This was originally posted on October 18, 2010, over at Feministe. The comments on the original version are mostly excellent, though some are ridiculous.
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A quotation from Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, a memoir about her experiences as a sex worker:
Marina [a sex worker] had been abused by her dad when she was a girl, and she’d do coke and tell [a client] about it as he jerked off.
Marina! I gasped. I was astonished. She didn’t really care. It gave me flutters of anxiety, her blasé admission, the idea of the creepy man getting off on the rehashing of a child’s abuse. Maybe the anti-sex industry feminists were right, maybe this was evil work, work that tore the fragile scabbing of every wound a girl ever got, again and again, till pain felt regular, felt like nothing. Maybe we were encouraging the worst of men, helping blur their already schizophrenic line between fantasy and reality, what they’re allowed to have and what they’re not. I knew that some girls thought we were actually preventing rape and incest by giving the men a consensual space to act out their fantasies, and it grossed me out beyond belief to think that I was fucking would-be sex criminals, but I believed them. What I didn’t believe was that any of us, with our cheesy one-hour sex routines, would be enough to keep these men from hurting a female if that’s what they wanted to do. And what I secretly wondered was, were we empowering them sexually to go and do just that. Go and do just anything they wanted.
I love this quotation (I’m loving this whole book and I’m not even done yet). Here’s why: because I can relate. Oh yes, I think it’s full of problematic negative stereotypes about men, so I’ll note that up front. (Though this book sure makes it easy to understand where those stereotypes come from.) And I’ve never done sex work myself, so I don’t want to come across as co-opting Michelle Tea’s experience, or saying things about it that she didn’t mean.
But I believe I recognize those anxieties, because they come up for me sometimes, as a sex-positive feminist woman who can’t stand the idea of actual non-consensual sex. Hell yeah, I get angry about sexual abuse, and it hurts to think about it. Hell yeah, it kills me to think about sex workers who are trafficked or abused or desperate, who don’t get into the industry willingly (unlike so many sex workers I know who freely chose, who enjoy their jobs). And this quotation, its worries about cultural masculinity and sexual power dynamics, most reminds me of the unease I once felt so terribly about my own S&M sexuality. Unease that still surfaces sometimes, somehow, against my will. Surfaces, for example, when I hear about tragic cases like abusive relationships that masquerade as BDSM relationships.
How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?
Encouraging the worst of men. Fucking would-be sex criminals. Empowering them to go and do just anything they want.
Those words have their teeth in my heart. Have always haunted me whenever I thought of BDSM, sex work, sometimes even sex itself … things that can be warped into something so very damaging.
Like any woman, I’ve got my stories of male sexual co-option. My experiences have been mild compared to the rape and abuse that are too many people’s awful reality, but my experiences are also real, and shaped me profoundly. The stereotypes of sexuality that made me into a teenage girl who couldn’t seem to think or communicate my way out of giving blowjobs to a man who categorically refused to return the favor. Who faked orgasms because I couldn’t figure out how to have them, and because I felt that I had to give the fragile male ego the all-important reassurance that I was coming “for him”. Who just smiled when a boyfriend I’d actually been honest with told me how convenient it was that I didn’t know how to come: I was good in bed, he informed me, partly because “I don’t even need to give you an orgasm.”
(Those exact words, he said them. And the crazy thing is that I do believe he was in love with me; he thought he was giving me a compliment. Somehow, being in love with me still didn’t enable him to see what kind of bind I was in, what kind of screwed-up encouragement he was giving me to suppress and wound myself, when he told me something like that.)
I wrote a whole 20-page paper at age 18 about what I referred to as the “self-guilt-trip”: what many women end up doing to ourselves in a society where sexual stereotypes have nothing to do with what we want. I spent so long guilt tripping myself into having — even initiating — sex I wasn’t that into, because that was the image of sexuality that I had. What I thought was expected. What I thought I had to do, had to be, in order to be sexual with another person; to be sexually liberated; to “earn” a sexual relationship.
God yes, I hate that. And I hate the reality of rape and assault and harassment, almost always performed by men against women — although other genders get raped too and their experience should never ever be erased. But here’s the thing. I also hate the fact that in this world, merely being okay with sexuality — and, for me personally, being okay with my BDSM sexuality — is such an uphill battle. Rational arguments like “it’s all okay if it’s among consenting adults”, or “it’s stupid to stigmatize and criminalize marginal forms of sexuality because that just makes the situation worse for people who are abused and want to get out” … these arguments are so important, but they don’t always quiet my massive internalized fears.
