• Steph Shuff

Love is Blind(folded)

The day before I boarded an Amtrak train to New York City, I sent a message to my soon-to-be host, to whom I will refer henceforth simply as Sir. I think he would like that. I think it would please him to know that, after all this time, I am still following the rules.


“If you photograph me without my consent,” my message said, “I will murder you.”


At the time, I hoped the sentiment had landed despite the obvious exaggeration.


I was headed to New York City the following day to meet and stay with Sir in his lofted studio apartment. We had met in person before, of course, but never quite like this. Our previous interactions had always been casual connections made in passing. Recently, however, we had upped the ante. Soon, I would be on my way to New York to be his guest, and at his mercy, for a full 48 hours.


Arriving at Penn Station, I felt a buzz, and this time, it wasn’t just the energy of New York that thrilled me. I was nervous.


I admitted out loud how nervous I felt when Sir and I reunited inside his Manhattan apartment.


He smiled. “Why do you think that is?” He asked me.


“Because I’m used to being in charge,” I said.


“Aha,” accompanied by the sly raise of an eyebrow, was his only reply.


We both knew who would be calling the shots for the next two days. It certainly wasn’t going to be me.


You see, Sir is what is known in the BDSM community as a top. As he put it to me once, “A top top.” A dominant. For the length of my stay in his apartment, I was to be his submissive. It was a choice I had made, but one that left me feeling nervous all the same. It was my first time doing anything like this.


Days earlier, I had sent Sir a different text message, one with a less threatening tone. It read: “I look forward to forgetting about everything except what part of me you’re touching.” It wasn’t just a flattering text message sent to excite him, it was an honest sentiment.


At the time, I was stressed with work and bills and responsibilities and family obligations. I was frustrated with my dating life. I was in control of myself at all times and I was tired and overdrawn. I felt like a pressure cooker, pent up and ready to explode at any moment. I craved release, escape. I didn’t want to think or decide or plan or schedule. I wanted to be free. I wanted - no, I needed - to submit.


Needing something and feeling comfortable doing it, however, are two very different things. In fact, we often need something because we are afraid to do it. We need to let go because we can’t let go.


Before our clothes ever came off, Sir and I lay on his bed together, our limbs tangled, and discussed boundaries - limits, preferences, things I didn’t like or couldn’t handle. This is a nearly universal practice in the BDSM community, and I often wonder why it doesn’t happen in more normalized sexual encounters. I think about all of the couples who would be well-served to sit down and have a nice chat about what they want more or less of in the bedroom.


“Open palm slaps across the face are off limits,” I told Sir.


He tilted his head to the side and furrowed his brow. “Ok. Why?”

My mind flashed to the memory of a former lover slapping me, hard, across the face. My ear popped, and the force of it knocked my jaw out of place. I had burst into tears immediately. We had never had any kind of conversation about boundaries or limits. I had never given him consent to slap me. The man behind it claimed he had not meant to hit me as hard as he did. I had my doubts.


“I had a bad experience,” I said. “It’s not off limits forever, just for now.”


Sir nodded, paused, then rattled off a verbal list of other potential triggers, searching my face for a reaction to each one.


“Choking? Slapping? Biting?”


Fine. Fine. Fine.


“Physical marks on your body?”


I paused. I don’t bruise easily, so this question had never occurred to me. I thought about my coworkers and roommates back home in D.C.


“Fine, as long as I can cover them with clothing.”


Then it was Sir’s turn. He listed off what he liked, what was out of bounds. We picked a safe word. Fifteen minutes later, I was blindfolded and strapped, face up, on his bed. Sir had yet to touch me, but my entire body convulsed in adrenaline-fueled shudders.


Over the course of the next few days, Sir and I would play with dominance, submission, bondage, sadism, and masochism. Any pain would be followed closely by pleasure, and vice versa. I learned first hand what people mean when they refer to “subspace,” a euphoric state of mind during a BDSM play session where time. Seems. To stop. The hope I had for losing myself in the moment came to fruition. I forgot about everything except the part of me that Sir was touching. I stopped caring about how I looked, or what my hair might be doing, or whether or not my face looked sexy. I was no longer aware of my body as an observer, I was in my body, experiencing it fully, present in my pain and pleasure without shame or shyness. For the first time in a long time, I let go.


