On fragility, or: What you see is not necessarily what you get

walzer

Dancer Beatrice Libonati in “Walzer” (Waltz), choreography by Pina Bausch (source)

As my body is – once again – making me aware that I am less than perfectly healthy, and as I remember (for a short frightened moment that I won’t be dwelling on today) that this won’t get any better in this lifetime, I am thinking about fragility again. More precisely, I am thinking about how my body has often been called “fragile” and “delicate” (usually meant as compliments) from people who looked at it from the outside and how that has never matched the way my body feels to me from the inside. So this is a selection of inside views.

(Note: I have experienced thin privilege my entire life. From the way I think about my body, this is probably obvious to anyone who hasn’t. I have also been able-bodied my entire life, although I have been diagnosed with a rare, progressive illness last year. So far, however, this is mostly a “theoretical” illness because it doesn’t impact me much in my everyday life and no one knows if it ever will, and if so, when and to what degree. Nevertheless, there have been enough noticeable indicators that I do in fact have that illness that I’ve had to start thinking about chronic illness and its potential impact on my life. At least for a bit. At least every now and then. So I’m a bit between categories here, not quite completely healthy and able-bodied but also not “really” chronically ill in the way I live my current life. This combination of facts means that I still have a lot of thinking and learning and un-/relearning to do when it comes to body size and disability/illness and the way they impact people’s lives, as social/political categories and as individual lived experiences. Which is probably also obvious to anyone who has already done more of that than me. And while this text is not intended as a text about size or (dis)ability/illness, the context of these topics and the discussions that exist around them is still there, so I won’t pretend that I can “just write about my personal concerns” here, as if I existed outside of that context. Which is a really long-winded way of trying to locate myself in this context so you have an idea where I’m at right now. It’s also an invitation to please point out any mistakes, harmful assumptions, or just plain ignorance on my part. I really am trying to learn here, and some of that learning is going to happen out loud.)

***

“You are so skinny” made no sense in bellydance class when I was busy learning how to make the soft flesh around my hips and thighs and belly quiver in strong, delicious shimmies and how to talk with my hips in assertive kicks and drops that stop exactly when and where I want them to. When I was feeling connected to the ground and the air at the same time, but mostly to the ground. When I was enjoying how nice my small round belly bump looked, perfectly perched on the edge of my dance skirt for everyone to see.

“Your body is so fragile” makes no sense when I am busy purring through a deep, thuddy flogging that crashes into me like massive waves of an ocean made of wind and leather. When I am submitting to the sharpness of a cane that sends me through searing hot pain into rippling giggles of masochistic delight in perfect loops. When I am being the canvas for someone to paint bruises into my ass and thighs that will only blossom fully after a day or two and last for many weeks until they fade away into soft shades of dusty rose and sand again.

***

“You are so slender” makes no sense when I am looking into a changing-room mirror while – against my better knowledge – once again trying on pants that haven’t been tailored to a body of my proportions (as off-the-rack pants never are). When the sight and sense of my body in a pair of ill-fitting pants makes me think “my ass is too fat” and forget that the problem lies with the fact that the clothes are ill-fitting, not with my body, that nobody – and no body – looks good in ill-fitting clothes, and that I am supposed to feel inadequate in this environment because that’s how they are trying to sell their shit to me.

“You look so sporty” made no sense when I hadn’t even owned a pair of sneakers for ten or fifteen years, let alone done anything even remotely athletic (except dance my ass off at parties, but that didn’t count because that kind dancing was most definitely not a sport by anyone’s definition). When, at the age of 35, I needed my then-eight-year-old nephew to teach me how to safely catch a ball that was coming right at my face because no one had ever explained that to me in thirteen years of mostly awful physical education at school. When I was still busy recovering from these thirteen years that had successfully hammered into me that I was Bat At Sports and would be so forever.

