“It’s hard to explain how pain can feel like pleasure.”

Content warning for discussion of consensual BDSM, specifically spanking and caning.

I went to a Torture Garden event in Edinburgh last weekend. For those that aren’t aware, Torture Garden is a club night with a fetish element and a strict, sexually charged dress code. I’m not really involved in the fetish “scene”, having only really explored that side of myself privately, but a group of friends were going and I decided to join them.

There’s something wonderful about the atmosphere created by a club full of people who’re into kink. Everyone is there expressing a side of themself that they don’t usually show to the wider world, and everyone there is mindful of the importance of consent. There is something incredibly freeing about being able to walk around a club in a fishnet dress, everything on display, and not feel that anyone is creeping on you. All around you are people being led around on leashes, people half naked, people cross-dressing, and when people stopped me to compliment my outfit I never felt like they were really complimenting my tits. It’s funny that an atmosphere so openly full of sex and sexuality should feel so much less frightening, so much less full of harassment, than your average, fully-clothed club night.

I am someone who has explored her share of kink behind closed doors. It has by no means been a part of every relationship I’ve been in, but my hottest sexual memories are of blood play, of being tied down and degraded, of being spanked until there are bruises. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not the kind of thing I would usually engage in on a one-night stand, but in the right situation it’s never been anything but enjoyable. There is pleasure – for me – in surrendering control, in giving into sensation for its own sake, and in pushing the boundary between pain and joy.

One of my friends was there with a guy from her work. Lining up for one of the playrooms upstairs, she asked me if I would like to be caned by him. I hadn’t really come there with the intention of getting involved, but in that atmosphere it felt right. I watched him cane another woman in front of me and I knew that I wanted to do it too.

When it was my turn, he asked me if I’d done this before and I said yes, in private. He put his hand on my face and looked me in the eyes. He said, “I’ll start slowly, with my hands. Say ‘red’ if you want me to stop. ‘Orange’ if you want to slow down. Ready?” I felt an instant trust. I felt safe. This is one of the things that a lot of people don’t understand about BDSM – when you submit you’re giving in to a fantasy of surrender, but you retain all the control. Whenever I want it to stop, it stops. And part of the fun is discovering that I can take more than I think I can.

I knelt over the table and he clipped a chain around my neck. I was so aware of my body. More aware of my body than of the fact I was in a room full of people, chained to a table, arse in the air. Aware of every sensation as he whispered in my ear for me to tell him how bad I’d been, to ask him for my punishment. I became someone else, or maybe I became a pure form of myself. I felt free, chained to that table. As I counted aloud the strokes of the cane and thanked him, I was lost in my body, lost in taking direction. Lost in the anticipation, in the sting of wood on skin.

It’s hard to explain how pain can feel like pleasure. Maybe it’s all in your head, in the context. It’s not like I enjoy stubbing my toe or burning myself making coffee at work. The pleasure comes from having the freedom to just experience the pain – to feel it as a sensation, not as a jolt of warning. Psychologically, it’s in the joy of letting go. You don’t have to make decisions, you don’t have to be strong. You’re submitting, but you’re in control of everything.

When we were finished, he lifted me off the table and set me down on my feet. He kissed my cheek and hissed in my ear. I leaned against the wall, my heart fluttering, my hands tingling, my skin stinging. I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt light and giggly.

The skin is bruised beneath my clothes now. A vivid canvas of pink and purple, vicious-looking welts and dark bruises. I can’t stop admiring them in the mirror. I get a little twinge of pleasure when I feel them as I sit down. A spark of a memory.

I love the feeling – physically and psychologically – of these bruises. I love knowing that they’re there, secretly, while I’m at work, or running to the shop. I loved every second of having these bruises put on my body, and I love looking at them now.

I suppose the point of this piece is to highlight the fact that there are many different ways to enjoy your body. There isn’t one “right” way to explore your sexuality, as long as everyone is consenting. It doesn’t make me less of a feminist to enjoy consensual submission, any more than someone would be a “better” feminist because they enjoy dominating men. Embracing my sexuality in a trusting, consensual context is a feminist act.

