Slaves and Masters
Could sex play that involves pain and submission be, for some, a path to liberation?
By Meir Rinde
July 21, 2005
Miles, Kim and Laura were in their living room, talking about how they first got into the lifestyle. Laura was in the easy chair, in a sleeveless flower print dress, her long brown hair framing intense brown eyes. Miles, sturdily built, with glasses, short cropped gray hair and a beard, was on a light-brown couch with the center seat folded down so he could rest a glass on its back. Kim, his wife, sat in a chair near the front door, heavy-lidded and quiet, wearing a summery black dress and a thick leather collar with a dangling brass ring.
“I think I was five when I had a little boy licking my shoes,” Laura was saying. “And I got in trouble, and they said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure I can. Watch. And these four will do it too.’” She says moments like those presaged a turning point, years later, when she was in Germany on her senior class trip.
“I’d been to Europe a couple times and the first time I saw a woman slap a man’s face and him drop to his knees, that was it for me, vanilla sex was over. You know what I mean?” She laughed her hoarse laugh. “It was like, no, this was unbelievable, to see this. I had never seen anything like this. And then I came back here, and there was nothing like that in Connecticut, and I went into New York City and found Hellfire” — a famous S&M club in the meatpacking district.
A little black cat wanders into the room, meowing for attention. The walls are decorated with reproductions of oil paintings: nature scenes, flowers. There are a couple laptop computers on endtables, and a bouquet of long peacock feathers in the corner.
“It was the raunchiest, wildest thing I’d ever seen in my life, and I absolutely loved it,” Laura said. “I started playing with whips and floggers, and started to understand that it was wasn’t about bossing someone around, but it was a power exchange of trust.”
Laura, who is now in her 40s, became Mistress Laura, a dominatrix, and later helped run La Chateau, a club in Meriden with two sections downstairs for swingers, upstairs for people into bondage, discipline, sadomasochism and related arts, practices known these days as BDSM. Those who are particularly into pain call their practice SM, while relationships of emotional control fall into D/s, for dominance and submission.
The sex club part of La Chateau ran into problems involving alleged live sex shows in 2002, problems that made it into the newspapers. The place later closed.
So Laura says she was worried when she heard the Advocate was going to publish an article about “the lifestyle.” She didn’t want to see the usual old myths perpetuated once again, despite the rapid popularization of BDSM in recent years thanks to the Internet and to its frequent depiction in movies, television and advertisements.
She didn’t want to hear about how BDSMers are supposed to all be swingers, how they beat each other mercilessly, are literally tied up all day long, or are mentally ill or child-abuse survivors or wannabe serial killers. But, then again, maybe it’d be worth it to explain how things really worked, as she saw them.
So one evening earlier this month she and Master Miles and his slave, Kim, sat in the house they share on a semi-rural street about a 25-minute drive outside of Hartford, and talked about their lives, the group they help run called The Group, and the friends they invite to use the floggers, racks, genital weights, hot-dripping wax, electric wands and other equipment they keep in a few rooms upstairs.
The publicity might even encourage some newbie couples to learn about safe ways to explore their interest in fetish and domination, they said.
“A lot of times people have fantasies that they’d never share with their partners, out of possible embarrassment, fear of rejection — there are so many reasons,” Miles said. (Miles isn’t his real name, but it’s the one he uses in the lifestyle.)
“Whereas people that step into this lifestyle — often stepping in very slowly and carefully, which is the wise thing to do — all of a sudden they start realizing they’re not alone, there are others out there that have the same interests, and in this lifestyle there are a myriad of different desires, fetishes, twists, kinks — whatever label you want to put on it.”
Miles said he’d always had a dominant personality, whether at work, in his family life, or when he coached his kids’ sports teams. He didn’t know anything about BDSM until he was having a leather jacket repaired at a shop and noticed the collars and cuffs on display.
“I started talking to the owners and all of a sudden realized that there was a lifestyle that was basically, I’ll say, in a sense. surrounding what I felt within me already,” he said. “From that I got together with other people and learned that there’s a lot more involved than, let’s say, the general population perceives.”
In the late 1990s, he was divorced and in a relationship with a woman, his slave at the time, who became good friends with Kim via the Internet. Kim, who lived near Seattle, came out for a visit in 1998 and eventually moved to Connecticut to live with the couple. The menage didn’t work out and Miles’ slave asked to be released, though he remains on friendly terms with her, he said. Miles and Kim have been together ever since in what is called a 24/7 relationship of dominance and submission.
