I, Sadist * written in 2007- I no longer take professional dominatrix sessions “Needles and asphyxiation,” the gentleman replies, “please.” I take a sip of jasmine tea and write his answers next to his name and health concerns: injured right knee and low blood pressure. I also have noted “no permanent markings,” which will not be a problem considering his weathered complexion; the scribbled hair lining his starched cuff that assures more elsewhere; his thick skin, the type that does not break easily and is quick to recover. Claudio, a lean, athletic man with a voice sautéed in an Italian accent, is a masochist. Besides piercing and breath play, he enjoys tight rope bondage, nipple torture, and whipping, preferably the single tail sort that emits a sonic crack as it is lashed out, drawing swift blood from its fleshy target. Next to the items of “hard limits,” I have written the much lengthier list of activities he is not only consenting to, but has sought out with determination and care. Claudio has come to me because I am an expert in these matters; I am a sadist, a professional sadist. “Dominatrix” would be the catchier title fraught with visual clichés, but while the leather boots and latex catsuits have their allure, the interaction of sadomasochism and implicit exchange of power is what intrigues me most. The interrelation of pain and erotic pleasure is commonly referred to as BDSM, a tidy acronym that embodies Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission; Sadism and Masochism. Sadomasochism, the etymological marriage of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is a word that merges the two impulses—that of desiring to inflict pain or bondage (the “top”) and that of desiring pain or bondage (the “bottom”). The union implies that there are two engaging parties. When the Marquis de Sade and Sacher-Masoch published their writings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively, they both provoked societal rage, yet their works remain as contemplated literature today, not only for their intimate confessions of human desires, but because of the greater statements of social and natural laws. De Sade’s antagonists justify their sadism by the cruel neglect of an absent God and the natural law of survival of the fittest. Sacher-Masoch links the inherent misogyny of sexual relationships in his era to the inequality of women’s education and professional status. Both of these authors demonstrate that their “perverse” desires are reflections of the world at large, that nothing within us is unnatural. To this day, sadomasochism is still a problematic subject for psychologists and, well, everyone else. People might sympathize with masochists, but a sadist at the dinner table causes discomfort. We are taught from an early age that it’s not right to hit others with sticks but then here I am, a grown woman, with a stick in my ready hand. Every person involved with BDSM, also referred to as kink, has their own story of their journey into power exchange, pain and pleasure, bondage and fetishism, some more self-aware than others. Most S&M journals and memoirs skip over myth of origin and expound only on formal engagement with kink: erotic, social, or political. Understandably, it is not the source, the question of how one became kinky, that is the point. Many believe that to dissect nature vs. nurture would be to invalidate their agency. Leather communities, online sites, and personal blogs all give voice to our orientation; to each, our own opinion. (Like being Queer, there is no one, right way. The Gay Communities advocate safe sex, but don’t deny that unsafe sex between persons of the same sex is still gay sex. The S&M community, too, advocates Safe, Sane, and Consensual or Risk Aware Consensual Kink, but there is still plenty of unsafe, careless, and exploitative S&M). In her Psychology Today article, The Pleasure of Pain, Marianne Apostolides writes, “For over a century, people who engaged in bondage, beatings, and humiliation for sexual pleasure were considered mentally ill. But in the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association removed S&M as a category in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This decision—like the decision to remove homosexuality as a category in 1973—was a big step toward the societal acceptance of people whose sexual desires aren’t traditional, or vanilla, as it’s called in S&M circles.” In fact, many psychologists today believe that sadomasochism is a sexual orientation much like homosexuality, a characteristic that resides at the core of the individual rather than a symptomatic, pathological behavior, as Freud once contended. (Freud wrote contradictory theories regarding sadomasochism and none of his studies were conclusive). However, the stigma