fell in love with Adam while I was working as a submissive at a dungeon, and in the end, the two relationships were one and the same.
I held my wrists out willingly for the ropes to bind them, and by the time I learned that pain can transform, surprise, and betray like any other lover, I feared the knots were tied too tight to ever unravel.
On the surface, practicality and desperation brought me to the dungeon. I’d just turned thirty and had lost my job a few months earlier, and if I wanted to choose what I imagined to be some dark, alluring sexual underworld over a nine-to-five, this seemed like my last opportunity.
Really, though, I was determined to finally fill a need I’d known since my earliest memories; when in elementary school, I’d fantasized about being kept in a cage — a yearning I’d fed as a teenager and twenty-something on novels like Pauline Reage’s Story of O and movies like Luis Bunuel’s classic Belle de Jour. These stories of women sacrificing their safe, ordinary lives so they could learn what it truly meant to submit, to give up control and allow others to inflict pain that might become pleasure, spoke to me on a deep, visceral level. I dreamed I might experience even a hint of what these characters did — and I chose not to think about the tragic ends both heroines met.
Oh, how I longed to feel the sting of the whip, like Severine in Luis Bunuel’s film; but like Severine, I wanted someone to see that desire and force me to submit to it, without my having to ask. Severine looked for abuse in a brothel, while I turned to a women-run dungeon in Southern California, hidden inside a charming cottage on a major city boulevard.
Four days a week from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., I allowed men to tie me up, spank me, whip me, humiliate me, for a hundred dollars an hour plus tips.
My first months at the dungeon, I fell half in love with every other man I sessioned with, at least the truly dominant ones. I didn’t know these men, of course — what I really loved was having my desires finally witnessed after keeping them secret for so long, and more than that, finding that clients were happy to bring my fantasies to life. It was a relief to lie on a spanking bench, wearing only a G-string, and absorb the impact of hands and canes and floggers I’d hungered for my entire life. It hardly mattered who was delivering the punishment — if I wasn’t blindfolded, I had my face pressed into the leather bench, allowing myself to slip into a darker world where pain was pleasure, where my ability to take a heavy beating became a source of pride, even of identity. But I wanted to travel further into that world, to do what I couldn’t at the dungeon — sex wasn’t allowed.
And that was how I found Adam.
It started with another submissive girl I’d met online — someone whose name I can’t recall, five years later — because she was curious about working in a dungeon. “There’s this guy,” she said. “He’s not the handsomest, but he keeps himself in great shape, and he’s very dominant. I told him where you work, and he thinks you’d be fun to play with.” Almost as if fate had arranged it, Adam’s apartment was only a few blocks from the dungeon, and a week and a few flirty texts after the girl’s comment, I found myself heading straight from work to a very adult “playdate” — and yes, in BDSM, we really do call it “play.”
When I walked into Adam’s apartment, a very large, big-breasted girl wearing only a collar waited on all fours at his feet. I learned later that Adam had a thing for heavier girls, and I, with my petite figure, was an exception to his type. Adam also had a thing for threesomes and foursomes, and yes, with both the collared girl and the girl I’d met online there, we made four. I felt so out of my element that I considered bolting, but I didn’t.
I did exactly what Adam told me to: I stroked the other girl’s hair, I watched him spank her, I let him hit me with a leather strap that left speckled bruises down my thighs. I allowed all three of them to pin me down on the bed, with my red lace bra still on — one of the girls liked it — as Adam and I had sex for the first time.
And then I Ubered home, and if someone had asked me whether I’d had a good time, I wouldn’t have known how to answer. A part of me had enjoyed the sex, but at the same time, I felt an uncomfortable stirring of shame in my stomach, and I wasn’t sure whether I even liked Adam. Aside from the fact he was kinky and loved ordering around a group of girls, I still knew nothing about him.
Two weeks later, Adam asked me to come over again, and though I remained unsure, something inside of me whispered, Yes. As I walked from the dungeon, bathed in California sunshine, even once I’d entered his building and risen three flights in the elevator, I was on the verge of turning around and heading to the bus stop. But I didn’t. I opened the door to his apartment, and this time, it was just him. As Adam remembered it later, my eyes kept darting around like I expected another girl to pop out of the closet. He talked about nothing and I sat, quiet and nervous, and then he told me to go turn on the lamp, one of those tall, thin ones that hung over the edge of the sofa. I stood under that lamp, looking for the switch, and he came up behind me and bent me over the sofa, and I was gone. I’d never been possessed so completely, never had anyone read my desires so clearly. It was love at second sight.
