My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.
I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.
I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.
Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.
I closed my eyes.
“Mercy,” I whispered.
Later, Richard reminded me of something I said that night: “I wish I’d met you years ago.” Thinking hard, I could only recall the evening in broad strokes. We’d gotten drunk at an outdoor party; he’d hurt me a bit; I’d said that; and then I’d staggered off to help clean up.
“A lot of crap comes out when you do this stuff,” he now said. A few weeks had passed. I was lying on my stomach across the foot of his bed. Sitting perpendicular to me, he leaned back and propped his feet on the small of my back. Thin and pale, he tended to wear black, and had intense dark eyes. It was summer in 2005. I was twenty years old.
He’d asked me why I wanted to be hurt. I couldn’t work out an answer — wasn’t certain the question was valid — so I asked him why he liked to hurt people. He’d half-laughed, with a tone that I couldn’t evaluate. Ruefully? “That’s a long, dark road,” he’d said.
“How do you know?” I asked, irritated by his presumption, nervously curious. I wasn’t sure I was what he thought I was — wasn’t sure what had been going on that night, beyond alcohol dulling my reactions and feelings. But I knew I hadn’t been abused or violated. I hadn’t asked him to stop, and I wanted to figure out why. “How did you know about me?”
“I can tell,” he said, and grinned. “With you, it was obvious.” He paused, added quietly, “You were begging for it.”
A couple of hours later, we remained fully clothed, my face was buried in his pillow, and I was crying. He’d pinned me down so I couldn’t move, and was raking his nails across what was exposed of my tank-topped back. When Richard first spotted the tears, he’d asked if I wanted a break. I’d said that it was okay, that he should continue, that I was fine.
I felt myself fragmenting, desperation and terror and pain pouring through me in an unbearable, necessary torrent. I told myself over and over that it didn’t hurt that much, but I couldn’t stop myself from tensing, crying out. After a while, I found myself saying, “No.”
I felt him check himself, shifting his weight from my back. “Can we clarify something?” he asked gently. “Do you really want me to stop when you say no?”
No, I realized, I don’t, and something vital in my psyche seemed to snap. The tears overwhelmed me. I couldn’t get an answer out through my sobs, but even if I could have, I haven’t the faintest idea what I might have said.
“We should take a break,” he decided, and moved away. I’ll never forget the relief — and desolation — I felt as he did.
It was a long time later that I remembered: I had met someone like Richard, years before. It had been in spring 2003; the guy was thin and pale, dressing mainly in black. I hadn’t once thought of him in a romantic light.
I’d counted him a friend, but had only been alone with him once. We were in his living room, seated next to each other on dun-colored carpet. I couldn’t recall how it started — we’d been sitting playing video games? had he tickled me as I shouted invective at the screen? — but it ended with him holding my wrists, me lying back on the floor and wondering how to get him off me.
I’d thought he might kiss me, so I turned my head away. Instead, he bit my neck. “No,” I said aloud, more in startlement than anything else, and he gave me a searching look — as if he wasn’t sure I was serious. “Please let me up,” I said, and he asked, “Why?”
I didn’t feel panicked, but strangely at a loss: he didn’t seem to take my objection seriously. Yet he wasn’t particularly threatening me, and I wasn’t afraid. I explained that I was in a committed, monogamous relationship I didn’t want to disrupt; I carefully didn’t react when he bit me again, although it hurt.
I didn’t say I wasn’t getting anything out of my powerlessness or his apparent desire to hurt me, that it left me cold. Maybe I wasn’t sure it would register: he hadn’t appeared to believe me when I first told him to let me up. And maybe something in me agreed that such a response was incorrect.
Eventually, I got away. Stupidly, confused, I mentioned the incident to my boyfriend. Of course he was furious; I had to calm him. For my part, it hadn’t occurred to me to be mad. That didn’t feel as bizarre as it sounds — on some level, I felt that the whole incident was reasonable, even if it hadn’t turned out to be what I wanted.
