When I first came out to the BDSM community in 2002, I was wary but optimistic. Years of reading about The Scene had left me far from starry-eyed and much closer to well-prepared than I think most people would have been in my shoes. So it was not actually much of a surprise that, after attending a TES Novice Group workshop, I found myself eager to find an environment more suitable for people my ageâ€”that is, young adults.
I was only 18, after all.
At that first meeting, I met a Columbia University student who went by the name of Virgil and who introduced himself as the Vice President of Conversio Virium. I learned from him that Conversio Virium, or CV as it was called, was a student BDSM education group hosted by Columbia and that met on Monday nights, and that I should attend. So I did.
In 2002, Conversio Virium was a very small place. Each weekly meeting was attended by no more than five or six individuals. Of those present, three were typically CV officers, then there was meâ€”an odd addition as I was unaffiliated with the University but nevertheless still within the group’s target demographicâ€”and, finally, the obligatory “creepy old guy” who’s present at pretty much every BDSM event the world over.
Few in CV today remember those days because few there today, if any, were there at that time. This fact is one of the invisible wedges that drove itself between the current crop of youth BDSM’ers in New York City and I after I returned from my year in Australia. Despite being chronologically younger than some of them, it is for this reason I feel unforgettably their elder.
Over the course of several years, I became disgruntled with The Scene and eventually left for a year or so in 2004. By the time I returned in 2005 (to be a demo bottom for a singletail presentation), I was pleased to discover that Conversio Virium had continued and, indeed, that it had grown slightly. Meeting attendance had jumped to an average of 9 or 10 people.
One of the new regulars was Eileen, whom I fell in love with for rekindling the spark of submission that The Scene had unmercifully beaten out of me over the three prior years. It generally does that to submissive men and, also generally, to dominant women. Although I was probably more prepared for The Scene than most young men, I was blindsided by the manipulativeness of its more socially-competent leaders, and I wasn’t aware of the multiple, intersecting entrenched bigotries present in this environment.
Meeting Eileen and, through her, an entirely new social circle of young, mostly queer kinksters who congregated around my old stomping ground of Conversio Virium was a breath of fresh air after the difficult, mostly solitary year I’d just had. Plus, I knew the ropes pretty well, and some of the older folks whom I knew from places like TES still recognized me. It was the closest I ever felt to being “home,” having heard the word used to describe The Scene by others so often.
It wasn’t quite home for me, though, because Eileen and I were still a bit of an oddity. We were then, and remained until we left for Australia, the only male submissive/female dominant couple. But we were accepted there and became, thanks to my familiarity with the larger “mainstream” BDSM community and her own seniority within the Conversio Virium crowd, certain kinds of leader figures for the group.
My time with Eileen, well-documented in the archives of this blog, was without a doubt some of the best times of my life. In 2006, a smear piece was written about Conversio Virium in the NY Daily News, and when conservative talking-head Ann Coulter was brought on to FOX News to discuss the seedy “sex clubs” in Columbia University, I revamped Conversio Virium’s website (see the 2004 version), doing what little I could at the time and the only thing I understood as activism: protecting my “home” and my friends. Thanks to Ms. Coulter, CV’s membership quadrupled almost over night, and suddenly we were the shining new center of youth BDSM education in the New York City and Tri-State area.
After that, weekly CV meetings averaged 35-40 people in attendance. Then in 2007, as part of the seemingly never-ending churn of newcomers, came a small man named Ken. He was a quiet boy at the time, almost silent, and seemed almost afraid to smile, far less to touch and be touched. He wore baggy clothes, glasses, and was taking computer courses for school, unsure of exactly what he wanted to do for a living.
Recognizing some of myself in him, I made it a point to greet him warmly at every meeting, and to talk to him openly in an attempt to get him to do the same. With no small hesitancy, he eventually disclosed his submissive self-identity along with some common sexual desires. He liked cross-dressing, he told me, and he wanted to be submissive to women.
He was, at first, often reluctant to join us for post-meeting dinner at the pizzeria (called Pinnacle back then on 115th Street and Broadway), just off campus, but as I often gently cajoled him to join us he became less reluctant to the idea. He would sit at the corner of a table and I watched him smile at certain parts of our conversations, like discussions of men bottoming or in service to their topsâ€”mostly the same parts I thought I would smile at if I were him. In a few short months it would be 2008, and Eileen and I would be headed to Australia, and we would have to say goodbye to the group.
