What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

Gregory Gorelik
Gregory Gorelik
16 min read

Like all good husbands, I took my wife to see the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series—Fifty Shades Darker­­—on Valentine’s Day weekend. Admittedly, this romantic gesture was not entirely altruistic. As it happens, I am currently doing research on the role of dominance and submission in human sexuality. Although neither of us is in the “scene,” we are nonetheless swept up in the current cultural fascination with consensual sadomasochism, albeit for different reasons.

My fascination stems from my general interest in human sexuality and its evolution. My field, evolutionary psychology, has been at the forefront of exploring human behavior through the evolutionary lens for more than two decades, and has made immense advances over the years. Although its greatest accomplishments are in the realm of sex differences and mating behavior, it is not confined to the sexual realm, as is evidenced by the increasing output of research on the evolution of morality,1 religion,2 and politics.3 Indeed, E. O. Wilson’s dream of a consilience of knowledge across the biological sciences and humanities is slowly inching its way toward fulfilment.4

Notwithstanding the ever-expanding reach of Darwinism away from sexuality, the exploration of the evolutionary roots of human sexual behavior is not yet complete. In addition to the continuing necessity of cross-cultural research on sex differences and variations in life history strategies (i.e., how interested individuals are in short-term versus long-term relationships), knowledge of actual human copulatory behavior is mostly untapped. Ironically, evolutionary scientists have made remarkable advances in the study of human reproduction without paying much attention to the reproductive act itself.5 I believe that it is time to get dirty—and the modern fascination with sadomasochism might lead the way.

The Sexual Becomes Political

Scientists’ reluctance to measure human copulatory practices through an evolutionary lens may stem, in part, from the expected political opposition. Indeed, if the history of the application of Darwinian principles to humans is anything to go by, evolutionary scientists are wise in their hesitance to explore what humans do between the sheets.6 Oddly enough, evolutionarily minded social and behavioral scientists seem to be facing greater pushback from their left-leaning colleagues in academia than from Biblical creationists. The main reason, as suggested by Horowitz, Yaworsky, and Kickham’s7 study of opposition to biological approaches among sociologists, seems to be the influence of feminist ideology within the academy. But being on the receiving end of feminist Puritanism actually makes kinksters and evolutionary researchers strange bedfellows.

Notwithstanding the recent breakdown of taboos surrounding the BDSM (i.e., bondage, discipline, dominance, sadism, and masochism) lifestyle, thanks in no small part to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, biases and fears remain. As with the opposition to evolutionary psychology, the main opposition to BDSM falls into either of two camps: the religious right and the radical feminist left. The former is to be expected, but the latter is not. You might think that feminists would support the rights of all sexual minorities, but in Against Sadomasochism, the self-described “radical feminist” editors write:

SM [sadomasochism] is not the sharing of power; it is merely a depressing replay of the old and destructive dominant/subordinate mode of human relations and one-sided power, which is even now grinding our earth and our human consciousness into dust.8

This seems a tad apocalyptic, as if blindfolds and ball gags might be hastening climate change or nuclear annihilation. In any case, the threat of sadomasochism perceived by some radical feminists is the dominant/subordinate relationship itself. That this relationship is consensual does not matter. Such a relationship can never be equal because, according to these radical feminists:

. . . while paying lip service to consensual sex, the sexual revolution ignores the power systems which create inequality and make meaningful consent an impossibility . . . and so all this bullshit about consensual sex, changing roles back and forth, safewords, etc. ad nauseam—is, to my mind, just a cover that encourages women to be violent. Sadomasochism is violence.9

Many within and outside of the BDSM community, including ‘sex-positive’ feminists, have rightly criticized such sentiments as antithetical to the entire ethos of female autonomy on which feminism is founded.10 No matter. Like all good puritans, these pearl-clutching sisters know what is best for all women, especially when it comes to what women can and cannot do with their bodies.

As anti-egalitarian as such judgmental purity is, its greatest evil may be in its denial of a full life to everyone who does not toe this particular radical feminist line. That is, it isn’t just that this view patronizes women by denying them their sexual autonomy—it is that it denies everyone who may be attracted to the interplay of sexual dominance and subordination their right to a pleasureful and meaningful existence.

