I’m not interested in the men I sleep with, my friend Meg tells me. They simply allow me to feel the largeness of what I need to feel.
The man in the picture has dark eyes and powerful hands and a slow smile and a bodybuilder’s physique that is at once gorgeous and grotesque. In two of the most candid photos he is naked, hipbones jutting just above the bottom of the picture frame, staring commandingly down at the camera.
Carpenter at La Maison
University of Chicago 2007
Manhattan, New York
4.6 miles away
not using my phone for traditional dating
6’4”, demanding but fair
Athletic and dominant
Hung thick 12 inches
You should be creative and driven
Eager for the challenges I present
This will be intense and rewarding
I pause and think about what I want. I have always demanded that my fantasies become reality. I am creative and driven. I want intense rewarding experiences. I’m not really using my phone for dating either.
I swipe right. We match an hour later.
So what’s your deal, I ask? My deal, he replies, is that I’m looking at you as a potential submissive. Yes I thought so, I say. Thing is, I like being constrained but also sometimes to do the constraining. With me, he replies, you will be owned in the bedroom. I’m in control.
I think for a minute then write: I enjoy playing with power, but I won’t be owned by anyone. I think we’re not well matched. Thanks though. Immediately, he texts back, You’re slim and elegant and it would have been a pleasure. Ciao.
I’m taken aback by his somewhat formal courtesy.
Can I think about it a bit?, I reply. It sounds compelling but also makes me a bit wary.
Yes, he says.
The next morning I ask him: How would I be sure I could trust you and that I would be cared for? He writes, This requires a phone call. For a free-wheeling and expansive conversation. No rush. But it’s too intimate an issue for text.
I’m again impressed by his syntax and his deliberate use of punctuation.
The world presents itself differently to me all day—it has more hidden corners, more possibilities. I’m wearing a bright yellow dress and it feels like an invitation.
I like your voice, he says that evening on the phone. It’s my bemused voice, I say. I can’t believe I’m talking to you. Look, he says, I appreciate that I’m nothing more than an internet profile at this point, so let me tell you a little about myself. I started to learn in high school—I’m from Chicago—how women reacted to me. I also learned what I liked. When I came to New York in my early 20s, I found that the city was full of beautiful, successful, driven women who weren’t finding what they needed. They were looking for release, and for rest, and I could give them that. The best way for this to happen was a formal relationship of domination, where they could give themselves over to me, and I could work them to their extreme pleasure. So I’ve been working as a Dom in New York City for nine years now.
His voice is assured, and practiced. He’s said this before, and it makes the conversation feel safer, somehow, more professional.
What’s in it for you? I ask. What brings you pleasure? His voice changes slightly, he pauses and laughs. I can’t tell you how incredible it is, he says, watching a beautiful woman lose herself completely because of what I’ve done to her. It’s better than any drug.
I reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady every year, and my copy is heavy with a decade and a half of annotations. Isabel Archer, a beautiful young American heiress whose mind is like an open garden, commits herself to the collection of Gilbert Osmond, a refined European aesthete with a penchant for possession and ultimate control. Despite her fine mind and her independence, Isabel is captivated by his mastery, and reads in his acquisition of her a testament to her own exquisite worth. The tragedy is that the marriage signifies only Osmond’s great good taste—the taste of a predator.
As I’ve aged out of the ingenue phase of a woman’s life, I’ve realized that Isabel was never free, that she is always watched: by Osmond, by her cousin Ralph, by her suitor Caspar Goodwood, by her adoring uncle. They love her of course, all of them. But nonetheless, of course she is watched: she is beautiful, she is rich, she is a young woman. One of the truths of the novel is that young women, even if beloved, must form themselves in a crucible of watching.
The true tragedy of Isabel Archer is that she begins to watch herself, and to value most highly the opinions of the watchers. We all do. I have. It’s the social definition of a woman. It is in this constrained space that our desires are forged, before we even know what desire really means.
