Here’s a question I recently got:
There are lots of things people do in bed that seem really aversive and painful to me. BDSM, anal sex, anal beads, fisting, etc. that, at the very least (to my vanilla background) seem like they should be aversive, scary, painful, etc. yet are preferred sexual behaviors by many. What makes these things enjoyable? To what extent ARE some of these actually painful, aversive, etc. and that’s part of the enjoyment (I do kinda ‘get’ that aspect of S&M), but how?
This is one of those things that’s hard to fully answer because there are lots of possible reasons. So here are a few that I’m aware of, with the disclaimer that this will almost certainly be an incomplete list. Anyone with additions to suggest is welcome to comment.
First, things that are painful to one person might not be to someone else. Some people like really spicy food and other people like it milder. Similarly, some people like more intense erotic sensations and others prefer softer ones. That might be because of past experiences, as well as mental and emotional associations with that activity. It can also simply be part of the variation in human physiology. Some folks are more sensitive to stimulation and experience pain at a lower threshold than other people, which can affect their sexual preferences.
Making that more complicated is the fact that sensations change under the influence of arousal. If you’re reading this at your computer and your sweetie bites you on the neck, it’s probably not going to feel the same as if they bite you in the same spot when you’re turned on. Sometimes, people try a new kind of stimulation when they’re not aroused and then decide that they don’t like it. And on the flip side, some folks discover that they really like strong sensations when they’re turned on. In fact, I often refer to those kinds of stimulation as “strong sensation” rather than “pain,” since they can feel so different when the energy is high.
Another reason some people like those “scary” activities is that they get to play with the sensation of fear in a safe container. What’s the difference between riding on a roller coaster and being in car going downhill without brakes? The knowledge that the roller coaster is designed to stimulate that experience without actually putting you at risk. “Scary” erotic play lets you do much the same thing. And of course, some people don’t like roller coasters because they feel too realistic, just as some people don’t enjoy stimulation that feels too scary to them.
And then, there are people who actively enjoy doing things that are naughty or that break the rules (using whatever set of rules they like). As they saying goes, the forbidden fruit often tastes sweeter. To come at that from another direction, in The Erotic Mind, Jack Morin points out that one of the factors that heightens arousal is having some sort of hurdle to overcome. For example, both long-distance relationships and partners who are “forbidden” (like co-workers or folks who you’re not supposed to be attracted to) can increase arousal because there’s a barrier in the way. You can sometimes see the same thing happen when people eat a dessert they’re not supposed to and they say something like “I’m being so bad now” in a way that’s clearly part of their enjoyment. So sometimes, people enjoy doing things that are naughty. From the outside, that can be confusing.
And lastly, there are people who actively enjoy exploring the edges of their comfort zones and seeing what pleasures they can find there. Sometimes, that means trying things that might look or feel aversive to other folks because they’ve expanded their comfort zones that far. It can be similar to how some athletes strive to break their personal best performance. From the outside, it can look very different than it feels on the inside.
Related to that, there’s the way that some people seek extreme experiences because they need a lot of sensation to overcome a tendency to check out or dissociate. They might not know how to tune into the more subtle stimulation that they get from more gentle kinds of play., Or they might
With all of that in mind, I think it’s worth saying two last things about these kinds of pleasures. While playing with the edges of your comfort zone can be lots of fun (and in fact, it’s often part of how we discover new things), we sometimes discover a trigger or go further than is good for our bodies or hearts. And even when we don’t go that far, we might have an emotional or energetic crash afterward. Planning for aftercare (for everyone involved in your fun) is an important part of making sure that you have a good time and will want to try it again.
And second, I talk with a lot of people who think that not wanting to do all that “wild, crazy stuff” makes them or their partners boring in bed. Unfortunately, there are folks in the BDSM world or other communities of erotic affiliation who seem to think that if you’re not out on the edge, you’re not one of the cool kids. I think that’s just as sex-negative and shaming as telling people that the only sex that’s allowed is heterosexual, married, monogamous intercourse. Just my $.02, of course. But I needed to say it.
When it comes down to it, there are lots of reasons people enjoy whatever sexual pleasures they do. And this list doesn’t address external motivations, like wanting to please a partner or copying something from porn. in my experience, the only way to know what motivates someone to participate in a sexual practice is to ask them. And when I hear someone making pronouncements about someone else’s reasons for doing something sexual, it often says more about their own biases, preferences, and experiences than it does about that other person. The best way (and really, the only way) to know why someone does what they do is to ask them. If that’s something that would help you in your relationships and you’re not sure how to make it happen, check out my relationship coaching site and let’s talk about how I can support you through that process.