Even Moms Get Kinky. Even Dommes Get Sick.

Today marks three years since my mother’s death, and I want to remember her by sharing with you a piece I read at BedPost Confessions at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit this past August in Alexandria, VA. It is adapted from a chapter of My Mother’s Cross: Cancer, Kink, Sex and Death, the memoir I’m writing about my mother’s late-life sexual awakening and all that surrounded it. I’m grateful to Julie Gillis, co-producer of BedPost Confessions, for the work she puts in to creating transformational spaces for story telling.


This is a story about kinky moms and medical care, and I don’t mean some MILF porn fantasy set in a hospital. I’m not talking about our beloved Nina Hartley. I’m talking about my own mom. My baby boomer mom, born in ’45, married a year before the summer of love, with two baby girls born by the beginning of 1973. My mom who, after divorcing twice, told me she had never enjoyed sex, and who then spent more than two decades not having any. If anyone thought her mom was unlikely to become kinky it was me.

“He wants me to pierce his testicles,” she tells me on the phone.

This is not your typical mother-daughter conversation. Mothers and daughters don’t typically we have these conversations. It’s also unusual because it takes place in what I came to think of as The Dialysis Years: after my mother’s kidney cancer and before the terminal cancer that killed her. Believe it or not, those were some very good years!

She’s telling me about the submissive partner she calls “my Brit,” the man whose desire for pain pushes her need to inflict it to edges her sadistic imagination wouldn’t have conjured on its own. He visits a few times a year, and before each visit they collaborate on elaborate fantasies set in prisons or hospitals, and each time he brings or ships ahead new equipment for her to wield on his behalf. This time, apparently, it’s needles.

“Wow, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” I say. “I mean, don’t you think that’s the kind of thing that requires a lot more experience?” I imagine the many ways this could go wrong: Shock, infection, and permanent injury top my list.

“I’ve researched it online,” she says. “Plus, a woman at Passionale told me that it’s really not that dangerous. She’s done it more than once. I think she even did a workshop.” Passionale is the Philadelphia sex toy store my mother favors.

That woman at Passionale probably doesn’t have a patina of cigarette ash and Hershey’s syrup coating assorted surfaces of her bedroom, I think to myself. Plus, she probably has years of practice as a Domme, knows a lot about anatomy, and I bet she was even trained by someone more experienced than herself. Then I reflect on the fact that my mother has doing her own dialysis at home for over a year with no incident, evidence that her bedroom’s failure to meet even my loose standards for cleanliness doesn’t mean she’s created a hazard. And even doctors have to perform their first surgeries at some point. “See one, do one, teach one,” is the way it has been explained to me more than once. Still, I remain concerned.

“I don’t know, Mom. I think it sounds awfully risky. Besides, he’s never done this before, either. What if it’s worse than he expects?” I imagine the phone call I might get in the middle of the night:

“Elizabeth Wood?” a stern, authoritative voice would ask.

“Yes,” I would answer, with trepidation.

“We’ve arrested your mother,” the voice would tell me, explaining that neighbors had heard screams, after which she had been found with an unconscious man and blood on her hands.

I take a deep breath, and sigh.

She lets my sigh hang there for a moment and then offers, “Maybe I’ll ask him to sign a waiver.”

I’m not reassured, but her mind is made up. She’s not going to be dissuaded.

A week or so later she tells me that they went through with the piercing. “We only did one,” she admits. “The pain was so awful that he didn’t want me to do the second. And to be honest,” she adds, “I was relieved. I don’t think I could have done it again.”

I’m more than relieved. In the pause that follows I quietly admire her courage even while mentally chastising her for going through with what I think was a foolishly risky act. I feel like the parent of a talented but reckless adolescent skateboarder. “I’m proud of you darling. You are very creative and strong and brave. Now won’t you consider a safer passion? Piano, perhaps?”

~~

Fast forward to May 8, 2012. Mom is in the hospital trying to dominate an incurable cancer, but repeated infections are getting the better of her. They rob her of her strength, her control, at times even her dignity, but astonishingly, her humor remains largely intact.

“Well, you were a wild one, weren’t you Miss Judy!” Shaniah, Mom’s aide that day, has just spotted the lopsided, fading butterfly tattoo on my mother’s right butt cheek while helping to wipe her bottom. This is not the first time that Shaniah has been with us, and I’m surprised that she’s surprised by the tattoo. There are times when I think that everyone in this hospital has wiped my mother’s behind, and thus seen that tattoo.

“Oh, I was a wild one,” Mom assures her as we help her shuffle from the commode to a chair. “You want to know how I got that tattoo?” She’s in a playful mood today, or maybe it’s the pain medicine. This is not the first time that tattoo has drawn comment, but never before has she offered a story about it. In fact, the only story I know about that tattoo is that she got it during her drinking days, after her divorce from my father but before sobriety, probably in 1977 or 1978. My ears perk up.

“Of course I do, Madame Butterfly!” Shaniah teases. She’s busy changing the bed, but she’s happy to listen while she works.

“I had a boyfriend once who wanted to be a tattoo artist,” Mom begins. “One night when we were pretty high he got out his needles and we tattooed each other.” She looks pleased with herself. “For practice,” she adds. Well, that explains why the butterfly is so lopsided, I think, but I keep the comment to myself.

