2012 25 Nov
This was originally published at The Frisky.
* * *
A few years ago ….
Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can. But my friend (?) Richard used to joke (?) that I only called him when I broke up with my boyfriends. Kinda true, kinda false. Regardless — a few years ago — I don’t even call him this time, I just end up at his apartment for some small party.
He scents the pain in me, and suddenly we’re in a back room, alone. One of the reasons he’s so good at this is that he smells vulnerability like a shark smells blood. I don’t remember whether I ask him to hurt me, or he just grabs me. “Something’s close to the surface,” I tell him, while he leaves bite-shaped bruises on my upper arm. He knows me; he doesn’t leave bruises in places I can’t cover with a t-shirt.
“What is it?” he asks, and I choke on it. I’m already starting to cry. We’ve only been doing this for a moment.
“Red,” I say. The safeword. I’m sobbing. “Red.” Richard stops immediately. “Tears,” I say. “Tears were close to the surface.”
We’re on the floor now. I’m curled up in his lap. I tell Richard that the guy I broke up with last year — the worst breakup in my life — I tell Richard that this other guy met me two nights ago, specifically to tell me that he never cared about me. Almost a year after the breakup, my ex decided to inform me that he lied every time he said “I love you.” He could not have chosen a better way to re-break my heart. Why did he have to do that? Maybe he was doing it defensively, to mess with me … and the thought that he would go to the trouble leads me towards perverse, momentary relief. Then it starts hurting again.
“There are other fish in the sea,” says Richard.
“Thanks,” I say. I’m too devastated to say it with the sarcasm I intend. Yet I’m grateful for the attempt.
Richard’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I really enjoy doing S&M with you. Your reactions are so familiar.”
“Even when I break so quickly? Even when I safeword in less than a minute?” I ask. I’m feeling the masochist’s insecurity: I thought I could hold out. I’m so pathetic.
“Even then,” Richard says gently.
It’s these moments that make me think it might be safe to trust him, but the moment never lasts. For years I’m relieved that I never made the mistake of actually dating him, that I don’t rely on him for anything. Every time he stomps on some girl’s heart I shrug and say, “That’s how he is,” with a secret and shameful tinge of pride. And then one day I will realize that I do expect his support, when I’m almost killed in an accident and he outright ignores me. I will feel betrayed and simultaneously blame myself. I’ll decide that we are just fucking done.
But on this night, that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m surprised by how close I feel to Richard. I wipe the tears from my cheeks, then go to the bathroom and wash my face. Pull myself together so I can return to the party. My eyes meet my reflection’s; I’m not sure what I see.
I think I feel better than I did before Richard broke me down, but I don’t have time for genuine emotional processing right now. My chest feels heavy. Did he do me a favor?
* * *
The S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is full of bad messages about romance and S&M. The drugs-and-beauty writer Cat Marnell had a recent and spectacular public breakdown, which has been profiled all over the media. You might think that I’m cynically exploiting Hot Google Trends by bringing the two together — and okay, maybe I am. But for me, they’re similar because they both make me jealous.
Sure, I’m jealous of Marnell’s fragile beauty and James’s million bucks. But that’s the least of it. The writer Sarah Hepola says she’s jealous of Marnell’s writing skill, but me, I’m jealous of what those two get to write. They get to write about a self-destructive edge; about putting oneself in danger.
For the last few years, I have written mostly about S&M. I write about other things, too, but I’ve focused on S&M because I know it well. Because it’s important to me. Because I believe that S&M can be life-affirming and intimacy-building and can coexist with feminism, with justice. Indeed, the available psychological research shows clearly that consensual S&M is not, in itself, harmful.
But as I’ve written about feminism and S&M, I’ve also known the rules about what I get to write. I’m not sure how I internalized these rules, but I know them like I know my face in the mirror. When I write, I’m supposed to emphasize the emotional health of my relationships — both with my lovers, and (separately) with my parents. I’m supposed to emphasize my physical health, decent diet, and relatively new exercise habits — although it’s okay to mention it if I’m injured, because that’s not my fault. I’m allowed to mention being an outcast in high school, but God forbid I talk too much about the emotional impact. I must stress excellent communication with my partners. I always, always have to mention safewords.
I am a politician. The arenas for debate are both my mind and my body. The personal is political, indeed.
I didn’t know I was waiting for it until it came, in Cat Marnell’s most recent column: doing S&M and then blaming it on drugs and self-destruction. She writes:
This is amphetamine logic: I am eroticized by pain. And that’s a lie. How turned on could I have actually been?
Marnell describes being hit in the jaw until she saw stars (and by the way, folks, there are safe ways to slap people and then there are unsafe ones; if a person is seeing stars, that’s a bad sign). In Fifty Shades, it’s a similar dangerous narrative: the dominant guy is scarily stalkerish, the relationship is packed with bad communication. It’s notable that in Fifty Shades, the series ends when the dominant sadist is “cured” of his S&M desires. Oh yes, readers want to have their cake and eat it too. The hot parts are the S&M — yet Christian Grey needs a “cure” for his trauma in the form of a sufficiently pure and pretty girl. Once he loves her, he supposedly “doesn’t need S&M anymore,” but then the series also has no reason to continue.
Fifty Shades was written to let people enjoy the hotness without taking responsibility for emotional safety. Without asking the dangerous question of whether S&M might be part of a loving relationship.