“Your body is so delicate” makes no sense when I feel clumsy and awkward, with too-big feet that get caught on furniture and make me stumble off-balance in the presence of attractive butches. When my head seems too high above someone else’s while I am trying to talk to them on the same level. When my femininity feels inadequate and my body seems to be taking up too much space in completely the wrong way and my femme gender becomes highly precarious all of a sudden, just because there’s a person around who invests a lot more time and work into their own femininity and its physical expression than I do (because, is it really okay that I don’t?). When I am thrown back into my early teenage years of failing at being a girl, because – as my slightly bigger mother failed to understand – being not-fat really wasn’t enough to make desirable boys (or anyone, really) desire me.

***

When I actually felt “fragile,” back when I didn’t have working migraine meds yet, I could never quite convince the people around me that having a migraine wasn’t drama-queen-speak for “I have a bad headache.” That about once or twice a month, really , seriously, all I could do was lie in bed for an entire day or two, hide from all light, sound, and smell as best as I could when my apartment was facing a busy street, and try to keep down at least half a mouthful of water (since food was out of the question anyway). That it took me another day or two to just get back to normal from the sheer physical exhaustion of that.

When I actually felt “delicate,” in hospital last year, I couldn’t quite convince the night nurse that I wasn’t just lazy when I asked her if she could please refill my pitcher of water. That I really could barely walk down the entire long hallway by myself, let alone carry both the drainage machine that was attached to my insides and the liter of liquid on my way back. I didn’t even try to explain that my apparent psychological resilience (because, really, what other choice did I have?) led her to burden me with her expectations of strength that had little relation to my actual physical condition (then again, maybe that’s just business as usual as a Woman In Pain).

When I actually felt (too) “thin,” in the emotionally abusive relationship I was in for too long, I couldn’t even convince myself that I wasn’t fine. Not even when I looked at that photo of my then-partner and me where everything about me looks stark and fake and unstable, especially the pose that was meant to be romantic and picture-book perfect. Only much later was I able to realize that large parts of me had literally disappeared in this relationship – while he still kept framing me as the strong one, who, by definition, would always need less emotional support than he did (unless I was being framed as the psychologically unstable one, of course, because that’s how the gaslighting worked). But everyone else just thought I was having bad politics and a weird phase of too-much normality.

***

When I actually felt “fragile,” because I had ongoing health issues (the same kind I’m having right now) during a BDSM weekend event earlier this year, there were two people who, independent of each other, finally got it right.

They listened to me. They acknowledged my own sense of being more fragile than usual. And then each of them, in their own way, went on to play hard with me. No one before these two has ever beaten me as deeply, flogged me as hard, or even hit me at all in those very vulnerable places. No one before has dared to take me right into the middle of so many scary places in my mind so deeply so soon, with my full consent and cooperation, and gone there with me as willingly. No one before has put so much trust into my ability to not just endure the heavy impact and the pain (and they both knew exactly how heavy and how painful it was) but to transform it into strength and pleasure, mine and theirs – a lot of strength and a lot of pleasure. And while none of that was actually planned (at least not by me), and major parts of it were only negotiated on the fly (and thank goodness for all of us being skillful, self-aware communicators), both of these encounters were absolutely perfectly therapeutic and absolutely perfectly fucking hot.

And this is why I’m so deeply in love with BDSM play.

Because when I play like this, my body feels solid and strong and I feel at home in it. I know what it can do and I like stretching it to its limits (preferably slowly so I have time to pay attention to the process and to where the limit actually is and to staying right there on the edge for a while). I like transforming what could be pain into pleasure by the simple act of accepting it willingly. I also like enduring actual pain because it’s part of the process, part of the deal. I like offering just the right amount of resistance to let my partner know I’m right there with them, ready to follow their lead. I like bending and yielding and twisting and draping myself into shapes that are exactly the right kind of challenging. I like it when my partners treat my body as if it’s strong and capable, even and especially when they know that it’s also fragile. I like it when my partners don’t equate femininity with fragility but measure their force to my actual ability. (All of which is also true about ballroom dancing, by the way.)

BDSM (and ballroom dancing) make space for all of this (and so much more). They make space for me to change the stories about my body. They make space for me to heal. And I’m going to fucking use these spaces as long as I can, in whatever way I can. Especially since I’m not actually going to heal physically, at least not long-term.

But today is not the day where I focus on my fear of losing this way of using my body at some point in the future (and I most likely will, due to old age or progressive illness or both). Because today is the day where I celebrate what is possible now. As fragile as that “now” might be.

