The appeal of humiliation is very difficult to explain to people who don't understand it. It seems to be one of those things that either you get it or you don't, and if you don't, it's just degrading and objectifying and awful. Certainly I've known plenty of people who have a strong squick response to humiliation. Many of my partners have (and do) enjoy humiliation play, though, and I've been talking to people around me who have an attraction for humiliation play to try to get an idea about what makes it tick. (Why? Because I like understanding myself and those around me; I like understanding how people experience the world. The unexamined life is not worth living, as Snoop Dogg used to say.)
And in talking with my friends and partners about the appeal of humiliation play, I get the sense that the appeal for me is very different than the appeal for many other people.
For some people, humiliation and shame provoke a very visceral response; under the right circumstances and with the right people, there is an immediate sexual arousal attached to it. Shelly hypothesizes that it's possible this is just good old-fashioned Pavlovian conditioning at work; we grow up in a society with a strong, almost Puritanical streak that teaches that sexuality is something shameful, and a lot of people go through periods of intense shame during puberty...especially if they grow up in repressive or sex-negative environments (Catholic schools, I'm looking at you here). It starts off with feelings of arousal and sexuality provoking reponses of shame and guilt, and those two emotional experiences become linked, so eventually feelings of shame become coupled with feelings of arousal.
This seems plausible to me, and does seem to match with the experiences of some of my past partners as well.
For other people, it seems to be the powerlessness and the sense of helplessness or objectification associated with many types of humiliation play that really do it. I can understand this; on some visceral, irrational level, which has nothing I can see to do with anything in my past or any of my experiences, powerlessness (and, conversely, control) crank my motor. It's not associated with any kind of trauma while I was growing up; it has nothing to do with any past event, or with trying to work through problems in childhood; for whatever reason, a strong psychological control dynamic just gets me off. It's a purely irrational thing that in some ways is like what I imagine having a foot fetish or a crossdressing fetish to be like; something that makes no sense to a person who doesn't have it, something that has no logical reason; simply a quirk in the wiring or whatever that makes this particular stimulus really, really arousing.
I think there's likely an element of this in people who like, for example, Daddy/daughter relationships, or who like resistance play or sexual objectification in any other form--just a good old-fashioned sexual fetish, not particularly associated with anything outside itself.
And I have talked to a few people for whom various types of BDSM, including humiliation play, is a direct response to some specific form of trauma. I've known people who explore BDSM as a way to get through or to gain power over some event or some part of their lives that was harmful or damaging--and I think thewre are both healthy and unhealthy ways that people do this. (There's a term that's used in the psychiatric community--I learned it in one of my cognitive psych classes back in the day, but don't remember it now--for the act of processing damaging or traumatic experiences in ways that actually deepen and reinforce the trauma, with the belief that they are working through it when in fact they're making it worse.) I think BDSM can be a positive and healthy way to explore, deal with, and ultimately regain control over some traumatic experience, though I also think that a person who's not careful may in fact end up just hurting himself more.
But none of these things is really the reason I like humiliation play.
Now, there is an element of that irrational, almost fetishistic arousal for me, make no mistake. From either the giving or the receiving end, humiliation play really gets me off.
But that's not why I do it. Humiliation play gets me off, but it isn't a fetish; I can get off in many other ways, and humiliation play is emotionally risky, at least for me. If it were simply a matter of having an orgasm and being done with it, I don't think I'd do it.
For me, the real appeal of humiliation play is as a vehicle for emotional intimacy.
When I am engaging in some kind of erotic scenario built around humiliation or shame, from either side but most especially from the receiving side, it exposes me emotionally to my partner in a way that nothing else I have experienced does. it strips away any emotional defense mechanisms I may have and lowers all of my emotional boundaries. The person you see when you see me i that context is me, undefended, completely exposed. As a tool for emotional intimacy, it can't be beat; there's no bullshit, no filtering any of my responses; what you see is what I am, completely unfiltered.
For that reason, I can't do humiliation play with a casual partner, or with a person I'm not in an intimate, stable, long-term relationship with. I use it precisely because the emotional vulnerability creates a vehicle for intimacy; for me, it's that, not the orgasm, that really matters. The fact that it gets me off is what makes me able to do it in the first place, because no doubt about it, that kind of vulnerability and emotional exposure is pretty scary shit--if it weren't for the fact that I eroticise humiliation, I'd never have started down that path in the first place. But from the people I've known and spoken to, using humiliation play for the primary purpose of exploring emotional intimacy seems very unusual. It seems those people I've known who enjoy it have some other primary motivation--which might be something as simple as "it gets my rocks off"--and anything else it does is something of a side effect.