It would be easy to say that fetishism has nothing to do with love. That as humans, we fall in love with people and it is a process that is as unfathomable to us as the expansion of the universe and that sex, or any kind of fetishism or eroticism, is separate from that. That the pleasures of the body do not necessarily correspond to the desires of the heart – especially when your pleasure is derived from, say, anonymous sex, or violent sex. But is this true? Is there any rule we can live by? Or are matters of the heart as fluid as gender identity or as unpredictable as the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest?
As far as I know, falling in love is nothing like the Hollywood movies tell you. Normally there is no grand dramatic gesture to win your heart back after an infidelity, or a true love waiting in the wings of your past to reappear at your wedding to profess their undying love (and generous wealth). People don’t change, unless they change for themselves. And love doesn’t always conquer all. The strongest relationships can be torn apart by years of unsaid menial tedium, and the most unexpected love stories can be founded on initial passivity.
And above all, you can think you are in love when you aren’t. You can create love in your head that doesn’t exist, and you can mistake lust, desire, envy or admiration for love. After my first few years in the fetish scene, it is this I have struggled most with.
I had always been interested in fetishism. My desires had always lain outside of the mainstream ideas of what sexuality consisted of. I began watching pornography when I was quite young, and reading the infamous Story of O by Pauline Reage when I was about 15 triggered a series of events that would eventually lead to handing a copy of the book to my last boyfriend in a last ditch attempt to tempt him into the world of kink.
Skip to a year ago and I am freshly single, depressed and full to the brim with a “fuck it” attitude and a minor drinking problem. I stumble across a piece on fetishism in Dazed magazine, and decide that it’s either now or never. I spend the next few hours drinking whisky that tastes like someone’s armpit and signing up to all manner of events that I will later regret using my real name in the email address for. A week later I’m meeting someone for kink play at their apartment and a week after that I’m at a full blown orgy wondering how the fuck that happened and whether my life had just turned into my wildest dreams (the credit card statement dismissed that idea pretty swiftly).
But after the initial kid-in-a-candy-shop excitement wears off, I begin to realise that although promiscuous sex is fantastic and I’m getting laid more often than I can reasonably manage with a full time job, it’s kind of lonely. The dick-pics and the late night liaisons give me a certain rush, but I miss having someone to talk to. Someone I can call when I’m low, someone who will hold my head on their lap and say stupid words that coming from any stranger’s mouth would make me gag.
And then I meet someone. And it’s like falling in love. We talk everyday – but what we’re talking about isn’t day-to-day shit, like what we had for breakfast and how boring work is. It’s constant sex games where I’m made to do odd tasks or send photos or explain things in intimate detail. We meet up to watch films together but it ends with me being made to stand in the corner of a room with my eyes closed rather than with Dominos and Netflix. Our meet-cutes don’t involve a coffee shop and bashful glances from under my eyelashes. Rather remote control eggs and clenched teeth. With all this attention, with the constant desire and unforgiving chemistry that exists between two kinky people who match (sexually) so perfectly, how can it not be love?
Only after it ended did I realise my mistake. Only after spending weeks of feeling miserable did I realise that I was only listening to Adele on repeat and weeping because that was what I thought I should be doing. Looking back at it, if we removed the sexual element, what did we really have in common? Would we even be capable of sitting opposite each other in a cafe and having a cup of coffee without the conversation turning erotic or one of our hands brushing the knee of the other? My all-consuming desire had tricked me into thinking that I was falling in love, but what I was really doing was falling further into a fantasy where I would exist without responsibility, without a need for the daily boring crap that I have to do to survive and instead become someone’s ultimate sexual slave, a modern O, a disciple of Venus.
That is not to say that those in dominant/submissive relationships cannot fall in love. It would seem that we are all capable of loving in any situation, should we allow ourselves to. But as someone new to the scene, as much as I was warned about dangerous men, or being raped, or using a safe word, no one warned me that my heart was on the line too. That emotionally, when you blur the lines of possession, of passion, of desire, everything can become confused.
My friends have experienced this in many ways. One friend is in an open relationship and offers up her (once vanilla, now Dominant) boyfriend for all of us to try. Another is completely aware that her desire for attention outweighs her desire for love, and that the latter is far more work. Others are looking for relationships, others are in committed, kinky ones. Love in the fetish world, as far as I can tell, is just as confusing, just as fleeting, just as ephemeral as in the vanilla world. The only difference is, perhaps, that we are more honest about our emotions from the outset. In order to have safe play, we often engage in a conversation beforehand to set boundaries, and more often than not, to be clear about the relationship we are embarking on. If there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s this: the vanilla dating world would be a lot easier if everyone had a “safe-play” conversation before having sex, even if the boundaries being set are just for the protection of the heart, rather than the body.
As I’ve met more people and experienced different kinds of commitment than the heteronormative boyfriend/girlfriend monogamous scenario, it’s become apparent that it is not necessarily the context that might lend fetishism to more honest, successful partnerships. Rather it is how these relationships are conducted.
Sober, for instance. If I ever sleep with someone vanilla now, it is always after copious booze and bad decision making – but when you are intimate enough with someone to admit your darkest fetishes to them, you are already past the point of needing a little (or a lot of) dutch courage.
Monogamy is also less common than in the vanilla world. Is this because kinky people understand sex and love to be separate? Or because by default those in the fetish world are likely more sexually adventurous? Perhaps it boils down to the fact that if two kinky people are in a committed relationship, you’re less likely to meet them on the scene.
Ultimately, love is a many splendid thing. And by every name it goes under, it is just as sweet, just as painful, just as earth-shattering. And if you manage to find someone who makes your knees wobble and your breath catch just by looking at you, chances are no matter what you do in the bedroom, it’ll be pretty fantastic.
The cherry on top of that is when they accidentally call you Mistress, and you know you’re in for a treat.