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Why Do Submissives in BDSM Experience Pain as Pleasure?

In BDSM and non-kink settings, there are many reasons why pain can be enjoyable.

Key points

  • Many people can't understand how BDSM submissives could derive pleasure from receiving "intense sensation."
  • Three-quarters of submissives say they were born that way, that they've always experienced pleasure from very specific types of pain.
  • In many non-BDSM activities, pain can bring pleasure; for example, running marathons or playing football.

In bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM), dominant players (doms, tops) may inflict pain—in kink parlance, “intense sensation”—on submissive participants (subs, bottoms). The pain ranges from light spanking and hair-pulling to sharp blows, nipple clamping, and vigorous flogging or whipping that leaves marks.

Some consider BDSM inherently abusive, and can’t imagine how any sane person could derive pleasure from receiving (or administering) pain. Recently, researchers at the University of Quebec asked a large group of subs to explain the origins of their kinky proclivities and why they experienced pain as pleasure.

Correcting Common Misconceptions About BDSM

Before delving into the origins of subs’ pleasure from pain, let’s correct some common misconceptions:

  • BDSM players are mentally healthy. Many studies have shown that BDSM aficionados are a cross-section of the population, the people next door, with no greater rates of sexual trauma or mental illness than the general population.
  • Subs enjoy only clearly specified sensations. Like everyone else, even the most submissive subs hate dog bites, sprained ankles, or street assaults. They crave only what they personally enjoy.
  • Players negotiate clear agreements about subs’ limits. In Fifty Shades of Grey, the dom, Christian Grey, presents his prospective sub, Anastasia Steele, with a lengthy contract proposal detailing how he’d like to play. They discuss each point. Steele accepts some, modifies others, and rejects several. Grey accepts her decisions and honors them by not delivering any sensations beyond her specified limits. Not all BDSMers employ written contracts, but all state their desires and negotiate their limits and how play unfolds. Consequently, BDSM play is erotic theater. All action is carefully scripted, in marked contrast to conventional (“vanilla”) sex, where many fall into bed with little, if any, negotiation of what’s about to occur. For many kinksters, BDSM feels intimate and powerful because of the negotiations and fantasy sharing it involves.
  • Safewords give subs control over all play. Despite subs’ nominal subservience, the core irony of BDSM play is that the subs are always in charge, thanks to safe words. If subs feel uneasy, they might say “yellow light,” meaning they’d like to stay in role but discuss their ambivalence. If subs feel threatened, they might say “red light.” Role-playing ends. The action stops. And participants reconsider their agreements.
  • BDSM is never abusive. Because of negotiated agreements and safewords, no matter how it looks, BDSM is always friendly, affectionate, and for many players, deeply nurturing.
  • Subs outnumber doms. The book Tell Me What You Want by Justin Lemiller reveals the results of the largest study ever conducted of Americans' erotic fantasies. BDSM daydreams were very popular—and more people wanted to be subs than doms. More wanted to receive sensation than administer it. In addition, aspiring doms and subs often meet prospective play partners at informal restaurant get-togethers called ”munches,” where subs almost always outnumber doms. It’s much easier to play the submissive. Subs simply specify their limits and safe words, and then surrender. The dom role is more demanding. Doms must respect subs’ limits, and within them orchestrate scenes that both parties enjoy.

The Origins of Submissiveness

The Canadian investigators used Internet BDSM sites to recruit subs. They obtained completed surveys from 152. Many cited multiple origins for their submissiveness:

  • Three-quarters (78%) said they were born submissive. “I don’t know why. I was born that way.” “I was like 5 when I started having BDSM fantasies.” “At a young age, long before I felt any interest in sex, I daydreamed being blindfolded, tied up, and whipped.”
  • Some (5%) called their submissiveness intrinsic, but said they didn’t acknowledge it until adulthood. “I was in denial for years.”
  • One-quarter (22%) said they became subs as a result of life experiences. Half of that group (11%) said they’d been traumatized and sexualized it. “I was sexually abused as a child. It made me submissive.” “Both of my parents spanked me. I and grew up wanting punishment.” The other half, like Anastasia Steele, were introduced to BDSM as adults by lovers, and enjoyed it.
  • Others (11%) said submissiveness helped them counter psychological distress. “The endorphins from pain play help my bipolarity as much as strenuous exercise.”

Why Submissiveness Can Bring Pleasure

The bottoms in the survey enjoyed submissiveness for many reasons:

  • Nearly half (46%) said they felt turned on by role-playing. “I get very aroused serving another’s needs.” “I have powerful fantasies of seeing myself as the devoted slave of a powerful owner.” “I trust my dom to hurt me but never cause real harm. With the deep trust we share, we can experiment with all kinds of consensual non-consent.”
  • One-third (37%) said they enjoyed feeling pain within their specified limits. “Bad pain—stubbing my toe. Good pain—my dom flogging me.” “I’ve always liked over-exercising because it hurts.” Spanking was a particular favorite. It can be easily regulated—a hand in an oven mitt, a bare hand, a flogger, or paddle. And spanking can easily combine intense sensation with submissiveness and role-playing—the naughty child, the disobedient student or employee.
  • One-quarter (27%) said their preferred pain propelled them into a trance-like altered state involving deep relaxation, almost mystical contentment, a sensation of floating outside their bodies achieving oneness with the universe. Subs have a word for this—“subspace.” “It’s meditative.” “I feel all floaty and spacey.” “I go on ‘vacation’ mentally to a place where I feel everything but nothing hurts.”
  • One in five (18%) said they were more into restraint than pain. “Being restrained feels exquisite.” “When I’m blindfolded and bound, I feel relaxed, confident, safe, and sexy.”

Beyond BDSM: Pain as Pleasure

Imagine hikers climbing to a mountain summit. Along the way, they get sunburned, bitten by insects, and scratched by brambles. At the summit, they have sore muscles and aching joints. But the view is sensational, and their sense of accomplishment brings profound pleasure that cannot be experienced any other way. Subs feel the same way.

Ever heard of “runner’s high”? Mixtures of pain and pleasure similar to what subs experience often result from strenuous athletics, natural childbirth, military training, fire walking, religious observances (Christian flagellation, Native American body piercing), and other activities that “hurt so good.”

Pain must always be considered in context. When people experience pain that’s out of their control—bee stings, falls down stairs—they recoil. But when doms administer intense sensation, many subs feel enjoyment and profound gratitude that brings not just pleasure but deep spiritual contentment.

References

Brown, A et al. “A Systematic Scoping Review of the Prevalence, Etiology, Psychological, and Interpersonal Factors Associated with BDSM,” Journal of Sex Research (2020) 57:781.doi: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1665619.

DeNeef, N et al. “Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, and Sadomasochism (BDSM) from an Integrative Biopsychosocial Perpsective: A Systematic Review,” Sexual Medicine (2019) 7:129. Doi.org/10.1016/j.esxm.2019.02.002

Dunkley, CR et al. “Physical Pain as Pleasure: A Theoretical Perspective,” Journal of Sex Research (2020) 57:421. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1605328.

Labreque, F et al. “What Is So Appealing About Being Spanked, Flogged, Dominated, and Restrained? Answers from Practitioners of Sexual Masochism/Submission,” Journal of Sex Research (2021) 58:409. Doi.org/10.1080/0224499.2020.1767025.

Richters, J. et al. “Demographic and Psychological Features of Participants in Bondage, Discipline, Sado-Masochism, or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2008) 5:1660.

Wismeijer, A.A. and M.A. Van Assen. “Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) 10:1943.

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