Saturday, December 20, 2014

The virgin/whore complex

Some men dream about a woman that is pure and chaste. She has been waiting all her life for him, rejecting every man in her path until his arrival because he is her special one, the one she will love and cherish for the rest of her life. Once she is with him she will not flirt with anyone, not even look at them. She will protect her modesty and save her charms only for him. She is his virgin, if not in deed, at least in her deepest heart. She is also ready to step in the mother role, to build him a home that will be his castle, to take care of him and eventually of his children.

Well, maybe it is too much to be expected from a woman to be a virgin in this day and age, but a man can always dream… And, as a last resource, he can always invoke the old American Redemption Myth that permeates so many of the stories and biographies in the USA. It goes like this… A person is led astray by the “follies of youth”, tempted by sex, drugs and violence. She spirals down in circles of increasing degeneration until she touches bottom. Then she “looks for help” and starts a new life in a magical ordeal of rebirth - she is “born again”. That would be the perfect moment in her life in which her savior, the prince she has been waiting for without knowing in, can ride in wearing shining armor or a cowboy outfit, to “sweep her off her feet” and welcome her into her new life. All the mistakes of the past are forgiven and forgotten. Her virginity is magically restored by the soul-searching and the trials of her rebirth.

However, before making his glorious appearance into the virgin’s life, our knight-in-shining-armor or Malboro man has to entertain himself. He looks for “easy” women to have fun with. They are sexy, hot and funny and he likes to spend time with them. But in is heart of hearts he despises them because he knows what they are: they are whores, ready to fling themselves into the arms of any man. They are unworthy of him, they are soiled, they have lost their self-respect by pursuing the easy pleasures of life instead of the higher goal of Pure Love and dedication to Her Man. Of course, there is always the possibility that they would see the error of  their ways, repent and be reborn as virgins ready to devote themselves to the Just One Man ideal.

Occasionally, after he has settled down with his virgin, our King-Of-His-Castle can feel a pang of nostalgia of his careless past with the whores. He thought the virgin would be all he wanted, but now that she is running around taking care of the house and the kids she is not much fun anymore. She dutifully opens her legs for him every time he asks, but sex has become a boring routine. So, since “men will be men”, he occasionally goes out of his castle to find himself a whore or two. Or maybe he adopts a special one who is always waiting to take him on a wild ride when he feels like it. But let’s not get it wrong, everything has to be in its place: the virgin locked in the castle and the whore waiting by the whoring bed.

Things are no different in the BDSM world. In fact, there are some roles that fit perfectly well with the virgin / knight stereotypes. The submissive can be in fact a super-virgin, one that chooses to carry her dedication to her Master to heroic extremes by being ready to obey his every word and to be punished if she ever strays from the “straight and narrow”. And the Dominant can be the super-knight, the Daddy who knows best and has no other desires than the well-being of his submissive virgin.

Do I really need to explain what is wrong with this picture? The virgin / whore complex is the manifestation of some of the deepest sexist reflexes of our culture. It is misogynistic because it negates the right of a woman to run her own sexuality, putting it at the service of a man’s fantasies and desires. It is sex-negative because it is based on repressing sexual desire and imposing a narrow normative of sexual behavior. Indeed, it reinforces the same old monogamous societal norms based on sexual and romantic exclusivity, and the labeling of “infidelity” as the worse possible transgression in a couple.

Yes, everybody has a right to live their kink as they please. If they opt for the most conservative versions of monogamous Domestic Discipline, that’s fine. But we cannot allow sexist, sex-negative and monogamous societal norms to be imported into the BDSM community and preached as the only valid way to do BDSM. The very nature of BDSM, the vast variety of its practices, lends itself to having multiple partners with whom to experience different forms of play. A desire for variety and experience doesn’t subtract from the intensity of the surrender in D/s; in fact, it adds to it. Furthermore, we shouldn’t take it for granted that complete surrender and obedience to a Dom is always wholesome and sane. The intensity of the feelings involved in submission makes it way too easy to manipulate them for psychological abuse, especially when coupled with social isolation in the name of “fidelity”. The best way of preventing this from happening is to be immersed in a kinky community that can raise warning flags when they are needed and provide advice to the submissive, and even the Dom, when things start to go wrong.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cecilia, a portrait


What makes a woman beautiful? There are women of astounding beauty. Women who are tall, sculptural, with blond hair, blue eyes and generous breasts. They are the women that we expect to see on a magazine cover, on a movie poster. Just past her twentieth birthday, Cecilia is pretty, but with a discrete beauty that is only revealed under close inspection. She is petite, with features reduced in proportion. She has black hair parted in the middle; a sea of unruly curls messed up by her habit of sticking her fingers into them, combing them back in a coquettish motion that often ends with a wild shake of her head. Her face is triangular and symmetric, with high cheekbones, straight thing nose and sharp chin. Her lips are expressive, able to change in a heartbeat from a charming smile to a grimace of annoyance, and her big dark brown eyes are shaded by long eyelashes that emphasize that thoughtful look so common in her. One can make out the shape of the muscles in her strong, well-proportioned body, particularly in her arms and her thighs. Her breasts are small, with that shape rounded from the front, conical in profile, that establish youth and elegance. Her most attractive feature is her bottom, which has a bold, insolent curvature that make men turn around in the street to look at her as she walks away.

What makes a woman interesting? There are women with high-pitched, childish, excited voices. Other have voices that are as profound and seductive as the night. Cecilia speaks with a youthful, serene voice, sometimes fast, sometimes meditative. Her gaze often gets lost in the distance or glances self-absorbed at some random object that happens to be in front of her. Her eyes smile better than her lips, but they also know how to glare in anger or
to let tears flow with abandon. She moves with quick, nervous gestures, or occasionally rests motionless, lost in deep thoughts. Because Cecilia is above all a girl of exceptional intelligence, of unconventional ideas, who chases her goals with a stubbornness bordering obsession.

What is it that some women have to make everybody fall in love with them? Perhaps, more than their beauty or their personality, what makes them irresistible is the power of their passion. Cecilia carries inside a burning desire that, like it happens with volcanoes, can be asleep sometimes, but sooner or later it explodes in a rain of incandescent sparks and blazing lava flows. Somehow that inner fire peeks out in the glint of her eyes, in the warmth of her skin, causing many to be bewitched. But beware those who dare love her! For Cecilia is also a woman of dark fantasies, one who courts pain and infamy, and it isn’t always easy to accompany her to the murky places that she likes to visit.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of our story we encounter a different Cecilia. An innocent, immature and sanctimonious girl, trapped in the historical circumstances of the country where she was born: a Spain that was just beginning to wake up from forty years of gloomy dictatorship. That tyranny and the devastating war that preceded it could smother perhaps the yearning for liberty and justice of an entire generation. But what the fascists never expected was that the desire to be free and to fight for a better world will be reborn with renewed strength in the hearts of their own children.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Panic attacks in BDSM scenes

Among the many problems that can happen in a scene, panic attacks can be a serious one, especially if the Top doesn’t know how to handle them. They are more common that you may think. Last month, during a talk I gave at Threshold (the BDSM organization of Los Angeles), I asked my audience to raise their hands if they had experienced a panic attack in a scene, either themselves or their play partner. About two thirds of the 45 people present raised their hand.

What does a panic attack look like? It happens more or less like this… The scene seems the be going well and is approaching its peak. Both the Top and the bottom are completely immersed in it. Then the sub stops reacting. She does not moan with each lash, doesn’t move, has closed her eyes and seems lost in her inner world. Then, all of a sudden, she explodes. The panic attack is characterized by an inability to speak - so in this case the safeword is of little use. There is also difficulty to breathe, uncontrolled moves, evasive gaze, crying and rejection of being touched. Inside, the person that experiences the panic attack feels extreme anxiety, terror, tunnel vision and inability to think and express himself. That state can last an undetermined amount of time, from minutes to hours. Returning to the scene is normally impossible and, in any case, not recommended.

What can we do when this happens? The first thing, of course, is to stop the scene. Discontinue immediately any type of painful or stressful stimulus. If there is bondage, it must be released immediately because physical restrain is one of the main triggers of panic attacks. If necessary cut the ropes with scissors or a knife being extremely careful not to cut the sub, who is probably moving unpredictably. If he is wearing a blindfold, remove it. Turn on the lights. Being able to see provides a strong reassurance. You should speak clearly with a calm voice, explaining everything you are doing, even if it looks obvious to you, even if the sub doesn’t seem to understand. If he is having trouble breathing, you can try guiding his breathing with your voice. You should warn her before you touch her, because sudden physical contact can be alarming for somebody suffering a panic attack. If you are in a public space, try to keep people from crowding the sub. However, if there is somebody around who is intimate with the sub, bring her in, perhaps she can reassure the bottom better that you can. After all, you were the one just beating her, remember? Encourage the sub to cry, which is healing and releases tension. Once the worse part of the attack is over, when the sub can speak again, you should give him  the option of talking about it or staying quiet to process it internally. Some people need to spend time alone after they suffer a panic attack. If that’s the case, your mission is to provide a safe environment in which she is not bothered or can hurt herself. Listen for any signs of danger.

