Object Lessons

The pursuit of pain in the age of social media

In an interview toward the end of his life, Michel Foucault described S/M, or sadomasochism, as “the real creation of new possibilities of pleasure.” An active member of the gay leather subculture of 1980s San Francisco, Foucault saw consensual kink — these days more commonly referred to as BDSM — as a fundamentally creative enterprise, a queering of pleasure accomplished through an imaginative assortment of penetration, power dynamics, and of course, pain.

As perhaps the acronym’s most conspicuous component, sadomasochism figures prominently in this worldview. But while we’re not completely deprived of the explicit masochist in our media — as the protagonist of Venus in Furs (the book written by the man for whom masochism is named), the film adaptation of Mary Gaitskill’s Secretary, and the wildly popular/reviled Fifty Shades of Grey franchise make plain — it remains that most masochists, when they appear, are rarely acknowledged as such.

If masochism is the pursuit of pain as its own end, then there is a wide range of people who fit this definition. Their pursuit as part and parcel, or even the main drive, of a larger goal goes unnamed

If we define masochism as the pursuit of pain as its own end, then there is a wide range of people who fit this definition. Whether they’re cultural figures (the heroines of Gothic literature; the women of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, and Ayn Rand; the straight women in most romantic comedies I can think of), or the “real” people vaunted as impressively disciplined (world-class athletes and people who elect to give birth without painkillers), or dismissed as self-destructive (people who use certain drugs in certain ways); or both (people who climb Mount Everest), their pursuit of pain as part and parcel, or even the main drive, of a larger goal goes unnamed. It seems that pain-seeking behavior is only seen as masochistic when the gratification for undergoing that pain is sexual in nature — indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association classified it as a sexual deviation of one kind or another from the late 1960s until the release of the DSM-5 in 2013.

Foucault’s assessment of sadomasochism has remained a subversive one long after his death, since both selective social acceptability, and outright stigmatization are deployed in masochism’s erasure. This erasure is most certainly why it takes so many people — myself included — so long to recontextualize masochism as an activity that’s anything but inherently harmful and sexual, not that the world of sexual masochism is a limited one (or one without potential for benefits besides getting off). Even the framing of sexual masochism as a merely physical sensation is to misunderstand the many ways in which it’s inextricable from other kinds of sensations, including emotional, verbal, and even financial suffering. When seen purely as a sexual desire or fetish, masochism’s impact is usually confined to sexual gratification, depriving us of the creativity — the “desexualization” of pleasure — that Foucault found so intriguing. Without this recontextualization, its potential for stress release, and even healing, goes unimagined.

The question of masochism’s appeal, of course, is what makes it so very interesting. Why would someone want to experience pain, a sensation we’re trained to associate with harm, and to avoid at all costs?

One’s first inclination might be to ask a masochist — but then again, it might not. Although these days a diagnosis of sexual masochism disorder could only be formally applied if the patient in question was experiencing distress because of their inclinations, the history of doctors and researchers approaching masochism as a disturbing abnormality, and masochists as subjects rather than people, runs deep. Still, this doesn’t mean that the experts haven’t come up with some compelling ideas. As a masochist myself, there are certain theories that make a lot of sense to me, like those of psychologist Roy Baumeister, whose 1988 paper “Masochism as Escape From Self,” posits that masochists use pain to escape from “high-level awareness of self as a symbolically mediated, temporally extended identity.” This resonates deeply with my own experience, and the only one for which I can speak. Temporarily drowning out the pressures and anxieties of consciousness was my first incentive for the teenage self-injury that eventually bloomed into what Foucault — fisting aficionado — might recognize as a venture into a queered and delimited pleasure. Though I doubt I could completely untangle my kinks from my sexuality, my own masochism has always been inspired by compulsion rather than imagination, meaning that arousal doesn’t have to be a part of the equation for me to, if not enjoy, then at least get something out of it.

Though it remains nominally a taboo (and in the eyes of the BDSM community a subversive, liberatory act), for my purposes, masochism, like sleeping enough and getting my caffeine and paying my bills on time, is a coping mechanism. For the person with the urge to escape selfhood every once in awhile, it’s one of the most direct routes to objectification; both self-care and stress release, it’s a mental health practice that’s gotten me through many years’ worth of work weeks. But since selfhood has a way of redefining itself, so too must the meanings of self-care, pain, and pleasure continue to change.

As the bundle of automating, surveilling, and connecting technologies that for simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to as the internet continues to infiltrate and influence daily life (which is more and more dominated by our work obligations, especially here in the States), the ways we react to that interference evolve, too. Writing for the New Inquiry last year, Rob Horning applied Baumeister’s findings to recent studies of online behavior. Like gambling, says Horning, social media “facilitates an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises.” Whereas someone like me can still exercise a more “traditional” form of masochism (razor blades) or more socially acceptable kinds (distance running; binge drinking), I now also have the option of the high-tech objectification afforded by internet escapism.

Masochism, like sleeping enough and getting my caffeine and paying my bills on time, is a coping mechanism

At the age of 29, I spend the first waking moments of every day catching up on my Twitter timeline, or scrolling endlessly among the algorithm-curated images on Instagram, or watching my friends look at dogs, examine flowers, and do their makeup on Snapchat. The calm this produces, but also the anxiety — as freeing as it is compulsive — is remarkable. Because while I take pleasure in staying in touch with my friends, with meeting and connecting with other queer people online, and the voyeurism and entertainment social media affords, I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m unable to go an entire day, much less an hour, without checking in. The urge to open an app or refresh a feed, even if I know nothing has changed, seems to appear whenever my mind isn’t immediately occupied with something, with an urgency that’s completely disproportionate to the sense of accomplishment it affords. There’s that anticipation, a high, a drop, and then a renewed urge, despite the distraction I feel this online activity introduces into my “real” life.

