In some ways, it’s lucky that I have the ability to find fulfillment in internet sex.  Playing online is safer than meeting strangers in a dark alley, I say to myself. Words are a sterile outlet and the potential for damage is limited, I think. I didn’t anticipate the internet’s  emotional power. Although you can’t get a sexually transmitted disease from the computer, you can love and hate and feel passion with just as much transforming energy as if you were on the street. The line between words and reality is not so clear cut.

Online D/s, like D/s in the real world,  is not  monolithic.  Hundreds of different approaches and bents exist, an endless variety of fetishes and special interests and weird predilections.  The advantage to the computer is that you can find them all in one place, you don’t have to travel to Arkansas to meet the person who shares your particular desire.  I didn’t have to fly to Munich to meet Volker.

Think of IRC as a street lined with ten or twenty tall skyscrapers.  Each building, really a “net”, has hundreds or  thousands of rooms or “channels”, filled with people.  Some rooms have only one person in them and others are auditorium size and bursting with hundreds.  Each building, and indeed all the buildings, share a few basic elements.  You can choose to talk to everyone in the room  at once, or you can whisper in another person’s ear.  Or do both at the same time.  Each room has a name over the door and a topic, to give newcomers an idea of the kind of place it is.  Inside, there’s a list of occupants so you can see at a glance who is home that day.  Nobody uses their real name, but their nicknames tell you something about them.   You can visit multiple rooms and have multiple conversations simultaneously. Confusing, and it can mix you up, but possible in  IRC world.

Anyone can create an IRC room with a few strokes on a computer keyboard.  Once you have founded a room, you choose among your friends for people to run it.  Those people are called ops, and they have the power to kick rowdy visitors out, make rules for the room and enforce them, and generally keep order among the inhabitants.

You can, if you are not sure which room you want to visit, get a list of all the channels in a particular net along with the number of people inside.   It’s a very long list, more than 10,000 on some nets.  As I said, each room has a name, and the name indicates a theme.  Bandung has the most people in it, almost 900.  Almost every Asian country and city is represented by multiple crowded rooms.  Sweden has 60 people visiting, Gay Penang has 54.  A Christian room has 50 members.  Soccer and football rooms have 40 each.  At 6:00 a.m. today, cybersex has 41 people inside, Sydneycafe has 31.  My old room has 45 people inside.    There are probably 150 different D/s rooms in the IRC net I spent the most time in,  all geared to appeal to a  slightly different but overlapping segment of the kinky population.

When the internet first comes to my town, IRC is one of the programs the local  access provider installs on my machine.  It is easy to connect.  The first room I visit is called Over 50.  I am over 50 and have a good time chatting with folks  from all across the country.  Nothing serious, just fun drinking my morning coffee and talking.  I even have lunch with some other Vermonters I met  and Karl and I eat a lobster dinner with a nice lady and her daughter when we visit Maine.

After awhile, I explore further.  I wander looking into various rooms, staying a few minutes and moving on.  Raunchy sex channels are easy to spot, and scare me, so I stay far away from them.  One day, I visit a room called Boar’s Head Tavern which makes me think of a medieval inn.  It isn’t. Followers of the writer, John Norman, have created the room.  Norman is the author of a series of science fiction books about  a fantasy world called Gor, a barbarian society of master and slave.  Men are natural masters and women are born slaves. 

The first Gor book is generic science fiction replete with rocket ships, and contains only  vague descriptions of the social system, but each subsequent book is more elaborate, painting mythical Gor in minute detail, replete with philosophical underpinnings, an invented language, and hot sex scenes.  A cult arises and is made manifest in the IRC universe. I had always been a science fiction afficionado, but never heard of John Norman or read a Gor book.

This is precisely when I get kicked in the head by my epiphany.

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The Thaw

Nothing really changes between Karl and me until 1996, two years later.  That’s when I first connect to the internet and discover a whole world of dominance and submission, sadism and masochist, power exchange and slavery.  Instantly, all my fantasies are within reach.  With brilliant, if belated,  illumination, I finally figure myself out, I finally understand the source of my bizarre desires, I understand the reason  I seem frigid and asexual, suddenly  I can claim an identity and have the words to articulate my needs.

