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The Penumbral Theory of Masochistic Pleasure


Being whipped, getting a deep-tissue massage, eating hot chili peppers, running marathons, and getting tattooed are all painful. Sometimes they are also pleasant—or so many people claim. Masochistic pleasure consists in finding such experiences pleasant in addition to, and because of, the pain. Masochistic pleasure presents a philosophical puzzle. Pains hurt, they feel bad, and are aversive. Pleasures do the opposite. Thus many assume that the idea of a pleasant pain is downright unintelligible. I disagree. I claim that cases of pleasant pains are more common than many philosophers suppose, and that they have no essential connection to either sex or psychopathology. I review several attempts to account for masochism that preserve the intuition that nothing can be both pleasant and painful at once. These account for some, but not all, cases of masochism. The stubborn remainder, I argue, are sensations that are genuinely pleasant and painful at once. I give an account of how that might be, focusing on boundary-pushing aspects of masochistic pleasure that have been largely overlooked in the literature. I show how, properly understood, pain and pleasure can coexist—and also why it is very rare for them to actually do so.

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  1. The problem is also pressing for me for a more particular reason. I defend a theory of pain known as imperativism. On it pains are imperatives: they have content, but that content is a command rather than a representation. So the pain of a broken ankle is a command, with the content (very roughly) “Protect your ankle by keeping weight off of it!” I actually think many sensations are imperative. Most bodily sensations that promote behavioral homeostasis fall in this category: hunger is a command to eat, itches commands to scratch, and so on Klein (2007). There is a superficial problem here: masochistic pleasures seem to involve motivation not to protect yourself from the painful thing you’re doing—in fact, you seem to be motivated to continue. I don’t think this is a deep problem. The masochist being whipped is still motivated in virtue of the pain to protect himself, though there might be other facts that prevent him from acting on that motivation (including the fact that he takes pleasure in the pain of being whipped). But there is a deep problem in the vicinity: roughly, it is unclear on the imperative account what to say about a broad class of sensations that are painful, but that can’t be assimilated to the protective function of bodily pain. Masochistic pleasure is as good a place as any to sort these out.

  2. The story is recounted in Book 2 of Livy’s History of Rome.

  3. See Dutton and Aron (1974). The authors link the explanation of this effect to Schachter and Singer (1962); I think Barrett’s constructivist approach would produce a similar result (Barrett 2006).

  4. Of course, one can always hypothesize a larger context: one might claim that the overarching goal in the case of loose teeth is the pleasure of adult teeth, or the end of pain, or whatever. Bearn correctly notes that these jury-rigged contexts would massively overgeneralize (Bearn 2013, 179).

  5. On the notion of composite sensations, see also Strohl (2012). I have qualms about Strohl’s Aristotelian theory of pleasure and pain; briefly, I think there are numerous pleasures that don’t arise from the optimal activation of a particular capacity. That said, I think the overall structure of his account is similar to mine, and very appealing.

  6. Absent some implausibly strong Freudianism which claims that more or less everything is infused with sexual meaning. But even if you like that sort of story, masochistic pleasures need not be especially associated with sex, at least any more than the pleasures of cooking or model train building.

  7. For both asexuality in general and discussions of asexual participation in traditional SM activities, see

  8. The latter is demonstrably false. Studies regularly show a higher rate of both masochistic fantasy and practice among men. See for example (Baumeister 1989) p4ff.

  9. For a useful discussion of these factors, as well as for some practical application, see Redelmeier et al. (2003).

  10. Not necessarily: I might, like Leontius, find some grim fascination in the corpses. But that is surely not necessary, and I take it that such a trip might be just unpleasant.

  11. Compare in this regard Hare’s remark on children and giddiness, quoted in Section 3.

  12. Note that there is also a well-known effect whereby self-control over the source and duration of painful stimuli diminishes felt intensity of pain (Thompson 1981; Vancleef and Peters 2011). That is a distinct phenomenon, though one that (I suspect) interacts in complex ways with masochistic pleasures of this sort.

  13. Note that the DSM 5 no longer recognizes “atypical sexual interests” as pathological; to be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder you must either feel “personal distress” about your desires or else desire things that are morally and legally problematic (American Psychiatric Association 2013).

  14. See also Mollena Williams’ contributions to Taormino (2012), which discusses this effect in the context of sexual masochism.

  15. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to clarify this point.

  16. Thanks to Dave Chalmers and Jon Simon for pressing me on this point.

  17. Hare is directly addressing the question of whether one necessarily dislikes pain, but I read him as tracking the same distinction I want to make.

  18. Thanks to Sharon Berry, David Chalmers, Luara Ferracioli, Esther Klein, Jon Simon, Kristen Stubbs, Caroline West, Rachel Zuckert, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and discussions. Earlier versions of this paper received numerous helpful comments from audiences at the Australian National University and Franklin and Marshall College.


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Correspondence to Colin Klein.

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Klein, C. The Penumbral Theory of Masochistic Pleasure. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 41–55 (2014).

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  • Bodily Pain
  • Painful Experience
  • Large Context
  • Marathon Runner
  • Unpleasant Sensation