Another story that needs no words.
This is a sponsored post from my friend Michele Schalin at Little Shop of O’s, an online sex toy shop that also offers Sex Tips and Erotica. Michele donated the riding crop and bondage tape that you’ll see in this story. Although these items were given to me, rest assured that I only endorse high-quality products that I can stake my reputation on.
Bondage and Discipline: A Story In Pictures
Remember, Erica…I adore you…
…even when you displease me.
Don’t make a sound…
...or I’ll have to think of some alternative methods of pain…
If you’re very quiet, and very still…
I will grant you the privilege of serving me…
…and I will free your hands…
Little did I know last spring when I did my first boudoir shoot that being photographed would become an erotic experience in itself, one that mimics the experience of having sex. There is the phenomenon of getting turned on fantasizing about the upcoming encounter: choosing the right outfit, imagining how I want the interlude to go down (yep, I said that), reveling in anticipation as the date draws near.
The experience unfolds through the familiar stages: initial jitters, intermittent awkwardness, putting my fantasy out there where it’s received by a partner — the photographer in the case of a solo shoot — who might take the idea in a completely different direction. There is the giving in, the losing oneself, the looking at the clock and realizing that those two hours that just passed felt like ten minutes, and you can’t wait to do it all over again — with a new twist.
So when I decided to do a second boudoir shoot, I asked myself how I could push the boundary. Doing a couples boudoir shoot with a man sounded like fun, but why stop at one? Why not have two?
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in photography are in yourself, because what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas
So I asked two lovers if they would like to participate in a menage boudoir shoot and they both said yes in a New York minute. The day of the shoot came with last-minute hiccups, however: one guy got welts and had to stay mostly clothed; no one could find parking and everyone was late; I answered the door in my corset while a blinking security patrolman informed me one of my visitors had parked illegally.
“Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.” – Arnold Newman
I had posted images I wanted to recreate on my Pinterest board — the shot above is an example — but my best-laid plans were oft diverted by the alchemy of three principals and a photographer, each of whom had a slightly different spin, so there was a lot of sifting to be done in order to execute a set piece.
We lingered too long on the BDSM set pieces, in part because Jesse — who emerged as the dominant personality — arrived at the shoot with enough paddles and floggers and cuffs that he looked liked he’d picked the racks clean at The Stockroom.
I won’t see the finished shots for another week — the ones here were taken by the two guys with their phones. I’m curious to see if the images will bear any resemblance to those in my mind, or if they’ll be something else altogether. Because the end product isn’t really the photo. The photo is a vehicle for the viewer on which to project his own fantasies.
It’s the dynamic relationship between photo and viewer, words and reader, lover and lover, that I find intoxicating. It’s the reason I write this blog: I get to tell a story inspired by an image, or find an image to tell a story, and create an experience for people who visit the blog, many of whom have begun to feel like friends and lovers.
I’m disappointed that I forgot to do my last series idea. I had imagined us all gradually discarding jeans and t-shirts until we were nothing but a softly-lit tangle of arms and legs.
But that’s okay. It just means I get to do another naughty shoot.
“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.” – Duane Michals
Tom: I’m at home. On the couch. What would you do if you were here?
Erica: I’d crawl across the floor to you, all the while gazing into your eyes…and then I’d stop at your feet and spread your knees apart…
Tom: Except that you can’t crawl — you opened that sassy mouth of yours so I had to punish you, and I bound your wrists…
Erica: With your purple tie, the one I gave you for your birthday…
Tom: Then I wrap my palm around the back of your lovely neck and pull you towards me…
* * *
I stumbled upon a year-old article on Huffington Post recently, about a study that found BDSM enthusiasts are psychologically healthier than vanilla-philes. The thrust (ahem) of the piece was that people who embrace their kink have to develop a strong sense of self to bypass convention without getting mired in shame.
As someone who spent most of my life pretzeling myself into various social constructs, only to come un-pretzeled, I would have to say this is true. And from my interactions with friends and lovers who prefer their sex with a twist, I have found that each of them had similar journeys, or else were blessed with enough native confidence that they pursued off-the-beaten-path endeavors of all kinds with little to no second-guessing.
Instead of being freaked the fuck out by how willingly I present my ass to a dominant lover, or how I luxuriate in anticipation before the sting of a palm on my flesh, or how I crave the ride from fear to exhilaration that follows an expert grasp around my neck, I relax.
