The Skinner Box

I WAS IN SEVENTH GRADE when I wrote my first bondage story. I lived in a neighborhood called Park Hill, close to the Denver Zoo. I fell asleep most nights to gunshots, but during the day, I attended a conservative prep school my mom’s psychiatrist fiancé helped pay for. I was attracted to both girls and boys, which was confusing and scary enough: on the news every night, older gay men everywhere died of AIDS, lesions all over their skin. But the thing that scared me more than who was in my fantasies was the content of them. I don’t remember the details of my first story, but I remember the main character tying up a woman to train tracks, cartoon style — not a real woman, that was important, but an imaginary one, a woman who didn’t even have a name. The character did loving things, sadistic things, sexual things. I’d dropped out of cub scouts, couldn’t tie a knot. I didn’t know the meaning of the word sadistic. But I knew what I wanted in my story. I slept little then, so I spent all night writing it under my sheets, and then I hid it behind the radiator when it was time for school in the morning.

Every day after school, I had a precious few hours between when I opened that latch to the front door and when my parents got home. Mom was up for tenure in the psych department at the university and my soon-to-be stepdad had a gazillion patients. The day after writing that story, I ran upstairs to my room, checked that it was still behind the radiator, and read it one more time. Then I went to the kitchen and grabbed the strike anywhere matches my parents used to light our gas range. I ran into the side yard, looking for an outdoor spot where no one could see me. I couldn’t light something on fire in the house, even on my deck, without risking the smell of smoke lingering when my parents returned. The two hedges right in front of the house were big enough to hide me, and there was a nice gravelly wall between the front deck and the bushes that would light the match nicely. I ran there, scraping myself against the pines of the evergreen hedges; then I cowered down behind the bushes and lit the match. I let one end of the paper catch, and I watched it burn until the end I was holding got too hot. Then I dropped it, let the rest of it burn, and stomped and stomped until each and every ember was all the way out, until I couldn’t even see any ashes.

I obsessed over the way my parents talked about their patients and research subjects. If the patient would only remember to take her medication, then maybe she wouldn’t cut herself all the time. If his mom would just stop hitting him, then he wouldn’t need to stay at the hospital for weeks on end. The solutions over dinner seemed so easy to my 7th grade mind. I didn’t know they were just blowing off steam, oversimplifying to feel better about the horrors they saw every day. They spoke with such pity, derision and frustration at the inability of people to recognize their flaws. Everything was fixable. You just had to be able to see.

At the same time, reading through one of my parents psychology books, I found the scariest quote I’d ever read, by some guy I’d never heard of named Karl Kraus:

“There is no more unhappy being under the sun than a fetishist who pines for a boot and has to content himself with an entire woman.”

The book contained no further explanation I could understand; the rest of the chapter turned to psychobabble. I didn’t like boots, at least, but if I wasn’t careful, it might be ropes. Or whips. I looked up fetish in a dictionary and learned it didn’t have to be a thing. It could be just an idea. Maybe my fetish was power. I had to be able to control this, to turn it off. I had to be able to have a real, normal relationship—no ropes or chains—and it had to be with a woman. The alternative was unthinkable.

I couldn’t talk to anyone about this. Teachers said faggot almost as much as the students, bad things happened to cars with rainbow flags on them, no one knew who Bettie Page was, and the only people I saw who liked ropes were killing people on Law and Order.

Soon after, I discovered the Internet, and with it, an endless supply of erotica. I began a self-imposed pervert conversion therapy. In the mid-90’s, the Internet was still too young for pictures, but I made a vow to only read vanilla, man-on-woman erotica. I was probably the only thirteen year-old in the world who thought that if his parents knew his real reason for looking at sex stories, they’d approve.

Sometimes I found myself slipping to kink. Sometimes I found myself slipping too far, into a porn hole, into erotica that got too cruel or gruesome, erotica that made me want to vomit after reading it. That was always the jolt I needed to get back on track, to just look at the vanilla stuff. At thirteen, I compared myself to a rat in one of B.F. Skinner’s boxes. Skinner used food to train the rats to do what he wanted; later versions of The Skinner Box used electroshocks. The experiment was all about positive and negative reinforcement—and it worked.

By the same logic, if I kept just looking at vanilla straight porn when I masturbated, I could condition myself to only like vanilla straight sex, to live a vanilla straight life, to not die of AIDS by sleeping with men or be a freak or fail at life because of my sexual proclivities. And if I slipped into kink, I let myself spiral into darker and darker stuff, until what I was looking at stopped being erotic and started being disgusting, jolting me back to a righteous path.

It took eight years and a future porn star to get me out of this habit. I was a junior in college, looking online for vanilla porn. I was sitting in front of my desk top on a beat up desk in a new office chair I’d bought for too much at OfficeMax, my room covered in dirty clothes, my bed on the floor near the windows without a frame. I was dating a woman I liked quite a lot; we had gymnastic vanilla straight sex for the record books. I enjoyed it but felt something was missing. She was a photographer who spent late nights in the dark room.

