Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

—Anaïs Nin


I arranged to meet my first dom at a bar near my house. He’d instructed me to wear a dress, no panties, and to carry my vibrator in my purse. It was neon pink with a tiny plastic piece at one end that flicked like a tongue—a gift from my husband, who had just moved out of our house. It was July and hot outside. I wore a black cotton dress with a scoop neck that kept pulling down to reveal my bra. I tugged at it and rubbed my necklace, a silver medallion with the symbol of the goddess Artemis on it.

The dom was shorter and less muscled than he’d appeared in his online photos. He was almost feline, with soft brown skin and dark eyes. In his profile he had listed his interests as BDSM, orgasm control and denial, oral, poly, and impact play. Over direct message he said he’d been “in the lifestyle” for about ten years. A girlfriend had taken him to sex clubs in Europe when he was in college, and he’d been hooked ever since. He could sometimes be a sadist, he said, but not always.

We sat in a booth near the back of the bar. It was a place my husband and I had frequented many years earlier, before our daughter was born, during a brief period in our marriage when we went out at night. The bar was known for hosting popular hip-hop DJs, the kind I’d followed around Lower Manhattan in my twenties. Seated before a single-malt Scotch, the dom told me he’d grown up in the Middle East, the indulged eldest son of a prominent political family.

“There are things I’ve done I’d never tell anyone,” he said. “I could be arrested.” He smiled and explained that his family had lost nearly everything during the Arab Spring, and soon afterward they’d come to the US. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat that he touched when he spoke. He smelled of cigarettes. I took a sip of my martini.

“You look so good I might have to rape you right here,” he said, and he wrapped his hand around my throat.

“I don’t think you’re going to do that,” I said. He wasn’t physically intimidating. I’m a small woman, but I was confident I could flip him if I had to. I agreed to go to a hotel with him.

He walked me to my car, and when we got there, I nervously kissed him on the mouth. Traffic whirred by. Anyone could have seen us. The dom climbed into his black Mercedes, and I followed him in my car to a downtown hotel. While he booked the room, I waited at the bar in a sea of red-faced white men wearing Hawaiian shirts. I felt their eyes on me.

In our room the dom lifted my dress over my head and hoisted me onto his waist as if I were a child. He pulled down my bra and bit my nipple, hard. I yelled. He flung me onto the bed.

“I was just testing your tolerance for pain,” he said, nuzzling my neck.

“Do it again.”

He flipped me over onto my stomach and struck my ass with his open hand. It made a sound like a snare drum. This is it, I thought. You are changing your life.


BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism. Within the community it’s often called “play,” as in “I’m looking for a play partner for me and my wife,” or “Have you ever played with a woman? A Black man? A twenty-four-year-old?” My experience with BDSM began at the end of a twenty-year marriage and a year into my practice of witchcraft. At the time I didn’t see the logical relationship between my divorce, my new kink, and an interest in the occult, but now I can’t unsee it. Religious people talk about the thin veil between the spiritual and material worlds, a liminal space where the two meet. The veil was lifted for me, temporarily, by that bite and that crack of pain. It was something holy.

The dom, who at thirty-seven was ten years my junior, enjoyed overpowering me, but he said he liked the psychological aspects of dominance as much as the physical. I saw this repeated in many online profiles of both doms and submissives, as if it was shallow to be in it only for the sex.

Before we met, I had asked if he’d be bringing gear. Even the word had felt forbidden. I’d imagined a leather case that opened to reveal his toys—paddles, a wooden spoon, a riding crop. I’m not sure where I had gotten that idea. He’d laughed. He was preparing for a move overseas, he’d said, to a country where his gear would certainly not make it through customs. He’d gotten rid of it. Sad, I’d thought.

At the hotel he asked, “Are you my dirty little slut tonight?”

I nodded.

“Say it.”

He lifted my chin so I couldn’t avoid his eyes.

“I’m your dirty little slut tonight,” I said.


I thought of myself as a feminist in all the conventional ways. I was a frequent donor to Planned Parenthood, believed in sex and body positivity, and rejected, at least in theory, the heteronormative patriarchal script about women as either saint or slut, virgin or whore. I had a master’s degree and was a leftie Democrat. But I had also been a Christian for many years, choosing the religion myself when I was in my twenties. I hadn’t had many sexual partners, and at the age of twenty-five I committed to being celibate until marriage. At first I didn’t enjoy sex with my husband. I felt a kind of religious honor in not wanting it. That night with the dom I knew that I was not a slut. And yet calling myself one had an unexpected effect on me: it turned me on.


