Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Describing Pain in BDSM Erotica


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, 
“Despite it’s 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 experience it.

4. Pain is not one-note. There is a whole symphony in there.

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 it.

6. People experience sensation differently. There is no universal experience of a particular sensation, including different kinds of pain.

7. The perception of pain is particularly related to the rate of increase of sensation, more than other factors. (I learned this from Dr. 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:

  • Transformed 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.
  • Sacrificial Pain: 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.
  • Investment Pain: 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.
  • Autotelic Pain: 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 studied.

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 frameworks.

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 area)?

In this excerpt from “Please”, the bottom is experiencing concentrated pain in combination with sex and they wrap into each other:

He 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.

Jericho handed 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 tails:

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 for Daddy. 

  • 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). 

I’m particularly 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 resources.)

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 pain.

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 the story:

Jan 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:

Tam 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. 

6 comments:

  1. One of my favourite descriptors of pain is from a fragment we have of Sappho's writing that simply states "pain drips".
    Thank you for this post. It is very insightful and, as a new writer, I will find it very useful.

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  2. Oh, that's lovely. I do often think of pain as moving like water. So glad you found the post useful!

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  3. Brilliant post, Xan -- not to mention incredibly useful. I'm going to file this away for future reference.

    I tend to use fire and electricity as pain metaphors. I don't personally like thudding or deep pain (and haven't experienced much of it), so I tend to omit it in my stories.

    But I admit I've gotten lazy and settled for that "pleasure/pain" shortcut.

    I particularly like the analysis of the four ways bottoms experience pain. For me, 1) and 2) predominate, and that's what I tend to write about, especially 2) (sacrificial pain), because the devotion component is a major turn-on in BDSM for me personally. It's very difficult for me to imagine (4), though I know from reading descriptions that some people do experience pain and yet enjoy it.

    It seems that many romance readers only want to hear about (1).

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    1. Thanks, Lisabet! I'm glad you find it useful--that was absolutely my goal.

      I use a lot of fire & electricity metaphors myself, especially to describe things in the sting family.

      #1 is definitely the most common in the romance I've read, which in some ways makes sense given that it has mostly been light to moderate SM.

      I generally wrote #2 & #4 with some of #3--the sort where folks engage with pain as an ordeal, a source of transformation. But then my own experience matches that; I don't have much personal experience with #1 in play, though I've definitely heard a lot of kinky folks talk about pain that way.

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  4. I think my perceptions of how I write pain have definitely changed since reading Show Yourself to Me. Having you pick out various aspects here has given me more food for thought though. Thank you.

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    1. I'm glad you found thinky stuff in the post, and that my collection sparked new thinking. I learn so much from reading other people's work. Reading is so essential to me as a writer.

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