Not then. Not with him.
After I cried my heart out in his bed, Richard was very kind. He brought me a glass of water and listened as I said a lot of bewildered things. When I finally ran down, it was late; he invited me to sleep over, but didn’t put the moves on me. The next morning, he told me he had work to do. Straightforwardly, I asked when I could see him again. He smiled, said to email him, that we’d work something out.
The next few days — weeks — time, I don’t know; however long it was, it felt like being put through a shredder. I couldn’t think about anything but that night and how, through my turmoil and tears, I’d found a kind of exultation. I had been sober, prepared and clear-headed. I couldn’t find a way around the brutal, uncompromising revelation that apparently, I wanted nothing more than to be subordinated, used, hurt. I actually wanted to be a victim.
I wanted to talk to someone, but wasn’t sure how to frame my words. I was positive it would help to talk to Richard, but he was busy, and busy, and busy. I had a number of friends who I suspected were into hardcore BDSM; I could have called any of them. But it was one thing to be fine with other people doing it, and quite another to discover such a desire in myself. In another situation, I would have thoroughly deconstructed my obvious double standard — but just then, it was a minor irrationality on top of one big chunk of insanity.
I considered asking my loving, liberal parents for advice and tried to imagine how it would go.
Mom. Dad. I love you, and I’m so sorry. I know you’ve tried to give me an independent, rational, feminist outlook, as well as self-esteem and integrity. Sadly, none of this appears to have taken; I guess I’m a broken mockery of everything you tried to instill. I don’t want you to worry, or blame yourselves, but have you any advice on where to go from here?
My mental images of that summer are hazy with remembered anger. As Richard remained occupied, I felt fury building within my fascination. I’m sure I felt like the classical woman spurned: he was nice enough when he ran into me and told me he was there to talk if I needed it, but the evidence contradicted his words. For weeks after that night, if I tried to see him he didn’t have time.
It didn’t help that he reacted very badly when I went after him aggressively — too aggressively, I knew, but couldn’t help it — and told him honestly how vulnerable I was. He backed off fast, leaving me more confused than ever. (Though not too confused to think: How stereotypical.)
It went beyond being a woman spurned, though. Especially since I believed, intellectually, that he didn’t owe it to me not to be busy. He wasn’t required to sort me out. And — since it seemed to be what I was after — he wasn’t obligated to continue hurting me. We’d just met, after all.
It was more that I was enraged by how desperately I wanted to be hurt — and infuriated that someone, anyone, could have such power over me. I had always thrown myself into infatuations; like most people, I’d been known to get angry at the object of my affections. But this was different. Not only was I infatuated, I was aching for something I couldn’t reconcile. Even if Richard had been the perfect counselor I had no right to expect, I might have hated him. As it was, I felt toyed with, and found as many other reasons to dislike him as I could. As long as I could focus on wrath, I didn’t have to think about my other feelings.
It kept me from falling apart.
He was away for most of the summer. I went to a few trusted friends for reassurance and validation; giving few details, I allowed my anger to calcify. But Richard ended up surprising me. On a visit to Chicago, he called me every night for a week. The bruises he left took weeks to fade, some of them bleeding and leaving scars. I raged as I covered the worst of them — but felt also a low-burning fulfillment. One close friend, Andrew, caught sight of a bruise on my leg and cast me a worried look. “That looks pretty bad,” he observed, and I could only say, “Yes.”
By then, I’d well and truly internalized the belief that Richard didn’t want to deal with emotional vulnerability, and my furious resentment remained. This feeling was not helped by society in general; men hate emotions, right? Still, the more time I spent with him, the more I had to admit that he made an effort to be sensitive. Most of our failures to understand each other came from how different our relationship paradigms were, not to mention my unevenly-repressed identity crisis. I know I tried to warn Richard that I wasn’t doing well at expressing myself and that what I thought, or felt, or believed I was might change on short notice; but I doubt I got even that concept across.
