Sadomasochism, or sexual enjoyment from giving or receiving pain, may be a meditative experience and in some cases may lead to an altered state of consciousness, new research suggests.
Consensual sadomasochism was long considered pathological, but psychologists studying people interested in BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) have failed to find evidence that these sexual practices are harmful. One study, published in May 2013, actually found that practitioners of BDSM were better off than the general population in some ways, including having secure relationships and lower anxiety. Currently, the psychiatrists' definitive handbook, the DSM-5, lists BDSM as a paraphilia, or unusual sexual fixation, but only classifies it as a disorder if it causes harm.
If sadomasochism is not a pathology as once believed, the question is why some people engage in these painful sexual behaviors, said James Ambler, a graduate student in psychology at Northern Illinois University.
"It seems, on the surface, very paradoxical," Ambler told Live Science.
To find out, Ambler recruited "switches," or people in the SM community who like both receiving pain and giving pain. Fourteen switches, 10 of whom were women, agreed to be assigned one of those two roles for the night by roll of the die.
Before and after their sexual experience, the volunteers completed a cognitive test called the Stroop task, in which they saw a word for a color written in a color other than what the word said ("blue" written in red, for example). It's hard for the brain to read the word correctly when the color of the letters clashes with the meaning, making this a widely used test of cognitive abilities. The volunteers also filled out questionnaires about their feelings of "flow" during the sadomasochistic experience. Flow is a state of focus and enjoyment that people feel when fully immersed in a task.
The results showed that people playing the pain-receiving role showed poorer Stroop task scores, which are seen with short-term reductions of functions in a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortexAmbler said. This region is linked to executive control, working memory and other higher-level functions.
The pain that comes with sadomasochistic sex may cause the brain to shunt blood flow away from this region, causing a subjectively altered state of consciousness — and the appeal of SM, Ambler said.
"Part of the reason these SM activities may be so extreme, at some level, is that they're particularly effective at causing the brain to change its distribution of blood flow," he said.
People on the giving end of the pain got benefits, too. Both sides of the equation reported similar levels of flow during their sexual "scene."
Spiritual, not sexual
The findings hint that sadomasochism isn't entirely about sex. A second study, conducted by Ellen Lee, a graduate student in psychology at Northern Illinois University, with her advisor, Brad Sagarin, and their BDSM Research Team, focused on a nonsexual — but very painful — ritual performed by some in the community.
Called the "Dance of Souls," this ritual involves people getting temporary skin piercings, through which hooks attached to ropes are placed. The ropes of one person are connected to those on others in the group or to a fixed object and are pulled taut as music or drums are played. These events are also known as "energy pulls" and are seen as primarily spiritual, not sexual, Sagarin told Live Science.
The researchers surveyed 22 participants in one of these rituals at a kink community conference in California. Five participants who were hooked agreed to participate, as well as nine supporters (who make sure group members are OK during the ritual) and eight observers. The participants filled out surveys about their stress, emotions, flow and the extent to which they felt their own selves overlapped with others at the event. They also gave saliva samples to test their cortisol, a hormone that spikes during stress.
Unsurprisingly, given the pain, cortisol levels went up during the ritual. But something odd happened: Participants reported feeling less stressed.
"We see this interesting disconnect," Sagarin said. "We think this may be indicative of the types of altered states of consciousness people might be seeking."
The effect might not be so different from what people experience when they push their bodies during yoga, or even during meditation, he said. People who complete the energy pull ritual also report feeling more connected to others, he added. ...
How one lawyer helps those, like her, in non-traditional relationships
by Roc Morin
“When I was a child,” Diana Adams began, “I had a doll house and a rich fantasy life. I imagined that I was a cancer-curing surgeon, a world-class ballerina, and a TV show host all at the same time. I was also an amazing mom to all my dolls, but it was always a little mysterious about where they had come from and whether they all had the same father. A little neighbor boy once said to me, ‘I’ll be the daddy.’ I thought about that for a moment. I said, ‘No, you can be my gay lounge singer friend. That’s much more fun.’ I’ve always liked boys. I just like them better in groups.”
