Now playing on Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Vanessa Grigoriadis , author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is the official October pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

Support the show at Patreon or via PayPal.

*Trigger Warning*

I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual assault without getting emotional (or political). I’m proud of this. It’s taken me nine months since I was raped to be able to cry about it. It’s taken me 15 years to be able to cry about a sexual assault that occurred when I was in sixth grade. It’s taken me just as long to be able to talk about—to allow myself to acknowledge—the sexual harassment and unwanted touching I experienced in school, the awful feeling of being whistled at or catcalled, the feeling of not feeling like I deserve to live in my own body.

There is a common misconception that submitting in the bedroom makes a person weak.  Frankly, the myth isn’t surprising.  In our society, kink is often so taboo that sex education rarely covers the topic.  And if you’re not in the habit of crying, “Spank me now!” it can be hard to wrap your head around submissive empowerment.  The truth is that most of us submit or dominate in one form or another – if not in the bedroom, then in the rest of our lives.

Even if you don’t buy into BDSM, you might well have been touched by submission and domination.  Have you ever longed for a lover to throw you against the wall, or bite your neck, or order you around?  These acts are absolutely domination and submission.  You choose to either submit or master.  In fact, the notion that submissives don’t choose their suffering is entirely erroneous.  Ever heard of the phrase topping from the bottom?  It’s used to describe a situation in which the submissive is ordering a dom around, insisting, “Tie my handcuffs more tightly!” or “You’re just not spanking me right!”

Perhaps BDSM can be tough to come to terms with when it involves violence and pain.  That said, the power to withstand pain is a very favourable characteristic in everyday life. Think of ear piercing or training for a marathon – these are all chosen acts of suffering.  In fact, I’ve heard Greta Christina argue that submission is rather like eating spicy food.  Once you can withstand a certain heat-level, you crave a hotter dish.  Apparently, the reason chili peppers are spicy is because they contain a chemical that directly triggers our pain receptors.  Think about that a moment.  We eat curry because we love the pain.  And what about stiletto heels and Brazilian waxing?  As for the latter, Rachel Kramer Bussel says it best:  “Because I lean toward being a masochist, sometimes I can eroticize the pain [of Brazilian waxing]. I think of it like candle wax in a scene, and use my kinky training to get through the momentary pain for the reward of sleek skin.”  You can read more at Rachel’s column at Sexis, which I heartily recommend.

Of course, the ultimate infliction of pain is the non-consensual kind – and that is chilling stuff*.  Outside of the bedroom, social attitudes towards brutality are often clear.  For instance, fans of the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (directed by Martin Campbell) will remember the scene in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) is bound to a chair and brutalised.  In spite of agony and restriction, he goads his torturer – and that’s “topping from the bottom” on a grand scale.  Considering our society views Bond as resilient in these moments, it is surprising that those of us who cry “Bring on the pain!” are so often dismissed as weak.

As a matter of fact, submission can be tremendously healing.  The first time I subbed was a direct result of watching the movie Secretary (directed by Steven Shainberg).  To give you the gist, a young woman starts taking charge of her life because her boss starts to spank her for minor transgressions.  Talk about hot!  I had never believed that pain could bring such pleasure, and once I’d had a go at masochism, I was surprised by how it affected my life.  Subbing taught me a lot about sexual assertion because I learnt to be both upfront and tuned into what I do or don’t want.  With a safe word, it’s not so difficult to learn to actively say no with words like “Enough,” or “Not so hard,” and this spilled over into the rest of my life.  (These are issues of consent – read more here). A friend recently told me that she was amazed I subbed in the bedroom because I’m such a dom when I’m teach, so I told her that part of being a sub is learning to assert yourself.  I’ve become a lot better at expressing my needs and defending others since I learnt to withstand erotic pain.

And if you think BDSM can’t be inspiring, think again.  When a lover finally ties you up, just as you’ve always wanted, and takes you with rough passion, the bond can be quite powerful.  You yield to your partner, who expresses his/her aggression directly – and that’s pretty intense.  In truth, this faith runs in both directions:  When, as a dom, you hit someone in the bedroom, you trust that they’ll say what they need.  You also trust that they’ll know this is a scene, not a real-life conflict, and that this violence is an expression of intimacy and passion.  In fact, I’ll leave it to Anais Nin to show us how subbing/domming can be breathlessly romantic.  Check out this excerpt from Henry & June, her unexpurgated diary 1931-32:

“He asks to see me again.  When I wait in the armchair in his room, and he kneels to kiss me, he is stranger than all my thoughts.  With his experience he dominates me.  He dominates with his mind, too, and I am silenced.  He whispers to me what my body must do.  I obey, and new instincts rise in me.  He has seized me.  A man so human; and I, suddenly brazenly natural.  I am amazed to be lying there in his iron bed, with my black underwear vanquished and trampled.  And the tight secrecy of me broken for a moment, by a man who calls himself the ‘last man on earth.'”

*I don’t think this can be reiterated enough:  You must always be aware of your power and rights in a BDSM scene.  Have a safe word and use it when you don’t consent.  This is key.  For more on consent, look up Charlie Glickman’s blog.

Photo on main page: Clarence Risher (via Wikimedia Commons)