“Koschei,” she whispered against his neck, where his dark hair curled. “Where do you keep your death?”
Koschei the Deathless lifted the calves of Marya Morevna around his waist and sank into her with the weight of years. He moaned against her breast. It stopped her breath, how like a child the Tsar of Life became when he needed her. The power she had over him, that he gave her. Who is to rule, that is all.
“Tell me,” she whispered. She wanted that, too. She wanted so much these days, everything she touched.
“Hush, you Delilah!” He thrust against her, the bones of his hips stabbing at her soft belly.
“I keep nothing from you. I befriend your friends, I eat as you eat, I teach you the dialectic! If you will not take me to wife, at least take me into confidence.”
Koschei squeezed his eyes shut. He winced with the force of his secret, his climax, his need. As he gripped her tighter and tighter, Marya thought his face grew rounder, younger, as though breathing in her own youth.
“I keep it in a glass chest,” he gasped finally, pushing her roughly back over the stacks of predicted troop movements, his fists caught up in the infinite mass of her hair. “Guarded by four dogs: a wolf like you, a starved racing hound, a haughty lap-pup, and a fat sheepdog. All their names begin with the same letter, and only I know the letter.” He shut his eyes against her cheek as she arched toward him like a drawn bow. “And only someone who knows their names can reach the chest where I keep my death.”
Cal: This is part 2 of our joint review of and meanderings inspired by Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story that just came out this week. (Part 1 is here.) As with Part 1, this post contains spoilers.
Ivy: The first scene where Marya is charming his death out of Koschei? I loved that. I totally do that to my partners, that dynamic of “give to me the thing you most fear/most treasure/guard most secretly in the world” as a really hot angle on intimacy. It is pretty central to my kink dynamic that my partners give up their heartfelt secrets to me — I can’t make things good for them if I don’t know what it is that they really want. That takes a whole lot of trust — it doesn’t always happen, but for my serious and profound kink relationships, we’ve always gotten there. I don’t care about their passwords or their bank account numbers or their job’s intellectual property — it’s not an invasive takeover kind of interest. But I’m strongly vested in what they’ve thought about when they come for their entire lives as a sexual being, or what they’ve only now let themselves admit they’ve always wanted. Their heart of hearts.
Cal: Well, that’s why I liked Koschei so much better than Ivan here – I care a great deal about partners giving me their secrets, and trust, and he ultimately gave her all of that. Koschei was demanding and switchy and offered service and willingness to be chained in her basement.
Also, he had something real to give up in being there. He wasn’t just some guy with nowhere else to be, saying sure, lady, you can do anything you want to me. It reminds me of the bit in Nicholson Baker’s Vox, where the narrator says: “An orgasm in an intelligent woman is like a volcano on a mountain with a city built on the slope – you feel the alternative opportunity cost of her orgasm, you feel the force of all the other perceptive things she could be thinking at that moment and is not thinking because she is coming, and they enrich it.” Koschei had so much power and life in him that his willingness to give himself over to Marya and stay chained in her basement was enriched by the sheer cost of what he had to lay at her feet.
Ivy: Yeah, I agree, and pretty much for those reasons. He brought something to the table, he didn’t just show up with a list of “first you beat me with the turnip, then I loose the firebird, then you chain me up in your basement with exactly four chains and call me a traitor to the Party…” demands that she might not even have been into. He was willing to put his actual self on the line, and that matters so vastly to me.
Cal: And he treasured her. Though I hate the way she lost herself through it. It felt like the author wanted to write about Marya gaining power and understanding, but I just found that her character got less interesting.
Ivy: I wondered if that was an artifact of her being non-immortal, similar to the way that eating goblin fruit in some mythologies eventually makes you very close to being fey yourself, over time. You lose your humanity through living and consuming and breathing that different world. So she was more locked-into-fate dancing puppet Marya rather than free will protagonist Marya.
Cal: And her first seduction of Ivan was her failed attempt to break free.
Ivy: By which she chose a different and much more boring set of chains. “Let’s play human!”, when she was no longer so.
Cal: It’s not really the story of a dominant woman at all, though it almost wants to be. But then again, at the end, both her husbands are dead and she knows how to shoot.
Ivy: I agree that it’s not the story of a dominant woman. She didn’t really seem to have that direction and agency, to me. Koschei topped her from the bottom psychologically for a while there; he kept her coming back to him. That is what he wanted, and it wasn’t *not* what she wanted — I think he was more certain than she was, and that helped carry the day in the direction of his desires.
I give a good bit of thought to psychological complexity in kink because I really enjoy those sorts of blendy dynamics, though it’s difficult to find other people who are on the same page as I am. In my head, I’m almost always the top because no matter who is tied up, I am directing. I always have the power, I’m just not always the one with my hand on the whip. Sometimes I’m more of a power behind the throne, and that can be really hot too. But this is not a kink-mainstream view of dominance, and I really hate it when nuance and delicate interplay gets misunderstood as “so secretly, I am topping you, HA HA HA”. Argh, no, you’ve missed the whole point, get out of my dungeon.
Cal: Oh, sure. I tend to let go of that, because I don’t want to think of myself as the top sometimes, but I also know underlying it all that I really only like it when I kind of secretly am. I do best with submissive folks who play dominant sometimes as an act of service for me.
