As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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On a Saturday morning, after we drink black coffee out of round-bellied cups, N. shows me how to punch him in the face. We have slowly disentangled our bodies and climbed out of my bed to stand beneath the high-desert sun in my Tucson neighborhood’s public park. The heat cuts through the dry November air. N. shows me how to curl my fingers into a fist that won’t break on impact: pinkie finger first, then ring, middle, and pointer, the vulnerable thumb curved down behind this protective mass.
“Lead with these knuckles,” he tells me, tapping the first two joints on my hand. “And keep your fist in line with your arm, one unbroken line. That’s your spear.”
Tucson frightens me.
I have long been in the habit of going on solitary runs in the dim light of early morning and the beckoning cool of sundown, and I prefer to do all the things women are instructed not to do: wear headphones, run without a shirt over my sports bra, leave the house without a plan. When I run, I want freedom from the relentless decision tree of contemporary American life. The exercise soothes me into a creature closer to the animal I so often forget I am: mentally calm and physically alert, present in my body rather than my mind.
But the men of Tucson, they are fucking this up. On my runs I am startled by men lurching out of bushes, sidling out of recessed doorways, screeching their trucks over to the shoulders of roads to snarl at me. I am afraid of them, and I hate myself for this fear. I like to think of myself as tough. In the past I cultivated this image with years of recklessness that looked like fearlessness. I sought risk so heedlessly then, with every strange door buzzer I leaned on, every dark building I walked into, every time I said yes to a dodgy proposition.
I was not brave then. I was numb. It is an important difference. And today I am neither. These days the preciousness of my life hits me suddenly, and I lose my breath: at red lights, in coffee lines, at the gym. I sometimes cry, fast and hard, over how much this life matters to me. So the wild-eyed faces of the men I encounter on the running path by the cavernous dry riverbed, and the combination of urban menace and industrial desolation that I find on the streets of my new city — they scare me.
A few weeks back I mentioned this fear to N., who is a Tucson native, a mixed martial artist, and a professional combat coach. He raised an eyebrow.
“Probably not the safest thing, running alone at night.”
I was already halfway through my eye roll when he continued.
“But I can teach you how to be safe.”
Back in the late nineties I wasn’t looking for safety from men. Rather, I was actively seeking men who would punch me in the face while we fucked. I wanted intensity, something fierce enough to puncture the suffocating cocoon of numbness I lived inside. Finding those men was more difficult than I’d imagined. This was the era of AOL chat rooms, the early years of Craigslist. I discovered that there were two basic routes, if getting hit is the thing you’ve decided you need: find a man who knows he likes punching women in the face and hope he doesn’t like it too much, or find a gentle man and convince him to punch you. Both approaches have drawbacks.
What is wrong with you? was a question I could read into my friends’ long moments of eye contact and the worried furrows of their foreheads during the years that I skulked the nastier corners of the sex web. They rarely spoke the question out loud, perhaps because of their familiarity with my proclivities and a vague commitment to sex positivity, but more likely because they knew they might have found themselves sliced cleanly out of my life for asking such things. Whatever was wrong with me was deeper and older than any of my friendships. I could have found new friends more easily than I could have found something else that offered me the same relief from the bondage of self that I got from being punched in the face.
How does it come to this? my roommate in Brooklyn once asked me, gently. It was 2007 by then. I was in my late twenties, ten years into my deep dive into violent sex. I had just careened into her dinner party with the white of one eye the color of an August tomato and the socket around it rapidly turning eggplant purple. She was weird enough herself that she knew I wouldn’t feel judged by her exactly. More like inspected.
“I can’t help what I like,” I told her, which turned out not to be true, but I didn’t know that at the time.
In Tucson the park is full of people doing wholesome brunch-time things. A huge gray dog bounds in circles around his white-bearded master; children climb the jungle gym; two couples walk the perimeter, mugs in hands, their dogs tugging on bright leashes. A leaf blower whines, every so often accompanied by the lowing hoot of the freight train that runs through the other side of the neighborhood.
N. holds up the palms of his hands, just in front and to the sides of his face. We kick our slippers off and face each other, barefoot and squinting. He shows me, with one hand on my shoulder and the other on my hip, how to step, pivot, and throw my fist into his waiting palm. The first time, my body doesn’t understand. It tries to move the arm independently, my weight planted, my fist carrying little power and glancing flabbily off his hand. By the third time, though, I feel it: the gathering of force rising from foot through legs, hip, trunk, shoulder; my body’s quick turn sideways shooting all my energy toward one small target; the shocking thwack of my fist on N.’s hand like sneaker bottoms hitting pavement; the recoil I feel traveling back up my arm to my shoulder. N. grins at me.
