Beasts in the Jungle & The Bizarre Story of Ms. Hartley (a mystery)
  • PRELIMINARY REMARKS: BONDAGE AND SADOMASOCHISM – WHAT I READ, WHAT I LEARNED, WHAT I FOUND

    I found a fascinating world: a world always cliquey, sometimes cultic, sometimes sordid and seedy — a world, in short, no matter what you think, where the line between consent and force floats in a perpetual state of murk and blur: as blurred as your eyesight after a severe head contusion.

    I read, for example, of submissives being “consensually” beaten (with some regularity) into such a state of disorientation that the term “consent” by any standard imaginable could no longer have any meaning at all.

    I learned that by depriving the brain of oxygen, erotic asphyxiation (auto, partner, or multi-partner, it makes no difference) destroys brain cells rapidly — far more rapidly than I knew — putting practitioners at permanent risk for strokes and heart-attacks, as well as creating a far higher likelihood of irreversible brain damage, which brain damage can be instant or not apparent until later, and with subtler symptoms that practitioners don’t even necessarily connect with erotic asphyxiation, such as: difficulties with impulse control, poorer focus and memory, mood swings, depression, anger, anxiety.

    Depriving the human brain of oxygen also, as you would suspect, directly and demonstrably bears on the question of “full and coherent consent” — there have been prosecutions among long-term and even married BDSM couples concerning things done by one to the other while the other was choked-out — and I found not a single intelligent or even semi-intelligent response from anyone in the BDSM community regarding this fact.

    Said a neurologist whom I know:

    “When you combine the dopamine and oxytocin rewards from orgasm, with the β-endorphin analgesic from hypoxia, while deactivating the amygdala, you create a stimulating neurochemical event that is a prescription for disaster. It’s highly addictive — 80 times stronger than morphine — and though you’re doing great damage to your brain and body, you are quite literally numb to the pain … and often completely disassociated.” Which is the main reason so many people die from it.

    I read about “herds of college students led [by bad literature] into the boundless fields of BDSM, like lambs led to slaughter,” as one writer (and BDSM practitioner) put it — by which she meant:

    After reading and growing enamored of Fifty Shades of Grey, these kids were utterly unprepared for the not-uncommon episodes of unchecked assault, rape, and other abuses they would see or suffer in their local or campus BDSM groups.

    I read that no matter how shocking the violence, no matter how wild the fetish may seem, it is only apparent: in actuality, it’s all an inborn part of the human condition, far more dangerous to repress than to express; that the violence (even to the point of death) and the fetish (even to the point of physical illness: coprophilia, cannibalism, necrophilia, and, believe it or not, more), is “just a game — like a violent video game,” as more than one practitioner I interviewed described it to me — and as such it is played only in the bedroom or the dungeon … except when it isn’t.

    Yes, there are those for whom it “bleeds through” into daily life — who, however, I’m told via email, are “aberrant, rare,” and that these activities which are confined to the bedroom or the dungeon do not increase the risk of aggressive or nonconsensual or criminal behavior.

    I read any number of psychologists, forensic and otherwise, one of whom I also interviewed via email, who disagree — some rather stridently.

    (Said one: “The notion that looking at images or watching videos of women being tied up, raped, stabbed and strangled on a regular basis has no impact defies common sense. Men who do this recreationally are not likely to emerge with an enhanced respect for women. And quite aside from the possibility of copycat attacks in real life, the desensitising effect is worrying enough…. However liberal we might want to be, it’s very difficult to deny that a person who collects stabbing photos or videos might pose a danger to women and girls in his social circle.” And from a psychologist/sexologist who’s a very big PROPONENT of pornography — as in, he believes it’s good for societies: “But there is the crux of the issue — the people who gravitate towards unhealthy, violent porn are people who already have a disposition towards violence.” Note the word “unhealthy,” which he assumes.)

    I read about recent research on rats demonstrating that rats can be conditioned to associate sexual arousal to the wearing of a tight-fitting and specially made rat-jacket, and that virgin rats who wore the jacket the first nine times they had sex — i.e. who got used to it — were less able to achieve orgasm the tenth time without the rat-jacket.

    I learned from the New York Observer:

    “In the last year, hundreds of people have come forward to describe the abuse they’ve suffered within the scene… The stories ranged from more benign assaults (unwanted groping) to tales of being drugged and raped. In a survey by NCSF, more than 30 percent of BDSM participants reported that their pre-negotiated limits on violence or domination had been breached. The coalition’s spokeswoman concluded: ‘There is still confusion between consensual BDSM and assault.'”

    I learned that men are far more likely than women to develop fetishitic influences.

    I learned, primarily through deduction and not explicit codification (which is also significant), that BDSM isn’t a single practice or population.

    This is more important, I’ve come to understand, than it may at first appear.

    BDSM, I repeat, isn’t a single practice or population but rather a vast amalgamation of different people and fetishes, leading me to at times wonder if maybe the umbrella is too big — the fabric of it, I mean, stretched too thin. I, for one, who’d never in my adult life given a second thought to whips and ropes and handcuffs (et cetera) didn’t at all realize that this type of kink is lumped in with dismemberment and genital mutilation and snuff and necrophilia and so on.

    “The spankers are different from the branders. Most people who like collars want nothing to do with choking. The populations sampled in the existing studies were largely soft-core—the Canadian sample, for instance, was recruited from sites such as alt.personal.spanking and alt.sex.bondage—and this tilt, while probably representative of BDSM as a whole, makes it difficult to discern whether the heavy stuff is mentally healthy or physically safe.”

    The “heavy stuff” that this Slate writer mentions — an excellent writer, incidentally, who happens to be gay, who’s politically very liberal, and who came under MASSIVE fire for articles that dared question the safety of certain BDSM practices — they don’t even really broach the subjects I’m talking about here: murder, cannibalism, necrophilia. In fact, what he calls “heavy stuff,” I (now) call “mid-range.”

    I’ve learned, corollarily, that within the community, there’s such a thing as “vanilla BDSM”(!)

    I found that there’s been a backlash against obviously antiquated notions of S&M — a good backlash, I truly and totally believe — which, however, has swung so far the other direction (“an overcorrection,” as one psych described it) that professionals EXPLICITLY ignore the dangers and devilish intricacies of the notion of “consent” and, worse, they ignore the hard-core violence that I (and many others) are exclusively concerned with.

    This is a problem.

