advice, essays, kink

Sadism, and the Study of Pain

i have noticed elsewhere online that you have added ’sadistic’ to your lineup of adjectives. i was very interested in your explanation of how you came to claim those words as part of your identity (forgive me if this is not accurate), and would be interested in hearing a similar description of how you came to claim sadistic as well.

Yes, I have added “sadistic” in a couple of my taglines or bios or descriptions recently, and it is an identity label that I claim, at least to a degree. I think the identity of “sadist” is understood much less – outside of kink communities and circles – than the other identity tags I use (queer, butch, top), and it can be incredibly off-putting for folks who don’t understand it.

There’s just so much stigma around it – you like to give others pain? You enjoy that, you get off on it, it turns you on? That’s seen as, well, kind of fucked up by a lot of people.

And it kind of is fucked up, if that’s the way you’re looking at it. But the details of how sadism works a lot more complicated than that – at least, it is for me.

It’s taken me a long time to come to claim a bit more of a sadistic identity, and it’s still something that I say with a little bit of reservation or even shame, partly because I don’t want it to come on too strongly and freak someone out.

First: playing with sadism, for me, must be consensual and intentional. I do not enjoy being cruel in general, and actually it is sometimes very difficult for me to treat someone I love with humiliation or damage, to hit them, to slap someone in the face. I’ve had to go through the feelings of top guilt and, to a greater extend, sadist guilt, when I started exploring this. Those feelings aren’t completely gone, but I know what I’m doing more now and I have more confidence in my perspective and standpoint, so I don’t have as much guilt about it.

I remember precisely when I realized I was a sadist: it was 2002, and I was in a Body Electric workshop called Power, Surrender, and Intimacy. (This is going to get a little bit sacred sex/spiritual, just to warn you.) We had been discussing power, dominance, and sadism – and receiving that with surrender, submission, and masochism – and had been doing exercises all relating to tapping into those feelings. We were in the middle of a ritual (I won’t go into details) when someone had a very strong reaction, and began crying. I was going through my own experience and starting to really feel myself come into some power and dominance in a new way, and I was flooded with the witness of her release. It was a solo ritual, so we weren’t working together or touching, and she probably wasn’t even aware of me, she just started sobbing, loudly, in her own world of release, and I felt the energy as the grief and emotion flooded through her, I was so attuned to the shifts of energy in the room, and started realizing that I was incredibly turned on by her release. It was beautiful – pure and unhindered, just letting go of some really deep things that she’d been carrying and holding on to for who knows how long. I wanted to coax her through it, support her, and in my mind I was soothing her, cradling, holding the space around her so that she herself could have room to be safe and release. I loved the feeling of doing that for someone (even though I wasn’t really doing that for her, I was just imagining the scenario where I would do that) and I got such a rush and release myself from witnessing someone else get into that space of deep release, deep surrender, and then come back, smiling and whole.

So there’s a lot of psychology to it for me: we carry around all sorts of grief, pain, shame, anger, rage, distrust, disassociation, and guilt, especially about our physical bodies and our sexualities. And one of the ways that BDSM and power play and pain play taps into that is through acknowledgment and, ultimately, release – which is why we can feel renewed, refreshed, energized after a deep scene.

We also just don’t have very good tools for release and replenishment available to us. We’re not exactly taught how to remake ourselves and let go of some of our deep grief, and I believe this kind of emotional release is one of those ways.

Aside from the psychology, I also like pain. And as much as I talk about being a sadist, I have spent many years as a masochist also – I’ve been beaten, flogged, caned, whipped, pierced, cut, and slapped; I’ve had 13 piercings (only one of which I wear anymore); I’ve had some experience submitting and surrendering, and using pain as a way to get more present in my body, and then to let go.

There’s a degree to which, though, at this point, I feel like I’ve had enough of that kind of release, I seek something else now. I know how to get myself into a state of deep body release, mostly through yoga or meditation or masturbation or running, and I wanted to explore other things related to that kind of bodily release – namely, guiding it in others. I get more out of the experience of taking someone through it than I do going through it myself, these days. I don’t expect that to be permanent, but I don’t expect it to change either – for now, I know I’m a top who really likes to play with my sadistic side, and that really works for me.

So, after this series of revelations and after some further investigation, and being very sure that I wanted to get deeper into this kind of play, I began studying it more intentionally: how to get someone into that state, how to keep them safe when they’re there, how to encourage the release (but not overwhelmingly so), and how to bring them back from it.

