While sadomasochism can be justified by the ability of pain to enhance pleasure and the happiness brought by the endorphin high, the Dominance/submission (D/s) side of the BDSM equation is not so easily explained. The standard answer to the question of why do we like to submit to or to dominate is still “because you are sick”. All the efforts of the BDSM community had barely managed to keep sadomasochism out of the psychology diagnose books. We heartily reject the idea that the desire to submit or dominate comes from childhood trauma, but when asked for alternative explanations, we have nothing to offer. And yet, the few studies that have been done revealed that people who practice BDSM are actually psychological healthier than the average. We just don’t know why.

One possible explanation is that we eroticize what scares us. For example, in his podcast, Dan Savage often talks about how self-assured gay men like to be called “faggots” during sex. Or how feminist women, who are all about female power in real life, like to be dominated in bed. This makes sense: after all, fear releases adrenaline, which is a great aphrodisiac. However, this idea takes us back to the trauma paradigm: we were scared by early events in our life, and now we exorcize them by reproducing them in a controlled environment. I don’t find that explanation satisfactory. After all, most submissives are not scared of submitting, they see it as sexy and liberating. And Doms are certainly not scared of what they do.

A few years ago I found an explanation for D/s that presents it as a healthy response to the normal pressures of life. It is based on two opposite emotions that play a large role in our lives: shame and pride. Shame is one of our most powerful emotions, so powerful that it can lead to suicide. We all have heard stories of how bullying or persecution for being gay lead teenagers to kill themselves. Shame is an emotion that seems to be uniquely human (it is still hotly debated whether dogs feel shame) and yet seems to be deeply rooted in physiological responses. It causes blushing, which is an involuntary vascular response, and a specific body position consisting in dropping the head and hunching the shoulders. It also leads to immobility and withdrawal. The opposite of shame, pride, makes us lift our head, engage socially and feel full of energy. It is likely that pride activates the reward system in our brain linking the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the striatum with the nucleus accumbens, releasing dopamine there. This is the same response produced by addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine. It makes us feel good and to want to repeat the behaviour that triggered this response.

All this shows that shame and pride are an essential part of human nature. They likely evolved as indicators of social status: shame warns us that our social status has declined while pride tells us that our social status has increased. In the tribes in which we lived for hundreds of thousands of years before modern societies were formed, social status was a matter of life and death. High social status gave you preferential access to food, shelter, power and sex. Low social status could make you a castaway, condemning you to an almost certain death. According to the reasoning used by evolutionary psychology, we could see why this is so. The biggest advantage we humans have over other animals is our ability to cooperate. In a tribe, everything is shared: food, protection against predators, shelter and the care of children. This creates one strategic problem: how to avoid cheaters. The guy that falls behind in the hunting party, the gal that has a siesta instead of gathering berries, they would have an evolutionary advantage because they get the same amount of food with less energy expending. Computer models have shown that genes for free-riding would take over the population in just a few generations. We would have evolved back to the kind of societies that chimps have, where no food is shared (other than with infants) and there is very little cooperation. That is why we developed powerful drives to eliminate cheaters. One of them is called “altruistic punishment”: the desire to punish people that we see as behaving in an unethical way, even if that takes a lot of energy, and it doesn’t benefit us personally (hence the qualifier “altruistic”). It is based on emotions like indignation and self-righteousness. However, if this was the only way to eliminate cheaters, we would have societies with lots of internal conflicts. And, while this strategy punishes cheaters, it does not reward cooperators. Thus, the emotions of shame and pride evolved as internal motivators for cooperative behaviour. When you do something against the common good, or when you fail to do your duty, people around you will make you feel ashamed. Conversely, when you achieve something that increases the common good, you are praised, and you feel pride. Guilt is the other emotion for social control. However, the key difference between guilt and shame is that you feel guilty when you do something bad, whereas shame comes also from failing while trying to do something good. Guilt tells us “you are bad”, while shame tells us “you are not good enough”.