    DomSubFriends, for instance, a kink site, warns, “A sub may be in subspace and not have the presence to stop the scene.”

    NCSF agrees:

    “The physical or emotional intensity of a scene can result in the participants getting carried away, disassociating, or being otherwise unable to revoke or modify consent.”

    I learned that S&M — this, according the the same gay writer for Slate — and to a lesser extent dominance/submission, “raises questions different from those raised by, for instance, homosexuality.” Why? Because it hits upon questions of violence, abuse, torture — and I mean real torture.

    I learned that many, many BDSM practitioners and writers are well aware of this, but I learned also that they don’t like to talk about it — at all — or, in any case, not in public (part of the overcorrection, I believe).

    Instead (and I’ve recently experienced this firsthand) they contort this conversation into a more comfortable debate between people like them, who are open-minded and enlightened and at ease with their bodies, while the rest of us, who are shocked by the sheer number of people reporting abuse and who are ignored, people like me who are staggered by the endless images of extreme violence, people who are sickened by crazed notions which develop as a logical consequence and flow naturally from the premises — notions about, for instance, control and slavery and whether slave-contracts drawn up in dungeons are legally binding for life — we are the bigoted prudes (even when we’re not).

    I’ve found that what many in the subculture simply can’t fathom is criticism that defies their stereotypes: that you can be fine with kinky sex, as I am, but deeply suspicious of violence — especially violence which comes about through questionable consent and which goes to the point of brain-damage, dismemberment, disease, death.

    I found, on both blogs and forums, my comments were deleted rather than addressed — comments that raised questions about actual abuse and potential pathologies in the cases of extremely violent pornography.

    Please note those last three words.

    I’m not talking about pornography or even hard-core pornography.

    I’m talking about extraordinarily violent porn, which includes but is not limited to (staged) snuff.

    The reason that my questions were deleted rather than answered is that nobody knows precisely the effects of this on the human psyche. Anyone who says otherwise is mistaken. The studies — and there have been many over the last century — are contradictory, poorly conducted, incomplete, inconclusive.

    One thing, however, that isn’t much debated anymore: the process of desensitization.

    I learned also that the first rule of forensic psychology is this:

    “The way that people do one thing is the way that they do everything.”

    (Faithful in a little, faithful in a lot.)

    I’ve learned, according to one practitioner, that “some domestic submissives might say that a master is completely legitimate in beating a sub who doesn’t have dinner on time.”

    I found comments such as this absolutely jaw-dropping, and I, who have plenty of disagreements with radical feminists, think the radical feminists are completely justified in their vitriolic criticisms of notions like this, and in my opinion ideas and convictions like this go far in besmirching the entire community.

    I found this remark from another well-known practitioner:

    “A person who likes being slapped or choked during sex (violence), or who has a rape fantasy (violation), or who wants to be locked in a dog cage and peed on (degradation), doesn’t actually want those things to happen in real life. The reason these behaviors are enticing is because they are a taboo; the safe place to play and explore is in the context of sexual fantasy with a trusted partner. Responsible adults can distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

    I found “responsible” a crucial — and frankly not-always-common — virtue.

    (“Fantasy?” says the previously mentioned sex-friendly liberal William Saletan. “This is more than fantasy. The masochist really does get slapped, choked, or locked in a dog cage and peed on. It may be private, and it may be with a trusted partner, but it is real: One commenter describes a young man who told his girlfriend’s father: ‘But that was when she was your daughter: I own her now. She belongs to me.’ Another commenter complains, ‘I’ve had the police try to investigate my husband because my coworkers wouldn’t believe that he wasn’t abusing me because of bruises on my wrists.’ A third cautions that some BDSM participants ‘like black eyes,’ so police should back off if the injured party says it was consensual. Yet these commenters also protest that when they report abuse, cops tell them, ‘Well, you asked him to tie you up. We can’t do anything.’).

    Yes, you read all that correctly. And yet it doesn’t even begin to tap into the endless legal complexities in prosecuting actual abuse and cruelty, which, I know, is a separate subject, but it comes up all the time, and it’s a very real issue.

    I learned this as well:

    “In most BDSM relationships, domination or violence is limited to agreed-upon sessions, known as ‘scenes.’ Violence becomes abusive only when it occurs ‘outside the scene.’ But some couples don’t accept this distinction. In a ‘master/slave’ relationship, NCSF guidelines say the slave can ‘give up contemporaneous consent for the duration of the relationship.’

    “’There are people who believe that if you write a contract giving up your freedom, you give it up forever,’ says one BDSM teacher. In these relationships, ‘if the slave gives up their freedom, that’s it. It’s over.'”

    I’ve learned that to many in the community, the very notion of even questioning statements like that, no matter what side you eventually come down on — and I do come down on the side of consent — means that you’re not “forward-thinking,” you’re “kink-shaming,” “slut-shaming,” “hating,” so forth.

    All of which is total nonsense.

    As I said before, plenty of us have never in our adult lives had any problem whatsoever with kink, but we’re deeply suspicious of violence and the horribly blurred lines of consent, which, if you only get one thing out of what I’ve written here, please let it be this: in a great many sectors of this subculture, the lines of consent are incontrovertibly blurred and often abused.

    I learned also, paradoxically, consent in the community is everything — except, of course, when it’s not: i.e “when it causes the sub trauma.”

    (Say what?)

    Or:

    “Many draw the line at death, dismemberment, broken bones, or ‘irreparable harm.’ One practitioner says you can’t consent to ‘having someone carve off pieces of you, and eat you, while you watch, before they kill you,’ though, she concedes, ‘many people won’t agree with me in the BDSM community.'”

    The question obviously becomes: says who then, ultimately?

    Answer: it’s arbitrary.

    No matter how involved and no matter how inculcated with BDSM rules, I found that at some point, most kinksters believe that the severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.

    I found that to be very, very, very significant. In fact, its significance, in so many ways, simply cannot be overstated. Why?

    Because consent — not harm — is the putative golden rule of the community, and so if harm overrides the sanctity of consent, there is a thin but deep fissure within.

    Can a dungeon divided against itself stand?

    I found drugs and alcohol aplenty, and saw that a large number (though perhaps not the majority, difficult to estimate, I found) of the younger practitioners are people whom I as a bartender have a great deal of experience with: party boys and party girls.

    I found others for whom BDSM is a near-religion, and as such coexists right alongside toe-dips into, for example, Buddhism and Hinduism.

