Weaning yourself from online dating is a bit like giving up alcohol: those first few days are the hardest because you’ve become habituated to the experience. The cravings start around 5 o’clock when brain fatigue sets in. You want to get that hit (in the form of a dopamine rush when matching with an attractive person), so you start justifying why you should take a break from your abstinence for just one night. Well, you know how that goes. The bottle is suddenly empty and your swiping thumb hurts.
I got over the hump after deleting the dating apps from my phone (and I stopped keeping alcohol in my house). I then found delight in the stillness and curling up with a cup of tea and a good book. But what does someone who writes about sex and relationships do when she’s not doing either? I observe other people’s sex lives. And discover new things about my own.
I know many people, and dated several, who have profiles on FetLife. This worldwide forum for the sexually curious and terrifically deviant is a cornucopia of images, discussions and stories - real and fictional. It’s considered the Facebook for kinky people and there are nearly eight million users. The site was launched in 2008 by a Canadian software engineer who wanted to date women with similar proclivities, but were harder to identify on conventional dating sites. On FetLive the most popular groups include Kinky and Geeky; Curvy Women and People Who Love Them; Rough Sex; Poly and Kinky; Sadists and Masocists; Riggers and Ropes; Masters and Slaves; and Erotic and Fetish Photography.
You can’t peruse FetLife until you set up a profile. So, I created one without revealing my face, placed myself in a different city, and took a look around. I did post a few photos of myself; black and whites, grainy noires, and body part close-ups, the kind of images that get you censored on other social media sites. (BTW, I was recently banned from Tinder for what I assume was posting one of these art noire photos, an image I’ve had on that platform for over four years. Tinder has refused to give me a second chance and are ignoring my reasonable emails at this point. So all I can say, after being terribly polite, is FUCK TINDER.)
The topics that prevail on FetLife are those of dominance, submission and explorations of pain. The most popular of these in alphabetical order are: Asphyxiaphilia, Ball Stretching, Chastity Devices, Clothespins, Dominant/Submissive, Double Penetration, Face Slapping, Gang Bangs, Humiliation, Masochism, Orgasm Control, Pain, Sadism and Spreader Bars.
In the ‘Explore’ section one can peruse images and videos users have posted (though some require a paid membership). These are graphic, with lots of close-up genital shots and dick pics from angles suggesting a schlong as big as King Kong’s. It feels, to me, like a contest to see who can be the perviest. Example: “Splish splash I was taking it in the ass, then drowned in piss, all on a Friday night.” Video included.
I waffle between a sense of admiration for a person who has discovered a kink that brings them joy, yet wonder what horrible event in early childhood caused their poor little neurons to equate pleasure with being cut or disgraced. But, as I wrote a few years ago, I’m simply not wired to be especially kinky. In fact, FetLife provides a quiz that will rank your sexual penchants, in which I came out 94% Vanilla. (Though I’m also 82% Rope Bunny. Go figure.)
But thank god for FetLife. It’s the kind of place where talking about the pleasure of pain and perversion is safe and supported and where nothing is shameful. And as long as what people do with their bodies, and anyone else’s, is consented upon by all involved, I don’t have a problem with it. However, if you end up in the Emergency Room without insurance because you lost a flashlight up your ass, then I get a bit irritated. True story.
I got a little closer to the FetLife life by attending a sex positive event in Seattle with two curious friends, an evening of, as advertised, ‘Anything Goes’. It was held in a brick-walled gallery devoted to erotic art. If you were new to their events, they ask that you come early for a mandatory orientation. There we discussed the importance of consent, what to do if you felt uncomfortable watching, and the limitations and containment of bodily fluids. Oh, and please, please don’t mess up the paintings!
About half the people there, like me, were observers, and we all wandered, a bit awkwardly, around the performers. Being bound and whipped was happening in two places. In a circle on the floor, a group of ten were playing Spin the Bottle, during which one player performed naked jumping jacks. In the center of the gallery space, a woman lying naked on a table received slaps and caresses from her partner who then went on to run a rather menacing carving knife over her bare skin. What I found fascinating was the woman receiving these attentions squirted several times. I felt true envy at the achievement of such arousal, in a room full of people no less.
