The popularity of traditional religions are on the decline as Western society strives towards secularism. People are increasingly identifying as non-religious as religion disappears from the public sphere, but this does not mean that the drives and needs that religion addresses have declined. People may be moving away from particular symbols and maps of meaning but they are still finding and inventing systems to fulfil their existential questioning, increasingly in areas that are traditionally seen as secular. One prime example of this ‘secular religioning’ can be found in the practice and subculture of BDSM.

BDSM is the umbrella term used to describe the consensual participation in Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism (most kinks fall under this umbrella). It is intentionally participating in the play of pain, power and (often) sex. The focus on the intersection of these powerful, primal forces in the human experience makes BDSM a fertile ground for spiritual expression. BDSM can be analyzed as a ‘secular religion’ by looking at the psychology of pain and power, religious ways of hurting, and BDSM as ritual.

Pain is the most familiar and universal characteristic of all human experience. It is a sensation that is inexorably bound with mental and cultural experiences and is often accompanied by an intellectual or emotional judgement. All embodied experiences, including pain, are a mix of “biological facts and cultural consciousness (metaphors, emotions, attitudes).” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 14). Pain is not the same as suffering. Suffering is not a physical sensation but an “emotional and evaluative reaction to any number of causes, some entirely painless.” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 11). Pain can actually be a solution to suffering. As Glucklich put it, pain can be a “psychological analgesic that removes anxiety, guilt, and even depression.” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 11).

The theories of scholars who have “set the agenda for the cultural construction of embodiment” over the last few of decades, such as Micheal Foucault and Julia Kristeva, require that pain discourse “reflect the way cultures ‘construct’ the individual as a self and as a member of the community.” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 14). According to Glucklich, theories of pain fall into four broad categories: normative (a theological argument for the value of pain within a specific tradition), critical (“a conversation with the first stance, in which the theorist has not altogether disengaged his discourse and reduced it to a separate level”) , descriptive (the reasons for using pain are the ones stated by the practitioners themselves, whether explicitly or symbolically), and reductive (explains the use of pain by reducing it to a more abstract “fundamental” level of description such as biology, sociology, or psychology). Glucklich posits that reductive theories are the only real explanations for religious pain.

He goes on to describe several psychological models of pain that are related to religious understanding of pain and power: juridical, medical, military, athletic, and magical.

Juridical pain is punishment by “some personal agency (such as God, satan, or demons) or by some impersonal mechanism such as karma.” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 16). This punishment can be seen as just or entirely unwarranted (such as with the biblical case of Job). As Glucklich iterates, “pain may be taken as punishment, but the loving punishment inflicted by a metaphorical father, by God, in order to educate those whom He loves. It educated them for patience and perseverance, which are necessary for salvation.” (Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 21). The juridical model accounts for a large percentage of the cases found in religious literature, and many pain patients still use it’s language in secular and medical situations today.

Within the medical model, religious sources often describe pain as medical and evaluate pain as a beneficial experience. This is not a claim that pain is a pleasant experience but that pain benefits, or heals, the soul. This is the idea of pain as spiritual medicine and it’s values are echoed in the classical medical notion that the cure can be as painful as the disease.

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Pain and Power – BDSM as Spiritual Expression by Alicia Charles D’Avalon

Nov 1, 2020