‘Pain is a feudal passion.’
Can submission be the solution to mental health problems?
Maja Metera, Cardiff University
Contrary to what we believe, as the brain itself is a symbol of reasoning and rational thinking, it is not logically – in common understanding – a programmed organ. If you scan a brain of a person who is experiencing pain and one who is experiencing pleasure – overlapping areas light up. Moreover, some researchers show that our reaction to pain is context-dependent to the extent that we set off on a journey of seeking pleasure within the painful encounters. Shocking? Not exactly, at least to some people.
Some of us have never feared that a blood test would hurt. We find the ease in which the needle enters the blood vessel fascinating. The day I get another piercing or tattoo done makes me so relaxed that I almost fall asleep during the procedure. Scholars show that the more meaning we see in the experienced pain, the higher our threshold to tolerate it becomes. However, what not many know and what only recently I discovered was that sexual pain, involved in kink and BDSM, could be so therapeutic.
BDSM can open a new perspective on how interpersonal relations could and should look like. Every scene should start with negotiations. Therefore, you get to set boundaries, voice your concerns, and afterwards, during aftercare, exchange feedback. The value and significance of freely given, enthusiastic consent cannot be stressed enough as without it fun becomes abuse. Therefore, no party is deprived of power as Dominant/submissive’ encounters draw from an authority exchange. The Dominant, need to trust the submissive at all times to use the safewords to stop the scene if anything starts to go wrong. Everyone involved needs to be aware of the risks that come with kink, as both physical and psychological damage can be done if we do not pay attention to the words and body language of others. Thus, pain play is based on open and honest communication in a safe, non-judgmental environment. For this reason, some professional erotic workers see a correlation between the ‘pro-Doms’ (professional Dominant/Domina) work and therapy sessions, during which some old wounds can open to heal properly.
Therapy is defined in Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘means serving and caring for the patient in a comprehensive manner, preventing disease as well as managing specific problems’ and psychotherapy as having ‘The purpose of modifying or removing existing symptoms and promoting personality growth.’ According to Silva’s paper from 2015, masochists asked about their feelings after a pain play session indicated that those experiences result in temporary relief from emotional strain (depression, stress and anxiety), overload (confusion, overwhelm and anger) as well as social exclusion and pressure imposed by gender roles. Therefore, it might be considered as a type of therapy by some.
Those results are most significantly vivid if the masochists use pain to enter so-called ‘subspace.’ It is described as this floaty feeling of thoughtless, numbness accompanied by the ejection of endorphins – the ‘happy hormones.’ The painful sensation takes attention away from abstract thoughts and towards the present moment and physical body and may help manage the negative emotional states, by being distracted away from them.
Intimacy and vulnerability
Not every time is as powerful; however, think about the time you had awful period cramps or an excruciating headache. I am quite confident to say that you were not able to think about anything else at the time. This is because of the body’s natural survival mechanism. Pain always takes your focus off of other things to get you through it. In those terms, Doms take on the responsibility for their subs, so mindset ‘Since my sub wants to relax, I’m glad to do the thinking.’ Helps induce the positive reaction that can look like anything from crying and relief to uncontrollable bursts of laughter. Those intimate feelings can strengthen the bond which appears between sexual partners, thanks to oxytocin, the ‘cuddles hormone,’ and therefore, be an answer to some of the relationship troubles concerning closeness.
Moreover, it has been proved that submissives are more vulnerable but also more aware of their emotional state, the stigma surrounding kink and societal expectations than switches or Dominants. Therefore, from the baby sub’s – person new to the kink scene – perspective, having a safe space in which we can discuss our desires freely, takes off the burden placed on us by, for example, gender roles. For instance, as a feminist, it was tough for me to accept my sexual needs as I was surrounded by a discourse started by radical feminist activists like Catharine MacKinnon who wanted to ban the pornography portraying women in submissive roles as she believed it strengthens the patriarchal hierarchy. Thus, entering the community and practising kink was a way of stepping on a path of self-acceptance for me, among others.
Can BDSM be treated as a therapy?
As a cis, white, able-bodied, independent female feminist on her way to mental stability and self-love, I have a privilege to decide whether I want to give up the control or not. I have the privilege of using the stereotypes that make women inferior to men in a controlled, steady environment. I have the privilege of being able to use pain to process past trauma, negative emotions and my mental health problems because I do not have to experience it daily outside the scene. I have the privilege of having sexual desires that act as a mood booster and aid me in managing self-harm impulses in not a neutral but beneficial way.
Nonetheless, encouraging kinky sex as a form of therapy underpins the idea that people with those erotic preferences are mentally ill. This way, it could further engrave the stigma around the BDSM community that some sexologists and psychologists prolong by describing sadomasochistic practises are paraphilias, a sexual dysfunction listed in an official DSM report by APA (American Psychiatric Association). Additionally, we need to remember that play partners are not trained in managing mental health problems. Kink can be of great help and useful addition in the form of a support system to therapy, but it should not by any means replace it.