My epiphany is simultaneously angry and joyful.  Angry, because I am middle aged, 52 years old, angry because I have been so stupid for so long, every step of the way I failed to recognize signs that could have pointed me to self-knowledge, my submissive fantasies, affairs with power figures, my strange arousal watching the power exchange in Kiss Me Kate.  I am angry because it literally never occurred to me that there could be  people out there who felt the same way I did about sex.

But at the same time I am joyful, because it is thrilling to finally realize where my sexuality lies. Just talking to people like me is a vindication and a validation, knowing that I am not always the odd woman out or a lone crazed neurotic is joyful.  Who cares if I am part of a strange fringe minority.  The difference between being in a minority and being all alone is enormous.

I don’t react in a very logical or sensitive way to my new knowledge, I don’t stop and think about consequences.  I hurtle headlong in every direction I can find.  As far as I am concerned, my world is transformed and life owes me, owes me big time.  I am in no mood to apologize for anything. I plunge into a sexual maelstrom on the internet that will last for the next three years.

Sex on the internet is the scourge of politicians and the religious right.  For me it is more than pornographic text or dirty pictures, it’s interactive eroticism taking place online, in real time,  intellectual, literary, unbridled sex.  The requirements are simple.  You have to type fast, have a good vocabulary and superior descriptive powers, and want more or different sex than is available from the girl next door or the husband upstairs in bed.  I know all this because I  gather my information first hand, up close and personal.

In the late ’90’s cybersex scening or playing takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week on an array of sites within the Internet Relay Chat network or IRC, accessible worldwide.  I immerse myself in a subculture within cybersex known as the BDSM or D/s community, standing for Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism, and Dominance/submission.

People who scene online are just one part of  internet  D/s.  Many dominants and submissives use a computer to meet others in real life so they can  form relationships, using it like a dating service.  Others aren’t looking for an actual connection, but just want to talk dirty and masturbate.  But people like me can sink deep into the typed word so that it becomes  reality and changes their outer life to match their cyber life.  If you have ever been so immersed in a book that you forget who you are, so intoxicated with words that you become the character, so that you feel you are actually living the story, that’s a little like I feel.  If you can’t or choose not to do that, if there is always a part of you that stands back and is objective, if words just stay words, it’s impossible to explain. I turn out to be the kind of person who can lose herself in words.  And I do, I lose myself and I find myself, I experiment with an abandon that takes my breath away.

The internet provides me with a gigantic playground to explore my sexuality and I plunge in pell-mell and heedless.   My sense of entitlement is overwhelming.   Although Karl is leery of my mad enthusiasm, he hesitates to put up any barriers.  Not that I would notice anyway. I think to myself that whatever arcane desires I am now expressing are ones that he is unwilling to fulfill.  So he watches nervously, and hopes that this interest of mine turns out to be a passing fancy which will fade soon.  He humors me. At first.

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Frigid Is As Frigid Does

In the beginning I am at a loss about why sex leaves me cold, I can only figure that  something is messed up in my head to make me indifferent to a man’s touch.  Before I ever have sex I am brimming with anticipation, I am thrilled at the thought of making love, but as soon as I actually open my legs to fuck, the spark is extinguished.  I never manage to have an orgasm with Louis or any of the boys at college, or later with Geoffrey or Peter or Stephen. I become very good at writhing in fake ecstasy, though. I find that if I don’t pretend to come my partner feels bad and just keeps hammering away trying to score a big one on my body.

I tell myself that at  least I can masturbate so it isn’t as if I’m missing out completely,  it’s a relief to have some erotic instincts.   Those erotic instincts, my sexual inner life, are interestingly all about rape and bondage, I dream about such things long before I reach puberty, when I am flat chested and wear saddle shoes and glasses and am the least erotic looking chick you’ll ever see, and when I get a little older and read novels my fantasies get more elaborate.

By the time I get to college it is clear to me that I am never going to find a man who arouses me in real life.  I have no choice but to box up my fantasies and hide my crazy frigidity behind a facade of normal desire.

Matters are a bit different with Karl. It isn’t that he understands or shares my fantasies, but more that he lends himself to being my fantasy.  Not willingly, perhaps, or even consciously, but he is a blank screen where I can project whatever I want. For years, I never fuck Karl without imagining that I am tied up.

