Last year, I had the happy honor of going on the (It Girl. Rag Doll) podcast with Molly Moore and Harper Eliot. We covered a lot of ground but, as with all good conversations, there was still a lot left. Afterwards, the lovely Jane Gilbert of Behind the Chintz Curtain asked this question: (forgive the paraphrase)
Is there anything you haven’t written about yet that scares you or makes you nervous?
My knee-jerk response, and the one I’d likely have given were I to have answered on the show, would have been edge play – specifically knives and cutting. In fact, I started writing about this on several occasions, but it never quite felt right. Recently, I realized why my initial answer didn’t work. Knives and cutting aren’t actually the issue for me (as a writer). They’re the way I’m drawn to addressing the thing I actually want to explore: Trust.
Personally speaking, trust is a nuanced, risky thing, which is probably why I feel compelled to write about it despite the fact that it makes me uneasy. While vulnerability is a prominent theme in my writing, I’ve always treated trust as an implicit part of that, rather than explicitly addressing it though higher-stakes scenarios. Something shifted as I considered Jane’s question and I suspect that limiting myself to the implicit isn’t going to satisfy me anymore.
But to bring it back to cutting. Knives and blades are, in and of themselves, not without significance for me. For a long time, I assumed that it was that personal element that made me hesitate when I considered writing stories about cutting or blood-play. Once I dug out from under that assumption, it was pretty clear that knives were only part of the issue. For me, knives (and blades in general) are the metaphorical hinge on which trust swings. I also realized that I’ve been playing with that metaphor implicitly for years.
I’ve written a number of stories in which a woman shaves a man with a straight-razor, and scenes in which a woman allows her lover to shave her pussy even though she’s scared. In life or fiction, shaving someone is, for me, a fantastically intimate act that requires a great deal of trust, especially if straight razors are involved.
My grandfather was a barber. He taught me how to use a straight razor when I was about 12 because the razor (as an object) both scared and fascinated me. I remember him showing me how to hold it lightly, as if it were delicate. He told me it was just a thing. It couldn’t bite me or wield itself. As long as I held it, I was in control. That was a revelation.
The experience of learning to use that razor fascinated me, not in a sexual way (or at least, not in a way I recognized as sexual at the time), but in a very human way. I was being trusted to do something dangerous (with help – my grandfather’s hands guided mine the whole time). In hindsight, I can’t believe his customer allowed himself to play the guinea pig. But then, my grandfather inspired great trust in people and , to my knowledge, he never broke it. Happily, it all went off without a hitch and I spent the next week thinking I wanted to be a barber.
It’s not difficult to realize how much power you have when you’re holding a razor and a person is literally exposing their skin for you. What makes the situation possible is that there is an unspoken contract in place – both parties assume that the person with the blade will not take advantage of their ability to cause harm. That’s what allows the person baring their throat (or labia, or groin) to trust you not to hurt them.
But what happens when the contract is slightly different? What if the contract is not that the person with the blade will not cause harm but, rather, that the person with the blade will cause harm but in a responsible and agreed upon way? You allow the person with the blade to open a door (meaning your skin) and you are trusting them to stop. That takes trust to another, even higher, plane. The interpersonal contract that allows for this is emotionally packed and worthy of nuanced fictional representation. It’s also something I feel strongly about doing right because I do fetishize trust to such a degree in real life, even if it doesn’t manifest as cutting in my own sexual practices.
There are authors who have handled blades beautifully in their fiction – Jane Gilbert did it in this story, and Remittance Girl has done it several times, here and here, as well in her novella, Beautiful Losers, in which there’s a shaving scene that is beautiful, intense and reflective of the emotional complexity that underpins the relationship between the characters involved. Exhibit A did it as well in this story, also a shaving scene, in which trust is central to the story and a single drop of blood is let.
The reason these stories work so well is that, at their centers, trust is (either implicitly or explicitly) recognized as the foundation of the intimacy that underpins the experience. Trust is the risk that allows the blade to work. For me, as both a writer and as a reader, it’s not enough to write about a taboo (or, in this case, edge play) and rely on the riskiness or transgression to titillate. For me, as regards edge play in fiction, it’s the intimacy that allows someone to put themselves in their partner’s hands that’s the turn on. It’s also the universal factor that might allow someone who has absolutely no interest in knives (or breath-play or non-con, etc) to see why someone else might get off on it.
Now that I do understand that it is not blades, but blades as signifiers of extreme and total trust that both turn me on (as a reader) and unsettle me (as a writer), I’ll be able to convey what is valuable to me – that the trust and complexity inherent in the act are what make it powerful and erotic. It isn’t just the transgression of letting blood.