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Violence in the Garden

Author: Polly Peachum

Filed in: submission, feminism, feminist

From, a now defunct website.

After being approached by a well known Third Wave feminist author who saw some of her work in the USENET news group, Polly Peachum wrote Violence in the Garden for inclusion in a collection of Third Wave feminist essays. The book's stated purpose was to demonstrate that women can be feminists while also living lives that appear incompatible with traditional feminist principles. While the editor of the book loved the article and called it one of the strongest pieces in the collection, she decided, under the influence of other doctrinaire feminists, not to include it because the life and ideas it describes are too controversial (or "sick," as one of her advisors put it) and would turn unwanted media attention on that single essay instead of on her book as a whole. Apparently, women whose life styles resemble Polly's are not worthy of notice, let alone defense, by mainstream feminists.

The locus of fantasy of a lucky man holds no robots; of a lucky woman, no predators; they reach adulthood with no violence in the garden.
--Naomi Wolf (1)


We have an indoor cat, and so each morning, as a special treat, I carry our little gray tiger in my arms as I walk through the wildly disorganized jungle that my neighbors mistakenly call their garden. As I take my tom along paths lined with flowers almost a foot taller than I am, beside a dark stand of pines, and back around the magnolia tree and through the weedy grass to the struggling tomato patch, I often find myself daydreaming about who or what might be hidden in the vegetation, watching me with hungry eyes. In my "unlucky" imagination, the dark, fertile garden is populated with predators. Behind every bush, lurking just out of sight within the shadows, is someone stronger and more brutal than I, someone who will overpower me and bend me to his will, someone who will cruelly torture or humiliate me just to see me blush, whimper, or scream with pain.

It is a wonderful, thrilling daydream, and I live a less feral version of it in my daily life. I spend my life as a full-time slave within a heterosexual sadomasochistic relationship. To many, I know that this must make me seem to be a self-destructive, abuse-loving victim. That view is neither right nor fair. My jungle daydreams (and my hard-core reality) represent the living out of sexual desires that are for me far more positive than--albeit radically different from--what most people consider to be healthy or even sane.

I am not alone in having these kinds of dreams. According to a study mentioned by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth (2), Dr. E. Hariton finds that 49 percent of American women studied have submissive fantasies. Like me, they have dreams of being captured, spanked and whipped, controlled, used like a toy. But because sexual dominance, submission, and sadomasochism in general are looked upon with horror and distaste in mainstream society, most people with submissive sexual fantasies, women or men, stop at the level of fantasy. I have chosen, however, to turn my fantasies into reality, and in doing so, I have made my most cherished dreams come true. I believe myself to be the happiest and most fulfilled person I know. I am certain that I owe my happiness to one simple fact: I have pursued and embraced my deepest desires instead of ignoring them. I have become the person whom I feel I was always meant to be, the person I needed to be. I am reasonably unconflicted, reasonably at peace with myself, and vibrantly alive. I have accepted my passion for submission absolutely as the healthy, life-affirming, and wondrous choice that it is for me. In the six years during which I have been living the dream, I have never once regretted my choice or cursed my perverse desires. In fact, I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people alive.

I suspect that many women must see me as a downtrodden tool, duped by a man into doing what women have done for men in most cultures from time immemorial: serving, obeying, and sexually servicing them. I see myself, in contrast, as a conscious, intelligent, and intrepid individual who has dared to do what few women attempt: I have taken an enormous risk, rejected almost everything that the organs of society have told me should make me happy, and deliberately pursued that which I knew inside would actually make me most happy. And I have succeeded.

My success was hard won and all the more dear to me for that. No one in this culture grows up being told that being a slave is a good thing. No one is encouraged to become a servant or praised for her subservience. If you are a child with such desires, you learn to keep them from your parents. As you grow older, you hide them from your playmates. And if you, like me, reached puberty in a time of growing feminist consciousness, you may even have learned to keep them from yourself. But in the end, hiding your true sexual desires from yourself never works. Like the proverbial bad penny, one's sexuality always comes back from whatever faraway land it's been banished to and must, sooner or later, be consciously dealt with, even if the conscious decision that results is to be aware of but to ignore one's urges.

Many of the women who, like myself, have gone beyond the fantasies and are active submissives struggle with the apparent contradiction of these desires with what society at large--and some doctrinaire feminists--tells us is good for our mental and emotional health. Resolving this contradiction is central to our sense of self-worth and humanity. Is what sadomasochists do, think, or desire wrong, as so many would certainly demand? If so, why do we want it so badly?

The emotional and intellectual conflicts that a submissive must resolve while learning to accept herself involve a wide range of issues beyond the core question of Am I sick? These are questions such as Must I repress parts of my personality in order to be a submissive? Can I ever get angry? How I can I take pride in myself as a strong woman and as a feminist if I am always at my master's beck and call? In my selfish desire for sexual satisfaction, am I perpetuating violence against women? What happens if I am ordered to do something I really fear or hate and I am incapable of doing it? I may believe that my desires are OK, but how can I live with other women's hatred of what I represent and--even worse--their pity for me?

The reality of my life is deeply shocking to most people. Among active submissives, I belong to the rare subset that lives the dream 24 hours a day, absolutely and completely, without breaks, time-outs, or respites. In the sadomasochistic subculture, this is referred to as life-style submission. Since the moment I gave myself away to another, I have taken my slavery very seriously. It is as real to me as if it were legally sanctioned, perhaps realer, as many legal slaves refused to consider themselves as owned chattel. Although no court would uphold my master's ownership of me, I consider our master-slave relationship to be far more binding than any legal document, because we decided together that we would both make it so. When I gave myself away to my master, it was with the explicit understanding that I would not be able to leave the relationship no matter how much I might later want to. In our arrangement, only he has the power to dissolve the bond of ownership, and this will remain true no matter how unhappy I might become. I have not once in six years become so miserable that I have wanted to leave. If I should feel that way at some point in the future, however, my master has promised me that he will carefully observe me and our relationship and try to resolve its difficulties for a long period in order to determine if leaving is really the best thing for me. If, after many months of careful observation, he believes that my unhappiness with him or with the relationship is a permanent condition that could not be fixed by either of us, he will release me. But he will not release me from slavery to him immediately if I should express such a desire. I cannot just walk out of the relationship. If I did, he and I both know he would have every right to get me back by whatever means he could, as I really belong to him absolutely, and not just when it is convenient for me to belong to him.