By an anonymous woman, aged 26

NSFW photo after the jump

“There is joy in exploring bodies together.”

I’m twenty-six, and I’ve had sex with around thirty people, maybe more depending what you feel counts as sex. I was only in relationships with a handful of them, many of them one night stands, occasional things with friends, or short (often very short) flings. And I’ve never felt like a “slut”, or like I’m doing something wrong.

Just over a month after I turned sixteen, I lost my virginity to a boy I’d met that same night at a party. He was also sixteen, and a virgin too, and we got along, flirted, and had sex. (Funnily enough, I had sex again with this same boy once more, three years later.) It had never been important to me that sex be “special”, although if that’s your thing, great! I don’t remember feeling especially nervous or like something especially momentous was happening, although of course I texted my friends immediately afterwards.

In retrospect, I was lucky to have a group of quite sex-positive friends, although of course we were a mess of hormones and had our share of poor decisions and fights. We didn’t slut-shame each other, we swapped masturbation tips and passed around dirty books (how retro is that?) I also benefited from access to very comprehensive sex education, and we were generally, from the start, aware and diligent about contraception and STI prevention.

Sex for me has always been something I’ve entered into easily. Funnily enough, I find the whole process of flirting supremely awkward and have major anxiety about rejection, so I tend to never make the first move, but if things are going nicely and I’m open to kissing them, I’m probably open to having sex with them.

I find it’s a good ice breaker. The moments after you have sex, especially good sex, there’s no more awkwardness. You lie there all sweaty and just look at each other and laugh. Sudden your bodies feel like they live easily together, because they’ve worked together. Sex when you’re in love is different and wonderful, but that doesn’t make casual sex worthless. It can be life-affirming and joyful and, most importantly, pleasurable. I’ve had wonderful sex with people I barely knew, or casually and intermittently with a friend I feel a sexual connection to. There is joy in exploring bodies together.

I feel no shame of my body when I’m having sex, not that I normally do otherwise. I don’t feel exposed or afraid. They think I look beautiful, or they wouldn’t be there. Your partner doesn’t care, whether it’s for a night or a lifetime. All bodies are beautiful as you explore them and make them moan at your touch.

Of course I’ve had bad casual sex. Not everyone is good at sex, and even those who are can’t be good all the time. Maybe your bodies just aren’t a good fit, or it’s just boring or unsatisfying. But most of the time, the experience as a whole is still fun. There is still joy in kissing someone, in holding someone, in admiring and being admired. You relate on a different level when you’re naked together. Sex should be laughter and pleasure and joy. It doesn’t have rules, except to respect everyone’s consent. It’s revealing and intimate even with a stranger. It can be full of beauty.

Perhaps I am promiscuous by the standards of society, but I can honestly say I don’t regret a single one of the people I’ve slept with. I would probably have been with many more if I was capable of being more forward. Of course there are people I wouldn’t go with now, but they’ve all been a part of who I am. I wouldn’t change it, I wouldn’t take it back, and I will never, ever allow anyone to shame me for it. I had sex with those people because I wanted to in that moment. That’s what matters. Have sex how you want to, on your terms. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you need to be with more or fewer people, or enjoy a certain kind of sex. It’s not boring to have vanilla sex, any more than it’s wrong to consensually explore the dirtiest kinks you can imagine. Sex is a different experience with every new person, and that is wonderful.

There is no such thing as a slut. Have all the funny, sweaty, joyful sex you like. Use a condom, get tested, and be safe. Respect other people’s boundaries, and your own. Explore and enjoy.

“My lovely, ridiculous body.”

I could tell you all about the day I realized I was fat. I went home, locked myself in the toilet, wept. I could tell you that I kept that up for about three days a week, for about seven years. I could tell you all about the blowjobs I didn’t want to give, to boys who were happy to let me suck them off but wouldn’t touch me in return.

