FOXSexpert: Understanding S&M

Who does these kinds of things?

For many, the term “sadomasochism” (S&M) conjures up images of whips, chains and leather. It seems like an underworld of incomprehensible eroticism. How can pain can be pleasurable? Who could possibly enjoy this act? And just what exactly does S&M entail?

Believe it or not, S&M is all around us in the mildest forms. You don’t have to go to an S&M club to find it. For example, radio stations regularly play songs that hint at S&M.

Remember Aqua’s seemingly ‘innocent’ “Barbie Girl” song, which was a smash hit in 1997?

“Make me walk. Make me talk.

Do whatever you please.

I can act like a star.

I can beg on my knees…”

Then there’s Madonna’s “Erotica:"

“I don’t think you know what pain is.

I don’t think you’ve gone that way.

I can bring you so much pleasure.

I’ll come to you when you say…

I’m not going to hurt you – just close your eyes…”

It is the tension between power and surrender – being overpowering or giving into authority – that’s the thrill. Lovers feel empowered as they eroticize each other, both becoming objects of desire in their dominant or submissive role.

Humans are further enticed by S&M because it offers:

— The opportunity for self-exploration, including learning one’s limits;

— Personal freedom and heightened sexual release;

— Feelings of being desired;

— The opportunity for greater connection and intimacy;

— The possibility of out-of-body sex.

S&M is particularly arousing for those in powerful positions, like high-ranking executives, doctors and police officers who are looking to lose themselves in a submissive role. A "Playboy" sex survey once found that 5 to 10 percent of Americans engage in S&M behaviors for pleasure occasionally, while "The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior" found that 14 percent of men and 11 percent of women have had some S&M experience.

Defining S&M

During sadomasochism, the sadist partner, (a.k.a. Dom, Domme, dominant, top, master or mistress) delivers pain or humiliation to the masochist (submissive, sub, thrall, bottom or slave) partner. The masochistic partner likes being degraded, it gives them erotic pleasure. They enjoy giving up control to the dominant.

The power exchange is given more focus than the sex itself, with some sessions occurring without sex. The couple instead has real or simulated acts in which one person humiliates, beats or binds the other. Though most S&M’ers prefer either sadism or masochism exclusively, some take turns playing the top or bottom.

The sexual exchanges are referred to as scenes, plays or sessions. Key elements include: dominance, submission, discipline, punishment, bondage, sexual role-playing, and power exchanges. Interestingly enough, some behaviors currently labeled S&M have been found in ancient marriage manuals, like Vatsysayana’s original Kama Sutra, which was written in 450 A.D.

Sex acts can range in intensity, anything from hot candle wax drips to bondage to spankings to pinching and scratching to hair-pulling. Some also like verbal abuse and humiliation, saying derogatory, degrading, and even cruel things to each other, all in the name of fun. Other behaviors that are practiced and enjoyed include fetish behavior, whipping, and master/slave role-playing.

The bulk of S&M play involves only as much pain as a person can handle. This will vary from person to person. Stimulation never exceeds what the senses can handle.

Since most of us are raised with romantic notions of sex and making love, the idea of pain and sex as a combination can be a bit hard to grasp. But it happens all the time during rough sex: Some lovers may have bites, bruises or hickeys the next day.

When the body experiences pain, it reacts with a surge of its natural opiates, namely the neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphins. These neurotransmitters are similar to morphine. Both decrease the pain’s intensity while producing a comforting, trance-like high that takes the conscious self away from the pain.

Safety First

It’s important to remember that S&M practitioners are guided by the mantra “safe, sane and consensual.” They are well aware of the need for boundaries, trust, and equality in a relationship, so as not to threaten one’s safety. Efforts are guided by rules, so as not to dehumanize one’s partner and to keep things safe by:

1. Negotiation: The submissive should always discuss his or her needs, wants and limits with the dominant beforehand.

2. Having a safe word: A memorable word should be chosen by the participants so that if physically or psychologically distressed, the word acts as a red light when called out to halt all activity.

3. Talking about what’s going to happen so that you know each other’s boundaries and what is being consented to.

4. Educating yourselves about certain S&M practices before trying them. Read a good book, surf the Internet or check out an S&M workshop in your area that can you get started safely.

Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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