Why do panic attacks happen in scenes? A scene puts the sub in an altered state of consciousness, and he may have a good trip or a bad trip. That state is normally experienced as something nice and enriching, but sometimes it brings forth traumatic experiences that pack such a powerful emotional charge that they trigger the panic attack. We call them “emotional land mines”. Paradoxically, endorphin release can produce the “freezing” state that is often the precursor of the panic attack. Animal studies have found that endorphin release can be triggered by uncontrollable stressors, so if the sub feels that she is losing control in the scene this can trigger the panic. Yes, endorphin release is not always a good thing. It has been linked to the “learned helplessness” paradigm, a state in which the person or the animal gives up and doesn’t fight anymore. Learned helplessness causes immune suppression, cognitive disabilities and a host of other unhealthy effects.

A person who suffers panic attacks is not crazy, neurotic or traumatized. The panic attack is just the manifestation of the power that a BDSM scene has to profoundly alter the mind. If handled right, a panic attack may even be beneficial in the long run. Mobilizing negative psychological contents allows them to be processed consciously, which can be healing.

I think it’s important that everyone who practices BDSM realizes that encountering a panic attack is a real possibility and to know what to do when that happens. It is even possible to prevent the panic attack from happening if we are alert to the freezing behavior that precedes it. When we flog or tie somebody, it’s normal for him to moan, complain and squirm. What is not normal is complete immobility in the face of pain. That is a sign that something is wrong. The Top should talk to the bottom from time to time. If she doesn’t answer, you should stop and look the sub in the face to make sure that everything is all right. There are, of course, people who prefer to “go inside” and not react to pain, but they should warn the Top during the negotiation that that’s the way they function. Conversely, I don’t think is advisable that the Dominant orders or trains the sub to be still and quiet when he experiences pain. Not only that would not let us detect an imminent panic attack, but it’s even likely to provoke one.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Altered states of consciousness in BDSM

One of the most fascinating aspects of BDSM is its ability to induce altered states of consciousness. Lately this has gathered a lot of attention in FetLife.com, but unfortunately it has also generated a series of pseudoscience myths and dubious techniques to induce endorphin release and attain that coveted sub-space. In this article I want to use my experience as both a BDSM practitioner and a scientist doing research on pain neurophysiology to shed some light on all this confusion. I must start with a warning: there is practically no scientific research on the neurochemical phenomena that occur in sadomasochistic scenes. Moreover, there are reasons to think that these phenomena are quite different from ordinary pain responses, so much of what I am about to say here is speculative. However, although at the moment we are not ready to talk about what happens in the brain during a scenes, we still can use scientific evidence to debunk some of the existing myths and set the foundation for some serious research.

A great book about consciousness
What is an altered state of consciousness? Consciousness is the fact of being aware of everything that happens, both in the outside world and inside our mind. Our consciousness flows like a river of experiences that forms the story of our lives. From our subjective point of view, our consciousness is everything. Of course, objectively there is an external reality unaffected by what we make of it. What I’m pointing at is that our state of consciousness shapes and colors the events of our everyday lives. The reality that we perceive is altered by the filter of our consciousness: it disappears when we sleep and takes an exceptional intensity in situations of danger in which our brain becomes more alert to our surroundings. The quality of our consciousness determines to a great extent our capacity to be happy. This is because our consciousness is shaped by our emotional state, which is able to make our world look like hell or heavens. Since the dawn of our species, we humans have tried to alter our consciousness by consuming certain drugs or by undergoing certain extreme experiences. BDSM is an example of the second. Of course, not every BDSM activity is going to produce an altered state of consciousness, but those which do will likely leave us an unforgettable memory.

Here I want to propose a classification of altered states of consciousness that can be reached in a BDSM scene. This classification is based on my own experience, on discussions with other people that practice BDSM and on my knowledge of neuroscience.

•    Endorphin release. Endorphins are a family of almost 40 different neuropeptides that are able to activate the same receptors as morphine and other opiates. There are four opioid receptors, three named with the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa, which decrease pain, and the fourth called the nociceptin / orphanin receptor, which actually increases pain. Apart from their analgesic effect (pain inhibition), mu and delta receptors induce a sensation of well-being or euphoria. In contrast, kappa receptors produce a state of emotional distress called dysphoria. Endorphins are released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland, but this does not produce analgesia or an altered state of consciousness because endorphins in the blood cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to have an effect on the brain. The only endorphins that can induce an altered state of consciousness are those that are released by neurons inside the brain. In addition, it should be noted that endorphins are independently released in different brain areas , so that we cannot speak of a generalized state of “endorphin release” but of multiple states depending on where they are released. In any case, we can safely say that endorphin release during a BDSM scene decreases pain and induces a feeling of calm, relaxation and even sleepiness. The submissive turns his or her attention inward, disconnecting with the surrounding environment and entering a fantasy world. Endorphin release can be triggered by gradually increasing pain intensity in an environment of emotional support in which the submissive can absorb the sensations without having to give a response. Endorphin release can be monitored as a decrease in heartbeat.

•    Nor-adrenaline release. Nor-adrenaline or nor-epinephrine is a neurotransmitter that, like the endorphins, is released by pain-controlling neural pathways and produces analgesia. I suspect that many states of decreased pain sensitivity sadomasochist scenes that are attributed to endorphins are in fact generated by nor-adrenaline. As in the case of the endorphins, we shouldn’t confuse the release of adrenaline in the blood with the release of nor-adrenaline by some specific neuronal pathways in the brain, although both things often happen at the same time. Nor-adrenaline is released when pain is coupled to fear in a situation that demands a response from the submissive. There are inhibitory connections between endorphin and nor-adrenaline pain-controlling pathways, which ensure that endorphin and nor-adrenaline release do not happen simultaneously. Although both states produce analgesia, in other things they are very dissimilar. Nor-adrenaline release produces a state of increased awareness to external stimuli, which appear more intense. The submissive cries, moves, reacts. Her heartbeat increases. Nevertheless, this state can be as euphoric and pleasant as that produced by endorphin release.

•    Sub-space. The term “sub-space” is often used indistinctively to refer to any of the altered states of consciousness described above. However, I would like to propose that ‘sub-space’ should be used only to refer to Dominance-submission scenes and not to sadomasochistic scenes, that is, to states generated by pain. I would define sub-space as a mental state in which the attention of the submissive is completely focused on the Dominant and the feelings of surrender and obedience that She or He evokes. From the point of view of neuroscience, it seems likely that sub-space is related to the release of oxytocin, a “social hormone” that induces trust and bonding. It may also involve dopamine release in the so-called “pleasure pathway” linking the ventral tegmental area of the striatum with the nucleus accumbens. The accumbens is the site of action of most drugs that produce addiction, like the opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter of complex actions due to its multiplicity of receptors, could also be related to this state of calm surrender. In contrast to endorphin and nor-adrenaline release, sub-space is much more than a simple reflex response. Instead, it seems to be an emotional state in which one enters largely at will and that is subject to many variants and levels. Achieving a deep sub-space may require a period of training, building of trust and bonding between the submissive and the Dominant.

•    Top-space is not mentioned as often as sub-space, but there is little doubt that it exists and is as important for the Top as sub-space is for the submissive. One of the things that make a good Top is to be able to read the physical reactions of the bottom and deduce from them his or her mental state. Both the Top in a sadomasochist scene and the Dominant in a D/s relationship have to focus all their attention on the person they are playing with, feeling empathy and establishing a tight bond with the bottom. Therefore, Top-space probably shares many physiological features with sub-space. Perhaps in it oxytocin release is accompanied by the release of vasopressin, another social hormone that induces feelings of possession and territoriality in males. In sadomasochist scenes in which the Top inflicts a lot of pain to the bottom, a substantial release of nor-adrenaline may occur in the Top because of empathy, which probably strengthens His or Her focus and control on the scene.

•    Sub-drop. Many submissives and bottoms complain of entering a period of low energy, apathy and dysphoria after an intense BDSM scene. This may be due to a withdrawal effect to the release of euphoric neurotransmitters during the scene. However, sub-drop may have more complex causes, because on a closer examination it seem to be different states that vary from person to person. Some people never experience it, while is quite strong in others. Also, there seem to be at least two types of sub-drop, one that happens immediately after the scene and that can be addressed with aftercare and another that happens two or three days after the scene and can last several days. It is important, I think, that we do not accept sub-drop as something normal and unavoidable. Perhaps the scene has stirred some deeply buried emotions from the past that the submissive should examine. Using the information that I gave above, the submissive should consider whether the scene has involved endorphin release, nor-adrenaline release or sub-space, and how sub-drop relates to each of this mental states. Perhaps this way we can start building up information on how sub-drop relates to the different altered states of consciousness.

