Of Safe Words and the Sacred

A BDSM relationship gone wrong helped Britni de la Cretaz find God.

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (2,913 words)

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understood him.

In the throes of passion, it’s not unusual to cry out for the Heavenly Father. Bodily pleasure, the agonizing ecstasy of orgasm, can feel like prayer — a communication with the divine, a gift from somewhere beyond this realm. Sex is one of the most primally human experiences, but when it’s good, it can feel otherworldly.

In AA’s Big Book, they say that having a spiritual experience in recovery will rocket you into “the fourth dimension of existence.”

I thought I’d already been to that dimension: consensually tied up and flogged in a hotel room, the red splotches spreading across my ass and thighs — precursors to the bruising that would splatter my backside like a Jackson Pollock painting in the days to come. I thought I’d found heaven in the place between the agony of the whip and the ecstacy of His fingers finding my wetness. He called me demeaning names and degraded me in all the right ways; I was happy to do anything He asked.

I did not believe in God, but I believed in surrendering my body and my will to this man. Surely, He would save me.

***

I met him on the internet because of course I did. Where else do you meet your first Dominant? Michael was 25 years older than me, unhappily married with two kids, and using Twitter to escape from his miserable, sexless marriage. He spent all day and night online, immersed in the world of sex blogs, porn, and cyber sex. By day he was a respected scientist. By night, a pervert.

In AA’s Big Book, they say that having a spiritual experience in recovery will rocket you into ‘the fourth dimension of existence.’ I thought I’d already been to that dimension: consensually tied up and flogged in a hotel room…

I was a lost 23-year-old looking for love, attention, and validation from strangers on the internet by posting pictures of my boobs and sharing tales of my sexcapades. We were a perfect match, him seeking a pretty, young distraction, me looking for someone, anyone, to provide stability, structure, and direction. He slid into my Twitter DMs with a simple, “hey.” I responded and, within minutes, we were having cyber sex. To be honest, I didn’t know how to have a conversation with a man that wasn’t about sex. I couldn’t imagine they could possibly want anything else from me. I thought the only worth I had was in my ability to attract men, and I thought the only way to attract them was to make them want to have sex with you.

He went to the gym to deal with his sexual frustration, watching porn on his phone while he worked out, a screen protector shielding it from others’ view. He looked like a bodybuilder and he sent me photos: tan skin, hairless torso, chiseled everything. Underneath his buttoned up exterior, gold hoops pierced his nipples, belly button, and the head of his penis. I was turned off. I preferred my men soft, round, hairy, tattooed. He was none of those things.

I implicitly said “yes” anyway by sending him photos of my breasts, my ass, the new lingerie I’d just purchased. His enthusiastic response in the form of compliments and requests for more made me feel happy, made me feel whole. For just a minute, I maybe even liked myself. I also liked the feeling of taking direction from someone else. Even though I was giving up my power in many ways, I also felt powerful, because doing what Michael asked me to do seemed to give him so much pleasure. I liked having that pull over him.

The first time I heard his voice, I panicked and almost hung up the phone. He had a Southern accent, which I hadn’t been expecting, despite knowing he was from the region. He sounded both kind and terrifying all at once, the drawl taking the edge off an otherwise curt tone of voice. The phone call was a short one. Without so much as a hello, he demanded I put my hands between my legs and get myself off, now. He was in a bathroom at work. I was in my bed at my parents’ house in the middle of the afternoon. After I did what I was told, he hung up without saying goodbye. My head was spinning. What had just happened?

Despite my reservations about whether this man was the one that I wanted, we continued our interactions, progressing from phone calls to Skype conversations. Eventually, he bought me a plane ticket to come meet him while he was on a business trip. He traveled for a week every month, and he wanted to fly me out to stay with him while he was away from home. I went without hesitation. Looking back, I can see the doubts I had, the nagging suspicion that maybe this relationship wasn’t right for me. But at the time, I tended to jump headfirst into any and all situations without thinking. My impulsivity was a way to avoid the fear and anxiety that came with having to to make decisions for myself. Act first, think later. Get on the plane. Be spontaneous. Be daring. Say yes. Take the leap.

***

In rehab, everyone has stories about the fucked up things they tried to do to be OK. Stories about the times we shoved down the feeling in our gut telling us that what we were doing wasn’t right. Linda, the woman who worked at the 12-Step retreat I’d been shipped off to, explained to me that the feeling in the pit of my stomach that tries to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong is called “God consciousness.” When we ignore that feeling, we’re ignoring whatever it is that God is trying to tell us.