of perversity still shrouds those who engage in S&M, especially those who, like myself, practice professional S&M. I am a woman who has made a business of providing BDSM services to paying clientele for close to ten years. While I do not engage in overt sexual activities with my customers, since BDSM is in the arena of eroticism, my profession falls into the category of “sex work.” I am well aware that from a legal and conventionally moral standpoint, I am a whore. My living is made upon violence, sex, and money. At dinner parties and in other social forums, I defend my profession with phrases like “body reclamation” and “psycho-physical therapy.” I name-drop the academic chic: Bataille and Foucault; Pat Califia and Carol Queen. Otherwise, I regard my vocation to be no more romantic than that of a plumber, no less holistic than acupuncture. Bodies need maintenance; some bodies require a special wrench. That’s my job. The main room of my studio, which I call “The Dojo,” is composed of clean, white walls, enormous mirrors, and a steel suspension beam that runs along the fourteen-foot ceiling. Bundles of hemp rope hang in a tidy row on the wall—red rope is fifty feet; black rope is twenty-five—next to a vast selection of leather straps, weighty floggers, and unforgiving paddles. A faint, ashen aroma of burnt sage and candle wax permeates the air and Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor spirals from the overhead speakers. Using a Japanese style of martial art bondage called Shibari, I suspend Claudio in an intricate web. Red rope crochets his torso in a diamond, crosshatched netting; black rope twines around his limbs, stretching them up and out so that the gentleman resembles an origami bird. His body, floating at my eye level, is multiplied in the adjacent mirrors, angles and wanting, folding into eternity. His pupils dilate. The hypothalamus is pumping out its fix of endorphins and adrenaline. He has reached a state of calm high and I am about to shatter it, to take it higher. I stroke the leather single tail and tell him to prepare, to breathe audibly and to focus. On his third exhale, I begin. I lash the whip and a perfect line of red blooms. He gasps. The naked body flexes and then softens, shoulder blades arch open, seeking more. I lick my lips and stroke the leather, readying for the next strike. Violence is defined as the physical exertion of force to injure or abuse, and BDSM is certainly violence. What separates S&M activity from abuse is the element of consent. The participants of the scene have negotiated their desires and limits, setting a platform of understanding on which the ritual of violence takes place. This platform is more often than not held up by pillars of trust, intimacy, and the availability of a “safe word,” a word or gesture that may be used by either party to stop the scene. The safe word is the marker that keeps the interface from becoming criminal or nonconsensual violence. Though in most states you cannot legally consent to assault and battery, this negation law is very rarely used to convict S&M practitioners unless the maltreatment has overstepped the boundaries of personal safety and first consent. (Interestingly, Texas is the only state that does allow consensual assault and battery.) Though a strange term to digest, consensual violence is not uncommon. War could arguably be considered a large-scale, multi-echeloned consent to violate. From the politicians and commanders who declare war to the soldiers who enter a combat zone, there is a certain grave acceptance by all participants that brutality will be waged and suffered. Even as citizens of warring nations, we sanction the understanding that those acts are occurring in our name. Media manipulates us, inciting and yet simultaneously subduing our feelings regarding violence. As a modern society, we are instructed everyday by journalism, Hollywood movies, and video games to absorb violence complacently, to sit back and be entertained by horrors on every level. Our reactions to the real and to the fantasy are indiscernible now as we ingest them in the same amounts and with similar passivity. Watching gunfire and explosions in an action thriller is as normalized as learning the number of civilians who have died in Iraq. In “Regarding the Pain of Others” (c. 2003), Susan Sontag writes, “Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news’ features conflict and violence—‘If it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows—to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.” While the humanitarian in us is saddened by the substantive violence and sometimes is stirred enough to compel the writing of a letter or organizing of a march, most often the matter flees from our minds just as quickly as the phone rings or