    I found a spectrum of kinks and fetishes that I didn’t know existed and that seem limited only by the limits of the human imagination.

    I saw that abuses of consent are almost commonplace — as, perhaps, they are in the non-fetishistic world — but here in this subculture, I found, they are undoubtedly more easily overlooked and ignored (and I don’t just mean legally) because of the nature of the subculture, and I read not a single account from anyone, in or out of the subculture, who disagreed with that.

    I read that BECAUSE OF THIS, prosecuting actual crimes that occur within the subculture is next to impossible.

    I found that there are practitioners with histories of no abuse and no sexual trauma, and that there are a roughly equal number with histories of abuse and trauma.

    I found that some people report having fantasies from as far back as they can remember, and I found an approximately equal number who report coming into it at a specific point later on, and still others who report coming into it gradually, progressively.

    Among the younger demographic, I found the influence of Fifty Shades of Grey nearly overwhelming, distressingly so — distressing as much for its literary sins as for its obvious other problems.

    I found that there exists a world in which the interest in sex and sexual thrill is taken to a whole other level than any I’d yet conceived — including good old-fashioned porno and gangbangs — a world that astonished me by the sheer intensity and priority and focus it places on matters hedonistic (a curiously common word in this subculture, incidentally, I’ve been somewhat surprised to learn): men and women alike willingly selling themselves into a lifetime of BDSM slavery only the tip of the iceberg.

    And yet I also read of many people who, accustomed to feeling freakish and abnormal all their lives, have found here an irreplaceable sense of community and love that they’ve found nowhere else.



    CHAPTER 1

     

    Edward Fisk the attorney leaned back in his swivel chair and lifted the bone-china demitasse cup to his lips. He took a cautious sip of the scalding espresso, gently sucked the crema off the surface, and then he held the liquid in his mouth a moment before swallowing. He looked across his desk at Mary-Lee Caswell.

    If I were a younger man, he thought, I would most certainly be tempted to ask for a spoonful of that sugar. At sixty-one, though, and not yet a full year recovered from his second heart-attack, Edward let the thought lumber by. It was against doctors orders for him to be drinking anything stronger than milk, let alone working himself up over a lovely young widow.

    Mary-Lee had to be all of twenty-nine now, he reckoned, and she looked absolutely stupendous, with her flowing blonde hair like something poured out of a soda fountain, stone-grey eyes that shone with intelligence, a thousand-watt smile she only occasionally turned on.

    Edward finished the espresso and set the china cup on his desk.

    “When did you last talk to Hartley, Mary-Lee?”

    “Less than a year ago. We had lunch when she was back in town.”

    “How was she?”

    “She was distressed. And she had every reason to be.”

    “Why do you say?”

    “Because you don’t act that way toward somebody and then expect that if you ignore it all, it will just magically disappear.”

    “May I ask, how did you know her? Initially.”

    “We grew up together. We were close friends when we were teenagers.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes.”

    “I hear she was a little odd,” the attorney said, “a little quirky.”

    “She was certainly regarded that way.”

    “Why, do you think?”

    “Well …” Mary-Lee paused for a long moment. “She was quirky, I suppose, in a way.”

    “In what way?”

    “She read and wrote a lot even back then, and she was private.”

    “But you knew her pretty well?”

    “Yes, I did.”

    “Even though she was private?”

    “Yes. I don’t mean she was antisocial. She wasn’t. She could be genuinely warm and even funny, in a quiet sort of manner. She had an artist’s temperament — a real artist’s temperament.”

    Mary-Lee glanced down at the floor, as if in recollection of something.

    “I remember one time as kids, when we were walking together,” she said, “passing by a gift-shop, she saw a ring in the window that she really liked. This ring wasn’t anything special or expensive, you know, but she grew up poor, and so I went in and bought it for her. And do you know what? You never saw someone made so happy, so delighted by so small a thing. She hugged me and kissed me, and she never forgot that I bought her that ring: Even to this day, she’ll wear it every time she’s around me.”

    The lawyer narrowed his eyes on Mary-Lee, who for a moment looked as though she might cry. But she didn’t.

    “You said earlier you’re on her side,” he said, at last. “Why?”

    “Because you cannot repeatedly tell a person that you love her, as he did, and that you’re terrified of losing her, as he also did, and that you never want to say goodbye — you cannot, I repeat, say these things and mean them, which he did, and then abruptly break it off in absolute silence, without any explanation, just because of a relatively minor argument, and not expect some strong reaction mixed with deep confusion, especially when that someone you statedly loved and were once terrified of losing gave so much of herself in return. And if — if — after something like that, you truly don’t expect a strong reaction, then that makes it even worse.”

    “How do you know he said those things to her?”

    “She told me — because I asked her. He had written many, many touching and heartfelt things to her.”

    “Did she show those to you?”

    “No. And she never would.”

    “So you never actually saw these notes?”

    “No, I didn’t.”

    “What do you mean by strong reaction? Fatal attraction type?”

    “Please. No.”

    “Hysteria?”

    “No.”

    “What then?”

    “Her showing up at his house.”

    “And why precisely did she do that?”

    “So that she might talk to him, to better understand.”

    “And what happened?”

    “Nothing, apart from the fact that it shook him up. He refused to see her, and she was asked to leave, and she did.”

    “They never talked?”

    “No.”

    “Where did she go?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Do you know where she is now?”

    “No. That’s part of the reason I made this appointment with you.”

    Once more, the attorney narrowed his eyes in thought.

    “I do know,” Mary-Lee said, “that a few weeks later, she discovered that he and his friend — with whom she had also once been close — she discovered that they were both involved in some very fetishistic and even violent sexual subcultures, and they had both kept this carefully hidden from her. This was unexpected and a BIG deal, and it caught her off-guard. But the real shock came when someone in that set of people began taunting her anonymously from afar.”

    “What happened at that point? Unglued?”

    Mary-Lee didn’t immediately answer. She fixed her stone-grey eyes on the attorney.

    “Listen closely to me,” Mary-Lee said. “She doesn’t come unglued. Not with them and not with anyone. That’s not her personality. She’s not violent. She’s not unstable. She’s not vindictive. She’s a thoughtful, rational human being who doesn’t treat her life as a frivolous thing but takes it seriously, and she won’t allow herself to be bullied — by anyone. And if they’re going to say negative things about her to mutual acquaintances, they would do well to give the FULL context — by which I mean: their role, including most especially the sadomasochistic violence — because if they don’t, I will, even if Hartley doesn’t, which she probably wouldn’t.”

