Mac McClelland has started a furor. After a stint in Haiti, seeing a victim of gang-rape go “into full paroxysm” on the way back to her tent city, the journalist for Mother Jones returned to the US with symptoms of PTSD. After seeking professional help, she decided to have sex with someone she knew and trusted.
Not just any sex. Violent, brutal sex.
And if that wasn’t enough, she wrote an article about it.
McClelland’s original piece, plus follow-up coverage on ABC.com and the Huffington Post, has garnered a host of responses, from kudos to curiosity to declarations of disgust and amateur diagnoses of her being narcissism or just plain nuts. But in all of the discussions, strangely enough no one has brought up the fact that she’s hardly the first woman to use rape fantasy as a therapeutic tool. And they’re hardly nuts for doing so.
How do I know? Because I’ve not only met them, I’ve been one of those “trusted guys” who are asked to help them.
Ravishment is the way I got into BDSM, and not without considerable hesitation and a great deal of discussion. My partner at the time then introduced me to the online community of devotees; in those days, it was hard to even maintain chatrooms and discussion lists without service providers shutting us down. I learned that this form of erotic role-play, with all its primal energy, was sublimely complex in psychology and methodology. And I found that the cautious and methodical approach I’d cultivated was a much-prized commodity – not least of which because it demanded intensive listening.
The first woman to stage a scene as therapy didn’t tell me that was her motivation. Likely she sensed that I’d shy away from such home-grown psychodrama. And yet it worked for her. When she’d been assaulted in her youth, she was so paralyzed with fear that she couldn’t scream. This time, she did – and with it, let loose years of rage and pain.
Later on, someone passed on my name to a therapist. “I have a client,” she explained, “who could use your help.” While never assaulted herself, her mother had barraged her with graphic descriptions of her own rape, inculcating a deep-seated phobia of being alone with any man, much less being touched. Her therapist had tried every conventional approach at her disposal – to no avail. This was a last resort. And it worked.
In the world of adventurous sex, ravishment is like an extreme sport. It’s not merely the physical and emotional risks involved but the cultural taboo. Sex is supposed to be gentle and loving, with bodies moving in harmony like a ballet. But while that is the prevailing message of our culture, it’s not always what people want – or need. Yet even with the dispassionate psychological studies showing forced-sex fantasies to be both highly common and intensely enjoyable, the majority of people are burdened by cognitive dissonance about it. How could anyone want to be raped? And so a mythology is developed, both around the fantasies themselves, and around those of us who dare to explore and indulge them.
And it is no small feat. It calls for intensive negotiation, planning and preparation – not only to minimize the risks of unwanted injury, and to assure the actuality of consent within the illusion of coercion, but to delve into the emotional motifs and desires behind the fantasy. Whether done for catharsis or for its own sake, the desired end of ravishment is sublime pleasure for all concerned. Care is also essential after the scene, to serve as decompression from the intensity of the experience – and for both partners.
Because of such intensity, I’ve turned down more requests for ravishment than I’ve accepted. I’m even more hesitant when asked to do so for therapeutic reasons, for even though I’ve seen it done successfully myself, and heard many other such accounts, I’m also aware of the risks of plunging into home-brew therapy. I have too much respect for the healing arts to use this as a quick fix, especially knowing that it is certainly not for everyone.
So, what do I think of Mac McClellan’s choice? Were she to approach me, I would likely be as hesitant, and urge her to try other options first. But I do respect her choice, and I can understand how it helped her deal with the trauma she experienced – especially with her friend repeating to her as she sobbed: “You are so strong.”
I can also understand those who are skeptical and even shocked to hear this. The very idea of staging such an episode to deal with the pain of trauma seems counterintuitive – like dealing with a fear of fire by walking through a burning building. Yet for some, that kind of severe approach is what is needed to find solace – one must feel the heat and hear the roar of the flames before one can look at the ashes afterwards and realize: It’s done now.
McClellan isn’t the first to do this. She isn’t even the first to talk about it. The only thing different is that she’s speaking to a wider audience. Her story isn’t an easy one for many to hear, and the lesson is a challenging one to learn. It’s not just about finding one’s own strength, but seeing and respecting that strength in others. And that the path to joy and healing isn’t always simple or easy – sometimes we have to walk through fire to find our way home.