We should not treat the altered states of consciousness that we reach in a BDSM scene in a frivolous fashion, like BDSM was just one more drug. After all, if all we want is to get high perhaps we should just take drugs, instead of going through the painstaking process of doing a scene. I think that altered states of consciousness in BDSM are valuable because of their context, that of a profound personal relationship between the people involved in the scene. Hence, it is not so much a question of whether we release this or that neurotransmitter, but of the meaning that the scene has brought to our lives… Maybe a catharsis, maybe the surfacing of psychological issues buried in our minds for a long time and that had been released by the scene. Maybe we have encountered a part of ourselves that we didn’t know before. More and more people understand BDSM as a process of self-discovery and personal transformation that enriches our lives and contributes to make us happier and self-fulfilled.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Only the good die young (Billy Joel)

I had already written the scene beween Cecilia and Julio that I posted a week ago at the beginning of my novel "Games of love and pain" when I came across this song of Billy Joel that sounds quite similar to the things Julio was telling Cecilia, at the time a very religious Catholic girl...


Come out Virginia, don't let 'em wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Aw but sooner or later it comes down to fate
Oh I might as well be the one

Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done
Only the good die young
That's what I said
Only the good die young
Only the good die young

You might have heard I run with a dangerous crowd
We ain't too pretty we ain't too proud
We might be laughing a bit too loud
Aw but that never hurt no one

So come on Virginia show me a sign
Send up a signal and I'll throw you the line
The stained-glass curtain you're hiding behind
(you know)
Never lets in the sun
Darlin' only the good die young
Woah
I tell ya
Only the good die young
Only the good die young

You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation
You got a brand new soul
Mmm, and a cross of gold
But Virginia they didn't give you quite enough information
You didn't count on me
When you were counting on your rosary
(oh woah woah)

They say there's a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it's better but I say it ain't
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun

You know that only the good die young
That's what I said
I tell ya
Only the good die young
Only the good die young

Well your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation
Aw a hey never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me? oh woah woah

Come out come out come out Virginia don't let 'em wait,
You Catholic girls start much too late
Oh sooner or later it comes down to faith
Oh I might as well be the one,
You know that only the good die young

I'm telling you baby
You know that only the good die young
Only the good die young
Only the good
Only the good die young
Only the good
Only the good die young

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Is it sinful to be spanked?


This is a scene from the first chapter of my novel “Games of love and pain”, which I published in Spanish and have started translating into English. The story starts in January 1976 in the southern French city of Perpignan. Cecilia and Julio had to share a hotel room in their way back to Spain during a skiing trip to the Alps. Cecilia is quite religious and prudish, but in the course of an intimate conversation with Julio they both discover that they share some peculiar sexual tastes…

The idea that started to form in her head was terrifying… in a sort of tempting, irresistible way.

“But it I like it, it doesn’t have to be so horrible.”

Her heart was beating fast. She kept gazing at the ceiling, not daring to look at Julio.

“Hey… What do you mean with all this?” said Julio, pulling at her arm to make her look at him. “Do you mean that you want me to spank you? That’s really amazing coming from you, Cecilia!”

She felt herself blush. She rolled sideways, turning her back to him so he wouldn’t see her face.

“That was stupid of me… I shouldn’t have told you anything.”

Julio grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her slightly.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want you to be ashamed of telling me what your brother did to you. I’m so happy that you trusted me enough to tell me! I just don’t understand what you want… Before you came here with me you made me promise that I wasn’t going to touch you… And now you want me to spank you?”

“Wouldn’t you like to do it?”

“Of course I would like to do it! But I didn’t think that was a possibility. I never imagine that I would find a woman who would agree to that.”

“Well, you have found me.”

“Are you sure, Cecilia? Don’t you think it would be a sin?”

“If it hurts, if I don’t feel pleasure, how could it be a sin?”

“Look here, Cecilia, I know what you are doing. You are just going around inside your pretty head looking for excuses. I’m dying to do it, I assure you. But I promised you that tonight I wouldn’t try anything with you, so I’m not going to mislead you. Whatever you decide, you’ll have to decide by yourself, don’t tell me afterwards that I tricked you.”

It was true. Her own arguments failed to convince her. Guilt and desire fought each other inside her.

“The thing is… if we don’t do it now, it will never happen” she whined. “When we go back to Madrid I will never see you again.”

“Why not? Why shouldn’t we continue being friends? Maybe you should think about all this more calmly.”

But she knew that if she let the opportunity slip away it would never come back, for either of them. She would probably never find that husband that knew how to discipline her in a loving way. And Julio would never find another masochistic woman that would let him spank her. That made up her mind. She wanted to give him that present. She wanted to leave him with a memory as unforgettable as that evening with Laura under the poster of the Sagrada Familia.

“Just a few spanks, on my pajamas, OK?”

Julio looked at her with a mixture of excitement and fear.

“OK. If you want me to stop, you only have to tell me, got it?”

“I got it.”

She couldn’t believe what was about to happen.

Julio sat up in the middle of the bed with his back straight, leaning on a pillow and the headboard. He left his legs under the covers, pulling them up to cover his lap.

“Lay down on top of my legs” he told her.

Cecilia kneeled on the bed to his right. She hesitated, and for a moment their eyes met. Julio’s face showed desire and a certain anxiety. She wasn’t  going to chicken out now. She let herself fall across his lap. Julio’s crossed legs made her butt stick out in a rather obscene way. She felt the warmth of his body. His smell intoxicated her. Waves of excitement cruised her entire body.

Julio slapped her bottom. The thick fabric of the pajamas took all the force of the hit, so that she felt only a blunt impact, not at all painful.

“How was that?” asked Julio.

“It didn’t hurt at all. Hit me harder.”

“Let’s see…”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Julio raise his hand, which landed with force on her. But, once more, the spank had no effect at all. Julio hit her a few more times with the same result. It was utterly frustrating.

It came as a sudden, unconscious decision. She put her hands inside the waist of her pajama pants and pulled down to lower them. By the contact of the cool air with her skin she knew that her panties had bundled up, leaving most of her buttocks bare.

She heard Julio draw a deep breath.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, fearful that he would want to stop.

“Nothing… Is just… that you have such a beautiful butt… May I touch it?”

Without waiting for her answer, Julio caressed her buttocks were they were left exposed by the panties. It gave her goosebumps. The touch of Julio’s hand was soft, incredibly sensual. Too sensual.

“No, no!” she protested. “Just spank me.”

Julio’s hand went away, only to immediately fall back on her with full force. This time it cracked on her skin with a sting. Right away, Julio spanked her other cheek, where it also elicited a lively burn. At the third stroke she couldn’t avoid moving her butt to try to avoid it.

“So, not it does hurt, doesn’t it?”

“You bet!” her voice came out faltering. “Go on.”

“So you think this is rather funny, don’t you?” said Julio in a commanding and slightly mocking voice. “Look, Cecilia, you had this coming a long way. Most of the time you are a pretty good girl, but from time to time your wires get crossed and you throw some silly temper tantrums… Like the one you had today in the bus, don’t you think?”

That lecture had to be fake, to spice things up, but Julio’s voice sounded so stern that it did scare her a little. It also turned her on.

“Yes, I deserve a good punishment. Spank me hard!”

“Well, then prepare yourself. I’m going to give you something you won’t easily forget!”

To emphasize what he said, Julio grabbed her hip with one hand while with the other he gave her a series of quick slaps, alternating between her buttocks. The blows were sufficiently severe to keep her from thinking about anything else. Still, the spark of pain elicited by each slap had an undeniable pleasure quality. It merged with the perverse joy that came from the humiliating position in which Julio held her and the idea that she was being punished like a little girl. Very soon she started wiggling her bottom from side to side, up and down, as her body hopelessly tried to escape the slaps. It became an obscene dance that she performed following the rhythm that Julio marked with his spanks, like the monotone rhythm of a metronome, warning her of precisely when the next slap was going to hit her so that the stings of pain acquired the inevitability of destiny. None of them said anything; each one was completely absorbed in their task: to punish and to be punished. Cecilia only produced sighs and occasional moans… whether from pain or from pleasure, she didn’t know. The spanks did produce a loud noise that exploded on the skin of her bottom and reverberated on the walls of the room, small explosions as alarming as the blows themselves. Julio’s arm held her hip against a vertical, cylindrical bump in his belly of which she was only vaguely conscious, absorbed as she was in the conflicting emotions evoked by the spanking.

Julio stopped suddenly. He pushed her away from his lap and jumped off the bed. He ran into the bathroom, a fist tightly closed on the front of his pajama pants.

