Cat Marnell & “Fifty Shades”: Why I Can Be A Kinky Feminist and a Messy Human Being
A few years ago …. Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can.
A few years ago ….
Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can. But my friend (?) Richard used to joke (?) that I only called him when I broke up with my boyfriends. Kinda true, kinda false. Regardless — a few years ago — I don’t even call him this time, I just end up at his apartment for some small party.
He scents the pain in me, and suddenly we’re in a back room, alone. One of the reasons he’s so good at this is that he smells vulnerability like a shark smells blood. I don’t remember whether I ask him to hurt me, or he just grabs me. “Something’s close to the surface,” I tell him, while he leaves bite-shaped bruises on my upper arm. He knows me; he doesn’t leave bruises in places I can’t cover with a t-shirt.
“What is it?” he asks, and I choke on it. I’m already starting to cry. We’ve only been doing this for a moment.
“Red,” I say. The safeword. I’m sobbing. “Red.” Richard stops immediately. “Tears,” I say. “Tears were close to the surface.”
We’re on the floor now. I’m curled up in his lap. I tell Richard that the guy I broke up with last year — the worst breakup in my life — I tell Richard that this other guy met me two nights ago, specifically to tell me that he never cared about me. Almost a year after the breakup, my ex decided to inform me that he lied every time he said “I love you.” He could not have chosen a better way to re-break my heart. Why did he have to do that? Maybe he was doing it defensively, to mess with me … and the thought that he would go to the trouble leads me towards perverse, momentary relief. Then it starts hurting again.
“There are other fish in the sea,” says Richard.
“Thanks,” I say. I’m too devastated to say it with the sarcasm I intend. Yet I’m grateful for the attempt.
Richard’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I really enjoy doing S&M with you. Your reactions are so familiar.”
“Even when I break so quickly? Even when I safeword in less than a minute?” I ask. I’m feeling the masochist’s insecurity: I thought I could hold out. I’m so pathetic.
“Even then,” Richard says gently.
It’s these moments that make me think it might be safe to trust him, but the moment never lasts. For years I’m relieved that I never made the mistake of actually dating him, that I don’t rely on him for anything. Every time he stomps on some girl’s heart I shrug and say, “That’s how he is,” with a secret and shameful tinge of pride. And then one day I will realize that I do expect his support, when I’m almost killed in an accident and he outright ignores me. I will feel betrayed and simultaneously blame myself. I’ll decide that we are just fuckingdone.
But on this night, that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m surprised by how close I feel to Richard. I wipe the tears from my cheeks, then go to the bathroom and wash my face. Pull myself together so I can return to the party. My eyes meet my reflection’s; I’m not sure what I see.
I think I feel better than I did before Richard broke me down, but I don’t have time for genuine emotional processing right now. My chest feels heavy. Did he do me a favor?
* * *
The S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is full of bad messages about romance and S&M. The drugs-and-beauty writer Cat Marnell had a recent and spectacular public breakdown, which has been profiled all over the media. You might think that I’m cynically exploiting Hot Google Trends by bringing the two together — and okay, maybe I am. But for me, they’re similar because they both make me jealous.
Sure, I’m jealous of Marnell’s fragile beauty and James’s million bucks. But that’s the least of it. The writer Sarah Hepola says she’s jealous of Marnell’s writing skill, but me, I’m jealous of what those two get to write. They get to write about a self-destructive edge; about putting oneself in danger.
For the last few years, I have written mostly about S&M. I write about other things, too, but I’ve focused on S&M because I know it well. Because it’s important to me. Because I believe that S&M can be life-affirming and intimacy-building and can coexist with feminism, with justice. Indeed, the available psychological research shows clearly that consensual S&M is not, in itself, harmful.