Although relationships like mine are not unique, in many other power relationships that I have observed, the couple does not take this aspect of ownership to the extreme that we have. The concept in these relationships is that the slave is continually giving her slavery to her master. That "gift" is constantly renewed with every moment and can be taken back by her whenever she wishes. Doing this would probably end the relationship, but ultimately both partners want the slave to have the final say, the final veto, and ultimately, absolute power. To me, such a relationship would be a sham, much as a child's "let's play house" game is an inconsequential and unreal imitation of an actual family, with all of its moral responsibilities and legal obligations. I would never have consented to such a sham slavery. Yes, certainly, I could gather up our little cat and then drive off in the car, never to return voluntarily, but the truth is that I will not, ever, do this. I have committed myself to being this man's slave for as long as he should want me to be, and that commitment, that decision to give myself away, is sacred to me. In a culture where marriages, the priesthood, and other commitments that are supposed to be permanent and sacred are broken as easily as we change our minds about what to wear to work, many people find this concept of absolute dedication difficult to understand or to credit; they don't believe that it really works. But I know myself to be a person capable of keeping such a commitment, and so does my master, and that's all that matters. The opinions of others on the actuality of my slavery have about as much affect on it as a swarm of suicidal moths has on the ability of a campfire to stay lit. The moths' effect, if any, is--in a very small way--to feed the flames of my dedication.

My life with my master is very tightly controlled. I must try to obey every order given to me, and on the few occasions when I disobey, I am severely punished. My actions are not my own, except during those limited times when my owner allows me to act freely (for example, he has given me permission to write for this publication; had he refused me permission, you would not now be reading this). My dreams are not my own, nor are my thoughts: I must reveal them to my master upon demand.

All the money I make is immediately turned over to my master, and he decides how or when it is spent. Likewise, all my former personal property, everything I used to call my own, now belongs to him. I must get permission for all major actions and for many trivial ones. For example, if I want to buy a new suit or take a new work contract (as a high-tech consultant, I do projects for a variety of clients), I have to get his permission. At home and often when I am away, if I want to use the bathroom, I must again get permission. I am not allowed to leave the bed at night without permission; in fact, I am tied each evening to the bed by a rope attached to a collar. If I am invited out for drinks or dinner by someone I work with, I must get permission, and often orders are given about the quantity and kinds of food and drink that I may consume. My owner requires me to do most of the housework, to exercise regularly, and to come immediately when he commands, no matter what else I might be involved with. Spankings, whippings, and other physical "abuse" are a recurring part of my life.

Although I am bound by the many rules that control my behavior, my everyday life, on the surface, resembles most people's. I keep my sexuality absolutely hidden at work, and while the occasional perceptive coworker will guess that my partner is "controlling," that's as far as it ever goes. We are "out" as master and slave only to other sadomasochists and to those very few of our straight friends and acquaintances whom we trust. Although this is not so for my master, I have discovered that the only people I really want to become good friends with these days are people who share my sexual practices. Submission is such a big part of my life that friendships in which that aspect of myself must be hidden feel incomplete, almost dishonest. My master is out to the immediate members of his family; I am not out to mine, primarily because I am estranged from them and cannot trust them. I left my family and my friends behind when I moved across the country to live with my master, and since the move, sadly, I have acquired many acquaintances but no close friends (it is difficult enough to find good friends when you have all of humanity to choose from; when you limit your selection pool to a small fraction of that, the search for simpatico people takes much longer). Although I am actively searching for new friends, I have resigned myself to the idea that this search may very well take years, if not decades.

Despite the fact that I am searching for my friends among other sadomasochists, I have a suspicion that the friendships I do form someday will probably be with sexually conventional people who have the understanding and compassion necessary to accept me as I am. The other kinky people that I meet are often disappointing because it so often turns out that the only thing we have in common is what we do for erotic excitement, and that is never enough to base a friendship on.

My relationship with my master is able in many ways to compensate for my lack of close friends. Unlike the cold and forbidding routines which are so often the lot of fantasy slaves in erotic literature, our everyday life is full of intimate, loving rituals, combined with a dash of sadism to keep things interesting. On an average morning, I am awakened by my master at the time he decides I should get up, usually between 5:30 and 6:30 am, even on weekends. I tell him my dreams from the night before, and, as I am usually still half-asleep after this recital, he lets me "float" for a few minutes before untying me from the bed and sending me off to use the bathroom. Our morning wake-up routine includes a number of other activities which we do purely for fun: an in-bed wrestling match, a morning song, a wake-up spanking, and a head over heels "airplane ride." I then go to make breakfast, collect the newspapers, and take my little cat for his garden walk. After a leisurely breakfast, I clean up the dishes and do some other morning chores. With those out of the way, my master has a brief planning conference with me to discuss what I must accomplish that day. During these conferences with my master, as with all our conversations, I am allowed--in fact, encouraged--to make any comments or suggestions that I wish, but the final decision on what I actually do that day rests with him. If I am working on contract, I either dress and go to the client's or go into our home office to begin my work. If I am not working that day, what I do depends upon what my master wants to get done and also on what I would like to do. I may run errands, I may clean house, I may write email to my electronic pen pals, or I may simply settle down in an easy chair with a good novel. Like conventional couples, we take vacations to the mountains or the shore. The crucial difference between what I do on an average day and what a person living a conventional life does is not in the kinds of things that I do but in the fact that whatever the activity, I must first get my master's OK. Another difference is that, when I am at home, whether working or playing, my master will interrupt my activities many times during the day with orders for me: to get him lunch, to fetch him something from another room, to listen to him read me a news story, to have another planning conference, to bend over and be caned, and so on. It could be anything. At night, after dinner is cleaned up and all my evening chores are finished, we will often do something together before bedtime, such as watch a TV show or play a game of cribbage or backgammon--or something more intensely sadomasochistic. When it is time for bed, I participate in another set of playful rituals. Just before lights out, I am tied to the bed and blindfolded. I am usually sound asleep within 10 minutes.

