Feedback understanding the difference between BDSM and painful sex

06/01/2010 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Last week, I posted an e-mail exchange between me and Ms. Sexability, about reconciling BDSM with a history of painful sex. It’s a question I’ve been struggling with as I become interested in BDSM and kink, and one I don’t think I would be able to resolve in a vacuum.

While I was thinking about this, I saw a blog post at A Femanist View, where SnowDrop Explodes had posted a quote he found to reflect the difference between BDSM and abuse. I’ve been reading A Femanist View for awhile, where I frequently enjoy SnowDrop’s posts about feminism, sexuality, BDSM, and the occasional book review. (He blogs about other topics like politics too, but those listed above are the posts I most like reading.) Seeing as he had just talked about the difference between BDSM and abuse, I wondered if he had any feedback on the difference between painful sex and BDSM, if indeed there is one. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say, since he is a top. And according to The Topping Book, that means that he is someone who “Can eroticize giving someone an experience that would be unpleasant in real-world interactions” (location 98).

Of course I know that feedback from one person cannot and should not be considered the universal response. Everyone has different experiences and builds their own definitions of sex and kink. I would likely get a different answer if I asked anyone else. However I felt that asking someone who I know is experienced with BDSM would be a good place for me to start exploring, so that I’d have some advance notice on what to expect.

As with the last e-mail, some parts of the following exchange may be triggering.

I asked SnowDrop Explodes,

What…
Would you say the difference is between BDSM & painful sex?

And this is his reply (e-mail is being used with permission.)

The first difference is that BDSM doesn’t have to involve penetrative sex of any kind (v, a or o).   So SM play can be a turn-on for both even when “normal” sex isn’t an option.

The chief difference, I think, goes back again to that quotation: “Half of a relationship is the individuals, the other half cooperation.”   When a medical condition results in suffering (e.g. painful sex), then that comes neither from the cooperation of the parties, nor from their individual make-ups.   It’s an interloper, in effect.   And it’s an interloper whose presence is entirely not consensual!   In terms of my personal sadism, I like to be the one who’s in control of my partner’s pain, pleasure and combination of the two.   Even from a purely selfish perspective, if some medical condition causes her pain when I don’t plan for her to feel pain, then that’s extremely unwelcome.   Of course, the overriding concern is always for her safety and wellbeing (i.e. other-focused rather than self-focused) but I did want to get that point in as well.

In a BDSM relationship, where some condition causes sex to become painful, the ideal would always be that the partners involved would cooperate to find a way to carry on, and to make sure that the best available treatment programme was implemented – in a BDSM relationship, I would expect sexual relations to adapt to the condition.

Additionally, I disclosed,

I am particularly interested in your answer since you are a sadist. (No accusation – I think I’ve seen you describe yourself as such.) I realize this is a pretty broad question…

Like okay, I’m at least ~open to BDSM activity but I’m most hesitant to get into the S/M stuff because i don’t know how to reconcile painful sex with the “Good” kind of pain.

You’re a sadist so if you were dealing with someone with a history of painful sex how would you go about doing that?

And he addressed this with,

The starting point is always communication and cooperation.   Even though I’m very much Dominant as well as sadist, it all starts with these principles – I get to take control only once we both know what we want from the other.

I’m a masochist as well as a sadist, and you mention the distinction between “good” and “bad” pain – something that is all too familiar to me from the gout episodes I’ve had.   I think one of the key distinctions between “good” and “bad” pain is the power of choice that’s involved.   “Bad” pain is generally something unplanned, and it’s something over which no one has any real control – there’s no way to safeword out of it, and no way to avoid it once it’s there.   There are other distinctions as well, and not all “bad” pain is of this kind (for instance, I always find needles to be “bad” pain, however planned it is and however short-term I know it’s going to be).

So, I would use my understanding these points to talk things through with a (prospective) partner whose history includes painful sex.

The way I would talk about it would put her in control of the situation.   My favoured modes of SM play are non-penetrative anyway – spanking, and other impact-play is top of the list – so pleasurable sexual encounters wouldn’t need to involve any penetrative sex.   I would talk to her about the concepts surrounding pain as a gift from masochist to sadist.   This means that she can determine when or if she wants to try penetrative sex, and to frame any accompanying pain as a part of her gift to her partner.   That framing doesn’t work for everyone, I am sure, which is why she has to remain in control.

To make sure she had control of what was happening to her, she would have a safeword the use of which would immediately stop everything.   I would not be comfortable with engaging in penetrative sex until I was confident that she knew and understood and *felt* that I would feel no negative reaction to her stopping things, because my first concern is for her.

Naturally, this means that it would be a slow build-up over the course of a relationship before we tried anything involving penetrative sex.   In the same way that a sub or masochist partner can set “hard” and “soft” limits, and it is not unusual to see those shift and change over the course of a relationship, I would expect to treat penetrative sex in the same way – she gets to set the pace of how far she does or doesn’t want to go with it.

