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