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Why some of us push our bodies to extremes
Author: Jenny Valentish

This book is about people willing to do the sorts of things that most others couldn't, shouldn't or wouldn't. While there are all sorts of reasons why people consume substances, the author notes that there are those who treat drug-taking like an Olympic sport, exploring their capacity to really push their bodies, and frankly, wanting to be the best at it. Extreme athletes, death-defiers and those who perform incredible stunts of endurance have been celebrated throughout history. The most successful athletes can compartmentalise, storing away worry and pain in a part of their brain so it does not interfere with their performance. The brain releases testosterone, for a boost of strength and confidence. In bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) play, the endogenous opioid system responds to the pain, releasing opioid peptides. It seems some of us are more wired than others to activate those ancient biological systems, be it through being caned in a dungeon during a lunchbreak or climbing a sheer rock wall at the weekend. Back in 1990, sociologist Stephen Lyng coined the term 'edgework', now frequently used in BDSM circles, as 'voluntary pursuit of activities that involve a high potential for death, physical injury, or spiritual harm'.

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Jenny Valentish

Extreme athletes, death-defiers and those who perform incredible stunts of endurance have been celebrated throughout history. Research into extreme behaviour started in earnest in the decade of experimentation. The 1960s introduced the work of University of Massachusetts psychology professor Seymour Epstein, who studied parachutists' physiological arousal when approaching a jump and observed the immense sense of wellbeing derived from surviving fear. Psychologist Frank Farley is interested in the positive aspects of thrill-seekers, among them extreme athletes, entrepreneurs and explorers, and what we can learn from them. It must be noted that it's not always the case that people who take part in a pursuit that pushes their body to extremes have a common disposition or personal history. It's more accurate to say that what the pursuit has to offer can be a particular draw for some kinds of people.

in Everything harder than everyone else
Endurance Athletes
Jenny Valentish

This chapter talks about Charlie Engle's crack-addiction years, before he pledged his life to endurance races, the six-day benders in which he'd wind up in strange motel rooms with well-appointed women from bad neighbourhoods, and smoke until he came to with his wallet missing. Charlie has already completed some of the world's most inhospitable adventure races. He's been chased by crocodiles, hung off a cliff tangled in climbing ropes and had a tarantula squat in his sleeping bag, although none of that comes close to the actual running component in terms of endurance. Endurance cycling is ultrarunning's lycra-clad cousin, so hardcore that as far back as the 1880s and 1890s, racers were experimenting with cocaine, caffeine, nitrogylcerin and strychnine for energy and pain relief. The chapter discusses Luke Tyburski's horrible feats of endurance, which have been immortalised in a documentary, The Ultimate Triathlon, and his memoir, Chasing Extreme.

in Everything harder than everyone else
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Performance Artists and Rogue Scientists
Jenny Valentish

In this chapter, Dr Jack Allocca is describing to the author one of the many hunts he's been on with tribes and remote communities across the continents. The hunts relate to his hobby: challenging his notions of disgust by eating what many would consider to be inedible. The chapter presents the highlights of the conversation between the author and Professor Stelarc, who is the director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at Perth's Curtin University. When Stelarc was amid his series of twenty-five body suspensions, a fellow artist, body piercing pioneer Fakir Musafar in San Francisco, reached out. Stelarc and Jack buck the mould of many endurance athletes and performers, in that they're not tapping into any deep-seated emotional anguish as fuel for their endeavours.

in Everything harder than everyone else
Bodybuilders
Jenny Valentish

This chapter describes the in the lives of two bodybuilders, namely Kortney Olson and Karen Adigos, who grew up in chaotic households with inconsistent parenting, and who yearned for order and control in their adult lives. Bodybuilding is an expensive pursuit. There are special diets, supplements, endless coaching sessions and competition fees. To make ends meet, Kortney worked as a personal trainer, but then discovered, at the age of twenty-seven, that she could make four hundred dollars an hour by working in muscle fetish. Like most serious bodybuilders, Karen rarely drinks alcohol. In fact, her language reminds me at times of AA's twelve-step recovery, with its emphasis on gratitude, mindset and structure. Through much of her twenties and early thirties, she simply survived, muddling along working in hospitality and then moving into personal training.