Initially that meant Miles was training Kim to be his slave. They wrote a contract describing their expectations of each other, and he started teaching her how his coffee should be readied in the morning and what kind of clothing she should wear. If she wanted to sit down at the dinner table, or take a bite of her food when they were at a restaurant, she had to wait for his permission, which he would sometimes take a minute or two to grant.
But Kim was ready for instruction, and much more.
“All through my formative years, I’ve always been a person who ... likes pain,” Kim, 40, said in a slow, soft voice, with occasional pauses. “So I sought out boyfriends who would give me pain, and then I found out one day there was a whole lifestyle where I could receive this ... pain I was interested in. I was about 19 years old, and it was with a man, he would spank me and do things like that, and it was really exciting.
“It’s kind of funny. I asked him one night if he was the devil because he made me feel so good even though I was being so evil in my mind, and he said, no, he was my master. And that was my first experience with what I would consider a real D/s relationship.”
Miles and Kim’s life together these days is conventional in many ways, they said. Miles works in the aerospace industry and Kim described herself as a “stay-at-home slave.” She does the cooking and cleaning, and the kitchen walls are covered with multi-colored decorative plates that she collects. They have sex only with each other, although Miles will “play” with other submissives and sometimes allows Kim to be played with by someone else, or even on rare occasions to play dominant with another sub.
“Her mind, her body, let’s say her spirit has been committed to me 100 percent,” he said. “Whether it is in this house or walking down the street. For the longest time I trained her to address me as ‘master.’ I am her master.”
“He’s the absolute master,” Kim said. “He’s, um ... he’s all-knowing, or whatever, for my intents and purposes. Any questions I might have, or just anything, I always defer to him. And I don’t have to make decisions. It kind of is nice ‘cause it releases you, you know, from decision-making and, you know, you just leave it up to him. All kinds of decisions, except for, like, what’s for dinner.” She laughed.
During the two hours we spent talking about BDSM, Miles at one point said he’d like to hear Kim’s thoughts on some subject, though it didn’t sound like a command. At a couple other moments, when asking her to perform some small task — “Kimmy, please turn on the light,” for example — a note of formality, as if he were reverting to ritual, entered his voice.
All three of the housemates laughed at the notion that engaging in the BDSM lifestyle 24/7 means one of them is constantly kneeling in obeisance to another, or they’re cosseting and brutalizing each other, as some in the vanilla world apparently believe.
“People would have rugburns all over their knees, and you know, it’s humorous,” Miles said. “The perception is that every single day of the week somebody like Kimmy would be getting a beating or a cutting or flogging or a single-tailing or a waxing or needleplay.
“That’s not real,” he said. “When we play, there’s a healing period. There’s aftercare that must be administered nine times out of ten by myself to make sure that she’s healing properly, that if there’s a cutting, is she being properly cleaned, is it healing properly.
“So play may be once a week, it might be once every two weeks, it could be once a month. People have this weird perception that it’s constantly going on, you know, it’s just all-encompassing, all the time. It’s impossible.”
“It’s their own imagination,” Laura said.
“If we played as much as people thought we did,” Kim said, giggling, “we’d be worn out all the time.”
“We wouldn’t be at zoning meetings, and we wouldn’t be in the vanilla world,” Laura said with a laugh. “Because we’re there, too.”
The practice of sexual sadism and masochism, broadly defined, is widespread. In 1990, the Kinsey Institute estimated that 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population engaged in sadomasochism on at least an occasional basis, mostly without serious pain or violence. That would mean more than 14 million Americans have tried at least the mildest forms of SM, like spanking.
Sigmund Freud attempted to find the origin of sado-masochistic sexual interests in the emotional life of early childhood, particularly in a much-discussed 1919 essay called “‘A child is being beaten’: A contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions.” In it, Freud discussed several of his patients who had come to him with a sexual fantasy of a child being beaten. Freud concluded that a young child competitive with other siblings may find a sadistic pleasure in seeing his siblings being beaten, since this means the child himself is loved by his parent.
Freud claimed when this child’s incestuous love for the parent is inevitably disappointed, it is repressed, but the pleasure at seeing a beating persists, guiltily inverted into masochism. Later, in Freud’s model, the masochistic fantasy itself is repressed, leaving the adult with an apparently sadistic fantasy of a different child — not the patient him or herself — being beaten.
