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
The Queer Worlds We Build
I discovered leather nearly fifteen years ago, at eighteen, right around the time I started writing. I was a crusty punk in the back room of a queer youth center. We were all experimenting with leather: beside the pool table, behind the couch, across from the pallet-board stage. Leather was in punkhouse closets-turned-dungeons. We played hard. We played to bring ourselves back to feeling. We played to save each other when we didn’t know how to save ourselves. I threw myself under the boots of any butch with enough balls to flag hunter green, with enough guts to call hym/her/their/hirself Daddy. The meaner the better. My type was the jerks who couldn’t commit. They said they wanted me, but their promises were all slip-release knots, never designed to hold.
When I was eighteen, my first Daddy, the one who introduced me to leather, told me that bois like me could take more than grrrls. Hy read hys little grrrl picture books; hy beat me hard. I wanted a daddy, but I had yet to fully understand myself as a little. I searched for intimacy and used my body as currency to approximate it, and stole hungry glances at hys girl’s coloring books. Rough sex, beatings—that was easy. I could take as much as I was told to take. But littleness? That was everything I craved but was too afraid to ask for.
Unlike Master/slave dynamics—which, thanks in part to the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, have begun to come out of the shadows—ageplay and ageplayers continue to be misunderstood, even sometimes within the larger BDSM/leather community. What is ageplay? Who are littles? I usually define ageplay as a subpopulation of the leather community. (I use leather instead of BDSM or kink to talk about my community because, to me, it designates a full-time lifestyle that is not necessarily sexual, as opposed to occasional play, or an erotic turn-on.) Ageplayers are individuals who consensually play with the various power dynamics inherent in age-based roles. This can manifest in numerous identities including but not limited to girls, boys, babies, daddies, and mommies. For some, ageplay is part of negotiated scenes; for others—and I put myself in this later category—it is an identity that is always part of how one relates to the world. Ageplayers may be engaged in D/s (Dominance/submissive) dynamics (my Daddy and I fall into this category), sometimes in Big/little dynamics, sometimes little/little dynamics. Ageplay can be sexual or non-sexual, depending on preferences of the individual(s) involved. I identify as being five, and try to approach life and many aspects of the world through that lens. My Daddy sets rules that keep me safe and healthy: how much water I should drink, the number of times a day I should write in my journal, when my bedtime is, not to text while walking down the sidewalk.
This being a column about kink, it might sounds paradoxical, but in my life, leather and ageplay/littleness isn’t about sex. For me leather isn’t erotic. I certainly don’t mean that in an assimilationist/anti-sex/respectability politics sort of way. I mean that for me, being little, and more specifically being my Daddy’s little, I feel fulfilled and energized. For me, leather is a way of being in the world, a code of ethics, and a commitment to approach life via wonder. I don’t care if I ever have sex again, but the thought of ever living without power exchange of Daddy/boy is enough to bring me to tears.
When I first came out, I knew that leather community and its dynamics felt like the home I had been searching for, but sensation-based play felt empty. I wanted to be little: I wanted a Daddy to care for me and find pleasure in the silly playfulness I bring to even the most mundane chores. After a series of bad Daddies, I swore off dating, called myself a broken orphan. Then, twelve years ago, I met my Daddy. Ze broke me with birthday cake (the first one anyone had ever fed me) and ice cream, with stuffed animals and quarter machine toys instead of fists and words and elaborate scenes. I had gotten used to begging for hard sex and pain because in the aftercare I got containment, protection, desire. With my Daddy, I found something so much more satisfying than powering through pain to get the tender (after)care I craved (which is not to diminish the way that feels like home for so many others in the community).
My relationship to leather is so different now than when I was first came out. For me, the kinkiest shit (as they say) is outings to the zoo, letters to Santa, and finding eggs the Easter bunny hid for me. The kinkiest shit is nervously confessing you would rather stay home and look at picture books than go to a play party, and Daddy responding by asking which story I’d like hir to read me. When I came into leather, pain and sex were easy for me: it’s tenderness that pushed me to the edges. I knew how to live in brutality. What I needed was the right daddy to train me to be comfortable with sweetness and caretaking and magic.
When Daddy and I met, I was self-publishing zines to sell at the local feminist bookstore. I flourished through our developing relationship—and so did my writing. As we built a home and family together—as our roles solidified, as I found my littleness welcomed and encouraged—my focus and commitment to writing grew. It was my Daddy who first encouraged me to find the courage to follow my desires to write about our community and try to counteract the ways we as ageplayers and leather folk were/are misunderstood and stigmatized. It was right at that time that I got my first book deal, the one I almost never talk about, the one that didn’t result in a published book. I signed a contract with an indie kink publisher to edit a nonfiction anthology of Big and little age players. It would have been the first book of its kind, the first opportunity for ageplayers to talk about our lives.
