When I was nineteen, I had a lot to learn about boundaries.
There was a dungeon in my house.
I got married too young, at age nineteen, without ever having asked what it might mean to move away from home, to a different country. I didn't ask Greg what he meant when he said he wanted to marry me, and he never clarified. He was from Minnesota. People from Minnesota aren't exactly forthcoming about their emotions, or anything other than farming equipment.
So I moved in with him and his first wife, completing a polyamorous partnership triangle that quickly became two dots on a line as his first wife fell in love with her secondary partner and left. We joked sometimes that she and I had just switched places, since she moved to Canada just as I moved to the United States, and she had fallen in love with one of my oldest friends. So then it was just me and Greg in this three-story wood-floored house with a dungeon under the sloping eaves.
I don't know what people think when they imagine a dungeon in a house: maybe down in the basement, concrete walls bouncing back every whimper and moan, the slow drip of a pipe. Maybe they picture that part in Silence of the Lambs with the pit in the ground. But our dungeon was a room on the third floor, tiled in linoleum, and hidden behind a secret bookcase door. Greg was an engineer and a geek, and it amused him to have a secret bookcase door. I once told a friend where the dungeon was and challenged her to figure out how to open it. "I spent an hour tilting every book on that damn bookcase!" she said, but that wasn't the way you did it. You had to pull the candelabrum and twist, and the latch would lift and there you were, inside.
It was a cozy space, shelves of clothes overflowing onto the ground, petticoats thrown into drawers. Swaths of polyester fabric hung from the ceiling, making it feel more like a fantasy harem than a hundred-year-old Pennsylvania home. There was a tidy rack of floggers, whips, collars, leashes. A small wooden storage set from Ikea held nipple clamps, anal beads, matches for the candles that squatted in wrought-iron holders. You would have thought it was a strangely decorated spare bedroom if it weren't for the man-sized cage and St. Andrew's Cross in the middle of the room.
It started simply enough: Greg told me what he liked, and I, naive and young, agreed to try it. I spanked him, dressed him in the corsets and stockings, called him Melanie. He cleaned the house on his hands and knees, and I liked it because he liked it so much. It wasn't my first serious relationship, but it was my first marriage, and I knew almost nothing about negotiating boundaries or asking for anything. He was thirteen years my senior and I was desperate to please. He asked me to "force" him to kiss my feet and I obliged, even though the feeling of his lips closing over my toes was akin to sinking into wet sand, and made me stifle a giggle.
I soon found myself spending Saturday morning with a dressage whip in one hand and the end of a pony halter in the other, as he pranced and tossed his head on the other end, having begged to be put through his paces. He made the pony gear himself, complete with tiny tinkling bell on the cock ring, and he wanted to be taught how to trot, flicked across the thighs with my whip. I learned exactly what he liked and how he wanted it said, and I wrapped it up like a neat package — my gift to him.
But as we crept into our fourth, fifth, sixth year of marriage, and I realized how little I actually enjoyed any of this for its own sake, I grew to hate the creak of that dungeon door. Pulling out and twisting the candelabrum became a symbol of how trapped I felt; although Greg was the one sleeping overnight in the cage with his hands tied to a ring in the floor, I was the one who felt like giving up. I'd always been game for sexual experimentation; there wasn't much I wouldn't try once or twice. But our sex life had become a litany of strangenesses, one after the other, and they all traced back to that damn dungeon.
NEXT: "I started to beat him with anger, so much that I scared myself…"
We spent most of our time with his friends in the fetish scene, and argued over who would pack the collars and cuffs when we travelled. On one trip through airport security, the TSA agent's eyes widened as he parsed out the tangle of metal implements in my bag, and I stared at my feet, blushing. "It's okay to be kinky," I thought fiercely. "They shouldn't judge us for having unusual sexual preferences." Every trip to the hardware store involved meaningful glances next to the rolling shelves of metal chain, and every time I accidentally tangled my fingers in his hair, he arched his back and moaned prettily. I was living in a parody of a music video.
The more I played the role of his perfect, domineering goddess, the less I enjoyed it. I knew exactly how to bring him to his knees (usually just by saying, "Get on your knees!"), and as he cowered in front of me and begged me not to make him crawl across the bedroom floor, I found myself first making lists of all the things I wished I was doing instead and then getting angry. In the seventh year of our marriage, I started to beat him with anger, so much that I scared myself. If there's one thing the BDSM books say you shouldn't do, it's hit someone you're mad at: you could really hurt them. Floggers are not toys — well, they are, but they're also dangerous. So when I found myself gritting my teeth and hitting harder as he writhed on the ground, completely unaware of how close I was to bursting into tears, I knew something had to give.
Over the years, I'd tried to talk to him about how I felt; he just told me that if I really loved him, I would learn to love these beatings and crawlings as much as he did. Today, I know enough to be wary of any phrase that starts "If you really loved me, you'd…" But then I just tried harder and harder, failing to feel anything but alienated. In couples counselling, we danced around the issue, not wanting to say too much for fear of scaring our therapist. She eventually told us, "I've never met people who liked to talk about abstract concepts so much!" I didn't know how to put into words that I felt like I was losing myself. The only part of me left was the part that did what he wanted. Whenever I saw those supposedly titillating commercials with the woman in the black PVC corset resting her thigh-high stilettos on a shirtless Abercrombie model's back, I flinched.
In the eighth year, I finally left.
You can't name a fetish I haven't tried, many of them before I was twenty-five. Piercing, candle wax, electrocution, Museum of Sex exhibits in alphabetical order: I've inflicted them all. But just because I did them once doesn't mean I can do them now… a particular tone of voice, or arch of back, and I'm right back in that dungeon with the candles flickering behind me.
Of course I know it's possible to have an authentic experience with role-playing and sexual games. That not every trip to the dungeon has to end with me crying, raising blood with the edge of a whip. But every time I pick up a flogger, I shiver, and not with anticipation.