Ivy: That recent scene of mine with my switchy boy was like this — I gave him power to force him to have the experience I wanted to induce in him. My objective was to get him to taste the sweet potency of having power and choice, and to realize that it was okay to enjoy it, that there were ways to do so without being a jerk. He’s seen me do it plenty, to him and to others, but there’s rather a lot of difference between seeing someone else pull that off and realizing that you can do that too. I think that was a healthy expression of that kind of cooperative blending, and widened his horizons of the possible. So I got everything I wanted there, and I was satisfied at the end result to his psyche.
Koschei and Marya were rougher and less everyone-buys-in. It was almost a competitive dynamic in some ways for them rather than a cooperative one. Whatever victory she had was pretty Pyrrhic, but I’d argue that he actually won.
Cal: I’m not sure that’s right. I mean, we’re focusing on kink here (hey, it is a kink blog!), so we can say that she wasn’t really a dominant woman as if that’s the point. But it isn’t, not really. She was a woman. She lost herself in an incredible man who treasured her and loved her and didn’t laugh at her and still wasn’t really right for her. She tried to find herself in another man who laughed at her and didn’t understand the depths of her complexity, and found another set of chains in life with him. She tried to escape those chains by quite literally chaining up Koschei, but that wasn’t a way out for her, either.
Yes, she had a Pyrrhic victory with Koschei, when he tried to woo her back by giving her everything she ever wanted when she wasn’t really ready to figure what she really wanted or needed for herself. But maybe I was overly hasty, earlier. She was a very young woman, trying to figure out what she wanted while being pulled every which way.
To bring it back to kink, she certainly seemed to get something out of topping, and maybe she would explore that more if she felt more confident and had partners who gave her the space to become comfortable with the exploration.
Ivy: Hah. If I’d had to figure out my entire sexuality in my late teens, I’d have made a horrible mash of it. I agree that it was a process of discovery in turbulent times (more so for Marya than for me!), and that she found something of herself in the toppy role, even if her first few sallies into that weren’t a perfect fit. And, really, whose were? Often, that sense of one’s self and knowing what’s right for you can ripen over years.
Cal: Going back to the scene where Marya tried to feed Ivan as Koschei fed her, it showed Marya as starting out with no way of being powerful other than by trying to be like Koschei. She didn’t know how to top as herself yet. I think most tops start out at least partially imitating something we’d read or heard of or seen or experienced when bottoming, and in some ways the rejection there hurts all the more because she didn’t know how to come up with any alternative suggestions, how to flex or adapt or collaborate – she only knew how to top the way Koschei did. And when that didn’t work for her, what was left?
Chaining Koschei in her basement was a first, tentative step towards finding her own style. I don’t really expect a sequel here, but I like that the ending left room for Marya to go on and figure things out without such controlling influences. I like to think she might find her own way forward after this story ends.
Cal: Ivy and I both just read Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, which was just released yesterday. It’s a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story, so gosh were we sure the target audience!
In some versions of the old fairy tale, Koschei the Deathless is chained in Marya Morevna’s basement, which raised the question that this book answers – how did he end up chained in her basement in the first place? Valente twines that tale with fragments of other versions, where Ivan the hero meets Marya Morevna on the battlefield and they escape together from mean old Koschei.
There are a couple of threads that came up in our discussion of the book that we’d like to explore here, the first of which explores the difficulty of rejection by one’s partners. There’s a later thread of service and secrets that we’ll discuss in another post. And, fair warning: these posts are spoilerrific.
“This is stupid, Marya. I am hungry. Let a man eat in peace.”
Cal: Ivan says this to Marya Morevna after she tells him to be silent and do as she says, starts to feed him in a particular order and speak to him in a particular way, feels power welling up within her huger than she expected – and no, he rejects that game. Earlier in the book, Koschei seduced Marya by feeding her in that same particular way, and entwined it with his dominance. Marya is explicitly trying to explore her own dominance by echoing how Koschei drew her in, but to take his place she must find her own Marya, and Ivan refuses to play her role. It’s a rejection not only of her power but of her submission – both are uninteresting to him.
This one small moment caught at my heart with the memory of every lover who ever laughed when I forced myself to open up about the secret dark frightening things I wanted, every time my desires were rejected as stupid or weird or just more effort than they were worth. And maybe most readers won’t see it, but I bet there’s a lot of us who’ve had that fear come true before. Maybe someone finds it easy to find good matches for unusual desires from the start, but not anyone I know.
But I also read it and feel lucky, now. The laughter gets rarer and rarer as you’re more open, as you choose people more wisely, as time goes on. And when it happens, it’s easier to bear once you’ve known people who moaned instead. And if you’re very lucky indeed, you have Koschei chained in your basement and sighing for your touch, and he never laughs at you at all.
Ivy: I have taken to calling this scenario “Ivans the Terrible” in my head since you and I had this discussion, Cal. (Plural Ivans, because I’ve dated someone like that more than once.) Because, truly, it is terrible to open yourself up to that kind of vulnerability, the admission of desire to someone that you love, and to have them not only reject you but not understand such an essential part of your sexuality at all. Of course not everyone that one loves is going to automatically want exactly what we want, but it is still a difficult and crushing realization to swallow that sort of rejection. At times, it’s made worse by the loved one not realizing at all what a blow they’ve dealt you. And there’s this mythology that the top can shrug off anything because we’re all-powerful and invulnerable and mighty, but that’s not actually how that works at all. There was a period of four years where I gave up topping entirely after I’d had a six person streak of rejection from my partners… I was convinced that this part of my sexuality was unacceptable to anyone that I cared about, and that I should stop trying lest I hurt people I loved (in a bad way). Naturally, that didn’t make my orientation or desires go away.
