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Finally Me (Or I how I went from being a normal, vanilla guy, to an authority on SM Spirituality)

Reposted with the author's permission.

During the era when I was giving educational talks and demos to an SM audience I liked asking attendees what their favorite part of the presentation was. With an annoying regularity I heard that “that little bit at the beginning” charted high among the attendees as the most interesting part of the talk. This was the “bit” that a lot of SM educators include in the intros of their talks: A personal history of how they came to be involved in SM in the first place.

Although SM spirituality has become a “signature presentation” for me when I teach classes, I am the last guy you would have expected to be interested in the spiritual side of SM. I was born in Delaware and raised in southern California, by devout atheist intellectuals. I never attended church regularly, or synagogue, mosque, or temple. My spiritual training, like my writing, was entirely self taught, and learned ad hoc from experience, friendships, and an inexhaustible passion for music, art, film and the written word. I remain a ruthless skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, and am one of the few people I know who believes firmly that no supernatural act has ever taken place. In a way, music, culture and art has been my church. Though I have never been traditionally 'religious', I have always found experiences and feelings I couldn't explain in any terms other than spiritual. Feelings I had encountered in music, great art, sunsets, people, sex, and SM. SM in particular was the catalyst to the beginning of my life as a consciously spiritual being.


From early childhood on, I knew I was different. I ate the same food, listened to the same records, went to all the same movies as my friends. But, there was an inner voice that seemed to whisper only to me, and not to anyone else I knew. Things that horrified other people held me in languid awe. When it came to sexual thoughts I longed to do things that only cartoon villains might conceivably do. And things that excited my friends (illicitly obtained Playboys in grade school and later, stag movies and strip clubs) left me stone cold. Was I crazy? Was I queer? During my Christian phase, I thought I might be devil possessed.

My earliest sexual memories were all sado-erotic in nature. I fantasized constantly about the girls in my class room, tied up and helpless to resist my curious hands. These thoughts turned me on, but they also scared me. I felt like I had something terrible lurking inside me. I grew to adulthood certain I was a monster or freak. Worse still, I felt like an impostor and a fraud. I had been raised in a progressive home and believed in the inherent equality of men and women. But behind closed doors I wanted power, submission, helpless, wide-eyed surrender. My romantic life was turbulent and restless. I yearned for love and closeness but felt tainted by perversion, and I kept lovers and friends alike at a safe distance. I was afraid of revealing too much, going too far, of what I might let slip. When I surrendered to my dominant instincts, I always felt dirty afterwards, even if it felt amazing while I was doing it. My shame led to some preposterous situations. Once, a new lover begged me to tie her up, and gag her. It was like she had read my mind, but to my amazement, I refused. I felt like she'd looked through me, through to my loathsome, inner putrescence and liked what she saw. I felt like she must be another spiritual invalid like me, or worse, that I was spreading my contagion. We didn't make love that night, and I stopped calling her soon after.

Throughout my twenties, my attraction to SM was a hard, isolating experience. I hated what I saw as my own abnormality. Why had I been marked by this terrible, peculiarity that had spared all my friends and loved ones? I went from one year to the next, knowing this craving was inside me, like an hostile and independent life form. I was at war with myself, unable to accept that this thing was part of me. When I saw my reflection in the mirror I felt like spitting.

Years passed. Friends began pairing off and entering long term relationships. Some began expressing surprise to find me still single after they had married and started families of their own. "I thought someone would have snatched you up by now" laughed my mountain biking buddy Tony Garcia as he cuffed me on the shoulder one afternoon. The secrecy and hiding took its toll. I drank more than was good for me. I rarely dated anyone for longer than a few months. My relations with my family were shallow and unsatisfying, often combative and hostile. I spent weekend nights in bars, at home alone, or driving aimlessly, through the winding night maze of LA searching for something I never did find.

I loved the brutal, brilliant films of Martin Scorcese’s seventies work and art depicting the grotesque and brutal, like the ferocious animalistic paintings of Francis Bacon (years later I learned he had been one of us). Laugh if you want to, but for me, films like Straw Dogs, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were soothing, even oddly tender, because they made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my feelings of terror, rage and confusion. ferocity, brutality, and catharsis I knew in my unexpressed inner life.

