“Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others say a fleet is the most beatiful of sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s whatever you love best.” Sappho, c. 600BC
In the Castro Street dance club a blindfolded girl, hands tied behind her back, bends over the counter of the bar next to neat white cocktail napkins. The soundtrack plays Roberta Flack, Wishbone, Nina Simone.Young women swing to the music. The girl lying against the counter has short red hair elegantly shaved at the nape, freckled skin, defiantly bulging neck muscles, a tiny mustache. The unapologetic smack of the soft black leather against her soft white skin assiduously echoes.
The girl wielding the bullwhip wears a baseball hat backwards over cropped black hair, black latex pants, combat boots. The two girls look alike, but the dominant lacks the wide-eyed, cleansed glow of the submissive.Nearly every woman in sight has short hair, prominent cheekbones, conspicuous biceps and thick efficient hands. The air is tense with feral desire. The dominant ‘tops’ carry an undefinable weight that makes their shoulders stoop, while darkness and reserve cloud their eyes; this makes it easy to distinguish them from the ‘bottoms’ who display a freshness and a joie de vivre one does not expect in women who get off being spanked and flogged and slashed and carved.
This is what ‘Daddy’ is about to do as she swings open a barber’s straight razor that looks sharp enough to split hairs. “Are you Daddy’s Boy?” she asks the blindfolded redhead, plunging the gleaming edge into the sacrificial nape. “Yes,” the prone ‘Boy’ whispers with a sigh of pleasure, “I am your Boy.” She keeps utterly still, fervent with the consciousness of being watched. The razor breaks her skin. She bites her lip. Daddy keeps a hand on Boy’s nape protectively, and caressingly runs the blade against her back. Blood trickles out. The strokes become shorter and quicker, like accelerating sexual thrusts, until Daddy moans, and, dramatically fast, cuts with firm precision small parallel X’s from one shoulder to the other. The rest of us watch and sip nonalcoholic drinks as, in a post-coital spurt, Daddy gives up all aim and slashes at random. Blood spurts, painting them pagan. “I open you like no fist can open you,” Daddy says in a controlled voice. As if that were a cue, the Boy starts to scream for mercy. She sounds wild and celebratory. She has crossed on to another side.
San Francisco is America’s other side. It doesn’t try to hide its transgressions in crowds or mansions, in single-family detachable Crestwoods or Dairy-Queen parking lots. In San Francisco, sex is not simple; it is accessible but labyrinthine. Bumper stickers read, ‘Sex is the answer. What is the question?’ The local papers advertise classes offered at a sliding scale in Cupping and Waxing, Caning for Pain, Rape & Terror Fantasy, C&B Torture. The Academy of Body Modification offers instruction in Deprivation, Constriction, Contortion, Distention, and students are suspended from flesh hooks, skewered, or hung. The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality has the largest sex library in the world (including the largest collection of porn housed in 8 warehouses), offers a Sexual Restructuring program called ‘fuckarama’ that involves the simultaneous projection of porn films, and awards fully accredited masters in sexology. People visit corsetries, boutiques that sell Wurtenburg wheels, Victorian Parlors, Edwardian Attics, ‘handballing soirees’, ‘electroplay charity fundraisings.’ The streets brim with Gender Variant Folk, Granddaddies and G-spot Mommies, bulldaggers, adult babies, PVC boy-toys and sex-maids, and infinite combinations thereof--top-femme-hookers, butch-bottom-cocksuckers, androgynous leather doggies, radical bi fistfuckers--and somehow all these categories remain distinct and readily understood via clothes and markings and hairdos. San Franciscans take their pleasure minutely and devoutly. Like its namesake, St. Francis’ city doesn’t think skin is holy so much as a path to holiness--the spirit’s battlefield and playground. Here the human body is a window-shop, a devotional map, a signpost to transcendence.
The town is a constellation of colonies delimited by their esoteric forms of pleasure. Their members identify themselves by sexual acronyms (TV, TB, TS/G, FTM, MTM) and physical codes (lipstick lesbian, boychick, tribal, fairy, Goth, metamorph). Issues of trust are paramount in these small communities that feel persecuted by mainstream America, and semantics are disproportionately important as a means of recognition in a hostile world--like the Masons’ rings and handshakes, or the early Christians’ fish acronym and sign of the cross. These denizens see themselves as sexual outlaws. Rebels with a carnal cause, they employ the classical tactics of insurgents: secrecy, solidarity, insulation. Their sexuality makes them feel connected in an increasingly disconnected world.
