Wednesday, November 3, 2010


"I can take it!"

A large part of masculinity is pain--handling it, even inviting it, sometimes dealing it out to others.   Real men don't cry, we say.  The rituals of boyhood are the rituals of cruelty--from tricking the class nerd into licking the frozen flagpole to facing down (or being) the school bully.  In my own boyhood, the "dare" and the dreaded "double dare" were initiations to risky adventure, endurance, and male bonding.  Some endure tattooing and piercing for love of the art and love of the ordeal alike.  Unlike femininity, with its makeup case of tricks and dodges, masculinity has traditionally been looked upon as the forge of authenticity--and adversity has always been the acid test of that authenticity.  In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence holds his fingers to a match flame.   A colleague tries it and cries out, "It hurts!"  When asked what the trick is, Lawrence coolly replies, "The trick ... is not minding that it hurts."

Wikipedia, in its collective authority, reports that the word "sadomasochism" is about a hundred years old now.  Freud (rightly, I think) suggested that sadism, the sexual desire to inflict pain, and masochism, the sexual desire to endure pain, often manifest in the same individual, making it perfectly appropriate to conflate the two to one word.  For instance, I like playing the heel, but I confess that I often play the heel "just asking for it, " hoping my victim can turn the tables and repay me in kind.  It's as much erotic as dramatic crescendo that thrills me when, in a pro wrestling show, the bully gets his comeuppance at the hands of somebody bigger and badder.

I would be perfectly comfortable seeing all this as a neurosis--as neuroses go, it's no worse than compulsive counting or the fear of heights, and it's a hell of a lot more interesting.  But in 1994 the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the list of recognized sexual disorders.  The BDSM community see it as something else entirely--either a harmless exercise of libidinous energy or, more impressively, a ritualization of trust whose impact is lasting and spiritual for the participants.

We have our limits--and it's imperative to respect those limits in ourselves and others.  For some it's tickling, others, spanking, others, gut punching, others, submission wrestling, others, fight clubbing.  Blood or no blood, bruising or no bruising.  From there it's just a question of how many teeth you can afford to lose and how many bones you're willing to break.  Playing rough is risky, always, but in consensual sex play, the goal is to reduce the risk to just the amount needed to be thrilling.

Men put themselves to the test.  Wrestling is a turn on for many reasons--body contact, exhaustion, sweat, the play of muscle on muscle--but a chief one is the testing of one's limits while at the same time testing the limits of one's adversary.  In homoerotic wrestling, where sex, sport, and psychological domination collide, there's a reason the heel always says to the jobber, "You like that, don't you?" right when he twists the guy's heels up and back against his buttocks.  It's because he does.

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