This is part of a series combining personal writing from the author with real conversations between friends and community members on the intersections between SM, mental health, identity and our interior lives. Read the rest of the series here.
The fetish has that long and storied career other words only wish they had. So much can be contained in such an innocuous device. And just like a cipher, it can appear nonsensical but contain a complex and deep internal logic. The fetish is the most ubiquitous piece of Sadomasochism: Tarantino’s gratuitous shots of feet, latex-clad celebrities at red carpets, entire Instagram accounts dedicated to the hands of femmes. It can be the key for unlocking sprawling worlds of desire, or a hallway glimpsed down and decided against. In a quote from the 2006 book of Fetish Sex, author Violet Blue writes that “Many people spend most of their lives looking for the things that turn them on, and never find it.” And in the immortal words of Sheryl Crow “It’s not having what you want, It’s wanting what you’ve got.” For those of us lucky enough to be blissfully afflicted with fetishes, they can be powerful gifts, when nurtured and wanted with the care and respect they demand.
Somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno I would start daydreaming about snakes. There may have been just one at some point – lone and milky, the soft marigold sheen of an albino python, sliding toward me. My childhood imagination was vivid: a Pisces stellium, growing up in the last home before fields of undeveloped Northern California grasslands, a big Jewish family who loved telling stories. But in my wildest visions, it was a pit of impossible slithering bodies, while I watched a gorgeous woman (who I knew to be me) sink into their writhing mass. I would grind my soft child thighs together, hoping to approximate the sensation of so many scaled bodies all around me, their slick armor brushing against me. This memory of early eroticism (in Audre Lorde’s usage of the word), of a snake fantasia, happened most often on long car rides, 8 hour stretches of 1-5 winding through the Central Valley to visit family in Los Angeles. Unbroken lengths of highway, the soft roll of the Sierra Nevada mountains swelling in the distance. Gazing out the window, crossing my eyes and focusing on a spot in the carpet of our family’s minivan, any space undefined enough to dream about stepping into that pit, daintily dipping one toe as if to test the water, and then wading deeper into their coiling forms.
And at some point, the fantasy turned, transformed. The roadtrips became more infrequent, more time at home, the terrifying and ever-present sense of social compression around me – expectations of gender performed well, of grades earned, of adolescent friends shaming my desires until I never spoke of them agan. In this early fantasy, the focus was never on being trapped with the snakes, it was more the perversely pleasurable sensation of their skin against mine. But this latter vision shifted, and I began digging into that sense of encasement, making it something powerful and desirable. I think it began as a human-sized water tube, the tactile sensation of trying to escape only to become more entangled. The last time I remember conjuring this fantasy, it had grown into a hot pink vacbed. I was somewhere within this ultra-femme latex casing, that sensation of being socially trapped now literalized, my brain building this fantasy piece by fetishized, desire-filled piece.
DB: I was always interested in power dynamics, less explicitly like BDSM related activities, and more so the role that power played in most sexual dynamics that I was seeing. So kink sort of found me when someone was talking about how I was fucking them and they said “You should actually know about what BDSM is, because there’s a language for this that you don’t know.” And then when I started finding formalized BDSM spaces and kink dynamics,one of the things that I found most interesting was one of the things that Hunny was talking about, that it created like structures for relationships. In a lot of relationships outside of BDSM dynamics, things are taken for a given, instead of discussed and figured out and rules and protocols. So it gave me a sense in my brain, which likes to have rituals and obsess about things, [kink] created a space for me to be intimate and sexual in different ways because those answers were already there.
I think something that came up for me, listening to Hunny and Kolby, was thinking about being neurotypical and typical like basic. Something that helps me find common ground in a lot of these spaces is, going into a social situation and knowing exactly what’s going to be happening. I also found myself drawn to, as Kolby was saying, capital L Leather Spaces because of bootblacking. I find that, whenever I go or host an event, I like to go to ones that have bootblacking stations because there’s not necessarily small talk, there’s an activity that you can do. Even if that activity is just “Hold this,” or “I’m going to now tell you what to do,” that creates space for my brain to create intimacy, rather than dedicating time to doing small talk. I had the thought today like, “Am I allowed to stop doing social niceties in email?” because it takes up so much of my time and brain. I just want an email signoff that says “Sorry I didn’t put more time into being nice.” For me, a lot of my like early OCD things were incredibly debilitating. I would have these obsessive compulsive tendencies where it took me four or five hours to go to bed every night, and it was really disruptive. And when I found kink, and I found the ritual of kink, the process of creating rituals with purpose and with partners, as an incantation that met some of the same needs that made me feel safe, secure, and protected. That created a way that was allowing me to establish relationships with others, a way that created boundaries, and that didn’t involve my mirror and doorknob. And now I’m imagining a scene that does involve my mirror and doorknob [laughs].
