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Kink and Trauma: The Psychology of Pleasure and Pain


a woman who is exploring kink and trauma

Kink is a facet of human sexuality that is unfortunately very misunderstood, stigmatized, and pathologized. Though sex can be a taboo subject on its own, when you add the inclusion of kinks, fetishes, power exchange, and BDSM play, layers of complexity can mount. A more controversial conversation around kink is the usage of kink play as a means of healing from sexual trauma, which can be a challenging idea for some to wrap their heads around.


The truth is, there are many ways in which one can heal from sexual trauma and just because something seems like an unhealthy coping mechanism to some, doesn’t mean it can’t be curative for another. Read on to learn more about the psychology of pleasure and pain and why kink has the ability to promote healing when done with safety and intention at the forefront.


Why Can Pain Feel So Good?


The idea of being sexually aroused by pain can be confusing as it can seem to some that pain is something to avoid, especially during something objectively pleasurable such as sex. There are actually neurobiological reasons why some might find pleasure in pain; since everyone’s brains are different, it can impact each individual in different ways.


In terms of the way your brain reacts to pain, context matters. Let’s say that you get a nasty burn from cooking; most likely this is pain that was unexpected and unwanted since you are simply trying to cook yourself a meal. When it comes to kink and BDSM scenes, folks who engage in kink play, also sometimes called practitioners, usually create a context in which they can experience pain and also feel safe in the moment because they have full control of the exact type of pain they will experience, how long it lasts, where it will be felt, how often, how intense, and also have a sexual context or script in which it makes sense and is arousing to their exact erotic blueprint (what someone desires sexually).


Your brain is sophisticated and can tell the difference between “good and bad pain” or pain that is unwanted and pain that is being felt in a pleasurable context. Neurochemically, when sexual arousal is experienced in tandem with a painful stimulus, hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin (hormones affiliated with pleasure, love, and reward) are released and pleasure can be felt due to the pre-existing emotional and interpersonal context. The combination of arousal, context, and positive intention for pain all work together to create pleasurable pain.


Kink, Sexual Trauma, and Healing


There is a common misunderstanding and pathologizing around the utilization of kink practices as a modality of healing from sexual trauma. Perhaps most controversial is a kind of play called consensual nonconsent (CNC) which is a form of kink that involves role playing forced sex fantasies. One reason CNC can be so liberating for sexual assault survivors is because it can allow someone to reframe a traumatic experience into one in which they have more control, bodily autonomy, and pre-disclosed boundaries, all of which were not afforded to them when they were violated.


In a 2021 study, sexual trauma survivors who reported engaging in kink as a method of healing from trauma found that having the opportunity to replay a traumatic scene in a different and safer context allowed them to experience empowerment and autonomy and restructured a limiting and negative trauma narrative they were struggling with.


The key aspect of CNC or any form of similar kink/fantasy is that all parties are consenting and have the ability to enforce a safe word and slow down or stop at any point. There is a common belief engaging in forced sex play is a trauma reaction to the abuse they experienced and is not a healthy way to cope. While kink play may not be the right model of healing for all sexual trauma survivors, it doesn’t take away that some survivors have found it to be profoundly healing and reparative to their relationship with sex.


Heal Your Own Way


If you are someone who wants to explore the curative aspects of kink, it can help to work with a trauma informed and kink affirming mental health professional who can help you ensure you’re safe and process the feelings and experiences you’re going through without judgement. There is no shame in healing in whatever way feels authentic and cathartic. You are the curator of your sexual script, and it gets to play out in whatever way you find most empowering.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Kayla Tricaso is the Office Manager and Patient Intake Specialist at Modern Intimacy. When she is not working at Modern Intimacy, Kayla is in graduate school to become a therapist who specializes in trauma.



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