i learned it on youtube

WHAT ON­LINE BEAUTY GU­RUS CAN— OR CAN’T—TEACH US ABOUT SEX

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - NEWS - By vanessa bor­jon

What on­line beauty gu­rus can—and can’t—teach us about sex.

LEXIE LOM­BARD IS a bright-eyed 21-year-old from Vir­ginia with a trendy bob, over­size thrifted fur coats, and a cool Man­hat­tan apart­ment. She just fin­ished an in­tern­ship with the in­die makeup brand Milk Makeup and up­loads the oc­ca­sional “day in my life” vlog onto her Youtube chan­nel, which has more than 430,000 sub­scribers. Her videos are a col­lage of in­ter­est­ing, quick-cut clips pieced to­gether to cre­ate a brief yet in­ti­mate nar­ra­tive.

IN A VLOG FROM late May 2017, she lay­ers threeto five-sec­ond clips: her bright blue nails type at a com­puter, her pro­fes­sor as­signs a write-your-owneu­logy project to her class, she rides her bike through NYC. Fi­nally, she shares her out­fit of the day (“OOTD,” in Youtube par­lance) in her bed­room mir­ror: Adi­das sweat­pants, a t-shirt that reads “Pow­ered by Pussy,” and pink fuzzy slides.

Lom­bard has been mak­ing Youtube videos since Oc­to­ber 2009. When she first cre­ated her chan­nel—and be­fore Google bought the plat­form and al­lowed its users to change their dis­play names—lom­bard went by the han­dle beau­tyrush315. One of her ear­li­est videos, which she’s since taken down, was “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You About Thongs.” (As a sub­scriber of hers when I first dis­cov­ered Youtube, I re­mem­ber when this video went up.) In it, a 15-year-old Lom­bard ranted about the hor­ror of panty lines un­der leg­gings. In an anec­dote about shop­ping with her mom, she spoke about a truth most girls learn in their early teens: Our bod­ies al­ways run the risk of be­ing sex­u­al­ized. Lom­bard says, “A lot of peo­ple think that thongs are kind of con­tro­ver­sial. Like, ‘Oh, you wear a thong? You’re a slut!’ So they don’t like to show it off. I don’t know—to me, it’s just a piece of cloth.”

For lots of girls who grew up in the early 2000s, the in­ter­net of­fered an ap­peal­ing anonymity: On­line jour­nals, mes­sage boards, and video-host­ing sites were places where they could share parts of them­selves and their lives that they were in­structed not to talk about else­where. That si­lence is im­plied even in Lom­bard’s video ti­tle: “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You….” Lom­bard was left on her own to fig­ure out why thongs were con­sid­ered an un­ac­cept­able un­der­gar­ment for girls her age. But thongs are just the be­gin­ning. In the past decade, young women have been us­ing Youtube to pass along ad­vice on sim­i­larly con­found­ing, “un­ac­cept­able” top­ics: deal­ing with their pe­ri­ods, choos­ing birth con­trol, dis­cov­er­ing their sex­u­al­i­ties. In a cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that aims to si­lence, shame, and con­trol all as­pects of young women’s re­pro­duc­tive health and choice through leg­is­la­tion, these in­ti­mate one-on-one videos are fill­ing si­lent, cru­cial gaps.

Many of the young women along­side Lom­bard (some of whom are now among her clos­est friends) got their start dur­ing Youtube’s first wave, when vlogs dom­i­nated the young plat­form’s trend­ing lists. Lom­bard and her friends, sta­tioned all across the na­tion, jug­gled the work of mod­er­at­ing two sep­a­rate chan­nels: a main chan­nel and a vlog chan­nel. Main-chan­nel videos fo­cused pri­mar­ily on con­tent that ce­mented their sta­tus as “beauty gu­rus”: out­fit-of-the-week videos, cloth­ing hauls, and first im­pres­sions of new beauty prod­ucts. Their sec­ond chan­nels were de­voted solely to vlogs where they filmed all as­pects of their every­day lives: on cam­pus, gro­cery shop­ping, out with friends.

