PTSD, BDSM, and Mac McClelland’s “Violent Sex” (At Gunpoint) Memoir

by Thomas Roche on June 28, 2011


A journalist named Mac McClelland covers human rights issues and politics for Mother Jones and other publications. I decided she’s extra cool when I saw her phenomenally ballsy, if problematic, piece about wanting to get fucked at gunpoint.

That’s a gross oversimplification of what the article is about; basically, it’s about how her traumatic experiences in Haiti affected not just her sex life, but her psyche overall. A certain flavor of sex was how she helped herself move through that, and — like much first-person journalism — the article gives the almost certainly ultra-oversimplified impression that one “thing” was all it took. Still, the article is thought provoking as hell.

Here’s an excerpt of the passage that, frankly, set me off and had me ready to write an outraged piece about the problems of engaging in fucked-up, highly dysfunctional and highly risky kink (which McClelland certainly did not invent). Here’s the interesting and disturbing opener to the article:

It was my research editor who told me it was completely nuts to willingly get fucked at gunpoint. That’s what she called me when I told her the story. We were drunk and in a karaoke bar, so at the time I came up with only a wounded face and a whiny, “I’m not completely nuuuuts!” Upon further consideration, a more explanative [sic] response probably would have been something like: Well. You had to be there.

“There” would be Haiti, where I’d just spent two weeks covering the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that shook the country into ugly chaos. There, a local regular at my hotel restaurant who is not accustomed to taking no for an answer had gotten desperate. After proposing for the 87th time that I have intercourse with him, he was grasping for anything that might change my mind, trying eventually, wildly, “We can do this at gunpoint if that sells it for you.” And actually, it did, yeah.

There are a lot of guns in Haiti. Guns on security guards in front of banks and gas stations. Guns on kidnappers who make a living snatching rich people, guns on rich people who are afraid of kidnappers….Guns in the hands of the 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers, who sometimes draw them too quickly in civilians’ faces and always sling them carelessly across their laps in the back of UN trucks, barrels pointed inadvertently at your face while you drive behind them in traffic. On that reporting trip, I’d been fantasizing about precisely what the local guy proposed, my back against a wall or a mattress with a friendly gun to my throat. But the plan was vetoed about as soon as it was hatched, when I asked him if his firearm had a safety and he said no. Like I say: I am not completely nuts.

[Link.]

Okay, so…I’m not sure what I find most disturbing from a gun-nut perspective. It’s weird enough that that was the question she asked of her potential gunfuck/guerrilla psychotherapy partner, but…his answer was a simple “no?” Um….was this a revolver, a zip gun, or some kind of howitzer? “Do you fucking know what the fuck you’re fucking doing when you handle a gun” would, for the record, have been the way I asked that particular question, and generally speaking someone I picked up in a restaurant would not be the person whose “yes” I would be most inclined to trust in matters of any caliber. No matter how kinky you are, gun sex role plays with real guns are not something I’d encourage after going home with a guy you met at the local hash house with a $6.99 half-carafe of chardonnay shimmy-shaking in your tum-tum atop your guacamole burger.

But the article’s about far more than that. With a spoiler alert, I’ll tell you that the kinky sex she ends up having is with an occasional partner (sort of a fuckbuddy) she trusts. This is someone with whom she’d done a bit of such things before, which to my mind makes it utterly within the realm of not-off-your-rocker, no matter how much personal trauma is involved. It’s not death-defying; no lethal weapons come out of their holsters. It’s garden-variety kinky-sex rape-role play; it could even be called, if you wish, a little bit o’ rasslin‘. But anyone who’s done it knows how fucking intense it can be — and again, we’re talking someone with recent PTSD symptoms, here.

Why do I think you care? Not because, as you might expect because I’m writing about it, because the media (in this case McClelland) fucked up in the way it/she wrote about sex. (More on that later, but for now let’s just say I think it’s one of the most interesting first-person articles about sex that I’ve ever had the privilege to read).

I believe that McClelland’s article actually cuts to the core of what’s been bugging the shit out of me about the very idea of kink and even just “good sex” in a world where everything’s as fucked up as it is. What’s more, it illuminates a deep rift that I’ve always felt within the BDSM community — one that caused me to virtually amputate that part of my life, because I got sick of hearing lectures about emotional “issues” and BDSM.

See, I take a particular interest in McClelland’s experiences partially ’cause I’ve been reading and writing about places like Zimbabwe, Egypt, Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Saudi Arabia and the zillion other fucked-up cold-and-hot war zones of the world. I’ve got a major soft spot for the Western journalists who forge their ways into those places so I can comfortably educate myself on the sufferings of the world’s less fortunate while slugging back double lattes and listening to Johnny Cash on my iPod. But I’ve also spent years-of-my-life twenty-five through forty-two educating adults about some bona fide outré-as-hell sexual practices. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s kinky sex, and then there’s “processing,” and then there’s therapy. For “serious” BDSM or D/s players, there are hard-and-fast lines between those things. And for “serious” BDSM or D/s players with serious trauma in their background — and there are a lot of us — those boundaries are sometimes inexplicably and unpredictably discovered to mean fuck-all.

