It wasn't really my idea. I don't think it would've occurred to me before it happened that first time. But when he slapped me hard across the face, I knew it was right. I felt the electric shock of it, the sudden awareness spreading from the heat rising on my cheek of being completely present in my skin, and completely in the moment in that hotel room with a man I did not know.

But it wasn't exactly a surprise, either; I knew it was coming. We met online three years ago. He was in New York and I had just moved to Philadelphia. We exchanged emails for a few weeks and had a couple of brief phone conversations that lightly danced around the notions of rough sex, and I understood what I was getting into. Or so I thought. I had read about BDSM and lurked in some chat rooms. I knew people tied each other up and whipped each other. I eavesdropped on their pride in taking it. And I was more than a little intrigued.

It wasn't hard, then, to step into the role with a stranger who seemed to know his part. In those virtual exchanges, I readily admitted that I was a willful girl in need of "instruction," that he knew how to turn pouty women into the good girls they wanted to be. It was all very playful and perhaps a bit scripted. So when he finally took the train to Philly, I thought I was ready. When we met for drinks at Buddakan, and he turned to me and said, "I'd like to slap that pretty face," I swiveled on my stool to lodge my knee between his, and I gave him my best "I dare you" smile. I asked for it.

Still, I didn't know it would be so quick. Standing in his hotel room, he kissed me carefully the way new lovers do. He stepped back and looked into my eyes. I was expecting him to say he wanted me, or some version of the half-dozen things people say when they're about to have sex for the first time. Or I was expecting him to pull out some rope. But instead he simply stared at me, taking measure, then cocked his right arm and swung. I didn't know how much I'd be caught off guard, taken aback by it, by the commitment of it and the force of his six-foot frame leveraged behind his right hand.

It was an arc of lightning that drove through my jaw. I felt the sting and the burning rise on my left cheek. I felt my eyes tear and the vibration of every muscle, from my forehead beginning to ache to a quiver in my calves.

I wasn't sure I'd ever noticed my heart in my chest before.

I wasn't sure I'd ever noticed my heart in my chest before. I felt my lips trembling, trying to form a smile. And yes, I felt the wetness pooling between my legs. And when I opened my eyes and saw the look on his face, turned on but also concerned and questioning, I felt powerful. I felt in control. This man, twice my size, had just hit me across the face with his full weight, and I took it. I absorbed it. I was fucking strong; I half expected him to fall on his knees in front of me.

But he hit me again. And again. And each time was like the first. No less bone-shaking or heart-racing. If he'd kept slapping me, I think I would've come from the sheer vibration of my nerves. But he stopped short of that. He slapped me until I cried, until something else in me broke loose. Some little hard kernel in me shattered apart. And the amazing thing was, he knew it before I did. He watched me, and he saw it happen, that cathartic moment when I turned inside out, and he stopped. He held my blushing face in his hands, and then he took me by my wrist, led me to the bed and fucked me. It wasn't rough sex. It was slow and tender. And I experienced each single gesture — his hand gliding down my shoulder blade, or my lip against the lobe of his ear, each touch we learn from tired romantic movies — I experienced as if it were the first gesture anyone had ever made. And when I came, though it was one of the best teeth-rattling orgasms I've ever had, it was almost like an afterthought given what had come before.



The next day I called one of my closest friends in Vermont. I was a little giddy. I couldn't stop looking at my cheeks in the bathroom mirror. Checking that the redness was still there, like a mottled sunburn, and tracing the vague prints of his fingers with my own. I didn't want those patterns to go away. I wanted to keep them, and more importantly, the feeling that went with them. Like those folks in the chat rooms, I was proud of my marks. I felt evangelical, and I wanted to spread the word. So I called my friend, Peter, who of all my friends is the most intrigued by taboos and the least judgmental. I recounted every detail, the electricity, the surprise in the strength of that hand and the submission that felt so powerful. Peter asked about the sex, and I told him it was sweet, but I wanted to talk about the blows. And he asked the questions friends ask to make sure you're being honest with yourself.

"I'm just wondering," he said, "why isn't it abuse?"

Without thinking, I gave my most honest answer: "Because it feels good."

I learned two things when I hit puberty. One was the power that comes from the self-control to take pain, the other was the ability to disappear from my life. These sound like the lessons of abuse, but my abusers weren't other people.

"I'm just wondering," he said, "why isn't it abuse?"

They were my own genes. By the time I turned twelve, my spine was already twisting and bending itself into an eighty-seven degree scoliotic angle. I tried my best to ignore it, and it was pretty easy since there wasn't yet much pain. I simply stopped looking at myself in the mirror, denying myself any chance to see the hump forming on my back or the evolving bow of my torso. It was made all the easier when I got my first body cast, which encased me in plaster from my neck to my hips. I just adopted the habit of not taking notice.

The pain, though, came with the surgery, and it got my attention. In the worst moments, when the simplest movement of raising my arm a few inches made me go blind from the hurt, I stumbled on another trick. Rather than trying to occupy my mind with something else, trying to forget it, I focused on it. I really had no choice. I drilled into it with every thought in my brain until I smoothed down the jagged edges. I took control of it, and having control turned it into something else. It still hurt like hell, but it wasn't altogether unpleasureable. And each time I got better at it, and each time I learned how to be in my body again. I learned that I wasn't quite dead.

But then I healed, and the most I had to contend with in the next year was a succession of more casts, which weren't painful but were nasty to look at. The last cast came off just before I turned fifteen, and by then, once again, I had mastered not quite being there.