I had never had anyone touch me sexually until I was nineteen. I had, however, given, oh, probably thirty blowjobs?

The boy who said the thought of me naked made him felt sick. The many, many times my mum dragged me to the gym. The way that, to this day, I eat sugary food in private and cry afterwards.

But then, when I was 21, I was diagnosed with Lichen Sclerosus. A rare autoimmune disease that attacks the vulval skin, until it lacerates and comes off. It can stop normal intercourse, can make the clitoris scar over and disappear, and it has no cure.

I may well take steroids for it for the rest of my life.

But!! It has changed me. It has helped me. It has made me love my body, love what it can do, love its well parts, the way they work.

Lichen Sclerosus is an illness that responds to stress, to psychological duress. And so – I think, I caused it, by hating this lovely, lovely body.

Steroids make me fatter. They make my face swell up. I don’t like that.

I do like the fact that when this illness is under control, I am blessed with a functioning cunt again.

I do like:
*learning mindfulness
*properly negotiating sex using words – finding partners for whom my condition is not a difficulty.
*lovely long masturbation sessions
*walking with my strong legs.
*dancing with this lovely, faulty, imperfect, friendly body.

Loving your body is a hard thing. It exists as the physical token of all that you are, and that is hard – we all want to be the best, shiniest token, when in fact most people are looking at our personality.

So, there are days when I am in so much pain I can’t walk. Or days when steroids give me bad Cushings syndrome. Crying days, lonely-till-I-die days, why am I still not thin enough days.

But mainly? There are thank heavens for my body days. My lovely, ridiculous body, capable of giving – and now I am older, receiving – so much pleasure.

Anonymous woman -age unknown

“Someone doesn’t have to say no or push you away to show they’re not enjoying themselves.”

Trigger warning for rape and attempted rape.

When I was not quite nineteen, in the summer of 2007, I went to visit a friend of mine who was working as an au pair in a small town just outside Barcelona. The town was picturesque and charming and the weather was sweltering. Barcelona was a short train ride away and I remember the city being hot and beautiful and full. I remember wandering in Parc Guell marvelling at the mosaics and the musicians. I remember asking for a lighter from someone in Spanish and being pleased at putting my limited skills with that language to use. But mostly I remember the hot weekend night when we went to meet some people my friend knew in a bar.

Her friends were nice, and they welcomed me. One of them – his name was Rafa – was particularly friendly. I can’t really call his face to mind now. He is a vague impression of sandy hair and pale skin for a Spanish man. I remember that he was in his late twenties, and astonished and impressed to hear that, at eighteen, I lived away from home. I thought that was odd at the time, because it was a common age to leave home in Scotland – and after all, I lived in uni halls paid for by my parents, which is hardly making it on your own! He seemed like a nice guy, but I didn’t fancy him.

We went on to a club. I don’t remember what it was called or where it was, but I remember it was hot inside. There was no smoking ban in Spain at the time, but I wanted to go out for a cigarette to cool down. Rafa came with me. We sat chatting in a doorway outside the club, and I chain-smoked because I get awkward talking to strangers. At some point, he kissed me. And even though I didn’t fancy him, I kissed him back. Because I was eighteen, and I was lonely, and he was interested.

My friend came out of the club some time later with a friend of Rafa’s. She wanted to go home with him, and seeing me with Rafa assumed that we would be going off together. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t say otherwise. We all got the train together, and she got off at a different stop with her boy. I went with Rafa.

I thought we would go back to his flat. I needed to pee, and I wanted a drink of water. I thought we’d go back to his flat, there’d probably be more kissing, and I could stop it when I wanted to. Most of all – I thought we’d go back to his flat.

He said he wanted to move his car. I thought that was weird, since we were going back to his, but assumed it was to do with local parking restrictions. He had been drinking, but I wouldn’t have said he was drunk. I don’t drink alcohol and hadn’t taken any drugs that night, so I was sober.

