Crying During Sex
The impact of trauma on the body
“I want to hurt you” he says to me. I place his hand on my cheek and smile, letting him know that I want that too. The tension hangs in the air - we both know my placement of his hand is an invitation to slap me, but I don’t know when he will do it. My body is both relaxed on his lap and tensed in anticipation, caught in a limbo under his control. His rough hand clasps my cheek, making me feel like a child being fussed over, and he tells me that he wants to make me cry. He squeezes my cheek harder until I instinctually try to pull away. Tears start to prick at the corners of my eyes. He slaps me and I cry out in shock and pain, flinching away from him before being brought back in close for another hit. This happens again and again until my safe word is hovering at the back of my throat - I am disoriented, my cheek is red and tender and each slap sends a wave of pain through my head, down my neck and into my chest.
He stops for a second and, as soon as the rhythm breaks, tears spring from my eyes and fear runs through my body, making my breath come in short, sharp gasps. He pulls me in close and tells me how well I did to take so much pain and I hold on to his chest. My head is buzzing with pleasure. It is like the high of sniffing poppers or after being choked hard - a brief trip to another planet where the sensations in your body eclipse all thoughts. The man I’m with is both attacker and protector and I can relinquish myself to him, like putting down a heavy bag after a long journey. The tears are relief as much as pain that the weight is briefly not on my shoulders; the only decision I have to make is when I want it to stop.
I am going to tell you why I cry during sex - specifically during BDSM sex, which is most of the sex I have. There are many reasons someone might cry during sex, and their reasons may well be different from mine, but I have sat with my own emotions and reassured enough partners that no, honestly I’m fine, I’m just feeling quite a lot right now, give me a minute that I have had some time to reflect on what crying during sex means to me.
To understand why I cry during sex where I am being hurt, it’s important to understand how pain and control are intertwined. This is a topic I have written about before in the context of a prolonged and painful illness where control over pain was taken away from me. In that piece, I wrote that during a BDSM scene “I am in control, even as the fantasy we build is one where I’m not - to an outsider it would seem a horrific act of violence, but between my partner and I it is a great act of care.” This is the foundation of BDSM: taking care of one another so well that you can play with losing control and trust that it can be regained at a moment’s notice.
This is the only context in which I can enjoy pain that brings me to tears - if I were able to get off on all kinds of pain, I would likely see the dentist much more regularly. In places like the dentist or the hospital, pain is administered under an implicit threat that if it is not endured, greater and worse pain will follow and be inflicted by your own body. Pain like this is not willingly entered into like the cold plunge pool of BDSM, but rather dumped over you like an ice bucket when you would rather be doing anything else.
Many people seek out consensual, time-limited pain for their own pleasure but few recognise it as masochism. In Leigh Cowart’s book Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose they discuss people who seek out pain through martial arts, ballet practice, competitive eating, religious practice, and so on and compares them to people who seek out pain in BDSM. They summarise that “pain [is] a pathway to submission [is] a pathway to catharsis” (p. 195), referencing the feeling of release that follows pain when the pleasure-inducing hormone endorphins are released as a natural painkiller. The high of endorphins is similar to opiates like morphine.
One of their interviewees, a submissive who enjoys pain, corroborates this theory. She states that “When the [BDSM] beating is over with, I am a sea of endorphins, merely an animal capable of experiencing sensation but not processing it or trying to figure it out” (p. 26). This experience resonates with my own, but the interviewee does not mention how crying factors into this experience. On the surface, it seems contradictory: if the after-effects of pain feel so good, why do I cry after the pain has stopped? Surely I should be riding the opioid-like effects of endorphins, not sobbing into my partner’s chest.
The answer, for me, can be at least partially found in trauma theory. In his generation-defining book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk posits that traumatised people can experience a deep alienation from their bodies, sometimes to the point of not recognising themselves in a mirror or having no sensation in parts of their body. When trauma occurs, van der Kolk argues, an individual is subject to an event beyond their control that results in a state of helplessness or terror that they are unable to move on from.If the terror is not processed, the trauma becomes "stuck" in their subconscious mind and their body is kept in a frozen emotional state.
As someone who has survived more than their fair share of traumatic events, I am well aware that my body keeps the score.I have chronic fatigue and muscle tension, I have parts of my body with very little sensation and, in the past, did not recognise my own face in the mirror. Van der Kolk writes that:
[T]raumatised people chronically feel unsafe in their bodies. The past is alive in a form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves. (pp. 96-97)
The experience of trauma results in an exaggerated awareness for threat, stemming from a fear that the trauma is not over or may happen again. These visceral warning signs for threat van der Kolk describes are numbed out along with the rest of their body in order to survive in “normal” life. The body becomes disconnected and the mind stops recognising the body’s needs - whether that is thirst, hunger, heat, cold, pleasure or pain.
When I am experiencing BDSM pain, however, my learned disconnection from my body is defied by the presence of another person who is taking care of me. When the pain escalates too quickly, I am prone to dissociation as my mind responds with its well-worn solution to overwhelming physical sensation and threat - I disconnect from my body entirely and become non-verbal. However, when the pain is consistent but not overwhelming with a slow but steady increase, I am kept present in my body and the dissociative overdrive is not activated. I can be grounded by my partner talking to me and getting me to respond or touching me in pleasurable ways between the rounds of pain - both feel like holding onto a rope to stop my mind from floating away.
Being grounded and present in my body as it experiences pain results in a mixture of states: I am elated by the high of endorphins, feel secure with my partner taking care of me, I am afraid of what pain might come next, and on the precipice of a trauma response. By being kept on the edge of a trauma response while being grounded and safe, BDSM sex can unintentionally mirror the affect of the therapy room where unsafe desires and emotions are released in a safe environment (albeit in a much more fun way).When the pain is over and I'm flooded with endorphins and held in my partner's arms, the trauma precipice is still present - I cry because I am being cared for and kept in my body while my mind is trying to activate its threat response. It can be overwhelming to feel safe in my body when it has always been an unsafe place to be.
There are many reasons someone may cry during sex, such as pain, frustration, or emotional intimacy. I don’t think every bout of tears, even for me, is a trauma response - sometimes being beaten with a belt just hurts. Crying is erotic because it’s a bodily response that one can lose control over, much like cumming or pissing, that satisfies the dominant’s desire for control and the submissive’s desire for the opposite. It also has a cultural association with weakness or emasculation that emphasises the power balance during a scene. Crying during sex can be intensely hot in many different forms. Trauma responses, when handled with great communication, care and self-awareness, can also be hot - especially when it is the result of a dominant creating enough safety for the submissive to be present in their hurting body.
Edited 9/1/23 to update Leigh Cowart’s pronouns.
Looking at Porn is written around my full time job working on health inequalities. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you can tip me on Ko-Fi here. I’m not on social media at the moment, but you can email me at email@example.com if you like. Please be mindful of emailing me your own trauma stories - I do not have capacity to reply with due care.
My dad dying (as I describe in the linked essay) is not the only traumatic event in my life, but let’s not list them all.
Do not misinterpret me comparing the BDSM space and the therapy room as saying kink is okay because it’s therapeutic - I have no interest in defending kink in this way (or indeed at all, I try to avoid defensive writing styles these days). Davey Davis wrote a great series on the “kink as therapy” claim you can read on their Substack if you’re interested in this topic and the politics of trying to justify or defend BDSM practices.