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Today, we’ve got an essay about knowing what you want and asking for it directly. That’s a very vanilla way of saying this episode is about kink. Aly Tadros had no experience with domination in the bedroom, but she was intrigued. In her essay, she tells the story of her first B.D.S.M. relationship, and then we talk about taking kink outside the bedroom and how it’s changed the way Aly approaches her entire life. This is Modern Love.
Aly, welcome to the studio.
Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
So you’re a musician, why did you write an essay about the story instead of a song?
I think because there were so many moments in this story that were so visceral — and in the relationship, that I wanted to be able to write out the complexity in detail in maybe a way that you couldn’t in song, and I did actually end up writing a song about an experience like this.
What is the song called?
“Your Escape.” What does the song sound like? What’s the what’s the feel?
It’s a very downtempo, dark, and — there was just a real sense of playful deviance which was something I hadn’t really explored until this relationship and a bit of delight in it as well.
I got the red dress. You got the time. I want some mischief and you my dear, look so good tonight.
I feel like your essay is probably one of the sexier essays we’ve had on the show. Can you read it for us?
I would love to.
“Are you left or right-handed?” Dan asked as he walked me down the subway steps.
“Right-handed,” I said. “Why?”
When we stopped at the bottom, he put his arms around me and hugged me tightly, nuzzling his lips into my neck. Suddenly, his teeth sank into my right shoulder. My vision blurred in a flash of blinding pain. I had experienced my share of pain over the years — a broken arm, a split chin, but not like this, never intentionally.
On our third date earlier that night, he had asked if he could bite me. It would be my first taste of B.D.S.M. I’d said yes. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. He kissed me on the cheek and said goodnight. Then he was gone.
I walked through the turnstile in a daze only faintly aware of the people around me. My skin pulsed. I arrived at the subway platform drunk on endorphins. I ran my fingers under my coat and felt the tiny grooves in my shoulder his bite had left.
Later, I realized he’d asked if I was right-handed so he could bite where my handbag would rest, on my right shoulder — the pain reminding me of him. Jesus, that had hurt. What the hell was I getting myself into?
Minutes later, Dan texted. “You OK?”
I started this message — if I wanted to back out, now was the time.
“See you in two weeks,” I replied.
I hadn’t been looking to date. I was still recovering from the end of my last relationship with a journalist.
I told him about my struggles with alcohol and my family, and then he broke up with me. As a child, I had learned to hide who I was to avoid upsetting my father. In my teens, I was chronically depressed, but he didn’t talk about feelings. So I started sneaking shots of the Tanqueray he kept in the freezer. I became a touring musician. And on my short visits home, we maintained an unspoken agreement. I wouldn’t bother my father with who I really was, and he wouldn’t ask.
I met the journalist on OkCupid while I was touring with my band. Every day we would text each other a single photo from our oddball work lives — a NASCAR race in Charlotte, a tricycle factory in Queens. I hid what I didn’t want him to see — me relapsing on cheap merlot in Raleigh, crying at a truck stop in Duluth. It was a tough time. My father was hospitalized and dying, but I wanted to be fun. So why burden him with unnecessary details.
We went through the motions of building a relationship — cooking dinner and watching movies. But when he asked why I didn’t drink, I made excuses about early morning meetings. Concealing the messy parts of my life came naturally. I’ve done it my whole life. I finally told the journalist about my dad and the drinking. And that’s when he ended things. Then my father died and I sank into despair. When it came to dating, I felt hopeless. I thought, why even bother? As soon as a guy finds out about my baggage, he bolts.
I may as well walk around with a sign strapped to my chest that read: “Danger: High Maintenance.” And then I got an OkCupid notification that someone had liked my profile. I logged on and saw a black and white photo of a man’s jawline. I clicked. Dan’s profile read, “I’m a feminist. I respect women while simultaneously enjoying dominating them.” Great. One of those “Fifty Shades” opportunists. I was appalled, of course, so I kept reading. Favorite things — sending you to work with marks, the fragrance of your hair lingering on my hands, photography and Dan Savage.
I slammed my laptop shut. I was, well, turned on. But I couldn’t message him. Kink was something people did on HBO. I had scoffed at the “Fifty Shades of Gray” craze. I could not message him, or could I? I opened up a message box and typed “big fan of Dan Savage. I’m intrigued.” I hit send and then ran out of the room screaming.