Why does polyamory work for you?
I remember from a very young age realizing that I was bisexual, and that I tended to be attracted to many different people at the same time. I really think that polyamory for me is an orientation, like being heterosexual or homosexual. Humans in general have a hard time with monogamy. That’s always been the case. We used to have a sense that it was acceptable for husbands to go out and have other lovers, but with the shift to egalitarianism, rather than to say that woman could do that too, we’ve gone in the other direction.
What are the consequences of that, do you think?
I think it's interesting to see the way that when people get into a monogamous couple dynamic, they often have to neuter their sexual desires. As the initial intensity of a relationship shifts to feelings of long-term love, you can end up in a sexless marriage, and I think that’s a huge contributor to infidelity and the breakup of a lot of families. We put so much emphasis on a partner being everything—that this person completes you—and when that doesn’t happen it creates a lot of pressure. I don't think that open relationships are for everyone but it's something that you should no longer feel ashamed to talk about at a time when so many marriages are failing.
What do your other lovers give you that your primary partner can’t?
Well, for example, with my female partners, I feel a different kind of power dynamic. I feel a protective impulse toward women I’m involved with. It's a different kind of love feeling. My partner Ed is a wonderful feminist man, though sometimes I’d really like to be out on a date with the kind of man who wants to open car doors for me and treat me like a princess. I don't want that all the time, but I might want that once a month.
How do your different lovers get along with one another?
They’re really good friends. The men even have a name for themselves. They call themselves “The Man Harem.” Sometimes they’ll play with that. They’ll all show up in matching clothes – wearing all pinstripes, or all red shirts, for example. They’re friends and they help each other. For instance, I just had my birthday and my partner Ed is off doing amazing work as a scientist. As a consolation, my long-term boyfriend is staying in the house for the week. So, rather than my boyfriend saying, “Wow why's your partner going out of town when it's your birthday?” he’s asking if my partner is okay having to be away for so long, if he needs support. And my partner is saying, “Thanks for taking care of Diana since I can’t be there.” There’s a real feeling of compersion. Compersion is the opposite of jealousy. ...
When you first walk in, you'll be amazed by just how gorgeous the home is. Hardwood floors, modern-day appliances, black granite countertops, and a beautiful outdoor patio with a hot tub for up to several people.
You may also be amazed by how many naked people there are.
"Mr. Sparks" — whose real name Business Insider agreed to conceal — organizes sex parties for up to 150 people at this house in Brooklyn, New York, about once a month.
Although the idea of a gigantic orgy of more than 100 people might seem intimidating, it's more likely that you'll feel right at home once you get there. The dingy stereotype of New York swingers' clubs — Plato's Retreat, the infamous 1970s swingers' club, was held in a basement — is swept away by the tasteful interior of this brick row house.
Sparks started throwing the parties about four years ago, after attending one in Manhattan. He loved the concept, but says the execution was severely lacking. He felt the dancers were terrible, and didn't like the way the hosts made fun of some the guests.
Luckily for him, he had a wealthy friend who wanted to help him with a new venture, and offered up his house to host the parties. The pair live in apartments above the main living area of the house.
Plenty of parties to choose from.
In Brooklyn alone, there are now a slew of different sex parties for the adventurous to choose from.
Submit, for example, is a sex party for women and trans-gender people in Park Slope. That means no "cisgendered" men (men who identify with the male gender) are allowed. Chemistry, on the other hand, is only for single women and couples.
People who come to the Sparks house either come alone or with like-minded friends. This isn't your average swingers party, where couples come to find a third — or fourth — lover. They come for a fun night of conversation and usually sex, but are not required to participate. Sometimes, people go simply to make new friends.
Unlike other sometimes gender- or sexuality-exclusive sex parties, Sparks says, there are people who may identify as gay, straight, bisexual, queer, or even "awesomesexual."
There's also a mix of professionals who attend, like lawyers, doctors, and teachers. Everyone is accepted, as long as you're at least 18 years old.