the laundry needs to be done. Violence converts either to a political power point to authorize more violence or to historical trivia. I order Claudio onto his hands and knees with his head forward. Between his lips and the wall, I slide a silver quarter. I instruct him to keep the disk pressed in place as I bring a deerskin flogger into play. I wield the implement in a figure eight, careful to avoid the spine and kidney area. A fall of soft suede rhythmically thrums across his backside. It’s not an unpleasant feeling; the leather lands with a soft pound that is akin to shiatsu. I am letting his body cool from the high spike of the single tail scene, but I keep his attention focused, his lips in a strained kiss to the coin. If the quarter falls, I tell him, I will switch to the heavier, buffalo hide flogger. This is our game. He will either press the coin for as long as he can until the tension is unbearable or he will willfully let it slip because he is wanting greater pain. Regardless of motive, when it drops, I will use the coarse buffalo. After a few minutes, the quarter falls. Consensual violence is found in games and sports worldwide—from martial arts to wrestling, football, and rugby. Of these, boxing is probably the most blatant, sportive violence in its aim to injure. In fact, I was struck by the sentiments expressed by Joyce Carol Oates in her book On Boxing—how easily the same language that describes “the sweet science of bruising” could be applied to the experiences that take place in a BDSM session. A quote by Frank “The Animal” Fletcher, a former middleweight contender, appears by a photo of two boxers, one’s cheek getting smashed by the fist of the other: “I hate to say it, but it’s true—I only like it better when pain comes.” He doesn’t clarify whose pain, his own or the opponent’s and it doesn’t matter. Sadomasochism, though not the goal, is entwined in the flesh of the sport. In the boxing world, the roped enclosed ring with its set of rules is the platform of consent; the referee is the moral conscience that makes the violence acceptable; the fighters trust the referee to call the safe word; and the greatest achievement over one’s opponent is the knockout. In the world of S&M, the equivalence of the knockout is known as the “masochist’s climax,” not a sexual climax necessarily, but when the mind and body reaches a fulcrum of extreme exhilaration. Many masochists in the S&M scene describe the moment as being a “cathartic release that transcends the usual orgasm.” Prior to activity, a negotiation takes place. Participants set up the rules and the space that their activities are confined to—mostly private bedrooms or “dungeons,” rooms equipped for the purpose of BDSM activity. There is a code of discretion in the Leather Community that partitions BDSM activities from public display so as not to intrude on non-consenting viewers, especially children. The doctrine is summarized in an ethical mantra: Safe, Sane, and Consensual or Risk Aware Consensual Kink. In most cases, there are no spectators and, of course, no referee. The players are responsible for their own and each other’s safety. In this responsibility, the sadist, or top, must show an enormous amount of restraint. To be a sadist in the BDSM sense is not only to tap into one’s taboo desire to inflict pain, but to constantly withhold it as well. The tension between violence and consent is like a taut string of a violin across which the sadist draws the bow. I am a sadist; I enjoy inflicting pain on others. When I strike a slim, wire cane hard across the round flesh of a willing supplicant, electricity throttles from the instrument up my arm, down my spine, and nestles, vibrating, between my legs. My eyes throw open, high and hungry. Hearing the scream or moan, watching the welt rise on the body where my force was laid, I feel sex heave in my every dark corner. I love those welts; I love them more than I love the whole person. I touch and caress them, murmuring to myself and to the supplicant’s ears how pleased I am. Prepare, I say, to both of us, and on the exhale, I strike again. Seven more, thirteen, one hundred more times, my cane slices down, a whistle of air splitting skin. The body heats, responding more and more to my steel command, more and more mine. I catch a glimpse of my grin floating in the mirrors, white teeth and red lips multiplied and spreading into eternity. The sadist is beyond the me, it tears past the latex suit and whip skills, annihilating rules and consent. The sadist has fathered me, nurtured and honed me, spat me out and convinced me to nod at it and say Yes, me. It is the wanting to inflict pain upon another. That doesn’t lace on like a corset or un-fit like a glove. It doesn’t come off like a leather mask, so I can revert to