The S/M lesbians who have rented this club for the night are emblematic of these modern sexually charged enclaves. In their day lives, they are accountants, florists, cops, dayschool teachers. They are friendly, warm, empathic, intellectually lively, and predictable. But at night they are petulant, horny, pushy, blunt, suspicious. In the club, they either ignore me disdainfully or they hawkishly size me up: Have I shed my blood to a woman? Have I been inducted? Have I proven myself? I stand unsmiling and sip my cranberry juice very soberly, hoping to pass for a visiting blood sister.
A new couple has replaced the performers in the corner of the bar. This Daddy is a leather Topman dyke with an unflinching thin-lipped expression and a thigh harness prominently carrying a hunting knife. She effortlessly delivers fast crashing blows with a paddle on her Boy’s ass. The blond Boy’s face is buried against the counter where the barwoman hands out energy shakes. Most customers watch the archetypal show attentively; a few slowdance or make out on the dance floor.
With one hand Daddy reaches around to tug at Boy’s nipple ring, and with the other brushes the Boy’s clit, and simultaneously thrusts her silicone strap-on dildo into the Boy’s vagina. Daddy pumps the Boy hard, holding her by the hair, panting, groaning and yelling, then suddenly stops, just short of climaxing, and pulls out. Boy keeps writhing, keen to come. The smack of Daddy’s paddle reprimands her. Boy stops still, trained. Daddy now slides her left latex-gloved fist into the Boy’s ass. Her right hand unsheathes the knife. “Spill your blood for me, Boy,” Daddy commands, her voice thin and sane. Her knife cuts shorter deeper incisions than the razor had earlier, tiny crosses. The blade springs blood all over the Boy’s plump ass. “I pour my blood for you,” Boy vows in ecstasy, a loud whisper. Something unspeakably mystical is taking place here: it brings to mind brutal medieval Passion Plays. In 2,000 years, Christianity have viewed love as submission to an infallible-Daddy--we obey codes and canons determined by leaders, we value the lover who appears invulnerable over an insecure equal. Boys remind me of lambs and Daddies of priests who demand absolute faith to assure their sovereignty. The religiosity of this performance is profoundly shocking. After every cut, shredding each thigh in equidistant parallels, Daddy rubs her face in it and laps up the fresh blood. “I give you all of me,” Boy mumbles dramatically, “my faith is in my blood.” Their shadows rage red on the wall as they climax--left fist in ass, dildo in vagina, right hand cutting flesh.
A stocky young brunette in full leather finery and black-rimmed glasses grasps my shoulder just then and I jolt, scared that her touch has made my blood pour out. I start to apologize--‘Sorry, I’m tense’--when she says, “Let me inside you.” She means under my skin. She shifts her weight open-legged, expectantly, and smiles devilishly: “Are you a virgin?” No, I reply, confused, only later realizing I was lying, because she meant virgin to knifeplay. “You don’t like to be watched?” she baits me again, in a tone that seems to ask: What is wrong with you? I feel defective, like the note-taking spectator of noble bloodthirsty warriors, the sissy archivist of a terrible carnage.
Her name is Electra, she is 26, getting her MBA at Berkeley. She has a baby face and a nasal twang. I buy her a drink at another bar. She tells me she discovered cutting as a teenager in Texas. One night, feeling dramatic after an adolescent break-up, she jumped off a loading dock; she accidentally landed in a pile of glass. “I had this revelation of my blood, it didn’t hurt, it was ecstasy. I went home bleeding and feeling powerful, full of myself. I was over my breakup just like that. But I wanted to have that rush again.” After that, she periodically cut herself she says “as an exercise in self-restraint and a test of will power; and out of curiosity about my own limits, like walking barefoot on hot asphalt. Once I slashed each of my fingertips to change my fingerprints.” It didn’t work.
“My father raised me to think I was better than everyone else, enrolled me in accelerated school programs, spoiled me silly; it took me a long time to quit being a monster and learn about suffering. Suffering,” she explains, “is patience. Suffering makes life interesting. When I cut myself, I’m not suicidal. I’m too much in control for that. I am alive: blood is a reaffirmation of life. Because of another part of my sexual history--I was sexualized by my brother, the normal American story--I had a leg up on my anorexic girlfriends. I was more mature, and I was a great liar. I could manipulate people too easily; but when I slivered off my skin and saw my insides, I felt real. Violence is the ultimate reality.” She grinds her teeth, looking so well-scrubbed, gentle and huggable that I’m not convinced of her proclaimed brutality. Can violence smell so clean? “I constantly want to kill people,” she insists; “I’m not opposed to violence.” I think she just doesn’t want to be rapable.
