Fire On the Glacier
Here it is, as promised, the probably never to be published work I spent so much time writing. It's a meditation on SM as a Spiritual Journey. I hope you like it.
WHAT IS A TOP?
“Are you Top-wired or Master-wired?”
This was the question posed to me at Inferno that was the genesis of this book. “I’m Top-wired,” I replied. And felt bad about that. Like, “Naw, I’m still in college.” After thinking about it, I realized that whereas ‘Master’ is widely understood, being one who owns or seeks to own slaves, Top is vaguely defined. To arrive at an answer to the question, “What is a Top?” I’ll begin with ruling out some of the possible answers.
“Someone who is not a bottom or a switch.”
Wrong. I totally disagree. If a Top gives a blowjob, or gets laid, or offers up his back for a whipping, is he no longer a Top? Viewing a Top this way is constraining to say the least, an almost infinite list of Things Not To Do that would leave you tied in knots trying to explain to yourself why it’s okay to make an exception in this case, or denying yourself pleasure. Neither of these strikes me as favorable.
“One who is technically accomplished at one or many S/M practices”
Surely that is part of it, and an important part. It’s unlikely that you’ll get very far if you’re not proficient at what you want to do. But technique is only a part of the picture. Anyone can learn to do basic rope bondage, or mummification, or flogging, or the application of clothespins, in an afternoon.
I’m a member of Gay Male S/M Activists, or GMSMA, in New York. Since formation in 1981, the chief activity of the group has been educational. Over the course of a year, countless workshops, special interest groups, demonstrations, and discussions are held concerning the arcane practices of S/M. GMSMA is very good at this work, and as a result, the general level of skill you are likely to run into in New York City is pretty high. If the guy you’re meeting at the bar is a GMSMA member, you’re probably in for a good time. From time to time, I hear GMSMA criticized for over-emphasizing technique. For example, as I heard an upcoming mummification program described, “How to make a meatloaf.”
I think this criticism is valid, as a good scene goes so much deeper. Just because all the performers in the musical are accomplished at singing and dancing doesn’t mean it’s great theater.
It’s interesting to note the difference between education of bottoms and education of Tops. Let’s take something basic, such as clothespins, as an example. Picture, if you will, a group of twelve men sitting in an apartment in New York City on a Sunday afternoon in December. They are there to learn about working with clothespins. Of the men, five are Tops, and seven are bottoms. (There would probably be some switches in the group, but bear with me here.) The program begins. First, the Tops learn how to test the intensity of the pinch on the skin between the thumb and index finger. Then, the places on the body that are particularly ‘good’ for applying clothespins are listed. It is explained that clothespins hurt when they go on, but more so when they come off and blood begins again to flow into an area where it hasn’t for some time. One of the presenters boasts of having managed to apply a hundred and eighty clothespins to his bottom. And that’s pretty much it. Any of the Tops in the room could probably pull off a scene involving clothespins without major mishap. And then the bottoms are addressed. Relax, breathe deeply. Breathe in the energy that will sustain you. Breathe out the pain that you’re feeling. Relax. Close your eyes, if you’re not wearing a blindfold. Soon, you’ll feel the endorphins begin to respond. Continue to breathe. Relax. Submit.
Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but I don’t think so. The Tops are instructed on how to manipulate exterior reality; the bottoms are informed about interior reality. At most, the Tops will be encouraged to deal with interior reality in terms of the bottom: “remind him to breathe.” The Top is reduced to a technician. If it weren’t for the fact that the business of applying the clothespins could distract the bottom from breathing, the Top would be largely superfluous.
If this is the way you Top, I don’t doubt that you pretty quickly get bored with the whole business. Flogging or frosting a cake, it’s all about skill and dexterity and reading the recipe. No doubt you’ll soon be inclined to give bottoming a try out of the sneaking suspicion that it’s the bottom that’s having all the fun and the Top that’s doing all the work.
If you don’t see yourself in this description, and if when doing a clothespin scene you don’t even notice the clothespins going on, that could only be because you are keenly aware of what’s going on in your head.
So what is a Top?
I have come to believe that there is little difference between the men who are called Tops in the world of S/M and the men who have the role of Shaman in primitive societies the world over. Among other things, the Shaman is the defined as one who employs ecstasy in order to bring about a spiritual experience. Read up on the topic. The parallels are uncanny. One doesn’t, for example, choose to be a Shaman. One discovers oneself to be a Shaman. But what really makes one a Shaman is that one is regarded as such by the members of one’s community.
It’s so much more than technique. After I have Topped, and Topped well, and my bottom is spilling tears of gratitude over my boots, I feel humbled. I know who I am, and I know what I am capable of. As I flogged him, twice my flogger wrapped around his torso, once at the shoulder, and once at the ribcage. I wasn’t perfect. (Although, considering I probably gave him nine hundred strokes, I didn’t do too badly.) But what is it that I have done to elicit this response? He’s telling me he was flying, that he wants to sing, that at times, he couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. Did I—a guy who has never been able to beat egg whites into meringue, who has the lowest batting average on my softball team, who locked his keys inside his apartment a record three times over the past year, who was bellowing in frustration when he discovered that he put the IKEA bookshelves together wrong—manage to take this guy on such a wonderful trip? How? It’s almost as though it wasn’t me, as though I was possessed, as though there was a wisdom in my body that my cognitive faculties did not have access to. It was as if forces beyond my comprehension were working through me. I relied on instincts and sensitivities to that I’m not even aware of much of the time. I let it all go. I’m left with the sense that I didn’t do that, but rather, I was only a vehicle for something that happened. And I come away from the scene a different man. I am changed. I feel depleted, but at the same time nourished. I’ve learned something about myself and about what it means to be human, but I have a difficult time putting it into words. There is now a strong bond between us, this man and me. He will remember me and what happened here long after the welts on his back have disappeared.
THE JOURNEY OF THE TOP
Some men are born to Top, others achieve Top, some have Top thrust upon them. (Doubt me on that last one? Pshaw. I can’t count the number of men I know who were committed bottoms but looked like Tops, were constantly approached by eager bottoms, got into the habit of saying ‘yes,’ and came to like it.) Every Top has traveled a different path to get to the same destination. But just as all paths converge at the same place, I think there are similar significant landmarks along the way. Maybe, maybe not. If’n you don’t see yourself reflected in here, that certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve taken the wrong route. But, ‘life as journey’ is something I think a lot about, and so I want to take a stab at looking at some of those similar landmarks.
In the field of inquiry that’s come to be known as mytho-poesis, there is a concept of the Voyage of the Hero. The key insight here is that in the great hero myths in diverse cultures around the globe, there are striking similarities. Much of the groundwork for this work was done by Joseph Campbell. Surveying Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Native American traditions, and countless others, Campbell was struck by the similarities of creation mythology, the tale of The Flood, passage to the Underworld, concepts of paradise, and the voyage of the hero in particular.
The life of the hero runs along the following lines.
The hero is born, often the child of a god and a mortal. Jesus, Hercules and others in Greek mythology exemplify this. The birth is accompanied by signs and wonders, such as the Christmas star, the finding of the infant Moses in the bulrushes, or the infant Hercules strangling two serpents sent into his cradle by the vengeful Hera. So, the hero is marked at birth as something special.
The child grows to be a man, with more manifestations of a special destiny along the way. Soon, all is not well. He feels some vague longing, a sense that he is called to something greater than the lives of his siblings and his people. Often, he comes to learn that his father is, in fact, not his father. So many fairy tales take up on this theme, where a young man heads out to ‘find his place in the world.’ Prince Siddharta was so moved. In fact, there is an entire literary genre, given the German name of bildungsroman about young men who leave their weeping mothers behind and head out into the world.
About the time the young man sets off on the journey, time is spent in a dry and desolate place. Think of Jesus fasting in the desert, or Moses spending forty years there. There in the desert, the True Father makes his presence known. The man comes to understand himself and his place in the world in a new way.
In some Native American cultures, this was ritualized, and is called by anthropologists and ethnographers, “The Vision Quest.” A boy becomes a man when he leaves his people—sometimes is driven out—and sets off alone into the wilderness. During fasting, or through the use of organic hallucinogens, the boy has the vision that makes him a man, wherein he meets his guardian spirit, in the form of an animal that will be with him and protect him. Rights of passage are common for making the transition between boyhood and manhood the world over. Significantly, they often involve drawing blood, pain, and a phallus. (The Old Ways really are the best ways, huh?)
I want to pause here. I don’t know about you, but I felt a keen need for something along these lines in my late teens and early twenties. Something was different. I felt the need to take up some new mantle, but I had no idea what. The poet Robert Bly has lamented the fact that in contemporary American culture, too many men seem to be trapped forever in boyhood, perpetual Peter Pans, never growin’ up. I remember once sitting waiting for a friend of mine to finish up some shopping at a mall. I was watching men, as I usually do. Around me I saw men in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, from all walks of life. What were they wearing? Gym shorts, sneakers, baseball caps, and tee shirts with goofy sayings on them predominated. It was sort of astonishing. They were all perpetual boys. I made the decision then that I would only wear shorts when shorts were called for—picnics, the beach, hiking and the like, disposed of all my tee shirts with goofy sayings, and when I got dressed in the morning, I was determined that I would dress like a man. I think I also took a stab at growing a beard then, but alas, my inclinations were ahead of my follicular development. Anyway, on with the journey.
Next comes the part that is the stuff of so many tales: the trials and tests. Hercules performs his labors, Odysseus searches for home, Jesus cures lepers and scolds Pharisees, Moses climbs Mount Sinai, Beowulf slays Grendel, the Knights of the Round Table go off in search of the Holy Grail. The hero uses his wits, his strength, magical assistance, and perseveres. He learns important lessons, the most important of which is what he is capable of. Another key component of this stage of the saga is he gathers about himself a band of brothers. Together they fight. Some die and are mourned. But the hero comes to know love of his fellow men.
At the end of these trials and tribulations, the hero is feeling pretty good about himself. He’s slayed the Gorgon, won the princess, defeated the despot, made his way to the Holy City and been welcomed there. But this is not the end of the tale. Next, he goes to Hell.
The all go to Hell. Down, down, down into the Underworld. The World of the Dead, with whom they often converse. There are demons to battle with. There is no hope of return, as no one ever comes back from there.
Often, Hell is understood to be the Subconscious. And I think that can be true. But I think that for many of us, Hell is Hell. Hell is abandonment. Hell is seeing everything you love, everything you’ve worked for, all your hopes and dreams and aspirations, your idea of yourself as being a Good Guy, all of it turns to shit. Death is welcomed, but there is no death. There’s only you, stupid, shallow, worthless, fuck-up that you are. You’re the one who brought yourself to Hell. You followed the path down here, bribed the ferryman to take you across the river, or steered the canoe yourself. You knew that you had this terrible and terrifying assignation with yourself, as Joan Didion put it so well.
If you’ve never been to Hell, don’t feel left out. Chances are your time will come. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” is Jesus’ cry from Hell. At that moment, he was truly abandoned by God, his Father, whom he called, and invited us to call ‘Abba,’ or ‘Daddy.’ All that Christ had preached was proven to be a lie: love is not greater than death, humility is not the better way than pride, the peacemakers are wasting their time, the poor are damned in their poverty, there is no cause for hope, there is no peace, only despair and desolation.
Nobody gets out of Hell by himself. This is when the Great Father, who started the whole ball rolling, makes another appearance. Returning to the Christian story (and non-Christians and those who have suffered pain at the hand of so-called Christians will have to bear with me), God brought his Son out of Hell. Jesus’ cause (love, peace, hope, the whole ball of wax) became God’s cause. For Christians like myself, this is the meaning of the Resurrection. But, consider if you like all those Heroes from Greek mythology who spent time in Hades. Up they came again, although never entirely under their own steam.
Having done what no one does, come back from the dead, the Hero becomes identified with the Great Father, becomes a Great Father. Or, perhaps, defeats and surpasses the Great Father in some way. This is called ‘Apotheosis,’ becoming a god yourself. That’s the end of the story. That’s the voyage of the Hero.
So what is the heroic journey of the Top? I think that all of us are called to be heroes. Life ain’t worth living if you’re not the Hero, but only a bit player in the story of your life. But overlaid on this for us is another story. And this is the story I will aim to tell.
Do you remember the desire that you feared? It was like some demon, whispering in your ear, planting these images in your mind’s eye. Seeing your riding instructor strung up from the rafters in the tack shed and whipped bloody. Your camp counselor who was so kind to you, bound and helpless to the massive Oak by the main cabin. Imagining your best friend in high school with his handsome face contorted in a grimace of agony as you squeezed his balls so hard. Your Scout Master captured by a Sioux warrior and tortured. This was wrong, bad, sick. Terrible thoughts. But you couldn’t banish them. You couldn’t make them go away. Surely, you were unique in your depravity. No one must ever know. You’ll wrestle with your demons alone.
But someone came to know, or at least suspect. You contrive some complicated game with your best friend that ends with him tied to a tree in some deserted place while you drop burning matches in his lap. It’s alright, because it’s just a game. But when he tells you a few weeks later that he’d wants to play ‘Prisoner’ again, you know you’re on to something. Or that guy you met in a bar and brought home, and while you’re fucking him, you slap his beautiful ass really hard, and he gives an enthusiastic “Fuck, yeah!” and you beat it till it’s cherry red.
When I was seventeen, I was cruising on the towpath in New Hope, Pennsylvania, one night. (Okay. Many nights.) What to my wondering eyes should appear but a man—easily twice my age—wearing chaps and a leather harness. I stopped him, bumming a light for my cigarette. He tried to move on, but I wasn’t about to let him get away. At that time, with my relative inexperience, I was pretty clear about what I wanted: an unreciprocated blow job. This guy had me so turned on I’d be willing to go down on him. I persisted, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, and he took me home. Imagine my surprise (and, I’ll admit, revulsion), when he asked me to grease up my hand in stuff my mother used to bake pies and stick it up his ass. And so I did. Slowly, slowly, I felt his ass expand around my hand, which I did my best to collapse. He gave a loud moan—I was sure I had hurt him—and my hand slipped in. “Oh fuck… Omigod… Oh yes… Oh thank you…” He was in ecstasy. Never before had he been able to take a fist. I had never before imagined that such a thing was possible, or desirable. Truthfully, I was too freaked out to ask many questions. I left, telling myself, “He seemed to like it, so I guess it couldn’t have been too bad.”
And another time, several years later. Mr. Trick was on his knees, sucking my cock. I was standing against the wall in my apartment in Philadelphia. I noticed that he had his hands crossed behind his back, wrist over wrist. Without thinking, I removed my belt. I put the end through the buckle and made a loop. I lowered the loop until it was in position, guided it over his hands, and pulled tight. (It must have been beginner’s luck; I’ve never been able to do that since.) He paused, and looked up at me. “Yes, SIR!” he said, and returned to his duty. I shot almost immediately.
That was a huge revelation: I was doing something that would have me darting out the door punching my arms through the sleeves of my shirt if someone tried that on me, but he enjoyed it, it made the whole thing hotter for me. I remembered something my grandmother once told me: “For every pot there’s a lid.”
So we make this great discovery: there’s at least one other person in the world who wants what we do, only the mirror image. Over time, we come to realize that far from being unique, we are in the midst of many like ourselves, and many potential counterparts, too.
This may come late in life, after a string of relationships good and bad, but vanilla in flavor, which we ultimately find do not meet deep needs that we have. Although I was lucky enough to stumble upon this realization that I could find men who wanted from me what I wanted to give them, I didn’t think that this had anything to do with love. Surely it was just empty, dissipating, and self-destructive.
Imagine yourself alone in a strange house. Something feels threatening, you have a vague sense of foreboding. You’re looking for something, but you can’t say what. You stumble through room after room, looking over your shoulder all the while. And then you see The Door. Immediately you know, “This is it!” You’re filled with fear. “No, leave it. Get out of this house. Don’t open that door.” But you open the door. And there it is, what you’ve been looking for all this time without knowing it. There’s a whole wonderful world behind that door. And now comes one of the greatest challenges you will ever face: do you close the door and walk away, content with the knowledge of your discovery? Or, do you cross the threshold and step into this new world, leaving behind everything safe and the familiar? Stepping through the door can be terrifying or exhilarating, or both. Or, admittedly, for some among us living charmed lives, no big deal. Just a door.
To step through the door is to finally embrace what was for so long your darkest desire and your greatest fear. It was blessing and curse: both the thing that set you apart, and made you feel touched by something that your friends, companions, and lovers might never know, but it was also the thing that made you feel so terribly alone.
The Door can be many things. Going into that particular bar. Dialing the phone number of that group, finding out when they meet, and going to a meeting. Buying your first leathers. Accepting the invitation to the play party. Agreeing to meet the guy you’ve been talking to forever online, but never found the time to get together with. And, we’re also challenged with doors that lead nowhere, doors that lead to more doors, doors that open onto brick walls.
To be sure, stepping through the door isn’t the end of your troubles, it’s just the beginning. What we’re talking about here is taking an oath of citizenship in the S/M nation. Like most things in life, it’s a mixed bag, and you’ll need to take the good with the bad.
