At 50, the walls behind which I put my sexuality fell and I walked out.
I had just left an unhappy marriage and that milestone birthday released something in me. I wasn’t waiting for anyone’s permission anymore. I started to say yes to myself instead of to everyone else. Now or never, I thought. I walked through with excitement, delight and trepidation. I wanted sexual experience and I wanted it now, so I went to swinger parties, sex clubs, and had one-night stands, threesomes, and sex with couples. I was a kid tearing around a massive playground.
I had built that wall brick by brick to protect myself. Beginning at 5, I was molested by a family member. I came to believe that I was made for sex, that it was the only part of me that was valuable. I finally escaped when I left for college. My circumstances changed but my self-worth did not. It took three years for me to realise that I had been grievously harmed and that physical escape was not enough.
Years of therapy followed and I still didn’t know where to put my sexuality in my 20s and early 30s — I was with women mostly but was guardedly interested in men. This gave way to seven years of celibacy and more therapy while I figured out how sex might claim its rightful place and with whom. That work on the couch allowed me to find a life beyond the incest’s aftereffects — one where my sexual and emotional damage was no longer front and centre.
I wasn’t fixed exactly, but I was functional. I liked sex OK. Deep down, though, it did not feel natural, comfortable or satisfying. I didn’t feel like myself ― not fully. I dated, had a baby, married, created a family life and then divorced. I raised my daughter and worked and read and saw friends. But I knew I was missing some central part of myself.
I wrestled with my idea of what motherhood should look like and reconciling that with having a sex life. I had been a good girl my whole life because I figured it would elevate me to the places I wanted to go — college, a productive job, a nice apartment, a mate, good shoes. And it sort of worked. Motherhood didn’t require goodness per se. It required selflessness, steadiness, bringing the fun and being a bulwark against chaos. I was good at most of it.
Though I may have been 44 when I gave birth and had a full professional life and great times with friends for 20 years, in some ways I was still in my teens. There is a theory that you get stuck developmentally at the time of a severe trauma. I hadn’t really had a period of exploring sexuality before 50 and then I pursued it with the eagerness of a hormone-addled adolescent. I fit it in when my daughter stayed overnight with her father. I texted men after she was in bed. I went wild when her dad took her on vacations.
There were cops and accountants, contractors and IT geeks, unhappy lawyers and happy ex-lawyers. Some were married, some were single, some were in open relationships. Tall, dark, short and round, white, Black, Latino, poetic, gentle, macho, intellectual. If I had a type, it was someone who could make me laugh and got my jokes. I was looking for light.
“I liked sex OK. Deep down, though, it did not feel natural, comfortable or satisfying.”
After three or four years of experimentation, I dated two men, one right after the other, who were out of the ordinary. I was naively unaware that each was a Dominant who saw me as submissive. All I knew was that I wanted to be spanked as part of sex and said so. They took things further: insisting I deep-throat them, expecting me to serve them (“Get me a drink. Not too much lime. Lots of vodka. No, that’s too much ice.”), pulling my hair, expecting docile and non-confrontational behaviour. I ended both relationships because I found their expectations uncomfortable and, on some level, offensive. I was a feminist. I was independent. I was not interested in being treated that way. But something lingered. I knew that part of me responded physically and emotionally to their behaviour even though I didn’t want to.
I was also curious. Those two men remained lodged in my mind while I tried to puzzle out what had led them to treat me that way. It could not be a coincidence. What could I learn from the discomfort I felt? What had I done, besides respond to the spanking with appreciation? Was there something to it? Could I be submissive without knowing it? I learned all I could about dominance and submission (D/s) from reading and, eventually, from the forums on FetLife ― kink’s version of Facebook ― taking classes with a local sex education organisation and attending D/s discussion groups.
It is possible that early sexual trauma made a traditional sex life impossible for me, led me to seek feelings and sensations that were very far from my first sexual experiences. I wanted to have the exotic and the forbidden. I needed to follow an unconventional path to feel connection and intimacy in its rawest form.
I dawdled for a few years until I decided I wanted to experience submission and I explored with a couple of dominant men, trying to find the right fit for me. There were many false starts. I eventually found a nurturing Dom who loves to teach and who approaches D/s intellectually, physically, and emotionally. We found each other on a mainstream dating site and there was much to be attracted to besides the sexual complementarity.
