Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 9, Nov. 23, 2006


Power and Love: Sadomasochistic Practices in Long-Term Committed Relationships




The present investigation employs a phenomenological approach to the study of consensual sexual sadomasochistic practice in long-term relationships. When conducting a phenomenological study, the focus is on the essence and structure of a particular phenomenon. The goal of such research is to help provide a deeper understanding of social and psychological aspects by accurately describing the experience under study and to provide the reader with a richer and fuller understanding of the experience of the participants (Weiss, 1994). In the current project, the phenomenon is the experience of long-term committed relationships of four couples involved in SM.

Little is known about couples who are in long-term relationships and their practice of SM, an important aspect of their intimacy. The goal of this research project is to identify and articulate the participants’ experiences; therefore, a qualitative research design was chosen. The method of multiple case studies was selected because this method allows for more control of idiosyncratic behaviors. This method is the most useful in providing the reader and viewer (of the videotapes) with a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of SM in long-term relationships. The videotaped interviews with the four couples may provide the viewer an opportunity to gain new insight into the experiences of the participants.

Weiss (1994) reports that “bridging intersubjectivities makes it possible for the readers to grasp a situation from the inside, as a participant might”, and that “quotations from the interviews can help the reader identify with the respondent, by presenting the events as the respondent experienced them, in the respondents’ words” (p.10).

The topic of SM is charged with controversy. To witness the personal experiences described in videotaped interviews by the participating couples in functioning relationships may help the reader and viewer to relinquish preexisting stereotypes and expectations regarding the personality characteristics of SMP’s.

Merriam (1998) states that case studies are differentiated from other types of qualitative research in that they are intensive descriptions and analyses of a single unit or bounded system (p.19). In the present research project, in-depth semi-structured videotaped interviews were used to provide a multi-dimensional (audiovisual) format to record the couples’ expressions of their personal experiences and descriptions of the meanings they attach to SM in their relationships.

Case study research is appropriate in this research project because little has been written about SM in long-term relationships, and mental health professionals know little about this sexual practice within functioning couples. A case study design can bring “in-depth understanding of the situation and meaning for those involved” (Merriam, 1998, p.19). While a single case can be studied for research purposes, this research project uses a multiple case study design to ensure a more comprehensive picture of couples involved in SM and DS and to enhance external validity. Miles and Huberman (1994) stated:

“By looking at a range of similar and contrasting cases, we can understand a single-case finding, grounding it by specifying how and where and, if possible, why it carries on as it does. We can strengthen the precision, the validity, and the stability of the findings” (p.29).

The data of the present study are derived from four case studies of couples and eight case studies of the individuals comprising four couples. The research focus is on the couples’ SM practices and on the meaning the individuals ascribe to these practices. Descriptive as well as visual data is presented to establish a more comprehensive understanding of this little-understood relationship practice. Because this practice is not well studied, mental health professionals are generally not exposed to SM practices within well-functioning, healthy relationships.


Videotaped interviews were conducted with four heterosexual couples in committed relationships. All lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they have been in relationship for a minimum of two years. The participants’ ages ranged from 30 to 55 years old; they were of different ethnic backgrounds: Caucasian American, African American and Asian American. They had been in committed heterosexual relationships from between two to eighteen years; three of the four couples were married.

Volunteer participants were recruited through the present researcher’s personal contact with a SM social community (Service of Mankind Church, Janus Society) in the San Francisco Bay Area. At Janus Society-promoted social gatherings, the researcher verbally presented her research topic along with its educational purpose. Janus Society posted her request for couples in their newsletter, and five couples volunteered to participate. Additional follow-up telephone calls were made to further discuss the research project with the potential participants. Inclusion criteria for participation in the study were: willingness to talk about their relationships and experiences without facial disguise, and willingness to be video and audiotaped. Two of the five couples who volunteered were unwilling to discuss their relationships and SM experiences undisguised on videotape: they wanted to wear facial masks for the video. Because the use of disguises may suggest pathology or even criminality, it was determined to include in the present study only those three couples who were willing to discuss their experiences without wearing masks. A forth couple was recruited to participate in an audiotaped interview. The fifth couple moved out of the Bay Area.

The four eligible couples gave their informed consent to participate. Each couple was informed that the video taped or audio taped interview would last between one and two hours, and that one additional person would be present to help with the videotaping. The interviews were structured around the following open-ended questions:

1. How long have you been in this relationship?

2. Do you experience your relationship as a committed one? (If yes: can you describe the nature of your commitment?)

3. When and how did you get involved in SM?

4. What is the meaning of SM to you?

5. What type of SM activities do you share?

6. How is SM important in your relationship?

7. What attitudes have you encountered from others about your SM orientation?

8. What attitudes have you encountered from friends and family?

9. How has this impacted your relationship?

10. Have you ever participated in psychotherapy?

11. If yes, have you disclosed your SM orientation to the therapist?

12. If yes, what was the perceived attitude of the mental health professional towards your SM orientation or activities?

13. If no, how do you imagine it would be to disclose your SM practice to a mental health professional?

14. What do you think mental health professionals should know about SM?

All participants in the present study were treated in accordance with the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 1994). They were informed that the videotaped interviews will be used for educational and academic purposes only, and that the videos will be appropriate for use in the future as an educational tool for mental health professionals, especially those in training. Participants will need to understand and agree to the videotaped interviews being viewed by psychology graduate students and clinical interns. All eligible participants will have agreed to these terms, and they also will have agreed that they would use their legal names in the interviews.


The video and audio interviews were conducted in May 2002. Videotaping took place in the researcher’s private home, and in two of the participating couple’s homes, using two video cameras with external microphones. A male video technician and his female assistant, who were previously introduced to the couples to be interviewed, operated cameras. The interviewees had previously expressed comfort with the presence of the video technicians.

All six individuals interviewed received the informed consent form prior to the interviews. The researcher reviewed the consent form with the interviewees to assure that all was understood and agreed to. The interviewees signed the consent forms prior to the interviews, thus agreeing that the videotaped interviews also could be used in the future for educational purposes with mental health professionals. One couple requested that the videographer and his assistant sign a consent form stating that they would not discuss the material of the interviews outside. During the interviews, the researcher remained aware of potential emotional difficulties arising for the interviewees; if it appeared that a difficult item may need some processing time, a break was suggested.

The technicians operating the video equipment remained as unobtrusive as possible and did not interact with the interviewees. Should a technical problem arise, they spoke to the researcher directly. The technicians were further instructed that they must leave the room if the researcher requested. This may happen if an interviewee became emotionally upset during the interview.

After completion of the interview, the technicians left the premises, and the researcher debriefed the interviewees for ten minutes to an hour, depending on what was needed. The interviewees were asked about how they were feeling emotionally and if they felt that a difficult issue had come up for them. Interviewees were again reminded that an additional debriefing session with a psychotherapist would be made available to them at no cost. When the interviewees appeared to be in stable condition emotionally, they were thanked and dismissed.

The technicians were then contacted via cellular phone to return to the premises and retrieve the video equipment. The digital visual and auditory data were transferred to the video editing computer equipment. All interviews were transcribed, and the transcriptions were checked for accuracy.

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