He identified fairly publicly as a BDSMer, and made it clear that he considered me superficial and cowardly because I was unsure about doing so myself. He was also polyamorous, a lifestyle that I had some experience with — but though I respected others’ choices to engage in it, I’d decided against polyamory for myself. It felt strange to draw the parallel, but it was somewhat like dealing with a difficult boyfriend. Still, I didn’t trust him, and our relationship didn’t particularly involve sex.
Towards the end of one night, wan light filtering through my curtains, Richard inquired unexpectedly, “Are you happy with the way we are now?”
“What do you mean?” I temporized, sighing inwardly. Now I’d have to come up with a rational, coherent answer that would satisfy him. In those days, rationality and coherence felt like improbable dreams.
Richard explained that he hadn’t particularly been satisfied with how he’d dealt with me before he left, but hadn’t had time for anything better. Now, he thought the situation was “healthier”. “What do you want from this?” he asked seriously.
I want the strength to walk away from you, I thought unclearly. I want you to actually care about me. I never want to see you again. I hugged my arms to myself, resting my hands gingerly on swelling skin. “Um,” I said slowly, “nothing in particular?” I took a breath and gathered the one overriding fact: I want you to keep hurting me. “I don’t expect anything from you,” I told him, “and I don’t want you to expect anything from me.”
I knew from his smile that my answer was the right one. I could only hope it was accurate.
The summer passed, Richard away again for the end of it, then returning in September for the beginning of the school year. I, however, was leaving the city soon, and would be gone for some time. Those days were my last chances to see him for a while, and I was acutely aware of his nearness: I felt oriented towards him, as if I were a compass and he was North.
But I still felt the rage, lurking under the surface of my mind like a submerged monster. And though I ached with disturbingly intense thoughts of violence, it seemed that I was staying away from Richard, closing him out when I ran into him. He finally confronted me and asked, blunt as ever, if I was avoiding him. I denied it reflexively. How could I avoid North?
“I’m still figuring out how I feel about you,” I told him as we walked late one night on the waterfront. I’d started to come to terms with being a masochist, had begun to assimilate that into my self-image, but that didn’t explain why it had taken him to force the knowledge on me. The man I’d known in 2003, for instance, made no impression — though he’d obviously seen exactly what Richard saw, and had taken almost exactly the same approach. And I’d known heavily, formally BDSM-identifying folks for years. I’d even experimented with light bondage in previous relationships — being gently tied up, for instance — though I hadn’t found it especially compelling.
Was it that I’d been drunk the first time I encountered Richard, my careful rational mind turned off? Was it that nothing less drastic than the bruises he’d left could have forced my understanding? Was it simply that I’d been romantically unhappy at the time, whereas I’d been content when that other man pinned me to the floor? Even in the midst of my now-constant confusion, I couldn’t stop myself from analyzing it all to bits. Now I concluded that I ought to know how I felt about Richard if I wanted to get to the roots of myself.
It had taken me a while to call my openly-BDSM friends for advice, but — maybe around the same time I really started acclimating — I had. One of their offhand comments came to mind. “I guess there’s no reason you would know this,” she’d said, “but it’s fairly common for people to have one person who’s their lover, and a separate person for inflicting pain.”
I thought about that, and about Richard saying, “A lot of crap comes out when you do this stuff.” I considered the maxims that tell us that the opposite of love isn’t actually hate, and how much time I’d spent encouraging myself to hate him. Finally, I admitted that the only term I had to cover this depth of emotion was “love” … but that couldn’t make it feel like the right word. Then again, it wasn’t exactly “hate”, either.
He was a demon, an idol. He hardly felt like a person to me.
I didn’t vocalize any of this. Coming back from the waterfront, we arrived at the intersection where Richard would go to his apartment and I’d return to mine. An awkward pause ensued: I was leaving in a few days, and wouldn’t be alone with him again. Watching him, I wondered if he was thinking about asking me over, or was looking for an excuse not to. I looked away.
