"What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?" - Jacques Lacan
"She gave it all. You gave her shit. She could've done just anything." - Banks, Goddess
My last few posts have been pretty somber. It's been a pretty somber several months, socioculturally. Today I'm going to focus on something more positive, but be warned, it's going to take a bit to get there (so, TW for those of you who find that helpful).
Transmutation is defined as "the action of changing or the state of being changed into another form." It's also used historically when discussing alchemy, the process of changing base metals into gold.
One of the many stigmatizations that BDSM practitioners face is the assumption that we were abused as children, thus arising our kinks for either giving or receiving control or sadism. (Christian Grey's history of abuse is one example -- he may be fictional, but the author who wrote him is sadly not.) This is then used to point to kinky people as damaged, broken, or shameful. You wouldn't be into this if you were normal, is the usual finger-pointing cry, completely ignoring the notion that assigning the word normal to just about anything in humanity is a risibly futile endeavor. We kink practitioners are supposed to respond to this with a defense of ourselves as healthy, perfectly well-adjusted individuals -- and in many cases science says we'd be right -- but this is actually not quite the right response, as by distancing ourselves from abuse victims we are implying that they are damaged, broken, and shameful, the very things we're trying to prove ourselves not to be.
In my case, I was a victim of abuse growing up. The abuse I suffered wasn't physical in nature, at least not in the way we typically think of physical abuse. I was never hit, which I found endlessly frustrating, as at least a few bruises or a black eye might have been proof enough for the authorities to take my claims seriously and remove me from the abusive situation, which was my father's household following my parents' divorce. Read that again: the emotional and psychological abuse I suffered was so bad I prayed my father would hit me so that someone would believe me and get me out of there.
My father's abuse generally consisted of trapping me in a relatively enclosed space with him (like my room or his car) and yelling at my for up to four or five hours about how worthless and damaged I was. I knew his behavior was wrong, and my mother, who suffered similarly when they were together and whose life he tried to take on the day she left him, knew it was wrong too. The trouble was that the family court systems in the mid-to-late 90s didn't seem to know it was wrong. At their divorce, I was assigned a custody schedule putting me at my father's house (where I no longer had my mother to step in and protect me) every other weekend and sometimes for over a week on holiday vacations. As a young child I was too frightened to speak up to the courts in front of my father about his behavior, but my mom reassured me that when I was ready to speak, she would support me and sue for full custody.
I was ready at fourteen years old. During fall of my freshman year of high school, I wrote a letter to my father calmly explaining to him why I never wanted to see him again in my life, and my mom called her lawyer. Somehow I had a naive fantasy that this would be the hardest part: just speak up, just face the demon, a moment of extreme courage and then you'll be done. Then they will listen, they'll save you, they'll protect you from his rage.
It was another ten months before our case even reached court, which made visiting my father every other weekend after writing that letter extremely awkward (and by awkward I mean terrifying). And when it did, the judge (who was female, which somehow makes this story worse), retained the exact same custody schedule, calling me a hothouse violet and telling me that if I couldn't handle my father's behavior then I would never make it in New York as an actress.
Emboldened by my defeat, my father grew worse in his abuse. My mom and her lawyer, wanting me not to be hurt, responded by telling me, "Just block it out. It's just words. Just block it out."
So I blocked it out. Words were just sensation, jumbles of sounds forming, neither inherently good nor bad when devoid of context. This isn't happening. I am not here right now.
This is how I cultivated the ability to dissociate.
The year I turned eighteen, I moved to New York to go to NYU and that fall I saw my first concert, my favorite band playing Hammerstein Ballroom. I got there early and stood front and center at the barricade through all the opening bands so that I could have a prime spot to be closest to the lead singer, on whom I had my first rock idol crush. At some point during their set, a girl next to me tried to edge in at the barricade and take the spot I'd patiently claimed, but I held on dearly. She then reached under my arm and grabbed the skin on my inner forearm and twisted it, hard. "Move! You fuckin' tool!" she screamed. And then I remembered: I could block it out. Pain, like words, is just sensation. Sensation devoid of context is neither inherently good nor bad. I stayed there and remained stoic as she pinched me as hard as she could, and after a bit, she backed off, spooked.