One week and dozens of emails later, Dan and I agreed to meet. He was handsome, mid-thirties, very fit.
He told me he’d been a “dominant” for years and lived with his girlfriend in an open relationship. They had rules. No unprotected sex. No sleepovers. No kissing. I had never met a man who communicated his needs so confidently. Where would we meet? I asked. Your place, before work, 6 a.m. I was not a morning person, and I didn’t love the idea of being seen naked in the light of day. But Dan felt safe and in control. I liked being near him.
“You need to tell me everything,” he said. “All of your baggage, any triggers. I want you to keep a journal and send it to me. I have to know what might come up.”
Eventually, we agreed on rules and boundaries. I shared everything I was usually too afraid to tell a new partner. I said, “My dad died three months ago, so maybe we avoid the daddy stuff.” “Got it. What else?”
“I’m not a blackout drunk, but if I drink, I get really depressed. I’d prefer if you didn’t drink around me.”
“Great,” he said. “I’d like you to be fully aware, anyway.”
For the next two months, Dan texted me constantly. His aura of calm control was a revelation for me. Rather than fleeing from my emotional baggage, he welcomed it without fear or judgment. The nights before his visits, I would stay up until 4 a.m. cleaning, eager to please him. He would ring my doorbell as the garbage trucks blared down the street, and it was exhilarating — until it was exhausting. Though Dan wouldn’t admit it, he was a sadist. He would leave me with bite marks and bruises that lasted for weeks.
And I was not a masochist. I hated the pain. But I found catharsis in how calm Dan was through my outbursts. I would cry when his leather belt stung my thighs, but he never tried to curb or deny my feelings. I could sob from the physical pain and then about everything else I had been too afraid to talk about — the relationship I would never have with my father. My impulse to deaden everything with a drink. None of it fazed him. Then Dan would leave, and I would sit alone in my bedroom, his sweat still fresh on my skin.
I wanted so badly to be held.
I wasn’t the only woman he visited. He would tell me stories of other women he was sleeping with, and I’d repress any feelings of jealousy. I thought he was more evolved than I was, as if attachment were some sort of moral failing on my part.
Then an old flame came to town and asked me out to dinner. “Uh-oh, he might want to come home with me,” I texted Dan playfully.
He replied, “I don’t like to share. Careful. Dates are fine, but I don’t want you sleeping with other men.”
I stared at my phone, startled. Since we weren’t romantic I had assumed he wouldn’t care. I told Dan I needed time to think about it. And then I went on the date. My friend and I stayed out until 2 a.m. laughing and making out. And I saw how much I missed being kissed and the warmth of another body.
It was sobering. Dan had a partner to go home to and I was on my own. Was this really what I wanted?
In the end, I kept coming to the same conclusion — my relationship with Dan would never be enough.
I had worked up the courage to be forthright with him at the beginning, so I could walk away too.
A few days later, I texted, “I’m sorry, I just need more.”
“If you change your mind,” he replied, “you know where to find me.”
I had found a strange liberation in submitting to Dan. But it was only a first step. I wanted the domination, but I also needed lazy Sundays and walks in the park. I wasn’t sure what that kind of relationship would look like. I just knew I couldn’t continue hiding from myself or others.
So I went on OkCupid and created a new profile. I wrote, “I’m looking for a monogamous long-term partner whose natural dominant qualities complement my submissive. That kind of trust takes time to build, but I’m in no hurry.”
Aly, thank you so much for reading.
We’re going to take a break, and then let’s talk some more.
Aly, thank you so much for reading your essay.
It’s such a vulnerable piece. And it ends when your relationship with Dan ends. He’d like opened up this whole new way of interacting sexually and emotionally and physically. What are some things that were taking away from that relationship?
One, the way that his confidence really impacted me. He was self-possessed in his speech and in the way he walked through the world. And I recognized that I was attracted to him in part because I wanted that for myself. There was — one day, I was sending an email to a big shot agent who had just kind of been a jerk to me at a holiday party. And Dan read it before I sent it out, and he copy edited my speech.
No, way! But do you remember the changes he made?
