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BDSM in Arkansas 

"John" and "Sarah" are an average married couple in their mid-30s. Both educated professionals, they live in the 'burbs of Central Arkansas, raising a family on a quiet, tree-lined street. The difference between them and most people, however, is that behind closed doors, they're in a long-term BDSM relationship, an acronym that stands for bondage, domination, sadism and masochism. John is the dominant, Sarah the submissive. John makes the decisions about almost every aspect of their lives, and his decisions, with few exceptions, are final. That is, Sarah says, not just the way she wants it, but the way she needs it to be. John's rules provide her structure, she said, and their BDSM play — heavy impact to her body with a variety of implements — provides both a connection to her partner and a euphoric endorphin high that she describes in terms of floating away from her worries. For him, play provides a safe, loving outlet for the sadism that has been a part of his life and relationships since he was in his teens.

Can you do a relationship like this all the time?

John: Absolutely. We do. All day, every day.

Sarah: All day every day. He is the boss. That's the way I need it, and that's the way he needs it.

John: My mistake in previous relationships was finding someone who thought they needed it, but they didn't. Before this, I was looking for dominant women, and couldn't figure out why I fought with them all the damn time. I always knew I liked hurting people. But I just thought it was something wrong with me. That's the sadist side of it. When I started getting sexual, I would find partners who liked that kind of thing. If it was someone who didn't like that at all, I usually didn't stay with them very long. I like kinky partners.

People who aren't into BDSM are going to hear "I knew I liked hurting people," and they're going to think you're a serial killer or something.

John: Sadism is a part of me, honestly. I don't have to build up to it. It's always there. That's a good way to say it.

Sarah: The BDSM play is a productive way for him to express that part of his personality with a consensual partner. So instead of being a jackass and driving people crazy at work and trying to pick a fight with someone all the time just because he needs to feed that part of him, this is a healthy outlet for that. It's something I need. So we feed off of each other.

Sarah, you said you knew early on that you were into BDSM?

Sarah: As a child, I remember playing with bondage and that kind of thing, just knowing that I liked those things, but not really knowing what it was.

How old are we talking here?

Sarah: Probably like, 8. Seven or 8?

And is it common in BDSM circles that people knew they were different when they were very young?

Sarah: I hear that a lot.

John: People that I've talked to about it, they just always knew.

Sarah: One of our play partners was telling us the other day that he would be playing cowboys and Indians with his friends when he was 6 or 7, and he would be upset because they wouldn't tie him up tight enough.

That, to me, sounds a lot like what LGBT people say about their sexuality. Like this is a sexual orientation that you're born with. Do you believe that this is a sexual orientation?

John: Absolutely not. It's something you're born to, but I don't think it's a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is bisexual, gay, lesbian, whatever. To me, this is a lifestyle. I think what changed it for me was, before I got into the lifestyle and the community, I didn't know there was nothing wrong with being this way. I thought there was something wrong with me. But then, once I realized that there was an outlet for it and a place that it was acceptable and even wanted, then I knew that's where I fit in. That was my people, my tribe. When we first met, [Sarah] asked me to play and we played. We played and after the first or second time, I told her, 'You're a painslut!' She said, "No, I'm not!" Yes, she is. She just didn't realize her level of masochism. But I bet if you think back when you were younger, you did enjoy pain.

Sarah: I did. I was always eraser burning my arm or putting straight pins in the tips of my fingers, just because I thought it was fun. I don't know.

Sarah, were you worried that something was wrong with you?

Sarah: Not then, but as I started getting older, I started learning more about what society expected. Then I started feeling like maybe there was maybe something wrong with me for liking that. I didn't feel bad when I was doing it. I liked it!

John, what is the appeal of being dominant for you?

I don't know that "appeal" is a good word for it. Maybe, why do I do it? I do it because that's just the way I am. What do I enjoy about it? I enjoy the control. I enjoy the structure. I get structure when I give her structure. In the play between us, when I say I want this and this is the way it's going to be, we may talk about it, but at the end of the day, that's just the way it's going to be. This is the first relationship I've had that from someone that wants that. Everybody else just fought and argued all the time. Having that symbiotic relationship is really nice. It's a good balance.

Sarah, how about you? What do you get out of it? What do you enjoy about it?

I really crave rules and structure. I'm so chaotic in my head. I need somebody to be there to try to help keep me on track. He does that for me. If I feel like I'm lost — and I'm about to start crying right now — if I ever need anything, he's there for me. I've never had that before. [At this point in the interview, she did cry, and had to take a minute to compose herself.]

In modern relationships, "controlling" is kind of a dirty word. Is it seen as a positive in BDSM relationships?

John: I think they're making controlling and domineering the same as dominance. Domineering is, I'm going to manipulate you, force you, make you do it. Dominance is, I'm going to ask you if you want this. Yes? OK, then here's what we're going to do. Domineering is nonconsensual. Domination is a choice.

Sarah: To someone who doesn't know better, that would sound like a disrespectful exchange between us. That it's going to be his way, and that's just the way it is. It's totally respectful. We've agreed to these terms.

John: Yes, we actually have a contract. We negotiated it. We've revised and changed some as we've gone along, either because it didn't work or it wasn't appropriate or didn't apply. Actually, it's about time to revisit that again. It's been a while.

Sarah: Mutual respect is the secret to success in our relationship. I get the safety and security from him, too. That's something else I need. I need to feel safe. I need to feel like someone has my back. The structure and just the way our household is gives me that.