“You’re good at that.”
The first time I was punched in the face, I was paid for it. At the time I was so skinny I could press my knees together without my thighs touching, so doped up on Prozac and mood stabilizers and cocaine that it would have taken a rocket launcher to register sensation in my body, which had been so tight with hunger for half its life that I could watch my blood pump through the blue-green veins that crisscrossed my belly. My habits included staying awake for thirty-six hours at a clip, stubbing out cigarettes on the thin skin of my wrists, and pissing on finance guys’ faces for two hundred dollars an hour — money that I immediately spent on biscuits and croissants, which I vomited into public toilets.
Which is all to say, I was no stranger to the pains of the flesh.
A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant. There was a great crack of deafening blankness; there were stunned moments of temporary blindness and a shuffling stagger that gave way to buckled knees; there was a crumpled girl on a shitty fake Oriental rug with sweat everywhere and salted metal in the mouth and a flat, clean peace that was the best and quietest moment I’d ever experienced.
Meet D., the man I would be in an on-again-off-again relationship with for ten years.
My job at the dungeon was a consequence of the same numb zeal that made me say yes to everything: any pill or powder, any new way to touch or be touched. Nothing felt like much of anything, so I kept looking for whatever was more intense, more extreme. I worked for a biker named Cliff. He had rotten teeth and always wore camouflage fatigues and leather wrist gauntlets. He had picked me up outside a pizza place on Eighth Street, where I used to go to bum cigarettes, and he told me I was pretty enough that I could make a lot of money working for him. That, back then, was all it took. For the first few weeks of my employment, I crept down the fire stairs of my parents’ building to arrive at work at midnight and lurched back home at seven or eight in the morning, often sitting in the twenty-four-hour diner down the block until my parents left the apartment so I wouldn’t have to explain my makeup or my whereabouts.
Once I had made enough money to get my own place, I left my parents in the middle of the night, with a duffel bag and no explanation. Leaving home was the culmination of years of pushing and pulling: my parents’ never understanding who I was or what I was running toward, my never feeling like I could survive within the confines of our family’s life. I was wild and reckless and hungry for danger, and I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t fit in my parents’ stable, upper-middle-class world. Once I lived on my own, the dungeon became the whole of my life: not just a job but a lifestyle. I worked every day and made friends who didn’t raise eyebrows at bruises.
I quickly became preoccupied with getting hit. That first open-handed slap from D. was just the tip of the wedge. Soon, like Camel Lights and pinner joints and powder cocaine, getting slapped was not intense enough. I needed more.
The harder and more brutally I wanted to be hit in the face, the more difficult it was to find a man to do it — at least, under the specific conditions I desired: the men had to be hard but never angry. I did not, after all, wish to be battered. I was merely adventurous.
I found my way to the backhand, and later the closed-fist punch. By its very name the backhand is a thing — a thing no one will do to a nice girl. You can talk a certain type of man into some regular slapping, but once you ask for a backhand — also known as a “pimp slap” — you become something else.
Why did I want this, seek this, demand this? It’s a fair question, and it always seems to be the first one. I used to ask it of myself on too-bright mornings in front of mirrors that didn’t lie as well as I did. I was asked why by my friends, by my shrinks, by many of the men I asked to hit me. I am asked why today, in my far-saner thirties, when I recount these experiences. But there are holes where the answers should be, a series of absences.
Instead of a neat answer, I want to tell you that the stories you’ve heard about trauma and violence are reductive. I want to tell you that my parents are kind, gentle, loving people; that I grew up in peace and safety; that I was given education and a voice for my feelings. I was taught that I had value. I was taught to respect others and myself. I want to tell you that I don’t come by violence the way girls typically come by violence. It wasn’t given to me. I set out to find it.
The real, confounding truth is that I do not have an answer, only observations: in my body, violence has always brought a quickening of the pulse, a fresh tautness to the abdominal muscles, a soft ringing in the ears, the cresting rise in the chest of manic euphoria.
Violence excites me, and I’ve never experienced a violence more intimate than a punch to the face.
Born into a tradition of combat sport, N. has taken more punches to the face than he can recall. He answers my questions about the violence of his life as a mixed martial artist and coach in a contemplative tone, often pausing for several beats to think before responding. He is driving, so I can watch him closely as he speaks, noting the steadiness of his gaze on the road, the tautness of his broad pectoral muscles as they rise and fall in slow rhythm. He adjusts his neck every few minutes, snapping his chin from side to side and making a sharp crackling sound that I imagine to be the vertebrae of his cervical spine falling into line. His thirty-three-year-old body, altered by years of combat, is compact yet visibly powerful, poised for action even as he sits in the driver’s seat.
