the dark edges of desire

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

– “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (recorded by Bruce Cockburn, later the Barenaked Ladies)

Force is not a part of the province of sadism and masochism, not part of the territory of leather and latex, bondage and discipline. It is normal. Coercion is an accepted part of daily life for most people.

– Patrick Califia, “Introduction”, Macho Sluts


I’ve been musing, lately, on the nature of darkness, particularly as it relates to desire.

It’s kind of hard to figure out where to start this post. Back in childhood, when I was riveted by even the briefest images of torture in the movies and television shows I watched? Somewhere in a dim dungeon, surrounded by people in shiny black clothing, with the familiar sounds of leather sharply kissing skin in the background? In the pages of the Patrick Califia books that so many of us have turned to for erotic inspiration? Or somewhere else entirely, that hasn’t got much to do with any of this – somewhere deeper, in the hidden recesses of human nature?

I was talking with an old friend a few weeks ago. He’s known I’m a sadomasochist for years now, and he’s always kind of shrugged it off. It didn’t bother him, but he didn’t really get it either. We were walking by the river after a leisurely brunch, and he was telling me about the woman he’s fallen in love with. His eyes were bright and his voice breathless as he told me about the way she liked to make love. “She grabs me, she pushes me around! She holds me down and does what she wants to me! She’s so… dominant!”

He paused when he saw that I had a half-smile, and said, suspiciously, “What.” I answered, “It feels good to be wanted that much, doesn’t it.” He rolled his eyes, but then he grinned at me. “Yeah,” he said, “I think I finally get it, your S/M thing. It’s so powerful to be desired.”

I think we often conflate force and desire. If you want something a little bit, you reach for it. If you want it a lot, you grab. And if you are wild with the wanting of it, you must, then, be willing to grapple for it and wrest it from the other person’s grasp. If you’re not willing to go to battle for it, you must not really want it that badly. Increased desire means increased force; it’s only natural. Right?

Of course not. We’re all grown-ups here. When we want something, we ask for it politely. When we want it a lot, we strategize, and we figure out how to earn it or convince it to come to us or buy it. And if we are wild for something, we repress it, turn it in on ourselves, bottle it up, beat it down, numb it with Zoloft, confess it to God and pray for it to disappear. Desire is dangerous. It makes people do crazy shit, like shoot their lover or fly into a jealous rage or drop GHB in that girl’s drink or cheat on their spouses with the babysitter. Desire must be curtailed, controlled; it’s the only rational thing to do. Right?

Argh. Our understandings of the dark edges of desire are so bloody rudimentary. And predictably, so binary. The catch is, there is no right answer in this particular binary. The “increased desire = increased force” equation ultimately leads to destruction aimed outward; the “increased desire = increased repression” one ultimately leads to destruction aimed inward. Either we’re exploding with uncontrollable urges or we’re imploding with the anguish of our denial.

I don’t fucking buy it. I never have. I don’t understand why we’re all so scared of our own desire. It’s powerful, but that power can be harnessed and channelled and used for good. But when I’m talking about “good,” I don’t mean “respectable” or “acceptable.” I mean “pleasurable.” Exquisitely, soul-quenchingly pleasurable.

Unfortunately, even a lot of what I see in the SM community smacks of either rampage or repression.

On the rampage front: the classic “top’s disease” and “bottom’s disease” happen when people of either persuasion think their desires are so important as to transcend the need for basic interpersonal respect. That’s when you get situations like one that happened a few weeks ago, when my friend C was approached by a man at a fetish night. He asked her if she identified as dominant or submissive; when she answered “submissive” he grabbed her, pinned her and tried to kiss her, as though her proclivities alone were the equivalent of a red carpet upon which his royal highness had every right to walk. Or, on the flipside, we have situations like the one I encountered at another fetish event a couple of years ago. I was having a conversation with someone when I looked down and realized some guy had knelt next to me and started licking my boots. I leaned over and said to him, “Excuse me. If you want to lick my boots, you ask me first.” He grinned up at me and answered, “Oh, you like this, I don’t need to ask.” He very nearly lost a few teeth, and he certainly lost any future opportunities to enjoy my footwear.

