By Lawrence L’Amour and Cinnamon Smidge
“Sex and Violence go together like Bacon and Eggs.” –David Cronenberg
Nothing terrifies people more than male sexuality, especially violent male sexuality. “Fuck off,” I whisper to my own fear and shame as I push open the door to a privately owned downtown loft. It’s midnight on a Saturday four years ago. The place is packed. Smells like wet hair and fresh leather. Cigarette fog. Long dark halls and even darker corners. Shadows move, sniffing each other. Slags and slag hags, both male and female, people decked out in leather fashion, gay and straight mingling. Then, as today, this party is the go-to party for deviants. Women stuffed into rubber dresses, leather vests hanging off men’s bare chests. Racks strewn with whips, floggers, cuffs, gags and blunt striking tools line the walls. I unhook a short wood bat, feeling its heft in my fist, and imagine slamming a partner in the stomach and thighs with it. I pass sex furniture made of wood, well-secured mounts in the walls. BYO alcohol is allowed (recently limited), and people are swilling it down, shuffling past, beers and the occasional highball glass in hand.
It feels like home, this crowd, these people, not so different from the underground play parties in my Indiana hometown in the late eighties and early nineties, when I was still a teenager. The place is suffused with a sense of tolerance, a crucial feeling of acceptance and hospitality. I’m happy, floating on little glee-clouds of liberation. It’s so rare to let down the disguise, and go public with my secret identity: Hurting people turns me on. Here, dressed like a melancholic dope in a beige jacket and tie, fidgeting with an oily-black shopping bag containing a bottle of cheap wine and my own glass, I want to cry from joy. Pop. Pour. Enchanted, I watch the morbidly obese woman chained facing the wall wearing a vinyl body suit exposed in the back, increasingly mottled red flesh showing through where her girlfriend is using a belt with pyramid studs to whip her. In between lashes, the girlfriend pauses to smoke, gesturing with the cigarette in her free hand, making conversation with friends who pass by. It’s lovely, how casually she’s beating her partner senseless. Tears gush down the bound woman’s cheeks. I want to let the violence well up, the anger, channel it, hurt someone, feel the rush and separation inside, the jarring lack of self. Deep breath. It’s the allure of that narcotic rush of control, and feeling her relinquish control, open to the mosquito-swarm of my libido, the humiliation and anguish at the realization that our reproductive function is a reductive animal cage.
A tall, ruddy-face black dude walks in, completely nude, and kneels on the floor in front of a woman with curly red hair. I hover over a woman strapped to a wooden pony. A man with a seventies lip-liner moustache and rolled white sleeves thrusts his arm at her quivering, callipygous buttocks with a rattan crop. Thwack! “She has a lovely ass.” murmurs a stout, pear-faced girl standing shoulder-distance next to me, maybe early twenties, forearms bulging under her purple latex evening gloves. I look back. She’s right, that girl has a really great ass. I feel a tug to sink my teeth into it.
Yet, even then, something about this drunk and sexually gorging crowd gives me pause. As I watch the action, I detect something tremulous and brittle in the scene, in aggregate, but it’s hard to put my finger on. It dampens my sated sadist buzz.
A mousy woman walks by wearing a cardigan and shoulder tote, like a school mom. She’s smiling. I like her. Then, out of nowhere, she’s hit with a rough takedown by two guys in tight buzz cuts. The pleasure flushes out of me, and my skin prickles with pins and needles. Clearly surprised, the woman screams and calls them sons of bitches, goading them into an energetic series of tense-armed pinches, slapping her in the face. Moans of pain, and the sound of flat palms on flesh. My mental narration stammers and stops. At best, they’re playing in a gray zone of consent. My mood shifts, telescoping through layers of and questions about my own identity. Is this sexual self-engagement? Or pathology? A tiny bell rings in my mind. Something is different. This is not the nurturing and respectful community of pervs in which I came of age. Panicked gushes of adrenaline, and cold sweat.
