Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I was introduced to bondage early. As a child, I gravitated toward pretend games in which I could be a damsel-in-distress held captive in a tower or fastened to a railroad track or kidnapped. These games always involved my motion being restricted in one way or another so that, in the crucial moment before my imaginary demise, it was up to my hero to free me from my bonds.
Sadomasochism has no such early roots in my own life. Sadomasochism, a dynamic structured around pain being used to increase pleasure, includes two pieces: sadism, the derivation of pleasure from inflicting pain on others; and masochism, the derivation of pleasure from receiving pain. My sibling and I would often end up in physical fights and I most certainly enjoyed neither those fights with him nor the punishments that inevitably came afterwards. My introduction to sadomasochism came later in my life, on the heels of my first heavy make-out session, with the simplest of sadomasochistic acts: biting.
Biting is awesome. It is possessive enough to appeal to my submissiveness, and it can hurt. Not as much as some other things, but enough to ignite my masochistic tendencies and make me squirm. For things like biting, it’s just increased stimulation. Biting on a nipple rather than sucking, scratching instead of gentle touches. It’s just rough, animalistic sex. And it is hot. This level of pain isn’t too bad – scratch yourself right now and you might wince, but you certainly won’t start crying from it – and because they rely on functions of the body, they require no tools the average person doesn’t have on hand (or in mouth, as it may be). This kind of pain infliction doesn’t require the breaking of an activity in order to introduce it. Biting, scratching, or hitting can be incorporated into everything.
You can also make things more painful with the introduction of impact toys. An impact toy, in short, is something that has the purpose of causing additional and more severe pain through impact. Examples include whips, paddles, and floggers. These things can be used very gently, but they can also hurt enough to induce screams, tears, and broken skin. Most people understand the first level of pain and why it would be appealing; they draw the line, however, at the kind of pain that has no underlying feeling of pleasure. And it does not – as a practiced masochist, I can say that I have never felt pleasure during my time with a flogger or met anyone who has.
So why keep doing it, you ask? There are a number of reasons. For some people, pain can help to absolve guilt associated with sex, thereby helping to reduce inhibition. When I first started scening (BDSM-style sex is often called a ‘scene’) outside of committed relationships, I felt incredibly guilty about doing it. I had all sorts of hang-ups about how wrong it was. Some time with a flogger at the beginning of a scene made the experience after much more enjoyable.
Explaining the gravitation toward severe pain is also the fact that after a good deal of painful stimulation, skin becomes over-sensitized. Everything feels better after an extreme amount of pain is administered to an area. Think about it – when you bang your arm against something, you immediately go to rub it and make it feel better. If you start rubbing your arm right now, it doesn’t feel that good. If you’re heavily spanked, even feather-light touches can feel absolutely orgasmic.
Outside of the actual sensations, sadomasochism has a draw coming from the power dynamic present in all other aspects of BDSM. S&M is also the part of BDSM that relies most heavily on trust – if that trust is broken, someone can be hurt very badly. There’s also a lot of joy in the act of soothing the masochist after the pain is administered: An ex-partner of mine who I contacted before writing this column told me that soothing was always her favorite part.
Sadomasochism isn’t always about physical pain. While that is the most common form, humiliation is also very frequently lumped in under S&M. Degradation and deprivation are also important parts of BDSM. Next week’s installment will cover different tools used in S&M – I’ll talk about different impact toys, and go into depth about humiliation, degradation, and deprivation. Steel yourselves.