Cal: It can be incredibly difficult. I’ve been laughed at by lovers when opening up about things I wanted or fantasized about, and it shut me down and dealt death blows to those dynamics pretty quickly. And I was talking to another friend about this recently, and she said: “I remember a girl I was in the process of the talking-for-hours that precedes hookups with, and I remember some kind of “whips and chains” comment came up, and she laughed and reassured me that she wasn’t into that kind of thing.” I’ve been there, too, and always want to laugh and say – well, I am!
I feel like there’s so much in Deathless that relates to this, the wanting and the rejection – you see it a bit when she asks Koschei about his death, too. His first response isn’t to answer. It’s to say, “Hush, you Delilah!”
Ivy: Yeah. But that’s some people’s kink… they want to be charmed out of the knowledge of their deepest selves, persuaded, seduced. I’m happy to do that to/for my partners, but I find the idea of having that turned on me deeply frightening in an unsexy way. I may decide to share, but I don’t want anyone trying to make me; that’s probably orientation speaking there.
Cal: I rather enjoy it myself, sometimes. Actually, it reminds me of Midori‘s interrogation class. She said that she basically classifies bottoms for that kind of thing into two sorts – breakers and endurers. And you better know which your partner is, or you’ll miss the point entirely. Koschei was a breaker, Ivan was.. well, not even an endurer. He was that jerk who laughs, the child who doesn’t even understand how to ask a question, he won’t play along at all.
Ivy: Ivan was sort of that vanilla guy who ends up thinking that he’s outré for sort of being okay with swinging as long as he wins mostly, for bizarro-world definitions of win.
Cal: The one who thinks you’re so hot and interesting that he’s up for trying for your sake, but then criticizes you for wanting to take things too far.
Ivy: Yep. Because, you know, you couldn’t actually MEAN that. “I want a strong-minded independent woman who is my equal, now make me a pie.”
Cal: And it’s cool if you’re a little edgy, but if this is seriously what you’re into? That can’t be healthy!
Ivy: Hahaha, yeah, I think we’ve both rejected that guy before.
Cal: Oh man. And felt so judged by him! The jerk.
Ivy: One of the benefits of age and experience: I’m faster to recognize it and decide I don’t want to go anywhere near there with him now. I still sometimes slip. But, I’m nowhere near as terrible as I was when I was younger about pining for ages over him. Ugh.
Cal: I wonder whether the author dated that jerk, too, or someone along those lines. The book is so full of this theme! And yet she brings him back here as Ivan, who Marya loves.
Ivy: Do you stop loving people just because they’re awful for you? I don’t.
Once in a while (and much more often of late, which pleases me), I get the opportunity to top my favorite top. He is, in reality, a switch, and one of the most experienced full-time submissives I know, but that’s not his life anymore, and for over three years he’s been far more of a Daddy to me than a bottom of any kind.
The urge has been there for him lately, though, as our hearts keep opening to each other more and more. And the way he opens himself to me is so complete that it nearly paralyzes me. When he wishes to give himself to me, he transforms into the most dazzling engraved invitation I have ever seen, delivered by a dirty and bloodied knight on one knee with his head bowing over his outstretched hand. And there I am, without a single pretty dress to wear.
In the face of his impressively masculine body laid bare and trimmed, his ass cleaned out in advance, his blue eyes wide and seeking approval, and all the tools I could want laid out carefully to hand, I almost don’t know what to do to him.
It is a truly beautiful thing to watch a piece of smooth, glistening steel disappear into a big hard cock, then have him push it out. A joy beyond reason to fuck a willing ass with a toy the texture and color of his skin until I come screaming. And an intimate and transcendent pleasure to fist him while we both do.
But it was the little things along the way that reminded me of who I am when I top. The way I like to grab his ear and move him around by it. The way I like to stick my fingers in his mouth and feel his teeth, and move his head around by the jaw as if he were a horse I was looking to buy. How I like to grab and squeeze him, both in strong places like pecs and quads and shoulders, and in soft places like sides and insides of elbows. How I like to bite his face and his lip, and just run my hands over and over the lean expanse of him. Mine. Mine. Mine.
He might ask me if I want this or that, if I’d like the knife to run over his skin, or the suction cups for his nipples, or whatever. There are ways in which he wants to please me so much that it can feel like he wants to run the show. And that’s okay, too, because that’s part of how I know what it is I want, which is what this is about. “Do you want the knife?” “No, I want to bite you.” “Do you want to sit and I’ll straddle you facing away?” “No, I want you on your knees with your ass in the air.” Gentle topping from below is just another means of clarifying. Just another way of letting me know what it is I want.
Because I can forget. In work, it was easy to forget. In being with him, in the way he tops me, I can forget everything. For a long time, even when I topped him it was following his lead; in some ways, he’s still teaching me how to fuck with a strap-on.
But more and more, he’s reminding me. He’s bringing me back to what I like, and what I want, and what I need, from him.
And that is truly sweet.
