I biked on a muggy summer day from Washington into rural Virginia to get my first tattoo from a young, bearded man who grilled us burgers and drank beer in the middle of our session. I was nervous about the pain, but the adrenaline kicked in, making me feel high. He marked my skin with a string of dots that grow larger as they spiral up from my wrist to my forearm. He asked me, “Why the dots?”
They are just dots. I wanted to get a tattoo that represents nothing other than a decision to mark my body. I wanted the experience of being tattooed. I wanted the experience of being a marked person. The dots mean that I decide what is beautiful for my body.
That tattoo was my first attempt at claiming my body. The ink seeped into my skin and would then grow into a kink for bruises and marks.
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness — a member of an especially strict, separatist evangelical Christian church that I now see functions as a doomsday cult hiding in plain sight. My body was a vessel for Jehovah’s service. I had to protect the purity of this vessel, which meant saying no to a range of supposed sins, including sex, drugs, overeating, tattoos and revealing clothing. Even excessive exercise and higher education were frowned upon for diverting energy from God’s service.
As a woman, my body was always doubly owned: by God and by man. I grew up learning that, if I was very good, I could be of service to a man, to the congregation, to God. I needed to keep my body pure for a husband, who would then become my keeper. Women are taught to love and obey. Men are, in return, expected to care for women.
But the religion never instructs men to love and respect women. Husbands offer care in the same way that animal husbandry is associated with maintaining and breeding livestock. That was the life I’d been promised. That was the most I could hope for. My own needs, desires and wants — these were things I was taught to resist.
Ultimately, my body’s desires were stronger than Jehovah’s commandments. I sinned, in several ways, with several girls and boys, friends and co-workers. My mother told me I was dirty. She told me I was broken. Maybe there was something about me that was too broken to survive in her world. With time, maybe I could make that broken part of me visible. I could make all the things that she rejected me for into marks. Could I wear them on my skin with pride? Eventually these marks would help me find a world in which a queer girl with expansive desires could survive.
“My mother told me I was dirty. She told me I was broken. Maybe there was something about me that was too broken to survive in her world. With time, maybe I could make that broken part of me visible.”
When I was 20 years old, I was excommunicated. Elders in the Jehovah’s Witnesses kicked me out. And I fled from this life. But the stories I had been told — that my body was for someone else and that men determined its value — were harder to escape.
My desire for marks grew slowly. I loved my tattoo and made sure it was visible at all times. Then, I got an embarrassingly delightful hickey from a person I met at a party. A man left thumb-sized bruises marching up my outer thigh from a night he spent in between them. I loved the bruises left from roller-skating as much as the ones left by trysts. Hiking left my legs scraped and scarred from poison oak. My most joyful memories marked me, in one way or another.
“Impact play,” a term for spanking and its variations, is one of the most common kinks. Leigh Cowart, in the book “Hurts So Good,” argues that feeling pain to feel pleasure is a universal human experience; whether it be backpacking, marathons, or cold-water plunges, it’s common to try to feel bad in order to feel better. As is often the case, it is only the sexual expression of seeking pleasure through pain that has been stigmatized.
But kinksters practice with pride and are happy to show off collections of toys like mini red and black leather whips, a flogger made of moose hide, or a small sharp riding crop with a heart at the end — a personal favorite.
Impact play can be hard to understand because it explores the edges between pleasure and pain. During an impact play session, adrenaline and dopamine surge through our bodies, creating a feeling somewhere between a high and euphoria. And, as Cowart documents, these practices can be healing when accompanied with negotiation, consent and aftercare.
While I enjoy everything about impact play, it’s the marks on my skin that mean the most to me. A marking kink — leaving bruises, hickeys, and in some cases permanent branding — is often seen as a BDSM practice of claiming ownership or possession. On my body, marks feel like I’m claiming my own pleasure. Marks remind me that I decide what is pleasurable and beautiful on my body.
When does a desire become a kink? For me, the difference is that kinks are requested. I ask for my kinks. I list them in dating profiles. I negotiate kinky sex with partners, making sure our desires and boundaries align. And this is where the empowerment of kink and BDSM lies: naming our desires, having those desires affirmed, and doing so in a relationship of deep connection and vulnerability. Consent is stated explicitly in BDSM. And power dynamics aren’t assumed; they are negotiated and renegotiated.