    Mary-Lee stopped speaking a moment. The attorney waited.

    “You don’t know what she went through when she was young,” Mary-Lee said. “You’ll never know. It was far more than finding a loved one dead. I say again: she’s not a frivolous person. She didn’t give of herself easily or wantonly, and so the friendships and relationships she took the time to cultivate, they were exceptionally important to her, and so being treated that dismissively by people who supposedly cared about her and whom she thought were serious people but who were primarily concerned with hedonistic glut — it struck her like a club blow, so many of those images suddenly before her, without context, the sheer amount of time spent culling those photos, it seemed like a double life. Who in his right mind would regard her reaction as strange?”

    “Some people might, if she didn’t then respect boundaries.”

    “But she did respect boundaries. Very much. That’s part of her core philosophy, which she’s written so much about. She just was never sure because she got many mixed messages.”

    “What initially brought those two together?”

    “She’d helped him through a difficult time, and vice-versa. In fact, he showed her a side of himself he didn’t often show other people — if ever — and that’s what she fell in love with. Clearly, he was conflicted. Clearly. This side of him touched her deeply because it was so sincere. Their relationship wasn’t even really sexual (though she was attracted to him in this way, very much), but she didn’t yet know anything about the other part, and that’s also why it struck her as a kind of deception.”

    “What other part?”

    “The sadomasochistic, fetishistic fixations. She realized only afterward that he and his friend both were in deep, and that was their fundamental connection. Which she told me last time I saw her that it explained a lot.”

    “In what way?”

    “She said she always wondered what they really had in common, because they always seemed to her very different otherwise, and even said as much to her, independently of each other — not negatively but more as an observation. That was my experience as well.”

    “I see. You say they were in deep. How do you mean?”

    “The amount of time spent.” She paused. “Sadomasochism, if you’re truly into it, especially if it’s to the point of actual sexual sadism — and this is me speaking, not Hartley — is something you should tell people about early on if you plan on becoming close, because it’s not for everybody. Those images, many of them, are shocking. Sadomasochism is a specific predilection — and it can be dangerous. You don’t, for instance, practice erotic or autoerotic asphyxiation safely, as even the serious practitioners will tell you, because it is at the very least damaging, and at the very worst, lethal. You can mitigate the risk somewhat, though not the potential brain damage, but that’s about it — and all intelligent S&M practitioners that I’ve ever read agree with that. Also, you will often hear devoted doms talk of ‘natural-born tops,’ as they call them, whom they don’t generally like because they’re violent people, as well as ‘pathological bottoms.’ All this puerile role-paying, domination and public humiliation, all the preparation, the self-conscious intentionality, with quasi-sociological justifications, totally unpersuasive — I think people who live in that world lose sight of the fact that it strikes many as inordinately fixated, very involved, and slightly inane.”

    “Pretty harsh.”

    “I’m a strict feminist, unlike Hartley.”

    “What do you mean by fixated?”

    “I mean that it places so much importance on the sex act that after reading about it for any length of time, you come out with the overwhelming impression that nothing else in life really matters quite so much as hardcore kinky sex. I’m not talking about so-called sex addiction, either. I don’t really even believe in that term. I’m talking about an inordinate interest.”

    “Well, they do run in reinforcing circles, I will agree with that, and so they’re bound to lose some perspective on the eighty or so percent of the population who are not deeply into it. Still, all types.”

    “Yes, I agree with you. But she was blindsided by it after his incomprehensible behavior toward her. And you certainly don’t taunt people with it. Hartley might be quirky and odd, but she’s more relaxed than anyone I’ve ever known, and you know what? She was more naive about it than she knew — the more advanced stuff, for sure. But she didn’t object to S&M as such, and never had, and even began looking more deeply into it.”

    “What did she object to?”

    “She objected to actual cruelty — and after being dismissed and blindsided, she didn’t know what was what. She was extremely confused. Look, she treated her friendships with the depth of seriousness they deserve, and not shallowly or simply when it was convenient or when it fit her schedule, and that is one of the many reasons I came to love her so much, and why I regard her as the truest friend I’ve ever had.”

    “Is that so?”

    “Yes. She feels things profoundly, and no matter how naive she was, he did hurt her — deliberately, I think. She was very upset: beside herself with worry over his safety when he was overseas, so that when she later saw on all his websites and social media –”

    “All?” the attorney interrupted.

    “Yes, including the defunctive: Tumblrs, Instagrams, Twitters, so forth, and the things she saw that they liked. That’s what I mean by the sheer amount of time. When she saw that during all this time he was actually fine — and he knew how worried she was — it stunned her that he’d acted in such a cruel way, after everything. And she was justified to feel that way. That’s one thing for sure. She was traumatized. And when trauma like that takes hold — I’m talking about real trauma, not mere sadness — you don’t just get over it. It takes a long time to normalize. I speak from firsthand experience.”

    “Hell hath no fury.”

    “No, it was much, much different from that. As I said, their relationship wasn’t really sexual.”

    “Yes, you did say that.”

    “I think it would be abnormal for her or any rational person to not react much as she did. What he did was worse than her going to see him, by far. This is apart from the BDSM stuff. She was hurt beyond normal proportion first because of the cruel silence and the sense of betrayal and deception, and how much she gave of herself to him and the friend, and then, after that, the taunting and the violent sex stuff she discovered and the things she saw in that subculture, especially among their set of friends, it caught her off-guard — not because she had never seen or heard of it before (though she did come across elaborate acts and descriptions of violence she hadn’t seen or heard of before) and not because she was puritanically naive or sexually conservative, but because it was not what either of them had portrayed to her, and she didn’t know what was going on.”

    Mary-Lee paused.

    “That is why I’m on her side,” she said. “And, you know, after all the vulgar, violent things she saw and read and with which they’re associated — things that in real life clearly fall into the realm of pathology, and that’s from the perspective of one who believes we OVERpathologize — that she is then the person regarded as the weirdie for going to see him, even as much as she regretted showing up unannounced at his home, this was the one thing she simply could not get her head around. Because she loved him. All she wanted was an explanation. She believed that after everything she deserved that much.”

    “What sort of fetishes are we talking about here?” the attorney said. “In general,” he added. “Whips and chains?”