normal. The sadist is me. While few opt to admit it, sadism is part of the human condition. In war, intimate acts of sadism are structured as torture, to rationalize heinous acts of “inhumanity.” In our culture, violence and sex have entered a pornographic era of display. Both are glorified and glamorized, but this has not led to deeper understanding or acceptance of those taboos. Therefore, when sex commingles with violence, the taboo is surmounted; eroticism bursts forth. When I speak of eroticism, I rely on the definition supplied by Georges Bataille, the brilliant French philosopher (1897–1962) who wrote extensively on the relationship between death, violence, and sex. There is a reason why he is academic-chic; his words are a relief to sadomasochists, perhaps not in solution, but in understanding. He lays the grounds that “Eroticism…is assenting to life up to the point of death…Sexual reproductive activity is common to sexual animals and men, but only men appear to have turned their sexual activity into erotic activity. Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest independent of the natural goal of reproduction.” Sadomasochism is that assenting to life; pain is confirmation of the living, just as pleasure is; but pain, so linked in our animal brain to be a warning that death is readily available, pain, undeniably, is the edge of life. Bataille’s philosophical work, Eroticism, is the revered bible of sadomasochism, more so than the works of De Sade or Masoch. I literally put my face in its pages and wept when I read it for the first time in my undergraduate studies and still own two copies—one by my bedside and the other in the Dojo. The writings of Bataille, for good or otherwise, have provided the scripture from which my practice of sadomasochism attends. However, like all philosophical theories and instruction manuals, when the action begins, all text is closed. My Dojo is located three blocks south of the World Trade Center site. Down the block resides The Pink Pussycat, a strip club where stockbrokers and construction workers dole out dollars to topless women wearing Barbie-style, platform shoes. Next door is a porn store. Its window mannequin, surrounded by plastic nubs and rubber phalluses of all sizes and colors, is redressed every week as a sexy nurse or slutty school girl. At the base of my building is the Trinity boxing gym, where men pay to spar one another, to hit and be hit. In a landscape of immense violence and sex, my space is an altar of those powers, hovering on the longitude of consent. This is the place where the masochist and the sadist agree on mutual exploitation. It’s where I find grace. There is a common gesture in S&M activity that sadists instinctively do after we stop inflicting hurt—we place a gentle palm on the masochist, usually directly on the tortured area to indicate our care, as well as our claim. That simple contact often releases an outpouring of emotions from both the sadist and masochist. As a seasoned top, I have learned to “read” bodies—to judge by reactions when to quiet the sensations and when to play them to crescendo. Even if I were to ignore the psychic language of sadomasochism, the bottom always has the referee power of calling a halt. Prior to the session, I tell them that their safe word is Mercy (three loud grunts if their mouth is gagged). Your safe word is for both our sakes. When you say Mercy, you seize control of your pain and, by ceasing, I give mercy to myself as well. In giving mercy, I relieve the sadist that stands in my boots; I prove I am not an abuser. The lineage of violence, one life reflecting another, stops in me. In BDSM, a world of heightened pain and suffering, the essential key that unlocks the force is Mercy. How wonderful it would be if that same policy extended beyond the dungeon doors. Three hours later at the end of the session, Claudio is kneeling before me in a yogic “child’s pose,” his feet tucked under, head to the floor. My palm hovers over his back and can feel heat emanating from the furious swelling. I am privately smug that each line is in perfect order, no stray lashes. I have a hot towel prepared with a natural, pine antiseptic to apply to the wounds. The decompression is nearly tangible. I can almost hear a slow hissing sound as though air were being let out of a balloon. I stroke his thick hair with my fingertips with nurturing authority, expressing quiet affirmations. I am honored that he has come to submit to me, that he has taken so much pain. I know that the yearning for pain can be a shameful and destructive path. It is a struggle for every masochist to seek connection and trust in a sadist. I do not take that trust for granted: I know, too, what it is to be a masochist.
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