In the midst of a completely “average” spanking, a bondage session, or even just a little dirty talk, childhood hurts, sexual trauma, non-consensual experiences and generalized bugfuck-ness can reach critical mass somewhere between the sternum and the huevos (or XX equivalent) and scald both (or all) parties with radioactive steam. From a mellow evening hair-pulling adventure, one can walk away glowing — and not in a good way.

At its core, the technique of the safeword helps to guard against this and a zillion other things that power-exchange role plays can bring up in practitioners — usually, though certainly not always, in the “bottom.” But even an experienced bottom can’t predict every twist and turn of their brain’s stinky back-alleys. Everybody has some trauma in their background, and one doesn’t always know it’s there, or that it will become an issue, until it becomes an issue. What’s more, anybody can decide something isn’t working with them. But even a safeword doesn’t protect against the kind of trauma that a pair of consensual role-player can crowbar out of each others’ psyches when one has recent trauma severe enough to cause PTSD symptoms.

That said, I’m the last person who’s going to claim if you’re suffering from the symptoms of PTSD you should shut down your sex life or your fantasy life, even if your interests are extraordinarily out-of-the-unusual or even risky. There is a sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle attitude I pick up from “safe, sane, consensual and ultra-fucking-healthy” players in the BDSM and D/s communities — the same sort of people who like to trumpet proudly and self-righteously that “What I do in bed as a BDSM player is safer than what most vanilla people do in bed,” because it is so heavily negotiated and so many safety precautions are taken, and the speaker feels that they’re just doing their part to make the world a better place by having safety shears, an EpiPen and a tongue depressor at the foot of the bed in a stylish little leather play bag.

But that doesn’t describe the experience of the vast majority of people who do kinky sex or role play. Far more of us, even those of us who spend our lives reading, writing and thinking about the kinkiest sexual fantasies imaginable and what they “really mean,” live our sex lives in the real world, where emotional risk is part and parcel of living — let alone of jerking off, let alone of having sex with other people.

The sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken rule of thumb in the organized BDSM community in San Francisco, in my admittedly limited experience, has always been that “If your bottom’s doing therapy in the dungeon, run away.” But, in my, again, limited experience, even the ultra-safe, ultra-sane commandos out there don’t follow that rule. Psychodrama and danger are just too hot to the majority of us, and there’s a fairly wide gap between “someone with trauma in their background” and a drama-addicted psycho running his or her way through the community chewing up tops with a chainsaw built of “issues.”

Unfortunately, in the BDSM community, as in so many other places, it’s all too common to do all one’s thinking with an erect flogger, and not realize one’s doing it.

Still, while McClelland might be far from an unassailable advocate for safe, sane and consensual kinky sex, her disclosures hit me hard and emotionally.

Speaking for myself, my professional work is not just impacted by my sexuality and my emotional states, but on a daily basis my productivity is often determined by them. Never having been to a war zone or a major humanitarian crisis, I can only speculate that the same must be true a hundred times over of women who operate in risky environments like McClelland. Maybe that’s why I find it so moving when McClelland writes passages like this:

The shocking lack of sympathy I got from some industry people I talked to about my breakdown was only compounding my concerns that I didn’t deserve to be this distraught. “Editors are going to think I’m a liability now. What kind of fucking pussy cries and pukes about getting almost hurt or having to watch bad things happen to other people?”

“Dude,” she said. “Marines.”

[Link.]

My sex educator self worries a lot about what the “average” reader will take away from this piece, especially because it opens with a passage about a restaurant-pickup offering to fuck the author at gunpoint. (And I can’t stop thinking about that safety question….flintlock musket? Glock? some kinda blunderbuss or something?) That’s not exactly the place I’d advise the “average” reader to start with D/s or BDSM play. Seriously…try a little slap-and-tickle first, a spanking or two, and then move on to the heavy artillery.

But I assert that it takes brass ones the size of cannonballs for a respected and award nominated female journalist to air this kind of stuff in public. The big risk, like it even needs to be said, is that by writing about a certain flavor of “perversion,” she’ll encourage certain douchebags to stop taking her seriously as a journalist. But for what it’s worth, I think anyone who can walk into what amounts to a war zone in Haiti and come out in public as having fantasized about being fucked at gunpoint is pretty bad-ass.