Look, he says to me on the phone. You’re classically beautiful. You’re slim, you’re elegant, and I love how your hair falls in this picture. You check all the boxes for me. But that just got my attention. Now I’m vetting you to see if you’d be a good fit for this work, and for me.
I’m vetting you too, I say.
I’m intrigued, I say over the phone. I’m also very wary. I tell him why.
I feel slightly like one of the rabbits my cat used to bring into the house when we lived in the country. They’d pant in the corner of the kitchen as he circled them, their eyes glazed over, hypnotized and unable to jump. I would throw a dishtowel over them, pick them up, release them outside. The cat would yowl his displeasure for a few minutes until jumping on my lap to purr and be petted.
You realize, he says, that this whole project would be guided by you. I need to earn your submission. And then we’d be working with your body, your edges, your fears. What I would need to do first is spend weeks learning your body and how it responds to each touch, to my voice, to my hands. We’d meet first in public, perhaps several times, before we were ever alone together. We could take a walk; you could see how it might feel for me to take your hand. But I know what I want to do to you the first time we’re alone. I want to undress you and set you down and touch your collarbone. I want to touch you all over your body until you melt into my little animal.
I realize my mouth is slightly open and I breathe out. I want that too, I say.
Pauline Réage’s classic book of domination and sadomasochism, The Story of O, opens with an epigraph, the only time in the novel where O speaks directly in the first person. The Story of O was written by Réage (a pseudonym) as a love letter to keep the interest of her much older, married lover. O is whipped, degraded, violated, chained, starved, dressed exquisitely to her masters’ tastes, costumed, displayed, branded, kidnapped.
The opening, however, is not a plea but a provocation, a declaration of O’s—and Réage’s—mastery:
Keep me rather in this cage, and feed me sparingly, if you dare. . . . You should never have agreed to be a god for me if you were afraid to assume the duties of a god, and we all know that they are not as tender as all that.
Now, let me ask you a question, he says. Is there the possibility that you’re on the rebound from a breakup, that you’re looking to numb the pain? No, I say. I’m looking to be woken up.
He sucks in his breath. Good, he says slowly.
Have you thought about misogyny yet?, he continues, before I can pose the question to him myself. I’ve worked, he says, with several women who were feminists and found that they loved this, and it threw them into a kind of existential crisis. Have you thought about that?
I have, I tell him. What worries me in this scenario, I say, is that in my experience, misogyny during sex can emerge out of nowhere, and that the only recourse, sometimes, is dissociation. My body finds pleasure in lots of places, I say, but my mind does not. I don’t want to lose myself by becoming an object for use. I want to lose myself after going through something with someone.
It’s important for you to know, he tells me, that I’m a deeply empathic person and so I will be feeling everything with you.
Jesus, my friend Ben says as we walk across the park in the afternoon sun, this guy plays a good game. Ben is a deeply empathic person too, which means he’s often melancholy about women. Men are assholes, Ben says, looking at me in sudden concern. And I don’t trust them. Make sure you meet him somewhere public first, and then set up a safe call system with me. I promise him that I will.
During my divorce last winter a kind man let me stay in his bed as I divvied up the furniture at home. He was tense and precise and his face was so beautiful I wanted to bite it. He once held my hands above my head, with his fingers half covering my open mouth, and in the middle of it he leaned down and said, so tenderly, I’m learning about you.
On the phone, William tells me it would take about five to six months to train my body to do what he needs it to do. I don’t work with toys, he says, perhaps a belt to tie your hands or a tie to blindfold you, but only everyday things. I’m not interested in sadomasochism. You might feel some pain, but that’s not the goal. I’m very large, he continues, and you would need to be able to accept me everywhere. That sounds harsh, but I say that to tell you the extent to which we’d be working. It wouldn’t happen quickly; you could decide to stop at any time. But we would be stretching you to your limits. And on the other side of those limits lies immense pleasure.
I tell him that terrifies me. That’s part of the work, he says, the fear. Have you read The Story of O?, he asks me. It’s darker than I’m interested in, but it’s written from a woman’s perspective.