“Goodnight,” I said. Walking home, I wished I felt strong.
It was after I left Chicago that I really started piecing myself back together. My anger drained away quickly, as if an infected wound had been lanced. Perhaps I found my strength under the scab. I figured that maybe all this did identify something about my personality, but it didn’t tell the whole story. Even now, I could be independent, rational, and feminist, with self-esteem and integrity. Right? Right.
It was impossible to deny that the desires were real — and when I allowed myself to focus on them, I didn’t try. Ruminating on my past, I recalled heart-twisting details that put everything in a certain compelling context. It wasn’t just the man who’d gone after me in 2003. Wincing, I remembered childhood fantasies: I’d compulsively written and drawn brutal dreams until, at some confused middle-school point, their horror came home to me and I recoiled. In those long-repressed fictions of slavery and pain, I recognized my newly-acknowledged desires.
One conversation I’d had with an early boyfriend rang in my head. “There’s a dark current inside me,” I’d told him. Self-consciously, I’d averted my eyes at my own melodrama. “I don’t know how to be with you, when I feel it.” I hadn’t exactly been trying to leave him, but I’d needed something more.
The last dream I remember of Richard didn’t involve any pain at all: he just kissed me. Awakening, I felt a melancholy pang. Richard invested a lot of self-conception in being a sadist, and he was so distant — I couldn’t imagine relating to him as a lover. And I knew our relationship (such as it was) would never have started without BDSM as a focus. Previous to that night at the outdoor party, he’d hardly registered on my romantic radar, and we had little in common in terms of how we dealt with relationships.
Still, for a moment I wished — unreasonably, I knew — that I could have fallen straightforwardly in love.
I was gone for six months, and I returned in heartbreak. A relationship more important than words can encompass had become — after years of attempts — impossible. I think it was obvious. One friend told me vulnerability was all over me; like a scent, I thought, and wondered if Richard could smell it. In worse shape than ever, I saw Richard and laughed with an edge to my voice. I gave him doe-eyed looks, but deflected his interest with doublespeak and icy tones. I wanted him, and I felt the rage returning. I hated and sheltered behind the unclear verbal games we played. Furious and despairing, I refused to chase him, yet I felt him everywhere. North.
I had to do something. My identity had somewhat solidified: I was into BDSM. I believed it, I even accepted it, but I couldn’t go on feeling like I did.
In looking around the Internet, I came upon a directory of Kink Aware Professionals, including therapists who provided their names for people who needed to talk about BDSM but feared judgment. I visited two. One listened to me silently, with a vaguely sorrowful expression; he offered no feedback, and left me wondering why he’d listed his name in the directory. He obviously didn’t know what to do with me, and I got the uneasy feeling that I worried him. Naturally, that didn’t help at all.
Luckily, the other was everything I could have asked for — open, patient, clearly knowledgeable about BDSM. He looked straight at me and nodded understandingly when I confessed the whole trail of events; he explained how common my experience was; he gave me ideas about where to look for more information, but didn’t try to put his own preferences into our talks. “Most people in your situation feel that they’ve broken a major taboo,” he said. “A lot try to get away from BDSM. But I’m not hearing that from you. You want to adjust, not escape.” I nodded, and arranged to see him regularly.
Still, I don’t think I could have put myself together again without two other things.
My close friend Andrew went after me at a drunken party. Shades of Richard, I might have thought, but I never did. Andrew pinned me to the floor, laughed as I fought back, hurt me, finally kissed me. When I asked in bewilderment what brought this on, he confessed. “When you were gone, I missed you,” he whispered, “and I’ve never missed anyone like that before.” He was as afraid of the darkness of BDSM as I had been, yet he’d thought of me and found himself fantasizing. He wanted to try it with me, but first he wanted to be sure that he and I would remain close — wouldn’t lose what we already had.