Anticipation, high, drop. This cycle is a familiar one, the kind that happens when a friend puts needles in my back and then twists them around, testing the elasticity of my skin and the strength of my resolve. Like this experience of (consensual) pain, social media is a temporary solution to the stresses of selfhood; but unlike my friend and her needles, social media can become a totalizing force. With analog masochism, the needles must eventually be removed so my adrenaline can return to normal levels and I can begin to heal (and start building back up to allostatic release all over again). The division between scene and reality, the “play” of BDSM and the work of, well, everything else, is a lot more obvious to me than whatever barrier exists between meatspace and online.

Even as social media relieves what Baumeister calls the “burden of self” through the creation of a “new, fantasized identity,” it also reinscribes and reinforces that identity. “Social media, in other words,” observes Horning, “has affordances to make ‘self-construction’ masochistic and self-negating — as well as addictive, or self-affirming, or strategic.” Though we’ve effectively been online for the past two decades, many still consider us to be in a time of technological transition. With the introduction of that burden of self into virtual spaces comes the deepening of subjecthood — because now our “self,” our identity, can be even more managed, documented, and surveilled by others than ever before — and the suffering caused by that self-awareness naturally intensifies.

“Where there is a wound, there is a subject,” wrote Roland Barthes. In his writing about Barthes, Wayne Koestenbaum proclaimed that the theorist “liked lacerations because they made appearances complex, and because they banished banalities.” Masochism has been a part of my identity for so long that I’ve become comfortable with it; it has, along with my hobbies and habits, become one of my banalities. What is not banal is my identity; the deepening of subjecthood that the internet affords means that my understanding of my self — my selfhood — is a dynamic force, and naturally my need for occasional objectification (unselfhood) must keep pace.

With the introduction of that burden of self into virtual spaces comes the deepening of subjecthood, and the suffering caused by that self-awareness naturally intensifies

I recently saw this change in action when making a payment toward my student loan debt. Two years after graduation, surrendering half my paycheck — a drop in the bucket toward the roughly $85,000 I owe to the federal government — only takes a few clicks, but these small movements have begun to elicit a charge strong and unsettling enough that it might be more accurate to call it a thrill. This is not the thrill of satisfaction taken in working toward a goal, because that isn’t typically accompanied with the self-loathing of someone who spends a sizeable amount of time regretting buying into the pyramid scheme of higher higher education. Nor does the nervous compulsion to check my progress toward zero — logging in between payments and constantly refreshing, as if I’ll magically owe less the next time the page loads — seem like the behavior of someone with a healthy relationship to reality.

No, this thrill reminds me of the blend of anxiety and excitement I feel when I open a social media app, anticipating the likes, hearts, retweets, and views waiting for me there (and like my payment, this horde of treasures evaporates the moment I touch it through the screen). The thrill is derived not from accomplishment (gain), but expenditure (loss). The thrill is in losing my money.

Social media allows its users to dissociate from the pressures of selfhood by creating, inhabiting, and cultivating what Baumeister calls “a fantasized identity.” Even the most true-to-life avatars and accounts are still reproductions, even as they are extensions of ourselves. As this identity — one that is both the self and yet not — becomes more complex, and subjectivity deepens, the desire for blissful objectivity becomes that much more urgent. How lucky for a masochist like myself that there are few things more objectifying than having my entire existence assigned a monetary value of $85,000 — and a negative one, at that. I never thought I’d find myself relating to pay pigs, those people who prefer to receive their sexual humiliation by spending exorbitant amounts of money at the whim of their dominant. But here I am, getting topped by Sallie Mae.

Masochist or not, all of us feel the tug of meaning, are compelled to search for coherence and narrative in our lives. In using social media, it seems that we’ve decided that this desire is quantifiable in likes and followers (how else can we measure ourselves as people?). This is perhaps a key to the thrill of the 21st-century debtor: Look at how much I am worth! $85,000 — not bad, eh? Don’t get me wrong — I’d give up this silver lining for financial solvency in a heartbeat. But like my masochist forebears who made do without today’s high-tech gadgets (or late capitalism), I’m working with what I have. The thrill of losing my money is an awful lot like losing myself, and in between beatings and workouts, I get my objectification where I can. 

Even as a masochist, I have to admit it’s still difficult for me to reconcile masochism’s functional and recreational purposes. Can what pain accomplishes be a pleasure if it is also a means to an end? Is the ability to function as a productive member of capitalist society with as little psychic discomfort as possible a pleasure, or just harm reduction? While interesting to entertain, I think my practical approach to masochism renders these questions beside the point.

Post-internet, the separation between the build of pressure and the offloading of it isn’t nearly so distinct. The social media user creates their own feedback loop. Masochism, in this place, is less a stopgap measure than a discrete part of the cycle. It simplifies, replacing the white noise of reality with one refreshingly simple problem. The effect is similar to analog masochism, with one key difference: the new problem it poses is permanent. It’s the same principle as loan consolidation, at least from the perspective of the borrower. And even if we’re not all masochists, we’re all borrowing.

This is not to denounce social media or even the internet as things that are Bad for us. As often happens when we attempt to describe things we don’t fully understand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of prescriptivism. Maybe masochism is neither (or not only) a sexual perversion, nor a creative enterprise, nor a maladaptive reaction to stress. Maybe masochism is, rather than a set of behaviors one opts into in order to scratch a neurological itch, a desire to continue surviving selfhood in a world of banalities imposed and reinscribed, put on a loop like a gif trapped in time.

Davey Davis is a writer and editor living in the SF Bay Area. They have written about culture, sexuality, and genderqueer embodiment at the Rumpus, the Millions, Mask Magazine, and many other places.