Years ago I wrote a memoir called The Tricky Part. It focused on my Catholic upbringing, on having been molested as a young boy by an older man and my finding and facing him several years later. In the end, the book was an ode to forgiveness, a hymn of compassion for myself and my abuser. Why aren't you more angry? Many people asked after The Tricky Part was released. And I had to wonder! And that wondering led me to write about the complexity of rage and the tender mystery of human relationships. It led me write of my work with refugees, of my home and family in Colorado, of my travels in Africa and even a visit, one hot Saturday night, to an S&M dungeon on the outskirts of an American city.
I knew I’d been invited to a convention for sex therapists but my God! I could not believe my eyes. Stalls meant to educate, elucidate, and lubricate human intercourse were set up everywhere. “Contraception,” “Viagra,” “Gender Bend.” I watched a middle-aged mom demonstrate a seesaw contraption with dildos attached. It was called, she said, “The Monkey Rocker.” She explained that, yes, you can certainly sit in either direction for anal or vaginal penetration. I ambled about timid and titillated. That all these folks were chatting with the greatest of ease about sex was a rather fabulous surprise. And all so early in the morning.
I found coffee, a bagel and a table. A man sat down across from me. His floppy paper plate was stacked with chunks of honeydew. We nodded at each other.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
We exchanged some basics. He was a therapist and I explained that that I was an actor there to present a one-man play I’d written.
“Oh, that’s the sex abuse play, right?” he asked.
I cringed and stopped myself from launching into an explanation of how my solo play, The Tricky Part, was oh so much more than that “Yes. That play,” I replied.
“You going to go to the dungeon?” he asked.
“There’s a field trip Saturday night. The local BDSM community has invited any therapists who would like to, to come and observe an evening session at their dungeon.”
“Yes. Everyone’s talking about it. You should sign up.”
Before heading back to my room to shower, with a curious quickening of the blood, I made my way to the appropriate desk and promptly added my name to the list.
A tall man in blue jeans and cowboy boots greeted us at the door His nametag read, “Master John” It occurred to me that Master might be a misspelling of Mister but upon entering the premises I spotted many more nametags affixed on the shirts of friendly fellows (and women)—Master Greg, Master Steve. Most of the tags included a one- or two-word designation printed below the name.
Folding chairs had been set up on the perimeter of the main room which had loft levels and very high ceilings. We quietly took our seats. A man with long black hair came forward. He looked to be, perhaps, Native American. His voice was lovely, his words laced with an intoxicating cadence that I could not pinpoint. Spanish? Mexican?
“We all want to welcome you and thank you for coming. We want you to feel safe and taken care of. That’s how it is here. It’s a safe place and we take care of one another.”
He spoke of his work in education, his part-time job at a local ranch. I was struck by his eloquence and humor.. He talked about the reason, the importance, for this evening’s event. As best as I can recall, he said something like this:
“We are here to show you, to share with you in the mental health industry, who we are. We are teachers and lawyers and ranchers, just plain folk from all walks of life and we comprise what we lovingly call our Kink Community. It is our aim to help you understand what might be your prejudice about our community and communities like ours. Some of your own clients back home may well be part of their own kink community and we hope that you don’t automatically think of us, of them, as someone with a disorder. For many of us, our exploration of power dynamics and BDSM is our path to a deeper connection. It is simply a part of who we are and we feel open and healthy about it. Perhaps tonight we can dispel some fears or biases. You’ll notice that we’ve all worn nametags so that you can identify us by name and ask any questions related to what we are into. We are here to answer your questions openly and honestly. Once the demonstration is over, please feel free to stay and we can all talk. We’ve put together a nice potluck. Remember: if at any time you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, just know that you are free to step out. There’s coffee and tea in the lobby.”
As couples began to enter and take their places at various stations, a kind of master of ceremonies entered. A silent figure, a sort of ringmaster bearing witness, authority. A big guy with bright eyes and an enormous gut. He made me think of the MC in the Broadway musical Cabaret. In fact, the whole event seemed theatrical.
Directly across from me, a tall man wearing leather pants and boots began flogging a woman. Her bare backside, cellulite and all, was facing a large web of ropes to which she was fastened. He whipped slowly, with long pauses between his careful lashes. Sometimes when he’d pause, he would walk up and whisper into her ear. Her back became red. A small cut appeared, a tiny dash of blood.