Blood and guts: beginnings

A few days ago, I came across this image on Tumblr. It brought up a lot of memories for me.

Catherine Opie: “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” 1993
(image source: guggenheim.org)

I first saw this photo in 1997 on a poster for the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona, where I was on holiday with some straight girl friends. Until then, I had had a mostly terrible time there. I didn’t speak Spanish (or Catalán), I had desperately and unsuccessfully tried to find a single recognizable lesbian outside of the mirror, and I felt utterly alone and in the wrong place.

Until I saw this image. It spoke to me instantly and it made immediate sense, deep in my guts, on a level where the conscious thinking only kicks in much later. I was blown away.

Besides the visceral recognition of the pain and yearning and resistance and hope I saw in the photo, I couldn’t believe that I’d found such an absolutely blatant representation of not just lesbianism but dykeness out in the open in broad daylight, after weeks of absolutely nothing that seemed to even hint at the existence of other lesbians (let alone dykes, let alone SM dykes) in this huge city. In that moment, this image was a sudden life-line that said, You are not alone. We exist. You exist.

I carefully peeled a copy of the poster off a wall of windows to which it had been attached with sticky tape. I carried it home very carefully in my backpack. And then I immediately put it up on my wall.

***

I should probably mention that I didn’t think of myself as “being into SM” (I only started calling it BDSM much later) then. In fact, it would take me several more months to even admit to myself that I was curious about it and to start reading about it a bit more systematically (thankfully, that was also the year that I started having internet access, so I actually had a way to find some useful information).

Nevertheless, this image, together with a set of photos from Claire Garoutte’s Matter of Trust that also show needle/blood play, was one of the first images of lesbian sadomasochism that ever registered with me. I was fascinated and terrified by them at the same time. And they never again left me.

Given the fact that I already had several tattoos and permanent piercings, it’s perhaps entirely unsurprising that I felt drawn to piercing and cutting as a BDSM activity so early. I knew early on that body modifications such as piercings, cuttings, or brandings were connected to SM for some people, even though I only knew these people from the pages of borrowed books. I just didn’t think of my own body modifications as related to BDSM. At least not really.

Then again, and around the same time, I had already let a friend/crush with a penchant for pushing needles through other people’s flesh give me a few permanent home-made piercings. And I was highly aware that those experiences had been very different from all those times of getting my ears or nose pierced in a jewelry shop after school. There had been a lot more deliberateness, more negotiation, more connection, more fear, more trust, more intimacy, and more room for both of us having feelings about the experience. In my mind, however, all of that was still just a path to the end result of having a piercing. With an added dose of punk rock romance and DIY rebellion.

Even the act of letting my first butch lover give me yet another permanent piercing in my home – an act that came with obvious erotic tension, a mostly unspoken but still noticeable and at least half-acknowledged undertone of BDSM, and actual sex afterwards – could still be passed off as a slightly more sexualized way of getting a piercing. At least if I squinted a lot.

The Catherine Opie poster still hung on my wall.

And I now had a small collection of used piercing needles and bloody paper towels in my drawer. Because those clearly were meaningful acts and I’m a fucking romantic.

I also watched yet another butch accidentally smash a glass on the street outside of a dyke dance event in San Francisco, saw her bleed from that, and had a very strong urge of wanting to lick the blood off her fingers before I even knew her name. (Of course I resisted that urge. But we exchanged phone numbers later and went on to create more beautiful memories together.)

***

A few years later, I finally and actively got into the kind of BDSM that couldn’t be passed off as anything else anymore. At my very first playparty, I spent some time watching a rather bloody piercing/cutting group play. The energy in that room (and I never even crossed the threshold into it, just watched from the door) was absolutely beautiful. I was completely in awe, profoundly touched, and I nearly cried because it was such a moving experience to be allowed to see and feel this. Again, this spoke to me on a deep gut level.