Now that I have relaxed into my sexual preferences I feel comfortable sharing them with a partner — something I was rarely able to do in my strictly vanilla relationships. Sometimes sharing happens in the moment, between the sheets. Sometimes it transpires in the written negotiation of limits. Sometimes it evolves through a texting or e-mail fantasy exchange that feeds my thirst for play.
While self-acceptance and enhanced communication obviously leads to contentment, it is this sense of play, I think, that pushes contentment up a notch into the happiness zone. It provides an outlet from the how-tos of adulthood — the bill-paying, the grocery shopping, the children schlepping, the I-hate-my-job-but-I-have-a-mortgage ruminating– and allows us to explore our sexual and sensual horizons, whether that be bold exploration through group sex and swing parties, or more intimate role-play with one partner.
One of my favorite forms of play is to co-write a fantasy with a lover through text messaging. This interchange can go on for days until we meet and get to put our sex plan into action. I have a younger lover, Luke, with whom I particularly enjoy re-enacting such interchanges. With our 15-year age difference, we are on completely different life trajectories — which makes our creative and sexual compatibility unexpected and unexpectedly delightful.
We always meet at a bar. As he squeezes my thigh, I’ll gaze at him over my wine and wonder if he brought the scarves — so he can bind my wrists and hold them over my head with one hand as he hikes my skirt up, only to discover that I’m wearing panties instead of the crotchless pearl thong as I had promised. I’ll wonder if he’ll punish me for being bad by bending me over and turning my cheeks red with his palm. Or better yet, his crop.
So far, he has yet to disappoint me.
* * *
Sex is a creative act, much like writing. I often don’t know what I think until I write it, and I often don’t know what I want until I entwine my mind and body with the mind and body of a lover. My erotic journey has made me feel younger, more vital, more present. There are so many things in life that I can’t control — but I can control what I do in bed, and part of that control comes with submitting.
Later this week I have a date with another lover, Tom, a preppy banker who looks young enough that one might expect to see him swilling beer by a keg. Unlike Luke, who’s dirty inside and out, Tom is more complex: clean on the outside yet filthy dirty on the inside.
We’ve arranged to meet at my favorite Asian Fusion place near his house. I’ll purposely be 15 minutes late to piss him off. When he sees me, he’ll stand up, fixing me with his stony stare. Fear and delight will infuse my gasp when I notice what he’s wearing.
The purple tie.
Last weekend, I had a drink with an attractive banker — I’ll call him Tom. We sat on a banquette in a darkened, neo-classic speakeasy under the dim glow of baubled ceiling fixtures. We shared our history of sexual compartmentalization, and how our struggles to integrate our eroticism had permeated relationships, ultimately blowing them up, or causing them to erode, agonizingly.
Both of us had been in long-term relationships with vanilla partners and sex lives that shrunk down to a few positions and predictable maneuvers. Both of us felt that our partners would have freaked out if we divulged our fantasies, but neither of us had the guts to ask, and find out.
Once we found ourselves single, Tom and I arrived at a sexual crossroads: do we present our buttoned-up selves to new dates, hoping that we will either discover our mutual predilections or else lure them down the garden path to darker delights? And what if neither happens? What if, at best we’ve wasted everyone’s time, or at worst, stirred up hurt and shame?
Tom and I discovered each other on OkCupid, where every flavor of kink can be found in the cyber-smorgasbord. We had each crafted profiles telegraphing our sexuality — although in radically different styles. Hoping to avoid being discovered by conservative co-workers on the site, Tom put up a profile so discreet it bordered on cryptic.
Mine, however, is brazen. The photos are tasteful, yet sensuous; I have a Sex and Transparency clause encouraging suitors to be honest about their intentions; and my answers to those infamous OkCupid questions paint a portrait of a strong woman who likes sex edgy, and men who know how to throw down in the bedroom.
I told Tom about my slut-shaming incident, that a man had warned me I’d never find a good relationship — “good” being anyone’s guess — by being so overtly focussed on sex. I explained that any man who would find me slutty was no man I’d want to spend time with. My profile was designed, in fact, to weed out the slut-shamers and attract the like-minded.
Tom looked at me for a beat, his blue eyes unblinking. He gave me his slow, mischievous smile, the one sign that he was not entirely the preppy gentleman he appeared to be.
“That’s what I liked about you,” he said. “That you were so out there.”