The last time she cut herself she was in a lecture hall, right after another break up of a long relationship. She realized she had been dragging her keys across the side of her wrist when the person next to her yelled, “You’re bleeding.” The school called an ambulance. “I was just having a private moment,” she complains, “but it turned into a public spectacle. I’d lost control of myself.” She stopped cutting herself after that. For the next few years she only cut her lovers exclusively for sex. But last week she’d bought a new ‘butterfly knife’ and, walking home drunk with it, had the urge to try it out. She came home bleeding. Her girlfriend, Esther, thought she had been mugged. It was cathartic, but Electra now wishes she hadn’t given in to impulse; she likes to keep her cutting within the safe parameters of mutual carnal pleasure. She shows me her scars from that last incident: three thick white lines that sunburst out of her wrist like exclamation points. They disappear into a tattoo of a hunting knife that covers her bulky forearm. She also has tattoos of Tank Girl, a few gargoyles, medieval alchemy symbols, a knife-pierced heart that reads ‘Esther’, and the Chinese characters for ‘Evil-Poison-Blood-Death’ on her other forearm. “They’re my talismans,” she explains, resorting to biblical language. I have the peculiar thought that she’s turned her body into a church. Her goal is simple: keep evil out. “My tattoos relate a coherent, thought-out story, but they don’t weigh as much as my scars in terms of documents. I like to document my life. Every scar tells a story; a war story.”
Now she only cuts Esther. “I love to ingest her blood; it sounds cliché, but it’s really ingesting someone’s essence, going inside her and not killing her, which is the epitome of power. It’s true possession of my lover, marking territory. It’s a complete connection, because at the most profound level my lover’s life is in my hands. And it is emotionally sexy that someone accepts and loves me even though I put the knife to her, and trusts me with it. It’s total love, surrender. Esther’s skin is my canvas.” She yearns for a more authoritarian, comforting, settled society; it’s the allure of religion.
The first person Electra cut beside herself was a lover during a monumental fight they had over an infidelity. She held an antique military knife to her lover’s neck and called her a bitch. “I cut her only because she moved. It was a fluke, but I couldn’t believe how erotic it felt. We didn’t talk about it. It was frightening for both of us. It was a leap of faith. It tore up the affair. She couldn’t handle it. I too get overwhelmed sometimes and get flashes of revulsion. I mean, it is human blood.”
At the end of the night, Electra takes me home to introduce me to her ‘bottom’ Esther. Their apartment is cathedral-ceilinged and dormroom-like, littered with inch-deep dirt, ashes and dog hair. Heaps of clothes, books, notes, old snacks and found objects are strewn all over. Esther is a pretty black-haired j.a.p., an honors law student in 60’s tight polyester hiphuggers, blue short nails, dark-red lipstick, and cat’s-eye frames. She has a feline allure and a comical sorority-girl accent, and speaks in quick fluid bursts, as if she must hurry and express each thought before she changes her mind. There is a studied jadedness and a cool anger in her deep-set eyes. She seems unusually smart.
“When we do it, Electra gets my blood all over her face and looks like a complete savage,” Esther chuckles merrily, sitting on Electra’s pudgy lap. “Blood is such an aphrodisiac; it takes us to totally heightened orgasms--female orgasms. The secret is that we never start with cutting, or cut to punish or anything else. We warm up to it, we kiss and she whips me to bring my blood to the surface; and I drink red wine first so my blood won’t coagulate as fast. We do cutting on special occasions, like smoking a cigar. To celebrate. Blood is a dangerous sport these days, but we’re both test-ed and we’re strictly monogamous. I’d like to try it in public, but we’re not part of the community.”
Esther bears a tattoo of Electra’s name in a knife-pierced heart on her breast, and chunky metal studs through her tongue, eyebrow, labrette, navel and nipples. Her smooth white shoulders are crisscrossed by faint whiter scars from sexual cuts, of the messy type pro cutters call ‘hamburger cuts’.It might offend her to have her scars called delicate, but they are: pale skin doesn’t scar deeply. I have to peer close to detect Esther’s gentle documents of lust. “Love is way overrated,” she chortles. “People are always ready to deliberate the morality of violence and some similar timeless question, but to me it’s basic life stuff: Electra is my family.I chose her.Our sex feels great. End of story”
Esther tells me her father, a famous L.A. plastic surgeon, is horrified by her piercings, yet he himself has had a nose job and ‘resculpted’ his new wife. “He wants to do my nose, but I won’t let him. I tell him if he wants to make my nose smaller, it’s out of penis envy. It makes him squirm. His surgery is like our cutting,” she giggles. “Every day Dad cuts scars into women’s faces and breasts that take 6 months, not 2 weeks, to heal. Half of those women get crashes on him and keep going back, they can never get enough; he’s like a guru to them. They depend on him more than I do on Electra. But that’s not taboo, because it makes them into better erotic objects for men. Well, my difference is I do it with my eyes open, I don’t use anesthetics. I’m honest. I do it for the experience.” Socially sanctioned surgical cutting is a sign of affluence and success in an America that continues to prize Aryan homogeneity. Women enjoy not the act of it, but the resulting ‘scar’. That scar is associated with an illusion of youth, an erasure of life’s marks, an un-document. For some it’s a symbolic rebirth, a second chance. But for lesbians like Esther it is conveyer-belt remodeling that steals away a woman’s soul. And though none of them mentioned this connection, I now wonder if they incorporated scalpels and cuts into their sex lives as a reaction to the ‘violence’ of cosmetic surgery.
