[Two Pronged]: Help, my son is a masochist
Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.
Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.
Dear Dra. Holmes and Mr Baer,
I would like to seek your advice for my son who admitted that he is a masochist. I was so shocked when his girlfriend of 4 years cried to her mom that she is no longer happy with the relationship. They did some shameful sex adventure. This is a serious matter and I would like my son to seek psychiatric attention immediately. Please advise what I should do.
Thank you for your email.
I would like to start with a caveat: It is often difficult to deal with behavior that falls outside our own particular comfort zones and this is especially true when it comes to sexual behavior. We all have differing views of what is right and wrong, appropriate or not, and these are deeply personal, molded inter alia by family, society, and religion.
By the same token, different people have different standards of behavior. Compare attitudes to public nudity on beaches – in some places it is considered perfectly normal, in others it is anathema. So it is difficult to interpret the true meaning of your bald statement that your son and his girlfriend indulged in a “shameful sex adventure.”
Given the cornucopia of delights that sex has to offer, where does one draw the line between the acceptable and the shameful? To name just 3 of the more common practices – fellatio, cunnilingus, and anal intercourse are joys to some and abominations to others.
It seems reasonable to suggest that the decision on where to draw the line should be left to the parties involved; after all, if they are consenting adults and in a private place, what right have others to interfere?
This takes us back to the possible reactions to the “shameful sex adventure.” It is tempting to say that, without knowing what it actually was, it is difficult to comment further. But does it really matter? Absent some sort of public performance, like being paraded naked on all fours wearing a collar and chain like a dog (no offense meant to dogs), surely the only important issues are that the participants should be adults and the behavior consensual.
Now it does seem as though your son’s girlfriend fails the second requirement, in which case her withdrawal from the relationship seems entirely justified. In fact, even if she did consent at the time, she is of course completely free to say when enough is enough and go her own way.
So where does this leave you and your son? I would suggest that unless your son is willing to consider treatment, there is little you can do beyond exhortation, as you are not directly involved. In fact, if he resists your suggestions, further insistence on your part may have the effect of strengthening his resolve and encouraging him to go his own way.
If however he is amenable to therapy, then choose a therapist with an established reputation for treating whatever symptom your son is suffering from. Just be mindful that your diagnosis of masochism is not a professional diagnosis, unless of course you yourself are also a therapist.
All the best,
Thank you very much for your letter. Mr. Baer has eloquently explained the issues surrounding seeking treatment for your son, rather than his seeking treatment for himself. He has also made a case for a more prudent approach than immediately labeling him a masochist simply because he “admitted” that he was.
According to the DSM-V (2013), the...focus of sexual masochism involves the act of experiencing – over a period of at least 6 months – sexual arousal from being humiliated, beaten, bound, or made to suffer in some way. To be considered problematic, the fantasies, urges, or behaviors must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas.
Thus, sexual masochism per se is neither good or bad, unhealthy or healthy. If a person is masochistic but he and/or his partner experience no distress, and he is able to meet other personal goals and does not keep his partner from meeting hers, then he would not be diagnosed as having a disorder.
Your son’s former girlfriend is now experiencing distress, but is it possible that this distress is after the fact? And might it also be possible that it has little to do with your son’s masochism but more to do with something else?
In his 1989 book Masochism and the Self, Roy Baumeister presented a psychological theory compatible with the mounting evidence that most masochists are not mentally ill nor does masochism derive from sadism. Instead, Professor Baumeister finds that masochism emerges as an escapist response to the problematic nature of selfhood and even adds: “It is possible to consider masochism as neither a form of self‐destruction nor a derivative of sadism. Instead, masochism may be a means of escaping from high‐level awareness of self as a symbolically mediated, temporally extended identity.”
Dr. Stephen J Betchen writes in an article that sexual masochism has been found to be compatible with otherwise normal, healthy individuals and some sex researchers suggest it may in fact be simply a power game.
In the light of all this, Dr Bethchen asks: “So is it really appropriate to label it (masochism) a mental illness? It should certainly be considered problematic if it becomes addictive and interferes with our general level of functioning, or if it is practiced to its dangerous extreme. But then again, it has been proven over and over that anything taken to its addictive extreme can do harm…even exercise.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I realize that my answer may be unsatisfactory to you and for that I am truly sorry. However, I wonder if the best I can do for you right now is ask if you really feel frog marching your son to a therapist is the best thing to do... either for him and/or your own relationship with him.
All the best,
Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.