I slowly let myself trust and submit to him. He has gently pushed me beyond where I originally thought I could go. We take great care in minding our boundaries and expanding our “play” together. Four years later, I call him Master and wear his collar. He and others take me where I need to go to feel complete, giving myself to me as I give myself to them. I experience enormous peace and gratification when I am submissive and for the hours afterward.
It’s sexual satisfaction, sure, but I also feel the joy and safety of inhabiting the space I choose and giving to a man who holds my safety and pleasure sacred. It’s so different from the sex between 5 and 18 that I did not choose ― did not own.
The submission also calms my busy brain and takes me out of negativity, distraction and stress. The flood of endorphins creates a state of mind referred to as “sub-space,” where the submissive feels floaty, free of pain or worry, and the Master takes responsibility for the sub’s well-being. I am snuggled and stroked, spoken to gently. The trust and care have rewired my brain, I think. I don’t fear pleasure or trusting men. I can bring my whole self to my interactions instead of being forever on guard.
It is hard to find much information on the relationship of sexual assault or abuse to kink. Is there causation? Correlation? Coincidence? There isn’t much academic literature on the topic, and I could find only a posting or two about it on FetLife. But I know from talking to people in the kink world that surviving early abuse is not unusual among subs (or, indeed, the general populace). I know that this is controversial — who wants to believe their sexual identity may have been formed, even in part, by trauma? And, of course, there are many people who are part of this community who do not have a history of abuse. But I think that, for me, trauma not only led me to kink, but kink has also provided profound healing. There is an appeal in choosing to give away my power instead of having it wrested away. It implies ownership and agency.
“I think that, for me, trauma not only led me to kink, but kink has also provided profound healing. There is an appeal in choosing to give away my power instead of having it wrested away. It implies ownership and agency.”
Life is never one thing, of course — wholly good or bad. I struggled for years to find a sexuality that felt chosen and core. I have found it. But I have this daughter, for whose safety and full expression of herself I am responsible. My best friend, knowing a generalised version of my dating and sex life, once asked, “Can’t you just wait until R. is out of the house?” Wait six years to have sex. I was astonished. She knew my struggles during the previous decades to recover a sexuality that felt like mine after the abuse.
My friend is a feminist but I’m not sure she would have asked the same question of a man. The extent to which women are expected to sacrifice their wholeness to be a mother — still today — floors me. I want to believe I can have a life that includes responsible motherhood and a sexuality that grounds and fills me. That not everything can be sacrificed. That one day my daughter will appreciate that I didn’t sacrifice myself.
I have worked to shield my daughter from sex. I was sexualised early and would do anything to save her from that fate. However, she lives in the time of internet porn and serial sex crimes aired weekly on ”Criminal Minds.” I did what I thought I should be doing to keep her safe from predators and watched every teacher and coach for signs of undue interest. I have had “the talk” with her several times at different ages: If anyone makes you uncomfortable, make an excuse and get away; your private parts are just for you; try to bring a friend with you instead of being alone with a grown-up. But I have also wanted a sex-positive future for her. As she got older, I shifted to a more encouraging approach to her sexuality: that it was for her pleasure, that she should feel close to anyone before sharing it and how to get birth control. More than anything, I wanted her to feel safe in a way I never had.
I don’t feel ashamed of being kinky. I embrace my submissive sexuality and consider my discovery of it to be one of the most positive developments in my adult life. It is a blossoming of desire and a healing of that early rupture. I didn’t expect submission to heal me, but it has. Broken places have mended. Tender spots toughened. I’m less fragile and insecure. I embrace my body and its appeal.
Submission has given me the opportunity to choose what happens to me sexually and put me in charge of my fate. This is counterintuitive, since submission is also a form of surrendering control. But for me, submitting to someone I love and trust has given me a kind of power and self-acceptance that I never had before. I actively agree to everything that happens to me and I have the ability to make it stop with a single (safe)word. Every time I submit, I can feel electricity flowing to the injuries of long ago, reigniting the circuits and casting a luminous glow. I can feel every part of my body and spirit arch toward expression and wholeness. I am fully present at last.
Stella Gardiner is a pseudonym the author is using to protect her family’s privacy. She lives in Washington, D.C.