Let's talk about your play. What does a "scene" look like for you?

John: Our scenes are usually impact play. Impact play would be taking something and hitting a person with it. It varies from very light and sensual, all the way up to extreme. You can break the skin. We also do bondage, which could be anything: chains, ropes, mental bondage, as in "Stay in that position. Don't move." We very rarely mix sex with it. If it is, it's usually after. Very rarely during. That's just the way we do it. We both believe that so it works out.

Sarah: It's two separate things to me.

That's going to surprise a lot of people, that BDSM can be distinct from sex.

John: Yeah, people assume it's all about sex.

Sarah: Yes. But as a good friend of ours said, "I could go without sex and continue with the BDSM, but I couldn't do it the other way around." That's really true for me. I need the BDSM more than I need sex. Definitely. And I like sex a lot.

So what do you get out of play?

John: I get to release the sadism. To fulfill that need, in a consensual, constructive way that isn't hurting anybody in a bad way. I also get pleasure from the fact that I know she likes it. We do feed off each other when we're playing.

Sarah: I get physical enjoyment from pain. Actually, to the point of orgasm at times. People who aren't this way can't understand. I didn't understand. There was a time when I didn't know what this thing was called and had to try to ask somebody to hurt me on purpose. I was so relieved when I found the lifestyle — to realize that I wasn't crazy. That's something that I think a lot of people don't know: that there are people who actually get enjoyment from pain. There's subspace, too.

Tell me about "subspace."

Sarah: I have a pretty stressful life in general. It's by my choosing, so I'm not complaining. I have a job I enjoy and I'm in school full time. I love what I'm studying and what I'm doing. But I've got a lot of deadlines and only a little bit of time to get to them. I get stressed out. A good release from that is going into subspace. During impact play, especially for me, it's kind of like a feeling of euphoria. Relaxation. Right as you're drifting off to take a nap, that floaty part? Like that.

John: It's the same sensation that long-distance runners get. The endorphin rush as you're exercising. It's hard on your body to run long distances, and they get that same feeling. At least, when I was running, I did.

That's going to confuse a lot of people. That you can be beaten ...

John: ... and it makes you high? Yeah.

Sarah: It's the endorphins from the pain. But there does come a point where those wear off and the floaty time is over.

John: I think a good way to relate it to the average vanilla is that it's like an adrenaline rush. Something happens and you get scared, and there's that rush, then afterwards you're exhausted. You used up all your energy in that rush.

Can BDSM play be dangerous?

John: Absolutely. With some of the things like knifeplay, she could sneeze and we'd be in the hospital trying to explain a wound. Nerve damage from rope is a danger. Damage from the circulation being cut off too long. Even impact can be dangerous. You can hit someone in the kidney. It doesn't take much.

Sarah: There's emotional danger, too. You have to know how to deal with that stuff.

John: That's true. There are landmines and triggers. I triggered her two or three times with play.

Sarah: It's usually a surprise to us both when it happens.

John: Yes, we had no idea until it happened. It's scary. I was using my belt on her, but I just hit her wrong or she was not in the right headspace. We stopped immediately and I figured out what was going on.

Sarah: I had some periods of abuse as a child, and it came back all of a sudden — all the years of that just rushed back like it happened yesterday. [The belt] landed just right in a certain spot. It's never happened before or since, and we've used the same implement. It was the craziest thing. He was very patient and understanding. He let me cry and get it out. We talked about it and learned from it and moved on. It was actually a good thing for me. I grew from that.

What do people get wrong about BDSM relationships?

Sarah: They think that it's abuse. That's probably the first thing.

John: That, and that it's all about sex. That's the top two things. They assume it's an abusive relationship or she's not saying —

That she's afraid to seek help, or mentally damaged to the point that she can't see that it's abuse?

John: Yes. "You're so fucked up that you can't see that you're being abused." But people in abusive relationships don't have a choice.

Sarah: The minute he treats me like I don't have a choice, I won't be here anymore. I always have a choice. I have committed myself to him, but if he ever were abusive and wouldn't listen, I would leave.

How many people are in the community in Arkansas?

Sarah: I'd say thousands. We're all around you. You just don't know.

John: It's kind of like "Fight Club." You could be working right now with someone who is active in the lifestyle. It could be the person sitting in the cubicle next to you, or the buddy you go to work with and get coffee with every morning. We're just normal people. We're everyday people. I would say thousands would be a good number.

Is there still a stigma that keeps people in hiding?

John: I think so. But the whole "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon, even though I don't agree with it, has gotten people more curious about it. That's good and bad. It has its pros and cons. It brings people into the community with unrealistic expectations.

Can you do this the rest of your life?

John: Not "can I?" I will do this.

Sarah: I must do this.

John: We've always had the stigma that there's something wrong with us. But I'm free. I can do what I enjoy. We have a mutually respectful relationship where we both get our needs met. To me, that's normal. All the people out there who are uptight, that have sex in the dark [in the] missionary [position], who never experiment, or learn, or act on things that are different, and they're shoving their kinks down and being miserable for the rest of their life? That's abnormal to me. But I think that's a good majority of people. This is freedom.

Sarah: People are so concerned with whatever everyone else thinks about them. I find that the more I let go and just live the life that's authentic to me and who I really am, the happier I am, the freer I am, and the more control I have over my own life.

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