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A black whip on a reddish background. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $65 I ever spent: A BDSM whip

Staying married was my own form of masochism — just without the kinky accoutrements.

In the 15-minute break in a lecture on dominance and submission, during which our porn-star professor had complained of the heat in the room and then nonchalantly shucked herself out of her tights, I sat in a folding chair, unable to move, tears rolling down my face. My husband shrugged it off as “hormones” and went to the water cooler to chat with the friends he’d acquired that evening. A short middle-aged woman who looked like she could’ve been your second grade teacher sat down beside me and put her arm around my shoulders.

“My husband is crazy about it, but I hate this whole scene,” I told her, and then, realizing I was criticizing her lifestyle choice, added, “No offense.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry. He’ll still love you even if you don’t do this with him.”

“I’m not worried about that,” I choked. “I’m worried that I won’t love him.”

I bit my lip and looked away. I’d said too much. She patted my arm and walked off to join the crowd.

I was still reeling from the speed with which I’d arrived in a dungeon to learn about how to cause pain. That spring, my husband of 20 years turned 50 and decided he wanted to experiment with BDSM — bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism — and he wanted me to join him. He hadn’t had much in the way of paying work for nearly a decade and was clearly unhappy; he seemed to be looking for something more than what was in his daily orbit. I wasn’t into bondage — our sex life had been mutually satisfying for a long time, or so I’d thought — but I loved the guy and was deeply invested in our marriage. I wanted to help him feel happier. I thought, “What could it hurt?”

Never one to do things by halves, within days of declaring his newfound passion, he had befriended a thriving community of kinky people online and off. He was soon attending dungeon parties and dragging me along to meet-and-greets with people who identified as masters and slaves, dominants and submissives. He gave me books and pamphlets on how to be a dominatrix, and he pushed me to dress “sexier” than just garters and heels. We attended lectures and socials where people routinely showed up in dog collars, their leashes held by their partners. My husband watched them hungrily.

His appetite for kink became a 24-hour obsession. He ordered improbable shoes over the internet and insisted that I wear them. When I complained that wearing six-inch black faux-patent-leather stilettos with multiple buckles up past the ankles made it impossible to stand, he suggested I kneel in them instead. The same went for the skin-tight plastic mini-dress and the red brocade corset. Practicalities like being able to stand and breathe were beside the point.

I worried about our finances; most of the stuff wasn’t expensive in itself, but the purchases were adding up. “Maybe you could get some kind of job,” I said, and handed him the credit card statement that had come in the mail at the same time as the latest shipment of fetish wear. “How are we going to pay for all this?”

“It’s fine,” he said, handing the bill back to me. “Just pay the minimums. It’s all research. I’m going to write a blog about my journey so I can expense all of this stuff.”

I tried to explain that deducting a leopard-print catsuit off our taxes wasn’t going to do much to address our thousands of dollars in credit card debt, but he waved away my concerns.

It didn’t matter to him that I already owned boudoir wear that made me feel good. These new outfits were what he got off on now, and the fact that they didn’t make me feel pretty or loved or anything else positive was beside the point. I wasn’t interested in looking like my husband’s increasingly exaggerated idea of attractive, and he wasn’t interested in intimacy, touch, or plain old nakedness. He had changed the rules and I couldn’t keep up. Seemingly overnight, sex happened as part of a kinky “scene” — which meant one or the other or both of us dressing in tight outfits and heavy makeup and acting out some sort of fantasy role-playing session — or not at all. There was less and less of myself in our connection and more and more demands. But I stayed.

Staying played into my myth. I was the strong one. I could hold our marriage together — physically, financially, emotionally — in the face of whatever came our way. Friends and family expressed concern and alarm, but I was loyal to what I believed to be important. “Staying married” meant I won, I beat the odds, I didn’t fail at this. Staying was my own form of masochism — just without the kinky accoutrements.

That summer, we went to our first Ladies’ Night at a dungeon on Folsom Street in San Francisco. About once a month, the underground space hosted an event that was only for female-identifying doms and their subs of any gender. There were lessons in how to be a dominatrix, but the apex of the event was a round robin of subs and doms rotating through partners every few minutes, and my husband was quivering with excitement to participate.

I was quivering, but not with excitement. The dungeon made me nauseated, and I was feeling horribly guilty that I could no longer say “I love you” to my husband, especially when he demanded I do so as part of a “scene.” Maybe the love was already gone and I hadn’t seen it leave.