My tightly structured life with its heavy workload and the never-ending requirement to obey may seem intolerable to most people, but I reap many rewards from it. I am madly in love with my master and he with me: he understands my special needs and complements them perfectly. Within this relationship exists a level of intimacy that I haven't experienced anywhere else. It is so comforting to be able to tell--in fact, to be required to tell--one's darkest secrets to someone else: someone else knows all of this; I am not alone. My master is a gentle and compassionate dominant, and there is a strong healing aspect to our relationship. He supports me, builds me up, makes me feel good about myself, but never lies to me. I have absolute trust in him. I find that the longer I live with him and the better I know him, the more time I want to spend with him.

No matter how benign the rule, no matter how eroticized the physical pain, the question remains, however, of why anyone would subject herself to outrageous violations of her personal freedom. Part of the explanation is purely sexual: giving away control, having no say in the major or trivial decisions that affect me, provides me with a continuous low level of erotic excitement. I am always slightly turned on. Beyond that, most life-style submissives, including myself, include something that I think of as a "service ethic" in their personalities. I long to serve. I love to bring my master pleasure by doing his bidding. At no time in my life have I been unaware of that service ethic.

As important for most of us female submissives as the joy of service is intimacy: experiencing extremes of pain and humiliation at the hands of one's dominant creates an intensely intimate bond. This person can do anything to me. I have absolutely no defenses against him. My soul is stripped bare and on display before him. This intimacy is frightening in its intensity. The trust required to experience it is prodigious. But submissives who have felt it within the context of total powerlessness describe it in ecstatic, almost mystical, terms. For us, the admission price of fear and vulnerability is well worth paying for a ticket to heaven on Earth.

These are some of the general features of submission valued by myself and other submissives. But just what a submissive feels, what turns her on, surprises many people. The tediously conventional answer, often said with a snicker in the voice, is "whips and chains," but for me, the richly idiosyncratic sensations, fantasies, and impressions that excite my erotic imagination and bring my submissiveness to the fore are practically endless in their variety. They include the intoxicating smell of new leather; the sight of someone dressed entirely in black; the thrilling touch of cold steel restraints against my skin; watching a pair of gloves being slowly drawn on; the pungent and humiliating taste of my own juices on a pair of fingers being forced into my mouth; hard, sharp sounds, such as a club coming in contact with a golf ball, which remind me of wood or leather being brought sharply to bear against flesh; the terrifying sensation of blood trickling down the back of my leg; the vision of someone slapping a riding crop rhythmically against his hand; the acidic taste of fear accompanied by a crazy leaping sensation in the stomach; the intent eagle-like expression found in the eyes of certain dominants; a slap on the face; a hand at my throat, gently squeezing, threatening; the sight of a needle as it passes through skin; the unique sensation of lying on the floor with a boot pressing down on my head; an intense, embarrassing, goose-bumpy awareness of one's nakedness in front of a group of fully clothed people; being forced to kneel, crawl, or grovel; being forced to assume the classic slave position of head to the floor, bottom raised to expose the buttocks and genitals for my dominant's amusement; an inability to catch my breath and an aching pain in my mouth that come from giving forced oral pleasure; the sound of my beloved's laughter in response to my screams of agony; the close embrace of a locking steel collar around my neck; the taste of a leather whip that is shoved against my lips to be kissed or licked. The life of a life-style submissive at its best is a low-level--and often not so low-level--phantasmagoria of erotic stimulation, profound intimacy, and intense awareness of specialness.

Such a life, obviously, is not lived unexamined. The questions that submissive women ask themselves, the internal colloquies which they engage in, arise from the cultural sea which surrounds them: the submissive's questions are the inverted accusations of society. But are these accusations fair, or do they embody myths that most people believe simply because it seems the right or obvious thing to do? The myths themselves must be examined. Do the assumptions made by conventional society about submissives match the submissives' personal experiences? The motives of those who publicize myths and negative attitudes about submissive sexuality must also be examined by the female submissive in search of her own acceptance of her needs.

The mythic female submissive is weak, unable or unwilling to make decisions, because she does not want to bear the normal burdens and responsibilities that other adults bear, or because of a pathological need to be dependent upon the dominant. She and her dominant are said to form a particularly violent and sickly codependent relationship.

As is often the case with popular beliefs about people or things we are uncomfortable with, the belief in the weak female submissive is often the exact opposite of the reality. In fact, most people would be incapable of full-time, life-style submission no matter how much they might desire it, because they simply don't have the strength of personality required. Most people, when they think of a submissive, picture a rubber-willed, weak little doormat whom everyone, not just a particular dominant, can walk all over. The truth is that while there are certainly some weak submissives, who fit the rubber-mat profile, there are also many weak people involved in conventional, non-kinky relationships. Self-destructive people exist--period. Some are drawn to sadomasochism, most not, but they will go wherever they must to find affirmation of their worthlessness.

Weak individuals are a minority among conscious female submissives and are especially rare in life-style, permanent relationships, for a number of interrelated reasons. Most important among them is that people involved in life-style submission tend to take their sexuality and their potential partners very seriously. A lot of careful evaluation goes on, both by the submissive and by the dominant, before a union, especially a permanent union, is formed. It would be awfully hard for a weak or self-destructive individual to hide such tendencies from an experienced dominant, as signs of pathologically low self-esteem are one of the primary traits that an experienced dominant looks for--in order to avoid--when getting to know a submissive woman (healthy male dominants avoid self-destructive submissives because dominants are interested only in an actual exchange of power, and power is not something that a self-destructive submissive has much of to exchange). Successful life-style relationships require a measure of strength and unselfish giving that a person obsessed with getting her negative sense of herself confirmed has no energy for nor interest in. Absolutely sincere obedience, the kind that resonates in the soul as the required action is performed, is rare and, even if you have a knack for it, is extremely difficult to cultivate. Only an individual with a good grasp of her own strengths and a positive opinion of her abilities is capable of learning obedience in the form required in an absolute master-slave sadomasochistic relationship. Only a very strong and stubborn personality will have the ability to stick with it when the going gets rough: when she doesn't want to obey or when orders are given in a humiliating fashion, perhaps in front of others whom she wishes to impress with her independence.