But as I’ve written about feminism and S&M, I’ve also known the rules about what I get to write. I’m not sure how I internalized these rules, but I know them like I know my face in the mirror. When I write, I’m supposed to emphasize the emotional health of my relationships — both with my lovers, and (separately) with my parents. I’m supposed to emphasize my physical health, decent diet, and relatively new exercise habits — although it’s okay to mention it if I’m injured, because that’s not my fault. I’m allowed to mention being an outcast in high school, but God forbid I talk too much about the emotional impact. I must stressexcellent communication with my partners. I always, always have to mentionsafewords.
I am a politician. The arenas for debate are both my mind and my body. The personal is political, indeed.
I didn’t know I was waiting for it until it came, in Cat Marnell’s most recent column: doing S&M and then blaming it on drugs and self-destruction. Shewrites:
This is amphetamine logic: I am eroticized by pain. And that’s a lie. How turned on could I have actually been?
Marnell describes being hit in the jaw until she saw stars (and by the way, folks, there are safe ways to slap people and then there are unsafe ones; if a person is seeing stars, that’s a bad sign). In Fifty Shades, it’s a similar dangerous narrative: the dominant guy is scarily stalkerish, the relationship is packed with bad communication. It’s notable that in Fifty Shades, the series ends when the dominant sadist is “cured” of his S&M desires. Oh yes, readers want to have their cake and eat it too. The hot parts are the S&M — yet Christian Grey needs a “cure” for his trauma in the form of a sufficiently pure and pretty girl. Once he loves her, he supposedly “doesn’t need S&M anymore,” but then the series also has no reason to continue.
Fifty Shades was written to let people enjoy the hotness without taking responsibility for emotional safety. Without asking the dangerous question of whether S&M might be part of a loving relationship.
These are messages I hate, about S&M. It doesn’t have to be this way. S&M can be enjoyable; S&M can be love. I’ve been there. I’ve felt it. And yet. Sometimes S&M is … something else.
In one recent blog post, I pointed out that S&M is no longer fighting so hard for acceptance within feminism. There’s a troubled history between S&M and feminism, but it’s so much better than it used to be. Not long ago, feminist S&Mers were frozen out of feminist media and feminist conferences. I owe this progress partly to pioneering S&M-feminists; one of my favorites is the outspoken genius Pat Califia, and yet even Califia …. I once volunteered as an archivist at the Leather Archives & Museum and found a brilliant essay written by Califia. Yet at the essay’s beginning, Califia noted that the essay should only be distributed within the S&M community. Because Califia, like me, knew that there are limits to what we can say aloud.
I resent it: I resent that Marnell and James get to write about S&M that is also destructive, while my ethics urge me to be cautious. I resent that I’ve always felt like I must measure every moment of emotional imperfection. I’m not good at this measurement, because I resent it so much. I’ve always pushed back against the invisible expectations, at least a little. Like now.
* * *
Later. A different man.
A time in my life when I’m fucked up — for several reasons. I am so anxious and erratic that my friends treat me like porcelain. My laughter is shaky. Some nights, I sleep 16 hours because I can’t face the morning. I make “jokes” about throwing myself off bridges. I have a long conversation with another artist, about how we’re both kinda interested in addicting ourselves to heroin; we wonder whether it would improve our art.
One way I can tell my self-esteem is crushed is that it feels dangerous to do S&M. Not exciting, and not exhilarating; it’s panic-inducing and a little sickening: dangerous.
Tonight, earlier, I tried to warn my partner that I’m in a lot of pain, but I don’t know that he understood. Maybe I’m hiding the actual pain from him too well? On the other hand, he’s got that instinct: the blood-scenting shark instinct. I know he smells pain on me. I wonder how conscious it is.
We’re in bed. We’re clothed; I’m straddling him, kissing him. He’s having trouble making sense of my reactions, which is understandable, because I am too. “Are you okay?” he asks.
I sit up and look away, out the window. My heart is a bleeding wound. I can feel the chasm within me. I know that he could throw me off the edge. I crave that catharsis, with a kind of desperation. I’m afraid of it, too. Terrified of him.