One of the things that happily astonishes me about my partners is how receptively open they can be with me. It’s a state of mind that I’ve never hit myself, one that I find enticing and arousing and astonishingly flattering. I can recognize it when I see it, and it’s a separate state from the endorphin-flying phases of subspace or the initial tremblings of wanting to be pushed over that brink. Instead, it’s a state of anticipatory receptivity. They are comfortable, but waiting on whatever I might see fit to do to them. They are actively available to me, not being obtrusive, but sure that I know I can have them. They are not pressuring me into action, but are rather engaged in waiting until such a time as I might feel inclined to act upon them. In short, they want to give of themselves to me.
This is such beautiful generosity that I cannot help but be delighted and floored by it every time. Of course they get something out of it too, but the point is not to obtain some particular desire of theirs. In subduing their own insistent wantings, they can attain a state of peace — they give up knowing what I’ll do or even trying to predict it, and they become open and waiting and ready. It is as thoroughly seductive to me as nectar to bees. Sometimes it stops me in my tracks, other times it sends me about my day with a small smile and a percolating plan for later. But even when I’m thinking about work or the laundry or what terrible thing my travel agent has managed to do THIS time, one of my partners in this state will draw my attention and lift my mood regardless of if or when I act upon it.
Such an invitation leads to delicious play. Perhaps that’s somewhat self-fulfilling, as it takes established trust in order to attain this state; knowing your partners’ psyches and desires well does intensify and sweeten the sorts of play that I prefer. Still, knowing that I could do almost anything and have it appreciated inspires me to outdo myself for them. Having this sort of open invitation from someone important to me, I am inspired to give them my best work. Inspiration is important to me — I am often an intuitive top, and there are moments where my partner’s headspace almost lays itself out before me. Having a good chart of the terrain allows me to map (and, if they please, push) their boundaries better. Much of my sense of their desires and reactions comes from small things: turns of phrase, body language, little indicators such as noticing when they unconsciously stop and hold their breath for a moment. Feeling them preemptively embracing my wishes gives me a brilliant place to begin with them — I can take that extended desire and comfort and turn it into passion, transgression, or yearning.
Sometimes this is a deliberate, conscious process of planning on my part. Other times it’s more of a gestalt. Last week, I went to sleep and woke up with a fully detailed weekend plan for one of my partners. I executed it the next day to our mutual delight. (If only it were always that easy! But I probably wouldn’t savor it so much if it were.) Still, one of the drivers for that creation on my part was considering her attitude and approach towards me and knowing that I could have nearly anything I wanted from her. In bringing me that gift of herself, she made us both stronger. Knowing that she would do it, I could set her to work with abandon and joy.
There are times where I catch glimpses of the potential for this sort of giving in others, a particular hope to make this offering. It’s strongest when they want to open up so to me in particular, though I can sometimes spot the tendency even when I’m not the intended recipient. I’ve talked with friends of mine from time to time about kink radar — this is one of the major ways that I find new potential kink partners. It’s not in matching items on a checklist or ascertaining compatible orientations or comparing calendars and schedules or negotiating relationship parameters, although all those things happen as well. It’s in hearing that echo of desire to please, the beginning resonances of that offering of self that match the force I can exert upon them. They respond to me in a way that makes me want to find out what else they can do and where I can take them… and I’m well known for my healthy curiosity.
When I was in high school, I went out to the midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show fairly frequently, in part because it gave me an excuse to joke about kinky stuff. I would dress up, hoping that I could somehow convey my pervy orientation through the standard teenage goth girl uniform of skirts slit practically to the waist and fishnet stockings.
When I was in college, I let my dance-loving friends drag me out to clubs from time to time, because it gave me an excuse to dress up. Again, I think my secret (or perhaps not-so-secret) hope was that wearing a corset and knee-high leather boots and all that would somehow help me find people who were interested in actual breath play, more useful leather implements. After all, that’s what a dominatrix wears, right? I hoped that I could meet perverts at the RenFaire because some of the clothing booths sell a few collars and cuffs along with the bodices.
I’ll give you one guess as to how well that went.
I didn’t find people who were into bdsm by dressing up. I simply found people who were into dressing up.
I gave up on the idea of joking around the concept and trying to guess who really meant it when they joked back, eventually. I met a guy who shared my taste in literature, somewhat, and who could be silly and goofy and fun to spend time with, and I ever so casually suggested buying a pair of handcuffs when we were talking about what sort of sexual experimentation we wanted to do together. (We were teenagers. Everything was an experiment for us.)
Oh so casual. What a careful light touch. Lots of laughter. Here, let’s take turns. You tie me up and go down on me; I’ll tie you up and go down on you. We’ve read about safewords on the internet, no big deal, let’s flip open a dictionary and pick something fun but easy to remember. He wanted me to top him first. I was still a virgin when I first handcuffed a man to a bed. There, those are my priorities, and that’s how I got my start at last.
It got easier, after that. My college roommate once returned to the room early and saw rope all over my bed. My joking around got specific enough to be obviously sincere. Everyone gossips about their sex lives during college, and I was open enough that it just wasn’t a big deal for me to talk honestly about what I was into, after a while.
That’s around when I stopped going out to dress-up events.
I realized that dressing up is not my kink. I don’t have any clothing fetishes. If anything, I lean slightly more towards preferring playing with people who show up casually dressed in regular street clothes, because it implies to me that they have more in common with me in the real world than the people who are covered in latex. I like people with calluses on their hands and flour in their hair, paint smears on their shoes and honest worn spots on their jeans, scuff marks on their boots and old ripped t-shirts that they’ll let me cut off of them.