But I couldn’t let myself think about that. I had new skills to master. There I was at the dungeon, learning how and where to hit safely, what kinds of tools to use, and how to stop when your sub uses the safe word. I put on my pointy black snakeskin boots and a corset that pushed my boobs up to my chin and, from my now 6-foot height, stalked around like I owned the place. My fellow doms at the dungeon complimented my getup and called me a “badass,” noting my increasing ability to appropriately administer pain. I wasn’t immune to the praise. I’m a pleaser; I liked being good at my appointed role. I began to feel as though maybe I could pull this off. Ladies’ Night became a regular thing for us.

We went to the Folsom Street Fair, too, an adults-only kink-fest that takes over several blocks of Folsom one weekend every September. When we got behind the entrance barricades keeping out the underaged, my husband told me he was signed up to be a volunteer in the spanking exhibit. Even though it was barely noon, I had two quick beers to help me ride out the weirdness of crowds of naked people, leather people, pierced people, and my husband taking off his clothes on a public street and leaning over a sawhorse to receive whacks from a burly guy in a hood, a jockstrap, and nothing else.

A few beers later, we staggered into the crowds around the tents selling fetish wares: boned corsets, handmade fetters, masks made of leather and fur. My husband picked up a short, many-tailed whip made of braided black suede and smacked the ends into his palm.

“This one,” he said, “it’s only $65,” and looked at me to pay for it.

The shop’s owner said, “Ooh, the cat o’nine tails, good choice. I can tie knots in the tails for some extra sting if you like that,” and my husband’s eyes lit up. I handed over my credit card. I was a woman of the world; I could do anything.

Eventually, though, my own myth-making couldn’t keep up with reality. My love for my husband ebbed lower with each kink session, each purchase, and every fight about our finances. I spent more time wondering what the hell I was still doing there and less time trying to please anybody, least of all my husband.

My lack of enthusiasm seemed to spur him further down his chosen rabbit hole. He dressed up and went to some sort of club or kink event every night without me, and it became clear he was having sex without me, too. That’s when I cracked.

After nearly a year of this kinky experiment, I said, “I’m done. I want a divorce.” I felt the truth of that statement go all the way through my body. I realized I didn’t love him anymore, and I felt freer and more at peace than I had been all year.

“You can’t be serious,” he said. “After all this? We can work this out.” Without a shred of irony, he added, “Besides, this Saturday is the last Ladies’ Night of the year. You promised to go with me.”

He looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “I can’t go alone. You promised.”

Setting aside the promises to me he had made and now broken — all that “cleave only unto me” and “death do us part” stuff we’d said 20 years ago, not to mention the recent sex with strangers — I agreed to go. He needed more time to get used to the idea of splitting up. And I am not one to break a promise lightly.

That Saturday night, we changed out of our street clothes at the dungeon’s locker area and headed downstairs. We were early, but there were already plenty of people using the tables, benches, beds, and slings. One woman was tied naked to the 7-foot-tall X-shaped cross in the center of the room, her dom prowling around her with a feather. A professional dominatrix who liked to practice on my husband when she didn’t have other customers had her gear set up at a bench, her client bound and bent over on his hands and knees.

Euphoria bubbled up from deep inside me. I was almost giddy at the idea that the clothes, the tools, and the exhibitionist nature of the dungeon would no longer be part of my life. It was my final performance, and I realized I could play it to the hilt.

I handcuffed my husband to a bed, spread-eagle on his face, and told him he’d be sorry. He’d be sorry for the mess he’d made of our relationship. He’d be sorry he killed the love between us. He’d be sorry he’d hurt me. I pulled out the cat o’ nine tails with its wicked little knots and I started laying into him.

I’m a big, strong person. I figured I could hurt him. For a brief moment, the anger I had been sitting on for a year washed over me and I wanted to hurt him. I stood beside the bed and went to town on his shoulders, his ass, the backs of his legs (no kidneys or lower back, that’s bad practice — I was a reluctant dominatrix, not an irresponsible one), first with the suede whip and then with a bamboo rod. He twitched and jerked and moaned, but he didn’t ask me to stop. When my right arm flagged, I switched to my left. When I wanted a different angle, I knelt on the bed and hit the sides of his ribs, the backs of his calves, his upper arms. I used a paddle on each ass cheek and flat against both, first softly and then as hard as I could. His back was purple and white with angry lines and streaks, and his butt was cherry red, and still he didn’t say “stop.”

Finally, I’d had enough. Climbing on top of him, I rammed my knee into his crotch hard enough to make him grunt and leaned over to say in his ear, “Are you sorry?”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he sobbed. “That was so good. Do more. Fuck me. I love you. I’m sorry. Stay and do some more now.”

I reached over to unlock the cuffs.

“No,” I said. “I’m done.”

And I was. The only safe word I needed was goodbye.

Allyn Wright is the pseudonym of a writer in California.

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