“Force equals mass times acceleration,” he explains. A sixteen-ounce sparring glove, though double the mass of an eight-ounce fighting glove, carries less force because the hand inside it cannot accelerate as quickly. I nod seriously and jot this information down as N. speaks, though the math is somewhat beyond my understanding.
“When you punch someone in the face,” he continues, “you don’t swing like a bat. You drive like a spear.”
As we talk, I realize I am expecting to hear some of the posturing of aggressive, masculinized brutality that television has linked, in my mind, with rough sport. I am thinking of Mike Tyson biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, of Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver nearly murdering his girlfriend in a jealous rage, of Ray Rice dragging his wife’s battered body out of an elevator. These men: a boxer, a UFC fighter, a football player. Evidence, perhaps, for my suspicion that the violence of sport can serve as a stand-in for more-intimate violence.
But N., a third-generation martial artist, tells me that despite the testosterone-soaked marketing of mixed martial arts, or MMA, a true martial artist is playing a sport of self-defense.
“If we’re in a fight, I don’t really want to hurt you,” he explains. “We’ve just decided to play a very brutal game.”
During the face-punching phase of the years we spent together, D. once split my lower lip badly enough that I couldn’t go to work. It swelled cartoonishly on both sides: two engorged pillows with a crusted scab down the middle. Every time I ate or smiled, it split anew.
By the time I had quit all my other terrible habits, D. and I lived together in a remote farmhouse in the woods of Upstate New York. Ten years had passed since that first slap, and we had, for that decade, gone in and out of a relationship of sorts, sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes exclusive, other times not. In the meantime I had quit drinking and using drugs, learned to feed myself properly, and found a career welding steel for high-rise buildings. Our only neighbor, Vicki, was dating a devastatingly handsome local psychopath who used to hide in the cornfields, whistling, with an ax over his shoulder, and once laid rocks into a pentagram in her driveway. Sound traveled in the pristine darkness of the country, and some nights we heard her shrieking and couldn’t tell if he was fucking her or hurting her or both. By that time, D. and I had bought boxing gloves so that he could punch me in the face without leaving evidence. When we were getting along well enough to want to fuck each other, which was not often, he would strip me naked, tie my wrists together behind my back, pull a glove onto his monstrously large hand, and punch me in the face until I crumpled onto the ground.
That soon became the only sex we could have.
In a cage inside a theater in Phoenix, Arizona, “Cadillac” Le’Ville Simpson is bleeding from the nose. I watch, transfixed, as his body deteriorates before my eyes. I have accompanied N. to an MMA fight night, and he has gone backstage to prepare the fighter he is coaching, leaving me by myself to take in the violence. I am glad to be alone so that I can clearly assess the experience. In my body there is a low buzzing where my sternum meets my clavicle, a heightened sense of alertness in my limbs.
Simpson has been fighting for two five-minute rounds, and his face, glazed with blood and sweat, has been punched and kicked more times than I’ve been able to count. He bobs and weaves his compact body as his opponent, a Muay Thai fighter, lands punches with lanky arms that appear loose until they connect with Simpson’s face. From my seat in the third row, twentyish feet away from the action, none of these blows to the head sounds particularly devastating — there is no single sickening crack of bone on bone, which perhaps I expected, just a relentless series of quick thwacks, like eggs thrown against a wall.
Behind the octagonal cage in which the fighters circle each other, the theater is a sea of white faces. An older woman in sweats and a bowl cut, seated in the front row, cradles a baby, maybe her grandchild. When her fighter’s turn comes to step into the ring and pose in front of his flag before his fight, she stands and screams, “Guns up!” over the baby’s head. I can make out the words on her T-shirt: Bring the Violence.
The allure of violent men is something I have long struggled to understand in myself. The only truth I can tell is that, when I was young, I felt terribly uncomfortable in my body and my mind and my soul, and violence was one of the few things that muted those discomforts. As a girl I was what people used to call “troubled”: depressed, self-destructive, disordered. I started going to therapy when I was eleven. I dutifully swallowed multicolored prescription pills without understanding what they were meant to do. If you told me something would make me feel better, I would try it. I felt that bad. Nothing worked, though, and by the time I got to the dungeon and discovered sexualized violence, I was already so well versed in hurting my own body to relieve my mental anguish that bringing someone else into the equation was, paradoxically, freeing. Under the strong thumb of a rough man, I no longer had to be both actor and acted upon. I could curl up inside myself, all discomforts erased, aside from the single and identifiable pain of a blow to the face.
