Setting aside the physical rewards of pleasure, sexual or otherwise, and endorphins, pain can sometimes be about endurance. It is a test. More importantly, however, it is designed to have a high failure rate. Sometimes, it is enough to withstand the pain, to take it all and not break. Often, however, the catharsis brought about by intense experience only happens once one's defenses have buckled. Gut-wrenching sobs or maniacal laughter can signal this collapse, although different people experience it differently. One woman described to me,
"I used to get into this state, especially with the roleplaying scenes, the being captured and forced to submit and lots of impact, where eventually it’s like being mentally broken, where I couldn’t stand anymore and I couldn’t refuse anymore and whatever he wanted to do to me was going to happen... the idea that you can’t fight anymore, that nothing you can do matters, that you’ve completely lost and you have to give in, which I like."
Looking in from the outside, one might wonder why. What is it about being helpless that is so appealing? As a feminist, this was particularly difficult for me to grapple with, as it was generally women being put in this position in the groups I worked with. After a while, however, it began to dawn on me that this was a way to embody survival, to say, "I have endured a trial and come out the other side whole." This is NOT to say that BDSM is a simple reenactment of trauma, as so many people seem to assume. Yes, for some people, past trauma plays a role in the types of play they engage in, but for scenes that are mostly about physical pain, the concept of endurance works well.
Other things we endure, the grind of grad school, the stress of showing up for work every day, raising a child, rarely do these end (although, thankfully, school has to stop sometime). It is only over the span of years do we have the chance to say, "I did this. I withstood it." And should we fail, there is no joy in it. Our society does not take kindly to surrender. Most people make peace with failure, one way or the other, but our culture forces that accommodation to come at a price, often the loss of esteem or self-respect. However, our society sets people up to fail in ways that have nothing to do with their worth as individuals. Barring an incredible amount of support, women cannot be supermoms and CEOs at the same time. People's employment situation is very often precarious. Black and Brown people face structural violence all the time and then are castigated for not being able to achieve the American dream. I could go on, but all the -isms are implicated.
Is it so strange that people might crave the feeling of having withstood a trial, endured, survived, and coming out whole, maybe even stronger, on the other side? Physical pain (when administered in a safe, sane, consensual way) can embody these lessons for us. I broke and yet the world didn't end.