(I appreciate it when someone dresses up specifically for me, mind, but that’s something entirely different. Wear something intentionally sexy under your practical long underwear and I will swoon for you even as I insist that it all come off.)
So, here’s my point. There’s a big, popular, regular event in NYC nowadays called Suspension. It has this dress code: “cost: $10 Fetish, sexy attire, suits, PVC, Leather, Latex. $30 All Black dress code: Fetish, sexy attire, suits, PVC, Leather, Latex, Min. All Black”
I’ve never attended, because it’s not my scene. I feel sexiest when I’m comfortable, and I hate the idea of trying to conform to someone else’s standard for sexy attire. I do generally aim to look and feel sexy, but for me that usually just means jeans and a more fitted top. (I’d flag, but no one ever seems to know what black and grey on the left even means anymore.) There are arguments on the value of dress codes that float around Fetlife from time to time, and I just read them and think about how much I hate “the scene” sometimes. Often. Sometimes. I don’t know, I’m just fed up.
I don’t mind there being parties that are not for me. I don’t even really mind that there don’t seem to be any good big dress-code-free parties for me to attend. Mostly, it just bothers me that this sort of thing is the loud and active face of my sexual orientation. I don’t want it to scare away all the people who think, “Gah, being forced to meet a certain fashion standard sounds awful. This sort of thing makes it hard to admit that I want more than just a bit of roughness with my sex, because I sure don’t fit in with that crowd.” I want to meet more of those people. I want to do more than meet them.
I have service on the brain lately, ever since Murre loaned Orlando to me to help work on an extracurricular project of mine.
I never used to think I was into service. I mean, I’ve always appreciated help and care, but doesn’t everyone? Why does it need a special kink name?
(Of course, I also never used to think I needed glasses. I mean, I’ve always had trouble seeing things that seemed far away, but doesn’t everyone? Why would I need mechanical assistance?)
I like being helpful myself, in most contexts. It feels good to be effective and get things done. I enjoy the sense of competence and productivity. But I can’t imagine myself as a service sub – and I don’t tend to get off on acting as a service top, either. I don’t like service for the sake of pleasing anyone; I just like being active and involved and useful in the world.
This seems somehow different from my boy’s desire to make me happy and take care of me. (I’m going to call him Cassidy. Anyone else I am or have been involved with will get to choose their own nickname for the blog before I write about them, but Cassidy didn’t care what I call him here, so Cassidy he is.)
Cassidy’s favorite passage from Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is this:
“… So I made up my mind I was going to find someone who would love me unconditionally three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I was still in elementary school at that time — fifth or sixth grade — but I made up my mind once and for all.”
“Wow,” I said. “And did your search pay off?”
“That’s the hard part,” said Midori. She watched the rising smoke for a while, thinking. “I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.“
“Waiting for the perfect love?”
“No, even I know better than that. I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window. That’s what I’m looking for.”
“I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,” I said with some amazement.
“It does,” she said. “You just don’t know it. There are times in a girl’s life when things like that are incredibly important.”
“Things like throwing strawberry shortcake out the window?”
“Exactly. And when I do it, I want the man to apologize to me. ‘Now I see, Midori. What a fool I’ve been! I should have known that you would lose your desire for strawberry shortcake. I have all the intelligence and sensitivity of a piece of donkey shit. To make it up to you, I’ll go out and buy you something else. What would you like? Chocolate mousse? Cheesecake?’”
“So then what?”
“So then I’d give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.”
“Sounds crazy to me.”
“Well, to me, that’s what love is. Not that anyone can understand me, though.” Midori gave her head a little shake against my shoulder. “For a certain kind of person, love begins from something tiny or silly. From something like that or it doesn’t begin at all.“
It’s not that he wants me to be capricious or arbitrary, he says. He just wants me to give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.
Andrea wrote about the many faces of thanks – some people are turned on by rendering service so perfectly that they are treated as invisible. “In short, sometimes effectively taking a submissive for granted, or being taken for granted as a submissive, is the turn-on. It is the reward. It is, paradoxically, the thank-you and the recognition.” Which is not my kink. Personally, I’m not sure I could bring myself to accept service without appreciation and recognition.
I’m only just learning to accept service in my own life. It’s remarkably difficult to bring myself to see it as something I’m into. But oh, of course I love that he packs lunches for me to bring to work. Of course I love that he makes tea and hot chocolate for me. Of course I love that he gives me massages endlessly. Of course I love that he pushes ibuprofen and chicken soup on me whenever I have a headache, and scowls and scolds me until I suck it up and let him take care of me until I feel better.
Of course I love that he delights in learning all the details of my labyrinthine preferences, and pandering to them with great care and attention to detail.
I’m fussy. I can admit that about myself. I tend to have a very particular way that I want things done, and I generally find it easier to just do things myself rather than have to explain to anyone else how to do it my way. Or, heaven forbid, do it their way instead.
I’ve found that I have to paradoxically give up control in order to gain the care, assistance, and power that service brings. It’s not easy. Allowing someone else to help and care for me means leaving them the space to both learn my tastes, and to add their own touch to whatever they do. Even if their touch isn’t precisely how I’d do it myself. Even if their learning means that everything isn’t quite what I’d expect or want, at first. That’s hard for a distressingly competent, fussy, control freak sort of person who likes getting things done right!
