January 27, 2021


January 27 is the birthday of the original masochist—Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.

n. the getting of sexual pleasure from being dominated, mistreated, or hurt physically or otherwise by one's partner
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Our psychological term for this sexual fetish was coined by an Austrian psychiatrist in 1886 but inspired by author Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who is destined to be remembered not for his writings on Anti-Semitism or women’s suffrage but for his secret penchant for domination by women wearing fur.

Von Sacher-Masoch was born in 1836 in a province of the Austrian Empire that is now part of Ukraine. Raised in Roman Catholic household with a police chief as a father, Masoch’s early writings as a professor were fairly standard Austrian fare—history, folklore, and ethnic short stories. But it was 1870’s Venus in Furs, the only one of his short novels still commonly available in English, that brought him notoriety. It was the first glimpse into his particular fetishes and described in detail his fantasy of dominant fur-clad women.

Masoch found a willing partner with an early mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor—herself an emerging writer who approached him for help with her work. Masoch eventually coaxed Pistor into signing a contract that enslaved him to her for a period of six months in 1869 with his only stipulation being that she should wear furs as much as possible. Their experiences served as the fodder for Venus in Furs, in which the main character asks to be degraded by his dominatrix and is eventually further abused by a trio of African women. Unfortunately, he found less willingness to indulge his fantasies from his first wife, Aurora von Römelin, whom he married in 1873 and eventually divorced over obvious “irreconcilable differences.” He eventually married his assistant.

It was around Masoch’s fiftieth birthday that Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing introduced the term masochism in his famous series of case studies of sexual perversity—Psychopathia Sexualis. The Latin title was a deliberate attempt to discouraging 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).

To the great dismay of Masoch, Krafft-Ebing co-opted the author’s name to describe gratification derived from receiving pain or humiliation. “...I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly ‘Masochism,’ because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings…. During recent years facts have been advanced which prove that Sacher-Masoch was not only the poet of Masochism, but that he himself was afflicted with the anomaly.” In fact, the specific details of Masoch’s private life were relatively unknown until his first wife’s memoirs were published in 1905.

Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing, would eventually assert that the impulse for masochism is often accompanied by an impulse for sadism (gratification derived from inflicting pain or humiliation)—a term based on the life and writings of Marquis de Sade (see sadism)—leading to a completely new term, sadomasochism.

Despite founding an association for adult education with his second wife in 1893 and becoming a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism and equally tireless supporter of women’s rights late in his life, Masoch’s name is inextricably linked with sexual deviance—beyond the clinical diagnoses, he and Venus in Furs have been pop-referenced by bands ranging from The Velvet Underground to Marilyn Manson to Bauhaus.

Masoch spent the last years of his life under psychiatric care in Germany. He died in 1895.