Buddha with a whip

He heals his lovers by subjecting them to rituals of ancient torture, but how can sado-masochism offer a path to sexual health?

Published June 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You first stare at Lee because he's beautiful, and you keep staring because
you can't pin him down. Slightly darker than cafi au lait, he's the second
son of a Japanese woman and an African-American father. He's tall and
muscled, yet ethereal with his shaved head and huge brown eyes. He hums with
sex but isn't clearly gay or straight. The New Age meets the Dark Ages in
the capacious Lee, a healer with an arsenal of leather floggers.

Lee generally "tops" in S/M and B&D scenes, which is the most enigmatic of
his paradoxes. I've known him for several years and can't imagine this
gentle soul screaming orders or beating someone. He's worked in various
nonprofits helping rape and incest victims, substance abusers and AIDS patients; now he's a massage therapist. Yet in his off hours, he dominates grown-up "boys" who call him "master" or "daddy" or "sire." (Peacenik Lee prefers the last to the more military "sir.")

While studying yoga and meditation, Lee says, "I discovered that my
spiritual energy was erotic." He found fellow travelers among the Body
an Oakland, Calif., organization that hosts erotic massage workshops called Celebrating the Body Erotic (CBE) around the country. Most of the workshops are for gay men, who come to learn what Lee describes as "basic tantric approaches, breath work, erotic massage and sacred and intimate bodywork." At the start of his first CBE field trip, Lee was disappointed by the hunk shortage, "but by the end of the weekend, I loved these men and was comfortable being erotic with them." The man running the workshop told Lee he was a natural healer and invited him to skip the usual prerequisites and start running CBE workshops.

Lee ran a few CBE sessions and then found the world of S/M, which fit
him like a rubber tank top -- despite the fact that he lacked a discernible mean
streak or a fascination with physical pain. What Lee likes talking about
are S/M's rituals of limit: how a safe word always stops the play, how red, yellow, green mean, respectively, stop, slow down and baby don't stop. Lee also loves negotiations, and gets plenty of them whenever he co-creates "safe, sane and consensual" guidelines. Many "players" fill out two-page contracts before they ever pick up a riding crop. As he talks, I start to suspect that S/M and B&D serve society best not by channeling dark urges,
but by absorbing would-be lawyers.

"In terms of controlling a situation, I'm more of a top," Lee explains --
unnecessarily. He not only requests that he and a psychotherapist friend
see my story before I file it; he says, "And I want something on you too,
like how Roman soldiers would cradle each other's balls to prove trust." I
offer, truthfully, "Lee, you know I would love to have sex with you --
doesn't that give you power over me?" Without missing a beat, he says, "OK, well, how would we work that in?" We're drinking coffee in the sun; I start
to sweat and change the subject. I hadn't meant to bluff or challenge him,
just to show underbelly in place of Roman testicles. (I suppose I was also
leaving him an opening to say, "You want me? In that case I
renounce all slave boys and turn my healing love on you." A girl can dream.)

Lee is intimate with several people at any given time; many of his
friendships are sexual and include role-play. When asked what he thinks of
commitment and monogamy, Lee sighs, "I just knew that paradigm was going to
come up." Lee believes power is key to any relationship, so ritualizing
it is a more honest intimacy than most marriages achieve. Instead of
paying lip service to equality and then scrapping passive-aggressively, why
not improvise your way to the most emotional scenes? And you get to dress
up! Lee says dominant-submissive games are a shortcut to "the stuff that
feels very juicy and real without spending a lot of time making that person
be everything I need." Rather than force a monogamous fit, Lee wanders the
city like Cain in "Kung Fu," applying his sexual healing where it feels "juicy
and real."

Race is one of those wounds that attracts Lee. "I like topping white men,"
Lee admits. "I work through a lot of power stuff. As a little gay boy, a
little Japanese-black boy, a boy who looked like a girl, I had my power
suppressed a lot." Lee says his white slaves unconsciously gravitate to
his Eastern half: "It seems easier for a European-American man on a
spiritual journey to identify with an Asian master than with an African master ... I can be the Buddha, the teacher." Sometimes it's not a Buddha scene, though, so Lee has access to a uniform collection -- "guards, military, fascists -- very strong images."

