An informal survey of 119 masochists reveals the secrets of getting pleasure out of pain
When you think about it, masochism is puzzling.
Pain is something that has evolved to keep us from hurting ourselves. If something hurts, we avoid it. Them, why do masochists seek and enjoy pain?
“An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.”
But then, if pain is not unpleasant for a masochist, is it no longer pain?
Wrong explanations for masochistic pain
This paradox has puzzled psychologists for a long time. In the past, they have tried to explain it in ways that pathologize masochism and marginalize its practitioners.
For a long time, masochism was considered a mental disease that compels people to hurt themselves. But not anymore. It was taken out of the DSM-5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official catalog of mental disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. Furthermore, psychometric tests given to 32 BDSM practitioners (Connolly, 2006) showed that they were similar to the general population. Masochists are not crazy.
Another invalid explanation is that masochism is a marginal behavior practiced only by a small minority of people. However, an analysis of a large survey (Herbenick et al., 2020) showed that a majority of women (66%) and close to a majority of men (45%) have been spanked for pleasure, and that 20% of people of either sex are into BDSM.
Sexual masochism is not the only way in which people enjoy pain. There is also spicy food, which is regularly consumed by most people in India, Thailand, Mexico, large parts of China, and many other countries. Put together, that represents a large part of the world's population. The active compound in chili peppers is capsaicin, which activates TRVP1, a protein that detects painful heat in sensory nerves. The discoverers of TRPV1 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2021.
Therefore, enjoying pain is not necessarily sexual. Masochism seems to be a basic characteristic of the human species.
Possible explanations for masochism
It is possible that masochists like pain because they enjoy the painful sensation itself.
Alternatively, masochists may endure pain as a means to achieve something else. For example, satisfying a dominant or getting into an altered state of consciousness.
In this case, masochists would endure pain in a similar way that athletes do: in order to win a challenge and improve themselves. This idea was proposed in the book It Hurts So Good, written by a masochist to explain her experiences.
Informal survey in Fetlife.com
To explore this question, I decided to ask the masochists themselves. I posted the following article in Fetlife.com, a social media for kinky people with 10 million members worldwide.
Why do you like pain?
1) pain for pain’s sake - a painful stimulus like spanking or flogging is pleasurable by itself
2) pain means degradation, humiliation and bringing down your ego
3) pain is an expression of submission and devotion to a dominant
4) pain induces an altered state of consciousness (sub-space)
5) any other reason
I would really appreciate your responses in the comments. Just give one or more of the numbers above, or write your own response. Also, please disseminate to your masochist friends.
Here is a link to the article and the responses it got.
The article received 102 ‘loves’ and elicited 224 comments. Not all the comments were in response to the questions; some were just general remarks or responses to other comments.
There were 119 responses, which I recorded in a spreadsheet for data analysis. Most people answered yes to more than one of the options, and some people even answered ‘yes’ to all the options. Because of that, the percentages of responders to each option add to more than 100%.
Most people also wrote an account of their experiences.
All the people who answered yes to option 5 explained what ‘other’ was. I compiled these explanations into 9 additional categories, which I describe below.
Option 1: pain for its own sake
Out of the 119 responders, 89 answered yes to this option (75%).
This remarkably high number of responders supports the idea that most masochists, indeed, like pain for its own sake.
However, it should be emphasized that masochists do not like all kinds of pains, and not in all circumstances. In fact, they tend to be quite choosy. The pain needs to be administered by a trustworthy top, in a seductive environment and following some specific ritual. It all depends on the intention, the environment and consent.
Most masochists enjoy impact pain, as in spankings, floggings, paddlings and canings.
Another big preference is ‘rope’ - being bound with multiple coils of rope all over the body - as in the fashionable practice of shibari. Bondage is painful because the rope bites into the skin and immobilizes the body in uncomfortable positions.
But there are many other forms of non-impact pain. Clothespins or special clamps are applied all over the body, but more frequently to the nipples, the labia or the scrotum. Sterile needles are used to pierce the skin, forming artistic patterns. Hot wax is poured over the naked skin. The skin can also be set on fire.
Normally, all these practices represent moderate amounts of pain. However, masochists tend to build their pain tolerance, to the point that the most experienced would subject themselves to things that most people would consider torture. But it is done for fun.
Some responders to my survey said that they feel a need for pain as strong as sexual desire.
Although masochistic practices are often sexual and followed by sex, that is not always the case. Some masochists enjoy pain for psychological reasons, independently of sexual arousal.
Option 2: pain for humiliation and bringing down the ego
Out of 119 responders, 30 chose this option (25%).
This was the option less chosen by the responders. Perhaps I didn’t phrase it right. I meant a sense of humility brought by pain, which may be experienced as a release from the drive of the ego. Some people who chose option 5 stated that they wanted pain to elicit feelings of vulnerability and cleansing, which is partly what I meant with this option.
Option 3: pain as an expression of submission
Out of 119 responders, 66 chose this option (55%).
Apart from bondage, BDSM encompasses two large categories of practices:
Dominance-submission (DS) consists of the submissive surrendering to, obeying and worshiping the dominant.
Sadomasochism (SM) consists of the enjoyment of pain - by the masochist - and the delivery of pain - by the sadist.