Three days later, back home in the comfort of my room in D.C., I surveyed my bruises. I hadn’t been bruised like that in twenty years, since the time my brother had swung a baseball bat into my collarbone after failing to see six-year-old me walking up behind him at the batting cages. The bruises inflicted on me by Sir covered my legs and torso and ass in a greenish yellow tint that forced me into long pants in the heat of the summer. Every time I saw them, a nebulous sense of accomplishment surfaced from some deep, dark place of me. I always knew I was strong, and resilient, but now my flesh told stories of the pain my mind could endure. I looked down at my phone to a new message from Sir. He had reached out earlier in the day to check on me. Now, he had a new revelation to share about our time together.


“I took a photo of you.” The message read.


My mind flashed back to the hours I had spent tied to his bed, my limbs splayed on white cotton sheets as though I was about to be drawn and quartered like a criminal in some old Western film. I had been blindfolded the entire time. The only hints I had about what Sir might do next came as subtle sounds or little clues he chose to give me - leather sliding across my skin; the chink of metal next to my ear; the taste of rubber in my mouth. He could have filmed the entire thing and I would be none the wiser.


“I KNEW IT,” I responded. I had gotten the feeling he might take a photo of me like that. He was a professional photographer, after all. Why else would I send a text message to him, days before we ever met, warning him of this as a firm boundary?


I felt conflicted about his admission. He broke a cardinal rule of our encounter. He crossed a line I had clearly drawn and had photographed me without my consent. Part of me was mad. Part of me was betrayed. Another part of me felt something I couldn’t quite figure out.


“Just one.” He said. “I thought you might want to have it.”


As much as I trusted Sir’s artistic eye, my initial instinct was to recoil from the thought of the photograph he had taken.


“When did you take it?” I asked.


“Third session,” he replied.


My mind flashed again to the only image I could conjure of myself during our third and final session: my skin would have been bruised and swollen from two days of caning, biting, and slapping; I would have had industrial strength zip ties cinched around my arms and legs, thick straps pulling tight on my wrists and ankles. I tried to picture my thin, pale body sprawled and naked except for a black blindfold across my eyes. Was my mouth open in anticipation? Was my head turned, were my fists clenched, were my legs flexed? There had been no soft lighting or red tinting, no shades to hide my bruises or my flaws, just bright afternoon sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the large, open room. During our time together, Sir and I had held no space for shadows or shame. Instead, we reveled in the full spectrum lighting of our deviancy. Out beyond the large windows, the streets of Manhattan buzzed around us, as unaware and uncaring as New York City is known to be, the ideal setting for the scenes of our most primitive desires.


Was I prepared to see myself this way, as naked and free of shame as I might ever be? After a few moments of consideration, I realized I needed more time.


“I’m not ready,” I told Sir. This time, he honored my wishes, keeping the photo to himself.


Would I ever be ready to see what was in that image?


I am no stranger to photos of myself. Like so many millennials raised on the internet and social media, my phone is filled with images of me at various levels of “appropriateness.” In fact, every man I have ever been involved with has received at least a handful of sexy photos from me.


Though it may seem scandalous to some, I have had a camera phone in my hand for the majority of my relationships and during almost all of the most experimental times in my life. Why wouldn’t I choose to document the evolution of my sexuality, as I have documented everything else? As hesitant as I felt to see the photo that Sir snapped of me, he was right: I want to have it, I am glad he took it, and eventually, I would ask him to share it with me. But first, I wanted to sit with the discomfort of it all.


I feel no shame about the explicit photos I have shared with my lovers throughout my life. Other people have sexualized my body for as long as I can remember. Why is there any shame in the idea that I might sexualize myself?


