Do you like to play?
Remember when we were kids? We played cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. We were super heroes and gangsters and we played hide-and-go-seek. We chased each other and wrestled and played dog pile. Breathless and excited, we spent our time playing, exploring and discovering.
And then something happened. We grew up.
As adults, we inhabit a society that teaches us to play nice. We question our desires, our fantasies and our play-because a certain set of cultural mores says we should. Chances are, if you talk openly about your fantasies, people around you will squirm-and recoil. Our sexual desires are taboo.
What if you like to play with pain? Do you admit it? Is there something wrong with you? And, what if that play is sexually exciting?
What turns you on? A little slap on the ass? An innocent bite on the neck, the thigh. Your wrists held down while you are ravished?
Caryl is 44 years old. She had her first fantasy when she was 6. "I was abducted by Batman. He took me to his bat cave, my first dungeon fantasy, where he bent me over his knee and spanked me. Ooh," she says with obvious glee.
Wendy, 45, still has her favorite childhood storybook: Baby bear and Edith the doll got themselves into mischief-they got a spanking from Papa Bear. "I saw myself as the papa bear."
At 56, Stephen De Sade has vivid memories of his 12-years-old fantasies of walking through a cavern of naked women chained to stalactites. "I remember feeling very calm," he said.
These people, whose true identities will remain private, are members of an organized community-a community whose intent is to educate others about BDSM. BD-bondage/discipline, DS-dominance/submission, SM-sadism/masochism. The community provides a safe environment for people to play out their fantasies. They are also their own support group. They are an eclectic group of people: schoolteachers, psychologists, police officers, doctors, high-powered executives and stay-at-home moms.
They are freethinking people who have chosen an alternative lifestyle and have found others-many others-to play with. To meet these people would break any pre-conceived stereotype that society at large may have.
BDSM to many connotes violence, anger and abuse. When you think of someone who is submissive, do you think of someone who is insecure and self-loathing or a strong, confident individual who enjoys serving others?
Is your idea of a sadist someone to fear, someone who would love to get his or her hands on you to hurt you and make you do things you would never want to do?
Wendy is a lesbian. She is a dominant. She would, in fact, love to tie you up and watch you squirm, maybe even put a knife to your throat-but with one stipulation: you have to consent. Consent is the key word among BDSMers, determined by pre-negotiated limits the parties mutually agree upon before they begin their play. And, they take very seriously the limits, the rules. They have safe words and they practice aftercare. Honor, trust, love, intimacy and respect are words commonly heard from sadists and masochists alike.
Wendy plays with gay women, straight women and gay men. She receives pain from men; she gives pain to women.
"I want to know that whoever makes me fall can catch me, so I only let men top me," says Wendy. "I am primarily a top."
A top gives pain. A bottom receives.
Wendy's parents were "normal," if there is such a thing. When she came out to her father, he said he wanted for her whatever would make her happy.
"I want for my partner whatever she wants," says Wendy. "If it makes you happy, then I want that for you. I am honored that someone would give herself to me, her body, her spirit, her mind. It's an amazing experience to bring someone through a journey and when she comes out the other side, she crawls into my arms and sighs the biggest sigh of her life. It's amazing to elicit shivers and sounds and emotions and feelings and physical textures that are completely new to this person. This is an amazing power; it gives me an adrenaline rush that supercedes any chemical drug."
Wendy speaks softly; her movements are slow as she describes her fingers running down the back of a naked woman. Her eyes are soft, almost wet with emotion. She is sincere and open about her desires. She hides nothing. She is a self-proclaimed sadist.
There are so many varying degrees of play in the BDSM world that you simply can't give it a concrete label, wrap it up in a nice little convenient box and put a bow on it. Like people, sadism and masochism are very complex.
SSC is a common term in the BDSM world-it stands for "safe, sane and consensual." Their motto is "hurt, not harm." There are those who engage in what is known as edge play. Playing a little too close to the edge can be dangerous. Very few people I spoke with engage in edge play-also known as RACK, Risk Aware, Consensual Kink. They are aware of the risks, but they do it anyway.
And BDSM does not always involve sex, although, the people I spoke with all agree that it is very sexual.
Stephen and Justine enjoy edge play. As her fear heightens, she experiences a rush of endorphins that numb her pain. His craft is unique. He is an expert in his ability to tantalize her. He teases her with fear. What will he do next? The fear of the unknown is more powerful than the act itself. He might blindfold her or gag her, whatever it takes to assume control of her. Stephen takes her on a journey. Engaging in knife play-they love knife play-he slowly begins to caress the bare of her back with the blades. The metal emits a distinct sound as he gently draws cold steel closer together and drags the blades across her flesh-her vulnerable flesh. He could cut her. He could slip. Anything could happen-that is part of the game. And they love it.
"Once you've experienced kink, you can never go back," says Justine. "You just can't experience something so powerful and then expect to find pleasure in the vanilla world."
Sex outside of kink is considered vanilla. And, vanilla is a flavor. Why else would Baskin Robbins have 31 flavors? If we all liked the same flavor, the ice cream aisle would be a lot shorter.
Bob excels at breath play. One finger at a time, his hands grasp Pamela's neck. He arches her back toward him. Her eyes close, her face turns a bright shade of crimson, her arms go limp and she emits an audible moan. They exchange an indescribable energy that is heavy with sexuality. They are both clothed. He has control of her. She has control of him. For an instant, they are one.
