Nemo congressu, nemo aditu, nemo suffragio, nemo civitate, nemo luce dignum putet. —Cicero, In Vatinium

(No one thinks you’re worth his attention, his time, a vote, a place in society, or even the light of day.)

Embarrassment, shame, guilt, and humiliation all imply the existence of value systems, which are to some extent culture- and context dependent. Whereas shame and guilt are primarily the outcome of self-appraisal, embarrassment and humiliation are primarily the outcome of the appraisal of one or several others, even if only in thought or imagination (see my previous article on embarrassment, shame, and guilt).

One respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that, whereas we bring embarrassment upon ourselves, humiliation is something that is brought upon us by others. A pupil confides to his teacher that he has not done his homework. He feels embarrassment. Later, the teacher publicly denounces the pupil and makes him sit facing into a corner, which provokes the laughter of his classmates. Now he feels humiliation.

If, instead, the teacher had quietly given the pupil an F grade, he would have felt more offended than humiliated. Offense is cognitive, to do with clashing beliefs and values, whereas humiliation is visceral and existential.

Another respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that it cuts deeper. Humiliation is traumatic and often repressed and unspoken, whereas, given enough time, embarrassment becomes source material for an entertaining story. More fundamentally, humiliation involves the abasement of pride and dignity, and therefore the loss of status and standing. The Latin root of ‘humiliation’ is ‘humus’, which translates as ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’.

Everyone in society makes certain status claims, however modest these may be: “I am a good secretary”, “I am a good mother”, “I am a loyal friend”, “I am an upstanding citizen”, and so on. When we are merely embarrassed, our status claims are not undermined, or, if they are undermined, they are easily recovered. However, when we are humiliated, our status claims cannot easily be recovered because, in this case, our very authority to make status claims has been called into question. Thus, a person who is in the process of being humiliated is usually left stunned and speechless. Voiceless, in fact.

When criticizing people, especially people with low self-esteem, we must take care to preserve and protect their authority to make the status claims that they make, which can be especially challenging if their status claims are excessively excessive!

In short, humiliation is the public failure of one’s status claims. Their private failure amounts not to humiliation but to painful self-realization. This is why, when something is potentially humiliating to someone, it is very important to keep it as private as possible. Being rejected by a secret love interest may be painful, but it is not humiliating. On the other hand, being cheated upon by one’s spouse and this becoming public knowledge, as happened to Anne Sinclair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is highly humiliating.

Humiliation often entails shame, but it is possible to be humiliated without feeling shame. For instance, Jesus may have been crucified and thereby humiliated, but he surely did not feel any shame. Highly secure or self-confident people who are in the right rarely feel shame at their humiliation.

Just as Jesus’ crucifixion left stigmata, so humiliation is stigmatizing. A humiliated person carries the mark of his humiliation, becomes his humiliation, and is thought of and remembered in terms of his humiliation. After all, who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn today? Not so much the former Director of the International Monetary Fund or potential President of France as a common adulterer.

To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. Historically, humiliation has been a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression, and, of course, it remains so to this day. Conversely, the fear of humiliation is a strong deterrent and powerful motivator.

There are many forms of humiliating mob punishments. The last recorded use in England of the pillory dates back to 1830, and of stocks to 1872. Pillories and stocks were commonly used to immobilize victims in an uncomfortable and degrading position, while people gathered excitedly to taunt, tease, and abuse them. Tarring and feathering, used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, involved covering victims with hot tar and feathers, before parading them on a cart or wooden rail.

Ritual humiliation can serve to enforce a particular social order, or, as with hazing rituals, to emphasize that the group is greater than any of its parts.

In hierarchical societies, the elites take great care to nurture and protect their honor, while the common orders suffer prescribed degrees of debasement. As a society becomes more egalitarian, such institutionalized humiliation is resented and resisted, which can lead to violent outbursts and even outright revolution. Many traditional, tribal societies feature complex initiation rites designed to defuse the threat posed by young men to the male gerontocracy. These rites often include painful and bloody circumcision, which is symbolic of castration.