Sometimes I tried to analyze my way through it. How could I be this decent, politically progressive guy, who believed in feminism and still want to do these awful thingsto the women I was closest to? It seemed really unfair. I didn’t want to want this. I wondered if friends would still want to be friends if they knew. Twice, in fits of self-loathing and rage, I gathered all my porn and drove to the posh pastoral landscapes of nearby Bell Aire and scattered it in the streets. Sometimes I considered ending my purposeless and lonely life, hurling myself off a bridge or diving before a speeding train. Perhaps if I had read something sensible about SM or met someone who shared my tastes, my life might have been different, better. Perhaps they would have told me I was alright, that that tying someone up and doing things to them under the pretense of force was different from kidnapping, torture, warfare atrocities or the unfathomable acts of Jeffry Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or Henry Lucas. But it didn't happen. I never confided my secret in anyone, and so far as I know, no one ever learned of my secret double life.

Coming Of Age

Although people of all ages show up in the SM community every year, 30 is often a milestone year, the turning of a corner for people destined for kink. I suspect that number is lower today but back then I saw a surprising number of thirty year olds showing up in the scene for the first time. Why 30? Perhaps people who hear the call of their SM yearnings can ignore it more easily when they're young and immersed in youth's rapid and endless change. But as years tick by, after college, after experiencing mature relationships, after having worked for a living and gained a sense of what the rest of our lives might look like, the whisper of our SM needs can become more urgent. Perhaps in our late twenties, we become readier to accept the risk of exploring the shadow world of the scene. At least that's what happened to me.

In the spring of 1989, brand new to Washington, D.C., I attended the now infamous retrospective of Robert Maplethorpe's photography, "The Perfect Moment", held at the Washington Project for the Arts. His artistry and courage amazed me. I was stunned by the classical beauty of his nudes, the double barrel intensity of his self-portraits and his in-your-face depictions of Man-on-Man sadomasochistic sex. What balls, I thought to myself. He wasn’t afraid to simply photograph stuff he liked: celebrities, self-portraits, botanical studies, beautiful black men, and hard imagery. No apologies, no explanations, no regrets. I was in awe.

Later that week, I noticed an ad in the Washingtonian for Black Rose, the local SM educational group,. While I had occasionally noticed similar ads in the LA papers, I had never seriously considered visiting an SM organization. But somewhere in my heart I must have been ready, for the idea began following me around like a mischievous little angel. I finally gave the number a call, transcribing the meeting date and place read by the cheery voice on the phone (Lee, I learned later, who lived happily with two men). But in the days afterwards I lost my nerve and, for a time, put the whole issue out of my mind.

Six months went by before I was standing on a frozen street corner watching normal looking men and women, filing into the small church where the Black Rose, held their Tuesday night meetings. I was scared to death: of what I no longer remember. Big hairy leathermen with long black nails? Women wearing armor and Kiss makeup? I had no idea what to expect, so imagined the worst Once I summoned the courage to enter, I found Black Rose to be a friendly bunch of folk, for the most part, about ten years olfer than me (we had no TNG in those days). I had conversations with strangers about things I had never shared with even my closest friends. There's no way to put into words the joy, the excitement and the sheer relief I felt at meeting others like myself. I returned next week, and the week after that, for the next four years I rarely missed a Tuesday night. Over the next months, my entire life changed. I no longer felt like Jekyll and Hyde. The loneliness, shame and paralysis I had endured my whole life began to melt away. Suddenly, I had a people. Better yet, I knew women who, as I became familiar to the group, were open to the possibility of engaging in SM with me. Soon I was indulging in every deviancy I had ever dreamed of, and was feeling just great. I felt like I had finally laid down some enormous burden I had been carrying my whole life without even knowing it. In the bathroom mirror I no longer saw the face of a sociopath, but a normal human being, with normal human peculiarities. I was finally me: the real me who had qualities of both Jekyll and Hyde. It was very strange and wonderfully ironic: by indulging shamelessly in behavior I had always considered sick, immoral and insane, I felt healthy, balanced, and utterly sane for the first time in my life.

I attended BR talks with the religious intensity of the fresh convert overdosing on church. I went to every meeting, even meetings whose subject held no initial interest to me. I brought paper and pen and took notes. (Later, one very nice woman offered to play because she had seen me scribbling throughout so many lectures. She decided I must take my SM seriously). I began a deep soul search, one that continues to this day. I found myself drawn to rereading all the great novels that had ever mattered to me, as though searching for clues in a mystery. How had it been possible for me to remain in such harsh denial over so basic an aspect of my basic identity? Why was this amazing community and astounding art form so utterly locked out of the media and popular conscience? How many others were out there, yearning for this, but terrified of taking the plunge I had finally taken?