What is significant in the Freudian explanation is that it saw early sadistic and sexual interests, and the child’s attraction to powerful parents, as creating a psychologically defining scenario in which a feeling of love could be associated with pain or apparent mistreatment.
The Freudian tradition has retained this view. As recently as 1996, a new edition was published of a 1982 book by psychoanalyst Susanne P. Schad-Somers on the causes and treatment of sadomasochism. “Sadomasochistic sexual practices are an example par excellence of the reenactment of of defense against the power struggle between the toddler and its preoedipal caretaker,” she wrote.
Another theory is that people who practice BDSM do so because they are reenacting, or attempting to master their feelings about behavior they saw growing up. Someone who lived in a household where love was associated with abuse and cursing might play out similar scenarios in his or her own adult relationship.
That’s what clinical psychologist Jefferson Singer has seen in his patients. Singer, a professor at Connecticut College, said BDSM also gives some individuals a structured way to act out otherwise frightening impulses.
“They’re terrified of being called no good or a slut or whore or bitch, so to create a context where they control that happening, they tell their partner to do that and they forestall it happening to them in another context,” he said.
BDSMers are quick to insist that they are no more likely to have been abused than the average person walking down the street. But they occasionally will admit that even they see a connection between their interests and their childhoods.
Kim, for instance, said she has noticed that a fair number of her friends who are slaves come from what she calls “dysfunctional” families, though not all of them. Her own father was mentally, though not physically, abusive, and she later sought out abusive boyfriends and provoked them because she liked being hurt, she said.
In yet another theory, Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, argues that recreational sadomasochism is an escape from the pressures of modern society, “a set of techniques for helping people lose their normal identity,” as he wrote in his book Masochism and the Self. The powerful man who wants to be dominated is the classic example. According to Baumeister and others, these men are often high up on the corporate ladder.
“Masochists seem to be drawn largely from the privileged classes,” Baumeister wrote. “Society’s real victims do not seek out masochistic sex. Rather it is often the rich, powerful and successful, the people with the heaviest burdens of selfhood, who need the escape of masochism.”
But many people who are into the scene appear to resist psychological theories for why they are into it. They’re more interested in enjoying themselves.
Laura Goodwin, who runs a 200-member club called United Leatherfolk of Connecticut, said she’s talked to thousands of people in the lifestyle and hasn’t found a common denominator.
“I know a lot of people who were never spanked as children, and who have a desire to be spanked. Nobody knows why,” she said. “Let’s just say why people do this is a mystery.
“My personal theory is that there’s a little sadomasochist in everybody, and it grows more in some people. Why do people like boxing? There’s something sadomasochistic about that. Why do people go to scary movies? Sadomasochism has a resonance for a lot of people. The difference for kinkos is that we role-play — we step into it.
“It’s very similar to these guys who like to dress up as dwarves and warriors, this kind of dragon-fighting thing,” Goodwin said. “Some people take sadomasochism very seriously. But for the majority for them, 90 percent of the kinkoids I’ve known, it’s an erotic sport.”
A dominant called Master Taino, who is putting on his second annual Master/slave conference in Washington, D.C. this month, echoed Goodwin’s dismissal of the theories. “Do you understand that gay people are pretty much born that way?” asked Taino, who is gay. “It’s something very inside of them. This is exactly the same thing. We call it a second coming-out.
“Some people realize they are gay when they are 40. This is just something about who you are. For some people it’s scary, because it involves BDSM and dominance. That is part of who you are. Then you have choices: you go for it or you deny who you are. And you better go for it or you’re not happy, like gay people who marry straight.”
And what the psychological theories can’t account for is the language of liberation, a sometimes almost spiritual ecstasy that is associated with BDSM.
For instance, longtime BDSMer Rick Umbaugh, author of the essay “The Art of S/m,” compares SM to a religious experience, a bid for transcendence, a loss of self in a merging with the other.
“The idea of the scene is to weld myself so closely to my partner that his or her climax becomes my climax,” he wrote. “This notion is at least one explanation of what we call the power exchange.”
Master Miles, in his interview with the Advocate, said a heightening of intimacy is what many women, in particular, seem to be seeking in BDSM.
“It’s the two people interacting, almost as one,” he said. “There’s a great deal of attention received and given on both sides, that people as a whole, in society, do not concentrate on.
“A several-hour scene is several hours of emotional, physical, and spiritual interaction between two people. In everyday life, how often do you have three hours of you and your girlfriend strictly with each other — no phones, no TVs, no kids, no whatever?
