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To Hack the Brain’s Pleasure System, You Have to Conquer Fear

There’s a reason people love things like BDSM and public sex — it’s the thrill that gets us off, and thrill comes from your brain’s calculated interpretation of fear. Here’s how to tap into it all for better, more intimate sex

Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.

As a Dom, 28-year-old Greg (who asked for a pseudonym) is skilled in the art of producing fear, an emotion that, when conjured up carefully, can amplify pleasure. He spanks, chokes and blindfolds his consenting partners, whose boundaries and desires he’s discussed beforehand so he knows how far to go. “The person blindfolded can’t see what’s going to happen to them next, which can be exciting,” he tells me. It can also be a little bit scary, which is what they want: After all, the thrill of being mildly scared — in a controlled, safe setting — is kinda hot. 

It’s a phenomenon that helps explain the allure or BDSM, public sex and other sexual endeavors that get the heart pumping in all sorts of directions. But what’s really going on in your body (and pants) when you feel equally spooked and horny? More importantly, how can we harness this sense of thrill to spice up our sex lives?

First things first, there are a few explanations for this intermingling of fear and pleasure. For one, the amygdala, which is located deep within the brain, is linked to both emotions. In theory, that means your brain can easily confuse dread with horniness and vice versa. But when your conscious mind knows you’re safe and doing something that interests you, it overrides the amygdala’s raw fear and transforms it into excitement or thrill.

Likewise, when the amygdala responds to stress (or fear), it prompts a release of adrenaline. “This not only increases heart rate and blood pressure, but it also increases blood flow to the genitals,” says Justin Lehmiller, scientific advisor to Lovehoney, an online sex toy store, and host of the Sex and Psychology Podcast. “This may help to explain why people in a state of fear sometimes experience a genital response, despite the fact that they don’t feel turned on. It’s worth noting that the body also releases adrenaline when we’re sexually aroused, so this helps to explain why there are some physiological similarities between these states.”

The fear-pleasure phenomenon has been proven in all sorts of interesting experiments. “One study looked at attractiveness ratings provided by people who’d just ridden a roller coaster, when fear is likely to be high, versus those who were waiting in line to ride, when fear is likely to be low,” Lehmiller explains. “Those who’d just ridden the roller coaster rated a stranger as being more sexually attractive than those who were standing in line. This research suggests that high-fear states may lead us to misattribute that arousal to a sexual cue.”

Meanwhile, neuroscientist Nan Wise, author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier and More Purpose-Filled Life, tells me about another study that involved guys walking across either a rickety bridge or a sturdy one. Oddly enough, the men who traversed the shaky overpass were more likely to eroticize the research assistant. Likewise, plenty of research shows that our sexual desires are refreshed when we do something novel (and especially something thrilling) with a long-term partner — like, for example, bringing a brand-new sex toy into the bedroom.

But while some fear can make you horny, it’s important to know that too much can erase your sex drive altogether. “If you’re really in danger, the last thing nature needs for you is to have a hard-on when you’re running from saber-toothed tigers,” Wise says.

Therefore, Wise suggests thinking of fear and arousal in terms of the so-called Yerkes-Dodson law, which suggests that a person performs at their peak when they’re under just enough pressure, but not too much.

To that end, Greg emphasizes the importance of working closely with your partner to maintain a healthy dose of fear during any sexual jaunt, and not going overboard. “It’s a huge responsibility if you’re the one on the giving end,” he says. “There’s super serious physical and mental health damage that can occur if you don’t do it right, so it’s important to have really thorough conversations before, during and after.”

“I don’t ever do anything that extreme on the first encounter, so by the time we do it, there’s a rapport built up, and some conversation had already happened,” Greg continues. “It’s mostly like, ‘Hey, I’m interested in doing ‘xyz’ to you. How do you feel about that?’” Then, Greg and his sub will decide on a safe word and signal before they’re off to the races.

Even with all those precautions, it’s important to actively communicate during the process, too. “I’ve definitely had sessions where either a sub or myself have used the safe word and been like, ‘Hey, I thought I’d like this, but it’s too intense,’” says Greg. “Then, we usually call it a session and kinda plan around that for future activities.”

If you can manage all that communication, Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist and sex expert for the My Fantasy app, says that, like Greg, consenual spanking, slapping and choking are her go-to methods for upping the fear (and therefore, pleasure) levels during sex. She also has a special technique: Raising her hand up high above her head as if she’s going to smack her partner, and letting them languish in the tension before she actually does it. “The anticipation of this alone can incite fear, and then those endorphins hit,” she explains. (The aforementioned adrenaline cues a release of endorphins like oxytocin, a natural painkiller that’s also known as the “cuddle hormone” because it makes you feel bonded to your partner). 

However, you don’t need to be whipped and chained to arouse your amygdala. “If you were to watch a scary movie or visit a haunted house as part of a date night, the residual fear response could potentially give you a little boost in the bedroom later on,” says Lehmiller. “If you quickly move from a situation where you felt some degree of fear to a sexual situation, there’s going to be some degree of carryover arousal.”

Or, as Wise says, “Even going to scary places in conversations” or talking about “forbidden desires” are enough to activate your fear-pleasure response. For example, Stewart says dirty talking can spur a little fear and nervousness. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, Sunny Megatron, certified sexuality and kink educator and host of the American Sex Podcast, is a big fan of so-called “mindfucks.” “It’s mental smoke and mirrors and can resemble an erotically-charged practical joke,” she explains. “It can be as simple as blindfolding your partner and running the edge of a credit card over their skin. As you seductively describe how close the ‘sharp knife’ is to piercing their flesh, they’ll feel the danger and excitement associated with a real blade. Only after the blindfold comes off will you reveal they were safe the entire time thanks to the dull plastic edges of your menacing Mastercard.”

But again, while a mindfuck involves some purposeful tomfoolery, communication is key. “Mentally altering someone’s reality without consent is gaslighting, which is abusive,” Megatron emphasizes. “In BDSM, there’s a lot of negotiation, trust and ethics behind mindfuck play. Plus, when the scene is over, the trick is always revealed.”

Meanwhile, adult performer and dominatrix Ryan Keely says, “Being vulnerable is my biggest fear.” As such, she gets off on “passionate, romantic sex” when she’s not filming.

That said, Keely also enjoys more BDSM-esque sex in the right circumstances. “I’m lucky because if I want to try anything really kinky like extreme rope bondage, getting flogged, canned, spanked or covered with hot candle wax and zapped with electricity, I can do it on set, surrounded by sober, trained professionals with more experience than I have,” she says. “That makes me more willing to try extreme sex acts, but in a controlled enviroment.”

After all, the sexual sweet spot between fear and pleasure is all about an equal dose of each. Whether you’re trying something new, awaiting an unpredictable spank or having an unbridled, frighteningly romantic romp sesh, you should also be comfortable with where you’re at and who you’re banging.

If you can pull that off, you’re in for a (scary) treat.