I came to think of myself as a theoretical switch. At Shadow Lane parties, for example, when I’ve deigned to fill in the name-badge orientation bubbles honestly – and didn’t fill them all in, or fill none in, in a petty and self-righteous attempt to deny any categorisation – it’s been “Switch” that I’ve chosen. But it always came with lots of unsaid caveats. And while I’ve pretty much always brought some configuration of school uniform with me, it’s never been used there, and I haven’t ever genuinely expected that it would be. To be clear, my failure to express this side of myself in any significant way is solely down to an inability to find a way through the thicket of insecurities and dissonances and emotional barriers that surround the side of me that sometimes wants/needs to be a spanked and disciplined boy: in short, it’s my shit. This piece is mostly about those insecurities and barriers, but it has a positive conclusion.
Some of the outer layers can be cleared away quite easily. I’m not a masochist. To the extent that kink play involves pain, it’s quite incidental for me. There’s no brain alchemy that translates impact play into arousal, say, or some other pleasing emotional state. I did play once – documented elsewhere – where the scene was more or less context-free impact play, and it was heavy enough that the endorphin after-rush from the physical effects was a happy, druggy glow, but the ratio of hurt to happy was far too high for it to be anything more in my life than an interesting learning experience. It turned out to be a endurance test with a nice little payoff, but an endurance test nonetheless. What this means in practice is that impact play on its own is an empty and frustrating experience for me. Some pain in the right context is a consistent part of the deal – though the symbolism of kink is important, kink shouldn’t be only symbolic – and it’s the context that matters.
Nor am I a role-player. This might seem inconsistent with talk of school uniforms and being a “spanked boy”; if it still seems that way by the end of this piece, it means I’ve failed to explain how my head works. In many ways I regret that role-play is so alien to me. It’s an endlessly mutable form which allows all manner of interaction. My kink often feels quite narrow, and wouldn’t be hurt if it had access to that range of expression. Nor would it be hurt by the bonds of shared experience that role-play can provide; I’m aware of the fact that my kink feels somewhat alienating even from the community of friends and acquaintances around me – rather than something that brings me closer to them. Much as I might rue the fact, it’s nevertheless true that role-play – for me – doesn’t seem like a different path, so much as the right path but in the other direction. If the goal is for kink to be resonantly personal, isn’t it missing the point to start by putting on a mask?
It might make sense to see me as an anti-role-player, because – and we’re getting rid of some more of the thicket here – the reason it seems so unhelpful to express kink by putting on masks is that I’ve lived my whole life with masks of my own, and don’t need any more. My weaknesses and vulnerabilities have always been protected – or numbed, if you like – behind a reassuringly thick carapace, which is extremely hard to lower, and which I’m not about to even try to lower except in the right place, for the right person. It’s about control, of course: control of myself, control of my emotions, and also control of what I allow of myself to be seen by others. Almost nothing coming in doesn’t get dampened and intellectualised until there’s nothing raw left. And almost nothing going out doesn’t get checked and checked again to make sure that it’s really what I want to say, or to show. These are neither healthy nor helpful, of course, but I try to see them as features rather than bugs, both because they’re entirely instinctive, and because they’re not going away. Nor do I honestly want them to go away; they’re as much a part of me as my big nose. What I look to kink to provide is a venue, and a tool-box, to lower the carapace now and again, in a controlled way. This is true when I’m topping – if a top doesn’t make themselves emotionally vulnerable when they play, they’re not doing it right – but it’s especially true of my bottoming desires and fantasies. I see kink as both a way to help reveal the vulnerabilities and insecurities and weaknesses, and then to look after them – honour them, even. Ah, but, one might argue, role-play is another way of doing exactly that! Yes, absolutely. Just not for me.
There are, of course, fears and insecurities about the whole process, some more significant than others. It’s hard not to be aware of the fact that I’m a six-foot, 280-pound, middle-aged man. I don’t, therefore, make an especially convincing schoolboy, even if the accessories are authentic. Nor is a fantasy of being spanked while draped across a disciplinarian’s lap – feet dangling helplessly – necessarily likely to be practical. It’s worth saying a little here about the value of fantasy itself. Chambers provides a definition – “something longed-for but unlikely to happen” – that neatly captures that there are two aspects: that we long for something; but that it’s unlikely to happen. The mistake we too often make in kink is to feel that the goal is to pull the “unlikely to happen” towards the “longed-for”, such that it then becomes realisable, missing that a key purpose of fantasy is to capture the unrealisable and give it a virtual existence in our imaginations. We talk pejoratively about “living in a fantasy world”. If that’s all there is to life, then of course the balance is wrong, but it’s equally lacking in balance to feel that the way to approach fantasy is always with the goal of making it “real”. Perhaps we can make it real – perhaps it’s about the “longed-for”, rather than the “unlikely to happen”. But a crucial reason why something might be unlikely to happen is that it’s literally fantastic: unrealistic, incredible, impossible to realise. We then diminish fantasy by deeming it unfulfilled or incomplete. The trick, I think, is just to recognise the separateness and to value both. I can hold in my head the perfect image of the perfect disciplinarian in the perfect warm cosy study, holding perfectly-manageable me across her lap in my perfect school uniform, spanking me to a Goldilocks just right-ness. I can also muddle through with the real 280-pound me, and the uniform that kinda sorta works, and my awkwardness with impact play, and that can be fine. But I want to hold onto the idea that the latter might not work, and regard the fantasy as undiminished because of that.
