Three large bruises stood out on my thigh -- like a beast had pawed at me, more impact force than gash, with just the slightest red dots of blood scattered over the purple and green, almost daring to break the surface of my skin.
The man in my bed eyed them like an offending intrusion. He appeared torn between pity for his wounded lover and concentration, his forehead colored with the strain of someone assessing something to which he hasn't yet assigned any meaning. Why would someone willingly subject themselves to this?
That's the question Katie Roiphe tries to answer in her essay for Newsweek. Roiphe sees the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey -- the Twilight-inspired erotica book by E.L. James -- and a variety of books, movies and shows embracing similar themes of female sexual submission, as proof for her hypothesis that women have amassed so much power in recent decades that all we can think about when we go home is turning ourselves over to someone else who will do with us as he likes.
Photo by Mike Prasad.
There is a great need among our species to answer the question of why, and this need often leads to wild speculation that is very difficult to substantiate, though we try -- often creating more problems than we solve. Science in general is better equipped to answer the question of how: we know how it is that we get rainfall, but do we know why this process came to be and not some other one?
Of course, many of the hypotheses addressing the why tend to ignore the scientific method, opting instead for correlations we can bend to our will in order to represent causation. Roiphe sees an effort to balance women's new-found surge of power in the narrative of female submission. In my own experience of submission, I saw something else entirely.
Stripped naked in the middle of a crowded room, both aware of the people watching, and simultaneously separate from them, I took measured steps to the diagonal cross in a corner of the room and leaned back against it as each of my wrists and ankles were secured in place.
"There is always the battle between intellect and your inner-self, which is overshadowed at times by culture or tradition," the man tying me told me. "The question is how you process the ultimate taboo. Near complete vulnerability to the moment by choice of freewill is a thing of beauty and ecstasy. All religions and cultures forbid that kind of expression except to God but anyone who has been to subspace knows it is a sacred experience and frightening to embrace. I am always in awe of the gift a submissive offers and the courage it takes to do so."
His words, though I was only half aware of them, resonated deeply. For me, it was impossible to escape the religious connotation in submission. Suffering punishment as penance, the complete turning over of the self to something greater, the possibility of death and martyrdom (let us not forget the alternative ending of Story of O) -- all of these are religious themes.
The very implements and accoutrements of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadomasochism (BDSM) have long since belonged to the realm of faith. Was I not, at that very moment, being secured to a diagonal cross? I thought of St. Andrew, who was crucified by saltire because he did not feel worthy of the upright cross upon which Christ was crucified. It was impossible for me to separate the two things because both were pertinent to this experience in my mind.
I was raised fashionably Catholic: we attended mass on major holidays, if at all, though there was a period during my sister's catechism that we attended nearly every weekend. My life, however, was for the most part not colored by shame or warnings about sin and the fires of hell. Religion was a cultural thing, not a question of faith. It was something to respect, surely, a sort of tradition. Faith was internal and something not easily inculcated. The journey to God was ours to make -- if we chose to make it. As a result, my sister and I were baptized and took part in our First Communion, but Confirmation was left up to us. Neither she nor I followed that path.
In truth, I wasn't particularly interested in matters of faith until I turned thirteen and then I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, surely had an answer -- they always did for me. I had learned some Latin when I was younger, as part of the "tradition." At sixteen, I embarked on the quest to learn New Testament Greek, and I planned to follow up by learning Hebrew as well. I was convinced no translation was trustworthy. Religion had too much to lose to allow truth to flow through the books from which it draws its power. To get at faith -- and God -- I would have to do it all myself. I’ve not yet completed this journey, but during the course of it I had several experiences that somewhat reflected my preoccupation. In its own way, submission was one of them.
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," the protagonist of Story of O recalls reading on a plaque in Pauline Réage's classic story of submission. She quickly adds: "No, that isn't true. What is fearful is to be cast out of the hands of the living God." This is the essence of the journey I made in submission, and it describes the foundation of its connection to the religious motif. The physical suffering is a part, but not the totality of the act of surrender.
At the time, I considered the self-serving pleasure derived from pain, humiliation and debasement to be a corruption of the path toward some semblance of greater understanding. The only pleasure was the ultimate surrender to God. The acts endured were a means to transcend, they were not meant to afford pleasure in themselves.
I naturally rebelled against the falseness of erecting mere idols upon which to prostrate my body, realizing that there would be no fulfillment to my search unless the suffering occurred at the hands of the living God. I understood, tied to that St. Andrew's cross on the day I describe, that "play" was a laughable imitation of the true act of surrender no matter what pain, horror or indignity befell me. This line of thinking would in time lead me to places where "play" knew no safe words or limits, hard or soft. I don't regret these experiences or the relationships that accompanied them, though I would not suggest them to anyone else, even if they were making the same journey.
At the same time, Jean Paulhan is not wrong when he suggests, in the controversial preface of Story of O that there is freedom in surrender. But the responsibility doesn't disappear, it is simply transferred to the person in control -- the dominant, or, in my case, the emanation of the living God. My life hung in their hands. Yes, it was dangerous. Miracle and punishment, life and death -- that was the point.
While the flogger, the whip, the open palm, and then the fists fell on my skin as I hung, shackled to that cross, my thoughts disconnected and disappeared. This, Roiphe describes as the "vacation of self" and "loss of personality." She’s not wrong, but the words used are meant to sound like an abrogation of responsibility toward the feminist narrative because, in effect, that is what Roiphe is arguing. I didn't see it as a vacation of self or loss of personality, but as the shattering of boundaries between self and other. I wasn't turned to nothing, I became one with everything. This is the same thing as what Roiphe describes, as anyone with familiarity with Eastern mysticism could explain, but the language used has the effect of changing the meaning completely.
However misguided you may regard my search to fulfill my desire for a greater understanding of faith and closeness with God, illustrating the submission experience in the context that I lived it has the power to impact the way people view submission. And just as with Roiphe's argument, my experience will create great gaps if anyone attempts to use it to answer the question of why. Positing that a drive for submission has any correlation to the progress women have made in society leaves male submission and non-heterosexual submission grossly unaddressed. In the same way, my experience of submission as an extension of a desire form a closer relationship with God in a godless time where the only beacons are religious institutions that prefer power to enlightenment, leaves atheists in the lifestyle woefully unaccounted for.
And this is precisely my point. We cannot ask why because the people who practice surrender -- whether it is through floggers and contracts, dutiful adherence to the vows made within a "vanilla" relationship, pious and unquestioning faith -- are not a homogenous group. We're not just women, we're not just straight, we're not just submitting to lovers or even other humans. The answer to the question of why is as varied as our numbers are varied. And our answers are subject to change as we change.
While I still see submission (and sex in general) as a time of sacred communion between Creation and Creator as well as one between the people involved in the act, I no longer approach BDSM in the manner I did then. Some things have changed, some have remained, and no doubt everything will change again. I don't believe that self-expression, whether it's sexual or not, is a static thing. I don't know that it has any one identifiable cause that allows us to wrap it up into a neat little package for others to digest.
All we can do is ask how.
Stay tuned -- shortly I'll post about why I found the depiction of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey itself incredibly troubling and how this book series has contributed only wild speculation to the conversation about BDSM and answered the question of why in a way that sets back everyone practicing the lifestyle at least sixty years.