The next morning I went to class exhausted and with a huge bruise on my inner arm, but I was proud. I had stood my ground, and sure enough, my singer crush had come right up to me at the barricade when the band sang their hit single. I had a bruise I was proud of.
It would be another four years before I'd start to explore the BDSM scene, before I'd even lose my virginity, but when I did find BDSM, it made almost everything in my life make sense -- fantasies I'd had since I was five years old, strangely subservient ways I'd behaved with crushes. When my first kink-oriented lover introduced me to sadomasochism, I wanted to endure the pain he was giving me, to push through it for both the sake of his pleasure and for my own curiosity. To do so, I used my ability to dissociate.
A recent play partner told me he felt there were two reasons he believed people were attracted to pain: "One, to get through it in order to feel the good sensations on the other side; and two, to use it in the moment to focus their minds in the present." (Quick biology lesson: the pain from consensual sadomasochism releases endorphins that result in a kind of state of pain-free euphoria and redirects blood flow in the brain in such a way that a feeling of oneness and calm is produced, not unlike that of yoga, meditation, or shamanic ritual, and from personal experience, I can attest that it is highly pleasurable.)
"Well, I think there's a third reason," I told him. "For me, enduring pain is a skill set. It means increased permission to my partners when I can take more. It means I can let them do what they want. So it's an act of service."
When I decided to friend-stalk Conner Habib, a writer and sex work rights activist I much admire, I went to see him give a local talk on sex and the body where the subject of dissociation came up.
"Dissociation is actually incredibly generous when you think about it," Conner said. "When you dissociate, you go outside yourself. And being outside your self is the only way you can truly see another person. So dissociation is the root of empathy."
There is a great deal that I enjoy about BDSM selfishly, plenty of fantasies I have regarding it on my own where there is no other person present to give me his or her approval, so it is not just something I suffer for the sake of pleasing someone else, which would be toxic. But my greatest asset as a lover is my ability to give permission; the greatest gift I am able to give a lover is the carte blanche to do whatever he wants with me when I so choose.
We live in a society that puts a great deal of sexual shame on us, both male and female, and as we have seen in light of current events (and which as a pro-domme I witnessed personally for years), our current culture is rife with couples suffering from rifts in their intimacy because they are unable to communicate their desires to one another, because they fear that they're shameful. I don't ever want a relationship where my partner feels they have to hide something from me and confess it to a stranger they're hiring or chatting to on the internet in secret. I'm greedy that way -- I want the deepest, most thorough intimacy I can get with someone, and that means embracing both their light and their dark, every part of them, regardless of whoever made them feel it was wrong to want things, regardless of their shame. And my greatest gift is my ability to create a safe space where any desire can be discussed and virtually any act that doesn't result in damage requiring professional repair can be done to me by my partner in the name of healing that shame. And the reason I can do that for them is because I possess the capacity to endure, because I am able to dissociate, because my father abused me.
What do you think you're proving when you tell me that my sexuality stems from abuse? That consensual sadomasochism is bad, because it has its roots in trauma? First of all, statistically, you're wrong, as BDSM practitioners are no more likely to have been abuse victims than vanilla people -- but what if you were right?
If you were right that my abuse was the source of my sexuality, then what happened was that I was able to take a curse that was put on me as a child and turn it into a gift that I can give to someone I care about for the purpose of their healing. This is why I can look at my bruises the next morning and be proud of them: because I took the worst thing that happened to me and I turned it into the greatest gift I can give to someone I love. That's alchemy. That's transmutation.
That's giving someone the universe.
Personally, I can't think of a better possible outcome.
The post-50 Shades movement to separate kink from trauma in order to depathologize it is a well-intentioned one, but it's problematic too, in that we are still telling abuse victims there is something wrong with them for having been abused. No kinky person should have to feel shame for being assumed to be an abuse victim, but no abuse victim should have to feel shame for being kinky.