Friday, September 12, 2008

This is a long letter, even after I trimmed it down a bit. But it’s so sad, and yet so sweet, that I’m running it so other people like this boy will read and hopefully be reassured.

I am a 22 year old senior college student. I am trying to find some help and support… I made a conscious realization that exploring BDSM is something that I would like to do. Since then I have been able to think about little else.

I have been reading your column in The Stranger for five years now. I can remember that your articles and the Babeland ads were my favorite parts of the paper and why I would pick up issues. I used to hide old copies in my closet so my parents wouldn't recycle them. The tone of your writing has always been understanding and empathetic. Reading your articles has encouraged me over these years and I want to thank you; I'm not sure I would have made it this far toward accepting this part of myself without them. You were the first person that I thought of to contact when this happened two days ago but I was not sure about the etiquette of how to contact someone in the BDSM community.

It is hard for me to write this. Part of me is still very scared of my desire. My family has not been supportive of me exploring my sexuality and I have always had to hide what I do. I have never had sex before, although I have had the desire to have sex many times. I have not ever been in a serious relationship with someone. When talking with my parents about thoughts that I might be homosexual, which I don't think is the case, their reactions were the most hurtful things I have ever experienced; they implied conditions on our relationship and placed me in a double bind situation where I could not even explore the possibility. Last spring I finally tried to talk with my parents about my watching pornography. Their reaction was so negative that I had a serious panic attack while at school. This year I have been trying to explore my sexuality on my own. My family situation has made me so nervous that this summer it took me a week of psyching myself up and three walks past the door before I could go into the Babeland store on Pike. It was the first time that I ever went into a place where I needed to be 18.

I have been interested in BDSM for the past ten years. It is the erotic material that I most enjoy reading or watching. I never actively realized that doing this might be something that I would want to try until I read Kate Bornstein's "Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws." (When I had my panic attack last spring I had repeated intruding thoughts about suicide. I bought this book in a period of depression this summer.) I think I have had this desire unconsciously for a long time and it has surfaced itself in a number of ways until I actively found it two days ago. I believe that I have made it to the point where I can tell myself that my desire is okay. Being able to think that is very exciting and freeing, for once.

I am struggling because my desire is competing with the part of me that is still afraid. My family would be shocked beyond belief if they found out that I was interested in BDSM. I think it would shatter them. On the other hand, I can't deny that I have this desire any more: I've been extremely distracted for the past two days and my heart rate has been galloping just trying to think things through. I am trying to look for some help and support, even if it is just to talk with someone about BDSM. I would welcome any advice you could give me.

I'm sorry that this is so long. I wanted to tell someone.

Oh, sweet boy. If I were there, I would hug you and tell you that everything is going to be all right. Because it is.

But you’ve got a few steps to take. I see that you’re letting your fears about what your family will think – reasonable fears, based on what you say – affect your sexual growth. But you’re 22. You’re a grown-up. It’s time to cut the apron strings. Frankly, I know very, very, very few parents who really want to know the details about their (adult) children's sexuality. Especially any type of non-traditional sexuality! (Yes, I’m sure they exist. But I think it's rare.)

I hear that you’d like to be open about your feelings with your family, but that’s a luxury we don’t always get in life. They’re making it clear they don’t want to know. So don’t tell them about kink, or about perhaps not being heterosexual, and sweet Jesus, darlin', do not tell your family about what kind of porn you’re looking at! Talk to your family about nice, non-threatening family things. If they ask you about your sexuality, lie. That’s a perfectly okay thing to do, under the circumstances.

In time, I hope you get to a place where you can know that your family’s reaction to your sexuality is their problem, not yours. I think that’s an understanding that's going to take some work for you to really reach. And that’s okay. First things first – stop telling them about it.

I have a sense that you’re telling your family things they don’t want to hear because you lack peers/friends who you can talk to about sex. If that's true, ask yourself: why is that? And in a related thought: it’s not hugely unusual for a guy to be a virgin at 22, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But when you say you’ve never had "a serious relationship", I wonder what you mean by relationship? Because BDSM is graduate-school sexuality. You take all the usual complications and confusions of a non-kinky romantic connection and overlay it with this intense and still rather taboo way of relating and being sexual. Creating and maintaining a kinky relationship is tricky, and it requires skill, persistence, and work. Dating in one’s teens and early twenties is often the boot camp where we get basic training in how to interact with the objects of our desire. Clearly that’s easier if one is heterosexual, monogamous and not kinky. But even the most dismal and banal of dating encounters – like, say, my high school dates – teach you things. Thus, I think if you aren’t going on dates with people, you should. Don’t have sex with anyone – unless you really want to. Just get some practice in the rituals of beginning a relationship. There will be hideously embarrassing blunders that will make you writhe to think of afterwards. We all have those, I assure you. Me included. But you don’t get good at something without some trial and error.

Your talk about panic attacks and suicide ideation means I must ask: are you seeing a therapist? Because you need to be. There is no shame in that, lots of people do, I have myself when I was going through stressful times in my life. I wish I had a long list of fully-vetted kink-friendly therapists to give you. But here’s a place to start looking. I hope a good therapist can help you work towards a self-image that’s unfettered by what other people want you to be.

In the longer version of this letter you asked about the Wet Spot. (Now called The Center For Sex Positive Culture.) That's a place to start, and Babeland also offers sex-ed classes. This seems to be the hot new place to hang out online: FetLife. There’s also If you don’t think you’re ready for that, the ostensibly-vanilla personals site OKCupid seems pretty kink-friendly.

Now, you aroused my sympathy, so I did some Googling for you and spoon-fed you a bit. But I need you to make this not a waste of my time. You have to make this happen. You need to take action about making your life be what you want. I have given you some places to start. Every single day from now on, I want you to do something that moves you closer to your goals. It can be something small, but you need to move, and keep on moving. You will never be in a better position than right now to shape your life into what you say you want. This is your starting gun: Go!