Just the other night, as I was reflecting on my time with Sir and drafting the beginnings of this essay, an old flame who had been following my writing sent me a link to an essay written by the model and consummate babe Emily Ratajkowski, published in the most recent issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Within it, she makes a similar observation: “I continue to be shocked,” Ratajkowski writes, “by how…we look down so much on women who like to play with what it means to be sexy.” She continues with a question: “Why, as a culture, do we insist on separating smart and serious from sexy?”


This question gets to the heart of Slut Life, the series of nonfiction essays I have been writing about my life as both a serious woman and a sexual one, of which this essay is a part. For the last decade, I have split myself into two halves, like a woman with two identities. On the one hand, there is serious, educated, political Steph, the Steph that has a career and deserves respect by normal society's standards. On the other: there is sexual Steph, the Steph that looks down at her BDSM bruises and smiles. Does sexual Steph deserve less respect than serious Steph? Society has told us for a very long time that the answer to that question is yes. My argument is no.


I believe sexual Steph and serious Steph deserve equal amounts of respect, however, if I had to rank them, I would probably put sexual Steph as even more worthy of respect than serious Steph. This is not in spite of what society might say about my sexual side, but because of what society might say. Sexual Steph has been given a lot of strong messages about her place in the world, or lack thereof. And yet, here I am, as strong and as confident and as comfortable as ever. Like Ratajkowski, I have realized that my “serious” self is stronger because my sexual self has thrived in a world that tells me not to.


I think the very idea of a woman in full possession of both her sexuality and her seriousness is threatening for more than one kind of person, and this is exactly why we try to disrespect her. Her power is fully formed and well-articulated. She is not flippant or silly or careless about her sexuality like society would have us believe - she is exacting with it, like a surgeon with a scalpel. Or maybe, she is more like a nuclear weapon, blasting everyone in her path, simply because she can. She is not desperate for people to find her sexy. She feels sexy whenever and however and for whomever she desires. So often, we are told that women can be one or the other - sexy or serious. But both? Everything? All at once? It is too overwhelming.


Even Ratajkowski falls into a trap laid for her by society. She is, after all, a supermodel. Her entire career is based upon the fact that she is stunning. I don’t know her personally, but I imagine she is at the top of her game because she is also serious, and smart. The issue from her perspective is that a supermodel can only be sexy, and that this sexiness undermines her seriousness, her intellect. But what about female politicians? Or female CEOs? Another issue highlighted by Ratajkowski falls on the other side of the coin: professional women can be serious, but never sexy. Well, not too sexy, anyway. I find it truly absurd that Jeffrey Epstein could be both a business tycoon and a known sex trafficker, but we have yet to experience a woman, outside of the entertainment world, who is both sexually liberal, wildly powerful, and universally respected the way Epstein, a known criminal, was for the majority of his life. If you wonder about the existence of the patriarchy, look no further than this dichotomy. Epstein could be wicked and still be “the man.” A woman can barely be a human without tumbling from some false state of grace.


Why is sexual liberalism in women so ill-regarded? Isn’t it just another stop along the spectrum of something that is inherent to us all? Why is it given any moral weight at all? Sexual conservatism - traditional practices like marriage and monogamy - have long been accepted without judgement. Personally, I have long thought of marriage and monogamy not as commitments I want to make because they are right for me personally, but as commitments I am forced to make to be taken seriously, to be respected, or to be seen as less threatening to the men and women around me.


I do not begrudge anyone their individual choices, and I do not loathe the idea of marriage for other people. Above all, I love love. I am happy for women who embrace the ideas of monogamy and marriage because they are right for them. Moral judgments aside, I am simply not one of those women. I am not asking everyone to abandon the idea of marriage or monogamy. I just want the freedom to make different choices for myself, and freedom from social condemnation regardless of what I choose. I am also open to the idea that I may feel differently at any moment, the same way I am fine with couples who choose divorce. We are human. We grow. We change.


I wonder, why would my choices be any less deserving of respect than the choices of my married sisters, choices that have all been made with equal amounts of care and thoughtfulness and consent? All I am asking for is the same amount of personal autonomy given to my friends who walk down the aisle in white dresses and veils. You may shudder at the thought of being tied to a bed and caned (and to that I say, don’t knock it till you try it), but has it ever occurred to you that I may see marriage and monogamy as equally disturbing, constricting, or weird? If I am going to be bound and broken, I at least want it to be on my own terms. Marriage can be your weapon of choice. Sir can be mine.