Kim is an alabaster-beautiful, willowy 24-year-old Korean I strike a conversation with at The Bearded Lady cafe She is the adopted daughter of white Christian intellectuals. She publishes a ‘grrl’ zine and studies design at the Art Institute. She’s soon telling me she first cut circles into her belly while tripping on mushrooms and black gels. “I did it because bodies are just so plain. People make too big a deal out of them. We’re too caught up in the physical world, in money and sex; we have problems because we put so much emphasis on all that. People don’t see the body for what it is, just there to hold our spirit, like a shell; so they think blood is scary. People judge you by your body, though when you’re born you don’t have a choice, it’s got nothing to do with you. I’m sick of being told I’m pretty. My looks don’t let me get close to people. That’s why I do my scars, to remind myself of my own core, and to scare people and show I’m tougher than I look, especially because I am small. I know it won’t kill me. Blood is familiar, close. I scar out of boredom, to keep me occupied, or to feel involved in something real. Sometimes life feels pointless, full of people coming and going, and that’s a good time to make a cut, a mark on yourself, like a reminder. I like to carry my history written on my flesh.” Self-inflicted violence seems to be the main prop of her self-respect.
Women like Kim draw blood in what resembles a decorous masturbation, in an effort to discover a more authentic part of themselves, unaffected by outside designations and disguises. They feel so alien from the bodies they possess that touching is not enough to convince them that they are real. It’s not the female lack of penis or of the danger invoked by the difference between male and female size and strength, that has introduced violence into lesbian sex. Blood reassures them by evoking a time-honored reality: inside our bodies, we’re all the same. It facilitates intimacy. Blood also achieves an equilibrium between the realm of artifice we function in and the biological reality we inhabit. Bloodshed disturbs the somnolent order of things. A wound reminds us that we exist.
Hester is another young lesbian whose history is exorcised on her flesh. She is an incest survivor, though she is loath to associate that to her cutting. She paints murals at banks or restaurants and teaches art in high school. She is rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed and sparkling clean in her khaki overalls and lace undershirt. She speaks in a soothing benevolent voice, enunciating meticulously. Since she is strong and stubborn in daily life, she says, she likes to be submissive in sex; doing things she may not want to do turns her on. “It’s hard to admit it publicly,” she explains in my hotel room. “Women have spent so much time earning respect and claiming their independence; but it’s peaceful not to have to be in control for a while. Love between women is outside the rules anyway.”
Hester grew up in Cambridge, the daughter of a celebrated architect who joined the Rajneesh cult and left the family. She’s had panic attacks and body memories, but no conscious memories, of incestual abuse. “My S/M violation claims that old icky violation back, because it’s conscious, consensual and clearly delineated. I own my body now. I use my scars to remember.” She has the loveliest scar I’ve seen: a 3D skin sculpture, a spiral of overlapping flesh petals rising out of the center of her sternum like a pink bud. “I thought about this for 3 years before I got it,” she says. “To me cutting and scarification are different. I do not cut myself thoughtlessly because it can imply self-hatred. But self-scarification is an anchor, a return to my body, a lasting conversation with my body as I take care of it while it heals. I got this scar when my mother died; I went through a cycle of depression and when I came out of it I wanted a spiral on my grief spot. My lover, who is a nurse, cut it with a scalpel. It hurt less than a papercut. We made a ritual out of it: my friends held me as she did it. We burned incense, read invocations. We’ve done more since then, one on our bellies which we cut on each other, and a recent one of a phoenix made of runes which she cut on me at a public sex party. This was our coming out as cutters. I only let my lover cut me, because cutting is a psychic orgasm. It creates incredible intimacy. All my scars are my emotional centers, signs of a life lived.”
