Jemma was 7 when she had her first submissive fantasy, she told me. It didn't have anything to do with a daddy or a paternal figure in a sexual context, she hastened to add. But "it was something about submission. And it made me feel safe. And wanted."
Jemma is 31 now, a nanny by day and a submissive sex toy by night. I'm only partially kidding here, because about two years ago, Jemma dropped out of our social circle abruptly and seemingly without reason. We all knew she'd been having problems with her husband, James, and that they'd agreed to an amicable separation. It was so amicable, in fact, that James and Jemma continued to live together and carry on various sexual liaisons and relationships with others under the same roof, with the full knowledge of the other.
But what usually happens in this type of arrangement happened very quickly. In this case it was James who was the reluctant one. He'd gone along with the open-marriage idea in a last-ditch effort to hold on to Jemma. We felt bad for James, who was so demonstratively and wholeheartedly in love with his wife -- 11 years into their marriage, yet -- that he became the industry standard, the paragon to which all other boyfriends and husbands were compared (much to their annoyance). Jemma, on the other hand, was more restless. They'd gotten married when she was 18, and she hadn't figured out what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to write, to teach, to do something useful.
Two years ago, I'd heard bits and pieces about their dissolution. James had finally moved out, citing Jemma's "addiction to the Internet" as a source of their unhappiness. She'd been having an affair with a married guy (also in an open marriage) she'd met in a chat room, and "the whole thing became too strange, even for me," James said.
"The truth is, I found what I really want in my life," Jemma said to me, over a cup of tea. I hadn't seen her in over a year, and she looked different to me -- edgier, older, more self-confident. She'd lost that dreaminess, that sleepy, droopy-eyed expression. "James was never into what I need. It wasn't fair to expect it from him." Jemma looked at me directly. "You do know about me, right? That I'm into B&D/S&M? Once I realized that was part of me, I couldn't go back to the way it was with James. And that just doesn't turn him on."
I'd heard some rumors to this effect. "Go on," I said. "What part couldn't James take?"
"Oh, the fact that I was part of this couple, with these two other people. I met them over the Internet, and it was my first time to play as a submissive. It was OK, but then it got too emotionally complicated between the three of us." She looked out the window and sighed. "Now I'm with one man. I'm his slut."
"What does that mean? What do you do?"
"He's my boyfriend. He sees others, but it's in our rules that I can't see others. You want to know, specifically, what we do? Well, we go to the clubs. I'm just speaking generally here." Jemma looked to see if I was following, and I nodded. "I dress in my leather corset, my fishnets, and nobody's allowed to touch me at anytime, or talk to me without his permission. I have to call him 'Sir.' Is this shocking to you?"
"Yes," I said. "Did I hear you say 'slut'?"
"Feel free to laugh at any time, by the way," Jemma said sincerely. "Really. But he does things for me that I've always wanted, that I've always needed. Is sex important to you?"
"Yes," I said. "Among other things."
"Sex is very, very important to me, and it's not just the getting off. It's the whole life of being a slave. Of being tied up, of being told what to do, of having others watch me and want to be the ones fucking me or going down on me or whipping me. You look confused."
"I am," I said, thinking how tame and boring my little sexual life suddenly seemed. "I guess I don't understand how this is different from, say for example, if you liked it up the ass, when your partner didn't. Or you not liking oral sex, and he does. And you and James couldn't come to an accommodation on it?"
"I love James," Jemma said. "But it's not just a matter of a position here, an orgasm there. It's a way of life. And the thing is, I'm really very good at it. It's the one thing I've found that I'm really very good at."
I remembered that Jemma studied English in college. "What about ..." I started.
"'Sir' and I are really a very good couple and we do it well. You have to concentrate, or someone could get hurt. The knife play, the fire, the whole performance aspect. It takes a lot of intense thought to put yourself in that frame of mind, and it can be very dangerous. I've had tons of people come up to me afterwards and tell me they'd never seen anything like it."
"I'm sure that's true," I said. "I don't mean to sound like Little Miss Muffit here, but do you actually come when you're being whipped?"
"I can only come by my own hand," said Jemma. "That surprises you. Well, the orgasms are only a small part of it for me." She looked at her watch. "You know, I have to go to my dance class. But if you want, you should come to the club sometime and watch. I'll ask him if that's OK. I can tell that you don't understand really what I'm talking about, so if it's all right with him, and I feel comfortable enough to play in front of you, you should join us."
"I don't want to be a voyeur," I said, thinking that was exactly what I was, "but you're right. I don't really get it." How many bottles of beer would it take to get me into The Power Exchange? One or two? An ocean? "Let me know what ... uh ... 'Sir' says."
"I'll call you," said Jemma, standing up, putting on her sunglasses. "You're curious, then."
I looked up at her. She looked very alien to me, but familiar too -- like a distant cousin, talking about a family I'd only heard about. Perhaps, if I accompanied her, I'd find something out about myself that I didn't like, or couldn't control, a Pandora's Box. Still, wasn't it better to know? "Yes," I said finally. "I'm curious."