The very first time I really experienced pain during impact play—really, truly sustained heavy pain—was during my initial exploration of the cane. Still, an implement I hold near and dear to my masochistic heart, splintering bamboo on my ass has probably been one of the most intense sensations I have ever felt during a scene. I moaned and whimpered. I cursed like a fucking sailor. I kicked and screamed until my knees went weak. I wiggled around like a rag doll until my wrists and ankles were fastened to an old wooden desk and the stripes engraved into my flesh transitioned from peach to crimson to indigo.
A few individuals outside of the BDSM community have asked me about my pain tolerance—whether I am capable of feeling pain or if I am intoxicated during scenes. I am never intoxicated and yes, I absolutely feel pain. But when my body and mind enter subspace, I fully surrender. I am able to lean into the pain and discomfort rather than fight it. I melt into every searing stroke. I am untroubled and entranced, trusting in my partner to take me to the edge and bring me back safely. The pain becomes an act of love, an act of courage. It becomes a subtle reminder that I am alive.
Defining Pain in BDSM
The universal definition of pain is “the physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury,” but when referring to the seductively violent sensations we feel during a scene, pain is not associated with illness or injury. It is the kind of pain inflicted for the sole intent of feeling pleasure or sexual arousal.
The word pain carries a negative nuance and is traditionally thought of as bad. Ouch. It hurts. It stings. It burns. It’s sore. It’s uncomfortable. We are encouraged to pursue pleasure over pain because pain means we are enduring bad experiences. But when we are open to seeing pain in a different light and the negative ideals we hold gradually lessen, the feeling can be accepted as a positive experience. Pain becomes the good kind of ouch, sting, and burn. Pain becomes delight, a kind of solace that transports us into a dreamlike frenzy of wildness and lust. It is a state of mind where we can no longer be disturbed by the thoughts and people and things outside of our warm bubble.
Understanding pain, subspace, and having the mindfulness to process it in a healthy manner are essential elements for both long-serving masochists and novice bottoms looking to chase the high. Being in tune with our bodies, having a sense of our pain thresholds, and being familiar with methods in which to digest the pain we withstand not only contributes to our safety, but it also allows us to connect more intimately. It allows us to submit deeper and play harder.
Understanding Pain in Play
The acronym BDSM refers to interests including bondage, domination, discipline, submission, and sadomasochism. It is a community where likeminded humans revel in thrilling social activities like impact play, sensory deprivation, humiliation, role play, and risk-aware consensual kink, otherwise known as RACK. While the more typical kinds of play fall under the safe, sane, and consensual (SSC) category, risk-aware consensual kink on the other hand, is a term used to describe the riskier, more unpredictable behaviors such as blood play, needles, fire play, asphyxiation, and cutting.
In the subject of BDSM, pain and pleasure are interconnected to form this beautiful paradox of pure harmony, in the same way as the sadist and masochist. The bottom aches for the pain as a form of pleasure while the Top inflicts the pain and experiences pleasure by their actions. It is an interchangeable relationship, a unique kinship that can strengthen the bond of two individuals. Pain in this instance, is not considered bad.
It is a consensual experience of mischievous titillations and sometimes, severe sensations that can push us out of our comfort zones and into a headspace where our bodies become vessels for a gluttony of emotional and physical gratification.
The Seduction of Subspace
My earliest memory of feeling the warm sweetness of subspace was during a rope suspension. Embraced in the knots and fibers of jute, the sensations against my skin and the agonizing pressure against my chest pushed me into a tranquil mentality similar to mediation. It was almost as if I was outside of my body, watching myself float freely above the sparkling pool.
For those new to BDSM, you are probably wondering what subspace actually is. In short, it is an alternate state of mind that a bottom can reach during a particularly intense scene with their Top. That is the easy answer, but here is the more elaborate, scientific one: it is the moment when both pain and pleasure collide and provoke a sympathetic nervous system response which floods your insides with endorphins and enkephalins. These chemicals are part of the fight or flight response and as the scene intensifies, all of the senses are heightened and the bottom is gently nudged into a state of delirium or weariness, a sort of trance-like feeling where the body is relaxed and spacey. As the bottom falls deeper into subspace, they gradually detach, becoming out of touch with reality and in turn, are able to tolerate more pain. While subspace generally happens more frequently during fierce physical interactions, it is not uncommon for the same feelings to occur during a strong emotional interaction. Sometimes, all it takes is one look and the word baby girl.
There are many bottoms—including myself—who can plummet so deeply into subspace they eventually lose most sensations of pain, which can be both heavenly and dangerous. When a bottom enters subspace they are in an incredibly vulnerable state. They are likely to lose all sense of time and coordination, and their ability to communicate clearly can diminish. I cannot stress the importance—especially for newcomers—of your safety and self-awareness during a scene. Become familiar with your pain threshold and be sure that both verbal and non-verbal (a back-up signal to stop or slow down if you cannot speak) safe words are discussed and known. And most importantly, do not ever play with a Dominant you do not fully trust. Ensure you are playing with a responsible and attentive human who can end a scene, not when they think you’ve had enough, but when they can recognize shifts in your body language well enough to know you have reached your limits.
