How Common Are Sexual Sadism and Masochism?

Results from the latest Reader Survey are in and, as usual, they’re absolutely fascinating! The most recent survey inquired about experiences with what have traditionally been considered paraphilic behaviors (i.e., sexual behaviors that are unusual or uncommon). Although this survey asked about a variety of paraphilic behaviors, what I want to focus on here are readers’ experiences with sexual sadism and masochism. Before we get to the results, let me first clarify that when I say “paraphilic behaviors,” I do not mean “disordered behaviors.” The fact of the matter is that you can have an uncommon sexual interest and still be a perfectly healthy person.

Let’s first take a look at the characteristics of the sample. In total, 391 people completed the survey. Participants represented 29 different countries (but most were from the United States) and ranged in age from 18-69, with an average age of 36. In terms of gender, participants were mostly male-identified (66%), with 31% identifying as female, 1.5% as genderqueer, and 1% as bigendered. With regard to sexual orientation, most participants identified as heterosexual (73%), with the remainder identifying as bisexual (15%), pansexual (6%), gay/lesbian (3%), asexual (1%), or something else (2%). Although this sample was quite diverse, please keep in mind that it is not representative and, therefore, we should assume that the results below only speak to readers of this site who chose to fill out this survey.

So how common were sexual sadism and masochism? Let’s look at masochism first. In total 51% of participants reported engaging in at least one masochistic act before, defined as an experience in which an individual derived pleasure from having pain inflicted on them during sex. As for sadism, fully one-half of the sample (50%) reported engaging in at least one sadistic act before, defined as an experience in which one derived pleasure from inflicting pain upon someone else during sex. Clearly, sexual sadism and masochism are not “unusual” or “uncommon” behaviors among readers of this site! This stands in contrast to national survey data, which put the prevalence of sadomasochism a bit lower, usually in the range of 10-15% (see here for a summary of national statistics and information).

How much did sadistic and masochistic experiences overlap? Not as much as you might think. These behaviors were positively correlated (r=.29, p<.001), but only slightly. In other words, although there was a tendency for people who engaged in one of these behaviors to also engage in the other, it wasn’t a very strong tendency. So, most people who had practiced sadism had not also practiced masochism, and vice versa.

It is also worth noting that there was a statistical relationship between gender identity and these sexual practices. Specifically, women were significantly more likely than men to report having engaged in masochism (69% vs. 51%, respectively). However, when it came to sadism, women and men did not statistically differ in their likelihood of reporting it (45% vs. 53%, respectively). The latter finding was somewhat surprising to me because most of the research I’ve seen suggests that sadism is something practiced a lot more by men than women.

As you can see, sexual sadism and masochism are actually quite common among readers of this site. Stay tuned for my next post, in which we will delve deeper into the survey to look at how sadism and masochism are actually practiced among readers. For instance, how intense is the pain inflicted, and what kind of pain is it (i.e., physical, psychological, or both)? Also, what specific sadomasochistic activities are most common?

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about what research has revealed regarding the psychology behind sadomasochism, check out this article.

To see results from previous versions of the Reader Survey, click here. To participate in the latest version of the survey, click here.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology ? Click here for previous articles or follow the blog on Facebook (facebook.com/psychologyofsex), Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit (reddit.com/r/psychologyofsex) to receive updates. 

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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