It’s a Monday morning on a steaming-hot day in July, and I’m late for work. I’m standing in front of my wardrobe in my underwear searching for a dress that will hide the bite marks on my shoulders, the bruises dotting my décolletage and the spidery-red whip marks snaking up my back. One look at me and anyone would pull me aside and ask in a concerned voice what’s wrong. But nothing is. I’ve simply had the best sex of my life.
I first became intrigued by BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) at university, when I came across The Sexual Life of Catherine M., an autobiography written by a Parisian woman with an extremely active, sex-party-filled life. I read it at 19, when I was a lonely and shy student. Although I’d only lost my virginity the year before—to a crush I’d never quite managed to make my boyfriend—and had one one-night stand since, I’d always loved the idea of sex. The sex I’d had was awkward and over quickly, but in my fantasies it was intense, exhibitionistic and submissive.
I’ve always had strong sexual urges—as a teenager, I used to obsessively cut sex-related articles out of magazines and save them in a binder and I loved reading the dirty parts of my mother’s romance novels. But reading The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was an “Aha” moment that ignited my desire like nothing else. I enjoyed the rawness, the lack of rules, the fact that a woman could act on deep, dark desires that weren’t ever mentioned in pink-covered paperbacks. This type of no-holds-barred sex was like nothing I’d imagined—and I wanted to experience it. Later that term, I started dating a student who lived in my residence. At first, sex was normal, even a bit boring. And while I enjoyed it, I didn’t fantasize about him during the day.
Which is why, one night, after a few drinks at the bar, I tentatively guided his hands to my backside and asked him to spank me. “Please?” I urged. Without warning, his hand came down hard on my skin. I was surprised more by the sound than the impact. It was embarrassingly loud and interrupted the moment. My fantasies, I realized, had all been silent. He continued to spank me and I held my breath, sure that the resident of the room next door was going to bang on the wall at any moment. I wondered whether my desires were better left in my imagination.
But the seed had been planted, and a few months later, when I went to study in New York City, I decided to put my fantasies into action for the first time. I was taking an anthropology class where the assignment was to report on a specialized community. While others investigated religious groups, I selected a fetish play club I’d read about online and invited a few of my friends along—all in the name of research, of course.
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On a Friday night, Rebecca, Amanda and I drank vodka sodas in our crowded student apartment as we dressed in lacy skirts that barely covered our bums. We wobbled out, baby-deer awkward in our
sky-high heels, and into a dark downtown club where techno music thumped away in the background. In the centre of the room, a man, his butt exposed, leaned against a St. Andrew’s cross as a group of women took turns spanking him. While no one was actually having sex, there were several women walking around in corsets that exposed their breasts and a few topless men with dog collars around their necks. Some attendees were young and attractive, the type we would have found ourselves next to at a bar had it been any other Friday night. Others were older, and the lack of clothes made pockmarked skin and cellulite all the more apparent.
Still, all heads swivelled toward us as we entered. It was clear that three single women were an unusual group; most people were coupled up or chatting in circles of five or six. And even though we’d read the rules online and knew that unwelcome touching was forbidden and would result in immediate ejection from the club, I felt a shiver of fear run up my spine. Amanda’s eyes widened. “This is weird,” she said and ran out of the club. But Rebecca and I stayed, fascinated as we watched lingerie-clad women making out with each other, couples retreating to corners, and all sorts of spanking.
At one point late in the night, I left Rebecca to get a drink at the bar when a man came up to me. Talking quickly became kissing. At a sex club, I realized, small talk was at a minimum. We moved away from the bar as he pressed me against the wall, holding my wrists above my head as he forcefully kissed me. People were watching us, and I felt a surge of adrenalin; I leaned back, allowing his hands to roam down my hips and slip under the waistband of my skirt. Then, I felt a hand clamp my wrist. “We have to leave,” announced Rebecca. She yanked me away from him and out of the club. The implication was clear: I’d gone too far. I shrugged and blamed the drinks.