I have no doubt that this story is true, given what my mother has said about her drinking days, I’m still astonished that anyone would ever think that “practicing” tattoo skills while drunk was a brilliant idea.

Then again, lots of bad ideas sound much better while intoxicated.

Shaniah is apparently thinking along the same lines. “Wow, Miss Judy, I know I was a little drunk when I got my first tattoo, but I’m sure glad the tattoo artist wasn’t!”

“Wait,” I say. “You said you tattooed each other. What did you tattoo on him?” I have to know!

Mom grins. “A chessboard.” Shaniah and I look at one another, and then at my mother, who answers the unasked question: “On his chest.”

Shaniah lets out a low whistle and says “Wow, that must have hurt!”

I wonder who this man was and how he sat still and allowed a drunken woman to tattoo a chessboard on his chest. Did she include all 64 squares? Did she fill in all the black ones? Did he worry about whether the lines were straight, or was he so trashed that, in the moment, none of that mattered? How does he tell this story when someone looks at his aging chest and says, “So, where’d you get that?”

Was this, perhaps, the first time my mother mixed erotic pleasure with the administration of pain. If Shaniah weren’t there, maybe I’d ask. I’m sure I’ll get around to asking later.

I never do.

~~

A few days later, as we meet with Tara, the palliative care pharmacist, I contemplate the irony: my mother has spent lots of creative energy over the past several years figuring out new and inventive ways to cause pain. Now she’s suffering from a pain that even the most creative and inventive palliative care team is having trouble conquering.

This is a discharge-planning day, though, and we are trying to be optimistic. Tara is enumerating some of the non-pharmaceutical pain control options we can consider outside the hospital: Reiki, massage, acupuncture, a TENS unit perhaps. Reiki appeals to my mother; she says she’s too ticklish for massage. Acupuncture doesn’t appeal to her; it seems needles only interest her when she’s wielding them. Then she asks, “What’s a TENS unit?”

Now, I know my mother knows what a TENS unit is because she has one at home, an early gift from “her Brit.” Still, with her brain fogged by pain medication and chemotherapy, I’m not all that surprised that she can’t remember it by name. “TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation,” Tara explains. “Basically, you put these electrode pads that look kind of like Band-Aids on your skin, and when you push a button, the machine sends an electric pulse that travels through the body between the pads. Lots of physical therapists use them, and sometimes people find them useful at home for managing chronic pain.”

My mother can look impish, even when she’s tired and in pain, and that look is sparkling in her watery blue eyes right now. ““Oh!” she exclaims. She has figured out what the TENS unit is. “I have one of those at home.” She pauses. I’d swear it’s for effect. “But I’ve never used it on myself, and I don’t remember if it has pads.” I wonder to myself whether Tara has ever seen the erotic attachments that one can purchase for use with a TENS: the wired butt plugs and cock rings, the sounds and probes, the little clamps that look like they could be used to jump start a very small automobile.

In the moment, I enjoyed the humor of my mother’s response, almost like an inside joke she and I shared alone. But looking back on that moment from a vantage point of a few years after her death, my first thoughts are not about the cheekiness in my mother’s not-so-veiled sexual reference, but rather about how much I wish Tara had picked up that line of conversation. I wish Tara had asked my mother what she did use her unit for, and I wish she’d explored whether or not sexual activity – either with a partner or alone – might have been a useful pain management strategy. Tara didn’t go there. And neither did mom, and neither did I.

Doctors, nurses, and aides touch our vulvas, our penises, our breasts, and our bottoms. They insert objects into our vaginas, our urethras and our rectums, and they work hard to be sure that the interaction itself is not eroticized. Unfortunately, the side effect of that work is often the erasure of any recognition that we are sexual beings with sexual lives that need to be considered in order to see us as whole people, not just as patients or conditions. Patients, as people, need touch, need intimacy, need pleasure. How to make that happen might be different for each patient. Instead of compartmentalizing illness and denying the wholeness of patients’ lives, I wish someone had helped my mother and me to think holistically about the symptoms, treatments, and life-changing decisions that often need to be made in these sterilized settings.

We talk a lot about how adults should talk to young people about sex. But we assume the need for these conversations ends, somehow, when the child becomes an adult. The opposite is true. As adults we need to talk to our elders about sex and pleasure – their sex, their pleasure – so that we can help prevent the loss of sexual freedom that otherwise the health care and elder care systems almost inevitably impose.

Here’s my confession: Strange as it is for a mother and daughter to have conversations like we had, I enjoyed hearing about my mother’s sexuality. In fact, given our history of codependence and role reversals, it was a relief when she would share something that was not about neediness, fear, guilt, or failure. But even healthier parent child relationships can contain space for these conversations. Witnessing my mother’s development as a Domme was good for me. I took pleasure in the knowledge of her pleasure.

I think a lot about my mother and the inheritance she left me: Not money or property, but the knowledge that safeguarding the sexual freedom of our elders means celebrating their sexuality. Tomorrow we begin the Widener’s Sexuality and Aging Consortium Institute. Let’s get that party started!

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