by Rebecca Brook
A few years ago, my husband and I moved from New York, one of
the centers of BDSM scene activity in the United States, to a far
more modest (in every sense of the word) city out west. The landscape's
a lot prettier where we are now, but only lately -- literally, as
I write this, in the last few weeks -- have we discovered any signs
of a leather community. For the past three years, we've been back
in the closet, at least socially. My husband has kept himself busy
working on Prometheus over the Net, but I found myself hungering
for physical and social community. So I started doing something
really kinky -- going to church.
Actually, my spiritual journey began long before our move, and
I might well have become a churchgoer even had we stayed in New
York. Public worship wasn't a conscious substitute for scene activity.
It wasn't a repudiation of it, either. All too many people in both
cultures, I suspect, would consider them profoundly incompatible.
But the more I think about the two worlds, the more traits -- both
positive and negative -- they have in common.
To begin with, faith and sex are both extremely fraught subjects.
Each is central to the human experience, but also very difficult
to discuss openly. If you try to talk about what you do in bed,
or how you worship, with anyone who doesn't share the same practices,
the conversation is all too likely to end in embarrassment, anger,
or hurt feelings. I've always talked about sex more openly than
many of my peers, and until I joined The
Eulenspiegel Society (TES), I often found myself shunned for
it. I've been much shyer about discussing my faith, but when I did
begin telling friends about my long, meandering conversion, a number
of them, from different spiritual traditions, said, "Oh, it's such
a relief to be able to talk about this! There are so few people
with whom we can discuss religion!" Their voices sounded the way
mine must have, when I finally joined TES and could say the word
"orgasm" in public without being treated like a pariah.
The reason both faith and sex are so hard to talk about
is that they both carry huge amounts of cultural and personal baggage.
Each is surrounded by thickets of stereotypes; each summons forth
so many wounds, fears and insecurities that it's a wonder anyone
ever manages rational discussion on either topic. If you tell people
you're kinky, they may assume you barbecue babies for breakfast;
if you tell people you go to church, they may expect you to begin
spewing fire-and-brimstone Bible verses. Whatever the judgment,
too many people will pass it first and ask questions about your
personal experience later. It doesn't help that both kink and faith
offer such a wide range of actual practice, even once the cobwebs
of prejudice have been cleared away. Sexually, I'm a married het
switch; churchwise, I'm a liberal Episcopalian. Being a het switch
doesn't mean that I'm not "a real player," or that I scorn, say,
gay male bottoms. Being Episcopalian doesn't mean that I'm socially
chilly ("God's frozen people," as a friend put it), or that I'm
intolerant of my Jewish, Buddhist, Presbyterian, or atheist friends.
In the face of so many stereotypes and so much judgment, why do any
of us do any of this at all? Why not just stay safely home on the
couch? Well, because we gain so much when we get out, whether to
play parties on Saturday night or to church on Sunday morning.
For me, both the scene and the church offer the comfort of communal
ritual while affirming the sacredness of the body. Many people in
both cultures would find that statement startling. Too many people
outside the scene believe that it's about abuse, about the degradation
of women, about self-destruction. Too many people outside the church
(and, indeed, a tragic number within it) equate organized religion
with hatred of the body and hatred of sexuality.
As a newcomer to the scene, I was particularly nervous about going
to public play parties at SM clubs like Hellfire and the Vault.
I expected to see lots of men leering at scantily clad women, and
I was afraid that I'd see women being scorned and objectified, treated
only as fantasies and not as real people. Part of my fear stemmed
from the fact that I wasn't comfortable with my own body -- in the
United States of Advertising, few of the women I know are -- and
I was afraid to expose it in public. But once I'd gone (fully clothed
and cautious) to a few clubs, I found myself in a world nearly 180
degrees away from my preconceptions. At Hellfire and the Vault,
I saw all kinds of bodies, in all states of dress: old and young,
thin and wide, buff and drooping. And I saw that I was in a world
where it didn't matter what you looked like: what mattered about
your body was what you did with it and how that felt. As a result,
I was finally able to begin accepting my own body, even though it
was a bit too flabby here and a bit too skinny there.
At its best, the scene moves beyond mere acceptance of the body
(as important and radical as that is) into love and reverence, into
sacred space. One of the first times I got the courage to bottom
in public, I was lying on a bondage table, blindfolded and still
mostly clothed, while my husband gently spanked and flogged me.
I was vaguely aware that there were people nearby, and that we seemed
enveloped -- in the midst of a crowded, noisy play party -- in a
hush that deepened as the scene went on. When it was over, when
the blindfold came off and I opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded
by a ring of people, women and men, all beaming at me as tenderly
as if I were the most beautiful thing in the world, as if I were
infinitely precious. I've rarely felt more loved, or less leered
A few years later, after a string of similar experiences, a scene
friend and I talked about how healing it is to be cherished this
way. "Most people never get that kind of attention once they're
out of infancy," my friend said. "It's like being a baby again:
everybody loves you and just wants to look at you all day long.
