"I thought I was a sociopath": Sadism and Guilt, Part I

 Photo by  Mick Amato

Photo by Mick Amato

At fifteen years old, in a car ride home with a group of friends, I nervously announced that I must be evil. Several people in my friend group, most of us teenagers, had just watched a torrented copy of the 2005 film Hard Candy starring Ellen Page. One scene in the movie includes what I would now call a mindfuck. In kinky play, mindfuckery means using theatrical elements to convince someone that you’re doing something extreme to them, while you are in fact doing something much safer. In Hard Candy, Ellen Page’s character convinces her victim that she has castrated him. The viewer doesn’t know the truth until later - We’re caught up in this grisly torture as it happens. And I, watching from a musty couch in a crowded living room, felt hot and bothered.

Many young sadists experience guilt and shame as they realize their uncommon inclinations towards pain and emotional suffering. These kids, likely just discovering sexuality itself, might feel isolated. One friend of mine, a dominant woman, shared with me her concerns at seventeen: “I thought I was a sociopath. I was legitimately concerned I’d grow up to be a serial killer.” If most adolescents can’t talk about boners with their parents, how were we expected to discuss our less common desires?

Overcoming Guilt and Shame

One man I spoke to who identifies as a sadist said he feared what he thought was his misogyny: “Why did I want to hurt women? I love women!” I wondered in a middle school diary: “What made me this way?” While there’s no known cause of sadism, there have been many estimations by lay people and clinicians alike. I’m not here to toss my opinion into the hat, only to say that sadists are not inherently evil; Research suggests that an interest in BDSM is not pathological. If sadists are only practicing pain play with partners who consent, they don’t deserve to feel any guilt. So why do so many of us suffer? And how can we cope? By speaking to a half-dozen self-identified sadists and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve identified several methods that people have used to overcome these challenges.

Adjust Your Value System

From a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) perspective, we feel shame when we perceive we have violated other people’s values, while we feel guilt when we believe we’ve acted against our values. If you’re still feeling guilty about your desires, take time to sit down and reflect upon the internal conflict you may be experiencing. When your actions consistently violate your core beliefs, you need to consider changing one side of the equation. While you can change your actions, the desire will likely always drive your thoughts. Changing core beliefs requires reflection, insight, and intention. I will probably elaborate on how to change core beliefs in a future post.

Speak to People with Similar and Corresponding Desires

Whether online or at munches and dungeons in your area, getting to know other kinksters can silence that little voice that says you’re the only person in the world who likes dolling out pain. In my experience, meeting masochists who deeply desired the activities of my fantasies relieved a significant chunk of my guilt, even if I never play with them. Just knowing they exist provides the relief of knowing that I might be able to enact fantasies safely and with consent.

Learn about Nuanced Negotiation

Many philosophies regarding consent exist in the kink community: SSC, RACK, and PRICK are the most common. These initialisms guide us to be safe as we play, and each admonishes us to mitigate risk and be sure of consent. Enthusiastic verbal consent for each component of a scene is necessary. You may find this extremely reassuring if you worry that you are a monster deep down - If your play follows one of these philosophies, meaning that it’s as safe as possible and everyone involved agrees to everything that happens, you’re not a monster. Whether you’re lightly spanking your spouse in bed or flogging a buddy raw in a dungeon, if you respect your partner’s desires and agency (and believe them when they say they want it), you’re no worse than anyone else.

Consume Non-Porn Media about Kink

Fantasy and porn have their place. As a sex worker, I live and work in fantasy. However, when we’re working to overcome guilt associated with our sadistic desires, looking to contemplative media can serve a great purpose. Porn, especially BDSM and fetish porn, often cuts the negotiation out in the final edit. I’m not saying to blacklist the clips sites, but maybe develop a healthy diet of porn in combination with podcasts and blogs about kink. Doing so helps us to relate to other kinksters, develop technical skills, and ultimately normalize our desires.

This Takes Time

While all of the methods I discussed above make a difference, I can’t offer a cure-all. Mastering guilt and shame takes time. Dick Wound, co-host of the podcast Off the Cuffs, told me that nothing helped more than time. Your journey in kink will be distinct; Not everyone walks the same path. As you grow, you’ll learn more about yourself and your path.

What has helped you overcome negative emotions in regards to your kinks? Do the DBT definitions of guilt and shame resonate with you or do you define those terms differently? What have you learned along your kink path so far?