All of this would be to help put her in control of how much or how little pain she is okay with, just the same as any other kind of SM activity – safewords, negotiation, understanding, preparation, all being key elements to consensual BDSM sex.   I would also hope that I would be able to communicate and have it understood that there was no need for her ever to consent to penetrative sex at all, if she wasn’t comfortable with involving that pain as SM play.

It occurs to me that your question also seems to be asking how I would approach introducing her to SM play in general.   I think I would approach it with the same care as I would anyone who was new to the physical world of BDSM, so any early encounters would involve light pain only, both of us getting used to her reactions and again, letting her set the pace for how much and how quickly.   We’d explore different kinds of pain and find out what is “good” pain for her, and what pain she finds “bad” or unenjoyable.   Then we’d build on that as the relationship develops and it becomes clear to her how much control over events she’s willing to surrender to me as her sadist partner.

So the basis would be the same as any BDSM relationship: communication, building trust, getting to know each other, making sure that all activities involving pain are consensual and controlled (or controllable), and above all, making it fun for everyone involved.

I suppose one final word needs to be said, about whether or not this whole description depends upon the assumption that she would feel pain anyway.   The idea of including painful sex as a negotiated form of SM play almost seems to put pressure on her to feel some sort of pain from penetrative sex, and of course that’s not a good idea either, so I would be careful about letting it be about potential, rather than actual, pain – so that if it turns out that it doesn’t hurt when she does it with me, then it doesn’t seem like *that’s* a failure, either.

Going back to what you said about your own openness towards BDSM, but not sure how to reconcile “good” pain with painful sex: I think the advice I would give there is what I described in my outline of how I’d deal with the issue with a partner if she had a history.   Different people experience different kinds of pain as “good” or “bad” – I don’t like needles, others love them; some people hate scratching, I love it!   So you can treat “painful sex” as “bad pain” (at least at first) and instead try some of the other sorts of pain that our bodies have to offer, and see what works for you.

I think this is a very interesting response. He is also familiar with “Bad pain,” like the gout he describes, and there’s nothing fun or planned about it. It shows up whether you want it to or not.

And there’s a lot of communication going on in this scenario – this being a scenario in which a woman partner who lives with dyspareunia is also submissive, or receptive to a top. (Eventually I’d like to think and talk about topping with a history of sexual pain as well.) Any new activity is introduced gradually and limits are allowed. And even if you’re engaged in a S/M scene, there’s still no need to engage in penetrative/insertive activities, which would cause pain. It sounds to me like SnowDrop is reluctant to ask a woman engage in penetrative activity, knowing that doing so may hurt. Even though he enjoys BDSM activity as a top, SnowDrop doesn’t want to cause unwanted pain!

We e-mailed back & forth a little bit more,

Some of the sexology & self help books I read recommend incorporating BDSM activity into your sex life when there’s a problem, but they never explain *How* you would go about doing that. I think there is a difference between BDSM and painful sex too – for one thing with BDSM there’s some enjoyment from the sensation and activity, but with painful sex it’s no fun at all.

And he replied,

The thing about the self-help books strikes me as strange, because if BDSM isn’t your thing, it’s not going to help (no matter how useful it might seem).   I recall that there was a proposed study into the way masochists’ brains process pain compared with vanilla folks’, but it didn’t get approved for funding, which is a shame – it might have revealed something useful about pain management.   I think for some masochists, a lot of it is about context (for example, a lot of masochists who are also submissive say that there’s a world of difference between a spanking that’s for fun, and one delivered as a punishment), but I know that doesn’t work for everybody (or for every type of pain).   So I guess maybe the self-help books are trying to help their readers to put the pain in a better context so it’s associated with pleasure instead of “bad sex”.   But again, unless you are predisposed to making that link, I’m not sure it could ever work for most people (besides which, painful sex may well be the type of pain that isn’t amenable to such an approach in the first place).

I think some people assume BDSM is just an extended form of foreplay, while for others it’s the whole point of the sexual interaction (which is why it’s possible for me to say that it needn’t involve penetrative sex at all).

And he also wished me luck.

A couple more points were made on the last exchange. Although I’m becoming interested in BDSM, I know that it’s not going to be right for everyone. It’s not a panacena for pain or dissatisfaction with your sex life. And that’s okay too! I believe that many of the principles involved with BDSM (notably, clear communication,) can carry over into vanilla relationships, but not everyone wants to engage in the activities usually associated with kink. There is nothing wrong with that, if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. Pressure to perform any kind of sexual activity is still pressure.

That’s all I’ve got on BDSM and painful sex for the time being! I’d like to return to this topic some time in the future to look at topping, and see if I can get some practice under my belt in the near future.

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  1. […] this review, K asked for feedback, and in the first of two follow up posts Reconciling BDSM and painful sex, she posts an email exchange between herself and Ms. […]


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