For twenty years, I had the memory of that pain tucked away in the back of my mind, but I'd never picked it up and held it in front of the mirror. Not looking had become the routine. Since then, I'd had a normal life. I'd had vanilla sex. I'd enjoyed it, and sometimes it was really, really lovely. But I was never quite there. Even when the man knew how to touch me, how to elicit those post-orgasmic shivers, even when he loved me, there was always a part of me hovering in a corner of the ceiling and looking away — not quite alive.


The Little Death by Joe Dornich
The girl I brought home didn't wake up in the morning.
Thirty-Two Pounds by Sean Murphy
The backyard discovery that kickstarted my adolescence.
Two-Dollar Destiny by Sarah Hepola
My impulse-buy psychic reading put everything in focus.
Republicans I Have Loved by Steve Almond
They were moral. I was flexible.
Girl Meets Toy by Janice Erlbaum
The virtual pet that embodied my breakup.
Rough Patch by Nicole Ankowski
This contraceptive device sickened thousands of women. I was one of them.

Commentarium (17 Comments)

Nov 25 08 - 5:30pm

I thought this was a brilliant and incredibly honest piece of writing. I am sorry for people who are so frightened by the subject matter that they can't see that.

Nov 25 08 - 5:31pm

Excellent intellighnt, sensative and creative writing.
Thanks,. G.M

Nov 25 08 - 6:47pm

Oh, spare me the facile sanctimony. Sensitive? Creative? Honest? Perhaps if she spent a bit less time trying to glamorize her abuse and self-abuse, she'd find that "honest" place to write from. I'd like to read the piece she writes 15 years from now, when the psychotherapy kicks in and she realizes how she's been used by this cowardly man who gets his rocks off hitting women. That's not "concerned and questioning" in his eyes after he whacks you around, my dear; it's fear. He's terrified you're going to turn around and put his lights out for him, which is the least of what the scumbag deserves.

You think she's still going to want to get smacked around when she's 40? 50? And what will it mean that she wants to stop? That she's all "pained out"? Or will it mean she's a little bit wise and has a self image that isn't as twisted as her spine was?

She pays passing lip service to everyone out there who doesn't see the glory in a woman being hit by a man. "It's not for everyone!" Yeah, neither is a gunshot to the chest, or a supporating facial wound -- or scoliosis, for that matter. It's for people who are unfortunately afflicted or attacked. Key root word: unfortunate.

Ther. A. Py.

Nov 25 08 - 9:49pm

wow wow wow. exquisite writing. i've never really experimented with BDSM, but that doesn't stop me from wondering about it & the people who participate in it. this was fascinating, insightful, and a tremendous turn-on to boot. thanks for sharing.

Nov 25 08 - 11:15pm

PO doesn't get it, and never will.

Nov 25 08 - 11:44pm

Hmm. I've been thinking about this for awhile -- that is, the prospect of engaging in something similar. I am more interested in the event occurring say, preceding orgasm, when I'm already on fire, rather than as a means of getting there. The essay's beautifully constructed, and I appreciate the candor as well as the timing.

Nov 26 08 - 4:13pm

Although I never even playfully slapped my two wives on their butts during foreplay and woman on top sex, I have found that several women I have dated enjoy playful s&m. I have engaged in lengthy foreplay for years, including restraining wrists and ankles as we see each other in mirrors placed around the bed for our own private porno, I was too hesitant to get permission to spank. Several women love to imagine their college boyfriend watching me smack their naked ass cheeks as he stands naked in a closet masturbating as I lift their butts up as I tweak their nipples and then rub my penis against them. One women came several times as she writhed around in joy!

Nov 26 08 - 6:41pm

our deepest fantasies are not always logical, or even safe. acting on them (and i have) can be both thrilling and sometimes devastating. i could neither recommend people pursue them, or not. with some people you get a sense, even without language, of whether you are safe. but it's tricky and probably not to be taken lightly.

disappointment is so deeply woven into so many aspects of life that it's small wonder we can get off on inflicting and/or receiving pain.

Nov 30 08 - 8:06pm

This essay is as refreshing, clear, and positive as BDSM is when done in a spirit of self-knowledge and mutual respect. Thank you, I appreciated it, and think it deserves a form expanded beyond a brief essay.

Dec 02 08 - 7:39pm

As a magazine editor who is linking this article, I can say that its been a while since I read something so well written that it was almost entirely pull-quotes. Cudos.

Dec 05 08 - 12:08pm


Dec 14 08 - 3:27am

Thank you, that was wonderful.

Dec 27 08 - 2:17am

This essay has a lot of meaning for me. Not because I have any desire to hit or be hit, but because you describe so exquisitely what it meant to you to share that particular intimacy with someone who connected with you so deeply and so well. Extraordinary!

Dec 31 08 - 7:24pm

Well quite the story-but I must admit-there may be different strokes for differnt folks but I prefer to treat a woman wih a lot more gentleness and passion-I can see if she would want it its one thing but for me it sounds like abuse....still

I will stick to and continue to write as I am...

Dark Knight

Jan 10 09 - 11:23pm

some of the most insightful, revealing writing on this topic of discovering a deeply personal fulfillment. candid, delicate pacing, the writer drew me into their world as if it could be my own. i'm glad to have read it and that she wrote it.

Feb 14 09 - 2:02pm

I loved this. Congrats on the writing and on the telling-

Apr 25 09 - 3:08pm

Oh, Angela ...

How delightfully, endearingly and touchingly honest.

Thank you for that. Please keep on ...