Algolagnia. Pleasure and Pain. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Algolagnia. Pleasure and Pain. Psychology Fanatic
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Algol is a term used to describe a specific sexual interest or preference that involves the experience of both pain and pleasure. The term itself comes from two Greek words: “algos,” meaning pain, and “lagneia,” meaning lust. This somewhat unconventional sexual practice may involve activities such as spanking, biting, bondage, or other forms of consensual and mutually agreed-upon erotic pain. In modern language, we refer to this practice as sexual masochism.

The term algolagnia was introduced by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (1862-1929), a German physician, psychiatrist and notable psychical researcher. He used algolagnia as “a general term for the phenomena of sadism and masochism, since these two sexual aberrations are closely related one to the other” (2020, Kindle location 13,518).

While initial reaction to algolagnia pushes many to an immediate revulsion of the idea, envisioning something way beyond boundaries of what they consider normal social behavior. Or at least, it is not something they are comfortable speaking about in a public setting. Being raised in a restrictive Christian environment, although my life style and perspective as an adult has changed dramatically, prohibitions of speaking (or writing) about sex remains firmly entrenched in my mind.

Key Definition:

Algolagnia refers to sexual interest that involves both pleasure and pain.

Even though my work is scientific in focus, covering a wide range of human psychology and wellness topics, none of my articles broach this essential topic of human wellness. One may surmise that jumping right to sexual masochism is an extremely large jump past my ordinary self imposed boundaries. However, algolagnia, like most other behaviors, is not unhealthy except in the extremes. And like all sexual activity, it becomes criminal when not practiced with the clearly established boundaries consensual of consenting adults.

While algolagnia may be intriguing to some individuals, it is important to remember that everyone’s sexual preferences and interests vary. It’s crucial to engage in open and honest communication with your partner(s) about any desires or boundaries you may have. Consent, respect, and trust should always be the foundations of any healthy and fulfilling sexual relationship.

“We must continually keep before our minds the fact that in no other department of life so much as in the sexual life do we find side by side, and closely associated each with the other, the noblest and the basest, the superhuman and the subhuman, because the finest and the deepest roots of our spiritual and bodily existence spring, for the most part, from this subsoil; and we must remember that man would not be able to sink so deep, far beneath the level of animality, if he had not first raised himself by his own powers, in conflict with Nature and with himself, through an immeasurable height of civilization.”
~ Albert Eulenburg.

Criminal and Psychological Dysfunction

Perhaps, much of our revulsion of open discussion of sexual masochism stems from childhood upbringing, defining socially acceptable behavior. However, extremes in algolagnia have nasty connections to both criminal behaviors and psychological dysfunctions. Sexual masochism is classified in the DSM-5 under paraphilic disorders and focuses on the acts performed by the masochist, including being humiliated, beaten, bound, and any other act aimed at experiencing suffering. The Psychiatric Society considers this disorder as chronic with a tendency for repetition.

Unfortunately, we are all too aware of crimes committed to satisfy sadistic sexual motivations. These occasional shocks to the reality of brutal seeds of unthinkable violence living in some of our fellow humans both saddens and repulses.

We don’t need to travel back too many decades to a time where many considered shades of algolagnia public behavior as acceptable. I’m referring to pinching and slapping of bottoms. One of my favorite all time movies portrays this behavior as normal. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Bailey slaps the family maid’s bottom with force. The family laughs and continues discussing the family business. Now, we would label this as sexual harassment or even a sexual assault. However, within a relationship, lovers may interpret the same behavior as an expressions of affection and even find it mildly arousing.

Pleasureful Pain

Part of the dysfunction occurs when the affective experience of pain becomes intertangled with pleasure. However, the difference between pleasure and pain is not as distinct as we might first surmise. Pain and pleasure both represent biological arousal. It is not until we surround the arousal with contextual information that we clearly differentiate between the two. Scientists explain that “the experience of pain is modulated by contextual factors, such as expectations, emotions, or social factors” (Kamping, et al., 2015).

Harry Stack Sullivan suggested that algolagnia is a physical phenomenon where a person finds some pleasure in the horrible, focusing on the suffering aspects of life. However, Sullivan does not equate algolagnia with sexual gratification from pain. He refers to the concept as a similar psychological dysfunction similar to that experienced in hypochondria (1956, p.84).

However, confusion of pleasure and pain is not that unusual. We typically label emotions of sadness and fear as discomforting but relish a good movie that can stimulate these noxious emotions. Perhaps, we experience affect arousal in many forms as pleasurable.

Healthy Practices and Psychological Motivations

Not every report and study on algolagnia focus on the unhealthy. Many reports have found the opposite. According to Orli Dahan, “many submissives reported a therapeutic effect of BDSM play, for example, the reduction of physical and psychological stress (2019). In other studies, “the participants reported the existence of an intoxicated-like states following the experience of pain, which included a feeling of serenity, relaxation, and detachment” (2017).

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Where healthy exploration ends and exploitation begins is a line that all involved participants must set and enforce. The purpose of Psychology Fanatic’s research into this interesting realm of human experience is to demystify some of the psychological aspects and history, not condemn or condone the behavior. I will leave that to the reader and their individual set of ethics.

Exploring sexuality and finding what brings pleasure can be a personal and unique journey for each individual. Pleasure, within limits, can add to our lives. It’s important to approach this exploration with an open mind, respect for oneself and others, and a clear understanding of personal boundaries and consent. Remember, diversity and individuality are what make the world of human sexuality intriguing, but it is crucial to always prioritize consent, communication, and the well-being of all involved parties.

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Bloch, Iwan (1908/2020).The Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization / Translated from the Sixth German Edition. ‎ Inktank Publishing.

Dahan, Orli (2019). Submission, Pain and Pleasure: Considering an Evolutionary Hypothesis Concerning Sexual Masochism. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6(4), 386-403. DOI: 10.1037/cns0000202

Kamping, S., Andoh, J., Bomba, I., Diers, M., Diesch, E., & Flor, H. (2015). Contextual modulation of pain in masochists: involvement of the parietal operculum and insula. Pain, 157(2), 445-455. DOI: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000390

Kurt, Holly; Ronel, Natti (2017). Addicted to Pain: A Preliminary Model of Sexual Masochism as Addiction. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(15), 1760-1774. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X15627804

Sullivan, Harry Stack (1956). Clinical Studies in Psychiatry. Norton; First Edition.

Psychology Fanatic Book References:

Throughout the vast selection of articles found at Psychology Fanatic, you will find a host of book references. I proudly boast that these referenced books are not just quotes I found in other articles but are books that I have actually read. Please visit the Psychology Fanatic data base of books.

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