My dad, a psychiatrist, wants to write a sex book.
It’s something about integrating sex and Judaism. I’m not entirely sure because I try not to listen.
From my perspective, sex education is a field most appropriately led by queer sex radicals. You know, the kind of people who could comfortably lead a fisting workshop handcuffed: thoughtful sex geeks who are kinky and poly, and who likely publish erotica on the side.
That is to say, people who are a lot like me. I’m a twenty-four-year-old genderqueer butch. I like piss play and paddles, write stories about my sex adventures for Best Lesbian Erotica, and field questions about birth control and sexual orientation every week. I volunteer with a teen sex education organization and blog about queer safer sex. But, unexpectedly, it’s my seventy-four-year-old father who is bringing news of writing a book about sex.
He’s visiting from Pennsylvania to Oregon, where I’ve settled after running away to the West Coast like so many other queer perverts before me.
It’s an awkward reunion. I dropped out of college and followed a partner across the country when I was eighteen. My dad and I haven’t spoken much since. He knows it has something to do with the five years my family spent in a New-Age therapy cult during my teens. (Before they divorced, my parents started couples’ therapy with a psychospiritual teacher who ended up bringing my whole family into his abusive spiritual community.) My dad knows those years were traumatizing for all of us. He knows I’m queer. He knows his former spiritual teacher thought me being gay was pathological. My dad doesn’t know his teacher forced me to have a sex with a cousin in order to make me attracted to men. My dad doesn’t know how deeply I distrust him.
We’re driving to Mt. Shasta. He came out west for a psychiatric conference. Now it’s over and we’re going to spend the day hiking.
We’re half an hour away. The soft California hills roll by, clusters of purple flowers poking out.
My dad happily speeds down I-5 in that way I only find peaceful with him. Despite whatever else, I trust him to keep me safe in a vehicle. The gray hairs on his knuckles don’t make his hand on the steering wheel look any less capable. This rental car, filled with the smell of black coffee and the sounds of a Bach piano concerto feels like countless other drives with my father. I push away the low-level embarrassment I feel for my buzzcut and ignore his unspoken feelings about my unshaved legs. My therapist said that when we see our parents, we lose ten years of personal growth—today, that would put me at fourteen.
I came out to my dad when I was thirteen. My mom, also a therapist, gave me an ultimatum after I came out to her: tell him by the end of the month or she would.
I did it in the kitchen before school. My dad was in slacks and a sweater, heating up oatmeal in the microwave. On Tuesdays, he saw patients at home.
“I’m gay,” I said, through my chin-length hair—as short as I was allowed to keep it.
He gave me a once over and a crooked smile.
“Well, I sensed something wasn’t kicking in the heterosexual department.”
He chuckled. I pulled my backpack closer to my body and smiled back in order to show gratitude for his weird acceptance. My little chest filled with shame. I smiled at the sixty-three-year-old man in the kitchen joking that I was sexually dysfunctional and waited until it felt appropriate to leave the room.
Today I am his passenger again, and as usual, I’m confused about what my role should be.
“Robert Stoller has a lot to say about the void of erotic intimacy in our culture,” he says, continuing a conversation I hadn’t quite been listening to.
“Yeah?” I ask. “I don’t know him.”
“Psychiatrist—he spent years studying the lifestyle habits and beliefs of people in sadomasochistic clubs. You wouldn’t believe how deluded these people are.”
What the fuck? Does he know about me?
He checks his mirrors before crossing over two lanes.
“Do you know why people enact sadomasochistic behaviors?” he asks.
My eyes bulge.
“I’ll tell you,” he says good-naturedly. “It represents one of the more insidious trauma cycles that inhibits healthy sexuality.”
Before he continues, he frowns and shakes his head as if you couldn’t imagine a worse disease. Then he turns to smile warmly at me, and I understand that my dad believes he is affirming my queerness. We both know, the smile says, that lesbians—so wholesome—would never get involved in such nonsense.