    “No, nothing that tame. We’re talking about real sexual sadism versus S&M as it’s commonly understood. We’re talking knives, assault, rape, violent group sex with strangers, photographic glorifications of lynching–“

    “Lynching?” the attorney interrupted.

    “Yes. These get a pass, while she’s the one regarded as the monst–”

    But Mary-Lee didn’t get a chance to finish this sentence because at that moment, the door burst open and a personage neither of them knew entered the room.



    CHAPTER 2

     

    Dear Mister,

    It took almost nine months and a lot of deduction and thinking, but I believe I figured everything out — including, most crucially, that initial cascading non-response, when I was so worried, and which has had such thunderous ramifications.

    To begin with, in case you don’t know it, the subculture you’re both involved in figures into this in many ways, and from my perspective, which I hope you can see at least a little bit, it was a new and devastating factor introduced into my life — both because of how much I cared for Sadie and how much I cared for you and how it blindsided me after all the other trauma. Yes, trauma. That is not an exaggeration. If anything, it’s an understatement. Because of the way it came about and the sense that it was hidden from me, I didn’t know what to think. And I still really don’t. Also, I don’t think I could ever fully express to you how worried I was about her safety and her health. Please try to look at this a moment from my perspective.

    If it was just a matter of being blindsided with basic S&M stuff — no taunting, no ghastly photos, no close connections with people into heavy-duty things — it wouldn’t have been a big deal. That is the truth. I don’t consider S&M a disorder — I never have — and I already knew about the “roping,” as Sadie called it, and even received a few provocative photos. I just had no idea of the extent, and the levels of (play?) violence being entertained, certainly by your set of friends. It is extreme, by any standard, when you’re talking about “beating a woman and raping her with a knife and …” And so on.

    But I’ve looked deeper in, to better understand, and I’ve read a lot. I do think that after a certain point, it’s a blurry line indeed, and that violent beating-and-rape images (e.g.) cannot be overly healthy — though I know some people say they’re cathartic, while others in the community disagree, there’s much debate, it seems to me, and a lot of stratification — which says nothing, however, of images and fantasies about murder, cannibalism, and so on. One thing I hope you can appreciate: for people uninitiated to that level, whether they’re sensitive to violence or not, it’s astonishing, to say the least of it.

    I think it’s the intense preoccupation with it, apart from the specific tastes, I mean, kinky or vanilla, that I have the most difficult time grasping: being an active participant in a community where sex is such a significant subject that you’re IN a community. It’s foreign to me. And, you know, the more I think about it, the more I think that might be the main thing after all: kink or no kink, gay, straight, extreme, multi-partner, and everything in between and outside, it seems on this level a sort of hyper-focus. I don’t mean that judgmentally. I’m just making an observation, thinking. I’ve always loved, loved, loved sex, from as far back as I can remember, but there’s a distinct difference in how I’ve always regarded it versus that: how I prioritize it. I suppose I would say the same about, for example, a person who spends a great deal of time viewing and reposting regular vanilla porn. The more I get my head around these extreme death-and-rape fantasies, the more this seems analogous. I’ve also always regarded sex as personal and private, not out of shyness or modesty but because it’s the physical extension of my brain, and I am a private person by choice, and also because I think of it as something special, no matter how many times I happen to have it.

    But I suppose, upon second thought, the public display is perhaps part of the fetish, yes? No?

    I know that since I went to see Sadie, I’m viewed as a sort of monster, but I ask you to please try to imagine, even if it’s just for a moment, how all this would strike you if I were in actuality not a monster, which in actuality I’m not. If you can do that, and if you can imagine how much I abhor violence, you will perhaps begin to see how crazy this has been for me, and you will also begin to grasp why it’s been difficult to move away from — it’s as though the plot keeps thickening — and you’ll perhaps also understand why I view you through completely different eyes. The truth is, as I’m sure you know at least implicitly, I’d more than once glimpsed it, which is why I severed contact at the end of June, and then because of the fallout from my going to see Sadie, I ignored it, even told myself when I was in that post-trauma state-of-mind that perhaps I was wrong, until finding out all that I have.

    Yes, you once meant more to me than you’ll ever realize, and that’s why your silence, which began not quite a year after you moved away, was so baffling — for so many of us. You both have this in common as well, and I’ve come to understand that this tendency is no side-issue or small thing but the opposite. I can at least say that this knowledge has been helpful to me in sorting out a great deal of confusion in my mind.

    Where is the inexpressibly fetching person who used to come see me late at night at my work, when I’d be cleaning up, who introduced me to heart-pounding new music, which we’d listen to, just the two of us, in the dark bar — the person by whom I was once completely captivated, yet never inappropriately, the person I truly came to think of as a friend, who left me such a touching note before moving away to a different state and into a different mindset? I miss that person very much — more than I ever expected I would — and I always will miss that person. Why did that person start ignoring me while we were still friends, even when, genuinely worried, I’d ask if that person was safe and okay, eroding trust thereby?

    That is DEFINITELY one aspect of this that has been brought to the forefront: trust in communication, as I’ve come to think of it, which extends into every aspect of life, whether sexual or not, and I want you both to know: it is no small thing. It wounds profoundly, every bit as much as physical violence, but the psychic cuts go deeper and the scars are longer lasting, and perhaps that’s what you were trying for. I honestly don’t know. I honestly don’t know either if I’ll ever be able to see messaging as I did before I knew you both. I know that sounds over-the-top, but it’s been a surprisingly large issue, the shell-shock at its source incredibly persistent, even now.

    Social media is perhaps the true devil in this whole ridiculous saga.

    I do not visit your social media as a rule — what I said before is 100 percent true — and I can count on one hand the number of times that I have visited. But when I’m confused and don’t know WTF is going on and when I have the sense that I’m being taunted or threatened by people who are into extreme things, it becomes a different and possibly even criminal matter.

    Also, it’s not that I’m sexually sheltered or conservative, please understand: I am none of those things — I’m very sexual, in fact, and very open and willing to try new things — and I know more about the “regular” BDSM world than you might realize, having long ago seriously dated somebody who got deeper and deeper in, progressively, and never, to my knowledge, got out, though she never while I knew her got into this big-time violence at primary issue here. It became her all-consuming obsession, though, so that her entire life revolved around it. That was the horribly tragic part to me — a wasted powerhouse of creative energy, all for the sake of elaborate orgasms, in her case — whether BDSM motivated or not isn’t the point. (I know non-fetishitic people whom this has happened to as well, and it strikes me as equally tragic, and for the same reasons.) I don’t think promiscuity is bad by definition, but I do think compulsion is — compulsion of any kind, sexual or no.

