Regular readers know that although in America I spend a lot of time in the BDSM community (am, in fact, a pro-BDSM activist), I currently live in sub-Saharan Africa, working on HIV and dating a Baha’i convert who’s observing a religious vow of chastity. My boyfriend’s pseudonym on this here blog is, therefore, Chastity Boy.
We’ve been “officially” involved since September, and Chastity Boy recently got to the point where he decided to say those Dreaded Three Words. And part of me … part of me, yeah, wants to say them back. When I was younger, I used to have no problem falling in love, saying “I love you,” flinging my heart open kindasorta for the fun of it. (As Isak Dinesen once wrote: Love, in young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine.) But although the words cross my mind all the time when I’m with CB — although I feel them struggling to escape, something in me just won’t say them. Just … can’t.
How did I say it, the last three times? *
The third-to-last time I said “I love you,” it was to Andrew (yes, the same Andrew featured in my coming-out story). I’d come into my sexual identity, but I didn’t know what it meant, had very little idea of what shape it took. Andrew was, at first, attracted to me partly because he knew I wanted to explore S&M, and he wanted to do so too; but after a while it became undeniably clear that there was a sexual gulf between us. Our mostly-vanilla sex was amazing, but. Not enough.
I had a few clear ideas — I knew I liked extreme pain, I liked being pushed into tears — but while Andrew liked playing mild dominance games, and while occasionally he could bring himself to hurt me till I cried … occasionally he could be unbelievably creative and dark and hot … he usually pulled back from the edge. I’m still not entirely sure what the barrier is, for him, because there were definitely times that he liked What It Is That We Do. Times that he even initiated it. And yet often, our kinkier nights would be followed by him waking up in the morning, looking embarrassed, and saying that we should never do that again. Or sometimes he’d even stop in the middle of things, and I’d either go to bed frustrated or beg him to send me over the edge — but then I’d reach only a stunted catharsis, blended horribly with guilt.
To make matters worse, he knew that I wanted more, and he felt guilty about it. He couldn’t bring himself to go where I wanted to go, but he also couldn’t bring himself to give me permission to go out and extensively experiment with BDSM with other people — and at the time, I wasn’t sure if I could bring myself to do that. I ached to explore this consuming explosive force within me, but I loved Andrew, I wanted him, and I ached for his obvious feelings of inadequacy, too. I remember one night in which he was standing at the door of his bedroom and saying, “I’m a red herring, I’m distracting you from what you really need ….” And I remember another night, in his arms, when he said, “I’m sorry I can’t be what you want 100% of the time –”
I said, fiercely, “You are what I want 100% of the time,” … it was true. But incomplete. We both knew it was incomplete.
There were a lot of great aspects of that relationship, but there were other problems too. In the end we broke up for unrelated reasons and it was for the best, but when I see him I’m still attracted, wildly attracted — indeed, when we’re both single, and we see each other, we usually end up in bed. And I think we’ll love each other, in some fashion, maybe forever.
After Andrew came a relationship like an inferno. I may not have had a connection so intense with anyone else in my life. With my next boyfriend, we started talking, suddenly we were hanging out all the time, suddenly I was telling him everything, and suddenly I was in love with him: the second-to-last time I said “I love you.” There were danger signs that would have made me pull back if he had been anyone else in the world (most importantly, he had a female best friend who was in love with him), but with him pulling back was unthinkable. Rationally I know there’s always a choice, but I want to say that I had no choice …. I almost kinda tried to protect myself — I remember telling him how afraid I was, and him ordering me to have faith in him. I remember kneeling beside him — he was sitting in a chair, he had his hand on my head. “I’m breaking her heart, but I know what I want,” he said, and I was afraid — no one can ever truly be so certain about what they want, I thought — I said nothing. But, “Say that you hear me,” he said softly, and I obeyed immediately: “I hear you.”
