It’s no exaggeration to describe Elizabeth Nolan Brown as one of the strongest, most stalwart allies of sex workers writing today; she covers several sex work stories per week in her space at Reason, and never flinches or missteps. Regular readers have seen me praise her in many a news item, so I’m sure y’all can guess that I was thrilled when she agreed to contribute my first guest spot of 2015.
If You Give a Masochist a Cookie
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I had my first kinky boyfriend at age 25. My most significant college beau and I dabbled in all sorts of not-totally-vanilla play, from ice cubes and hot wax to strangling and faux non-consent. But for the most part, these endeavors felt clumsy and inauthentic, two 19-year-olds parroting what we thought kinky* sex was supposed to be. For years after that, I dated people who seemed perfectly content with perfectly “normal” sex lives—I think the kinkiest thing I did with my post-college boyfriend was watch the Paris Hilton sex tape together before fucking. I wasn’t unsatisfied, at least not with the sex (monogamy, my friends, is another story). But I also had no idea what I was missing. And then along came the man I’ll call “Chris”. He had a beautiful body, a giant cock, and a sexy voice, but easily the best part about him when it came to sex was that he knew what he liked and wanted. These days I still loathe asking men to do this or roleplay that in bed, because as it turns out I have a very strong sexually submissive streak. But I couldn’t have told you that at the time–I didn’t have the vocabulary. I needed someone like Chris not because I was hesitant to ask for what I wanted, but because I honestly had no idea what that was.
Thank goodness Chris and I were on the same kink wavelength—had my first dom liked dressing in leather, or insisted I call him master, or been into ball-gags and caning, I may have balked and thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak; I don’t mean to disparage any of these activities, but they are just not for me. Instead, Chris and I sometimes role-played realistic situations where he might be in a position of power over me—boss, professor, etcetera. I remember one time asking, early on, if he was going to punish me, and his answer was an emphatic “no”—punishment was cruel, he explained; what he was meting out was “discipline.” Part of this discipline involved him slapping me across the face from time to time during sex; I loved it, and I fell in love with him. For the first time in the history of my sex life, I was never, ever bored during sex. The relationship with Chris didn’t last, but my conviction that I needed a little kink in my sex life did. Not all the time, mind you—I am not a fetishist. But I am also never going to last with someone who isn’t at least a little bit dominant, a little bit weird, and a little bit rough in bed.
The reason I bring all this up has to do with a series of tweets I saw from Jillian Keenan in late December. Earlier in the year she wrote for Slate about enjoying being spanked, an essay she called “the first piece that truly demanded courage” for her to publish. Why should Keenan, a seasoned writer published in places such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and the New Yorker, feel such trepidation admitting to such a little thing as liking spanking? Especially in these post-50 Shades of Gray times in which we live?
A few incidents give us a clue, the first involving 50 Shades film actor Jamie Dornan. Dornan recently told Elle magazine that after visiting a dungeon for research, he had to take a “long shower” before touching his wife or child. Despite starring in a movie about BDSM, Dorman apparently thinks he can catch kink cooties just by being near people who like a little real life BDSM action. The other incidents comes from Keenan herself, who relayed them in the aforementioned series of tweets. An acquaintance “apparently used to hang out in a building with an adjacent dungeon, and watched people as they entered and left it.” The dude’s “major takeaway—the biggest ‘shock’ of watching this dungeon entrance—he repeated several times: ‘They were all businessmen!’“ Another person Keenan had talked with recently, a private investigator, was shocked when she followed a man to an “S&M party” and found that “they served cookies there! At this S&M thing—cookies!” Keenan concluded, “Stigma is subtle, but it’s real…We’re still seen as ‘creepy’ anomalies rather than as what we are: cookie-eating, job-having humans.”
Since my time with Chris, I’ve encountered all sorts of respectable, cookie-eating, job-having humans who enjoyed engaging in any number of kinky activities (many of which I went along with, some which I did not). There was the amiable real estate agent and local kickball star obsessed with face-fucking, enemas, faux-incest, and someday having a submissive housewife. There was the professor and family man who liked to leave me dirty messages about tying me up and cumming on my face. There was the high-powered lawyer who flew women from around the country to an apartment decorated with expensive bondage art and featuring a medieval-looking spanking chair and a wide assortment of canes. There was the sadistic civil liberties activist who genuinely scared (and also thrilled) me with his unflinching roughness…the professionally-conservative couple who invited me into a threesome…the shy writer who wanted to pick out slutty clothing for me and then watch from afar as I paraded publicly in it. There were run-of-the-mill rough-sex fans who worked in architecture, journalism, tech entrepreneurship, financial planning, education, construction. A shocking (to me) number fantasized about watching a girlfriend with another man, sometimes multiple men.
Beyond the realm of my personal lovers, I’ve met more polyamorous people than I can count over the past few years. I’ve lived with women really into whipping and spanking. I’ve known lawyers and art curators and students to slip easily in and out of various forms of sex work. I’ve also never gone to any sort of kink meetup, joined any sort of fetish website, or otherwise specifically sought these people, with the exception of one Craigslist paramour. When you open up with friends and lovers about kink, it’s kind of amazing what you can uncover. Most people have at least some sexual fantasies that are much “weirder” than the easily-scandalized would dream. And the kinkiest people I’ve known are the sorts you’d never suspect if your idea of kink only involves large women in leather corsets and “creepy” losers in flasher trenchcoats.
Regular readers of Maggie’s blog are certain to be unsurprised by any of this—I know I am preaching to the proverbial choir here. But while I’ve hinted around about my own kinky side previously, I suppose I’ve never come right out online and said it. I’ve certainly never noted the normalcy of all my own kinky lovers and friends. And in the interest of doing my little part for destigmatizing, it’s probably about damn time I did so. Am I feeling a little of the trepidation Keenan felt when admitting to an enthusiasm for spanking? Of course. I’m a professional writer, also, often about quite serious subjects. And there are those who will use any hint of sexual “deviance” to try and discredit you. As a woman, there are those who will use writing about your sex life at all as evidence you’re not fit for more intellectual pursuits. But to bluntly use one of my favorite idioms: fuck that noise. My vagina and my competence actually have very little bearing on one another. And isn’t that the crux of the kink issue? People want certain sexual activities to stand for so, so, so much more than they do.
To those who can’t imagine liking bondage, group sex, submission, latex, cuckolding, strap-ons, spanking, or whatever, enjoying any of these things must be part of some pathology, or at least indicative of more widespread weirdness. (Much the same way people think about sex workers who don’t fit their victim narrative.) But sometimes sex is just sex; turn-ons are just turn-ons. They say nothing about who someone is as a person, what their life must be like, or their larger value system. They reveal nothing more than that someone likes bondage, group sex, submission, etcetera. Human beings contain multitudes, y’all. And even sexual sadists eat cookies.
*I kind of hate lumping all sorts of dissimilar sexual activities together under the term “kink”, but for purposes of this essay it will have to do. I’m equally un-fond of describing some sex as “vanilla”, but (like hipster) it’s an imperfect yet appropriately connotative term.