I had met with a lot of reticence and mistrust from the cutters I’d tried to contact. But Hester and her lover were visible in the community and her visit gave me a seal of approval. That very evening their friend Molly, a 27-year-old assistant director of photography with a tense seriousness occasionally interrupted by a big goofy smile, took me to the Eros club for a women’s S/M night. The club provides S/M playrooms, a maze of curtained-off hospital-like beds, showers, saunas, a video lounge. Molly comes here for ‘safe blood play’. “It’s like going to the gym for me,” she says in her breathy high voice. “Afterwards I feel lighter and energized.” She was first cut at 18. “We’d walk down the street and my girlfriend would pull a knife on me under my sweater and say, ‘Keep moving.’ I’d feel all my fears gather up on the surface where I had to confront them; but I was in the safest place in the world, in my lover’s arms, so my mind could let go of fear. She cut me and then fucked my brains out. I’ve been into it ever since. I don’t really enjoy sex without it.Too tame.”
At the foyer we sign release forms and pick up gloves, dental dams and condoms. The first sight I encounter is a thin girl in a leather merrywidow with long needles piercing her mouth and cheeks. I join the small crowd and watch in disbelief. There is no ecstasy here. A mirthless-looking dyke in jeans is coolly inserting hypodermic needles in and out of the girl’s flesh. Every time her skin pops, a lot of blood trickles down her pallid face. It is a gut-wrenching spectacle. Molly tells me it hurts more to watch than to do. She’s had it done, and it’s not a high except for exhibitionists who get off on the attention the amount of blood generated gets. “When the needle goes into the muscle, you feel a dull static buzz under your skin, nothing compared to the sharp sting of a razor.” She laughs it off and turns to watch an old-fashioned boa-feather striptease in an adjacent room.
“Play-piercing requires technique,” the piercer tells me when she is done. “I’m a perfection-ist; I like to space needles even and pretty; I lace them up in figure 8 loops; then I pull the threads. That feels real good to her. Like with any breaking of skin, the endorphins kick in very fast, and that’s what makes bloodsports better than other S/M trips. These are spinal tap needles. For the bottom it’s a sensational endurance test. For a top, it’s pride in years of study and hard work.”
Molly has run into her friend Liz, who happens to be blindfolded and tied by her collar to a side table. Liz vigorously extends her hand in my direction and says, smiling and shaking mine, “Tell me what you want.” She’s waiting for her lover, a dentist and ‘classic Daddy’, who is doing another scene. “Being Daddy’s Boy is a safe way for me to be nurtured,” she immediately explains in what seems to me a self-conscious euphoria. I feel as if I have fallen in with a league of amateur ideological commissars that bring to my mind Mao’s child-soldiers of the cultural revolution. “I feel too vulnerable as a girl--anything approaching a wife is way too scary. I was raised a tomboy. But, with all the cutting I do, the only permanent scars I have are from throat surgery.” I lift her blindfold
She’s 27, a New Englander who moved to San Francisco after graduating from Radcliffe, to “get away from the antiporn lesbian feminists who think S/M is violence against women that perpetuates the oppression of patriarchy, that it’s women taking on the bad habits of men.Those bitches are frigid. It’s Salem-territory out there.” She’s an engaging 30-year-old with sandy close-cropped hair, hazel eyes, a broad smile. Her sensible, even tone renders the incongruity of her S/M accouterments progressively invisible, even absurd. “I get off being bitten,” she says, wetting her lips, relishing my interest. “I love it when my lover swoops down on me like a vampire and bites me to suck my blood. The sensation of her sucking my blood is incredible, a great sense of peace. All my energy focuses on that spot. After I’m aroused, she slashes me and sucks it all off, or she’ll just let it bleed and clot, and I have bloodstreaks on my body and go to sleep like that. It looks great! We’ve never had to bandage anything. I only use a bandage after I feed my pet leech, Oscar, on my arm.”
So is this what women do among themselves when society is not watching? I ask. “It’s great feeling primal,” Molly confirms as we continue our Dantean stroll. We mill around. Girls are kicked and mauled in dim corners. We briefly pause before a girl in lingerie who looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, hanging from a ceiling hook. Her friends, all young and elated, urge us to whip her; they are a combination cheerleaders and spiritual advisors. It is her birthday, they say, and they promised her to get ‘the classic’ 100 smacks. Molly offers to use her knife. The girl squeals, I think happily.
We move on, exchanging greetings with naked, half-naked and elaborately dressed women of every size and hue. Some carry floggers draped over their shoulders or bagfuls of clothespins and clips. In the darkest rooms, parallel rows of curtained beds host the less flashy, more sincere sex. All the beds are occupied. A long line of hugging, kissing, groaning girls forms outside, waiting to use them. I have the feeling that a clandestine collective civil experiment is being conducted here.
