Yep, the Buddha was right: attachment is the cause of the sufferings of humankind. Not just attachment to pleasure or things, but attachment to pain, to ideas, to our lives narratives, to the things that sustain our (illusory?) egos.

Oh, and attachment to our desires.

Queer sex, male/male sex, is a complicated beast. We guys are competitive, aggressive...it's fucking hardwired in. It's not just a matter of butch; even the most feline of drag queens carries claws. When two males fuck, the primal struggles for dominance are never far beneath the surface. And yet, and yet...queer male love is about so many other things, too.

I write this at a difficult time. America is newly at uncertain war with the Taliban, at war with men attached to all sorts of things: their faith, their masculinity, sense of superiority, fierceness, hope of paradise. Men who hate music and bulldoze walls onto other men for being fags. Their power is the power men are supposed to have. Not the power of compassion, surrender, ultimate vulnerability. Power based on strength. No wonder they blew up statues of the Buddha.

Anyone who's been to leather bars, circuit parties, or Palm Springs might find it hard to take seriously the idea of gay men as enlightened bodhisattvas. And hey, I find it hard, too; like everybody else, most of us queers are unenlightened indeed. What most of us are not, however, is in love with invulnerability. As well as knowing the power that another man's surrender bestows, we know the joys of surrender to another man; there's something about getting fucked up the ass that clarifies the mind wonderfully. Our desires, freed of the reproductive imperative, turn out to be more about distilled pleasure than dynasty-building. We are, despite the proscriptions of society, imbued with a hunger for other men, a hunger that, whatever our enemies might say, truly ennobles. It does not make us less than men. Even the Roman emperor Hadrian, ruler of half the world, was overpowered by his boyfriend's beauty. And I bet you are, too.

Okay, so what does this all have to do with getting dressed up in chaps and having the shit beat out of us? Though it would perhaps be reassuring to believe that what happens in the playroom is all just forgettable fun, I can't quite buy that. There's other, deeper, more ornery stuff at stake. So what does the intersection of power and desire mean to queer men? And how does it differ, if it does, from the desires of kinky hetguys?

For one thing, there's the looming shadow of violence against us. There are two stories about gay-bashing in this book, and there was another in the first volume. It's not something we editors planned on; it's a reflection of the threats gay men live with all the time. The rise of international terrorism is said to have "robbed us of our sense of security," but queer men have never felt truly secure. The past decades, despite progress in gay rights and social acceptance, havent been easy for us. The more visible we become, the more likely we are to be targets. And though the constant drumbeat of the losses from AIDS has, of late, become more like tension-filled background noise, the stress remains, coiled and ready to strike. Threats. Not a few of us have status, wealth, strength, yet I'd wager that buried in even the richest queer CEO's breast are the warnings of our fearful history. Those of us who've read our Foucault know that lines of power are never as simple as they appear, but when it comes to the flux between power and powerlessness, we queer men can take complexity to headspinning heights.

How reassuring, then, it might seem to play with power. "I'm a big executive," a prospective trick said to me, "so I need to let go and be submissive every once in a while." And sure enough, when he showed up and I put the dog collar on him, he was in hog heaven. We both were. It's the compensatory model of SM, of course, and pretty much a threadbare cliche (though like many cliches, theres more than a kernel than truth there). But then, Mr. Executive did come over so I could work hard at fulfilling his fantasies of being a groveling bottom; truth be told, I was at his service. And so the usual question (at least among us who dont take Illusion for Real) arises: who's really on top?

The actual answer, I think, is "Both of us." And "Neither." Both are true, at the same time. Like I said, complex. More complex than some of us, who long for life to have the simplicity of a porn story, would prefer. But everything, whether in everyday life or behind the playroom door, is up for grabs. To sound like a leathersex Einstein for a moment, everythings pretty fucking relative. As Leonard Cohen, that most Jewish-Buddhist of bards, sings, "We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky." The human will is capable of so much, for good and ill. We can build the World Trade Center. We can cause it to fall.

Holy fuck! I can hear you saying. I thought this was a sex book. What does this have to do with dick?

Okay, here's what I think. I think we all are straining under the burden of mortality, no matter what myths we may construct that promise a happy ending to our earthly lives. And one way past that heavy load is to use our bodies for pleasure, for connectedness, for sex. Orgasm is the quick and dirty way to ego loss, and if it, unlike true enlightenment, lasts but a moment, well hey, at least it's always at hand.

SM play tests the limits of our bodies. How much can we take? How much can give us pleasure? Where are our limits, both as bottoms and tops? In that moment when a bottom's willpower allows him to ask for one more stroke of the whip, and when the top obliges, there's a dark kind of transcendence. Going beyond the body's bounds. And yet it's so very much about bodies, and physicality reigns over all. Another paradox. Got that?

I think what I'm looking for here is a way out. Every once in a while, some event, whether the lonely death of Matthew Shepard or the deaths of thousands in the Twin Towers, brings me up short. When it comes to SM, I'm certainly a switch, but one with a wide swath of sadism. How in the hell can I take pleasure in the suffering of another human being, be it ever so circumscribed, consensual, begged-for? What does that say about me?

One answer, of course, is, "Shut up and keep flogging." But many of us who've stuck our hands in the fire of kink find that the flames transform. Power-based sex is a hard magic, a steep and dangerous path to self-knowledge. It can, part of me truly believes, be a meditation.

The first time after September 11, 2001 that I spanked someone, I asked myself whether this meant that I would be capable of blowing up "infidels." And the answer, reassuring and definite came back: Nope. Despite all the blurrings, there's a tremendous difference between consensual and non-consensual uses of power. And I think that's one thing about SM play that so badly disturbs the non-kinky. When society is based on our collective acceptance of power relations, the knowledge that SM can bestowthat power is in fact a construct, that nothing about it is ever very simplemight well be seen as a threat to the orders that be. Power relationships in the real world work best when no one concerned, not the tops, nor the bottoms, questions the state of things. Sexual powerplay asks the questions, though. It can lead us past the trap of oppositions, into the dark heart of things.

Why then, is the "leather community," or at least its more conventional segments, reputedly so much more Republican than American queers at large? Yet another paradox. While the consensuality of leathersex may deconstruct the powerplays involved, SM scenes do seem on the surface to celebrate a hierarchical society. One can be forgiven for walking out of the dungeon thinking that the world consists of those who deserve to dominate and those who need to be restrained. In the world of SM (and SM porn), "slaves" are happy folks only to eager to serve their Masters' firm hands. Any outsider would think that leathersex celebrates the trappings and uses of power, and sure enough, it does. So what's a nice, progressive, sadistic queer to do?

Enough of this highfalutin' theory, dear and always-horny reader; perhaps the questions are answer enough in themselves. I do hope that the stories in Roughed Up have excited and entertained you. I hope they've coddled your greatest hopes and confirmed your deepest fears. And that the next time your dick gets hard, whether you're carrying a 60-pound toybag into your well-equipped playroom, or jacking off while fantasizing about trying your very first bondage scene someday, the hot stories in this nasty little book become part of your libido. Trembling virgin or hardcore player, you are, as we all are, on a journey of discovery. May that journey bring you pleasure, and love, and, at least for a moment, something like peace.

ęcopyright 2002 by Simon Sheppard