I told him that was one of the gifts of being 51, that I was past the point of caring what other people thought — because if not now, when? Tom, however, was 36, and hoping to get married and have children. He told me most of his married friends had stopped having sex and he was afraid of the same lifeless fate befalling him. What if his wife lost interest in sex? What if she didn’t want the kind of sex he needed to have?
I could hear the longing and worry in his voice — longing for something meaningful and worry that it wouldn’t happen. He seemed tortured, actually, his stories of frantic obsessive sex that only emerged in brief relationships suggesting a person in near-constant battle with himself.
I suggested that he’d never find meaningful if he didn’t first show up as dirty, that I knew couples — happily, long-time married couples — who knew how to keep their sex dirty and their fights clean. I told him I didn’t know if I’d ever get married again, but I knew I’d never get myself in another relationship where I couldn’t fully express my sexuality.
“You seem so comfortable with yourself,” he said. “You seem like you know who you are.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And it only took fifty years.”
He gazed at me directly, his blue eyes shining in the dim light. After two hours, he was still sitting a gentlemanly distance from me.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
His lips spread across his face in that mischievous smile I’d already come to find endearing.
“Yes,” I said, smiling back at him. “Let’s go.”
After I got divorced I decided to unpack the conventional notion of relationships — that they “should” be monogamous and long-term — and explore whether or not this oft-stifling paradigm fit me.
I suspended judgment about alternative lifestyles and sexual preferences. Why, exactly, did I automatically assume that people who preferred open and polyamorous relationships, or those who participated in group sex, were damaged goods? Did I have actual proof that this was the case, or was I just buying into a one-size-fits-all relationship model, the same kind of model that has made LGBTQ folks victims of backwards legislation, marginalization, and abuse?
With a 50% divorce rate, and who knows how high a percentage of miserably married couples who remain miserably married, why should people be squeezed into a box that doesn’t fit them? Is this not a recipe for crappy marriages, dysfunctional families, and existential despair?
* * *
I have an acquaintance, let’s call her Sophie, who has lived with a man and a woman for 20 years. They have raised two children together. They are each well-educated white-collar professionals who have remained happily committed for longer than many people in conventional relationships.
Before I embarked on my odyssey into the realm of alternative sexuality and relationships, I thought that Sophie was…well…sorta freakish. How does she decide who she’s going to sleep with from night to night? Don’t any of them get jealous? And what about the kids? Isn’t it awkward when they invite a new friend over and have to explain that their three parents share beds?
I still don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that Sophie and her two spouses have found a relationship that works. Their kids are thriving. So who am I, who is anyone, to pass judgment on a lifestyle that seems to benefit everyone involved?
I don’t think polyamory is for me, however. I think I’d either feel not special enough or exhausted trying to keep two people happy.
I’ve had experiences with two men in open relationships. They were lovely men: respectful, communicative, and relational. Neither of them was interested in just a body. They wanted a relationship with a person. They both took time to get to know me, to ask questions, and to answer my questions. There was nothing pushy or exploitative about them.
One of the relationships ended, frankly, because the sex was not that great. The other ended before it began. Although I liked John, I felt overshadowed by his girlfriend, who I spoke to, but never actually met. He talked so much about how fabulous they were together, and how fabulous their life was, that I felt diminished.
When he texted his girlfriend from the bar to tell her he thought I was hot, and then told me how much she liked hearing that I was hot, I decided to bow out. I wanted to feel special, not like a sexual surrogate whose role was to enhance another couple’s sex life. I wouldn’t say never to being with another man in an open relationship, but I wouldn’t seek it out. It’s just not my thing.
Recently I was contacted by an extremely attractive man on OkCupid who was in a committed relationship. He and his girlfriend had met at a swingers club and regularly sought out play partners with, or without, each other. When we spoke on the phone, I was both amused and put off by his honesty.
Within the first few moments of our conversation, he told me he was packing ten inches with the girth of a coke can. He then detailed his prolific group sex encounters. He was a regular on OkCupid, Adult Friend Finder, Craigslist, and in swing clubs. He and his girlfriend had sex five times a week. His sex life was so jam-packed, in fact, that I couldn’t figure out how he had time to work, do his laundry, or go to the grocery store.
I found his bragging a bit classless. Besides going on ad nauseam about his coke-can sized penis, he went on and on and on about how amazing his girlfriend was, and how amazing they were together. They were so fused that there didn’t seem to be any room for another, actual person. There was a parallel play quality in the encounters he described. He had no discernible feelings for any of his partners; they were simply bodies without personalities. One man, who arrived with a smaller member than promised, was summarily dismissed. And when I heard about the session he choreographed with eleven men and one woman, I was out.