There’s also that moment … how do I describe it. Where put your hand in water and you can’t tell if it’s super hot or super cold – how our senses cross-fire sometimes when sensation is so deep and heavy and stimulating that we can’t tell if it’s pain or pleasure.

I love playing with that line, partly because it is a way to practice pain without suffering – a way to practice pain without being hurt, but to experience it as a release, change, and growth. I think pain play can do a lot of that, too, and it is very interesting to me, as someone who is interested in algology (the study of pain), and someone who studies the cessation of suffering, how to encourage these moments of transformation where pain becomes pleasure, useful, and a methodology of study.

What I’m saying is: sadism is the intentional use of pain, discomfort, and other dark emotions to find deep release, move energy, and renew the self. As someone who is deeply interested in dark emotions, the messy stuff, the hard stuff, and personal transformation and self-awareness, this is a tool that I find incredibly useful.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

10 thoughts on “Sadism, and the Study of Pain”

  1. Miss Ida says:

    Very well worded.

    As a femme on the other side of this let me say how amazing it is when you enter into that kind of mutual play and someone 'holds that space around you' and both causes and allows you that pain/pleasure. Knowing that you both will come back, smiling and more whole.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post!

    Have you ever had the opportunity to take a course of the anthropology of pain? I took one during my undergraduate studies. Think you'd really enjoy it.

  3. wow, thanks for answering my question! i'm drawn to the idea of using/receiving pain to release difficult emotions, yet feel unsure about how far i want to go with experimenting with it right now. i think it's really valuable that you put that much thought and caring into it. and while i feel sad that the experience of difficult feelings around our bodies and sexualities is so universal, i think it's vital that we try to sort them out as best we can.

  4. ~~~And one of the ways that BDSM and power play and pain play taps into that is through acknowledgment and, ultimately, release – which is why we can feel renewed, refreshed, energized after a deep scene. ~~~~

    Yes. I've always said that with kink, you can't hide. You can't hide from your fears or from who you are. Genearally your thrown in (so to say) and the scene is set up to face those fears and release them. Even when it's as simple as admitting you liked it.

    That sense of release is one of the reason why I'm in to kink. I've had times when I've asked to be pushed past my limit because I need to to bawl my eyes out. I just moved though the guilt to what I needed with as little judgement as I could draw on it.

    I love how you described this….

  5. Birdie says:

    Thank you so much for writing this (and many of your other pieces). I love sex and power play that is visionary — takes one into other inner and outer universes, and for me pain is a wonderful tool to get there.

    I loved your description of the BE workshop where you realized that you were turned on by the other participant's tears and release. I need to re-read it and think about it. I have always been comfortable with my masochism, but until recently, have found my sadism much more frightening.

    Please, please write more about how this process evolves for you.

  6. Theresa says:

    I really like this part:

    "As someone who is deeply interested in dark emotions, the messy stuff, the hard stuff, and personal transformation and self-awareness, this is a tool that I find incredibly useful."

    This essay in general is fantastic, and in particular I can really relate to the idea of kink being one of many tools I have to help release tough emotions. Before I discovered my interest in BDSM, I believe I did this by kicking my ass hiking up mountains. I recently did a photo shoot in the Redwoods and remembered how much I missed playing with nature as a tool to release energy.

    It's all about balance, and I needed to be reminded of that lately.

  7. Gold says:

    Where would masochists be without sadists?

    The first and only time I have ever had an orgasm bring me to tears was during a bdsm session. My back and wrists stung, and her hands were clenched around my neck– I specifically remember feeling her thumbs pushing into my throat, choking me. I’ve never melted so completely.

    I love my current partner, but she is absolutely vanilla. At first I thought I could ‘turn’ her, but her sexuality is not aligned that way. She will indulge me, but she lacks the understanding that creates the sort of connection I need, so I’ve stopped asking her. I have a pretty deep anxiety problem that masochism used to provide relief for; among other feelings, I simply miss that relief.

    I’m glad you’re aren’t ashamed to be a sadist, there are too few of you out there as it is.

  8. In terms of the interpersonal and deep emotional connections, how would you compare sadism with simultaneous orgasm? I'm a big fan of the latter.

  9. Goose says:

    I love this post and agree. Dark emotions, messy stuff. It can be hard to face, but when you find that one who can either top or bottom or just share the space, it is amazing and holy.

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