Robin Rinaldi’s visceral essay, “Fifty Shades of Free,” is one of 25 essays by prominent women writers featured in THE BITCH IS BACK: OLDER, WISER, AND (GETTING) HAPPIER, edited by Cathi Hanauer.
When I was three years old, I stood on the back porch one summer afternoon ignoring my mother’s repeated attempts to get me inside so we could go to the store. I could see and hear her through the door, which was part screen, part glass. Finally she picked up her purse from the kitchen table, turned, and said, “Okay, I’m leaving, see you later.” As surely as if she had flipped a lever controlling my arm, I smashed my fist through the glass.
When I was four, my extended family lined up for a Christmas Day photo at my aunt’s house. I was next to my cousin, just a year older; against my right shoulder, her chubby arm stuck out of her velvet Christmas dress. Before I could stop myself, I turned and dug my teeth into it.
By the time I was five, though, the combination of kindergarten, Monday-afternoon catechism, and my father’s temper had me on the inevitable and necessary track to socialization. Decades later, some people will backpack or scale mountains to remember who they really are. Some dive to the blackest ocean depths or don boxing gloves or parachute into thin air. I found a different way.
In my mid-twenties, I lived on the ground floor of a gingerbread Victorian on a leafy street in Sacramento, California. I had broken up with a perfectly decent boyfriend for the simple fact that I felt too dependent on him and thought I “should” experience living alone. I diligently put away part of each paycheck, took the boring lucrative job instead of the creative lower-paying one, obediently spilled my guts to a therapist each week about my father’s violent outbursts and my mother’s terrifying panic attacks amid the backdrop of my tiny Catholic hometown, scribbling her suggestions and homework into notebook upon notebook.
My neighbor in Sacramento was a woman about my age, but completely different: skinny, with long straight hair parted in the middle and an incessant rotation of The Cure blaring from her open bay windows down into my basement-level ones. The Cure was not my thing. I had skipped straight over post-punk to the tame world-music forays of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. Her boyfriend was skinny too, a drummer, and heavily tattooed long before ink was all the rage. They were always screaming or smashing things or screwing, and when they screwed, she made the most horrible sound: a swallowed, rhythmic bleat signaling either erotic pleasure or slow death by butcher knife. Often, each utterance was presaged by the hard thwack of what could only be the drummer’s open hand. The summer heat was suffocating, and with no air conditioning I was loath to shut my windows, but even when I did, I’d often still hear the dulled echoes of his palm landing, her vocal cords convulsing, all of it building to a crescendo of muffled moans and shrieks. Afterward, I’d stomp through the house slamming windows back open, feeling a strange mix of anger and fear.
My eventual next boyfriend was, of course, nothing like the drummer. No tattoos, no screaming. He did have longish hair, and he did partake in the occasional dose of recreational drugs, but his job and bank account were as stable as mine. Raised in the Midwest in a happy family, he was quiet and generous both in life and in bed, where the love ran deep and the passion was sensed more than expressed. He offered the calm, stable presence I’d never known in childhood, a counterbalance to my own recurrent anxiety and my general sense of the world as too big and threatening to ever feel safe.
The deal was, when we needed to suss out the status of our bond, I would break down and he would offer a silent, sturdy shoulder to cry on. Collapsing into him provided a connection that often ran even deeper than sex. I’d emerge from a good cry feeling I had taken him in, his clothes wet with my tears. The rest of the time, it was work and leisure, home and abroad, all in moderation. It functioned so well that we married.
But sometime in my mid-thirties, I started to feel much less afraid. My career was stable, and I had a chunk of money in the bank. I’d been through enough therapy to have dumped a good portion of childhood shame and more or less forgiven my parents. Lying awake in the middle of the night, I’d watch from my side of the bed the outline of my husband’s broad shoulders rising and falling as he slept. We’d never once had sex in the wee hours. When I’d asked him recently if he wanted to try watching porn together, he’d said, “Not really.” I bought a blindfold, but after five minutes, he took it off me. I had told him, in passing, how there were so many dirty things I wanted to say during sex. But when it actually came time to say them, I couldn’t.
He did try to accommodate. Once, while we were changing positions, he unexpectedly slapped my ass. My jaw dropped and I almost laughed, but then I thought better of it. Laughing would break the mood and bring us back into our safe harbor, and the whole point of a safe harbor is to occasionally venture out onto the high seas, no? But I couldn’t help smiling, and then he smiled, and our moment of dark erotic play dissolved.