In everything Andrew told me — everything we said to each other, laughing, almost in tears, burying each other in embraces, happily drunk and clear-eyed in the morning — I found the things that were missing with Richard. Uncertain about BDSM, guarding his and my boundaries, Andrew wanted to commit to me and to a devoted monogamous relationship. Part of me counseled caution and withdrawal, but as my therapist laughingly put it, Andrew was as tempting as an ice-cream factory. It was my chance to fall straightforwardly in love.
Soon after that, I had to explain to my parents why I wanted a psychiatrist who was out-of-network for my health insurance. I closed my eyes as my father asked why I needed this specialist, what his focus was. “S&M,” I said shortly.
Why had I worried? I knew my parents had striven to give me an independent, rational, feminist outlook. Self-esteem and integrity. I was so lucky, I understood as my father said nothing but, “All right.” It was a blinding realization: my father might have judged me with all the worst things I thought of myself — but instead, he trusted me to do my best.
When I called my mother (long separated from my dad), too many of my flatmates were around for a private conversation indoors. I banished myself into a warm summer storm, cradling my cell phone away from the rain. There was a pause after I said the fateful words — then she said, “Have you talked to your father about this?”
“Yes,” I said hesitantly. “Why?”
“Well, I think it was an issue in our marriage that I was more into that stuff than he was.”
Fat droplets soaked my hair. The tight knot in my chest — familiar for nearly a year — loosened as I caught my breath. I turned my face up to the sky and let the tilted world resettle around me; my mother’s faraway voice helped me through a hundred things that had torn my heart. “You aren’t giving up your liberation,” she reminded me, and emphasized my continuing right to a partner who respects me. She even noted mildly that she’d “wondered” about me when I was a child.
I’d feared that I was damaged, that there was something deeply broken in me. I’d wildly guessed that I’d suffered trauma and repressed the memories. But if my mother — one of the most independent, feminist women I’ve ever met — could reconcile BDSM, then I knew I could. And if she was into BDSM herself, then rather than viewing my proclivities as damage, I could see them as something intrinsic we shared.
Over the next hour, my mother told me I could retain rationality, self-esteem and integrity. For the first time, I found myself believing it.
My therapist laughed when I told him. “I swear,” he cried, “it’s genetic!”
There was one loose end to a conclusion that felt like a fairy tale. Though we had some unfettered conversations, tension remained between me and Richard — perhaps it even worsened. At one point, observing us, Andrew said mildly: “Settle down, you two.”
Worse, Andrew and I were going in different directions. I finally felt somewhat at peace with BDSM, but he couldn’t gain that comfort, and started backing away from it. It was impossible not to think of Richard and shiver, remembering how uncompromisingly vicious he could be. When Andrew and I broke up over a year later, I knew: I shouldn’t see Richard. My therapist warned me to be careful with BDSM when my heart was in pieces.
Of course I wasn’t.
It was the first time I’d explicitly pursued Richard since he’d told me, so long ago, that he was busy. I emailed him straightforwardly, sat down on his bed shortly after Andrew and I broke up. When Richard set his fingernails into my skin, he murmured, “It’s been a while,” as if he’d always known he’d see me here again. The tears came more quickly than they once had — I’d fought them then, unwilling to break down in front of him. I’d been successful, too. Richard had only made me cry once, before.
This is what I want, I reminded myself as Richard wound his hand in my hair and pulled my head back. His teeth bruising my shoulder felt familiar and wrong. A kiss on my neck sent me rigid. Sobs nearly choked me. Why now, my heart cried, why not when you were who I dreamed of, Richard?
I couldn’t fault his empathy — he pulled away. “No,” I said unwillingly, “I’m fine,” but he wouldn’t continue. Uneasily, he pointed out that I’d never reacted like that. I said he’d never kissed me like that, and he asked, “Really?” as if it were a surprise.
Yes, I thought, forcing my tears away. I was desperate for it. I know.