Do you not have a ruler? my friend Max asks me later over drinks, his broad, handsome face folded in amusement. Twelve inches. That’s the tipoff right there.
Truthfully, I say, this hadn’t even occurred to me to question.
I’m worried about being so transformed that I become unrecognizable. I’m worried that I want to be so transformed.
What if this ruins sex for me with anyone else? I ask him on the phone.
You should think about that, he says.
Last week I went on a blind date, and as the man who bought me dinner walked me home, he offered me a parable. This is a way of finding out about you without asking direct questions, he said. Imagine you’re in the desert. You have a box and a flower. Can you imagine them?
I can, I say.
Now, you have a ladder too. Can you see it? Okay, he says. Now a stallion runs up to you, and a sandstorm is coming. What do you do?
Of course, I say, nonplussed. Of course I jump on the horse and we outrace the storm. What about your box, your flower, your ladder?, he asks. I don’t need those, I tell him. I can’t carry them when I’m riding out a storm.
Christ, Jean said then, and rubbed his face.
You should know, he says on the phone, that I’m feeling very inspired. I think this is going to work very well.
At this point, we’ve been talking for so long that I’m sitting on the floor so I can charge my phone.
One last thing, he says. Can I give you an assignment? Sure, I say.
I want you to meditate on our conversation, he says. Just let it sink in. Try to clear your mind, however long it takes and in any way that feels right to you. Then see if you can clarify why you’re drawn to this and why you’re afraid. Once you’ve done this, I want you to lie down and I want you to touch yourself. Think about these clarified feelings. And then, only then, I want you to fantasize about me, how I look, how my hands might feel, and make yourself come. One thing, though. I don’t want you making any noise—no whimpering, no calling out. I need you disciplined. And when you’re done, text me that you’ve completed your assignment. Okay? Okay, I say.
As soon as I hang up, every movement feels curiously weighty. Things somehow mean more than they used to. I sit for a while, feeling the rug under my legs, then slowly wash my face and feel the water bead on my skin. I stare at the bones of my face in the mirror, and I look shadowed and unrecognizable. A liquid warmth spreads through my body. I complete the assignment.
Good girl, he writes back. Now sleep well. Free and deep.
I wake the morning after the phone conversation with the curious feeling of having transformed overnight, full fathom five: I’ve become richer and stranger to myself.
In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, in the famous section on the master and the slave, Hegel writes about the connection between self-consciousness and power, arguing that self-consciousness turns around desire and its satisfaction, desire and its recognition, revolt and acquiescence. Both the revolt and submission of the slave reveal to him the knowledge of his indivisible self.
Réage knew this. O consents to her enslavement, she promises herself to her leather bracelet and her chains, her subjection and her degradation. And through voluntary submission she becomes the quintessential Hegelian subject: “She was no longer free? Yes! thank God, she was no longer free. But she was light, a nymph on the clouds, a fish in water, lost in happiness.”
The strength of my desire, previously unknown to me, feels overpowering. It also feels necessary, which means that it is dangerous: the necessary abrogates the possibility of choice.
I spend the weekend after the phone call reading The Story of O. Most troubling is that O’s pursuit of freedom necessarily contains violence. O genuinely pleads for mercy from the whip, and the genuineness of her plea serves only to enslave her further, to both liberate and erase her: “Beneath the gazes, beneath the hands, beneath the sexes that defiled her, the whips that rent her, she lost herself in a delirious absence from herself which restored her to love and, perhaps, brought her to the edge of death.”
From an adolescence of being watched and desired, and of enjoying and seeking sex, Claire Dederer has come to the same conclusion. In her memoir of 1990s grunge Seattle, Love and Trouble, Dederer fantasizes about “an act of perfect submission.” A man slips into her hotel room, ties her down, and beats her. Her fear, in the fantasy, is genuine, because she knows that’s where the true test is: “But if he only did stuff I liked, sweet stuff, then neither of us would know what we need to know: that he is in charge. . . . I sort of hate what he’s doing to me, therefore I love what he’s doing to me.”