What left me more slack-jawed was the master rope work on display. A man in Carhartt trousers and a lumberjack shirt intricately bound (using a method known as kinbaku or shibari), suspended, and veritably tortured a waif of a woman. Her gasps and small shrieks triggered an impulse in me to stroke her forehead and give her sips of electrolytes. Not only were her shoulder joints pulled back at injurious angles, one leg was also trussed and secured to the wooden frame, leaving her to eek out only minor relief by balancing on the tiptoes of one foot. But it gets even more astounding. The rope master took two clips, rather like small car battery cables, clamped them to this woman’s inner labia, then tied them to opposite sides of the scaffolding. I swear, it looked as though her vagina was screaming.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand these extremes. Vice ran an interview of Australian artist ‘Jilf’ who engages in what most would consider torture in order to ‘go deep’ into the psychological experience of sadism, “to force onlookers to evaluate their understanding of pain, disgust, and how social conventions shape both.” But when we are appalled by what we’re seeing, do we ever get to a place of questioning social conventions or does our repulsion simply trigger a rejection of the person challenging us?
After coming out of the contortions, the woman lay in repose on the floor. The burly man knelt over her, embraced her tenderly and gave her a passionate kiss. That’s the one and only time I felt the least bit aroused. Had I any doubts I was hopelessly vanilla, they were quashed that very moment.
I wish I’d sought out this woman afterwards and asked what physical and emotional feelings she was having. Was she experiencing endorphins powerful enough to elicit euphoria? Were there other ways she could feel that kind of intensity? Was she abused as a child? Alas, I had to resist my journalist mode and allow myself to simply question my own motives for being there.
A few weeks later, I had another sort of FetLife encounter at my local nightclub. I was there with friends and was approached by a man dressed in drag. I say ‘man’ and not transvestite or transsexual because he told me right away he was attracted to women and began to run his fingertips up and down my forearm.
“So why do you dress like a woman?” I asked.
“You want to know why I dress like a woman?” he replied, in a deep inebriated voice.
I raised my eyebrows and waited for an answer, while he leaned so close to my face I thought his garish lipstick would smudge my nose.
“I dress like this so women will talk to me. They don’t talk to me as a man.”
I just about told him I was going to stop talking to him as a woman if he didn’t step back. He went on to say he was visiting from the city to the south but wanted to move to my town and dress like this all the time. Should I feel sad for him that cross dressing was the only way he felt he could access female company, or suspicious that doing so allowed him to ignore appropriate boundaries?
I extracted myself from his lecherous attentions. And then, what I observed on the dance floor, supported his claims: Women were pulling him into their ranks, flirting with him, giggling and touching him. This was despite him being well over sixty, with a beer belly and a really bad wig. I was astounded by the site. I was almost angry with his duplicity and their naivete that a man dressed as a woman was harmless. Maybe he was. But having felt his palm on my ass before I walked away, I was convinced he was a jerk no matter how he dressed.
I think what these two experiences have taught me is that we humans are desperate for attention and acceptance in the presence of people who feel safe to us, regardless of how we experience pleasure. Being provocative is empowering and something worth trying in order to push against our timid views of sexuality. In fact, honorably exercising one’s erotic power reminds me of the Marianne Williamson poem:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
I suppose, for a time, practicing my allure did build confidence. And with each experience, I felt more at ease with taking risks, adorning myself and expressing my exhibitionist spirit. Yet being provocative sometimes feels pandering. How do I tell the difference? And what was I hoping from the experience of being admired by strangers? Do I need that? Or, will an evolving sense of what I desire sexually lead me in a new direction?
For the friends who attended the gallery event with me, both recently out of long marriages in which they no longer felt appreciated, exploring their new sense of being both desired and desiring others is thrilling. I believe that is a really good thing and I’m happy to see them doing so. But I’ve reached my limit. I certainly loved being admired online for my FetLife sexy selfies and dating men who waxed on about my beautiful attributes. But it was a temporary high. And though I felt like a rock star when a 20-something told me at the nightclub, that in my latex dress and body harness, I looked like an Avenger, it felt just as powerful to simply smile and walk away.
I don’t think those who enjoy sex positive events or being flogged have a problem. For me, however, as I open myself to finding love again, I needn’t show off my cavernous vagina or post suggestive selfies on internet sites. There was value in doing so for a time. I have felt compelling and beautiful by being audacious. But through the process of growing to understand myself better and becoming what I want to attract, I can now save the explicit show for a special someone. And that feels every bit as affirming. Besides, I’m hopelessly Vanilla.
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