People who throw their desires all over the place, as though the simple existence of an open-minded space were all the permission they needed, other people’s feelings be damned – these people disgust me, and it’s not because they’re perverts. It’s because they have a deep lack of understanding of what makes acting on deviant desires okay: the mutual interest of all parties involved.

In fact, that’s what makes any desire okay, deviant or otherwise. Califia makes a real point when he says that coercion is normal; I see at least as much of it, if not more, among people who would never enter a dungeon. From the most banal of power imbalances between vanilla lovers to the grossest cases of war and abuse, our world is full of coercion and violence running unchecked, unframed by any context of choice or consent. Having been educated in the ways of responsible power exchange, I find it almost intolerable to spend much time in vanilla cruising spaces these days – even the standard mating rituals of the average human being in some cases bug the shit out of me because of their rampant misuse of power and lack of consent. The consequences need not be dire for the methods to be suspect. Basically, I’ve thoroughly rejected everyday coercion in favour of eroticizing it within specific contexts, relationships and encounters.

My disgust with bad-boundary perverts is fairly understandable, I think, and fairly universally shared. When brought down to the SM community level again, we’ve got all sorts of buzzwords and acronyms to talk about these things, of which the above-mentioned afflictions are only two. Consent. SSC (safe, sane and consensual). RACK (risk-aware consensual kink). Safewords. Negotiation. And so on, and so forth.

The flipside of our fear of desire, though, is repression. And we don’t have nearly as many conveniently flip words to talk about that. What we do have, among kinksters, is a whole long list of conventions – so many that we often seem to fetishize convention itself. This is the proper way to tie a chest harness. These are the areas of the body that it’s safe to flog. These are the kinds of things you can insert into an asshole, and these are the approved-of methods for doing so. Really, for a bunch of edge-pushing perverts, BDSMers can be downright pedantic.

I get the feeling, sometimes, that once we’ve finally acknowledged that we have a set of desires that steps a few feet outside the bounds of “normal,” many of us have simply found ourselves running to the next safest place. Here, it’s OK to be pervy in this little corner. Now, what are the rules?

Don’t get me wrong. Safety is a good thing; knowledge is power. By no means am I advocating that we all try uninformed, poorly considered or sloppily executed play. It’s a problem for me, though, when I go to an ostensibly kinky event and every single thing I see is like a demonstration from the How to Be Kinky instruction manual. It reminds me of a ’70s-era satirical book my parents kept on the living room bookshelf for years, entitled How to Be a Nonconformist. Each page was illustrated; “Nonconformists grow their hair long.” “Nonconformists attend at least one protest each month.”

When did we become the conventional in our unconventionality? What happened to pushing the edges? What happened to feeling the desire, the darkness, rise, and instead of limiting it, letting it fly? Sometimes, SM play starts to look like a parody of power exchange, a going through of motions, a tedious and hopeful exercise in which people close their eyes and attempt to let go rather than blasting or being blasted so hard they have no hope of doing anything else.

I’m not trying to trash the SM community; for all my gripes, it’s still the place I feel most at home in many ways, even if my particular tribe occupies a very small corner of that place. I’m just saying that sometimes I feel like the people I would most expect to see riding on that razor’s edge of desire and darkness, with the wind in their hair and wild ecstasy on their faces, are the ones who end up looking like they’re doing their taxes while they aim a tired flogger at an oft-bruised buttcheek.

It makes me want to shit-disturb. For all that I’m not an exhibitionist or an attention-seeker, it makes me want to shock people. Amid halfhearted paddlings, I want to pull a knife on someone in the middle of a scene and fuck them while a thin line of red blooms near their jugular. While tops squeak around in their PVC as they tie near-naked bottoms to the standard St-Andrew’s cross with the standard leather restraints lined with fuzzy stuff or garment leather (safer for the wrist joints), I want to throw someone into a wall, clap a pair of (proscribed) police-style handcuffs on them and kick them until they cry.

