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 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.
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.
It makes sense then that BDSM piqued my interest. I thought it might break my bad habit. Back when I was listening in on the online discussions, I decided to go to a couple of meetings, gatherings of the community. They weren’t what I expected. The drawn-out conversations about rules and safe words seemed painfully self-conscious and somehow timid to me, and the pot-luck refreshments alongside the demonstrations of various whips and bondage techniques left me cold. It was a Tupperware party, and it was confusing. I wanted to be rattled, awakened. I wanted some kind of passion that would insist on my feeling it. I wanted what I eventually collided with in that hotel room.
Once, on the way to a restaurant with that man, I was egging him on, being playfully truculent and willful — a bad girl. He stopped short, grabbed my wrist, swung me around and slapped me hard. I felt a thousand needles on my cheek. I may have seen stars. But then looking over his shoulder, I saw a woman across the street. She had stopped short too, dead in her tracks, and was staring at us with a look on her face that was not just alarm but real anger, immediate and starting to seethe. I laughed. I made sure she saw me smile, but that didn’t change the expression on her face. For the first time, I felt afraid for him, for us. Was she going to call the cops? And if they came, would they believe me? Would they trust me? Or would they just assume I was protecting the man whose handprint was splayed across my face? And if she confronted us, what would I have say?
If I told her my life story, would she understand that I wanted it? I could’ve told her that once he gave me “permission” to slap him. He asked for it. I could’ve told her that when I ratcheted back my arm and let my palm fly, my courage failed me. My hand landed weak and soft, like a clumsy and self-conscious caress. And that I couldn’t tell if he was as disappointed in it as I was in myself. That I felt selfish, not being able to give him what he gave me, even if he didn’t need it. At the most, she might shake her head and walk away, wondering how two people could be so fucked up.
I know it’s not for everyone. And I admit I lucked out with the stranger in the hotel room. After all, he could easily have been someone who wanted to inflict harm instead of pain. It was a risk, and risks don’t come with “safe words.” For me the risk was crucial. I needed to accept the consequences without negotiation. I couldn’t be allowed to escape. I happened upon someone who not only understood that, but was strong enough to play it through.
We saw each other for eight months, keeping the tracks of Amtrak hot, but I still don’t know exactly how and why what we did worked for him. We never talked about it, and perhaps talking would have ruined it. I’m sure he felt empowered slapping me, but not in the way we think of men who are bullies or who prey on the weak. I think his sense of power came from the trust it took in me to let him hit me. I think he appreciated that. And I trusted him because from that first night, I learned the violence emanating from his hand was intelligent, deliberate and thoughtful. I let him do it, and he knew when to stop. It was an intimate and intuitive act in both directions. And when Jane Doe on the street stood glaring at us, at him, I realized that he was just as much at the mercy of it as I was. We were both submitting to the risk, and there was a mutual respect in that. And the look of concern I’d see on his face — every single time — was concern for both of us. I’ll always admire him for that. I admire a man who has the courage to slap me, who will put himself in that position, not out of anger but to feel the power of it and the pleasure of seeing it reflected back from me.
I remember sitting in a dozen restaurants in Philly and New York, when he’d brush my hair back from my face, and say, “You’re glowing. And it’s lovely.” And I’d sit there feeling every nerve ending, and I’d say what I couldn’t say to that woman on the street, or any other number of people who couldn’t quite trust it: I know, and it’s exactly what I needed.
This essay was originally published in Nerve’s Personal Essays.