A Saint Anthony’s Cross, or Tau Cross, as it is also known, was set up in the far left corner of the space. A naked woman was bound to it and a tall guy wielded a contraption that appeared to electrocute or sting her. I averted my eyes. It spooked me.
As I looked around, I began to realize how all this, of course, was deeply familiar. From the time I could walk, I had grown up seeing images, portraits, sculptures, frescoes of all those beautiful, sexy, tortured saints. The ropes, the arrows, the suffering, the flesh, the flames. All of it bound up, in one way or another, with the sacred, the sacrificial, the transcendent. Bound up with spirit trumping body, reaching through pain toward God for the sake of the soul. Here it was in all its Catholic Technicolor.
In the distance hanging from a long cord, a woman was enfolded in a sheet and bound round with several ropes. Or perhaps the same rope wrapped several times. She looked as though she was swathed in a cocoon. She dangled there as a redheaded lady poked and prodded her, rocked the cocoon, tightened and loosened the ropes so that the hidden body rose and fell a few delicate inches at a time. Her face was obscured, but a shank of her silver hair was exposed, draping toward the ground. They were lost utterly, it seemed, in their silent, subtle interaction.
There was a table over to my right that looked just like a massage table but wider, larger. Next to it was a counter filled with equipment, instruments: a large lighter, lighter fluid, white gloves, several cup-shaped domes of glass, small rods and tuning forks tapered into phallic shapes. A woman was lying on the table facedown. A big guy, dressed all in leather, stood over her. He looked like some sort of severe centurion. He very carefully and systematically put on gloves, heated the cup-shaped glass with flames, and then slowly placed the hot glass in various spots along her back and buttocks and legs.
Meanwhile, directly in front of where we were sitting, a two-character play was unfolding. A young woman in a plaid skirt and knee-high socks was facing off with a very strict older lady who wore a prim uniform and held a small whip. (Miss Jean Brodie!) This seemed, at first, a classic S&M joke. But their improvisation was very serious and alive. I admired their focused bravery.
“Have you been bad?” “What did you do?” “Get down when I speak to you!! Bend over. Now!”
At moments we laughed. The repetitive lines were sometimes funny and this made for safer, easier viewing than most of the other power-exchange stations.
After an hour or so, things began to wind down. The dominators tenderly guided their partners away from the intensity of the action. The couples moved together, gingerly, toward the floor. And there they quietly cuddled.
I noticed the man who had been flogging place, ever so gingerly, a bit of balm and a Band-Aid where the streak of blood had appeared on his partner’s back. It was like a sweet dance of amends. Of forgiveness? For the wanting, for the doing? I found myself tearing up. The man who had initially welcomed us had told us that this would be an important aspect of the evening. It was known as aftercare. The place felt bathed in . . . love.
Over homemade meatballs and potato salad, ginger snaps and soda pop, we all stood under the brighter light of the lounge and kitchen area as we mingled and chatted. It felt awkward at first. The couples who had “performed,” as well as many other members of the dungeon who hadn’t, stood around or sat about on couches and perched on windowsills. The atmosphere was one of quiet celebration, it seemed. After much thought and planning, they had “come out” to a large group of mental health professionals, and they’d pulled it off with grace.
Before I left I ended up speaking to the woman with the shank of gray hair who had been hanging from the ceiling in bondage. She showed me the rope burns on her arms and indicated that she had some on her legs and backside as well. There were red streaks that she said would turn to bluer bruises within a day or so.
“Wow,” I said, with obvious concern.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “The bruises disappear pretty quickly.” She turned to the redhead who’d been her partner and said, “She is absolutely the best. She knows exactly what she’s doing. It was really, really great tonight. She’s exquisite.”
“What . . . what do you feel?” I asked, not knowing what to ask or what I wanted to ask. “I mean . . . is there a lot of pain?”
“Well, there’s pain but . . .” she smiled at me and then looked at her partner. “There’s a kind of endorphin release and all sorts of sensations. Pleasure. Falling into, surrendering to her, to
gravity, to trust. I am so in myself, my body, but, then, the communication is so intense, so in the moment and I feel then that I leave my body, I float, beyond, to a place where everything
just flows. It’s a kind of exercise and when it’s good, and she is good, I . . . transcend.”
“Transcend what, would you say?” I asked.
“The self,” she said.
There was a Master once who said:
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to allow the ten thousand things to flow.
—Zen Master Dogen, (1200–1253), from the “Genjokoan”
Adapted from All the Rage: A Quest by Martin Moran (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.