It’s just. Well. It makes me feel so very loved. As a switch, I find it so easy to feel wanted when bottoming. If you can shove me around and tear control away and then focus on doing terrible things to me, it pretty viscerally reassures me that you actually do find me attractive and desire me and what we’re doing together. If you initiate, forcefully, I believe that you truly want me. But when I top, I provide so much of the energy and desire that it can be difficult to feel wanted myself.
Begging helps, whether it’s begging for more or begging me to stop, and it turns me on immensely. But aggressive reaching out to care for me helps so much, too. When a partner’s response to my hurting them is to curl around me in soft wonder and reach to find ways to make me happy, it’s worth the effort and attention involved in speaking this other language of love and sexuality.
That, and it eroticizes so much more of everyday life. We’re only 24/7 some of the time, and I don’t have this sort of dynamic with anyone else with whom I am involved. But it makes all the difference in the world to know that I’ve had to take care to understand and explain, say, exactly how much sugar I like in my tea depending on the size of the mug, or whatever it is, and that he’s paid attention to learning and remembering all the details of my desires and gone to the effort of putting them into action. It means that I have the extra benefit of feeling loved and loving, strong and taken care of, and if not turned on, a bit more conscious of my sexuality, just from sipping a delicious hot beverage.
All of which helps me feel more relaxed, wanted, and inspired to find ways to use and hurt him that will be pleasurable for us both. Not to mention, it eases him into this loving, submissive headspace that I found so incredibly attractive.
It’s worth learning to let go a little bit, to earn that.
And he deserves all the love that I can give, for everything he does. I’m not at all shy about insisting on doing it my way, but I don’t ignore his efforts or throw a fit or insist that my way is the one true way. I do make judicious use of bad pain, but only because we both enjoy his willingness to suffer it for my pleasure, nothing more. With service, the true threat is almost unconscious, and very simple – if he couldn’t learn to do it my way, I’d simply do it myself. We’re both willing to put in extra work in order to avoid that.
I’m not sure how all this fits in with borrowing Orlando from Murre to help with my latest research project. He’s been loaned out to me, so it’s not the sign of love and desire that service can be when offered to me by someone directly. But it is more than just some extra practical help with a project.
It adds an extra thrill of eroticism to working on what would otherwise be just another fun project, of course. I’m rather delighted by the thought of Murre helping me take a part in making him feel small and used, deliciously. It means something different to him than it does to Cassidy, I suspect, and I’m interested in exploring that, even if only from afar.
I’ve been following recent discussions about the double-edged meaning of ‘mistress’. Some of my dominant friends express a dislike for the term due to the other-woman or kept-woman connotations it can carry. I’d like to address that, as the theme pops up in my own life a fair bit and has recently raised its vexatious head again.
Shockingly enough, not everyone who wants me to lay into them with a singletail thinks that I’m the kind of woman you bring home to Mother. There is a constant and undesired tension between my romantic, sexual, and kink partners’ time with me and their everyday lives. For many people, the expression of submissive or bottomish desires is an intensely private experience that they wish to segregate from family, friends, and employers who may not understand that wiring or may be judgmental about it. If one is obviously and unabashedly an assertive happy alt.sex woman of forceful personality, many people quail at the idea of introducing you and your transgressive sexuality to the rest of their world. They don’t want to have to address the questions it would raise in vanilla society.
There are some people who make this into a kink in its own right. I have partners who can get very worked up by hearing that something is forbidden, transgressive, and popularly thought to be wrong. In a way, I find this almost easier to deal with… I’m often tempted to dig my claws into someone’s psyche if they give me such an easy hook. But the people who don’t get off on transgression yet nevertheless wish to shunt our relationship into the booty silo… that’s much more challenging for me. To be sure, it’s not always the dominance particularly that makes me a socially problematic Scarlet Woman — with my female partners, it’s often “I can’t bring a woman home, my parents would never understand”. Sometimes it’s polyamory — their co-workers have already met their live-in partner, you see, so it’s not anything against *you*, Ivy, just… they don’t want to have to explain. I would never be déclassé enough to start dishing details of my loved one’s sex life to their nearest and dearest without a thought for the damage I’d do them, but often my mere existence complicates the face that they perceive to be acceptable and wish to show to the world. I end up being their mistress in both senses despite my wishes. This is hardly pleasing.
For all of you who are about to ask why I haven’t ditched those people who clearly don’t treat me like the queen I am… consider how often this happens. I’ve been dating women for more than a decade, and in that time I’ve had one girlfriend who was willing to call me her partner to her family and co-workers. I have a lovely live-in boy whose family I’ll never meet — they are religious fundamentalists and would find almost every aspect of my existence detestable. Several of my partners have been former Mormons, and you can imagine how well bringing home a bisexual polyamorous dominatrix goes over there. I don’t want to force my partners to get themselves disowned, fired from their jobs, or otherwise socially shunned for having me as an important part of their lives, but the alternative of being their dirty little secret is nearly as unpalatable. Sadly, having the sexual power in a relationship does not automatically prevent exclusion from important areas of your partners’ lives.
