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ESSAY / A Girl in a Bad Porn Film is Being Beaten / Melissa Knox

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Around ten in the evening, when I wish I didn’t feel too tired to have sex, I leave my husband peacefully snoozing in front of the TV, take my half-full glass of red wine, and ascend the winding staircase to our cold, but quiet study. I Google “Duck Duck Go” because that search engine says it doesn’t track you or let anyone see your history. I’m ashamed of what I’m looking for and disturbed by my need to look for it. Giving myself a pep talk—whatever you feel is really okay—I sip my wine and type in: “spank naughty schoolgirl,” “pull down white panties,” “schoolmaster spanks naughty girl,” and similar phrases. Photos and short films pop up immediately: scared-looking models with resigned, Slavic faces sag over the laps of men in three-piece suits who are pulling down their white, cotton underpants and slapping bottoms—usually while engaging in pedantic lecturing about well-deserved punishment, laziness, disobedience, unfinished schoolwork. Sometimes in a fake English accent. I like that part.  

It’s always white cotton underpants for a true fetishist like me; the kind of slinky black and red lace I actually wear for my husband doesn’t do the trick when it comes to my fantasies.

Anything gory or bloody turns me off. I call what I like “domestic spanking”: a little reddening of some girl’s ass is okay, but welts, blood, and purple bruises give me the creeps. So does getting spanked. I don’t like actual pain.

The films are silly, poorly made, badly acted; the men have dry hair, grog blossoms, and acne scars, but the dialog, the hand coming down on the bare bottom, the whole atmosphere of intimidation and humiliation, really do the trick. Within a few minutes, my cheeks are flushed, my post-menopausal nether regions need far less lubricant than you’d think, and I’m down the stairs like a shot, breathing into my husband’s ear, “Are you seducible?” He’s delighted. Of course, yes, let’s go! And we have a lovely time in the sack, but even as I’m slipping into that happy, post-orgasmic swoon, I’m wishing I were different. Why do I need beating fantasies? They’re like a worn-out old dishrag. They bore me. But they’re essential.  

 If you want to see “spanking” you’re sometimes shown “whipping” or even torture. I don’t like either. But I think I have something in common with the people who do. A male colleague told me how startled and distressed he felt when a woman to whom he was making love told him to get a belt and beat her. He paused and asked what she meant, exactly. He didn’t want to hurt her, did not feel aroused by what she seemed to want, which was to be harshly beaten with a leather belt. She wanted bright stripes and dark bruises. He asked her to “take me down that road” for a bit before he did what she requested—he was stalling for time. Catching his breath. He didn’t say so, but I think he was about to choke up. She reassured him she wanted a severe beating—he insisted on a “safety” word, so he’d know when to stop—and at his prodding, she revealed her reason: “because then I can really feel it.” Desire. To feel desire, she needed to be physically harmed. Without pain, she felt numb. 

It’s that numbness I understand. I love my husband dearly, I like to hold his hand and kiss him. I love to glance into his eyes, the way you do when no one is watching, or when you’re signaling that nobody else matters. Kissing even turns me on, as do all the things I consider “normal”: his naked skin against mine, the sight of his cock, the fun of squeezing it and, as I say, “making it grow big and strong,” his fingers brushing my nipples and thighs and clitoris, his tongue in my mouth and on my breast. But when it comes to the crunch and I really want to come, it’s the vision of some nameless girl over the guy’s lap, getting her heinie slapped, that powers the climax. Not love. I push love to the side and it’s like I’m watching a train slip off one track and onto another, darker one, heading into the roundhouse. Love at that moment when I want to come just makes me burst into tears. 

In an email, a male friend confessed that to enjoy sex, he had to, “at the critical moment,” engage in a very particular agreed-upon role play. He loves his wife “passionately,” but, he writes, “I cannot simply make love to that love.” 

That’s just it: I love my husband, but I cannot simply make love to that love. Trying to unite loving feelings with sexual ones puts me very close to the edge, to the point where I might sob for no reason and find myself unable to stop. I don’t want to put a toe anywhere near that despair.

His wife, adds my correspondent, goes along with the pre-arranged dialogue and play. I feel I’m betraying my husband with my fantasy; confessing that fantasy to a fellow sufferer just makes me feel rueful. But what can anyone do about such fantasies? They seem as permanent as the color of my eyes, my height, my voice. Who beside another pervert would understand? Don’t say a therapist. A Freudian, at this point, would make me run screaming from the room.   

