PhD Student, Cultural Studies, Queen’s University
Pain hurts. As a general rule, we don’t like pain. We are averse to painful sensations and experiences precisely because they hurt. But if this was completely true, what is the explanation for chosen pain? If you should be averse to pain, why choose it? Surely, it is not solely reducible to notions that some people have higher pain tolerances than others. There are many scenarios where people consent to varying degrees of pain, including participation in sports, medical procedures, and aesthetic body modifications. Rhetoric of “no pain, no gain” is common, where pain is thought to serve the end goal of the activity, rather than acting as the focus of the goal itself. In addition to these examples, some people consent to pain in a sexual context with participation in the large range of activities that fall under the umbrella of BDSM (Bondage / Domination / submission / Sadism / Masochism). There is no single definition of BDSM, but it can be understood as loosely encompassing a number of different practices that include the consensual negotiation of erotic power exchanges, involving techniques and tools to help facilitate these exchanges. Although there are many instances of consensual pain, it is specifically the BDSM sexual context where consent to bodily hurt is often interpreted as pathological.
There has been a recent shift to de-pathologize BDSM, but most of this work focuses on the normalization of psychological characteristics of practitioners and potential psychological benefits. Although the psychological elements of BDSM are important, these are often emphasized at the expense of the embodiment of the practices. So, kinksters are psychologically well-adjusted people, but they are still fleshy, living bodies that are experiencing and inflicting pain. Not all practitioners are purely sadomasochists (those who derive sexual pleasure from the giving and receiving of physical pain), but pain is a common technique for maintaining power dynamics in BDSM scenarios. What if, instead, we focus on the re-contextualization of this embodied pain? I propose that theories of sacred pain are useful here.
Ariel Gluckrich characterizes sacred pain as the experiences of religious adherents that are thought to serve “higher ends” and produce states of consciousness and cognitive-emotional changes that affect subject identity and sense of community belonging. In this way, religious discourses, rituals, and artefacts are mapped onto the body to provide meaning for the experiences. This contextually mediates feelings of pain and results in different interpretations of pain, but also creates different bodily sensations. None of this denies the biology of pain or discounts the corporeal experience, but contributes to discussions of contextually mediated experiences of the body. That is, pain is neither solely sensation or entirely socially constructed, but is a combination of the two.
I argue that frameworks of sacred pain are applicable to BDSM. Consciousness changing experiences and their physical parallels occur in BDSM, known as subspace, and the less common equivalent of domspace. Additionally, some practitioners describe their experiences as relating to spiritual transformation and religious-type experience. Aside from varying sadomasochistic inclinations, the use of pain as a BDSM technique on the body is felt and experienced differently because of the context, including the role of consent, the connection to community, and the elements of ritual in activities. This is not dissimilar from account and analysis of the “sacred pain” of religious adherents.
 Ariel Gluckrich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003, 6-7.
 Joanne Burke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014: 92.
 Alexzandria C. Baker, “Sacred Kink: Finding Psychological Meaning at the Intersection of BDSM and Spiritual Experience,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy (2016): 1-14, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2016.1205185; Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2012.