I first became interested in sacred sexuality around 1997. I read a little bit then about tantra, karezza and other practices and was looking for a partner. Then I met a woman who identified as a witch and who introduced me to the practice of sadomasochism. I quickly began to explore how S/m might work as a form of sex magic. I found this primer [link deleted] helpful as a frame of reference.
Our culture generally tends toward a dualism in which "the light" represents life, goodness, purity and hope, while "the darkness" is a metaphor for death, evil, corruption and fear. I imagine some people consider westernized tantra or karezza to be "white sex magic", while S/m could be the epitome of "black sex magic". From the dualistic view, sadomasochism is evil because it appears to be about domination, violence and fear. The common euphemism "rough sex" certainly conflicts with prescriptions for "making love gently, with frequent relaxing pauses".
As I played with S/m as a Dominant, I became aware of how "power exchange" has alchemical potential. Some people are able to transform the experiences of pain into pleasure, of fear into excitement (building courage), of restraint into release, of humiliation into exaltation (finding liberation from shame), etc. Note: I'm not saying that all S/m sex is like this, only that it has the potential for it.
A number of spiritual traditions around the world practice various forms of mortification of the flesh. Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code refers to Catholic self-mortification practices. I also know a little about the sundance, sweatlodge and vision quest rituals of Native Americans. I imagine that some forms of shamanic soul flight (or, for skeptics, 'hallucinations') may be induced by the neurochemistry resulting from prolonged endurance of pain (sundance), deprivation of oxygen and heat (sweatlodge) and deprivation of food and water (vision quest).
I've long felt that sex addicts are drug addicts who've closed the supply/demand loop (and porn just closes it a little more, right?) S/m and "rough sex" incorporate the usual sexual neurochemistry plus (especially for the submissive partner) additional painkilling neurochemistry. The alchemical nature of an S/m power exchange may have a decidedly "chemical" basis. So I think of kinky sex as a kind of "homemade cocktail drug" (and because of the synergistic and unpredictable effects, I definitely intend for that metaphor to have danger associated with it).
Even the dominant partner in an S/m scene who doesn't access the same painkilling neurochemistry may still get a kind of "empathic contact high", via mirror neuron response. There's often a distinct experience of being on a "power trip" that has to do in part with the receiving another human's voluntary submission. Some forms of "play" are also quite aerobic for the Dominant, and can last a long time, so there are a number of potential modifiers to my hypothesized "empathic contact high".
I consider that all forms of relating (and hence all relationships) are forms of "power exchange", including the sound waves created by a lover's voice vibrating in your ears, a gentle massage, a rough spanking, or any other shared human activity I can think of. My S/m background has expanded my view of sexual energy to include various forms of kinetic, auditory, mental energy, etc as part of the whole power exchange.
Here are two simple physics definitions of energy in relationship to power that I found on the Internet:
Energy is what one delivers and Power is the rate at which it is delivered.
Energy is the ability to do work. i.e. the more energy a device has, the more work it can do. Power is work over time.
Why refer to physics? Well I think I'm better off sticking with primarily kinetic or neurochemical forms of "energy" and avoiding references to unmeasurable "spiritual" energies. Perhaps the latter exists. My attitude is that, until they are measurable, I want to focus on what is more clearly "real" in the magic I do (I'm an atheist and skeptic today). I also think that it is useful to think about "sexual energy" as the natural potential energy in us while "power exchange" denotes a relationship and flow of that energy to/from another. One value of doing S/m is that it helps to direct attention to the flow of power (so that the flow of power is also directed by intention).
This isn't meant to be an ad for S/m. It works for me and I get value from it. It probably won't work for everyone, and I don't think it is better than, or a replacement for, other sacred sex practices. I do want to close by sharing my perspective on the dualisms that 1) darkness is evil, 2) S/m is violent, and 3) fear is negative.
1) Darkness (as in, absence of light) is necessary and good. We need darkness to get healthy sleep that renews our mind and body. I also mourn that the beauty of the night sky and breadth of the visible universe is lost in the glare of the city light pollution; I believe that we are spiritually poorer for it. I recommend Shaahin Cheyene's book Darkness: The Power of Illumination for those who want to follow this thought about darkness further, because he does a much better job than I can.
Darkness is often associated with death so I will also add that the process of death itself, no matter how tragic when it occurs to us or someone we love, is also natural, necessary and perhaps the greatest good in nature. Natural selection would have no means to work without it, so evolution could not have possibly produced us.
2) S/m is a kind of sex that includes activities which cause pain to other humans by design, and that is enough for some people to label it violent and reject it out of hand. There are S/m support groups who provide education to make sure that their members practice S/m according to established principles of "safe, sane and consensual". These support groups often promote safe sex in general, by providing not just education, but condoms and other safety supplies, and direct oversight and enforcement of community rules. Believe it or not, human culture has now produced a kind of "sex police officer" in the form of the "dungeon monitor".
For me, what distinguishes S/m from violence is primarily the matter of consent. I also believe that someone who consents to an act that will likely cause them permanent harm or death is not acting in a safe or sane manner, and I'd argue that their lack of sanity impaired the original consent. Consent is obtained by a practice within the S/m community called 'negotiation' that normally happens before people do an S/m scene together. So communication skills are a part of the training that some groups provide their members. I believe that the net effect, as the Internet has brought people together in these kind of communities, is to increase the value and meaning of consent in our culture at large.
3) Fear is not negative, but our response to it is often unproductive. Denial and avoidance give our fears power and they can continue to grow in our subconscious. This is not to say that we should feed our fears, but that when we meet them they usually dissolve. I believe that for some, S/m is a path of personal or spiritual growth that involves walking into the darkness to meet our fears and our shadows and better integrate ourselves.