Yes, I do, because I still think about them.
So in the email, I said something like, “I think that were a bit rude to me when you ignored me, and I really feel like next time if I see you, I’d like for you to be kinder.” Dan went through and just like slashed the “I think, I feel.”
No, he was rude to you and you want him to be kinder to you. And I realized, oh, there’s something — there’s a certainty in that kind of speaking, both in the self and to others that feels really powerful. And what’s it like to exist in the world?
OK. So the confidence is something that you took. What else was something that you took from that relationship?
I realized that either you set your own boundaries or people will set them for you. So in this situation with Dan, he stated very clearly what he could and couldn’t do. And I needed to realize for myself both in dating, relationships, in work, in life, what were the things I needed to state to others to get my needs met?
The writer Maggie Nelson has this wonderful quote about how the lessons from B.D.S.M. aren’t necessarily about safe words or consent, though those things are important. It’s really just that consent, that yes is a portal to the real work of desire — of recognizing what in yourself lights up when someone touches you a certain way or says something to you in a certain time and then having to communicate to the other person.
I love it when you do that. Can you do it again? And in B.D.S.M., you have those conversations early. You have a way of communicating with what we call safe words during if you don’t enjoy what’s happening or you need it to slow down or stop. And then at the end, you check in and you ask, how was that for you? I think that’s something that I took from B.D.S.M. that I think anyone can think about in terms of creating a container for communication.
Were there other areas of your life where you really had to take a hard look at where you were and be honest with yourself?
So when I met Dan, I was three or four months sober. I had just got into recovery. And one thing that I was really cognizant of when I met Dan was that I had just taken a significant step away from doing something that caused harm, which was the drinking and was an escape. And in B.D.S.M., I had to be honest about whether or not the things that I was doing with Dan were also an escape from my pain, from my sadness. I think both B.D.S.M. and sobriety demand rigorous honesty. You’re with a play partner. You’re opting in to go to some very vulnerable places.
And you have to make an agreement that we’re going to tell each other the truth. Because otherwise, why play along? Why do this? And I felt that way in sobriety as well too. I need to not drink, so I can show up for my life.
When you said — when you met Dan, you were stepping away from something, doing something that actively caused you harm. I mean, I’m thinking about — B.D.S.M. is the potential to cause harm or like the — so it is there is some interesting friction or irony there?
I think a lot about the difference between causing hurt and causing harm. Hurt is very at the surface, right? You spank someone or you hold on to their wrists tightly and maybe that hurts, but it doesn’t last for long. Harm has the potential to do damage. And so I think that consent and communication is unbelievably important. And as long as those things are in place, and people are honest about their limitations, I don’t think that it’s harmful.
This B.D.S.M. framework of honesty and communication and boundary setting, are there other ways you’ve applied this to relationships that are not sexual?
Absolutely. I think it’s — I don’t ever expect people to be able to intuit my needs now. At work, in friendship, not just in relationships. I remember starting a new day job and stating from the outset that I don’t respond to emails on weekends.
That’s very Dan copyediting your email, except you’re doing it now. I love that. And that’s putting up a boundary.
It’s setting a boundary because I understood that I was better able to show up when I established those boundaries earlier, as opposed to trying to intuit what someone else wanted from me and then pretzeling myself into it. I had a conversation very recently with a dear friend who I had grown apart from. And he was asking why. And I pulled that like kink courage out of my gut and that fear. And what I said to him was, I noticed that when we talk, you don’t really ask me how I’m doing.
And it opened up this lovely conversation that he thought I didn’t want to share things about my life, that I was much more private than I was. But there was something essential that I learned in B.D.S.M., which is something that I need when I spend time with you is for you to ask me questions about myself.
I love what you said to kink courage.
It’s — oh, god, this person might reject me or judge me, but what’s the potential here is for us to get so much more of what we need. That’s the courage is you start out with your needs, and then it creates this opening for you to have your desires met too.
Aly, Thank you so much for this conversation.
Thank you, Anna.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Elyssa Dudley, and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. This episode was mixed by Sophia Lanman and our show is recorded by Maddy Masiello. The Modern Love theme music is by Dan Powell. Aly Tadros wrote and performed the song “Your Escape” from her album “Hungry Ghost.” Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.