Not That Kind of Masochist
“Well, my partner and I have an agreement,” Nic said. “I can play with other people, but I can't have sex with them.”
Nic said he was queer, and I wanted to believe him. Who was I to invalidate his identity, to condemn him to heterosexuality, just because he only had sex with women, and the occasional AFAB genderqueer? Living somewhere between faggot and dyke, I felt I had no room to be skeptical. I'd like to say it was in recognition of my own hypocrisy that, after we messaged on Fetlife, I decided to meet him in person, but honestly, I just wanted to get fucked.
We got coffee at a North Oakland cafe, a bourgie nook where the succulents always outnumbered the customers by five to one. Meeting men like this (acquainted through an app or a website; in public; with the intent of having kinky sex) was an uncomfortable necessity for me at 25. I had never found it easy to track down dominants – real, honest-to-goddess, no-switching-whatsoever dominants – of any gender. Experience had taught me that while those of the male variety were more risky than the alternatives, they were also far more common. Desire makes all of us practical, or so I rationalized.
Don’t get me wrong: there are few entities more despicable than male kinksters who see in dominance, as an orientation, a convenient smokescreen for their own urge to violate consent (the plague of the Tumblr daddy dom is well-documented). But having spent a few years playing as a switch in the Bay Area by the time Nic and I met, I was well-aware of the dearth of non-male dominants. I was also beginning to think that maybe, when it came to male doms, their appeal was by virtue of their inherent danger.
By that logic, engaging with them for the purposes of kinky sex was not entirely dissimilar from interacting with any man at all. If you could tolerate his benign condescension, his obsession with Ron Paul, and his telling fear of dominant women (not to mention the omnipresent risk of unwanted violence), you just might be rewarded with the authentic display of authority that you craved. Because what was a true dominant man if not a dude who had completely bought into the myth of his own superiority?
It didn’t hurt that Nic was hot. Tall and thin, he was a chain smoker with lean, ropy muscles and bright blue eyes. Now in his early thirties, he had recently retired from his Black Bloc days of burning cop cars to more lucrative work as a creative professional. The grittiness of his presentation and politics complemented his obsession with physical debasement and ugliness, but it also seemed to clash with his demonstrated desires: from what I could observe, the kind of women he interacted with on Fetlife were exclusively white, young, thin, and cis, or so it appeared to me. I knew what I was supposed to think of this contradiction, but the thought of kissing his mouth, of running my tongue over its pack-a-day decay, gave me an intoxicating charge of disgust and guilt.
It was disturbingly easy to put my reservations behind me. Over espresso and Nic’s Marlboro Reds, we discussed George Bataille and Elaine Scarry, de Beauvoir's essay on de Sade, and the satisfaction of depravity. I folded myself into our cliché, relaxing into it like a bed with downy blankets and iron chains soldered to its headboard. I almost forgot to feel guilty for wanting him to fuck me.
Despite having relationships with men in the years after I came out, my attraction to them as a queer has always been complicated. In my early twenties, I started on a trajectory that’s probably familiar to many non-femme AFAB genderqueer/NB people whose first queer community was on the internet. As I experimented with my queerness, I approached medical transition but eventually backed away; I knew that trans-manhood wasn’t for me, but I also didn’t know how else to escape my body as it was.
By the time I met Nic, I was moving from failed fag to vaguely female but not quite male, and was just beginning to consciously center women and other non-male people in my personal relationships. I had long been thrilled (and a little terrified) by the intensity of my romantic feelings for women and nonbinary people, but I also didn’t know how to reconcile them in a body that didn’t feel like that of a lesbian. As much lip service as I paid to queerness, to the wide open landscape of a world without rigid gender boundaries, it took me years to identify the ways that homo- and cisnormativity, burrowed deep inside my wrong body, made it feel even wronger.
With the proliferation of words for identities that are not clear-cut or black and white (“queer,” “pansexual,” “fluid”), one might that think that I would have no trouble reconciling mere sexual attraction with my gender, whatever that was. But I couldn’t. I knew I was queer and I knew I was not a woman, which, in my mind, only left me with the option of fag: ex post facto, I must have only been attracted to men. But of all the “identities” most of us are working with, only “dyke” felt good, felt right, and the way I understood it, being a dyke didn't only mean loving women — it meant rejecting men, too.
