August 14, 2015


“There out to be a word for that…” was surely the thought a forty-six year old Richard von Krafft-Ebing had before he coined sadism and masochism in 1886. Both were forensic terms whose inspiration was drawn from the proper names of sexually deviant authors—the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Krafft-Ebing was a happily married German psychiatrist, born today in 1840. In 1886 he published a famous series of case studies of sexual perversity, Psychopathia Sexualis. The Latin title was a deliberate attempt to discourage reading by an enthusiastic lay audience with purely prurient interests in such formerly taboo topics as female sexual pleasure and “contrary sexual desires.” Krafft-Ebing was a strict procreationist and believed that any sexual activity strictly for gratification was perverse (interestingly, while rape was considered deviant, it was not strictly perverse in that pregnancy could still result).

Psychopathia Sexualis was a watershed publication, a precursor to the later work of Sigmund Freud, and the first serious work to describe a host of previously unidentified “cerebral neuroses” including transgenderism, pedophilia, and, of course, sadism and masochism. For the latter two names, Krafft-Ebing chose literary inspiration.

Though the oft-imprisoned Marquis de Sade had died nearly seventy-five years before the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing felt that he and his writings represented the embodiment of the sexual pathology that enjoys gratification from domination and abuse—sadism. This was not entirely unwarranted, as Sade’s novels explore the libertine pursuits of bestiality, necrophilia, and juvenile rape.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, meanwhile, lived to see (and be horrified by) his name co-opted to describe gratification derived from receiving pain or humiliation. Though he also penned treatises on anti-Semitism and women’s suffrage, Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 Venus in Furs brought him the most notoriety and provided the first glimpse into his particular fetish for domination by fur-clad women.

The final chapter for these notorious namesakes was written when Freud eventually noted that tendencies toward sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals, thus creating yet another new term—sadomasochism.

No matter what your pleasure, be sure to take a moment today to wish a happy birthday to Richard von Krafft-Ebing.