"We're a bunch of adults and we've come together because we're all slutty and want to rub our genitals against each other in as many extreme ways as possible," Sparks says. "That's funny. You get to laugh about it. If you can't laugh at sex, you're missing out. Sex should not be hyper-serious. It's real funny." ...
Despite taboos, some students delve into kink, group sex, polyamory or open relationships
The Brown Daily Herald
By Emily Wooldridge
Lynne could not decide what color to wear to the stoplight party. An open relationship doesn’t come in colors red, yellow or green.
“Do I wear green because I can hook up with people or yellow because maybe I can’t?” she asked herself. Lynne is a female undergraduate whose name, like those of several other students interviewed for this story, has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
For the multitudes of alternative relationships and sexual practices on campus — including group sex, kink, open relationships and polyamory — there is no cruise control. These practices can be difficult to navigate or understand, because every experience is different.
“There is no such thing as normal sex,” said Anica Green ’17.
Instead of worrying about what color to wear, “why don’t you ask him?” Lynne’s friend suggested.
“Gossip Girl” warns, “Inside every threesome there is a twosome and a onesome,” but what about a fivesome?
In a dorm room, there are 10 condoms on the floor. When first-years walk by, they ask, “Is this the room where the orgy happened?”
For Dominic, a male undergraduate, that threesome was “the climax of a term where everyone is having meaningless sex,” he said.
For others, group sex is “the best thing that has happened in their lives,” said Andrew, a male undergraduate, or “their two favorite things at once — boobs and penis,” said Emma, a female undergraduate.
Dominic said the threesome was more relaxed than having sex one-on-one. When the responsibility of pleasure is shared by multiple people, there is not as much individual pressure to perform, he said.
For Emma, the threesome turned into a text message that made its way around campus. By daylight, everyone knew.
Andrew’s date and his friend’s date hit it off at the formal, he said. After the party, the pair of couples took a cab back to Andrew’s room — jazz, flameless candles and an L-shaped futon next to the bed.
“Sometimes you couldn’t tell whose lips were whose,” he said. “We didn’t know how much we could get away with.”
“There was no penetration involved,” Andrew added.
“During one-on-one sex there is clear intention,” Andrew said. During the foursome, “there was neither intention nor destination — you could be more present.”
When Oliver, a male undergraduate, opened a door at a party, he found three girls making out. One of them was his girlfriend.
Oliver and his male friend, whose girlfriend was also participating in the makeout session, decided to join.
While the friend performed cunnilingus on Oliver’s girlfriend, “it was difficult to wrap my head around it,” he said. But having the fivesome did not ruin the chemistry between Oliver and his girlfriend.
“It made our relationship more official, because we were part of (the fivesome) together,” he said. “We can laugh about it.”
Kinks and high jinks
In 2012, Harvard recognized Harvard College Munch as an official student organization.
Members of the group gather weekly in dining halls to discuss kink, consent and safe practices over lunch. There are around 70 students on the group’s mailing list and around 25 regular attendees.
“There are no trolls in our dungeon,” said group president Cleo, whose name has been changed for confidentiality. For the most part, the “liberal utopia” of Harvard Square offers students interested in kink “a positive and respectful environment,” she said.
Columbia’s Conversio Virium, which means “exchange of forces” in Latin, was the first kink organization for students recognized by a university. College Hill Kink — a subgroup of Queer Alliance comprised of Brown and Rhode Island School of Design undergraduates — also offers a safe space for students interested in kink. Other colleges in New England and across the country — including Tufts University, Iowa State University and Reed College — have similar organizations.
The New England Leather Alliance was established in 1991 under a different name, according to the organization’s website. This nonprofit organization strives to raise awareness and create a safe space for those interested in leather, fetish and BDSM, which Cleo defined generally as “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.” ...
irst things first: Maintaining intimate emotional and physical relationships with multiple partners is not for everyone.