Image: Suki Alice by Kate Bellm for Fleet Ilya Fall 2010 Lookbook, via FashionGoneRogue.com.

http://www.mac-mcclelland.com/

Thomas Roche

Thomas Roche's first novel, The Panama Laugh, is a gonzo military science fiction zombie apocalypse that has been compared to the writings of Jim Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson. He is also a widely published author of sex-positive erotica and the occasional purveyor of horror and crime-noir short stories, and a commentator on sex, crime, culture and politics.

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{ 4 comments }

1 Asmodeus July 13, 2011 at 4:16 am

On the topic of keeping therapy and D/s play separate:

The issue isn’t really the type of thing that Jen W. is citing; we all have our daily traumas, on various levels, that we work out iin the course of our normal activities, be they BDSM-related or vanilla. I’ve had to deal with two, relatively long-term relationships with submissives that were in therapy, though not for anything directly related to our D/s actiivities.

For one, it simply led to an inability to let go, or be in the moment. Her therapy was teaching her to examine her actions and their root causes and, as a result, she could never find the right headspace to resume her previously happy role as a pain puppy. Without that perspective, she simply couldn’t let her body go where it needed to go. We parted amicably when we realized what the issue was, and she later returned to the seen with her now husband and is able to enjoy herself, after working out whatever issues there were that were in the way.

The second was in lots of therapy that started when we came across a veritable minefield of triggers when pushing D/s limits. Unfortunately I soon discovered that she was the type of person who felt that if you treated the symptoms, the root cause didn’t matter, and it became such a chore to be involved with her, as more and more issues popped up everyting she thought she had addressed on (it became a game of emotional “Whack-A-Mole”). we remain friends, but to this day she still doesn’t understand why we broke up, despite the daily drama she inflicts on herself and those around her while saying “Why me?”

She was searching for answers in BDSM, when she should have been focusing on the analyst’s couch.

And, FWIW, actual “gun people” that I know in the scene are rarely the ones that are interested in “gun play” roleplay scenarios. Too many years of drilling in that guns are not toys makes violating evwery possible safety rule in the search for sex games a line they won’t cross.

2 Jen W. June 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I have to admit that I am more of the RACK school of thought: Risk Aware Consensual Kink. To me this means that some days, your scene is as much about working through your issues are it is about being there with your partner(s). One of the most intense sexual and kinky experiences I’ve had was the night after I was in a car accident, bruised and shaken, and my partner and I ended up engaged in a rape scene, or something close enough to count for most people. We didn’t discuss it (not the best negotiation on our parts), but we both needed it. Neither of us had ever been through anything like that car accident and the world didn’t seem really really yet. The intensity and the violence of what we did together helped us both and we could finally sleep. I think sex of any kind is better with people you know and can trust and if they’re willing to walk with you down the dark path, than more power to both of you!

3 Lily June 29, 2011 at 8:46 am

Hi, Thomas —

This piece struck me, too. As a person who’s been the object of real violence in a way that’s stuck with me, I get a little sad when I hear people saying that I’m somehow not eligible to play in their kinky, freaky sandbox.

I do have lingering issues about trust and control stemming from those violent experiences, and I do get a lot of clarity, insight, and comfort from the kind of sex I have with my partner — which by anybody’s estimation is pretty rough sex.

The thing is, I’m married to my partner. My issues aren’t news to him, and he has to deal with them anyway — we have slept in the same bed for 16 years. He knows when I wake up from a nightmare. He knows when I don’t want to enter a room during a social occasion. He’s engaging in that kind of sex with me because we both want it, and because I fully recognize tops have limits too: he doesn’t ever have to do anything to me that leaves him feeling like a perp afterward, and I would never push him to.

I do think that many non-kinky people conflate kinky sex with violence, when in actual fact they are very different.

I made a list of all the ways in which kinky sex and violence are not the same thing over on my blog, but I’m sure there are plenty more.

4 CK June 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm

HI Violet,
Long time reader, first time poster. Thank you for writing this post. I read Mac’s account at work yesterday and was simply delighted by her courage and honesty. Like you, I worried about the response she might garner from some readers – the same readers who make it necessary to use words like ‘courage’ and ‘bravery’ to describe her honesty (my kingdom for an honest, open world free from narrow judgement!). As a female journalist myself, who writes a sex blog (in mainstream Australian press… so not as delicious as yours, sadly), I’ve often considered what impact my ‘open’ discussion about subjects still considered taboo by so many will have on my future in the press. But then I consider how right it is to encourage more honest, ballsy and compassionate public conversation about the full spectrum of sexuality, and my belief in helping to build, in whatever small way, a better society outstrips my fear of pissing off an intolerant, negative one. Anyway, Mac partly inspired my entry today (http://bit.ly/iDHnTN) because her ‘bravery’ reminded me of some great sex-positive people I’d been speaking with lately, whose similar sense of honesty I felt should be similarly homaged.
Cheers VB.

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