Was Max Mosley's Nazi orgy pathological, or just distasteful?

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April 10 2008 5:45 PM

Max Mosley's Nazi S&M Orgy

It was distasteful. Was it also pathological?

Max Mosley. Click image to expand.
Max Mosley

Max Mosley is facing calls to resign as president of Formula One after News of the World published an exposé about his sex life. In a video obtained by the British tabloid, a prostitute straps the 67-year-old Mosley to a bench and beats him with a cane; then Mosley switches roles: He shouts orders in German while he lashes prostitutes dressed in imitation death camp uniforms. Mosley's bedroom habits may be distasteful, but are they pathological?

Not necessarily. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual recognizes eight major paraphilias, or aberrant sexual urges: exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism (the desire to rub against a person), pedophilia, transvestic fetishism (attraction to the clothing of the opposite gender), voyeurism, masochism, and sadism. But the big eight aren't considered diagnosable disorders unless the activity (or fantasy about the activity) is recurrent, causes significant emotional distress, impairs social functioning, or involves a violation of consent. So, consensual S&M that doesn't lead to, say, crippling guilt is not classified as a disease.

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As for the orgy's Nazi overtones, Nazi costumes and other paraphernalia are not unheard of in the sexual role-play subculture. Like biker gear, SS outfits can heighten the sense of a "top/bottom" power differential, which, to some, is highly arousing. Mosley may have some demons to exorcise (his father, Oswald, was a known Nazi sympathizer), but his penchant for sinister playacting doesn't demonstrate any form of psychosis.

Sadomasochism has a long literary history. The fourth-century Kama Sutra, for example, recommends erotic slapping, scratching, and biting. And in the 17th century, German physician Johann Heinrich Meiborn used contemporary anatomical theory to explain why pain would cause sexual excitement (flogging warms semen). But psychiatric research on the practice began in earnest during the 19th century when Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis. According to Krafft-Ebing, sex that isn't directly related to procreation, like S&M, is a perversion. Rape, by contrast, is aberrant, but not perverse, since it can result in pregnancy. Sigmund Freud also considered the desire to inflict or receive pain during sex a perversion and noted that these opposite tendencies often occur in the same person (see Max Mosley).

Psychoanalysts today theorize that sadomasochists may be repeating an early sexual experience. (French majors may recall that, in the Confessions, Rousseau enjoys an early-childhood spanking and then seeks to repeat the experience later in life). But the current empirical research on what motivates sadomasochistic behavior is inconclusive. There's no established link between S&M and childhood history; practitioners are no more likely to have been spanked or sexually abused than anyone else in the population. There's also no scientific proof that consensual S&M is a gateway to nonconsensual sadomasochistic assault. Andreas Spengler, a German physician who conducted a large-scale S&M study in the 1970s, found that practitioners are generally happy with their sexual preferences, yet burdened by social stigma.

Sadomasochists who aren't happy with their preferences and seek treatment have a few options. Traditional approaches include psychoanalysis and 12-step sexual addiction/compulsion recovery programs. More recently, drugs that reduce testosterone levels and thus lower the sex drive have been used in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Barbara Bartlick of Weill Cornell Medical College, Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins University, and Vernon Quinsley of Queen's University.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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