I remember being in front of a dim-lit audience at the infamous Bar Sinister in Hollywood. It was my birthday and I was on the receiving end of a very mean birthday beating from two very mean floggers and one very mean man. Strike after strike, the whooshing sounds of the harsh leather steadily disappeared into the deafening music, but I could still catch words of the conversation being had by the two wide-eyed women standing just outside of the play area.
“Holy Shit, he is hitting her so hard!”
“I know, fuck. How is she just taking it like that?” They stared at our scene dumbstruck and a little distressed, but a part of me that wanted to prove I could withstand much more. The whipping of the floggers continued to thrash my skin until one of them—steadfast and savage—sent me straight to my knees and into a puddle of pain on the carpeted floor. The dominant I was playing with at the time rushed toward me. He scooped me up into his tender arms and comforted me with a gentle check-in.
“Can you take three more for Sir?” he asked. His voice was affectionate yet firm, a voice I could never deny. I nodded and agreed to continue. My flesh was warm, burning and pulsating simultaneously. I could almost feel the bruises forming as the soreness deepened into the surface of my bones. I was alternating in and out of subspace and agreed to take more because I wanted to push myself for him. I agreed to take more because I knew it would satisfy his sadistic needs. In this instance, my bearing of pain became an act of service, an act of entertainment, and an act of love. It was me telling him, I can take more pain because I fucking love you.
Pain processing is the ability to accept and transform intolerable physical sensations into pleasure. It is a means of translating our discomfort into endurable experiences where we then feel ease and fulfillment.
Every individual processes pain in their own unique way, but it is generally dependent upon on the experience, the pain threshold, and the kinds of pain being received. In the scene illustrated above, my processing of pain was about selflessness, my unyielding desire to withstand more for the gratification of a human I cared so deeply for.
Methods of Processing Pain
A bottom’s ability to process pain may include actions that are both emotional and physical. This may include detachment, compartmentalization, visualization, vocalization, role play, and breathing techniques. Here are five of my favorite methods of processing pain:
Mindful Breathing: Controlling your breath in a slow and deliberate way can help to remedy panic and reduce anxiety—breathing in with each strike, each needle, or each cut, and breathing out to release the pain from the body. It’s meditative and soothing. Mindful breathing can be especially supportive when being led by the Top as it can strengthen the connection and trust throughout the scene.
Love: When the relationship between a Dominant and his submissive develops over time, it is common for the bottom to build a higher pain tolerance. Not only do they become mentally and physically stronger with each scene, but they also become more confident as the trust grows and evolves. If I am not emotionally connected to my Top, I become detached and the pain becomes more of a challenge to process, but when I can feel the closeness, the passionate energy exchange, the magic, I am often times surprised by the amount of pain my body can brave. Love becomes the motive and my ability to overcome pain becomes a little easier and much more meaningful.
Vocalization: While it may sound strange, laughter releases endorphins and the act of laughing almost outwits your body into believing you are feeling pleasure rather than pain. I tend to laugh, a lot, when I am experiencing pain and the lightheartedness of it all helps me to relax and channel my pain more effectively. Other forms of vocalization may include growling, squawking, crying, saying “fuck you” to everything, erotic moaning, and at times, complete silence.
Mantras: Being a woman who repeats mantras and affirmations daily, this one is really important for me before and during play. Repeating mantras like, “I am a strong woman” or “pain heals my body” really helps to get me into a resilient headspace. Before initiating my scene with Erik (AKA, SirMrWombat) I was terrified. I had never experienced surgical staples before and had to gently remind myself that I chose to explore this kind of play. I told myself I was fearless and ready to embrace new sensations. Mantras can be an incredibly special and personal focal point.
Dancing: You are probably thinking, wait, this bitch starts dancing in the middle of a scene? No, well, kind of. When I use the word dancing, I am referring to that I’m-about-to-piss-my-pants kind of dance. This pain processing method is particularly helpful during impact play because it helps to distribute the pain throughout the body. I tend to do this child-like two-step when I am getting caned or hit with a strap because those implements deliver a fierce sting. When I wiggle around or hop in place for a few seconds, the pain of the sting is dispersed throughout my body and I am given a moment to accept and then quickly release the sensation.
I never thought purposeful pain would become such a meaningful part of my life, but I embrace new feelings and new sensations with every bone in my body. Pain has become a ritual for emotional healing, an avenue for self-expression, and a catalyst for some of the deepest forms of human connection I have ever come to know.