Pain is a spectrum of sensation, and like nearly any other sensation, people may enjoy incorporating discomfort/pain into their erotic lives in differing ways and for different reasons.
Pain play is one of those topics that make many people uncomfortable when it first comes up, but the truth is that most people have experimented with pain in one way or another, even if that wasn't how they conceptualized it at the time.
Run your nails hard down someone's side during sex? Like having your hair grabbed or the hollow of your neck nibbled with some force? Tried spanking? Then you're no stranger to pain as part of sex.
So, let's start with some activities that could be considered pain play, then we'll get on to the different reasons people choose this form of erotic expression. Keep in mind, that while everything on this list can be sources of pain, they are not all inherently painful activities.
- Hair grabbing
- Sadist massage
- Wax play
- Rope bondage
- Needle play
- And plenty more
So then why do people incorporate pain into their play?
Dominance/Submission: There's enormous power in being allowed/allowing someone to cause discomfort. Although in my line of work, when we talk about dominance and submission (sometimes written as D/s) we tend to be talking about structured and negotiated arrangements, these kinds of interactions can be fluid and organic as well.
Trust: Ok, I'll admit that there's a fuzzy line between this and the previous point, but it's still worth bringing up. There are forms of play that people explore in part because they represent ways to express shared trust between partners. Pain can be one tool for this sort of play, but certainly isn't the only.
Sensation: As alien as it may seem to some, many people do in fact find pleasure or fulfillment in the experience of pain. On a physiological level, pain can induce the release of powerful endorphins that are sometimes compared to the "high" some distance runners experience. However, there are plenty of people who engage in pain play who don't experience endorphin rushes. It sounds clichéd, but pain is a form of sensation, and some people find power and joy in embracing that sensation as a component or even focus of their erotic lives.
Altered States: Building on the previous point, pain can take us to altered states of consciousness or awareness. This is one facet of ordeal-path spirituality, but it is also an element of erotic play for some. In the BDSM world the term "sub-space" can sometimes refer to this experience. These altered states tend to defy easy description, and besides, a pain-induced experience of one's erotic self is not unlike an LSD trip in that it's never as interesting to others as the person who experienced it thinks.
Catharsis: I'm not one to advocate using sex, pain, or kink as a stand-in for therapy. However, sometimes pain play can be a useful tool for letting go and releasing pent up emotions. A great example was a woman who came to me for an intense needle scene so she could get to a place where she could cry out all her hurt over the dissolution of her marriage.
Challenge/Empowerment: Relating to the point about runners, there are people who enjoy pain play because they like pushing their bodies and minds in the pursuit of exploring or expanding the limits of what they can withstand. Although mostly associated with extreme body mod practices such as hook suspension, this can certainly be found in kink/BDSM as well, and there is a large cross over between the two communities.
Service: Some people may not derive much personal pleasure from pain, but see receiving pain as an act of service for a partner who enjoys giving it.
Sadism: This list wouldn't be complete without including a mention of those that like giving pain. Some people find sexual gratification in the experience of causing pain, and kink/BDSM is a healthy and consensual way to express that part of themselves. Others may take pleasure in the interpersonal exchange of trust or dominance/submission that pain play can provide. Others may enjoy giving pain in a more clinical or technical way.
It's worth mentioning that some of the nicest and most caring people I've ever met are some of the scariest sadists out there. Master Bobby out of Pittsburg once described it as a process in which the more he lets the dark parts of himself out in a controlled and consensual way, the lighter his heart can be as he moves through the rest of his life.
Pain is scary to think about in the context of our sexual selves, and for some that's part of the appeal. I'm not going to tell you that it's always healthy, or that people don't sometimes engage with it for the wrong reasons from both the giving and receiving side. And if it goes badly, pain play can cause real problems, just ask anyone who's teasingly bit or scratched a partner who turned out not to be into that sort of thing.
But with education, communication, and most importantly consent, pain play adds another layer of emotional and physical expression to many people's erotic lives.