Because elites live by their honor, and because they represent their people and culture, their humiliation can be especially poignant and emblematic. In early 260, after suffering defeat at the Battle of Edessa, the Roman Emperor Valerian arranged a meeting with Shapur I the Great, the shahanshah (‘king of kings’) of the Sasanid Empire. Shapur betrayed the truce and seized Valerian, holding him captive for the rest of his life. According to some accounts, Shapur used Valerian as a human footstool when mounting his horse. When Valerian offered Shapur a huge ransom for his release, he was killed either by being flayed alive or forced to swallow molten gold. After his death, Valerian was skinned and his skin stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy.

In January 1077, Henry IV, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, travelled to Canossa Castle in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, to obtain the revocation of his excommunication from Pope Gregory VII. Before granting Henry the revocation, Gregory made him wait outside the castle on his knees, exposed to the stormy elements, for three days and three nights. Several centuries later, the Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck coined the expression ‘to go to Canossa’, which means ‘to submit willingly to humiliation’.

Humiliation need not involve violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated by being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. She can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, lied to, betrayed, or used as a means to an end rather than an end in herself.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that, by virtue of their free will, human beings are ends in themselves, and that ends in themselves, by virtue of being ends in themselves, are invested with dignity, that is, the right to be valued and to receive ethical treatment. To humiliate a person to beneath human dignity is therefore to deny her her very humanity.

Humiliation can befall most anyone at most any time. Chris Huhne, the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 2010 to 2012, had long been touted as a potential leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. In February 2012, Huhne was charged with perverting the course of justice over a 2003 speeding case. His ex-wife, bent on extracting revenge for the extramarital relationship that had ended their marriage, had publically claimed that he had coerced her into accepting the license penalty points on his behalf. He promptly resigned from the Cabinet but steadfastly denied the charge. However, when the trial began in February 2013, he changed his plea to guilty, resigned as a member of parliament, and left the Privy Council. By the end of this sorry saga, he had traded a seat in Cabinet for a mattress in a prison cell. Every twist and turn of Huhne’s downfall had received headline coverage in the media, which, feeding in the Schadenfreude, went so far as to publish highly personal text messages between him and his then 18-year-old son that exposed their fractious relationship. In a video statement for the 2007 Liberal Democrat Party leadership election campaign, Huhne had stated: “Relationships, including particularly family relationships, are actually the most important things in making people happy and fulfilled.” Huhne’s humiliation could hardly have been more complete or severe.

When one is humiliated, one can almost feel one’s heart shrinking. A person who has been humiliated often becomes preoccupied or obsessed by his humiliation. He may react with rage, fantasies of revenge, sadism, delinquency, or terrorism. He may also internalize the pain, leading to anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, suspicion and paranoia, social isolation, apathy, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

After all, does severe humiliation not amount to metaphorical death? Arguably, it amounts to more than death because it destroys the person’s life as well as his reputation, whereas death only destroys his life. For just this reason, inmates who have suffered severe humiliation are routinely placed on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, it is in the nature of humiliation that it leaves the victim powerless to react. In any case, anger, violence, and revenge are not effective responses to humiliation because they do nothing to repair the damage done. Either the victim has to find the strength and self-esteem to come to terms with the humiliation, or, if that proves impossible, abandon the life that he has built in the hope of starting another.

I notice that, throughout this article, I have subconsciously chosen to refer to the subject of humiliation as a ‘victim’. This might suggest that humiliating someone, even a criminal, is never a proportionate or justified response.

What do you think?

‘Embarrassment’ is often used interchangeably with ‘shame’. Although the dividing lines are not fully standardized, and there may be some overlap, embarrassment and shame are different constructs.

For me, embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when

1. Some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others.

2. We think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that, for whatever reason or reasons, we seek to project to those others.

Embarrassment might form over a particular thought or opinion that is unwittingly revealed. Or it might be related to an action such as nose picking or farting, a condition or state such as a bodily blemish or an open fly, a possession such as our car or house, or a relation such as our unappealing partner, criminal uncle, lecherous aunt, or badly behaved child.

The potential causes of our embarrassment vary according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and, in particular, to the company that we are in.

These causes need not be beneath our projected image, but merely out of keeping with it. Thus, it is entirely possible to be embarrassed by our high social status or rarified education.

‘Embarrassment’ derives from the Italian imbarrare, which means ‘to block, bar’. As so often, the etymology speaks volumes.


Whereas embarrassment is a response to something that threatens our projected image but is otherwise morally neutral, shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or dishonorable.

