There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
It’s Good to Be Bad: A Case for Kinky Irony
When I lived in the Lower Haight in San Francisco around 2009, I used to fuck this 6’2, red-headed, creamy-skinned, built-like-a-pickup-truck, hung-like-a-horse, all-American boy named Alex. Alex was the dumbest guy I think I’ve ever slept with, and also pound for pound the best in bed. I am sorry to say I do not believe this is a coincidence.
In a way, I think I fetishized his dumbness, or in any case marveled at how he could be so annoying to talk to and yet seem to intuitively understand what most men I had slept with did not: how to get hard and stay hard, how to grab me—not roughly, but firmly—and treat me like a piece of meat that he was using to get off.
What I liked about Alex is that I met him at a party, and he acted exactly the way they always used to say boys would act but in my experience rarely did: he got that look in his eyes that made me feel like I was just pussy on legs. I was twenty-five, just out of a three-year relationship, and I had a lot to get out of my system. I wasn’t hunting for people who respected me for my personality; I wanted someone to want me and take me. Alex didn’t know any of my friends; he didn’t know I was queer; he didn’t know I was a dominatrix and a pornographer. He didn’t know that I wrote about sex in zines and on blogs and that anyone who went to bed with me was subjecting themselves to nonfiction scrutiny (“Don’t tell me your name if you don’t want it sung,” as Sleater-Kinney once sang.) That made him perfect, because what I wanted from my sex life then was a booty call who could later be use as an example in an essay about irony for a literary blog.
One day he was pounding me from behind on my California King mattress and I did something I often did when I was feeling really aroused and smug. I told him to call me a slut.
“Make me your slut,” I moaned.
I turned and gasped over my shoulder, lest he miss the point. “Call me your little slut!”
Alex continued to fuck me but did not do as I had requested. After we had both cum to our mutual satisfaction, we lay in bed and I asked him why he’d ignored me.
He looked uncomfortable, stared at the ceiling, and furrowed his brow in that way that boys do when they’re trying real hard to think.
“I can’t do that,” he finally muttered.
“Why not?” I asked, propping myself up on one elbow.
“Because,” he whined. I waited. Finally: “It’s degrading to you.”
We don’t think about sex much when we think about irony. We think about sarcastic hipsters, and David Foster Wallace’s hand wringing over the death of sincerity, and maybe what we know that Oedipus doesn’t. Irony isn’t sensual; it’s cerebral. It’s isolating, not social.
Yet when I was trampaging my way through my twenties, chasing that sleazy literary rock ‘n’ roll orgy dream, I discovered that the kinky things that really stuck with me were the psychological mind-fucks. I lived for role-plays and punishment and dirty talk as much as I loved inscrutable theater and hard-living and punk songs that take five minutes to compose. These years transformed me into a writer who wants to experience everything that terrifies other people, so that, on a good day, I can use my wit to translate the disgusting into something rapturous and funny.
The way I hold myself in a kink scene is exactly the way I situate myself as a writer. I grab you, I take control, I hold eye contact longer than you could possibly feel comfortable. Then when I’ve really got a hold on you, made you forget that any other reality ever existed, I compulsively pose, grin, and crack wise. My hope is that I can simultaneously shatter the illusion and plunge you deeper into it.
I often use the Alex story to illustrate what is perhaps the most fundamental thing I have learned about my own desire after a decade of playing and writing about BDSM: just as in literary irony, just as in my own creativity, my sweet spot of arousal is when the implied meaning is the exact opposite of the literal meaning.
Here’s what I mean: Slut is a word that, taken literally, is degrading, especially to the feminine. When some impotent little twerp on the street calls out to me, “Hey slut, I got something you can sit on,” he is attempting to degrade me. To be non-consensually called a slut is to be insulted, even if what it means is, “you have a lot of sex with a lot of different people,” which in my case is also literally true.
However, within the framework of consensual adult sex (and I wish it went without saying, but it’s extremely important to understand we’re talking about enthusiastically consensual situations here), all of a sudden the literal meaning of being called a slut is transformed into its opposite implied meaning. Through this process of ironic transformation, a guy can bang me while growling, “You like that don’t you, you dirty little slut?” and what I hear is, “I respect you enough to listen to what you say you want. I accept your permission to wield the power of this word to turn you on. I have the dignity and sense of adventure to allow myself to be turned on by power when it’s consensually handed to me.” And that always makes me cum.
This is also what I want from a reader of my nonfiction work. I want someone to pick up a book I’ve written looking to feel elated hope from the depiction of tragedy. I want you to see the mundane in the surreal and the playfulness in vulgarity. I would go so far as to say that the entire reason I write is to detect all the irony that language allows and twist it around the truth like razor wire and ivy. That’s how I like my truth: twisted.
Before we go any further, let’s really talk about what irony is and is not, as well as some of irony’s nuances and subdivisions.
Irony is easily recognizable and routinely misunderstood. As I’ve illustrated, irony is a rhetorical device in which the literal meaning is the opposite of the implied meaning.
Irony is not simply “not what you’d expect to happen or what you wanted to have happen.”
Irony is a slow clap.
Irony is not something you use to make a sentence sound smarter for no reason. The word you may be looking for is “coincidentally,” or “contrary to what you might have expected.” (I found such a great example of this while writing this article! Someone posted a meme to Instagram that read: “The top three songs on the US charts this week were by Drake, Justin Bieber, and the Weeknd. Ironically, they’re all Canadian!”)