So, wanting to ensure Ken’s place at CV, I encouraged him to run for Vice President that year. To my delight, he did, and I smiled to myself when I heard the news from the other side of the world. Australia, in the end, was a painful time for me, only in part (but no small part) because my relationship with Eileen did not survive the trip. I was eager to return to America in early 2009.
I will never forget the first play party I attended after I returned from my year in Sydney. It was difficult for me to go because I knew it would trigger so many memories Iâ€™d sometimes avoided. Nevertheless, I wanted very badly to have a good time and I thought that, maybe, I could make something of a fresh start.
When I arrived at the party, a half-naked young man with fresh bruises on his thighs and ass walked up to me and gave me a hug. I was taken aback. It was Ken. I almost didn’t recognize him.
“Ken!” I remarked, surprised at his openness. “You seemâ€¦good!”
“Yeah,” he said in that sort of far-away voice I remembered endorphin rushes induce.
“I’m glad,” I told him. And I was.
Ken cocked his head slightly and looked me straight in the eye. “Maymay,” he said, “can I ask you a question?”
“How do you get people to, y’know, play with you in ways that you really want?” he asked me. I blinked, slightly confused, almost dumbstruck.
I asked for an explanation, and he briefly told me of some of the play he’d had with people. It was fun, he recounted, plenty of new experiences and very nice. He talked of how he loved the physical connection and the whole ritual of negotiation, play, then aftercare. Although he didn’t remark on it, I could sense how relatively new, welcome, and unlike other social experiences it was for him. But all that said, he told me the play wasn’t quite what he wanted, and he found it difficult to describe to me the nuances between what he was experiencing and what he wanted to experience.
“Ken,” I responded finally, still holding him by the shoulders and feeling his arms around my waist, “I’m honored that you came to me to ask this, but I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe we can talk another time, when we’re not at a party.”
He smiled warmly, nodded, and said, “Yeah, okay.”
“Have fun tonight,” I told him.
“You, too,” he said to me before slinking away.
I stood near the middle of the room where we had just embraced, almost frozen. I watched him walk away, his slink turning to a scamper as he went off to go sit in someone’s lap. I felt a familiar storm brewing deep within me, so I quietly walked to the bathroom, shut the door, and locked it. I looked at myself in the mirror, as if about to ask my reflection what was happening.
On the one hand, Ken’s question and the brief retelling of his experiences sounded very familiar to me. On the other, here was this younger man, fresh from a scene he clearly enjoyed, asking me, fresh from a break-up and a year of feeling sexually and culturally isolated from everyone except my no-longer-partner, how to get play. I was, in fact, genuinely surprised. The pupil had become the teacher.
In the flash of a single moment, I suddenly felt emptier than I’d ever felt before, thenâ€”FLASHâ€”I suddenly felt a wave of gladness, thenâ€”FLASHâ€”I suddenly felt the rushing heat of unbridled jealousy, thenâ€”FLASHâ€”the burn of resentment. I stared at myself in the mirror; the storm was behind my eyes.
Emptiness: What am I doing at this party? Why am I even here?
Gladness: In Conversio Virium those years ago, I had helped create a space where at least one young man not unlike myself had a better experience than I did when I first arrived there.
Jealousy: There, in Ken, I had just seen a young man I wanted to be and never will be. I never had someone welcome me at BDSM education groups in the warm, encouraging way I welcomed him. I never had someone talk with such genuine, gentle force with the express purpose of creating a social atmosphere in which I could feel comfortable disclosing my own desires.
Resentment: How dare the BDSM community fail me so spectacularly! How dare they perpetuate this rank failure of acceptance for submissive men like Ken and I? It’s not fair that I have to deal with this, that the daily reminders pile up, invading and ultimately destroying my own relationships!
Emptiness, gladness, jealousy, and resentment, all at once. I stared into my own eyes in the mirror for a long while. I think I was trying to calm the storms.
Eventually, I realized that although I couldn’t just snap my fingers and make everything better, hating the way things had been for me was a powerful motivator to make things better for others. So I resolved, mindfully, never to forget the power of discontent, of frustration, or of anger. Looking at myself in the mirror and seeing myself feeling emotionally conflicted, watching my eyes tear up at the same time as I felt my fists clench, I finally understood who and what I was fighting for.
I may one day be able to forgive those who knowingly or unknowingly contributed to my pain in the past, but I will never, ever forget.