KB: Thinking of the orgy that never was, that I had planned with Blunt for 2020, there was an AirBnB that we were looking at with an incredibly weird vanity mirror, and there was a discussion about a scene where we forced someone to make out with themselves against the mirror.
SJ: There is this weird thing with kink shit where I’m always thinking of one hundred different uses for an object. And the way that like objects and textural things are so important but are so specific – the way that leather or certain material are integral parts of scenes – but also, those places where you don’t permanently reside, AirBnB spaces, somebody’s room and seeing what’s in the space and wanting to interact with it in a certain charged way so that I can understand and interact with the space better. It creates a sort of roadmap for my head, about how to be in that space in a way that feels good.
DB: One thing that you were saying, fetishizing a fabric, I’ve always had a natural fiber fetish. I refused to wear any underwear when I was a kid, and I only wore dresses, I didn’t want to feel any clothing on my body, and it wasn’t until talking to people who had sensory processing issues that I realized, “Oh this might be related.” I have a heavy natural material fetish and feel uncomfortable in synthetic fibers, and here’s this whole culture around like, your comfort and hedonism in what best works for you in that space.
KB: I’ve always loved material objects, and I think it’s because some of my OCD around my eating started when I was 6 because we started moving all the time. Every year, year and a half, we would move, until the time I was a teenager. And there are a lot of objects that get lost in that process, I don’t really have a lot left from childhood, and after a while, I became very into certain tangible objects. The idea that you could fetishize a material object instantly made sense to me. For me, there are many aspects of kink and of personal dynamics that usually don’t get inspired until there’s an object for it. There was this collar that my leather brother was working on, that I don’t think he’s finished yet. This really heavy, thick collar – and there’s a handle on the back of it, like if you think of a bag handle.
DB: Hopefully not a door handle? [laughs]
KB: It’s more like a leather suitcase handle. And as he showed me this thing, I had this vision of a human puppy with my hands on the back of their neck. All of a sudden, that was the moment my handler desires were born. I was like, here is a material for it, and now I can see it and picture it.
SJ: It is sort of like paint by numbers, in the most exciting way possible. You do need the outline, you need the structure in some ways, and then you kind of work backwards, instead of starting from scratch. There is something really lovely about having an object and knowing exactly what you want to do with it. The sort of emotional attachment you want to have with that object. We went on a lot of road trips when I was younger, going to visit my grandparents in Los Angeles, which often meant 8 or 9 hours in the car. This was not only a really stressful time because my parents are stressful people when they’ve been in a car for 8 or 9 hours, but also I had to figure out self soothing mechanisms for being on this long car ride. There are parts of the car I can vividly picture in my head, that I created an attachment for, and like, figured out how to navigate being in those contained spaces for a really long time that made them bearable for my brain.
DB: I think I was talking with Kolby – a lot of the leather that she designs is useful for self-soothing practices. I’m thinking of the difference between painting by numbers and starting from scratch, but having a boundary or a rule is something that contains something. From there you can move, where in so many other situations you don’t have that starting point. For me, my anxiety and compulsion will make a debilitating paralyzation. So having that starting point really creates a lot of opportunity from which, in relationships, I am allowed to know where I start, and where I end, and the kinds of interactions I’m looking for from people. There’s that emotional component and then there’s the physical component of fetishwear as well. When I publicly speak, I wear a harness that hits me in certain points on my chest, and right around my ribs, and I find that very very soothing. There’s different soothing components of BDSM gear, fetishwear, and bondage, that all serve a similar purpose, that play with the autonomic nervous system in that way.
