This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
My earliest memory of being truly terrified is during a vaccination. I was about five years old, and as soon as I caught sight of that enormous needle I screamed so loudly that I'm sure I gave the nurse tinnitus right there and then. Although I'm now 20 years older, not much has changed – I still get all sweaty just thinking about needles.
When I read about "needle play" on the BDSM website Fetlife, I couldn't work out for the life of me why anyone would find sticking long pins into their body a turn-on. But as I scrolled through the site and saw an ad for a needle play workshop taking place in Amsterdam, I thought this could be a chance for me to find some pleasure in my pain and overcome my fear of needles.
I reached out to the workshop's instructor, Hans, to see if the class is suitable for people who are terrified of needles. The 57-year-old was understanding – so understanding, in fact, that he offered to give me a private session on his houseboat. Alright, sure.
On the day of the visit, I start thinking that this might not be the best idea I've ever had. My five-year-old self is fairly pissed off at me, too. But my apprehension soon fades as I hop aboard Hans' boat. He's kind and welcoming, wearing a bright pink shirt and offering me tea and muffins.
I'd expected his place to be some sort of BDSM dungeon, full of latex-everything, sex swings and a dining table doubling as some sort of torture contraption. But aside from a collection of whips, nothing in Hans' houseboat betrays his sexual passion. Instead, the room is stuffed with toys, dolls and pink children's items.
"Those are my wife's," he reassures me. "She's into age play, where she pretends to be a young girl."
Hans learned his craft by taking workshops at the Vereniging Studiegroep Sadomasochisme – an association for the safe practise of sadomasochism. "The first needle workshop I participated in was horrible," he remembers. "The instructor just wanted to stick needles into women's breasts. He didn't prioritise safety at all."
He stresses the importance of communication and code words when trying out BDSM, especially if your partner initially doesn't seem all that interested in being tied up and poked with sharp objects. "Try to introduce the topic very casually and emphasise the fun in it," he tells me. "That's how to stir up curiosity."
Hans has an incredible ability to make needle play sound like an average massage session. But I still don't understand the appeal, so I ask him directly why anyone would get sexual pleasure out of having dozens of pins stuck into their skin.
"It's mostly about enjoying the physical sensation, and the knowledge that someone can literally crawl under your skin," he says. "You’re giving a partner complete control over your body while you kick back and relax. Sometimes, people just like to be objectified – to be treated like a pin cushion. And, importantly, you can choose the level of pain that you're willing to endure."
That all sounds a bit much for me, but – I assure him – I still plan on having at least one needle jammed into my flesh during our session. "For someone experienced in BDSM, one needle doesn't really mean anything," Hans explains, chuckling. "Generally, I'll use a maximum of 25 to 30 needles on a woman each time. But for someone like you, one is a big step."
Before we begin, Hans runs through a quick safety demonstration, complete with a PowerPoint presentation. There's a video ending with a close-up shot of a pin disappearing into someone's skin. I feel sick. Hans insists I sit down for the rest of the session, "just in case you faint". I don't know whether that's reassuring or terrifying.
Hans won't jab a needle into my skin unless I practice on myself first, but he's on hand to guide me through the process. "Firstly, you need to disinfect the needle and find a good spot on your skin," he explains. "Don't wobble around with it or you'll end up opening a wound."
While Hans disinfects his own skin, he explains his love for sadism. It's the pain and sexual humiliation that does it for him – and the sight of seeing a submissive woman. "For example, if someone has never deep-throated before, I really enjoy being the first one she allows to do it," he says. "Especially when she uses a ring gag and can't close her mouth."
From there, Hans takes a pastel green needle out of his first-aid kit, and puts a Hello Kitty plaster aside for later. "I was aware from a very young age that I was a sadist," he adds. "I used to tie up Barbies, dress them in raunchy outfits and create the most sexually gruesome scenarios. Before I even knew what a vagina looked like, I'd fantasise about all the horrible things I could do with it."
He proceeds to pinch a bit of skin on his own leg and drives a needle through it.
It all looks relatively easy, but when I try it on myself I can't seem to do it. My fingers are so sweaty I fail to effectively clasp a roll of my own flesh. In the end, I sort of jab at myself a few times before I'm able push it right through.
The pain is sharp and brief, but the adrenaline rush I'm experiencing is intense. It's the feeling of being in control of my own body that is surprisingly exciting. And although it's in no way making me feel horny, I'm overcome with a sense of pride.
"This is your needle, which you put into your own leg – congratulations!" my instructor beams.
In the past, Hans says he's struggled to reconcile his sadism with his personal values.
"I'm a feminist, and believe all women should be treated with respect," he explains, grabbing another needle. "I reject any form of oppression, so it's hard for me to admit that I love seeing a woman struggle. It's about those impulses of lust and pain in her eyes for me, and the marks on her body."
Hans was relieved to eventually find partners who share his fantasy. "I found women who were happy that they no longer needed to play the 'good girl' in bed," he explains. "Being tied up and relinquishing control somehow makes them feel liberated."
Now, it's my turn to hand over control to Hans. "I like making things unpredictable," he says. "That way I know someone has fully surrendered herself to me." He chooses my back as his canvas, so I won't be able to see where and when he sticks the needle in. After he disinfects my skin, he starts to softly caress me. "It's important to pay attention to the body's needs, otherwise you're just hurting a person."
I'm feeling as anxious as I've felt that morning. Suddenly, while Hans is still talking to me, he plunges a needle into my back. I'm not really sure whether I'm now screaming because of the pain or because of the adrenaline rushing through me. "You’ll notice that the skin around the needle feels different," he says softly. He's right – it feels raw and sensitive, like a carpet burn.
It's up to Hans to decide when to take the needle out of my body. And when he finally does, I realise that I have a better sense of why some people are so into this. As well as paying attention to the parts of your body that you would normally ignore, the after-pain comedown offers a pleasant mix of freedom and relaxation. In many ways, it's comparable to a trust fall – you've fought against your instincts to overcome a specific fear, no matter how minor that worry might have been. I can also picture how thrilling it might be to be aware of those little sex wounds underneath your clothes while you're having boring water-cooler chats with a co-worker.
Still, I personally feel more comfortable with less needlework in my sex life. In my defence, I did overcome my fear of needles today, by allowing someone to literally crawl under my skin with a pin – and I think that's enough progress for now.
This article originally appeared on VICE NL.