It was only when he parked the car in an outdoor car park that I realised we weren’t going to a flat at all. At twenty-seven, he lived with his parents. I later learned that was more common in Spain than in Scotland, and that was why he was surprised I moved out at eighteen. We weren’t going home, we were going to have sex here, in the car, in this car park. I wasn’t in a flat, where I could get a glass of water and relax. I was in a car in a foreign city with a man who expected me to have sex with him, and it didn’t feel like there was anything I could do to get out of it. I didn’t know where I was, didn’t have a working phone, and I didn’t know how to say no.

And so I did it. I did what was expected of me in the back seat of that car, and I didn’t try to stop it. I don’t remember participating very much, and I remember just hoping it would be over soon. Afterwards, he tried to talk to me about my life, about who I was as a person. I didn’t want to tell him anything. I didn’t want him to know me.

A while later, he started having sex with me again. This time, he wasn’t wearing a condom. I remember he said, already inside me, “Is it ok if we do it without a condom?” Nervous and young and wanting it all to stop, I said, “Probably not.” He didn’t stop, and he came inside me.

We went to meet my friend and his. They had also had sex in a car, because he also lived with his parents, but she had wanted it and enjoyed it. I just wanted to go home. By this stage it was daylight and the sun was hot again, and I still needed to pee and to have a drink of water. I don’t remember how we got back into town, but eventually it was just me and my friend again. We went to MacDonalds so I could go to the toilet, and we got the train home. I sat on the train in my stocking feet and my purple dress, carrying the corset I’d been wearing under it, and all I wanted was to go home and shower. I remember thinking, “This is what people mean when they say they feel dirty.” I wanted to wash him right off me. My friend was talking about her night with the other guy, so happy and excited, and I just wanted it all not to have happened. I don’t remember what I said to her.

When we got home, I sat under the shower for a long time and I didn’t feel clean.

This is a very common story. Many women have the same story to tell. For a long time I didn’t place any blame on him. I didn’t think that he had raped me, even though it felt so much like he had. I had been stupid, I had gone with him, I had let him. Some people reading this might see it in those terms. A part of me still does. But he was eight years older than me, I was by myself in a city I had never been to before, and he fucked me without a condom without my consent. I never said no – except my “probably not” to his laughably belated question about the condom; a question whose answer didn’t matter to him – but I certainly never said yes. I felt backed into a corner, and while I still don’t believe that he orchestrated that deliberately, I feel like he should have been aware of my discomfort and lack of participation.

I was lucky – this experience never affected the way I felt about sex or relationships. It never made me trust men less, or made sex difficult for me. It is an experience whose negativity is, for me, attached solely to him. I would never like to see that man again, but in a strange way, it made me feel that my body was more my own than it had been before. That I wouldn’t let another man inside it unless I wanted him there.

A while later, I was in Amsterdam with a different friend, staying in a hostel. In our dorm, late one night when people were sleeping, I was smoking a joint with a Norwegian guy who was in the same room. He started massaging my shoulders, and we kissed for a while. These things were nice, and made all the nicer by the high-quality weed. Then he started trying to have sex with me without a condom. I was up for having sex with him, but not unprotected sex. First I asked him to get a condom, then I insisted. I clamped my legs together and wriggled around, and he kept trying to put his dick inside me. I kept saying no, not without a condom.

Eventually, the guy sleeping in the bunk above his spoke up and said, “Hey dude, if she doesn’t want to fuck you then let her go, and you – if you don’t want to fuck him then get up and walk away.” That last bit might sound like victim-blaming, but in that moment it gave me clarity. I had been trying to ask him, thinking he’d be reasonable like all the other men I’d asked to wear condoms during consensual sex, and somehow it had never occurred to me, frozen in that moment of trying to stop him, to just get up and walk away. So I did. I went back to my own bed, and I didn’t feel violated. If anything I felt proud of myself that I hadn’t let this man do what Rafa had done; I felt empowered. And embarrassed that half the dorm had probably heard.