I tell myself it’s just stigma, and that helps. Sometimes. Stigma is abstract and nobody’s fault, and it’s something I can think about and be interested by and thereby almost get past how it screws with me all the time, every single day.
You know what helps most, though? Having a really good BDSM encounter. If I go without intense BDSM for a while, I almost kinda sorta forget how incredible it can be, though shadows of it always weave through my fantasies and dreams. After a while, I almost start to wonder why I want it so much. I start questioning whether it’s worth doing all this emotional labor just so I can feel okay about wanting BDSM. And then.
Recently I had dinner with a guy I met at a random event. Not even an S&M event! Not at all an overtly S&M guy! He wears hipster clothing and he likes relatively mainstream music — not the typical S&M signifiers, obviously — and I went out with him more because he seemed smart and entertaining than because I expected fireworks. Towards the end of our night out, I laid it all on the table: he’d mentioned S&M so I turned to him and asked, “What kind of experience do you have with that?” And he knows about my writing, he’s read some of it, so I guess he compared himself to what he’s read and said: “Mostly playful. Not really intense.”
I shrugged internally and offered to go home with him. It was a Monday in San Francisco, so I figured: whatever, maybe we’ll talk for a while, maybe I’ll try making out with him and exit if there’s no energy. In which case I’d still have time to go dancing at Death Guild!
(I mean, sure, I can enjoy vanilla sex, and I even seek it out sometimes. It’s just that the best vanilla sex I’ve had was about ten zillion light-years away in awesomeness from the best BDSM sex I’ve had.)
I did not expect to come close to tears; to end up with bruises that forced me into t-shirts for several days. (I don’t think he expected it either.) His instincts are extremely good, and either he read me well or he has very compatible preferences. And there it was. As pain streaked brightly across my mind, as I spiraled down into the blankness of submission. He did a few things I don’t even normally like, but everything else was so right, I’d gone far enough under not to care. (Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did. Oh yes, consent can be complicated.)
There it was. I felt the tears building, gasps torn from my throat, I felt myself starting to fall apart and reform: around him, around his guidance and force and demands. Almost unable to think. Until finally he relented and said my name, and said softly, “Come back,” and ran his hand reassuringly down my hair.
There it was: the reason I want it so much.
(A lover asked me recently to describe how it feels when I go under. It took me a long time to come up with words. I feel blank. I feel dark. Desperate. Engaged. Transcendent. If it’s good enough, I can’t communicate. If it’s good enough, then it becomes hard not to fall in love. “Huh,” he said when I was done. “That’s a strange collection of words.” I had to laugh, and tried to say I was sorry for my lack of clarity, but he didn’t let me apologize, which is just as well.)
I got dressed and walked home across the city, feeling as though I was on fire. Alight. It lasted the whole next day; a friend ran into me in the morning and I said “I’m in a great mood!” and she said, “Yeah, it’s pouring off you.” I got home (well, I got back to where I stay when I’m in San Francisco), and I sat down on the couch and stared blankly at my laptop and I had to remind myself: I am not in love with this man. I just met him. It was only one encounter. This is merely New Relationship Energy. I’ll get over most of the effect within a few days. But how could I help loving him, just a little, for where he’d taken me?
(And, since awful stereotypes of men are such a big part of typical anti-sex anxiety, I feel compelled to note that he was unprepared for the scene as well. That he didn’t expect any of it either; that he had to stop a couple times to process what was happening, that I had to reassure him about what he was doing with me.)
Of course it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even close to the most intense scene I’ve experienced. I’m sure other things affected how it went: I’d been eating properly, was in good physical shape, I’d had a spectacular weekend vacation just before. My mood and body were well-shaped to create a good scene. And I sure as hell did my part in communicating my side of things to him. But he was the one who took me there, and it felt like such a long time since I really got into that place. Some people warn new BDSMers: “Be careful, you may feel like you are falling in love with your partner when you are really in love with the BDSM. Be careful.” This warning also applies to people who have gone without for a while. Obviously, it applies.
And there it is. There, right there. In the way it makes me feel. In the connection it creates. That’s why BDSM is worth it. Worth the stigma, worth the effort of explanation; worth identifying as my gin-you-wine sexual orientation. It’s worth the emotional energy and determination required to maintain my wholeness when people try to tell me this is wrong, that it’s bad for you or bad for your partners or bad for feminism or bad for society. This is one of the big reasons I believe that anti-sex feminists are fundamentally wrong, especially when they outright conflate consensual acts with abusive ones. (The other one being that censorship and criminalization and other anti-sex policies actually end up putting women at risk.)
Because nothing consensual that feels so good, that creates such a connection, that is so genuinely transcendent … nothing with such potential should be so hated and feared.