Around the same time my urge to be blindfolded sprang up, I developed a latent and intense maternal longing. It was more than just the innocent dream of nurturing a child. I also wanted a baby to—among other things—align the infinite potentialities of each day into a path I didn’t have to think about anymore. Forty years of thinking were enough for me. I was ready for a mental break consisting of breast milk and spit-up, warm baths and onesies. I longed to go on autopilot, if only for a year or two: exhaust the body, overload the survival instinct, focus on someone else for a change. Not to mention extinguish all the dirty words backing up in my throat, threatening mutiny. My husband’s progeny would weigh down my belly, then my arms, and anchor me in place.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. All I had to do was turn on HGTV or the Cooking Channel, or scan the food and shelter magazines lining the supermarket shelves. By then, the early years of the new millennium, the cult of motherhood had exploded, ensuring we didn’t stray far from our biological obligation to the species—and with the explosion came an obsession with real estate, decorating, baby bumps, home cooking, attachment parenting. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, urban women were knitting, and soon they’d be canning and pickling as well. It didn’t feel like a patriarchal conspiracy to me. It felt like we women were instigating it, even celebrating it. Something in us wanted to be tied down.
But my husband wasn’t on board for fatherhood. After a pregnancy scare, he got a vasectomy and sure enough, the mutineers overturned the ship. I asked for—and received, if reluctantly—permission to open up our marriage for a year, and over the next twelve months, I went wild: moved out of our house for part of each week, placed an ad online for casual lovers, joined groups of sexual explorers whose mission was to better understand the female anatomy. All of that is a separate story. The germane bit here is that many of the men I took to bed turned out to be dirty talkers, ass slappers, hair pullers who liked giving orders. At the end of each encounter, my limbs vibrated with the aftershocks of human collision.
The sex didn’t always make me orgasm, but I didn’t care about that; I could do that alone. What I couldn’t do alone was order myself around—or when I did, it was always to do boring things like going to the gym or meeting constant deadlines. The rewards of daily submission to the elliptical machine or my Excel spreadsheet were so long-term as to seem invisible, whereas the rewards of submitting to a lover’s faux discipline were immediate. It was playful, erotic, a great way to let down the hair after twelve hours at the office—but more substantially, it began to rearrange my outlook on power.
Power is a funny thing. Spiritual people are apt to say that, as with money or love, the more power you give away, the more you have. In my experience, long-term love worked that way only occasionally, and money hardly ever. But in the bedroom with a new lover, the give-to-get equation functioned beautifully. The man realized what a rare gift I offered: a full forty years after Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes raised their feminist fists in the air for Esquire, he was, if only for a few minutes, commanding a fully functioning adult woman at will. This, I found, inspired a kind of respect that could border on worship. I was letting him live something he’d only heard stories about, in a way that didn’t make him feel guilty. It was, as Jon Lovitz used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Acting!” and as with any good theater, resulted in catharsis.
Like many women, I’d had my brushes with male violence over the years: my father hitting my mother and brothers and me, a teenage ex-boyfriend slapping my face when he saw me out with another guy, peeping toms outside the bedroom window of my twentysomething apartment, a flasher in the alley, frat boys grabbing women’s crotches at a club, stories of friends being molested or raped. And of course an unending shitload of violence poured through the cable box and movie screen, where the female body makes a regular appearance in car trunks, on blood-soaked carpets, on riverbanks—gagged, bound, naked. My own memories mixed with the cultural tropes to form a hierarchy of fears regarding how a man might hurt a woman, starting with disapproval or name-calling and escalating to being groped, struck, beaten, raped, killed, dismembered. I rarely considered the latter horrors unless I found myself walking to my car in one of those multilevel parking structures at night. The more common and realistic fears centered around the lower rungs on the hierarchy.
An interesting thing happened, though, when my naked body was struck and called names by my choice. It wasn’t scary. In fact, it went a long way toward eliminating fear. A slap is just one sensation that quickly passes. But more than that, a slap woke me up, set me tingling. Sleeping beasts began to stir. Likewise, when a lover called me bad words—just a few letters strung together, really—it made me examine them from a different, more curious angle. Slut, whore, bitch. What was the big deal? I was a bitch, angry about everything from bipartisan politics to subprime mortgages to global warming. Why not celebrate that a little. I embraced slut with particular affinity. I’d spent high school fearing that word above all others, watching the unlucky girls who’d dropped their guard long enough to get the moniker stuck to their backs for four years. Now I was claiming all the taboos, gathering them up in myself. When I did, I found them to be like those mythical monsters who shrivel to dust once you finally turn and embrace them.
Of course, what really made it okay was that I controlled the situation. My carefully chosen lovers—chefs, lawyers, musicians, taxpaying citizens all—were not psychopaths or even mean people, and I could stop them at any time with a word. The bedroom theater was completely separate from the daily reality of patriarchy or real violence against women, except that by accepting a tiny, safe sample of male violence—a homeopathic dose, if you will—I slowly built in myself a level of immunity. I felt larger, stronger. While a few dirty antics were never going to solve the problem of the dark, deserted parking structure, they did slightly alter my mental state as I walked to my car. They made room in my imagination for more than just fear. Now fear mingled with memories of strength, power, and eroticism.
