Pain is an interesting phenomenon. It is nearly a human universal. The vast majority of humans have experienced it. Some experience it daily. Yet we all have different relationships with pain. Pain can be the enemy. It can be something to run away from or something to be endured if running doesn’t work. Or it can be something to come to terms with, like an old friend. Physical pain can be a tool too, muting emotional pain. Lastly, pain can be embraced. Some people ride the pain like a wave and find enjoyment in the intensity. They are often called “masochists”.
Masochism is the enjoyment, often sexual in nature, of receiving and experiencing pain. Masochism is typically practiced in a consensual “session”, paired with sadism. Some masochists prefer pain to come with physical restriction (bondage) and/or power exchange (dominance/submission). Yes, this is the same thing as BDSM or “kink.”
Researchers wondered if there was anything different about masochists’ sensation of pain. After all, most people avoid pain. Pain is unpleasant. Why deliberately seek it out? Can the experience of masochists tell us about how humans experience pain? Most importantly — can we learn anything that might help alleviate the suffering associated with chronic pain?
To answer these questions, Defrin et al invited 34 people to participate in a study. Half of those people were masochists involved in the local BDSM scene. The other half was a control group who did not. Both groups filled out surveys about pain. They answered questions on…
- how much they feared pain
- their experiences of pain in everyday life
- how much they catastrophize pain. How terrible is it when they do experience pain? And how do they cope with pain when they do experience it? Different aspects of catastrophizing include rumination on the pain, magnification of that pain, and a feeling of helplessness.
- the masochists were also surveyed about their BDSM experiences
Defrin et al tested the pain threshold of both groups. They tested the pressure required for the participant to report feeling pain, while the participants were “seated on comfortable armchairs”. (No! Not the Comfy Chair!)
If you don’t get that reference, stop reading this article right now. Go watch the glory that is Monty Python. Then come back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
What did Defrin et al find?
First – what were masochists doing and enjoying? The majority enjoyed whipping on the buttocks. Other areas of the body were also involved. Generally, the more pain and the more areas of the body they experienced pain in, the more they enjoyed the experience. Masochists in this study had weekly to monthly sessions.
What about everyday pain? When you stub your toe and go “ow!”? As groups, both masochists and non-masochists reported the same amount of pain. Both disliked that kind of sudden, unpredictable pain. However there were some differences. Among masochists, those who had more frequent sessions reported less pain in their every day lives. Interestingly, some people from both groups reported some enjoyment with everyday pain (65% of masochists and 24% controls).
When tested, masochists had a higher pain threshold than non-masochists. For both groups, the more frequently they encountered pain the higher their pain threshold was.
Masochists also reported lower levels of pain catastrophization. They ruminated and magnified pain less and had more of a sense of control surrounding pain than non-masochists did. And the more frequently they had sessions and the more parts of their bodies that were involved, the less fear of pain they had.
So in summary — compared with non-masochists, masochists were better able to cope with everyday pain and had a higher pain threshold. The more the masochist experienced pain in their sessions, the bigger this difference.
Why might there be this difference?
This was a correlational study. So it’s impossible to say for certain why there were these differences between masochists and controls. There are three possibilities:
- Masochists naturally have a lower pain threshold
- The experiences of being a masochist and having frequent exposures to pain increases their pain threshold
- There is a third factor that wasn’t found in this study
To me, the second explanation is most likely. I would expect that if masochists naturally had a lower pain threshold then the number of sessions wouldn’t make a difference. But that wasn’t the case.
Masochistic sessions are highly pleasurable. Rather than attempting to reject or escape the pain, masochists embrace it in a positive, safe environment. That environment matters! The way that we approach pain absolutely affects how much pain we feel and how intense that pain is.
This study does have a number of holes. It has a small sample size. That always limits how applicable the study is. In addition the pain experiences used in the study were predictable, just like the pain in masochistic sessions. Predictable pain is a very different experience from unpredictable pain. If pain is predictable the brain can prepare. Neurotransmitter amounts can change and blunt the feeling of pain. So can we really extrapolate predictable pain thresholds to everyday, nonpredictable, pain thresholds?
I find it interesting too that some of the control group reported everyday pain to be enjoyable. Perhaps there are more people who would participate in masochistic activities given the chance and societal acceptance?
What does this mean for those who suffer with chronic pain?
Well, no one is going to suggest that they all start masochistic sessions. But perhaps borrowing the mindset of masochism would be helpful. Working to help those with chronic pain accept and work positively with their pain may be helpful. It’s hard to say.
What do you think?
Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!