At one point when we were fucking, the dom’s face took on a look of startled delight, as if he were getting away with something. It made him look boyish—or, rather, it revealed his boyishness. Later I’d understand that he’d had that look on his face the whole time, but I’d missed it because I’d been seeing him through a series of lenses: the darkness of the bar, the hotel, the internet, the rush of meeting someone online for the exclusive purpose of having sex.

“Oh fuck,” he said. “Oh fuck.” He furrowed his brow. I ground my hips into him and arched my back. I was the one who was getting away with something. That I knew. The edge he’d had over me when we were texting, telling me he was a sadist, the moment in the bar with his hand around my neck—it all disappeared. In the boyish face there was determination to control his body, to wait at the edge of orgasm with me. For me. For my pleasure. I’d never been with someone who paced himself in that way. He slowed almost to a stop, held my hips in place, prevented me from taking over. Then he lifted me and pulled me down onto him, hard and fast. He pulled back again, quieted down, went slow. Repeat.

“Get your vibrator,” he finally said. I tried to squeeze it between us, but it was too awkward, so we abandoned it, and I didn’t care.

Afterward I checked my phone. There were a dozen messages from three of my girlfriends who knew where I was. Like a chorus of Muses they asked, Are you alive? The dom was in the shower. I leaned against the glass-topped desk, my abandoned martini on the nightstand. I was very much alive.

Later that night I’d notice the sting on my ass where he’d smacked me. I had a small bruise blooming underneath my right nipple. In the moment the pain had been an accelerant, like gasoline or oxygen.


The year before I met my first dom—in what would turn out to be the last year of my marriage—I looked up local covens online and found one that met nearby. It was presided over by a man named Tobias. This gave me pause. I didn’t want my first contact in the world of witchcraft to be a man. The pandemic had ushered in a doomsday energy that had given me the courage to question the idea of the patriarchal God and made the inequity in my marriage painfully obvious. My husband never made a meal or cleaned a toilet. Never. I suddenly wanted to be surrounded by women who worshiped the Divine as feminine. Never having met any self-identified “witches,” I allowed myself to believe they lived an ideal feminist existence, free from gender-defined domestic roles and repressive patriarchal expectations. I picked up these ideas from Instagram hashtags like #witchtok and #witchesofinstagram and from podcasts, newsletters, and Twitter threads created for “baby witches” or the witch-curious, which I was. I wrote to some of the women I followed online, but none of them responded fast enough for me. So Tobias and I started chatting over email. He told me he moonlighted as a pool boy, then propositioned me.

I wondered if I’d have to fuck Tobias to get any information about his coven. Was I the sort of person who would do that?

I stopped returning his messages after he invited me to participate in something he called the Great Rite, which sounded like a public sex act with him and his wife. Instead I would learn witchcraft on my own. In Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe, Dean Radin lays out the basic principles of magick—spelled with a k to distinguish the ritual harnessing of energy to effect change from sawing showgirls in half. Magick requires that intent or desire be raised and focused. This can be achieved through meditation—something I’m historically terrible at—or through sex, specifically the build toward orgasm and then release. This felt more achievable for me.


That same year I had developed an intense crush on someone I’d met through the university where I worked. I had a temporary teaching contract that was about to expire, and I was anxious about my job and about the man. I decided to try casting a spell. Under a full moon I wrote out exactly what I wanted on a small piece of paper; then I made a sigil (a kind of magickal insignia) from it. I wanted (1) a harmless erotic adventure and (2) a job only I could do—a barely disguised desire to be rehired at the university when my contract ended. I was still married and living with my husband. I didn’t want to have an affair or end my marriage. So, by way of compromise, my brain produced the phrase “harmless erotic adventure.” A valid reason, I thought, to cast a spell.

I lay on my back on the floor of my bathroom and held my sigil drawing above me at eye level. My husband was downstairs watching Line of Duty on BBC. In my other hand I held my pink vibrator. I lowered its rumbling head over my clit and thought about the lines and arcs of the sigil, the scribbled shapes, the letters. I began circling my hips and ceased to be aware of the awkwardness of the drawing, the chill of the tile against my skin, its hardness on the back of my head. I repeated the spell, hoping my words and the sound of the vibrator were drowned out by the bathroom fan. I repeated it until words and letters no longer existed. I thought of the man from work. I thought specifically of the chapped knuckles of his left hand, which I’d studied one afternoon when we’d sat side by side at a conference. I pulsed. Dug my spine into the tile. Came. Dropped the crude drawing on the bathroom floor.


