Sadomasochism: What It Is and the Physiological Response To Pain
A sexual sadist is one who derives sexual pleasure from inflicting pain and torture onto another, who is most often a non- consenting party to the desires of the sexual sadist. These sadists often lack the ability to feel remorse for their actions, and usually have other forms of mental illness.
A ‘true’ masochist is one who derives real pleasure from inflicted pain. That is, the pain itself is found to be pleasurable. This type of masochist is generally not a submissive person, may hold a strong disdain for the protocol and practices within the BDSM community, but will, nevertheless, participate in the community in order to fulfill their desires.
In respect to this paper, we are not exploring sexual sadism and true masochism, but instead, the typical sadomasochism practiced within the BDSM community. The difference between these types of practices and participants are numerous. In order to have a better understanding of sadomasochism within BDSM, we need to have a basic understanding of the roles, titles, jargon, and etiquette common to BDSM. First, we must understand that not all dominants are sadists, and not all sadists are dominant. A switch is a person who is able to take a top or bottom role. A top is someone who takes on the dominant position for the duration of a scene only, and a bottom is someone who takes the submissive role for the duration of a scene. A submissive is not necessarily a BDSM masochist, but most BDSM masochists, unless they are a switch, are usually also submissive. A BDSM sadist differs from the sexual sadist in that they do care for health and safety of the masochist, only participates in consensual activities, and offers the use of a safe word or signal in order to stop all activities should the masochist become uncomfortable in any way. The difference between a true masochist and a BDSM masochist is that a true masochist is generally not submissive and derives pleasure from the pain itself; whereas a BDSM masochist generally derives pleasure from pleasing the sadist and from the physiological response to the pain, not the pain itself. These are general, and exceptions abound.
There are as many explanations to the question of why people choose this form of sexual release and lifestyle as there are people who participate in these activities. It is often highly personal, and no two practitioners will give you exactly the same answer for what BDSM and sadomasochism is to them, and what it entails. For instance, not all practitioners enjoy collar and leash play, which is a stigma, nor do all participants enjoy humiliation, another stigma common to sadomasochism.
In general, sadomasochism is a strong emotional aspect to the sexual desires which take a form of domination and submission, as opposed to a need for simple pain. (Anxiety Zone, 2012) In order for us to understand why this type of pleasure is sought, particularly for the masochist, we need to understand several important factors. First, not all pain is the same. The person inflicting the pain, and feelings and trust level the masochist has for that person, in other words, the dynamics between the two, is imperative. Also, the situation, surrounding, and what is known as the head space, or more simply, mood, of the masochist are also important factors in how pain is perceived. We must also have an understanding of how our body reacts to everyday stresses, including the fight or flight response, and how it reacts to pain and pleasure.
The manner in which pain is inflicted and by whom makes all the difference in how that pain is perceived. A complete stranger who chooses to take a riding crop and smack an unsuspecting BDSM masochist on the buttocks will most likely be met with anger. Psychologically, the BDSM masochist will perceive that pain in a negative manner. If, however, the BDSM masochist’s sadist takes the same riding crop and smacks her on the buttocks when she is least expecting it, she will perceive the action in a positive manner, perhaps even as playfulness. While the pain inflicted in both settings would probably be similar, the manner in which it is perceived is different; therefore the perceived pain levels could be significantly different as well. On the same hand, the pain from a dominant who stomps on the toe of his submissive will not be perceived as playful, and the pain will not register in the brain in a positive manner. (Pierre, n.d.) In short, even to a BDSM masochist, pain hurts, but the setting the pain is inflicted, and the trust level the masochist feels with the person inflicting the pain affects how pain is perceived.
Pain meant for pleasure must still be administered in a specific way for it to be effective. A good sadist will not begin whipping the masochist with an instrument such as a single tail whip, but will instead begin with light pain, perhaps with soft blows with a flogger, or any multitude of other ways. The reason for this is to begin the physiological response slowly, allowing the body to build up the hormones that will ultimately provide the masochist with the overall response that is desired. This is called warm up. It is during this time that the sadist will also spend much time getting into the masochist’s head. Techniques he will employee vary, but can include humiliation, talking dirty, and sensory deprivation, among many other things. The fact that so much attention is put on involving the brain in sex, and the fact that most often, foreplay involves most of the body from head to toe is, in itself, a huge reason many people choose to practice BDSM, as well as sadomasochism.
Most seasoned players also have a general understanding of the physiological response to all aspects of sadomasochism, sex, and love. In a sadomasochist relationship, a good sadist will attempt to create scenes, which are times the sadist and masochist indulge in their lifestyle, also called play time, which takes the masochist through all of the physiological responses, in a specific order. For this goal to be achieved, the sadist will employee different methods.