When I first get involved with Karl I give him my worn copy of the Story of O, he flips through a few pages and puts the book to one side.  If it speaks to him at all, its in an inaudible whisper.  Later, I am able to interest him fleetingly in the Joy of Sex, a modern hipster Kama Sutra which includes a short chapter on bondage, it makes bondage seem like just an interesting experiment. I persuade Karl that if he ties me up the way they show in the book, he will get more sex.  Not in so many words, but that is the gist.

Karl never gets comfortable with  bondage, he just doesn’t understand it at all, how I can like being restrained. He feels like a bully, rough and distant. The more he resents having to participate, the more selfish I feel, but I am reluctant to give up this pantomime, it is all I have.

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Eating Habits

I am a creature of habit when it comes to food. I try to convince myself that I like variety, new tastes, but who am I fooling? I am the person who eats a scrambled egg sandwich on toast for lunch daily in the fifth grade. I am the person who eats a cream cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off every day in Junior High School. I am the person who right this moment in my life eats a mixing bowl full of popcorn every day including Sundays. Each bowlful is delicious, I savor a mouthful and lick my chops.

One summer when I am married to Peter but still in college I drink tall glasses of iced coffee with milk and four spoons of sugar all day long for two months. Solid food does not appeal to me, that summer, I am too busy to eat because I am having an affair with a married PhD student. He is tall and spindly, an intellectual. We go to a motel on the other side of the George Washington bridge in Fort Lee to fuck, he turns out to have a long spindly penis which I pump up and down on so vigorously that he cries out in pain. I’ve had too much caffeine I think.

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Becoming a Scaredy-Cat

One day on vacation we go on a snorkeling boat tour, Karl and me and the two children, plus ten or so other tourists from all around the island. The sound is choppy and the weather looks mean and stormy. We aren’t sure until the last minute if the boat will actually sail.  Everyone mills around at the jetty waiting and conjecturing, but the Captain finally announces that it will be fine, so we get on board with our equipment. In  fifteen minutes we arrive at the destination, out of sight of any land, surrounded by water and the endless curve of horizon. You wonder how the Captain can find this spot, with no landmarks that our eyes recognize.

We gear up, tugging fins onto our feet, shrugging into bright yellow life vests, the kind you blow up if you get into trouble, and adjust our masks and snorkels. Aaron and Jason are deft and expert, spitting on the lenses of the masks to prevent them clouding up, and slipping into the water. But because of the chop, the waves are much larger than we have ever experienced, and after a carefree time exploring farther and farther from the boat, with a jolt I realize I can’t see Aaron. The four of us always stick together when snorkeling but somehow today we become separated.

I churn water and shout his name. I can’t see anything in the distance because waves get in the way and nobody can  hear me yell over the sound of wind and water, I can hardly even hear myself. I grab Karl and Jason and tell them to help me find Aaron.  They swim back toward the boat and Jason climbs aboard, jumps onto the top of the cabin, and runs in circles on the cabin roof looking into the water. My husband and I swim around the boat, but all we can see are anonymous heads bobbing in the chop. Then Aaron appears in front of me, dog paddling a few feet from the prow, unaware that we are frantic and terrified or that he has been missing. He thinks he is just snorkeling like usual.

Before that day, I swam fearlessly deep in the ocean,  way out beyond reefs,  the children diving down willy-nilly to snatch something interesting off the ocean floor or work their way around a forest of coral, all of us enveloped in a bubble of adventure. But afterward, my courage is gone and I keep thinking, and think until this very day, that it could have been true, Aaron could have drowned, and I remember the feeling I had as we searched the waves, my luck has run out, all the bad things that have somehow passed me by until then, the accidents barely avoided, the hairsbreadth escapes from disaster. I thought, the odds have caught up with me finally.

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When our son is born Karl and I start taking vacations in the Bahamas, in remote, barren islands a million miles from any grand hotel. On this trip Aaron is 10 years old and his friend Jason who lives across the street from us is a few years older. The four of us have gone on a dozen similar vacations, to Cat Island, Guyana Key, Tobago, Green Turtle Cay, the harder to get to, the more isolated and pristine the destination, the happier we are.

We have become seasoned travelers.  On each trip we pull matching suitcases packed with food and bathing suits and gear, well prepared for delays and malfunctions and discomfort. To get to this particular island we have to take three planes and then a small boat. A travel agent booked the flights in these pre-Internet days, and left too little time for a connection, so even before we disembark from our second plane we can see our next flight take off down the runway and soar up into the cloudless sky leaving us far behind. We park the children with the luggage and talk to the airline representative, too bad she sympathizes, no more planes today, she says, this week everything is full because it is Festival.

While we are wandering the terminal the children fall asleep on top of the suitcases.  Finally Karl and I get together with some other stranded voyagers and charter a Piper Cub.  Everyone crowds into the small plane and the children take turns sitting next to the pilot. We fly low enough to see our shadow rippling on the water.

On our first day on the island we stay close to home, snorkeling off the white sand beach in front of our rented villa. I float face down in the turquoise sea, my body rising and falling weightless with each gentle swell, everything silent except for the sound of my own breath.  I am living in a world suspended by the tide among painted fish and spiny creatures and swaying coral, tiny squid in schools of darting poignancy, heavy jowled groupers, shiny barracuda behind me barely seen, once a glorious bug-eyed green eel, slowly opening and closing its mouth, clouds of striped little fish, buttery yellow fish, rainbow fish, a jungle of water images down here, below me.  I am an angel shadowing them. I don’t swim or scull, just drift at the whim of the waves. A small kick of my fins, a tiny undulation, sends me in a new direction.  I feel sinuous, a dolphin, my arms against my sides to make me streamlined.  I could  float forever watching my fish folk dance.

The island is scattered with cottages and goats, sad gardens scratched out in rock.  We drive to town in a dusty golf cart we rent for the week and as we bump down the potholed path the children shriek with laughter in the rear. We plan to use a pool in town set among palm trees next to a long jetty. Reggae music plays over loudspeakers.  The children dive in and out like otters and laugh while we lounge in aluminum chairs and drink Mexican beer.

I leave Karl by the pool to watch the children play, and walk to the pay phone outside the island store. I pull out the scrap of paper on which I scribbled my lover’s telephone number.  It is morning on our island but afternoon where he is, at work, and he is surprised to hear my voice, he did not expect me to call when I am on vacation in the middle of nowhere.

Back in the villa where we are staying, our bedroom has windows looking out to the sea on the east and the sound on the west and the sand in between.  Later,  after Karl and I make love I lie on the bed naked and sweaty and think about my lover.  If my husband wonders why I am silent, he doesn’t ask.

Hello, I say, when my lover answers the phone, it’s me, and he is surprised, my devotion is delicious to him, more than he is accustomed to but he is pleased. For myself, I love the sound of his voice and his accent. He wants  to talk dirty over the phone but I am self-conscious on the public street and can’t stay long anyway. We don’t have small talk. If I let him he would tell me about his day. I do not want to hear it.

I have to go, I say, I will talk to you when I get home, I adore you. He is cheerful, says he loves me too, and although he is disappointed that I won’t arouse him on the phone, it takes more than one missed opportunity to upset him. It isn’t until much later, when I have to choose between my husband and him and don’t choose him that he will be sad enough to cry. I adore you, I say again, and hang up the phone

Later, Karl and I walk on the beach, heads down, looking for shells.  Our bare footsteps weave between the shallows and the wet sand and the shifting dunes, sun warm. Aaron and Jason run in circles beside us until we all get so tired that we sit where the water laps at our feet and look into the endless glittering azure sea, skipped with wavelets. The sand is soft, pale, and the children are brown, happy with their handfuls of cowries and conchs, starfish and hermit crabs.

That evening, Aaron and Jason build a corral to keep the crabs in, piling up stones in a big circle outside on the terrace.  They name each crab and make plans to race them and smuggle them home in a suitcase.  Overnight the crabs escape.  The children consult with each other and agree that perhaps the corral was not quite tall enough.  They decide to find more crabs and build a higher fence.

Next day we take a rubber dinghy out into the bay so the children will have something to cling to when they get tired and I can float free in the salty water, arms outstretched, the children’s voices far away, looking at the sky. I feel saturated with sun; the children hold their breath and dive to the ocean floor to snatch up sea biscuits and sand dollars. The sea cucumber we remember too late has a diabolical defense; it expels its internal organs and disgusts any predator. I make a face, the children groan. We pour the cucumber back into the sea, guts and all, keeping our fingers crossed that it will regenerate once we leave and the children sit in the dinghy among their remaining treasures while Karl and I take turns towing them home.