I read everything on the subject I could find, but there wasn’t yet a lot written down in 1990. I starting with Modern Primitives, and Larry Townsend's Leatherman's Handbook, the world's first how-to-do-SM textbook. I followed it with Coming to Power by the lesbian collective Samois. Having been raised in our homophobic culture, it was hard at first, reading about gay men engaged in sexual activity, but I got over it. And this is good, for our greatest SM writers continue to be gay men and women. When the explosion of SM texts began in the early nineties with the publication of “Different Loving” and “Leatherfolk” I bought and read them all. Leatherfolk in particular was a major influence with its two lengthy and groundbreaking sections on leather history and SM spirituality.

I attended whatever play events were open to me; occasional parties and monthly Black Rose socials at Badlands, the first gay bar I had ever entered. I studied the deportment, protocols, and SM work of the experienced players, and found a model for my dominant style in one fantastic dominant, Hop Ryan (not his real last name). Twenty five years later I still think about Hop in how I approach many scenes. I pursued play opportunities, and used them to explore, talked endlessly with tops and bottoms alike. I took information gleaned from lectures and applied it in my play relationships. At parties I watched play closely with an eye towards reproducing the scenes later. I never tried for a straight copy, I preferred to experiment and embroider on things I'd seen other people do. I still do all these things.

I made lots of mistakes. I didn't take the time to make myself valuable to my community and there were times when I let the dominance thing go to my head, and was pretty cavalier with the feelings of many of the women who shared my bed. I wore the costume, assumed the dom-head attitude. I sabotaged some wonderful relationships by buying into the nonexistent truism that 'being dominant never means you're sorry'.

The Black Rose 'in' clique of the time… well they never really did accept me (they regarded new arrivals at the club as their own private reserve, but that's another story). But new people arrived and I made friends with them instead. I didn't bottom at all for years, which in hindsight, slowed my learning. When I finally mustered the courage to go for it, I was amazed at how much it taught me. And as a bonus, it increased my desirability among female subs, who sensibly enough pegged me as someone who could take what I dished out. In a way it’s good that I did so much so wrong in the early days because it really taught me just how empty it is to approach it that way.

Learning to flog double handed Florentine style was the first motor skill I ever mastered with my left hand, and much later when I started to rehabilitate my left arm and shoulder flogger usage was one of the techniques I used to do it.

I did, however, do a few things right. I kept a detailed journal, ultimately writing hundreds of pages in my attempt to understand myself, the new life I was living, and this mysterious shadow world of the SM lifestyle. Why me and not my best childhood friend? Did it have anything to do with my childhood habit of biting the cute little heads and limbs off of animal crackers? Something to do with my neighbor's kidnapped Barbie, nude and bound in the depths of my sock drawer? As an artist I began noticing the prevalence of eroticized dominance and submission as themes in the great art of all ages and all cultures, particularly in religious art. Was the SM impulse something that resided, to some degree, in all of us? Where I found no ready answers, I tried to develop them myself, ultimately writing many essays, and later submitting them to the "Petal and Thorn," the Black Rose newsletter. One of the biggest mysteries, at least for me, was how a community like the scene could have existed for decades, even generations without my ever having seen it acknowledged in the popular media. Perhaps for this reason I became a rabid student of the history of the kink communities.

More than anything else, I engaged in SM, reveled in it, got good at it, and worked hard to make it as rich and satisfying to my partners as it was to me. Early in my first SM relationship, I had my first mystical experience during SM play. My lover was tied to a bed and I was doing all sorts of bad things to her, when suddenly this 'thing' happened. It was unplanned, unexpected, and unimaginable in advance. From my journal, written much later:

I was standing beside the bed, rock hard with excitement when it happened. It's hard to describe it, but I felt I had been hit by a sudden blast of heat, like the door to a nearby furnace had swung open. Adrenaline surged through me, and a roaring sounded in my ears, as if a jet had flown over the house. The room seemed to stretch and swell like a balloon, and walls seemed to shift color. I felt lightheaded and my tactile sensitivity increased to where I could isolate individual fibers in the wool carpet beneath my feet, and the temperature gradients upon my naked body. She had turned to see why I had stopped, and was watching my eyes in what seemed like awe, as if realizing I had plunged into an altered state. Our gazes locked as they had on the night of our first meeting. Her eyes became enormous black pools, savoring my lust for her torment. I felt like my blood had turned to fire and put my hand out in front of me to see if I was radiating light. I turned away from the writhing spectacle to the blank wall hung with a smirking Jesus in a frilly gold plastic frame. My gaze bored into the wall like a laser and I was seized by the desire to punch through it with all my might. Into heaven or hell or whatever lay beyond.