Submission also freed up the aggressor in me. Sometimes I’d respond to “bitch” with “bastard.” If I was a whore, I reminded him how much he liked whores. Outside the confines of safe and quiet marriage, I found I could say anything in bed. It provided a kind of relief from the hours spent seething silently in traffic or scrolling inane social media until I wanted to scream. Sometimes I threw a man down and pinned his wrists. Sometimes I stridently ignored his commands, daring him to up the ante. Once, I turned a six-foot-four man over, grabbed his hair, and dry humped him until I climaxed.
At a dinner party I met a firecracker of a woman who, over several glasses of wine, shared with me her theory that the more of a ballbuster you are, the more you like to be slapped. “I call it the Club,” she said. “We tough girls need to know the guy isn’t afraid of us.” This, by the way, is the opposite of the Fifty Shades of Grey story line, where the fragile innocent unhappily submits to please the control-freak man. When Fifty Shades came out soon after all this, I noticed it wasn’t twenty-one-year-old virgins like Anastasia Steele eating it up so much as women my age. The author—a hefty, earthy forty-something wife at the time—transcribed all that rowdy sex, and other middle-aged women used it to get off. Young, innocent Anastasia was nothing but a middlewoman, a docile little package into which all that ferocious desire had to be bundled. And not only because youth sells, but also because it’s a lot more comfortable for everyone involved if it’s the man’s idea, and the naïf tearfully submits.
When I wanted to get pregnant, and then when I was searching out lovers and experimenting with submission and aggression, and then, finally, when I was leaving the calm, quiet marriage that no longer worked, I was, on the most basic level, seeking momentum. Approaching midlife, I longed to propel myself into the next phase, but without a baby I had no idea how. I was changing, but my marriage wasn’t. Destruction was the first step to re-creation.
Certainly part of why change proved difficult for me came from my upbringing and inborn temperament. But there was also the more present-day issue of the increasing noise in my head. The to-do list, the nonstop e-mail and Twitter feed and texts, the screens of every size vomiting constant data—as the information dump accelerates, so does a sense of paralysis. We’ve lost touch with our creature selves, but some experiences remain to remind us: childbirth, pain, disease, disaster, food, sex, death. Submission and domination prevail in the wilderness. Friction equals attention. In missionary position with the lights off, screwing the same guy you’ve screwed for ten or twenty years, it’s easy to spend several minutes mentally going over your grocery list. But facedown in the pillow with your hair pulled taut and your bottom high in the air, stinging from a smack . . . not so much. A man’s firm grip around my neck constricted the airway just enough to make the breath audible, as in yoga. It rendered me present.
I left behind the hum of cubicle and freeway and supersize grocery store and became animal; I absconded from the sterile modern world back to the ancient one of temple prostitutes and warriors, back further to the caves and the savannah, all the way back to fur and all fours.
It turns out that my desire to tussle with a lover peaked around the same time my biological clock did, as if in an attempt to toss atoms around in my very own particle accelerator, to perhaps create something new. In fact, it worked. New relationship, new city, new job. Now, I don’t feel as much need to talk dirty or be spanked, though I can indulge when the mood strikes. The repertoire has grown. The boundaries that expanded each time I went toe-to-toe with a man have retained their girth.
It takes a lot these days to make me cower. The first time I noticed this effect in the world at large was in the midst of all the spankings, at a tantra workshop run by one of the new-age gurus I’d been reading. He was said to be a master of masculine and feminine interaction and, as such, called participants up to the stage to assess how they carried themselves. Thirty seconds into my assessment, after he’d asked me to show him how I’d lure a man with my words and body, he delivered his prognosis.
“You see how stuck her energy is?” he said to the class. “She needs it moved. She needs to be slapped.”
Yes. Exactly. “So slap me,” I said.
He didn’t. I’m sure his contract with the beachfront Miami resort where he held the workshop didn’t allow for smacking women in conference rooms. But as I stood facing him, two hundred eyes on me, one hundred brains deeming me “stuck,” I longed for nothing more than his big hand to fly up and meet my cheek; for the sting, the jolt, the blood rising to the skin and with it, the she-animal who’d lived in me from before I could remember. From deep in the groin she would surface, growling a little, smiling wide to bare her teeth.
And maybe I’d just up and slap him back.
Read our in-depth Q&A with THE BITCH IS BACK: OLDER, WISER, AND (GETTING) HAPPIER editor Cathi Hanauer.
Read an excerpt of Robin Rinaldi’s THE WILD OATS PROJECT.
“Blindfolded” photo courtesy of Geri Lynn Smith
Robin Rinaldi is the author of THE WILD OATS PROJECT: ONE WOMAN’S MIDLIFE QUEST FOR PASSION AT ANY COST. This essay is adapted from THE BITCH IS BACK: OLDER, WISER, AND (GETTING) HAPPIER, edited by Cathi Hanauer, which was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September.