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.

Patricia Payne, author of "Sex Tips from a Dominatrix," likens it to a runner's high. "Just like runners hitting the wall and losing track of their legs, people try to create that same sensation and reaction using pain."

For some that pain can even lead to an orgasm, she added.

How Safe Is It?

Payne traveled the country for three years to research her book, going to designated clubs, S&M fetish association meetings and countless "dungeons" -- a place designated for S&M play. Most places forbid full sexual contact and every club has dungeon masters -- lifeguards of sorts in case of a mishap.

"People go to clubs or dungeons to meet like-minded people but also because of the equipment," she said. Blindfolds fit just fine in a night table but not wooden Catherine wheels, a vertical Wheel of Fortune-type contraption with radial spokes onto which you attach your partner.

Toys of all sizes are aplenty, including suede flogs, leopardskin handcuffs, paddles and whips (which take some mastering, according to experts).

Morgan Lewis -- also known as "Her Majesty the Queen" -- likes to play sex games with submissive men, but she stresses the importance of getting to know each other. "It's not any different from any other relationship, you share your likes and dislikes and you find out each person's expectations," she said.

Lewis, a curvaceous dominatrix, believes limits can be tested, but that it's her job not to take the game too far in her personal relationships. "Not all fantasies should be carried out," she said.

Most couples choose a "safe word," that signals to the "top" to stop a scene immediately. A word like "no" or "stop" may actually intensify a scene because it's part of the submissive fantasy, so instead a color code is often established.

The S&M community swears by its motto, SSC, which means safe, sane and consensual.

The Naughty Ones

Critics of bondage, submission and the S&M culture believe participants are abusive, desensitized and sick. Not so, said Baumeister.

"There's no sign people who enjoy masochism are mentally ill at an elevated rate," he said.

Baumeister estimated that only 1 percent of the population engages regularly in S&M but that most everyone fantasizes about it. Overall, he said, more men follow through with their fantasies than women.

New York-based sex therapist and psychologist Dagmar O'Connor believes people who follow through with pain play are repeating early sexual imprints. "Either they were humiliated or they felt arousal or shame during a punishment and they want to relive the victim/perpetrator roles."

Dossie Easton disagreed.

"I don't think it's a pathological response because lots of people who like S&M didn't grow up with abuse or corporal punishment," she said. Easton thinks you can't even guess correctly who's a masochist or a sadist when people get together in street clothes because personalities rarely match the stereotypes.

For O'Connor, S&M in a controlled environment or in the privacy of your own bedroom is minor compared to the rampant self-abuse in our society.

"People put themselves at risk all the time doing drugs, flying airplanes, binging on alcohol and food, there's nothing wrong with having fun with sex."

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