I think most of us become starved for that as we grow up."
I think the watchers are healed by this kind of love, too. Once,
at the Vault, I saw two women do a long, involved, intense scene
which culminated in one of them using a strap-on dildo on the other.
Now, this is the stuff of porn movies, perfect leering-guy material,
and indeed, the roped-off play space was surrounded by watching
men. But nobody was leering, and nobody was trying to get too close.
The men were perfectly silent -- with that same hushed reverence
I'd felt during some of my own scenes -- and when I looked at their
faces, I saw vulnerability -- wonder and yearning, rather than lechery.
At the end of the dildo scene, the bottom came. A few seconds
later, the top came, too. The audience's hush held through both
orgasms: only when both women were spent did the crowd begin, very
gently, to applaud, a sound like soft spring rain.
The top looked up and around at the audience. She was crying. "I
don't usually let myself come in public," she told us quietly. "I
couldn't hold back this time." I looked around at the watching men.
Several of them were crying, too.
Have I ever seen anything like that in church? Well, no, not exactly.
But because my denomination stresses the importance of the incarnation
-- the belief that God became flesh, assumed a suffering, mortal,
human body -- our services tend to demonstrate a very similar love
and tenderness, one I've found hardly anywhere else except the scene.
I've seen newly baptized babies being carried up and down the aisle
as congregants reached out gently in welcome, touching the child's
hand or smoothing back a curl of hair. I've seen everything stop
while we waited for an elderly woman, using a cane and leaning on
two priests, to make her way slowly back to her seat. One Sunday,
I shared a pew with a very old man who seemed insensible to everything
around him. His wife unbuttoned his jacket and patted his hand,
but he just stared ahead, mouth open slightly. I wondered if he
was blind. He didn't sing with us, didn't stand or kneel for prayers;
when everyone else made their way to the altar rail for communion,
he stayed in his seat, his gaze vague and unfocused.
At the end of the service, as everyone else was leaving the church,
the old man was still in his seat. I started to ask his wife if
there was anything I could do to help them, and then I saw the priest
and the deacon coming down the aisle towards us, carrying the host
and the chalice. They knelt down next to the old man and fed him
communion, as one would feed a child: folding the bread into his
hand and guiding it to his mouth, holding the chalice to his lips
and tipping it, ever so slightly, for him to drink. There was no
impatience in any of this: it was an act of love, a gift. Watching
it, I cried, and I realized that my definition of God is of a being
who looks at us as tenderly as the people in Hellfire had looked
at me, as tenderly as the priest and deacon were looking at that
old man, who was holy and beautiful to them even though his imperfect
body was failing.
Growing up, I learned from the culture around me not to trust,
and especially not to trust men, who would take advantage of me
if I gave them the slightest opening. I learned to watch where I
walked, what I wore, what I said, because if I sent off the wrong
signals, I would be raped -- or at least humiliated -- and it would
be my fault. The message made me angry, even back then, but even
back then I was often too afraid to try to challenge it. The summer
I was eighteen, a family friend, an older man I liked and respected,
took me aside and warned me sternly not to wear such skimpy shorts,
because boys my age couldn't control their sexual impulses, and
I might get hurt. I remember looking at him and thinking, "Does
that mean you were a rapist when you were eighteen?" But I was afraid
to ask the question aloud, because I was afraid of what the answer
I really wanted to believe that the messages I was getting were
nonsense. I wanted to believe that men, as much as women, were capable
of taking responsibility for their own behavior. I wanted to believe
that people who cared about me wouldn't hurt me, no matter what
I wore. But these were difficult propositions to test, because I
couldn't do so without putting myself into situations that I'd been
told, over and over, were dangerous.
I think this dilemma was largely responsible for the fact that
I didn't act on, or even consciously recognize, my true sexual nature
until I was in my late twenties. If having power over another inevitably
involved inflicting harm, only harmful people would willingly play
with power dynamics -- and I wanted neither to harm nor be harmed.
This conundrum made coming out, to myself or anyone else, very
difficult and frightening indeed. But when I did, I learned at last
that I could be vulnerable without being hurt. I learned -- from
direct physical experience, and not merely intellectual conviction
-- that someone who loved me wouldn't take advantage of me: not
even if I were tied up and helpless, not even if he were standing
over me with a whip, not even if I were so deep in bottom space,
so blissed out on hormones and endorphins, that I could barely remember
my own name. Someone who loved me wouldn't do anything to me without
my consent. And if my husband didn't suddenly become a leering rapist,
unable to control his own behavior when I was tied up, neither did
the men at Hellfire. I learned that I could walk around naked, or
be bound to a table, and be perfectly safe, even in a room of people
I didn't know. I learned that the scene is a far more trustworthy
place than the surrounding culture that so often reviles it.