in Everything harder than everyone else
BDSM
Jenny Valentish

This chapter presents a detailed conversation between the author and Sir James, who is a sex worker specialising in domination in the world of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM). As a strongman coach, Sir James has a grasp of the fundamental mechanics of human movement that's vital when administering bondage positions and the safe range of motion of a limb. It's also taught him when to push and when to stop. He discreetly surveys a client's heart rate by checking the pounding of their neck, or looking for dilation of their pupils. The chapter describes the lives of designer, Anna. During the week, Anna runs a design studio. At weekends, she goes by flamboyant stage names. Anna's perception of her body and mind was that they were two very separate things. BSDM and suspension have allowed her to realise that they are completely connected.

in Everything harder than everyone else
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Belts and Iron
Jenny Valentish

This chapter describes the lives of Richie Hardcore, Camilla Fogagnolo, and Chris Fleming. Having hung up his belts, Richie is now a Muay Thai coach, but also a public speaker and activist, and counts New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern as a friend. Camilla is a former Olympic weightlifter and a strongwoman who deadlifts cars and hoists stones at contests around the world. Ruminating on her life has led Camilla to an epiphany about the relationship between endurance and childhood trauma. Camilla told about the UK study which found that its entire group of super-elite athletes had experienced early-life trauma. It explained to her the riddle of the naturally gifted athlete who dabbles with training and quits prematurely. Camilla believes there should be research carried out into the occurrence of self-harm and high-level athletes.

in Everything harder than everyone else
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Porn Stars
Jenny Valentish

With the industry accessible to anyone with a camera and some hustle, a more extreme element wound up decimating the landscape of popular porn. Rough, degrading sex isn't by default misogynistic, but it's noteworthy that if anyone open a browser and seek out corresponding sexual acts in gay porn, the vibe may be aggressive and performatively debasing, but it's never this hateful. There's a prevalent belief that porn stars must have been molested as children. The theory that childhood abuse is a gateway to porn aggravates many high-profile performers when it's raised in interviews. For performers today, pornography doesn't so much offer the opportunity to explore their limits as to commodify acts of endurance. It's why some women have moved into the territory of OnlyFans: a content platform that facilitates a direct exchange between performer and consumer through a subscription, pay-per-view or tips.

in Everything harder than everyone else
Wrestlers
Jenny Valentish

Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.' Suffering in sport is not merely a noble journey of physical sacrifice, but its own masochistic melodrama, a way of thrashing out complicated internal issues in the crudest of external ways. While pro-wrestling is one of the most injurious sports (or, more accurately, it's sports entertainment), it's generally only hardcore wrestlers who leave blood smears across the ring. A handful of wrestlers have died from brain trauma in or out of the ring. WWE wrestlers, unlike other athletes, have no off-season, and need to power through show after show while living on the road.

in Everything harder than everyone else
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Fighters
Jenny Valentish

Many prominent fighters grew up on what is poetically described as the wrong side of the tracks, though of course their stories of neglect and family violence have gained attention over those that are more pedestrian. Eugene S. Robinson argues that combat athletes, boxers, kickboxers and MMA fighters, bear the burden of being too handsome, which naturally leads them to become targets in bar rooms and parking lots. Once seen as the scrapyard for fighters, bare-knuckle boxing is gaining legitimacy as a sport, in the way that MMA transitioned from what in the 1990s Senator John McCain called 'human cockfighting' to a multi-billion-dollar industry. Professional fighting calls for a pantomime of feuds, which necessitates anger and ego, even if that's embellished a few notches.

in Everything harder than everyone else