childhood.

The reason so many men experience disillusionment after a scene with a dominatrix is that no human being can ever get all the prerequisite details in exact place. Ever dissatisfied, he longs for and searches for the Dom who gets the fantasy in an exact fashion.

The ending of the session is his revenge for his childhood. The woman, so mysteriously powerful in childhood, is not able to overpower him; he proves it every time he puts on his clothes when the session ends and he pays his money – he’s the client; he pays the Dom for her services. He’s in control.

Unfortunately, the scenario must be repeated endlessly, compulsively, for perversion is nothing but a mental construction; a fantasy; it can never truly prove that he has won and can never provide sustained satisfaction. It does so only momentarily, and each time his life circumstances echo the original traumatic situation, he can mollify his anxiety only in repeating the scene whose very function is to reassure him that he is intact and in charge..

Another way to look at this dynamic is to see it as a reaction to “narcissistic mortifications” suffered in the past at the hands of parents, teachers, bullies on the playground, amongst other sources. We can define “narcissistic mortification” as a sudden loss of control over internal or external reality caused by the force of either internal or external “enemies.” The punishment sought by submissive/masochistic people has a humiliating meaning.

The person is attracted to being punished as a result of his own conscious decision. This is as opposed to earlier mortifications he which he may have been overwhelmed by a sense of powerless to do anything about the real or perceived humiliation. Thus, he is able to eliminate the memory of a childhood mortification imposed on him by someone else without his consent. He protects himself against a humiliation which was not ordered or provoked by him. In other words, the best defense against his terror of humiliation is self-humiliation.

Analysis of patients who have successfully dealt with these issues indicates of remorse. This remorse is eliminated by the acceptance of some punishment, by the restitution of some wrong committed. The problem with this strategy is feelings of guilt, remorse or shame that seek punishment and humiliation are not eliminated by the punishment the Dom dishes out because he has not faced and resolved the unconscious reasons for his behavior, and so is doomed to repeat the masochistic script endlessly. Rather than seeking resolution in therapy, he acts out for the sake of pleasure and release. Without resolution of the past, he is doomed to act out compulsively and without any resultant satisfaction.

At this point, the reader will forgive a foray into Freudian formulations. According to the debunked master, all perversions develop on the august day that the little boy discovers mommy doesn’t have a penis. Could this happen to him? Could he become penis-less? This, combined with his desire to possess mommy and be a rival to daddy (who has a much bigger penis and so is a potent and dangerous rival) combine to produce “castration anxiety”, as well as guilt for the (repressed) incestuous wish toward the mother. (The “Oedipal Complex”) I’ve witnessed the experience of castration anxiety in men who live with an underdeveloped sense of their masculinity. Perversion” in all its aspects is, I think, an effort to shore up this sense of masculine inadequacy.

The attraction of the dominant woman is that she represents the “phallic woman”, a psychoanalytic term that describes the woman with a penis which allays castration fear. The Dom may wear a strap- on; her clothing and props are phallic symbols: high heels, whips, canes, the strong, aggressive leather attire, and certainly her domineering, controlling personality suggest a masculine attitude. A man who suffers from unconscious infantile conflicts about who has a penis and who doesn’t and whether or not his place in the masculine world is secure can be tremendously reassured by a dominant woman, who represents the fact that mother has a penis after all and the dreaded threat to his masculinity will not occur.

Is there hope?

It takes tremendous courage for this population to come for treatment. They are emerged in shame and feel that no one would ever understand them. The biggest obstacle is the fear of letting go of the need for sexual intensity.

The whole process of treating these men is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say, they come in when the consequences of their behavior have become too painful: the considerable financial losses, the shame, the sense of not being an active agent in one’s own life, the desire to know the sweet fulfillment of a stable, loving relationship that is marked by joyous, not shameful sex.

Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central task of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life and ordinary love.

The goal of treatment is not to eliminate the masochistic longings. Often, they are hard-wired from early childhood. But one can learn to be the master of one’s own urges. Behavior can be separated from these urges. Ego-strength and self-esteem grows. He now knows that he is not alone and not doomed to suffer this condition indefinitely; he can expect to recover, as others have recovered. He can begin to sublimate some of his sexual energy into other interests, activities, goals and relationships. Sexuality begins to take it’s rightful place in the psyche, giving rise to intimate relationships wherein sex is something that is an act of joy and real connection,

Author's Bio: 

Dorothy Hayden, LCSW, has been treating sex addiction for 15 years. With 30 articles and one e-book, "Total Sex Addiction Recovery -- A Guide to Therapy", she is considered a "thought leader" in the field. She has been interviewed by HBO, CNN and "20/20" about cybersex and sex addiction.