I have never participated in any group sex arrangement. It sounds like it’s fun for couples who are secure in their relationships, or for a grounded individual who’s looking for a zipless fuck. But it also seems like an experience rife with abuse, as abusers and abusees have a away of finding each other. My concern is that someone seeking validation because he or she lacks self-worth, a strong identity, or good boundaries, will exit a group sex scenario more damaged than when he or she went in.
Because of this reason, I would only experiment with group sex if I were confident about the intentions and mental health of all involved.
I love the psychology of BDSM. I love that the dom and the sub know their roles and their rules. I love the communication and the empathy required to read one’s partner and respect limits. If done correctly, a BDSM relationship can be a gratifying, grounding relationship that makes both partners feel secure.
I have had experience with one man who identified as a dominant but was really a womanizing jerk with so many personas that I felt as if I were dating someone Patricia Highsmith dreamed up.
I have also been with two men who identified as dominants who were among the most romantic and chivalrous men I have ever met. They were much more interested in establishing a relationship than rushing to get me into bed. They were unusually astute individuals who used their powers of observation to make me feel comfortable, and in fact, even cherished.
BDSM gets a bad rap because those who don’t understand it think of whips and chains and one person being controlled by a nut case. Fifty Shades of Grey only fueled the belief that all BDSM relationships are predicated on an abuse of power, when, actually, they’re designed to be a consensual power exchange. Any sub who’s been with a dom who has his shit together knows that she’s the one with the power — because nothing happens unless she says it does.
Unfortunately, neither of my relationships with these men went very far because the sexual chemistry wasn’t there. But they were incredible learning experiences. I found the dynamic I didn’t know I’d been looking for. Now I just need to find that dynamic with a dom who lights my fire.
Finding Sexual Variety and Love
Ms. Quote, the sex educator and blogger behind A Good Woman’s Dirty Mind, commented on my recent post about overcoming sexual shame. She wrote that she wanted sexual variety in the context of a committed relationship, and happily, has found just that.
Her story made me realize two things. I would like a partner with whom I can share my life. I’d like to build a history with someone and one day look back on a life well-lived with the man I love. And I want sexual adventure that thrives in a loving, long-term relationship. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to join the two, but I know that I’ll never again settle for anything less.
I grew up hearing I would go to hell if I had sex before I got married. I was also informed that after a few years of married life, sex became less important and what you ended up with was a “nice friendship.”
My bedroom was next door to my parents’ room and I don’t remember ever hearing the sounds of creaking bedsprings. What I do remember is the exchange of perfunctory pecks on the cheek, pats on the back, and my mother’s shoulders heaving as she burst into mysterious, terrifying sobs on a regular basis.
When I was five, I fell asleep most nights after grinding on the smushed head of my yellow cloth doll. I didn’t know what I was doing, exactly, but I knew I should keep it a secret. When I was ten, my mother insisted that we read aloud the book I’d been assigned in sex ed. This was a horrific experience: my mother sobbed some more and I was sure that my saying the word “penis” had something to do with it.
At thirteen, I laid in bed at night praying for a boyfriend. I also prayed that I would have the will power to wait the appropriate amount of time before we explored each other’s bodies. The fact that I was even imagining a boy’s fingers parting me open, let alone the fingers of a boy I barely knew, made me convinced that there was something deeply and darkly wrong with me.
But because I was a gangly, frizzy-haired, awkward girl more comfortable with my nose in a book than in a crowd of my peers, there was little chance of becoming easy.
Until the fall of my eleventh grade year, when I arrived back at school after hatching over the summer. Suddenly, my body was commanding the attention of males of all ages, a shift which I found both exhilarating and frightening.
Exhilarating because I had always felt different and apart from others, and now my sexuality had submerged me in the stream of life. I was in awe of its power. It was a gift that I cherished and exploited, luring boys and men with braless t-shirts and lingering gazes.
And that was the frightening part. My overt sexuality became a lightning rod at home. It induced more tears from my mother and more shame for me. I was not a teenager who fell easily into a long, “going steady” relationship model. I was easily bored and embarked on a relentless quest for novelty and sexual adventure. I was pretty sure this made me a bad person, and a terrible daughter.
