In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally.
That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.”
And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs:
Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets.
Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you.
Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion.
That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power.
From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work.
It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room.
After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex!
Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away.
Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me.
I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult.
In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority.
In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years.
I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves?
Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism.
Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst.
Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs.
Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino?
“They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic.
Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going.
“By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said.
The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that.
Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members.
“That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.”
Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners.
Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.”
Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic:
“Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse
of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each
other with a bat, and then they would perform a three-day sex ceremony involving
prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in
missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they
had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’”
Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition.
My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be.
My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult.
“Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.”
I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused.
I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention.
I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails.
In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online.
The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace.
I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money.
“So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods.
“Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is.
“Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.”
“So, why do they call you brain?” I ask.
“Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.”
“So, your name is Brian!”
“Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing.
The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening.
The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room.
Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand.
Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn.
They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and…
“She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised.
I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented.
I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.”
So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either.
After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives.
M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself.
Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain.
Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up! And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says.
“Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry?
M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet.
M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this?
“It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact.
As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween.
“Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me.
Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting.
Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly.
This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building.
My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character.
Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation.
Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.”
“I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams.
I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me.
After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me.
I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me?
In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it.
I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers.
I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word.
M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now.
But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle.
As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.”
Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things.
The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.”
Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister.
We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe.
Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan.
I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck.
Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible.
My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new.
Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent.
When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden.
My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance.
My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero.
People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none.
“You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!”
If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.