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
Fantasies With Two Faces, Dissolution, and Other Refusals of Meaning
It isn’t too difficult to see the common threads in my early fantasies: male/male disciplinary spanking derived from the television programming of my early to mid-1960s childhood; youngish, straight-arrow spankers and older, effeminate spankees. (Also: totally embarrassing to describe to you here.)
But I think the most significant part of those fantasies—which kept me half-dazed with what I now know to be sexual arousal, throughout my childhood and adolescence—is that “I” (which is to say, me, Janet, at that time a plump and hyperverbal young girl in suburban Philadelphia) did not appear in them.
I still rarely put in an appearance in my own sex fantasies. I remember being startled and a bit alarmed when I learned that other people—so-called normal people—did: the person squirming under the hail of blows, or lecturing sternly as their arm rises and falls, is the avatar of the dreamer herself. That seemed to me, when I first heard about it, like only half a fantasy. It still does.
What I love about my two-faced fantasies is that I get to body-surf. Sometimes I’m the spanker, strict and loving, doling out punishment and affection, slowly chivvying my charge back into the world of acceptable behavior. Sometimes I’m the spankee, nervous and filled with dread, embarrassed as I drop my pants and bend over, fighting to remain stoical and then losing the fight, collapsing in tears and remorse.
If I’m by myself or nobody is watching, I might even whisper the dialogue to myself, complete with the appropriate facial expressions (indulgent smile, disapproving frown, quivering lip, tearful grimace).
I keep expecting to outgrow these fantasies and mature into something more appropriate, but I turned sixty last birthday, and the fantasies have stayed about the same, changing only in a 21st century update to the casting (Captain Picard spanking Q, Spike spanking Giles—you get the general idea).
So it should come as no surprise that in my kinky life, I am a switch, someone who enjoys both ends of the paddle or strap or cane. Nor should it be all that startling to learn that my sexual persona is male, and that I expect my partners to treat me as such.
But that’s in the bedroom, or the dungeon. What about at the writing desk?
Of course, enacting both/all sides of a fantasy is an exercise in empathy, and empathy is good exercise for a fiction writer. Unfortunately, I almost never write fiction, because I can’t build plot for shit. But the effect of two-faced fantasy on my work as a how-to writer and memoirist is just as important, although in a subtler way.
Years ago, a friend who was training to become a therapist explained Gestalt dreamwork to me: “The idea is to be all the characters and objects in the dream. It’s more than just imagining what they might say or do—you have to take an extra step and get inside them.” She went on to explain that since dreams are generated by the dreamer, each individual or thing in the dream must represent an aspect of the dreamer.
Hearing about this idea—which immediately rang true to me—illuminated a whole lot of confusing questions. If dreams are the stage on which various aspects of Self enact conflicts, connections, epiphanies, and desires, then what is Self? I began questioning received wisdom about “the authentic self”; it seemed to me that all the selves that appeared in my waking or sleeping were authentic, none more than any other. Any human or animal or thing I’d ever dreamed about, imagined or written represented a part of me. (If they didn’t represent a part of me, I wouldn’t be able to imagine being them.)
It didn’t take me long to realize that the same thing had to be true of sexual fantasy. Although a fantasy object may be inspired by something or someone outside oneself, bringing it into the realm of personal fantasy is an act of projection—of imprinting one’s own desires, struggles and questions onto a cardboard cutout of the fantasy object.
Of course, following the same logic, the actual human beings in my life are also projections. Bill and Jane and Carlos lead their own complicated inner lives, but my ability to understand those lives depends on my ability to relate my own desires and experiences to theirs. If Jane reports a fight with her mother, I immediately riffle through my mental diary of fights I’ve had with people like Jane’s mother, because that helps me understand what she’s feeling: I project my own experiences onto her as a way of seeking empathy. And if I go on to write Jane’s fight with her mom as a story or essay, Jane becomes entirely my projection; she exists only on the page, fleshed out with whatever wisdom and experience I can offer. (If you want to know Jane’s experience, you have to wait for her story or memoir—and even then, what you’re reading will be a projection of your own experiences and beliefs.)
I could bore you by explaining what aspects of me are getting projected onto all the Captain Hooks and Captain Robinsons and Captain Picards, but therapists get paid good money to listen to that sort of thing and I’m not going to inflict it on you here. What is relevant, though, is the connection among them all—the ways in which the poor punished Riddler, apologizing through his tears, is ineradicably connected to strict but fair Batman, who holds him close and gently consoles him. These roles are, of course, two sides of the same coin—a coin called “redemption” or “atonement” or “forgiveness.” For whatever reason, that narrative coin is the specie in which the commerce of my inner life is conducted.