What they have engaged in is a power exchange. They experience the same high, the same energy rush. It is cyclical in the way it moves through both of them in a yin-yang manner. She gives to him everything. He accepts her gift and gives it back to her, and the power is equal.
The question then is: Is BDSM another flavor? Are they big kids who still play their favorite childhood games?
Susan, a therapist who requested that her real name be withheld, agrees that all people are different.
"There are a lot of people who like to live on the edge," she says. "We learn in categories. We are given templates in our childhood, and that's all we know. If we are abused as children, we gravitate toward abusive relationships."
As I spoke to people in the BDSM community, I asked them about their childhoods. I was looking for a common thread, an answer. What I discovered is diversity. Some were raised in loving homes, others in abusive homes; some had excellent relationships with their parents, others were strained or non-existent.
Karen grew up in a loving environment; her parents were together until her mom died of cancer. She did not experience molestation, abuse, hate or harm. She grew up in a functional environment.
She is 36 years old and held the 2004 title for Miss San Diego Leather. Like the BDSM community, the leather community's mission is to educate and promote safe BDSM. In the leather community, you earn the right to top another individual. You earn your leather. You follow rules, and you apprentice. As an apprentice, you learn how to participate in safe kink.
Karen is bisexual and happily married to a man. She tops and she bottoms, and she considers herself a daddy. She has a "boi"-a lesbian bottom.
"When I was a little girl, I loved to tie people up-cops and robbers was my favorite game," Karen says. "I never experienced a sense of shame or doubt; I simply acknowledged those thoughts and let them pass, and then I discovered how good it is.
"I wouldn't call it sex," she says. "It's pretty close in how it feels-it is raw, uninhibited energy."
Karen's fantasies started to resonate with her more and more as she read novels like those in The Beauty Series by Anne Rice. Eventually, she sought ways to make her fantasies a reality, and she found the Internet, which has been a catalyst in helping bring the BDSM community together, making it possible for an otherwise frustrated population to meet in chat rooms and further explore their inklings, their desires and their needs.
"The first thing I tell someone in a chat room is, you are not alone, it's OK," says Karen.
Society has taught us to believe that if we do something off-color or different than the norm, we are alone.
Dr. Kathleen Brooks, a psychologist, believes Americans have a disturbed view of sexuality. "We use sex to punish, control, hurt, embarrass, stifle and repress," she says, adding that people are taught to be afraid of their desires, and in turn they project those stifled desires onto others through blame and harsh judgment.
Brooks believes everything we do and everything we desire is learned, that we are a product of our environment. That doesn't make it right or wrong. It follows reason, that guilt is something we are taught to feel.
"Children do not differentiate between feeling good and being sexual-only later is it identifiable," explains Brooks. "If we've been hurt or repressed, we either repress it or go along with it."
Is it possible that if people, even teenagers, were allowed to explore their sexuality, they would have fewer hang-ups?
"The more constrained I become, the freer I feel," says Justine. "I give of myself completely, and with that I receive much more."
Pain elevates Justine to a euphoric state. As the cause of her pain, or fear, is heightened, she experiences tunnel vision. She is bound and gagged; her freedom has been stripped from her-by choice. For her there is nothing more to consider, analyze or configure. Her bare skin is transformed into an artist's canvas. The artist, her dominant, wields a single tail, a thin long whip. He considers her state of being. He is constantly aware of her breathing, her rhythm and her needs. With each crack of his whip, she falls farther and farther into a cathartic state. He has effectively purged her of any emotional tensions or worries.
"I become a puddle on the floor. He picks me up and puts me into bed. He caresses me and holds me, and I am completely safe," she says.
This is a state she seeks, a place where she is free from the outside world, the stress of her day, her bills, her fears-she has given herself to her dominant. Completely. She trusts him wholly. She trusts him so much that she is willing to give him her life. Of course he would never dream of damaging her-she is his gift, his toy, his pleasure. She has given him the most cherished gift of all-herself.
In a society where people are taught to repress their fantasies, it's no wonder we're afraid to explore our bodies, our sensuality, our fantasies, what turns us on. Many people don't even admit that they masturbate, let alone like to be slapped.What appears to be so scary about BDSM is the unknown. We can't really explain it. We haven't been able to define it. We can barely identify it.Many people who first crave or yearn for some type of BDSM play seek therapy because they don't understand their own desires. They feel alone, which results in depression, and they believe there must be something wrong with them because they derive pleasure from something that society labels as wrong and deviant. When Justine saw a picture of a woman in bondage, she felt a sense of excitement-sexual yearning. It scared her. "I thought there was something wrong with me," she said. "I considered therapy. Maybe something happened to me as a child that I didn't remember. I started doing research and realized that I was not alone."
Justine isn't alone. Perhaps some people who have experienced severe sexual cruelty in their youth crave BDSM in their adult lives. But psychologists agree that even if an individual were to discover the source of his or her underlying desire, that may not change the craving he or she may have for BDSM as an adult.Further, most people would agree that sexual arousal is not rational. There are many things in our lives that we enjoy that aren't rational. Contact sports, extreme sports, WWF, scary movies-we love 'em, can't get enough of 'em, and we don't feel guilty that we crave these stimulants because they're socially acceptable. It's a curious thing that we stifle our innermost desires, and that we don't allow ourselves to play anymore. Imagine if we were more open to exploring our sexuality and our bodies-would we naturally find healthy relationships? I picture us in the movie Logan's Run, where we are open and free, frolicking and giggling, free of cultural prejudice and unabashed in our willingness to have fun-to play.