Recently I was asked to write a guest post explaining what I thought the appeal of BDSM is in erotica. As I wrote that post and sent it off, I found myself thinking about my workouts at the gym and drawing parallels.
I work out with a personal trainer twice a week. My trainer pushes me hard, much harder than I would be able to push myself, and I have a reputation for pushing. But I don’t trust myself. There are boundaries I’m afraid to push on my own. I’ve had too many injuries from pushing in the wrong way and overtraining. Though I love working out with my husband, and we have a great time together whether we’re practicing martial arts or whether we’re lifting, or even on a long walk, he can’t really push me like my trainer does because he’s not a trainer and because I’m his wife and he’s careful with me. Also he doesn’t want to be around the bitch I can be if he tries to push me too hard.
So what’s different with a personal trainer? First of all, my trainer is an expert. I knew his credentials when I started working with him. Secondly, and most importantly, long before he could push my limits like he does now, we had to develop a relationship of trust. I went into that relationship with an injured knee. I had to trust that my trainer knew what he was doing enough to help me reach the level of fitness I wanted while not injuring me further, but strengthening me and facilitating healing. He had to trust that I would be honest with him and give myself over to his training. Once that trust was established, I knew that anything my trainer asked of me, no matter how impossible it seemed at the time, I would push toward. As time has passed he’s given me challenges that have driven me harder than I’ve ever been driven, challenges I would have never believed myself capable of finishing. And he’s also given me challenges that I’ve not yet finished, challenges designed to make me aware of how much farther I want to push those boundaries. During the year and a half we’ve been working together, we’ve developed a relationship of trust and camaraderie.
Today I hurt. I even have a few bruises from the boxing part of yesterday’s workout. I’m pretty proud of those, actually. It doesn’t matter how badly my body hurts or how exhausted I am — I keep pushing, and I know that I can push because my trainer’s looking out for me; he’s in control. What makes a situation that would appear to any outsider like torture something that I revel in is what happens inside my head. What I experience when I’m pushed to the edge of my endurance is somewhat similar, I imagine, to what practitioners of BDSM call subspace, which is the headspace in which submissives may find themselves when they’ve been pushed to their limits by their Doms.
I’ve been thinking about headspace a lot lately, about the place where I go, during a hard workout, when I’ve moved beyond tired and beyond pain. Pushing myself to the limit changes much more than my body. It feels like I go through stages. First there’s determination, and when the pain sets in (I’ve learned the difference between good pain and bad pain) and my body starts to rebel, the emotions start to well up – sometimes anger at the intangible, at some nemesis I neither have a name for nor can define. Sometimes that anger morphs into a child-like state that brings me close to tears, a state in which I want to turn on my trainer and ask him why the hell he’s being so mean to me – even as I push myself harder, even as I respect him more for believing I’m worthy of this challenge. When I get past that ‘why are you hurting me’ stage, what happens next is the most amazing part of all. Somehow my body pushes the pain back. Endorphins, adrenaline, and all the chemical soup flooding into my brain and body take me to a place that feels far removed from what’s going on physically, and yet also feels right there at my very centre.
The thing about the change that takes place when my trainer has pushed my boundaries and tested my skill level is that, even when the workout is over, the change remains. I’ve gone where I’ve not been before. The reservoir inside me that makes me who I am seems deeper. I feel more real. I write this because I’m always seeking ways to understand what’s going on in the stories we writers tell, and when BDSM takes up such a large space under the Erotica Big Top, why wouldn’t I be seeking parallels, searching for ways to understand, ways to help my readers understand and identify. I do the same with all of the many components of erotica. Having said that, I hardly think it’s a surprise that gyms and physical fitness figure so prominently in erotic stories.
If I could put the experience I share with my personal trainer into a phrase, that phrase would be ‘power under control’ — my power, his control. And that power is power I didn’t know I had, power I would have been afraid to access without his control. I think we can’t overestimate the body as a teaching tool for knowing ourselves. We’re all our own biggest mystery, power unaccessed, depths unexplored, and most of us tend toward the path of least resistance. Moving off that path into the Undiscovered Country, accessing our power, is often easier when someone else is in control.