As I began work on this article, I rang up sex-culture maven Annie Sprinkle, trying to get a handle on what felt so different about Chicago’s BDSM community then, and feels even more different today: “I would say that the new generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds grew up with BDSM imagery everywhere,” she explains. “So now what was so edgy has become normal. BDSM in fashion, MTV, commercials, Madonna, latex, ads in the back of magazines for dommes, online, the many slick BDSM mags like O and Skin Two… Those things all add up to more exposure to BDSM, and young’uns just wanna have fun, experiment, and BDSM is now hip. Not sick. It’s everywhere! It’s almost the norm.” Madonna? I’m more the Madison Young type. But yeah, she’s right. It is the norm. Just look around: Rihanna sings “S&M,” James Spader bends Maggie Gyllenhaal over his knee in “Secretary,” and James Franco describes his upcoming documentary film about BDSM fetish porn studio Kink.com on Conan O’Brien.
“What’s wrong with your eye?” It’s September 2003. I’m flat on my back, tangled in sheets, breathless from one of those shattering orgasms from which you emerge slowly, like rising through clear water. Jack’s face looms directly above mine; he’s backlit, so I can’t see his eyes. Behind him, the ceiling fan’s blades pinwheel. The ceiling in my Chicago apartment is barbed with painful-looking stucco. I blink. My hand goes reflexively to the corner of one eye, which feels in no way unusual. I push myself up onto my elbows and ask him what he’s talking about. He hustles me out of bed and leads me to the mirror, which I hung myself when I moved in, quaintly crooked above my dresser. The white of my right eye has turned blood red. Jack looks faint.
Jack spanked me before he ever fucked me. It was the first time anyone had ever hit me as an adult. We were friends for two years before we became intimate, after a discussion of the movie “Secretary” revealed a common fascination with sexualized violence. Together we explored the strange, transformational power of BDSM, exchanges of pleasure and pain that create a peculiar and unmatched intimacy between dominants and submissives, sadists and masochists. I learned that kinky sex can be campy, theatrical and fun. The bedroom became a place of safety and liberation, and, ultimately, of social satire. Catharine MacKinnon writes that sex is structured by notions of dominance and submission, penetrator and penetrated, conqueror and prize. If you take a look at the college hook-up scene, at twenty- and thirty-somethings performing sleazy mating dances in bars around the country, you see common themes of baiting and pursuit, conquest and capitulation. Kink’s compelling, subversive power comes from taking these underlying themes to their most chilling extreme, extracting the omnipresent, power-driven subtext and rewriting it as tall as the Hollywood sign. With Jack, I learn how empowering it can be to engage these narratives, rather than dumbly playing them out. I also learn that sadomasochism is not incompatible with tenderness, that sadism can be saturated and suffused with love. Jack strokes my hair gently before slapping my face. His eyes seek mine as I climax. Our scenes—the BDSM term for highly structured kinky sexcapades—end with cuddling and cathartic laughter. Outside our bedroom, we maintain a rich and egalitarian friendship. Popular sentiment might equate kink with abuse, but to me, this relationship feels wholesome, healthy, and empowering.
A Google search reveals what happened. Jack had his hand around my throat and when he let go, blood rushed to my head, and the pressure caused a subconjunctival hemorrhage—a ruptured capillary in my eye. WebMD assures us that it’s a trivial injury, one that can be brought on by sneezing or vomiting with enough force. But, as we begin to explore online sources, we learn more sobering facts. We read about erotic asphyxiation and collapsed windpipes, blood-starved brains and cognitive damage. We learn that breath play is impossible to do safely. If Jack had slipped and let his weight fall on his hand, he could have crushed my trachea.
We might have avoided this particular pitfall with a little research—or if we had been involved in a community. The public BDSM scene is not just a dating pool for those who prefer their fish gagged, bound or wielding single-tail whips. The scene provides its members with valuable resources, including mentorship and education. Local dungeons and conferences, like Chicago’s Shibaricon, offer instructive workshops on the subtle arts of hurting and being hurt without courting real harm. Informally, older, experienced players impart practical knowledge to newcomers. Through education, the community keeps its members safe.