The man from work texted me flirty innuendos for weeks; then he sent me a picture of his penis. It was the first time I’d ever received a picture like that. I was sitting on the floor of a lecture hall, half listening to a presentation, when the picture pinged on my phone. I marveled. Instead of feeling shocked or turned off or violated, I wondered, Could such a thing be real? It was beautiful. I thought for sure it was fake. The only cock I’d ever really seen was my husband’s. When I fucked men in my twenties, it was mostly in the dark—hurried, drunk, embarrassed, and too intimidated by their otherness to want to look closely. I was also distracted by trying to control my own appearance during those encounters: Does he like my body? How about if I turn like this? Like this? The man from work was not tall, but his erect cock looked to be the length of his thigh. It was sculptural. Later he convinced me to send him a picture of my breasts. I was forty-six years old, and I had never taken a picture of my breasts.

“Perfect,” he texted.

At first I didn’t believe him. Then I looked at the picture I’d taken. Really looked. I saw that he was right. Not because my breasts were perfect, which is a meaningless distinction, but because they were mine. Part of my alive body. Beautiful. After my daughter was born, I’d slept in a jogging bra every night for a year, thinking that would prevent the inevitable sag from the ballooning and emptying of breastfeeding. My breasts had a few stretch marks and were visibly different in size. But after the text exchange I saw them, and myself, differently.


Seven months later my husband was installed in a modest one-bedroom apartment down the street and was dating a woman he’d met on the internet. With space to myself, my spell work became more sophisticated. The “harmless erotic adventure” had been, to my mind, achieved through my intimate text exchange, and I no longer worried that I would hurt my husband with my infidelity. My teaching contract had been renewed at the eleventh hour, just after the start of the semester. I was emboldened. My spell had worked. I was narrowing in on what I wanted for myself. I constructed a simple altar atop a bookcase and decorated it with candles and pictures of long-dead loved ones. I bought and burned candles in colors that represented abundance, focus, and creativity. I began to track the cycles of the moon and how they could be used for different kinds of magick. And I’d had a few more doms: The postdoc who grew up in a conservative evangelical church and spanked me nearly raw. We commiserated over bad dates, sex guilt, and STI paranoia—hallmarks of the newly single and formerly religious. The body-dysmorphic chef who reluctantly, at first, gathered fistfuls of my hair in his giant paws and pulled my head as he fucked me from behind. The disgraced Navy SEAL who spun me around like he was leading me in a dance before he pinned my hands behind my back. The expat in an open relationship who took me to the best restaurant in town and waxed poetic about his Austrian grandparents’ vineyard before face-fucking me off the side of the hotel bed.

Through kink I was looking for a way out of the religious ideas I’d inherited about bodies, especially women’s bodies: what they’re good for, what they’re not good for. I wanted a new way to understand desire, its uses, and its potentialities, and I believed sex had something to teach me. I worked at it, and as time went on, my commitment to the experiment grew: I buckled the thick leather collar around my neck, offered my wrists for the restraints, and let myself be blindfolded. I asked that everything be tight, so I couldn’t wriggle out of it. I wanted to do it right.


I began performing a private ritual I called a witch bath. I researched herbs and learned about plant allies that are used in magickal practice. The woman in the herb shop pointed me toward mugwort and helped me fill a little plastic bag with it. Mugwort is a plant ally of the goddess Artemis, she told me, the goddess whose sigil I wore around my neck. The woman in the herb shop told me to talk to the mugwort before I used it, to give the herbs a job. “They like to have a job,” she said.

Back home I filled the tub with water and scattered the herbs on top. I didn’t know what to ask for. I was afraid to be too specific, lest it not work, and afraid to not be specific enough, lest I be disappointed. I asked the herbs to help me see what I couldn’t see with my eyes. That seemed reasonable. I lowered myself into the steaming water. I paced my inhales and exhales, slowing them to four seconds each, then five. What do you want? The question appeared in my mind suddenly and unbidden, like a digital notification. Scented candles flickered on the basin. What do you want? The phrase came the way prayer had come when I was a Christian. It was a complicated question. I thought about a man I’d met recently. I wanted to sleep with him—maybe the easiest thing to want. I pointed that desire toward my idea of the goddess. I felt the bits of herbs, which looked like oregano, floating in soapy swirls. Part of me was testing the process, the medium. You can have him, but you don’t need him. Another notification. In my mind’s eye, Artemis shrugged.


