An Emotional Exploration of Sadism & Masochism

A look into the realm of pain and the lessons we learn through BDSM exchanges

By Tess Dagger • 9 min read • ENGLISH

When I started writing this, I began with dominance and submission. Delving into these things felt approachable; who doesn’t contain aspects of dominant and/or submissive energies within? But when I tried to tackle pain as a subject, I had to pause. With it came a silly, yet obvious realization:

Not everybody seeks pain.

Duh, Tess!

This was actually a harder concept for me to grasp. So hard, in fact, that I turned to my distinctly pain-avoiding husband to ask him, why?

His answer was simple and beautiful:

Those who search out discomfort are looking to grow. But it doesn’t have to be physical discomfort.

Was I growing from my pain? Or merely avoiding the more psychological discomforts in life? I sat with that question for a while, and then finally, I began to write.

I’ve heard them all a million times: Why would you want to do that? Doesn’t that hurt?! Why do you think that’s fun?

Sure, being poked with a cattle prod and balancing on one foot while surrounded by rat traps on the floor isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but the sheer absurdity of what the human body can do and endure is in itself exhilarating.

A friend of mine once learned she could orgasm if I kicked her hard enough in a certain spot. Tell me that isn’t a weird and fascinating fact to learn about yourself as a human being? Shock value and strangeness aside, there are very real benefits to the exploration of pain, both giving and receiving.

Receiving pain

On this, I could wax poetic for hours, but I’ll spare you the long-winded version. My soapbox, however, begins with one very specific idea:

All pain is sensation, but not all sensation is pain.

On more enlightened days, I’ll go so far as to strip away my title of masochist and replace it with sensation seeker. The definition of pain can vary slightly but at the core, it is quite universal: Pain is your body telling you that you are hurt and something is wrong. Now, here’s where we can play with nuance: The idea of hurt varies from person to person. The downhill mountain biker probably wouldn’t consider that sore bruise from when his shin met the open dishwasher door an injury, but it may bother somebody else for days. Chronic pain sufferers will frequently go through their day with a baseline of pain that would make others feel crippled.

Pain can be a highly subjective experience  —  to a point.

The line, for me, is drawn at an undeniable injury that impedes my ability to function normally. Whether it be for hours or years, true injury is debilitating and limiting. My body over time has unfortunately sustained many sports-related injuries, and I feel well-versed in what I consider an injury, and what for me is an acceptable amount of bruising from a good spanking. Yeah, it may be tender to sit down, but I can still sit down without causing myself harm.

So, if pain is a sign of injury, what do I call all that sweet post-spanking tenderness? Sensation. And I am a sensation-fiend.

Why? Well, I could answer; why not?—but that wouldn’t help anyone understand. But perhaps a better answer would be; I’m raising my bar for suffering. I’ve given myself a yardstick for my personal endurance, and after being caned and waterboarded for three hours, maybe doing my taxes or carrying my heavy grocery bags four blocks home isn’t that bad? When we change the rubric for what real suffering is, we become bothered by less and less until the world is easier to endure.

Sometimes it’s even possible to transmute what used to be painful and turn it into pleasure.

What could be more empowering than that?

The other bonus is that I’ve learned to recognize the signs of true injury within my body, which means I don’t have to get nearly so peeved about those times I forget the dishwasher door is open and accidentally hit my shin.

Giving Pain

How about sadism? What could I possibly gain from letting myself enjoy the hurting of others? Truth is, a lot!

When I first came about my kinky family, I met a man whom others knew simply as Beast. Beast was many things; intelligent, kind, humorous, and open-minded. He was also a wonderfully wicked sadist who belongs in my top five play partners who genuinely enjoyed and got off on my suffering.

When Beast first started exploring his sadism, however, he admitted that he’d been fearful. As a martial artist, he’d previously been in situations where his body was literally the weapon between himself and certain injury. He feared his urges; he wanted to cause pain, and this in turn felt shameful. He carried around a weight within that he could be, at his core, a rotten and evil person.

Over the years, Beast learned through play that his ministrations were desired, wanted, and appreciated. The part of him that he was once ashamed of became a celebrated and wonderful piece of him. People sought out his skill and reveled in his enjoyment of pain. And slowly, the distinction came to him that he’d feared himself in the context of sexual aggression and not sadism. The thought of a non-consensual form of this was abhorrent.

In the end, Beast realized he doesn’t get off of the concept of human suffering. He wouldn’t stand at the edge of a war zone with his pants around his ankles or feel a zing of excitement when stepping into a battered women’s’ shelter. No, he wants to see the pain that he or someone he knows inflicts on a willing partner. There is such a clear delineation between the two that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM, as psychiatrists refer to it) refuses to even place those who experiment with only consensual sadism within its diagnostic scope.