Another feature of the weak-submissive stereotype is that submissives "escape" into a life-style relationship in order to avoid adult responsibilities and decision-making. I can't speak for all life-style submissives, but I certainly didn't volunteer for a lifetime of slavery out of a need to have my decision-making taken away from me. I was 30 years old, had been living on my own and making decisions for over 12 years, and was having not the slightest trouble fending for myself before I became involved with my master. In fact, giving up decision-making was particularly difficult for me. I was used to making decisions in my personal relationships. I was used to being among people who liked me to make the decisions, and I had grown to trust my own judgment. Trusting someone else to make decisions about the relationship, let alone about me, that are as good as or better than my own was very difficult to do, and only lengthy experience with someone who actually is as competent as myself has eased my mind in this area.

(Closely connected with the stereotype of a submissive as a weak doormat is the image of the dominant as a manipulative, selfish, and immoral predator on weak people: a person who cannot form a relationship with someone his equal. While some people are attracted to the dominant role out of personal insecurity, out of the belief that the only way they can attract and hold a woman is by dominating her, successful life-style dominants do what they do out of a deep wellspring of confidence which tells them that what they do is profoundly right: that this is what they were meant to do. It is a mirror image of the submissive's feeling of being "home." Experienced members of the S&M communities know how to differentiate between a wannabe dominant doing it for all the wrong reasons and the real McCoy. Insecure people who are not really dominant show numerous clues, and these traits can be spotted by experienced submissives, just as experienced dominants can spot individuals with severe self-esteem problems posing as submissives.)

A crucial question about ourselves that most female submissives must contend with, and a particularly important one for feminists, is whether we, in our selfish desire for bizarre sexual satisfaction, are perpetuating violence against women. Sadomasochistic sex is commonly seen as ritualized violence: impersonal, brutal, dehumanizing, and objectifying. It is said to perpetuate hostility toward women and to turn the paradigm of loving, intimate relationships on its head. It is seen by many as amplifying power inequalities between men and women and promoting a form of sex that is cold and emotionally distant. These ideas are multifarious and must be looked at piece by piece.

Does conscious submissiveness have anything to do with cultural inequality between the sexes? It doesn't seem so to me. On the Internet, the international computer network, is a section where people can post personal ads for those interested in sadomasochistic sex. Typically, the posters of such ads reveal their dominant or submissive orientations. Most messages posted here are from submissive men looking for dominant women. (This is not definitive information, of course. Many factors affect the willingness to search publicly for sexual partners. But the reality as represented on the Internet does not support the idea that the roles played in sadomasochistic sex reinforce sexual stereotypes--nor does any other available information.)

According to Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission (3), "Sexuality theorists traditionally have held that men are more likely than women to have sadistic sexual fantasies...that women are more likely than men to have masochistic fantasies. No evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, supports these conjectures. Indeed, submissive men are the single largest component of the [sadomasochistic] communities, and widespread male interest in submission is an observable phenomenon." Some of the belief that female submissiveness perpetuates stereotyped sex roles and violence against women is no doubt rooted in confusion about violence. Those who believe in the perpetuation myth assert that when one person hits another person hard enough to cause pain, this physical act, irrespective of whether the person being hit has asked the hitter to do so and is taking great pleasure and satisfaction from it, is violence in the same sense as a rape or mugging or spousal abuse. Neither the intent of the person being "abused" nor that of the "abuser" matters at all. But what about the submissive woman who eroticizes pain and force? If these are things that she wants, that affirm her from day to day and raise her to ecstasy at times, can they in any way be compared to the brutal violence forced on a desperate and unintentionally helpless victim?

The belief that female submissives take part in relationships that are impersonal and dehumanizing is particularly appalling. Those who so believe tend to be individuals who have no experience with female submissives or with sadomasochistic relationships. Some experience with such people and relationships would teach them that the people in long-term sadomasochistic relationships tend to be those with considerable conventional sexual experience who find it lacking in intimacy and intense personal communication (for example, I had a small number of short relationships, one 12-year relationship with a man, and one relationship of two years with a woman before I became an active sadomasochist). Submissive women generally find that sadomasochistic sex allows a deeply felt intimacy and closeness that conventional sex doesn't approach. The "consensual nonconsensuality" that is central to conscious sadomasochistic relationships requires a profound and even radical level of honesty and communication between dominant and submissive if it is to function successfully. Successful sadomasochists have learned to practice this hothouse honesty as a matter of course. Submissives who are unwilling to share what they really feel or who are actively dishonest as the whip falls or as the humiliation commences are avoided by experienced dominants and, in any event, generally fail as submissives (similarly, dominants who are dishonest and uncommunicative are dangerous and tend to fail as active dominants). Trust and honesty, the cornerstones of intimacy, may exist in a conventional sexual relationship, but nothing within the dynamics of such a relationship requires them in any high degree of either individual. Because these qualities are mandatory among successful practitioners in conscious sadomasochistic relationships, impersonality in such relations is simply impossible. Similarly, dehumanization, although it is often used by dominants as a technique to produce erotic fervor in a submissive during sex, dooms a life-style sadomasochistic relationship to an early end if it is a reflection of the actual attitude of either partner.

Yet despite the reality of being a female submissive, so much warmer and fuzzier than suspected by the unknowing, requiring such self-confidence and emotional strength, so exquisitely fulfilling, virtually every female submissive struggles, sometimes recurringly, with the question of whether her sexual and social tastes reflect serious pathology, perhaps involved with early physical or sexual abuse. I have certainly struggled with that idea.