I am sure other dominant, self-directed, and assertive women have encountered the same sad dichotomies; it’s not a new problem. If I’d been born in ancient Greece, I probably would have tried to become a hetaira — the educated, intelligent women with the freedom to follow their own intellectual pursuits were also unacceptable in the high society of the time. You could have your mistress, but on the side. Have your heirs with a respectably uneducated woman with no independence, if you please. Had I been born into Belle Époque France, I would likely have ended up a courtesan. I value having my own freedom, my own money, and my own power, and I’ll do exactly as I please with it… but there are times that it means I won’t be received in polite society. (But if I would just shut up and pretend I felt ashamed of my activities like a proper lady, it’d all be fine! Everyone who’s anyone, apparently, does that.)
As seems to be becoming a pattern, one of my esteemed colleagues has written a brilliant post about something and now I’m inspired. In this case, the topic was shyness and dominance, and how the two are by no means incompatible. About how dominant women aren’t all – or even mostly – ice queens with total confidence who know exactly what they want and how to take it.
In fact, a lot of us are really shy.
Cal asked me how I think my dominant side would have developed without having been a pro domme, and I had to admit that I didn’t know whether pro domming helped me find my true desires in that arena more or less quickly. But I do know for sure that going pro meant that I had way more opportunities than I might have had to play that role – and because of that, I gained a lot of exposure to different types of play – and thus had a chance to figure out what I did and didn’t like. More importantly, though, being a professional meant something very important for my self-image as a top: whenever I was with someone, I knew for damn sure they wanted to be there. After all, they’d paid me.
Believe it or not, especially in the beginning, the money didn’t even always convince me. Early on, I felt that people were paying too much to be with someone who didn’t really know what she was doing. As time went on, I got used to the idea that people were really paying to spend time with me, which I found almost equally strange. After all, who the hell was I? And who did I need to be to maintain this image of the person they wanted to spend all that money to be with?
All of that strangeness aside, I eventually accepted that I was worth what they were paying, and enjoyed many of my sessions where I felt my own competence, intuitive skill, and yes, allure.
But even after four years of that, my shyness and reluctance as a top in the scene, among my friends, hasn’t abated. Part of it is perhaps even because of that professional experience: after all, if they’re paying me I know for sure they want me to be there, and I know how to give them exactly what they’re looking for. But if there’s no money being exchanged. If there are emotions at stake. If a big part of what I want to do to someone is about what I want to do…well, that’s another kettle of kittens entirely, innit.
There’s still a part of me that’s afraid to let people know what I want to do to them. Still a part of me that’s terrified that they won’t like it, or don’t want it from me, or that I’ll go too far and scare them, hurt them. It’s different if someone asks me to do something to them – then I know they wanted it, don’t I. But that kind of asking is rare – and often, those who do ask aren’t necessarily people I want to play with.
This is a problem both of submissives (I’ve blogged before about “submissive sheep syndrome”), and of the particular aura I seem to give off without intending to. You see, one of the things that made me a good pro domme is that I am one of those Unintentionally Intimidating People(tm). Until someone knows me a little, I apparently come off as cold, or scary, or aloof, or all three. I’m fairly sure that most of these protective mechanisms have been built into what I project by years and years of being teased at school for everything from my height to my clothes to my general space-cadetness. An overall shyness in my personality seems to have hardened around me over the years into a shell that many seem to find it terrifying to contemplate penetrating. Add the pro-domme mystique to that (oh, she’s someone who gets paid to top people – why should she want to play with me?), and I’m kind of doomed.
As a result of this, and knowing how many available tops there are in my community, I’ve learned how to ask for what I want when it comes to getting play as a bottom. For me, offering myself in that way is easy: I understand my own desirability in that realm, and the (generally) men I approach who are interested are good at making that interest clear. (I imagine some of them are shy tops as well, only emerging in their full glory when they know they have consent.)
But when it comes to approaching people to top…not so much. In spite of all my professional experience – or perhaps because of it – I have a hell of a time believing that people want what I want to do. It was easy when it was about playing with men I probably wouldn’t play with in my normal life, doing the things they wanted to do, for pay. But it’s hard when it’s someone I’m attracted to, and have urges toward, and am afraid of freaking out.
Part of this is history, I know. I’ve had extremely mixed success with my desires to fuck men in the ass (part of the hazard of dating tops and top-leaning switches). The boys I’ve been attracted to for this activity have often seemed initially interested, then gotten freaked out for some reason. The type of youthful, boyish, slightly femmy skinny man that brings out my top side, when they are attracted to me, tend not to be kinky – and eventually are scared away by my intensity and/or too unrestrained lifestyle choices.
So yes, there’s some baggage. Add to that how few sub men there are in my scene, and the stars just don’t align that way for me nearly as often as I’d like.
What I’d really like to find is something like a male version of my girlfriend: she manages to project submissive sexuality in this incredibly inviting way that short-circuits my lesbian-sheepitude. I’m always the one who initiates, but I feel welcomed to do so – her signals aren’t ambivalent. She has somehow escaped the notion, common among women, that projecting sexual availability is shameful, and that playing hard to get is more interesting.
While I know – and fight hard for the fact – that submission is not equal to femininity, the roleplay involved can be similar: submission can often make people shy, passive, and I think submissives are more likely to sit around waiting to be asked to play. This isn’t very helpful for a shy top such as myself, who may sit around waiting for a sub to approach me first.
