Inhibitions are life’s greatest obstacle to exploration. Push them aside, lift the veil, and you will undoubtedly find yourself.

    Curiosity carries with it a feeling of renewal. Yet the skid to the unknown can be nerve-wracking. The transition between what is imagined and the true image can be jarring. Your transition began on a dusky gravel road in the backcountry of rural America. You’d think such a tranquil landscape would not be of the beginning of your escapist, sexual endeavors. Rather, it calls to mind the benign, humble sort of going-about-your-business that the Midwest projects in droves. Yet, not tonight. Tonight was heading toward something foreign, fascinating, the rest of the iceberg beneath its tip.

    A brief bedroom encounter with your real first love led up to this moment. The two of you were bounded tightly with the strapped handcuffs placed around your wrists, Perhaps for the first time, you felt yourself let go. You had never experienced pain as a form of pleasure before: the tassels of a flog licking your skin, ice cubes beckoning your reaction as you felt the sensation of restraint, frigid lines drawn along the contours of your body. The biting, the pulsation, the rhythm, the relinquishing of control all added to both orgasm and a deepening, shared trust. You knew this was a new taste of sexuality that could not be ignored. You knew you wanted more.

    With this, the broad, winding world of BDSM opened to you. Multifaceted, the acronym generally stands for bondage, dominance, discipline, submission, sadism, and masochism. What fascinated you most was what lied behind the letters, the pushing of limitations as to what human sexuality can be, the means of pleasure and how it’s derived. You looked past the demonizing, the misrepresentation, and the pop culture horror stories of it all and realized it as both interpersonal and consensual. What most people fail to realize is the demons they make kinksters out to be are, in fact, extraordinarily human. These individuals relinquish the unhealthy suppression that coats the surface of a censored American lifestyle. They look within themselves, they create, they explore.

Levi, the main organizer of these local, Midwestern kinksters, some of Whom you’d already met, approached with a bear hug and a genuine grin. Your initial nerves turned into ease. This man carried with him a mellow sentiment, a contrast to the idea that BDSM lifestylers would somehow be dark, drony, and menacing.

    “My role as an organizer through BDSM helps my managerial experience. I need to present an event that allows people to feel safe, to feel welcomed, everything that’s necessary for them to come out of their shell,” he’d later tell you. He fielded all your questions at a muncheon the week prior, introducing you to a few tidbits of this brave, new, kinky world, crafting answers that made you feel comfortable, which was not expected in a conversation about BDSM. “It’s pretty forward. It’s off-putting for someone who’s not willing to introduce themselves on that level, like, ‘hello, friend! I am more willing to listen to the things you put up your butt than what you do occupationally,’” I remember him saying.

    Striding up to the main concourse was not unlike a picnic. There was Sinatra playing alongside a small tent city. A fire pit sat with carefully stacked logs; prepared to bring illumination after sundown. Tiki torches and a table filled with various forms of alcohol sat adjacent. This was no sex dungeon. It was a friendly and inviting scene that might as well have been a Memorial Day cookout.

    New faces slowly waltzed into the domain, friendly faces with exuberant personalities and stories to tell. Adventurous couples, polyamorous, dynamic lovers, solo goers, and good companions were all characters in tonight’s action. Your conversational skills were, admittedly, a tad awkward. The alcohol and their kindness helped relax the tautness a bit, and you brandished the most confident foot forward you could muster while waiting for the sun to descend behind a rippling pond.

As the night fell, so did the clothes. Women donned their breasts unabashedly. Humans of all kinds relinquished their garments and exuded true freedom. There were no judgements, nor unwanted approaches, just the pouring of alcohol and raucous laughter. Rather than genitalia being thrown in your face, it was quality and curious conversation.

    It was at this point that you still couldn’t shake your nerves. Levi pulled you aside. “What is it you’re anxious about?” he asked. Your apprehension was caused by feeling naive, and therefore being behind on the conversation, you explained to him. In the way, only a whimsical personality could, he asked aloud to some standing nearby:

    “We have a new dom here, and we want to show him a proper paddling!”

 

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    Two women volunteered, and the bonfire turned to gather around the demonstration. You watched as they bared their cheeks while on their hands and knees, four full moons below the waning gibbous in the sky. Levi pulled out a paddle, roughly a foot long, and established the safe word system, based on green, yellow, and red. Green meant, “I love it, keep doing what you’re doing.” Yellow: “This is getting close to my boundaries.” Red: “I’ve had enough, and I’m out for the count.”

    It began, and in your first time seeing such a practice, you had to admit you rather liked it. It was impact, but it was not threatening. More than anything, it was an electric sort of buzz. The women flinched with each strike, but it was out of pleasure, and they made it known. Afterward, he demonstrated the need for soft rubbing, as to soothe the nerves that had taken the paddle. This was an example of aftercare, or tending to the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of one’s partner after a scene, which varies based on the individual. It was amusing, turned you on to the dominant side of things, and perhaps the most tantalizing bit of it all was that it was pleasurable to all parties involved.

     The night continued. There were further instances of paddling and play, of orgasm and verbalized pleasure, of dominance and submission. A respect for one another permeated the extremely liberated atmosphere. Things were uninhibited, like the lax deflation that comes after a cold drink. You talked for hours, fireside, to kinksters who spoke loquaciously and honestly. Around this time, your curiosities began to find answers.

Control

“In BDSM, I’m able to release, and let go, just be submissive,” a man named Taylor explained. “To be able to let go, especially in an environment where it’s hard to let go, is big. I’ve seen many people who run companies submit in a BDSM setting, because that’s their only way to release. At the same time, I have seen people that I thought were a bottom control many people with ease. That’s their way of control; that’s the way they’re taking their power back.”