Binaries are unstable things, as are the words that create and reify them. I had read a lot about how heteropatriarchy and white supremacy leveraged gender to punish and control, but desiring men still made me question myself. My own “heterosexual” behavior became, if not a personal taboo, something I avoided admitting to other queers, stymied by the shame I had built around male erotic appeal as a person who was assigned female and hadn’t taken any hormones or gotten any surgery. I sometimes awoke from paranoid nightmares in which I was chronically, irrevocably straight.
I dealt with the guilt like any pervert: I eroticized it. I fucked and played with women and people of other genders, but only with men was there that special, clandestine thrill of transgression. The absurdity of this wasn’t lost on me.
Nic was already attractive, but the fact that he didn't talk down to me or try to top me before I had given him permission made him irresistible. It was an embarrassingly low bar to meet, sure, but again, good tops were hard to find, and my libido and my craving for punishment — two things I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing from each other — were much stronger than my general mistrust of men, even men whose queerness was somewhat dubious.
But so what if the gayest thing about him was his haircut? If Nic was appropriating queer sexuality to get laid by queer women (and people like me), was his opportunism any more despicable than my own? I was afraid that fucking men — cis and trans — meant I couldn’t be a dyke. The kicker was, I was also certain that Nic was exactly what I was looking for.
So we negotiated. I bummed another cigarette and, like a good neoliberal kinkster, rattled off my desires and boundaries — I might as well have kept a laminated list in my wallet — before asking him for his. Tops and dominants, like anyone else, have limits to what they will and won't do, but I thought of this as a mere formality: I assumed his boundaries would only be around logistics (e.g., neither of us could get our hands on a cattle prod), if he had any at all. I was wrong.
“Well, my partner and I have an agreement,” Nic said. “I can play with other people, but I can't have sex with them.”
Nic had mentioned his partner, a cis woman he lived with, in one of his first Fetlife messages. I had assumed that his openness about her implied, well, openness. Conditioned by boundary-pushers to expect haggling followed by theatrical displays of disappointment for every one of my hard limits, I was surprised to be the disappointed one. I had trotted out for him my own desires, a boring mess of spanking, slut-shaming, flogging, and whipping — hold the scratching, table the cigarette burns — and, yes, getting fucked, with the expectation that they be taken as they were offered, as inseparable from fucking as they were from perversity. “The need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private, distant, passionate, turbulent truth,” Bataille has written.
I had laid myself bare, and what had I gotten in return? Rejection, in the name of a Bay Area off-brand of heteromonogamy. What was a beatdown without getting fucked? I am not that kind of masochist! I thought.
But before I had time to get up and leave, Nic leaned across the table and kissed me.
This is my only visceral memory from our meeting, the kind that is later triggered, without your consent, by environmental summons: a scent, a sound, a suggestion in the changing light. I remember wondering what I tasted like to him, wondering how my living blood and sweat, the mucosa of my eyes, the bloom of my injuries, would taste. How would their flavors be absorbed back into his body, blackened lungs and all? “A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism,” writes Bataille. (Was it in The Story of the Eye, his journey of pure sensation, the handbook of filth and fantasy? I can’t remember.)
For a moment, I was frozen. Then, I remembered. Didn’t kissing fall under the umbrella of sexual intimacy? If not, then what did that actually mean to Nic, or to his partner? I hadn’t ever played with someone in a nonsexual way before, but this seemed wrong, and not in the hot way that both of us were so invested in.
But I let him finish the kiss. When we pulled apart, he put his hand on my neck.
“I want to make you bleed,” he said gently.
When Nic showed up at my apartment the following afternoon, I led him by the hand to my bedroom. Two of my housemates were gone. The third, whose room was next to mine, had already been informed of this afternoon's play date, and had his noise-canceling headphones handy.
My toys were assembled on the mattress for Nic to review. He examined my cuffs, my rope, my riding crop, my cane, my rubber flogger — unlike the heavy, leather sort, it stung like a lightweight caning — with the tiny skull painted on its base. I still didn’t know what the kiss had meant, but if pain was as far as I was getting that afternoon, I intended to make the most of it. I could always jerk off when he left. The toys designed for pleasure were just out of sight in the closet.
This wasn’t an uncommon fallback plan. There are, unfortunately, many male doms whose confidence in their ability is only surpassed by their incompetence. I’ve been exposed to the lifestyle spanker who's never heard of a warm-up, the narcissist who can't tell the difference between blissful subspace and obvious exasperation, the sadist who tries to renegotiate past your boundaries mid-scene. I’ve tolerated, and then finally kicked out, the self-proclaimed flogging expert who expects you to come the moment they begin to flail away directly on your kidneys.
Not unlike with vanilla partners, sifting through the men who think they know what they’re doing, and actually do not, comes with the territory (incidentally, I've never played with a non-male dominant who misled me about their skill-level or experience). While not the best I’d ever played with, Nic was no slouch, which made it all the more frustrating that this demonstration was going to be weapons-only.
But I had accepted this limitation, and as our scene progressed, his boundary became a means of self-denial, which, if not arousing, has always held a strong sense of satisfaction for me: I am being beaten, humiliated, and deprived of sex. I am getting nothing that I want. My disappointment in his sexual boundaries began to disintegrate, and the chemical soup of intentional, sustained physical pain soon overtook me.
Perhaps even more than pleasure, pain frees you from having to acknowledge anything other than the sensation at hand, least of all the slow grind of gender dysphoria. As these sensations multiplied, the slaps, punches, and strokes of rubber rebuilt my universe, or rather, created a new one from scratch. I was aware that these sensations depended upon the agency of another person, but somehow everything other than my body fell away.
I was facing my bedroom wall, hands above my head, when I heard Nic unbuckle his belt. I remained standing, anticipating the hiss that preempts the kiss of leather (he knew I had a soft spot for them: my very first consensual beating was with a belt). But when I heard him unzip his fly, I knelt, realizing I was about to receive the golden shower we had discussed in our negotiation.
But then he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, pushing his cock toward my mouth like it belonged there. Shocked, I pushed it away away, catching myself against the wall. The scene interrupted, my new universe collapsed back in on itself, and I was in my bedroom again, naked and pink, slicked with sweat and tears, engorged with blood and adrenaline.
“Wait a minute,” I said. I didn’t have to use a safe word to stop him. The very fact that I was questioning anything he did had broken the scene. “I thought you couldn't do anything sexual?”
“Yeah. We agreed that I wouldn't have sex with anyone else,” Nic said, his cock still only inches from my face. He was stripped to the waist. All his tattoos were black.
“And me blowing you doesn't count?” I remember I was more confused than indignant.
“Well, it's not like I'm actually fucking you, you know?” he said. “It’s a humiliation thing. Your only purpose here is to do exactly what I want. Remember?” His grin was suggestive as an actual wink.
I happened to be working as a dominatrix when Nic and I met. Playing the dominant role with men for money was a financial necessity; it didn’t often do much for me kink-wise. Being an interesting experience, however, I tried to document it through journaling. This is from an entry that is dated just a few weeks before I met Nic:
“client today had completely blue eyes that he didn't close when i hit him. no flinching, no pulling away. said in negotiation he didn't want me to leave marks but two hours into it he was still okay, and wanted me to go harder. i felt irresponsible but what did he expect? when i hit him his eyes just got wider and wider, like he was trying to see all of a really tall building or a really big mountain. goosebumps on his ass, his thighs, his legs and ankles at first, but then his skin became shiny with sweat, the incandescence of the lamplight on black rubber walls. it was fun but i don’t think i was strong enough to hit him as hard as he wanted.”