Beyond treating my mental problems with pain, though, I found something undeniably thrilling about getting punched. It is a bad, awful thing to do. The badness of it intoxicates. The flood of neurochemicals that rushed in to accompany the pain felt eerily similar to an armful of cocaine. A punch in the face hurt, but the hurt was generative of other, more interesting sensations: euphoria, mania, shock, relief. One needn’t be an S and M aficionado to understand this; simply consider the “funny bone.”
There is an idea that freedom lies in plumbing the depths of the psyche and locating the origins of troublesome behavior. I have spent many thousands of dollars on therapy, sat in the uncomfortable chairs of twelve-step programs, read the books of countless self-help gurus with equal parts hope and resignation. In this seeking I found few answers, and none specific enough to quell my curiosity or solve my problems. I am no longer convinced that uncovering the whys of my ways is a worthwhile enterprise. I did not grow up in violence, did not witness it as a child, did not have a relationship to it until I sought it in my sexual life. It doesn’t make sense that a girl who was offered all of the support and cultivation my family tried to give me would have ended up where I did. And yet I flowed so thoughtlessly into sexual violence that I felt there must be some programming at work, a predestination that could explain my inexplicable wants.
It was not until time passed and my desires shifted that I could see any of this with clarity. I never tried to quit wanting to be hurt. It seemed like a deep and unshakable truth, and also a great source of relief from what I understood to be my unrelated real problems. But as with many compulsions that drive us and then ruin our lives, the habit must be stopped before any true change can occur. Once I’d been touched gently and truly enjoyed it, I could no longer see wanting to get punched as adventurous. I can see it now only as the panicked squirming of a creature too restless to properly exist in its own body.
“I can’t help what I like” is something I said a lot in my twenties. When I was young and bruised and my face felt beautiful only under the cover of thick, concealing makeup, I thought that I was powerless over my desires. I thought sexuality — mine, at least — was both fixed and inevitable, coded in me like hazel eyes and brown hair.
In that conception of identity, preferences take the form of unalterable facts: I enjoy salty foods. I detest being cold. The only men I am attracted to are those with relationships to violence.
What I didn’t look hard enough to see, though, are these additional facts: I once stopped eating salt for a month, and after that experiment a small pinch of Maldon tasted unbearable. Years ago I spent three straight winters working outdoors in New York City, and after those seasons I no longer shivered when the temperature dropped below sixty.
What I am saying is that what feels preordained might in fact be the result of a series of actions and reactions, at once too vast and too minute to identify. I was transfixed by violence and power, and maybe I still am, and maybe I always will be, and maybe I will never fully understand why. But my relationship to violence and my desire to be hurt have altered over time, and today I no longer need or wish to be the object upon which violence is exerted.
I feel sad sometimes when I think about how young and small and desperate I was back when I was getting hit a lot. I didn’t understand that my compulsion for extremity was really just an inversion of my restlessness and discontentment. I mistook being out there for having a personality. When I got more comfortable in my life, my self, my body, I began to want different things: Pleasure over pain. Peace over chaos. It was a slow shift, marked by encounters that I was startled to find unpleasant, ones that I once would have enjoyed.
In the five years that passed between the last time I saw D. and the first time I saw N., the men I chose to be with each felt slightly off, as if there was a glitch between the part of me that was drawn to them and the part of me that actually experienced them. Sometimes I asked for violence and did not fully enjoy it. Sometimes I locked eyes with men whose hands would later feel wrong, whose bodies would feel off. Sometimes I asked for roughness from men who did not want to be rough, and I became frustrated that they weren’t better at it. Sometimes I tried to find connection with men who appeared present but felt vacant. I hovered, always, in a space between presence and vacancy myself. The last man I slept with before N. was someone my twenty-year-old self would have become obsessed with. He would meet me in the back of my truck and in the belly of his boat and behind rock piles on the sides of the highway. He was aggressive but not crazy, an ultimately decent person who also knew how to press on my neck to make me black out in thirty seconds and was glad to do so. But he never felt quite right, and, though I enjoyed him, I always wanted to leave alone when we were done.
At the end of all of these misalignments I became convinced that I was done with sex; that there was no touch that would feel good and correct, no body whose presence would feel better than being alone. I did not understand that I had changed, that I was ready for something different, something I hadn’t been still or brave enough for yet.
When I first met N., I wondered, in the way that we always wonder about people we are attracted to, how he would feel. How he would touch me, speak to me, move me. What he would want, who he would be, when we slept together. I hung around his gym and watched him punch and kick and elbow and knee people. I saw the power of his body and wondered about the containment system for that violence, how it would find its way into his touch, how I would match it.