    You notice a prominent theme of empowerment. Control, consent, and clarity are present for all parties involved. Levi expounded further: “Within the BDSM community, you have the stereotype that your subs are people who are in positions of power,” he elaborated. “It’s because within their vanilla lifestyle, they’re unable to give up power. They have to micromanage every aspect of their life… And so to be bent over and be spanked, or what have you, until their dom is satisfied, is their source of enjoyment as a person. So to say a submissive is weak is inaccurate because within every realm of their vanilla life, and when I say vanilla I mean every aspect of their social life that the public sees is a controlling or dominant individual.”

    Raymond, a dom, relayed his perspective on the correlation between control and bodily autonomy. “It’s almost a form of rebellion for some people, a radical form of self-control. Your body, and actually your mind, are controlled 40, 50, 60 hours a week by someone else. What you think, or what you’re supposed to think is fed to you by the media, by religion, by politicians. Then someone can say, ‘I don’t care what someone thinks; this is what I’m going to do with my body, my mind, my spirit, myself, with another person, with four other people.’ And it’s basically a rebellion against those structures that make people feel stifled. We have more freedom now then, let’s say, 100-200 years ago. We have more access to information, but people are still very constrained in many ways. So I think for some people it’s a way to take ownership of that.”

Pushing Limits

    Raymond continued, bringing to light another means of finding one’s pleasure. “I think there’s an aspect of it that’s also about pushing boundaries. Many people do this by climbing mountains, or skydiving, or some other extreme activity. And then there are people who involve other people through BDSM.”

    Finding new limits also expanded beyond solely physical sensations, he explained. “At a certain point there was a movement, a culture movement, a clerical movement, where it became that who you are is a fixed thing, and people start to see themselves as, ‘I’m this one thing and this is who I am, and it can’t and doesn’t change’ and I don’t really associate with that belief. I don’t think it’s a healthy idea to be all over the place, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that, at different times and different contexts, you reflect yourself differently, you manifest yourself differently, and it’s better than feeling like you’re locked in this rigid ego.

    “What that says to me about humanity is that when you have an extreme experience, including near-death experiences, it can help push you to a different mindset. And so for people who can go into that mindset in a controlled way, I think is a really powerful thing; certainly for the partner receiving, but for both partners.”

Sex work is my job. I sit there and do it to get paid, but it’s fun, it’s liberating.

Liberation

    Though BDSM is central to the sexuality of some, there are those who differentiate between the world of kink and other aspects of their sex lives. Iona, a self-proclaimed sex worker, explained how both worlds represented contrasting means of finding freedom within her. “I would consider them two different universes for me. Sex work is my job. I sit there and do it to get paid, but it’s fun, it’s liberating. Then I come out here to the BDSM scene for…impact play, fire play, certain things like that. I feel like that’s more freeing, because it’s not something that’s expected of me. This of my own free volition and will, something that I want. But they’re both very freeing at the same time. With camming, people want to see it, and I like doing it. So it’s enjoyable in that sense of, ‘well you like it, I’m happy. It’s enjoyable.’ But BDSM is my universe, where it’s my control. Nobody gets to tell me what’s right and wrong, no one tells me what to do.”

    Then someone asked the question: what changes would this lifestyle would undergo should society attain sexual liberation? Gerald, a dom who also happened to be a sociologist, weighed in. “BDSM would look a little different because a large part of it, from what I’ve seen of the culture, is a certain sense of taboo. That aspect of it alone has its own emotional appeal.

    “In a world that’s more accepting of sexuality, this [bonfire] would be a lot more of what kink would look like, whereas  the idea of the dungeon, or a particular hidden space,  is more attuned to a concept of sex being taboo, and being something that needs to be hidden in some way.”

Respect for Partners

    Every individual is more than a sexual object, even in the world of BDSM. This was also a common theme woven throughout the night’s anecdotes. “Treat every person that you want to play with as a person,” Levi pointed out. “You’ll see a lot of third-party people who are like, ‘me and my boyfriend,’ or, ‘me and my girlfriend are looking for a third to join us to fulfill their fantasy, or my fantasy.’ When you do this, you have stopped viewing whoever your partner is as a person. You’re now viewing them as a sexual vending machine.”

Empowerment Through Education

    Even if someone does not find a home in the BDSM world, the lessons derived from the explorative experience itself are valuable. Raymond iterated this point. “The lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but everyone can learn something, whether it’s learning new ways of looking at relationships, of expressing yourself physically, new ideas about consent and how to attract other people, or how to structure relationships. Everyone can find something that they might enjoy, even if the whole experience might be overwhelming for them.”

    As the night wound down, you experienced a sense of fulfillment that had once been a deep yearning, and it was derived from sharing company in an intimate space without unneeded layers or placations. At one point in the evening, a serendipitous group hug occurred, a unifying embrace among strangers and friends alike, some half-naked, one completely, and others full clothed. Yet, there was not an iota of discomfort. You came to understand in that moment that this community was love. There was both recognition of each other’s humanity and a total acceptance of the human figure itself, contrasting how society views the nude body: as obscene. This, “taboo” was perhaps the most normal you’d ever felt. This was learning; this was a wholesome expansion of experience.

    “In the world of BDSM, you have to talk, educate, experience, grow,” Iona said. “You meet people that are like-minded. They may not have the same kinks, but everybody understands. These are things we like to do, things we like to experience, and how else are you going to experience those things unless you’re around people that understand and want to do it too?”

    You gazed at the slowly burning embers of the bonfire, reflecting as the sky began to paint itself in daylight. In that moment of quiet, something Taylor said earlier echoed through your mind.

    “You can find power in BDSM,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with exploring a side of you that you never really understood. As long as you and the partners involved are happy with what’s going to happen, don’t let society tell you anything different.”

Disclaimer: names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.