Nearly four hundred years ago, a German doctor, Johann Meibom, noticed that some of his patients were reporting something that struck him as odd: they got sexually excited by being whipped across the buttocks and upper thighs.
Whipping happened a lot back then, but very little of it was intended to turn people on. Meibom did some thinking about why people could take sexual pleasure from pain. Eventiually, in 1629, he published a treatise about it: On the Sexual Uses of Whipping (Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria).
Meibom’s explanation was that whipping brings blood rushing to the assaulted area, and if the whipping is close to the genitals the increased blood supply will make it easier to achieve arousal.
“Blows on the buttocks and loins (that is, the groin, hips and lower abdomen), the area of the body most involved in producing sexual fluids and carrying them to the genitals,” he wrote, “warm and inflame those parts and contribute strongly to the arousal of sexual desire.”*
Meibom’s was one of the first attempts to explain the causes of bdsm sexuality and, by suggesting that a sexual response might have a sexual cause, he made a promisingly sensible start.
The question of what causes bdsm desire, where it comes from, is one of the first questions asked by people who discover bdsm desires in themselves or in someone they love. (Yes, it should be a joyous discovery, but it isn’t always that way at first.)
When people raise questions of cause and origin – of aetiology – it’s only partly out of curiosity. They also want to know how the aetiology of bdsm affects the answers to some other questions.
Those questions include whether bdsm is part of the natural range of ways of being human and sexual, or whether it’s a sign that the person drawn to bdsm is pathological or damaged; and whether or not a person can simply decide to have, to to get rid of, bdsm desires.
If they turn to more recent medical or psychiatric theorists for answers, they may find that medicine and psychology have taken some giant backward steps since 1629.
Take Karl Abraham, for example, the twentieth century psychoanalyst who argued that “sadomasochism” was caused by … teeth.
Nah, let’s bring him on tomorrow.
* I was going to use the contemporary translation by Edmund Curll, because he’s a hero of mine (all underground publishers are), and because he used the phrase, “the irritation of Lechery“, which I love. But for clarity’s sake I’ve provided a modern translation.