Someone who knows my tastes and attitudes very well once gave me a little button that reads, "I've been reduced to THIS!" I like it very much, but I'd like to modify the button a little to make it read: "I've always wanted to be reduced to THIS!" as this wording aptly describes the story of my life.

I don't know if I was always submissive, but some of my first memories, beginning at age five, involve submissive acts and thoughts. I was the little girl who always wanted to serve the other kids I played with. I remember games in which I pushed my sisters around in a little toy wagon to the point of my own exhaustion, while thinking all the time of how comfortable they were and how much fun they were having thanks to my toils. I loved being able to be of service to them. With my parents I felt similarly but much more strongly. I glowed when they gave me things to do to help them around the house, and I accepted most punishments, when they came, with unquestioning obedience. Punishment held, even at that age, a distinctly erotic thrill. I was being physically corrected by someone stronger and wiser than myself, and that was not only just and right but also terribly exciting.

As I grew, I started to have explicitly erotic submissive fantasies: I'd make up stories about being a captive or a servant, forced to do extremely embarrassing things and endure painful punishment from those older and stronger than myself. These fantasies always excited me: they never made me feel evil or guilty. I think I assumed that all little kids dreamed of being chased naked in a circus arena by a swarm of bees trying to fly up their bottoms as the crowd laughed uproariously at such a shameful and painful predicament.

Around the age of nine, I tried consciously to engage the children I played with in master-slave games in which I, naturally, was always the slave. But while most kids loved the novelty of being the master, of being in charge of someone for a change, I seldom found any playmates who liked the game after the first few times we played it. I, of course, could play it all day if they cooperated, and I felt titillated while obeying my Lord's or Lady's increasingly outrageous demands. Paradoxically, when I actually learned some facts about sex in my early teens, the constant and powerful sadomasochistic themes that had pervaded my childhood faded into the background. Perhaps this was because I was too busy trying to learn what to do on a date; perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I, a voracious reader, had discovered feminist literature at the tender age of 13, literature which strongly suggested that fantasies along these lines were not appropriate. Whatever the reason, my submissive urges became, at puberty, much less conscious than before, only emerging at night, as an accompaniment to masturbation. But even at those times, I did not associate these fantasies with myself or my needs; they were just something I did while jerking off.

For years my sexual fantasies and inclinations went consciously unexamined, at least by myself. At age 17, an older acquaintance gave me a copy of Story of O (4), the classic sadomasochistic novel of the 20th century, to read, saying simply, "I think you'll find this interesting." I devoured the book, and it formed the basis for my fantasies for years to come, but I smothered any speculation about why she might have given me that book. I simply did not want to think about it. In retrospect, my denial seems amusing and also understandable. Try to imagine a precocious teenager taking community college classes and living with two male graduate students 10 years her senior. A true child of the Seventies, her curriculum includes a women's-studies class taught by a lesbian and a touchy-feelie human-sexuality class, in which sadomasochism is mentioned briefly in a five-minute talk about variations and fetishes and then never brought up again. Yet she comes home each night and spends 40 to 60 minutes kneeling on a hardwood floor at the foot of a bed, massaging her politically correct, ecologically conscious, and sex-role-sensitive roommate's feet, until he falls asleep! And the time she spends doing this is the most thrilling, exciting, and intimate part of her day. Once again, in a limited and socially acceptable way, I got to relive those thrilling times in childhood when serving gave me such pleasure. But sexual submission was just not something related to me. I did not reject it; I simply did not think about it--except as a nighttime fantasy.

I did nothing more about my fantasies till six years later, when, at the age of 23, I tried to spice up a five-year relationship by telling my boyfriend incidents from Story of O while straddling him during our lovemaking. He became so turned on by my stories that, to my great delight, he surprised me one day by tying my arms to a hook in our dorm-room ceiling. He then beat the living daylights out of me with a switch he had cut outdoors, degraded me, and attempted anal sex with me. This first genuine experience with forced submission thrilled me to my core, but the next morning, when my boyfriend saw the bruises on my hips and buttocks, he was absolutely appalled. His guilt at having caused these marks to appear on his lover's flesh prevented him from ever doing anything that "sick" with me again, despite my assertions that I had loved it.

Once again, my awareness of my submissive desires seemed to go underground, but they never were quite as buried as before. During the six years that I spent with my boyfriend after that one submissive experience, I'd listen to music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Eurhythmics and actively fantasize about being captured, beaten and abused, and made into someone's masochistic plaything. But I took no action.

An awareness of my relationship to submissiveness may have been slowly moving toward consciousness during those years, but it took a catalytic experience, an epiphany of sorts, to bring home to me the fact that I am a submissive. I was almost 30 years old and had been seeing LuAnn, a woman I had worked with for nine months. She was an avid reader of popular fiction and had made me aware of Anne Rice's Vampire books (5). While reading them I was strongly affected by and attracted to the power relationships between a vampire and his chosen victims--really, between a centuries-old, experienced vampire and a young, recently human protege. In my usual steamroller reading style, I went on to read everything Rice had ever written, and I eventually stumbled upon her erotic novels, written under the pen name of A.N. Roquelaure (6). It was then, as I began to read about the erotic fairy-tale adventures of Beauty, wakened from a deep slumber by a rape and a spanking, that I was suddenly roused from my personal slumber to make the essential connection: this is me. I am like this fairy-tale character. I am a submissive, and I want nothing more than to be someone's slave! Bingo. The penny dropped. The trumpets blared. I went directly to Go and collected $200. There I was. But where was I? Was I nuts and just didn't know it? It didn't feel nuts. It felt right.

