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Sometimes There Be Monsters

Once upon a time (not that long ago, really), calling someone "kinky" was meant as a put-down: a slur implying that you were a little abnormal when it came to sex, that you needed some sort of psychiatric help because you were into all of those whips and chains and stuff. Back then, being kinky meant that you couldn´t enjoy sex the "normal way"--even if what exactly is the normal way seems pretty vague and/or boring.

Nowadays, though, kink seems to have shifted its meanings, both amongst personal relationships as well as in the larger public discourse. Rather than being derogatory, to be "into kink" is more of a compliment, signalling that you´re open-minded, progressive (and most likely not only in the bedroom or in the dungeon). Being kinky almost seems passe--like, who hasn´t at least tried using a pair of handcuffs or worn a blindfold during sex? Instead of the the kinksters who seem to be the ones out of step, it´s everyone else--the folks who are "vanilla."

Of course, this is not to say that kink or BDSM is univerally accepted everywhere--far from it. Especially in the United States, there seems to be a resurgent (and sadly, quite popular and pervasive) campaign against human sexuality, body, and the gender writ large. Just a cursory glance at the world around us will reveal an avalanche of legislation against the reproductive rights of women, against transgender youth being able to receive medical care, and from adults being able to read whatever the hell they want in a library. The pendulum has swung, steeply, away from tolerance and understanding.

And yet, at the same time, if one looks, there seem to be more people talking about BDSM, wondering what your kink is, and how you can use these kinds of practices and tools with your partner(s) to increase arousal and pleasure. The underground seems to be going mainstream, with lots of folks from every walk of life talking about how they are "into S & M", and sharing how others who are curious can get into it, too. Any search engine will open up untold resources about bondage, spanking, Domination and submission; and knowledgeable people from the scene have podcasts, videos, and in-person workshops to guide the curious and the uninitiated. At least within the span of my own lifetime, kink seems to be trending.

That being said, while there is undeniably more BDSM literature out there, not all of it is equal. Some authors, such as Laura Antoniou with her Marketplace series or the short stories of Sinclair Sexsmith, fictionalize this world with accuracy and detail, providing a kind of "insider´s" knowledge of this community´s codes and ideas. For many others, though, their knowledge about kink is 50 Shades of Grey and its offshoots and imitators, stories which reinforce stereotypes, offer poor information for those genuinely curious, and can confuse sadomasochism with abuse. And when our digitized world favors popularity far more than quality or accuracy, folks will probably find the Fifty Shades Trilogy first (NOTE: E.L. James´first book alone sold over 150,000,000 copies, and that was 7 years ago; not to mention all o the sequels and adaptations). Perhaps as a response, some within the kink community have wanted to zestfully portray BDSM as a world where no one ever disregards a safeword, where everyone is respectful of each other´s boundaries, where no one ever gets harmed. While well-intentioned, this can also be a fiction, and just as misleading. I mean, aren´t there some awful people everywhere, including those into kink?

These sorts of questions were swirling through my mind when I began to read My Dungeon Love Affair, an important little book similar to Chris Belcher´s Pretty Baby and Burn My Shadow by Tyler Knight. In this memoir, Stephanie Parent shares candidly about working as a submissive at a professional dungeon in Southern California for six years. Some of the scenes with her regular clients are described in sharp vignette form, providing readers with a detailed account of how it actually is to do this kind of work. Like other talented authors who have experience in sex work, Parent opts to portray her experience with unblinking honesty.

Parent admits that, at first, her journey of working in a dungeon was akin to the start of a new love affair, almost delirious and magical like being a character in a fairy tale. Some of her experiences as a sub sound transformative, opening up new realms of discovery within herself. She also was able to forge relationships with some co-workers that developed into meaningful friendships and even play-partners.

But fairy tales also contain monsters, and My Dungeon Love Affair includes details about these as well. Parent describes some of the clients who break the rules of the house, who don`t always respect her boundaries, how sometimes she is restrained or gagged to the point where she can´t speak her safe word. Parent also doesn´t shy away from including the moments of tedium that Medusa brought into her life, whether it is the repetitive nature of fulfilling some of her clients´ fantasies (particularly the regulars), or the long commute time between Medusa and the modest home she shares with her dog. Such nuance and candor in portraying her experience of BDSM is rare, and is a refreshing aspect of reading her book.

On another level, My Dungeon Love Affair is about Parent finding her voice as a writer. Before working at Medusa, she had worked as a teacher of creative writing and wrote a number of projects that, looking back on them now, she felt were imitations of other people´s work. Initially, her work as a submissive meant that she didn´t write at all for the first years. As Parent later realizes, before she could write skillfully and deeply from her heart, shee needed to have a story to tell; and to do that, she needed to learn more about who she was, what she liked and what she was curious about, what her limits were and what scared her. The dungeon, in this narrative, changes from being a fairy tale and into a job, and finally into a catalyst for her emergence as a writer. Parent writes vividly about some of the landmarks she uncovered along the way, and this memoir invites readers to follow her breadcrumbs through the forest and out of the maze.

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