Sleeping Beauty: The Story of O
How delightful it can be when your sexual fantasies turn into reality.
Content Warning: Descriptions of consensual BDSM, kink
As a child, I read stories and fairytales about people who lived in magic worlds; people who fought for love or the hope of love. During those formative years, I read and read, looking for something I recognized, a reflection of myself. Fairytale romances are full of softness, long slumbers, and little birds that help girls get dressed. But I didn’t want those things. I wanted things no story ever told me about, without knowing why I wanted them: I wanted blood in my kisses and someone to pull my hair. I wanted to know and feel and explore the boundaries between myself and oblivion.
As I grew up, these desires grew with me. My first crushes, first loves, first glimpses of sexual promise were all laced with fantasies of pain and violence. My first sexual dream was about my grade school teacher whipping me, my wax paper dress sliced to ribbons and speckled with blood. I wanted to feel fleet volleys of fear and pain instead of fluttering butterflies. But the world was excellent at warning me away from these desires. Culture reinforced, directly and indirectly, that my desires were pathology at worst, shameful at best. Even in the evolving landscape of sexual openness in our current culture, masochism isn’t seen as a healthy representation of love, or as a method to structure romantic experiences. There is no coming-of-age story for masochists; nothing positive or hopeful that shows a young person with a fetish what their lives can look like.
I found Story of O, by Pauline Réage, in my local bookstore when I was 14. The main character, O, mirrored all my early sexual feelings. Her unfolding journey into masochism was everything I wanted. Throughout the book, O is determined to prove her devotion to her lover through the willingness of her body; she is willing to be consumed by love through complete submission to it. It is a forbidden, dangerous, and reckless submission that leads her into secret gardens of sensation to explore and embody. I curled up in the spaces between the letters and punctuation of this story and felt safe there. But still, I had no idea how to connect those letters to my life. So, hiding between the pages of books, I said nothing to anyone for years. I kept these desires a secret and tried as hard as I could to want what I was supposed to want: boys and boyfriends, holding hands, slow dances, and sweaty palmed heavy petting in the backseat of a car. I tried to accept that my dreams of living a life deeply integrated with masochism was like dreaming of being a fairytale princess, a childish fantasy, impossible to achieve.
But desire isn’t voluntary. No matter how little I said about it, no matter how little I explored them, I couldn’t stop my desire. For a long time this made me believe that I was self-destructive, confusing agony with love, and violence with romantic intentions. It is exhausting and alienating to second guess every daydream and sexual fantasy. I felt isolated and alone. I was afraid of myself, terrified to imagine a reality where my desires were fulfilled, and was horribly sad to think they never would be. Despite my fears, I wanted very much to know how these things would feel if they were real. I could not know if I would love the feeling of being slapped as much as I thought it I would until it happened. This is the paradox of desire: you can not know how much you want it until it is fulfilled.
So I very carefully started to explore. I had a few typically torrid adventures with various partners, dabbling with superficial kink including rope I could slip out of, cuffs with no locks, and spanks as hesitant as they were hopeful. I worked slowly up to the trembling ferocity I dreamed of: bruises blooming like purple nebulas and cane marks that lingered for weeks. Like pleasure, pain is something you have to feel to really understand—you have to experience it to know how it will change and shape your life. Aristotle said pain is an emotion of the soul, a state of being, like being in love or being afraid. I now know this is true. Masochism is a state of being, and pain is more than a sensation, it holds memories and writes a narrative out of a moment.
I am fortunate enough in my life to have found safe and consensual ways to make my desires real physical events in the world. In fiction, O is simply taken. She slips into a black cab with her lover, and in that same cab ride, she is taken to a world of wonderfully torturous sexual experiences. She barely says a word. In the real world, however, accessing masochism, practising the harmonious balance called “sadomasochism,” in a loving and long-term relationship, involves a keen and transparent honesty, and steady contact and communication.
Over years of slow and careful exploration I have learned that pain offers me a social and psychological grammar that is both personal and deeply erotic. I am grateful every day that I have the capacity to feel this way. Pain given and received adds a depth of emotion to my life that is at times physically euphoric—a bond between myself and my partner that has no metaphor or comparison in the world outside my body. The territory of consensual and enthusiastic pain and pleasure carries a pull, like gravity. I know now that the desires I kept hidden are the foundation of how I experience and feel romantic love. I was hiding one of the most vibrant and powerful parts of myself. Love in all its various forms can make us feel whole—it is, in many ways, one of my reasons for living. Masochism is a facet of my experience of love and of being loved. It is the core of my sexuality, an unchosen centre of my identity.
Today masochism helps anchor and sustain me. It helps me see, and feel, and live with greatness and beauty. For me, the pursuit of physical pain is a union of self and hope and love that demands I take it seriously. When I create space and let someone I love bruise my skin with a cane or a metal strap wrapped in leather, when I kneel beside my lover’s bed, I am sinking into a ritual of selfhood.
It may seem less than romantic, but the call and response of negotiation is sensual; an erotic skill developed through practice, self-awareness. The intimacy of language is mainline to sensation—words lead to touch, making the dialogue and all the words around it erotic, telling the story of desire. For a long time, before I found ways to integrate masochism into my life, my life felt unlived. But O kept me company, she let me know I was not alone, and that my desires could be beautiful. She helped me believe that I could find a story of my own.