I’m in love with this man, and he knows it, and I’m sure he won’t return it. I remind myself: He doesn’t love me. But I trust him. I trust him so much. I don’t know if I should do S&M right now — if I should go so deep — with someone who doesn’t love me. But something in me is driven. Starving.
“I think so,” I tell the window. Then I force myself to look back at him. “I’m really messy right now,” I say. “I mean, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” Am I telling the truth? “I want to do this with you,” I say. “But I feel … fragmented. It’s …” I pause.
“Hot,” he says, with conviction. I can’t help laughing. I give him a hug.
He’s told me before that he doesn’t understand this, doesn’t understand the chemistry of it, that sometimes he’s afraid I cannot truly consent to the things I want him to do. These self-fragmentations are hot, but they scare him more than they scare me.
On that night, he’s tentative and I’m fucked up and we don’t really get anywhere. He, too, tells me that my reactions are familiar; it makes me think of Richard. But tonight my partner doesn’t break me, which is maybe a good thing?– yet I’m desolate because he didn’t. The next day we both decide that we need to stop doing this, at least for now. He tells me that his number one priority is my mental health, and I agree. The rational facets of my brain are grateful.
This is part of why I carelessly allowed myself to care. I love him because he can see the fracture lines and he’s drawn to them, the same way I am — yet I am simultaneously 100% certain that he will be cautious with me. I am so relieved that he won’t push me further. And so disappointed.
I’ve been doing S&M for so long. Years. I believe that I’ve learned how to do it better, more carefully; how to set boundaries, how to keep myself intact. I know myself well enough to know that a single ill-placed blow could shatter me. So why am I seeking that killing blow?
After that night, I decide I can’t date for a while. I hook up with a different guy, who I definitely won’t see regularly because he lives on another continent. I feel safe because he’s so distant; I feel safer because he has no experience with S&M: I’m pretty sure he won’t touch me deeply. He can only give me orgasms. Afterwards, he sends me a sweet letter. He asks: “Do you ever feel like you have trouble expressing your emotions?”
Actually, I want to tell him, I express them too much. I decide that I should stop having sex for a while, too. I don’t trust myself and I need a break. I don’t know what I need a break from; I just know that I do.
* * *
As I type these words, now, late 2012, I’m much better than I was in the moments above. I took time off and I got some work done. I exercised; I vented to my friends. I try not to write overmuch about bad emotional states when I am in those bad emotional states. I would probably be a more successful writer if I were willing to serialize my despair moment-by-moment, in the moment. I mean, Cat Marnell does it, and she’s been profiled in the New York Times Magazine. (God, I’m so jealous.)
But I don’t want to link my self-destructive moments to my social media addiction. The Internet loves navel-gazing trauma-porn tell-alls; the Internet loves it so much that you can build a career on it, and you might even believe that your readers love you for yourself. The thing is, as you run low on trauma, you need new trauma to feed the beast. A recent commenter on Marnell’s column told her: “Girl, you need to either shit or get off the toilet… either die, or get clean, because this intermezzo shit is getting dull.” I won’t put myself in that position.
Still. I need to say this, just once. I need to say that, sometimes, I straddle lines within S&M that scare me. I can see the fracture lines in myself, sometimes — and I can empathize with them in others. I can even empathize with angry people who comment on my website to tell me that S&M is pathological, wrong, that it genuinely harms people. Because sometimes, it can.
An S&M-feminist writer who greatly influenced me, Trinity, once wrote:
I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.
… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.
And I once wrote a piece called “Start From A Position Of Strength,” in which I said that the best way to do S&M is to start from strength and seek strength in the end. I stand by that. There have been so many times I’ve done S&M and felt stronger afterwards.
Some of my friends say that I’m the most stable person they know. One of my friends talked me through some stuff earlier this year, when I was feeling really awful. Told me: “I know some very unstable people. And you’re the only person I know who thinks that you’re less stable than you truly are. You see yourself in unstable people, and you think it means that you’re like them. But you actually see yourself in so many people because you’re so balanced.”