Hmmm. When I say the final sentence of the preceding paragraph aloud, there’s not a lot of conviction in my voice. Maybe I’m lucky, maybe I’ve found favor with the leathergods for no good reason that I can think of, but let me tell ya, it’s been wonderful for me. I’ve met some amazing fellow travelers. Men and women who are smart, kind, wise, generous, and open. I feel valued by these people, not for the size of my biceps or my approximating of the current iteration of ‘hot,’ but rather for the size of my heart, for my ability to trust, for my strength and creativity. True, there have been rough spots. Bottoms who lie about their experience, the infighting that is endemic to all organizations, heated debates and arguments, and grudges. But underlying it all, I can’t help feeling that there is a solid foundation of love. I’ve done amazing things, and had amazing things done to me. My life used to be constrained by “No, because.” As in, “Maybe I’ll go to the leather bar instead tonight… No, because what if someone you know sees you coming out.” Or, “Maybe I should ask him if he would agree to be handcuffed while we had sex… No, because he looks pretty normal and balanced (!) and he’d think I was some kind of freak.” And so on. After seven years in a very vanilla relationship that provided me with more opportunities to say “No, because” than I would have imagined possible, I left, and I added a new word to my vocabulary: “Yes.” It was so simple. Such a small change, but for me it was a completely new strategy. I started small. What I discovered was that not only didn’t the world come crashing down about my newly acquired Wesco’s, but I had a blast. I started to trust my desire, because I found they brought me joy. In the depths of “No, because,” there were a host of desires and inclinations that were obviously self-destructive, or would have left someone maimed or worse. But, I found that the minute I started in on “Yes,” these vanished like shadows at sunrise. I have no regrets stepping through that door. But maybe that’s just me.
Once you cross that threshold, the next step is to be born again. To recreate yourself. This may sound shallow. Aren’t we a society that values commitment, and ‘being yourself?” True enough. And, some folks go a little too far in this respect, inventing a past that they would have liked to have had, but, in fact, did not. And it’s a common thing to ape the superficial aspects of the people we see around us. During this period, many of us develop a heightened awareness of protocol and the ‘correct’ way to do things. Even if we have to invent it. And we do. Because there is no protocol other than common courtesy, and there is no ‘correct’ way of going about this. You make the path by walking.
But it’s not superficial, and it’s more a matter of becoming the person you want to be, rather than taking on some persona. Who is this person? It’s the person you are when you’re in that dreamy, mysterious world of the masturbatory fantasy. If you’re going to be living out your fantasies, you need to become the person you’ve fantasized about.
I tend to be attracted to men who seem to have ‘gone the distance’ in this respect: the full-body tribal tattoo, the multiple piercings, the Mohawk, the diabolical facial hair, the guy you run into in the supermarket wearing a leather vest and flagging black right.
This is a very deep undertaking. It’s about transformation: out of the chrysalis comes the butterfly. The ugly duckling becomes… uh… the leather-winged bat.
I’m inclined to think that this is a part of the reason that leather is such a signifier for we kinky people. Leather is skin. In primitive ritual, the putting on of animal skins was the means for personal transformation: thereby the lycanthrope became the wolf and the berserker became the bear.
One year, on the final day of Mid-Atlantic Leather, I had a brief conversation with a buddy of mine. He groaned and said, “Ugh. I work at eight a.m. tomorrow. M.A.L. is over. Now it’s back to reality.” Hardly aware of what I was saying, I immediately responded, “No, it’s the other way around. This is reality. That’s sleepwalking.” Later, upon reflection, I came to believe that this was true. That Master over there, holding the leash of a slave who is naked except for a jockstrap in order to be bar legal… His name is James, and he’s a corporate tax attorney. The ‘real’ there is that he is a Master. James, the guy who makes sure that the Federal tax reserve fund is sufficient for the fast food conglomerate that employs him is something that Master does when he steps out of who he really is and into a role, a role he needs to take on because the fast food conglomerate gives him money to do so. Taking on this new reality is the end-point of the transformation.
Healing may seem like an odd topic in a book written for men who have elevated hurting to an art form. But ultimately, it is the healing work you do that feeds you on your journey as a Top.
Healing for what ailments exactly? It is a nostrum oft tossed around that bottoms who seem to have psychological ailments best treated by a competent psychotherapist—chronic depression, debilitatingly low self esteem, post traumatic stress disorder from abuse suffered during childhood—are best avoided, or at the very least, handled with extreme care. And I don’t disagree with that.
The healing work that I’m thinking of tends more towards those things from which we all suffer and contend: fear, loneliness, insecurity, aimlessness, longing, bitterness, boredom, despair… and the list goes on.
That begs many questions. What can I possibly do to tackle these weighty issues? I am not a sage nor a philosopher nor a holy man. Setting myself up as someone who has these capabilities is tilting at windmills at best, and could do terrible damage at worst. Who am I to take on the problems of the world?
But don’t let the fact that you have not found The Answer (and I hope you haven’t, as people who conclude that they have found The Answer make tedious dinner guests and conversation partners, among other things) stop you from undertaking this important work and ignoring this key aspect of being a Top.
If the truth be told, none of us has managed to find the balm to these Existential problems. No one has risen above them. And therein lies the answer to the riddle.
There is an ancient tradition of the lame man who performs miracles of healing, sitting beside his crutches leaned against the wall at the gates of the city. The healer is lame himself. His infirmity is the secret source of his power.
And so is yours. The healing work of the Top is not in the diagnosing and curing of all that ails the men with whom you play. Rather, this healing work is a matter, metaphorically speaking, of opening the door to the darkness outside, stepping through the door without a flashlight, walking into the night so black you can’t see your hand in front of your face, spending time alone in the dark, and coming to realize that there, alone in the dark, is where you are at your best.
Embrace your pain. Welcome it. Draw it close. Let it whisper its secrets in your ear, difficult as they are to hear.
Since you’re a Top, this is probably not welcome. Most Tops I know don’t tolerate much in the way of inconvenience, little less pain. Making a trip to the woodshed first thing on a cold winter morning to get wood to build the morning fire is bottom’s work.
But, unless and until you know loneliness to truly be your oldest companion, you will never really be able to appreciate connection. And what’s more, until you know exactly what a small-minded, selfish, shallow, gutless, vain, and ruthless person you are (and we all are small-minded, selfish, shallow, gutless, vain, and ruthless), then you will never appreciate that tiny, redeeming, gesture of compassion, unseen by anyone but you, when you make it.
It just doesn’t work to try and hide yourself away, or even shield yourself from these tormentors. They will find you and they will bring you down.
An old friend of mine is a skilled and effective treatment educator, working with people living with HIV/AIDS. When he started doing this work, he would use military metaphors in describing the course that HIV takes when it ravages the human body, and what the immune system and the various pharmaceuticals do to stem this tide. The virus was “an invader.” The skin and mucous membrane was “the first line of defense.” The T-cells were the “Special Forces of the Immune System.” But his knowledge of the history of warfare meant that the metaphor came to break down in his mind. There will never be a way to eliminate HIV, “the invader,” from the body.
Rather, he hit upon a new metaphor, and one he still uses successfully. Imagine the human body to be a walled garden, cultivated over generations. Exotic plants from all over the world grow there, healthy and secure. The garden is vast, covering many square miles, and surrounded by a high, insurmountable wall. As with most old gardens, the plants grow without much attention at all from any gardener. Equilibrium has been obtained and overall, the eco-system is hardy.
One day, into the garden, comes a family of rabbits. They take up residence. They have no natural enemies within the walls, and so they begin to multiply. The marauding rabbits wipe out entire species, and the garden as a whole is threatened.
It will never be possible to get rid of the rabbits once they have established themselves. Poison can be introduced to keep the rabbit population down, fences can be built to protect some parts of the garden. Eventually, it is hoped, that the garden will once again obtain equilibrium, albeit changed.
Where the heck am I going with this? Since Adam ate the apple, sorrow is our lot, my friends. It’s unavoidable. Life is hard. Ultimately, you stand alone. Finally, you will die. But although it will always be a part, it’s important to remember that it is only one part of a rich and varied tapestry.
The great challenge of life is not to eliminate pain, but to be reconciled to it. And there will never come a point at which you have completely met that challenge. Even the most blissful of Buddhists has terrible moments of doubt, fear, and anguish. But, as the years go by, the struggle does get easier.
And therein lies the healing work of the Top. Your healing message to the men who submit to you is simply, “I know how it is.” All you can do, all any of us can do, is to fight our way through all of those things that keep us apart, grab hold, and be with him for a time.
“Buddy,” you may be thinking, “I don’t know how you play, but that doesn’t describe any scene that I’ve ever done.” And that may be so. But if you’re any good at this—and as our Forty-second President was fond of saying, “Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while,” so even if you’re not much good at it—there is probably a bottom out there who would read that, think back on that cock-and-ball torture scene you and he did a few years back, and be thinking, “Yes! That’s exactly what it was like! That’s what he did. He broke through. All the defenses I put up to keep him away failed. There I was, alone with him in the universe. God, what a night. I’ve never been the same person since then. I’ll always remember him and that night we had together and the bond that we established will last forever.”
Trust me on that one.
In 19__, there was a big brouhaha at Harvard. Someone vandalized the offices of the gay and lesbian student organization. I can only imagine that the experience was jarring for the gay men and lesbians on campus. Thinking themselves to be in some safe haven, they were confronted with the fact that they were, in fact, hated.
A rally of sorts was held, and it was well attended. Many students and faculty who were not gay- or lesbian-identified showed up and spoke in solidarity. Among them was Peter Gomes, the chaplain to Harvard. Reverend Gomes was an African-American Baptist minister, and was known for his conservative politics. He had been against divestiture of the University’s assets in South Africa to combat Apartheid there. Reverend Gomes said something extraordinary: “It is a lie to say that Christianity and homosexuality are irreconcilable, for they are reconciled in me.”
Beyond the poignancy of Reverend Gomes’ coming out as a gay man, the account of this has always stayed with me. Reconciliation is the great struggle of all of our lives. We reconcile ourselves to our genetic inheritance, to our society, to our family, to the hand that Fate has dealt us in so many ways. But the greatest struggle is to reconcile the forces within us, the various aspects of ourselves.
S/M has a vital role to play in this process. In S/M, everything is good, or can be. Pain is good. Piss is good. Shit is good. The desire to inflict pain, or to have pain inflicted, is good. As my stoner buddies would say, “It’s all good.”
But coming to this point is a process, and the name for that process is reconciliation. And this is not about navel gazing. Quite the reverse. Those lessons we learn from and teach one another.
For awhile, I dated a wonderful man (we’re still very good friends) who was into scat. I was very much not into scat. I still don’t know that I would say that I’m into scat. I’m not turned on by it. But through this man—this deeply spiritual, kind, and very human man—I came to see that shit is good.
It happened when he was fucking me. There I was, in the sling, getting plowed. I was ‘dirty,’ as they say. This hadn’t been planned, I hadn’t cleaned myself out. I learned that I had a butt full of the brown stuff when he looked down, smiled, and said, “Aw, sweet.” Then, he grabbed his dick, got it all over his hands, and wiped it on my chest and belly.”
It was a beautiful moment. He loved shit. And he loved me. And both of these things that he loved were present for him. And I got to be a part of that union.
Thus was I reconciled to shit. Thus I came to understand that shit is good. Make no mistake, it’s chock full of parasites and coliform bacteria and all manner of things that are not at all good for you and are best avoided, but in and of itself, it’s good.
To be a conscientious objector in the battle for reconciliation is to wall off parts of the world that you deem to be ‘bad.’ Pain is bad. Shit is bad. This desire I have is bad. Sex other than in the context of a committed, monogamous relationship and in the missionary position with the lights out is bad. Those people are bad. That place is bad.
Eventually, the territory of your life shrinks down to a very small plot. And if you keep building walls, eventually, you will find yourself alone there.
In the context of S/M, those are what we refer to as ‘limits.’ Everybody has limits, and everyone involved in S/M should think long and hard about what those limits are. Anyone who says he’s looking for a no-limits scene is to be regarded with suspicion, and anyone who says he has no limits is either lying or clueless. We all have limits, because the struggle to be reconciled is a lifelong struggle, and the goal, integration, is an ideal we probably will never reach.
That said, it is the special role of the Top to expand limits. Always. In every scene. Doing it a lot can be traumatic. If he says his limits are ‘no scat,’ then tying him down and taking a shit in his face is probably not going to have a result that will be in any way desirable. But always find out what your partner’s limits are, so you know what lesson you have to teach him. And the only lesson really is “That thing which you feel is bad is really good.” Of course, the firmer the limit (the higher the wall), the more cunning will have to be your lesson. But imagination and creativity are the lifeblood of being a Top. If you don’t have those, you might want to consider switching sides.
Okay. Maybe not.
But I digress.
Of course, teaching the lesson that the thing at the other side of the wall is a good thing can only be taught if you believe in what you’re saying. And this means that the other job of the Top (I know, I know, I know. I keep piling it on, don’t I?) is to discern your own limits, and go out and find someone who can teach you the lesson of what the good there that you’re missing out on.
The best thing about being a Top is you can do it on the bus. Seriously. And you should. Skills and technique are important, but the most important item in your repertoire is learning to use your imagination. Just yesterday, riding the subway back to the office from a meeting, I sat across from a man I took to be a construction worker, just getting off work. He was about fifty. His face had been clean-shaven yesterday morning, but now had dense black stubble. His face was tan. He was powerfully built. He had intelligent eyes, a big nose, a square jaw. He looked like he could be something of a hell-raiser. Work hard, play hard. He sat down across from me, glanced at me briefly and a hint of a smile of acknowledgement flashed across his face. “Hey, Guy. ‘Afternoon.”
I closed my book and got to work.
Chains, I thought. I’d take him to some abandoned warehouse in an industrial park and chain him up. Against the wall, medieval dungeon style? No. His wrists chained behind his back, a heavy steel collar, and about a three or four foot length of chain welded to the collar and bolted to the floor. Not long enough for him to get too far away from his own piss and shit.
He’d rage. He’d bellow. Tell me to go fuck myself, fucking faggot that I am. Maybe he’d try to talk his way out of it. “Listen, I’ve got a family. I’ve got responsibilities. You can’t just keep me here like this.” Yeah. Yeah, I can.
Or possibly, “People are gonna come looking for me. You’re not gonna get away with this. I know plenty of guys who are cops, guys I grew up with. They’ll find you.” No they won’t. They might look for you, but they’re probably not going to be looking here in a warehouse two states away. No, you’re mine.
Who can say how long it would take to break him. If it would be weeks or months before he’d be licking my boots like a dog, humbly offering up his ass for me. How long before the famous Stockholm Syndrome, whereby prisoners come to fall in love with their captors on whom they are dependent for everything, took full effect?
My stop is announced. I catch his eye and give him a smile, depart the train and head back to my job.
That may seem pointless, but it’s not. What if he was not someone I was sitting across from on a train, but someone I met in a bar and who said, “I’d really like to hook up with you sometime, Sir.” How would I go about doing a scene with this man? What journey could I take him on? Without having access to a well-cultivated imagination, we’d probably end up fucking.
But, when opportunities to play present themselves to me, my first step is to let my imagination run wild, and take it wherever it wants to take me.
Wherever? Absolutely. No holds barred. Snuff, castration, longpig, annihilation… Wherever. And it’s important to do that. The fantasy may be yours, but to some degree, it springs from what you observe in the bottom. It’s what he wants and needs. It’s where you want to take him. Then, both of you will be very happy.
Now comes the hard part. After you’ve let yourself be immersed in your wicked imagination, step back, play it through a few times in your head. What are the core elements of the scene you’ve just envisioned? How could they be played out safely?
To continue with the example of Subway Guy, I was no doubt reacting to a certain self-assurance, perhaps even a cockiness that he exhibited. I’d want to do a scene with him that put him totally under my power and at my mercy. I’d want it to sink in slowly that he had no options. I was the only one with control in that situation. And I’d want to piss on him. Or, better yet, have him piss all over himself. And get to the point where he would love that.
So there we’d be. He’d be bound securely to a bondage table that could elevate his head to about a 45 degree angle and back again to flat horizontal, immobilized by an intricate web of rope. I’d try not to make it a public scene, and I’d make sure we had a lot of time to ourselves.
“Thirsty?” I’d ask, and give him a good long drink of water. Then some more. And more. I’d have a few gallons of cold water near at hand. “Drink up, thirsty boy.” After he had downed a considerable amount, I’d wait it out, maybe gently massaging his lower abdomen over his kidneys. Pretty soon, he’d say, “Sir, I have to take a piss.”
“So piss,” I’d say. It might take a moment for the implications of this to sink in. I’d move the table from the angle position (where he could drink and not choke) to horizontal.
“Piss. Let’s see it.”
Time is on my side. Eventually, he’d have no choice. Out it would come, like a fountain, streams of hot piss, soaking his crotch, running over his chest. I’d make no move to direct the flow, just let him piss all over himself. After the flow stopped, I’d wait some more.
