This summer, I had the privilege of telling a story at Debauchery 2017‘s speakers’ corner. Here is the piece I read–an updated version of my first-ever post on this blog.
This is how I got here: I wanted kink to save me.
It was a fantasy I’d been bringing to lovers for years. After a traumatic first relationship in high school where my girlfriend convinced me I owed her sex whether I wanted it myself or not, I came into new relationships with an unexamined urgency. I was in pain, and I wanted that pain fixed. Each new lover, each new sexual encounter, was an opportunity. If I only did sex right this time, the fantasy went, everything would change.
It was a fantasy that did not see my lovers. There was no place in it for my partners’ needs, my partners’ desires. It was a fantasy that did not see me, did not see that my body was once again being used in the service of a narrative that had nothing to do with bodies. In my abusive relationship, I’d used my mouth, my fingers, and far more nakedness than I could bear to promise my girlfriend I loved her. Now I wanted the promise that sex couldn’t hurt me and was conscripting my body and my partners’ bodies into proving it.
Most of my partners kept their distance from me where sex was concerned. My senior year of college, I was lucky enough to have a partner help facilitate my coming into my own desire. Cat was the first person I knew who identified as polyamorous and, oddly, the only man I’d ever dated. He showed me his desire for me and waited gently, patiently, for me to name desires of my own. What I named was still limited by what I understood to be possible; I knew people who did bdsm—my college even had its own bdsm student club—but I’d never considered it in relation to myself. I was still, after all, trying to work out “the basics.”
At the same time, I got back in touch with a high school friend in another city who had just opened up her marriage. We at first reconnected over polyamory, then over her also becoming involved with Cat, and finally over each of us seeing enough of his flaws that we both cut ties. Within a few months of opening their marriage, my friend and her husband discovered kink. Both kept LiveJournals, and I read eagerly, hungrily, their stories of exploration and self-discovery. This was what I craved for myself: for desire to be a site of transformation and joy. Through the journals, I saw those possibilities in bdsm, and I wanted them.
By then, I was in a sort of sexual limbo with a dear friend. Our dynamic, which periodically shifted between tensionless friendship and something more erotically charged, had taken a sharp turn just before she left for a semester-long study abroad. Much would change before we saw each other again, I knew, but surely in that one night of intense and joyous intimacy just before she left the country was the promise of a future. We would explore New York’s kinky underground together, I was sure of it. So as I graduated from college, watched my friends and chosen family scatter to the winds, spent long days unemployed and purposeless, and was too proud to admit how alone I felt, I checked off days on the calendar, waiting for my friend and our transformative future.
And then, of course, I lost her too.
It was nearly two years before I first set foot in kink space, and by then, my sense of urgency had returned. I brought so much anguish with me: resentment that my high school friend had come so easily to her self-discovery when I felt so cut off from mine; shame at my inexperience; anger at the partners who had seemed to promise an end to my pain but never delivered; guilt at my sense of entitlement—I knew my partners didn’t owe me sex, but I thought the universe did, and the more panicked and powerless I felt, the harder it was to keep the two separate.
I did not bring embodied desire. Before my friend came home from study abroad, I’d had a host of toppy fantasies, but those were forgotten in my heartbreak, my loneliness, and my desperate terror that sex for me would always be a site of trauma, defeat, and broken promises. Instead, I came to the kink scene with the same fantasy I’d brought to every lover: this place, these people could help me end my anguish, if only I could figure out how to do things right this time.
Just as my fantasy failed to see my lovers, it made invisible to me the particulars of the community I’d found. I sat through classes on how to hit, pierce, or tie up a partner, ashamed that I did not yet know if I wanted to hit, pierce, or tie up anyone, resentful that I had no way of trying. It never occurred to me to evaluate the experiences I was having. If the people around me thought it had been a good class, I supposed they were right, and that my still feeling stuck was simply my own failure—as always, when it came to sex and desire—to grasp something everyone else in the room easily understood. And if the people around me criticized the class, I felt even more ashamed. Yet again, I was too foolish and too inexperienced even to have noticed.
And then there were the parties. My high school friend’s transformations had begun at play parties, and I was sure each monthly gathering held the possibility of change. There was a cycle to it: the week before, I’d be giddy, fantasies spinning fast and big and mind-altering. When the day came, I’d grow uneasy. I’d slip on borrowed clothes, lingering at the mirror, wondering: Was this the night? Would I come home different? And then, hours later, I’d return, crushed and defeated, as far as ever from untangling the mystery of who I was, what I wanted, and why my sexuality so often seemed to keep me isolated.
