Bottoms Up: Holistic Masochism

Three years ago, I was fresh from what was then the worst breakup of my life. I drank a lot, smoked even more and stopped going to school. I spent all day angry and sad and confused. I wanted to feel something else, so I sought out some play partners and had a super rough threesome. We crossed so many of my boundaries; going along with it was easier than saying the pain wasn’t good for me. And maybe, if something hurt more than the pain of my breakup, it would erase it and I could function again. But even though I let my body be used in a way I thought I wanted it to be used, and even though I had bruises for days, I didn’t feel any better. The physical pain was exactly what I wanted, but I also wanted it to erase my emotional pain, and it didn’t.

Last May, I finished a project I’d been working on for a very long time and rewarded myself with hand tattoos. I drafted them with the artist and sat very still as she began. The pain was exquisite: sharp, pointed, endorphin-laced. I left the tattoo parlor with sweet new body art and a clear head. It was like I’d been in a stuffy home heated by a radiator and had stepped outside into crisp winter air. My pain took me exactly where I wanted to go.

Ignoring my limits is different from pushing them. Pushing my limits is a fun challenge; ignoring them can force my play out of the realm of play and into dangerous territory. For me as a masochist, there’s a thin line between (intentional, safe, risk-aware) self-hurt and (risky, non-negotiated) self-harm. Assuming I take care to play with safe tops and dominants, I become the greatest risk to myself if I’m not thinking about masochism holistically.

In moments of unhealthy masochism, I want to ignore a situation or escape a feeling. I don’t want to articulate my desires. And when I experience pain, it feels like static. The life pain interferes with the play pain, and I use the play pain to try to drown out the life pain until I can’t tell which is stronger. Until I ignore my limits, putting myself and my partner in more danger than we signed up for.

Instead, I try to approach my masochism holistically. I’m starting to know what unhealthy masochism feels like in my body and brain, and I’ve learned to check in with myself before playing; to have a few moments of silence or meditation to help me take inventory of where I am. I acknowledge my limits to myself and to my partner. If I’m not all there mentally, I stop playing, alert my partner, and work to bring myself back to the scene before we continue. Holistic masochism recognizes that I’m not just a sex machine, but a whole person who has to exist before and after play.

In holistic masochism, I can embrace the feelings pain brings up for me. More than any other aspect of BDSM, I think masochism has the most potential to bring me into the present. The way that controlled pain demands my attention is deeply erotic for me. When I’m listening to my body and respecting my own boundaries and limits, that environment can lead to clarity and tranquility. I feel disoriented in the loveliest way — just as soon as I can focus on one sensation, another occurs. I don’t have enough time to recover or anticipate, so I just have to experience. As my whole self.

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Ari is a 20-something artist and educator. They are a mom to two cats, they love domesticity, ritual, and porch time. They have studied, loved, and learned in CT, Greensboro, NC, and ATX.

Ari has written 330 articles for us.


  1. This gives me a lot to think about. I just wish I had other women to talk to about this kind of stuff. It would definitely help my mental health and sexual growth. Being self aware is easy until you add more stuff into the mix, for me at least. Can’t wait for the next post. Keep up the good writing :)

  2. The way that you articulate your thoughts and experiences with subbing is incredible. I feel like I’ve been trying for years to put into words what you’ve said here. Thank you for your insight!

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