IT’S THE HARD KNOCK LIFE: SEX, SHAME AND MAKING MEANING

I.A. Woody

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ABSTRACT: In this narrative, I explore my compulsive desire to make meaning of my sadomasochistic fantasies and practices. In this process, I grapple with the following questions: What does it mean to make meaning of sex, particularly kinky sex? Can this be done in a way that is not pathological? What is the meaning of shame, and can desire function without shame? I will use my personal experiences as a therapist, a patient in psychoanalysis, and as someone who engages in BDSM to guide my understanding of these questions.

Sex and interpretation are inseparable acts for me. I am a kinky, queer transfag who frequently engages in rape play, violent fantasies, teacher student role-plays, and the eroticization of age. As a rape survivor—the victim of sexual assault by a teacher—and as a child therapist I am often conflicted about these themes of violence and domination. I am left wondering: What does it mean to want this? And, furthermore, what does it mean to make meaning of these desires, particularly in a therapeutic context? How does this personal and professional sadomasochistic investigation fit into a larger narrative of the pathologization of sexual deviance? How does one, how do I, strike a balance between making meaning, living, and fucking? What does it mean to want exactly what we are not supposed to? Or is this a setup and are we actually supposed to want it? Can desire even exist without this dramatic push/pull?

Making Meaning

Objects are inherently erotic. The way children find and lose themselves in objects lays the groundwork for our adult love of toys. I have, for as long as I can remember, searched for the meaning of things. As a child I bounced from “Mom’s house” to “Dad’s house” with a fire truck red L.L. Bean dufflebag that my parents bought me to “make the transition easier.” What meaning did I make of this object as a child? The truth is that the duffle bag could never contain me or my objects. It was never the right shape, the fabric was hard and stiff, unable to accommodate my books, clothes, and my toys.

I found refuge in my childhood psychoanalyst’s office; we met at least once a week, often twice a week, from when I was four until, at fifteen, my adolescent depression escalated beyond what my father could contain. He shipped me off to a carefully selected cognitive behavioral therapist to better manage my rambunctious sexual curiosity, what he saw as my oppositional attitude and poor academic performance. But the truth is, the meaning making was fostered and nurtured by my first analyst. My current analyst and I now affectionately refer to him as my “Santa Claus therapist” because I spent years teasing him for looking like Santa. He was a tall, large man with white hair, a matching beard, thin rectangular glasses, and a large belly that was accentuated by his suspenders. His literal resemblance to Santa Claus was only a fraction of his mystical persona. It was not until I grew up to be a therapist and until he died of rapid-onset cancer roughly one year ago that I understood the transformative power of our play and of the meaning we made together.

I wanted to make more than meaning with my current analyst even before I met him. I wanted to fuck him, or the idea of him, after I read one of his papers in a graduate school seminar. With object relations theory pounding away at me, turning me on, and teasing me, I longed for a therapist who would join me in the erotics of transference and counter-transference. I was embarrassingly honest in my first two sessions with him, a tradition I have continued for the past two-and-a-half years. I told him of my previous desires for masculine authority figures listing off various professors, teachers, and mentors after whom I lusted—some had violated their boundaries while others had honored them. I made it very clear to him that he was already on my list and that this desire was something I was hoping to work through in therapy.

“Ya know, last week, I left here and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I can’t believe it; he’s actually not going to fuck me.’ But today, I don’t know…seeing you walk in with that leather jacket, watching you hang it on the door…I mean, it just made me think differently, like maybe you would fuck me.” I paused, waiting for a reaction. “You’re totally kinky aren’t you? I wonder what you would do if I just started jerking off right here on your couch.”

I don’t remember his exact response, only that he did what most therapists would do: he asked questions. “What would it mean if we had sex? What do you think that would do for you?”

“I don’t know, it would probably make me feel horrible and really fucked up.”

“So…you’re looking for someone to say no? To set that limit and boundary with you?” he paused. “I want you to know that I will never have sex with you.”

I laughed at what, at the time, seemed like a dodge on his part, a defense against desire—maybe mine, maybe his—but his words did not extinguish my desire to fuck and be fucked on his couch.

