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A few weeks ago I was reading an academic journal on the psychology and sociology of consumer behavior (as one does) and I stumbled upon a paper titled Selling Pain to the Saturated Self, which I believe has a lot of interesting insights that would be valuable to the BDSM community.

People who've read my work before know that I'm fascinated by a debate ongoing in unrelated academic discipline, leisure studies, and yes, there is such a thing. Such academics divide leisure into one of three catergories: casual, serious, or deviant. Serious leisure requires (1) perseverance, (2) stages of achievement and advancement, (3) significant personal effort to acquire skills and knowledge, (4) broad and durable benefits, and (5) a special social world with a unique ethos that is deemed valuable both by the participants and by observers. It is the last two that are in contention. If it has them, BDSM is a serious leisure activity; if it does not then BDSM is a deviant leisure activity.

Although they only once mention BDSM or sadomasochism within the paper (addressing Baumeister's earlier works), I believe Selling Pain to the Saturated Self makes a very strong argument in favor of BDSM as a serious leisure activity with broad, durable benefits and a unique ethos that the authors, Rebecca Scott who participated in the painful event, and the other two, Julien Cayla and Bernard Cova, who observed, deem valuable.

The authors of this particular paper, focus their attention on "obstacle course adventures," specifically those that deliberately market their outings as inflicting pain and suffering to test the will and endurance of the participants, and rightly ask, Who buys this stuff? And why? Through Scott's experiences, and interviews with other participants, the authors set out to try and find a set of satisfying explanations in the context of the adventure outing that most clearly markets itself as being about pain and suffering: Tough Mudder.

Tough Mudder is a half-day obstacle course with sections that involve running through blazing mazes of kerosene-soaked bales, swimming through freezing water with obstacles that require one go completely under, climing mountains of stone and ice, crawling through cold mud pits, and finally confronting chambers of swinging, electrified chains that deliver the full force of a cattle prod. It is designed to hurt, to dismay. There has even been a death on the course due to heart failure.

The course is changed every year, but every course starts with the same obstacle: a swim or slog through a long pit of thick mud.

Lessons


Ritual matters


The authors of the paper assert Tough Mudder isn't a sporting event. It's a ritual.

There are two kinds of people in the world: outcome-oriented, those for whom the last event sets the tone for one's memories of an experience, and decision-oriented, those for whom just doing it sets the tone. The directors of TM know this, so they open with a decision-oriented event. There's a "carnival" like atmosphere-- loud music, colorful banners, lots of cheering, and then the participant goes from this world of color and, like her fellow sufferers, jumps into the mud.

The ritual starts here, with a transition from the "real" world to the ritual one. You have to go under the mud to be let out; you have to emerge the same color as your peers, any markers of social status covered and obscured, making you into a troupe. Mud is thick and viscous, hindering you, triggering fears of weakness and insufficiency. Mud is dirty. One of the interviewees described in as feeling as if "you're up to your neck in shit," and the authors go the full Freud by saying that this implication transitions awareness down from one's head to the lower half of the body. Tough Mudder has only two internal, recurring symbols: mud and pain.

Tough Mudder ends with a huge party, and everyone gets a t-shirt saying they finished, and everyone taking photos of their own and each other's bruises.

The authors repeat a point that every single interview revealed: the ritual is acceptable because the participant knows that it is of limited duration. They will be able to return to the "real" world, and they'll be able to bring this experience with them.

Pain matters


The authors talk a lot about pain. After all, consumer culture is about selling people what they really want, and who the fuck really wants pain?


While experiential marketing guidelines emphasize the need “to entertain, stimulate and emotionally affect consumers through the consumption experience”, the literature on the design of experiences almost never mentions the issue of pain in creating experiences that consumers will find appealing


God, I hope I never do kink to "emotionally affect consumers through the consumption process." I want to emotionally affect friends and loved ones through a ritual that includes the both of us.

The title of the paper includes the phrase "The Saturated Self." The people who go through Tough Mudder are mostly office workers, middle class, white collar. Their lives are completely scheduled from the moment they wake up until the moment they lie down. Even their weekend calendars are full. Life is busy but monotonous, filled almost completely with head-oriented work rather than body-oriented, and the few surprises are mostly nasty and mentally taxing, such as unexpected illness, accident, or crime. Those full schedules seem even more impossible when one has to also call the insurance company, or the police, to report that someone has broken into your car.

We've become so optimized that social obligations become emotional burdens. The job we have may well be a bullshit job, and the uselessness and insincerity one gets from one's superiors, and has to perform for customers, takes its toll.

The authors go through a lot of trouble to analyze the reasons people seek out pain. Tough Mudder is an "extraordinary experience;" it's not something normal people go through. It's also held in an outdoor setting, and therapists now prescribe "nature walks" for depressed people, as being outdoors among trees and dirt seems to actually be good for us. It's an escape from the civilized world of stressed concrete, cold steel, overly revealing glass, and Google's surveillance.

Pain has different roles to play: pain brings our attention back to our bodies and helps those of us who "live in our heads" to rediscover our bodies and a spiritual nature that only exists when we appreciate the embodied cognition that goes on beyond our heads; (3) pain creates a harrowing of the self that is crucial to participation in and deriving value from ritual; (4) pain participates in the dialogue between our selves and the world around us.

The Body as Focus discusses how pain makes us pay attention to our bodies in ways we don't, usually. We ignore it, scheduling dealing with it as efficiently as we do any business meeting. We are alienated from it. (And alcohol alienates us further. Maybe this is why so many techies drink.) Painful experiences bring it back to us, highlight it, and show us its shape, heft, and strength.