“Look at you, boy. You pissed all over yourself, dincha? Your soaked. You like that? You like pissing all over yourself? You love that, huh? Fuckin piss pig, arncha? You love being soaked in your own piss, huh?”
Once I got him saying, “Yes, Sir! I love being soaked in my own piss, Sir!” I’d start working his cock, making him repeat it till he shot his load.
In both cases, my fantasy and in the scene, I took parallel paths and got to the same destination. I’m sure that I didn’t think this up on my own, but that something in him, albeit intuitive, pointed me in the direction he wanted to go. The fact that it sprung from my head assured me that I’d enjoy taking him there. For some bottoms, that scene would be pedestrian, a real yawner. For others, it would be playing way too heavy. But I do not doubt that because it sprang from the interplay of our energies and personalities, for him it would be just right.
And then, there is another equally important aspect of imagination. Who are you? Sometime when you jerk off, take a moment afterwards and consider who you were in whatever fantasy played itself out. Think about how it took shape, emerging and becoming more distinct. Get a good, clear picture of you as you appeared in this dream. What did you look like? What were you wearing? Where were you? What was your relationship to others in the dream? What did you do? How did they respond to you?
And here’s the clincher: how closely do you as you are in the waking world approximate your fantastic alter ego? How could you become the person you are in your imagination? What would it take?
Possibly, it could be very simple: redouble your efforts at the gym, or buy a leather biker jacket. If it’s not so simple—if, in fact, there’s a wide gulf separating you from being Dr. No torturing James Bond, that’s fine. As a matter of fact, that’s great. Your imagination is fertile indeed. Then, just as with the scene, play through the images again in your head, and try to find the parallel path. What is your demeanor? What skills and equipment did you have? What was your personality like? Where did you live and how did you live? What is it like to have a conversation with you?
The more you think through these ideas, the farther you go down the path of transforming yourself into the person your imagination tells you to be.
Have you ever noticed that everybody on the planet has abduction fantasies? I don’t care who you are, at one point or another, if you’ve allowed yourself (and God help you if you’re so repressed you haven’t), you’ve had a serious abduction fantasy.
I’m not Sigmund Freud, but I think it’s fairly obvious what’s happening there: “Take my life, please.” Get me out of here. Let me just disappear. Take me away and force me to pour beer for cowboys in some seedy bar in Winnemucca. Whatever.
The bad news is, no one is going to abduct you. It’s just not going to happen. The good news is, you have an alternative. I believe strongly that at least once in your life, you need to stage your own kidnapping. You need to ransack your apartment, write a ransom note, leave your home, go to the bus station wearing a disguise, and hop on the first bus heading for Far Away.
Okay. Maybe nothing quite so dramatic. But all of us spend roughly the first half of our lives living a life that was planned for us by others, whether it be your parents, your peers, or society at large. It works for a while. They’re all happy, why can’t you be happy, too? But sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself looking over your shoulder in hopes of seeing the unmarked van pull up and the three guys with the duct tape and the burlap bag jump out to take you out of there. The road you’re on is taking you nowhere, you’ve got to find the road you want to be on.
And how do you find that road? The answer, of course, is to let your imagination guide you. I’m willing to bet that the distance between you as you are and you as you appear in your masturbatory fantasies has a direct correlation to whether you’ve already staged your own kidnapping or whether that’s something you’ve yet to do.
And one final way that the imagination is important to the Way of the Top. Everyday, the content of your imagination alters a little or a lot by virtue of the experience you have, the things you think about, the conversations you have, the books you read, the movies you watch, the crises you encounter, the battles you fight, the terrors you confront, the wonderful moments you encounter. It’s never ending. And so, your imagination always (always!) has new roads to lead you down. Even if you’ve been playing with the same man exclusively for the past half a century, there will always be new worlds to conquer for the Top who has the courage to leap on the back of his imaginative faculties as onto some feral stallion, and ride that beast wherever it decides to take you.
The Top as Agent of Change and Transformation
He calls. Or sends you email. Or approaches you at an event. He’s full of compliments. Your reputation precedes you. He’s heard you’re really good at what you do. He’s interested in a dog training scene. He smiles, and he has a really winning smile. “Turn me into your dog, Sir,” he says.
So you figure out a time when it’s good for both of you. You tell him to present himself on his knees wearing only a jockstrap and boots outside your door at eight o’clock sharp. You open the door and there he is.
On goes the collar. On goes the leash. On goes the muzzle. You put him through his paces. Time in the cage. Drinking from the dog dish. Fetching. Sitting and heeling. Time in the cage. Pissing on the paper.
You’re really good at this. He’s hard the whole time. You permit him to cum by humping your leg. And then lick it up.
He leaves with that goofy satisfied grin on his face. You close the door. Breathe a sigh. Go back to doing your crossword puzzle.
When did this start to feel so much like work?
It’s the Robo-Top Syndrome. You’re in a rut. You’re the S/M equivalent of the artist Cindy Sherman, stuck for the rest of your career doing basically the same thing. That’s what you’re good at, and that’s what the people want.
It’s difficult to put your finger on the missing element. You only do scenes with men you find hot. You make sure you push their limits. You play with men with a diverse range of experience, from first timers to seasoned pros. How did it all get to feel stale?
What’s missing is that it’s become safe for you. You’ve allowed yourself to get too comfortable. Think back on the first time you did that scene that you’ve now become so good at, that’s become your trademark. Your mind was racing: “What’s next? Did I forget anything? Oh hell, where did I put that? Is he having a good time? Does he have any idea how nervous I am? Damn! I forgot to put unplug the phone—what if my mother calls in the middle of this? What if I make a fool of myself in front of him? The blindfold is slipping. The ankle restraints are hanging off of him—I was worried about making them too tight and now they’re too loose.”
But afterwards, you were exhilarated. What’s missing is risk. As in, putting yourself at risk.
It’s not enough to say that the missing element is Change. A Top must be an agent of change, ushering in transformation in himself and in the men he plays with. In many mystical traditions—the Tarot, dream interpretation, Shamanic traditions—death is understood not as the end of everything, but as a symbol of profound transformation. If you have a dream wherein you die or you’re dying, this (your Shaman will tell you) is a powerful sign that you need to kill yourself. You need to jump off the cliff, throw yourself into the raging river, jump in front of the train. The life you are living is not your life, it’s someone else’s life. You need to get rid of it altogether. It’s painful, not just for yourself but for those around you who have also grown all to comfortable with the person that you are and the life that you’re living.
And, it’s terrifying. It’s going to hurt. A lot. And perhaps like many Tops, when it comes to pain, you draw the line at inconvenience.
Imagine that you’ve soaked yourself with gasoline, and your sitting there preparing to strike the match. It will all be over in just a few moments, and then you’ll be free. All that trash will be burned away. You’ll be raw and pure and new. But there’s a lot of pain involved, and so you are very, very afraid.
But in every scene that you do, you need to creep out to the edge of the precipice, and be ready, if you come to know that it’s right, to leap off into the void. In every scene, you’ve got to be right out there on the edge.
And how to make this happen? There’s no sure recipe for this, because there couldn’t be. It involves a plunge into the unknown, and it’s difficult to build the unknown into the equation.
The best you can do is to listen intently for the voice of inspiration, the change that comes with the wind.
Edgar Allan Poe describes this in one of his stories as ‘the Imp of the Perverse,’ a little devil that appears at some crucial moment and says, “Yeah, do that. Go on. You know you want to. Do that.”
Say your fucking him. And things start to get pretty messy. You’re not into scat. He’s not into scat. But suddenly you’re inspired. Smear that shit all over his chest, those firm round pecs he’s so proud of. There is, of course, the chance that he’ll flip out, he’ll sing out the safeword right there. Tell you you’re abusive. Tell everybody in the club that you’re a psycho scat freak who doesn’t respect limits. This could destroy the solid reputation you’ve worked so hard to establish. This could destroy you. This is a doorway, and you have no idea what’s on the other side.
Or say he’s a very experienced pain pig. You’re doing a piercing scene. He’s got more needles sticking out of him than a porcupine. He’s having a blast. Urging you on. “Oh fuck Sir, my cock? Oh fuck yeah. Put them all the way through my cock, Sir. Oh yeah.” And you stop. Without a word, you remove the needles. He looks confused, wondering if he did something wrong. And then you get down on your knees and blow him, taking his cock down your throat for all your worth. You hate giving blow jobs. This is not the way you play. This is not the way he plays. What’s come over you? You’ve fallen in love with this beautiful man. You want to devote yourself wholly to his pleasure, to suck his dick forever. So much for the you that you thought you knew.
If it’s all getting stale and tired, if you’re feeling like you’re just going through the motions, it just means you’ve become blind and deaf. And the only way out is to take an ax to all of it. Listen hard for the voice that comes on the wind, and do whatever insane and terrible thing that voice whispers in your ear. The only thing you have to lose is your life, and that’s never a bad thing.
Not you, but through you: Humility and the Top
Where do you get off, Buddy? Who the hell do you think you are? You’re just a guy. You’re just a guy like every other guy. What’s with this Shaman-healer-warrior-sage stuff? Like you don’t have rotting Chinese take-out food in your fridge like the rest of us.
Give me a break.
So where do you get off? Who told you that you were qualified to be a Top? To take another man to the gaping chasm of Hades, dangle him over the edge by his ankles so he gets a good look, then reel him back, thereby changing his life forever. You got a degree in that or something?
We’re playing with fire, no argument there. And most of the time, in a really deep scene, we’re in way over our heads. This is not a game for the very stupid or the very shallow.
To be sure, there are things that we can do, and that as Tops we should do. For one thing, it is crucial to spend a lot of time in your own head, wrestling with your own demons. Because that demon you’ve been trying to ignore and suppress will be in the pilot’s seat when you fly that next mission. And then there’s compassion and connection.
Not so long ago (okay, yesterday as I write this), I was involved in a very heavy scene. Crying, screaming, begging for mercy that didn’t come. Together, we were able to just go hog wild. The image that came to mind while I reflected on what had gone down was a vast glacier. And somewhere on that glacier a fire raged. Consuming, destroying, out of control. The fire was the scene, the unrestrained brutality. And the glacier? The glacier was the connection between us, and the compassion that united us. So ultimately, the glacier would be intact. There’s probably a formula there, for how big the glacier has to be to ignite a firestorm of whatever size. But suffice it to say that the greater the measure of compassion and connection, the wilder things can get.
But in any scene—from the most dramatic and life-altering to the simple application of clothespins to the nipples of a man with his hands cuffed behind his back—there’s that sense that you get, that awe that comes over you. You’re in awe not of yourself (I hope), but more in awe of the reaction that this has elicited in your partner.
There he is. On his knees. Servicing your boots. Saying, “Thank you, Sir. Omigod, that was amazing, Sir.” And you’re just a guy. A guy with forgotten Chinese take-out rotting in your fridge.
If you want to make it all about you, to believe your own rave reviews, then probably sooner rather than later, you’ll be hoisted on your own petard. That way disaster lies.
No. It’s about humility. You are but an actor, playing your part in a piece of theater that was authored by the universe. Just remember your lines, and try not to trip over the furniture.
That may seem harsh. But trust me. I’m as vain as the next guy, and I need the same splintered timbers to prop up my own teetering sense of self esteem. But it’s the better way to go. What you’ll find, when you agree that ultimately, you’re not in charge of all of this, is that your efforts will find favor with the leather gods, and Grace will enter in. That is when the magic happens. That’s when both of you touch something that is not human, but part of eternity itself.
Humility may not be easy, especially for someone as good at bondage as you are, but it sure is rewarding.
Pain as a Tool
“No blood, no scat, no pain.” I hate to see that in personal ads and on-line profiles. To my mind, it’s like ordering a slice of crust-less pizza with no cheese and no tomato sauce. You’re going to get a plate with a little oregano. But to be fair, pain is widely misunderstood, especially by beginners. Our society is geared towards seeking pleasure, and commonly mistakes pain for the antithesis of pleasure.
When chatting up boys who have this misconception, I say things like, think about the pain from a really good workout, or, have you ever gotten a massage? Or what about the pain from jalapeno peppers? There’s pain involved there, right?
That’s the pain we’re talking about. Good pain. Not headache pain or oral surgery pain or stub your toe pain. Often, “intense sensation” or some similar turn of phrase is used to denote pain in S/M workshops. But, that is a euphemism, and when you hear a euphemism being used, it puts you on your guard: someone is trying to get something over on you. So I’m going to call the pain we’re talking about ‘pain.’
And when you get right down to it, we’re really talking about the entire spectrum of pain. Pain is a tool of the Top that is used in many different ways.
I’m no neurobiologist, but from what I’ve read, and in my own experience, it all boils down to endorphins. I came to an understanding of endorphins when I read a theory of why nature has given us this great gift: endorphins are there so that women can undergo childbirth. When I came by that bit of information, it all made sense to me. A friend of mine once recounted to me her experience giving birth. She said that the pain is unimaginable and indescribably. She absolutely wanted to die. She had never, ever felt anything like that. It was as though she was being torn apart. And, in a way, she was being torn apart. But, the instant the baby was out, the primary source of the pain was suddenly gone. Immediately, she suddenly was filled to overflowing with joy and bliss, she felt connected to every living thing. She was crying and laughing at the same time. She felt herself to be floating, buoyant with love. That’s endorphins for ya.
In the case of childbirth, endorphins are triggered by the pains of labor. Understanding this is important. Contractions begin as uncomfortable muscle spasms, slowly accelerate in frequency and increase in the amount of pain that they’re causing. So, if your goal is to trigger an endorphin response in your bottom, you’ll want to start slowly and build slowly.
But, pain doesn’t necessarily trigger an endorphin response. When you stub your toe getting out of the shower, those aren’t endorphins you’re feeling as you’re hopping around in the bathroom swearing a blue streak, that would be adrenaline.
Adrenaline is the basis of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Imagine yourself walking through the woods and suddenly coming upon a huge, snarling dog. The physiological response is to enable you to either fend off an attack or get the hell out of there. Your pupils dilate to let in as much light as possible, and with it the sensory information. Your blood vessels dilate, as the muscles in your limbs will need as much oxygen as they can get for the action to come and your brain will need oxygen to be fully awake. However, those parts of you that won’t be necessary for fight or flight are shut down. These include your higher cognitive functions and unessential muscle systems, such as your G.I. tract, and the muscles that keep the urine in your bladder (“I was so scared I pissed in my pants.)
Much of the training that men in the military undergo is to ensure that when they are in the throes of an adrenaline response, they won’t need to think about anything. Rather, their actions and reactions in combat will be automatic.
Often in play, Tops seek to induce an endorphin response, and the scene doesn’t go well when the bottom starts pumping out adrenaline (and has a panic attack) instead. I would argue that although they result in very different scenes, either response can be used effectively by the Top.
What pain—any prolonged, intense pain—brings about in the bottom is an altered state of consciousness. The way their brains and bodies work is changed dramatically by pain. To undergo pain is to discover a new way of experiencing the world. And that’s the key.
In my experience, single tail whipping is the sine qua non for inducing an endorphin response. You build slowly, and flagellation is, of course, a rhythmic activity. Also, because auditory data reaches your brain before sensation does, once the brain comes to associate the crack of the whip with pain, the body will begin to pump out endorphins whether or not the cracker of the whip is connecting with the skin or not. It works every time.
And the resulting endorphin response is just like my friend giving birth: beyond words.
And although whipping is the easiest way I know to induce an endorphin response, it’s by no means the only way. Punching, clothespins, needles, knives, cock-and-ball torture, tit clamps can also do the trick, if done right.
Not infrequently, the endorphin response is presented as the ‘good’ result in discussions of technique, and an adrenaline response is to be avoided. But, given that in both cases we’re talking about an altered state of consciousness, I see no reason why an adrenaline response can’t be the vehicle to take a bottom on an amazing—albeit different—journey.
Imagine a scene where the bottom is securely restrained, to the point of being powerless. And hooded as well, so that his senses are profoundly impaired. For a while, all is still. His heart rate slows, his breathing becomes deeper, he relaxes. The room is warm and comfortable. He feels himself to be ‘in his body.’
Wham! Out of the blue comes a left cross. He sees starts. Although muzzled, he cries out. Wham! Again a blow. Then a pause. His breath is shallow. He’s panting. His heart is racing. Is that the end? Wham! Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! Wham! He’s panicking. He struggles violently but in vain against his restraints. Wham! “Sir, please, stop…” Wham! The blows come at random, at different parts of his body. He can’t protect himself. Wham! He’s crying, he’s begging, he’s yelling. Wham! Wham! “You’re a fucking asshole! I hate you!” Wham!
He is powerless. He’s helpless. Resistance is futile. He’s not having a good time. He would like nothing more than the chance to hit back, and beat you into the ground. He is raging. He hates you. He wants it to end, but it doesn’t. It goes on and on and on.
