In BDSM erotica and erotic romance, I often find
very little description of pain, of what it feels like to experience it. Even
in scenes that include descriptions of pain play, the writer often shifts focus
to action and reaction instead of sensation, or to how things look or sound
instead of how they feel. Or the
writer reduces the experience to the phrase “pleasure/pain”. I would rejoice if that particular phrase
disappeared from erotica and erotic romance altogether. It is not only poor
description that is vague at best, it is also there not to describe the pain at all but instead to say it’s ok there was pain, and that the pain didn’t really hurt. It is
my experience that a good portion of pain play does actually hurt, and for some
folks, that’s actually what they like about it.
So even when we write stories about playing with pain,
many of us rarely describe how it feels. As it turns out, pain is famously
difficult to describe. Virginia Woolf expressed the problem in terms of language running dry. In his book, Listening
to Pain, David Biro builds on that concept, saying,
overwhelming presence, pain has the elusive quality of an absence, an absence
not only of words to describe it (that is, a linguistic absence) but also of
ways to think about it (a conceptual one).”
So, how do you describe the indescribable?
Taking a cue from Biro, the first place I suggest is
not to start with finding language for the sensation, but to explore how you think about pain. My foundational
concepts of pain come from a number of sources: my own experience as a top and
a bottom, conversations with other folks who do pain play (including my own
play partners), my own experiences with chronic pain, things I’ve read about
pain, BDSM, trauma and psychobiology, and a substantial amount of kink
education. When I write pain play, this is my core framework:
1. Pain is not automatically bad, and pain does not
universally feel bad.
2. It’s ok to desire pain (both giving and receiving).
It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. Desiring pain is not
something that requires explanation in your story.
3. Wanting pain doesn’t mean that you experience pain
as pleasure. There are lots of reasons folks may desire pain and choose to
4. Pain is not one-note. There is a whole symphony in
5. Pain doesn’t easily break into a dichotomy. People
in BDSM communities often break down sensation into sting vs. thud. These are a
start, but there’s a lot more variety to pain than that. Folks who do BDSM that
also experience chronic pain outside of a kink context often talk about good
pain vs. bad pain. That kind of differentiation is a start, but there’s more to
6. People experience sensation differently. There is no
universal experience of a particular sensation, including different kinds of
7. The perception of pain is particularly related to
the rate of increase of sensation, more than other factors. (I learned this
Richard Sprott, in his lecture on the Psychobiology of SM)
8. Three factors important to how people perceive pain
include: 1) the intensity at the peak moment of pain, 2) the intensity at the
end of the scene, and 3) the emotional interpretation of the pain. (I also
learned this from Dr. Sprott.)
9. Context is important for how you experience pain. Do
you know the sensation, or is it new to you? Are you in public or private? What
is the psychological context of the scene (is the pain punishment, reward, for
pleasure, about service, something to endure, something to revel in)? Are you
nervous or scared or excited or already turned on? Do you have a way to process
the pain, or are you restricted in some way (movement, sound, being gagged)? Do
you have access to all of your senses (or are you blindfolded or experiencing
another kind of sensory deprivation)? Is the skin being played with sensitized
in some way (from hormone cycles, previous play, constriction, touch)?
So that’s my foundation for thinking about pain. Let
me offer you another. In her ethnography of an East Coast pansexual BDSM
community, Playing on the Edge, Staci Newmahr discusses four
different ways that people in that community framed and understood pain:
where pain is instantly and unconsciously transformed into pleasure. In other
words, pain does not really hurt, it is converted to pleasure. Newmahr found
this most common in folks who engage in mild to moderate pain play.
where pain is not transformed, and does hurt; bottoms suffer as a sacrifice for
the benefit of or to fulfill the desire of the top. The bottom takes pain as
punishment or as a gift to the top. Newmahr found this way of thinking most
common in women who identified as submissives.
where pain is unpleasant and is endured in the promise of a later reward. The
pain is not the goal, it is a path to the goal, a challenge to the self, a
means to a different end (an endorphin high, the emotional satisfaction from
enduring it, a sexual reward from the top for taking it). Newmahr found this
framework most common in men.
where pain hurts and the hurt feels good. It isn’t converted to pleasure. The
hurting is a good, valued and desired thing in and of itself. Newmahr found
folks who used this framework to be marginalized within the BDSM community she
Consider: What are the foundations of how you write
pain? Where do they come from? Getting clear about your own thinking about pain
is a great first step to expanding how you write pain play in BDSM erotica. One
thing you can try is to read each of the bullets in my own framework and
Newmahr’s research aloud, and see how they sound, how they feel in your mouth,
what thoughts they spark. That may help you know more about your own
Now let’s approach the other piece of this: finding
language for sensation. One of the best ways to describe the indescribable is
to get really specific. I’m going to
share some starting questions about the sensations you are describing, along
with examples from my recent collection, Show Yourself To Me, to
illustrate how these details might play out in your descriptions of pain play.
