Last summer, after we were rained out of our date in Prospect Park, a woman took me back to her apartment. I could say that she lured me there, but that would be an abdication of responsibility on my part. She invited me, teased me, cajoled me, and so, against my better judgment, I went. I told her, in the tone of my grandmother taking a second slice of chocolate cake, I really shouldn’t.
She lived alone. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and two rooms, one for sleeping and one for working. In the work room, whips and toys were hung up behind the door and across the walls. Furs draped. A white wooden structure, custom-made by a client, she told me, splayed in a corner. She wanted to tie me to it and whip me and then fuck. I wanted to pick her up and carry her to a bed. She said she wanted to torture me psychologically. I did not say I would rather be silently beaten.
We can have sex, I said again, or we can play. We can’t do both. This is one of my rules, one that she knew about prior to my invitation into her home.
The woman had made it very clear that my rule was not to her taste. But I want to do both, she said. (Cats only meow for people, not other cats, which feels manipulative, doesn’t it?) She talked to me like cis women talk to me when they want something that I don’t want to give: as if I was a man. The gender game of stupid, malleable male and cloven-skirted heroine—Elmer Fudd, distracted by long legs, walks into a wall—is fun for the kind of girl who expects to have her way. Patriarchy has its perks.
I was roped to the white implement, which was not a St. Andrew’s cross, as I would have expected, but more like a kinky coat rack. My arms were restrained, elbows crooked, in something approximating cactus pose. As happens when I’m in bondage with new people, I was forced to reflect on my powerlessness: This person could really hurt me. If she wanted, this person could kill me.
No, I said again.
A rope snaked under my throat. Fine, no sex. Fingernails clawed my back, whip at the ready on the other side. She would settle for cuddling with me after the whip, she said.
But I need both of those things. She teased the whip, a short one because we were indoors, through her red fingers.
One or the other, I said.
I want to fuck you and murder you, she said.
This was hot to think about, but I repeated myself. One or the other.
I am always afraid in the moments before a sadist tops me, but I was surprised by the quality of my fear. It was different than usual because, I realized later, I was not positive I would be able to say no if she kept asking me to say yes. In the moment, and for a few months after, I rationalized that fear away—it was just second-date nerves, or a new queasiness around whips that had happened to develop that summer (too loud!). The fear spiked unpleasantly, an adrenaline rush with no sexy limn. It was only later, once I had broken things off with the woman, that I understood why.
(Some cis women treat trans people like men, which is to say they treat trans people, regardless of gender, like a threatening object.)
The mark of a responsible sadist is one who will stop before the masochist goes too far. “Too far” is relative to the masochist; it could mean 21 light spankings instead of 20. It could mean a cruel word relating to a sensitive psychological area that the masochist is still exploring. It could mean spilling blood, even if this is something the masochist wants, or thinks they want. It could mean doing something that they have done with the masochist 50 times before, something that has always been safe but for some reason, on this day, during this scene, has gone from interesting and useful and fun to harmful. Occasionally, while playing with Dahlia, I have gone limp; my pain tolerance skyrockets, but only because I have become numb to pain. Instead of exploiting this opportunity to do maximum damage to my body, as a bad top might do, Dahlia has stopped. This is because she loves me like I love her, but this is also because Dahlia would extend this care to anyone she plays with.
I’m not saying that it is the responsibility of the top to read the bottom’s mind, or to know what the bottom can’t. A good bottom will know when it is time to yellow or red, and I know that in the past I have failed to do this, with Dahlia and with other people. We would all like to think of ourselves as more extreme masochists than we are, but crossing our own boundaries doesn’t make us tougher—in fact, it makes us weaker. It also puts our sadists at risk of emotional and psychological harm themselves. As an extreme example of this: If Dahlia owned a sky-diving service, and I told her that I knew how to sky-dive when I actually didn’t, Dahlia would not be to blame if I hurtled to the earth and died, but she would likely feel guilty, and maybe even responsible, because of my irresponsibility.
A top is not necessarily in the wrong when a bottom is unable to accurately assess where they are physically and emotionally, but a good top can and will, and will then behave accordingly. An irresponsible sadist takes a maximalist approach to the scene: How can I inflict the most pain? A good sadist—someone who cares about the wellbeing of the masochist in question—will put a stop to things rather than risk real damage. Hurt, not harm, as we say.
Finally, I told the woman to untie me, and she did without hesitation. I went home confused, and horny, and angry, and curious. It wasn’t long before I was back.
One of the reasons why I am so strict about separating play and fuck (when that can even be done) is that sex and SM and the hinterland between the two are blurry, confusing, crepuscular, as I think the above anecdote illustrates. In such an uncertain landscape of consent, desire, and danger, where intentional manipulation and unwitting trauma-response can make all of us dangerous—including masochists, including bottoms, including transsexuals, including me—I insist on rigidity, knowing even as I do it that it is not the best solution to a treacherous world. I’m not the only one.
Over the past few years, validity has joined the narrative around this rigidness, and the black-and-white thinking it spawns. Though we may violate norms of gender, sexuality, and erotic conduct, nevertheless, we’re told, you are valid. As discourses around our queerness, transness, and kinkiness inevitably evolve, this phrase has become a source of bitter parody, not unlike the concepts of tenderqueer, gaslighting, and trigger warning.
With this next DAVID series, I’m going to attempt to explore the ways that validity is used in service of assimilating and commodifying leathersex, queer sex, and transsexuality, and reifying power structures that promote abuse and protect abusive behavior. As I type this out, this feels like a tall order, and maybe even a paranoid one. As usual, I can only do my best.
David tweets at @k8bushofficial.