New research provides evidence that childhood abuse is strongly associated with sadomasochism in adulthood. The findings, published in the journal Sexologies, indicate that different types of abuse are linked to the development of different types of sexual preferences.
“My co-workers and I have been exploring the role of early life abuse in adult sexual functioning for more than a decade,” said study author Mike Abrams, an adjunct full professor at New York University and a clinical psychologist. “This relationship was observed in my clinical work with adults who, as children, had been sexually assaulted by family members. The experimental research has supported the connection between abuse and sexual masochism and sadism that I observed in my clients.”
For their study, the researchers surveyed 1,219 adults regarding childhood psychological, sexual, and physical abuse. Psychological abuse was present in 58.8% of participants, physical abuse in 20.9%, and sexual abuse in 10.6%. The participants also completed measures of masochism and sadism.
Participants with masochistic tendencies responded “yes” to statements such as “Has imagining that you were being humiliated or poorly treated by someone ever excited you sexually?” and “Has imagining that someone was causing you pain ever aroused you sexually?”
Participants with sadistic tendencies responded “yes” to statements such as “Has imagining that you or someone else were causing pain to somebody ever excited you sexually?” and “Has imagining that you or someone else were tying up somebody ever excited you sexually?”
The researchers found that a history of childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, was associated with greater sadomasochistic tendencies. More extreme forms of masochism and sadism were more common among those who had experienced childhood sexual abuse but not psychological or physical abuse. Extreme masochism was present in 56% of sexually abused participants compared to 21.8% of non-abused participants, while extreme sadism was present in 60.8% of sexually abused participants compared to 31% of non-abused participants.
“A person’s intensity of sexual sadism or masochism is strongly connected to the specific type of abuse they suffered as children,” Abrams told PsyPost. “It was fascinating to learn that of the three types of abuse we studied, sexual abuse was associated with the greatest increases in the riskiest expressions of sexual sadism in men and sexual masochism in women.”
Psychological abuse, on the other hand, was more strongly associated with heightened preferences for lighter forms of masochism and sadism, while physical abuse was the least common precursor of sadomasochistic tendencies.
Abrams and his colleagues previously conducted a smaller study of 349 adults, which found similar results. “We found a link between childhood abuse, self-harm in borderline personality, and sexual masochism,” he explained.
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For example, it is unclear whether factors such as the age at which abuse occurs has an influence on the development of sadomasochism.
“Much is not known about paraphilias like sadism and masochism and the open questions that remain are essential for clinicians who assist people who may have experienced distress from these sexualities,” Abrams said. “We still need to understand the specific time in life in which these and other sexualities commence and the innate and environmental factors that originate them. Knowing that they are as robust as other sexualities will guide future therapeutic interventions.”
“Childhood abuse survivors tend to live with more extreme variations of sadomasochism, and these sexualities are strongly mediated by the type of abuse the survivor had suffered,” Abrams added. “This finding is consistent with our prior study that found that abuse survivors who developed sadomasochistic sexualities also suffered specific personality pathologies. In addition, discovering the origins of paraphilic sexualities like sadism will provide a better understanding of the origins of the more prevalent sexualities like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bi-sexuality.”
The study, “Childhood abuse and sadomasochism: New insights“, was authored by M. Abrams, A. Chronos, and M. Milisavljevic Grdinicc