After that, I began thinking about playing with literally letting someone under my skin in the context of BDSM. My first “real” play partner actually was into needles, but it seemed wrong to me to do that kind of play so early on my path into BDSM. I also knew it would mean something to me, more than other BDSM activities, so it had to be with the right person, in the right dynamic, and at the right time and place. Also, I was still terrified of letting someone open my skin just for the process of it (and not for the purpose of getting a tattoo or permanent piercing). What if it would all be too much and I would feel queasy or faint? There were more play partners after her, but there also always were good reasons not to do it at that time, with that person, or at all. So I never did anything with needles, blades, or blood. But I kept thinking about it. I kept being certain that one day I would.

At some point, I took down the poster. I don’t remember why exactly, but I think one of my (vanilla) exes found it too crass to look at.

***

There was a very long time where I didn’t do any BDSM whatsoever. I hardly even thought about it because it just made me feel confused and bad. I also didn’t get any more piercings or tattoos. I almost forgot about all of it.

That time passed. Things changed again.

***

This year, finally, I found the right person, time, and place to get my very first play piercings. That was a beautiful, calm, and very, very moving moment. I still had the same visceral and erotic reaction to the first drop of blood (not mine, but I did bleed later) that appeared in this room. Being pierced also sent me right into subspace like few other things have done so instantly. And it was fucking hot. Eighteen years after first bringing home this poster, I had finally come full circle.

And now a new circle has been opened, and I’m thinking about putting up the poster again.

There’s also another person with a penchant for needles and blades near me these days, and I feel very tempted to offer them my skin and ask them to hurt me and make me bleed… Because it feels appropriate, because I’m still a fucking romantic, and because in a way it would close yet another circle.

What I mean when I say “D/S” (and “S/M”)

In the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on FetLife, wandering around and reading various group posts and discussion threads. A fair amount of what I read was about D/S. And I was struck – and put off – by the amount of times that people seemed to automatically frame D/S as a full-time thing. And as a thing between an unquestioningly obedient submissive (usually assumed to be female) and a strict – and, if necessary, punishing – dominant (usually assumed to be male).

Perhaps this is mostly a case of cultural differences between the majority of FetLife users (who seem to be heterosexual/ heteroflexible/ bisexual-in-a-heteronormative-BDSM-subculture – at least the assumptions in those posts seem to confirm that) and the dyke-/trans*-centered BDSM culture I feel at home in. Perhaps I just read a very non-representative selection of opinions. Or perhaps I just remember the posts and comments that didn’t sit right with me with much more than any others.

At any rate, as I was reading, I kept thinking “wait, that’s not what *I* mean when I say D/S.” So I thought it would make sense to write down some fundamentals about what I do think of when I say D/S here, if only to be able to reference this post in future writings about other aspects of BDSM in general and D/S in particular. (This is still thinking in progress, so my language may be a bit provisional at times until I find more accurate words for what I want to say.)

***

First of all, a word about spelling. Most people spell it “D/s” to express the hierarchy of control between the capital-D dominant and the small-s submissive. Too often, however, there seems to be a notion of superiority and inferiority in terms of value attached to that, and I don’t want to perpetuate that in any way, shape, or form.

Because for me, dominance and submission need each other to work. Both are equally important and valuable. Without a submissive who is submitting to them, a dominant simply can’t be dominant (at least not in a framework of consent, and that’s the only framework I’m discussing here). Both are equally powerful. If the submissive has no initial power of their own to give to the dominant for the duration of whatever time period they have negotiated, there’s no play, no dynamic. There’s also no meaningful consent.

To express this, I have recently started to spell D/S with two capital letters, just as I spell S/M (for sadism/masochism) with two capital letters, and just as I sometimes abbreviate butch/femme as B/F. Because all of these denote dynamics between two ‘roles’ that can be quite different and very polarized, but wherein each participant still has equal value.

While I’m at it, another word about language: I use “top” and “bottom” as neutral terms for the dominant and/or sadist and/or giving part and the submissive and/or masochist and/or receptive part of the dynamic. (Yes, I know there also are dominant masochists and submissive sadists and service tops and tops who get fucked/beaten by their bottoms… So please don’t assume you’re not included in my thoughts, and please do adjust my shorthand terms in your head so they best suit your reality.)