For the next few years I explored alone, occasionally watching X-rated films and reading blogs about other people’s experiences. I dated a few guys but no one serious. When I was in a relationship, my sex life (aside from holding my hands above my head and hoping he’d pin them down) was relatively traditional. But sometimes, during a phase when I was single, I’d seek out an anonymous sexual encounter, posting an ad on Craigslist with the subject “Slightly submissive sex kitten seeks adventure.” We’d exchange emails in which I asked for pictures, and, if he seemed attractive, I’d agree to meet. Often, the men I met were similar to the ones I dated: well-educated, ambitious thirtysomethings. Some I saw more than once, and one I ended up sleeping with for an entire winter, our lives connecting nowhere else but in his bedroom.
Whenever I arranged a tryst, I’d drink a glass or two of wine, feeling a rush of adrenalin as I headed to his house. We’d awkwardly introduce ourselves and, more often than not, were naked within 10 minutes of meeting. I loved having the boundary-pushing sex I’d always imagined. The lack of emotional connection and the anonymity allowed me to let go during the act, but afterwards I would feel ashamed and resolve to seek an actual proper boyfriend and stop letting my fantasies take over my life.
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Ultimately, although sex excited me, I was seeking love. And while I don’t think sexual experimentation is at odds with a
loving relationship, it was hard enough to find a man I connected with out of bed (someone who loved hiking, who could handle my mercurial moods and who didn’t take himself too seriously) that I felt I should focus on a connection that was quotidian, not carnal.
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But, at the same time, I had the sense that I was a sexual being and that I would settle down eventually, so wouldn’t it be better to act on my sexual impulses now, while I was young? The two urges—to be in a “normal” relationship and to explore my desires—kept bumping up against each other until, finally, I tried to combine dating and my fantasies and took the man I’d been dating for a year to a sex shop and directed him to buy handcuffs. He was game to explore, but our mutual inexperience meant we were playing with fire. The first time he tried to dominate me, he was too rough, pulling my hair so hard that tears stung my eyes. It was one thing when it was sex with someone anonymous, but this was a man with whom I wanted to fall in love, and I hated how used I felt—even if it had been what I wanted. My fantasies—being tied up, held down and spanked—felt so close to my core that acting them out with someone I was involved with left me feeling raw and vulnerable. “I thought you liked it; I thought you were playing,” he said, genuinely confused. Later, I’d learn that couples engaging in submission should have a safe word—a word that is unlikely to come up in the situation, like “tennis”—to serve as an emergency break in the action. He and I never played in that way again and the relationship ended a few months later, right before I turned 29.
After the breakup, I decided to stop drinking. I knew that it had played a part in too many fights and often led me into sexual decisions I regretted. I took a break from dating too, deciding that I needed to clear my mind. And then I heard from Matt. He and I had taken a writing class together a few years back, and he contacted me when he heard I had a book coming out. I asked if he was still writing. “No,” he emailed back. He explained that he was more into photography and sent me a link to his work. Photos of women in bondage filled my screen. My eyes widened. “Are you shocked?” he typed.
“No…kind of turned on,” I wrote in response. A flurry of conversations led to him inviting me over to his apartment to play. We furiously texted fantasies back and forth all afternoon. When I got to his flat, after a perfunctory catch-up, he clicked a collar around my neck. Any initial awkwardness I felt—at being sober in a sexual situation, that he was an old friend—melted away when I felt the cool metal against my skin. His expression was intense as he studied my body—our eyes met, and he nodded, pleased with what he saw. This was what I wanted. Here was a man who’d wrestled with complexities of his sexuality and wasn’t embarrassed by them. Because of that, I felt freer to let go with him than I had with anyone else.
A few days later, he took me to a sex club. Unlike the one I’d been to when I was at university, this was the real deal: full of naked attendees and people having sex. And that was when I met Daniel. At 40, with a receding hairline and a few extra pounds on his formerly athletic frame, he wasn’t handsome. But I could see from the way he was spanking a girl with a paddle that he was in control. Boldly, I went up to him and asked if he could use it on me next. He complied, pulling up my skirt and leaving bruises everywhere. Once again I was pulled away, this time by Matt. “You don’t have to do everything right away, you know? Take it slow,” he warned. I nodded, but I resented his condescending tone. He didn’t need to look out for me or tell me what was in my best interests.