A monk in a sexually playful religion, Lee reminds me of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince when he takes his S/M worldview to its spiritual conclusion: "I'm always topped by the ultimate top, my God, my universe."

Lee first met Perceval at a men's healing circle weekend three years ago,
but they did not enter their master-slave relationship until a few months
ago. Perceval watched how Lee ministered to someone he was flogging in an
S/M clubhouse and afterwards approached him. Perceval said that he was
usually a top -- a "daddy" to several "boys" -- but he wanted Lee to top
him. Lee was honored at that abdication of power and sensed that the two
could have some enriching scenes.

Perceval is not Lee's only boy, but he's the boy with the most cake right
now. They get together several times a week. "Master is hot, beautiful,
sexy, erotic, exotic, hypnotic, commanding, vulnerable ... magnificent,
magnanimous, generous with the riches that are his," Perceval writes in a
20-page story called "Myth in Four Movements" about the affair. In the
piece, he weaves together third-person accounts of their ritualized sex scenes,
several myths, including that of the Arthurian knight Perceval, and his own recently unearthed memories of childhood incest and rape. Perceval, a wiry
57-year-old with a white beard and guarded blue eyes, shows up at Lee's
apartment wearing a suit and carrying two bunches of yellow roses. He hands
one to Lee, then kneels and tongues Lee's feet extravagantly.

We sit on the floor of Lee's "play space," an attic empty except for the
floggers and a few sitting cushions for the interview. Though they address
each other as "Master" and "Boy," Perceval and
Lee act more like teenagers in love, nuzzling and grinning at each other.
Lee seems more "Daddy" than "Master," and more maternal than either. He rests
his big hand on Perceval's chest and directs his breathing when Perceval
recounts the most horrific details from childhood. Perceval is in his
fourth year of "recovery work," with a psychotherapist, a massage
therapist and a very understanding wife all helping him. All three know
about his relationship with Lee and applaud the results.

Lee says his form of domination resonates with victims of incest and child
abuse as well as the larger group of gay men who "still needs to hear his father or his church say, 'You're OK.' When I hear that boy, I stand in as the father who approves of him." Shame about being gay -- a denial of sexuality -- strikes me as very different from the over-sexualizing of incest and abuse, but Lee believes they're "on a continuum. Both are erotic, both are done on physical and psychic levels to people."

What's hardest for me to grasp is that sexual abuse can be healed with
rough or dominating sex. Sexuality is one of the things child abuse steals, along with childhood, strong emotion and, often, the will to live. Like many incest survivors, Perceval has attempted suicide several times.

Lee and Perceval say they are uncrossing sexual wires that have been snarled since Perceval's mother began pushing enema hoses into him and dragging his naked body up her naked body -- starting when he was 2 and continuing for 10 years. Perceval recalls, "My mother was either amorous or punitive, and I never knew from moment to moment what it would be. She would treat me like a lover in the one mood and fuck my ass with something that hurt when she was in the other."

Lee explains why his relationship with Perceval is the most fulfilling part
of his life now: "Nothing stops me but my own limits ... I can say 'Boy,
do this' and ... even if it's making me breakfast, he's doing it because
he loves me; he wants to show me his gratitude for the safety I give him,
for teaching him about himself and helping him get through pain and trauma.
... I can't say I understand how that all gets mixed together sexually,
but it is, and it's very powerful when I role-play something and it feels
really real."

Both men use the word "conscious" a lot, and the myth they're building
together seems too conscious, too theatrical to possibly achieve the slow
"work" of 12-step groups or therapy. Yet being Lee's "boy" has awakened
more dead parts of Perceval than anything he's done in the four years since
his father died and he began revisiting his pre-teen years. Perceval says
the play with Lee -- which they also call "the work" -- is successfully
"recording over certain messages." But only the details of his story can convince me.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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