At that time I had no idea of how few people viewed sadomasochistic relationships as acceptable for others, let alone for themselves. It really hurt to learn, as I quickly did, that LuAnn was utterly unprepared to accept my self-discovery. I was suddenly isolated, had no idea of where to turn to meet people who shared my new interests, even to talk to someone who would not be repelled by my feelings. Like many people in my lonely circumstance--till later I had no idea how many--I turned to the computer nets for relief. Alone in my apartment, I learned how to attach a modem to a computer and discovered the world of on-line communications. I also quickly found, thanks to some surprising assistance from my ex-boyfriend, the kinky areas on the BBS'es and the commercial on-line services that I subscribed to. Here I began to meet other submissives and dominants. I left long, probing messages about my sexuality and within hours received numerous replies and private electronic letters. I got to know a number of people, even "played" with a few over the computer. I learned that the kind of total-immersion, or life-style, submission that I craved was not what everyone involved in sadomasochistic sex wanted. In fact, most people I met on line seemed satisfied with doing a little S&M with their partners in the bedroom or over a weekend and then returning to a conventional relationship of equals after these relatively brief "scenes." I, on the other hand, was certain that I wanted nothing less than absolute, never-ending slavery.

I searched among the people I was meeting on line for my dominant counterpart: someone who wanted to dominate and control as much as I wanted to submit and be controlled. Eventually I found him--actually, he found me. After a long correspondence, numerous phone calls, and several meetings lasting many days, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to give myself to him in slavery. Although he could have ordered me to become his slave, and I would have obeyed instantly, he wanted this to be my choice--and my final free decision. I thought very carefully about it for several weeks, and up to the second when he told me it was time to decide, I consciously considered the idea that I had a choice, that I could back out. Even though I didn't want to back out and all of me was screaming for the experience of slavery, I was still very aware that up until the second I gave myself to him, I had the power to remain free. I wasn't brainwashed; he hadn't talked me into anything. On the contrary, I had been actively and aggressively searching for him, or someone like him. It was my decision, and it's been the best (and last) serious decision I've made.

When I first met my master on line, I expected to be manipulated. I expected bravado and show, masking a bottomlessly insecure ego, just as I had found in so many men whom I had met or had had relationships with. He had told me in one of his first electronic letters to me that he was a healer, someone who helped unhappy people to get better emotionally. In fact, when we first began to talk, he made it clear that although he was attracted to me, he saw me as someone he could help rather than as a potential lifemate. At the time, he had a slave whom he was happy with, and although that relationship later ended (he had chosen to end several earlier life-style dominant-submissive relationships which he had found to be unsatisfactory for various reasons), he was not "trolling for slaves," or trying to add me to some sort of sadomasochistic harem. He healed on an informal basis, he said, not charging the people he helped for his services, because he had a passion for it, a vocation. This all sounded so vague and New-Agish to me. I felt the same suspicion I would feel for someone who announced that he was a witch or that he could communicate with the dead. I assumed that this so-called healing was probably his ego outlet. And so I tested him.

Not really believing he could help me emotionally (no one in my life had been able to help me--any accomplishments or growth I had achieved had been in spite of the people around me, not because of them), I issued to him, without fully realizing that this was what I was doing, a challenge. In response to his healer message, I said in effect, and rather cynically, "Sure, Mr. Healer, you're welcome to do your thing all you want, but don't expect any fancy results from me." Much later, my master told me how he had chuckled over this "uppity" statement of mine and how he knew, even before we began, how quickly I'd change my mind. How did he know this about me? Having read my public messages carefully, and having a wide range of experience with people, he already knew that I was bright, motivated, and very sincere about my desires for submission. He also knew by then a lot about my personal problems and hang-ups: the things I wasn't facing, the assumptions about life that weren't working for me, my fears and sensitivities.

Realizing, as I soon did, that he knew so much about me was only the first of many extraordinary realizations I was to make about him over the years. As the master-lover-slave dynamic was slowly added to the healer-patient dynamic, I began to realize that everything he had said about himself, even those things that sounded as if they had to be idle boasting because they were too good to be true, was accurate and genuine. He really did have an immense confidence in himself and a positive attitude toward undertakings, which he was able to convey or project to people he was trying to help. He really did take responsibility for everything he did, and he always kept his word. If he said he was going to call me at 7 pm on Tuesday, he did. He had an absolutely steady personality which was unafflicted with mood swings and invulnerable to conversion syndrome (after reading this last sentence, my master said with his usual sardonic humor--he fancies himself a latter-day Oscar Levant--"Another way to say that is that I'm a fanatic"). He had enormous emotional strength and maturity and a baffling lack of emotional hot buttons. He was not overcome when terrible things happened in his life, nor was he strongly angered or upset by anything I did. Most refreshingly, he did not take either himself or anything in his life too seriously, and he constantly poked fun at both--something that an egotist posing as Lord Sir Omnipotent Dominant Of the Universe is incapable of. These strong personal traits have allowed my master to be reasonably successful, and sometimes very successful, in almost everything he has undertaken. In five decades of living he has been a writer and an editor of newspapers and magazines; a writer of books; a photographer, actor, and musician; a small business owner; and a labor organizer and civil-rights worker. In addition to all of these paid occupations, he has always found time to counsel people who come to him for help and, more often than not, to help them to effect in themselves profound personal change. Finally, he has been a staunch feminist for decades and was fighting for the rights of women long before they became fashionable things for men to pay lip-service to.

Six long and wonderful years have gone by, and I am extraordinarily happy with the choice I have made and the course my life has taken as a result. Were I given the opportunity to decide about becoming a slave again knowing everything I know now, I would choose identically. Looking carefully at myself as I am now and at the person I was before I became a life-style submissive, I can say that my experiences as a submissive have enormously enhanced my life and in some ways completely turned it around. Without my master's experienced guidance, I don't believe that any of this would have been possible. Six years ago I was incapable of pulling myself out of my self-made quagmire. I was very overweight and steadily gaining. Although I had a moderately interesting job, my own apartment, and a lover, I was at loose ends. I was deeply dissatisfied with myself and felt impotent, powerless to change a life that was perfectly functional but stuck in emotional neutral. I had my little satisfactions, things that made me happy, but most of these had become vices. I drank almost a six-pack of beer every evening while eating my enormous dinners. After months of this bodily self-abuse, I could barely drag myself out of bed each morning and into work. I often called in sick and felt tremendously guilty for doing so. I liked to correspond with people over the computer, but this, too, quickly became an addiction. I bought every beauty and fashion magazine as soon as it came out and spent hours enviously gazing at the beautiful models and dreaming of looking like one of them. Like eating and drinking, trying to match society's ideal of beauty was one of the ways I avoided confronting the real problem: the barren, unfulfilling aspects of my life. Oddly, I considered myself to be happy.

