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From de Sade to the Dark Triad: SM in Shades of Gray. James Ambler, Kathryn Klement , Sarah Hanson , David Wietting , Ellen Lee, Evelyn Comber , & Brad Sagarin. Motivations for Sadism. Motivations for Masochism. Motivations for Sadism. top. master. dominant. sadist.

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from de sade to the dark triad sm in shades of gray
From de Sade to the Dark Triad: SM in Shades of Gray

James Ambler, Kathryn Klement, Sarah Hanson, David Wietting,Ellen Lee, Evelyn Comber, & Brad Sagarin


Motivations for Sadism

Motivations for



Motivations for Sadism





Motivations for







The Dark Triad

Paulhus & Williams (2002)


The Dark Triad

Psychopathy: personality disorder centered on callousness and unemotionality

Narcissism: grandiose sense of self-importance, sense of superiority, lack of empathy

Machiavellianism: tendency to manipulate and exploit others

Chabrol, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers, & Sejourne (2009)


The Dark Tetrad?

Sadism: a pattern of cruelty, aggression and demeaning behavior

“I would enjoy hurting someone, physically, sexually or emotionally”

“I have fantasies which involve hurting people”

“I have humiliated others to keep them in line”

“Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt people”

Chabrol, Van Leeuwen, Rodgers, & Sejourne (2009)




diagnostic criteria dsm vs icd
Diagnostic Criteria: DSM vs ICD

DSM-IV-TR: Sexual Sadism

Over a period of 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.

The person has acted on these sexual urges with a non-consenting person, or the sexual urges or fantasies or interpersonal difficulty.


Diagnostic Criteria: DSM vs ICD

ICD-10: Sadomasochism

A preference for sexual activity that involves bondage or the infliction of pain or humiliation. If the individual prefers to be the recipient of such stimulation this is called masochism; if the provider, sadism. Often an individual obtains sexual excitement from both sadistic and masochistic activities.

Mild degrees of sadomasochistic stimulation are commonly used to enhance otherwise normal sexual activity. This category should be used only if sadomasochistic activity is the most important source of stimulation or necessary for sexual gratification.

Sexual sadism is sometimes difficult to distinguish from cruelty in sexual situations or anger unrelated to eroticism. Where violence is necessary for erotic arousal, the diagnosis can be clearly established. Includes: Masochism, sadism.

dsm vs icd
  • Separates sadism from masochism
  • Assumes all sadism is pathological
  • Does not separate clearly sexually sadistic behavior from cruel behavior
  • Combines sadomasochism
  • Allows for consensual SM play
  • Distinguishes sexual sadism from cruelty in sexual contexts

Sexual Motivation in Violent Acts

  • Difference between sexually-motivated acts and brutal violent acts in a sexual context
  • Example: Piquerism & Jack the Ripper
de sade s degeneration hypothesis
de Sade’s Degeneration Hypothesis
  • Offenders with deviant fantasies commit increasingly violent crimes
    • “Devolving”
  • Case study:

Ted Bundy

sexual fantasies
WomenSexual Fantasies


More likely to have explicit-visual sexual imagery

21% reported fantasies about being sexually overpowered (Sue, 1979)

24% reported fantasy of forcing someone to have sex (Sue, 1979)

More likely to have emotional-romantic imagery

51% reported fantasies about being sexually dominated (Pelletier & Herold, 1988)

16% reported fantasy of forcing someone to have sex (Sue, 1979)

Leitenberg & Henning (1995)

attraction to power exchange
Attraction to Power Exchange

Josifkova & Flegr (2008)

male and female preferences
Male and Female Preferences

Josifkova & Flegr (2008)

biology hormones
Biology & Hormones
  • Testosterone
    • High levels of testosterone may be associated with dominance or sadism
  • Luteinizing hormone
    • LH stimulates testosterone production in testes
    • Some studies show a positive correlation between LH and indexed offense violence






pathological sadism1





Social Norms

Social Bonds

Anticipated Guilt


benefits to the self
Benefits to the self
  • Self-control
  • Self-efficacy
  • Self-esteem
  • But it does notcompensate forlow self-esteem

Damon (2002)


The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.