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The next weekend, Daniel invited me to another party. This one was smaller, and without Matt there to watch out for me, I felt even less inhibited. Daniel introduced me as “Vixen.” On the scene, Daniel explained, no one used real names. So I became Vixen. I liked it. Vixen was bold, always ready to walk into a party and strip down. Vixen allowed women to practise their flogging skills on her bare breasts. Vixen would take compliments on how well she was able to withstand the pain that came from Daniel’s paddle, which left red, oozing indentations on her skin that lasted for weeks.
“Can I come with you sometime?” asked my colleague Olivia as I pulled the hemline of my skirt just high enough to show off the constellation of tiny ink-dark bruises dotting the insides of my thighs. She and I both
worked as writers at a magazine and often spent Monday mornings sharing stories about drunken exploits and boyfriends’ behaviour under the guise of “coming up with story ideas.” But I had an ulterior motive for displaying my bruises. I wanted my “real” friends to know what I was doing because I didn’t want to get too caught up. I’d given myself until September to explore the scene before I quit; the time limit made me feel more like a sexual adventurer than a sexual deviant. I’d seen older women at sex clubs and their lives were a complex web of partners and parties that seemed at odds with the settled-down lifestyle I still imagined I wanted. For now, I felt that I was flirting with the endorphin rush—and I didn’t want to become an addict.
“I don’t think you could handle it,” I answered Olivia. In truth, I didn’t want it to be so easy for her to enter the group.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Daniel began getting deeper. I knew I would never date date him, but I began inviting him back to sleep over after parties. He’d cook dinner for us. In bed, occasionally he’d be gentle and then, suddenly, he’d bite my shoulder or breast so hard that I’d yelp “It hurts!” “I know,” he’d answer.
Another time, Daniel and I were invited to his friend’s house in the country where a few couples from the scene were staying. During the day, everything was typical: The group of four couples hiked, took a boat out on the nearby lake, ate outside. At night, inside the house, clothes came off and inhibitions were shed. At one point, clad only in lacy underwear, I was on my knees, surrounded by the other guests, as Daniel whipped me. Later that night, alone in a guest bedroom, he told me that what he wanted was to take me to the point where I cried from the pain. I paused. I wondered what it would be like to truly let go, to allow someone to push me past my limit. It sounded destructive, dangerous. Irresistible. “I want you to do that,” I decided. He shook his head. “We don’t know each other well enough yet.”
We never got to that point. He had a long-term work assignment across the country. And, around the time of my self-imposed September deadline, I took a look in my journal and realized that the entries had stopped in mid-April, right around the time I met Matt and began going to the parties. This—more than the whipping, more than the bruises—shook me. I felt like I’d lost time. I knew I’d been shunning friends and procrastinating on assignments, all in the pursuit of pleasure, and I was terrified of what would happen if I kept doing that.
I stopped going to sex parties as decisively as I had committed to them months before and told my friends to keep me in mind for date set-ups. A few weeks later, my friend Sophie introduced me to Kevin. The first time we had sex, I automatically pulled his hand toward my butt, surprised when he stroked it instead of spanked it. A few days later, I broached the subject. “So I was on a bit of a sexual walkabout this summer….”
“A what?” He furrowed his brow. I began explaining but then trailed off, midway through the story about my reconnection with Matt. “He took me to this weird sex-play party,” I said. I hastily gave a description and explained that I had only watched from the sidelines and left early. “That’s it?” asked Kevin. “Kind of.” I kissed him to change the subject.
Right now, Kevin and I have only been dating for two months, still in the getting-to-know-you stage. I don’t know if he’s the one, and although the sex is nice, it’s not the earth-shattering, heart-pounding, full-body-trembling experience that I’d had with Daniel. But I know that he’s smart, he makes me laugh and he seems like the type I could fall in love with. If it came down to it, I know I could sacrifice great sex for that. But I worry that it would hurt.
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