Imagine yourself at a technically advanced and highly creative suspension workshop. You are with your favourite partner, trying to learn a tie repeatedly, but it never really works. There is always something pinching, some nerve-tingling or something else. Then, the same evening in a play scene with poor light, loud music and a handful of people watching, you do the same suspension effortlessly while feeling larger than life and bringing your partner to heaven. Why is this? In order to understand, let’s look at some of the biomechanical mechanisms of the human body.
The Biochemical Cocktail
The body is in constant adaptation to its environment. Much of that adaptation is controlled by the biochemical cocktail currently being brewed by the brain. The ingredients are endogenous hormones, meaning that they are produced by the body itself. The most common hormones involved in the sadomasochistic play are:
Oxytocin is called the parenting hormone because it nudges us to provide others with love, protection and care. It is also released when one is feeling safe and loved. It acts like a positively escalating circle, as the release causes more oxytocin in both ourselves and others. We quickly tune into the oxytocin level of people around us, making us more loving towards them. It is cancelled by stress and testosterone and can stay in the body for several days.
Adrenaline is called the fight or flight hormone. It causes us to prepare for a threat. It makes us super alert and pain tolerant and raises our heart rate and oxygen intake, making us stronger and more endurant. Adrenaline is released by stress when feeling threatened or aggressive and usually only lasts for a maximum of half an hour.
Endorphin is called morphine created by the body. It acts as a painkiller, pacifier and pleasure-giver. It makes us feel good, or even fantastic, and very pain tolerant. It is also highly addictive and again makes us surrender and be obedient. Endorphins are cancelled by adrenaline because it’s impractical for the survival instinct to be pacified when in a fight or flight situation. It can stay in the body for several days.
Dopamine is called the motivational hormone. It makes us want to succeed with any task, like a sexual accomplishment, success at work, climbing a mountain, etc. Dopamine makes us hunt and crave to repeat whatever previously caused a dopamine release. It is also highly addictive and can stay in the body for several days.
Hormones at Play in Sadomasochism
So how is this related to sadomasochism and technically advanced suspensions? From a biochemical perspective, I would describe a rope session as: using oxytocin to trigger endorphins instead of adrenaline and be rewarded by dopamine. Another way of saying it is that it will be easier for the bound person to handle the strain on their body when affected by endorphins. Actually, many submissives are endorphin addicts, or ‘pain sluts’, as it’s commonly called in the sadomasochistic subculture. Being slightly nerdy, it’s easy to see a handful of rope bondage session archetypes or themes and what neurotransmitters they trigger.
Oxytocin when intimately tying on the floor. Endorphins when suffering in challenging rope positions. Adrenaline when shocked by the overwhelming pain of single-foot suspension, and eventually endorphins if one keeps on it long enough. Dopamine when nailing that club performance in front of an audience, and adrenaline and endorphins from the ropes.
It is the moment just before taking off into the air. In a few seconds, the strain on the body will increase massively, the body will react, and the hormones will kick in to support. The body is at the crossroad of endorphins and adrenaline. Either the body can take the path of flight or fight, or surrender and obedience – it is here that we see whether or not the body feels safe. Is the situation a threat or simply pain that needs to be processed? The answer is heavily influenced by oxytocin. So by increasing the parenting and the love before reaching this crossroad, the body will be more likely to take the path of endorphin.
The path of adrenaline is also valid, as many people love the rush. Most of the time it’s released together with endorphins but adrenaline’s effects dominate. And the endorphins remain after the adrenaline is burnt away after half an hour, however many prefer to avoid adrenaline altogether on their quest for surrender.
Administering Pain Little By Little
It’s like the body is always prepared with a small storage of endorphins to be used in moments of pain. Then, if and when needed, the entire store is released, and the body starts to regenerate and will not release again until the storage is completely replenished. This process usually takes time. So from a purely hormonal perspective, there is no reason for administering more pain directly after a release, as it takes time to build up a high level of endorphins.
Over the years, I heard about several non-scientific models describing endorphin levels. Here is a compiled summary.
- Level 1 – Slightly higher pain tolerance, no impact on behaviour or communication, feeling slightly euphoric.
- Level 2 – Much higher pain tolerance, obedient behaviour, no active communication but still responding, feeling euphoric.
- Level 3 – Reaction to pain stops, complete obedience, no communication, feeling very euphoric.
- Level 4 – Like level 3 except for strong reactions to any sensation, shaking/shivering at soft touch.
- Level 5 – Fight for survival, will respond with violence, no communication. I’ve never seen this level, but the idea makes sense if the body is pushed far enough.
How quickly one moves between the levels is very individual. I guess some people have a more well-developed endorphin system and move very quickly, while others are more scared of the pain and need more time. Anyone is susceptible to enjoying a slow endorphin release.
I’m sure everyone knows the feeling of touching something scorching hot. The first thought that runs through the mind is ‘oh fucking shit, that was so stupid; this will hurt’. And even before that, there is an instinctual reaction of withdrawing the finger. Then the thought, ‘oh no, here it comes’. That is the pain that releases the endorphins. The danger is over, and the only thing that remains is acceptance, maybe feeling a bit pathetic. Well, this is surrender. I often experience it when having a high fever, when there simply is nothing I can do about it.
