The molecular anatomy of leather by Geoff Mains

When Bill and Tom commit themselves to a leather scene, they generate a healthy dose of bewilderment. To their politically correct lesbian friends they thoughtlessly assume the roles of male oppressors. To their acquaintances on the political left they perpetuate social violence. And whether Bill and Tom reciprocally act out the rituals of master and slave, put each other through total and prolonged bondage, or hang weights from each others balls, they are – to nearly all but their friends of the leather fraternity – truly sick.

Freud had his theories on the matter – theories that proposed masochism as a form of “normal” aggression turned abnormally against the self. Other psychoanalysis like Reik went on to concoct more obtuse theories. Thus pain is an illusion that Tom substitutes for an inability to appreciate pleasure. And for Bill, who is supposedly in flight from sexual anxiety, pain is a manageable alternative to guilt. But these theories only create further bewilderment. For it is clear to those that know them that Bill and Tom are hardly apologetic about their leather. Well adapted, socially conscious, and self respecting, they share a friendship based upon a fundamental equality, whatever the roles they may adopt during sexual play.

Perhaps the most perplexing to their friends is that Bill and Tom find their sexual acts pleasurable. Quite simply, pain is not enjoyable because it is a second-rate substituitde, it IS pleasure. What has long been known as fact to leathermen has now come to have biological basis. Deep within the structures of the central nervous system, science has begun to disentangle the chemical knots that link pain with euphoria and that create a genuine capacity for human experience.

Feeling good

This understanding began in the middle 70s with the discovery of a group of chemicals found in animals and similar in their properties to opium. Named the endorphins and the enkephalins, these opioid chemicals serve basic purposes. They act largely in the processes by which nerves communicate with each other. Like codeine, they act in the bodys internal pain control system. Like morphine, they modulate the nervous messages to organs like the heart and intenstines. And like opium they function in the various brain centres associated with euphoria and trance.

But perhaps the most fascinating role proposed for the endorphins is that of reward. It seems that a good part of human motivation – whether an appetitie for food or for social companionship – may at least partly be fuelled by specific and internal addictions. These drives may well extend beneath a broad variety of human processes, from excretion to sleep. In the process that underlies these drives, various nervous circuits require a regular fix of endorphin or enkephalin opioids, which is generated by carrying out the activity in question. There is little doubt that these reward circuits are also modulated by physical conditon and by learned behaviours. (For example, apart from the opioid satisfaction induced by eating, one learns patterns and methods of dealing with hunger.) Nevertheless, many of our motivations may involve these internal rewards and the wave of euphoria that accompanies them. Feeling good is a major determinant of human behaviour and in its absence the opium drugs can serve as powerful and deadly surrogates. As well, physical and mental activities that increase the levels of opioids in blood and brain may have powerful effects.

The flowers of pain

Messages that arrive in the brain along the channels of the nervous system often seem clear enoiugh. For example, a stove is hot. But transmission is not always so clear. Messages shift with time, can be modulated by other parts of the nervous system and can be influenced by higher centers in the brain. These are the processes by which a leather scene operates, and together, these cumulative effects can be startling.

To begin with, the scene requires a conducive, trusting mood. The mood is relaxed and open to new experience and the partners find each other a turn on. Successful leather play is nearly always sensualist and mutualistic, whatever the psychodrama of the roles started at a particular time. Without these real and very accepted limits, leather play would fail in its objectives as a form of love.

The methods of tit play can provide us with a model of how the internal nervous process seems likely to operate. Effective pleasures are not achieved by sudden brutal attack but by gradual buildup. Pulling and massage may be followed by clamps and later still perhaps hot wax and alligator clips. Over time, the nipples are effectively desensitised. Far from the nipple itself, the nervous stimulation has induced a wonderful transformation in body chemistry.

A good part of the process occurs in those segments of the spinal cord where the nerves that arrive from the nipple interact with those coming and going to the brain. Here, at least, two mechanisms are at work, both of which function through opioid channels.

In the first, fast-travelling and tactile messages that arrive in the spinal cord from the nipple suppress the transmission of the slower-moving and painful messages. In the second mechanism, painful messages that do manage to pass through this spinal gate and climb upwards to the brain, set into motion further nervous actions. Acting in downwards fashion from the brain and into the spinal cord, these cause a release of opioids that effectively block the incoming painful messages. It is by these latter actions that acupuncture appears to work, a process in which conterolled pain applied to one part of the body can reduce or eliminate the perception of pain in others.