I didn't know what it was, or what I should do. So I fucked the living daylights out of her. Later, much later she asked me I had been feeling but by then I was a little freaked out by the whole episode, and changed the subject. I didn't know what it had been but it had felt completely beyond my control, and that was not consistent with how I saw erotic dominance at the time. So I put it out of my mind and didn't think of it again for years.

Surviving Burnout

My honeymoon years were like those of most people: exploration, thrills, chills, a rapid learning curve, and a sense of limitless possibility. I learned, or seemed to learn, that many of our wildest fantasies are in fact realizable. I attended my first scene parties, my first fetish clubs, and embarked on my personal maiden voyages into the delights of SM play. At first it felt like the scene must be the most liberated and liberating social culture to ever have existed. Time to have played become proficient perhaps visit communities in other cities. But its also time enough to witness a less appealing side of the scene: the stupidity and cruelty in the scene’s marketplace, and its ridiculous clique politics. Its time enough to have had relationships develop and fizzle out, to experience loss and disappointment, a chance to witness first hand, dunderheaded dominant arrogance.

Not enough has been written about this phase, the frustration of not finding a mate, the complexity and awkwardness of the scene, the steady pressure of keeping important secrets from the people in your life who are outside the shadow world of the scene. The five year doldrums (or six, or eight…) has driven more people from the scene than the 700 Club, Concerned Women of America and every sloppy flogging ever given combined. As we go from being a wide-eyed newbies and beneficiaries of the welcome wagon, to becoming part of the wallpaper, there can come a gradual sense of “Is that all there is?”

People react differently. Some find steady partners and their need for the organized scene evaporates. Others fail to ever connect with either friend, lover or play partner and stop showing up. Couples enter the scene together and then separate as on or the other finds partners they seem to connect with more. Or they drop out with periodic reappearance, as if to see if anything has changed. Many grow bitter and angry and join the peanut gallery of gripe-aholics who pewl and kvetch about the play safety of others or obsess about conspiracy theories.

After four years with the group, I too found myself in a rut, tired of relationships that fizzled out, and board leadership that seemed cliquish and self serving. I was no longer enjoying SM as much as I had when it was new. I was still playing the field, but starting to bore of the parties, which were starting to feel as casual and meaningless as pickup basketball. I was tired and increasingly angered by the tawdry melodrama that characterized much of the local SM community (I would later learn that this problem is national in scope). One evening on a visit through Kramer books I happened to pick up a book on serial killers, and it sucked me right in. I spent an hour reading it in the store and the whole weekend paging through it wondering whether I was really any different from the stunted, damned souls described inside. from one on of those human monsters, a bundle of raw asocial urges, hiding behind a human veneer. I had always suffered from depression, but the attacks started getting worse. My dark period had begun.

After years of resisting the idea I decided to seek therapeutic help. My first month in analysis was unquestionably the worst month of my life. I drank myself to sleep every night, and wandered through the days zombified, trying to avoid throwing myself in front of the Metro. I was just barely hanging on to my job. For a while it was awful, everything I had ever believed or felt was called into question and I wondered if therapy would erase my interest in SM. But it never did.

In the midst of this turmoil, perhaps because of it, I started making changes. I started looking at SM not just as way of getting my rocks off but as an art form that could challenge and edify the mind and soul as well as the libido. I started reading carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Bob Flanagan and writing more than ever. And for the first time I started thinking in term of community, and wanting to give something back to the people who had given so much to me. Chris Fast, dominant I didn't know real well lost her toy bag in a car break in, and on an impulse I volunteered to organize a fundraising drive to help her restock. It raised three or four hundred dollars, and in hindsight got me noticed by the in-crowd who had never seemed very interested in me before. When the next board election came around Jack M asked if I would run for the board of directors. Thus began my career as a community servant. This, too, allowed me to grow. Now my mission was preparing and staging lectures and workshops on SM technique. This also required me to grow, transforming SM from something I simply did to an activity of contemplation, vision and inner growth.

