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Common pitfalls when playing with pain (2021)

Pain is both personal and relational. Let me explain what I mean. It is personal because it is subjective. No one can ever feel your pain. They can empathically imagine your experience but never actually feel it. In this way, we are all utterly alone in the end. But it is also relational because how we experience pain is greatly influenced by how we relate to its source. Therefore the relationship between the dominant and the submissive is fundamentally essential. In this musing, I want to write about three archetypical pain relationships.

First, pain as a reward, a service, and a rollercoaster ride to an endorphin high. This is very much the experience that I describe in my text Pain and Kinbaku. The progression moves from slow and light sensations to faster and heavier impact, following the submissive breathing that guides the dominant in giving a smooth ride. The pain is never scary, and that helps in the relaxation and release of tension. My experience is that anyone can enjoy this kind of “pain” if it’s slow enough, just like a firm massage. It is good to realize that the dominant is not so dominant in rewarding sessions because they mainly provide a service. It can be exciting to develop enough flogging skills to take someone on a rollercoaster ride to endorphin heaven. You one will likely get very popular in the community from this. But it can also be exhausting and, probably, lacking a bit of that refreshing rush of power. This kind of play is excellent if the submissive is tilting towards surrender rather than submission when it’s all about their experience. Compared to submission when it’s all about the dominants desire. So with a rewarding pain relationship, it’s important to understand its intention to avoid understandings, just as in the following two, where things get more complicated.

Next is using pain as a challenge and a way for the dominant to find the submissives comfort zone’s edges. The main driver is curiosity or satisfaction of sadistic tendencies. I love placing my partner in predicament bondage, where they have to fight and endure my ropes. The goal is often not to let the submissive float away into their bubble of surrender but to remain present with me in their submission. This pain relationship is highly personal because it is crucial who the dominant is. Many submissives describe how they can surrender to many different people because they want the physical sensation. However, submission is much more personal and therefore limited to one or a few partners. The challenging pain does not have to be slowly escalating to give the submissive a smooth ride. But if the dominant moves too fast, they will reach the edge quickly, and the play will be short. Instead, I would recommend slowly approaching the edge and see how many details there are to learn—allowing the bondage to be delicate and detailed.

Challenging and rewarding pain can sometimes overlap, and it is possible to switch between them. In this way, let submissive balance on the intensity between salvation and despair. The rewarding compliment can be surrender but also simple pleasure. The reasons for this differ; some people with a very sexualized picture of BDSM need sexual stimuli. Sexual masochists confuse pain and joy during high arousal in the nervous system. While for most people, the pleasure simply makes the pain more bearable. The three mix and overlap too. The most important fact to keep in mind when exploring challenging pain is that for the dominant’s satisfaction. So asking the submissive is this, the sensation of pain, enjoyable for you, will often destroy the fantasy. The question can be, do you enjoy suffering for me. In my experience, they must find their satisfaction in the curiosity of the dominant—in wanting to submit. This is often more challenging for a dominant because they need to own that this is their desire and that they are no longer simply providing a service.

Finally, the third type of pain relationship is punishment, where the pain is a reaction of the submissive breaking a rule or misbehaving. Of course, it is part of a consensual and conscious play power—the goal is to give pain that is not enjoyable, which is the opposite of rewarding pain. So if the reward is slow, safe, and according to the submissive breath, then the punishing pain is fast, scary, and unpredictable. And in a way, avoiding surrender. Make it unmistakable if the pain is punishment or reward. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If the aim is to make it rewarding, but the submissive interprets it as a punishment, there is trouble brewing. First of all, likely, they will not enjoy the pain because of the emotional structure around being punished. They will think they did something wrong when there was no fault. And the dominant will likely feel like a failure when a rewarding effort is received as the total opposite. So the communication will deteriorate and with that also the trust. The other way around is not as problematic—when the submissive perceives a punishment as a reward. In this case, they will simply not learn from their mistakes and becomes more likely to repeat them. In the long run, this will undermine the power dynamic.

Another concept is “fun-ishment”, which is to role-play a punishment for fun as a reward. I try to avoid this unless the play intention is clearly comical, like a silly act at a play party for the laughs. But most of the time, I find it more attractive to explore pain as a reward, a challenge and a punishment. So make sure to make it clear. Is it reward, challenge, punishment or fun-ishment?

Photo by Cim Ek