Being Fascinated With How I Bled
Seeking pain on purpose
Onto this week’s submission:
My experiences with pain as pleasure started when I was a kid...shocking myself with 9V batteries, closing the circuit on a bedside lamp between my fingers and shocking myself, ruining how many of my mother's candles playing in hot wax, and just generally being fascinated with how I bled…
Thank you for this story, submitter.
If I’m being absolutely honest, and what is this entire project without that necessary prerequisite, I was thrilled when I got this one.
See, last year for a work project, I studied pain as pleasure quite a bit. I became fascinated by the science of it all, particularly when it comes to dopamine: our cheap high chemical. That’s how it’s marketed in contemporary science, but it’s actually more complex than that. Dopamine is also a learning chemical, teaching us things that feel good (delicious food), and things that feel bad (hot stove).
Like your own kitchen, dopamine teaches you how to move about life.
But pain, like pleasure, is highly subjective. And because your own brain is always negotiating between the two, it’s a constant conversation.
Do I like this? No? Maybe sometimes?
Do I like that? Yes? Will I still like it next week?
I used to visit an acupuncturist, one who drove deep, thick needles into my shredded shoulder tendons. The first time it happened, he left the room, and I cried facedown on the table.
It hurt…yes. But these were tears of exquisite relief: he’d found the exact right spot.
As it turns out, I didn’t need all those foam rollers. The lacrosse balls. I didn’t even need the capable thumbs of a massage therapist. No, what I needed was a needle — one that could pinpoint my ache with a millimeter’s accuracy.
Do I like this? No? Maybe sometimes?
Before leaving, I booked five more appointments with the acupuncturist.
Chronically late to everything, I arrived early and anticipatory, every single time.
In the late 1800s, there was a German psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who took it upon himself to write Psychopathia Sexualis: a rather Victorian guide to sexuality, based on observations of his patients and those inside psychiatric asylums.
You might not know Richard by name, yet. But trust me: you know Richard.
You’ll soon find out why.
Richard wasn’t particularly religious, but he was very aristocratic, very well-educated, and something of a book nerd. Game recognize game, sir.
“During recent years facts have been advanced which prove that Sacher-Masoch was not only the poet of Masochism, but that he himself was afflicted with the anomaly…I refute the accusation that "I have coupled the name of a revered author with a perversion of the sexual instinct", which has been made against me by some admirers of the author and by some critics of my book.”
“Facts have been advanced.” That’s 1886 for: new shit has come to light.
This is Richard, explaining how he came up with the term “masochism,” the act of seeking pain on purpose. He named it after writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer who authored Venus in Furs 16 years earlier. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about a man who implores a lover to degrade him, to demean him, to have her treat him as a lowly, pathetic servant. We might understand it today as humiliation kink, since Leopold seeks it out.
Please laugh with me then, at Richard’s defensive sentence:
“I refute the accusation that "I have coupled the name of a revered author with a perversion of the sexual instinct”
Of course, that’s exactly what he’s done. And he did it again with Marquis de Sade, for whom he derived the term “sadism:” the act of inflicting pain on purpose.
I give you this historical backdrop to explain how it’s not always the church that’s been the main driver of sexual shame. It’s also been medicine.
And more specifically, the European men who wrote all the textbooks.
In 2023, it’s important you know who Richard Krafft-Ebing is, to understand why people continue to equate sexual pleasure with deviancy. According to Richard for example, female sexual deviants are any women who seek sex outside of procreation. And we know all about that charming legacy.
The thing that makes Richard’s influence especially insidious is that, also in 2023, we know better than to let the church shame us for sex. But to let science (“science”) shame us for sex? That bias is far more invisible.
And while Richard chilled out over time, Psychopathia Sexualis considered procreation the sole purpose of sexual desire. Any form of recreational sex? A perversion.
Take that in. To desire sex, for any other reason than a baby.
Psychopathia Sexualis was a leading text of its time. And we are still dealing with its frustrating legacy: next time you hear the word “sick” to shame someone’s sexual tastes, you can thank Richard, for pathologizing sexual pleasure itself.
But one cool thing his book did do, was shed light on folks who seek pain for pleasure.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm welcome to today’s guests: the masochists.