    Do I sound judgmental, vanilla? I apologize. Sincerely. I don’t mean to. I admit I’ve been shocked by these anonymous forums where, as I’m sure you know, you can read the words of people who talk matter-of-factly about, for instance, their escalating fantasies of torture, murder, cannibalism, mutilation — or being subject to such things. Much of the time, it’s rationalized as being an “art form,” and there are unfortunately plenty of (presumably staged) photos posted to “prove” it.

    Those photos are not for the faint-of-heart, even for somebody who does not have issues with hardcore violence, which, as mentioned, I do.

    Sexual sadism — and this according to first-person accounts I’ve actually read — and the temptation of it does often spill over into day-to-day, non-sexual behavior, as you are perhaps beginning to discover, as does masochism. Bleed-through, I’ve heard it described as. In fact, the person I once seriously dated talked about feeling and fighting more sadistic urges in daily life. I know that plenty in the subculture say otherwise, but I’ve found no good studies to back that up, and that is why first-person accounts and experiences are valuable.

    When one regards as normal or okay the posting of photos-and-captions such as certain ones your friends have posted on their social media, or perhaps have sent to me — things that I find unspeakably offensive, to say nothing of criminal — one might perhaps want to take a step back and reevaluate what one regards as in-bounds. That’s what I thought. I’m not talking about non-normative sex. I’m talking about the hard-core assault-and-rape-and-death talk publicly posted. That is offensive to me. That’s all I’m talking about here: the very hardcore stuff.

    I’m trying to understand how to take it in as it’s (presumably) meant to be. But, more at issue, I think, it discloses such a heightened preoccupation with the sex act, whether those photos-and-captions are all in “good fun,” or not, and in my opinion images like that must do a disservice and damage to the less extreme practitioners of S&M — because the images are so violent and so forceful — and I mean that in reference to how S&M is perceived and accepted by the world. They seem force and death writ large, those photos.

    But forget, for a moment, all the violence: certain things, such as one’s body and one’s sexuality, are sacred, aren’t they? Even when kink is involved, I think they should be regarded that way at least to some extent, and not splattered all over social media and group-sex chatrooms, with extraordinarily vulgar language to boot. Life consists of far more than elaborate, public orgasms, doesn’t it? When one’s body and one’s sexuality aren’t regarded as at least somewhat private and sacrosanct, they are cheapened — whether or not, I say again, any kink is at play. I believe they are. I’ve never thought of myself as old-fashioned, but maybe I am in this regard.

    Here is what I also believe:

    I believe Sadie was involved in your calling me those two times back in June. I believe this for a few reasons, two of which are newly discovered, not all of which will I list here. But going over (and over) everything in my mind, I spotted inconsistencies in your messages, in collaboration with your words on the phone, in collaboration with Sadie’s actions and words, and in thinking about it I inadvertently caught you both in lies — two of which from you clear back in June, when we were still supposedly friends — and also because when you last wrote me, in early September, you said you didn’t know who or what to believe, me or Sadie, though you were inclined to believe Sadie. You were right to — but here’s the thing:

    Why would it even come up in your mind to not believe Sadie? Why would you say that, I mean?

    I’ve thought a lot about this particular thing.

    Nothing in what I wrote remotely suggested that I was saying otherwise, or that she was not the one to believe. On the contrary, I was totally upfront about how wildly I misjudged in going there, the mistake I’d made, and there wasn’t even a suggestion that I was faulting Sadie or saying anyone other than me was to blame:

    I did fuck up in going there, as I’ve stated numerous times, and so why would it even enter into your head to say to me that you didn’t know who or what to believe?

    There are only two explanations that I can think of, but of those only one makes sense. I believe I’m correct.

    The most incredible thing about all this, the most mind-spinningly absurd thing — the part that would be almost comical were it not so pathetic — is that every bit of it could have been cleared up in seconds of actual communication, and none of it, not a shred (including this that I’m writing right now, and including my now in-depth knowledge of your sexual penchants, as well as the deception), need ever have come about.

    All I wanted at the end was an explanation. I truly don’t think that was too much to ask. Not after how much we each gave to the other.

    The feeling that I’ve been played, manipulated, ignored, deceived, lied to, whatever you want to call it, even if you weren’t involved in the initial thing and even if the mention of my name was coincidental and all the other stuff — and there is much — this is chiefly why this has swelled to such enormous proportions, not the sexual things. I hope at the very least you can see that and understand it — where I’m coming from, I mean — in spite of your negative feelings toward me. What I’ve been through has not been fun. It honestly feels as though I grew to love people who didn’t in the end actually exist in full.

    Trying to reconcile this with the person who wrote me so many beautiful tender things in, for instance, late December of 2016, is an effort. The sense of overwhelming happiness, Sadie — and you and I alone know what I’m talking about here — the sweetness, the kindness, the beauty, the clarity of communication, the sincerity and good-will, the back-and-forth, the fun … you don’t say things like that to people and interact in this way if you can’t at least end it so that there’s understanding. That, I think, is sadistic in an unhealthy way. I believe anyone in my place would feel similar, yourselves included. The few times I didn’t reply to you for even a few hours, you wrote or even called to ask me, hey, is everything okay? I understood that. And, as I’m sure you remember, I always replied. I couldn’t imagine not. I’m not a possessive person — not remotely — and I never have been. I’m the opposite. But there’s a reasonable standard and expectation to be met when it comes to proper communication with friends and loved ones, even (and perhaps especially) in this day-in-age of constant text messages.

    If one claims one wants to always make new friends, one must also take care to maintain those friendships, and chronically ignoring people is not the way to do it. That’s not friendship. It’s an ersatz version, a semblance of friendship, a simulacrum. It’s pretend friendship.

    If you think I’m a monster because I take this and my life seriously, then so be it.

    I, for my part, think more or less this same thing of anyone who does not take his or her life seriously.

    And do I believe this is serious and real?

    Yes, I do. Beyond the shadow of any doubt.

    It’s very, very bad — the whole thing.

    I’m talking about all the hurtful silence and the deceptive parts and the sowing of confusion, and not the kinky.

