LE DOULEUR EXQUISE By Erin Coulehan
About the Author
Erin Coulehan is a writer and journalist from El Paso, Texas. Erin’s writing has been shaped by the experiences of growing up in a border region: whereas most come of age drinking in their parents’ garage, the youth of West Texas grew up partying in the desert and roaming the streets of Juarez, Mexico. Erin received a BA in Literature at the University of Texas at El Paso, wherein she studied in New York City, Washington D.C., and London, with the occasional excursion to Paris. Admiring writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Milan Kundera, Nora Ephron, Maureen Dowd and Mary Roach, Erin wishes to inform and intrigue readers through articles and essays.
The following essay is part of her memoir collection SIN & LOVE & FEAR, published earlier this year.
Le Douleur Exquise
July 18, 2012
You approach one another in a cavernous bar, stumbling over words as anticipation builds and you do all you can to keep your feet planted on the floor: it’s difficult enough staying balanced in your stilettos after four vodka tonics you drank in order to drown the butterflies in your stomach, but this encounter may prove too much –and for what? You laugh nervously as he whispers something witty about politics, shivering from the warmth of his breath on your cheek. There’s heat, to be certain, but is there electricity? The questions circulating in your mind are as overwhelming as your inability to make a move at this point, and thankfully you don’t have to as he puts his hand on your lower back and kisses you. He tastes like abandon as you kiss him back, willingly popleaxed, but still wondering if all of this is happening. Your question is quickly answered as he bites your bottom lip, far more reassuring – and titillating – than being pinched awake from a dream. The pain is worth it, and it’s sexy.
My girlfriends and I talk about it often. As we prepare to relocate to big cities in the hopes of beginning even bigger careers, we describe what we’re after in a man. That’s right, I said man. You know the type, not a guy that texts at 2am and suggests “hanging out”, but a man that calls – and I don’t mean maybe. These men call you during the middle of the day, absolutely certain that they want to take you to dinner. They wear skinny ties, have 5 o’clock shadows, know how to order a martini and definitely know how to woo a woman. As we giddily describe these men that we’re certain have to exist somewhere in this world (Hey, Mr. Big, Don Draper and Jax Teller have to be inspired by some actual person), we agree that another distinguishing quality of these dashing men is they’re very familiar in the art of seduction. Right now, I think Alex Pettyfer could play this role of seducer very very well.
Seduction has always been one of my favorite words, I love the etymology. In Latin, ducere “to lead” combined with the third person pronoun, se, literally an “other”, basically means to be lead astray by another. How exhilarating, who doesn’t love a reprieve from responsibility? What’s more intriguing than indulgence?
Algolagnia is the sexual pleasure derived from enduring pain (masochism) or inflicting pain (sadism). Whether physical, emotional, or a combination of the two, kinks for pain provide intrigue and opportunity for more intimate bonding within relationships. Once bitten and twice as confident, the exploration of lover’s bodies heightens sexual gratification with carnality akin to the level of throw down of Eric Northman and Bill Compton that makes True Blood far more tempting than vanilla sex. When it comes to desires of the body, what is about kinks for pain that make us lust after a love that hurts so good?
As our culture sinks its teeth into more aggressive aspects of sexual representation, kinky sex scenes as those first depicted in Sex and the City wherein Carrie shows up to Mr. Big’s apartment with a leather whip in hand, to the passion that launched a Hollywood divorce and scandal in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, deriving pleasure from pain seems to be on the top of our lists of sexual desire. Barry Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple at Rutger’s University measured if sexual arousal increases pain thresholds in humans through use of an Ugo Basile Analgesia Meter, an instrument whose only purpose is to induce pain. Participants placed their fingers on a small platform as a steel point pressed on their finger pad, the pressure increasing until the subject had enough. Komisaruk and Whipple found that perception of pain was dampened when participants were shown pictures of lovers when under the pressure of the machine, whereas levels of pain remained relatively stagnant when looking at photos of an acquaintance or stranger. While sexual fantasies have the capacity to curb perceptions of pain, physical arousal can increase pain tolerance by approximately 50 percent. In fact, orgasm increases pain tolerance by over 100 percent, so there’s no need to feel guilty for a little nibble or scratch here and there – chances are your partner probably likes it, thanks to a release in oxytocin. When released into the bloodstream, oxytocin (also known as “the cuddling hormone”), dulls an individual’s sensitivity to pain, not unlike the adrenaline high athletes experience that allows them to continue competing despite physical discomforts.
Oxytocin isn’t the only chemical to heighten sexual bonding and attraction. Adrenaline, brought on by the rush of pushing limits and sexual boundaries is a contributing factor which motivates people to engage in S&M and other forms of kinky sex, and can also make a person seem more physically attractive. In a study entitled “Love at First Fright”, researcher Cindy Meston from the University of Texas in Austin led a study in front of roller coasters at Six Flags. As thrill seekers got off (the ride), researchers asked them to rate levels of attractiveness of people shown in a series of photos. Passengers exiting the ride consistently found the subjects of the photos more ravishing than those who had not yet entered the ride due to a phenomenon called “excitation transfer”. As adrenaline surges due to frightening and potentially painful situations, lingering effects of giddiness have a spillover effect to sexual prospects in one’s line of vision. After a particularly exciting or dangerous sexual experience, a partner may appear absolutely breathtaking while you’re catching your breath.
While exploring the boundaries of sexual experiences, testing tactile stimulation of the body’s most primitive of sensations produces le douleur exquise: the exquisite pain of indulging in activities that are potentially physically or emotionally dangerous. If love makes the world go around, it can be said then that sex keeps it on its axis, while kinks and curiosities lead us in new directions.