But the effects are farther reaching than this. Short-term and repeated painful experiences (as well as short-term steress) can induce areas at the base of the brain to secrete both endorphins and even larger quantities of enkephalins. These chemicals circulate through the brain and spinal cord, where tyheir effects are similar to those of a large dose of codeine. And as with codeine, these opioids not only suppress pain but also generate feelings of euphoria.

These nervous processes form some of the molecular underpinnings of the pain-pleasure threshold, they support that adage of leathermen that its not a pain per se that is important but how and when it is applied. Pain  applied carefully and precisely can flower into a self reinforcing high that not only suppresses subsequent pain but also increases the desire for it.

Pig in the mud

It is by no coincidence that Miss Piggy is the patron saint of fisters. The evidence for this assertion is somewhat circuitous and many of its scientific gaps have yet to be plugged. While no physiologist to date appears to have ventured an explanation of the nervous chemistry that underlies the success of fisting, enough information exists to sketch out some of the major links of that process. The implications lead directly to pigs in the mud.

This rather esoteric voyage could begin, perhaps with Arnold Schwarzenegger and pumping iron – a sport which, common rumour has it, is addictive. The truth of the rumour rests somewhere in the combination of stress and muscle stretching that both appear to increase opioid levels in blood and brain and to generate a high.

That these opioids are addictive is without question. Efforts to use the enkephalins and endorphins as substitutes for the opium drugs have failed. Despite their existence as an integral component of animal physiology, the internal opioids are more addictive than heroin. Rats taught to self inject enkephalins for example pig out on as much as they can get.

The next stop in this path to gut-butt pleasure involves those brain areas termed the reward centres. We get rewards when we eat. When we exercise. And it now appears likely, when we shit. Despite social training that consigns the toilet to the nasty side of life, there is a clean and healthy dose of feeling good associated with the actual process of excretion. That feeling good may be the result of an internal reward of opioids.

Connections between the punitive reward centre associated with defecation and the nerves of the rectum have yet to be fully elucidated, but it seems likely that the rewards are generated in response to either contractions of muscles in the colon and rectum or in the relaxation of the anal sphincter muscle. Recent studies of the neural connectors that wire the muscles of the butt end demonstrate that enkephalin neurotransmitters are clearly involved. In the nervous circuitry of the rectal reflex, designed to accommodate increasingly larger quantities of material for periods of hours before ejection, there are likely processes that when played with in the requisite manner release larger quantities of opioids at the brain end. The results are relaxing and ecstatically euphoric. As with many leather activities, both the mental focus required for fisting and the opioids released as a result of fisting seem likely to induce shifts in state of consciousness. And like weight lifting, the process is probably addictive.

There is no doubt that fisting is based on powerful physiological capacities. But the connection with pigs? With the discovery of opioids not only in humans but also in all higher animals, another cherished assumption of biologists appears to be under reconsideration. It now seems likely that animals have strong emotional capacities that underlie their behaviour. Pigs may very well roll in the mud because they enjoy rolling in the mud, and very likely because there is a substantial opioid reward associated with doing so. There is not just a little similarity between this act and the pure animal indulgence of crisco and loving fists.

Release and revelation

What is really so important about all of this? There are certain things that make each of us feel good, and it only seems logical that detailed workings of the nervous system should underlie them.

The point to be empahsised is that alternate forms of sexual pleasure, such as those involving pain, function through some fundamental and everyday capacities. The very existence of those capacities runs in the face of views commonly held by psychiatry and the general public. These groups do not view pain-pleasure as a real and very animal capacity. Rather they see it as a warped expression of what they regard as normal capacities. The implications of recent work with opioids are thus twofold. First, medicine has played a powerful role in justifying established values by proscribing alternate behaviours as deviant. Second, what is normal is far broader than what medicine would have liked to believe and difficult to define.

Physical response is important. No two human beings function in identical ways, and capacities for leather experience probably vary as much as does everything else human. Not all of us appear to produce opioids in response to pain. Nor do we all share desires for ritualised catharsis. Yet for those who are blessed with this blend of capacities and acculturation, the rewards that include tension release, euphoria, and even transcendence. More than satisfactory as payoffs for taking the trip in the first place, these are also sufficient motivation to undertake repeat exploration. Psychology may have motivated in the first instance, but these drives are soon surpassed.

Leathermen share this use of what has been suppressed or forbidden pain-pleasure capacities with many cultural groups. Yet from Dervish to flagellant, and from fire walker to Kavandi dancer, leather stands apart in exploring sexual capacities in terms of ecstatic experience. To its participants, leather sex brings release and revelation. And to the world leather becomes at once a symbol and a culture. A black and an animal side of the soul has been rediscovered and let out.

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