You could get pictures online by then, but it was slow unless you had a university connection, and I lived off campus. My favorite site then was called Gregpix. I liked it because the links you clicked worked and the pop-up attacks were minimal. The link had the word “nubile” in it; I found that was a good word because it brought up women my age.

This was the age of dial-up, so the picture loaded from the top down. At first, I saw a white, stucco ceiling. God knows how many hours porn watchers spent in the days of dial-up staring at the ceilings of crappy stucco southern California ranch house ceilings, waiting for pictures to load. Then I saw some blond hair. Then I saw the eyes. That’s when I knew. It was the eyes of one of my girlfriend’s best friends from high school; her eyes were kind, very round, and warm, but tough as nails. Impossible to forget. I stood up from my chair. Her whole face was there then, it was unmistakable. Then it was her neck. Then her breasts. That was all. Just a topless photo. I shut my computer off. It was all too much. I’d shared a burrito with this woman not a few months before. I’d visited her house in San Francisco and met her friends.

I’d seen some vile things on the Internet. I had friends in the dorms who would seek out horrors and make us watch them: Beheadings, impalements, crucifixions. But just the act of seeing someone I know topless on my screen made me swear off the Internet for an entire week.

When I went back, though, something had changed.

I stopped hiding from kinky porn. I started seeing the models as “entire women,” a person in the world. It actually made it better. It made it better because it meant there was some hope my fantasies might actually come true—not with the actors and actresses, necessarily, but with someone. There might be someone just as weird as me.

I didn’t see her again until years later, after I’d graduated, when I’d made it, or so I thought at the time. She’d made it, too, well on her way to becoming one of the best-known porn stars in the business. I was working for a Congresswoman, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had business cards with the little eagle seal on them; I had suits; I had a Blackberry. I drove up to San Francisco for a barbeque with old friends from college, still wearing the slacks and the button down shirt I’d worn to work. She was there, sitting in a row of cheap plastic lawn chairs. She asked me for a cigarette and we caught up. She told me what she’d been up to, taking one look at my outfit and leaving out the details. I told her what I’d been up to, boasting of my new job. We were all in scarves, protecting ourselves from the San Francisco wind, drinking cocktails out of mugs. I’d been watching a lot of films from I even shelled out for a subscription or two. I couldn’t watch the ones she was in, that was still too much—it felt creepy—but I watched and watched the others. There was so much I wanted to ask her. I kept my mouth shut.

The truth is that kinky porn was one of the only things that made life bearable then. My job looked good on paper, and I thought it might make possible my lifelong dream of saving the world. But I was in no way qualified; I had to hide everything about myself; my boss, who I later learned had been forced to hire me against her will, made it her mission to make my life miserable; and as time went on, I realized how little there was that a 23 year-old desk jockey could do right. There was so much he could do wrong. I ruined lives by fucking up paperwork. A mentally ill veteran with a massive arsenal threatened my life, and I had to call in the FBI. The job took its toll. I drank a glass of whiskey every night before I went to bed. I ate Fritos for breakfast every morning. Some nights I slept 15 hours.

Was this success?

At the party, a mutual friend came along and asked her more about her work. I listened in, not saying much. She told someone she actually enjoyed it, but it was just a job, and like any job, sometimes it was hard. She was civil, nice, but I think tired of answering the same old questions. We steered the conversation off her work and tried to have a good time, pretend we were in college still.

I’ve since quit the Congressional job, come out as queer, and had kinky relationships with men and women. I’ve published articles that guarantee I’ll never work in politics again. I think all those choices were good ones.

Still, I can’t help but compare the two of us: I was the guy in the suit, the dude working the straight job I thought I was supposed to be working, trying to engineer myself into what I thought the world wanted of me. Now I’m playing catch-up, doing alright but always curious where the rent will come from, never sure how to navigate the world as myself, always tired. She was successful the way people told her not to be—her professional choices cost her loads of friendships, including my ex’s—yet she told the world what she was, and for the most part, it listened. Now, according to a mutual friend, besides her career in sex work, she writes for respected literary journals, has a place in San Francisco, and is happily married.

Before I left the party, I got up the nerve to ask her one question. I was drunk by then, and she probably was, too.

“Isn’t it sad?” I asked.

She glowered at me and turned to talk to someone else.

“Not you. I mean,” I said, “The men. The men who have to pay for that to get off?”

She nodded, didn’t look annoyed anymore, just tired. She looked away at her friend for a second, then her eyes headed right into mine. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

“Maybe,” she said, “Depends on the guy.”



About Seth Fischer

Seth Fischer once peed in a urinal next to Buzz Aldrin. His writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing 2013, Buzzfeed, Pank, Guernica, and elsewhere. His essay "Notes From a Unicorn" was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. He is a contributor and former editor at The Rumpus. He teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is a Jentel Arts Residency Program fellow.
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