- Is the sensation more concentrated (like a single tail whip, a punch, a cane, or a pinch,
where the sensation focuses on a small surface area of the skin) or more dispersed (like a large paddle, a slap
or a flogger with many tails, where the sensation is spread out over a larger surface
In this excerpt from “Please”,
the bottom is experiencing concentrated pain in combination with sex and they
wrap into each other:
started teasing my nipples with his fingertips. They were so hard and cold that
even that light silky touch hurt. Then he was twisting them, and the pain was
electric and sharp. It felt so good, mixing up with the relentless fucking that
led to this long glorious spasm. He started pinching them harder, and I
couldn’t help it. I had to slam my hips back to meet him.
- Does the sensation stay more on the surface of the skin (often described as sting, and
associated with things like canes, biting, whips, wax play and slapping) or reach deeper beneath the skin (often
described as thud, and associated with things like heavy floggers, batons,
saps, and punching)?
In this excerpt from “The
Tender Sweet Young Thing”, a bottom in a group scene is having difficulty
tolerating claws and teeth. One of the tops in the scene shifts it to a
different kind of sensation:
Jericho said, “All
that surface sensation is just too much, isn’t it? You need something deeper to
show you how tender you are. I can do that.”
How did Jericho
know that? It was scary how right they were. Deeper was exactly what he needed.
He nodded helplessly.
their boy a condom and some lube. They picked up Dax’s scissors, getting a nod
from hir, and cut off Téo’s briefs before he even registered what was happening.
By then, Jericho had almost finished unstrapping Téo’s cock. They gestured to
Rusty and moved around Téo, unbuttoning his dress to bare his chest. Téo loved,
and hated, being beaten there. It was about the only kind of touch that felt
right in that area, and it was so damn intense because, really, when you’re
binding so many hours a day, your skin gets fucking sensitive.
Jericho had taken out their braided cat. Téo
adored this toy, and was aching to get beaten with it again. Last time, it’d
felt like light was bursting out the top of his head.
It was better than he remembered, probably
because he needed deep sensation so much. He closed his eyes and let it drive
into him. Sublime intensity concentrated where he needed to let go. Jericho was
fucking magic. When Rusty slid into his front hole, it felt so easy and solid.
Rusty was holding him steady with his cock, anchoring him here in this room so
he didn’t float too far.
- How does the sensation move through the body? Does it radiate out from the place of the
blow (like with a slap or a paddle)? Does it reach underneath the skin and
bounce back out (like with a cane stroke)? Does it feel like it drives right
through you (like with a punch or a heavy flogger)? Does it come on strong and
then numb out and then jolt you at the end (like with clips and clamps)? Does
it sear from the start and then build an ache behind it (like with biting)?
For some, thudding
sensations can have all the movement of a deliciously rough hard fuck. The bottom
in “It’s My Job” has that experience with a lead-filled sap:
He pulls out his
leather sap and begins to pound it into my thighs like a sledgehammer, ramming
lead into me. It pounds me hard, and my dick begins to throb. He’s hitting that
spot where it starts to translate to sex. I am not a masochist, and there are
very few intense sensations that feel like anything but pain. But this is pure
sex. My lips part, and I start groaning. It is all I can do not to bend over
and beg him to fuck me now. I take each blow into my cock, feeling it swell
until it seems like it’s going to burst.
- How would you describe the pacing and rhythm of the sensation? Sporadic? Relentless?
Methodical? Jarring? Pounding? Percussive/rhythmic? Deliberate? Surprising? Building
up in intensity? Dancing around? Moving close to the edge and then stepping
back, only to move toward the edge again?
Consider how rhythm
shapes the same bottom’s sensory experience in this later excerpt from my story
“It’s My Job”, describing a rather different kind of beating with a cat o’ nine
It slams into my
back, and I am utterly still: no breath, no movement. He begins to lay into me.
The rhythm is hypnotic; fire dances along my skin as the cat drives into me.
The cowhide is thin and braided, and the knotted tips feel like they are
slicing me open. Waves of reddish-orange pain wash over my vision. My feet are
planted. I will not move. I am helpless against the pain, lightning so strong
it almost knocks me over. I am so small in the face of it. Nothing I can do
will stop it. I stand still and take it, and it transforms me. I am taking it
- Does the sensation have a temperature or texture to it? Things like canes, wax, belts, and
slapping can often feel like heat. Things that stimulate the nerves (like
whartenberg wheels), slower sensations, and cooler materials (acrylic paddles,
batons) sometimes feel cool. A slow rhythmic flogging with deerskin can feel
smooth, where things that drag on the skin (like some kinds of pinching or
braided leather) can feel rough. Some kinds of pain feel like they are slicing
into skin (belts) or piercing it (singletails).
partial to describing sharp stinging pain, and I often use language evoking the
heat that comes with that sort of play. Here is an excerpt from my story “How
He Likes It” describing how it feels for this bottom to get hurt with a belt.
