Reboot: P is for Pleasure and Pain

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Hi everyone!  Welcome to the A to Z of Sex.  I’m Dr Lori Beth and I am your host.  We are working our way through the erotic alphabet one letter at a time.  Just a reminder this podcast deals with adult content, so if you don’t have total privacy, you might want to put on your headphones. Today the letter is P and P is for Pleasure and Pain.

How different is pleasure and pain?  Why do so many people gain intense pleasure out of what can also be intense pain?  What kinds of pain are enjoyable?   Today I will answer these questions.

Let’s start with the neuroscience behind pleasure and pain.    Pain and pleasure used to be considered opposites but recent research has highlighted that there are lots of similarities between the anatomical substrates functioning in both.    The ability to seek pleasure and avoid pain is important for survival.    There is a lot of overlap in the chemistry of both sensations and they compete for primacy of processing in the brain.  This might explain why some pain can be processed and perceived as pleasure.

Relief of pain can be experienced as intense pleasure.   Particularly if the pain was acute and strong.  Endorphins that are released as a result of pain are often experienced as pleasure.   In addition, when a person experiences pain and also stress, the brain produces more melatonin and serotonin which changes the pain into pleasure.  Finally, intense pain – particularly when the body believes danger is present, will produce a release of epinephrine and norepinephrine which will create a rush of pleasure. 

One of the things that hurts good is when the pain stops.   When you are pushing your body for a goal for example or when someone is massaging your sore muscles or aching joints.  The relief associated with that pain is often perceived as intense pleasure.

Do masochists always enjoy pain? No.  If a masochist stubs a toe, it will hurt and there will be no pleasure associated with that hurt.  Part of what makes the difference between an action being experienced as painful and one being experienced as pleasurable is the context of the action.   The delicious pain of a massage is happening in a safe environment with someone you trust.   You can relax into the experience as a result.  The final thing that make pain turn to pleasure is a lack of true fear.  You may engage in role play with a partner that is very frightening or enjoy the surprise in horror movies but this is fear experienced in a safe environment.   

Shame and guilt are intricately involved in sex for many of us raised in Western cultures.  Most of us have been taught that sex and sexuality is somewhat shameful.  Women are still being taught abstinence is the best course of action prior to marriage in many places.  This might not be problematic in and of itself.  After all, there is nothing inherently damaging in saving sexual activity until you are in a committed sexual relationship. (Though many relationship breakdowns and divorces could be avoided by making sure couples have some level of sexual compatibility prior to making a lifetime commitment.)

Rather the problem with preaching abstinence is the lessons that go along with this teaching.  Young people are taught to avoid any sexual feelings.  They are taught that sexual feelings are dirty, shameful or wrong.  There is no teaching about the pleasure that can be experienced through sexual activity, no teaching about masturbation.  Most of the teaching is about denying pleasure. 

There is little talk about pleasure in sexual education.  Girls are not taught that they should expect sex to feel good and a certainly not taught how to make sex feel good.  Girls are not encouraged to learn their own bodies and so remain reliant on a partner for their pleasure and their orgasms.  This is restricting enough.  What is even worse is that boys are not taught about girls’ bodies and how to provide pleasure.     Essentially sexual pleasure and orgasm for young women is left to trial and error (or internet searching).

We can understand why pain is not talked about in depth as this is still somewhat taboo.  But it is hard to comprehend why pleasure is still relegated to the shadows.    Doing so, creates higher levels of shame and guilt associated with any kind of sexual enjoyment. 

I have spoken before about the damage that toxic shame can create.  Many people experience toxic shame around their sexual desires.  They cannot enjoy the activities because they believe that they are wrong or ill or evil for having the fantasies in the first place.

Brene Brown is a leading shame researcher.  She makes the distinction between shame and guilt.  She says ‘Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers … I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Unfortunately, sexual shame remains part of many of our cultural experiences and upbringings.  Women are often taught that feeling and seeking sexual pleasure is wrong and shameful.  Men are shamed for certain desires Living with this shame makes it difficult for people to fully own their sexuality. 

How to overcome this culture of denial of pleasure?  Start by teaching children that their bodies produce a range of sensations and that there is nothing wrong with any of them.   Start young by talking about the good feelings a hug can produce.  Make sure that sex education starts young, with age appropriate lessons on anatomy, masturbation, pleasure and boundaries.

How to explore the edge between pleasure and pain?  Start with an exploration of the variety of sensations you can experience in a sexual setting.  Create a safe space with a partner and start out by engaging in some sensory play using different textures.    The person who is receiving is in a comfortable position,  blindfolded.  The person who is giving strokes the receiving person with a variety of different objects providing different textures and different sensations.  I recommend using feathers, fur, sandpaper (rougher grades), a needle or a knife edge, an ice cube,  the flame from a candle (just close enough to feel the heat), leather glove, coconut oil or cocoa butter, grains of salt or sand.  You can do all the stroking on arms and this exercise can be done in a public environment.  In sexual environments, you can stroke all over the body, moving from hands to breasts, to legs, to vulva.  If you want to increase the pleasure/pain challenge use a whartenburg wheel or a vampire glove or drip candle wax.  If you are going to play with candle wax, learn some more about it before diving in.  Different waxes produce different temperatures, different heights will feel different, different colours of wax also produce different heat.   Where you drip the wax or if you layer the wax also makes a difference.  Notice that painful pleasure and the moment things change.

Another gentle way to explore this edge is through orgasm denial.  When someone is really close to orgasm, maintaining that intense turn on without moving into the release of orgasm can become painful.   After holding on this edge for awhile, when the release comes it can also have a painful edge.  The pain and pleasure mingle together and the intensity is higher. 

Jan wrote in and asked ‘I like being flogged but I don’t have a regular partner.  I meet people at events and clubs. How can I keep the pain at a level I enjoy and prevent myself from being injured when I engage in flogging?’    Even when you meet someone at a club or event, take some time to negotiate what a scene will contain.   Make sure to give clear descriptions of what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy.  If you are not a good match, move on and look to meet someone else.  Trust your gut while you are negotiating.  If something doesn’t feel right, thank the person and move on.    Make sure you agree a safeword and a safe gesture if the environment is likely to be very loud and busy.   Negotiate aftercare.  Ask the person to start slowly and to check in with you.  Even doing all these things, it is possible that someone will strike you harder than you like and it will hurt in a way that doesn’t feel good.  If this happens, breathe through the pain and either say your safe word or keep going to see if things move back into your pleasure zone.

Nina wrote in and asked ‘I want to try pain but I am afraid of anything intense.  How can I start experimenting without being paralysed with fear?’   The first step to experimenting is trusting someone that you are experimenting with.    Negotiate clearly your needs and desires.  Take some time to get to know the person before entering into a scene.  Watch the person playing with others if this is to be a ‘casual’ scene.    More manageable things to start with are being scratched with finger nails – first gently and then more firmly.  Spanking again first gently and starting only on the fleshy part of the rear end.  Pinching is also something that can be easy or really hard to manage.  End your session on a high note when you are feeling great.

Thanks for joining me this week for the A to Z of Sex. Write in with your questions to and visit both websites and to learn to express and explore your authentic sexual self.  Why not join me for an arousing conversation about what turns you on and what gets you off in my upcoming webinar : 4 Secretes for Arousing and Igniting Your Sexual Self. Head over to  to register. If you have enjoyed this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes and/or Sticher and please subscribe! Join me next week when the letter will be Q and Q is for Queen (and queening).

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