So again, how is this related to sadomasochism? And the technically advanced and highly creative suspension? Well, someone at the second level of the model can withstand much more strain on their body and find more euphoria than someone without previous endorphin releases. So tying with methodical speed and, after five minutes hoisting the partner into the air will leave the body poorly prepared for the pain. Even if the tying involved pain and endorphin release, the five minutes probably wouldn’t be close enough to reach level two. Instead, the pain will likely result in an adrenalin rush. The body will still deal with the pain but without the euphoria. I suggest spending at least half an hour before putting any heavy strain on the body and preparing by administering some discomfort during this period.
Endorphins In Details
The most obvious danger of endorphins is that pain has a function; it is the body telling the brain about some potential problem, so we dampen this function by getting high. But pain is more complex than that because the brain will interpret the communication based on its previous real or imagined experiences. For example, a person who has never experienced suspension but has seen suspensions which looked to them very painful might then when it’s their turn to experience interpret the pain as more severe than it is. Yoga usually distinguishes between uncomfortable pain and dangerous pain, where awkward pain is simply the body adjusting to a new position, but scary pain can cause actual damage. Therefore it’s important to gradually learn how one’s body deals with pain to be able to stay safe enough, while experiencing the high.
The secondary danger lies in poor communication. At the second level, the person may stop initiating contact, which means that even if they feel the pain from a nerve pinching or the lack of blood in their hands, they will probably not say anything about it unless directly asked. Hence it becomes critical to check in when reaching high levels rather than expect them to initiate the communication. Add the obedience factor, and they will be less likely to complain or even to give a safe word. So while endorphin release is something many people are looking for, it can significantly make play edgier.
Something I often see in retreats is people trying the technically advanced and highly creative suspensions, and regardless of the outcome, they sit down with their partner and rationally analyse the experience. Where did it hurt the most? How was the tension and pressure here and there? And so on. While this is nice and might bring insights, it will lower the level of endorphins in the body, as the body will go from ‘I’m in pain and I’m letting go’ to ‘I’m no longer in the experience and back to everyday life’ therefore ending the long sought-for surrender prematurely. Abandoning someone to go for a cigarette is even worse as it will be ‘I can no longer be vulnerable and need to take care of myself’. Of course, the abandonment can be part of the sadomasochistic play, as an expression of power and humiliation, but it’s balancing on the edge of what’s safe enough, so I would recommend keeping your partner close with some rope on them to hold them in space.
Dopamine In Details
While endorphins have a tremendous impact on how we experience sadomasochistic play, there is dopamine that has an even more significant influence on our lives in general. Dopamine makes us crave completion. A bondage session can focus on nailing a complicated suspension, seducing the love of our life, feeling the crowd’s attention during a performance, or earning another person’s complete trust. Dopamine will encourage the same behaviour again; success teaches us how to succeed. The brain may also be generally lazy, as it’s genetically programmed to discourage doing new things and encourage following old patterns. There is a threshold that controls our initiative and hesitation, and it is highly dependent on the level of dopamine. The more dopamine, the more likely we act on an impulse, idea or suggestion. I wish everyone could experience the feeling at a ritual when getting lost in time, meeting person after person, and ending it in the kitchen to make the most incredible three-course midnight snack, even when completely exhausted. This is dopamine at play.
Dopamine will remain in the body for days, making life feel friendly and straightforward. In esoteric practices, men are often discouraged from ejaculating during sex to keep their ‘energy’ high. One reason could be the release of prolactin at ejaculation, which counteracts dopamine, relaxes the body and puts us to sleep. Following this rationale, could getting a dopamine reward from sadomasochistic play be comparable to having sex without ejaculation, something that will make you feel fantastic for days to come?
Risk-taking is the primary danger of dopamine, as it will affect your threshold for acting on impulses. As a result, things that your risk awareness might have hinted at or stopped completely now go unnoticed. For example, a lowered risk awareness might only benefit someone held back by their head. On the other hand, a decreased risk awareness might be a real danger for someone who is used to pushing their limits. Typical things affected in rope bondage are unsafe tie-offs of suspension ropes, uneven tensions that are not re-done, and so on.
Another indirect risk of dopamine is the release of prolactin at orgasm, as prolactin will counteract dopamine and endorphins. This will drastically lower the pain tolerance gained in level two and later in the model. So magic wanding someone to orgasm while suspended in a painful leg tie might not be the most intelligent thing to do, as they may need to come down very quickly afterwards.
Buy Dopamine and Endorphins Off The Street
The power of hormones has long been the basis for drugs for medical and recreational use. Opium, morphine and heroin are all versions of endorphins produced outside the body. Cocaine and amphetamine alter the brain’s dopamine-handling functions. Studies have shown that rats drugged with morphine starve to death due to lack of initiative. This is also why heroin addicts lose weight to the barebone, as they are satisfied with their endorphin euphoria. And why cocaine addicts try to stop trains with their bodies or jump out of windows convinced that they will take flight – all bolstered by their god-like feeling and close to zero level of hesitation from their dopamine highs.
So instead of worrying about the pain, I take the path to dopamine via endorphin and oxytocin. And I do so by starting slower and gradually introducing more pain in my practice. Avoiding the adrenaline. Being aware of the impact of hormones on our bodies can deepen and improve your play – and the interaction with your partner.