“Once they find it, it’s intoxicating, basically. People are getting an endorphin high just from the attention they are receiving, or giving.”
For some couples the intimacy is not only or even primarily physical. For instance, though Kim at first purely wanted her lovers to inflict pain, in seeking that intense physical intimacy she also discovered a way to achieve a deeper emotional and spiritual intimacy, she said, in giving her life over to a master.
Paradoxically, she also attained a kind of control herself, since she has a partner who goes to great lengths to get attuned to her body and mind.
It is often noted that the submissive, in fact, has more power than the dominant, even if that power manifests as the power to lie still while another person manipulates your flesh, or to have someone else decide what you’ll wear.
Mistress Laura and other BDSMers say in fact that the core of their lifestyle is not about having sex at all. It’s about touching someone, or having them touch you, in a deeply intense and personal way.
“It’s the mental connect you get with this person, knowing you’re pushing them into their sub-space,” Miles said. “When you’re in a pure scene, you kind of almost lose focus of everything around you. There can be conversations going on and you don’t hear it, because your focus is right there.”
It’s hard to explain, he said.
“It becomes almost like a mental intimacy between the two people. Their minds in a sense will connect.”
In describing what they actually do in those rooms upstairs, Laura and Miles stressed its sensual and mild aspects. He said a long “scene” lasting several hours might start with Miles asking Kim to give him a bubble bath (she hates baths, saying, “I feel like I’m in my own mud”), and then a massage. He might have her lie on a table in a small room they’ve set up for the purpose and drip wax on her, using different colors, and then peel it off or cut it off with a knife.
He might cuff her to a spanking horse, flog her rear end with one of many leather floggers they keep hanging neatly on the wall, then move to her thighs, legs and feet, being careful to avoid areas like the spine and the kidneys, where flogging can lead to a dangerous infection or permanent injury.
“As far as play goes, I generally try to work the whole body, because I see a lot of people zone in on a certain part, let’s say, and that’s all they’re focusing on,” Miles said. “The whole rest of the body has zones that are very erogenous.”
He might move her to the bondage bars, secure her ankles and feet, and flog her from all angles.
“Lunch!” Laura interjected. “Then it’s lunch time.”
Next might come sensory deprivation, where Kim lies with her eyes and ears covered. He’ll take a break, go into the next room, have a cigarette, let her wonder about what’s coming next and smell whatever odors are floating through the room.
“Put little drops of perfume on the floor or something like that,” he said. “And, she’s thinking, all of a sudden, ‘Who’s perfume is that?’ Now she thinks that possibly there’s another person in the room. This could go on for 20 minutes to an hour. At that point I can come over and start lightly touching her. She doesn’t know if it’s me or if it’s another person in the room.”
It’s about anticipation and mindgames, Miles said. He might say to her, “You have to be very careful now. I have a scalpel in my hands. Any jerks, any movements, could cause problems.” She becomes tense. In his hands he holds a butter knife, which he runs harmlessly across her skin as she trembles with pleasure and a kind of play fear.
But then again, sometimes the scalpel is real. “It’s a big, big rush,” Kim said. “Usually he’ll say, if it’s a party night or whatever, or if he’s going to play with me that night, he’ll just say, ‘I think I’m going to do a cutting tonight.’ And I just have to think about it all day.” She giggled and Miles laughed.
“And I get all excited because it does draw blood, and that is something, you know, that excites me,” said. “So I look forward to it.” She has MM, for Master Miles, cut into her skin on her thigh and her back.
Touring the upstairs rooms, Miles proudly points to a photo of a fresh cutting he made on another person, not Kim. The photo shows a series of Chinese symbols cut into white skin, the wounds looking red and raw.
Nearby there’s another set of photos, a triptych of a naked woman standing up and tied to a pair of bars while Miles stands behind her and whips a brightly flaming flogger through the air.
Though it’s all carefully controlled play, such images are still a shock to the uninitiated. The thought comes, This is wrong. And then Miles and Kim and Laura make a joke and laugh, shuffle back downstairs, once again offer a visitor a drink and act like the decent folk they are.
“If you are a masochist, or if someone close to you is, the main thing is not to worry that there’s something wrong with you,” Roy Baumeister wrote in an essay reproduced on a pro-BDSM web site, bestslavetraining.com. “There are probably a couple million other Americans with the same desires, and the vast majority of them are healthy and well adjusted. But don’t expect society at large to make it easy for you. It will take a small miracle for society to revise its prejudices, and miracles take time.” ●
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