American cultural norms steer us toward monogamy — a faithful, one-on-one, forsaking-all-others, 'til-death-do-us-part definition of love and intimacy that usually involves marriage. For a lot of us, this works. For others, it doesn't. Hardly a news cycle goes by without the revelation that some celebrity or another has been caught with his (or her) pants down. But cheating isn't reserved for the rich and famous. There's not a community in the country that hasn't experienced the scandal of extracurricular romance between otherwise ordinary people.
All this begs the question: Is there a functional alternative for those who are not by nature monogamous? One that doesn't involve secrets, dissemblance, and emotional betrayal?
Anywhere from one million to two million Americans are choosing polyamory, a word best defined by its Greek roots meaning "many" and "love." Polyamorists openly love more than one person. The estimated 500,000-plus polyamorous (or "poly") relationships in this country vary in configuration as widely as the people who comprise them, from heterosexual married people who simply date others, to larger, more complex relationship structures that often involve shared living space and raising families. What all truly polyamorous arrangements have in common — and what makes them distinct from secretive infidelity or "cheating" — is a defining characteristic of the practice: transparency. Polyamorists believe that their relationships can thrive only in an environment of complete honesty.
In that spirit, a number of polyamorists agreed to share with me the following pieces of wisdom and advice for those who might be considering "going poly," or those of you who are just curious about the practice.
Polyamorists are just like the rest of us.
Put aside notions of fringe-living religious zealots and commune dwellers: Most poly people are otherwise ordinary Americans who raise families, pay mortgages, and go about their daily routines just like everybody else. If anything, poly people tend to skew a little more intellectual — or "dorky," as one thirty-something biologist describes his poly circle of friends. Perhaps this is because most polyamorists have come to their decision to open their relationships by doing a lot of research.
Interested in doing a little research of your own? Novices and academics alike find Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá to be an accessible, engaging take on human sexuality and behavior that might just open your eyes, if not your marriage.
Polyamory is not just about sex.
"My husband wants me to set up a threesome with my PTA co-chair" is the stuff of mediocre pornography, not polyamory. While polyamorists must by definition be comfortable with less conventional sexuality — and many are aligned with the Sex Positive movement — most bristle at the implication that their desire for multiple relationships is rooted solely in lust.
Unlike the swinging or spouse-swapping so luridly portrayed in popular media, polyamorous relationships are based as much on emotional intimacy and love as they are on the physical. With many polyamorous arrangements lasting years and even decades, all participants eventually develop a deeper personal connection with one another that may or may not have anything to do with who sleeps with whom and when. ...
Not only is BDSM far more common than you might think, it’s also far less of a red-flag when it comes to health and psychology
by Rose Eveleth
Would you let somebody you were in a relationship with tie you up? If you said yes, you’re not nearly as unusual as you might think.
It turns out that Americans are actually far more into BDSM than the rest of the world seems to be. According to a 2005 survey by Durex, 36 percent of adults in the United States use masks, blindfolds and bondage tools during sex. Worldwide that number is only 20 percent. Melanie Berliet at Pacific Standard reports that the trend isn’t new, either — a study from 1953 found that 55 percent of women and 50 percent of men liked being bitten, and a 1999 study said that 65 percent of university students dream about being tied up.
Although these preferences are relatively common, people still feel the need to hide them, Beliet reports:
But in spite of the evidence that BDSM is commonplace—normal, even—those who openly adhere to the lifestyle are frequently marginalized. Susan Wright, founder of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, has written at length about the risks of disclosing one’s affiliation with BDSM, including discrimination, violence, job loss, and legal obstacles surrounding child custody. It seems not even the famously progressive Girls creator, Lena Dunham, is immune to stigma’s reach. When discussing 50 Shades in the January 2014 issue of The Believer, Dunham said, “I don’t have an elicit [sic], confused relationship to my sexuality, so I don’t need a book like that right now in my life….”
IN 1993, when Antioch College introduced its “ask first” policy — mandating that students solicit permission for every intimate advance, including kissing — the policy was widely derided.
Once the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” parody, “consent” today is proudly emblazoned on T-shirts, underwear and condom wrappers.
