What's Pain Got to Do With It?

Various fetish stuff for role playing and BDSM: hand cuffs, a gag and high heels shoes
Various fetish stuff for role playing and BDSM: hand cuffs, a gag and high heels shoes

I promise you, I'm not going to write about a certain movie. Enough has been said. Besides, I haven't seen it and don't plan to... not because I'm squeamish, but because the core plot line doesn't interest me. I had planned, years ago, to read the trilogy, then write a piece about it, but the books were so underwhelming I ultimately couldn't scrape up the interest for that, either.

What does interest me is the subject of love. Love and sex. And how and why we've conflated those two with intentional pain. BDSM. That titillating, naughty, likely misunderstood matter that's inspired millions of women (and men) to blush and giggle a certain author happily to a very big bank.

I say "misunderstood" because, given the spate of articles from experts in the field claiming that the movie in question doesn't grasp the finer, more authentic, points of true BDSM (not sure how they rated the books), I'd guess most of those who rushed to the theater to watch beloved characters get it on with implements of destruction wouldn't know the first thing (or second or third) about true sadomasochism or bondage and discipline. At least outside of play handcuffs and the occasional use of ice cubes. In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that sex toy injuries surged after Fifty Shades of Grey was published. That title says it all, but let me quote that "the overwhelming majority of these injuries -- 83 percent -- require 'foreign body removals.'" Clearly, the skill set isn't there for most.

What are we doing to ourselves? When did the act of warm, caramelly, intimate sex become considered so vanilla, so mundane and outdated, that we're pushed to push the odd items into our orifices, with abandon and to our own bodily harm, just to achieve the sensation of pleasure?

Of course, having written about sexual issues in the past, I know it's a topic as fraught as religion or politics, so zealots may raise a pitchfork or two to pillory my "prudishness," snark that I "ain't gettin' any," or hiss at my inability to understand that it's about "freedom" and "empowerment" (love that one). Whatever. It sounds to me like it's about needing extremes, needing pain, needing humiliation and subjugation to get off. Call me what you will, but, really, what's that about?

Look, I'm not talking about the occasional fun, kinky stuff with lace blindfolds, silk scarves and interestingly-shaped insertion items (if that's your thing); I'm talking about the kind of need that necessitates an entire room to house the weapons of mass destruction. The kind of need that requires a "safe word" or demands a written release; the kind of need that too easily crosses into abuse and true aggression.

While proponents of BDSM -- which include some self-identified feminists who assert that choosing to experience sex with pain is about "free will" and, therefore, a good thing -- defend to the death the "healthiness" of uninhibited folks pushing the boundaries of human sexual behavior, I wonder about those who find so much pleasure in pain.

How is it that when we discover some emo teen cutting themselves, the world gasps in collective horror at the idea of a person slicing open the skin under their knees in an attempt to feel something? We frame it (correctly) as emotional anguish and get that kid to a therapist, tout suite, yet we cheer as "freedom of choice!" the need of someone else to feel true pain and domination to enjoy sex. Why do we determine that the cutting teen is mentally and emotionally unstable, yet devote fan sites and spend millions on someone celebrating the whip and butt plug?

Studies have found some partners find titillation and deeper arousal in the "make up sex" that follows discord in the relationship. From Psychology Today: "Make-up sex acts like a drug that gives temporary, illusory relief but is not a deep or genuine solution." And yet, "Make-up sex is considered by many to be the best sex there is, which in many cases is worth the fight."

"Worth the fight." Stunning. When it follows true physical and verbal assault, as it often does (PT even cites a case), we tend to categorize a woman (or man) who stays in such a relationship as someone who "needs help," who's battered, who has a syndrome that prevents them from walking out the door.

Yet a man or woman who needs violence in the form of BDSM is aggrandized as sexy and open-minded. They're given high-profile columns at big news sites to write about the ins and outs (this pun intended) of the fetish; they're seen as erotic messengers of sexual empowerment; they have books written about them and movies made that attract millions of tittering followers.

But is there that big a difference between the cutting teen versus the practitioner of BDSM? How do we marginalize one set of self-abusers and celebrate the other?

People whose sex lives are filled with kinky bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) games have a better psychological health because they're more open-minded and communicative...
Wismeijer [Andreas Wismeijer, professor at the Nyenrode Business University in the Netherland] believes that this is the case because BDSM requires thought, planning, and consent from both parties before the action takes place, including thinking about the duration and intensity of the activity and communicating each party's sexual desires and needs, he added.

It goes on to say a lot of other things (it is the Netherlands, after all!), but even if all that is true, I have to ask: why can't men and women become "more open-minded and communicative," and implement honest communication about their sexual desires and needs, without a tool kit of riding crops and nipple clips? Again, sex play with G- to R-rated toys is one thing, but I've watched HBO's "Real Sex" enough to know that, beyond the shallowness of the movie-that-shall-not-be-named, some BDSM practitioners can be truly Hannibal Lecterian in their scope. Most swoon and outwardly trumpet the fun and games of the activity, but, just as society questions and fears for the cutter, why do those who require such extremes to be pleasured get a free mental health pass?

I know, I know: to each his own, consenting adults, sexual inhibition, true expression... I get it. But as someone who grew up at time when sexual freedom was all the rage, I look around at what's happening now and simply have to ponder how we got here. To a time when excellent books, stellar movies and amazing stories of endurance, love, fantasy and every other plot line imaginable have been trumped by a sloppy tale of sexual fetish. To a time when every news website is glutted with analyses of the "pros and cons of BDSM." When the amount of vitriol and poop-slinging on the topic is as heated as any discussion about Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Hillary Clinton. When the notion of warm, loving, "normal" sex is dismissed as almost archaic and unhip.

Maybe it's society that "ain't gettin' any."

But whatever sex is (clearly very different things to different people), I'm convinced if we follow the thread back to the inciting spark, to that soulful place before compulsion, fetish, pathology and addiction, sex is inherently about connection, tenderness, pleasure and the desire to touch, feel and be close to another person. To experience release, affection, intimacy and, dare I say it, even love. Those are still good things, desirable things; things we want our children to experience when they become sexually active; things we want to experience ourselves and still cherish in our own relationships.

I don't know what pain's got to do with any of that.

2014-05-06-LDW_ATSP_DigiCvr_Final_sm.jpg Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, and Rock+Paper+Music. Find details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com and her Author Page at Amazon, watch her book trailer HERE, and be sure to follow her adventures in independent publishing at her book blog, AfterTheSuckerPunch.com. Watch for news about the launch of her new novel, HYSTERICAL LOVE, currently available for pre-order, with a pub date of April 7, 2015.

by Lorraine Devon Wilke