Now all of that has changed. I lost the weight I needed to lose on a slow and healthy eating and exercise plan (I wouldn't even call it a diet--it was so moderate and inclusive). For the most part, I no longer have a compulsion to overeat. I no longer drink heavily, nor crave drinking as an escape. I rarely read a fashion magazine these days, as the women in them no longer strike me as that attractive or desirable to emulate--in fact, I sometimes find myself thinking, when staring at one of those grotesque, heavily made-up bags of bones that these magazines so love to promote as the pinnacle of attractiveness, that it's a pity that poor scaggy model can't look more like me! I am no longer dissatisfied with my career: I make things happen. Unexpected results of my own unconscious making rarely sneak up on me, as they once regularly did. I'm not avoiding the knowledge of the effect that my actions have on my social and work environments any more. My subterranean efforts to sabotage my life have ceased. I don't believe that I am trying to escape or avoid any aspect of my life. Most importantly, who and what I am is no longer a dark mystery to me. I've discovered who I am, what I want from life, and am learning more each day about how to get it. I no longer let people walk all over me, and I can do things--like express anger to strangers--that were inconceivable to me six years ago. My low-level, ongoing emotion has changed from one of mild depression to one of happiness and peace with myself. I am no longer searching for a place in life; I have come home.

As much as my master has helped me to heal and grow, I have done most of the hard work myself. But what has allowed me to develop the power to change my life in such important and positive ways, when people can spend decades in formal therapy without getting these sorts of spectacular results, is that I am finally doing what I was meant to do, doing what I need to do in my life. I am living and experiencing, in a positive, sane, and unharmful way, the fantasies I've had for years of ravishment, violation, loss of control, erotic suffering, and degradation. After years of trying to understand just why I have been able to achieve all I have, I have concluded that when a person finds where she belongs or finds something she really loves to do, a lot of negative behaviors, including entrenched habits, may fall by the wayside, the superficial symptoms of a deep dissatisfaction with life.

I believe that I became a submissive in spite of my environment and experiences, not because of them. I have the kind of background that turns people into emotional basket cases, not sexual submissives. My father was an alcoholic who died before I reached puberty. While he was alive, he alternately abused me physically and emotionally and spoiled me with love and attention. After he died, I spent months crying myself to sleep with loneliness. Bad as he was, he was the one in the family who had given me a sense of myself as someone special and loved. (I am aware that my life as an adult in some ways is an acting out of my relationship with my father. I am also aware that for me it is a healthy one and that much more is involved in my sexuality than childlike re-enactment.)

Shortly after Dad's death, my mother dragged me out of the public-school system and sent me to Catholic school. The effect of our family constantly moving around and my going to a new school each year, in addition to the recent shock of losing my father had had its effect on me by then, and I was a pathetically shy, insecure child. I stood against the wall of the playground, watching the other children play, and made up hurtful fantasies about why I was never asked to join in the fun. I was too stupid; I was awkward. My family was too poor. I was a stranger. I was not as good as they were.

And then there were the nuns. Take an already insecure child with a very poor sense of herself and set a vicious and embittered pack of half-crazed emotional abusers loose on her, and watch the blood fly!

During those tortured years, my mother worked at a low-paying teacher's job to try to support a family of six. Her exhaustion and disappointment in her life left her emotionally distant and entirely oblivious to my misery. Although I was an intellectually and creatively gifted child, I developed a sense of myself which contained almost overwhelming elements of inferiority and defeat. I felt helpless, that almost everyone else around me was more powerful or more intelligent than I, that I could not do anything, and that I was incompetent to handle life in many ways simply because I was a woman like my mother. While I knew deep inside that my male classmates were not, in almost every case, more intelligent than I, I discounted my ideas and opinions as worthless next to theirs, abetted by my teachers. My large creative resources were put to heavy use inventing reasons for why the boys' thoughts were always better than mine.

My emergence from Catholic school, terribly wounded, left me facing puberty and my first genuine sexual experience, a rape at age 14, unarmed. And with this marvelous introduction to the wonderful world of sex under my belt, I passed through my teens and most of my 20s as frigid as the North Pole. The feminist literature which I began reading at that time gave me idealistic hopes about how things should be--how I, as a strong young woman, should act and feel--but I was in no position to put such ideals into practice. I had no experiences of success on which to build. But I was still alive deep down there, with an unshakable core of optimism, a stupid, unflinching hope that things would work out for the best. It's as if I had and have a metaphorical core of steel in me, raw and unforged, but nevertheless unwilling to give way. I know that I managed to keep a place in me safe from the awful things that life threw in my way, safe from the cruelties of the world. In that place I was happy, in that place I had hope for a better life, and in that place I lived my fondest and most intimate sexual fantasies.

My history is difficult but far less difficult than some and in no way different from the backgrounds of millions of women whose submissive feelings, if they have them, are unimportant in their lives. Yet many of these women, in a nearly infinite variety of circumstances, are unhappy, confused, at a loss--and I am not. Paradoxically, I have discovered how to act on my feminist convictions, how finally to make them a real and practical element in my life, during the last few years, which I have spent in slavery to a man. The basic theoretical premises of feminism, as I have seen them, are that women are as capable as men; that women ought to have as many rights, options, and responsibilities as do men; and that it is deeply wrong that anything should or should not happen to a woman simply because she is female. Feminism, as I have been living it during the last six years, has been bound up with the parts of my personality that were affected by sexist cultural attitudes. My becoming a practicing feminist (as opposed simply to believing in feminist ideals) has involved learning to believe that the lessons I learned as a child--that I was inferior, incapable of accomplishing anything important, that my opinions weren't valuable or important, especially when compared to a man's--are not true and acting as if they aren't true.