The Evolution of Dominance and Subordination

The relationship between dominance and subordination, both inside and outside the bedroom, has a long evolutionary history. Although we must all be mindful of the naturalistic fallacy (i.e., the claim that because something is “natural,” it is moral or should be desired), we should give nature its due when it points us toward greater well-being and ethically-informed pleasure. As such, the dynamic between dominance and subordination is not only natural, but is also capable of illuminating the furthest reaches of human pleasure—while playing, paradoxically, on human pain.

Sexual tension is often—if not always—produced by the friction between dominance and subordination. Even innocent flirtation and adolescent teasing are, at bottom, a power exchange. This is why misguided, albeit well-intentioned, calls for “affirmative consent” on college campuses are so antithetical to the development of sexual maturity. Remarking on such playful games of pursuit and resistance between lovers, the great forensic psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote:

Thus it will happen that one of the consorts in sexual heat will strike, bite or pinch the other, that kissing degenerates into biting. Lovers and young married couples are fond of teasing each other, they wrestle together “just for fun,” indulge in all sorts of horseplay. The transition from these atavistic manifestations, which no doubt belong to the sphere of physiological sexuality, to the most monstrous acts of destruction of the consort’s life can be readily traced.11

When men commit “monstrous acts of destruction,” or sexual murder, it is doubtful that they reap any reproductive benefits thereby; how can one spread one’s genes if one kills the mother of one’s future child? But sexual coercion is another matter. Because nature is thrifty (in that it rarely creates something new if natural selection can make use of something old), Krafft-Ebing’s observation of a direct line between consensual courtship and “the most monstrous acts of destruction” may have some validity. Specifically, I believe that consensual sexual dominance may have evolved from a coercive predecessor.

Evolutionary psychologists are, for the most part, agnostic on the issue of whether rape is a naturally selected adaptation in humans.12 But even if the costs of rape make it so that it is rarely an effective means for a man to propogate his genes (e.g., if ancestral rapists repeatedly faced retribution or if ancestral women engaged in selective infanticide), it is still premature to say that all forms of coercive sexuality are biologically maladaptive. For example, although a sexual encounter may be consensual at first, it can quickly turn coercive if a man decides to prolong copulation until ejaculation despite the woman’s resistance. That a man can easily do this is suggested by men’s outsized strength compared to women’s, and that they can get away with it is, alas, a real possibility.13 Similarly, although subordination connotes the consensual surrender of power, it may simply be the only way that a woman can avoid the brutally violent costs of resistance.14

This proposed evolutionary history of consensual dominance—and even sadism—says nothing about its current ethical status. To illustrate this point with an example, it is possible that the human penchant for cooperation may be due, in part, to the human penchant for blood-soaked warfare between competing coalitions of ancestral humans.15 Regardless of the validity of this hypothesis, it illustrates the possibility that much of what we value about ourselves and humanity as a whole may have been wrought to serve the abhorrent desires of our lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering ancestors. Consensual sexual dominance may be one such evolved product.

The Sexual Selection of Dominance

In what follows, I will argue that sexual selection liberated sexual dominance from its coercive, ancestral demons. Specifically, I posit that ancestral women, when faced with the prospect of mating with a coercive and dominant man, a non-coercive and non-dominant man, or a non-coercive albeit dominant man, usually opted for the third option.

The first reason for this is the value of male dominance in competition with other males. Specifically, if a man exhibits dominance during courtship and copulation, he is signalling his ability to successfully compete with other men for social status in male hierarchies. Women are attracted to high-status men16 because such men are either genetically superior, have the resources necessary to invest in a woman and her children, or both. Although some degree of sexual conflict between men and women is expected, a man’s non-coercive dominance during courtship and copulation may say something about his ability to stand his ground in interactions with other men.

The second reason that women prefer dominant men is the fact that other women prefer dominant men. This is not a tautology. My high school American History teacher, Ms. Gibbs, once told us an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin. It was said that old kite-flying Ben would surround himself with average looking women at dinner parties so as to grab the attention of the more attractive ones. Whether true or not, Ben Franklin’s supposed exploits are supported by research on what makes men attractive. Specifically, women are attracted to men whom other women—especially physically attractive women—find attractive.17 So, if other women find dominant men attractive, it would benefit a woman to mate with a dominant man because any son born of such a union would inherit his father’s dominance and thereby help to spread his mother’s genes. This hypothesis—the so-called sexy-son hypothesis—suggests that whatever other benefits a man might accrue through his dominance, it is simply enough for women to consider it “sexy” for it to be sexually selected into the male line of our species.

