Trust is an essential component of any longstanding relationship. This is axiomatic to the point of cliché. But if trust is a cornerstone in any given partnership, how much more so is this the case in a sexual relationship that incorporates elements of pain or danger? There is a reason why, in consensual BDSM encounters, it is the submissive who is in control. The parameters are clearly set out at the beginning of any encounter and they are not to be transgressed in any way. Any legitimate BDSM interaction will require a safe word that, when uttered, means all activity stops instantaneously.
Safety is paramount in these relationships because of the potential for real harm – not emotional harm (or, not only emotional), but also lasting, physical harm should one of the participants not know what they are doing or push things too far. When Paul, one half of the central couple in R.O. Kwon’s “Safeword,” strikes his bound and blindfolded partner, Jihyun, on the tailbone with a riding crop, she shouts their predetermined safe word – ”Red!” – which confuses him, as he doesn’t understand what he has done wrong. “What did I do?” he asks plaintively. “Don’t you know?” she replies. “It’s unsafe.”
To be fair, Paul legitimately doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. The second-generation American (“his parents had moved from Montreal, which counted”) is congenitally innocent of matters having to do with bondage and domination prior to his partner of three years telling him that she needs him to “hurt” her in the bedroom. Despite being unnerved by her request, Paul assumes he understands what underlies her impulses:
[I]t didn’t take a shrink to guess why she was so shy: what with the nuns, the Catholic boarding schools, the subsequent renunciation of the Catholic schools, the shame, the counteracting feminism, her quasi-Victorian and entirely Korean squeamishness with anything having anything to do with the body, and all this heaped for decade upon decade on top of the great hungry beast of sexual desire – well.
Paul’s dime-store psychoanalysis notwithstanding, he cares enough for Jihyun to want to satisfy her physical urges even in the face of his own vanilla tastes and conservative Pentecostal background. Unfortunately, the extent of his knowledge about BDSM has been acquired from viewings of movies like Belle du Jour and Secretary and consulting books such as Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns. (Paul and Jihyun tried reading the Fifty Shades of Grey series together, but couldn’t get past the atrocious writing – a perfectly reasonable response.) After their failed at-home attempt, Paul’s naivete and lack of skill push the couple to seek out the services of Mistress Ava Adamson, a professional dominatrix.
Kwon, who wrote the well-received debut novel The Incendiaries and co-edited the collection Kink (with Garth Greenwell), makes a canny choice in telling her story from the close third person perspective of Paul. It is he who acts as a stand-in for the implied reader who may not be conversant, or indeed fully comfortable, with the practices and conventions surrounding BDSM or the psychology motivating those who indulge in it. Even Jihyun professes uncertainty as to the nature of her desires, telling Paul, “There’s something a little wrong with me.”
The function of Mistress Ava is to put the lie to Jihyun’s assertion of wrongness while also acting in a countervailing capacity to Paul’s lack of understanding. She adopts the role of stern dominant meting out verbal and physical punishment until Jihyun shows signs of real distress (as opposed to pleasure in pain), at which point she becomes solicitous and caring, ensuring Jihyun’s comfort and ongoing consent without ever breaking character. It’s a complicated tightrope to walk, and Paul is distressed when he notices, “infuriatingly enough,” his penis becoming erect while watching the two women interact.
When they return home, Paul tenderly applies a topical ointment to Jihyun’s bruised and lacerated skin; the scene is poignant both in its depiction of a caring moment between two lovers and in its ambiguity: the final words in the story leave open the question of whether Paul and Jihyun can ever truly be compatible in their desires.
If the high-wire act of dominance and submission is fraught with danger in private, how much more heightened is that danger if the performance is undertaken in public, for an audience of strangers? Canadian-born novelist Kim Fu addresses this question in “Scissors,” about a couple – Dee and El – who enact a theatrical display reminiscent of performance artist Marina Abramović’s notorious 1974 piece Rhythm 0. Lone Wolf Magazine describes “the most terrifying work of art in history” as follows:
During the performance Abramović became wilfully passive, turning herself into a living object for the sake of art. She decided that she would stand quietly in the gallery for six hours, during which time audience members were invited to use one of 72 objects on a table in the room to interact with her. The objects ranged from feathers, chocolate cake, olive oil, and roses, to a knife, a pair of scissors, a gun, some bullets, and chains.
Fu tweaks the scenario somewhat for her story. Dee appears on an empty stage, bound to a chair and wearing a dress. El applies a large pair of scissors to the garment, cutting it from her and running the blades over her body – stomach, thighs, breasts, vulva. In the most shocking moment of the performance, El inserts the blades of the scissors between Dee’s lips and the seated woman fellates them.
The performance concludes with El blindfolding Dee and inviting the audience to come up on stage and interact with the prone and captive woman. It is here that the elements of danger in the story truly coalesce:
It’s just El, of course. Of course. El walking in circles around her, El and her ventriloquism, her disguises, her multiplying, quicksilver hands, able to reach every part of Dee at once. El, who knows her, who can give and take and break her. Or not. Dee will never know, not really, what happens to her as she swims in the darkness – she will always have to take El’s word for it. Dozens of times onstage, she believes it was only El, only El’s hands that she’s ridden and bitten and bucked against, but she can’t know.
And it’s the not knowing that makes her core sing.
Fu’s story deals with the vagaries of trust and the puzzling allure of danger, while never skirting the thorny ethical questions involved in the process of relinquishing control. Dee understands the invitation to the audience to be mere stage banter, nothing more than a part of the show about which the gathered crowd has been made aware in advance. (“Dee reminds herself that nothing is happening, that the murmuring and shifting and patter is for show, people are just heading to and from the bar.”) The entire performance is, in theory, a carefully scripted and choreographed pantomime of vulnerability and relinquishment. “She told El from the beginning that she needed to write the details of her own submission, and El had understood. That Dee needed to be in control to give up control.”
Taken together, “Safeword” and “Scissors” represent excursions into the nether regions of submission and danger. They interrogate the nature of intimacy and the limits of trust, while acknowledging the human propensity for pushing the envelope of thrill and excitement and how risky those endeavours can appear. Out of context, a human face experiencing the intense pleasure of orgasm is indistinguishable from a human face undergoing torture. These stories explore the line between pleasure and pain, control and whatever lies in the borderlands beyond.