    No, I do not mean for this to sound sanctimonious or superior. I’ve had — and continue to have — my own demons to face, and I’m not just referring to my deep love of licking all around the female anus (though not inside), while two fingering the vagina simultaneously, and, yes, I must still face most of those demons daily, with varying degrees of success, and I know I’ve done plenty of wrong. Plenty. I told Sadie that — that I was out of line — and I tried very sincerely to apologize and to make it right, and that is the truth. I would have done virtually anything to make it right. All we had to do was communicate, which would have been so comparatively simple.

    I believe also that because my relationship with Sadie was never sexual, for a brief beautiful time, Sadie saw in that friendship with me something else — something beyond a purely hedonistic life. I believe that in the end Sadie couldn’t reconcile those feelings for me (and my newly revealed political views, which was also part of my duplicitousness, I know, but in my defense let me note that I did try to bring it out into the open, poorly, I admit, and to my detriment) with this other life. The saddest part is that all this would have been relatively easy to talk about and figure out so that no serious damage was done.

    Serious damage has been done.

    I know for a fact, Sadie, because you as much as told me (I see this retrospectively), you were on some level conflicted: little things I remember here and there, which add up and now make sense — not liking a certain city because it’s “too vain and hedonistic” of course being among the most obvious, but far from the only. I recall with special poignance those conversations early on when you asked me my opinion of satanism, which you said you’d been reading about, and I told you I could never take it seriously (true!) because it was just another deification of another non-existent supernatural entity, amounting, as I understood it, to another form of hedonism. My memory is long, and those were my actual words. Do you remember your reply, before you fell silent on the subject?

    Do you remember, about that same time, when I wrote you and told you that I couldn’t believe how much our correspondence had already come to mean, and you asked me (seriously but also tongue-in-cheek) if I was sure it wasn’t just that you crawled across my bar, and I said … do you recall?

    I said it wasn’t that at all.

    I said it was your words which came from your mind — and that’s as true now as it was then, or at any time:

    It was that.

    Don’t you know how much I valued our friendship? Don’t you know how much you meant to me? I know how much I once meant to you, because you told me many times, and because I felt it.

    This needn’t have come anywhere near this.

    The sheer waste is what leaves me most incredulous.

    Notes:

    Sexually adventurous, which I am, is not at all considered the same as kinky. I didn’t know this.

    Even within kinky, there are many types — beyond what I’ve long thought, which was essentially these three:

    Edgeplay; risk-aware; safe, sane, consensual.

    But there’s SO much more: from gunplay to bloodplay to financial-risk play, and many, many other things, on and on. It all gets blurry. The line between self-harm, autoerotic-asphyxiation, mutilation, standard S&M — it all gets very blurry, as many practitioners are the first to say.

    It’s all inordinately fixated on the sex act, however, which often flows into the compulsive.

    I’ve read first-person accounts from devotees who’ve said they can’t imagine their lives outside of the BDSM community, and I’ve read from others who have gone into the community for a few years and, though kinky, found it “corny and fake,” as one person put it, and I’ve read the gamut of everything in between. It’s been edifying. I of course believe, as I’ve always believed, consenting adults can have fulfilling, intimate lives together in deep kink, polyamory or no, provided their communication in EVERY way functions at a very high level, which is no small or easy thing.

    It is, I note again, the hyper-focus that I have the hardest time relating to personally, kink or vanilla: how this is prioritized in one’s hierarchy of values.

    Promiscuity and compulsion are more prevelent in the subculture — all the legitimate studies I’ve seen say this, anyway — and though, as I’ve written already, I see no real problem with promiscuity as such, it CAN get dicey, if you fall in love, especially. I think of it much as I think of pornography or prostitution: I have no personal or legal objection to it whatsoever, and yet would I ever personally do it?

    But the most serious issue (within the subculture) is not kink itself: it’s confusing kink with abuse and ACTUAL cruelty, or pretending that abuse and actual cruelty are kink, when they clearly are not. In researching this more deeply, I saw a great deal of that. That troubled me the most — because of how far it can be taken (back to torture and rape and death) — and it was also some of the first stuff I found that I started reading, and I admit it biased me. It was written, much of it, by people who are very involved in the BDSM community, and plenty deep in the subculture do corroborate and attest to it — specifically, I mean, that the lines get blurred all the time, and THAT THEY’RE MORE EASILY BLURRED, and violators are held much less accountable, because of the nature of the subculture. In fact, I first learned about it in three articles all of which were written by hard-core, professional practitioners. I’ve also read a number of people, male and female alike, who have “left the community,” as they say, for this precise reason.

    I know I have no room to say this because I didn’t tell you certain things about my philosophical-political views, but if when we were still friends you’d have brought this subject up with me, I swear I would have listened with totally open ears — with a disposition to understand and be persuaded: I mean the whole spectrum, down to rape and assault, et cetera, all as a kind of game. I’ve changed my mind on a lot after reading all that I’ve read, and you meant the world to me, and I would have listened.

    If you understand nothing else in this, please understand that it is the glorification of cruelty and abuse and death and violence, mixed with sex and put on public display, that primarily caught me off-guard. I object to what was sent me.

    But I was ignorant to how much of this is done as a game — “like a violent video game,” as one practitioner put it. That was new to me. And totally foreign.

    In the end, though, this situation has nothing fundamentally to do with kink-qua-kink:

    It was the non-sexual, destructive silence, after the emotional intimacy between us.

    It’s one thing to ghost somebody you barely know, after a date or two or three. That’s understandable. It’s something else entirely when it’s somebody to whom you have for several months said such intimate, meaningful things — things which she took very seriously and which meant a great deal to her.

    Hartley



    CHAPTER 3

     

    “Sex and sexuality — like gender — come in many forms and flavors,” the D.A. said. “I’ve known that my entire adult life and I’ve believed that my entire adult life — believed it uncompromisingly. It’s a non-issue, and I’ve always thought so. Also, I’ve long defended kink as a sexual orientation — nothing more or less — as I’ve long defended sex workers of every stripe and variety. In court, when I was a defense attorney, I successfully defended many of these women and men who were demonized and excoriated for their fetish and kink and their work. I’m proud of my record on this issue.”

    “But you’re taken aback by photos and videos of people raping and assaulting and killing others, though these photos and videos are staged?” said the psychiatrist.

