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
Anxiety, Control, and Escape
I am, and always have been, a really anxious person.
My mum used to call me a “worrier,” a trait that has been passed down through generations. As a kid I’d worry about anything from the next speech I had to give at school to the very nature of my future. As a teenager I’d get melancholy, spending nights in bed wondering where my childhood has gone.
As I’ve grown, that worrying has at times become more serious. In my early adulthood I was diagnosed with depression, with that occasional sense of melancholy coming to dominate my entire outlook. That sadness is now long gone, but I still often wake with an inexplicable pit in my stomach, a debilitating sense of fear I cannot put my finger on.
I get anxious about everything—that I’m working too much, that I’m working too little, that I’m not relaxing enough, that I’m not successful enough, that I’m not spending enough time reading, or watching movies, or exercising, that I’m not a good boyfriend, that I’m not having enough sex, that I have too much sex. The list goes on, often in contradictory ways. Sometimes this feeling stretches into days or weeks.
When it hits it can be paralyzing. I know, deep down, that these feelings are not rational, but they still overpower me. I suddenly become the most indecisive person I know, failing to make the most basic decisions—what to have for dinner, what to watch on TV, what to read, whether or not I should go out or stay in.
But it is my anxiety that connects my writing and my kink. They serve both as a release and a way to gain control, but more importantly as a way to escape.
Writing and kink are both things that have appeared relatively recently in my life. Although I know that others feel that they are born writers, or born kinky, for me they are not, I don’t think, an inherent part of my being. They are an expression of something else.
I grew up in the suburbs of the Australian capital, Canberra, with a pretty normal and uneventful childhood. When I came out as gay when I was sixteen, everyone was extremely supportive. Almost directly after coming out, I started dating in the same way most high school kids date.
And I was, despite my worrying, generally pretty happy. Through late high school I remember having dreams of meeting a guy, falling in love, and living in a monogamous relationship. I would get a good job and we would live our lives happily together. I had no idea about the worlds of polyamory or kink, and if I did I had little interest in getting involved. I went to University to study environmental policy, hoping to get involved in that field when I left, most likely as a public servant. But it didn’t turn out that way.
I first started writing when I spent a year overseas in my early twenties on a University exchange in Sweden. I started with a blog about politics, then got an unpaid gig writing for a gay and lesbian magazine. It was just a thing to do, something to kill the time.
When I got back home, this hobby became more serious. Moving back to Australia I started to find paid writing gigs, mostly writing online about politics, sexuality, and the environment. I really enjoyed it.
But as I began putting more down on paper (or computer screen), my brain started to turn to other things. I can’t actually pinpoint a time I decided to write my first story, but four or five years ago, stories just began to appear in my head. I felt driven to write them down, thinking of characters and plot lines in moments of quiet—in the shower, or in bed, or walking home from work.
My entrance to kink was just as late as well.
I first started dating my now boyfriend of ten years, James, at eighteen. I was, as I said, dreaming of a vanilla, monogamous lifestyle. But James immediately threw that into the air. He told me he wanted an open relationship, and, thinking I had little to lose at the time, I agreed.
I have to admit that for years I struggled with it. Whilst my logical brain said it was okay, I could not handle the anxiety of the thought of him with someone else. But as I pushed through this, it opened up a new world. James and I became more comfortable in our skins, eventually beginning to explore more kink (dom/sub in particular) with ourselves and exploring the possibility of opening our relationship up even further. Then two years ago I met Martyn: now James, Martyn, and I live together, and quite happily so.
These two unexpected developments often feel extremely disconnected, and in many ways they are. There are lots of different reasons I ended down these paths—paths I’m extremely happy to have been taken down. But at the same time I know they are both linked to the anxiety that often follows me wherever I go.
Writing is not just about expressing myself creatively, or even about having my voice heard: it is about releasing some part of myself. This works in what often feels like contradictory ways. My freelance writing work mixes my personal experiences with political, and sexual, content, which gives me a sense of control over my narrative and myself. It is an attempt, often successful, to clear the buzzing from my head.
Yet my writing lets me lose control as well. I’m currently working on my first novel. My book focuses on the experiences of someone who has just left prison after fifteen years inside: I have never experienced anything like this, yet I can see different parts of myself in all my characters. The story is not just about being trapped in a prison system, but in your own world. In many ways that is how I often feel—trapped in my own anxious head.
Writing through my characters expunges that from me, even if for only a minute. I often write at my best when I’m anxious, sad, or just feeling like shit. That is when the emotions are the most raw, and the most real. In these moments, my characters become a much deeper and better representation of themselves, and of myself. This is the release I’m looking for, away from the anxiety that tells me I’m not good enough.
The same can be said for my kink. For example, I love being tied up and blindfolded. There is, in many ways for me, no better feeling than kneeling on the floor, knowing my sexual partner(s) are there, but having no idea of what they’re going to do next. Being able to let go of any need to make decisions, to have someone make them for me, at times is all I want. I must in those instances submit wholly to pleasure—my partners’ and mine—and nothing else. I cannot decide what happens, when it starts, when it ends or anything else. What point is there to getting anxious over it?
I feel the same whilst being a dominant. Over time I’ve discovered a dominant persona who is a bit of a beast, who makes decisions on a whim and does not look back. In my dominant space, I instantly have a sense of control over myself, one I often feel I’m missing in the real world.
Strangely enough the best example of this beast’s emergence occurred in public. A couple of years ago, I attended the Sydney Festival of Really Good Sex, and in the “interrogation play” session we were given the task of “interrogating” our blindfolded festival-mates. Before I knew it, I became very aggressive: standing over my subjects, screaming at them, demanding they provide me answers to my invented questions. And I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I was turned on by the whole thing.
I want to be clear here that it is not just anxiety that drives these passions. I love my life, and my writing, and my kink, for many reasons. But, this feels like the connection between them. Writing and kink are both expressions of a desire to let go of my fears, my desire for control, my anxiety about what is going to happen next.
Earlier this year rock star David Bowie died. I have been a huge Bowie fan ever since I was an anxious teenager and I still feel as though I am in mourning. Every time I think about him and every time I listen to his music (which is often), I get sad.
Last year whilst visiting Berlin, I went to a Bowie tribute concert. Messaging my partner Martyn afterwards, I told him I felt inspired to write. Martyn asked me what it was about Bowie that made me feel so inspired, and all I could answer was that one day I wanted to be able to write something as beautifully as he did.
But actually it is much more than that. While Bowie wrote about sex and space and love and relationships, his work was really about anxiety, isolation, and alienation. He wrote what I’ve often felt, and much better than I ever could. But I keep trying! Keep trying to express everything that is going on in my head, on the paper and in the bedroom.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.