I took him in,
tasting like liquid metal in my throat, trembling with the intensity of his
belt, and let the pain pour out of my eyes, stream out of my mouth, let my cunt
drip with it as my ass clenched around it. I begged him for more even as I
screamed, my hands fisting the blanket, safely held down by my Sir, feeling him
smile proudly at me.
My thighs were on
fire, and the flames took me over until I could feel my cunt burning with it,
my chest hot, and I was begging to come for him, could I please show him how
much I appreciated his cruelty, please, Sir.
He laughed and
refused me, continuing to lay pain onto me as I writhed, moaning, sobbing with
it, blazing. I begged him not to stop, to please keep hurting me, claiming me
with his belt. Saying that I needed it, needed his marks on me. He was
ruthless, and I shuddered with it, a conflagration of need taking me over. I
was in that place where I felt like I could take all the pain in the world, eat
it all, and spit the flames of it right back, a burning circle between us, for
as long as he wanted, perhaps longer.
Once you have a sense of these things for what you
are planning to describe, you can start building your vocabulary for this
particular kind of play, and for pain in general.
It can help to gather information about the
sensations you are going to describe. Try them yourself. Reflect on your
experiences and memories of that sort of play. Talk to people who have
experience with them. Watch people do that sort of play. Look at posts on
Fetlife. Read about SM, fiction and non-fiction, especially books by people who
do SM. (I’ve found essays
by folks who do BDSM and experience chronic pain to be particularly useful
Years ago, I began a vocabulary list for myself, of words
that captured what different kinds of pain felt like (searing, invasive,
bursting, jagged, grinding, pounding), and words I could use to describe
delivering pain (thrusting, ramming, ripping, lavishing, placing, menacing,
blasting). I highly suggest you start your own lists. They can help
tremendously when you are stuck describing SM. If you are looking for a place
to start, try the McGill Pain
Questionaire; it’s got some gorgeously specific language for describing
David Biro suggests that pain “can only be described
through metaphor.” Metaphor is one of my best tools for describing SM. There’s
a way that it gets you places you can’t really go otherwise. When I decided to
do an erotic retelling of the fairy tale of Tam Lin and Janet, one of the main
reasons was the opportunity to push myself with metaphor. In the fairy tale,
Janet has to hold on to Tam Lin as he transforms from a lizard to a bear to a
mountain lion to a brand to a burning hot coal. I got so excited deciding what
sort of play was the best to match with each transformation, how to build the
arc of a scene that was so pre-determined by the fairy tale.
Here is an excerpt from the lizard portion of
was so mesmerized by Tam’s cock that they were surprised by the first touch,
their head yanked backward by the hair, face tilted up to meet Tam’s eyes. Jan
took a slow shaky breath. This was real. The sensation was cold and quick. It
went so fast that it was hard to hold on to. What was that? It darted over
Jan’s skin, their eyes steady on Tam’s, no idea what was happening to their
chest. Jan gasped when the sensation moved through their nipple, like a tongue
flickering. They reached for the sensation, trying to catch it as it moved,
lizard-like, along their nipples, gone before they could grasp it. Frightening
and exciting all at once, it made Jan throb, breath in their throat, just
trying to hold on to Tam. It didn’t matter what it was. It was Jan’s job to
stay with it, stay connected.
And here is an excerpt from the burning hot
coal portion of the story:
began to punch Jan in the pecs. Slowly. In the same spot, repeatedly. A
steadily increasing pounding, building heat in Jan’s chest from within, like a
red-hot coal, slowly building, rough and demanding. Jan could feel it growing
in their chest and was helpless to stop it, just held Tam’s determined eyes as
tears started falling. Tam kept ramming hir fists into Jan, smiling so sweetly
at the tears, wanting them to come. This was exactly what Tam needed, they
realized, and they let go and sobbed. Tam just kept driving the tears out of
them, telling them to just keep crying, their tears were gorgeous and hot and
making Tam so hard. That if they kept crying like that, Tam was not going to be
able to resist fucking them. Jan gripped Tam’s waist and bawled, tears washing
over them both.
Whatever kind of description you choose, I urge you
to get as specific as possible when describing pain. Your BDSM erotica will
only be better for it.