Shame is usually aggravated if its cause is exposed, but, unlike embarrassment, shame can attach to a thought or action that remains undisclosed and undiscoverable to other persons.

Although embarrassment can be intense, shame is a more weighty feeling because it pertains to our moral character and not merely to our social character or image.

Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards, and finding that they fall short. If a person falls short of moral standards, and fails to notice, he or she can ‘be shamed’ or made to notice. If the person is made to notice but does not mind, then he or she is said to ‘have no shame’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out that shame also arises from lacking in honourable things shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault and therefore owes to our moral badness. So it seems that if embarrassment has a convincing moral dimension, then it is, in fact, shame.

In some cases, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in the shame of another person, or to feel shame on his behalf, particularly if he is close to us or associated with us. Thus, even virtuous people with no personal cause for it can experience shame, and so much is also true of embarrassment and other emotions. Jean-Paul Sartre was right in so many ways when he said that “Hell is other people”.

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and the feeling is often accompanied by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes. Other manifestations of shame include a downcast gaze and slack posture, a sense of warmth or heat, and mental confusion or paralysis.

These manifestations of shame can communicate remorse and contrition, and inspire the pity and pardon of others. Yet, shame can in itself be shameful, and many people prefer to make a secret of their shame.

People with low self-esteem are more prone to shame, because they already have a poor self-image and are harsher upon themselves. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person who caused or incited their shame. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to even deeper shame and, so, even lower self-esteem.

While shame can be destructive, it can also be a force for good, spurring us on to more ethical lives.


Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions, and to blame and remorse. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.”

More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Thus, it is quite possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most others approve, such as living in luxury or eating meat.

Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is no doubt why they are often confused. When we injure another, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame).

Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions with distinct effects. Shame is egodystonic (that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego) and correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders are largely disorders of shame. And narcissism can be understood as a defence against shame. On the other hand, guilt is egosyntonic (that is, consistent with our self-image etc.) and either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning.

Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt rather than shame, and more prone to act redemptively.

‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, which means ‘non sight’. In Inferno, Dante had the envious laboring under cloaks of lead, their eyes sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy both arises from, and results in, a form of blindness or lack of perspective.

For envy to set in, three conditions have to be met. First, one must be confronted with a person (or persons) with a superior quality, achievement, or possession. Second, one must desire that quality for oneself, or wish that the other person lacked it. And third, one must be pained by that emotion.

In sum, envy is pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes the beginning of the pain of envy as ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air’.

In Envy, Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Envy is mean, miserly, and petty, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins (the other six are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride). Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves. Envy is such a closely guarded secret that it can rankle to unravel it in an old friend, like discovering that your lifelong partner always had it in him or her to cheat on you.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, envy is not the same as jealousy. Whereas envy is the desire for possessing, jealousy is the fear of losing. Thus, jealousy is for something that you already possess—often a person, but also reputation, beauty, virginity, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is a lesser sin, and so easier to confess.

Envy should also be distinguished from yearning. Whereas yearning is for the general, envy is for the particular: some particular thing that is in the possession of some particular person or people.

Envy is timeless and universal, and deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods through their good luck or pride. According to the Book of Wisdom, it is ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. In Genesis, it is from envy that Cain murdered his brother Abel. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite’s beauty that sparked the Trojan War. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is out of envy that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas.

Father! The prosperity of the Pandavas is burning me deeply! I cannot eat, sleep or live in the knowledge that they are better off than me!

Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, such as our cousins and relatives. Beggars do not envy millionaires, but other beggars who are more successful. In our age of equal opportunities and mass media, it is hardly surprising that envy is so rife, particularly when our culture of empiricism and consumerism emphasizes the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible.

For the Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, it is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered. The pain of envy is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration that this lack engenders.

Over time, our unhappiness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by our envy.

At the same time, the mental energy expended on envy, and the reluctance to arouse it in others, holds us back from achieving our full potential as human beings.

Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, undermines the closeness and satisfaction of our relationships. In some cases, it can even lead us to attack the interests of others, like an envious child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have.

Envy can also lead to some rather more subtle defensive reactions, such as ingratitude, irony, scorn, snobbery, and narcissism, which all have in common the use of contempt to minimize the existential threat posed by the advantages of others. Another common defense against envy is to incite it in others, reasoning that, if people are envious of me, I have no reason to be envious of them.