I know people whose darkness extends deeper than Beast’s, whose sadism is an undeniably larger part of themselves, and those who still can have that deep and intense exchange with only minimal amounts of pain infliction. The spectrum of sadism is as myriad and variegated as the people themselves who belong to it. And with every one of them, what I find the most inspiring above all is the willingness to seek beauty where many others would turn away. The exploration of human limits has always been a brave undertaking, no matter how much it is a part of us. A sadist who can not only recognize but revel in their darker self will not lose their humanity, because humanity is the difference between sadist and aggressor. And if you feared losing yours, to begin with, then that already speaks to your humanity.

In the words of Alebeard from the classic

” We have watched your world, the pain and suffering, cruelty, and malice and within it found mirth and joy. It was not us that so forged it, not me and mine who crafted the madness of it, but upon it we feast. Use a safeword and I shall cease, tell me no and I shall stop, this is the sacred bond. Your suffering interests me. I am fed with cruelty, with obscenity and degradation, with sadism and sex. If you are not, walk on, shining sister, and maybe we shall share tea, but not a scene. “

Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance.

—Arthur Schopenhauer

Putting the two together

There’s a song I enjoy listening to with the opening lyrics:

Woman standing in front of a mirror holding her hands up. Her lover is caning her.

There’s gasoline in your heart, there’s fire in mine.

It’s an apt description of my tendency to explode with excitement at the things that I enjoy. When I meet others with the same inclinations, I feel we could burn the world down with our zealous hedonism. It doesn’t matter if it’s climbing mountain tops or being flogged; two people enjoying something and sharing in each others’ enjoyment doesn’t just double the excitement — it squares it.

I often tell people that my favorite fear is the look in the eyes of a sadist who is enjoying my suffering. The exchange between a sadist and a masochist is akin to a dance. It reminds me of bachata or a fiery tango. The push and pull, fierceness, and connection are undeniable.

What’s being exchanged in those moments? It differs from scene to scene, person to person. The fundamental pieces of cruelty and suffering come from a deeper and more primal place than anything else I’ve experienced.

As a bottom, I’m willing myself to either endure or be lost in the moment, and the energy of my top can be my encouragement to do so. Their enjoyment is a gift that I can utilize to bring me closer to an edge that I may or may not have had the strength for myself. Sometimes it draws out pleasure from places I didn’t know it could be found or teaches me to draw it out on my own. When the scene is over, I’m intoxicated by both myself and the glowing person who brought me to my knees and back again.

As a top, I’ve been given the opportunity to relish a power that I otherwise wouldn’t have, but also the tenderness that comes with the trust placed in me. Cries and whimpers to me are already lovely, but the warmth it brings me that I’m given the chance to elicit them is something else entirely. Knowing you’re the source for a reaction is a stirring feeling. We’ve all known it when we make a lover gasp or hear our friends laugh in pleasure from something we said. Drawing out reactions feeds the soul, and so does knowing that in this instance, they’re seen as positive reactions — even when accompanied by tears.

So why do we seek pain?

The article, Your Pain, My Pleasure by Ena Dahl might touch on the answer. A piece of it may lie in the ego, and our psychological hedonism may push us to endure greater pain to enjoy greater net pleasure. Whether that pleasure is physical, social, or mental is entirely up to one’s tastes.

We’ve watched man dance with pain through redemptive suffering, and the rise of the Flagellantism (from the Latin flagellare, to whip) in the 14th century. Surrounded by the involuntary suffering of the Black Plague, fanatical Catholics whipped their own backs in the hopes to bring themselves closer to Christ.

Towards the latter end of the 18th century, victorian France in all its pious glory had been turned on its head by one Donatien Alphonse Francois, otherwise known as Marquis de Sade. His views on pain concerned the ethics thereof and predicted that, in our need to suppress it, we would eventually succumb to seeking it — both in giving and receiving. He was proved right many times after his death, a feat that I’m sure has his bones chuckling in the Earth.

An article on Chopra cites pain (from injuries) as one of life’s great teachers. It details ways we can transmute it, accept it, and learn from it. It brings forward the idea of yogic practices in response to pain and welcomes it as a learning tool with which we can connect with our bodies.

Mankind’s relationship with pain is unlike any other amongst creatures in the animal kingdom. Our awareness and exploration of it is beyond the comprehension of most living things. And yet, we still haven’t learned everything there is to know about it.

Perhaps, someday, we will find the very boundaries of pain and the human psyche.

But until then, it wouldn’t hurt to explore our own…

…or would it? 😉

As always, be safe, sane, and consensual. And most importantly, be yourself.


Tess Dagger | Writer for SPNKD

BDSM enthusiast and former sex worker

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