A further insecurity concerns a fear of selfishness. I’ve always tried to live my life as self-sufficiently as I can, meeting my own needs as much as possible, and avoiding any imposition on others. I actively dislike being fussed over or served, and I’m generally very uncomfortable being the centre of attention. It’s perhaps a sign of inexperience in the process – as well as the obvious insecurity – but the act of bottoming feels a very selfish one for me to tend towards, and I struggle with that. Submissive men in the scene are often quite blindly selfish and needy. I don’t honestly think that I could behave that way; my actual concern is perhaps that an acute conscious awareness of not wanting to go there might result in an additional perverse reluctance to open up.
But the greatest fear I have with respect to bottoming – both in the sense that it’s the most looming, and the least to do with irrational insecurity – is that I might not be able to feel enough; that all of the instinctive barriers protecting my vulnerabilities might remain in place, and that the process might therefore just fail to get anywhere. Worse than that, I worry about something that I think of as “the hypnotism thing”. Conventional wisdom is that the apparent ability of stage hypnotists to compel their (un)willing subjects to perform bizarre, out-of-character acts is mostly explained by social pressure: they comply because the situation seems to require them to – it would be more awkward not to do what they’re told – and not because they’re under any particular control. The analogue for me would be finding myself in the middle of a scene that was plainly failing to resonate, and going through the motions mechanically. The source of difficulty wouldn’t be an inability to stop things – discomfort caused by lack of a safeword, for example – so much as a vivid emptiness, a sense of sucking at something I would quite like not to suck at. It would hammer home how inaccessible the relevant emotions can be.
Even with my limited experience, I do know that there are some things that help me to lower my defences. Perhaps obviously, perhaps paradoxically (I can’t decide which), being tired creates a mood of openness; not so much tiredness at the end of a long day, as the calm exhaustion that comes from having experienced a period of considerable stress and endured it. Being around the right person clearly is significant, but short of encountering my old French teacher – who seemed to know exactly what was in my head, whom I adored, and the only teacher who ever gave me a detention – in an extremely surprising context, that’s not something I have much direct control of.
Notwithstanding what I’ve said about role-play, the physical trappings of kink are also greatly helpful to me. They might not always be sufficient for resonant play, but they’re necessary. A couple of months ago, after a day of quiet work at home, I went with a urge to try on a pair of (very short) grey school short trousers that I’d nabbed from eBay a couple of months before that, but not yet properly worn – and which still had tags on. They turned out to be a little snug here and there, but no more than that, so I picked out some more pieces – white shirt, grey knee socks, sensible black shoes, brand new schoolboyish M&S white underpants, real school tie, and took ten minutes to see how it all looked and felt. The answer was: good. I tweeted as much, then took everything off and put it away before I was no longer alone in the apartment.
Flash forward a few weeks, and the morning found me putting on the same uniform, although with a little more care this time, for what turned out to be a largely unplanned day of structure and gentle discipline with A. I won’t simply repeat her account here, but I would like to take a couple of points and expand on them.
In her piece, A. talks about the significance of clothing for a scene – dressing the part. That’s just as true for me, but – I’ve come to realise – not for the reasons that one might necessarily assume. If I put on a school uniform, I’m not adopting a different persona or age: despite the obvious associations of the uniform, it’s neither role-play nor age-play. It’s me, wearing a school uniform. Where, then, is the significance? Setting aside the object fetish – the power of which I’m not going to deny, but which isn’t quite the point here – the significance of wearing a uniform, of having to wear a uniform, is in the control of the body. The carapace that I carry around with me day-to-day includes control of my immediate physical space, and how I present myself to the world: notably, what I wear, since that constitutes a big part of what people see. Desire for that control is sufficiently strong that being required to wear something else punches quite a big hole in my psychological defences. The effect is only compounded when what it is that I’m being required to wear is both so radically different from what I choose to wear outside of kink – as anyone who knows me will be very conscious of – and such a clear signifier of someone subject to discipline. My ability to control how I appear to the world is deftly cut off at the knees, because I look – six-foot, 280-pound, 42-year-old Paul Bailey – like a schoolboy. Every movement I make is also a reminder to myself that I’m not in control of my physicality: the stiff collar around my neck; the glaring incongruity of the formality of the school shorts and their embarrassing shortness; the need to keep my knee socks pulled up; all that scratchy polyester. School uniforms might well have been designed for the specific purpose of drawing attention to themselves, both for their wearer and the people around them. This is as powerful an act of submission as I’ve yet encountered for myself.
Surrender/taking of control over my body is also the key to the significance for me of over-the-knee spanking, because it’s the position which enables genuine letting go of physical control. If I were required to bend for a caning, contrariwise, I’d be using the control I still retained in order to comply. Even lying across a bed, or pillows, control is retained, even if it isn’t used. But to completely rest one’s body across the lap of a spanker, feet lifted from the floor, hands perhaps managing to stretch at most for a chair-leg, is to transfer all the control that one has. Obedience and submission are not necessarily the same thing. When A. put me across her knee for a spanking, I tentatively rested all of my weight on her lap, then lifted my school shoes off the floor. She held me.
It wasn’t the perfect moment of fantasy, but it was good. I’ll happily keep the fantasy intact, and experiment with what’s possible for the very imperfect me.