Bottled up envy can morph into ressentiment, which is, essentially, projected envy: the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat (such as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, or modern politicians and bankers), which can then be blamed for our ills and, in some cases, even sacrificed.

Though carefully dissimulated, envy often surfaces in the form of Schadenfreude (‘Harm-Joy’), which is defined as pleasure in the misfortune of others—a pleasure that helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of disgraced politicians and fallen celebrities. While Schadenfreude is a relatively recent term, the emotion that it denotes dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle called it epikhairekakos, which has the merit of being even harder to pronounce than Schadenfreude. And the Hebrew Book of Proverbs explicitly warns against it.

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

The fundamental problem of envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. The envious are as the captain of a ship, who navigates the stormy seas not by the stars in the sky, but by the tinted and distorted lens of his magnifying glass. Envy pulls us in every direction and none at all. By holding us back, it makes us even more apt to envy, giving rise to a vicious cycle of envy. And so we plod through hell under our cloaks of lead.

But can envy not give rise to something positive? Does envy really not have any silver lining? It has variously been argued that envy, often under the more acceptable guises of compassion and brotherly love, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy culminates in communism, the ideal of which is to create a society that is free from envy. In practice, however, people living under the banner of the sickle and hammer become not less but hyper envious, grassing on neighbors for the slightest of perceived advantages. As their lives become ever more dreary and monotonous, their human nature reasserts itself with a vengeance. A small number rise to become more equal than others, and these dear leaders then oppress their brethren, sometimes to the death, under the pretext of the greater good for all.

‘Socialism’ said Winston Churchill, ‘is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.’ Whereas envy is the sin of socialist societies, greed is the sin of capitalist ones. This greed is also driven by envy, but envy of a kind that seeks to level up rather than level down. And whereas you can opt out of a capitalist society, you cannot so easily opt out of a socialist one—or even leave, for that matter.

How to keep a lid on envy? So often when we envy, it is because we fail to see the bigger picture, to see all the efforts and sacrifices, and the flipsides. As Charles Bukowski wrote in a letter to Steven Richmond, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ It is easy to forget that the city banker has effectively sold his soul for his success, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy his money. If anything, he is to be pitied rather than envied. To avoid envy, one constantly has to reframe, and reframing requires perspective, which is just the thing that the envious lack.

In the Hindu tradition, ‘lucky’ people are merely enjoying the fruits of their past karmic actions, including the past karmic actions of their parents, who educated and helped them, and, by extension, the past karmic actions of all of their ancestors. Of course, in some cases, luck really is undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of true luck is that it tends to even out in the long term, and so there really is no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. Nature compensates: if we don’t have one thing, we have another, even if it is not one of those things advertised on a billboard. While we envy, we focus on what we lack, while forgetting all that we do have. That is why dispositions such as piety, humility, and gratitude can to a large extent protect us against envy.

Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Emulation almost shares a definition with envy, but without the pain and bitterness part. This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why are some people able to feel emulous, while others are only capable of envy? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honorable or aristocratic disposition. In other words, while envy is the reaction of those with low self-esteem, emulation is the reaction of those with high self-esteem.

So look out for a future post on self-esteem.

Sadomasochism can be defined as the giving or receiving of pleasure, often sexual, from the infliction or reception of pain or humiliation. It can feature as an enhancement to sexual pleasure, or, in some cases, as a substitute or sine qua non. The infliction of pain is used to incite sexual pleasure, while the simulation of violence can serve to form and express attachment. Indeed, sadomasochistic activities are often initiated at the request of, and for the benefit of, the masochist, who often directs activities through subtle emotional cues.

Consensual sadomasochism should not be confounded with acts of sexual aggression. Moreover, while sadomasochists seek out pain and humiliation in the context of love and sex, they do not do so in other situations and dislike simple, unfettered violence or abuse as much as the next person. In short, and in general, sadomasochists are not psychopaths. While psychopathy, or antisocial personality disorder, is a diagnosable mental disorder, sadomasochism is not diagnosable unless it causes significant distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others.

Some surveys have suggested that sadistic fantasies are just as prevalent in women as in men. However, it seems that men with sadistic urges tend to develop them at an earlier age. While some sadomasochistic people are purely sadistic and others purely masochistic, many are varying degrees of both, and may describe themselves as ‘switchable’.