As fantasy, this is intriguing. As physical reality, it’s terrifying in its plea for annihilation. I don’t know how to handle my growing sense that I too am drawn to a freedom that requires violence as its condition of possibility. I can’t condone that violence; but neither can I discount my own desire.
I text these thoughts to William. I respect that deeply, he writes back. The level of self-reflection and understanding. I will respond later today, in detail. He also sends me a picture of his erect penis. Inspired, he writes.
I’ve never been sent a dick pic before. It is strangely melancholy and a little stupid, bobbing sadly in my text feed without a body attached. It’s the first thing about this that feels generic, and disappointing.
I show the dick pic to my friend Meg. What’s intriguing about this situation, I say, is that I’m not thinking about him at all. I’m most fascinated by the thinking I’m doing as a result.
Maybe, Meg says, you should keep the conversation close to you for right now while you think about it. She looks up, suddenly worried. Is it really twelve inches? We both stare quizzically, slightly repulsed, at the dick on my phone. I don’t think it is, she says slowly.
In the middle of the weekend, I work on leash-training my cat, a process I’ve followed fitfully. I decide to see if my new appreciation of Hegel will work in this scenario. I get his leash out and lay it on the rug next to some treats. Pal, I tell him, the leash will make you free. Or at least, you’ll get to feel the grass on your paws. But it’s your choice whether to accept it or not. He sniffs the leash, eats the treat, and walks away.
On Sunday night I start reading dominatrix blogs online, as due diligence. I learn about safe words and rules and boundaries and health and community norms. “If it’s too good to be true,” one dominatrix warns, “it probably is.”
I look at William’s pictures again. He’s holding a kitten, he’s in front of a helicopter, he’s at the gym, he’s naked and in control. On one photo, nearly cropped out, is an Instagram tag. It leads to a feed of French male model Killian Belliard. I had followed this before and assumed that William was a pseudonym and that perhaps he worked as a model. That had felt plausible: this is New York, after all. And I had so much wanted to believe. He sounded so professional, and who doesn’t want to believe they’ve been specially chosen? Who doesn’t want their life transformed?
But now I follow the Instagram feed a little further. The pictures on William’s profile are, in fact, of Belliard, who, I find through some googling, was born and raised in Paris. This is not the man from Chicago, with the 313 area code, that I talked to on the phone. Of course it isn’t. The strange, oblique, erotic world I had been floating in suddenly disappears. I’m angry and relieved all at once.
That’s called catfishing, my friend Ben says when I call him. Didn’t you know this was a thing? No, I say, in tears, you know I’m bad at the internet. I’ve been catfished too, he says, though not quite like this.
I block “William” from my phone and report his profile on the app.
Think about it this way, Meg says on the phone. You got so much out of this—you kind of got what he promised you for a few days, didn’t you?
I feel a strange kinship with Belliard, who had no actual part in this. I imagine he is safe and kind. I look at his Instagram feed, full of muscles and beards and Apollonian bodies, and am strangely soothed.
Over the next week, I tell the story to my friends. It takes a good thirty minutes for me to tell it well, and I find I’m maybe more interested in the story the way it’s turned out than if it had all been true.
In the telling, my story gets to work both sides of the knife, fantasy and reality, desire and its satisfaction, violence and pleasure.
This is what the catfisher has given me, I realize. It may be that telling, and writing, about sex is the ultimate submission and the ultimate revolt. Sex is the subject we tell, and tell again, and in the telling seek mastery and freedom over the unknowable parts of ourselves. He has, in the ultimate instance, freed me.
Now what this story tells you, Max says, eyebrows raised at me over his Manhattan, is that you’re looking to do some sketchy shit.
Max is right. I go home and start a new account on a different app. Three swipes in I come across “William” with the same exact profile. I hesitate a beat too long.