This discovery had a profound effect on my view of vanilla power
exchanges, politics, and sexuality. I no longer buy the "my hormones
made me do it" argument, nor the "my political power made me corrupt"
argument. I know now that power needn't inevitably take the form
of irresponsibility. On several occasions, this knowledge has allowed
me to challenge vanilla misuses of power I would simply have accepted
before. I've learned that sometimes, even people outside the scene
can hear safewords, and heed them. And I've learned that when people
refuse to respect safewords, it's an indictment of them, not of
me -- a statement about their arrogance, not my weakness.
These insights helped lay the groundwork for my faith in God,
a state which can be an even scarier prospect than faith in other
people. Many of us have been raised to believe in a punitive God,
the deity of plagues and thunderbolts, the one who ignored every
safeword Job could summon. This is God as dangerous top; who could
trust such a being? I count myself fortunate not to have been raised
with that image of the divine, but in its place was absence, for
I grew up in a family that practiced no faith at all. My journey
into belief has been a series of gradual discoveries that
I've been the recipient, all along, of attention lavished by a benevolent
power. Looking at the trials of my life, examining the times when
I've been hurt and confused and in danger, even mortal danger, I've
come to believe that neither an indifferent universe nor a cruel
one can explain my continued survival and well-being. Nor do my
own merits explain the richness of my existence; too many of the
things that have sustained me have been completely outside my personal
control. I'm still here, simply put, because I'm loved. God is a
caring top, not a rapist.
Every Sunday in church, we confess our dependence on God, the
power in whom we live and move and have our being, whom we praise
and thank for all good gifts. We kneel in joy, not terror. To the
people who sneer at such submission, who claim that church is a
crutch, my answer now would be a simple shrug and the response,
"Yes, sure it is. So's breathing." The scene taught me that it was
safe not to be totally guarded and completely self-sufficient; church
teaches me that in fact, I never have been, and that the collar
of my submission, far from being a mark of shame, is cause for gratitude
The tops I respect in the scene don't abuse their bottoms. The
clergy I respect in church don't push over old women with canes,
or scoff at old men who need help taking communion. In both places,
power expresses itself most properly as service and compassion,
not cruelty. Both cultures call on me, likewise, to be fully responsible,
fully trustworthy, fully present to those I serve: either when I
top or when, at the end of the church service every Sunday, I heed
the deacon's admonition to take God's word into the world, "to walk
in love as Christ loved us."
If bottoming taught me that someone who loves me won't hurt me,
topping taught me that I can be similarly responsible to and caring
of a beloved partner, that I won't turn into a monster if I pick
up a riding crop or a pair of handcuffs. The scene challenges me
to put the needs of my bottom before my own ego; church challenges
me to love my neighbor as myself -- even when my neighbor happens
to be someone I don't like very much -- and to forgive my enemies.
Both cultures demand that I care for other people, rather than harming
them. In a society that has fetishized nonconsensual violence and
looking-out-for-number-one individualism, this isn't a trivial task.
Both the scene and the church should be, and very often are, havens
for outcasts, places where people come for healing. Jesus ate with
lepers; the scene welcomes those whose sexuality would cause them
to be ostracized elsewhere. But all too often, both places replace
such ideal tolerance with entrance and qualification requirements
every bit as exclusive and petty as anything dreamed up by a secular,
vanilla country club. This is understandable; it's human nature.
It's also very painful. I'm sick of hearing certain players suggest
that I'm not "real" because I switch or use humor in scenes or don't
follow a 24/7 lifestyle; I'm sick of listening to religious institutions,
including the Episcopal Church, squabble over whether to ordain
gay and lesbian clergy and bless gay and lesbian unions. The bad
stereotypes about both cultures are there for a reason: all too
often, they're true. I have to keep reminding myself that leatherfolk
I dislike don't invalidate my sexuality, and churchgoers I dislike
don't invalidate my faith.
Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has issued a passionate
call for compassion within the church:
If there is anyone in the world equipped to care for
people body and soul, we are. We are God's baptized, who have been
given the gift of second sight. We can see spirit as well as flesh.
We know there is more going on than meets the eye. When we look
at people, we see them whole, the way God meant them to be. When
they are not whole, it hurts us, as if we are missing something
we need for ourselves. Because of this, disciples cannot take part
in anything that diminishes the soul of another human being. Disciples
cannot stand by while anyone is called names, or talked down to,
or cast out, because all those things wound the soul, perhaps even
murder it, and it would be better for us to chop off pieces of our
own bodies than to let that happen to us or to anyone else. (1)
I wish more churchgoers tried to live up to this responsibility,
but I wish more leatherfolk did, too. We can also see spirit as
well as flesh, if only we look, and most of us have experienced
firsthand what it feels like to be called names and cast out. Let
us remember to be good stewards; let us treat each other as we would
wish to be treated, whatever we call the spirit we honor. If we
can learn to accept one another, then maybe one day the wider world,
including its churches, will learn to accept us.