Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose (Hardcover)
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An exploration of why people all over the world love to engage in pain on purpose--from dominatrices, religious ascetics, and ultramarathoners to ballerinas, icy ocean bathers, and sideshow performers
Masochism is sexy, human, reviled, worshipped, and can be delightfully bizarre. Deliberate and consensual pain has been with us for millennia, encompassing everyone from Black Plague flagellants to ballerinas dancing on broken bones to competitive eaters choking down hot peppers while they cry. Masochism is a part of us. It lives inside workaholics, tattoo enthusiasts, and all manner of garden variety pain-seekers.
At its core, masochism is about feeling bad, then better—a phenomenon that is long overdue for a heartfelt and hilarious investigation. And Leigh Cowart would know: they are not just a researcher and science writer—they’re an inveterate, high-sensation seeking masochist. And they have a few questions: Why do people engage in masochism? What are the benefits and the costs? And what does masochism have to say about the human experience?
By participating in many of these activities themselves, and through conversations with psychologists, fellow scientists, and people who seek pain for pleasure, Cowart unveils how our minds and bodies find meaning and relief in pain—a quirk in our programming that drives discipline and innovation even as it threatens to swallow us whole.
About the Author
Leigh Cowart is a researcher and journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed News, Hazlitt, Longreads, Vice, and other outlets. Before becoming a journalist, Cowart was immersed in academia, doing research on subjects like sexual dimorphism in leaf-nosed bats, and resource allocation in flowers. They live in Asheville, NC.
“There’s possibly no one alive more qualified to write about pain than Leigh Cowart. A thoughtful, funny, and at times lyrical look at pain and its deeper human meaning.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Cowart has endless compassion for humans trying to find meaning and purpose while trapped in our fallible meat sacks. Hurts So Good is funny, explicit, and oddly wholesome.”—Caitlin Doughty, author of the New York Times bestseller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
“It’s testament to Leigh Cowart’s skill and charm that a book about pain should feel so joyful, that a deeply taboo subject should get such a bright and vivid airing, and that experiences that should induce winces instead trigger laughs and moments of deep profundity. Hurts So Good is a book of wonderful paradoxes—a rich, hilarious, and endlessly fascinating look at a world that most of us know but few of us understand.”
—Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of I Contain Multitudes
“A thorough examination of a widely-shared human experience. Cowart blends memoir with research and observation deftly, and boldly shares the gritty details of her own sensation-seeking body. Relevant to anyone seeking to understand their own relationship with physicality. A must-read for those of us who find ourselves trying to explain so many complex things about our relationships to pain.”
—Stoya, writer and pornographer
“Hurts So Good is a high wire act during which Cowart weaves together the science of enduring pain for pleasure with their own personal, maniacally visceral experiences. The latter scenes are written so vividly—blood, guts, excrement, swollen and frozen bodies—that, at times, Cowart seems to be daring the reader not to finish. But finish you should, because there's no better exploration of masochism's appeal."—Elon Green, author of Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust and Murder in Queer New York
“Is understanding pain—and specifically why people seek out pain—the key to understanding ourselves? Before I read Hurts So Good I wouldn't have thought so, but now I'm convinced. I found myself wondering why this book didn’t exist before; and the answer is, because Leigh Cowart had to be the one to do it. This is a deeply-researched, blazingly-written tour de force that unlocks so much of human desire, compulsion, damage, and grace. If there's such a thing as the Great American Popular Science Book, you're looking at it.”
—Jess Zimmerman, author of Women and Other Monsters
“Informative explanations of the neurobiology of pain and pleasure, and plenty of personal reflection on the author’s own relationship to masochism. Queasy readers need not apply…Cowart’s raw study offers insight."—Publishers Weekly
“Briskly interweaving history, biology, and reportage…Leigh’s exploded view of pain is an essential component of the excavation of pleasure for which we’re long overdue….Courageous, diverting, and written with dark good humor.”—Good Advice/Bad Gay