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Sadism is by no means confined to the sexual sphere. It’s a general life orientation, a way of seeing the world and relating to the people and structures in it. Yes, it manifests in sexual behavior and is usually most easily diagnosable there since the act of sex strips away the layers of rationalizations common in everyday life. But sadism manifests in more or less obvious ways in all others spheres of life too, in personal and professional relationships, in interests and hobbies, in beliefs and values.

Sadism is delighting in cruelty. It’s taking pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. Where psychoanalysis steps in to help us make sense of its occurrence is by showing that for the vast majority of sadists these feelings are repressed, pushed outside of conscious awareness due to the fact that they are tabu in our society, a society that at least in principle teaches us to treat others with kindness and respect, that tells us to live by the golden rule ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

But just because a sadistic impulse is repressed doesn’t mean it goes away. It just needs a rationalization, a believable pretense so that the impulse can be freely expressed without the associated guilt that would go along with conscious awareness of its true meaning.

In the case of sadism, this rationalization often takes the form of a belief that the other has done wrong and therefore deserves to be punished. Within the context of this adversarial attitude, it’s the other who is the perpetrator, the other who must be taught a lesson, guided, corrected, etc. With this rationalization in place, pain and suffering can be inflicted under the rubric of justice.

But any rationalization will do. An employee who makes customers wait in line gets that sadistic gleam in his eye but thinks to himself “I’m working as fast as I can. They need to learn to be more patient.” A social butterfly who makes a comment designed to humiliate someone at a party says to herself “I was only telling the truth, she shouldn’t be so sensitive.”

We said that sadism is taking pleasure from inflicting pain. But why would anyone take pleasure from inflicting pain? So far we’ve been describing the symptoms of the disease, not the cause. At the deeper psychological level the motivation comes from secretly feeling small, insignificant, worthless, rotten, bad. Sadistic behavior is a projection, a way to try to force these secret painful feelings onto someone else, to make that other person feel small, weak, humiliated, to make that other person feel pain. Whether this pain is physical, emotional, or psychological is of secondary importance, what is of primary importance is that some sort of pain is inflicted. For a brief moment in time it’s this other who is rotten and suffers accordingly. But then things go back to ‘normal’ and the cycle repeats as the sadist feels compelled to search out a new victim in order to once again alleviate those painful, deeply repressed feelings of rottenness.