I grin back, give a little chuckle, allowing his assumption to rest. My heart is palpitating, my ass still blue from a spanking last week.
I briefly let myself stare out the window, while my dad lectures on about kink in a vein that would have landed a “sexual deviant” like me in shock therapy fifty years ago. I focus on controlling my facial expression and posture myself carefully to avoid looking agitated. Highway guardrails and cement rush by. What bliss it would be to tumble out of the car, what relief.
When I was a teenager, my dad described to me the significance of receiving a phone call from a patient who was breathing heavily. I can’t remember if he said it meant the patient was aroused or if it was something more specific. Imminent orgasm? Post-orgasm? I’ve been paranoid about how my breathing sounds on the phone with him ever since. Does he monitor what my breath sounds like, too?
Now, I focus on not looking ashamed or afraid. I focus on not looking like my father has just stumbled upon my porn collection, which is exactly how I feel.
Usually I keep a door welded shut between my sexual universe and my parents. My father doesn’t know my partner’s name, let alone that I’m meeting a pro dom next week to discuss mentoring.
I pray that my father will shut the hell up and that we can just get to Mt. Shasta and look at trees. He likes talking about trees, too.
We’re at our best when walking. When I was a kid, my dad would take me on long night walks around the neighborhood. Sometimes we saw foxes. Friends ask me why I’m not afraid walking alone at night, and the truth is because I feel no reason to be. I associate night walks with quiet, getting ready for bed. It’s what my dad did to ward off insomnia.
“Time for our constitutional?” he’d ask, and we would stroll around our stretch of suburban Philadelphia. Walk in one direction and the traffic would get very loud; walk in the other and the streetlights got farther apart, until trails leading into the woods appeared. My dad would talk about Kabbalah. We would look at the trees against the sky. Walking at night is the closest thing I identify with as a religious practice. Now, at night, I’m usually read as a man and there’s safety in that, too.
So far, on this visit, my dad has, miraculously, slipped up and called me “he” three times. I’d wonder if it was Alzheimer’s, except he just passed some neurological test with flying colors. Yesterday afternoon, I juggled outside his conference while I waited and a few psychiatrists came over to watch my four-ball flourishes. Proudly, my dad said, “He’s pretty good, no?”
My dad doesn’t understand how important being butch is to me, or how seriously I’ve considered transitioning. Over breakfast he made his pitch for me to grow my hair out. I understand you have to keep it short to fit in with the lesbians, but you’d look so beautiful… When he’s feeling complimentary of my short hair, he says, “I’m glad you don’t look butch.”
This “he” business, then, is thrilling—an accidental recognition, like when my dad mistakenly calls me by my half-brother’s name. Unfortunately, the pleasure is usually short lived. “He” turns into the much less fun, “he-I-mean-she-sorry.” Recognition is erased by embarrassment—for my loafers, my collared shirts, the men’s watch that matches my father’s own. I morph, against my will, into a failed woman.
As I get older, I notice how much my wardrobe resembles his. I’ve told people that Mr. Rogers is my style icon, but my dad must be part of it, too. Where else did I learn to tie a tie, begin to fetishize men’s shoes, or absorb the appropriate masculine accessories for the top of a dresser (foreign coins, a solid pen)? And, truth be told, my dad has a distinctly lesbian sensibility: he frequently wears Birkenstocks with trousers, a belt delicately engraved with the tree of life from his second ex-wife; there’s a stack of leftist political t-shirts in his closet, and his left earlobe bears a silver stud of a moon, a nod to his passion for astrology.
My dad loathes pharmaceutical companies and is on the phone daily fighting with insurance firms to get his clients better coverage. He is kept up at night by fear of a Republican senate, global warming, and GMOs. My father cannot, will not, watch a torture scene in a movie.
I understand why some people love my dad as a therapist.