Most of the time, however, traits that are preferred by members of the opposite sex communicate something important about the bearer of those traits in addition to sexiness per se. As I will elaborate in my discussion of sexual subordination, sexually selected traits are often selected by prospective sex partners because they are honest, costly signals of an individual’s genetic status. So, for example, a man who is capable of exhibiting dominance, while curbing it just enough to not come off as coercive, may be communicating something important about his physical and psychological state. Specifically, if a man is able to toe the fine line of sexual dominance (and even exhibit a certain amount of passionate aggression) without veering over into the danger-zone of coercion, he may be a good catch, indeed. The subtlety, tact, and finesse required to accomplish this should not be dismissed. As it happens, being a successful “dom” (i.e., a sexually dominant or sadistic individual in the BDSM scene) requires such subtlety, tact, and finesse. As Philip Miller and Molly Devon write in Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns:

The ideal [dominant] controls himself, so that he might control his submissive. He will, as a stern dominant, cause tears to flow, and as lover, kiss them away . . . He understands that to own a woman, one must court the mind with intelligence and humor; win the spirit with compassion and warmth; and take the body with determined strength . . . He is the honorable sadist who uses pain to extend the bounds of pleasure, vigilant that no harm comes of the hurt.18

Understanding the evolution of consensual sexual dominance is half the battle. As BDSM practitioners are never tired of saying, the “sub” (i.e., the submissive or masochistic individual in a BDSM interaction) is just as active a participant as the dom. Some further assert that the sub actually controls the scene and that it is the dom who has to read or intuit the needs, desires, fears, discomforts, and pleasures of the sub. In what follows, I speculate on the evolution of sexual submissiveness. I should add that, as with my discussion of the evolution of sexual dominance, only time will tell whether any of these hypotheses have merit.

The Sexual Selection of Subordination

In addition to discovering natural selection as the source of complexity in nature, Charles Darwin deserves credit for the discovery of sexual selection. Although Darwin could explain the evolution of eyes and limbs as utilitarian solutions to the problems of seeing and grasping, he had a more difficult time explaining the evolution of gaudy, multicolored, seemingly useless traits decorating nature’s kingdom. Writing to the great American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin lamented: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”19 It wasn’t until Darwin discovered that anatomical or behavioral traits could arise simply because they are favored by members of the opposite sex in mating contexts that his sickness ceased. But Darwin’s discovery was not all there was to sexual selection.

In 1975, Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed the “handicap principle.”20 To illustrate this principle with an often-cited example, picture two runners. Both are racing toward the same finish line, but one of the runners has to bear the burden of carrying a 100-pound bag of sand on his shoulders. If this runner ends up winning the race, we can be fairly confident that he is a great runner, indeed. Similarly, a peacock who can survive the threat of predation while carrying, and maintaining the beauty of, his burdensome tail, must have quite the genes to show for it, and should therefore be favored as an optimal mate by a choosy peahen. In this way, the peacock’s tail becomes a “handicap”—i.e., an honest signal of the peacock’s mate value.

Handicaps come in all shapes and sizes, and are even exhibited as behaviors. The peacock, for instance, doesn’t simply prance around with his luxurious tail, but flails it rhythmically in an attempt to hypnotize a prospective peahen into mating with him. An extreme manifestation of a behavioral handicap can be observed among male bower birds of New Guinea who build beautifully symmetrical constructions (i.e., “bowers”) out of leaves, sticks, and even soda cans to attract mates. These bowers are not nests and do not serve any purpose other than to communicate the strength, endurance, and virility of the bower builder. In our own species, both men and women exhibit anatomical and behavioral handicaps, from oversized breasts to intelligent and creative minds.21 Note that it isn’t just women doing the choosing; mutual mate choice is an important, albeit neglected, influence on human evolution.22

