Sunday, October 19, 2008


Algophilia describes sexual arousal gained through pain. The ability to endure pain has long been recognised as an admirable characteristic and primitive tribes held painful rituals as part of a rite of passage to manhood and prerequisite for marriage. Tribal scarification for men and women may have been used to induce passion and hence fertility. According to Rubin (1949) baring pain during scarification rituals may have been proof that decoration was an unselfish act and that it was done to give pleasure to others.

The same logic may apply to foot binding. Pain is a physiological process caused by the release of chemicals such as bradykinin, substance P and prostaglandins and can be divided into two types: somatic and visceral.

Somantic pain usually affects the muscles and skin. This is mild by comparison to visceral pain, which radiates from internal organs causing nausea and weakness. We detect somatic pain by stimulation of the free nerve endings that lie near the surface of the skin. Once activated, they transmit a signal to the brain; however it is not a guarantee that the sensation will be perceived as painful. The message maybe thwarted in several ways, for example nerves which transmit sensations of deep pressure, vibration, heat and cold, can override pain signals. Anxiety may also affect the pain process. Between 20 - 40 minutes after pain has been consciously registered the body begins to produce opiate like chemicals which reduce pain sensations. This release of chemicals can cause an anaesthetic euphoria and trance like state in some people. Moderate anxiety increases the response to pain but high levels of fear including terror, appear to decrease the response to pain. Pain can trigger a reaction from the autonomic nervous system causing an increase rate of breathing heart rate, higher blood pressure and release of adrenalin. This may enhance sexual sensitivity or experience and is a possible explanation for extreme forms of sex play.

Rubin A (ed) 1949 Marks of civilisation, beauty and scarification amongst the Tiv.

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