I was 18 when I first started asking men to hurt me.
It began innocently: a request for a hand around my throat, usually in the heat of the moment to take the edge off. Some men obliged, reaching for me without a second thought, but most of them balked, fearing that they would bruise me in a way we’d both regret.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” they’d conclude, and we’d continue as if I hadn’t bared my darkest desires. Their rejections inspired feelings of frustration and pleasure. I wanted to be hurt — it was, after all, why I’d asked — but was secretly thrilled by how fragile these men perceived me to be.
Standing 5-foot-9, with rich, dark skin, I’m not normally seen as fragile. My blackness is apparent in any light, season, or situation — a sign of caution for many. Somewhere along the way, I began to realize that it was the foremost filter through which people processed me. My black womanhood is, in part, a series of reminders that there will always be a disconnect between who I really am and what society sees. Modern representations of Black women in popular media has not helped in this respect; growing up, I realized that I encountered few narratives of tender Black women. The Black women in my favorite shows and movies were many things — witty, vivacious, persevering — but tenderness was reserved for dramas and comedies that rarely took center stage.
Because of this limited representation, even today, people’s ideas of Black women are rarely well-rounded. With online campaigns like “Black Girls are Magic,” and the exaltation of “carefree Black Girls” in social spaces, the variation of Black female representation is growing in a way that offers more Black girls the space to be just as they are, whether exuberant or docile. I am grateful to exist in age where this is afforded to me. Still, I wonder occasionally what my life would have been like had such representation existed when I needed it.
I learned early on that people would interpret my soft-spoken nature as hostility or standoffishness, for no reason I could initially discern. I was a reserved child; my teachers weren’t aware that I observed more than I spoke, and so my self-imposed silence was often spelled “a-l-o-o-f” on elementary-school report cards. This became a strange, persistent theme in all of my relationships. Close friends would later confess their initial fear of me and eventual surprise at my warmth. Strangers would frown as I approached them until they heard the soft inflection in my voice, then would visibly relax. It took me a while to understand that, much like me, the people who became my eventual friends and lovers were privy to the same endless images of Black hostility, and it was with this idea that they viewed me: stony, composed, disconnected, a threat. Not even my most disarming habits — hunching my shoulders, softening my pitch, lowering the volume of my voice — could convince those around me that I was indeed softer than I looked.
Strength — or the projection of it — is in no uncertain terms an advantage. But when you’re a Black woman, your strength is a peculiar form of social currency: By our Blackness alone, what was once considered positive is rendered both caricature and observable burden. Here’s the thing: When you seem strong, no one protects you. They don’t think they need to. You learn to conceal the tenderness you feel behind your impressive self-control. You become hesitant of who you reveal your pain to, always cognizant of the “hard” image you’ve carefully created. You tailor your reactions carefully, obsessively so, until a man grips your hair between his fingers. Your surprise escapes from your lips before you can stifle it or wonder — like you always do — if you gave away too much.
I unraveled at this intersection of pain and pleasure in ways I’d never experienced before. I didn’t have to hide what I was feeling. In bed, every gasp, moan, or curse I made was as real as the hand that caused them. In the face of pain, I didn’t have to think, only feel. Pain rendered me vulnerable and, ultimately, honest.
Sex gave me a new type of control: I could determine the kind of pain inflicted on me by mere request. I could negotiate the terms of my “suffering,” and thus anticipate its effects. It was a sharp contrast from my vanilla life, where I could not always avoid the blunt sting of reality. In bed, not only could I invite pain — I could shift it, changing the weight of its impact on me. It was a satisfying, dizzying feeling. I wanted more.
The internet was the first resource that helped me better understand my needs. With a few keystrokes, I was reading the experiences of hundreds of people who also found joy in a rough grip. There was an entire community of people like me who had learned to balance pleasure with pain — this realization was exhilarating and even encouraging. Emboldened by my new discoveries, I vowed to find a willing partner with the help of forums and chat rooms.
My search proved to be more difficult than I thought. I avoided the legions of self-professed dominant men — many of whom were eager to teach me the merits of pain, but no one I was ready to trust. Men would write me at length about their excitement, detailing the many ways they would “make me serve.” Their interest in dominance began and ended with the infliction of pain, and so did my interest in them. I wanted to explore my submissive side fully, but knew the lengths of my submission ran far deeper than any of these men could ever imagine.