But then, why is sex shameful? Is this largely a cultural thing, driven by religion and cultural norms? Well, not completely. In practically all cultures sex is done in private, and nakedness (at minimum, exposing the genitals) is also a universal taboo. Well, if shame is linked to social status, so is sex. And not just in humans, but also in our primate cousins. In chimp troupes, when a female comes in heat almost every male gets to fuck her, but it is the alpha male who decides in what order and how often. In some monkeys, mating with high ranking individuals increases social status, regardless of whether you are male or female. And in many monkey species, sex is used to assert dominance: low ranking individuals offer their backsides to appease dominant ones and avoid being beaten. And yes, they do get fucked. And then there are the bonobos, famous for being total sluts. They use sex for bonding and for resolving social conflicts. They are promiscuous, pan-sexual, and do manual, anal and oral, not just penis-in-vagina. Therefore, even in our primate ancestors sex has been hijacked away from mere procreation to be used for bonding and to establish social status. Sex can express different things, no just love and bonding, but also dominance. Ultimately, the pleasure (and sometimes pain) associated with sex makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. Because of that, getting fucked implies a loss of face and being put in a submissive role. That is probably what causes its association with shame.

Managing shame and pride was a relatively simple matter in the tribal societies of our evolutionary environment, but it became hugely complicated once the agricultural revolution took place 10,000 years ago. Before, if you hunted a nice prey, scared the bear away or gathered a basketful of berries, you could feel proud and enjoy the appreciation of your fellow tribe people. Afterward, the limits of what you could achieve were vastly expanded: you could own land and animals, you could command workers and soldiers. You could never be successful enough to feel proud, there was always somebody who was better than you. And there were also plenty more opportunities to fail and feel ashamed. In our modern industrial societies, things are becoming even direr. Since childhood, we are taught to be proud of our successes and ashamed of our failures. “The sky is the limit!” we are told, and it really is. There are so many things at which we can succeed or fail! Reading, math, sports, arts, getting money, being famous… We interiorized these cultural imperatives so that nobody needs to tell us anymore, we are our harshest judges. Somehow, our failures seem to count more than our successes. We can never achieve enough, we live in a state of constant craving for success. Ultimately, the twin emotions of shame and pride join forces to bring about our sense of self-worth, our self-esteem. Over time, they create an internal narrative of who we are: our ego, which we try to protect by propping up our pride and hide our shame. This creates a strong psychological tension. It makes us unhappy because we are never enough, we need to keep running the rat race away from failure and shame and in search of success and pride.

This is where D/s can come to our rescue by providing a way out of the rat race. This is how I think it works… The submissive gives up all social status by assuming the lowest possible rank. On top of that, obeying takes away the pressure to make the right decisions. Conversely, high status is granted to the Dominant without the effort that it normally entails. He or she gets to feel all-powerful for free. Success and failure are taken out of the equation: the submissive handles power to the Dominant simply because this is mutually beneficial. This ties to sex because of the ability of sex to symbolize social status. The submissive is used sexually by the Dominant and, paradoxically, this is perceived as liberating because it breaks the interior psychological tension created by shame and pride. Shame is embraced and this frees us from the struggle. This is why humiliation is perceived as liberating by the submissive. Moreover, since internalized repression is a barrier to sexual pleasure, when the constraints created by internalized cultural norms are broken by the D/S power exchange pleasure and orgasm become easier to achieve.

In conclusion, D/s unleashes powerful emotions anchored deep in our evolutionary past. This serves to de-program reactions that society has taught us since childhood and that have become so ingrained that we cannot escape them even when we realize how unhappy they make us. That is why we perceive submitting as so liberating and empowering.


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University professor. Neuroscientist doing research on pain. Writes about science, philosophy, politics and kinky sex.

1 COMMENT

  1. I think you may be over-complicating it. I think the answer is simpler: In all social animals, dominance has been an effective survival-reproductive strategy in some instances, so that is a strategy that randomly emerges in a proportion of people. For everyone else, they need strategies to deal with dominance if faced with it. Some will be inclined to fight, some will be inclined to tolerate in the hope that things will improve in future (which may be future generations), and a small proportion will embrace it. Each of these strategies can be effective in some instances, so therefore we would expect even embracing being dominated to emerge randomly as an effective survival strategy, as strategies that have been refined over hundrends of millions of years from the earliest social creatures.

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