In the early months of 2020, I shed an old skin. Facial Feminization Surgery isn’t simply one procedure – a suite of small scrapes, scalpels producing curves, surgical instruments blunting square edges into something softer. I know for many women, this surgery is equally possibility filled and terror inducing, a desperately wanted life raft amidst so much dysphoria. But that buoy, while a small savior, necessitates permanently altering the only face you have ever known. Even if the desired social outcomes and the personal level of comfort that comes from alleviated dysphoria on the other side of the surgery are wanted, the mental hurdle is canyon-vast, a daring act of vision and embodiment. I did not have a choice in who my surgeon was, he was simply the one who was covered by my insurance. Within a surgeon’s office crowded by an examination table, mountains of photographic technology, and posters featuring skeletal cross-sections of faces, the doctor poked and prodded angles of bone I no longer have. The morning of my surgery, as a nurse dug a needle into my arm again and again looking for an accessible vein, the older (and arguably more perverted) transgender woman who I consider my chosen Mom menacingly cooed, in that way only dominants can, “You can take more, can’t you?” I would wake up later with my face wrapped in bandages, two deep purple bruises under my eyes from blood pooling under the skin, to her face smiling down at me.
My stamina returned, albeit slowly. A walk near the Berkeley Marina lasted only twenty minutes before I returned, breathless and exhausted, to my car. A four mile path through the hills of the East Bay Area I used to do with ease felt impossible to accomplish. So when I was offered a ticket to attend an annual flea market in East Oakland, held in an old warehouse space, I was hesitant. I went to the beauty store that morning before we carpooled there, looking for a hat, a scarf, anything to hide the still-present swelling in my cheeks and jaw. We wandered through rows of massive framed photographs, glass cases full of jewelry, aisles of secondhand clothes. Picking through neatly hung rows of threadbare lingerie, I touched skin. The black leather jacket looked impossibly perfect – as if I had closed my eyes, imagined the beautiful and severe lines of a rider jacket, and dreamt it into existence. I pulled it off the rack, hoping that it’s supple cowhide would become that long sought-after casing, that warm and wearable fantasy. And like a snake shedding its skin in reverse, the leather wrapped around my shoulders, arms, and torso with fluid ease. The next day, I drove over to my trans Mom’s house to visit her and drop off some groceries – she greeted me on the porch, grinning down at her black leather clad chosen spawn. Trotting down the wood steps of her home, she grabbed the jacket, made a couple quick adjustments, and admired her work. “It’s perfect,” she beamed.
SJ: Does this sort of overlap come in aspects of other people’s lives? Kolby does this come up for you in leather work stuff? Blunt does this come up for you, maybe when you’re doing research work in Hacking & Hustling? Do these control mechanisms and containers and contextualizations come up when you’re working through these other aspects, even when it’s not necessarily kinky?
KB: It’s so funny to say that leather work isn’t kink-related, because there are moments when it’s not kinky, but the second that a piece is finished and I look at it, I remember “Oh I got into this because I find this stuff hot.” I was still in therapy when I first started doing leatherwork and leatherwork is very good for my brain because it’s a process, and a lot of the time I am working in a sort of production line. I can get into a zone, which is a rare thing that happens, and it’s one of the few times my brain is kind of quiet. The zone I get into during leather work isn’t the quietest zone that I get to – like if I’m in a really good scene I can, I can get tunnel vision. The only other time I experienced complete brain quiet tunnel vision is when I was getting married. With leather work being a ritualistic process, there is a sadomasochistic element to it. Because part of what I find hot about leather is that it used to be flesh, that it is flesh. There’s this grotesque nature about it. When people ask if I want to work with vegan leather, I’m like “Why the fuck would I want to work with vegan leather? The reason that leather is hot is because it was scraped off of an animal’s body.” It being a second skin is what makes it hot. So here I am with this skin, slicing it and dicing it, which feels very sadistic and very body intensive. If I’m working for a long time, I know I’m going to be sore. So it’s this sort of perfect sadomasochistic activity, this encapsulation that’s been removed from eroticism, but which feels good for my brain.
DB: I like that you described Bride Space as similar to the Top/Bottom Space.
SJ: The Bride Zone!
KB: It’s a space I will never be in again I hope, but there was a time at Submit, with Annie, and June, where we were co-topping Sue. I was so in the zone, and my brain sort of peeled away for a second and realized there were people watching us. And then I snapped back into it – and a few weeks later I realized the only other time my brain had been that focused was when I was getting married. I’m just really glad I found a better way to get there, that is still very ritualistic.
DB: I feel like it doesn’t come up for me with research, aside from doing everything compulsively the second I can start, because otherwise I might get sick and it won’t get done. I think of it much more in regards to my sex work. I hate work, but I hate how blunt and transparent the transaction is in the relationship, and all the structure and ritual that I put into it. There’s some freedom in knowing what is to be expected and being honest about what the exchange is that feels good for my brain – rather than more nebulous arrangements that I’ve had.