Through activism that happens as often on YouTube and Twitter as on the main green, foot soldiers in the consent movement are encouraging fellow classmates to ask first and ask often before engaging in sexual activity. Their mission is to make consent cooler than Antioch did. The movement’s slogan: “Consent is sexy.”
It isn’t always an easy sell. Today, as it was decades ago, the butt of the joke is the awkward formality of the ask. Sayda Morales co-founded All Students for Consent at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., last year. She hears from students: “Do I have to ask if I can move one inch closer? Do I have to ask if I can move my left hand one inch on their buttocks?”
But it doesn’t have to take on the air of a contract signing, she tells them. When she stands in front of the freshman class, she tries to keep the conversation light. “Consent is necessary,” she says, “and it’s fun.”
Getting consent should be just one part of a frank conversation about what is and isn’t O.K. during sex, she says, and can enhance the sexual experience rather than stifle it.
Ms. Morales says she shrugs off student giggles. “At least they’re talking about it,” she says.
Sometimes it pays to play on the mockery. In 2012, Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato created a website advertising a supposedly new line of Victoria’s Secret underwear. True to form, they were frilly, lacy and kaleidoscopic. But instead of “sure thing,” the thongs were decorated with fiats like “no means no” and “ask first.” Before everyone picked up on the prank, the website went viral.
The two activists — through their Baltimore organization, Force: Upsetting Rape Culture — have been at the forefront of a new, edgier tone in consent advocacy. Their group held workshops at 10 colleges last year, educating students on how to spread the anti-rape message. Campus groups are trumpeting their message through “Consent Days,” and sometimes weeks, filled with panels, group discussions and consent-branded T-shirt and condom giveaways. ...
Polyamory and the potential for new ways of loving
The McGill Daily
I always dreaded having to play the game. Soon after coming out I entered a relationship with the first guy I hooked up with, and when we finally broke up almost two years later I felt lost and helpless in a world of single, gay men I knew nothing about. We attempted making our relationship an open one in the last few months we were together, which in hindsight was just a vain attempt to make a failing relationship work. Although he saw a few other guys, causing surges of jealousy for me in a confusing and turbulent time for both of us, I was always afraid to leave the cocoon of our comfortable yet dysfunctional situation.
Now, months later, despite continued qualms about immersing myself in the dating scene, as a single 20-year-old gay male in a city with a large queer population, I know that this is my time to experiment. I need to see what works for me as I figure out what it is I want from my relationships.
The media obsesses over the ways relationships are changing because our generation tends to communicate using social media and texting. We resist labels and commitment, and have a proclivity for casual hook-ups over serious, committed relationships. For queers, the likelihood of experimenting with polyamory adds to the complexity of the dating scene.
Despite having more straight than queer friends, it seems more of my queer friends have experienced, or at least considered, open relationships. It’s probably because the essence of queerness implies challenging, avoiding, and questioning traditional gender norms and social relations. I’m sure straight people engage in polyamory as well, but I personally haven’t met too many who are into that sort of thing.
In some ways, I sometimes feel this invisible pressure that as a queer person in this day and age, a successful polyamorous relationship is the rainbow-covered, glittery, golden peak I should be striving for. Given the benefits of polyamory, I understand why.
I remember a great conversation with a queer friend who has been in a successful, albeit sometimes challenging, open relationship. We discussed how being able to see other people while still having a committed relationship can mean fulfilling different sexual desires and preferences. Different people can provide you with different pleasures and help you discover different sexual practices and preferences. Polyamory can definitely limit the potential for boredom in a relationship, making things more fun and dynamic.
If you’re able to make it work and strike a balance, a successful open relationship can mean a much more interesting and challenging sex life. For a sexual young adult, what could be more attractive than that?
Of course, given the dimensions that seeing other people adds to a relationship, it can mean a lot of hard work and commitment in figuring out what makes you and your partner comfortable. Based on my own experiences, and what I’ve heard and seen from friends, nothing is more pivotal to an open relationship than communication. ...