I had a crush on Lynn as soon as I met them. They’re a whip-smart writer. They can sport a floral sundress with queer femme perfection. They have more hobbies than anyone I know, and they are good at all of them. I was intimidated. In classic queer girl style, I wasn’t sure if we were flirting or just friends, even after weeks of sending each other erotic poetry, moments spent touching too long while comparing hand sizes, and the nights spent laughing too late on my patio.
Lynn came over for breakfast. Over fruit and coffee, we negotiated our scene: They wanted to be called “sir”; I wanted praise. We decided on safe words and gestures to indicate when we needed to slow down or stop. I showed them how I use a new toy, and they showed me how they wanted to be touched.
I asked for marks. I didn’t care how. I giggled and squealed erratically when Lynn lingered on the inside of my thigh, nibbling. They read my body and stayed there. I asked for more. They bit more. Bit longer. Bit harder. My laughter bubbled over. My body wriggled. The skin on my face and chest flushed bright red.
For the next week, my inner thigh was lined from my hip to my knee with bruises, circles, and semicircles the size of a small mouth. They were blue at first but deepened to purple and then greenish, before turning dark tan.
I know some people will interpret these marks as pointless pain. Others will read them as Lynn claiming me. For me, the marks feel the same as my first tattoo: I’m claiming this body as mine. I get to decide what is beautiful. And for me, the bites, bruises and scratches are all part of the story of what makes my life beautiful. Each mark reminds me that I can speak my desire and ask for the pleasure that I want.
“For me, the marks feel the same as my first tattoo: I’m claiming this body as mine. I get to decide what is beautiful. And for me, the bites, bruises and scratches are all part of the story of what makes my life beautiful.”
Much of my desire is a response to the religious trauma I withstood as a young woman. Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially strict, but the religion is fundamentally the same as any other aspect of purity culture. Purity culture teaches us that dressing a certain way means a woman can’t be respected. Purity culture includes all lessons women learned about not “giving ourselves away” too cheaply ― as if we are objects to be given, received, used. As if our value is determined by the price we’re able to extract from men.
Myths about vaginas getting loose are harmful lies designed to shame women. That awful metaphor we all know so well — “Why buy a cow when the milk is free?”— is entrenched because deep down, most Americans still think a woman’s value decreases as her sexual activity increases.
We live with the burdens of these stories. They hide below our skin, deep into our gut so that we can’t trust our own intuition. These stories are invisible, but they shape our bodies and actions. By leaving no outward trace, the pain is more insidious.
My current crush, Dave, held my foot up, pointed to two parallel scrapes just above my ankle, and asked if a vampire bit me. I told him yes — and he’d need to watch out or he’d be next. The marks were from frolicking naked in a hot spring. Those marks told a story, and I told that story to my crush. The hickey on my neck that Dave left the week before told another story. All these parts of my life — the play, kinks, sports, adventures that push my body to its limits — hurt and leave marks. They tell a story on my body: This life is mine, and I’ll push my body to experience its limits.
These marks are highly individual, but I’m not alone in this kink. Last night, Lynn dropped cookies off at my house, and I smiled as I read the story on their skin — hickeys on the back of their neck.
In a memoir, Lidia Yuknavitch writes of her own experiences with BDSM, impact play and the “skin stories” left in bruises and scars. Why seek this mix of pain and pleasure? “Maybe healing looks different on women like me,” she offers. Maybe healing looks different than anything queer women have ever been promised. Maybe healing needs something to point to: look here, see this mark. I wanted this mark. I asked for this bruise. And I’m proud that I have the courage enough to ask for and receive pleasure that writes a new story on my body.
Trish Fancher is a writer, teacher, feminist in California. Her personal essays on gender and sexuality have appeared in Autostraddle, Catapult, Avidly, The Lily, and Northwest Review. She also researches the histories of queer and feminist communities. She can occasionally and anxiously be found on Twitter at @trish_fancher.