My S&M coming-out story — published at last

Clarisse Thorn's picture

“Time Out Chicago” has published my S&M coming-out story to their website. It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever written, at least on a personal level, and it’s a little strange to see it finally out there.

I wrote the first half — everything up to the line, “Still, for a moment I wished …” — in early 2006. I wrote it for catharsis more than anything else, though I did submit it to one venue for publication on a whim — but after I submitted, I sharply regretted it. I remember that I was totally terrified it would be accepted. What would it mean if I published something like that? At that point I had no real experience in the BDSM community; I was finally starting to break out of my near-continuous freakout from discovering my sexuality, but I was still drowning in stigma. And I’d simply never written anything so personal before. When I received the rejection letter, I felt the typical burn, but I also heaved a sigh of enormous relief.

I left the piece alone on my hard drive for a long time, healing and adjusting all the while. In late 2007 — towards the end of my relationship with Andrew — I decided to add the second half, though I had no real idea what I’d do with the finished product. I was living in a huge building with communal kitchens at the time, and I remember that at 2AM one morning I went downstairs for a bagel. In the kitchen I came upon another artist, a filmmaker. He’d been living there for months, but we hadn’t talked much. Still, in each other we instinctively recognized the stamp of late-night obsessive artistry. “You’re a writer, right?” he asked. “What are you working on?”

“I don’t talk about my work,” I said. He was very insistent, so I finally told him, “I’m working on my S&M coming-out story.” I figured that would shut him up, but it didn’t — he started wanting to read it. “I don’t talk about my work,” I said firmly, and left the kitchen with my bagel.

“Wait!” he shouted after me. “I’m not done with you yet!” I didn’t look back. A few minutes later, after I’d settled myself in my room — lying across my mattress on my stomach, reading a book — he showed up.

Unmoving, I rested my chin on my hands and looked up at him. He crossed his arms. “Send it to me,” he said. “You know you’re going to need feedback and criticism and stuff.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

A few weeks later, I finished the piece. Then I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while. Had there been any goal besides catharsis? What was I going to do with the damn thing? I couldn’t figure it out, so I sent it to the filmmaker.

He was a remarkable man. Is, I should say. He was the first reader of my coming-out story, and he sent me pages upon pages of the most brilliant critical feedback I’ve ever received. I was stunned when I read his emails — had I really been living with this guy for months? How had I failed to notice him? I think he, upon reading the piece, had a similar intense reaction; and his reaction helped convince me it was good. Maybe it was inevitable that we’d fall terribly in love. Or at least that I would fall for him. I owe him a lot; our relationship was confusing and dramatic and the breakup was awful, but when we were done, I found that he’d really helped release me from my remaining BDSM-stigmatizing patterns. That was when I established myself in the wider Chicago BDSM scene (I’d only made brief forays into various scenes before, usually in foreign cities), and began to volunteer at the Leather Archives. And soon after that I started the Sex+++ film series, and this blog.

After my experience with the filmmaker, I became nearly promiscuous with my coming-out story. I sent it to a lot of new partners so they’d have an idea where I was coming from, and I also showed it to number of friends for feedback. I considered publishing it in a feminist anthology. My comfort with sharing it skyrocketed. Indeed, as I finally started to seriously research the subject of SM, I discovered that pieces like mine are practically old hat — even “Ms. Magazine” will apparently publish “I freaked out about being a submissive feminist, but now it’s okay!” pieces.

So at this point, it’s nearly an anticlimax to have my coming-out story in public. No bated breath, no terror about what it means. Thank God.

I’m just coming home from a visit to Chicago, and towards the end of my visit I hung out with Richard. To me our relationship feels fragile and fraught, just as it always has, but maybe it is stronger than it was. He’s definitely a friend — a good one — and we’ve even continued to do BDSM together on a very occasional basis. He has joked that I call him whenever I break up with my boyfriends, which is kind of true.

He’s so smart, and he’s very interesting to talk to, and I am still attracted, but even though I’ve adjusted to my BDSM identity — even though I’m no longer so angry, or in denial, about my attraction to him — it can be hard to be around Richard. I sometimes feel as though we are still constantly renegotiating our relationship, even now. I remain afraid of emotionally attaching to him, although these days we can sit around and talk very openly for hours; although we’ve had a few, a very few, BDSM encounters in recent years that felt like there was no distance between us at all.

I sent Richard himself my coming-out story only about a year ago. It took some nerve, but not a lot — it had been such a long time since those events, and by then I’d already shown it to a number of people. At the time, he responded with a rather brief message, saying that it was interesting to get my perspective and that his own sense of that time had been very different. When we talked a few days ago, though, “Time Out” had just published and I got a better sense of Richard’s feelings. I guess the piece is a bit difficult for him — understandably; it’s not easy to see yourself at the center of someone else’s panicked and agonized identity crisis, especially when (he says) it wasn’t clear to him how I felt at the time.

I’ve often thought that of everything I’ve written in my life, this is probably the most unflattering to someone who’s important to me. I tried to be fair to Richard when I wrote it, and in fact — as I’ve aged and my perspective has evolved — it’s undergone a number of edits to make it fairer. But my coming-out story is about me and my panicked agonized identity crisis. It’s true that I don’t want to objectify him, but to some extent, that piece has to be about the way I experienced him. Not about him.

I’ve asked Richard to write something about how he felt when he read it, and maybe about our experiences together as well; I’d like to give my readership his perspective. He said he’d think about it. I really hope he takes me up on it.

Publishing this piece with “Time Out” is a personal triumph. It’s online, which means it’s widely available and I can link people to it whenever I want. It’s in a mainstream publication, which means that it might educate or assist people who’d be unlikely to encounter it in a feminist anthology or sex-positive site or whatever. It also marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful relationship with “Time Out”: we are negotiating the terms of a contract by which they intend to hire me as a freelance blogger. Basically this means that I’ll be writing the same stuff, but more frequently and probably in a more luser user-friendly way (like, I’ll probably start using pictures more and attempt to shorten my posts, though that’s hard for me). Not sure when that transition will happen — probably a month or two.

I’ve always got a backlog of ideas to post, and I’m reminded of some of them by my coming-out story. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about stigma: where did I absorb BDSM stigma? How does our culture express it? Why did I freak out so much about my desires when I live in a world where even “Cosmopolitan” winks about whip usage? I’ve also been meaning to write a piece about angles: I think our sexual desires are often, largely, defined not by the acts themselves, but the angles by which they come at us. What was the difference in slant between the man who tried to do light BDSM with me in 2003, and Richard? Was it Richard’s forcefulness, his greater grasp on dominant dynamics? How have my BDSM desires evolved since then? And what are the implications of these things?

But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do now that I’m back in Africa, too. It was a 40-hour journey. I am somewhat overwhelmed and jetlagged, and very hot. My trip to the USA was incredible — yet very hard, because it reminded me of all the things I miss (not many BDSM clubs in southern Africa). I have to settle in, get back into the swing of things here, and remind myself that I can survive without BDSM. We’ll see how that goes.

(Posted at Clarisse Thorn)

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I just wanted to congratulate you on the strength to do what you have done, I'm headed over right now to read your story :)

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