This is deep submission. A powerful scene like this can only be the fruit of years of experience for a bottom, and a strong relationship of trust between the bottom and the Top. I’ve met several bottoms who want exactly this kind of scene. When I start talking to them about getting whipped and what an amazing experience that endorphin rush is going to be, they’re looking at their watch and glancing over their shoulder to see if anybody is around who can offer them what they’re looking for, as I obviously can’t. Make no mistake, bottoms like this are few and far between. But they are out there.
There is another variety of pain that merits attention: verbal domination: reducing a bottom to tears through words alone. Again, this is a scene that few bottoms are able to endure, and, frankly, few Tops are skilled enough to undertake. I certainly will not be leading a workshop any time soon.
In fact, I once witnessed a public humiliation scene at my local leather watering hole. The Top had his boy collared, leashed, and cuffed at his feet. (So far, so good. Seeing a man on a leash never fails to get me hard.) And then the Top started to seriously lay into his boy. “You’re a piece of shit, aren’t you, boy?” “Sir, yes Sir!” “What are you, boy?” “I’m a piece of shit, Sir! I’m a worthless piece of shit!” “That’s right boy, you’re a worthless piece of shit.”
As I watched, I felt rising within me the desire to approach, tap the Top on the shoulder, tell him that if there was a piece of shit at the end of the leash, it would be on his end, and clock him. Having disposed of him, I’d help the boy to his feet, dust him off, give him a hug, and buy him a beer.
I didn’t do that, but that is what I very much wanted to do. I can only imagine the boy responding when I punched his Sir’s lights out wish some pugilism of his own, directed at me. These are complex and weighty scenes, and for the most part, the specifics of the psychology elude me. But, just like whipping, just like a well placed boot to the balls, it’s pain we’re dealing with here.
Pain is pain is pain. And life is pain. We are born in pain, and more often than not we die in pain, and there is a lot of pain in between. Pain is a part of life. It is inescapable. In the Twenty First Century, we have succeeded in insulating ourselves from pain in a way that has never before been the case. Domestic comforts, free market capitalism, and medical science have reduced pain to being an infrequent and unwelcome visitor. It was not so in the very recent past, where the pain of hunger, the pain of rotting teeth, the pain of hard labor, the pain of aching feet, the pain of all the many maladies that are now readily treatable, the pain of bedbug bites, and the pain of humiliation of living in a rigidly hierarchical society were all part of daily life. Probably, the majority of people in the Nineteenth Century spent almost all of their lives in pain of one kind or another. With no great amount of effort, it is easy to reduce the great religions of the world to nothing more than pain management systems. To be alive was to be in pain.
With the near eradication of pain, what have we lost? Perhaps a great deal. Several years ago, I was working as the director of a small community based organization. On staff was a young woman of twenty-three. She had been valedictorian of her high school class, a track and field start in her home state, and was graduated from the college she attended summa cum laude. In the wake of a failed romance, she died of a drug overdose. Among other things, it was left to me to call her parents and tell them that their daughter was dead. The entire experience was terrible. There was nothing I could do but pray and endure. One night, in the thick of the tragedy, I was standing on the deck behind my house. It was a cold, November night. I went out on the deck to talk with God and ask for his help. Standing there shivering, looking up at the few stars that were out that night, I was visited with a strange sensation, one that completely took me by surprise: rarely in my life have I felt so alive. In managing this unmanageable situation, in doing so many things that were hard and which I would rather not do, in persisting in not running away or locking myself in my room until it was all over, I was challenged, active, and engaged in a way I had rarely had been before. Don’t get me wrong, the death of one so young and so full of promise was far to great a price to pay, for any moment of spiritual insight, but in that moment, I gained what I believe to be new understanding of pain.
Pain tells you who you are. Pain shows you that you are stronger than you ever imagined yourself to be. Pain guides your fingers to the slender threads leading out of the dark labyrinth that you didn’t know where there. Pain is ultimately a great gift.
And pain is the Tops gift to give. There is a small but important difference between happiness and joy. In many respects, happiness is not difficult to achieve. Fill your life with comfort and friends and sunrises, don’t watch the news and remain untroubled by the misery of the world, think only ‘good’ thoughts, and beyond everything else, do not love, because in doing so you will open yourself up to the pain of loss. Seeking happiness is a process of shielding your gaze from everything that is not only painful, but merely unpleasant. Seeking joy, however, means not going around, but going through. Joy is the whole enchilada, all those good parts, and at the same time, all those things we would really rather not undergo. Joy comes to those who look back on all the times they thought, “That’s it. I can’t go on. I can’t endure this,” but find themselves to be still here.
Pain, and joy, are the Tops gifts to give, in packages great and small.
I believe that true sadists—people who enjoy deliberately causing pain in others—are few and far between. What the Top wants to give is not pain for its own sake, but the joy and the wisdom and the rebirth that comes with pain. The relationship of absolute trust that enables one man to say, “give me pain” and another man to give it is one of the most intimate relationships any two people can share. Ultimately, it’s all about pain.
“Do you have a dungeon?” That question hits me all to frequently coming on Instant Messages from boys on the internet who are looking for some good play. “I wish.” O that I had the resources for a dungeon, the design of which is my one of my favorite subjects for daydreaming. I’ve seen some magnificent dungeons. I know a couple in Manhattan who are heavily into fisting. In the wake of combining their adjoining apartments into one living space they found themselves with one kitchen more than they needed. That kitchen is now a rubber lined room with a drain in the floor and a sling that it pretty famous. A cell, a tiger cage, a St. Andrew’s Cross, a floating bondage table, and security-code opened steel doors grace an amazing dungeon I’ve seen in St. Louis. Barns and other outbuildings become amazing play spaces.
But I am an apartment dweller. Bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, and a sort of all-purpose room are my lot in life. The ‘all purpose room,’ which I usually call my den, has a television, daybed, a few chairs, a desk, and my St. Andrew’s Cross. It works marginally well, although as my desk is perpetually cluttered, I always worry about the guy up on my cross noticing that my electric bill should have been paid a few weeks ago. Alas for me.
But why is this so important? What’s wrong with me setting up a cross in the same room where I watch television, write, pay bills, and iron my shirts?
I believe the crux of the issue is Sacred Space. Sacred Space is where we encounter the divine. When it works, your reaction is automatic. I can still remember vividly visiting an ancient pueblo on a visit to New Mexico. At the center of the abandoned settlement was a kiva, the sacred space of the Anasazi people who lived there. The kiva was a round, covered, hole in the ground. You descended by a steep stairway. There was a small hole, like an oculus, in the middle of the roof, where smoke escaped from the fire that would have been built in the center. Entering the kiva, I descended the steep stairway. Outside, it was 98 degrees underneath the strong desert sun. In the kiva, the air was cool. The light was dim. At first, I was dazzled and saw nothing until my eyes adjusted. It smelled of the earth, and my imagination conjured the acrid sweet smell of mesquite. A low bench, cut out of the living rock, surrounded the room, which was neither large nor small. As I adjusted, my heart rate slowed. My mind grew quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Images and ideas came into my mind like animals visiting a watering hole: the boundaries between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind grew hazy. I was in sacred space.
I’ve felt the same constellation of sensations visiting cathedrals in France, Paleolithic rock formations in the West of Ireland, country churches and Quaker meetinghouses, those odd clearings in a dense woods sometimes called faerie circles.
The Irish refer to them as ‘thin places,’ where the supernatural and the natural worlds meet. A sacred space can be large (such as the entire city of Benares on the holy river Ganges) or small, such as the Russian orthodox tradition of devoting a corner of the room to the household icons.
If you agree that what men are seeking when they come to you is some nameless desire that has something to do with healing and transformation, then it becomes obvious why a Top is so often judged (or mis-judged) on the quality of his dungeon. That’s why my desk and the television are so jarring. They don’t belong in there. The dungeon is sacred space.
What constitutes sacred space? What elements should go into the planning of your dungeon? The following roster of considerations might be thought of as some good first steps.
Mindfulness and Simplicity
Loose the desk, the television, and the ironing board for pete’s sake. Less is always more. Think of your dungeon as a garden. A good beginning, if workable, might be to take everything out of the space. Then, one by one, bring in each item. As you bring in each item, think about whether or not it is absolutely necessary to have it in there. What contribution does this item make? You want the men you bring there to go to the deepest parts of themselves. Is the clever cartoon from clipped out of the old Drummer magazine going to help that process or hinder that process? As you bring each item into your dungeon, bless it. A good blessing, and one I say to myself when I acquire some new tool, is: “Ten Thousand Wonderful Scenes.”
There is a story about Karl Jung that I love. Jung had a cabin in the Swiss Alps where he would go to work and think and get away from his busy life of obligations. On one trip he made there, he took one of his students with him to help set up, as he had been away from his retreat for a long time. Jung’s student heard the good doctor talking, and thought that he was being addressed. He found his way to where Jung was, in the kitchen, and was shocked and probably appalled to hear Jung addressing himself to the various utensils in the kitchen. Saying things like, “Hello, skillet! It’s been a long time! Do you remember me? Do you remember the wonderful venison steaks we’ve made together? Can you still work your magic with Spaetzel?” After inquiring if Dr. Jung might like to lie down as the trip might have left him exhausted, the student was treated to a lecture on how we encounter the workings of our unconscious mind as objective reality. In other words, Jung was praying to the skillet. The fact that the skillet was insensible and inanimate was beside the point. Jung was focusing his energies on reacquainting his memories and his skills and talents on cooking good meals for himself. The easiest way to do this was to have a chat with the pots and pans.
So take a page from Dr. Jung’s book. “Hello, flogger. This is your home. This will be your domain. You will sing through the air and find your mark. You will be a tool of ecstasy. This hook is where you will wait patiently.”
So your dungeon will be assembled.
If, like me, you don’t have an entire room—or a whole building—to devote to this endeavor, no need to be discouraged. A corner of the room will do. Ideally, have the sightlines be such that your bottoms will be able to only have dungeon space in their line of vision, rather than your washer and dryer. It’s entirely possible to have a dungeon serve double duty. The other use could be a bedroom, just make sure that you make sure that nothing in the second purpose will detract significantly from the primary purpose. In other words, find another place for your family photos.
If you live in a part of the country with a climate that permits outdoor play during a good portion of the year, and you have the luxury of land available to you, by all means take advantage of that dell or mesa or canyon or clearing in the woods. A dungeon doesn’t need to have a roof and four walls.
Catering to the Senses: The Visual
The eyes are the primary vehicle for your brain to receive data about the world around you. The eyes are easily fooled, but overall, you rely on them to tell you about the world you’re living in. Dimension, color, light, and visual imagery are the primary components of vision with which we need to conern ourselves, and I’ll deal with each in turn. Dimension is easy, a continuum between large and small. Architects are fond of the term ‘human scale.’ The wide open spaces of the International Style, for example, are called by critics vast to the point of being dehumanizing. People simply get lost in the picture. To enter a space designed by the architect Le Corbusier is to feel yourself to be insignificant. When the building in question is a government building, this can be can be problematic. “Proto-fascist” is a term oft applied to the complex of buildings housing the government of New York State called Empire State Plaza in Albany. Although insignificance might be a lesson you are attempting to teach a bottom, the larger the space, the more difficult it will be to establish intimacy. If you have a very large space to work with (that, I think, would be a good example of ‘the embarrassment of riches’), do your best to break up the space to create more intimate areas.
On the issue of color, black would be the obvious choice, but not the only choice. Battleship gray works well, as does the purity of white. Pastel tones are probably best avoided. Opt for richly saturated colors, whatever way you decide to go. There are college courses taught and books written on the psychology of color, and it might be best to investigate these before you take paintbrush and roller in hand and commit yourself to hot pink or sunshine yellow. My own personal favorite is a vibrant orange. In the hanky code, orange is the color of ‘Anything, anytime’ when worn on the left. Also, I once was informed that orange is a very healing color. Orange is the color of the harvest moon and the setting sun. Orange is the color of burning embers and molten iron and lava. Orange is the color of the tigers stripes. Orange is the color of my dungeon.
When it comes to light, it’s best to remember that Shaman’s work in the dark. Paleolithic people sought out caves for protection. Entering a dark room is returning to the safety of the womb and delving into the subconscious. A room lit only by candles draws your eye and lends itself to meditation. And that’s a problem. Most scenes depend on good lighting. Those red gels over the spot lights will not be helpful during a flogging scene. The solution: a good blindfold and a dimmer switch. You bring in your boy to that dark, candlelit room, get him into position, and then apply the blindfold. Then, you up the lights to the point that you have no problem seeing everything you need to see.
And as to visual images, visit a monastery if you can. Or on your next trip to New York City, visit the Cloisters Museum. Although usually minimalist in décor, most monasteries have visual cues here and there intended for use as fodder for meditation. A snatch of some holy text is the obvious vehicle. But a quatrefoil design could give rise to consideration of how the creator filled up the natural world to the Cross of Calvary. Something subtle and open to multiple interpretations works best. An art historian of my acquaintance once suggested a little exercise for appreciating a work of art that might be helpful: imagine if this painting was the whole of your experience; stare at it intently, taking it in, letting it fill up your mind to the exclusion of all else. How do you feel? Where does it take you? Notice the changes that happen to your interior experience. If you pretty quickly exhaust the possibilities, you might call the work facile or shallow. Overall, I tend to like sparse design, especially in my dungeon. As for erotic art, if it has an obvious and simple narrative that it suggests, I’ll probably hang it in the bedroom rather than the dungeon. But with these principles—however vaguely articulated—in mind, feel free to spruce up the place.
Catering to the Senses: The Auditory
Go to your music library. Find the Enigma CD or cassette or whatever media bares that excrescence. Break it into small pieces. Thank you. Every time I hear “Sade, Dites-moi” in a continuous loop, I pray to God that it’s the last time. But it never seems to be. The alternatives are limitless, from Gregorian chant to German metal to the songs of whales or wolves. Silence isn’t the worst thing in the world either, depending on the scene. As one Top of my acquaintance put it, “Anything my bottom won’t be singing along to.” True, there are pitfalls. When your bottom has a violent reaction to Maria Callas—one way or the other—it could be a distraction. But, music has a profound subliminal effect, and subliminal is just where you want to go. Don’t ignore the power of sound, profound tool at your disposal. That said, make sure the music isn’t so overpowering that it becomes the scene in itself. Unless that’s your intent. I once heard of a sadist who subjected a bottom to non-stop ABBA for several days on end, working or sleeping. Using headphones, of course. (I think that’s sort of brilliant. I’m sure that to this day, whenever that bottom hears ‘Dancing Queen’ he’s right back there in the scene, forever under the control of that Top. Make sure it’s something you like, something that works well with whatever scene you’re doing. At the risk of being overly cautious, you might want to vet the music with the bottom as part of the negotiations. Beyond the Maria Callas example mentioned earlier, I once heard of a scene that was interrupted when the bottom informed the Top that the music that was playing was something his father would play when he would molest him. Luckily, an alternative was available.
Catering to the Senses: Smell and Taste
I hate any contrived smell, so when it comes to this area, I’m at a loss. Maybe. Natural smells are fine. Smells are powerful triggers of the memory centers of the brain. If you want this scene to be permanently embedded in the mind of your bottom, smell can be the way that you do that. I suppose I find pachouli oil tolerable, although it wouldn’t be the first thing I reach for. As a cradle Episcopalian, incense has the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer drifting through my mind immediately, and that can be distracting. I like to work with my smells, the ones that God gave me. My pits, my crotch, my boots. These are unique to me, and I want my boy to know them and love them. One of my first boyfriends had a scent peculiar to the tuft of hair in the depression at the base of his spine over the crack in his ass. It was almost like a ripe peach. Nowhere else on his body had this smell, and no other man I’ve slept with has had this smell there either. (I’ve checked.) He was a nutjob of the first order, but I will always cherish that smell of his.
Similarly, I want my boy to know what I taste like. Also, I like to cook. Food is an important element of hospitality, which is a sacred virtue in most cultures around the world. Since you want to keep your bottom hydrated by giving him water during the scene, why not squeeze some lime juice into the water bottle, or make it an infusion of herbs? And it goes without saying that studies have shown that bootleather is an important part of the diet of every bottom.
Perhaps for you, being a Top basically about the way that you have sex, and not a lot more. The men you have sex with tend to be submissive, and you’re happy to accommodate them with some tit clamps and a butt plug. If that’s the case, then perhaps this next chapter is not something that you’ll find very interesting. Herein, I want to describe something of another order all together: what it means to have being a Top be the organizing principle of your life, the fixed star in the firmament of your identity and your concept of yourself.
Yo. Going way overboard am I? That could be true. However, as with most things, you get out of it what you put into it. I think it would be fine if you were to argue that being a Top cannot be the organizing principle of your life because you already have an organizing principle of your life, whether it be your religious faith, an academic discipline, the practice of medicine or law, rebuilding engines, your art, the violin, the Republican Party, quantum mechanics, raising West Highland Terriers, wilderness conservation and enjoyment of the great outdoors, or whatever. And that’s fine, although I might suggest that being a Top—and being very serious about that pursuit—could be a good adjunct to any of those. However, what is to be avoided at all costs is not having anything in particular as the organizing passion of your life.