Sadomasochism is a portmanteau of sadism and masochism, terms coined by the 19th century German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who spoke of basic, natural tendencies to sadism in men, and to masochism in women.

Krafft-Ebing named sadism for the 18th century Marquis de Sade, author of Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu and other books. The film Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine, is inspired by the story of Sade.

How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every crime is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold. —Marquis de Sade, Les prospérités du vice

Masochism he named for the 19th century Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs.

Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through man’s passions, nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise. —Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs

While the terms sadism and masochism are from the 19th century, the phenomena they describe are not so recent. In his Confessions (1782), Jean-Jacques Rousseau bravely speaks of the masochistic sexual pleasure he derived from his childhood beatings, adding that ‘after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing’. In a different time and place, the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described a man who needed to be flogged to get aroused. And the Kama Sutra, which dates back to the 2nd century, makes mention of consensual erotic slapping.

Early theories

The German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory of masochism in his Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery (1639). According to Meibom, flogging a man’s back warms the semen in his kidneys, which leads to sexual arousal when it flows down into his testicles. Other theories of masochism spoke of the warming of blood or the use of sexual arousal to mitigate physical pain.

In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a compendium of sexual case histories and sex-crimes, Krafft-Ebing did not amalgamate sadism and masochism, understanding them as stemming from different sexual and erotic logics. In Three Papers on Sexual Theory, Freud observed that sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals, and, accordingly, he combined the terms. He understood sadism as a distortion of the aggressive component of the male sexual instinct, and masochism as a form of sadism against the self—and a graver aberration than simple sadism.

Freud remarked that the tendency to inflict and receive pain during intercourse is ‘the most common and important of all perversions’, and ascribed it—as so much else—to incomplete or aberrant psychological development in early childhood. He paid scant attention to sadomasochism in women, either because sadism was thought to occur mainly in men, or because masochism was thought to be the normal and natural inclination of women.

In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, the British physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) argued for the absence of a clear distinction between aspects of sadism and masochism, and, moreover, restricted sadomasochism to the sphere of eroticism, thereby divorcing it from abuse and cruelty.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) begged to differ. In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, he contended that sadomasochism is an artificial term, and that sadism and masochism are in fact distinct phenomena. He provided fresh accounts of sadism and masochism, but, unfortunately, I seem unable to fully understand them.


The same can be said for sadomasochism in general. Sadomasochism is hard to understand. Here, I propose several understandings. While some may hold in some circumstances and not others, none are mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of our strongest emotions result from more than just one impulse.

Most obviously, the sadist may derive pleasure from feelings of power, authority, and control, and from the ‘suffering’ of the masochist.

The sadist may also harbour an unconscious desire to punish the object of sexual attraction for having aroused his desire and thereby subjugated him, or, in some cases, for having frustrated his desire or aroused his jealousy.

By objectifying his partner, who is thereby rendered subhuman, the sadist does not need to handle the partner’s emotional baggage, and can deceive himself that the sex is not all that meaningful: a mere act of lust rather than an intimate and pregnant act of love. The partner becomes a trophy, a mere plaything, and while one can own a toy and perhaps knock it about, one cannot fall in love with it or be hurt or betrayed by it.

Sadism may also represent a kind of displacement activity or scapegoating in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another person. Scapegoating is an ancient and deep-rooted impulse and practice. According to Leviticus, God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat. The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself.

For the masochist, taking on a role of subjugation and helplessness can offer a release from stress or the burden of responsibility or guilt. It can also evoke infantile feelings of dependency, safety, and protection, which can serve as a proxy for intimacy. In addition, the masochist may derive pleasure from earning the approval of the sadist, commanding his full attention, and, in a sense, controlling him.

For the dyad, sadomasochism can be seen as a means of intensifying normal sexual relations (pain releases endorphins and other hormones), regressing to a more primal or animal state, testing boundaries, or playing. In her recent book, Aesthetic Sexuality, Romana Byrne goes so far as to argue that S&M practices can be driven by certain aesthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity, and, as such, can be compared to the creation of art.

Et tu

Many ‘normal’ behaviours such as infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting contain definite elements of sadomasochism. It is possible to read this article and think that this sort of stuff only applies to a small number of ‘deviants’, but the truth is that each and every one of us harbours sadomasochistic tendencies. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence, ‘I am human, and consider nothing human to be alien to me.’