Cecilia was left laying on her belly, not even caring to pull up her pants. Her heart was beating loudly in her ears. She was shaking. The contrast between the intensity of her connection with Julio and her suddenly loneliness filled her with confusion. She felt abandoned, rejected in the middle of that intimate act to which she had abandoned herself so completely. Without knowing exactly why, she started to cry.

Coming out of the bathroom, Julio looked at her with surprise.

“You are crying! What’s wrong?”

He sauntered to the bed. He laid at her side and hugged her from behind.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you so much” he muttered.

“It’s not that…” she said with a slobbery voice from crying. “Why did you leave so suddenly?”

“Oh, that! Well… you see, it was that I… I couldn’t hold it anymore… I went into the bathroom so you wouldn’t see me.”

 Cecilia sat up, turning to look at him.

“Do you mean that you have… ejaculated?”

“Only a little bit…”

Cecilia laughed, tears still pouring out of her eyes.

“That means that you got really excited.”

“I think it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“More exciting than making love to Laura?”

“Yes, even more than that.”

That made her feel proud. But immediately a crushing wave of guilt invaded her.

“Ay, Julio! What have we done!”

Monday, June 30, 2014

You can never go home

In a couple of days I’ll take the long flight back home
But there is no home there anymore
Only the empty place that death has left in its wake
The delicate strand that used to join me to the flow of life
Has been cut
I will never be able to find my way back to the womb
The only path is forward
Let go of the past
Face the future
The places I used to know are now unfamiliar and lonely
Memories fade away in the fog
Full of ghosts
Full of faded smiles
All hope is, in the end, futile
And therein lies the ultimate freedom

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Feminist Umbrella

(A letter to my daughter on the occasion of her 14th birthday)

 

by Valentina Solenzol

Feminism is a term that most men and women believe they understand…until you ask them to articulate its meaning.  Like Obscenity or “The Situation In Israel/Palestine”, it’s a moving target with unexpected layers of subtlety and nuance that tends to spark overpowering emotions and impassioned controversy.  General explanations that try to be objective are, by definition, desperately oversimplified.  There are entire libraries and Ph.D. programs on the subject.  This letter is intended to give you a starting point, a framework with some vocabulary and the most basic history, for you to build on.

It starts with patriarchy, which is any society (including ours) that gives men most of the power and privilege in law, politics, property rights, sex, religion and so on.  Feminism is a set of ideas, developed and supported by women and men who believe in equality of all people, designed to transform the patriarchal system into an egalitarian society. 

I see feminism as a big umbrella with two ideas printed across it:
1.    Our society systematically oppresses and disempowers women.
2.    Something Ought To Be Done About It.

Under the umbrella, there is a kaleidoscope of competing, cross-pollinating, sometimes mutually exclusive ideas, opinions, philosophies, and agendas. 

In a feeble attempt to tame an overwhelming topic, I’ll limit myself to the US in the last 150 years or so.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, suffragettes marched, protested and lobbied to get women the right to vote.  Additionally, they fought for other basic women’s rights, such as owning property getting an education; entering “male” professions such as medicine and law; having equal legal claims over their children, and much more.  In retrospect, we call this period First Wave Feminism.

Some people/topics you may like to look up: Susan B Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman

The suffragettes and their political descendants are Liberal Feminists who are focused on women gaining equal rights under the law and within the current system.

The World Wars slowed advances in women’s rights activism.  But with the civil rights movement, the Pill and post-WWII affluence, Second Wave Feminism had its day.  This generation of feminists took on inequalities in the workplace and home, reproductive rights such as birth control and abortion, women’s sexuality, and a wide variety of other issues.

Second Wave Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, National Organization for Women (NOW), Ms Magazine

The ERA, or Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was supposed to be the jewel in the crown of these activists.  It reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It would have taken approval, or ratification, by 38 states to be added to the US Constitution, but it missed the mark by 3 states.

During these decades, feminism flourished and grew in multiple directions. Some activists became increasingly militant in their thoughts and actions.  These Radical Feminists, in contrast to their Liberal Feminist compatriots, believe that it is virtually impossible to overthrow patriarchy from within a patriarchal system.  They see the need for a dramatic transformation of society’s basic assumptions.

While Radical feminism vs Liberal feminism is often presented as the main feminist dichotomy, feminism actually comes in many other flavors. For example, Radical feminists, comprise (among others) Separatist and Lesbian feminists; Marxist, Anarchist, Socialist and Libertarian feminists; Black or Womanist feminists; Chicana, Asian American and Native American feminists. Third World Feminism deals with ethnic issues and racism, since the oppression the American woman experiences is a world away from what women may face in other parts of the world, from routine genital mutilation to denial of education to death by stoning. And that’s just scratching the surface of feminist consortia.

Some Radical Feminists saw violent oppression in the way men relate to women sexually.  In their view, pornography, sadomasochism and prostitution were central to explaining women’s second-class position in society.  Accordingly, they were labeled Anti-Pornography Feminists. A few had a exceedingly antagonistic attitude towards heterosexual men.  Their extreme ideas caught the imagination of the general public, creating the impression that this iconoclastic school of thought was widespread among feminists.  Because of this, many people rejected feminism altogether.

Anti-Porn Feminists: Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon

In the 1980s, others under the metaphorical Umbrella of Feminism took exception to the anti-porn approach to sexuality. Positing that sexual freedom among consenting adults is key to women’s liberation, they became known as Sex-Positive Feminists.  They clashed intensely with the anti-porn feminists in an ideological conflict colorfully nicknamed The Sex Wars.  There is still an Anti-Porn/Sex-Positive rift pervading feminism today.

Sex-Positive Feminists: Susie Bright, Carol Queen

Third Wave Feminism is difficult to discuss, because we are still in the middle of it. The children and grandchildren of second-wave feminists have been bringing women’s rights into the 21st century.  They point out that queer people and non-white women have not been well represented in previous iterations of feminism.  They challenge male-female duality, suggesting that gender is much more fluid than previously envisioned.  Many in this generation even reject the label “feminism” entirely, though they agree with the writing on the umbrella.

Most third-wave feminists fall in the sex-positive category.  High on their list of concerns are biases based on race, social class and sexuality, workplace issues (equal pay, glass ceiling, etc), rape and gender violence, reclaiming derogatory terms (i.e. “slut”), and reproductive rights. 

The Vagina Monologues, SlutWalks, Pussy Riot, Riot Grrls

How Third Wave Feminism will develop, and what comes next, is up to you. I know you will make me proud.

With love,

Mama

Monday, June 9, 2014

The seven elements of submission

Although much has been written about the different techniques used in bondage and sadomasochism, less effort has been put into systematizing the dynamics of a Dominance/submission (D/s) relationship. D/s is much more complex than the Dominant simply ordering the submissive around.  It begins when the Dominant and the submissive agree that they want to pursue D/s, but that is only the first step of a long journey. D/s develops slowly over an extended period of time in which both parties actively work to open up and gain each other’s trust.

Here I will refer to the Dominant as a man and the submissive as a woman for the sake of simplicity, and because this is my personal preference; however, all this can be applied to any gender assignation of these roles. Some of the things I say may seem extreme, even brutal. We have to keep in mind that a D/s relationship is a sharp departure from the principles that guide a normal relationship, such as equality, personal autonomy, independence and respect. These values are still present in a D/s relationship, but changed into different shapes by the fact that the submissive surrenders a great deal of power to the Dominant, so the relationship becomes inherently unequal.  The sub loses personal autonomy; and the use of pain, restraint and humiliation looks a lot like lack of respect. Of course, all of this needs to happen under the constraints of  “safe, sane and consensual”. Sanity is a particular concern in D/s, because these practices can easily lapse into psychological abuse. We need to be watchful for anything that harms the self-esteem and the core dignity of the submissive, or that creates psychological dependence. I will address these problems in another article. 

I propose here that a D/s relationship involves seven distinct elements: obedience, surrender, service, discipline, punishment, demeanor and mind-fucking.

1 - Obedience

Obedience is, quite simply, following the orders of the Dominant. This is the most obvious part of a D/s relationship: one commands and the other must obey. A good Dominant chooses very carefully which orders to give, taking into account the needs of the submissive and the development of the relationship. The submissive is a fully-developed adult living a complex life, so a poorly conceived order can wreak havoc in her life. On the other hand, if a submissive finds that she cannot follow an order, or that she must argue against it or use her safeword, her confidence in the Dominant can be undermined. A good strategy is to delimit an area of the submissive’s life that will be under the control of the Dominant; the obvious one being her sexuality. On the other hand, her professional life should be considered off limits for the Dominant. Also, the Dominant should not try to control existing relationships of the sub with other people if for no other reason that this will bring into the D/s dynamic a person who has not given his or her consent.