DS and SM overlap in a variety of ways. A lot of people are into both and combine them as they please. But there are submissives who do not enjoy pain but would endure it to please their dominant, as an expression of surrender, or to be punished. These people would answer ‘yes’ to question 3 and ‘no’ to question 1, but there weren’t many - of the 66 who answered ‘yes’ to option 3, only 15 answered ‘no’ to option 1. This may be sample bias. Since the survey was specifically addressed to ‘masochists’ and this type of submissives do not consider themselves masochists, they would not have answered.
In any case, the survey did show that many masochists receive pain as an expression of submission, in addition to wanting pain for itself or for some other reason.
Option 4: pain to achieve an altered state of consciousness (‘sub-space’)
Out of 119 responders, 98 chose this option (82%).
The so-called sub space (submissive space) is a big thing in BDSM. This term refers to altered states of consciousness that bottoms or submissives reach during BDSM ‘scenes’ - sessions of bondage, pain delivery, discipline or submission.
As a neuroscientist interested in the interaction of pain and stress, I have studied sub space for some time and I am writing a book largely devoted to it. I am convinced that there are multiple types of sub space, mediated by different neurotransmitters and neuronal pathways, and specific to different BDSM practices.
However, the type of sub space that concerns us here is the one induced by pain. My inquiries indicate that it is initiated by a release of adrenaline in the blood and noradrenaline in pain inhibitory pathways connecting the brain stem with the spinal cord. This state typically disappears after a few minutes, giving way to endorphin release in brain areas that inhibit pain and produce euphoria and a dreamy, floaty state.
“My sub space is a magical place full of warm beaches and unicorns, the sun will always shine and you can fold out your wings and fly to wherever you want.” A survey responder.
To my surprise, this option was the most chosen. A whopping 82% of responders stated that they seek sub space using pain. Most said that they had achieved it, at least once.
Therefore, this type of altered state of consciousness is not a marginal phenomenon, but rather the norm amongst masochists. Of the people who checked option 4 (98), the majority (70) also chose option 1. This indicates that enjoying pain is a step towards pain-induced sub space.
Option 5: other
Out of 119 responders, 46 chose this option (39%).
Analyzing the written responses, I classified them into 9 categories:
Focusing the mind - 14 responders. This is different from sub space. People who stated this said that they feel like their mind is normally too full of distractions and worries, but pain quiets it and makes them focus in the moment. It puts them in their body. It grounds and centers them. Some speak of a reset and forced focus.
Cleansing and catharsis - 7 responders. Perhaps related to the previous response, some people speak of emotional cleansing produced by the pain. Others mention having a safe space for crying and releasing emotions. Others get giggly.
Pushing limits - 13 responders. These people see pain as a personal challenge. It’s a bit like a sport: they want to know how much they can take, how far they can go. They see rope marks and bruises as trophies with which to brag to friends.
Empowerment - 4 responders. This is the opposite of option 2. Instead of bringing down the ego and evoking humility, for them pain is empowering. I can understand why. Society teaches us from childhood to fear pain, so conquering it makes us feel safe and powerful.
Vulnerability - 7 responders. And yet, pain makes other people feel vulnerable. Perhaps this is necessary for the catharsis and emotional release mentioned above.
Orgasm - 6 responders. It is common for women to orgasm from pain. I have witnessed it many times, with different women. Orgasms are frequently triggered by impact play like a spanking, caning or flogging, but it can also be induced by bondage, clamps and other forms of pain. They occur in the absence of any obvious genital stimulation. Quite the opposite: the woman focuses on the pain and this takes her to orgasm. It is likely that some men also have orgasms from pain, but I have not observed this, nor was it reported in this survey.
Relieving chronic pain - 5 responders. I have studied chronic pain in my scientific career. It changes the brain in weird ways. While fear and stress decrease pain in normal people, they increase pain in those with chronic pain. Hence, I was surprised when several masochists (mostly women) told me that they had chronic pain and that BDSM scenes go a long way to improve their condition. This is probably related to sub space and the strong state of analgesia underlying it. But it also may be related to changing the emotional relationship that these people have with their pain.
Reliving stress and anxiety - 4 responders. Masochistic play also relieves stress and anxiety, even in people with anxiety disorders. If pain focuses the mind, cleanses it, and brings empowerment, you can see how all these things would reduce anxiety.
Connection and intimacy with the top/sadist - 4 responders. It’s surprising that this wasn’t mentioned by more people. The connection with the top is an essential ingredient for a good BDSM scene. If the players have a relationship, these practices can strengthen it by deepening their connection and fulfilling their needs.
It seems that most masochists enjoy pain by itself.
However, this seems to be just the beginning of a number of positive interactions with pain, sub space being the most sought after.
Even when this altered state of consciousness is not reached, there are beneficial psychological changes that include focusing, catharsis, empowerment, orgasm, vulnerability and intimacy.
Submissives use pain to surrender to their dominants.
People with chronic pain and anxiety disorders report an alleviation of their suffering.
Connolly PH (2006) Psychological Functioning of Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) Practitioners. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality 18:79-120.
Herbenick D, Fu TC, Wright P, Paul B, Gradus R, Bauer J, Jones R (2020) Diverse Sexual Behaviors and Pornography Use: Findings From a Nationally Representative Probability Survey of Americans Aged 18 to 60 Years. The journal of sexual medicine 17:623-633.
Copyright 2022 Hermes Solenzol.