The call for submissions went out and was well-received. Then the hate mail started. At first there were just random comments on my blog that I could delete, but then the emails started pouring in. I was told how “sick” I was. I was told I was perpetuating pedophilia (even though ageplay, like any other part of leather community, is ONLY ever practiced between consenting adults). These letters came from strangers, from mainstream folks who had stumbled across the call for submissions, and—more upsettingly—from other leather folk who didn’t understand ageplayers or welcome us within the community.
Within a few days, Daddy was previewing all my email, deleting the hateful messages so I wouldn’t have to see them as I sat at the other end of the couch holding my teddy bear and crying. I had wanted to do something good for my community: to use my developing literary skills to tell our stories. One of the things that Daddy helped me manage was the anxiety and fear that could so easily overwhelm me. I vividly remember Daddy holding me as I wrote to the publisher to break our contract. I thought my literary career was over before it had even begun, but Daddy assured me my time would come to tell those stories. Ze was right.
The dynamic I have with my Daddy has real-life literary applications. The protocols that Daddy puts in place around my writing gives me the grounding and containment I need in order to consistently generate new work: five books in the past six years, plus numerous contributions to anthologies, monthly columns, and magazine articles. My Daddy does not control what I write, but ze provides structure for how that writing happens. For example, after my first book was published (three years after my failed ageplay anthology), I was worn down and exhausted, but still had an extensive book touring schedule to contend with. Amidst all this I was frantically concerned about my next book. My Daddy took that fear away by removing options: I was told I had to wait one year from the date my book released to begin writing on any new book-length project. I was required (as I have been for our entire relationship) to journal daily, but I couldn’t outline or draft a new book.
That year off was the best thing for me and for my writing. I emerged inspired and refreshed.
Daddy has imposed similar restrictions on my writing after each of my subsequent books have been published: everything from making book tour itineraries showing me how to get from my hotel to the bookstores where I’m reading (with a clearly marked pit-stop for bubble tea) to packing stickers, notes, and toys in my carry-on luggage. In our life at home, ze cooks us dinner every night before ze tucks me into bed, at my assigned bedtime. Time spent not writing but instead taking bubble baths, coloring and playing with my toys (and I don’t mean floggers and paddles: I mean pony action figures and dinosaurs), help me embrace my little self, and foster a sustainable literary practice. Daddy holds and reassures me when the book reviews are bad, and celebrates every literary accomplishment with me. My Daddy’s commitment to my literary success is more than what a “supportive spouse” might do, because within our dynamic, I belong to my Daddy and ze has made the hands-on commitment to further all that I create, which tangibly extends to the books I write. These are probably not the stereotypically kinky things that folks imagine we get up to when they hear I live in a 24/7 power dynamic!
In some ways, the writing I do has a kinship to science fiction or fantasy world-building. For culturally or geographically isolated readers, my books provide a pathway to a new world, perhaps as alien to the mainstream as if I were writing about little green Martians. Writing books for such a particular subpopulation of queers means my work will never be a national bestseller, but the meaningful praise comes from readers who comment that for the first time they see their dynamics, families, lives, and bodies written within the pages of my books. This isn’t queerness for a straight/cis/vanilla audience. Rather, the novels I write represent our queer/trans/ leather worlds without apology or justification.
I’m most interested in focusing my literary work on creating stories that center the relationships we consensually build as opposed to the sex/play we might (or might not) engage in behind the closed doors of dungeons or bedrooms. I’m committed to writing the dynamics, the daily lives of leather queers—and especially those who like me choose to live in Big/little dynamics. My work isn’t categorically erotic, yet it is about leather folk—making my writing somewhat genre-busting, even within queer literature.
I approach my life and writing with a childlike sense of wonder. There are the physical trappings: the toys that line my writing office, the picture book characters tattooed on my arm, the barrettes in my hair, the cartoons I love to watch. But littleness as a relationship dynamic is more than surrounding yourself with stuffed animals or counting down the days until Santa comes. I always say that I’m the luckiest little: the intensity with which my Daddy creates a world for us, hir attention to detail, hir commitment to ensuring that I am safe and cared for, creates a haven from the bigness and scariness of the world outside our apartment door. In turn, I am called to build queer worlds of my own, to bring that wonder Daddy nourishes in me to the page, and to build new worlds for queer readers.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.