I propose that submission and masochism in the context of consensual sexual behavior functions as a sexually selected handicap. Although submission and masochism are exhibited by both male and female BDSM practitioners, women enjoy sexual subordination to a greater extent than do men.23 As such, I believe that this sexual proclivity functions mostly as a female fitness indicator. That it may function as an honest handicap is suggested by none other than the infamous Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, whose name is invoked whenever we use the word “sadism.” Speaking through the depraved Clement, a murderous monk in his 1791 novel Justine, Sade writes: “[T]here is no more lively sensation than that of pain; its impressions are certain and dependable, they never deceive as may those of the pleasure women perpetually feign and almost never experience.”24

Marquis de Sade’s Justine

Although Clement (and, presumably, Sade himself) is mainly concerned with the effect of his victim’s pain on his own sexual pleasure, there is evolutionary significance in his statement. Unlike the female orgasm, which is easy to fake, the ability to withstand pain is much more difficult. That is, the only way to know whether a sex partner has the wherewithal to endure pain is to actually harm the partner—albeit within measure. Why would one want a partner who can endure pain? Perhaps it says something about his or her physiological and psychological robustness and, in women, ability to care for children under trying circumstances such as famine, war, or a host of other gauntlets encountered by our ancestors throughout evolutionary history.

But one doesn’t want to mate with an unfeeling, insensitive automaton, either. Individuals who are born without the ability to feel pain or discomfort do not survive for long and are even less capable of caring for others under their care, such as dependent children. For this reason, the voluntary recipient of pain during the sexual act should be capable of emitting an emotional response that is indicative of her capacity to feel pain and to respond to it appropriately. Indeed, the sadist’s sexual excitement in response to the masochist’s actual or feigned hysteria may function as a mate selection mechanism that weeds out partners who lack appropriate physical and emotional sensitivity while retaining ones who possess such sensitivity. That emotionality can function as a costly fitness indicator is suggested by cross-species research on maternal selection mechanisms that weed out offspring that lack appropriate emotionality. One evolutionarily informed hypothesis, for example, suggests that autism may be the low-fitness extreme of parental selection for infants capable of appropriate emotional responsiveness to social interaction.25

Bringing the Medieval Out of the Dark Ages

The previous take on the evolution of consensual sadomasochism is my attempt to grapple with the evolution of human sexual behavior more generally. That dominance and subordination are inextricable components of human sexuality is clear, but the extent of their reach is not. No doubt there are differences in the extent to which individuals favor dominance- or subordination-based sexual practices, and no doubt there is more to sexuality than the dominance-subordination dynamic.

But even individuals who are ostensibly “vanilla” (i.e., the term BDSM practitioners use to refer to those who are not into BDSM) should learn something about the nature of consensual sadomasochism—if only that it is not an unnatural, harmful aberration of human sexuality. Indeed, studies of BDSM practitioners continually highlight their psychological and social stability.26 These individuals are not the murderous freaks and weirdoes of Law and Order and CSI. They are your doctors, teachers, lawyers, and accountants. Furthermore, even ostensibly “vanilla” individuals engage in sadomasochistic sexuality without even realizing it. Yes, that light tap on your lover’s behind is in the same category as the lash of a whip or the smack of a paddle, albeit on the less medieval side of the category’s spectrum. Indeed, there are more than just fifty shades of gray.


Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sado-masochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 18(1), 79-120.

Crean, C. S., & Gilburn, A. S. (1998). Sexual selection as a side-effect of sexual conflict in the seaweed fly, Coelopa ursina (Diptera: Coelopidae). Animal Behaviour, 56, 1405-1410.

Crean, C. S., Dunn, D. W., Day, T. H., & Gilburn, A. S. (2000). Female mate choice for large males in several species of seaweed fly (Diptera: Coelopidae). Animal Behaviour, 59, 121-126.

Dixson, A. (2012). Primate sexuality: Comparative studies of the prosimians, monkeys, apes, and humans, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fleischman, D. S. (2016). An evolutionary behaviorist perspective on orgasm. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 6(1), 32130.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Horowitz, M., Yaworsky, W., & Kickham, K. (2014). Whither the blank slate? A report on the reception of evolutionary biological ideas among sociological theorists. Sociological Spectrum, 34, 489-509.

Joyal, C. C., & Carpentier, J. (2016). The prevalence of paraphilic interests and behaviors in the general population: A provincial survey. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-11.

