I have a life-long relationship with body modification and ritual body play. Part of this relationship concerns my non-normative interactions with physical pain, as a masochist. Another aspect of this complex phenomenon for me is both political and spiritual. I am an anarcha-feminist and a symbolic Satanist (this is a form of atheism, which in short form, asserts the belief that Satan is a metaphor for the essence of darkness everywhere in the Universe). An additional facet to my relationship to body modification and ritual body play is as a warrior–I am a survivor of a lifetime of abuse, and find enormous empowerment and personal strength in the metaphorical act of taking my body and psyche back from my oppressors on my own terms. The following entry concerns my individual experiences and the personal opinions I have formed as a result–it is not an accurate reflection of the personal histories, insights, or opinions of other people who are involved in body modification and ritual body play.
When I say I am a masochist, I am speaking in double. Yet when it comes to body modification and ritual body play, I am speaking exclusively about a heightened emotional presence and release that I feel unable to tap into without incorporating an aspect of physical pain. I simply am not capable of engaging in body modification or ritual body play while simultaneously engaging in the self-destructive, self-abasing, and emotionally dissociative behaviours that characterize the other, mentally disabling side of my masochism. When I consent to physical pain, it makes me feel more alive, more emotionally present, and more aware of my Self, than I am in my day-to-day life–it is a cathartic outlet. When I am in a relationship dynamic that triggers my disabling masochistic qualities, I experience a withdraw from and dulling of my own emotions, and become unable to navigate a healthy relationship with myself or others. Thus, my two masochistic identities are very much mutually exclusive.
I often joke that when I deliberately engage in physically painful experiences as a masochist, it is not like stubbing my toe or accidentally touching a hot burner on the stove–the former often makes me furiously swear, and in the case of the latter, I quickly jerk my hand away and don’t press down as hard as I can or compulsively keep touching it. It doesn’t make me weak in the knees, flush with sexual excitement, or bring me to the brink of an orgasm. It makes me acutely hypervigilant and alert. In that regard, I am very much like the majority of people. In fact, like the majority of people who are burned by accident at some point in their life; when I received a second-degree burn from an accident involving a candle, I avoided what had become an entire set of phobic stimuli–candles, candle wax, and flames–for years after the fact. It took a very unique person with a very low-risk material to re-ignite my interest in the very edgy (and socially fringe) practice of playing with fire.
While it is possible to take any behaviour to the point of excess and disability (such as what happened in the span of a couple of minutes in the case of my second-degree burn), it is not true that what heteronormative society deems excessive or disfiguring is being objectively characterized. After all, heteronormative society also deems (visible) physical disability as a limit to the social value of effected individuals; and mental disability (and invisible physical disability) as so severely reducing the social value of effected individuals, that they are considered child-like and co-dependent on the rest of society. It is not a coincidence that body modification and ritual body play are treated the same way (dependent upon the order and magnitude of either).
In fact, the nature of my relationship to physical pain (and body modification and ritual body play) is often categorically stigmatized by people who fail to understand body modification in general–people who fear it, and/or who want to believe that it’s a sign of a mental illness characterized by body dysphoria and/or an antisocial identity forged in deliberate opposition to social norms. It is my experience, though, that these ideas reflect uninterrogated ableism (e.g., the very general heteronormative value-judgments described above, of people who live with various disabilities). My experiences with body modification and ritual body play are in direct contradiction to ableist characterizations.
When I accept that physical pain is a necessary aspect of modifying my body or engaging in ritual body play, I choose to confront, negotiate through, and overcome it regardless of how much it will initially hurt. It does not follow that I must have a disordered perception of my own body; such as in the case of a body builder who struggles with body dysphoria, and who sees a smaller and weaker person in the mirror than s/he appears to everyone else. Nor does it follow that I am defining myself in opposition to everyone else, like a grief-stricken person who also struggles with a borderline personality. The desire to modify or to temporarily push my body out of its comfort zone also does not follow from a disordered state of mind, any more than a desire to try bungee jumping would–it is neither a result of an inability to effectively deliberate or consent, nor a result of a negative self-view, low self-esteem, or a lack of self-respect.
When I face the process of being tattooed, for instance, I become more aware of how strong I am. When I’ve consented to a permanent or temporary piercing that I was anxious about, that metaphorical grip of fear falls away as soon as the needle breaks through the other side, simultaneously in my skin and in the hands of my chosen practitioner. When I consult a body modification professional about serious plans to take the next step in my metamorphosis, I am embracing membership in a culture of people who are like-minded. I am sharing a special form of intimacy with another person when I sit on the chair or lay on the table. When the tattoo or the piercing is healed, or the scar forms, or the bruise has dissipated; my is identity affirmed, my body and history reclaimed, and my spirituality is sealed in permanent symbolism of a metaphorical language–I am a part of a traditional and cultural movement of innumerable people that has persisted as long as humanity itself.