How Working at an S&M Club Transformed My Experience with Chronic Pain

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by: Jamie Rautenberg

I spent the summer of 2008 managing shifts at a prominent S&M club in downtown Manhattan.

As a future therapist about to embark on graduate study, I was open to any and all opportunities to expose myself to a wide variety of vastly different souls, and it doesn’t get much more colorful than spending your 9-5 in a dungeon. What I didn’t realize then was how much this experience would inform my own recovery from chronic pain & chronic illness.

Despite what the noises would lead you to believe, once you entered the back office it was surprisingly normal. Each day I’d set up the schedule on a whiteboard matching the dominatrix with her client and the type of session requested. I answered inquiries, made photocopies, counted the money earned for the day, all pretty standard stuff. It’s simply that the service we provided was out of the realm of what’s considered daytime talk.

It’s not the ‘what’ of the club and the specific fetishes that intrigued me, it was the ‘why’. Why was everyone here? What’s the motivation for both the client and their domme(dominatrix) to engage in this? I longed to understand my fascination because once we understand something, we cease to judge it.

We humans tend to fear what we don’t understand, and this is a culture that can be fairly misunderstood, to say the least. So, perhaps I wanted to get a head start on suspending all my judgements if I was to do the work on this planet that feeds my heart and soul the most: supporting others during their most vulnerable moments.

And so, I began my studies in the world of Bondage, Discipline, Sadism & Masochism (BDSM). What I quickly learned was that this was a world full of people who all longed to understand themselves and their impulses better. Essentially, it’s the exact same motivation that brings one into a therapist’s office.

It’s about the nature of the pain & pleasure residing within us all, and how we each interpret what that means for ourselves. It’s about bringing our unconscious desires and experiences to the surface so that we move through our lives with the awareness our bodies can bring.

How could someone reach the heights of obscene pleasure from what some may consider torture?

This is actually a safe environment in which all shame is shed and raw vulnerability reigns.

What separates BDSM from the abuse people believe it is, is consciousness and the complete consentuality. It’s a highly intimate process.

Mary Cyn, NYC-based professional dominatrix, Erotica author & celebrated burlesque performer shares,

“Kinks themselves are incredibly intimate. Most people have no idea why they have those kinks, but they’re so innate that usually it’s something that you can’t shake. It’s something that you’re always going to be turned on by. You’re always gonna masturbate to it. And that is deeply personal. There is an enormous amount of intimacy between you and your partner just because you are telling them, ‘This is what I want. This is what I like. This is a fundamental part of me that people don’t know.’

She continues,

“I have definitely felt a lot of people go to sex workers because they don’t know how to get physical intimacy elsewhere. So I’m sure that that is probably true for other dommes. I’ve had people who said they really just came here to be touched. Just to have a person hold them and touch them. I think there are also people who are very much in denial of their fetish or very ashamed of their fetish and they will only let it out with a professional. They don’t want someone that they love to know about it, which is too bad because I think they probably would be less obsessive about it if they were more accepting.

I had a client who had a baby fetish- like fetishized the idea of being a baby. And every single time he came to me, I had a great time, but he always apologized for making me do this and he always threw away the baby stuff that he brought with him because he was sure it would be the last time. I wish I was a better therapist for that. That could have been healing but he didn’t want it to be. He wanted it to just stop. And it wasn’t going to.”

One of the biggest challenges most couples face is the difficulty and fear of communicating our authentic beliefs and needs. In this realm, communication is all there is. It’s the communication between partners and their bodies that brings heightened awareness to our experiences. When there is an exchange of energy like this happening, healing is surprisingly possible. But, like with everything else, it’s a choice whether or not we will receive that catharsis.

Mary says,

“I think catharsis is a really important thing in kink. Everybody has issues and I think a lot of people use kink in some way to work it out. If they have issues with their parents, that will often come through in different role play scenarios. People with trauma can sort of work through that trauma.

I know when I was heavy into super BDSM, a lot of bottoming and stuff, I didn’t really have a lot of confidence and going through the physical ordeal of being caned or getting beat up made me feel more confident like, ‘well I got through that,’ it’s like mastering the trauma.”

She continues,

“I mean, there were definitely times when it was really like, ‘I’m gonna grit my teeth and I’m gonna push through this,’ and just doing that is an accomplishment. I did a scene with someone one time that was single tailing (a type of whip) and single tailing hurts like a bitch, and we hadn’t played in a long time, so I think my pain tolerance had gone down a bit. When he hit me a couple times, I went down, then I breathed for a minute, got back up and then the same thing happened. It was this overcoming and getting stronger and sort of like something knocks you down for a minute and then you get back up and you ask for more. People were fascinated by that scene. They said it was amazing to watch. And it really was amazing to feel because it shows you how strong you can be, and that you can push farther than you think you can. And that’s definitely a big thing for a lot of people in kink. But, there are also scenes that just feel really good. And even though, yeah you’re getting punched in the chest or getting flogged or whatever, that keeps you in the moment.

Pain will take all of your attention and it will take your mind off of everything else because physical harm is being done to you, so your body and your brain won’t let you think about anything else. So, in a way it’s really relaxing if you are someone who has reoccurring thoughts or thoughts going a mile a minute all the time, if you have just something take you out of that.

And it also feels good like if you’ve exercised or if you’ve gone hiking or something. Your body aches, but it aches in the way that reminds you of something fun that you did. It reminds you that you’re alive. And I think that’s also one of the main draws of really physical play. A spanking or something like that will sometimes bring up memories or emotions that I hadn’t dealt with, which happens with massage therapists, too.”

My experiences working in the S&M world have only helped me to further understand that it’s only when we fully sink into our bodies and allow ourselves to explore these stored emotions that actual healing is possible.

I know because I’ve been crying mine out for about 24 hours now after undergoing one of many painful healing treatments I’ve experienced throughout my life.

If there was ever any doubt that the body holds our secrets, I learned firsthand after this particular treatment. Within thirty minutes of the procedure, waves of unfamiliar emotions rippled throughout my tiny body. I’m still not sure I can fully define exactly what it was, but what ended up happening was tears. Rivers poured out of my eyes for nearly 24 hours straight.

Then, I remember what my doctor told me as he finished the treatment, “You’re going to be releasing a lot. Remember to give yourself the dignity of your process.”

I realize some people may not understand why it is that I might put myself through a painful healing treatment, not unlike when I speak of BDSM in the same vain.

But, we can get so stuck on the labels and assumption that we are missing the greater point of healing that’s happening here. I’m talking about profound catharsis. The kind where you die a little in the process and feel every ounce of you welling out of your being, transforming into new energy. And it’s only granted after we’ve allowed ourselves to go inside the beautiful darkness of our unconscious memories.

We can shine our own light and understanding by intentionally choosing a safe place in which we give ourselves and our bodies a voice with complete and total unconditional acceptance.

Each of us needs to create that space for ourselves in which to process, however that comes out. Maybe it comes out through fetish or massage or medical treatments, but it’s all about re-experiencing stuck emotions in order to fully integrate them into our current reality. We must break down the emotions and feel the pain in order to move through it and forward.

Mary adds,

“I think people with a humiliation fetish do have some pretty nasty voices in their head and externalizing those voices, making it into something sexy, something they can get off to is almost a way of mastering those issues, those voices, and it won’t necessarily help you get past them, but at the very least I think it’s almost relaxing because you’re giving up that fight for a little while. But, I do think that people can find a resolution.”

At the very least, it’s an emotional awakening because so many of us have been educated out of feeling our feelings for so long. We are told “no” so many times when we try to be creative as kids that we end up judging ourselves as adults. We hold onto these judgments inside our bodies, but we have such difficulty connecting with them sometimes. We live in a system where connection isn’t exactly taught. In fact, we learn tools for separation. We’re divided in rows in class. We have our assignments. We’re all like cogs in a wheel and human beings just don’t work that way.

We’re emotional beings full of constantly shifting energy. We’re not machines. We need to process this stuff and get into our bodies and be ok with being in this life. But, what’s happening now is people can’t tolerate the external pressures because they don’t know how to feel all the overwhelming feelings they may be unconsciously holding.

I’m not suggesting that BDSM is the solution to solving trauma or all of your communication problems. Like everything else, it has the potential to be an escape from the solution if it is not entered into with awareness.

Mary shares,

“I think a lot of people use BDSM in a sort of addictive way, especially the more stigmatized it is. The more shame they feel about it, the more compulsive it becomes. Because if it’s something you’re like, ‘eh, it’s no big deal, yeah I like getting spanked or whatever, I like being slapped around during sex, whatever.’ You can just say that to your partner and you’re not like, ‘oh my god I hate myself because I like this.’ But, then the more you hate yourself the more you think about it, the more obsessive you become, the more you need to do it. It’s about repression…and the more you repress things, the more they are likely to come out in untraditional ways that scare people.”

My personal belief is that everybody would feel a lot better if they had self-awareness about their shit so they could deal with it. There’s a difference between somebody that’s freaking out about something and has zero interest going into it, and views it by saying “ok that happened. I’m just going to ignore it.” and someone freaking out during an act or getting angry about something, but they know why and can express it.

Mary finishes, “I think if you’re ashamed of your desire to do something, you’ll probably think about that desire a lot but you’re not gonna think about “oh why do I have that desire?”

Therein lies the rub. It’s only when we begin to think about the why that we truly reap the benefits of the release from any therapy be it massage, role play or hanging out with your best friend. Regardless, we all deserve the dignity of our process.


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  1. Jennah  November 18, 2014

    The raw consensual openness, vulnerability, willingness of the BDSM experience you described is actually a beautiful model, or metaphor, that is rare to witness or experience In Real Life. When do we fully experience pleasure/joy/happiness til we move on to the next shiny object? Pain is anesthetized by an analgesic or social media, etc.

    Your physician sounds like good people: “Then, I remember what my doctor told me as he finished the treatment, “You’re going to be releasing a lot. Remember to give yourself the dignity of your process.”

    I too have chronic pain, finally had enough of the vicious cycle of “too much pain to exercise” and cycled the hell out of a spin class. The intensity of the climbs off saddle felt so good on my quads — that I had my best class ever. My “choice” of productive pain where I felt stronger and was working towards feeling unlimited, had — in that 45 minutes — trumped inflammation and excruciating victim pain, the belief where absolutely nothing can be done. The rest of the day? Zero pain. I realized, someone, had a victimization addiction.

    • admin  November 18, 2014

      Thank you so much for sharing this, Jennah! I love what you say about engaging in “productive pain”. If we all want to live our fullest life possible, it includes experiencing the full spectrum of emotion, including pain. Once we make peace with its existence, we no longer suffer the same way. Much love, Jamie

  2. Jessica  November 19, 2014

    This article is wonderful! This is lovely peace that comes with S/M play and I think the exercising metaphor is perfect. That ache after is a wonderful reminder of what you endured, the connection you made with your partner and just how much fun it was!

    • admin  November 19, 2014

      Thank you! I hope one day we can all set aside our judgements and accept how each soul chooses to use their bodies consciously for healing & pleasure.


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