The first time you tied me up, it’s because I deserved it. I had ghosted you and then, out of the blue, blackout drunk, called you - four months later. You were out with friends but dropped your address. When you arrived, I was taking a piss on the side of your building. You took off your belt and bound me to the headboard.
Now when you play rigger, it’s silly, it’s awkward, it’s delicious. Lazily pulling the long red rope out of the closet, you’re the dungeon dom of my dreams. But the minute you slip the cord over my head, we start giggling. The negotiation of limbs and knots tied on sensitive areas slows down the pace of our eroticism - it’s like watching a comedian flounder onstage. You tie the final knot and grunt, “That’ll do.” The comedian exits stage left. You hoist me onto the bed by the rope and fuck me senseless.
In the aftermath, I sit by the hallway mirror and contemplate my bound body. The flesh around the rope divots and spills, creating soft valleys. The binding forces one to reckon with overflesh, toomuchness, and abundance. But it also looks right: I know the rope is holding me by the way it cuts into my flesh. The harness’s purpose divests the bulging from images of muffin tops on diet ads. Rather, the harness provides a support system for bodily contact, places to grab and manipulate. The harness becomes an apparatus to make sexual activity more acrobatic and more tentacular - pulling on one rope can provide pleasure along the entire route that it traces. The press of my skin into the harness is useful, and with more clarity than I ever have, I feel attracted to this extraneous flesh.
Having grown up in the classical ballet world, having models for the right way for bodies to look was paramount to my sense of identity. I was a nervous, titchy child, obsessed with the correct method of doing things. When I came home from ballet school, I would watch YouTube clips of Svetlana Zakharova, Sylvie Guillem, and Marianela Nunez. I would watch their bodies move, the long, willowy limbs extending from paper-thin torsos. Then I would look at my body. Then I would look away.
When I look down at my bonded body and check it against the hastily googled harness diagrams, it looks correct. I can trace the places on my screen where the model’s skin hides the rope, hold it up against my own flesh, and feel accomplished. The aesthetic of bondage is centered on safety and utility. The harness forces me to look down at my body and see it as an assemblage of abilities. My shoulder can hold up the rope that forms two knots on my hard nipples. My ass is wide enough to keep the structure taut. My throat can be restricted by the tug of intersecting rope at my sternum. Look at all the things this body can do.
Utility is one way of looking at an art object or a body and calling it beautiful. Soon after I began tying myself up and preening, I discovered the work of London-based artist Michaela Stark, who uses lingerie as a form of body modification. Delicate transparent lace festooned with pearls and crystals belie corset boning that digs into belly fat, painfully pushing forth excess flesh as if the protrusion were a protest. In one self portrait, Stark’s body is so warped that it appears to take on new joints. Flesh rises to the objection of gravity, and pert ruffles frame an abundance of pubic hair. The images are both shocking and mesmerizing - it seems impossible that all the trappings of feminine beauty could produce an image so antithetical to its project. Still, the artistry and detail of the designs make the only viable descriptor of the corsets “sexy.”
The aesthetic of warped bodies has been long relegated to the kink-sphere, drawing a hard line between what is desirable and what is deserving of love. In Out Front Magazine, Keegan Williams writes about the overlap between their coming out story and their desire to modify their body. They highlight the specific labor they performed to clarify that their tongue piercing “had nothing to do with my sexuality.” “Even as a child,” they write, “I had the foresight to understand how my love for body modification, for my own body affirmation, was going to be sexualized by others, whether I liked it or not.”
There is something undeniably affirming about a realization of self through modification. In Williams’ case, their body modification was a reclamation of identity, and only became uncomfortable in the context of the external gaze. Body modification, including rope play, can provide an avenue to autonomy: self-bondage practices as well as bondage with non-sexual partners is commonplace. The importance of the practice seems as much about the sensational shift as the visual one. In addition to showcasing the corsets, Stark had her models painted to highlight the marks her pieces made on their bodies. Stark’s i-D Magazine spreads feature red make-up along the basin of her belly that outlined the places where her corsets compressed her. The make-up activates our empathic tendencies - I feel both the gentle fabrics and the constriction of the clothing as I stare at the image. For Stark, it seems the feeling of being modified by the corsets is as important to showcase as the visual representation of modification itself. Warping the body reveals itself to be both luxurious and painful.
This visual-sensational contradiction exists in rope play as well. My rigger winds his rope dangerously around my neck and binds my hands to the junction at my sternum. The tie forces my arms close to my ribs, bent as if I were flapping futile wings. To him, I am captive, incapable of sitting up or grabbing a glass of water. But in this bound position, I can open my hands and cup my face. I can turn the palms inward and fold them over my heart. The position is readymade for postures of preciousness, and I find that without the use of my arms, my hands gain much more sensation. I am aware of the dry skin along my jawline, the jump of my collarbones away from my chest. Rope gives me reprieve from the avalanche of my sensations. At this moment, my hands on my face form a small prayer of gratitude.
The centering quality of rope play is well documented. Some of the more researched experiences of rope in academic literature include the perception of time during play. Dr. Zoey Jones of Carleton University writes that many rope bottoms report feeling that time slows down or speeds up while they are tied. Research demonstrates that the same is true in meditation, where participants in a University of Clermont Auvergne study consistently reported “an underestimation of time for the short interval durations and an overestimation of time for the long interval.” The experience of temporal distortion in rope play testifies to a turn inward, a dissolution of ego. What does it mean for modification, then, to take place in front of an audience?
When I float this by my rigger he tells me that for him, rigging is an act of service. He tells me that one person’s catharsis is never just their own. Like seeing a really honest work of art, he says, if it’s real, you feel it too. Maybe the kinkiest thing about rope is the release, the moment when we confront ourselves and someone gets to watch.
I wonder about the implications of this confrontation on so many forms of oppression that exist in the rope community as much as in the American psyche. The experience of racism, ableism, ageism, etc. is a way of pulling yourself out of your body, forcing the lens of double consciousness back over your eyes. When I am bound and become a conglomerate of sensations, I lose, at some level, an immediate relationship to being Asian-American, to being precipitously on the edge of my late twenties, to having a body altered by an eating disorder. In this binding, I’m just held, a little too tight. At the same time, the observed body is always clothed with these oppressive constructs, creating an uneven playing field for cathartic experience.
The truth is that my engagement with the rope community is limited to play with my rigger and intense academic scrutiny. The release and joy that I feel when bound feels too precious to be aired out in the town square of kink, too raw to yet expose. For now, rope is a quiet and personal pastime, a game I play to feel myself. In the quiet of this cave, I feel a reclamation, a sense of peace with the gap between the sensations of my body and the fleshy truth of it. To misquote Sontag, rope is a tender feeling.