BDSM, Testing, and Worthiness

by Jason Stotts

Author’s Note: this was cut from my forthcoming essay “The Bounds of Passion and the Good Life: Alternative Sexualities and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism” because it ended up being repetitive. But it was too good to just let languish, so I’m presenting it here by itself. Enjoy.

Sex involves passion: for your own and happiness, your lover’s life and happiness, and for your life shared together.  Passion is appropriate and desirable in sexual relationship with your beloved: who would want to have a dispassionate relationship?  Passion is a way of showing your lover just how much they mean to you and of expressing the true depth of your feelings.  Yet passion can be so great that it slips its bounds, so great that restraint is swept away in its torrent.

This boundless passion can be the genesis of, and impetus for, the incorporation of pain in sex.  It is not a desire to harm or injure your partner, but rather a desire to hurt them – the desire is to cause them pain without any sort of deleterious physical affects.  This can only be done in a relationship where each partner trusts the other completely.  When this is the case, the pain is not merely an end, but moreover, and more importantly, the means to something further.  What, you ask, could possibly be the goal of causing pain to your beloved?

In the earlier cited passages from Atlas Shrugged, the sexual encounters had an element of violence in them because they were the result of a long and arduous struggle.  In the scene with Dagny and John, when they realized that the person for whom they had been struggling for so long was finally within their reach, that their perfect lover was finally theirs to have, the passion and excitement would have been boundless – the intensity of the situation necessitated more than gentle sex.  In order to show the other person the depths of their passion and their absolute trust, they had to incorporate pain.  Furthermore, their sexual union was their surrender to each other and a sign of ownership: their having sex meant their total commitment to one another as they gave themselves to each other.

The case is similar in real life in the best kinds of relationships.  In such relationships where the lovers are each other’s complements, where they are both excellent and good, sex becomes a way to experience the unification of your life with your lover’s.  This union can arouse love so strong that it is painful, as it feels as though it will tear your heart asunder under its force, and an intense anger, that there is so much separating you from your beloved – even an infinitesimal distance seems to be too great a gulf.  In this state your passion for your lover is strong beyond words; the only way to describe the experience is as one of unmitigated intensity.

This heightened state of ecstatic union drives you to test your lover: to test their resolve, to test their trust, to test them to see if they are worthy of your total surrender to them: to see if they are truly worthy of your love.  The tests can vary in intensity, the more strenuous the test the stronger the resolve of the partners and their devotion to each other.  The tests range from light scratches on an arm to deep gouges on the back, from gentle kisses barely grazing the skin to kisses that draw instant bruises, from caresses that cause sighs of contentment to caresses that cause gasps of pain, from sex done gently to sex that tests the limits of your tolerance.  All the while the thought that runs through your head of whether your partner will break: it drives you to even greater lengths: wondering whether you are doing too much while concurrently being proud of your lover’s strength.  Also, there is a sense of exerting ownership over your lover because you know that they will let you do whatever you want to them, almost a defiant sense of “you can’t stop me from hurting you, you’re mine now.”

The pain is experienced as a trial that one would rather die than fail, as a test that tests not only the limits of your endurance but also the resolve of your lover who is inflicting the pain.  To break while being tested is bad, but so much the worse for you to break while causing pain: to stop prematurely shows your lack of respect for your lover, assuming that they could not handle more, that they are weak.  To break while receiving shows weakness, to break while giving shows disrespect.

Of course, this is only appropriate in an intimate context.  To inflict pain upon your beloved in the course of daily routine, not as test of their commitment but just to inflict pain merely as an end, is to show yourself not to value your beloved.  To cause pain during sex is to show respect, but to inflict pain outside of a sexual context is to degrade your beloved and yourself.  There is a reverence in this kind of encounter that is unique, an honor reserved solely for your beloved.  This is the kind of activity which you would only allow your true love to do to you and from whom you would only accept it.

Furthermore, there is a distinctive kind of joy that accompanies this sexual trial; a joy born of overcoming and confirming your worthiness for your lover and a joy born of testing and reaffirming your lover’s worthiness for you.  The trials, while involving pain, are ultimately pleasurable for both of the lovers.  Humans, because of the neural pathways for sensation, experience pleasure and pain on a continuum: the exact same action that feels painful in some contexts can feel pleasurable in others; the same amount of force used on a person who was unaroused could feel painful while a person who was aroused would enjoy it.  Furthermore, not all pain is unpleasurable, one can experience pleasure from pain as when a bite that is painful also causes great feelings of pleasure.  Conversely, one can experience pleasure so exquisite that is it painful, as when you are doing something that is so pleasurable it hurts.  In addition, pain can make pleasure more pleasurable: the contrasting sensations can add a level of depth to the pleasure that is otherwise unattainable.

Ultimately the issue of sex and pain is one of confirmation, reaffirmation, and celebration: a test of strength of will to confirm your equality and worthiness, a trial to reaffirm your mutual trust, and the most poignant and complete unification to celebrate your existence together.  In a proper relationship, pain during sex becomes a testament to the depth of the love: there is no aspect of shame or degradation.  This kind of pain, born of the intensity of your passion for your lover and the desire not to hold anything back, is not only morally permissible, but appropriate in the right context.  But, it should be well noted that this pain is merely physical and never emotional.

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