Through education, and, I learned later, by reinforcing a collective sense of normal and appropriate behavior, people who cross boundaries or have little respect for consent are banned or censured. Unsafe players develop reputations for it, and word-of-mouth protects newcomers from potentially dangerous partners.
She’s on her back, her head hanging upside-down off the edge of the bed. I’m standing above her, maneuvering my hips and pressing down until, with a wet click, I press through and slide into her upper esophagus. Easing in, I watch her throat rise and retract as her thighs quiver with involuntary shakes. I’m pleased, and after, we lay in moist sheets and I whisper to her about the public kink scene I grew up in, a secret world of like minds and genuine acceptance. She’s never gone public, and seems excited to experience the community. I wonder if it’s the right time to come out again. The Internet suggests a community that is palpably more accessible, more local, visible across the city and more varied, with activities in almost every neighborhood happening weekly, biweekly, monthly. Four years ago, it was easy to stumble across a Neo-burlesque class or performance night pretty much anywhere, but there just weren’t that many notably diverse, well-organized kink events to attend in the city. It’s more accepted now, right? Lighting another cigarette, I contemplate the changes. Fetlife, the kink and BDSM social networking platform profile and blogsite, has given all these new kinksters the ability to assemble more efficiently with its (at last check) 1,313,996 international members. It’s a lot of people. Drag, exhale. Is it too soon? Deep sighs. Am I okay with it? Is she? Are we ready? Why do I feel guilty? Indecision and self-doubt seep in. I am no longer confident that the scene is safe.
What’s more, I’m troubled by a nagging sense that something in our relationship has gone off-kilter. We’ve embraced our kink with zeal, living out our fantasies together. Our sex life is intense. Has it begun to color our relationship? I find myself getting short with her in conversation. Needling at her insecurities to see how she’ll respond. “Sadist,” the voice in my head whispers, and I can almost see my own face looking back at me, eyes wide and silky. Sadism without love: objectification by another name. Without acknowledging the subjective intricacy of the other—her complexity, her humanity— sadism is only a sexual feint, clouding emotional intelligence.
Taking a drag, afraid, I wrap my arms around her and squeeze. It’s okay, we’re okay, these doubts are just empty fears, they’re not real. Present moment. Terror and sadness. Do I have the capacity to harm? I lay still. Reality melts away, leaving only the black air and the velvet, tingling memory of cruelty. I love her.
I’m a little frightened the night of the party, as Lawrence drives us along an industrial strip on the South Side. We park in front of a seedy gas station, flood-lit and empty, something Edward Hopper might have painted if he were more into tatters and sleaze. Taking Lawrence’s hand, I feel like slouching, but the corset forces my back straight. I could balance a book on my head, delighting childhood ballet teachers. Corsets are a bitch to get on, and he helped me wiggle into the thing, jerking the laces tight while I clutched the door frame in my bedroom. In the mirror I saw this foreign, exquisitely proportioned burlesque body.
Inside the building, a woman leans against the banister at the top of a spiral staircase. Light glances off her white vinyl corset; she is a thick, voluptuous beacon guiding kinky ships to shore. Lawrence makes easy small-talk. I confess that this is my first play party. The woman, Mistress M, is co-owner of the dungeon space. She shows us into a converted apartment, quaint and homey. My eyes adjust quickly to the dim light. In the hall, a treasure trove of nasty devices hangs from racks along the walls: ferocious clamps of all sizes, coil after coil of heavy rope, floggers and whips in any style you like, some with nasty metal bits winking at the ends of woven leather tails. Some I don’t recognize. Others I have never seen in person. Male chastity belts. An honest-to-goodness medieval mace, with a heavy spiked ball dangling from delicate chain. Tenderizing hammers. For impact play? I shudder. Nothing is so off-putting and absurd as a kink that one doesn’t happen to share.
