The best slave
does not need to be beaten.
She beats herself.
– Erica Jong, "Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit"
On our second date, Teddy told me that he was a sadist.
He said, "I want to do horrible things to you." He looked at me intently. He wasn't playing around. A bead of sweat formed on the back of my knee, then slipped down my calf.
"Oh," I said.
"Do you like that?" he asked.
I smiled, to put him off. "I don't need a man to oppress me; I can oppress myself."
I was only half-joking. Because here's the thing: I'm a woman. Everyone wants to put me in my fucking place. I'd been fighting it since puberty, as I experienced the mixed blessing of attractiveness. Construction workers catcalled me, wondering if those legs went All The Way Up. Men backed me into corners. I was groped by hands that squeezed for breasts that weren't ripe yet. I have been strangled, slapped and bitten. Raped more than once, by motherfuckers who told me that they couldn't help it. They said I was too beautiful. The attention made me savage and distrustful.
I got good at defending myself — delivering the perfect, crushing blow. I have a killer backhand. At the same time, I perfected the preemptive strike. Nobody could objectify me: I beat them to the punch. Any slur tossed my way? I already thought of it. I was always on a diet, making sure that nothing about my body was offensive, making me a target for street harassment. I knew I was a bitch — I didn't need anyone to tell me that.
I guarded my sexuality. I knew that choice in anything, from contraception to consent, was a privilege. In bed, I insisted on safety, transparency, and control. I was responsible for my own orgasm. I slept with men who didn't intimidate me and were willing to respect my boundaries. If those boundaries were threatened in any way, I moved on, fast. I was a feminist, in and out of the bedroom.
And then I met Teddy.
The first time I invited him to my place, he gave me instructions. Get a prayer candle — a tall votive, unscented. And a tarp. I didn't have either of those things, so I went to the store and paid for them, feeling subversive. The clerk asked if I was going camping and I just smiled. My stomach was packed with butterflies. I was excited, nervous. I hadn't felt this much anticipation about sex since the first time I'd had it. I spread the tarp out on my living room and lit the candle.
Before Teddy, I had plenty of ideas about what sex was supposed to be. I communicated to the point of oversharing. Instead of creating intimacy, as I'd hoped, it shone a too-bright light on me. There was no mystery, no surprises. But I was safe — I was having safe, egalitarian, correct sex.
But when Teddy told me to get on my knees, I complied.
And I liked it.
In her memoirs, Dorothy Allison talks about the deep intimacy of pain. In the "tough dyke" scene, they took turns pulling each other's hair, fucking with fingers that turned into fists. All kinds of screaming and crying. She talks about the profound love she felt for the women whose faces she saw contorting, the secret bond between the dominant and the submissive. When Teddy stood over me, I felt my boundaries start to melt. I didn't feel fear, the way I expected to. What shocked me most was that I didn't react the way I should have.
"Should" didn't apply anymore. I didn't have to be correct, or pure.
Once, between breaths, I thought about the bruises I'd have the next morning. I would have to cover my skin, the abuse victims do or those who self-injure often do. Long sleeves in summer. I felt a moment's guilt. Should I have insisted on something more PC? Was I being selfish? When Teddy put his hand on my neck and spat into my open mouth, was I wrong in savoring the taste, his pleasure in owning me totally?
The fact is that sex, for most women, is not a public act. It's shared with a select audience of one (or two, or more, depending on your preferences). I had been treating my bedroom like a stage. Pull back the curtain, and I'd be there, repping my super-correct values 24/7 like a politician prepping for a high-profile campaign. I'd forgotten that sex — good sex — is private. What happens in the bedroom is allowed to be concealed. Obscured.
Opening up to my partner was like shedding three decades of unrealistic expectations. It was incredibly freeing, like I'd stepped out of my skin. I don't have to justify everything, I realized. Any feminism that doesn't take my kinks into account is incomplete, because it doesn't acknowledge me as a sexual creature. Attraction, like pain, is a puzzle. I couldn't identify why I want someone, even under torture.
I can't describe why I loved giving in to him, giving up my entire self.
In that relationship, the key word was consent. Teddy wasn't abusing me, nor was he a coconspirator in my self-abuse. He listened to me when we were in bed together. He checked in with me about what I liked. In many ways, he was the best partner I've ever had. It helped that he's tall, handsome, and progressive — but what was more important to me is that when we were together, we were completely present with each other. No part of my mind walked around us with a clipboard, assessing whether what we did was up to snuff.
Finally, my feminism evolved to include my perversions. I'm not just a body, or a woman trying to control or deflect the male gaze. I own my sexuality in a way that doesn't feel like a chore. It was the sweetest kind of irony: Teddy's handcuffs set me free.