Irony is when you’re all like, “Ohmigod I am like totally soooo sure I would go out with you,” in a tone that conveys you most certain you would not. This popular form of verbal irony is known as sarcasm.
Dramatic irony is when the audience/reader knows something a character does not (cf, Oedipus fucking his mom; Juliet’s not really dead; don’t go in that room that’s where the killer is why can’t you see ohhh gaaaawd–)
Post-irony is when something travels through irony and back around to sincerity. Post-irony is sometimes necessary, but usually the worst. For example, norm-core is post-ironic, because if you dress norm-core you’re dressing unfashionably in order to be fashionable with a sense of plausible deniability that you care about fashion. It’s also post-ironic to make racist/misogynist statements and then claim they’re jokes, because you mean the “joke” to be heard as if you don’t really mean it—but you do.
I am going to quickly bring up Alanis Morissette only to echo the acknowledged fact that none of the scenarios in her song “Ironic” are ironic, and the fact that there is any debate on the subject only demonstrates how little we as a culture understand something that we employ in our daily storytelling and communication. (Listen: It would be ironic if he died in a car crash because he was afraid to fly.)
Here are some examples of erotic irony:
The harder the sadist hits the masochist with her belt, the more she is bestowing affection.
The more a submissive in predicament bondage struggles to break free, the more tightly he is restrained.
The cuckold watching his wife enthusiastically fuck another man knows she is demonstrating her devotion to him by giving him the humiliation he craves.
A service submissive tilts his head back and opens his mouth wide for his Ma’am to ash her salty cigar on his tongue. The more convincing his commitment to objectification, the more worthwhile he feels.
A puppy-identified human man wears an encasing leather hood and crawls around on the floor of the Eagle, barking and rubbing up against the legs of the other humans as they stand drinking beer. The more they treat him the way they would an actual animal, scratching his back, calling him a Good Boy, expecting his obedience, the more human he feels.
A bratty submissive is deliberately insolent so that she will be punished, which is what she wants, which makes punishment the reward (“Oh no, not the Briar Patch!”). This is called topping from the bottom.
When my sweetie calls me—with real ardor and passion—“a cocksucking faggot slut who’s just a hole for me to use,” I feel deeply respected. (And the more she sees me as a boy, the more I feel like a woman.)
A feminist woman wears heels and cooks dinner for her feminist husband, brings him his whiskey in his special tumbler with two ice cubes, then get down on her knees and sucks his cock until he cums all over her face, telling her she is his property. Perhaps afterwards they will listen to some Bikini Kill.
In sex and in literature, I love playing in the exaggerated distance between implied and explicit meaning.
I have had to condition myself into sincerity. A workshop instructor once insisted to me that writing is about concrete details and truth; I have been struggling with that idea for years. I like Nabokov’s puns and Randy Newman’s satirical narrators and Charlie Kaufman’s surreal meta-scenarios and Lester Bangs’ vulgar critiques and Grant Morrison’s anarchic allegories and Maggie Nelson’s meta-memoir theory. I like dissonance, distortion, unreliable narrators, psychological twists, and camp. I feel soothed, calmed by knowing what I read is not exactly what I’m experiencing.
I’m a lousy reporter. It’s excruciating for me to type out the facts: I’m always squirming to get to get to the philosophy and the jokes. I have a terrible time describing what a human looks like, but I could fill pages and pages explaining the meaning behind his existence. You know, like in that Alex story.
When I’m writing nonfiction, I don’t remember what color the furniture was, or what the weather was like, or what exactly someone said. I remember what it meant, and that’s what I want to tell you. I feel like I connect with a reader best when I know we are subjectively interpreting something together.
I am a smartass, and when I’m in a kink scene my sarcasm comes bubbling up out of me. I want to strike a pose, stick the landing, hit my mark, and deliver a perfectly timed improvised quip. It’s a compulsive satisfaction of my ego. I don’t really care so much about whether I tied a granny knot or a square knot, whether my gear looks fresh, whether my outfit is impeccable. I want the scene to hum with the electricity of human fiction.
Another workshop leader (Ok, it was Vijay Seshadri, and if I’m going to push a mountain of student loans up a hill for the next decade the least I should be afforded is a pass to name drop) once told me that I was so busy throwing glitter in the eyes of my readers that I ended up throwing glitter in my own eyes. He reminded me that spelling a word is the same as casting a spell and that glamour is a verb meaning “to cast illusion.” He called me a wizard and I guess it wasn’t a compliment?
But to me, irony is where the energy lives, where things are exciting and interesting, where things are being invented.
I am not a psychologist, and I don’t know why we want what we can’t have. But I am a sexuality professional, and I do not understand why people find kinky sex so difficult to understand. What could be more universal as an experience of desire than wanting someone all the more because they don’t want you back, or, conversely, not wanting someone as much when they do want you? This desire could be for a person (you want her to pay attention to you), or for an experience with a person (you want her to fuck you), or for an identification with a person (you want her to be your girlfriend).
BDSM is an ethical way to get what you want by agreeing to pretend you can’t have it.
Irony is useful to me because lying the only way I really know how to get at the truth.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.