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Law Man

It is pretty hard to scandalize me. Generally I’m skeptical of moralistic takes on the universe having seen even in my tiny corner of it the depths of human depravity and finally been disabused of the notion that there is a silver lining to every cloud, a lesson to be learned, a benefit to somehow be sieved from the detritus.  That’s not to say that I dismiss all absolutes, not at all.  To the contrary, sometimes absolutes are all you have.

But when it comes to infidelity I am up to my eyeballs in shadow and relativism and I admit that there comes a time when I toy with scandal and play with the chance of exposure, all in the name of lust and love and ambition, when I become an adoring acolyte to a man seemingly above reproach, who on closer inspection turns out to like sex at least as well as he likes the first amendment.  Probably better.

When I first meet this man, my judge, I am fresh out of law school, thirty years younger than he is and star struck.   He stands tall, over six feet, portly tending to fat, hawk-nosed and bespectacled, not handsome so much as monumental in a dignified, statesmanlike kind of way, all intellect so I  imagine, when he hangs his black silk robes around him and walks to the worn leather chair in the courtroom, how I admire him, his calm, his wit, the depth of his knowledge and compassion.  He is no ordinary judge, he is magnificent in my eyes, another Louis Brandeis.  “Counsel”, he admonishes from the bench, with wry insight, “Move on, we’ve spent an hour on this point and I think we understand”, winking at the jury.   I am awed by his knowledge of precedent and human nature.

In our private moments, when his robe is hanging on the back of the door and his sleeves are rolled up and he smokes a cigarette very sophisticatedly, I sit at the library table across from his desk in the oak paneled chambers where he writes his decisions and eats his lunch.  “Karen”, he calls out “can I have a cup of coffee?”, and I hastily put down my research notes and push the heavy law books to one side and run down the hall to fill his mug, two sugars, no milk, and bring it to him, honored to be of service but feeling like his intellectual match too, reading cases, scrutinizing legal arguments, sitting on the sidelines in the courtroom as he reigns, scratching out first drafts of his opinions.  I am paramount his student, yes, but also his peer I imagine, discussing the law over egg salad sandwiches.

Being a judge is lonely because the code of ethics limits freedom to socialize with someone whose fate you may determine.  Years ago, it used to be more relaxed, old boy network and all that, but modern times are stricter and as a result a judge and his law clerk often have only each other to talk to. So when I work with the judge, we are together almost every day from morning until closing time, four thirty or so when I drive home and he, that term of court, walks to his motel to watch television and read case files.  We finish countless hearings and jury trials during our year together, divorces, personal injury lawsuits, and one shocking murder that takes three weeks to get to verdict and is attended by flocks of national press.  And I swear, as close as we are, as mutually dependent as we become, it never occurs to me that the judge is a sexual being.

It isn’t until years later, when I am an associate in a big firm, with my own office and a secretary I share with only two other junior lawyers, that I fall in love with my judge, and look back at my clerkship year with him and wonder how I could have failed to notice that this intellectual giant is actually quite ordinary when it comes to sex and conclude that if a man is not one’s father he does not inevitably qualify as a father figure.

The judge is now presiding in the very city where I have just begun to practice, home to a small legal community where he and I meet often, sometimes have lunch together, sit next to one other at bar meetings, resume our friendship. Other lawyers never look askance because it is common knowledge that he is my old mentor.   But somewhere, somehow, we move with the tiniest increments from colleagues to lovers, and one day I lean against him as we drive to a meeting and am startled into arousal at this casual touch, then find myself kissing him as if we were on a first date, and I although still cannot really associate him with sweaty sex, we find ourselves in his hotel room, me still his acolyte but this time serving a naked god.

Our affair is short, it is difficult to find places and times to meet, and then a new term begins and he moves back to his home city for the next court assignment, no more motels and restaurants in out of the way villages for us.   Honestly, it is a relief because I am confused and bewildered by the complicated logistics and emotions of the affair.  I am scared of being found out but don’t have the courage to tell him that I want to stop.  And when I attend my judge’s funeral some years later, I  am distracted, hating his mourning wife and sorry I came.

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