MORE

BDSM Buddies

The pieces that make up author and political activist Stephen Elliott’s new collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, tell the story of a sex life, from its awkward, teenage beginnings to the first moments in which Elliott’s character, Theo, begins to integrate sex with self. In the introduction, titled “This Could Have Been a Memoir,” Elliott writes, “I take responsibility for these stories, for every sexual act depicted, many of which occurred when I was younger, before I made the effort to acquire the information I needed. I acquired scars instead.”

Sounds like a pretty generic description of the sexual coming-of-age process for a lot of us — who hasn’t felt at times that their adult sexual identity was carved out of that vulnerable flesh of youth? The difference here is that Theo’s scars are “real.” He is a masochist, and the sex acts he refers to involve physical pain and humiliation, from the dominatrix in Amsterdam who casually flips her cigarette ash into his mouth, to the titular girlfriend, Eden, who marks her territory by carving words into his flesh.

Not many authors who write about sex are able to control the urge to turn their sexual fetishes into literary ones — a fascination with the ornamentalia of sex, its rituals and sacraments, leading to a kind of cloying preciousness.

But despite the inherent exoticism of his subject matter, Elliott’s knack as an author is to shock us with the mundane. His world is his world, and he inhabits it so honestly that we can’t help but feel as though we’re in it with him. In a scene where Theo is being abused by a girlfriend who isn’t quite getting it right, he isn’t interested in titillation but in the awkwardness of the moment: “She was hurting me and being mean and it was so unreasonable. Maybe if I were tied up or something I could get in the mood. But what do you do when you’re not in the mood and someone is hitting you and you want them to stop?”

At the same time that he’s stripping away the romance, Elliott questions the opposite tendency in the BDSM community to go so far in pursuit of normalcy and acceptance that alternative sexuality becomes a kind of “Up With Kinky People” ?self-parody.

“It’s always been hard for me to imagine that there are others out there,” he writes, “healthy couples who tie each other up and beat each other and then go to the movies or something .?.?. You can judge by the size of the BDSM section on the porn store walls and all the videos and books they carry in the regular bookstores. All of those books seem to have the same message, that it’s OK. I despise that message.”

As political as his writing is, Elliott is unwilling to stoop to propagandizing. Theo isn’t seeking health, he’s after fulfillment, and when he finally gets it, or at least comes close, we’re very much aware of the difference.

Elliott’s epiphany is that his idea of sex is as normal as anyone else’s, that at root, sexuality itself is both deeply freaky and utterly mundane, a cataclysm and a constant. In the end, Elliott’s refusal to compromise is oddly comforting, and hopeful. Don’t expect to ever be completely reconciled with your sexuality, he seems to be saying, because as long as you’re alive, that particular story has no ending.

MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP | By STEPHEN ELLIOTT | ?Cleis Press | 122 pages | $14 softcover