SJ: There’s something about knowing this happens at the beginning, and this happens at the end, and then I get to put it in a container and walk out of the room.
DB: Yea, and I have rituals that I do before and after work, so there’s both the ritual of setting the session up, and the rituals that I do before and after to take care of myself in a positive way.
KB: I think one of the greatest things about kink is that the rituals that I like to do, that work well for me, even if someone isn’t into it, are encouraged. Especially encouraged as someone who is femme. I feel like you can’t really be into your own aesthetic and not be into ritual, because there’s that whole process of putting on that persona, even if that persona is legitimately you, because there’s a ritual to that process, and there’s a transformation that occurs in that process, even if it’s just your 5 minute face.
SJ: You get to have the Sailor Moon transformation sequence in real life, and then you get to undo it at the end of the day.
KB: Yea, having a heightened point for that with kink – I can put on my fishnets, I can put on my leather, I’m ready to step into this space, and then I can wipe it all off.
SJ: There’s even something about everything in kink requiring a certain amount of ritual. You can’t safely put needles in someone’s skin if you haven’t sanitized their skin and prepped the skin that will be pierced or you could put their body into shock. And then you can’t just take the needles out and leave them on the ground, because then someone will step on them. You have to take them out and put them in a sharps container, you have to sanitize the surface if you’re going to pierce their body. There is a sort of built-in ritual of having safe kink practices in order not to endanger somebody or endanger yourself. I like that part of it, it takes a rote process that’s more like doing the dishes, and turns it into setting a stage, into creating a spectacle, into constructing a scene, all of that becomes so beautiful.
DB: I like what you’re talking about, these rituals for safety – a lot of the compulsive rituals I had when I was younger felt like they were for safety, like they were serving a purpose, they were a coping mechanism – but the kink rituals I have now for safety are for safety, and the rituals I have now feel productive. They’re much healthier outlets, where I’m getting the same need met.
KB: And, something to keep in mind – a ritual is not a guarantee. The ritual ahead of a thing is not going to guarantee the outcome that I want. When I think about rituals, and I do have qualms with people who use the word lightly, but it’s really just a replication – you use the word protocol, you use the word steps, you use the word rituals, it’s all the same fucking process, it’s really just how it sits inside of your body. They’re so ingrained in my day, and in my body. And once or twice, there’s a ritual that doesn’t work, even if it’s one that’s been there for years. No matter how much I want my OCD to ‘solve’ the problem, it’s never going to solve the problem, sometimes the problem isn’t real to begin with. Whatever is going on will work out, one way or another. The ritual is just for me, it’s not for the outcome.
I have found myself again pulling from that impossible well of snakes, that source of fantasy and comfort which has stayed with me for so many years. Digging through latex sample sales online, purchasing more skin-tight animal print, and spending time at home wrapping myself in leather, even if only to lounge, my just moisturized skin gliding along the slick Huberd’s polished surface. When play parties and planned orgies could no longer safely occur because of the COVID19 pandemic, I was invited to a monthly Zoom social for perverts. I was still early in my healing from FFS, the fluid beneath my skin pooling, tender to the touch. I was embarrassed at my Zoom square’s mirrored proportions of the face I had worked so emotionally and physically hard for – a face that had encouraged moving across the state to have more reliable housing, a procedure that once stood like some distant horizon now having been completed. After a few of these Zoom socials had come and gone, the swelling began to subside, the shape of myself returning (albeit rounded and softened) to gradually reveal something long awaited.
Before the digital play party in May, I prepared like a long awaited lover was coming over. Candles lit, my first full face of makeup with eyelids a little higher than I remember, and that perfectly polished and cared-for leather jacket thrown over some black lingerie. When I joined the call, Mistress Blunt privately messaged me that I looked “fucking hot,” all of that brilliant California afternoon light making the silver buttons, buckle, and my cheek highlight gleam. I have shed so many skins before – shed the vision of me that others painted me in relationships, shimmied out of so many ill-fitting permutations of gender, sloughed away habits and actions that no longer fit who I was growing into. Fantasy and eroticism, those highest and most-brilliant watermarks of wanted sensation, have been invaluable guiding lights in directing this growth. Without those earliest snakes, dreamt of in an old van by an imaginative child, I would have never grown, shed, and grown again towards that woman I am today.