We sometimes name diseases after the name of scientists: Alzheimer, Down, Parkinson, and more. “When a physician gives his name to a disease […] such action relates a proper name to a set of symptoms or makes a proper name to connote the symptoms” (Deleuze, 1967). What is the story behind the terms sadism and masochism?
In late 19th Century, the clinician and psychiatric investigator Richard von Kraft-Ebbing introduced “masochism” and “sadism” as medical terms, as well as “homosexuality” and “fetichism”, in his 1886 Psycopathia Sexualis. Kraft-Ebbing was one of the first to focus his research on sexual behaviour. He provided a foundation for the study of sexuality that later strongly influenced psychoanalysis, art, and our everyday language.
However, the terms “sadism” and “masochism” are not named after doctors, but after writers! Why? Kraft-Ebbing found that the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold Sacher-Masoch portrayed two different groups of behaviours that he considered pathological. For example, he had several patients that had a very similar behaviour to Severin’s, the main character of the most famous Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs.
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. (Kraft-Ebbing, 1886, p. 89.)
Indeed, in Venus in Furs, Severin convinces Wanda, his mistress, into making him her slave so that she humiliates him and abuses him. “That lust and cruelty frequently occur together is a fact that has long been recognized and not infrequently observed. Writers of all kinds have called attention to this phenomenon” (Ibid.). In other words, many authors, such as Sacher-Masoch and Marquis de Sade, had explored such complex mixtures between lust and cruelty, which Kraft-Ebbing also saw in his patients. Inspired by these authors, he introduced such terminology.
In early 20th century Vienna, where Kraft-Ebbing lived, there was a lot of interaction and mutual inspiration between the sciences and the arts (Kandell, 2012). For example, in Gustav Klimt’s famous painting Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), Adele’s dress is filled with figures that represent the human cells: rectangular sperms and ovoid eggs. Similarly, Kraft-Ebbing’s use of literary authors for medical terminology can be considered an example of such interaction.
But finally, why did the terminology proposed by Kraft-Ebbing remain and become part of our ordinary vocabulary? What is certain is that the work of Marquis de Sade and Sacher-Masoch are still inspiring our culture. From medical diagnoses, to academic essays, movies, and songs in pop culture, their life and work are still talked about:
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather,
Whiplash girlchild in the dark,
Severin, your servant comes in bells, please don’t forsake him,
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.
Venus in Furs,
The Velvet Underground (1967)
Deleuze, G., (1967), Présentation de Sacher Masoch: Le Froid et le Cruel, Les editions de minuit, Paris.
Kandell, E. R., (2012), The age of insight, Random House, New York.
Krafft-Ebing von, R., (1892), Psychopathia sexualis : with especial reference to contrary sexual instinct : a medico-legal study, Philadelphia, Pa. ; London : F.A. Davis, 1892.
Sacher-Masoch, L., (1870), Venus in Furs.