In my more grounded moments, I know that when my dad brings up sex like this, he’s trying to connect with me, trying to talk about something we have in common. Even if he doesn’t understand the scope of it, he knows sexuality is something I care about very much. And I’m learning that my dad, in a way that is barely comprehensible to me, is obviously some sort of sex geek himself. He cares enough about sex to want to write a book about it, apparently. Maybe when he absurdly tells me about his gay patients’ erectile issues, that’s his way of saying “I love you.”
”Spanking, and scratching, and biting,” my dad continues with disgust, in a litany of S/M activities I find startlingly mild but which he finds repulsive. “Sex needs to be about love, you know?”
How is he still talking about this?!
I nod, halfheartedly.
“The masochists have extensive histories of sexual abuse,” my father continues. “But, really, most commonly, the individuals have both masochistic and sadistic tendencies. Perhaps they’re the healthier ones. The sadists are who you really have to watch out for!” His bright blue eyes widen like he’s picturing the big bad wolf, or a serial killer.
I smirk, picturing all the shy, tenderhearted tops I know. It’s such a small smirk, though, I don’t even have to hide it. I feel too sick to feel superior to my father.
Because this is the point in the conversation where I’m supposed to interrupt.
This is when I’m supposed to be a Good Proud Pervert and come out. I should talk about “consent” and how “sexuality is a spectrum” and, I don’t know, how some people like getting flogged for the same reason other people like rollercoasters, or whatever else is needed to convey you need to stop saying this right now. The shit my dad is saying is the shit that has led many kinky people to lose jobs and custody of their children. It’s wrongheaded and dangerous, and I should say something so he can better educate his patients and medical students and, and, and. But I don’t want to; I just want to get through this day and crawl into bed with Leo, my other daddy, the one who is twenty-eight, has a gender studies degree, and fucks me.
“To the sadomasochist it’s a high like no other. You have to understand that sadomasochism is profoundly addictive and damaging. It’s the definition of self-destructive.”
He rolls down the window and takes a deep contented breath. He seems to have finally tired of the topic. I’m numb from the unanticipated tirade against my sexuality. Now he’s fiddling with the stereo and exclaiming about the mountain in front of us. We can see it clearly. It’s that close.
The sun is too bright when we step out of the car. I wish I’d brought sunglasses. My father has drugstore ones that fit over his regular glasses. I hear a flurry of birds and then my dad clunking around in the trunk for his backpack. Bright green, almost neon green, moss hugs the gigantic trees like organic silly string. Mt. Shasta always feels a little alien to me. There are people who believe that eight-foot-tall magical creatures called Lemurians live here, in an elaborate tunnel system running through the mountain. I am not one of those people. I feel exhausted.
“Ready?” he asks, smiling.
I place one foot in front of the other. The gravel path turns into dirt and then, briefly, soft grass. Soon we’re simply walking upward, surrounded by trees. It’s hot. There are no other people. I smell the sun on my dad’s t-shirt. We’re both in cargo shorts, our giant calves bulging. My mother prayed I wouldn’t inherit his calves. I love my calves.
“Sadomasochism is the definition of self-destructive.” Really, Dad? That’s what you think? I’m thirteen again and back in the kitchen with my father. I don’t want to come out to him, but I feel like I have to.
Honestly, I don’t think he even believes that stuff about BDSM. Just like he didn’t particularly believe my being gay was pathological—he was just around people who encouraged him to examine the “origins” of my homosexuality. From there, it’s a slippery slope to reparative therapy and sexual abuse. I know the patients who work with my dad likely wouldn’t be savvy enough to seek out a kink-friendly psychiatrist. So, today I’m learning this is what his kinky patients get; I’m staring right at it.
With a mix of adult resentment and childhood yearning, I put on my sex-educator hat.
“Dad, do you feel like talking more about S/M?” I begin by modeling how I wish he had started the conversation earlier.
He turns around briefly on the trail and then keeps walking.
“Sure, what do you want to know?”