The other way we experience the body is The Body as Alien. Some TM experiences, especially the ones that involve cold, often invoke spinal reactions in the arms and legs that are independent of what the conscious will of the participant is demanding. The mind is alert an conscious, but the body is rebelling.

Seeking out pain itself is a rebellious act. Pain is an important part of many rites of passage, forcefully pulling the initiate out of his or her head and into the here and now, the reality of the moment. Pain is often the catalyst of spiritual transformation.

The organizers know that one can't endure three hours of solid, unending pain, so the course has moments of hidden pleasure. Leaving the icewater swim marked as "The Frozen Enema" on the course map, the mudders find themselves wading through mud again, but mud that has been warmed, to make their bodies relax. The next obstacle will be even more cruel, but in a different way. This alternation of ordeal, recovery, and then a progressively harsher ordeal, leads to the kind of personal or spiritual transformation most people only see in movies but never experience.

One thing that stood out to me in discussion about the ends of the course is in a section entitled Spectacle. One thing that sufferers in Tough Mudder want, surprisingly, is to be seen. They want to know that someone else sees them, that someone else will also be there to carry away a memory of what the participant experienced. It is a ritualized experiences where showing one's pain and screaming it, or even laughing about it, is valid because, hey, what's a brain to do under those circumstances anyway?

Lessons for Kinky People


For BDSM scenesters, most of these aren't monumental discoveries, but they're ones I've rarely scene consciously engaged. So much of BDSM conversation is about technique and safety, and always the conversation about managing or alleviating the thirst, but I have a service top nature and am looking for ways to get better.

Unlike Tough Mudder, BDSM is already tied up in sex. We're already primed to link our kinky, pain-based scenes with our sex drive, and lots of our toys and games focus on the buttocks and genitals. Part of the rituals we use are designed that way.

Knowing it will end gives bottoms strength. Human endurance is a limited but renewable resource. Our instincts are to hoard it, and never give more than 50% of our effort, because our evolutionary biology "knows" we might need that reserve if a tiger stops by. When a submissive knows (a) that the ordeal they've asked for will end and (b) that the people and place of the ordeal are trustworthy enough to give all, then a submissive will gleefully go much farther than they might have believed possible.

Entrance and exit rituals are critical. Whether someone is a decider or an outcomer, entrance and exit rituals help them move into the space where they submit or dominate, and then move back out into the space of the real world.

Bruises are pretty. It's a common enough refrain in our community, but this paper makes it explicit that carrying the bruises "out of the circle" is a form of emotional rebellion against the conformist office-space world. Under our clothes, we wear marks that set us aside from others.

This is an exploratory practice. TM participants are dredging deep within themselves to find reserves they hoped they had, perhaps always felt they had, and using those reserves to endure. The same thing has been true of BDSM and the ethnography of BDSM ever since Geoff Mains penned Urban Aboriginals in 1984. Part of the training we get as tops is to be prepared for anything when the bottom freaks out; combining this kind of reserve-tapping pain with the intimacy of a one-on-one physical activity that's also highly sexually charged can dredge up all sorts of wild, heartbreaking emotional purging, and knowing what to do when that happens is critical.

For long scenes, "breaks" aren't enough; they have to be pleasurable. Since BDSM scenes are generally highly bespoke, it's important to know what the bottom enjoys as pleasurable stimuli, and to give it to him or her in the middle. Warmth, sweetness, and affection restore a bottom's reserves much more readily than asking them to just find it within themselves.

Making recordings of the scene should not be dismissed. This was a huge insight to me and, in the age of the Internet where a recording leaked to the net can devastate a career, one fraught with danger. But bottoms want to relive the scene, much more than tops do. They want to be able re-experience the sensations from the outside. They want to know they were seen, and they want to be one of the watchers as well as a participant. Kink is revelatory; they want a record of what was revealed.

Recordings allow us to create a timeline and a biography that talks about our bodies. We don't do much about bodies in our real world, and it's becoming a bit more gauche to do so. BSDM and recordings of scenes allow us to experience important trangressions and remind ourselves of why we go through them.

Know if you're seeking escape or disassembly. Pain enhances extraordinary experiences. It's the ritual plus pain plus intimacy and sexuality that makes kink so powerful. Kink allows us to get beyond our urban, stratified, stultifying culture, and into a dreamtime where everyday worries can be put aside. Some seek to escape that "saturated" self, others seek to "break" it. The authors says that escapists remain aware of that saturated self and know that they'll have to return to it; folks seeking disassembly want to break that self down and blow it away, going so deep into painful experiences that time, space, and one's sense of self dissolve completely, at least for a little while. We're tough beasts, and evolution has taught us how to put ourselves back together, most of the time.

Performative urbanity and the emotional labor of it is exhausting because it's so repetitive and stressful. Kink taps different reserves, and that's important; it exercises emotional and physical muscles we don't normally use. The painful experiences of kink create quiet emotional spaces where we get visit parts of ourselves that we otherwise don't normally see.

Thesis


Scott, et. al. present Tough Mudder as an activity that's dangerous, even deadly, and extraordinarily painful, and those are its selling points. In the end, they praise Tough Mudder as "a particular kind of escape that betrays the desire to flee the burdens of identity," one that leaves us with "hidden signs of subversion" inflicted on our bodies as an "effective route to escape the servitude of office work."

If Tough Mudder's painful rituals have broad and durable benefits, and most of the people interviewed claim it does, and if it creates a special social world with a unique ethos, then it's a serious lesiure activity, rather than a deviant one.

BDSM makes the same claims, and as I have documented before, not only does BDSM have a unique and valuable ethos, it has one so valuable that the normal world has benefited from it, even if we rarely get credit for that. BDSM is clearly a valuable, serious leisure activity.

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Elf Sternberg

March 2019

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