2 - Surrender

Surrender means that the submissive must be open physically and mentally to the Dom. A good place to start is for the Dom to assert his right to touch the sub intimately whenever and wherever he wants - her navel, her nostrils, her asshole, anywhere. The body of the sub is at his disposal to enjoy and to stimulate with pleasure or pain at his discretion. This physical surrender is accompanied by a mental openness in which the sub gradually reveals her secret fantasies, fears and desires. Again, sex is a good place to start, but this will naturally extend to other areas of her life. From his side, the Dominant should refrain as much as possible from judgment, because placing shame or guilt on the submissive would be a betrayal of her trust. She has made herself enormously vulnerable, and if she feels that her confidences are being used against her, her natural reaction will be to withdraw and put up barriers.

The ultimate surrender takes place during sexual intercourse. Here we must abandon all scruples: we are not having vanilla sex. The sub is not going to be made love to; she is not even going to have sex. She is going to be fucked, with all the overpowering and humiliating connotations that this entails. She may be rudely taken from behind, being denied the view of the face of the Dom. She may be tied up in a humiliating, exposed position in which she cannot deny access to the Dom, or even move to seek her own pleasure. She may be forced to view her degradation in a mirror. She may enjoy the fucking or she may dislike it, or both at the same time, at the will of the Dom. And, of course, she will cum only with his permission.   

3 - Service

Service means that the submissive works to please and satisfy the desires of the Dominant. While surrender is mostly passive, service is pro-active. Service also goes beyond mere obedience, because the sub needs to anticipate the desires of the Dom. From his side, he must be mindful not to inhibit her creativity by being over-controlling. Of course, the submissive needs to ask permission before performing the service, or should meekly suggest a course of action. Having a submissive well trained in service will allow the Dominant to relax and enjoy the D/s relationship without having to be continuously on alert to decide what to do next.

4 - Discipline

Discipline comprises a series of exercises by which the Dominant fully asserts his control over the body and the mind of the submissive. The most obvious way to do this is in a scene in which he puts the submissive through various stages of pain and pleasure until she becomes fully pliable to his will. Here is where D/s interacts with sadomasochism. Pain and pleasure both have the property of salience, which means that they impose themselves on our consciousness, forcing us to pay attention. Therefore, they provide the perfect gateway for the Dom to invade the mind of the submissive, unrelentingly asserting his power.

Yet discipline goes well beyond pain and pleasure, beyond scene time. The Dom will give his submissive a series of tasks and exercises that she must do in and out of his presence to train her submission. These can include, for example, sexual exercises like Kegel pulls or wearing a butt-plug; other forms of physical training; reading assignments; fixed sleep and wake up times; modifications in her diet; writing in a diary; working a certain amount of time with undivided attention, etc. For male submissives, chastity and control of erections and ejaculations are widely practiced forms of discipline. Although some discipline exercises can be unpleasant, they are not done for punishment but to train the submissive and develop her submission.

5 - Punishment

Punishment occurs because the submissive has to face the consequences of wrong-doing in the D/s relationship or in her life. The Dom may chastise her verbally, impose physical pain, or require the performance of an unpleasant task. This is a delicate subject because we live in a tremendously punishing society that from infancy exposes us to the guilt and shame associated with failure and disobedience. For this reason, the meaning of punishment has to be carefully defined from the start, emphasizing its healing value as catharsis and atonement. Many D/s-minded people find punishing or being punished erotic. This should be encouraged and developed. Indeed, in the context of a D/s interaction, punishment has profoundly fulfilling aspects. For one thing, it is a powerful way to assert the power of the Dom, which may fill the mind of the sub with awe. The other thing is the healing aspect that I mentioned before. With the help of the Dom, the submissive brings to the surface the guilt and shame elicited not only by recent misbehavior but also by wrongful deeds of her earlier life. The humiliation and the pain of the punishment erode those negative emotions, polishing and purifying the ego. It is critical for this healing process that the punishment ends with a time of aftercare, in which the forgiveness of the Dom encourages the sub to forgive herself. Any misdeed has been paid for and can be safely left in the past. The submissive can move forward in her life feeling clean, purified and free from guilt. She has accepted her weaknesses and witnessed the power of her Dom over her, and has become stronger as a person and better as a submissive. Paradoxically, by surrendering to the Dom, she can free herself from her inner demons.

6 - Demeanor

Demeanor means that he submissive learns to carry herself and behave in a way that expresses a submissive mental state. Not all submissives have the same demeanor; each one expresses in a different way what submission means to her and to her Dominant. Some submissives are meek and subservient, while others may be proud and bratty. The Dominant decides which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, according to the nature of their relationship. The appropriate demeanor emerges from the personality of the sub and is polished through training to produce a poise that conveys to the trained eye the depth and beauty of the D/s relationship. For example, one type of submissive looks down in the presence of the Dom, walks behind him and speaks only when asked. Another type of submissive may proudly lift her chin, challenge the Dom, stare at him defiantly and freely speak her mind. Different demeanors are equally valid; they simply represent different styles of surrender, service and discipline.

7 - Mind-fucking

Mind-fucking consists of mind games that the Dominant plays with the submissive to bring her to a state of defeat and surrender. It doesn’t need to be something complicated; gentle teasing is already a form of mind-fuck. However, the most intense D/s scenes use mind-fucking to bring the bottom into profound sub-space. This represents the culmination of the training into all the six other elements of submission. Mind-fucking requires creativity on the part of the Dom; it is here where he shows his skill. There are no recipes for mind-fucking. It needs to be tailored to the personality of the submissive, to her state of mind in that precise moment. A good strategy is to find her points of resistance, her inner conflicts, and then bring her face to face with them. To be successful, the Dom needs to give the sub his full attention, focusing completely on reading her. However, without the sub’s willful collaboration, the process will fail . Mind-fucking is not so much something that the Dom does to the sub as something that they create together. No matter how skillful the Dominant, it is impossible for him to mind-fuck the submissive if she doesn’t surrender to him or if she lacks the appropriate discipline to follow him in the process. For example, one of form of mind-fucking consists in making the sub choose between two unpleasant choices. If she is in a rebellious state of mind she may refuse the false dichotomy, sabotaging the process. Since mind-fucking brings out her resistances, inner conflicts and unresolved problems, it can entail a spark of self-discovery, a step in a process of self-transformation.

To develop the elements of submission takes time and effort. The Dominant has to gain the trust of the sub and carefully guide her through steps to develop each one. Accordingly, a D/s relationship is best conceived as training. The whole process should be very enjoyable and produce profound personal satisfaction in both participants. As often happens in life, what matters is the journey and not the destination…because, in fact, there may be no destination at all.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The physiology of BDSM (part 1)

We need to rescue the word “sadist”. In the vanilla world it is often taken as a synonym of “cruel”, but in the BDSM culture we know this is not true. We are not cruel, we don’t like to cause suffering, just as masochists do not like to suffer. It is only that we sadomasochists like pain. Not any kind of pain, but a special type of pain. Pain that is felt in erogenous zones: the butt, the thighs, the feet, the back. Besides, the pain that we like also has a special quality: it warms and reddens the skin, awakening its sensibility. I like to call that kind of pain “erotic pain”.

However, in BDSM pain fulfils many other functions besides being a pleasant sensation in itself. It a DS relationship pain is used as punishment. Many people have a “punishment fetish”: they like the idea of being punished or punishing somebody. The dynamic of punishment is one of the clearest forms of power exchange. We give power to another person to decide if what we do is right or wrong, and to make us pay for the consequences of our mistakes by inflicting pain on us or by making us do unpleasant tasks.

Another role of pain in BDSM is to induce altered states of consciousness, variously called sub-space, Top-space, adrenaline high or endorphin rush. BDSM sites and organizations are full of articles and talks on the purported neurochemical bases of these altered states of consciousness. Unfortunately, much of this is pseudoscience, a collection of myths that are not supported by any real scientific evidence. At best, they are just extrapolations to the BDSM scene of what we know about the neurophysiology of pain. Since there are practically no scientific studies done directly on sadomasochists, this is the only thing we can do at the moment. The bad news is that we simply do not have the scientific information to came up with an explanation for the altered states of consciousness that happen in the scene. The good news is that at least we can rule out some of the pseudoscientific myths that are being circulated. In this article I want to provide a summary of the most basic facts about pain transmission and processing, to provide a solid base of knowledge for our discussions.