Lalumière, M. L., Chalmers, L. J., Quinsey, V. L., & Seto, M. C. (1996). A test of the mate deprivation hypothesis of sexual coercion. Ethology and Sociobiology, 17, 299-318.

Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London: Heinemann.

Miller, G. F. (2013). Mutual mate choice models as the red pill in evolutionary psychology: Long delayed, much needed, ideologically challenging, and hard to swallow. Psychological Inquiry, 24(3), 207-210.

Moser, S., & Madeson, J. J. (2000). Bound to be free: The SM experience. New York, NY: Continuum.

Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A. F., Gervais, W. M., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-86.

Petersen, M. B. (2015). Evolutionary political psychology: On the origin and structure of heuristics and biases in politics. Political Psychology, 36, 45-78.

Pham, M. N., & Shackelford, T. K. (2013). Oral sex as infidelity-detection. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 792-795.

Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5(7), 1660-1668.

Sade, d. (1791). Justine.

Shaner, A., Miller, G., & Mintz, J. (2008). Autism as the low-fitness extreme of a parentally selected fitness indicator. Human Nature, 19(4), 389-413.

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

von Krafft-Ebing, R. (1886/1998). Psychopathia sexualis. New York, NY: Arcade.

Vugt, M. V., Cremer, D. D., & Janssen, D. P. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: The male-warrior hypothesis. Psychological Science, 18 (1), 19-23.

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Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943-1952.

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection: A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214.


[1] Haidt, 2012.

[2] Norenzayan et al., 2014, and Weeden and Kurzban, 2013.

[3] Petersen, 2015.

[4] Wilson, 1998.

[5] Though see research by Dixson, 1998, p. 632, on the evolution of face-to-face copulation in humans. Other interesting, albeit tangential, research exists on the evolution of the female orgasm (see Fleischman, 2016) and behavioral adaptations to sperm competition (see Pham and Shackelford, 2013).

[6] Of course our debt to Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, Virginia Johnson, and others needs to be acknowledged. But no one, to my knowledge, has thus far conducted a systematic study of human sexual behavior from an explicitly Darwinian perspective.

[7] Horowitz, Yaworsky, and Kickham, 2014.

[8] Quoted in Moser and Madeson, 2000, p. 190.

[9] Quoted in Moser and Madeson, 2000, p. 191.

[10] I should note that, based on my reading of the BDSM literature and informal conversations with individuals in the BDSM community, feminism seems to enjoy a comfortable home in the BDSM world. This is unsurprising given that, even with the increasing lights of Hollywood being cast on its shadows, the BDSM lifestyle remains a fringe sexual movement. As such, it is conducive to various struggles for sexual and political freedom, including feminism (see Moser and Madeson, 2000). Furthermore, Against Sadomasochism was published 1982, and so it is probably outdated with respect to the current feminist stance on sadomasochism. It should also be noted, however, that many within the BDSM community critiqued the blurring of the line of consent in the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies, which speaks to the ever-evolving dialectic between dominance and submission, not just within feminism, but within the BDSM lifestyle itself.

[11] Krafft-Ebing, 1886/1998, p. 53.

[12] Thornhill and Palmer, 2000.

[13] Especially if they are of a high social status (see Lalumière, Chalmers, Quinsey, and Seto, 1996), or if victims are either too emotionally attached to them or too afraid or ashamed to report their assault to authorities.

[14] See Crean, Dunn, Day, and Gilburn, 2000, and Crean and Gilburn, 1998.

[15] Vugt, Cremer, and Janssen, 2007.

[16] Buss, 1989.

[17] Waynforth, 2007.

[18] Quoted in Moser and Madeson, 2000, p. 106.

[19] https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-2743.xml

[20]Zahavi, 1975.

[21] Miller, 2000.

[22] Miller, 2013.

[23] See Joyal and Carpentier, 2016, and http://www.lehmiller.com/blog/2014/11/12/how-common-are-bdsm-fantasies-infographic.

[24]de Sade, M., 1791.

[25] Shaner, Miller, and Mintz, 2008.

[26] See Connolly, 2006, Richters et al., 2008, and Wismeijer and Assen, 2013.


Gregory Gorelik

Gregory Gorelik has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Psychology and is currently working in behavioral research and data science.