I was using witchcraft to navigate a newly liberated sexual life. Witchcraft is a philosophy more than a religion, and it allowed me the pursuit of pleasure as its own objective. Christianity taught me to deny the flesh, to fast. Witchcraft—or, more accurately, the collection of practices I was stringing together under its banner—insisted on pleasure as its own end: Not to heal the world. Not to make me a better wife or mother or writer. But simply to give me the permission I needed to access the riot of pleasure this temporary flesh allows. To live in this body right now. To enjoy it.

Though my forays into the submissive side of BDSM had been fun, I wasn’t orgasming. I was working something out, playing with the dynamics. But I was also becoming aware of how badly the same dynamics had worked for me outside the bedroom; how, though my husband was now gone, I was still making the meals, folding the laundry, and cleaning the toilets.


“Looking to eat someone out. Don’t even need reciprocation.” Wes’s online profile showed a sandy-haired man smiling beside a houseplant. His beard was full, and his eyes were half closed. I was at my dining table, hunched over a cold cup of coffee, having just resolved to take a break from sex with strangers. The religious guilt was creeping in, and I was checking for signs of UTIs or STIs. I was sure one or both would befall me as a kind of Christian punishment for having too much sex.

Wes loved photography, hiking, live music, and oral sex. He was twenty-nine. I’d recently vowed to not date anyone younger than thirty, which felt somehow virtuous. I fingered my Artemis pendant and read on: “Would love to be your personal slave. Will worship you. I’ll obey your every command: clean your house, do your laundry, run errands—anything you desire.” I shuddered. Upstairs, a pile of clean laundry had become my dog’s makeshift bed.

Wes and I met at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. He was a sound engineer for an emo band that was on tour and only in town for two days. He sipped herbal tea, and I drank coffee. We talked about the New Jersey town where he grew up. After a few minutes I asked, “Have you ever been truly dommed?” I imagined an elegant, black-haired dominatrix in an elaborate dungeon.

“I’ve been truly dommed,” he said, laughing.

He told me he’d been a houseboy for a woman in Brooklyn who’d fucked her boyfriend in her bedroom while Wes cleaned her kitchen. He’d never touched her but was hopeful she’d let him kiss her feet when he got home from tour.

After coffee I drove him to his hotel, and we made out in the parking lot. He was tender but insistent. I gripped the back of his head while he kissed me, pulling his short hair into my fist, a move I hoped might approximate domming. I wondered if dominance was something I had in me or if I’d disappoint him. As I drove away, I understood that I had become a woman who could kiss a stranger on the mouth in public: in front of an extended-stay hotel, on the corner outside a bar, in the parking lot of a grocery store. My former pastor could drive by, my former friends from Bible study. Anyone who knew me as a religious, married woman could see me, and I wouldn’t care. The freedom was dizzying.


Later that night I texted Wes to say that I would allow him to come over and fold my laundry but that I would probably help. I would wear lingerie under my sweatshirt, I said. And if he was very good, I’d let him see. I cringed a little at this but went with it. When he arrived, I poured us each a glass of wine and showed him to the laundry. I’d been texting with the postdoc about Wes. He thought Wes must’ve been traumatized as a child to want to be dommed, and I told him that was heteronormative bullshit, though I wondered myself. The postdoc asked if Wes was bisexual, and would he fold his laundry? I told him I was uneasy about Wes’s age, about the inequity between us. Though Wes was attractive and fit, I wasn’t sure I was attracted to him—not in the way I was to the others. Could I be dominant and still be turned on?

I didn’t want young Wes to rip my clothes off, but I could see trading secrets about folding fitted sheets and maybe cuddling. For a rainy Friday night this felt like a good choice. When he arrived, I led him upstairs, where my cat curled up in his lap almost immediately and my neurotic dog was uncharacteristically relaxed. He handled my T-shirts, panties, and pillowcases with care. Long fingers smoothing and folding, smoothing and folding. When we were done, he kissed my feet, my elbow, every part of me. He went down on me gently, patiently, while an emo band played from my phone. As he sucked on my toe, I remembered my chipped pedicure and cringed.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“Your mouth,” I answered, but I was thinking about coming on a pile of freshly folded laundry with the face of a twenty-nine-year-old between my legs. I thought of the goddess on my necklace. “You’re so sexy,” he said, coming up for air. You’re really helping me to heal gendered trauma, I thought, feeling the edge of a folded towel under my shoulder blade. Instead, a little breathless, I said, “I hope you brought a condom.” I slowed my breathing. I remembered my pleasure.