My mind returns again to the photo in Sir’s phone. I try to picture what the image might look like. It occurs to me that, despite my progressive stance on sexuality, I am still evolving. It occurs to me that maybe I am not ashamed of what I might see. Perhaps I am afraid of it.


I have written before about my experiences with being visible. Young women are among the most visible members of our society at the same time that they are often considered the least valuable. I was raised to be constantly aware of how I might appear to others. It should come as no surprise, then, that this awareness seeps into my sexual life and the sexual lives of so many women like me.


I think about the photos of me that I have sent to so many of my lovers. I grew up in a technological age, which means I developed a sense of my digital footprint very early. I also understood from a young age that privacy is a myth in a digital world. When it comes to the selfies I take and send, I have an official policy. I never send a selfie that I wouldn’t want to end up in front of the entire world.


If you wonder how I sleep at night knowing my selfies could end up on the internet at any moment, now you know. They ended up on the internet before I ever hit send, at least in theory. Since my high school years, when I first logged onto MySpace and AIM and Facebook, I have been hyper-aware of the risk of living life on the internet, particularly as a woman split in two. If you have aspirations of living your life in the public eye, you have to become comfortable with the idea that this is a valve that you cannot turn off once the water starts gushing. If every selfie I ever sent got published on the internet today, I would be shocked by the invasion, but the photos themselves would be a point of pride, not shame. I know that because I crafted them that way.


Again, my mind goes back to the photo, the one that sits inside Sir’s phone, revealing the most shadowed parts of me. Why does this particular photo feel so different than all the others? And why am I so hesitant to see it?


A lot of people take issue with the BDSM community. In fact, a very close friend of mine (one who happens to be deeply embedded in that strange world of monogamy that I hear so much about), holds the opinion that BDSM desensitizes us to sex and causes our tastes to become less and less conventional. She sees this as a negative consequence, but I am not sure why. Who cares what our tastes are as long as they are grounded in consent and shared respect?


I have to laugh at her assessment of the risks of BDSM, because you know what else desensitizes us and causes our tastes to become less and less conventional? Life experience. She has only been married for a few short years. I am eager to discuss this theory again with her in a decade, when she may or may not still be married. Having sex with one person for ten years is certainly a desensitizing experience. I have never done it, but some truths are universal. Will she still see the slide into the unconventional as a negative consequence? As time marches on, will she be willing to turn to less and less conventional pursuits to keep her monogamous marriage interesting? Or will she simply bury the very human, very normal part of herself that craves novelty?


I laugh at the assessment that BDSM might turn us all into sadistic monsters. Why? Because after trying it, I know that to be a claim made only by those who have never done it. Do you know why I know BDSM won’t turn us all into monsters? Because my favorite part of my time spent submitting to Sir was not the pain, nor the pleasure, nor the helplessness, nor the deeply meditative mental “subspace.” No, my favorite part of every session was the moment when Sir removed the straps, cut off the zip ties, tossed aside the blindfold, and looked at me, directly in my eyes, as he made love to me. My favorite part was the deep connection Sir and I formed after transcending all shame, social expectation, and self-consciousness. My favorite part of being blindfolded was feeling seen.


And isn’t that the very foundation of true love? To see and be seen, without shadow or shame? Maybe this is what they mean when they say that love is blind. Perhaps love isn’t maimed by blindness. What if love is simply blindfolded?


I think about the photo of me on Sir’s phone, which I still haven’t seen, and realize now why I recoiled. I am afraid of that photo, not because it may tell a story I didn’t craft, but because it tells a story that isn’t true. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I fear that a photo of me laying on a bed, naked and exposed and blindfolded, is saying the wrong words. Do I look afraid? Do I appear helpless? Nothing could be farther from the truth.


The truth is, I can’t think of a time when I had ever felt more safe.

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