Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose

Leigh Cowart. Public Affairs, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5417-9804-5

Journalist Cowart looks at sex, sports, and science in their intense consideration on why some people choose to inflict pain on themselves. “Masochism is a very human behavior, and one that only sometimes has anything to do with sex,” Cowart writes, arguing that such commonplace activities as extreme sports and workaholism tap into the same desire. To that end, they explore extreme and painful activities that people participate in by choice: there’s a chapter on hot-pepper-eating competitions that feature the world’s hottest chili peppers (“I get a rush. It makes me feel good. It gives me energy,” the inventor of the pepper says); one on ultramarathoning, where people are “allowed to stare pain in the face”; and one covering various types of religious pain and their modern-day, secular adherents (scientists found a “biological similarity between starvation... and getting high on drugs”). Along the way, there are 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—graphic depictions of masochistic sex, bulimia, and self-mutilation are in no short supply. But for those already into the subject, Cowart’s raw study offers insight. Agent: Anna Sproul-Latimer, Neon Literary. (Sept.) Correction: This review has been updated with the author's preferred pronouns.