The ability of the BDSM scene in general, and pain in particular, to produce altered states of consciousness is extremely important. It should not be taken with the frivolous attitude of someone taking a drug. Indeed, if what we want is a “high”, drugs can be a much simpler way to achieve it - although not one that I would recommend. The altered states of consciousness produced in the scene are valuable because they happen in a humane and emotional environment that can give them a profound meaning. The scene thus becomes a process of self-discovery and self-transformation. But not all that happens in a BDSM scene is automatically good, there are many potential problems, drawbacks and dangers. For example, a lot of people are concerned about the sub-drop, that state of unhappiness and depression that can take place in the hours or days following an intense scene. There are other concerns, though. Can certain practices undermine the autonomy or the self-esteem of the submissive? Can habituation to pain lead us to dangerous behavior? Can the pain high become addictive? The health of the Top should also be taken into consideration. Could he become accustomed to inflicting pain? Will he objectify the submissive, turning her or him into a mere puppet to satisfy a compulsion? These are objections that we find in the vanilla world, which we know from our own experience that are not true. However, wouldn’t it be nice if we have some solid evidence to refute them? And there is always the possibility that some particular behavior may in fact be unhealthy for the Bottom or the Top.

Pain pathways: from the skin to the spinal cord

The physical harm produced by canes, ridding crops, paddles or whips is taken up by the C fibers and sent from the skin to the spinal cord as pain signals. C fibers are the axons of a particular type of nerve cells, or neurons, whose bodies are located in the dorsal root ganglia nested between each pair of vertebrae at the sides of the spinal cord. There is another type of fiber, the A fibers, which transmit normal touch sensation. The A fibers are thicker than the C fibers and, unlike them, are enveloped in a sheath of fatty tissue called myelin. The sensory nerves are bundles of millions of C and A fibers joined together by connective tissue. Most C fibers specialize in transmitting pain signals coming from the skin and, to a lesser extent, from muscles, joints, bones and inner organs. Because the skin forms the barrier between the body and the outside world, there are a lot of pain receptors posted there as sentinels against harm. For that reason, the skin tends to overreact sending out a lot of pain for relatively little harm. With pain signals coming from the inside of the body (bones, joints and viscera) the issue is the opposite: a little pain can mean a serious problems. For us BDSMers, this means that “skin pain” is generally OK, but we should stay away from things that cause deep pain, like bondage that hurts the joints or impact play with heavy objects that can hurt muscles and bones.

C fibers do other things besides sending pain signals to the spinal cord. Signals can travel in them the other way: from the spinal cord to the skin. There they release substances that produce swelling and increase blood flow. This inflammation is what causes the redness in the submissive’s butt after a good paddling, or those beautiful parallel lines of the cane marks. Inflammation of the skin is generally OK; it may even serve to stimulate and revitalize it with all that increased blood flow. Bruising, on the other hand, happens when capillaries are broken inside the skin. It heals, but it means a higher level of harm.

Pain signals traveling in the C fibers reach the spinal cord at the part that is further to the back, called the dorsal horn. A fibers in the same sensory nerves also send tactile signals to the dorsal horn. There pain gets altered in some curious ways. For example, when a pain signal combines with a tactile signal form the same area of the skin, the tactile signal decreases the pain. Therefore, a Top can erase the pain caused by a heavy stroke of a cane by caressing the bruise shortly afterwards. This is also the reason why we rub a part of the body that is aching. What happens is that there are neurons in the dorsal horn able to increase or decrease the pain signal before sending it to the brain. Apart from touch sensations carried by the A fibers, pain can also be decreased by signals descending from the brain through particular nerve pathways, which I will describe later. The dorsal horn also processes other sensations coming from the skin, like itch, heat, warmth and cold, as well as sensations coming from the inside of the body.

Pain pathways: from the spinal cord to the brain

From the dorsal horn, pain signals cross two relay stations before reaching the brain cortex. One is the brain stem and the other the thalamus. At the brain stem, the pain signal interacts with the descending pain modulation pathways to decrease (or sometimes increase) future pain signals. The thalamus is a large area in the middle of the brain that acts as a central processor of all sensory sensations, not just pain and touch, but also hearing and seeing. From there, the pain sensation reaches its final destination, three regions of the brain cortex: the somatosensory cortex, the anterior cingulated cortex and the insula.

Pain in the brain

Please, do not let all those unfamiliar names put you off. If you stay with me you’ll see how understanding the function of those brain areas is the key to understand the physiology of sadomasochism. The somatosensory cortex is a stripe that crosses the brain on its sides, from top to bottom, like a hairband. Its function is localize the part of the body where the pain is coming from… is it the butt, the thigh or the nipple? But is not there where pain hurts, where it becomes such a disagreeable (or pleasurable) sensation. That’s the job of the insula. That name means “island” in Latin, because the insula is like an island of grey matter at the bottom of a deep fold of the cortex in the side of the brain. As I said, the insula is where we become aware of how much it hurts. It is also the origin of another interesting property of pain called “salience”. It means that pain has the ability of imposing itself on our conscious experience: if we are in pain, we don’t have the choice of not paying attention to it. That is why pain is so important to dominate somebody. If we give pain to a submissive, she cannot avoid giving us her undivided attention. By the way, there is another sensation that has salience: pleasure. Indeed, the insula controls all the emotions associated with pain, positive or negative, as well as emotions associated to pleasure: sexual excitement and orgasm. The insula also plays a role in a variety of emotions: sadness, joy, anger, disgust, indignation, empathy and even love. Therefore, in that tiny area of the brain pain meets pleasure, and together they interact with all kind of emotions. In fact, scientists consider pain and pleasure more as emotions than as sensations. What this means in the context of BDSM is that pain occurs in intimate connection with all the other emotions that take place in the scene, influencing and being influenced by them. Moreover, pain and pleasure are not opposites, as usually thought. They can take place at the same time, even reinforce each other.

The third brain area involved in pain is the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC). Anatomically, the cingulated cortex is the part of the cortex located in the surface where the two cerebral hemispheres touch each other. It forms a ring around the corpus callosum, which is the bundle of fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres. The ACC is the frontal part of the cingulated cortex. It has similar functions to the insula but, while the insula is all about emotions, the ACC links emotions to knowledge. Its other functions are detecting errors, solving conflicts, and maintaining attention and motivation. It probably also mediates awareness, so we could say that the ACC is where we become conscious of feeling pain and get motivated to do something about it… Even if it is just to endure it or enjoy it. It is here where pain can affect our conscious state.
In the second part of this article I will write about the nerve descending pathways that decrease pain and the “pleasure pathway” that releases dopamine and may contribute to the altered states of consciousness of the BDSM scene.

References

1. Cervero F. Spinal cord hyperexcitability and its role in pain and hyperalgesia. Exp Brain Res 196: 129-37 (2009).
2. Craig AD. How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat.Rev.Neurosci 3: 655-666 (2002).
3. Craig AD. Human feelings: why are some more aware than others? Trends Cogn Sci. 8: 239-241 (2004).
4. Craig AD. Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 13: 500-505 (2003).
5. Craig AD. A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends Neurosci 26: 303-307 (2003).
6. Craig AD. Pain mechanisms: labeled lines versus convergence in central processing. Annu.Rev.Neurosci 26: 1-30 (2003).
7. Craig AD, Chen K, Bandy D, Reiman EM. Thermosensory activation of insular cortex. Nat.Neurosci 3: 184-190 (2000).
8. Craig AD, Zhang ET. Retrograde analyses of spinothalamic projections in the macaque monkey: input to posterolateral thalamus. J Comp Neurol 499: 953-64 (2006).
9. Hucho T, Levine JD. Signaling pathways in sensitization: toward a nociceptor cell biology. Neuron 55: 365-76 (2007).
10. Hunt SP, Mantyh PW. The molecular dynamics of pain control. Nat Rev Neurosci 2: 83-91 (2001).
11. Mogil JS. Animal models of pain: progress and challenges. Nat Rev Neurosci 10: 283-94 (2009).
12. Sandkuhler J. Models and mechanisms of hyperalgesia and allodynia. Physiol Rev 89: 707-58 (2009).
13. Tsunozaki M, Bautista DM. Mammalian somatosensory mechanotransduction. Curr Opin Neurobiol 19: 362-9 (2009).
14. Woolf CJ, Ma Q. Nociceptors--noxious stimulus detectors. Neuron 55: 353-64 (2007).


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hurt

Today is Erin's birthday. She would have been 50 years old today if she hadn't decided to kill herself last November. She was kind of scared of being 50... She often thought of herself as an old maid. In fact, she was beautiful and sexy. There was always something of a teenager in her.

She had this ritual of calling her best friends on their birthdays and play "Happy Birthday" by Altered Images. Just the song, no comments, then she would hang up. Last year she did it to me on my birthday, then I did the same to her on her birthday. March first, like today.

I won't play Happy Birthday by Altered Images today. It's not a Happy Birthday. Maybe it's not a birthday at all. Instead, I'm posting this video of the song Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, which I think is what she would have liked me to post. Erin was big on getting me to like the music that she liked. She made me a CD of her favorite songs and was kind of disappointed when I didn't play it often enough when we were together. She didn't understand, I didn't explain well enough, that I'm slow to take to music. I was taking my time. I thought that we had time. She didn't explain that we did not, in fact, had that much time. She didn't say that she planned to leave so soon.