As a therapist my incitement to interpretation has served me well. I make connections between the emotionally chaotic worlds of my clients and their externalizing behaviours. An eight-year-old child diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder is angry with me for setting a time limit on our session. She insists that we take the short cut to the park despite my warnings of the deep snow. As we set out, she peers down at our feet, and compares the sizes of my sneakers with her new pink winter boots. In a bossy and demanding tone, she says, “our shoes are pretty much the same size. I’ll go first and you can walk in my footsteps.” I cave in, just as her grandmother does when she tantrums, and clumsily hand her the power that she then uses to stomp through the snow in a zigzag pattern, doubling the time it should take us to get to the park while filling my shoes with snow. On the way home, I do my best to bring her aggression to the surface, still unsure of how much confrontation she can tolerate. She does not want to talk and kicks a block of ice along the sidewalk. I coach her in making snowballs, the outline of our palms imprinting and decorating their curves. She chucks them at telephone poles, watching the cold wet snow evaporate on the ground. I decide to take another risk and suggest she pretend that they are my face. She giggles and squeals in excitement.

I tilt my head to the side and reflect back to her. “You were pretty upset with me today.”

She accepts my interpretation and describes the various places she is hitting me with snowballs. “And now I’m going to get you right in the nose!

As her therapist I validate her feelings, and contain and redirect her aggression. We make meaning together.

Push/Pull: Role-Playing the Pupil

We met in the spring of 2008 while on a panel together about trans issues at colleges. I was just finishing my junior year of college and he was in his first year of graduate school. He was older, unbearably attractive, further along in his transition than me, studying with queer theorists I admired, and, most importantly, he was kind. I craved his attention and embarrassingly let on that I was more experienced than I was. I never expected that he would become my top and an integral mentor in my young adulthood and development as a bottom.

But, that was then. Now, it is the summer of 2012 and I am in the throes of an extensive teacher-student role-play that is based on Henry James’s short story “The Pupil.” I am sitting at my favourite coffee shop diligently completing my homework. Every week he sits behind the desk with a perverted smirk on his face as I scramble to digest and regurgitate the challenging readings he has assigned me. He likes it when I am anxious.

He fucks me with words, with theories.

I recognize the beat in the window between songs on my iTunes playlist and remove the uncomfortable plastic knob from my ear. I stop, shake my head, and think, “No, it can’t be.”

It’s the hard knock life (uh-huh) for us

It’s the hard knock life, for us!

Steada treated, we get tricked

Steada kisses, we get kicked

It’s the hard knock life!

Jay-Z’s 1998 remake of “Hard Knock Life” echoes through the painfully hipster café in which I am stationed. My booth is decorated with highlighters, our syllabus, and articles about moral panic, children, consent, and sex crime legislation.

I am not supposed to want this.

I feel warm; lightheaded. My dick swells beneath my jeans, as my toe creeps closer to its head. One more inch and I can just rub myself off in my booth; no one will notice.

It’s the hard knock life (uh-huh) for us

It’s the hard knock life, for us!

Steada treated, we get tricked

Steada kisses, we get kicked

It’s the hard knock life!!

I remember the fantasy with an unforgettable clarity—it was inspired by an award-winning photograph that hangs in his room. The photograph is from his days of bootblacking, bottoming, fire play, and play parties. The sole of the leather boot brushes against the knee of his jeans as the remainder of the boot erupts in flames. The skin of his cheeks pushes upward towards his brow revealing a sadistic smirk of excitement.

I am naked on the floor—my arms and legs are tied behind me. He teases me with his boot, kicking me lightly, just enough to rock me back and forth. He pulls his leg back, aims his toes at my teeth, and propels his foot into my mouth. I am bloody, crying, begging him to stop. I am hurt.

I am not supposed to want this.

I confess the fantasy to him during our next class, detailing the image of me sitting alone in my booth as a chorus of orphans narrates my desire for pain and domination. I am excited but cautious. I can feel him smiling on the other end of the phone. “You know what…Hearing you say that, it kind of makes me want to ya know…Kick you—just kick you around a little, enough to make you squirm.”

His affirmation, acceptance, and containment of my fantasies is one of the most cathartic aspects of our work together. The desires that I once experienced as forbidden, pathological, and as repetition compulsions are transformed into consensual moments of intimacy, climax, and empowerment. He coaches me through orgasms, dictating when I am allowed to cum, and leads me deeper into myself.