Physical pain is (literally) surface-level, as is the rush it provides. I wasn’t afraid to be hurt: to feel the sting on my skin or the slow, warm burn that followed. What I wanted was much harder to deliver: complete and total release. I needed someone I could fall apart in front of, someone who would know how to put me back together again. I’d always been encouraged in some way to put up a front, since my father first frowned at my tears as a child. I’d always gotten the impression that I could not simply afford to be open, lest I invite the world to take advantage. Control — over myself, over my emotions, over my fears — had since then always been a constant in my life. Parting with it, if only for a moment, would mean someone finally peeking under the mask I had carved for myself. I was rarely afforded the luxury of vulnerability. What if I revealed myself to someone who did not deserve to see such splendor?
A month into my search, I met Richard.
“You seemed exasperated,” he chuckled at our first meeting.
Richard was referring to the clipped tone of my profile on FetLife, a social network for the BDSM, fetish, and kink community, which I’d since edited down to a blunt paragraph to avoid perverts, explicit messages, and time-wasters. Still, my abbreviated introduction wasn’t quite enough to dampen his intrigue. After several cursory exchanges, I agreed to meet him in a tiny Starbucks, where we talked about everything but pleasure for hours.
Richard and I would not have been friends under other circumstances. Broad-shouldered with a rich tan, he was clean-cut and much older than me. He could have easily doubled as any of my professors, and our age difference of nearly 20 years made me hesitant to meet him. If Richard could sense my fear, he was graceful enough not to show it. Instead, he reiterated his interest, promising to move at a comfortable pace for the both of us. Over lively debates about music and politics, I quickly proved myself to be his equal. But once we were alone, I didn’t challenge him — he never gave me reason to. I trusted his experience and intimate knowledge of the scene, and from there he worked to gain more of my trust.
There was a gentleness to our interaction that defied most people’s ideas of standard BDSM relationships. Richard was deliberate in understanding my fears and fantasies. The intention, or so he told me, was to craft a better “me,” someone more disciplined, but also more open to the very things she could not control. At times, I found myself pushed beyond my limit, never knowing just what Richard would do next.
Through our time together, we fashioned something that worked best for us. According to the traditional BDSM lexicon, I would be Richard’s “pet” or a “slave,” but I immediately voiced my concerns for such usage to him, and we decided to opt for something not as brusque. With time, he’d taken to calling me his “baby girl” in that same cool tone he used to deliver his orders. I learned via the internet that this was a distinct type of Dom/submissive relationship known as “Daddy/little girl play.” Submissive “littles” behaved like children, often turning to their “Daddy” dom for protection.
I never felt like a little girl in Richard’s presence, nor did I fantasize about being one, and I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of acting like a child. But the term “baby girl” did resonate in one particular way: the thrill of being treated with the same level of attention and care as a young girl, as someone who was in constant need of protection. Richard’s care was comprehensive — as physical as it was emotional, always for my benefit. Unlike with others, Richard asked what I needed, what I wanted, and what I feared. The more he learned, the better our sessions became, and the better he became at caring for me as a sub and a friend. Such consideration was a luxury I had not experienced yet in my own life. In being tender with me, Richard offered me space to be tender in return — something I’d long tried to bury, since it conflicted with people’s conceptions of me. With him, my wholeness was never a weakness.
I served Richard for the majority of my freshman year, surreptitiously visiting him as much as time allowed. The following year made what had become so natural nearly impossible. The wealth of classes, opportunity, and responsibility made it difficult to spend more time away from campus, and it became clear that our time together would not survive the transition. Anticipating this, Richard encouraged me to explore professional and romantic opportunities often, even ordering me to accept event or networking invitations as I received them.
Gradually my relationship with Richard became an unconscious barometer, guiding the way I connected with new friends and partners. I would open myself to new friends and lovers, using my feelings as a guide to connect with them.
I became confident that people were capable of treating me gently if they wanted to. Though I could not change the way people saw me, I could teach them how to treat me if they were willing to learn. I became bolder in the way I voiced approval or displeasure, instead of keeping my thoughts bottled up. If I became uncomfortable with a friend, I could now communicate in a way that was wholly true to myself, even if I feared being unpleasant. I gave partners the chance to explore me instead of running from their interest. I could demand a space to be vulnerable, and to only pursue those who would understand. Richard had taken the time to see me in ways no one had bothered to before, assuring me to be myself fully with others.
My relationship with Richard ended simply, quietly. The space he’d left behind was filled with new school opportunities, parties, and partners. There were new sanctuaries to be discovered beyond the heat of his bed, and I was ready to find them.