But I couldn’t stop.
If shame hadn’t permeated my household growing up, if my mother had perhaps been more sexually fulfilled herself, if we had been able to have a conversation about sex that did not include horror and tears, it would not have taken me 50 years to understand who I am sexually.
I would have embraced my desire for novelty and boundary-pushing and sought out a husband who needed the same things. Some couples are able to save their marriages by growing together sexually, but my husband and I were so profoundly incompatible that we would have continued adrift. We would have been one of those couples that eventually gives up sex altogether, or pursues it furtively outside the marriage until the inevitable discovery blows up the family and makes the betrayed wonder if anything they believed was ever the truth.
The last thing I want is for my kids to grow up the way I did, in a household steeped in shame and unuttered longings. My daughter knows there’s latex in my closet (she thinks it’s tacky, although she may change her mind). We read the American Girl Body Book without either of us bursting into tears. I make sure my son packs condoms in his wallet. Both of them have had the HPV shot, and they know why they’ve had it.
My daughter’s sixth grade class did a sex education module this year. The teacher asked them to name all the sexual slang words they could think of.
“Everyone was so embarrassed,” said my daughter in the car on the way home from school.
“Were you?” I asked.
“Nooo…” she gave me a beleaguered sigh and a why-would-you-even-ask-that? shrug.
“Well, did you learn anything?”
She shook her head.
“The whole thing was dumb. I knew all the words already. But maybe it helped some of the other kids.”
I smiled, confident that my daughter is poised to embrace her sexuality in the absence of shame.
“I didn’t have sex with my wife the last year we were married,” said Joost, a start-up muckety-muck that I dated last year. “I didn’t know what I liked.”
We were sitting on a sofa in a cocktail lounge. I gazed at him over my Malbec, surprised that this silver-haired businessman — a cross between James Bond and someone you might have found tossing back a Manhattan at the Algonquin Round Table — had ever had a doubt about anything, especially his sexual desires.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I had these thoughts, and I used to ask myself, is it all right to be thinking about these things? Is there something wrong with me?”
“Well, what exactly were you thinking?”
He ran his hand up my calf and under my gray dirndl skirt.
“I was thinking about what it would be like to totally dominate a woman.”
Joost’s shame about his fantasies, and his inability to talk to his wife about them, killed his marriage.
“It might have been different if I’d met her now,” he sighed. “But I didn’t. I met her then.”
He fixed me with his predatory gaze, the same one he gave me on our second date, when he told me he wanted to do bad things to me in the LACMA sculpture garden.
“People like what they like,” he said, his fingers gripping my thigh. “Sex doesn’t lie.”
And then he took me back to his place and spanked me.
* * *
I had always been submissive, I just didn’t know it. Even as a teen, I found myself gravitating towards older, professional, rather bossy men — and them to me. The thought of being a high-class hooker excited me, then horrified me the next moment. I was educated, I was a feminist, I was a social progressive: how, then, could I be turned on by the thought of serving some imposing man in a suit?
So I packed up my naughty thoughts and shoved them into a dark corner of my brain. They crept out during sex with my husband, though I didn’t dare tell him. We were just slightly less vanilla than Ricky and Lucy, and slept almost as far apart. To this day, I have no idea if he wanted to expand our repertoire, or what kind of porn he liked, or if, as I suspect, he’d ever wanted to be tied up.
Our inability to explore our sexual personas with each other created a desperately lonely chasm in the bedroom. Like Joost, I was worried there was something wrong with me. I’d read that people have all kinds of fantasies that they never act on, so I figured as long as I didn’t try to turn my kinky desires into reality, I’d still be a good person.
But then the divorce happened, and with it a surge in my libido that exploded when a series of adventurous lovers appeared in my life. Each one of them was freaky, yes, but not one of them was a freak. They were highly intelligent, ambitious, successful free thinkers. And as they had each traveled further down the BDSM road than I, they were skillful and enthusiastic teachers. Their complete acceptance of their sexual personas liberated me from the shame that had bound me during my marriage, the shame that kept me from true intimacy with my husband, and all the men before him.
I now wear my sexuality proudly, without double-guessing, or caring, what’s “okay” to do in the bedroom. Finally, at 50 — 51, to be precise — I know what I like, and I like what I think.
What about you? How old were you when you began exploring your fantasies? Did you ever feel ashamed of your desires, or were you always comfortable in your sexual skin?