As these beauty gu­rus grew older, their con­tent ma­tured as well. At the height of their main chan­nels be­com­ing em­pires of brand deals and spon­sor­ships, they be­gan tack­ling top­ics such as sex, re­la­tion­ships, and “story time” videos. The lat­ter are char­ac­ter­ized by the ex­ag­ger­ated, some­times over-the-top tone a Youtu­ber uses to ex­plain an other­wise pretty mun­dane story. It’s in these where young women push back against dom­i­nant cul­tural nar­ra­tives around what girls “should” be do­ing, and in par­tic­u­lar the ex­pec­ta­tion—put forth in Dis­ney princess movies, teen mag­a­zines, and Bach­e­lor episodes—that the key to per­sonal ful­fill­ment is a re­la­tion­ship. One of Youtube’s most no­to­ri­ous sto­ry­timers is Vanessa Gabriela, or Sim­ply­nessa15; in a re­cent q&a that fo­cused on the topic of re­la­tion­ships, she shared that when it comes to love, she’s tak­ing it easy. “As of right now, I’m not re­ally try­ing to talk to any boys, I’m not try­ing to talk to any girls. I’m try­ing to fo­cus on my­self, ʼcause be­fore I try to fo­cus on some­one else, I need to try to fix me and re­ally do me right now.”

The world of Youtube sees trends cy­cle in and out of the cre­ator cir­cuit. For a while, ev­ery­one was mak­ing diy slime tu­to­ri­als, and Muk­bang, or “eat with me” videos, where Youtu­bers would lit­er­ally eat their meals, typ­i­cally take­out, on cam­era while “chat­ting with their view­ers.” One of Youtube’s hottest trends at the mo­ment—made pop­u­lar by rapid-fire, Buz­zfeed-style cul­tural re­port­ing—are pe­riod-hack videos. One video, by Aspyn Ovard, is ti­tled “Pe­riod LIFE HACKS! Make Your Pe­riod EAS­IER!” In it, Ovard rec­om­mends do­ing yoga to al­le­vi­ate cramps, stay­ing away from salty foods to avoid bloat­ing, and down­load­ing (cue spon­sor­ship) the Clue pe­riod-tracker app on your phone. Ovard’s last hack, how­ever, she presents with hes­i­ta­tion. “This is the num­ber-one thing that is, like, my top life hack, tip, trick—the thing that has helped me the most. And that is go­ing on birth con­trol. I don’t know if that’s bad to say, I’m just sayin’!” Ovard is aware that a ma­jor­ity of her view­ers are tween and teen girls, and the mes­sages she’s send­ing are be­ing con­sumed in­stantly through phones and tablets, any­where, at any time. Her hes­i­ta­tion, like Lom­bard’s, speaks to the re­sound­ing si­lence around re­pro­duc­tive health, a strange new realm that too many young girls are left to nav­i­gate on their own.

And then there are the Youtu­bers who go fur­ther in break­ing down this si­lence. Meghan Hughes, a happy-go-lucky, good-vibes type of gal, has a video ti­tled “THE SEX TALK I WISH I HAD,” in which she ad­dresses mas­tur­ba­tion—an ac­tiv­ity that has his­tor­i­cally been viewed as ex­clu­sively the realm of teen boys, and in many ways re­mains so. “So ba­si­cally cli­toral stim­u­la­tion is the best thing in the en­tire world,” says Hughes. She urges her view­ers that pen­e­tra­tion alone won’t bring them the O, but then clar­i­fies, “Who am I to say that there’s a right or wrong way to mas­tur­bate? All I’m try­ing to say here is that it feels good.” She

also ad­mits to watch­ing porn “from time to time” since be­ing shown her first porn video at the age of 9 by her child­hood friend one day, a very typ­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion to the world of porn by cu­ri­ous young girls. This is per­haps an even more taboo sub­ject than young women mas­tur­bat­ing; she ad­dresses this con­tro­versy by ac­knowl­edg­ing that peo­ple have all kinds of opin­ions on porn, but the fact that she didn’t edit that bit out of her video shows that she’s com­mit­ted to be­ing open about her sex­ual in­ter­ests.

Later in the video, she shares the “ter­ri­ble and just bad” story of her first time hav­ing sex, which was ut­terly un­sat­is­fy­ing and awk­ward, as many first times tend to be. She urges her view­ers to “be picky for a rea­son” be­cause it’s im­por­tant to ac­tu­ally like the peo­ple you have sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with. This seems like more re­al­is­tic ad­vice to be pass­ing on to young women dis­cov­er­ing their sex­u­al­ity and propen­sity for be­ing sex­ual with other peo­ple, rather than an ab­sti­nence-only talk that of­ten yields more sham­ing lan­guage than it does actual in­for­ma­tion about ab­sti­nence.

These days, Youtube is noth­ing like it once was. Over­taken by the direc­tives of mon­e­ti­za­tion, the plat­form now in­ten­tion­ally cre­ates celebri­ties and one-per­son em­pires out of reg­u­lar peo­ple mak­ing videos in their bed­rooms and base­ments. It’s be­come a train­ing ground for young women seek­ing (or in­ad­ver­tently fall­ing into) ca­reers as en­trepreneurs in beauty, fash­ion, and so­cial me­dia. And for the men­strual-man­age­ment in­dus­try, it’s also be­come a way to sell and pro­mote prod­ucts from tam­pons to apps through the mil­lions of views gen­er­ated through Youtube. Man­age­ment agen­cies like Style­haul, which rep­re­sents more than 6,000 “cre­atives” on­line, con­nect ad agen­cies to their clients and launch ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns. On its web­site, Style­haul prom­ises to “bring the url to irl, unit­ing brands, cre­ators, and the style ob­sessed.” And it does: Style­haul’s au­di­ence has a 500-plus-mil­lion com­mu­nity reach, sees more than 2.2-plus-bil­lion monthly views, and is 76 per­cent fe­male and 74 per­cent mil­len­nial. The so­cial reach of these con­tent cre­ators alone is com­pa­ra­ble to ma­jor tv net­works.

A mon­e­tized video is easy to spot. It typ­i­cally has an ad play­ing be­fore the video be­gins, or has ads dis­persed through­out. Youtu­bers do have the op­tion to de­mon­e­tize their videos, which some opt to do when the topic at hand is sen­si­tive (death, men­tal ill­ness) and might feel in­ap­pro­pri­ate as a ve­hi­cle for ads. A video might also be­come de­mon­e­tized if the con­tent is flagged as in­ap­pro­pri­ate or in­sen­si­tive, ei­ther by users or con­tent mod­er­a­tors at Youtube head­quar­ters.

Youtube be­gan mon­e­tiz­ing videos in 2007, when it launched its Part­ner Pro­gram, which in­volved giv­ing se­lect Youtube pages Ad­sense units. Ad­sense units are es­sen­tially ads that play while a video runs; the ap­peal to on­line ad­ver­tis­ers comes in

In the past decade, young women have been us­ing Youtube to pass along ad­vice on con­found­ing, “un­ac­cept­able” top­ics.

how click­able con­tent might be. Case in point: the mil­lions of teen and tween girls scour­ing Youtube high and low for fash­ion and beauty ad­vice. Slowly but surely, teenage “beauty gu­rus” be­gan to make videos an­nounc­ing their in­duc­tion into the part­ners pro­gram. While Ovard and Lom­bard might have very brand-friendly aes­thet­ics and chan­nels, Youtube has the right to re­move their con­tent if it’s deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate, which it has done to some of their more ma­ture con­tent—in­clud­ing, of course, videos on sex. Youtube is of­ten the main source of in­come for a lot of its more se­ri­ous users; and women like these take big ca­reer risks by cre­at­ing au­then­tic con­tent that re­flects their lives, know­ing that it might cost them the only pay­check they’ll re­ceive that month. Youtube loves con­tent on which it can eas­ily cap­i­tal­ize for views and rev­enue: beauty hauls, shop­ping vlogs, any­thing that has po­ten­tial to link Youtube it­self with an out­side com­pany for pro­mo­tional con­tent. But when it comes to more com­plex con­tent—which young women dis­cussing sex cer­tainly is—the plat­form isn’t nearly as in­ter­ested in their ideas.

Some Youtu­bers have used this cost-per-click ba­sis of pay­ment to their ad­van­tage, and have taken an in­ter­est­ing turn in cre­at­ing sex-pos­i­tive con­tent. In Bre­land Kent’s (Glit­ter­for­ever17) video, “25 Pe­riod Life Hacks For Back to School: Pe­riod Phone Case, Tam­pon Baby Lips, diy Men­strual Cup Rug!” Kent trans­forms her home stu­dio into a high-school hall­way and por­trays a ner­vous fresh­men on the first day back to school while on her pe­riod. Un­like Ovard and Lom­bard, her tips are less on the self-sooth­ing side and teeter on sham­ing the young men­stru­at­ing per­son: hid­ing a tam­pon in an empty hair­spray bot­tle, keep­ing an air de­odor­izer with you af­ter us­ing the bath­room, scent­ing your pads with laven­der oil. In an es­pe­cially hor­ren­dous video ti­tled “10 SMELLY VAGINA HACKS! How to Smell Fresh ‘Down There’!” Kent lists off 20 al­ter­nate names for your “down there area”: “conchzilla,” “fer­mented mer­maid tail,” and, prob­a­bly most dis­turb­ing, “rigor-mor­tis pe­nis cof­fin.” The ju­ve­nile lan­guage Kent uses to de­scribe vagi­nas and their nat­u­ral pro­cesses is rem­i­nis­cent of the once-ubiq­ui­tous “Con­fes­sions” pages in teen mag­a­zines where girls shared mor­ti­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of bleed­ing through white pants, ac­ci­den­tally drop­ping tam­pons in front of crushes, and other ex­pres­sions of the idea that girls should be sexy with­out the em­bar­rass­ment of ac­tu­ally in­hab­it­ing im­per­fect bod­ies.

And just as such print sto­ries ran con­ve­niently across from ads for pads, tam­pons, or pain re­liev­ers, Kent’s crude videos are a ve­hi­cle for mak­ing money. Smack dab in the mid­dle of her video, she quickly drops in a small promotion for her fan mer­chan­dise, and lists a link in the de­scrip­tion box. With at­ten­tion-grab­bing video ti­tles and a sub­scriber base of 3 mil­lion, Kent is ped­dling—and prof­it­ing from—both mis­in­for­ma­tion and sham­ing lan­guage.

The power of Youtube is in the num­bers. With so many young girls watch­ing thou­sands of videos a day, and even up­load­ing their own con­tent us­ing iphone cam­eras, a new av­enue of sex education is on the rise. It’s dif­fi­cult to open up to health­care prac­ti­tion­ers for fear of shame or os­tra­ciza­tion, es­pe­cially if a par­ent is in the room. Pop cul­ture has pro­duced some of the most re­gres­sive and sex­ist rep­re­sen­ta­tions of ev­ery­thing sur­round­ing sex, from in­di­vid­ual acts to the very con­cept of de­sire; of­ten, young women aren’t sure what to ex­pect from their men­strual pe­ri­ods, their first time hav­ing sex, and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. When one of your fa­vorite Youtu­bers—some­one you trust for makeup ad­vice and who you fol­low on all plat­forms of so­cial me­dia—starts to share her own ex­pe­ri­ences with you, you feel as if you’re talk­ing to your older sis­ter’s cool friend. Per­haps law­mak­ers can take a cue from some of the in­ter­net’s most fa­mous Youtu­bers, and start im­ple­ment­ing leg­is­la­tion that al­lows women to ex­pe­ri­ence the full­ness of their re­pro­duc­tive health, rather than slam­ming it down with a fist­ful of si­lence.

VANESSA BOR­JON is Bitch Me­dia’s 2017 Writ­ing Fel­low in Re­pro­duc­tive Rights and Justice. She is a teach­ing artist based in Chicago, Illi­nois. She re­ceived her ba in poetry from Columbia Col­lege, and her work has been pub­lished in the Co­razón Land Re­view, Quaint Mag­a­zine, the Shade Jour­nal, and Nepantla.

With so many young girls watch­ing thou­sands of videos a day, and even up­load­ing their own con­tent us­ing iphone cam­eras, a new av­enue of sex education is on the rise.

I learned ev­ery­thing I know about be­ing a domme from my ex­pe­ri­ences with Ab­dal­lah. Ab­dal­lah is 32, Egyp­tian, and Mus­lim. He comes over once a week and stands by my leather couch. He waits for my com­mand. I sit in a big arm­chair and tell him to take all his clothes off and fold them and put them by the door. Ab­dal­lah re­moves his dress shirt, un­der­shirt, fab­ric belt, jeans, ar­gyle socks, and boxer briefs, and folds them as in­structed. I tell him to sit at my feet, on his knees. He does what I ask. I tell him to lick my boots. He asks if this is hy­gienic. Ab­dal­lah is afraid of germs.

This puts him in a bit of a pickle since he’s also very much a slave. I tell him to shut the fuck up and lick my boots. He does, and then takes them off and holds my feet in his hands. His hands trem­ble.

I met Ab­dal­lah on Tin­der. He was look­ing for a dom­i­nant woman to step on his cock. I was look­ing for a sub­mis­sive man who would let me step on his cock. He’s here now sit­ting on the wood floor right across from my chair, on a chain at­tached to my foot. My foot is on his balls.

Ab­dal­lah asks if I want to hear Egyp­tian mu­sic. I say yes. I tell him that ear­lier that week, I had bumped into a Pales­tinian man who said that Egyp­tians are ei­ther slaves or pharaohs. The man was a friend’s fa­ther-in-law, and he said this not know­ing that my mother is Egyp­tian. He asked me to think of all the Egyp­tians I knew. “Aren’t they ei­ther one or the other?” This ques­tion made me un­com­fort­able, es­pe­cially since it was ask­ing for an ab­so­lute judg­ment about a spe­cific eth­nic back­ground. I tend to feel a sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity from peo­ple who make gen­er­al­iza­tions, and this was no dif­fer­ent: By say­ing that peo­ple were ei­ther in charge or sub­servient, he wasn’t tak­ing into ac­count all the sub­tleties of power dy­nam­ics, of how a sub­mis­sive per­son can wield con­trol, of how a pharaoh-like per­son at­tains and earns au­thor­ity.

I wanted to warn him about the dan­gers and lazi­ness of think­ing in bi­na­ries. About how if you think about ev­ery­one you know, they can eas­ily fit into ei­ther of the two cat­e­gories of slave and pharaoh if you wanted them to. About how this isn’t spe­cific to Egyp­tians. I wished I could talk openly about how com­pli­cated some­thing like bdsm can be, about subs and dommes, but was too afraid of speak­ing about some­thing as so­cially taboo as bdsm. Even­tu­ally, the man came clean and told me he hates Egyp­tians be­cause of how they treat Pales­tini­ans. He doesn’t know how de­voted my mother is to my fa­ther. That my mother spends her life serving my fa­ther.

For years, my fa­ther as­serted his dom­i­nance over my mother, and my mother, a dom­i­nant per­son her­self, re­sisted. But it was in the mo­ments that he was quiet, that he didn’t ask for much, that she served him the most—mak­ing him tea, wash­ing his clothes, rub­bing his scalp, squeez­ing him fresh lemons over dishes of meals she had cooked, run­ning a lint brush gen­tly over his shoul­ders be­fore he headed to work. When­ever I spoke poorly of my fa­ther, she came to his de­fense, say­ing he was a good man. She saw his com­plex­i­ties, and fo­cused on the good in him. She al­lowed him to fi­nan­cially sup­port her for decades. And if my friend’s fa­ther-in-law knew that, he would just say it proves that Egyp­tians are ei­ther slaves or pharaohs.

I ask Ab­dal­lah what he thinks of this the­ory. He says he only knows what he likes, and can­not speak for all Egyp­tian men. I like that about him. Not so ea­ger to gen­er­al­ize. Plus, he wants to be spe­cial.

And so Ab­dal­lah is sit­ting on my floor, a col­lar around his neck, a leash hooked onto his col­lar. He’s got his lap­top open, too, and he’s work­ing on a les­son plan for his class to­mor­row. It oc­curs to me to ask him if he wants some tea. But I don’t want to get up and make it. Be­sides, he’s my sub—he should make my tea. I want to lean in, un­hook his col­lar, and send him into the kitchen to boil wa­ter for my tea. If he were white, I’d do it in an instant. But he is Arab, his hair kinky, his skin the color of my mother’s skin, my son’s skin, and it takes more gump­tion for me to dom­i­nate him—to domme him around. He’s told me that his pre­vi­ous dommes were all white. The im­age of him on a chain at the feet of a white woman in­fu­ri­ates me. Haven’t Arab and Mus­lim men had enough of be­ing chas­tised, dom­i­nated, hu­mil­i­ated, and in­car­cer­ated by white supremacy? I don’t ask him this ques­tion be­cause it would make me fur­ther up­set if he told me he didn’t mind it. In­stead, I tell him he’s never al­lowed to serve any­one else but me, and he low­ers his gaze like a good Mus­lim and says, “Yes, god­dess.”

I un­hook his col­lar and tell him to go make me some tea. He walks to the kitchen naked and puts the elec­tric ket­tle on and comes back. A few min­utes later, when the teaket­tle clicks off, I get up to mix the tea, and he asks if he could learn; if I could teach him how to make tea the way I like it. I lead him by the leash to the kitchen, and show him where the spoons are, where the honey is, and how to mea­sure out my black tea leaves. He does, and then we re­turn to the bed­room, to work. A cou­ple of min­utes later, I put him on his hands and knees, place my tea cup on the small of his lower back, and pour my­self a cup. Ab­dal­lah likes it when I treat him like fur­ni­ture. I love that in my room, with his con­sent, I can treat a man like fur­ni­ture.

The next morn­ing, dis­tracted by the thought of him mak­ing me tea, by the thought of his naked body, I fill the elec­tric ket­tle with wa­ter, place it on the gas stove, and light the stove. It takes a mo­ment for me to re­al­ize what I have

I wanted to warn him about the dan­gers and lazi­ness of think­ing in bi­na­ries. About how if you think about ev­ery­one you know, they can eas­ily fit into ei­ther of the two cat­e­gories of slave and pharaoh if you wanted them to.

done, and I turn off the stove and check the bot­tom of the ket­tle for dam­age. There is none. Af­ter­ward, the smoke alarm beeps. Like most peo­ple, I had al­ways known about bdsm, but had no idea how it worked. Did domme stand for dom­i­na­trix? (It doesn’t. It just means a dom­i­nant woman.) Did dommes have to wear leather or la­tex from head to toe and carry whips? (They can, but it’s not re­quired. A good domme can make her sub­mis­sive do any­thing she wants, no mat­ter what she is wear­ing or wield­ing.) Did subs, or sub­mis­sives, love be­ing beaten? (Some do. But not ev­ery sub is a pain sub.)

My ex­pe­ri­ences with pain dur­ing sex were all neg­a­tive be­fore bdsm. The pain was never con­sen­sual. Men gagged me, think­ing I en­joyed it. They bit my nip­ples, as­sum­ing that be­cause my breasts were large, they were stronger and im­per­vi­ous to pain. They choked me, their hands over my throat, be­cause I asked them to, but none of them had done any train­ing to fig­ure out how to do it cor­rectly, re­spon­si­bly. Un­til bdsm, a lot of sex felt like as­sault. With bdsm, lim­its are dis­cussed; classes on bondage, rope ty­ing, slap­ping, chok­ing, and any­thing else are of­fered at dif­fer­ent “dun­geons,” clubs, and other spa­ces. It’s al­most the sex education ev­ery­one should be able to have. I of­ten wish it was.

My first shop­ping trip for kinky gear, I was at a small sex shop, pe­rus­ing the vanilla sec­tion—vi­bra­tors, beads, lube. But af­ter walk­ing past all that, I ar­rived at the leather part, with most ob­jects en­cased be­hind glass. In­stead of the stan­dard whips and flog­gers, there were leather and metal cages in phal­lic shapes. I asked the sales­per­son if I could see one—i was al­ready see­ing it, but I wanted to hold the cage in my hands. She com­plied, us­ing a key to un­lock the case, and placed the cock cage in my palm. It looked like a small chastity cage, and I’d never seen one be­fore. The sales­per­son told me it was for cbt. I pre­tended to know what that meant, and then fran­ti­cally Googled the let­ters on my phone. cbt. Cock and ball tor­ture. This was a thing.

When I was a lit­tle girl, around five or six, one of my fa­vorite things to do was to play a game I called “mo­tor­cy­cle.” I would beg my brother, or my cousin, or a neigh­bor, to lie on his back with his legs stretched straight up. I’d grip his ankles and pre­tend that the legs were the metal arms of a mo­tor­cy­cle, and then I’d place my foot on his tes­ti­cles and pre­tend that they were a gas pedal. I had no idea that I was step­ping on tes­ti­cles, only that they were soft like a small jel­ly­fish and felt funny un­der my feet.

I told this story to Ab­dal­lah when we first met up. His re­sponse was, “Lucky boys!” He de­rives no plea­sure at all from his pe­nis be­ing stroked or touched. All he wanted to do, all he wants to do, is please me. His hands quiv­ered when I first al­lowed him to touch me. I’d never seen or heard a man be­have so du­ti­fully, so ador­ingly. He called me his god­dess. I told

him to kiss me from head to toe, and he com­plied, his breath quick­en­ing. He loved pleas­ing me. It’s all he wanted to do. I pen­e­trated his mouth and his ass, be­cause I wanted to, and he wanted to do any­thing I wanted to do.

I un­der­stood right away that be­ing in charge of him was a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity. I had to make sure that when he was gag­ging, he wasn’t re­ally hurt. I had to make sure his breath wasn’t re­stricted if I smoth­ered him with my breasts. Be­fore we did any­thing, we had very long dis­cus­sions over text about what he would and would not con­sent to. This open­ness, these clear bound­aries, felt noth­ing like vanilla dat­ing or vanilla sex. It was the vanilla stuff that was scary, I fi­nally un­der­stood: of­ten un­nego­ti­ated or un­der-com­mu­ni­cated. How many times had I been as­saulted in one way or an­other dur­ing vanilla sex? Count­less. There was the woman who fisted me against my will; the man who thought my gag­ging sounds were fun; the guys who thought it was fine to slap my ass with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion.

Af­ter Ab­dal­lah, sub­mis­sive men be­gan flock­ing to me. They still do. They tell me ex­actly what they want me to do for them, and ask me what I like. One sub’s hard lim­its was that he would not do race play. He was white. An­other sub’s hard limit was that he did not want to ever pen­e­trate me, or have his gen­i­tals re­strained.

With bdsm, noth­ing “just hap­pened.” Ev­ery ac­tion, de­sire, and move­ment is dis­cussed be­fore­hand. “Please never make me eat my cum,” Ab­dal­lah had said. “Please never pierce my skin, or make me bleed, or hit my body. Only my face.”

Kink meant con­sent, al­ways. It meant a dis­cus­sion of bound­aries, de­sires, fears. Un­like vanilla hookups, it meant safety. It meant true sub­mis­sion.

Ab­dal­lah slowly stopped re­spond­ing to my texts a few months ago. The si­lent weeks would be fol­lowed by days of ar­dent mes­sages, beg­ging for my at­ten­tion. When I gave it, he dis­ap­peared again. He was mar­ried, it turned out, and I told him that there was no room in our fe­male-dom­i­nated re­la­tion­ship for de­ceit or poly­the­ism. I was a monothe­is­tic­type god­dess. When I broke things off with him, I felt a deep sad­ness. Ab­dal­lah was the first good, re­spon­sive, and de­voted lover I had who, like me, also had a Mus­lim iden­tity. This shared back­ground made me feel safe, healed me of the years I thought my mother was a pushover, the years of in­ter­nal­ized Is­lam­o­pho­bia, years that I thought Mus­lim men were too rigid or stub­born or proud to sub­mit to any­one but God.

I be­lieved I would never find an­other Mus­lim per­son to be kinky with.

I met Zahid a year af­ter I met Ab­dal­lah, al­most to the day. We both serendip­i­tously wore red-and-white striped tops to our first date. I loved this be­cause we looked like a Mus­lim ver­sion of Where’s Waldo? Where’s Habibi? I had of­ten thought.