We’d gotten to Step 3, the one that asked me to turn my life and my will over to the care of God, which seemed the most daunting. We’d gotten to the part I’d been dreading since I arrived: talking about God. Not only was I an atheist, I was a feminist, and I was pretty sure I didn’t need any patriarchal figures to hand my power over to. I was too smart to harbor any delusions about omnipotent men in the sky. I fancied myself independent and self-sufficient — yet I was sitting in rehab. So when Linda asked me to reflect on whether or not I’d ever given myself over to someone or something else, I had to admit that I had.

***

Prior to our first meeting, we negotiated our boundaries and hard limits, like you do in BDSM relationships. I had a safe word — iguana. When I used it, any and all activity would stop. But because I had never physically participated in BDSM before, I wasn’t totally sure what my hard limits would be. Instead of voicing that, in an effort to please Michael, I said I was into almost all of the things that he was — and his interests ran the gamut, from water sports to catheters to plain old whips and chains. I never expressed my hesitation or fears to him; if I had, he would have respected them, taken things slowly, and ensured that I was safe. That’s the kind of Dominant he was — kind, caring, respectful. In retrospect, he really was the perfect kind of Dom. It was me, the submissive, who wasn’t in the kind of headspace I needed to be in to fully consent to what I was about to do, or to understand the repercussions of it all on my own mental health. At the time, though, neither of us knew that.

For that plane ride, I dressed the part of the younger sex doll. I wore a plaid school girl skirt and knee-high black boots, paired with a white tank top, black blazer, and studded belt. As I walked towards him in the middle of the airport, in a city I can’t remember now, I wanted to turn around and walk — no, run — away. I was scared. But I was in too far to turn back. He’d paid for me to be here — not only for my travel and room and board, but he bought me clothes, too, and I accepted them. Plus, my pride and bravado wouldn’t let me. I considered myself a badass. I had to keep walking forward.


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He kissed me and he smelled like black coffee and Polo Black cologne. Even then, I wanted to vomit, but I told myself this was what I wanted — an older man to take care of me, to tell me what to do. His thick framed black glasses hid his one lazy eye. His hair was slicked back with so much hair gel, it never moved. He looked respectable; I looked anything but.

I would destroy this unsuspecting man, the man who thought he was in control of this relationship, but neither of us knew it yet. He thought he had found someone he liked not only as a person, but someone who shared his very taboo kinks. I thought I had found someone to take care of me, to make decisions for me when I was too overwhelmed to make them myself. He would offer to leave his wife and kids for me and I would run away because that is not what I wanted, not what I had ever wanted.

They say it’s the submissive who truly has the power in the relationship.

Michael did things to me in those hotel rooms that I’d only seen in hardcore porn. They involved belts and collars and chains and piss and slut and shut up and gag on my cock, whore, yes that’s it. Such a good girl.

I let him hurt me because it was easier than hurting myself, though I was doing plenty of that, too. Drinking four bottles of wine in a night and putting line after line of white powder up my nose, spending the next three days sick in bed. Chasing boys who didn’t want me, loving girls who would only hurt me.

I let him tell me what to do because I honestly didn’t know. My life was spiraling so completely out of my control that giving the reins to someone else seemed to make perfect sense.

He told me what to wear, when to call, where to sit, how and when to fuck myself, to fuck him. He also told me I was beautiful, that I was worthy, that he loved me. When we were together, I felt safe. But when we were apart, I continued to do whatever I wanted, which included drinking, drugging, and fucking other people. I told him I was His. I didn’t mean it.

***

“Have you ever given control of your life to someone or something else?”

Linda’s words rattled around in my head. I knew the answer.

“Yes. I’ve given control of my life to Michael. And, I guess I’ve also given control of my life to alcohol and drugs, in a way.”

“And how did that work out for you?” Linda asked me.

***

He bought me a ring. I picked it out — a square, purple stone surrounded by diamonds. In Dominant/submissive (D/s) relationships, the submissive often wears a “collar” as a symbol of ownership. It wasn’t an engagement ring, but I wore it on my left hand as a sign that I was taken, since we were often apart. Him, in his home in the south with wife and kids. Me, his dirty little secret, in my childhood room in Florida. I fucked other men with Michael’s ring on my finger and I lied through my teeth to him about it. I woke up with other men’s bruises on my body. I didn’t feel guilty.