***

So, what do I mean when I say D/S? For me, D/S is at its core about playing with a power dynamic. I mostly use the term to differentiate that kind of play from S/M, which to me is fundamentally about playing with pain/sensation.

Since power is mostly a thing that happens in our minds, D/S is mostly mental/psychological/emotional play for me. It doesn’t need a physical component to function, and some people play in a D/S framework without ever using any kind physical pain. However, most D/S players often makes use of body language and touch (or lack of touch) to express dominance and submission. And non-masochist submissives may endure pain as an act of submission, even if the pain as such is not enjoyable to them. Non-enjoyable pain may also be utilized as a form of punishment if that has been negotiated as part of a given D/S dynamic.

Compared to that, S/M is mostly physical/body-centered play for me. It doesn’t need a power hierarchy to function, although S/M players often use at least some light D/S dynamics to frame the infliction of pain or other strong sensations. And even without a trace of D/S, the experience of pain always also has a mental/psychological/emotional component. Still, there are people who exclusively play with S/M and don’t use/enjoy D/S power dynamics at all.

(That said, even though I’m separating the two concepts for thinking purposes here, I myself and most people I’ve met seem to combine elements from both D/S and S/M in their play, with varying amounts of either. Which also means: Please don’t get hung up on these labels unless they actually help you, too, in thinking about this.)

***

I don’t approach D/S play with the idea that I’m supposed to just do whatever my dominant wants me to do (within the frame of my clearly-stated hard limits), without any input or questions or resistance from me.

I refrain from that default assumption because I can access very different kinds of headspaces within a D/S framework (and I know that’s also true for other bottoms). Not all of these headspaces and dynamics center on immediate obedience, not all of them allow the top far-reaching control over the bottom’s mind and body, and not all of them are possible or even desirable with anyone/at anytime.

Need examples?

Playing as a resistant, bratty bottom who needs to be forced to finally submit is not the same as playing as a perfectionist, obedient bottom whose main interest is to please their top by fulfilling their expectations to the best of the bottom’s ability.

Playing as a bottom who is asked to endure a lot of pain for their top could end with the bottom feeling physically strong and successful in taking whatever their top wanted to dish out and being praised for that. Or it could end with the bottom “failing” miserably and being able to experiencenot being abandoned/ridiculed by their top despite that “failure.” These are obviously not the same, either.

Playing as a bottom who wants to be scared shitless, brutally taken down, and forcefully taken apart until they are a sobbing mess of catharsis is not the same as playing as a bottom who wants to very consciously choose to do something that carries a huge emotional risk for them and whose top has asked them to do this thing and has then given them the space to take that step all on their own (and perhaps still end up as a sobbing mess of catharsis).

Doing an impromptu negotiate-as-we-go-along role-play with a friend for ten minutes with a lot of cracking up mixed in is not the same as doing a three-hour collaring ceremony within the framework of living in a full-time D/S relationship with your romantic partner.

All of those are D/S dynamics, though. And all of those are beautiful and worthwhile and “real.”

***

TL;DR: If I say “D/S,” all I mean is “playing with (a focus on) some kind of power dynamic.” Everything else still needs to be negotiated/specified further.

So that’s the only assumption about D/S everyone should make around here.

Hysterical Literature

I saw the Stoya one from this series years ago.

Tonight I rewatched it (it’s still brilliant and still my favorite) and discovered the rest of the series. They are all just GORGEOUS. Do yourselves a favor and watch them all (the only one that doesn’t resonate with me at all is the Margaret Cho one because she seems really uncomfortable during the experience and that makes me cringe).

I chose this particular video for posting here because I just like it, and also because I have a personal history with Still Life With Woodpecker that goes all the way back to me being in my late teens and beginning to discover who I am as a sexual person in relation to others and who I might want to become.

So, here’s to redheads (by genes and/or choice), old stories, finding language, the courage to try new things, and to female erotic awesomeness.

And here’s to my (comparatively recent) desire to perhaps at some point reenact the basic concept of this series. Without the camera. Because I would want this to be more like theater than like film. I want to pick a book, pick an outfit, sit down at a table and read until I can’t anymore, and I want to choose who gets to be there with me.