conditions under which flow happens
Conditions Under Which Flow Happens
  • Engagement in activity chosen for it’s own sake (not necessary but a facilitative condition)
  • Perceived challenges are high while skill level is also high
  • Clear goals that are regarded important
  • Immediate feedback indicating success at task
  • Highly focused attention
characteristics of flow state
Characteristics of Flow State
  • Intense concentration on task
  • Deep sense of involvement and merging of action and awareness
  • Sense of control over one’s actions
  • Enjoyment in activity
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Why pain?
  • Transient Hypofrontality
  • Escape from Self

Limited Resources

  • “The human brain has limited resources”
  • “A minimum level of intensity is required to force the redistribution of resources in the brain.”
    • On a continuum
    • Focus can force redistribution
      • Meditation
  • Structures are prioritized as needed

Dietrich (2003)


Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis

Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DL):

  • Important for directed attention, temporal integration, and working memory

Working memory deficits cause:

  • Less abstract thinking
  • Less access to memory
  • Less self-reflective consciousness
  • Less cognitive flexibility
  • These lead to subjective changes

in consciousness

Dietrich (2003)

Common experiences of altered states of consciousness:

time distortions

disinhibition from social constraints 

changes in focused attention

Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis

Transient Hypofrontality States

-Runner’s High 



-Day dreaming 


-Various Drug Highs

  • Specific variations:
    • reduction of pain
    • feelings of floating
    • feelings of peacefulness
    • little consistent logic
    • difficulty with memory
    • feeling of living in the here and now
    • little active decision making

Dietrich (2003)



  • Flying
  • Floating
  • The wave
  • The forever place

“With my girl, she was punishing me, and I felt a deep sense of pain and pleasure, sort of a one with nature and my environment, it was incredible.”

“It’s very dreamlike. I knew that I felt good, and I was aware of my partner, but I was not paying attention to anything else.”

“I felt intense pleasure and pain, I almost felt like I was flying and for a moment I thought I would pass out. I felt like I was separating from my own body.”

“An almost trance like state. Pain didn’t exist in any form.”

“While bottoming with my partner, I was able to let go to the point of losing touch with reality while my partner spanked me.”

“While being dominated I stepped back inside myself. After getting the rush from playing I lost track of what was going on, nothing seemed to affect me while I was down inside myself.”


Escape from the Self

The self is sometimes burdensome

  • "The greater the demands in my outside life, the likelier I am to feel submissive sexually."


Wiseman (1996)


Escape from the Self

  • “Pain gradually obliterates psychological content, eventually leaving only the awareness of pain. One’s knowledge of the world is temporarily forgotten, and attention is narrowed to the immediate present, both spatially and temporally.” (Scarry, 1985)
  • Pain, interrupted action and failure feedback focus people’s attention
  • BDSM play
    • Pain
    • Bondage
    • Humiliation
    • Sex as a reinforcer


Vallacher & Wegner (1987, 1989)


A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure

In the pain field there is a growing recognition that the subjective interpretation or meaning of pain determines the amount of pain-related suffering

The brain creates experience, we don’t have unedited access to what happens to us

Meaning changes the hedonic experience of pain

  • Root canals suck
  • Slapped in a scene vs. slapped in an argument

Leknes & Tracey (2008)


A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure

Evidence of pleasure-related analgesia has been reported in human and animal studies; pain is decreased by:

  • pleasant odors
  • images
  • music
  • palatable food
  • sexual behavior
  • perceived control
  • meaning of the pain

Leknes & Tracey (2008)

  • The brain addresses intense physical and mental demands by prioritizing resources; lack of resources to certain areas result in altered states of consciousness
  • Pain, challenge and failure feedback all push people into the here and now
    • The subjective suffering an individual experiences depends on context and interpretation, not the actual stimulation occurring

The deployment of sexuality is always changing and is ‘concerned with the sensations of the body, the quality of pleasures and the nature of impressions [that] the body produces and consumes.’

Michel Foucault (1978)




Psychological Relatedness

Self Determination Theory

Deci and Ryan (1985)

motivations for sadism
Motivations for Sadism


motivations for masochism
Motivations for Masochism


states of consciousness

Escape from self


motivations for sadomasochism
Motivations for Sadomasochism



Power exchange

Autonomy, competence, relatedness



states of consciousness

Escape from self


for more information
For moreinformation: