The relationship between pain and pleasure in human sexuality is as profound as it is complex. It is a polarity that lives in each of us and deserves our curiosity. Sadly, it is not unusual for us to close down to situations that we fear will bring pain and discomfort. Replacing our tendency of avoidance with a capacity for wonder when it comes to our pain associations with sex is eye opening and has the potential to release an untapped capacity for pleasure.
Each time I have sex I am struck by the ecstatic release of deep pleasure, which ignites an equal release of intense pain. The pelvic cavity, one of the most miraculous wonders in the human body, balancing both the capacity to walk erect and procreate, is a truth teller for most of us. It is an internal space where sensation is leader and I have long wondered what begets what, if it is actually the intensity of the pain that arouses the pleasure or the other way around. So difficult it is to tease out, that I have come to believe that the pain/pleasure of our deepest sexual release is one in the same.
In fact, love, sex, pain and violence all stimulate the release of similar chemicals and hormones in the human body. Endorphins that are released in painful experiences are often perceived as pleasurable. Stress and pain can also stimulate the serotonin and melatonin production in the brain, which transforms painful experiences into pleasure. The release of epinephrine and norepinephrine in pain can also cause a pleasurable ‘rush’. Normal human biological response actually supports the complex and mysterious link between pain and pleasure, which we see in the runner’s high and the facial expressions during orgasmic release.
Given our biology, it is not terribly surprising that the practice of combining painful techniques with sexuality is ancient. Roman poets, ancient tribal drawings and even the Kama Sutra all refer to safe practices of what has come to be known as BDSM. This acronym, which refers to Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism, reflects the ancient sexual rituals of sexual dominance and submission that have qualified sex throughout history. Depending on the study examined, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, the percentages of people who practice some form of these techniques is between 10-25%. Interestingly, this percentage is matched by an equally significant percentage of people who become cutoff from their sexuality due to their fear of the pain associated with sex.
Looking at how our sexual experience is mirrored in the emotions and soul of our relationship offers an illuminating perspective. Here is my hypothesis: loving someone emotionally creates the same pain/pleasure experience that lives in the body while making love to them. The moments of deep connection and intimacy, vulnerability and nakedness are matched by their opposite experience: feeling deeply hurt by your lover, by what was said, or, just as often, what went unsaid.
The act of loving in whatever form requires a willingness to experience both the pain and pleasure. This is the piece of sustaining loving relationships that is easy to miss, or at least misunderstand, and tragically the place where we walk away from the heart of what we want most.