To get him to keep hurting me, I had to convince him that I was fine. This is what I want, I coached myself. I was nearly composed when Richard mentioned Andrew, and I felt grief rip me open.
He watched me cry, got me a glass of water. Shades of two years ago, I might have thought, but I never did. I apologized; he said only, “I thought this might happen.” On some level, I knew that I had, too — for all my self-reassurances that I would be fine. What was I thinking? I asked myself, and the answer came instantly. I had to know.
When Richard asked if I wanted to sleep over, I said I didn’t. “Then don’t go yet,” he said softly, putting his arms around me where I lay. I rested my head on his chest. I won’t tell Andrew about this, I decided, wondering if he and I would be together again. Even if I’ve learned that I don’t want Richard anymore.
In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation. The agonizing memories of my adjustment have lost their emotional flavor. I’ve learned a lot about how to practice BDSM safely — physically and emotionally. I’ve had multiple BDSM partners, and I’ve had positive experiences in the welcoming BDSM subculture. In recent times, I’ve even begun to switch: occasionally I’ll be the dominant partner, though I feel submissive masochism far closer to my core.
Still, I remember the unease I felt at first — and I recognize stronger unease in others. I certainly wouldn’t describe this orientation to, say, an employer. I believe BDSM needs a liberation movement, just like homosexuality, but I’m not (yet?) ready to be a public spokeswoman. And I definitely wouldn’t consider dragging others out of the closet. I write about BDSM under a pseudonym, and I have changed the names of Richard and Andrew.
I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. When Richard first pulled my head back and hurt me at that drunken outdoor party, I could have said no. The word was echoing in my mind, waiting on my lips, and I didn’t say it because I didn’t want him to stop. I was certainly intoxicated, but I wasn’t helpless. I was threatened, but I was not afraid. I may have fought self-actualization like a caged animal, but I could not deny it. I have always been this way.
Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. I identify as feminist, and I don’t believe that to be at odds with being a submissive masochist. Indeed, I believe that the feminist movement helped my practice of BDSM: it’s one of the factors that gave me the strength and self-assurance required to figure out and discuss my sexual needs.
Andrew and I did get back together; then we broke up again. Richard and I have had other nights together. I wish this narrative ended cleanly. I wish I could say that I’ve found a fairy-tale lover, that I’m now with a man who both hurts me till I cry and gives me the relationship I want. (Why stop there? He could be rich and handsome and a great cook, too!) But this is my story, not a fairy tale. Just as well; that means I still have space to learn. I believe I’ve gotten better at communicating clearly. I believe I’ve gotten better at sorting out the harsh emotions inspired by BDSM, working with — and enjoying! — those feelings in the context of a loving relationship. And I hope I no longer objectify my sadistic partners to the extent that I objectified Richard. Still, I know I’ve got a ways to go.
I see BDSM as a continuum — similar to the theory that homosexuality is a continuum — and sometimes I think that everyone’s on the continuum to some degree. I don’t think Andrew is as far into the continuum as I am, and not as far as Richard, either. But there are reasons I was with Andrew for nearly two years, yet never let myself fall completely into Richard.
A certain kind of devoted relationship is important to me. I felt strongly about Richard, and he was a good fit for BDSM, but he couldn’t give me the relationship I want. I went back to Andrew, though he was far less into BDSM, because I was able to love him. I wonder, though: if I ever fall for a completely vanilla man, will I be able to compromise that far? It seems unlikely. Maybe if that happens I’ll have to remember my friend’s words and find a separate person, a non-lover who inflicts pain.
I’d rather not do that, but I can’t imagine giving up BDSM. The idea feels equivalent to a vow of celibacy. As my therapist said, I’m not looking to escape — especially not now that I’ve finally adjusted. It wasn’t easy, but I feel that today I am triumphant. And I believe, I hope, that knowing what I want is the surest path to falling straightforwardly — happily — in love.