Because you can’t. Nature abhors a vacuum, and some unworthy will quickly ascend the throne. Examples of this might include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an endless chain of romantic interests, alcohol or drugs, mass produced baked goods, whatever it is you do for a paycheck, shopping for clothes, musical theater spectatorship, Vin Diesel, Barbra Streisand, home decorating, following professional sports, the World Wide Web, talking on the telephone, a cult, narcissism, your graying hair, gambling, or the like.
What’s the difference between the two lists? What criteria am I applying to uphold the practice of law as a vocation but slam shopping for clothes? To put it succinctly, a worthy life pursuit is something which involves ongoing learning from those senior to you, teaching of newcomers, lends itself to endless reflection and inquiry, is inherently a communal pursuit in that it brings you into contact with others with different perspectives, and lends itself to exploration of a rich, spiritual dimension not obvious to newcomers or outsiders.
Okay. So maybe take musical theater out of the second list and put it in the first list. But
Barbra Streisand stays put.
The best word I can think of to cover these elements is Discipline. To be a disciple means to be one who follows. Benedictine monks ‘follow’ the rule of Saint Benedict, set down towards the end of the first millennium o f the Common Era. Unfortunately, there is no Rule or Code set down for Tops. (Until now, but I’m far too humble to think that.)
But I would like to explore what learning, teaching, thinking, community, and spirituality might mean within the context of being a Top.
One of the most difficult things about having aging parents is my sense that something vital is missing in my father. He is plagued neither by Alzheimer’s nor any other senility that I can detect; he’s lucid and alert, and free of pain, but I always detected the absence of something that had been present in the man I knew, and this absence was troubling to me. Only recently did I hit upon what it might very well be: he has ceased to learn.
He is an intelligent man, and a strong man, having survived the death of two wives, both of his younger brothers, his parents, and a daughter. He reads three papers a day, and watches the news as if he’s being paid to do it. He can name most of the members of the current President’s cabinet, and doesn’t hesitate to offer opinions on any subject. And yet, at some point, he seems to have stopped learning. He can still retain information, but he doesn’t seek out new fields of information, mull them over, assimilate new ideas into his existing perspective and beliefs, and end up seeing the world in a different way.
So different from the man who bought me a telescope for my twelfth birthday, and ended up using it much more than I did.
Life is all about learning, and I’m not referring to the frequently mentioned consolation prize that is given on the occasion of a failure: “Well, at least I can learn something from this.” Learning is deciding when you’re well on in life that you’re going to speak Japanese and go to Japan, or buying a motorcycle although you’ve never been on one, or taking a college course in Art Appreciation, or becoming an expert cook of Southeast Asian cuisine.
And, learning is an important aspect of being a Top. The answer to the eternal conundrum of what do you do when you pick up some hot man in a bar, take him home, and discover that you’re both Tops is simple: you learn from him. The basis of the relationship between any two Tops is one of teaching and learning. If you can honestly say that ‘there’s nothing for me to learn about being a Top at this point,” then I would argue you’re either deluding yourself, or that’s a damned shame. Even if there wasn’t a single color that you couldn’t flag in your left rear pocket with confidence, there would still be something to learn.
My ‘big thing’ is single tail whips. I’m pretty good at using them, at least, I’ve had no complaints and quite a few complements. But, I am forever seeking out other whipping Tops. True, we have a lot in common, such as a love of blood and tears, sick fucks that we are, but there are as many variations in technique, philosophy, approach to aftercare, preferences, and ways of conducting a scene as there are Tops throwing whips. Hearing someone tell me why they love whips only deepens my own appreciation for braided hide.
Not that I’m recommending that you only seek out and learn from those who share your interests. I always viewed scat with disdain. Not something that I would ever be interested in playing with. And then, a man I had fallen head over heels in love with sat me down over dinner and told me at length just what he loved about all aspects of shit. Truly this was an example of the precept that to hear an enthusiast talk about any subject is to hear poetry. I’ve never thought about it the same way since. Although it’s not honestly play I’ve cultivated, I’m not upset when the brown fairy pays a visit during ass play, and I have nothing but regard and admiration for my brothers and sisters who flag brown.
Learning can be formal or informal. In the contemporary kink community in these United States, folks are shouting “Let’s hold a flogging workshop!” with the frequency that someone would say, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show in the barn!” in Judy Garland and Andy Rooney movies. If no one in your particular burg has put out the word yet, then you get to be the first. Nothing is so flattering than to be invited to sit in front of a group of your peers and discuss how you do what you do so well and why you love to do it. Entire organizations (Avatar in Los Angeles and my own GMSMA in New York) are built around this activity. Don’t be shy. Avail yourself of the programs they offer. Even if it’s a topic that falls far outside of your interests. In fact, especially if it’s an area that falls far outside of your area of interest.
There are always new worlds to be discovered, explored, and conquered. Left without a frontier, you will quickly become root-bound and bored. Being a Top means doing all in your power never to let that happen.
I have heard it said that the Kink community is the fastest growing community worldwide. Although I can’t imagine what evidence one could point to in order to draw a conclusion like that, I am hard pressed to think of any information that would indicate otherwise. The Internet has enabled people the world over to explore their deep dark desires, and to make the discovery that there’s a world full of people out there who have been acting on those desires for decades. Images of S/M can be found in all segments of the popular media, and fewer and fewer of them are mocking caricatures. Perhaps we are soon to have our day in the sun, or our fifteen minutes of fame, depending on how you look at it.
That being the case, it is easily forgotten, and therefore all the more important to remember, that our traditions stretch back for centuries, spanning the globe, and are no doubt found in every society that has ever existed. Truly there have always been men and women, dwelling in the shadows, who flauted the conventions and mores of the time and gave vent to their demoniacal inspirations. It’s interesting to wonder what the Marquis de Sade would make of the Old Guard Leatherman who looks with jaundiced eye on the sacrileges of the young who run roughshod over the way things used to be done. Or, what some Roman slave trader would have made of the Marquis. Or what some Paleolithic man, his body exquisitely scarred from rituals to ensure success of the hunt would have made of the lot of them. (Whatever opinions of their fellows they might hold, if the four of them decide to host a play party, I hope I’m on the invite list!)
Look at it this way. You probably didn’t discover all on your own that flogging could be a really hot scene. Somehow, someone suggested that to you. And someone suggested that to the person that suggested it to you. And so on in infinite regression back through time. Granted, advances in technology have probably presented the opportunity to be “The First” at something, such as using electrical stimulation as a masturbatory aide, and it probably wasn’t long after the discovery of fire that someone was getting burned and not minding all that much. But for the most part, we do what we do because that knowledge was passed down to us.
Taking all of this into consideration, passing on the knowledge that you have becomes something of a sacred duty. You must teach.
I was recently introduced to the idea of Florentine flogging. It seems that in Renaissance Florence, flogging was a common form of corporal punishment. There were men (probably no women) who drew a salary for administering flogging. There was probably competition among them (God Bless Free Market Capitalism!) as each man tried to distinguish himself by his skill and the flair that he brought to the task. To enliven the public administration of this punishment, these professional floggers hit upon the idea of having one flogger in each hand, and alternating left-right-left-right-left-right rhythmically and in rapid succession. That’s Florentine flogging. Where would we be today if this tradition had been lost?
To be sure, there are many ways to teach. For flogging in the Florentine manner, for example, it was probably sufficient for someone to see that in action, and then go home and practice on his own. Teaching by demonstration—whether intentionally or not—is probably how most of us pass on what we know.
Beyond this, as discussed above, there now exist in several cities in this country, organizations that make a mission out of education. These can provide an excellent forum for showing your stuff. However, as there is a certain amount of prestige involved in being asked to do a presentation, you may have to stand in line and wait your turn, or secure yourself a position on the committee charged with selecting presenters.
I want to concentrate on another possibility: mentoring. By this I mean seeking out a worthy junior, taking him under your wing, and showing him everything you know. Why would you undertake such a thing? Any teacher will tell you that to keep pursuing that profession, you need to have faith that you’re making a difference. Perhaps that golden day will arrive when a successful, skilled adult will seek you out and tell you that having you as his Eighth Grade Social Studies Teacher set him on a course to become our country’s Under Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs. Chances are, though, that will never happen.
But being a mentor means that the rewards are yours to reap. You will have the opportunity to see your pupil grow and flourish under your apprenticeship, and come into his own with your help. He will owe you undying gratitude. In the end, the experience will be bittersweet. Nietzsche pointed out that it is the duty of every student to surpass his teacher, and one day, building upon the foundation you have laid, your former student will be in a position to teach you, Old Dog that you are, some new tricks.
Another bit of pedagogical wisdom is that you only fully come to understand a subject when you teach it to another. I’m sure this is true whether the subject matter is Art History or being a Top. You will be asked annoying questions, questions it never occurred to you to ask. “How can I be sure that the bottom is enjoying the scene?” And then, you’ll have to think, and consider, and come up with an answer to that question you’ve never asked yourself.
If you do decide to take on the role of mentor, you doubtless won’t have much trouble coming up with someone to mentor. Men new to the scene are starved for information. Just remember though, he’s a Top, too. He might be an inexperience Top, but he’s cocky and sure of himself in the way that all Tops tend to be. The key to drawing him in is to invite him to take part in the experience, but not making it seem like you’re laying your claim to him as your boy. An approach like “That’s not how you do it. Here, give that whip to me. This is how you do it,” probably won’t get you very far. But “Why don’t we get together and throw whips sometime?” should have him eating out of your hand.
Remember how it was for you your first time. Maybe you had the supreme fortune to be working with a very experienced bottom, who could guide you through the process. Chances are, you bluffed your way through. Hopefully, the night didn’t end with a trip too the emergency room. If both of you enjoyed yourselves, and it was a truly great scene your first time out, there’s a word for that: “miraculous.”
No imagine if some more experienced Top had taken you under his wing and shown you the ropes. Or the chains, or the whips, or the burning candles, or whatever. Perhaps he’s given you the opportunity to play with one of his favorite boys. He’s demonstrated, he’s instructed, he’s explained, and you are approaching the scene with confidence. Whether he’s present or not, you’re conscious of his watchful eye, and you hear his voice in your head. (“Don’t be afraid to make the ropes good and tight here. You’re nowhere near a pressure point, so you won’t be cutting off circulation. The bottom wants to have the feeling that he’s securely bound, and that you have made him powerless. This is a place where you can make sure that happens. And, there will be some great marks that will last for a while after you untie him.”) During aftercare, the bottom looks up at you and says, “Sir, that was amazing. You’re amazing. When can we do this again?”
It’s an act of selflessness on its face, but not really. Gratitude like what your junior is feeling is priceless. And, it can have its other rewards. I know of a Top who wanted to go down once in a while, to have an experience of how the other half lives. This Top was extremely skilled, and when he made those attempts, he didn’t enjoy them, because in his head he couldn’t stop himself from doing a running critique of whoever was Topping him. And so he created a Top for himself out of whole cloth, finding a man and patiently training him. Then, it was like submitting to someone as good as he was. And, the experience made him a better Top, because he was constantly gaining new insights into what he could be doing better, as he was submitting to a mirror image of himself.
Being a Top means teaching. Since you have to do it, you might as well do it in such a way that you get the most out of the experience that you can.
I’m not a Roman Catholic, although I tend not to be as harsh in my assessment of that homosexuality-condemning community of faith as are many people I know. I was once quizzing a friend who is a devout Catholic, but who also is an ardent feminist and has numerous divergent views from those of the Magisterium. I asked her point blank, “If you find so much cause to disagree with the leadership of your church, why do you stay in that church?” I will never forget her answer. She said that the Roman Church was essentially a huge worldwide conversation that has been going on for two thousand years, and that there is nowhere else she could go and still be a part of that conversation.
That pretty much stopped me cold. I think that’s a beautiful idea: a conversation.
In my experience, the same is true of the Leather/SM/Kink community: it’s a big conversation. No one has the final word, although there are doubtless many who like to lay claim to that authority.
Disagree violently with much of what I’ve written here? That’s fine. Speak up!
The lost traditions of the Old Guard; the leather scene becoming too bottom-oriented as a result of the imposed doctrine of Safe, Sane, and Consensual; whether a Master/slave relationship can be a reality; the detrimental and beneficial role played by our fantasies; people of transgendered experience at men-only play events, whether sash contests make a positive contribution to our life and community or not; the idea of consensual-nonconsensual play; and the list goes on. These are but a few issues that I’ve heard debated, argued, and discussed in the short time that I’ve been on the scene.
Make no mistake, some of these are probably trivial in the Great Scheme of Things, but some of them are profoundly weighty issues, and a great deal is at stake.
We owe it to ourselves and to the larger community and to all who will come after us to think deeply about these issues, form our own opinions, and put forward those opinions in the great market place of ideas.
Controversy is not a bad thing. Controversy is a very good thing. When you know you are speaking within earshot of someone who disagrees completely with what you’re about to say, you’re critical faculties are working overtime, as you carry out your ideas to their logical endpoints. In other words, you’re on your toes. You’re thinking hard.
To be sure, the temptation is great to pack up, resign from the board, quit the organization, move to a cabin in the wilderness, and declare yourself a community of one. After years in the fray, I know a few examples of people who have done just that. Although they would no doubt be pleased at the thought that we all suffer from their departure, the truth of the matter is that they suffer as well. Once you’re left with no one who disagrees with you, your mind turns to mush. When no one is around to question you, you don’t pick up that ball. You become complacent and self-satisfied. The ideas you have will be third-rate at best.
Happily, most of us find the strength to persevere, and continue to call names and put forward ad hominem arguments, stamp our feet and raise our voices to get our ideas across. This is good for two reasons. First off, it is a great and wonderful thing that our community can provide us with sufficient intellectual stimulation to last a lifetime. There will always be some new issue coming up, involving arcane areas of inquiry that we’ll have to come to understand if we want to continue to be involved. This means that throughout your life, in addition to having new worlds to conquer in the realm of perverse and kinky experiences, you will also have much to think about.
The second reason is Love. Dispute makes love stronger. It can be frightening to see two people—both of whom we may love and respect—having a fierce argument. However, the important thing to remember is that they wouldn’t be so upset if they didn’t care so deeply. Love calls us to the things of this world. And, we rarely spend a lot of time and libido fighting with someone we don’t care about, and for whom we have little if anything in the way of respect.
The biggest fights take place in families. And furthermore, in families made up of women and men who love one another deeply. In fact, only when we are assured that the love that binds us together is so strong can we really let loose on one another. Love provides a safe space in which to give vent to the full range of human emotions, and anger is definitely one of those emotions.
Here’s an edict: After the shouting match, you owe your opponent a beer. (Or a latte, or a chocolate egg cream, or a protein shake, or whatever beverage would lend itself to conviviality.) Other than that, don’t hold back. If nothing else, you’ll have a lot to think about.
Man is a social animal. We exist in groups. Next to our genetic inheritance, our peers are the most important factor in determining the kind of people we are. (For better or worse, recent research in Sociobiology indicates that except in cases of extreme abuse and neglect, your parents are pretty much off the hook.) It is not good for man to be alone.
One of the things I find to be truly wonderful about the Leather Community is that no one needs to be alone. Although to the novice and the outsider, it may seem as distant and impermeable as the gods on Mount Olympus, I can think of few other societies that I have found to be so easy to enter.
I was once having a conversation with a guy I met on the street. We were probably deciding whether or not we were going to have sex and were feeling each other out. “Where do you usually hang out?” he asked me. When I answered, “I can usually be found on Saturday nights when I’m here in the City at the LURE, he followed up with, “That’s a leather bar, right?” I said that it was. “You mean you’re into leather?” he pressed. “Yes, I am,” I responded.
And then he said something I’ve never forgotten. “Why would you be into leather? You’re a pretty hot guy. Leather is like a big conspiracy so that fat, homely, old men can get laid, isn’t it?”
I nearly decked him. I wish I could say I responded by unleashing a prolonged string of invective on the vain, stupid pup; or even sitting down and explaining to him just what keeps me coming back, but I was so stunned by that I just made some excuse and walked away.
But his insult stayed with me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. “Leather is a big conspiracy so that fat, homely, old men can get laid.” Much later, it struck me what was bothering me so much about what he said: he was right. Or at least, partially right.
This guy, we’ll call him Van (short for Vanilla), probably has a life that unfolds something like this. Van spends a lot of time at the gym. He does his best to make sure that the clothes he wears and his hair and car and his apartment are the latest thing, even if he has to max out his credit cards to do so. He has a well-paying job that’s stressful, and takes up a lot of his time. He laments that all the good men are taken, as he never seems to meet anyone ‘decent.’ In fact, he meets a lot of men, but something is always very not right. Like they show up on a date wearing a cotton lycra shirt that looks like something that Van would have worn two years ago and clearly reveal the absence of washboard abs similar to what Van has achieved with all the crunches he does. Similarly, Van met a really amazing guy last weekend, and they really seemed to hit it off, but the guy never called. (Unbeknownst to Van, the guy spotted a copy of Cat Fancy magazine on Van’s coffee table with a label that indicated that Van was a subscriber and thought, “Oh. My. God. What a total freak.”)