It’s fine and good to enjoy some basic sensation exchange, or to play with the finer points of dominant/submissive protocol; I do have a healthy appreciation for such things, and enjoy them thoroughly. But for all that these things can be exciting and satisfying, they are by no means wild. They don’t tap into my darkness, my savage places. Those places can only be accessed through violence, force, brutality, genuine fear.

Yes, this requires consent; it means I need to take an enormous amount of care, building trust before and picking up the pieces afterwards so that force does not equal destruction. It also means I need to do this stuff with people whose kink provides the counterpart to mine – people who want to fly on the thrill of force and violence, the very unpredictability of power in another’s hands, the risk that they really will be taken apart instead of the comfortable ride in which they need only breathe funny for me to stop. Because I want to play this way, it’s up to me to be (and to continue striving to be) the sanest, healthiest, most finely-tuned individual I can possibly be; to be a person who can hold that sort of power at its brimming point and yet sustain a fine enough balance to keep it from overflowing. And it’s up to those who choose to play with me this way to be just as sane, to know their limits and boundaries, to express them thoroughly and clearly, to assess what they’re getting into and make their own fully independent choice about whether they want it.

I think many of us, in our primal brains, still do equate desire with force. It doesn’t matter how irrational that is; there are still those of us who want to let the beast out to tear people’s skin off and eat their insides, and those of us who want to be so consumed. There is enormous power in that equation, and one that doesn’t disappear with denial or become quiescent under the influence of civility. 

If we want to let it out at all, we need to frame that brutality with sanity, allow the primal urge to flow untethered but still place the rational mind as a safety fence around it. No matter how freaky or scary it gets, I just don’t believe that turning away from that darkness is a wise idea, any more than micromanaging it to death.

I think we all have it inside of us; in some of us, it’s closer to the surface than in others. And in some ways I place much greater trust in the people who walk right into their own darkness, who feel the heft of it and know its texture and dimensions and who kiss it goodnight and wake up with it in the morning, than in the people who try to pretend it’s not really there – even, and in some ways especially, if those people wear leather and hold a whip while they stand in their denial. I know that for me, it really does feel like I need to hold that darkness in my hands and own it – tame it, if you will, let it know who’s boss. Kick it around. For me, at least, that’s the only way to get to the other side of it and taste the daylight it can bleed.


These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste 

– “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”

Some people cannot be trusted with a helpless body. You know who you are. Some people don’t choose to take responsibility for the pain they inflict on others. Some people think it’s kinder to ignore a need they don’t understand, to starve someone in the name of decency or equality or love. I don’t believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God, because that would make the world a truly horrible place, beyond human redemption. But if you’d feel safer spending a night with one of them than you would with me or some other macho slut, I’ll remember you in my prayers.

– Patrick Califia (ibid)

3 thoughts on “the dark edges of desire

  1. I should be working.

    But that whole bit about the top and bottom’s disease…

    yeah, probably the single thing most likely to piss me off at an event – pretty much for the exact reasons you just laid out.

  2. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. I think there is a lot to be said for owning your darkness, and I find that the same people who blatantly cross other’s boundaries (top’s disease?) are the ones who will critique and criticize other’s play. I like to play hard but I also like to break the rules in terms of protocol. I think you mentioned this in the context of playing harder to shock people…I like playing with roles and labels in a scene in a way that is shocking because it disturbs me that we have such clearly prescribed norms. Midori did a wonderful presentation on the cross-over of dominant and masochist, and submissive and sadist at Tesfest last year, which address this to some degree.

    Also regarding the last Califia quote about starving need in the name of equality, I think that is a large part of the problem I have had with feminist circles, but that is a whole different rant. (And it reminds me of just how much I hate being separated from my library.)

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I love your blog 🙂

  3. Sweet! I’m so glad this resonates. How reassuring that I’m not the only one. 🙂 And Midori’s workshop – I believe you’re referring to “Kink Outside the Box,” whose title I am honoured to say I created at her request – is fucking fantastic, I agree. Very thought-provoking.

    My sympathies on your library separation. I don’t want to think about why that might have happened, but it sounds awful.

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