I met people at play parties, started to recognize faces that would greet me, talk with me, then disappear sometime during the evening with a date and a satchel full of implements I could never quite make myself look at closely. Some people I met expressed interest in me, but they usually backed off when I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to what it was I was into. I met a top who offered to let me play with her submissive the next time the two were in town. I met a bottom I thought was cute, and we talked about grad school and erotic poetry, but I couldn’t bring myself to suggest we do anything.
Still without answers, still in pain, I decided to push myself harder. Every offer, I reasoned, was an opportunity. I let a stranger with whiskey on her breath pull me into a makeout session that slid further and further out of my control. I let a woman who couldn’t stop shaking her head at my age—she was all of six years older than me—into my home and my bed. There was a top I’d once turned down who had always been kind to me. I wanted to talk to her about topping, ask her some of the questions I’d started to ask myself. But that, I knew, was a ludicrous thing to do at a party, so I approached her for play and promised myself I’d try whatever she suggested.
Finally pushed too far, my body rebelled. I came home from a party unable to move. I lay in bed all weekend, arms heavy, chest thick, eyes hot and sticky, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. All my efforts, all my fighting, had only brought me here: my body pressed cold against itself on a three-foot square of mattress. Lying there, I knew with an awful clarity that I had been wrong. Kink was never going to save me. It was only making things worse.
I left the scene. I joined a writing group and was struck, moved, by how easily I felt competent there. My memories of the kink scene faded like a bad dream. I still had no answers about desire or sexuality, but I knew now that pushing past my own limits would bring me no closer to the answers I wanted. I sat back. I wrote. I waited.
In the writing group, I met a woman with whom I eventually became involved. She wasn’t into that kinky stuff, she assured me up front. Good, I thought. I was safe here. I did not tell her about the world I’d left. I only told her I needed to take things slow.
It was the first time I’d come to a relationship without that sense of urgency. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time a partner didn’t push me away. When we had sex for the first time, I felt vulnerable and strange. As we kept having it, I felt the knot of pain and hopelessness begin to unwind itself. I started to imagine possibilities beyond simply not getting hurt, not getting rejected. I started to see the shape of my own desire.
And so, in a sense, I’d been right all along. It was only when I was having erotic encounters consistently that I was able to start finding my footing within them. But it turned out I’d been right about something else too: the shape of my desire was pretty kinky. The woman from my writing group told me she was “up for anything,” but she didn’t think “anything” meant a polarized power dynamic or her bottoming to acts I would not then bottom to myself. I shared with her the desires I’d been feeling, and we ended our relationship.
I did not relish the idea that I would need to find a place for kink in my life. I was not ready to go back to the places where I’d pushed myself to breaking or to the people who’d been there alongside me and never noticed. At the same time, I was not willing to ignore my desire. And I had resources this time. I knew where my limits were. I knew how to listen to myself, and, when things got to be too much, I knew how to leave. I tiptoed back, gently, open to possibilities but prepared to protect myself.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first. But I think I assumed that someday, it would get easier. That one day, I’d be like those tops I’d met early on, playing effortlessly at every event, bewildered by the idea that one might approach kink and play and desire with anything less than delight and satisfaction. What I’ve learned since coming back to kink is that it’s always going to be a challenge. I say “no” more often now. I admit more often when things are hard—and when I talk about my own struggles, those around me are often willing to admit to struggles of their own. Still, sometimes there is nothing to do but go home, knowing I am in no state to play or even be around play tonight. Sometimes there is nothing to do but be gentle with myself, to wrap myself in a blanket, sit back, and wait.
In our public discourse about kink, we do not often talk about the ways these things we do—these things that can be joyous, energizing, hot, and intimate—can also be hard. But for so many of us, they are hard. And that’s okay. We’re playing with desire, power, and vulnerability. How many of us can say that these parts of our lives are simple? Would we even want them to be?
I wrote this piece in 2010, a few months after the end of my first kinky relationship. There was a lot I didn’t know then. I didn’t know it would be six years before I had another play partner. I didn’t know I’d have a nonsexual kink partnership and start questioning whether sex was part of the shape of my desire at all. I also didn’t know that that 2017 was going to feel quite so politically catastrophic.
When awful things are happening around us, it can be easy to think of kink as something frivolous, or unimportant, or not “the real struggle.”
I share this piece as a reminder that for a lot of us, kink is a core part of our humanity. Kink is intimacy and connection, kink is creativity and self-expression, kink is bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. For me, those things are worth fighting for. And I don’t know about you, but I find that for me, it’s only when I have access to those parts of myself that kink represents, that I have the will to fight for anything.