Anyway, I like Hurt now. It explains perfectly well how she felt, how she hurt, why she had to go. With it, she warned me that she would let me down, in the end. That she'd made me hurt. I hear her talking in every single word of those lyrics. What have you become, my sweetest friend? You left me your empire of dust... all of it. What am I do to with it?

This is Erin speaking. This is her Hurt. She sent me this e-mail on April 30 last year.

Oh.....Jesus, Mary and Joseph!  - forgive me!  - but I am so sick and tired of spending two and a half hours on the phone talking with some guy who is SO into his wife or some other chick - and helping him to feel better about his relationship!  OH DOG!  FUCK ME RAW AND KILL ME BEFORE I EVER FEEL THE NEED TO DO THIS AGAIN!   It used to, but no longer instills "hope" in me!  I am just wanting so bad for this life shit to be over with asap!  i am SO done with all of this bullshit!  I just wanna sleep - to trip the light fantastic - for good!  - and, again, I am not suicidal, trust me, I am not!  I am just so very done with all of this crap!   There is nothing that is good or wonderful about my life!  I want to expedite the process of my death to the best of my ability.  Perhaps I should take up doing crack cocaine or something.....I don't know.  I just know that I want to get this all over with so bad!  I am so done!  I am so sad.  I hope you can try to begin to understand this Hermes.   It is not about you in any way - at all!  it is about ME! 

I just want you, and your wife, and my mom and my friend Tina, and everyone I love and care about to just hurry up and die!  So that I can get the fuck - out of here!  I hate my life!  I want it to be over!  I used to care about leaving a mark on the world.  - something meaningful and helpful to others - but I am out of "life" and I just don't even care anymore.  - Something inside me has died.   I just want to sleep.  I used to want to help other people to have an easier life and find happiness....but, I am sorry, I just don't care about me, or anyone else anymore. 

peace OUT!

 
May you trip the light fantastic, Erin!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Oxytocin, monogamy and altruistic punishment

Prairie voles with their litter
Let me introduce you to the prairie vole, a small mammal that has attracted considerable attention in scientific circles for the last decade or so. Prairie voles are rodents with short tails and small ears, and are found in North America from west of the Rockies to east of Appalachia. What is so notorious about prairie voles is that they are strictly monogamous: a male and a female form a bond for life. However, a very close cousin of the prairie vole, the montane vole, is not monogamous at all. In view of that, some scientists decided to find out how the brain of the prairie vole is different from that of the montane vole. They found that female prairie voles have more oxytocin and oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, which are areas of the brain important in emotions and decision-making. Oxytocin was first recognized as the peptide that induces uterine contractions during labor. More recently, it has been shown to be crucial for many forms of social bonding. For example, it goes up in the blood when a dog is being petted, in both the dog and the human! Back to our friends the voles, scientists went on to genetically modify the montane voles by increasing the production of oxytocin in the brain. And, voila! these montane voles turned out to be as monogamous as their cousins the prairie voles. What about the male voles? Well, in them monogamous behavior seems to be determined by another peptide, vasopressin, which is nevertheless quite similar to oxytocin.

Oxytocin also attracted the attention of researchers of a totally unrelated field: economics. Some unconventional economists decided to put to the test the basic belief of capitalism that market decisions are rational. They found that they are not. Human transactions are based more on trust and empathy that on cold-blooded decisions on what is to lose and what is to gain. For example, people in all cultures engage in something called altruistic punishment: they will go at great length to punish individuals that they perceive as being unfair and untrustworthy. One way they determined this is with an experiment called the “ultimatum game”. In it there are two players. Player one is given a sum of money, say $10, of which he has to offer a certain amount to player 2. If player 2 takes the offer, both get to keep the agreed amount of money. However, if player 2 rejects to offer, both of them lose the money. The results of the ultimatum game are consistent between people of all sexes, religions and cultures: below a certain amount (about $3-4 if the total amount is $10), player 2 decides that player 1 is not treating him fairly and rejects the offer. That means that he is willing to lose 2, 3 or even 4 bucks to punish player 1 for being greedy, that’s why is called “altruistic punishment”. Oxytocin comes into play because when their levels of oxytocin were increased players were more generous in their monetary offers. Testosterone did the opposite. In fact, men are more inclined to altruistic punishment than women.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are now called the “social hormones” because they strongly influence social behaviors like bonding, trust and empathy. However, we should not fall into the simplistic belief that oxytocin makes us good. It has been observed that this neuropeptide is involved in some nasty human behaviors, like xenophobia and intolerance. This is because oxytocin increases both bonding with the members of our group and exclusion of anybody perceived as a stranger. If you think about it, monogamy entails both feeling close to our spouse and rejecting member of the opposite sex that are not our spouse: bonding and exclusion. On the other hand, the role of vasopressin in monogamy in males seems to have more to do with possessiveness and territoriality than with emotional bonding - the male perceives the female as part of his territory and defends her as such. Likewise, altruistic punishment has a good side -like pursuing criminals-, and a bad side -like road rage and other conflicts that get started when we think that somebody is taking advantage of us.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nobody's got the gun

Nobody's got the gun
Nobody's trying to get the drop on anyone
Nobody's standing out on main street
With the sun blazing down
Saying "There's only room for one of us
In this here town"
Nobody's got to be the number one
Nobody's got to be the number one
Nobody's got the gun
Nobody's got the gun

She may not understand
And she may want you eating from her hand
If she's got you in a corner
And you can smell the smoke and flame
You reach for your revolver
To do the same
You'll blow your love away forever, Number One
You'll blow your love away forever, Number One
Nobody's got the gun
Nobody's got the gun

You may think love is hard enough
You may never get to rehearse
And you can do without this stuff
Making everything worse

She's just the same as you
She needs your love just like you want her too
You can't go playing poker
With a pistol up your sleeve
You can't make somebody love you
By threatening to leave
If you want to love forever, Number One
If you want to love forever, Number One
Nobody's got the gun.
Nobody's got the gun.

Nobody's got the gun, Mark Knopfler



Do I have to explain it?

We often feel threatened in a relationship. Under attack. We start to feel smothered; our personal autonomy is in danger. We feel cornered and then we reach for our best weapons, we charge blindly… against the person who loves us best. We think that we are in a Wild West shootdown, in which only one can come out alive. But, in fact, the last thing we want is to kill our beloved.

Every fight leaves its scars. The grudges of old wounds keep piling up with the years, and so we end up in an odd relationship, a mixture of love and resentment. If we knew the price that we pay for each fight, we’ll avoid them like the plague.

I often remembered, just in time, that sentence, so simple and so wise: “You can't make somebody love you by threatening to leave”. Threats and ultimatums are just destructive. The only thing worthwhile is to talk. Giving in a little, not turning everything into a power struggle. If you want love, you have to give love.




Sunday, January 19, 2014

The simple beauty of being lovers

Being lovers is a relationship based on sex, friendship, love… and nothing else. 

In contrast, marriage has the complexity a business contract. True, most spouses start up as lovers, but they get immediately caught up in the complicated tangle of an arrangement designed to wipe out every last residue of individual autonomy. Yes, marriage sacrifices individual freedom in the altar of love, but love as an ideal so elevated that most fail to live up to it. A shared bed, shared shopping, shared finances, quickly followed by a shared mortgage and a shared commitment to raise the children. Little surprise if lust and passion get lost in the middle of all that. Marriage is the true power exchange: I get power over you and you get power over me, and we both lose our freedom in the process.

I’m not saying that marriage is necessarily a bad thing. These days, gays fight for the right of getting married, and they know full well what they are doing. Marriage is an enormous source of privilege. The shared finances, the distribution of labor, the security if being able to count on two incomes, are big advantages over single people. Add to that a socio-political system geared up to encourage “family values” with all kind of incentives. Nevertheless, when we get married we should not fool ourselves by thinking that we are entering a state in which we are going to live together ever after in romantic, passionate bliss. This is really a business transaction in which we give up freedom in exchange for security, both emotional and financial.

This is why I think that there is a beauty in being lovers that often get overlooked. Lovers love without giving up their personal autonomy. They date: get together for a limited time to share sex, conversation and friendship. Not having to agree about the best way to manage money, the values by which to educate their children and whether the house should have carpet or wooden floors make relationships much, much easier.

Another thing that adds beauty to being lovers is that there is always an element of transgression in it. After all, love outside marriage – adultery – is a serious crime in many countries, in some places even punished by death. Lovers flip the bird to political and religious power, making a statement that nobody has the right to impose the “right” relationship between two free individuals.