And because I habitually occupy both roles in this narrative—and because of another, very different experience which I’m about to describe to you—my ability to tell the difference between things grows dimmer with each passing year.
There’s going to be a slight shift in tone here: from pop culture to earnest woo-woo, from spanking to West Coast neo-tantra. (What can I say? I am large; I contain multitudes.) Without getting into too much detail: during a basic partnered exercise in breath, gaze, and undulation, I experienced ecstasy, that state that Merriam-Webster calls “a state of being beyond reason and self-control”—not for the first time, but for the longest time I’ve ever been there, or ever hope to be. And while my body was busy screaming and writhing, I got a brief, shuttered look at the part of the universe that ordinarily lies beyond the purview of my all-too-human brain, the part that lies outside the limitations of time and space.
And once I began thinking about no-time and no-space, it didn’t take too long to figure out that there’s really no difference between me and not-me. I no longer worry much about dying: Someday I’ll finish this little vacation in time and space, and my body will release me back into that infinite undifferentiated universe that I once tasted for ninety seconds in a tantra class in Sonoma County.
Did my two-faced fantasies predispose me to my ecstatic experience? Or is my propensity for ecstatic experience a genetic marker for someone who can’t occupy just one fantasy body? I’m not sure, but as a result of one or both of these phenomena, I can no longer believe in the boundaries between people, or between concepts. I find the idea of boundaries useful in my life and writing—after all, what are words but boundaries around ideas?—but it’s with a grudging, since-you-insist reluctance.
One of the most hotly contested passages in my best-known book, The Ethical Slut (co-written with Dossie Easton), is the one where we point out that “Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores…. Right now, we’re writing about sex, and you’re reading what we have to say about it. You’re having sex with us! Was it good for you?” Apparently some people are deeply uncomfortable with having the boundaries around meaning challenged in this way, but I can’t write about sex as though I knew where its edges are; I don’t.
In my gigs as a sex educator, I habitually challenge my audiences to examine the boundaries of words they think they understand. What, for example, is this three-letter word about which I purport to educate? I have reached orgasm untouched, through a few easy-to-learn tricks of breath and gaze and visualization, and I’ve humped away for hours and been unable to cross the orgasmic threshold. Which of these is “sex”? Or are they both?
What is a “man,” or a “woman”? New research has pretty much destroyed the idea of chromosomal determination, and genital shape has never really been enough to determine either gender or sex (depending on definition, roughly one newborn in a hundred has non-standard chromosomes and/or genitals). Our trans and intersex friends teach us every day that gender and sex are linked casually, if at all. But if “man” and “woman” no longer make sense, what do “gay” and “straight” mean? I spend an unreasonable amount of time pondering such questions – in print, in front of audiences and in the privacy of my own brain.
And that’s not even getting into the issues that everybody knows have gray edges: What is “love”? What is a “relationship”?
And, above all, why are humans so ridiculously addicted to certainty when it’s clear that our finite brains are inherently unable to comprehend the infinite?
These conundrums are why I sit here at my desk and struggle to write about sex and love and relationships, about men and women and orientations. Recently, what’s come out is this (from my book, Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals):
This is…about dissolution, in all the senses of the word. Lawyers call a divorce a “dissolution,” and there’s a divorce in here, although a rather anticlimactic one. And some people say you’re “dissolute” if they think that you’re morally not quite up to par, and, well, there’s a lot of that in here too, mostly with me at its center.
But “dissolution” is the noun form of the verb “dissolve.” Moviemakers use a “dissolve” to transition from one scene to the next, so that they can jump all around their story, sometimes to things that seem irrelevant at the time but that start to make more sense as the movie progresses. And physicists mean “dissolve” to mean the softening of edges, the loss of boundaries, the point where the lump of sugar becomes smaller and smaller, and then the sugar is liquid, and then the water is sweet.
And that’s really what this book is about: dissolving, dissolution, solution. Edges softening, edges disappearing, edges so far gone that you realize they never existed and that you’re standing like Wile E Coyote in midair. Don’t worry, you’ll only fall if you think too much about how you got there in the first place.
So although I deploy words for a living—writing and editing are quite literally the only things I know how to do well enough that someone is willing to pay me for them—words are little bites of the infinite surrounded by the skin of finite meaning, and after a lifetime of imagining two-faced spanking scenarios, and sexual switching and gender play, and a glimpse of the infinite via tantric ecstasy, I no longer believe in finite meaning.
Oh, well, maybe I’ll leave the words alone and go lie down for a bit. There’s this fantasy about John and Sherlock I’ve been meaning to spend some time with…
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.