The partygoers are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly straight. In the rooms, submissives strapped to equipment, in various states of undress, groan with some mixture of agony and ecstasy as doms take turns slapping them rosy. When Lawrence goes to the bar for drinks, I’m approached by a couple, grown teen-runaway attractive. The guy wears a tight, faded T-shirt, and this girl’s white tank top shows off intricate tattoos. Mac and his girlfriend Noodle introduce themselves. They ignore Lawrence when he comes back, though he’s obviously with me. We extricate ourselves politely. The next day, Mac will seek me out on Fetlife with all the subtlety of a chauvinist freight train: You seem adequately witty for my needs. Of course, a good portion of the time you may not have use of your mouth.
Later, on our way out, we run into Mistress M again. Her body is all flesh and curves, and I admire her confidence in her own skin, her ease and poise. She asks, “So how do you like your first play party?” When Lawrence says we’re leaving, she rests a warm hand on my arm. “Before you leave, can I have a bite?” At first, out of my element, I’m not sure what she wants. She’s grinning, looking at my body like it’s a confection. She winks. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a game without having read the rules. “Okay,” I say. She bends at the waist to accommodate her corset, and her teeth tease the muscle of my upper arm. Her breath is a wet, warm whisper. When she bites down suddenly, I see stars. I fight the instinct to cry out. It hurts, yes, but mostly I’m disoriented, confused—it’s that feeling of someone waltzing across a boundary, making you question your own sense of normality, of appropriate behavior. Is my presence here in a corset and stockings tacit permission to take a chunk out of my arm? When she unclenches her jaw, pulls back, finally, strands of saliva stretch between her mouth and deep, purpling grooves in my arm. Tears have gathered in the corners of my eyes. “That should stay with you for about two weeks,” she says, beaming.
Lawrence glowers at the floor. As I follow him to the door, I wonder if he blames me. On the stairs, teetering in too-high heels that feel suddenly more hobbling than sultry, I reach for his arm. It hangs limp at his side, so I reach for the banister instead. A lump swells painfully in my throat.
I realize that these feelings are not unfamiliar. They can arise in a rush in the safe space of the bedroom dungeon, where I feel both vulnerable and cared for. My dominant partner soothes me through elaborate rituals of power exchange; as he takes control, that terrible vulnerability is subsumed in sensation and bliss.
Shuffling, unpracticed high-heeled steps carry me through the tattered neighborhood. Buildings emerge in murky, pre-dawn light. The storm of emotions overwhelms me to tears. A few paces ahead, Lawrence’s lead grows as he walks fast in rubber-soled sneakers.
That weekend, Cinnamon and I travel to Indiana for my sister’s wedding. We’re out drinking and when we come back to our hotel, Cinnamon tells me, eyes iridescent and rheumy, that she’s in for the night, and I should go on to the bar alone. She’s struggling with emotion, what she will later tell me was the approaching thunder of an anxiety attack, brought on by hours of what felt like cross-examination from my family. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I leave anyway, march to a bar down the street, and get shitfaced. I’m so wasted that I get lost walking back, and lay flat on the sidewalk, half-conscious. I breathe, my mind swirling. The sky circles in stillness, bright with stars, a high-pitched whistle in my ears, shards of street light slicing the peripheral blackness. Later, when I finally find my way back, she tells me she was so worried she called police. She tries to talk to me, but I’m in blackout now and talking; I lie down seething on the bed and lash out in malice. I tell her she should kill herself, slit her own throat. Do the world a favor. I’m full of fear and hatred. She’s struggling with anguish, and I react with surgical cruelty.
When we return to Chicago, she is distant. A week goes by. That Friday night, I’m sitting on a stool in my favorite local lesbian bar, staring at the stack of silver and red Diet Coke cans beside the wait station, listening to karaoke singers work through tortured renditions of “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Joyce, the joint’s mama bear bartender, sidles up. Diamond stud piercings sparkle in the eyes of her sun and moon shoulder tattoo. I order, then notice Cinnamon at the other end of the bar. I’m nervous, delirious even, and when I tell Joyce she hands me a whiskey on the house. Then another.
It takes awhile. It’s not until I’m ready to leave that I get up and meet her just outside the front door. I ask her why she hasn’t called. Has she met someone else? Is it her ex-boyfriend? Or the brash, bisexual accountant who has been taking up so much of her time? She shakes her head. “You were cruel to me,” she says.