In almost every relationship, one partner is more attached than the other, leading the less attached partner to become dominant, while the more attached partner becomes infantilized and submissive in a bid to pacify, please, and seduce. Eventually, the less attached partner feels stifled and takes distance, but if he ventures too far, the more attached partner may simply go cold and shut-out or leave. This in turn provokes the less attached partner to flip and become the more enthusiastic of the partners. Eventually, the balance re-establishes itself, until it is upset again, and so on ad infinitum. Domination and submission are elements of most relationships, but that does not prevent them from being tiresome, sterile, and, to echo Freud, immature.

Rather than playing at cat and mouse, lovers need to have the confidence and the courage to rise above that game—and not just by getting married. By learning to trust each other, they can dare to see each other as the fully-fledged human beings that they truly are, ends-in-themselves rather than mere means-to-an-end. True love is about respecting, sharing, nurturing, and enabling, but how many people have the capacity and the maturity for this kind of love?

And, of course, it takes two not to tango.


Lust can be defined as the strong, passionate longing or desire for certain things, not only sex, but also food, drink, money, fame, power, and knowledge, among others. But owing to the resonance of Matthew 5:27-28, lust has come to be particularly associated with sexual desire.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

There are many reasons for which we can desire sex, for example, to be close to someone, to maintain or manipulate that person, to make a child, or, in the case of prostitution, to make money. However, with lust, sex is sought out for itself.

Yet, it is possible to seek out sex for itself without this desire being lustful. For the desire to be lustful, it has to be disordered, that is, disproportionately or inappropriately strong, or directed at an inappropriate object.

If lust is not acted upon, it is possible to be lustful without being lecherous; but if the lust is acted out, especially repeatedly and habitually, then one is both lustful and lecherous (although, depending on usage, ‘lust’ and ‘lechery’ can be synonymous).

Bible and Church

For Dante, lust was the ‘excessive love of others’, excessive in that it rivalled and surpassed even the love of God. Romanesque art depicted lust, or carnal luxuria, as a siren or naked woman with snakes biting at her nipples. According to the Church Doctors, luxuria had several daughters, among whom blindness, haste, and self-love.

The Church distinguishes lust from fornication, which is having sex with one’s husband or wife for enjoyment rather than procreation, or having sex outside of wedlock, which is even worse. In Corinthians 7:7, St Paul famously says that, to avoid fornication, every man should be allowed to have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.

But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

While St Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, King Solomon, who is the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, warns against it, as well as against lust.

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

Solomon may be warning against lust and marriage, but he is certainly not warning against misogyny. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the fear of lust and of its effects contributed a great deal to his, and the Church’s, attitude towards women.


King David was undone by his lust for Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother, although Solomon was not by David), and Bill Clinton, while still the most powerful man in the world, was almost undone by his lust for a young White House intern. Lust is such a strong and subversive force that it can be very difficult to reason clearly about it. There are many people out there who couldn’t organise a two-ticket tombola, but who suddenly become impressively industrious when it comes to acting out their lust. In Dante’s Inferno, souls who have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a hurricane that represents their own lack of self-control. And although MRI scanners were not available in Dante’s time, what they show is that the same area of the brain lights up in lusting people as in addicts receiving their cocaine fix.

According to mediaeval lore, when Alexander the Great found Phyllis (by some accounts, his wife) riding Aristotle around the garden, Alexander exclaimed, ‘Master, can this be?’ Whereupon Aristotle replied, ‘If lust can so overcome wisdom, just think what it could do to a young man like you.’

Lust is so powerful that it is often beyond the power of reason to contain.

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait.

These verses are from Shakespeare, who here (Sonnet 129) and elsewhere, goes so far as to aliken lust to madness.

No wonder, then, that in Greco-Roman mythology Eros/Cupid is depicted as a blind child, and the ithyphallic (erect) Satyrs are only half-human.

But it is not just that reason can sometimes be overcome by lust. For Schopenhauer, lust ultimately directs all human behaviour. This is certainly borne out by advertising, which seems mostly about suggesting that buying a particular product will excite the lust of others. In contrast, no one ever made a fortune by peddling restraint or wisdom. It is sometimes said that everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power. Even the Church, when it needed to express the ecstatic communion with God, could do little better than to paint it in terms of an orgasm.