I work as a contractor in the field of high technology: an extremely risky and competitive career. I have no job security, I don't know where the next assignment or project will come from, and yet I am very successful at what I do. Part of the reason I get the jobs is that I have confidence that I will get them. Although I work in a technical field in which men predominate, I don't believe that the men who compete with me for contracts are any better than I am. I don't believe they'll get the jobs instead of me. And they usually don't. My confidence in my own abilities allows me to persevere in an environment where many people give up in despair due to the large number of rejections inherent in this kind of work. This confidence comes not entirely from my feminist reading, which, although it laid the groundwork, could not, given my background and expectation of failure, be put into practice, but also from the support and nurture that my master has given me. He believed from the beginning that I could do exceptional things. He knew that what was holding me back was not any lack of ability but my own lousy expectations. He helped me to see myself as a strong and competent woman. He also taught me how to succeed and how not to ignore and brush aside as meaningless past successes. I now feel ever stronger, more competent, and just better about myself than I ever have, and I expect these feelings to grow for a long time to come.

My experience of living within a power-exchange relationship and my acquaintance with other sadomasochists have also provided me with an important skill which gives me an increased sense of mastery over my life and environment. I have acquired a deep insight into the fact that power is a part of all relationships, whether professional, political, or personal, and I use that insight on a daily basis to satisfy more fully my personal and professional feminist ideals.

Most people are unconscious of the primary role that power transactions play in their lives. They don't realize when they are giving power away or when it is cleverly wrested from their grasp. They don't always know when they are taking it from someone else. Being oblivious to the power exchanges that occur in everyday life, people often base their actions and decisions upon false assumptions which ignore an important part of reality. Because dominants and submissives are constantly dealing with power directly and consciously in their primary relationships, it can sometimes be shocking to them that other people don't see this dynamic as clearly as they do. This awareness of interpersonal power dynamics has changed my life profoundly: I know how to handle most people. I can sense how situations are going to develop and therefore can predict when it is realistic to give up and when it is realistic to push on through.

These developing skills have come to my aid often. Once, for example, a manager I did a project for clearly appreciated my skills and experience but occasionally would insist that I had made some obvious mistake when I had not. I realized from the way this drama played itself out (he insisted he was right and at first refused to look at clear evidence showing that his assumptions were incorrect) that I was doing too good a job for his comfort and that he needed to perform this correcting every once in a while to reassure himself that he was still in charge of the project. Understanding this underlying power dynamic allowed me to do two things. I offered minimum resistance and backed down in those cases where his thinking that he was right would not adversely affect our work; this allowed him to feel in charge of the project again. But when the error he was making would have had a strong impact on the success of the project, I calmly stood my ground in spite of his escalating anger and accusations that I had "lost it," and I continued to point out the facts to him until he eventually saw what I was getting at. At heart, this man was rational, and, knowing this, I had the perseverance to wait out the emotional storm until his rationality returned.

Had I been unconscious of the ways in which people use power without knowing what they are doing or why they do it, the kind of behavior exhibited by this manager might have pushed my personal-integrity button (How dare he mistrust me; how dare he doubt my word about this issue!), and I might have walked off the contract and, master permitting, never returned. Knowing what was going on inside his head, however, made my personal indulgence in indignation unnecessary. Thus, oddly, my submissive sexuality has helped me to overcome emotional limitations that were once imposed by my history.

The relationship of my history to my sexuality is mostly obscure. It must be understood that, although theories--many of them preposterous--abound about the reasons for an individual's unique sexual needs, none of these theories has proven to be generally valid. And so, inevitably, it is futile to try to measure a woman's sexual needs against an arbitrary and unproved standard of psychological "normalcy." Even worse, less humane, is to imagine that an individual's sexual needs have some generalizable political meaning. Dr. Ronald Moglia, the director of the graduate human sexuality program at New York University, says in an interview in Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission (7), "There's so much we don't know about how our sexual desires are formed. People often perceive sexual behaviors in a political manner. A lot of our behaviors are as a result of our social-cultural leaning and influences, and certainly, in women, that's a great force. But to then take that and apply it to people who act in a masochistic way--or in any other particular kind of way--makes me question how scientific the observations are, how politically biased the observations are, and what [such people] would say about the sadistic female that's appropriate and the masochistic female that's inappropriate." Nevertheless, the hostility of mainstream society, and of many feminists, to sadomasochists, and particularly to submissive women, is overwhelming.

That's one of the painful ironies of being a female submissive. Even after struggling with all the emotional confusion and political ambiguity engendered in one with strong submissive desires and finally reaching some level of internal resolution, she faces hatred and dismissal coming from most of the people among whom she must live and function. Hostility seems inevitable from an unthinking mainstream that regularly lumps sadomasochism with pederasty and bestiality as utterly beyond the pale--after all, this is the same mainstream that bathes in racism and sexism while denying both and which is rapidly and mindlessly destroying our planet. The hostility of a majority of high-profile feminists, however, is much more difficult to stomach.

Why are so many doctrinaire feminists, including some with high public profiles, so hostile to submissive women? (8) Their explanations, as noted above, center around the idea that the relationships that submissive women enter promote male cultural dominance and that images of submissive women, in sadomasochistic erotica and elsewhere, promote violence toward women. In Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality (9), essayist Jessica Benjamin says, "The danger has always been that women and other victims of violence will be blamed or will blame themselves for 'provoking' it. This has led to an attitude of counter-blame: the discussion of erotic domination or rational violence in which participation is voluntary or fantasized seems to some an apology for male violence in general." But the first objection--that dominant-submissive relationships promote male dominance--even if it were true (and I do not believe that it is) denies the importance of the positive experiences of submissive women like myself as we live with and live out our sexual identities. And the second objection--like similar ones raised by censors and reactionaries of many stripes and over many centuries--is unsupported by honest data and is discredited.

I suspect that a low, vile hunger for power masquerades behind all of this righteous concern over the political meaning of my or my submissive sisters' activities and for our personal welfare. There is something incredibly arrogant and frighteningly Third-Reichish about a reasoning that goes "Because my own personal opinion of this form of sexuality is that it is terribly wrong and causes harm, it is therefore terribly wrong for everyone else and should be attacked and repressed."

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