Little drops of cold rain pass on, down, over me, and I realize she’s talking about what happened in Indiana. And I realize that the clean and easy boundary between our sexual fantasies and our real-life relationship had become indistinct. I can feel the weight of shame lift as I explain how I didn’t see her fear that night, that she had been reduced to an object of my desires and terrors, and that in my mind, she had rejected me. She holds my hand. “For the past week I’ve seen you as a monster,” she says, “inhuman. Just a sadist.”
We share some tears and, back at my place, lay in bed, smoking. I know I frightened her, but I never meant to harm her. I was angry, and confused. “I’m a sexual sadist,” I tell her. “But I’m afraid of hurting and being hurt without love. And I do love you.” Her gaze meets mine. “I know it’s you, I know it’s Cinnamon, not my imagination of you, it’s you. You. I know it is, and it’s you I love.” And I stammer trying to continue, sick at my loss for the words, when she takes my face in her hands and turns it so I’m looking into those sparkling, infinite, deep black eyes of hers. I feel as though I’m falling into the palm-sized, metallic-blue safe from “Mulholland Drive,” a beautiful dream instantly replaced with the vacuum of difficult truth. “That’s enough,” she says. “That’s plenty.”
Everything depends on trust. He trusts me to tell him when to stop, and I trust him to stop at my word. My legs are spread open, my ankles looped to opposite bedposts with dark nylon rope. My inner hamstrings tingle in protest, gesturing toward pain. His eyes go cold and alert, and then flutter closed. For me, this moment is what it’s all about. Power, control, humiliation, abuse—these are mechanisms, not ends in themselves. They create a context in which we—in our complexity, intensity, and neurotic humanity—feel safe being intimate. Within this carefully prepared, painstakingly executed fantasy, vulnerability becomes beautiful, rather than terrifying; not a liability, but a pleasure.
The public scene I encountered with Lawrence, bloated with sexual tourists, crawling with predators, drunk on the instruments of its own excesses, mirrors the set of problems that arose between Lawrence and me. A crisis is brewing in the kink scene as the community swells with Internet-fueled growth, more ignorant newcomers than the old scene can absorb. As BDSM makes tentative headway into mainstream culture, challenging conventional notions about sex, the culture of the mainstream sexual marketplace—a culture that traffics in dehumanization, that balks at intimacy and has no mechanism for enforcing standards of behavior—is bleeding back into the scene. Boundaries have blurred: the sensibilities of play have seeped under the bedroom door and oozed out into everyday interactions, annihilating the egalitarian principles that separate kink from abuse. Curious newbies and sexual tourists like Mac and Noodle carry their mainstream values with them, and that baggage is potentially catastrophic.
For as long as I’ve been socially active, chauvinism has saturated the mainstream sexual marketplace, and rumbled just under the radar in the culture at large. Men aggressively pursue women without devoting much thought to conditions that can color consent (most notably alcohol intoxication), and women drink themselves giddy in a kind of inhibition-smashing foreplay. This disregard for consent is dangerous enough in a vanilla context, but when the aggressor is hooking up electrodes to your body, the stakes become even higher. Bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism must be meticulously negotiated and consent-obsessed, because kinksters play with tools that can cause a world of damage in ignorant, inattentive or sociopathic hands.
A Fetlife member—a female submissive—recently posted in a Chicago-area group about a disturbing encounter at a local munch. While she was talking to friends, she writes, a man approached her from behind, wrapped his hand around her throat, and squeezed. She struggled. When he let go, she felt shaken, violated and unsafe. It takes a tight-knit community to police these kinds of offenders, to exclude them from events where they can potentially make trouble. In the new, looser-knit and less secret world of Chicago’s kink underground, it’s hard to hope that this will be the case.
Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter of this article, the reader will please note that details, depiction of actual events and names have been changed to protect those involved. In the interest of space, events depicted here have also been compressed. In addition, the authors have written extensively for each other’s respective sections, so as to preserve ambiguity in the narrative out of a concern to avoid strict gender readings of this story.