Basically, for Van, it’s all about getting laid, and it’s a hell of a lot of work. Particularly in New York City, where as someone I once knew pointed out, “there’s always someone standing behind you.” That would be the guy with the bigger biceps, the flatter abs, the better job, the bigger apartment, the more expensive wardrobe, the whiter teeth, the abundance of famous names in his Palm Pilot. That guy. That’s why it’s so difficult for Van to find a boyfriend.
I know a man in his upper seventies with arms like broomsticks who is retired and living on a pension from the blue collar job he had all his life. The guy has (last time I counted) three slaves. And he’s turning away applicants all the time.
Does this mean that within the leather community there’s no discrimination, and that everybody is up for grabs for everybody else? Not at all.
Welcome, newcomer! Here’s why you probably won’t end up going home with anyone (well, anyone worth going home with) the first few times you venture into your local leather bar. At risk of having my tongue cut out for breaking the vow of silence I took when I joined the secret society, I’m going to reveal to you the qualities on which you will be judged. Here are the questions that are running through the mind of that guy you’re cruising.
“Huh. Who’s he? Top? Bottom? Switch? How open is he to expanding his limits? What are his limits? Is he able to trust? Is he a serious player? Is he smart? What will I learn from him? Will he be honest about his experience during negotiations? Will he respect me? Is he passionate? Will he stay in the moment or be off somewhere in his fantasies?”
Yup. Those are the criteria. Honesty, integrity, intelligence, creativity, ability to trust, experience, self-knowledge, respect, and openness to new experiences. Those are the criteria on which you are judged, and that apply when you yourself are making judgments, in the world of S/M.
I love to see it happen. Some built, blond, bubble-butted blue-eyed boy wanders into the bar. He nonchalantly gets him self a beer, and positions himself (in the only corner that gets good lighting). He looks around, deciding who’s hot and who’s a troll. And then you see insecurity pass over his face, perhaps progressing quickly to panic and sheer terror… He realizes that he’s not getting any attention. Unless, or course, there’s some other built, blond, bubble-butted blue eyed boy who’s wandered in that night, too.
Not that looking hot is irrelevant if you’re into S/M. But it’s never more than the icing on the cake. I don’t know any serious player who, if given the choice, wouldn’t opt for the serious, respected, experienced, smart butt-ugly pig rather than the boy who’s so fine looking he could sell carpet cleaner but has a reputation of being a manipulative, pushy, self-serving bottom.
Taking it a step farther, I once attended a GMSMA program on S/M and men of color. The panelists, an African-American, a Latino, and Chinese-American, were asked if they ran into racist attitudes. All three agreed that in the wider gay community, absolutely that was the case, but very, very rarely among their fellow leather men.
Your Spirit Guide
His name is Wolf Master. He's my mentor and my guide and my teacher. He’s been with me a long time, although I've only recently become aware of him, come to seek him out, and do my best to deepen my relationship with him.
I remember very well the first time I had contact with him. I was about eleven years old. I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, surrounded by cornfields and creeks. I had a dog named Moko, the best dog a boy could have. One night in November, I took Moko for a run. We headed through the woods behind the house where I grew up to the fields beyond. The moon was full and bright. There was a fresh frost on the fallow fields, glistening in the moonlight. In the open fields, we started to run. My experience of what came next was like in a dream. I was down there at the level of the grass, like Moko. I felt as though there were four legs, rather than two, propelling me almost effortlessly through the frosty fields. I could keep up with Moko's pace with no problem. My senses were heightened. I was aware of the field mice and pheasants we passed, not so much by sight, but by some special awareness of where they were. The moonlit night was intoxicating. We chased rabbits. We visited a frozen pond. Hours later I came down from the experience. I felt exhausted, but at the same time exhilarated. My clothes were torn and matted with briars. I had lost my hat and my scarf. I sat down under a tree and felt the cold for the first time. Moko came close and licked my face, then sat watching me. I headed home.
And there was a different encounter that I recall, more involving the intellect. During my senior year in high school, I had a class called 'Discussion and Debate.' It was sort of a farm team for the school's Debate Team. At one point, we learned the rhetorical device of discussing a situation in which there is likely to be lots of buy-in by the audience, and then showing how this is analogous to a more controversial issue where it would prove more difficult to persuade your audience to adopt your position. I decided--for no good reason that I can recall--to discuss mankind's pervasive, destructive, and unexamined fear and hatred of wolves with homophobia. Once I had my audience buying into the idea that wolves were an important part of the wild ecosystem, posed minimal threat to the human livestock, and were complex and magnificent animals, I would propose that this was akin to homophobia, the fear and hatred of which was based on misunderstanding, and posed no threat to the larger society. I delved into the study of wolves, and the history of the enmity between wolves and men. I was fascinated by what I learned. Wolves are intelligent, able hunters, and highly social creatures, with an elaborate array of means of communicating amongst themselves. Wolves can exist equally well as members of a pack, or just as well independently. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
One other time. While I was in college. One night, drunk on beer, I went with three friends to a park that adjoined the campus. The park was deserted except for the four of us. In addition from my buzz from the beer, the cool night in early spring felt intoxicating. I was seized by a sudden impulse, and ran at top speed up an embankment and into the trees. Running, I circled around through the trees, putting myself behind my friends, who were calling after me up the embankment. "C'mon! What's up? Where are you? What are you doing?" They continued their walk across the paths and grassy meadows of the park. I kept to the woods and underbrush. Tracking them, and feeling the thrill of observing but not being observed. Again there was the effortlessness of movement, the strength I felt in my limbs and body, the virility and power. For about an hour, they would circle the park, and I would stalk them. When I was feeling myself again, I came ambling out of the woods, not quite able to explain what that was all about.
Ten years ago, I decided to get a tattoo. As is often the case for someone in their twenties, it seemed like a momentous undertaking, and I was unsure if this was what I really wanted to do. Further apropos of twentysomething behavior, I decided that I would go out with friends and tie one on, then go to a tattoo parlor, and find out when I sobered up what I would be wearing on my body. This made it seem something of the romantic gesture, and something with deniability as far as my father was concerned. After a night of carousing, we learned that all the tattoo parlors in Philadelphia had closed at midnight. So, rather than rolling in with my posse all liquored up, I went alone, stone cold sober, on a Sunday morning. "What kind of design are you looking for?" the artist asked. Without thinking---and I hadn't thought about it at all--I said, "A wolf." The design I liked most was the image of the head of a wolf over a banner reading 'Lone Wolf.' Two changes were made. First, I thought that 'Lone Wolf' was a wee bit cliché. The last book I had read and liked was Erich Fromm's "Freedom and Dignity," and a phrase that was resonating with me from that book was "Stand alone and live." That proved too long, so the artist put the words 'Stand Alone' on the banner. The other change he made was making the eyes of the wolf blue, rather than green, to match mine. I appreciated the decision.
* * * * *
At this point, I should make something clear. I am a materialsit. I don't believe in the survival of the soul after death, or even the existence of the soul, foretelling the future, ghosts, angels, destiny, paradise, levitation, hell, extra-sensory perception, or any of that. I do believe that there are many, many things in heaven and earth that surpass our limited ability to comprehend, and that many of these things are, in fact, what make life worth living, and enable us to get of bed in the morning. These things I sum up under the heading of "Mystery," and I believe that cultivation of awareness of Mystery and awe and wonder in the face of Mystery are good and valuable.
So Master Wolf is nothing more than the firing of synapses, an electro-chemical reaction in my cerebral cortex. It is a comfortable and easy way for me to have a dialog with the ineffable. And I don't mean at all to devalue those electro-chemical reactions. They're responsible for falling in love, dying for your country, deep religious experience, the complicated nest of feelings you have towards your father, self-sacrifice, throwing yourself off a bridge in despair, the beauty of a sunrise, and the grief of loss of a life partner. Those electro-chemical reactions are powerful. So Master Wolf is a profoundly meaningful manifestation.
Make Something of Yourself: Your Body and Your Health
Okay. Here’s the part where I get accused of being a Body Fascist. I’m not! I swear I’m not.
That said, for the lifelong journey of the Top to be whole, the fact that we are physical beings with bodies must be taken into consideration. Also, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Appearance are evil, but they’re everything.”
A brief anecdote. A friend of mine several years ago had an encounter in with a Top who has raised strapping to sublimity. They had a great time. At the conclusion of their scene, the Top mentioned in an off-handed way to my friend, “I really love playing with a man who has a hard body.” My friend decided right there and then that he would get himself a hard body.
Not a huge, muscular body. Not a perfect body. Not
Arnold Schwarzenegger. But a hard body. And he has.
So much of being a Top and doing S/M involves being in your body, from the exhausting dance that a flogging can be to the joys of receiving boot service. In order to truly inhabit your body, it is important to like where the body you’re living in.
To be sure, pure self-acceptance is a vital part of this. But beyond that, feel free to make your body into something you love. After all, it is the most important physical thing that you use in play.
This is not to say that a Top must be in such peak physical condition that he is forever fending off offers to be a porn star. (Or accepting offers to be a porn star.) Fate is not fair with the lot she deals to us. A Top may be fat, or thin, or short, or physically disabled, or possess any number of qualities that put each of us to a greater or lesser extent outside of the box that our potential play partners consider Perfect.
But, that doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to make the most of what you have.
If you’ve ever had a dream in which you were conscious of your body, close your eyes, and try to recapture the experience of that dream. Take all the time you need. What was your body like in that dream? How wide is the gap between your body in that dream, and your body as it is now?
Remember how important fantasy is in providing us with the blueprints of good S/M. Use your faculties of fantasy to imagine a body for yourself. Again, it need not be the physical idea. In fact, in your fantasy work, it’s best not to think in terms of having a body that will have whatever desired effect on potential play partners. It would be nice if we could all look like the men who are cast in erotic videos, but for most of us, that is an exercise in futility. Your genes are your genes. I, for example, am of a long line of tall, lanky men, and I am a tall, lanky man. As much as I may lust after men who are built like fireplugs, I am never, ever ever going to be built like a fireplug. Ever. No matter how much I ardently desire to be built like a fireplug and no matter how hard I’m willing to work at that.
The same, incidentally, goes for men with beer guts. I am wild about men with beer guts. A beer gut is truly one of my favorite secondary sex characteristics. A man with a hard beach ball belly can probably talk me into just about anything. Especially if he has whiskers to go with it.
I will never have a beer gut. At least, not in the foreseeable future. My genes are against me there, too. It’s not the hand I was dealt.
Whatever your desired body type, and however wide the gap is between ideal and reality, working out—as in physical exertion—probably would help. The common way to develop muscle tone is by going to the gym and learning to lift weights. Even though there is much to be gained by this activity, it’s far from the only route available to you if you’re of the mind that you’d rather eat glass or scrub an interstate with your tongue until it shines than do bench presses.
Walk, run, bike, swim, practice yoga, stretch, hike, do sit ups, do push ups, dance, rollerblade, take the stairs, do jumping jacks, box, play rugby or softball or volleyball or squash or tennis or football, ski, flog, chop firewood, haul water up from the well, ride a horse. Whatever it takes. The Surgeon General recommends, and most experts agree, that if you elevate your heart rate for a period of twenty minutes three times per week, everything else will fall into line in terms of your physical conditioning. It’s that simple.
Of course, you will also have a healthier heart, add years to your life, bolster your immune system, and be in better physical condition.
In fact, so little is really demanded that I would be hard pressed to argue with the proposition that any one who doesn’t do something is flawed at best in his approach to being a Top.
Too strong a statement? Perhaps. But if you don’t take yourself seriously, who will? And if you treat yourself poorly, what does that say about what you’re willing to do to take care of your bottoms?
So you have chosen your way in life. You have your path. Strive to excel, be great, be honest in your dealings with all you meet, be true to yourself. Have ideals and do your utmost to live up to them.
As with any path in life, you will need to persevere, pressing on towards your goal. Often you will find yourself alone, friends will keep their distance, and adversaries will surround you. You will be frightened and full of doubt. You will lose your way, and spend years trying to find your way back, just about giving up all hope.
There will be pain along the path. Good companions will leave you, people you had hoped to one day sit with and enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land at the end of the journey with will only be able to be with you in spirit, as memories.
There will be disappointment. You will have moments when you feel that all your work has been for naught. It’s all been a charade.
I’m kidding, right? This is supposed to be fun. Being a Top is what you enjoy, when you feel you are the most yourself is in the middle of a scene, when the bottom is under your power completely. Or better yet, just after a scene. There he is, on his knees at your boots, saying over and over again, “Thank you, Sir. Thank you. Sir, Thank you. Thank you, Sir.”
But if there is a central message I’ve tried to deliver in this book, it is this: being a Top is a deep and lifelong journey. And as such, it will lead you far from the highways that most folks travel. And Fortune tends not to smile on you if you take only what they will need and set off on your own course, whatever that may be.
And here is the great challenge that you with which inevitably contend: at any point, you can just turn around and go back, living out your days by the comfort of your hearth. It’s not necessary to make this long, hard trip at all. There is your pipe and slippers. There is the good home-cooked meal. There is the love of your friends and family, always ready to kill the fatted calf and great Prodigal You on your return.
If you doubt me, go to the local public library and take out an autobiography of any man or woman who the world has deemed to be a doer of great things. In that book, you will read a passage when the world, in the form of a parent, spouse, child, judge, king, friend, subordinate, or (worse yet) an inner voice, said something along the lines of, “Stop this madness. Why do you have to be the one to carry the weight of the world? Do you care so little for my love that you are willing to abandon it for this insane quest of yours?” This is called scorn, and it has a long tradition in human history.
You know you’re on the right track when you meet with scorn. And, akin to the adage that says, “You’re not paranoid, they really are out to get you,” there is the possibility that in your case, the world is correct. Maybe you’re not a misunderstood genius. Maybe you’re just a nut.
And you’ll never really know which is true with any real certainty. Although there are indicators. If you sit and quiet your mind, and ask yourself the question, “What do you want?” and immediately you think in reply, “Nothing. There is nothing that I want. I have everything I need” then chances are, you’re not nuts. You’re on a good path.
But you will need to persevere. The more farther along you travel on your path, on the Way of the Top that is yours and yours alone, the more difficult the way will become, and the more your thoughts will turn to just saying the heck with it and heading for home, where they’ve left the porch light on for you.
I’ve seen it happen. Well, luckily, more correctly state, I’ve heard of it happening.
“This is a great sleep sack. Where did you get it?”
“I picked it up at a benefit auction. This guy who was a serious player gave it all up. He got rid of all of his gear. Never said why. I think he met some guy who was pretty vanilla that gave him an ultimatum. He’s in Phoenix now.”
Not only is this a terrible loss in that all that guy’s wisdom and skill are gone for good, but he loses out, too. Although probably, if you were to track him down in whatever subdivision in a Phoenix suburb he now calls home, he would show you his succulent garden, the Jacuzzi by the pool, you’d meet his dogs, he’d tell you about the new hobbies he’s taken up. He’d claim to be happy and offer you some iced tea.
But he’d have bad dreams. Awful dreams. Perhaps not always, but often enough. In his dreams, he is sinking into quicksand, or drowning in some still stagnant pool, or being pursued by a dark rider on a black horse, or searching for something precious he has lost although he can’t recall what it is.
You can’t go home again. You can’t go back to your plough once you’ve seen Gay Paris. You can’t just walk away from your passion and your vocation.
No matter how bad it gets, it’s much, much better to persevere, following your path wherever it takes you. Ultimately, you’ll go to great places, although it may not seem like when you’re there.
Following your own path is just another way of saying living deeply and honestly. When you set off, it’s just a matter of going where your heart takes you and seems to be the shortest route to happiness. And it is the route to happiness, although happiness is nothing like you imagine it to be when you set off on the journey.
Along the way, notice everything. Take every step as though it may be your last. Talk with the people you meet along the way who are following their own paths. Take your pleasures when they come, bathing in the green-blue pool in the stream, losing a days traveling to sleep in the sun, exploring each cave and abandoned house you come to.
And when the way gets hard, when you realize that you’re cold, tired and hungry, and all the other conditions common to Dickensian orphans, summon all your strength, and put one foot in front of the other.
If I had to name one single value to which I aspire beyond all others, it would be Conviction. What do I mean by that?
S/M offers so much in the way of cures for the ills of the modern world. In the place of isolation, there is connection and community. In the place of the passivity of consumerist culture, there is engagement and experience at the outermost edge. In a culture where the body is reviled and negated, there is a celebration of the flesh and of the full range of bodily sensations.
Going down this path, an awareness dawns on you. Hearing the beat of a different drummer, you realize that the steps to which the vast majority of humanity are marching to are drastically out of sync with the human heartbeat.
