As he was outlining his theory of libido motivation, Freud developed his earliest views on masochism. In this theory, sexual drives were invoked as basic motivators of all kinds of behaviors. He proposed that masochism, as a sexual perversion, results from a fixation on or regression to a form of infantile sexuality. One pays the price for pleasure, accepting pain as an appeasement for castration, stressing one’s helplessness, or denying sadistic impulses.
However, as he later propounded his theory of the interaction of the ego and the superego, the concept of masochism came to be broadened to include nonsexual forms of masochism. Freud analyzes three forms of masochism in this later elaboration. They are erotogenic, feminine, and moral. Primary (erotogenic) masochism is the root of the other two, which are properly variants upon it. In defining primary masochism he returns to the notion from the 1905 work, (Three essays on the theory of sexuality) to suggest that the polymorphous perverse character of infantile sexuality, within which any intense stimulus may be erotically stimulating, is the foundation of erotogenic masochism. This is insufficient, however, and he later adds the concept of instinctual fusing, which is the merging of the erotic and death-oriented interests into a single instinctual expression. “Masochism subjugates the death drive: it is thus, however idiosyncratically, life affirming.” The critical step here, for later developments in literature and culture at large, is the formulation of the category of “moral masochism.” Moral masochism is a more generalized realm of behavior and is missing the explicitly sexual character of erotogenic masochism. In moral masochism humiliation and failure replace physical pain and punishment. The individual providing the punishment is no longer immediately present in the environment of the individual. Rather, it comes to be felt as “Fate, destiny, or God” who wields the cudgels of failure and frustration. However, while the awareness is withdrawn from consciousness by these displacements, Freud still thought that infantile sexual motivations remained at their core. This stylization of masochism, absent of its sexual and erotic components, has passed readily into the popular imagination and lexicon.
However, not content with these theories, and still troubled by masochism, Freud finally proposed a radical explanation for masochism that was one of his most controversial ideas. He awarded self-destructive impulses the status of instinct, ultimately more powerful than the life instincts. He proposed that “beyond the pleasure principle” there was an even more basic “death instinct”. This very speculative theory is not generally held within psychoanalysis today, and is based on some of Freud’s most metaphysical reasoning.