Schopenhauer, who was heavily influenced by Eastern traditions, also notes the misery that will almost certainly result from lust.

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of God’), Lord Krishna declares that, along with anger and greed, lust is one of the three gates to Naraka or hell. When Arjuna asks him by what one is impelled to sinful acts ‘even unwillingly, as if engaged by force’, he replies, ‘It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world … Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin—by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization…’ (See Bhagavad Gita 3.36-43 for the full quotation.)

For the Buddha, lust, in the broader sense of coveting or craving, is at the centre of the Four Noble Truths, which are as follows,

1. Suffering (dukkha) is inherent in all life.
2. The cause of all suffering is lust.
3. There is a natural way to eliminate all suffering from one’s life.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is that way.

For the Buddha, lust is controlled or eliminated through attaining a higher consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon; indeed, Baudelaire goes so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, should never have sex.

The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes… Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another—and the artist never emerges from himself.

The other

As well as being destructive to its subject, lust is also destructive to its object. Lust is the only appetite that is for a person rather than an object, but a person qua object rather than a person qua person. Either the other is seen as an object, or as other than they truly are. Through the subconscious processes of idealization and projection, the other becomes what is wished for or needed—quite literally, a fantasy.

It’s not just that the other is treated as an object of lust, but that he or she is shorn of uniquely human qualities and, in particular, of dignity and agency. Thus, the lustful person is not only unconcerned about the fulfilment of the other (and perhaps also of the ‘old’ partner to whom he is being unfaithful), but will act against her best interests to feed his appetite, and with his appetite sated, discard her as ‘one throws away a lemon that is sucked dry’. These sharp words belong to Kant, who asserted that a person should never be treated as a means to an end, but always as an end in herself.

It is perhaps in the nature of lust that it seeks to possess the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying his dignity and autonomy. In the novel One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis, the protagonist says that, when it comes to sex, his aim is ‘to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.’ Of course, there are some people with rather low self-esteem who consciously or unconsciously want to be hurt, degraded, and sabotaged, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Because it is so inhibiting, destructive, and subverting, lust is, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘a waste of shame’. So as to hide that shame, many cultures made use of a male demon who lay upon sleepers, especially women, to have sex with them. This incubus (and the less prevalent female equivalent, or succubus) could then be blamed for embarrassing nocturnal emmissions, disturbing claims of adultery and abuse, and even unexplained children.

Lust or love?

Another way of dealing with the shame of lust is to deceive ourselves into thinking that our lust is in fact love or underpinned by love. While lust is shameful, love is respectable, even commendable. Thus, while we may look warmly upon a couple holding hands or hugging (particularly if they are very young or very old, on the presumption that these groups are asexual), we look around for the police if they start acting out their lust. Love is the acceptable face of lust, but the love that is not love is even more perverse and destructive, and in that sense, even more shameful, than the lust that knows its game.

How to tell lust and love apart? Often, with difficulty. But while, in general, lust is hasty, furtive, and ashamed, love is patient, measured, and constant. While lust subverts propriety, love is thoughtful and nurturing. While lust is all about taking, love is all about sharing. Lust can lead to love, but it is a poor start, and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favorite book by the picture on the cover.

The ladder of love

Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexual desire in itself, and none of us would be here without it. Sexual desire is a life force, to be enjoyed and even celebrated. But, as with wine, the problems arise when it becomes the master rather than the servant. It is very important to be able and ready to recognize lust for the blind and destructive force that it is. That’s why lust is particularly unattractive in the elderly, because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.

Lust is by definition hard to suppress, but it can more readily be redirected or sublimed. If a person feels angry with her boss, she may go home and act out her anger by kicking the dog, or she may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. This second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constuctive activities. As Baudelaire said, the more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.

For Plato, lust is not something to be shunned, but the first step on his so-called ladder of love. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say that a youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body. By loving one beautiful body, he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth learns to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once the physical has been transcended, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, he is able to experience beauty itself, rather than the various apparitions of beauty. In so doing, he exchanges the various apparitions of virtue for virtue itself, gaining immortality and the love of the gods.

In sum, for Plato, so long as one is willing to learn, lust can be its own cure.

Further reading: Lust, by Simon Blackburn