SMACK! The thick leather flogger slapped the woman’s reddening back with a loud smack. While I gazed upon the scene I couldn’t help but feel I was standing in the midst of a theater of the absurd. A wiry red-haired man repeatedly flogged a topless woman as she crouched on her knees in the middle of a well-appointed living room. Surrounding them were nattily dressed party guests nibbling on crudités and sipping cocktails.
It was my first BDSM party, which I attended with my sub (submissive) in a gorgeous estate in Napa, California in the mid-nineties. BDSM is a term meaning “Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism.” But it’s really a term that defines a wide range of sexual role-playing as opposed to what those in the lifestyle refer to as “vanilla sex.” No single definition of BDSM is really possible because of the myriad of activities it covers. Individuals practice it differently, depending on what they’re into.
I chose to write about my experience after seeing the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” and reading about the backlash to the film. Some say it epitomizes “rape culture.” Some say it’s domestic abuse masquerading as a romance. Twitter followers criticized Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for seeing the film, charging the film is one that no Christian should see.
First, the movie was a C at best. I can understand some of the criticism, because the lead character, billionaire Christian Grey, doesn’t behave like any Dom I’ve known. It’s sad to me because so many will walk away from the film believing this is what BDSM is about. But that’s like saying Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is a real depiction of World War II or “Pretty Woman” tells a believable story about prostitution.
I met “Annie” online in an America Online chatroom and we chatted regularly. She was an older, wealthy divorcee living in Napa. When she mentioned the subject of BDSM, I was intrigued. One of my favorite films was “9 ½ Weeks” and while it can be best described as BDSM-lite, I’ve always been interested in the use of blindfolds, restraints and toys – but she was way beyond me. She was worried that the scene might squick me, but it didn’t. In fact, she gave me books to read like Philip Miller and Molly Devon’s “Screw the Roses, Send me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism.” After devouring several books and meeting with Annie and some friends of hers, I was eager to dive into the life.
While I didn’t give her a contract to sign in order to be my sub like Grey does in the film, there was a negotiation period at the beginning of the relationship. There were certain things that she indicated were non-starters. For everything else, we developed a safe word. Any time she uttered the safe word, the role-playing stopped immediately. So though it may appear that the Dom has all the power in the relationship, it’s the sub who has ultimate control over what she will participate in.
In fact, in many relationships, dominant subs will direct the course of play, which is known as “topping from the bottom” and was generally frowned upon when I was briefly in the scene.
The reality is many couples that have vanilla sex sometimes wade into BDSM territory. Restraints, blindfolds, ice cubes, hair pulling, or even spanking often find their way into mainstream sex. A big misconception is that BDSM is all about punishment and pain. Certainly it can be, but for us the goal was always pleasure. For every pair of handcuffs, there were furry mittens. For every set of nipple clamps, there were feathers. The way we played had to do with sensations that ran the gamut.
That’s not to say we didn’t engage in things the average person unfamiliar with the DS lifestyle might find shocking. Annie had a playroom with chains hanging from the ceiling, candles, manacles, floggers and various other sex aids. She accompanied me to tack stores on a couple of occasions where I perused dressage whips and crops to add to the collection.
The people involved in this aren’t doe-eyed college virgins as depicted in the Fifty Shades movie. And one might suspect people with deep-seated psychological issues might be drawn to this but, again, it wasn’t my experience. Yes, I knew a woman who should’ve probably been lying on a psychiatrist’s couch rather than chained to a table in restraints awaiting a flogging, but she wasn’t the norm.
The people at the party were lawyers, teachers, nurses, construction workers and other mainstream occupations. The woman being flogged in the center of the room was a psychologist who worked at a high school as a counselor. Though subs may defer to their master in a Ds relationship – outside of it they’re often strong, independent people. Letting go in a relationship and letting someone else call the shots is a release for them. Serving their master brings them joy. But remember that this is role-playing.
After the red-haired man at the party finished flogging his sub, he offered me the flogger to test out on his sub. I declined. (One of our agreements was to not play with others.) The guy said to Annie, “If he gets a thick flogger like this, you’re in for it. He’s a sadist.”
“No, I’m not,” I said to his surprise. No, I never derived any pleasure out of inflicting pain, though I most certainly did inflict pain. I was definitely a Dom and my desire was to be her master but pain for pain’s sake was never the goal. For us it was always about varied sensations. I was the MC and I called all the shots. Afterwards, my sub would make me dinner and sit at my feet.
The relationship lasted longer than nine and a half weeks, but it came to an end. Relationships are relationships, no matter if you’re in this lifestyle or not. After Annie, I hung up my crop.
The thing I loved about the scene was the people. These were good people that other judgmental busybodies would probably label as sick or twisted. But people involved in the scene are everywhere. They’re reading this right now. They’re your neighbors. They’re your family members. It’s maybe even you!
Hell, my own family members are probably shocked reading this right now. But while I’m shielding the identities and locations of the people I knew twenty years ago, I’m not afraid or ashamed to out myself as having been involved in the scene for a while. It was a great experience.
I don’t care if people trash the book or film. Art often infuriates. But I do care when the morality police trash people engaged in the lifestyle or spineless anonymous critics on the Internet call someone’s religion into question just because they see a film.