I have a memory from when I was younger that’s always stuck out to me. I was playing with someone and they said “that hurt!” I don’t remember who it was or what I did that hurt them. What I do remember is that I said “no it didn’t!” and what I meant was that it didn’t hurt me. Little kids are like that, they don’t understand that other people have minds and that they have different perspectives. That’s normal, and I grew out of it, which is also normal. Yet I’ve continued to be fascinated by this aspect of pain. I can cause you pain, and not be able to tell, because I can’t feel it.
I don’t know why I’m so intrigued by not being able to experience others’ pain, but it’s always felt like an enormous design flaw to me. When I am consenually causing my partners pain, I can never be exactly sure of how painful it is, how much they can take. I ask them, of course, and check in, and make sure everything stays firmly in the realm of good pain. But still, a session that from my perspective only involves hand motions can be full of pain for my partner. That disparity is bewildering to me. I’ve never considered myself a sadist or a masochist because for me the goal isn’t pain, it’s power exchange, and sometimes pain can be used to facilitate that. Now I’m wondering, though, what it is about pain that captures my attention so strongly.
There’s an amazing quote from The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Our own pain is so overwhelming, so sharply, inescapably real, but the pain of others remains out of our reach, out of our experience. I wonder how different the world would be if we could really truly feel the pain of others, instead of struggling to explain pain with the imperfect tool of language.
When I am giving pain or receiving pain, I am playing with that doubt and certainty. You can never truly escape those things, but you can walk right up to the edge of it. I can see my partner whine with pain while I myself remain unhurt, and know that we can never bridge that gap. There’s a distance there, but also a closeness. There’s an intimacy in this sharing of pain, in trying to get close enough to taste it while knowing that we’ll never be able to.
I don’t know if I’m a sadist, but I do love this aspect of causing pain.