“I love blood. It drives me mad,” announces a shrill voice ahead. “We dedicate this to Kali.” The speaker looks like an 18-year-old grunge groupie in striped pants and platform sneakers. Molly says it’s a ‘bloodbath scene’.The three girls nod to each other fiercely and simultaneously stick three open-topped 20-gauge needles in their veins. Blood fountains out. They sing off-key and wail and fingerpaint the walls with it. They put bloody palm prints and lunar-shaping graffiti on the floor. A naked girl in a straitjacket and a leather hood stands still nearby, as part of the performance. I am a bit unnerved. It’s not much blood, maybe 30cc out of each arm, much less than the pint people donate at the hospital, but it is uncontained and it has spectacularly colored everything within reach.
Bloodletting has a canonical past. The many generations who used it as general medicine knew that shedding blood releases tension. Women were the primary beneficiaries of this practice, perhaps because they’re more at ease with losing blood and enduring pain. Compared to the menstrual blood shed monthly, the quantities of blood produced by even the most compulsive cutting are negligible. Compared to birth pains, the sting of a blade is easy. On the other hand, men generally have a distaste for blood, perhaps because theirs is the hemophiliac gender. The burliest leathermen, I am told, recoil from bloodsport; and cutting occurs in straight S/M only if the woman is the cuttee.
In a recent series of brain-stimulation studies, Dr. Paul MacLean (head of the Lab of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health), identified a neurological link between sex and aggression; he found that the electrical stimulation of a one-millimeter area of the brain, the amygdala, evokes responses of salivation, teeth grinding, fearful or angry vocalizations, and erections. The proximity of the neural structures governing violence and sexual stimulation explains everyday occurrences such as erection after REM sleep or after a domestic fight or an attack. Hostility generates and enhances sexual excitement. Terror, inherent in the struggle for dominance, is erotic. This is one reason why people associate danger with sex. It can also explain bloodsports.
Sexual bloodletting is still a minority taste. But scarification as an aesthetic statement is an ancient rite that is making a big comeback. When life seems impenetrable or pretentious, when its mysteries are constantly explicated and yet remain unknowable, the body becomes the last bastion for ‘authentic’ self-expression. Scarification has been rediscovered as a tool for ‘actualizing’ emotions that can’t be commonly expressed. Women in particular use scars to defy a society that commodifies looking sexy rather than being sexual. The young crowds at the Body Manipulations or Nomad or Gauntlet piercing salons clamoring to get their frenums and clit hoods and Prince Alberts and septums and foreskins pierced, giggling and holding hands like live Benetton ads, are products of a society where 90% of young white women, according to a Newsweek poll, ‘hate’ their bodies.
But fashion has already made their quest for individuality meaningless. “Piercing is like toothbrushing by now,” a male piercer at Nomad informs me. “It’s like taking your car in for a paint job.” He is covered in solid black ‘tribal’ tattoos that leave only his fingers, face and toes flesh-toned. His nostrils and earlobes bear bones and bronze bars, but he still looks like a scraggly nerd fidgeting under the mystique of an African male. “It’s why cutting is becoming popular,” he explains. The professionals at Nomad do cuttings with the tip of a heated cauterizing knife. For lasting scars they recommend branding, using galvanized sheet metal. They are opposed to the use of scalpels which are ‘invasive modern Western instruments’. At Body Manipulations, on the other hand, the all-women employees do cuttings with scalpels and rub sage ash in the wounds in an American Indian tradition, to help them scar. These arcane differences may seem humorous, but, in the business of nostalgia, they translate into profit or loss.Cutters must inspire trust more or less like priests.
Raelyn Gallina, a S/M lesbian, is the best-known professional cutter in San Francisco. For about $60 an hour, she has performed hundreds of cuttings in the past 10 years: Celtic knots, tarot cards, or totem animals are the most popular. The designs are chosen by the clients, often from a portfolio of her work composed of actual bloodprints. She rubs tattoo ink in them to ensure permanence, or cuts out wedges to create thicker scar tissue, so the scars won’t disappear if the skin is not rich enough in melanin to ‘keloid’. Raelyn says people want cuts “for adornment, or as a warrior’s test, or to claim their sexuality, or as a sacrifice that marks an upcoming transformation.” Cutting is a difficult craft because of its unpredictability. “Each body scars differently. It’s the most natural art, because the body itself creates its scar. It’s my job,” she adds, “but I only do it because I like blood.”