The next day I saw the man from the bunk above downstairs. I approached him, embarrassed, to apologise about the disturbance the night before and he just said there was no need and asked if I was ok. I was still mortified and just mumbled that I was fine and thanked him and ran away. I’m grateful to that man. Not only because him speaking up helped me in that moment, but because he reminds me that the world is also full of good men.

Most of the women I know have stories that resemble these. Many have stories which are much worse. These are mine, and I want to share them because they are part of the story of my body. They are part of the story of so many women’s bodies. These stories are part of a web of violations, big and small. I want to share them because they are a part of what shaped my relationship with my body, but also because I think my own very ordinary experiences – and don’t underestimate how ordinary they are – illustrate how important real consent is. How important it is that all the people involved in a sexual encounter are comfortable. Sex isn’t something that should happen to you, it’s something you should participate in joyfully. We need to remember to be aware of the person – or people – we’re fucking, and their enjoyment. We need to listen and watch and pay attention. In my stories – and in many stories – this is violence imposed on women by men, but everyone of all genders should be aware of the importance of consent.

Someone doesn’t have to say no or push you away to show they’re not enjoying themselves. Someone shouldn’t have to scream and shout or physically defend themselves to make their discomfort clear to you. We are all responsible for checking in with our sexual partners and being sure they’re having a good time. None of us should be Rafa.

– by an anonymous woman, 25

“Somewhere in the past 10 years, I lost my body, but I’m determined to feel comfortable in my own skin again, and I really believe that I will.”

I grew up in a naked house. My Mum, Joyce, was happiest walking around our small flat with no clothes on – or, when my sisters and I would complain that she was ‘embarrassing us’ with her nakedness – a very thin, silk dressing gown that she would rarely bother to fasten. As I got a bit older, I realised that in fact, I too enjoyed that certain feeling of freedom that only seems to come from being completely naked. I used to sit naked with my mum on the seat by the bay window in our flat which looked out onto the street when the moon was high and the streets were quiet. We would listen to Eddie Reader, and my Mum would sometimes talk to me about how my body would change one day.
We talked a lot about puberty and relationships, I think more than most girls my age did with their mothers. At the time I couldn’t have told you why we spoke so often about such things, and I don’t think my mum could have either. I think I understand it now. My mum died when I was 13 years old.

To state the obvious, my life changed a lot after she died. I had to move into a new house with a new woman to look after me. The naked days were over, and I went through puberty and my teenage years without Joyce by my side, reminding me that everything I was experiencing was just what we had talked about when I was younger – nothing unexpected, nothing to be afraid of. I spent my teenage years full of angst about my body – it was fine, even beautiful by conventional standards at times, but I was obsessed with my appearance and terrified of judgement from others.
Today, I am much less concerned with how I look, but my body and i don’t have the same relationship that we once did. This disconnection between me and my body is manifested most strongly where sex and intimacy are concerned. I haven’t had very many sexual relationships, but those I have had have not been particularly pleasurable for me. I can’t help feeling that there’s something I’m missing in sex – when other people talk about the joy they have experienced through sexual experiences I feel jealous because for me, sex was always mostly about trying to enjoy myself with a man, failing, and then enduring sex for the sake of intimacy rather than it being something I really wanted (DON’T WORRY – I REALISE HOW MESSED UP THIS WAS!)

I have learned a lot about consent in the past couple of years, and realised that having sex when I didn’t feel like it for such a long time (most of a 3 year relationship) has left me feeling quite damaged, and definitely out of sync with my body and my desires. The first sexual experience I had with a man where we talked about what we wanted from sex together and maintained that communication the entire time we were being physically intimate was earlier this year, and it was incredible. We were only together for a brief period, but meeting him was really important because it has assured me that I can relate to sex in a positive way.

Somewhere in the past 10 years, I lost my body, but I’m determined to feel comfortable in my own skin again, and I really believe that I will.
Tonight, I sat by the window in my room, completely naked, watching the moon and listening to Eddie Reader.

by an anonymous woman