Those first months with Adam, those first months at the dungeon, bleed together now in my mind. I don’t remember who was the first to use a long, slender cane that left welts across my backside, or to hogtie and gag me so I felt completely at his mercy. But with Adam there was the sex, and after the sex, he would cradle me close for what felt like hours, and so he became the antidote to every pain I experienced, not only the ones he inflicted. And pain, I had discovered, was a miraculous lover: the endorphins released with every stroke of the whip brought on a euphoria like no other, and then, having endured that physical trial, I felt deserving of care and comfort afterwards. As a child who’d experienced the death of a younger sibling, I had always lived with guilt; since I was the one to survive, I needed to prove my right to exist. Physical pain gave me a way to feel punished for my perceived transgressions, to convince myself I had suffered enough, and then, for the first time, to truly accept kindness.
I am far from the only person to find healing in the BDSM scene. While the stereotype that kinky desires come from trauma isn’t always accurate — for many people, BDSM is just a fun escape from everyday life and responsibilities — like many stereotypes, this one is rooted in truth. In her article “Healing Sexual Trauma Through BDSM,” Mistress Couple makes the assertion that “trauma is bondage” — emotional bondage — and acting out scenes of literal, consensual bondage can help people process emotions related to trauma and experience “vulnerability” in a safe, positive way.
Leah Peterson, in “I Use Kink to Heal Past Trauma,” describes how past abuse made her afraid to experience pain as a submissive. Yet when she finally did so, she was surprised to feel an “intense relief” that culminated in her partner holding her “in one of the most healing moments I’ve ever experienced.”
With Adam, I too experienced “healing moments” as he held me close after our scenes, and sensations of release and peace washed through me. Kindness and comfort turned to love, and over the next three years, Adam and I developed a relationship that went far beyond the physical. On our first Christmas together, he gave me a necklace with a delicate silver key and told me he loved me. We shared a few magical vacations, including one trip to San Diego that combined a wholesome visit to the zoo, a romantic oceanside dinner, and a threesome in which I experienced double penetration for the first time. I felt safe with Adam, this man who positioned me naked in front of the floor-to-ceiling window of our San Diego hotel room, exposed for all the world to see; and for a time, I believed we’d be together forever.
But Adam liked to use blindfolds even more than the customers at the dungeon, and I found that to make our relationship function, I had to keep that blindfold on more and more of the time. Like any good submissive, I kept my eyes closed when I was told to, refusing to see the escalating signs: when I couldn’t come over one night because of work, Adam sent a barrage of angry text messages that lasted over a week; the girls we found for threesomes rarely made repeat visits, because they would invariably inflict some slight to Adam’s rather large ego.
While I enjoyed humiliation, Adam’s brand of it sometimes crossed the line into outright cruelty, as when, while we were having sex, he described in detail sleeping with another girl just a few days earlier. The closer Adam and I became, the more his demand for total control grew, until he wanted to dictate my work schedule in addition to my sexual activities. Though Adam had helped me begin to heal and to believe in my own worth, I was beginning to suspect he might not be the emotionally healthy partner I now needed.
While I did my best to keep my blindfold on around Adam, at the dungeon, it was already slipping off. The deeper I fell in love with Adam, the less I wanted to submit to other men; and then, I made the mistake of actually looking at the clients who’d been spanking me and tying me up for over a year. I was dismayed to realize that many of them were ugly, not just physically — though there was plenty of that too — but emotionally, their eyes full of greed with nothing else behind it. For many of these men, I was nothing but an object to be used, and after everything I’d gone through in the past few years, I finally saw myself as worthy of something more. But I kept working at the dungeon — I’d come to rely on the money and the companionship of the other women there, and most of all, I was afraid to abandon something that had once brought me so much meaning.
To Adam, on the other hand, I was always more than an object. Adam had a sweet, protective side that came out in the stuffed animals he surprised me with, the way he cared for my dog like she was his own, the fact that he loved spooning even more than sex. I wanted desperately for Adam’s better nature to win out over his angry streak, so I stayed with him much longer than either of us deserved. But by the final year we were together, my relationship to physical pain, the BDSM play that had drawn us together from the beginning, was changing. Not just in the dungeon but with Adam, too, my desire for physical suffering was turning to dread.
The night Adam and I broke up, we had a stupid argument. I wanted to download a yoga tutorial on his laptop while he drove his friend home; he, controlling as ever, didn’t want me touching his computer. He left with his friend and texted an order to wait for him on his bed, naked, on all fours. I got in position, but as the minutes ticked by, the tears pooled in my eyes till I could barely keep them inside. When he entered the room and smacked my bottom, there was no euphoria, no release, no deep connection with the dominant delivering my punishment. It just hurt, and when Adam growled out, “This isn’t satisfying anymore,” his voice cold and disappointed, he spoke for both of us. My love affair with pain was over, and though it broke my heart, my relationship with Adam was as well.
I kept working in the dungeon, grateful for my coworkers’ support after the breakup, but submission no longer seemed like the solution it once had been. If I wanted to stay at the dungeon, I needed to begin a new relationship. It was time to start learning to dominate others, rather than submit.
But that’s another story.