So do Claudia and her boyfriend Blue, two vampires known in San Francisco for their blood-drinking performances. In my hotel room Claudia wolfs down nuts, chocolates, martinis, cigarettes, and the conversation with equal compulsion. She burps, coughs, sweats, and punctually staggers to the bathroom. She has a broken exhausted voice, long dark stringy hair, a tall toneless body, and a breath that wheezes clamorously like an allergy-prone Nosferatu’s. She is alternately inert and hyper, desperate and confident, seasoned and childish. Her veins are bruised. Her rapid-fire speech is intermittently erudite. At 28, she is a published poet who makes a living as a ‘vampire stripper’ at the Century club by thrusting her hairless labia into the face of any man within stage proximity and grinding her fangs to a bloodcurdling soundtrack and a video of The Lost Children.
Blue is a quiet, composed, hyperaware pothead. He has a vulnerable-boy pretty face, a no-nonsense manner, and a guttural grandfatherly voice. He takes his licensed phlebotomist’s skills seriously: he and Claudia get paid by clubs to perform ‘necroporn’--to draw and drink each other’s blood and then invite members of the audience to taste their own. If there is a shortage of gigs, Blue, an androgynous 22-year-old, places ads in the paper and finds businessmen willing to pay him $200 to pee on them. He pompously explains, “We believe in alternate ways of making money. Claudia does outcall dominating as a vampire Mistress. Lightweight prostitution is like working at McDonald’s.” “It’s my NEA grant,” Claudia shouts. “It’s easy,” Blue adds in his permanently scornful tone, “because people are into young-body worship--and I get a power rush being paid for being young. My body is just a costume for me. Fucking or sticking my tongue in a mouth is part of the costume. I’m interested in the insides of the body. Getting the blood out is the most personal way to have sex. The other sex we’ll do only for money. That’s our ethic.” Blue is also on welfare and trying to get SSI disability status by convincing the state he is socially dysfunctional because of his vampirism.
The bloodsipping I watch them indulge in is disquieting mostly because it looks mercenary. My body feels overwrought and drained as I watch, like a boxer’s as he retires from the ring. There is decadence in their half-naked bodies smeared in blood, but their faces stay businesslike. They are postmodern hawkers of their blood. They display no palpable abandon to justify the bloodsucking climax. The procedure is medical: a 28-gauge insulin syringe expertly pierces a vein. Once the syringe is full, they shoot the blood into each others’ gaping mouths. They swallow, smack their lips, shoot blood on their bodies and lick it like cum in the way of porn stars. They cavort and grind and caress provocatively but not intimately. Their technique reminds me of late night phone-sex TV ads. They do not thrill; they trade in our fear of mortality. Their goal is materialistic: to make a living off our nightmares, like they’ve seen politicians, religious leaders, warmongers and publicists do.
What I find most interesting about Claudia and Blue are their personal histories, because they are common to their generation. Granted, the two spent Valentine’s Day at the orthodontist’s getting permanent fangs. They sleep in a custom-made double coffin. They are ‘vampire junkies’, meaning they shoot heroin to slow down their metabolism and delay old age. They keep out of the sun, take ‘miracle vitamins’ and DHEA hormones, and practice Anton LaVey’s postmodern Satanism. (“We’re Luciferians, not Church of Satan,” Claudia clarifies; “it’s the opposite of the AA philosophy.”) And every so often they interrupt our chat to ask if I’m sure I don’t want to taste my blood which they could draw here in the hotel room. “I’ve tasted it,” I say, “I suck my finger cuts. It’s sticky.” “Coppery,” Claudia corrects me nonchalantly. “Like sucking on a quarter, but sweeter,” Blue sternly adds. But they do it all as if it were a fantasy game (“We’re Nightmare Before Christmas figures,” Blue says, “I’m TankGirlish, HelloKittish; in our love, we’re Anne Rice characters”), and they are making an American success story out of it. They’re local media celebrities who were featured on HBO. They’re New Agers terrified of old age. They are ‘culture victims’ determined to become cultural paragons. That’s why they go out in costume and drag 15-year-olds into bathrooms of clubs and order them to blow each other. Unwittingly making this point clear, Blue tells me the biggest vampire in the world is Michael Jackson: “Note his pale skin, his oxygen tank, his Neverland ranch, his power play with boys. Michael sucks those boys’ blood in his own, modern way.”
Claudia’s father is a prominent economist who taught at the University of Chicago, a city where she was exposed to “a lot of scary Catholic iconography at school.” She always wanted to stand out; so her first Dracula Hollywood movie showed her a way out of a boring uneventful life. Blue was raised in Hawaii’s sunshine by doting working-class parents who fattened him up. He grew to hate daylight and sports. In his teens, he legally changed his Christian name and set out to create an original identity. Both suffered the typical adolescent alienation of suburban life in the 80s and starred in their own pop myths in order to escape a narrow reality, as most creatively inclined kids do. Media-educated and lonesome, they identified with the power and loneliness of vampires.