We spent a lot of time together at his gym, with him teaching me body movements meant to heal my chronic athletic pain, before we were ever alone together. On an early day, when I still barely knew him, he placed his hand on the back of my neck to show me how to articulate my cervical spine, and I knew as soon as I felt his touch that he would never hurt me, not even if I asked, not under any circumstances. There was a gentleness in his fingers, an awareness of exactly what he was doing, and exactly what it was doing to me, that I had never felt from anyone before.
In another park on another Saturday, N. shows me how to kick him in the liver. He places my outstretched foot against the most exposed part of his torso, showing me exactly where to make contact, in the soft part between ribs and pelvis. Step, pivot, kick. He shows me which part of my leg to strike with: the lowest part of the tibia, directly above the ankle. I struggle to balance on one leg. There is a catch in my hip, a twinge in my ankle, a disconnect between my upper body and my lower body. I cannot imagine using this action to defend myself. N. tells me I’m doing great. I mostly don’t believe him, but a tiny part of me feels strong and tough and resilient. After thirty or so kicks, my legs don’t feel quite so incapable.
“Want to play a pain game?” he asks me, and for an instant I am in the dungeon again, not yet programmed with the words No, thank you, ever tilting my face upward to request the attentions of an unkind hand. D. used to ask me questions like this.
The difference between a man who loves me and a man who merely loves that I can take pain is clear now, so clear that it is difficult to retrace the steps back to the time when they were conflated.
The instant passes, and I see N.’s face in front of me: smile wide, eyes kind. He is, of course, joking. The pain game: more leg exercises, in which we take turns kicking each other’s femurs, with just slightly less restraint than before. He shifts his weight from foot to foot and holds his hands up in the Thai boxing stance. In the fluid movements of his body I see lion, panther, tiger, fighter. He could kill me, or probably anyone, with his hands.
I kick him in the thigh, and though my movement lacks grace, I do connect, and his face breaks into a grin.
His turn now. He pivots on one foot, faster than I can track with my eyes, and kicks me as gently as a big dog cuffing a puppy. It smarts — the tibia is harder and sharper than I knew, and the femur richer with nerve endings — but it is a small pain, measured and localized, and it has taught me something useful about the truths of the body.
Later I make us breakfast salads. My apartment is flooded with the white light of late morning, and I watch N. as he eats, his face guileless. The small pleasures of the morning — my clean hair falling like a curtain on my bare back, the bright crunch of sliced fennel, the rough weave of the blanket under my thighs — feel utterly satisfying.
N. tells me about the process by which the tissues of a body become acclimated to accepting force. A fighter’s body is able to receive blows that would kill a regular person. The fighter can receive many of them, one after the other, and remain standing, because the cells have been altered. The fighter’s body has been trained, through force, to receive violence.
I wonder about the inverse effect, about what is communicated by the absence of force. Do cells understand gentleness, too? In Tucson my face has been touched only by N.’s careful hands, and I cannot help but wonder if my newfound ability to take pleasure in the grace of the everyday is related.
It has been several years since I was last punched in the face. I appear softer now. When I look at photographs of myself taken in my twenties, I see a fixedness to my jaw that is now absent, a scowl that has lifted. The teeth that once crumbled behind the weight of a fist have been repaired. I have — for now, at least — let go of my dogged pursuit of more, faster, harder, worse. I regret none of the seeking I did, not one strike, not one moment. I know in a deep place that I needed all of those blows to the face, all of those not-quite-right moments, in order to finally understand the tremendous power of gentle love.
Margo Steines’s essay about physicality broadened my understanding of violence as a way to touch and be touched. I’m turning eighty next year and I have not yet found how to talk about this complex part of me.
I long to be touched, but rarely can I find someone willing to do so in ways I envision would bring me pleasure, though there have been moments. Steines’s essay helped me understand why it is so difficult for others as well. I enjoyed reading her description of finding another who could touch in a life-giving way.
Some letter writers say The Sun is depressing, but I find that reading about other people’s challenges increases my compassion. I’ve been a subscriber for twenty-two years, and your magazine has deepened my sense of human connection. I haven’t felt lonely in decades.
Margo Steines’s essay “A Very Brutal Game” could be taken as a merely troubling account, but I’m grateful for her courage in sharing her experiences. It was a very brave thing to do.
Margo Steines’s essay “A Very Brutal Game” [November 2020] was uncompromising in its exploration of rough sex. She charts a brave path, far from the tired trope of the damaged girl lost in self-flagellation and governed by past trauma. “I regret none of the seeking I did, not one strike, not one moment,” she writes. She finds transcendence in her journey, more powerful for her absence of shame.
The body and its desires are indeed mysterious. What a thrill to see its complexity honored.