My client, a married man, hadn't wanted me to mark him, because then his wife would have found out how he spent $600 of their money one sunny Saturday afternoon. Even though I hadn't touched him sexually, nor he me, allowing his naked body to be beaten with a thick leather strap by someone wearing black lingerie had been tantamount to infidelity. Kneeling naked before Nic, a few feet away from the black garbage bags I had cut up and taped across the floor to catch his piss, it seemed fair to wonder why I thought my nudity, or his urine, could be asexual, but not his cock in my mouth.
I wasn’t raised Catholic, but as a kid I loved reading religious accounts of the martyrs, especially the medieval maidens whose only resistance to rape or to forced marriage was elaborate torture and death. There was almost zero material difference between the assault and the legal contract that was being forced upon them, but while one was seen as a great shame, the other was the very objective of these maidens’ lives; this fascinated me as much as the ghastly creativity of their torturers. The fates these girls and women were resisting can be boiled down to what has astonishingly (and arguably) only just become an anachronism: the only sex that counts is the kind in which a penis penetrates a vagina.
That such a standard could continue to exist for so many hundreds of years and into the era of the smartphone — a device with which you can invite someone miles away from you to come over, create wounds on your body, and then piss all over them — feels surreal to me. And as long as that person doesn’t put their penis in your vagina (if you both have that equipment), the act is as platonic as holding hands.
Integrity may have been too much to ask of Nic, and perhaps even of myself, but what I've always loved about BDSM is its inherent honesty. What is more vivid than a shared sensory adventure? What is more real than your own body in pain? I wanted to suck Nic's cock and he wanted his cock sucked. I had no illusions as to whether his partner would ever find out about the cocksucking (one of faggotry’s great pastimes), and although this felt like the Wrong Thing to do, I still wanted to do it.
So I did. I enjoyed another hour of hedonism, of piss and cigarette ash and blood and sweat and tears, of humiliation and degradation, of rejecting (almost) every normative definition of pleasure. I permitted my desire to reduce me to a pulp, and when I was completely satisfied, I told Nic I was finished, walked him to the door, and said goodbye. I decided that I shouldn’t see him again, although I certainly wanted to, especially when I looked at the thin purple welts and wide yellow bruises that spanned my ass and upper thighs for the next couple weeks.
But I never did. For some reason, my unease was stronger than my desire. Over the course of a few hours, Nic had gotten everything he wanted without having to feel as if he'd violated the terms of his relationship. He might have done the Wrong Thing, but I had done it with him, and for reasons I couldn’t understand, this made me feel filthy in a way I didn’t like.
In dungeons (and any space, physical or otherwise, that sex work takes place), the word “fantasy” is thrown around with abandon. Though it has legal utility, it’s also a convenient euphemism for a lot of other words, including this one: “lie.” To my clients, I was never the gender, the age, or the person that I was when I wasn’t working. Why did I feel that I had been dishonest when it came to Nic and his partner, when I went to my dungeon two or three days a week and never once felt guilty about the partnered and married men I played with? Was it because professional BDSM was transactional, and my scene with Nic hadn’t been?
Except that it was. Nic had gotten his blowjob, and I had gotten something out of it, too: his cowardice mirrored mine back at me, and I saw that it was more ridiculous than any act of perversity I could dream up. It wasn't my responsibility to maintain his ethical boundaries for him, any more than it was his to be queer enough for my insecurities, and I was fooling myself if I thought I could make my attraction to him, and to men in general, strictly about sex. If I kept telling myself that lie, I was just as full of shit as he was.
Quitting sex work last year was the beginning of my withdrawal from the Bay Area kink scene, but even before then, I had begun letting go of the fear that my behavior can destroy my identity — as if my identity is a thing that must be constructed and curated, guarded and maintained, deployed as bargaining chip and metric, assessed and analyzed and whittled down to to its tiniest component, while right behind me a world of racial, gendered, and economic violence whirls.
Don’t get me wrong. I still use certain words for myself, still align myself with certain communities and movements, for reasons personal as well as political. But coming to accept that I can love women (one woman in particular, actually) and still occasionally want to fuck men has got me thinking that my desire might not be fully understandable. Not unlike identity, something as irregular and as vast may be beyond reckoning, if not exploration.