“It hurts so good.”
On a semantic level, we’re all aware that pleasure and pain represent opposite ends of a spectrum...unless, of course, we’re addressing sex.
Think about the nature of an orgasm, visually: Upon reaching climax, you might expect your partner to appear caught somewhere between accessing enlightenment and crying out in agony. Even in the most “vanilla” of sexual scenarios, the sensation, itself, is a form of sensory overload...and sometimes, it can be difficult to determine how, exactly, you’d classify it. And that’s before we address the BDSM community: A full network of folks all over the globe devoted to exploring not just the cross-over between pleasure and pain, but how pain can be utilized as a way of elevating pleasure.
Of course, for folks who haven’t dabbled in pain play, this can all be a little confusing: Why, exactly, do traditional forms of pain sometimes heighten our sense of pleasure during sex—even though, at face value, pain and pleasure appear to be such wildly disparate sensations? Well, here’s what you need to know.
Pain and pleasure are neurologically related
Well, for starters, it has something to do with brain chemistry. When you get hurt—let’s say you stub your toe—your brain releases endorphins (among other hormones) in response. Endorphins, as you may know, are the same hormones released during sex. Both sensations light up the same quadrant of the brain, often described as your mind’s “reward system.” So, while pleasure and pain can often feel extremely different, the reality is, from a neurological standpoint, they’re only marginally distinct from one another. In both scenarios, your brain is firing off melatonin and serotonin.
That said, not everyone experiences pain or pleasure in quite the same way. Studies have often shown that women have higher pain tolerances—which may impact the way they respond sexually to pain, too. And like with so much else under the kink umbrella, it’s a matter of personal preference. That said, in any scenario where you’re engaging in pain or sensory play, be sure all parties have given clear, affirmative consent. Pain can be a watery territory in the bedroom, and you’ll need to ensure that everyone is on board.
Beyond the neurological factors involved, there’s also a case to be made for experimenting with BDSM as a mode of escapism. Undoubtedly, pain acts as a sensation of presence—which means it can help us feel deeply connected with our bodies and our partners while drowning out other ruminations or higher-level thoughts about life outside of the proverbial bedroom. A 2015 study even determined that folks who practiced BDSM felt that engaging with pain as an erotic practice helped them destress in other areas of their lives.
Even for those of us interested in light pain during sex—think delicate choking, a little hair pulling—the act of either causing or submitting to pain can be a turn-on simply for the power structure it implies. Doms and subs have long been classic roles within the kink community, and engaging in pain play is one way of establishing that kind of hierarchy.
Naturally, sex is an act of intimacy in itself. But pain, too, is a reflection of vulnerability. And for many of us, experiencing pain with a partner in the throes of sex—or anywhere, really—reflects a certain brand of openness. It’s the sort of thing that can bring you closer to your partner in any number of ways.
Moreover, engaging in a conversation about kink culture with your partner can be an exciting way to broaden the limits of your sexual preferences together. Because pain, in particular, requires active communication at every juncture, this is a welcome opportunity for you to delve deeper into your pleasure centers both as individuals and as a unit.