One day little Claudia pricked herself, tasted her blood and liked the forbidden sensation; another day she spooned out her menstrual blood, tasted it and felt empowered by her transgression. So she dressed as a witch and cut herself once a month, alone in her room at a makeshift altar. When she and Blue met, they found in each other a mirror image that inspired them. They went through a period of sexual exploration, tried phlebotomy in a friend’s dungeon, and found that they “enjoyed doing this more than anything else in the world.” And with this they also found their identities.
“Middle class order is only disorder,” wrote Rene Magritte. “Disorder to the point of paroxysm, deprived of all contact with the world of necessity.” Middle class America motivates the nonsexual bloodletting that is now prevalent among teens and which was the starting point for many sexual cutters. Adolescents carve words, pictures and haphazard slashes into their arms, legs, chest, stomach, face, or genitals.They use knives, paper clips, pins, needles, scissors, tacks, pieces of glass, or fingernails if they must. They cut to get attention, or to experience a pseudo-suicide, or to substitute physical pain for an overwhelming nebulous inner pain they can’t name or control. They say they cut to let out ‘demons and poisons’--unknowingly emulating initiation rites and superstitions as old as the Stone Age. They pack a razor to school or to grandma’s for a quick fix of pain ‘to get through the day’, because as soon as a cut unleashes blood, they feel ‘a rush of relief, like popping the lid off a pressure cooker,’ and also a sensation of control and fearlessness. They don’t cut to die, but the reverse: they hurt themselves ‘to feel something; to feel alive,’ they say, ‘to feel better’.
“A cut is very ordinary,” Molly told me. “You chop vegetables and cut yourself. You shave your legs and cut yourself.You break a glass and cut yourself. People do it all the time. It’s no worse if you do it on purpose, except it’s easier because you’re prepared for it. You let go, and you cut.” As a kid, whenever she was angry or stressed, she’d press her brother’s Swiss Army knife against her thumb and watch it slowly break skin. “It brought my every molecule into focus for a moment. And I’d go, ‘Aaah, I feel better now.’ My brother punched walls instead. But, as with everything, if you’re compulsive about it and develop a daily habit, it becomes a disorder; people who use it to escape reality become fanatics and are dependent on it. It can be a double-edged sword. No pun.”
“Self-mutilation is the exact opposite of suicide,” claims Armando Favazza, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri, in the October 1997 issue of I-D. “People who mutilate themselves want to feel better.” There are no statistics about the numbers of sexual cutters, but the literature on compulsive self-cutting is substantial. An estimated two million Americans currently engage in (nonsexual) self-cutting. The practice has long been common among abuse survivors, in gangs and prisons. But the more general addiction is a recent and fast spreading phenomenon. The newsletter Cutting Edge, Self-Mutilators Anonymous, and a program called SAFE (Self Abuse Finally Ends) all offer support for those ‘living with SIV (Self Inflicted Violence)’. Abstinence is the only official prescription for recovery (although many people like Electra find that sexualizing their cutting helps them control it). ‘Pathological cutting’, as therapists call it, remains largely untreated because most cutters never ‘come out’. It still carries the stigma that drug-addiction, alcoholism or anorexia used to. It is seen as an ‘unnatural act’, a morbid regression to unevolved tribal instincts. So, even though the practice itself is less debilitating or habit-forming than other pathological compulsions, it remains taboo. Yet, because self-cutting is done in isolation and people rarely share cutting tools, it carries no HIV risk. Physically, it is no more damaging than hiking through the woods and getting scratched by thorns. Intellectually, it is no more harmful than a daily dose of 90210. And for those who wear their scars as ‘badges of honor’, it may not be psychically damaging either.What is disquieting is that its scars are metaphors for the scars of an increasingly violent and hollow society; cutting proves how difficult everyday communication has become; it reveals the dormant hunger for passion, individual expression and contact that stirs under our cloistered, cyberized world.
We live in a blood-drenched society: much of our daily entertainment consists of reenact-ments of manslaughter in movies, books, newsstories, the arts; our medicine, our sense of valor, our national history, our very birth are steeped in blood. Many of us derive our spiritual sustenance from the communal partaking of the blood of the son of God. Many of us, in the appropriate context, consider bloodshed a romantic act. It’s no surprise our sexual imagination can also be blood-driven. This is what I am thinking of, as I mingle with the women who engage in ‘bloodsports’. I don’t find them revolting because I recognize the ancestral metaphors that compel them and I feel that, very deeply and disturbingly, we might all share this barbaric impulse. After all, Jesus’ undying power is in his wounds.