I watched the 2002 movie Secretary over the weekend, in preparation for this post. Permit me to be the 20th person in your life who mentions Secretary as their kink-intellectual street cred, but what that film does so well is draw a line between pain as release, and pain as pleasure.
Both will give you that dopamine. But what are they teaching you?
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the secretary in question, a cutter who’s recently been released from a mental institution. Before landing a job in the law office of E. Edward Grey (appreciate all law offices’ fondness for initials), she burns her legs, slices her thighs, and does it all to escape. That’s because her home life is chaotic: her father, an abusive and lost alcoholic. Her mother, a smiling shell of a housewife.
It’s not great.
But when Lee hurts herself, she can drown out the chaos with focus. With precise sensation. A millimeter’s accuracy.
“Is it that sometimes, the pain inside has to come to the surface? And when you see evidence of the pain inside, you finally know you’re really here?”
That’s Edward Grey, played with intense eye contact by James Spader. He catches Lee cutting at the office. And because he’s a latent sadist, ashamed of his urges (thanks Richard!), he understands something about Lee. He gets the internal logic of her urges, as bizarre as they seem. The pain as release.
But together, Edward and Lee initiate themselves into a different sort of pain.
The pleasurable kind.
When the submitter of this week’s post wrote me, I latched onto the word “fascination.” How playful! How curious. And that’s what unfolds between Edward and Lee: a several-month period of playing together at the office, a sub/dom dynamic laced with sexual tension, if not actual sex, and very often involving pain.
Edward is intense, see. We witness his sit-ups, his sprints on the treadmill, his general demon exorcizing through sweat and heavy breathing. But we also witness him shout orders at Lee: he demands coffee. He circles her typos in provocative red ink. He insults her clothes.
But – and this is a crucial but – he also intuits that she likes it. She is, in fact, lapping it up.
He’d found the exact right spot.
So they take it further. A spanking here, a horse saddle there. When the movie opens, Lee’s wearing a yoke, unable to use her hands to bring him paper, or his coffee.
She uses her mouth instead.
Often, pain-seeking has nothing to do with sex, but it has a lot to do with arousal, and the anticipation of pleasure. Think about the person in your life who loves getting tattoos. Eating hot chili peppers. Doing aerial dance that squeezes one’s organs, running a marathon, plunging into freezing cold water.
It’s painful, but they’re choosing it. That’s a masochist. You probably are one, too.
“Most people think that the best way to live is to run from pain. But a much more joyful life embraces the entire spectrum of human feeling. If we can fully experience pain, as well as pleasure, we can live a much deeper, and more meaningful life.”
That’s a book on tape Lee listens to at a diner, by Richard Arevalos. In case you’re wondering: that’s not a real author, sorry. I looked it up.
Funny though, that when I heard this quote, I thought about the ship of fools on Wall-E. The people who’ve become so…comfortable.
I think about those people a lot actually, every time technology sands the edge off some minor inconvenience, making my life theoretically easier.
Do I really want all that comfort?
Is that, actually, pleasurable?
Or does pain, pain that I choose, make me feel more alive.
Whether it’s a rope wrapped around my internal organs, a needle driven through my skin, or being denied something I want. Is that the deeper pleasure?
Do I like this? No?
What I’m currently, voraciously, consuming:
If you’d like to watch it, and of course I recommend you do: Secretary.
To prepare for this post, I listened to a wonderful conversation between Justin Lehmiller, a researcher at Kinsey Institute, and Leigh Cowart, a science journalist who writes about pain. The episode is: “Hurts So Good – Why We Seek Pain On Purpose.”
That chat led me to Leigh’s book Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain On Purpose, which I am thoroughly, THOROUGHLY enjoying. Leigh’s a gorgeous writer, and she does what I do: bounce back and forth between personal experience and cultural analysis.
If you love Secretary, it’s based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. She’s got it in her short story collection comprised of “fierce, raw tales of love and sex and obsession, Bad Behavior.
Coming next week:
“I should not have worried about keeping my partner satisfied during this awful time. Even worse, I stressed hard about it and my ex didn’t help, he would pout ALL THE TIME. He’d very intentionally make me feel guilty. I found myself on so many occasions having sex, not a single hair on my entire body, only one breast, tired and sick from chemo.”
Join me here next Monday, 5/22, for a conversation about service sex.