On SM Spirituality

I would have laughed if you told me SM Spirituality would ever become a presiding interest with me. My first Tuesday night Black Rose presentation on the subject was a fluke; a panelist failed to show, and in the capacity of board member, I filled in. The conversation was so exciting that I continued to pursue the topic. I read, with fascination, the writings of Fakir, who compared primitive rituals with contemporary urban body play. I studied the illuminating essays in "Leatherfolk," and the brutal, sexually graphic novels of John Rechy, particularly “Numbers”, “City of Night” and “The Sexual Outlaw”. I held long conversations with practitioners about their incredibly diverse experiences of joy in SM. I wrote and finally abandoned work on a highly fictionalized 300-page novel about my first year in the scene, and was surprised at how often the theme of spiritual quest arose in the writing process.

But in 1998, came the knock on the door: on pretty much of a lark, I bottomed to Joseph Bean in a ferociously heavy scene at Black Rose 98. It was a glorious affair, bloody and savage, and way heavier than anything I had expected or had ever experienced before. My most vivid memory was not my own experience, but Joseph's: I had never seen a Top get so worked up before, moaning, groaning, roaring like a wild animal, sweating all over, radiating ecstatic joy, high on pure SM energy. At his SM Spirituality lecture the next day, I grilled him with questions. What had he been feeling? What steps had he taken to get there? Joseph, in addition to being an SM Top with thirty plus years of experience, was a practicing Sufi dervish (he had taken the unusual step of converting to Islam as an adult) and had developed his SM to where he could enter the spiritual ecstasy of the turn (the spinning dance dervishes are known for) during an SM scene. Following BR98, I started pushing the envelope in my own SM, hitting a lot harder, aiming - for the first time – at spiritual fusion with my partner, and leaving the door ajar for the miracles to occur. To my surprise and delight, it worked.

I was inspired to write about it by a marvelous and deeply crazy book I had read about in Leatherfolk: The Divine Androgyne according to Purusha. Purusha (AKA Peter Larkin) had been a monk living in a monastery before coming out into the gay hedonistic lifestyle of 70's San Francisco. His wonderfully eccentric tale chronicles his sexual and spiritual odyssey through hallucinogenic drugs, sex, massage, fisting, erotic piercing and the raptures of ancient and modern literature. By this time I had already given several SM/spirituality presentations at Black Rose, but I gradually focused my writing and SM play on the exploration of the spiritual experience within SM.


I’ve haven’t even gotten out of the nineteen nineties and there’s so much I’m leaving out. The first of the annual Black Rose festivals, my own tenure on the Black Rose board, the gallery show of my artwork at Playhouse Studios, the novel I wrote and abandoned based on my first year in the scene and a second one on leather history, Fakir and Cleo coming to Black Rose in 2003. The many close friendships I have made in the scene, My time as a semi scene celebrity flying off to other cities to talk and present often of SM spiritual subjects…

One of the great things about SM is that you never fully get there. At sixteen years in the community, I am still learning, faster than ever, in fact. Play for me is not only erotic and fun, but often an ecstatic experience, an almost out of body explosion of joy and catharsis. It's about love, forging an immortal bond between me and the person I am sharing a scene with. And there is always new things to learn.

SM has been an invaluable education for me, as it has been for thousands of others before me. Had I never discovered the scene, I don't know where I'd be. I had always feared I would never live a happy, well-adjusted life. I had always wondered whether I wouldn't wind up like the serial killers in the book, murdering someone, or even myself. Its plausible I wouldn't be alive today. Lots of good people have died by their own hand, from shame, from loneliness, from the terror of potential discovery, from believing they were dirty, evil, and depraved.

SM hasn't solved everything. There is still struggle, still frustration, still disappointment. But today it seems manageable in a way it didn't when I was younger. Discovery of the scene put my life on track in a way it had never been. It gave me a framework for exploring deeper realities of my own life than I had ever dared before. It gave me courage to get the professional help I needed. It gave me friends and a community I am still proud to belong to. It saved my sanity, maybe even saved my life. It provided me with meaningful work that has helped the lives of others. And it has provided the purest experience of joy and bliss that life has so far provided.

What greater gifts, than these?

Oct 25

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