In 1922, Freud wrote a paper, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” in which he described “psychic impotence” as a condition afflicting people who can’t get off on love, not even on loving feelings for the naked person who is desired. Instead, the psychically impotent get off on being humiliated or beaten, or they daydream about humiliating another person. Such men (and the essay is devoted to men’s psychic impotence, not women’s) can easily get erect when they’re going at it with a woman whom they don’t love, or whom they look down upon, or whom they wish to humiliate, or be humiliated by. Like Alexander Portnoy, they wilt when confronted with the beloved. Freud thought the psychically impotent could not separate loving feelings from incestuous attachments. I’ll go along with the noted Viennese on that point, having had a father who, in one of his more influential moments, was drunk and invited my brother, then about three, and me, five, into the bathroom to watch him pee. He also slapped me a lot, too. Years of narrating such events to an analyst who thought of himself as a Freudian didn’t budge these shameful fantasies one inch. 

One of the more intriguing theories of sexual masochism is that it expresses a desire for escape. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to get away from my mother and father, but when I was little, that desire took the form of wanting them to change and become completely different, nice, people. As a child, I believed I could change them, or held myself responsible for their personalities and behavior—and maybe I never stopped doing so. My father is long dead—having begged me, on his deathbed, to euthanize him—and I gave him a huge dose of the pills the doctor said would “stop breathing” because Dad’s feet and calves had already turned blue and his eyes were already swollen shut. His thighs had shrunk to the size of my arms, while his calves ballooned out with fluid from his tumor-filled lungs. The doctor’s idea that Dad “just didn’t want to go through it”—but would go through it—seemed heartless. Dad, screaming his last coherent words, “Kill me!” then smiled when I said I was crushing the pills and mixing them with sugar and water. 

I helped him escape from another ten hours of torture—if that many. Maybe he’d only have lived two conscious hours in agony without my help, before slipping into the coma that dragged through the evening and then the death rattle. I sometimes wonder whether the doctor told me the morphine would stop breathing just to let me know how to help Dad. Or was he washing his hands of us? 

 I will never escape my love for my father. I will never escape the way my mother arched her eyebrows and smiled when she saw Dad’s breathing slow, nor the way she answered him that time he asked her whether she ever visited her parents’ graves. Tossing her head, Mom said, “Why would I do that?” Eyes round, mouth grinning, she winked at me. I’ll never escape that look, those looks, she gave me. I’ll never escape the knowledge that she couldn’t pretend to like, much less love him, when he was dying. Much as I disliked, occasionally hated, my parents, I loved them. I’ll never escape that love. 

Is my sexual life the slave of my father and his drunken fumblings, my mother’s childish behavior? I haven’t even mentioned her need to show off her body; when I look back, I think of her the way I think of a toddler: proud to display poop landing in the potty. But I pat her on the head and tell her she’s great, blaming myself for being a bad daughter, since I always lie and tell her she’s wonderful, or I leave everything that matters out of our conversations. If I’d been better, my parents would have been different. If I’d been different, they could have told the truth, at least to each other. The heart has its reasons, whereof psychoanalysis, reflection, internet chat rooms, meditation, coffee with your best friend, obsession, anxiety, behavior therapy, and, no doubt, special diets—know no reason. But I can’t escape the need to find an answer, no matter how old I become. 

A few years ago, I tried a new therapist. After I’d sat in the patient chair and rattled off my set of symptoms, she stopped me:

“Please tell me what you are feeling right now,” she said. 

A feeling of complete disorientation came over me. I could find no words.

“Right now, in the moment,” she insisted. “What are you feeling right now?” I started to cry, never did manage to explain why. When I left her office, I was almost unable to find my tram stop, or even keep track of where I was going: a time-worn routine suddenly required all my concentration and when I got home, I was in a fog. The fog continued to envelop me. The conversation with the new therapist seemed like something that had happened a long time ago. I felt better. She had ripped off numbness fast, the way you hurriedly pull off a Band-Aid plastered to hairy skin, to minimize pain. Somehow, over the course of my day, in the moments when I thought I wouldn’t be able to find the tram stop, the scab grew back.

Maybe I can’t enter my love for my husband—maybe I cannot make love to that love. I gaze at love, as if toward a promised land. I knock at the gate, but once that thing swings open, I get no further. Like someone popping a morphine tablet for a stabbing pain, I check out before I realize I’ve done so, when my mind reverts to the usual fantasies. I won’t escape the love I felt for my father when he exposed himself or touched me, and suspect that’s one source of my inability to face sexual tenderness without despair. The problem is not one to be examined calmly. I can’t put it in front of me and see the boundaries of it. It catches the light, a prism, no matter which way I look, and my mind finds escape hatches before I know what I’m doing. So love stays on the safe side of some fence I’ve clearly set up, but cannot see. I don’t swing through the gates, but I always get them open. 


Melissa Knox's book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Books (Winter, 2019). Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Other Journal, The Clarion Project, and The Santa Ana River Review. She teaches American literature and culture in Germany. She writes a blog, The Critical Mom, and her website is melissaknox.com.