We talked about ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing whether kink was in the Quʼran. “When the Quʼran says to beat or whip some­one, it never says how hard,” he said, jok­ing. “Maybe it’s soft play.” “Is­lam means sub­mis­sion,” I re­sponded. “I mean, to say,

‘I am Mus­lim,’ is to say, ‘I sub­mit.’” He smiled and said, “Or, ‘I’m a sub.’” We talked about how, in one’s de­vo­tion to God, one yields com­pletely. To be truly Mus­lim is to un­der­stand that God is the only be­ing any­where who wields any power. For a be­liever, her Is­lam—or her sub­mis­sion—means that she places all her trust in God, and ded­i­cates her life to God’s wor­ship. To be Mus­lim is to be one who sub­mits.

Zahid told me he was hit by a train when he was 23. When I asked him how that hap­pened, he said it was be­cause he and his friends were play­ing chicken with the train. I wanted to tell him how stupid that is, but in­stead, I asked him if it was some­thing he did reg­u­larly: play chicken with the train. He said yes. He did it all the time. He said that the time he was hit was the only time he paused to think about the train hit­ting him. He said he

blames be­ing hit on that pause. The train hit him, and he spun in place, like a drei­del. He spun and spun be­fore he hit the ground. The spin­ning ab­sorbed a lot of the con­tact, so that when he hit the ground, he wasn’t too se­verely head in­jured. He was air­lifted to a hos­pi­tal. Four years later, he was di­ag­nosed with tes­tic­u­lar can­cer. He has one ball. I pull on it gen­tly when he’s in my mouth to help him cum.

Zahid’s Is­lam is, like mine, more of an iden­tity than a prac­tice. We spent the first day of Ra­madan get­ting stoned and driv­ing 45 miles out of town to at­tend a larp, or a live­ac­tion role play game, where nerds gather in large spa­ces and pre­tend to be vam­pires. We ar­rived too early, and I be­gan jerk­ing him off in the car, a mile away from the exit. We ended up fuck­ing in a park­ing lot for half an hour, him calling me his good girl. At the end of Ra­madan, he came over, and we drank Eid cham­pagne. We pre­tended that the la­bel read, “Halal. En­joy for Eid!” In the morn­ing, I asked him if he thought the pork chorizo I had in the fridge was bad. He smelled it and said he didn’t know. I told him I didn’t know any­thing about pork. He said he didn’t ei­ther, and we laughed. Two Mus­lims try­ing to make eggs and chorizo? It didn’t hap­pen. In the past year, my gear has piled up. I bought a pad­dle with a muf­fled side and a leather side; a long flog­ger; a crop; bondage tape; an un­der-bed re­straint sys­tem. Anal plugs. A ball gag. A har­ness for my dil­dos. A black face mask that al­lows subs to breathe. My fa­vorite thing ever is a dick leash: a leather col­lar that fas­tens at the base of a pe­nis and hooks onto a metal chain.

I ini­tially used that on Zahid. At first, I dom­i­nated him most ses­sions. But even­tu­ally we switched, and I rel­ished in the switch. The first time I asked Zahid to col­lar me, I was ner­vous. I didn’t want to be re­jected. But I trusted him; we had been play­ing for five months, and I knew I would be safe if I went into sub­mis­sion with him. He said yes. So I brought out Ab­dal­lah’s col­lar, which is black leather with red flo­ral stitch­ing, and we stood fac­ing each other. I threw a pil­low on my wood floors, the floors Ab­dal­lah once licked my feet on, and got on my knees. I asked Zahid if I could look at him, and he said, “Yes.” I looked up and he fas­tened the col­lar on me, gen­tly, and then hooked the leash onto the metal cir­cle. I breathed deeply. It was a re­lief to fi­nally be the one taken care of. To not con­stantly be work­ing to en­sure a sub’s safety. It was now some­one else’s turn.

With BDSM, lim­its are dis­cussed; classes on bondage, rope ty­ing, slap­ping, chok­ing, and any­thing else are of­fered at dif­fer­ent “dun­geons,” clubs, and other spa­ces. It’s al­most the sex education ev­ery­one should be able to have.

BY VANESSA BOR­JON

Vanessa Bor­jon is Bitch Me­dia’s 2017 Writ­ing Fel­low in Re­pro­duc­tive Rights and Justice.

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