I’m not thinking of rebellion or non-conformity. Being a rebel, although it can be fun in your teens and twenties, grows hollow and stale after that. And rebellion is ultimately defined by whatever it is you’re rebelling against. Many of the offspring of the counterculture types of the Sixties embraced conservative politics and MBAs. Non-conformity can also be limiting. A friend of mine, observing a posse of kids with Mohawks and facial piercings on St. Mark’s Place one night wondered aloud why it was that in people’s attempts to look different, they all end up looking alike.
On rare occasions, I’ve met men, and women that embody conviction. Not that they have it all figured out or have overcome all the challenges that we all face, but they clearly have struck out on their own.
One man I know, of Native American descent, living on the shores of a lake in New Hampshire, describes his experiences as ‘living off the grid.’ Forsaking consumer culture wasn’t his stated objective, but over time, in order to live honestly with his beliefs and convictions, he found himself moving more and more towards the margins.
To be sure, the S/M path doesn’t lead inevitably towards the woods of New Hampshire or the desert of Nevada, nor is this the only route to pick. All of us have to make our deals with the devil, and defaulting on one’s student loans is not evidence of conviction. Too, there are many men and women living lives of conviction to whom the thought of picking up a flogger (even one they braided by hand) or undergoing some recreation of a Plains initiation ceremony would be wholly alien.
But all of us who do enjoy the occasional flogging or piercing need to be on our guard against mindlessness. How many play dates this weekend? What was the name of that boy I did the hot mummification scene with last month? Gotta buy more rope and clothespins again. Go to the bar, pick up a boy, bring him home, tie him up, work his ass, bring him off, get his number (which you probably won’t ever dial), wish him on his way, get to bed, forget about him by the time that you head out to the bar the next time, except when you boast to your friends about the action that you’re seeing. Absent conviction, even a path as spiritual as S/M can become as enlightening and fulfilling as doing the laundry.
First and foremost, conviction is living by your own rules, and listening to the still, small voice. Conviction is being uncompromising, at first in small but significant ways, regardless of whether or not your actions may raise eyebrows.
Long before I owned my first pair of leather jeans, I would see two men in church leathered up. I’ll admit that I was a little appalled. Surely this was neither the time nor the place. This is the House of God, not a leatherbar.
It came to understand what was going on in time. These two men saw no need to compromise themselves in order to worship, and were unwilling to do so. Whatever the clergy and the other parishioners thought was not their concern. (Because of their standing in the church—together they had organized Saturday night dinners for people with AIDS for many years, one of the more significant ministries of the church—they were thought of very highly regardless of what they wore.) Leather is important to them, it is a key aspect of their lives and their identities. There would be no compromise, no coyness. Chinos and oxford cloth shirts would be like a band-aid worn over a wedding band.
Life, of course, is hard. And conviction makes life harder. It’s so much easier to go along to get along, keep your head down, not draw attention. What will people think?
Conviction does tend to draw attention to you, and put thoughts in peoples heads, because the bloom of conviction is honesty.
So what I’m telling you to do is set yourself up for a life of mockery? Being a freak? Having kids holler things at you at the mall?
Well, yeah. But there is a good strategy for mitigating that. Namely, being a nice guy.
By way of example. My landlord (a friend of mine) once reported to me that a neighbor who lived across the street had approached him very upset. On a recent evening, she had seen me whipping a man in my apartment. She was horrified. (Usually I close the blinds.) My landlord took it in stride, but I wanted to make things right. I got a description of the neighbor lady. Sure enough, once I knew who she was, I made a point of saying ‘hello’ to her, stopping to chat while I was walking my dog. Finally, the Big Chance came. On my way to a meeting, passing her house, I noticed that dogs or vagrants or someone had gotten into her garbage, which was now spilled all over the street. I ran back home, retrieved a bag and some work gloves, and there I was, in full leather right down to Mir cap, bagging up her trash. The Good Lord was with me, and behind me I heard her door open and her exclamation of “Ah, Dios Mio! What are you doing?” I explained. I don’t know how she reconciles in her own mind how this nice guy could be the same one she saw whipping someone, but I am convinced that in her eyes I am indeed a nice guy.
When you draw attention to yourself by showing the contents of your heart, you had better be ready to give people the impression that what’s there is decent and good.
But conviction is so much more than a pair of chaps, of course. Conviction is the whole fabric of your life. But whether it’s rope bondage or living your life honestly, you get better with practice, and leather your image is not a bad way to get started.
Too Good to Talk About
“How’re you doing, boy?”
“Doing good, Sir,” said the boy whose hands had gone numb five minutes ago, who had to pee like a race horse, and who was being troubled by invasive thoughts of an abusive fifth grade teacher that he couldn’t shake.
Bottoms are notorious for having difficulty in giving straightforward answers to simple questions. This, of course, means that the Top must always probe and rely on other sources of information (skin temperature, the shakes, clamminess).
But you can’t be hard on them. Well, you can if they’re up for it, but not over this issue.
So many of the activities of S/M involve more primitive parts of the brain than those involved in cognition and language. Good play engenders a devolution to a more basic state of being, something animal and immediate.
“How was your scene the last night, Jeff?”
“We… I… He…It was great. When I…I mean, he just…yeah, it was great. Too good to talk about.”
Tops are not immune to this, either.
In writing about S/M, I have found myself, when describing S/M play and scenes, describing not ‘what happened’ but ‘what must have happened.’ The moment-to-moment memories seem to be walled off. “Time that you give to the universe,” is how a whipping Top of my acquaintance once described it. It’s your life, but it’s not your life, recollected the way things are recollected in a dream.
I’ve often heard concern voiced—and it’s a criticism that has been leveled at GMSMA—that by talking about it, some of the magic is stripped from S/M. I give these objections short shrift, because short of poetry, there really is no way to reduce S/M to language.
But this is not without problems. Try describing S/M to someone who has never “gone there.” Eventually, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you find yourself saying (to your horrified at the thought listener) that you really have to experience it to understand. And what are the implications of having a significant part of your life, which might mean more to you than anything else, being something that you are unable to communicate, beyond offering a knowing smile? We never really have to ask ourselves why it is that S/M is so widely misunderstood.
This gives the world of leather some of the aspects of a mystery religion. (Happily, we don’t need to worry about ever being described as a cult: cults are characterized by being authoritarian, and as anyone who has ever tried to organize a leather event learns quickly, there is a deeply anti-authoritarian streak that pervades our community.) But we certainly have rites, rituals, arcane knowledge, and a relatively bright line between initiates and the clueless. Also, for any Top who is into the more extreme forms of play (whipping comes to mind), conversion and proselytizing is an on-going necessity.
And isn’t it great to have some mystery in our lives? Many ‘experts’ in the field of relationships harp on how we need ‘intimacy’ to make things work. I’ve always viewed these claims with a jaundiced eye. Surely in an age when people describe in detail the most private aspects of their lives to Barbara Walters or Jerry Springer in front of millions of viewers, the problem is not a lack of intimacy. We are awash in intimacy. We are dripping with intimacy.
Along these same lines, the oceans of intimacy in which we are drowning are infested with experts. Experts of every stripe are there to tell us what it all means. The tool employed by the experts is analysis. Analysis—the process of breaking down a concept or experience into its most basic components—is a significant aspect of modernity. Analysis is inescapable. It is so pervasive that it is our natural reaction to almost any novel circumstance. Have a great dish in a restaurant or the home of a friend, and you’ll be wondering what the recipe is. That’s analysis.
This is not to say that S/M is totally impervious to analysis. In his wonderful and seminal work ‘Urban Aboriginals,’ social scientist Geoff Mains set out to analyze S/M, and did an amazing job in the attempt.
But overall, an analysis of the chemistry of piss (or that recipe for great dinner your friend or favorite restaurant made) does not capture the experience. S/M is ultimately beyond words, and unassailably so. It is truly a mystery, and a holy one at that. One can enter into a mystery, but and appreciate it. A mystery can change your life forever in ways that you can only detect retrospectively.
The next time your vanilla friends press you about just what you did during that long weekend away on the run, when the images flood your mind and you find yourself inarticulate as a teenager, remind yourself that what you are involved in is nothing more or less than a mystery. The silent knowing smile you offer is as eloquent as you can muster, and will honor that mystery.
S/M involves risks. Beyond the risk of a trip to the emergency room, but in truth, there are even greater risks. (I’ve known some skilled, responsible, respected Tops who have had scenes end with trips to the emergency room. These things sometimes happen.) The more severe risk is for damage that can last a lifetime, and not be taken care of with a few stitches.
Not long ago, I was talking to a boy before I whipped him for the first time. I said something like, “I realize you’re taking a risk here, and I want you to be as confident as possible.”
“Excuse me, Sir,” he replied, “But you’re the one taking the risk.”
I was sort of mystified. We had never met before, and if all went well, I was preparing to whip him until he bled. I asked him to explain.
“Well, I have a fair amount of experience. Maybe your whip will wrap, maybe you’ll clip my ear, something like that. That will hurt a lot. I won’t like it. But it’s not the end of the world. Now imagine if in the middle of a scene, I turned around and started laughing at you.”
He didn’t need to say much more. Imagine if, in the middle of the scene, he turned around and started laughing at me. I don’t doubt that something in me would die a terrible death. It would take me a long time, perhaps a lifetime, to recover from something like that. I would never really know what that demon laughter was all about.
What you are doing when you do any scene is make yourself incredibly vulnerable. I don’t care if you have brass balls, you’re putting yourself on the line. It’s make or break.
On reflection, I disagree with the boy who brought about this satori that night. He was at risk , too. And not just from my inept throwing. What if I had stopped whipping him, untied him, and said, “Get out of my sight. Loser.” I don’t doubt that would have had a similar effect.
The greater the prize, the greater the risk that must be taken to attain it.
And, there are other bad things that can happen. Ever been stalked? It’s not a lot of fun having to change your phone number and have someone screen your calls at work because some nut job has decided that you would be the perfect object of a crazed fixation.
Gossip has so many nasty connotations, but it fulfills an important social function: enforcing the norms of the community. If you violate those unwritten rules, people are well within their rights to talk about that.
In a previous job, I worked with heroin users, many of whom—though not all—lead hard lives of desperation. Some pulled down double my salary in a year. It’s impossible to generalize when it comes to drug use. For those who lived life on the margins, everything depended on your street creds. What are your credentials? What do people say about you? Who have you done dirty? This is not to say that if you were not utterly blameless in the eyes of everyone than you were an outcast. Often, best friends would rob each other blind, and still be best friends. But it did mean that there were lines that were not to be crossed. One was being a snitch. Another was not taking responsibility for your actions.
Street creds also play an important role in the world of S/M. Without them, our world would be a very unsavory place.
It seems to me, although I could be wrong, that this is a more important issue for Tops than it is for bottoms. Anyone who is going to put his life in the hands of a stranger has every right to ask around about they man, and should seriously consider spending the night at home watching Pay-Per-View if that man is either an unknown quantity or has a shady reputation. Too, if there is a bottom out there that can play heavy with anyone no matter what the scene, then I haven’t met him. Everyone has their limits, but at the same time, the right Top, saying the right words, can take someone to a place they swore they’d never let themselves go.
But it’s different with Tops. I know of a few men and some women who are essentially internationally renowned. They’re very good at what they do. They are sought after. Their street creds are flawless.
Not being in that class, I can’t begin to explain how they went about getting to that place. And possibly, they couldn’t tell you, either. It’s not so much a set of procedures, and I don’t think it’s anything in the way of ‘shrewd marketing.’
It could be that Immanuel Kant had a handle on this when he proposed his Categorical Imperative: Always act in such a way that whatever you do could become a universal. It’s essentially a restatement of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
But perhaps it needs restating again to apply to the present topic: Always behave—especially in your very own dungeon—as though all the men you will ever play with and all of your peers were sitting there and watching you.
Scary? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be just the opposite. It can be very comforting. Remember that if there’s one thing that binds us all together and that makes it all work is love. These unseen observers are there not as judges, but supporters. They are in your corner, cheering you on. They want you to excel, to go to new heights, to spread your wings and fly.
I once read that toddlers can only play if they know that their mother is nearby. Her presence indicates to them that they won’t get hurt. Her love is the permission they need to explore and take risks.
As was pointed out to me, what you’re doing when you take that flogger in your hand is taking a risk. And that’s not something you should do absent the knowledge that you’re loved, and that your brothers and sisters are there, hoping that you will wield that flogger more masterfully than anyone else ever has in the history of the world. Even better than in Renaissance Florence. Armed with that knowledge, the greatest risks can be taken.
Types of Tops
To be sure, there are different ways of being a Top. For simplicities sake, I will employ the language of archetypes in order to list them. An archetype is sort of a character pre-existent in our subconscious, and because of this, when we meet someone who lives up to this archetype, we respond in ways that we might not understand. The signs of the Zodiac are to some degree based on archetypes. I don’t want the following list to be understood as astrological signs. You may see yourself in one, or possibly all of them. You might decide to employ one from time to time in your play, depending on what you perceive your bottom to be looking for. You may blend them as you see fit, or supplant them with something better that works for you.
Conjurer. Fearsome one. Rider on the wind. Summoner of dark forces. Man in the shadows.
The power of the Magician derives from his ability to inspire fear. To come under his power is to go to a dark place, a place from which you believe you may never return. He plays with fire, blood, blindfolds. He changes men into beasts. His gaze is hypnotic. He enchants the men with whom he plays. He knows well the dark heart that beats at the center of the human psyche. He will show you the grave. He will exorcise your demons. He will bid you to leave your sanity behind and follow him.
But he is an alchemist, turning the base material of your longings and limitations into pure gold. He can show you the magic that you are able to do. He will enable you to overcome your fears, by showing you that not only is the dark forest nothing to be afraid of, but it is a place where you can call home, because it is and has always been your home. He will wave his hand over you and you will fly, soaring through the night sky.
The Magician Top dominates the body of his bottom, but even more the mind. He puts on the collar and you become the dog. He binds you tightly, taking away your sight, hearing, sensation, and smell, and you travel at the speed of light.
He who sees the worm in your soul and plucks it out. The wounded one who binds the wounds of others. The one who holds you close.
His wisdom and compassion is born of the knowledge of great pain. He is comfort and love, but his is also the stern voice that commands the lame man to take up his bed and walk. Because he knows so well the defects of his own soul, he knows yours, too. He will shine a blinding light into your darkest corner. He will hold you as you weep. He will whisper in your ear, “Let it go. Let it go. I am here with you. Let it go.”
The bases for the relationship with the Healer Top is honesty and compassion. Through the honesty of the bottom in approaching the scene, the Healer is able to see what the trouble is, perhaps even come to understand the Karmic Riddle that you can’t solve. The Karmic Riddle? If you remember the old Dick Van Dyck television sit com, one of the schticks of the show was that Dick was forever tripping on the footstool in the living room. We all have a footstool, the thing that trips us up again and again. In Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, this is referred to as the ‘tragic flaw.’ Again and again in life, we make the same mistake over and over. Think of anyone you’ve known for more than a decade. Even the briefest consideration will enable you to see the person’s footstool. (Luckily, for most of us, it doesn’t approach the portions of tragedy.) “John is always falling in love with the wrong person. Henry isn’t happy unless he has something to complain about, and will create a situation if life doesn’t serve one up for him. Patrick is always playing the fool. Gene can’t get his drinking under control. The quirk comes in as most of us are oblivious to our own footstools. There we are, lying prone on the floor of the living room, wondering what the hell just happened, seemingly struck with amnesia that the same thing happened to us just last week.
Under the power of a Top of the Healer mode, a bottom can come to see the footstool clearly, more than likely by spending sufficient time being hogtied on top of it. This process is complex. The Healer can’t always explain why he knows, but he just knows. And the scene he’ll suggest, if he’s on target, is something that the bottom will immediately shy away from. That’s when the Healer knows that he has hit a nerve, and that this bottom will never be satisfied until he undergoes that particular test.
The Healer endowed with compassion. That is what enables him to make the diagnosis. He empathizes with the bottom, and thereby sees the One Thing, the footstool. This compassion also gives him the power to take the bottom by the hand, and lead him through the ring of fire, show the bottom that he has not been consumed, but instead all the fear has been burned away.
Often, Healers keep an eye out for novices. Bottoms who have difficulty that we all had once expressing why it is that we feel drawn to—born to—the things that we want, things that the world calls bad, can derive the most benefit from a Top who is a Healer. To be sure, the bottom of this Top must confront his fears, learn the lesson of trust, and have the courage to submit. That way is the way of Life.
Imp and angel. Bringer of change and transformation. Lord of the Dance. Sweet creature of bombast. Satyr. Master of Misrule.
Trickster pulls gold coins from the ear of his intended bottom. This distraction enables him to get the chains in place before the man he has selected has any idea what the game is. Trickster is beguiling and enchanting. The bottom decides that it would be amusing to play the tricksters games and pretend to be a dog. But then finds that the collar does not come off as easily as it goes on, and he finds himself unable to remember how to walk on two legs and communicate in anything but barks and howls and whimpers. A scene with a Trickster Top takes you to places you never imagined that you would go, and the next morning, you can’t believe you were there. But you were there. And you will never be the same man again. Suddenly the life you live will seem to have faded from Technicolor to shades of dull gray. Nothing seems quite real outside of the Tricksters power, and the bottom will want to return there again and again.