Freedom and lack of security go hand in hand. In contrast to the “till death do us part” of marriage, lovers know that their relationship is fragile. It has to be nurtured with passion and compassion, generosity and mutual respect. Early in their relationship, lovers set up rules that apply only to them: “never discuss religion / politics / sports”, “we meet every Sunday afternoon”, “for me you are always submissive, pretend that you don’t top other men”, etc. The rules may evolve with time, as does the relationship, as we gain more knowledge of the other person and learn to appreciate their complexity in all the dimensions or their being.

Sadly, few people appreciate being lovers as a relationship in itself. It is often seen as a transitory state in the progression from occasional sex, to dating, to living together, to getting married. By failing to recognize that perhaps being “just” lovers is the destination and not a step along the way, we push too far and doom a perfectly good relationship to failure.

All this is particularly true for BDSM relationships. Kinky relationships flourish between lovers and wilt in the narrow confines of marriage. It is extremely difficult to superimpose the power exchange of dominance and submission with the power exchange of marriage. Believe me: many have tried and few have succeeded.

So, what are your expectations? Are you looking for a lover? For a husband / wife? Or just occasional kinky sex?

Friday, January 10, 2014

A life of being and a life of doing

Try to choose carefully, Arren, when the great choices must be made.
When I was young,
I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing.
And I leapt to the later like a trout to a fly.
But each deed you do,
each act,
binds you to itself and its consequences,
and makes you act again and yet again.
Then very seldom do you come upon a space,
a time like this,
between act and act,
when you may stop and simply be.
Or wonder who,
after all,
you are.
from The Farthest Shore
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Endorphins and adrenaline - What science really says

The following is in response to this article
https://fetlife.com/users/2529856/posts/1968359

Which apparently was first posted here
http://friskybusinessboutique.com/news/blog/the-endorphin-levels-in-bdsm-a-short-primer-on-sending-a-submissive-into-hyperspace

Basically, the article claims that endorphins are released in discrete “loads” and that it takes the body about 10 min to replenish the load before it can release it again. Then it proposes a method in which the bottom is beaten hard at 10 min intervals to taken him or her to increasingly high endorphin “levels” until a state of stupefied bliss is achieved. It also makes some claims on how adrenaline release balances the endorphin release, and gives instructions on how to minimize adrenaline release and maximize endorphin release (which is supposed to be the goal).

There are two different issues with that article. The first one is that it claims that all this is based on science. The second issue is whether the states that it describes really can happen to a bottom during a SM scene. I will address here the first issue only. Concerning the second, there are abundant testimonies of altered states of consciousness occurring in bottoms during SM scenes. However, the physiological basis of those states of consciousness, their value and the best ways to achieve them are highly debatable.


PET images showing the areas of the brain where endorphins are released by pain: the prefrontal cortex (PFCTX), the anterior thalamus (A TH), the right anterior insula (INS), the hypothalamus (HYPO) and the amygdala (AMY). From Zubieta et al. (2001), Science 293: 311.
I am a neuroscientist who has been doing research on pain for several decades. In particular, I have been investigating endorphin release in rats. Based on my knowledge, I am going to argue that the article cited above has no scientific basis whatsoever. The issue of endorphin release is enormously complicated, so I am going to summarize here the points most relevant for this discussion.

The first thing I need to explain is the blood-brain barrier. Blood is highly toxic to neurons, so there is a barrier between the capillaries that supply the brain with oxygen and nutrients and the nervous tissue. Most substances cannot cross the blood brain barrier without the “permission” of the gate keepers cells that form it. In particular, endorphins, adrenaline and other hormones secreted into the blood do not cross the blood-brain barrier, which means that the amounts of endorphins and adrenaline in the blood have no effect whatsoever on the mind. These substances need to be released inside the brain to do anything to your mood or your consciousness.

Second, you may imagine the endorphins as forming a sort of soup that bathes the brain all over. That is completely wrong. Endorphins are released by very specific neural pathways and affect only very small brain areas. This means that the effect of the endorphins depend on where in the brain they are released. For example, endorphin release in a small area of the brain stem called the nucleus raphe magnus inhibits pain; their release in the nucleus accumbens produces a state of bliss mediated by dopamine; their release in the insula produce positive emotions, and so far and so forth.

Third, what I have been calling until now “endorphins” are really a collection of about 40 different peptides encoded by three different genes and classified into three different families: endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins. The endorphins and enkephalins bind to mu opioid receptors and delta opioid receptors, whereas dynorphins bind to kappa opioid receptors. All three receptors produce analgesia (meaning “a decrease in pain”), but only mu and delta receptors produce euphoria (a sense of pleasure and well-being). Kappa receptors, on the contrary, produce dysphoria, a profoundly unpleasant sensation of being sick and unhappy. Therefore, not all “endorphin” release will lead to a state of bliss. Like endorphins and enkephalins, dynorphins are released by pain, particularly when is accompanied by distress. This can happen, for example, in an adverse social environment or in unpleasant situations over which we have no control.

Images showing where in the human brain endorphins decrease the unpleasantness of pain: the anterior cingulate cortex (A CING), the thalamus (THA) and the nucleus accumbens (N ACC). From Zubieta et al. (2001), Science 293: 311.
Now, going back to that post, it is not true that endorphins are released in “loads” and that it takes the body 10 min to replete the load once is released. From what I have said above you can deduct that this is an enormously naïve and simplistic view of what in reality is a tremendously complex system. The final effect on our state of consciousness and on our mood would depend on whether endorphins, enkephalins or dynorphins are released, and most important, where in the brain they are released. Since the levels of endorphins in the blood do not affect the brain, to study endorphin release we need to have a technique that would allow to detect them inside a living brain. As incredible as this may seem, it was actually done by a scientist named Jon-Kar Zubieta. Using positron emission tomography (PET), he is able to measure the binding of an opioid drug, carfentanil, to the mu opioid receptors. He published a number of papers using this technique (I list some of them at the end) that show where in the brain endorphins are released (actually, where they bind to the mu opioid receptor, displacing carfentanil) during pain or in some particular emotional states. Unfortunately, he did not study masochists being beaten into a pulp in a SM scene. There is no indication whatsoever in his studies that endorphins are released in “loads”, or that the loads need to be replenished every 10 min. This also does not agree with what we know about the mechanisms by which endorphins are synthesized and released.

What about adrenaline? Actually, the brain uses a similar compound instead, nor-adrenaline (often called nor-epinephrine or simply NE). NE does a lot of things in the brain - again, depending where it is released an which of its many receptors are activated. It is true, however, that NE released into the spinal cord inhibits pain. This is driven by a neuronal pathway that originates in several parts of the brain stem (the nuclei called A5, A7 and nucleus coeruleus) and then travels down the spinal cord. The A5, A7 and coeruleus nuclei are activated by stress in the fight/flight response, which is well-known to produce analgesia. So adrenaline can complement endorphins to reduce pain during an SM scene.

How all this applies to an SM scene is anybody’s guess. I don’t know of any scientific studies done on sadomasochists, although it would be fascinating to do them. But in view of the complexities of these systems, how much they vary from person to person and how strongly they are influenced by social interactions and the ambient, we can guess that there is no simple formula to induce the release of endorphins or adrenaline in a person. The top has to fly by the seat of his pants, read the bottom very carefully and stay on the safe side when inducing altered mind states on the bottom. We are playing with fire here, and even though things may seem to fine during a scene, nobody knows what unforeseen consequences it may have in the future.

References:
Zubieta, J. K., Y. R. Smith, et al. (2001). Regional mu opioid receptor regulation of sensory and affective dimensions of pain. Science 293(5528): 311-315.

Mason P (1999) Central mechanisms of pain modulation. Curr Opin Neurobiol 9:436-441.

Hunt SP, Mantyh PW (2001) The molecular dynamics of pain control. Nat Rev Neurosci 2:83-91.

Zubieta JK, Smith YR, Bueller JA, Xu Y, Kilbourn MR, Jewett DM, Meyer CR, Koeppe RA, Stohler CS (2002) mu-opioid receptor-mediated antinociceptive responses differ in men and women. J Neurosci 22:5100-5107.

Zubieta JK, Ketter TA, Bueller JA, Xu Y, Kilbourn MR, Young EA, Koeppe RA (2003) Regulation of human affective responses by anterior cingulate and limbic mu-opioid neurotransmission. Arch Gen Psychiatry 60:1145-1153.

Apkarian AV, Bushnell MC, Treede RD, Zubieta JK (2005) Human brain mechanisms of pain perception and regulation in health and disease. Eur J Pain 9:463-484.

Ribeiro SC, Kennedy SE, Smith YR, Stohler CS, Zubieta JK (2005) Interface of physical and emotional stress regulation through the endogenous opioid system and mu-opioid receptors. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 29:1264-1280.

Wager TD, Scott DJ, Zubieta JK (2007) Placebo effects on human mu-opioid activity during pain. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104:11056-11061.