“Um, actually, I wanted to tell you some stuff I know.” I bolster myself and continue. “When you were talking about it earlier there were some things you said which seemed dated. I thought maybe I could share some stuff I know—”
“Honey, I’ve worked with dozens of patients who are sadomasochistic—”
“Dad, I’ve been in a bunch of ‘sadomasochistic’ relationships.”
“Oh.” He smiles like I clearly beat him in that round of debate. “I see.”
He laughs, tickled. My dad, at his best, is very kind and very fair.
“Okay, tell me,” he says.
We’re walking single-file around a boulder.
I take a breath and start with what I think he needs to know for the sake of his patients: safe words, negotiation, and aftercare. He listens intently as I explain the differences between BDSM and abusive dynamics. I talk about how much intention and communication skill people in the BDSM community tend to bring to play.
“I like that we use the word ‘play,’” I say. “I think people who are outside of the community can get freaked out by the scary-looking whips and miss the point that this is adult play—creative, vulnerable play that meets all kinds of needs.” He nods.
“There’s something very Jungian about it. You know—the shadow, bringing to light rejected parts of ourselves, allowing taboo aspects of our personality to breathe and be seen. BDSM can be a lot about feeling witnessed. Here are parts of ourselves that we’re usually ashamed of—parts that are too needy, demanding, cruel—and we get to embody them. Not only that, but actually feel desired because of them.”
I notice he’s tearing up.
“I’m so proud of your courage in exploring this… sharing it with me… all of it. For my generation, the idea of being so open to experimenting…”
I don’t know whether to bask or crumple. My dad puts his hand on my shoulder and gently wraps me in his arms. How can a hug feel both so tender and so intrusive? My dad’s heart is gorgeously open, but I feel raw and shaky. I need aftercare after his fucked-up S/M rant and unexpectedly feeling forced to come out, and this man can’t give me the comfort I need. This isn’t the scene I signed up for. He isn’t the parent I signed up for. I’m uncomfortably aware of my queer body: my strong arms, my dapper watch, my big feet. My father is having a moment of ecstatic connection with his daughter and I feel invisible. There’s a scene of acceptance playing out around me without me in it.
Coming out can give the illusion of intimacy. You’re sharing something personal, but doesn’t it just reveal how much you don’t know someone?
We walk along the trail, and then through a meadow, around some abandoned camp gear, down a path that leads nowhere and then an interesting one my dad wants to follow on a whim. By the time we’re heading back to the parking lot it’s getting dark, and it turns out we’re not at the right lot. The one we parked at is a good half hour in the other direction. I suppress a groan. It’s not unheard of for him to lead us astray—taking paths that don’t lead where he thinks they do. My earliest memories of him are long drives together that required pulling over repeatedly to consult giant maps. When I was a small child, he once nearly dropped me from his shoulders when a raccoon sprang out unexpectedly in the woods. Near a petting zoo, he once almost got trampled by a bull when he climbed a fence that said “DO NOT ENTER” because he wanted to see what was on the other side.
My dad is a man of curiosity and goodwill, even if he occasionally ends up unexpectedly on the wrong side of the fence.
The night air is cool as we retrace our steps to find the car. This walk feels like countless others we’ve taken together. The crisp air, the sound of his footfalls, the way his eyes gaze upward at the stars in awe, leading me to do the same. We will find the rental car and get back to his hotel. He will fly home to Philadelphia and tell his kinky patients about some new books he’s read on my recommendation. I will see my therapist on Monday and continue the work of digging out the stories I haven’t yet told myself.
We will remain somewhat mysterious to each other, two gentlemen from different societies, who are fond of a good stroll all the same.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
Author’s note: For clinicians or anyone interested in better understanding BDSM and approaching it safely, I highly recommend Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton’s The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, as well as any other book published by Greenery Press. The Kink-Aware Professionals (KAP) Directory, maintained by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, is an excellent resource for finding a kink-affirming therapist.