By Robin Maltz
As a teenager, I hadn’t given much thought to power games, though I played them all the time. I was the one who taped the proverbial “kick me” sign on the back of the cheerleader who snubbed me, and hid the clothes of a guy who groped me in a hot tub. If someone got the better of me, I stewed about it for days, dreaming up paybacks.
Maybe what I’m describing sounds like run-of-the-mill revenge, but really, what is revenge if not a power play to dethrone the one who turned you into the court jester?
In my early 20s, I had a new understanding of power games when I read the “Story of O,” a 1954 French erotic novel by the pseudonymous Pauline Réage (who, 40 years later, revealed her true self to be a woman, despite the popular assumption the author was male). The story is about a woman’s submission to a group of men, but especially one, Sir Stephen, who served as her master. All this took place in a castle, although there was nothing Harlequin romance-y about it. It’s all chains and branding and piercings, and pain as pleasure and suspense.
In the realm of my small apartment, I tried out the role of submissive. For months, I wore a chain between my legs, hooked to a chain around my waist, a homemade chastity belt, in order to feel the sensation as if someone owned me. Beneath my clothes, the chains felt as bulky as a diaper, but I told myself its presence would be a constant reminder, if I were ever to be a submissive. I played games with normal rituals; a chocolate caramel could not be touched until I cleaned my apartment — in 10-lb. leg and wrist weights — and then I ate it slowly off the floor with my hands behind my back.
At my record company job, I tried out the dominatrix role on an A&R guy at another label. Walking into his office unannounced, after hours, I’d tell him in my most stern voice to stop what he was doing. Slowly circling him, I’d say things like “Do what I say or lick my boots!” and then I placed a chain at his throat, but not too tightly. (Everything was practice, I told myself, for the “real” thing — so I didn’t want to inflict or feel actual pain or humiliation.) He was amused. We never slept together.
The game ended, as did my adventure in domination, when I slammed a chain, whip-style, against his desk and broke an expensive crystal ashtray into a million pieces, yelping in horror and apologizing profusely. My interest in submission ended soon after. I just didn’t have time.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I was a grad student in performance studies at NYU, that my interest turned again to BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism), specifically same-sex BDSM since a male-female couple already had a power hierarchy that two females or two males did not have. I wanted to see power cut from whole cloth, without any preconceived ideas about who is stronger, emotionally or physically, or who should be the dominant one.
I contacted Lesbian Sex Mafia, or LSM, through members I knew and was vetted about my interest and intent before I was told the location of a “play party.” It was held on an off night at the Vault, a men’s SM club in the Meatpacking district. (It soon became clear that there wasn’t a designated female SM club anywhere.)
Everyone, down to the person who collected money at the door, served a BDSM role in the play party. My role was “tourist.” I was a voyeur — a role necessary for the exhibitionism inherent in the practice. As a tourist, I kept to a path and wove my way around what I can only describe as stalls, like you’d find at a county fair for the 4-H club to show off livestock.
I walked quickly past anything with blood, piercings, needles or knives. Face-slapping bothered me, as well. I stopped to watch a “Daddy/boy” scene. An older butch dyke in sunglasses and head-to-toe leather flogged a younger butch — wearing only leather pants and motorcycle boots — tied to a column. The older dyke was a master of the whip, twisting and spinning it before laying a well-placed crack on the back of the younger dyke, who barely flinched.
At that and other play parties, I witnessed Daddy/girl spanking scenes, women bound and ball-gagged, a woman-horse on all-fours with a saddle being ridden, a doctor/patient scene (the doctor was a real doctor — an ob-gyn), lots of flogging and sex acts involving a sling. There were as many contraptions specifically for BDSM as there are machines in a gym.
I was both fascinated by the ritual and bothered by the rules — particularly “safe words.” I wanted it to be dangerous. I wanted the dom to have total control over the sub. I wanted a lot to be at stake. But I also knew this was not my world and I could only understand it as an observer, since I was not compelled to be a player.
I stopped going to play parties after a couple years. When someone asked what I thought of that world, I would say, “Where is the love? Where is the passion?”
Recently, I read about Catherine Robbe-Grillet, France’s famous dominatrix, now 83 years old, and her 51-year-old submissive, Beverly Charpentier. Both women were married to men who are now dead, and their relationship is a sadomasochistic one, not a sexual one. Nine years ago, Beverly submitted completely to Catherine, until death. Catherine owns Beverly and they live in a 17th-century château in Normandy. Catherine says that Beverly is her “idealized, unattainable love.”
Now I understand my obsession with the “Story of O” and BDSM: I wanted to be owned completely; belong to someone entirely. But really, that is not what love is. Love is actually something much more risky.
Read more by Robin Maltz at purpleclover.com