I’m being dramatic, but that’s how these things go; I can only compare him to natural phenomena: the total brilliance of a supernova or inferno. He challenged me in every single way. Often frustrating, yeah, but just as often exhilarating. He said he loved me, but he took it back later, and to this day I have no idea what the hell he felt for me. I only know that it seemed like he felt the same way — and his love, his sexual focus on me, was razor-edged, needle-pointed, sharp as a scalpel. Sometimes I breathe deeply, even now, remembering how much I would have bled for him.
Of course, he inevitably left me for the female best friend. And after that, I haven’t said “I love you” like I said it to him, though I said the words to one other man … and I feel guilty about it. After the inferno was when I really started taking myself seriously as a sex writer. I’d only dabbled in the BDSM community before; now I threw myself into it. I’d occasionally researched sexuality before; now I volunteered at sex museums and followed sexuality commentators. I ran sexuality events. I did tons of things I’d never done before. I had BDSM encounters with strangers, or in public, or with strangers in public. I had one or two relationships, even, but my heart was still in the inferno, and when one of my boyfriends said that he loved me I didn’t know what to do.
That boyfriend — the last time I said “I love you” — was a submissive. He had given so much of himself to me, put himself so totally in my hands — it was my first time in such a thoroughly dominant position and I felt like I owed him. He told me he loved me and then he was so anxious, so clearly unhappy that I hadn’t said it back — that anxiety was all over him every time I saw him. I told myself: Hey, you really like him, you really care about him, you basically love him, maybe not the way he means it, maybe not the way he’d take it if you said it, but anyway you could learn to love him the way he means it …. I couldn’t stand how much he seemed to need me to say it, and so I said it, and yes he calmed down but I knew I’d fucked up. Then, of course, in the end I had to own up to the disparity between our emotions, and probably that hurt him more than I ever would have if I’d been exact and hadn’t let myself get confused and hadn’t said it in the first place. Certainly, whether or not it hurt him more, it made me feel worse in the end.
So now, we’re here, today, in Africa, and Chastity Boy says that he loves me. The same three words pulse through me when I’m with him, but if I say it back, what does it mean?
Someone recently wrote to me for advice, and I can’t get their letter out of my head … (quotation posted with permission):
My partner isn’t 100% vanilla, [but] I’ve lately found myself looking back at the first guy I’ve had a more serious BD thing with years ago, and I really miss that rush. My current partner goes along sometimes just because he knows it makes me happy, but there is where the thrill dies. I love him and don’t want to end things with him. I wonder if there is some way that we can both be happy …. I feel so confused and lost.
My feelings for Chastity Boy aren’t like the inferno, but I think the inferno may be something that … doesn’t come very often. Aside from that …. Although CB is opening up sexually, very slowly (he’s got a lot less experience than me and significant boundaries to work with), it’s unlikely that he’s as anywhere near as kinky as I am. On the other hand, at least he doesn’t have a problem with me going and doing BDSM with other people …. And if I do say I love him, it’s not like I’m swearing to be with him forever; I’m just stating my current feelings, right? It’s not a trap in itself, it’s not a red herring in itself, and it doesn’t have to match every previous love I’ve felt, right? He knows the barriers to our future relationship, we’ve been honest about our future plans (mine: totally inchoate), he knows not to depend on me, right? Does it make sense for me to say it; can I trust myself that I mean it if I say it?
The other day CB looked at me intently, beautiful long blue eyes oblique as a cat’s, then looked away and said: “I’m totally in over my head.”
And what do I say to that?
* It’s possible that I should acknowledge my first real boyfriend first in this entry, the one I dated on and off for six years, the one I loved — and who’s a genuinely nice guy — and who loved me back — but with whom I had a really dysfunctional relationship. The one who once culminated an argument by snapping, in all seriousness: “I just want to feel like you love me more than you love yourself.” Oh, yes, I’m sure that relationship warped me in its own special way for the rest of my life. But it’s been a long time.