In terms of stature, most of the Trickster Tops I have known have been slight and small. In other words, you wouldn’t pick them out as Tops at all. And therein lies their power. The bottom relaxes his defenses, and soon finds himself totally under the control of the Trickster, doing things he promised himself long ago he would never, ever do.
In a way, the joke is on the Trickster. He thinks he is playing his games only for his own amusement, and plans from the outset to vanish with the dawn, leaving behind his conquest asleep in a field of poppies, unsure if it was only just a dream. Not so. The bottom who falls prey to the Trickster will never be the same again. From threads of gossamer a chain has been forged that will forever bind him to this Top. “Who was that man—if he was a man—that showed me those things and got drunk on the moonlight?” Trickster thinks he is selfish, taking without asking, but never realizes the gifts that he gives. Hermes, the Trickster of the Greek pantheon, was also the messenger of the gods. Trickster baffles you with a riddle, but when you solve it, you have solved a great mystery of life.
The Trickster Top is adept at bondage and skilled at the most delicious varieties of torture. Under his spell, you drink his piss and for you it is the most exquisite liquor. Trickster loves music and dancing.
Guide on the dangerous path. Guardian of the arcane. Sage. Seer. Minister. Master of the Ritual.
Little boys who find their passion in the fight for Justice grow up to be lawyers. Little boys who find their passion in ritual and the search for meaning grow up to be priests. Not all priests wear collars. Some find work in academia, psychology, social work, or writing. For the Priestly Top, it all boils down to one question that he poses to every man who submits to him: What is the meaning of your life? The priest poses the question, but doesn’t provide the answer. Because, of course, there is no answer. The important thing is to ask the question in the first place. The elements of ritual are simple, ordinary, everyday things: cup, candle, wine, bread. Or in the scene, candle, knife, rope. But to submit to a Priest-Top is to die, got to Hell and once there contend with your demons, and to be born again.
At a run like Inferno, the ways of Tops of the Priest archetype are fascinating to observe. They never seem to play, although they’re frequently asked. And then word spreads.
“Michael and Tom are going to do a scene tonight.”
“Michael? I’ve never seen him bottom… Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I talked to him. He says he needs to do this. His father died a few months ago. He wasn’t sure he was up for this. He says it’s something he needs to do.”
Everyone seems to be unoccupied when the time comes, and Michael and Tom meet. For a while, they sit and talk in whispers. Michael describes how suddenly the world has become a frightening place for him. He is racked with doubt. What if he loses his job? What if he should get sick? He had an anxiety attack a few weeks ago while walking to his car down a deserted street at night. Life is so precarious. He’s suspicious of his closest friends. With his father gone, who is there that he can rely on? Suddenly, he is performing on the high wire, but the net has been taken away. Life is no longer a game, it’s serious business, and the stakes are high. Tom listens, but says little.
And then, they do a scene together. Michael finds himself caught up in nihilism. “Do whatever you want with me, Tom,” he thinks, “It doesn’t matter a damn.” The scene goes on. Michael’s body is shaking. Tom pushes on. Now, Michael cares a great deal. Michael is screaming. “Oh Fuck! Oh God! No! No no! Oh God please!” The others at the run stand around in a circle, watching in silence. If it were anyone but Tom, someone would have put a stop to the scene long ago. Michael is sobbing, weeping, crying. But now he is laughing hysterically. Michael just knows the noise coming out of him; he’s unable to tell if it’s laughter or crying.
And then it’s over. For hours they sit together in the night. Michael slowly rocks back and forth. Tom holds him. Tom says to Michael: “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Nothing can ever hurt you again.”
He who must be obeyed. He who shakes the earth when he walks. He who tolerates no weakness. He who tempers steel in the forge.
He is a priest of the god Mars. He knows that at the core, life is nothing more or less than a fight to the death. And that ultimately, we all lose that battle. But he values the good fight, and the things that make an able fighter: strength, bravery, perseverance, duty, honor, skill.
Because he knows that today may be his last, that’s how he spends every day, “pulling his pleasure with rough strife through the iron gates of life.” In all things he seeks to excel.
He is a selfish lover. Pleasure is of the moment, and it won’t take much longer than that. Tenderness is wasted on him, and he doesn’t have much in the way of tenderness to offer. The important relationships in his life are not with those whom he takes to bed. They are whores or husbands. They serve their purpose, but are alien beings.
Rather, the men he seeks out and who seek him out are kindred spirits, men who see the world as he does, and who know that the skull lies just beneath the skin.
Firefighters and law enforcement officers share much of this spirit. Their primary relationships are with those they work with. When you risk your life with someone at your side, when you save his life, when he saves yours, those are relationships of power and intensity that most of us can’t begin to imagine.
The Warrior knows intuitively that he is of a manifestation of an ancient tradition, and that his is always a vanishing breed. And so, he seeks recruits.
What he is looking for is raw material, good stock. He will take you down. He will strip you. He will rob you of everything that you cling to, because he knows life is hard, and that sense of security you feel is a false one, and you’d be better off without it. Once you are naked and defenseless, once he has broken you, then the real hell begins. Now, he will show you who you are.
You are strong. You are hard as steel. You stand up to your fears. Pain is nothing at all. There is nothing that you can’t endure. There is nothing that he or anyone else can dish out that you can’t take.
You leave behind rootlessness, and you find brotherhood. You leave behind aimlessness, and you find purpose. You leave behind that vague sense of not knowing who you really are, and you find dignity.
He stands out in any crowd. In a room full of men wearing black leather, you will find him in a sarong. Something about his manner and his voice has a narcotic effect. He says little, but hears and sees everything. He has an eye for beauty, and beautiful boys in particular. His gaze is hypnotic, like a cobra.
His lair is sumptuous. The boy feasts on strawberries and figs and exotic liqueres. He binds with silken cords. He takes his time, because he is enjoying himself immensely.
When the pain begins, it is consuming and excruciating and exquisite. The bottom is soon mad, out of his mind with the agony. His screams are music to the ears of the Mandarin, who feasts on the misery of the beautiful boy.
The Mandarin knows what the boy will soon learn: pleasure and pain are the same, cruelty and kindness are the same, love is vicious, submission is freedom, beauty is degradation, parallel lines meet in infinity.
Because he is beyond knowing, the boy will fear him ever after, and so always be in his power. The boy knows that no matter how terrifying, the day will come again when he will be sitting at the feet of the Mandarin, dining on sweet delicacies, feeling as though he has been drugged. Again he will feel himself slipping, his will sapped, down into a dark pit of torment and despair. Wherever he runs to, there the Mandarin will seek him out. Whatever god he prays to will be powerless to save him from this strange and frightening man.
The Green Man
Man of the earth. Sustainer. Dancer with death and bringer of rebirth.
In the interviews televised on Public Television that Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell, Campbell noted that cultures who dwell in jungles have a very different version of life and death than we do. In the jungle, everything is alive. In fact, everything is teeming with life. And everything dies. And upon death, is instantly reclaimed by the nitrogen cycle, and new life springs. (See in your mind’s eye ferns and orchids growing from a rotting fallen tree.) As a result, death is viewed not as the end, but simply as a transitional state. This lends itself to a worldview that includes reincarnation: an endless cycle of birth,
These are the elements that the Top of the Green Man archetype brings into play.
The Green Man is an ancient figure that can be found carved in stones in old English churchyards. He is the wild man, his smiling face is framed with bushy hair and a wild beard, that is transformed into foliage. He is part of nature, and part of those eternal gyres and circles.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the Green World figures prominently; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in particular. In the forest, none of the rules apply. The four Athenians are bedeviled by the fairies, and they emerge from the experience profoundly changed.
You follow the bright light of the Green Man’s lantern deeper and deeper into the woods, sure that he is just ahead. You go so deep that in no time at all, you’re lost, alone, frightened, and falling apart. That’s when he works his magic. That’s when you are in his power absolutely. Suddenly, you are not the person you thought you were. You are transformed into a braying ass for his amusement. You are intoxicated by strange philters. You come to love what you have long despised. All this is earth magic, magic made by one who knows the wild, desolate places, who has danced with bears and wolves in the moonlight. He is strong the way an oak is strong. He is cunning the way the fox is cunning. While you sleep, vines and tendrils wrap themselves around you until you are made his prisoner.
After that night that will seem as if it were some mad dream, you will pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and head towards home in the morning light. Try as you might, you won’t convince yourself that all that just could not have happened. Back in your city life, you will find yourself bored and restless, suddenly with no patience for the diversions and amusements that previously filled your days and nights. You’ll long for the mystery of the forest, and long to return, once again to hear his laughter, to feel the brambles biting your limbs as you stumble through the dark, and discover a world you couldn’t imagine existed.
The Green Man will be with you always. You will never see the world the same way again.
The sensualist. The one who gives up his life so that you might live. The passionate man. The fire that burns eternally but does not consume. The one who waits beneath your window. The seducer.
Nurturer. Mentor. Teacher. The one who understands you.
Before you is a wide chasm. There is no bridge, no way to get across. The chasm separates the person you are from the person that you could be and want to be. No one crosses the chasm alone. For that, you need a Coach.
For the Top who is a Coach, it’s all about limits. He’ll ask many questions, doing his best to get an accurate read on where he’s starting with you, and as he learns, he will get an idea of where he wants you to end up.
In many ways, it’s so simple. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. You’re going to hate him. You’re going to curse the day you met him. You’ll hit the wall. And then, you’ll keep going. You’ll continue to move forward, summoning strength and courage that you never imagined you possessed.
But there’s no gain without pain. And there will be a lot of pain. Pain of the worst kind. Not just the pain in your muscles that have been worked harder then they’ve ever been worked before, but the pain of knowing that if you fail him, if you don’t give your all, if you don’t show him that you are the person he believes you can be, then life won’t be much worth living.
Men come to the Coach at so many different places in their lives. Some are keenly aware of all their inadequacies. Some are convinced that they’re hot shit, and have lived their lives under some bright and shining star, finding all that success has always come easily, and all the doors are always open.
No matter. The Coach knows that basically, you have no idea. You haven’t begun to tap into the power that you have. Before you do, the first step is to come to a place where you are broken totally: body, mind, and spirit.
Then the Coach does the real work. You believe, because he believes. You come to understand that the only way to go is his way. You turn it all over to him. What you eat, how you sleep, when and where and how you do everything in between is all at the direction of the Coach. What you’ve managed to achieve on your own hasn’t gotten you anywhere.
Being a Coach is a bittersweet experience. After the trophy has been won, the time will come when the Coach will be left alone, telling stories. True, undying gratitude has been won, and steel has been forged from base metals, but there’s the Coach, sitting alone on the bleachers, with only his memories. But in time, the call will come again. Here comes another one, his breath stinking of mother’s milk, shoe laces undone, wandering into the locker room, wondering what he’s getting himself into.
The life of the Coach is a life of sacrifice, putting yourself aside for the sake of others. But for a Top who goes this way, it is quickly evident that there’s no better way. The benefits far outweigh the rewards.
I’ve mentioned connection a several times along this road, and I think it merits spending some time on it. Imagine, if you will, a scene without connection. There’s nothing there. The man you’re working on is nameless, faceless. A nothing. Not even a man. You feel nothing for him. Who knows what’s going on in his head, and who cares? Not you. You swing the flogger. He yelps. His back reddens. You hardly notice. You’re thinking about when you’ll be able to pick that stuff up from the dry cleaners before you need it on Thursday night.
God forbid you should ever be forced to endure a scene like that, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. Maybe he seemed so perfect in the chatroom. Such a sweet intelligent guy, into all the same stuff you are, and available right now. And so, your dick rock hard, you give him your address. You hear his car pull up, answer the door, and nothing. It probably would have been best if you concocted some excuse or other, but you didn’t. He wanted a flogging, so he’ll get a flogging.
Flog flog flog. Flog flog flog flog flog. Flog flog. Flog flog flog flog flog flog flog flog flog flog. Flog.
It takes every ounce of will power you have to prevent yourself from drumming your fingers while he’s putting his clothes back on afterwards. “Thank God,” you think to yourself when he doesn’t ask for your number or leave you with his or ask when you two could get together again.
Connection is critical. But it can be a damned elusive beast. Sometimes, it seems, it’s there or it’s not. When you’re sure you’ve tracked it and it’s bound to be there, you find only an empty glade. And sometimes, when you least expect it, there it is. Waiting for you all along.
Not saying you should never play unless there’s that connection. Charity work is a necessary evil. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.
But the key thing is never to lose track of how important connection is to any scene.
I once fisted a boy. He was very hot for my hand. He said that he was sure that I could take him farther than he’d ever gone before. I told him that I wasn’t really that experienced in fisting. The men with whom I’d explored that sublime art had been very experienced, and that had compensated for any deficit on my part. Given the fact that he had only recently discovered that fisting was where it was at for him, I suggested that he might do better to find another man to show him how it all worked.
And then he said the most amazing thing: “Trim your nails, and just keep looking into my eyes the whole time, and we’ll be fine.”
He took my fist and my arm to just shy of my elbow. Both of us went farther than we had ever gone. Everything depends on connection. If it’s there, then there’s no telling how far you can go.
So what is it exactly? What are we talking about when we throw around that hippy-dippy word?
I think that by and large, the eyes have it. I’m reminded of a wonderful poem by Andrew Marvel. In it, he describes two lovers sitting on a riverbank, looking into each other’s eyes. Each one sees his and her own reflection in the pupil of the other. To really get the poem, you have to know a lot about Seventeenth Century metaphysics, but I think the image speaks volumes in and of itself. There you are, looking at yourself, looking at your lover, who’s looking at himself, looking at you.
It all begins and ends with the eyes. I am in you, and you are in me, and I am you, and you are me.
That said, talking helps things along, too. By all means, get him talking. Did you know that psychologists have found—and car salesmen have put to use—the more someone listens to you, the more trust you have in them?
But what are you listening for exactly? Well, as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tells us, “People love to talk about themselves, and if you let them talk long enough, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.” Of course, there you run the risk of Too Much Information.
Perhaps I’ve lead us down a blind alley here.
No. Wait. That’s it. Country music. Only in the past few years have I come to appreciate Country. And why do I love it? Because the success of a song depends on psychological insight. It can be anything, but it’s those wonderful turns of phrase when all of a sudden the entire person is laid bare. And that’s what you’re listening for. That little comment that cracks through the shell.
I was once doing my best to fend off the advances of a man who loved dog training. He and I went to all the same watering holes, and frequented the same neighborhoods of cyberspace, so I was running into him all the time. He wanted me bad. I couldn’t have been less interested. I would smile and nod and be very non-committal, saying things like, “Yeah. We’ll have to see about doing that sometime.”
And then, we were talking, and somehow the topic of spelling came up. He wasn’t a very good speller. “Anyway,” he said, “Spelling is a cat thing.”
I loved that. That changed everything. Spelling is a cat thing. And he’s not a cat, he’s a dog. He sees himself as a dog. He assesses his own behavior against that of a dog. A smart, loyal, obedient, friendly, happy dog. And I love dogs. I totally love dogs. That was all I needed to hear. We set a date. We played. It was great. We both had a blast.
Okay. So now for the dicey part. Connection is a two-way street. You’ve got to let him in, to give a little of your won game away.
Scary, huh? Relax. You probably do it all the time when you play and you don’t even realize it. Because chances are, you’re inviting the men with whom you get together into your home. That in and of itself says more about you than Mr. Tolstoy had to say about Anna Karenina. Even if your mom did all your furniture shopping for you. Come to think of it, especially if your mom did all your furniture shopping for you.
I usually get this out of the way in the easiest way possible. Before a scene, I have a sort of staging area, as in, the place where I park the boy while I go get the playroom in order. It’s right in front of my bookcase, the one that’s loaded down with all my books. ‘Nuff said, in most cases.
So everything rides on connection. “Only connect,” as Forester said. And here’s a bit of cerebral hard candy to dissolve and swallow. You’re connected to him. I mean ‘Him,’ that boy you played with the other night. And he’s connected to some other Top. And that Top is connected to the boys that he’s done scenes with. And among those boys is one who has done several good hot wax scenes with that big old Switch. And guess what? A few weeks ago, I had that switch in a chain bondage hogtie when he was here in town. So even though you and I don’t know each other, and even though we may never do a scene or even meet face to face, we’re all connected. Every one of us in the scene. And there are enough globetrotters and bisexuals out there to ensure that the Pro Domme Fem in Halifax, Nova Scotia is basically your sister. We’re all connected.
And an army of lovers will never be defeated.
Oh. My. God. You made it this far! That's the end, folks! You are encouraged to give me your thoughts. Any feedback is appreciated. You can do so using the "comments" feature below, or in the alternative shoot me an email at drewkramer [at] mac.com. But even if you like it and think there's something worthwhile here, please don't say, "You really should publish that." Please. Just don't go there. (Unless, of course, you're a publisher. Then we should talk, right?)