Is it balanced to see myself in Fifty Shades and Cat Marnell? I hope so.
One of the reasons I believe feminists have to talk about S&M is that S&M gives a framework to interrogate facts about abuse and self-destruction that no one wants to talk about: not even feminists. Once again — because I have to say this ten million times — I believe that S&M is often consensual and intimate and safe. But there are also moments when S&M desires get tangled up in danger. Usually emotional. Sometimes physical. Sometimes it is even danger that the victim sought out. That the victim craves. But that doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. And we shouldn’t sweep this under the rug.
I’m an expert on BDSM — or so I hear. I have done so very much research. I have spoken at conferences. I’ve run lectures and workshops. University professors assign my writing to their classes.
I’m an expert, so I can tell you my professional opinion. It’s possible to have all the information about S&M and sex and relationships, but it barely helps if you don’t feel good about yourself; you just create more complicated rationalizations. Sometimes it’s okay to do S&M for catharsis. Sometimes it’s okay to do S&M when you’re sad or scared or anxious. Sometimes S&M can even have therapeutic applications.
But sometimes there really is no positive way to get what you think you want. Sometimes expertise just means that you know when to cut yourself off.
* * *
But now that I’ve said all that ….
I need to defend S&M, in the end. I need to show you how it is when it’s beautiful. Like one man I dated recently. He hurts me, and then he takes me in his arms and says: “I just want to take care of you.”
Or a man I dated a few years ago: our first real date is on a Thursday night and I hurt him until he’s almost in tears. He has so many fracture lines. I see his mental flaws, the insecurities, and I savagely exploit them. I make him afraid and I break his heart. Then I kiss him and make it better. We stay up until 5 AM, talking and making out, though we both have to work on Friday.
Next morning, I kiss him desperately through our mutual exhaustion, and I make him promise to call me every day until I see him again. It’s ridiculous; I never do that. And I can’t even wait until he calls — I send him an email two hours later. “I’m in a bit of a daze, and I don’t think it’s just the lack of sleep,” I write. “Still a few traces of blood under my nails. Craving.”
He writes back: “When I walked outside I felt invincible. That’s what I’ve been feeling all day. I can’t thank you enough. I’m thinking of you.”
The man I fell for before that.
I remember, so clearly, one night where he pours hot wax all over me. It’s mild, as our encounters go. Halfway through, I find myself laughing hysterically: apparently my endorphins have shot through the roof. I’m not getting catharsis. I’m getting a different kind of roller-coaster ride. He stops and looks at me in confusion, and I tell him between giggles, “Don’t stop.” I think we both anticipated something more hardcore — more tears and desperation — but this is fun, too.
After a while, he stops. My laughter slowly subsides, though stray giggles ripple through me like aftershocks. My hands are tied, so my lover brushes my hair out of my face for me. “What are you thinking?” he asks. I give a sweet-nothing answer and we lie together for a while. We’re both exhausted, but in the romantic cliché, we won’t sleep: we don’t want to miss a thing.
“I love you,” I say suddenly. “That’s what I’m really thinking. All the time.”
He sucks in his breath. Sits up, looks at me. “I love you,” he says softly. “Oh my God, I love you.” I smile. We’ve never spoken these words aloud, but as I said it, I had absolute confidence that he’d say it back. I am completely self-assured; my strength is at its peak. I have never felt such faith in a lover before.
“Could you untie me?” I suggest. “So I can put my arms around you?” He does. There’s wax all over my sheets, but I can’t be annoyed about it. My lover made me cry several times in the past months, and held me afterwards. Pain has primed me, somehow, to feel safe in his arms.
I don’t know how that’s possible or why it works. I can’t always reach for this transcendence; it’s not always safe to try. And ultimately, this relationship won’t last. But now, tonight — it’s perfect.
* * *