    “Look,” the D.A. interrupted, “yes. First of all, you can’t really tell at a glance if those things are staged. And second of all, I’ve never thought kinky was abnormal or sick, okay? Let me be clear.” (The psychiatrist nodded.) “I just never knew that kink included the hard-core glorification of murder, rape, death, necrophilia, and so forth — and safely so, ostensibly. It has surprised me to discover this. It has surprised me how prevalent it is. That, I suppose, is my naiveté.”

    “You say ‘safely’ –”

    “Yes. Ostensibly.”

    “There’s differing opinions. The controversial verdict in the recent Case of the Cannibal Cop…”

    “I know.”

    “The extraordinary case in Germany, in 2015, of consensual cannibalism …”

    “Yes.”

    “Most feminists –”

    “I know.”

    “And forensic psychologists especially — they profile, successfully, on this sort of thing.”

    “That is another reason I’m here.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes.”

    “Tf you’re building a case, which as you well know takes some time, I can tell you that, for example, Ted Bundy, right before he was put to death, said that he knew it was violent pornography that pushed him over the line into serial killing, and a number of other serial rapist and killers have said the same.”

    “Yes.”

    “I would say as well that a number of my colleagues don’t think these extreme fantasies and games are entirely benign — for example, when in the intensity of a scene (and this is not uncommon in my experience) a submissive is beaten into such a state of disorientation that the term ‘consent’ no longer has any meaning whatsoever.”

    “Christ.” The D.A. shut his eyes. “And yet many of your colleagues do see it as benign.”

    “Yes. There are so many differing opinions, you’re right — even among those in the S&M communities, there’s disagreement. But the radical feminists undoubtedly have the strongest opinions against it. Cross-wiring, as some of my colleagues call it, and disassociation — which is statistically more common in this subculture than in demographics outside of it, and that is a fact — disassociation during the sex act, which, I can attest, does often cause real harm and even death, compulsion, the inability to stop — ”

    “I know. That doesn’t interest me right now.”

    “A number of law enforcement people, forensic psychologists included, whom I’ve interviewed, they tell me — and I believe them — that many adolescent deaths ruled suicide are in actuality accidental death by autoerotic-asphyxiation. Did you know that self-harm, even relatively mild cutting, is considered by most a disorder, but autoerotic-asphyxiation, which can easily cause irreversible brain damage, is generally not? This is controversial.”

    “No, I didn’t. But that doesn’t interest me right now, either. There is no real debate about the increased risk in this lifestyle.”

    “What does interest you, then?”

    “My bias — overcoming my bias. The live-and-let-liver in me has never had a problem with anything consensual — and never will. I think I drew the line in my mind with death and assault and rape and all that very extreme stuff because it seemed self-evident to me that it was force — i.e. non-consensual. But it’s not self-evident. I think now I was wrong.”

    “What made you change your mind?”

    “The case of the actual policeman who, off-duty, got caught posting realistic-looking photos on Fetlife — photos which mimicked a crime-scene that he himself had investigated: him with a knife to a woman’s throat and then that same woman in a body bag. At first it disgusted me. It still does, if the truth be told. Very much. I also think it’s horribly unprofessional and tacky. But the more I read, the more I realized it was all a consensual game. Consent is the key — even when people are playing at force.”

    “There is some debate about even that — specifically, is ‘consent’ the same as ‘informed consent’?”

    “Yes, that is something else. Ultimately, though, part of my bias, I know, comes from the fact I have an especial aversion to violence — rape in particular — and I personally have never had anything resembling those desires, and so it makes it particularly difficult for me to comprehend. That’s not denial or my being in-the-closet, I assure you. Photos like that and anything of that nature (including literature on the subject) it actually makes me queasy and divests me of my libido — sometimes for a long period of time. The exceptionally vulgar language does not help.”

    “And yet?”

    “And yet? Yes. And yet I’ve concluded that even this is a sexual orientation. The Story of O, Justine, all of that has always felt inexpressibly tragic to me and more than a little disturbing: something very troubling I’ve never quite been able to put into words, an empty, desolate feeling …” His voice drifted off and he looked at the floor in thought. “Perhaps it all comes back to philosophical hedonism after all.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “The Story of O ends with her relinquishing total autonomy and her whole self to sex, vice, voluntary sexual slavery. In the book, it’s portrayed not as a bad thing, necessarily: it’s merely what she chose. This is what gives me the empty feeling.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know. Isn’t there much more to life? I really don’t know. But I do know this: whatever the moral question, I’ve never once considered that anything like that should be illegal, and I mean in real life. I mean, a choice like that in real life. I’m not talking about morality here. I’m talking about legality. The question of whether imagery such as what I’ve described (and worse), whether it ultimately promotes and perpetuates violence and aggression — aggression toward women or men — doesn’t enter into the equation. As I’ve without hesitation defended the Neo-Nazi’s right to free speech, or the KKK’s, as much as that speech disgusts me personally — I’m Jewish, incidentally — so for the same reason I must defend the consensual kinksters who dress up as Nazis and take consensual pictures of themselves doing horribly violent sexual things to Jewish people, things utterly alien and reprehensible to me.”

    The psychiatrist said nothing.

    “I recently read a well-written article,” the D.A. said, “by a man deeply active in the BDSM community, not a medical doc but a PhD, who said that the two main criteria for what’s permissible are: 1) full consent and 2) it’s non-life-threatening. But why that last one? I ask myself. If the desire to die — or to be dismembered and eaten, as was the case in Consensual Cannibals that you mentioned — if it is indeed consensual, why does non-life-threatening enter in? And who says? And doesn’t that instantly rule out the very common practice of erotic asphyxiation, for instance, as well as many other fairly common BDSM practices, which routinely (if unintentionally) kill people?”

    The psychiatrist had no answer, and the D.A. was silent for several seconds. He gazed philosophically at the floor once more.

    “In certain libertarian circles,” the D.A. continued, “there’s often discussion of ‘the right to enslave yourself,’ which is a question that divides some libertarians. It is interesting to note that the sadomasochistic subculture, who are statistically speaking largely leftist, I believe, they defend this point of view — interesting, I say, not so much because they defend it, but because they defend it on textbook libertarian grounds: we are each individuated and sovereign. If they applied that very principle to each individual’s money and other property, they’d be indistinguishable from certain strains of libertarianism.”

    The psychiatrist remained mute.





    CHAPTER 4

     


    Where did Wendi go?