We’d gotten to the part I’d been dreading since I arrived: talking about God. Not only was I an atheist, I was a feminist, and I was pretty sure I didn’t need any patriarchal figures to hand my power over to.

He knew he was losing me when he’d call me and I wouldn’t answer. One night he told me that he wanted to know what it was that I loved so much about cocaine. I’d never done it in front of him, but he knew I used it when I went out in Florida. He went to a strip club and asked around, and bought an entire eight ball because he didn’t know anything about drugs, had never done them in his life. That night, though, he did them. And he called me to tell me. I was so angry at him. Blindly, irrationally angry. This wasn’t who he was, wasn’t who I wanted him to be. But this is what I did to people — I made them crazy, made them do uncharacteristic things. He loved me and I loved drugs, so he wanted to experience what it was that I loved. I responded with vitriol; he couldn’t understand why.

But in that moment, I lost all respect for him. The illusion of our power dynamics had crumbled. He couldn’t save me. He wasn’t God. He was just a person, susceptible to being manipulated by me.

***

The thing about God, they told me at rehab, is that no one knows what God is. It’s a three letter word for something I’ll never understand, for something that is bigger than me. I shouldn’t worry too much about my conception of God because whatever I come up with will be wrong, anyway. In order to accept that God might actually exist, I just had to accept that I was not God, and that no other human was, either.

What kinds of human powers had I tried in order to fix myself, Linda wanted to know. And she didn’t just mean the things I’d tried to stop drinking and drugging; my life was a mess with and without the substances. What had I tried to fix my life?

Therapy, meds, multiple cross-country moves, fucking every boy I could, fucking every girl I could, dating every person I could, graduate degrees, gym memberships… oh, and BDSM.

***

When Michael started offering to pay for an apartment in Nashville for me, just an hour’s drive from his house, I knew I was in too far. I briefly considered it, considered using him to get me out of my miserable life in Florida, but at that point I realized I’d be committing to something I didn’t really want, hadn’t ever really wanted. I relished the feeling of being cared for and not having to worry about being in control of my life that being submissive to Michael gave me, but deep down I knew I didn’t really love him and never had. When he informed me he was planning to file for divorce so we could be together, I told him it was over. He begged me not to go. I hung up the phone and never looked back. I went out and fucked my ex and asked him to leave as many bruises on me as possible and we laughed at how Michael had fallen for it, for me.

***

Giving control of my life to Michael hadn’t worked. Not only had I resisted and run away when it came time to truly surrender, but years later I would come to realize the damage I’d done to myself in those hotel rooms with him. I consented to acts because he wanted them. I consented to acts because allowing someone else to hurt me helped me temporarily take away the pain I felt inside. I consented to acts because I was trying to take back control of my body after multiple rapes and sexual assaults; if I let myself say yes, I thought I was empowered. In reality, I was traumatizing myself because I didn’t come to BDSM from a healthy place. I came from a place of instability and turmoil. It would take years for me to forgive myself for the things I allowed to happen to me under the guise of “sexual liberation,” in an attempt to reclaim my sexual power.

And giving control of my life to drugs and alcohol wasn’t a decision I’d consciously made; it was one that just sort of happened. As for how that worked out for me?

I could only look at Linda and say, “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? So clearly not well at all.”

Step 3, she told me, was just a commitment to changing my life. It was a commitment to working the 12 Steps, and trying something different. “Put the God thing aside,” she told me, “and just be willing to see this through.” It was in that moment that a realization came to me: if my life was going this badly, maybe I didn’t know everything, like I thought I did.

 

And if I didn’t know everything, maybe I didn’t know anything.

Later that afternoon, with Linda’s words still playing in my head, asking me what I had to lose, I, the self-proclaimed atheist, walked into the chapel at the back of the property with four other treatment guests. We held hands, making a circle, and got down on our knees on the wood floor of the empty building. In unison, we all recited the third step prayer.

 

“God, I offer myself to thee…”

I felt stupid, self-conscious, like a fraud. But that day, I jumped off the ledge. I had no idea where I would land, but it had to be better than where I was standing. And that was perhaps the very first time I had faith in something bigger than me.

Be daring. Say yes. Take the leap.

* * *

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton