Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down: Pain for Pleasure

"Nurse Nasty," "Wicked Doctor," "The Prison Matron" ... not the usual way to introduce yourself, but in the leather-clad world of sadomasochism, naughty is nice.

And pain is pleasure.

"I need stimulation and get a terrific high from playing rough," said Allena Gabosch, 52, a Seattle-based "bottom," meaning she's the one on the receiving end of spanking. The buxom, tattooed, alternative sex activist finds pain play very seductive but, "I still ask for Novocain at the dentist's office."

While most couples don't need whips, paddles or ropes to get in the mood, a minority find sadomasochism, or S&M, erotic. They like to explore the fine line between pain and pleasure to escape from reality, test their endurance, experience a spiritual high or simply to act out fantasies and fears.

The pain can be real, but the goal isn't injury or broken bones. And despite the early belief that smacks in the sack led to mental illness, psychologists say that S&M practitioners are just as well-adjusted as the average person.

Slap Me for Pleasure

Sex or lovemaking is about feeling good, so what feels good about pain?

"People clearly want fictionalized pain for attention and symbolic effect," said Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of "Masochism and the Self." S&M helps people temporarily lose their normal identity and focus on the flashes of pain, he said.

Baumeister described S&M pain as separated from its biological function. "It's no longer about warning you of injury, it's about escaping yourself."

There are two sides of S&M, explained Dossie Easton, a licensed marriage therapist and S&M practitioner based in San Francisco. "On one side, you have the physical aspect with unusual and intense simulations which includes bondage, sensory deprivation and highly selected pain. On the other, it's about bringing fantasies into reality by playing power games for fun," she said.

The essential component of S&M is not the pain or bondage itself, but rather the role-playing involved. One person plays powerless, the "bottom," and the other person plays all-powerful, the "top." The assertive Gabosch likes to relinquish all control to her partner, although she admitted being an occasional "switcher" -- topping one day, bottoming the next.

Renaissance Movement?

Prostitution ranks as one of the oldest professions, but being naughty in bed is not far behind as one of the oldest activities. Culturally, S&M popped up during the Renaissance.

"People mention someone doing this in letters and it starts appearing in porn material in the 1500s, but by the 17th century it was all over the place," said Baumeister.

World War II brought to the surface a gay scene that many credit for pushing the limits of sexual play. In the late 1960s, flower children demanded sexual freedom and sexual mores loosened. And by the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association removed S&M from its mental disorder category.

Runner's High

When Gabosch acts out an S&M scene, she laughs, roars and curses and at times is brought to tears, she said. The challenge of enduring the scenes pumps her up.

"When the endorphins kick in, my age regresses, I get loving and I'm in an ecstatic state," she said.

Pain, for most people, acts as a warning signal, like when you jerk your hand away from a hot surface. S&M thrill seekers desire pain because it acts like a narcotic, releasing an adrenaline rush.

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