I freeze, still unsure of where I’m going, and I am taken aback by my vulnerability. “I want to tell you something, but I don’t know…it feels…fucked up?”

I picture him paused, hard, hand holding his dick, caught off my guard by break in character. “What’s up?”

I swallow my discomfort, “I want you to fucking rape me.”

“Fuck yes,” he growls. We reunite in the scene. His permission is intoxicating.

Push/Pull: Present Tense/Role Playing The Teacher

I am distracted and painfully unproductive. I should be writing. My eyes glance over to my browser and notice an email from him titled “Assignment_2.” He has turned in his homework at 8:57 pm—three minutes before the 9:00 pm deadline I have set for him. He has not formatted his citations correctly. I will punish him. He will not make this mistake again.

We met once before; he is my roommate’s ex-boyfriend. I remember them telling me that he is kinky and looking for a top. I decide to pursue him after seeing a picture of him celebrating his one-year anniversary on hormones. He is sitting half-crossed-legged, posing with a cake. His hair is partially parted to the side, casually sweeping across his brow. He looks like he is posing for a school photograph. I am fixated on his youth, boyishness, and innocence. I want to take it from him. 

I am flooded with sadistic images. My boot is resting on his head pushing his face into the hardwood floor. I force him onto his back and spit in his face.  “Drink it, faggot!”

I am not supposed to want this. What does it mean?

I slap him across the face letting his cheek ricochet against and tickle my palm. I want it to leave a mark. I want him to fucking bleed.

I cum hard and fast, muscles clinched, lost in the intensity of my imagination only to be quickly greeted by my shame. As the masochist and the recipient of harm, I had naively insisted that I had not created the violence, only participated in it. What does it mean, I wonder, to cause harm, to create violence? 

Shame

Processing my sexual shame is a frequent topic of my therapy sessions. I am often ambivalent and unsure of whether or not I want my analyst to punish me, contain me, fuck me, or to do all of these things at once. This is one of our most frequent reenactments. He chooses his usual playing card: the containing, “good enough” therapist, capable of surviving my infantile aggression.

“You mean you don’t think I’m totally fucked up?” I bite at my nail and rub my finger over a tiny knob of raw skin at the base of my cuticle. I am grateful that we are having a phone session, and that I am escaping an inevitable interpretation of my discomfort.

He pauses; I picture him tilting his bald head to the side puzzled by my question. I take comfort in memorizing his mannerisms. He reflects the question back to me. “You’re asking me if I think you’re fucked up?” His tone highlights the inherent problems in my question.

We both know that this is a question he cannot and will not answer. Defenses, as understood by psychoanalysis, are vital tools of the ego that often function to preserve attachments. Unfortunately, like any tool, they are prone to misuse and dependence. Defenses can taint our experience of reality, and put simply, can harm us and complicate relationships. Intellectualization, the meanings made by me or by my analyst, cannot protect me from my desires. They participate in them, but they do not rid me of the pleasure and shame they bring.

Forgiveness

As I enter my third year in analysis, and put language to the sexual trauma I experienced as a teenager, I am increasingly intrigued by the idea of forgiveness—forgiveness for myself for not being able to stop the abuse and forgiveness for the adults who did not believe me. I have spent years stubbornly planting my feet in the dirt of my own agency and denying the murky trauma upon which my kinkiness is undeniably built.

Recently, I consulted with a colleague who frequently writes about psychoanalysis and BDSM. “You cannot talk about BDSM without talking about trauma,” she told me as she offered me feedback on how to end this piece. I expressed my concerns about the legacy of psychoanalysis pathologizing and denying queer people the agency to narrate our own experiences of desire.

“But what if it is about trauma, and what if that’s actually okay?” After the initial shock of her question dissipated, I realized that my search for meaning in my desires had distracted me from a more productive exploration in forgiveness. My path lies in forgiving myself for loving what I love, for kinking what others find unfathomable, and for taking pleasure in the subversion of my trauma history.

 

I.A. Woody is a kinky, transmasculine therapist working in community mental health in New England. He received a BA in Psychology with a minor in Gender Studies from Mount Holyoke College and a Masters in Social Work from the New York University’s Silver School of Social Work. Woody’s areas of interest include queer theory, object relations, relational psychoanalysis, child studies, and critical race theory.

 

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