Why Are People Into Masochism?!
The Establishment is the proud home of sex, gender, love, kink, and what-the-hell-is-that-all-about podcast “Why Are People Into That?!” hosted by educator, activist, and media maven Tina Horn. (Listen to previous episodes on bondage, the kinky pleasure of getting inked, and the glory of bodily fluids with Jenny Zhang!)
This week we have the wonderfully kinky Dirty Lola, host and creator of Sex Ed A Go Go (a monthly live sex Q&A), as well as a sex educator who teaches about spanking, polyamory, and other taboo topics.
Consensual erotic pain can encourage us to practice and subvert the pain of the world.
M y favorite all time kinky joke is one I learned during downtime on a dungeon shift many years ago:
A masochist visits a dominatrix. His Mistress shackles him to a St Andrew’s cross on a raised platform. She attaches powerful magnetic clamps to his nipples and sharply pinching clothespins all up and down the insides of his thighs. She places his cock inside of a locked metal cage, and his erection becomes sore within a few minutes of swelling against the steel restraints. She whips him mercilessly, first using a flogger with heavy bullhide falls almost as tall as her legs are long, then moving on to the vicious sting of a braided singletail. She raises deep purple bruises, red bites, and white welts all along his shoulders, back, and ass.
He curses and moans and screams in catharsis, hungrily accepting her ministrations. As an experienced and bottomless pain slut, he knows how to breathe deep and steady, transforming the sensations from agony to ecstasy. Tension evaporates from his body and his troubles are cleared from his mind. Taking pain and worshipping this woman’s power puts him in a meditative state, which he craves in order to feel fearless and good in his life. When his time is up, his Mistress tenderly removes his bondage, giving him her leather gloved hand to steady himself. As he steps off the platform, deeply grateful and blissed-out, he stubs his toe and hollers, “OUCH!”
Pain is the signal from our nervous system that something isn’t right. My favorite joke reveals a difficult truth: Erotic pain is not the same as accidental pain. The good news is that the crucial ingredient in masochistic sex is no different than any other sex: It’s consent. Consent transforms our body’s negative messages into experiences of euphoric relief.
Here’s my informed definition of a few key terms: Sadomasochism is the relationship between humans and consensual erotic pain. A Sadomasochist is a person who has a desirous relationship to consensual erotic pain. A sadist enjoys giving erotic pain to a masochist. A masochist enjoys receiving erotic pain from a sadist. Sometimes, but not always, a sadist is a top or a dominant. Sometimes, but not always, a masochist is a bottom, or submissive. Some of us switch, enjoying both inflicting and absorbing sadomasochistic pain.
Consent transforms our body’s negative messages into experiences of euphoric relief.
Dirty Lola is a gleeful masochist. “I love talking about kink from the newbie perspective,” she tells me when we sit down to podcast about the M in BDSM. “I’m no longer a newbie but I love explaining things to people so they get it right the first time. I want to be the gateway drug of sexual knowledge.”
When we call someone a masochist in casual conversation, we’re usually referring to a glutton for dysfunctional punishment, someone pathologically trapped in a cycle of suffering. This is unfortunate, because erotic sadomasochism actually describes something that I’ve experienced for many years as a therapeutic process. And I’m definitely not the only one.
Sadism and masochism are complementary qualities that need one another to thrive, like exhibitionism and voyeurism. In general, a sadist does not enjoy giving pain to someone who is not a masochist, and vice versa. Just ask the dominant fielding a request for a cattle prodding from a curious but uncommitted newbie, or the spanking fetishist who has asked to be topped by her reluctant partner. To understand what I mean, imagine receiving oral sex from someone who isn’t oriented to be attracted to your gender. It might physically feel good, but knowing the person isn’t really into it can be a real mood killer.
Everyone has a taste profile for pain, just as they do for pleasure. For example, I could beg to get my ass beat black and blue every single day of my life, but I find nipple clamps excruciatingly unpleasant. It’s taken me a long time to realize I won’t be compatible with all kinky people. Lola says, “Finding someone who likes to give pain in the way you like to receive pain is a delicate dance.”
‘I want to be the gateway drug of sexual knowledge.’
To me, masochism has less to do with pain per se, and more to do with a curiosity about the range of sensation that a body can experience. These unique pain personalities defy the notion of masochism as endless dysfunctional need for punishment. This, in conjunction with consent, is part of the formula that separates S&M from assault and battery.
Lola’s definition of masochism is, “Someone who loves to be tortured.” Sometimes when I watch movies that portray nonconsensual torture, I get uncomfortable because I start to imagine someone doing those things to me. Usually in the story it’s pretty gruesome or disturbing (the canings in the British drama if… come to mind, and the foot switching in The Handmaid’s Tale is a recent example), but I always imagine the excitement of it happening to me consensually.
Like most humans, I live with the constant anxiety that I will be hurt. Emotionally wounded, physically assaulted, my world attacked. The ritualistic practice of masochism helps to purge that fear. It gives me a space to scream. Much in the same way a massage, a workout, or acupuncture is uncomfortable but constructive, masochism facilitates the experience of being hurt without being harmed. After a scene, I always feel enormous relief that I was strong enough to endure the experiences I welcomed.
In our podcast conversation, Lola points out something else we share: that BDSM has helped her to process past experiences, expanding and deepening her understanding of her body after trauma. Consensual erotic pain can encourage us to practice and subvert the pain of the world.
“When things are hard, I’ll say to myself ‘Girl, you can handle this,’” she laughs. “‘You can take a beating from a bike chain!’”
In a very real way, learning to absorb rather than brace yourself against difficulty (like heartbreak, or totalitarianism, or stubbing your toe) can actually rescue you from the everyday pain of being alive. Being hurt is a part of life, but sadomasochism can actually teach you how to survive being destroyed.