Back to that boy I’d like to find…a boy whose pretty, vulnerable face draws me. Who, if he has interest, shows it to me, and doesn’t withdraw it when things get intense. Someone who wants to be tied, and hurt, and fucked, who will make noise and maybe even cry for me. Who won’t feel the need to tease me about my desires out of some insecurity that he wants these things.
And that’s maybe the crux of it. Maymay and Oralndo both write eloquently about how difficult it can be to be a submissive male in our society: it’s doubtless just as hard for them to be open about their desires as it is for dominant women to talk about theirs. How much courage must it take for a man to reveal that he wants to be taken and used by a woman? How much does a woman risk who reveals how she wants to control and dominate a man?
A lot, apparently. Suddenly that shyness doesn’t seem so surprising. Nor does the way I often default to submission in my personal sexuality. It’s just easier. More expected. Safe.
I’m working on it.
Axe recently (okay, about a month ago) wrote about a reader of his who’d asked for advice. She was inexperienced, and worried about making a fool of herself with the new guy in her life by doing something wrong. The guy had said that he likes strong, confident, aggressive women, and the reader worried that that meant she could never have a shy moment around him, or show it when she is overcome with emotion.
Along with some kind, thoughtful advice, Axe confessed: “As far as showing emotion goes, I’m ashamed to admit when I first started I was looking for someone who was cold, knew exactly what she wanted and would demand it from me and not show any weakness. I don’t know if this is the case with the guy you met but I think it’s a common problem that submissive guys have when they first start out. They have unrealistic ideas of what dominant women are.”
I’m awfully shy myself, so this post really stuck with me. Enjoying topping does not imbue one with magical social skills, after all.
My thoughts, vaguely organized and peppered with vignettes:
The first time I braved going out to a TES event, Boymeat dragged me out to his extreme caning class and had to promise in advance that he’d introduce me to someone friendly to sit next to. (He promptly introduced me to a cute guy around my age, saying: “This is Cal; she’s looking for someone to hurt!” I don’t think I’ve ever stammered or blushed so hard in my life. It’s been a good long while since then, though. The cute guy is still a good friend of mine, and I no longer lack for people to keep me company when I go out to classes. Boymeat occasionally tells me how proud he feels, the smug bastard. (Mwah!))
And, well. Another man I know, back when we first started expressing interest in each other, once told me that he likes shy tops.
If you’re inexperienced, nervous, and worried that submissive men can’t handle your human quirks, just reread that bit. He likes. Shy. Tops.
Be still my heart.
I also vividly recall an evening of flirting with an amazing woman over IM, where after each message I would hide my face in my boy’s back before peeking over to see if she’d replied yet. (She was doing something similar over on her end. We are ridiculous.) How could shyness and dominance possibly be incompatible? My boy was providing excellent service, to use the formal vernacular, by giving me comfort and assistance with my silly shyness in the way that suits me best.
Confidence/aggression and shyness are not mutually exclusive. I have no problem expressing my desires, or seducing or forcing people to satisfy them once we’ve established that that’s what they’re into. I think the shyness actually goes along with a hyper awareness of the importance of establishing consent before taking control.
I’m shy with new people because I can’t know whether or not they’d enjoy my aggression. I’m confident enough that I don’t have to believe that everyone on the planet wants to be submissive to me. So we dance around it a bit, get to know each other, and then determine whether things should go any further. Being shy is perhaps just another way for me to signal that, not being an actual rapist, I won’t take control unless you offer it to me.
2. Showing Emotion
I tend to be very emotional and open about it, with my boy. And why not? I’m thoroughly in love with him, and we share a wonderful life together. (I think I’ll call him… Bulgakov. Or maybe Cassidy.) What a terrible thing it would be, if I had to cut myself off from that in order to have relationships that turns me on. He taught me what service is and how to accept it by holding me when I cry, knowing what sort of tea I want even before I do, and taking care of me in various ways. There’s no question that he’s mine, but I’m not sure why he’d want to be without the emotional intimacy that holds us together.
Trinity put it marvelously well in her comment to this otherwise hopefully irrelevant post: “My relationship is based on love and friendship and sex… There are D/s elements to our relationship, some of which have to do directly with sex and play and some of which don’t, but this idea that vanilla people have relationships and I have a misshapen thingy really bothers me.”
I fall in love. I make mistakes. I seek connection, openness, understanding. I want intimacy, and sometimes I think that all the vicious roughness is just a way to break into even deeper intimacy, for me – let me into your heart, and also your skin, your mind, your everything.
None of this is worthwhile if it creates a wall between us instead of bringing us closer together – even all those strange distances of denial, clothing, bondage, unfairness, and power are just another way to circle around and tease our way closer to each other.
I’m more of a barbarian than an ice queen, though, if we must choose our archetypes. No wonder I love the intimacy of thuggery without intervening toys. Hands on, hands in.
So, where does that leave us?
Yes, there are submissive men out there who have are only attracted to bizarre fantasy figures, but there are also a lot of submissive men out there who want relationships with real human women who happen to enjoy being sexually dominant (some of whom may very much enjoy being cold at times). I’m pretty damn happy to know a few myself.
(If you’re looking for wonderful advice instead of my musings, I think that Ferns‘s reply to Axe’s post was really the best. And for a more balanced and extensive discussion on the many contradictory expectations of dominance out there, just check out Sex Geek’s post on the subject.)