Exploring the Kink in S-Town
S-Town is a novel of a podcast, from the producers of Serial. But it’s true. And like all Southern Gothic literature, depressing as all hell. I had to take breaks in-between listens to recover, emotionally. If you’ve stopped listening for this reason, I urge you to continue. The ending is worth it, I promise.
Some of this emotional impact may be explained in part by the fact that I grew up in Alabama. Birmingham is an hour from Woodstock, where Shit Town takes place, and it’s where I went to college, met my now ex-husband, and started my career. It’s a place I left, along with that husband, five years ago, for D.C., where I spent most of that time before moving to SF two months ago.
While Brian drops hints, I did not at all expect kink to come up in Shit Town. And while no one on the podcast uses that word, or any word related to kink, themes of dominance, submission, subspace, and pain bottoming all made their appearance in the last episode of the series.
Other writers have grappled with their feelings about a straight reporter trying to fit a queer story into a straight, monogamous frame. But so far I haven’t seen anyone write about their feelings about a non-kinky (I assume, which is always dangerous) writer trying to fit a kinky story into a “vanilla” frame.
I’m more Alabama than I am kinky or queer. I know what it’s like to have someone from outside the South describe it. I know what it feels like to hear their judgment.
Sometimes it’s straightforward, like when Brian asked whether the “K3” in K3 Lumber has anything to do with white supremacy. Other times I suspect the outsider is not cognizant of their own biases. Sometimes it feels like they think they’re telling it straight, but you know they’re not. And it’s hard to hear someone judge your world without feeling judged yourself.
Which is mixed in with my own complex feelings about the South. After all, I left. I am conflicted about the ways and extent to which I identify as Southern, and with Southern culture. And while I have shit on and will continue to shit on the South for all the reasons Brian and his ilk do and more, sometimes I feel protective. Like I can criticize it, but yankees can’t.
In How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind David Wong describes how television depicts middle America.
When they did make a show about us, we were jokes—either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks And Recreation, and before that, Newhart) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective, and before that, Deliverance). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away
So I wonder how kinky folks feel listening to Brian and Tyler talk about “church.” That’s their colloquial name for Tyler and John’s BDSM sessions, like 420 means smoking weed, but without any explanation. Listening to Shit Town, I felt cheated out of John’s perspective on these sessions. When Brian asked John about church John talked about the drinking and talking but left out the parts where Tyler tattooed him with an empty needle, pierced his already pierced nipples, and hit him with a tree branch until welts formed.
That information we got from Tyler, after John had already killed himself.
I also felt cheated by the vocabulary Brian and Tyler used to describe what had happened. There are words people have set aside to describe these things. Or, maybe what Tyler and John did doesn’t fit into those definitions. I don’t know, and I would like to.
When Tyler speculated on John’s motivation for wanting Tyler to hurt him it sounded like a description of subspace to me. Was it? I’m also left wondering why Tyler felt uncomfortable hurting John. It wasn’t because it was weird and unfamiliar. Tyler is a tattoo artist. As someone who has several tattoos, Tyler said that he understands the appeal of a certain kind of pain. Maybe it was the scope of John’s desire. Tyler felt like John was addicted to the pain, asking Tyler to come over and hurt him day and night.
Maybe it was the sexual aspect. Tyler takes pains to specify that he is straight, saying he doesn’t have a queer bone in his body. I wondered whether the pun was intentional. Tyler never described “church” as being at all sexual. But he didn’t describe it as kinky either. Kink can be sexual but is not necessarily sexual for everyone. Which got me thinking a thing I think every so often. Which is, what is sex?
Once you grapple with the fact that you can have sex that does not involve genitalia, it becomes very hard to actually pin down. What is sex for one person is not sex for another. And what is not sex for one person is sex for another. I’ll never forget eating dinner with Jillian Keenan, author of Sex with Shakespeare and her telling me that spanking was sex for her. It wasn’t the lead up. It wasn’t a prelude. It was the most important, pinnacle sexual act for her.
What does that mean in practice? It means we are quite different, for one. I was spanked as a child. In fact, in Alabama when I was in school they still paddled children’s asses for punishment. I remember fucking up one time in middle school and being offered a choice. A paddling at school or a note to my mother that I’d misbehaved. I chose the school paddling with full confidence that it would be gentler than my mother’s.
Maybe in part because of this, for me, spanking is not a sexual act at all. I understand it can be, intellectually. But being hit on my ass produces the opposite of arousal. But for her, spanking is sex which means spanking without consent is rape. Knowing this, Jillian’s complicated relationship with her mother isn’t super surprising.
I hear that BDSM isn’t necessarily sexual. But I’m not sure what that means. It’s true that BDSM doesn’t have to involve genitalia (it probably mostly doesn’t in the strictest sense of the word). But if sex doesn’t have to involve genitalia either, then what does that mean?
Because what John and Tyler did in John’s workshop (and in the woods) sounds like sex to me. Sex, for me, is being vulnerable. It’s an attempt at intimacy, which always involves taking a risk. You could be rejected or you could react in a way you don’t predict and don’t like. But you take the risk for the chance you’ll get to feel the release of acceptance.
Did Tyler sound ashamed because, looking back, he feels like John’s desires to be hurt were a cry for help he wish he’d heeded better? Or does he feel ashamed because he feels like he had sex with a man? Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe what I’m hearing in his voice isn’t shame, so much as sadness. Or confusion. Or both. Relationships are complicated like that.
Just as importantly, what did John think about these sessions? Did he not mention that part of church because he was ashamed? Maybe he wanted to protect Tyler.
I don’t know man. I hang out with kinky folks and people keep asking me if I’m kinky. I always say “Not really,” because while I don’t know how far down the rabbit hole goes, I’ve seen enough of it to feel like I don’t qualify for the qualifier. But the fact that I have given this much thought to a ten-minute segment in a 7+ hour podcast is making me question that assertion.
Everyone looks for themselves in whatever they read or watch or hear. We don’t get into stories unless they contain characters we can, at least to an extent, identify with. John was a smart, idealistic, anxious, and obsessive person who lived in the South and knew he didn’t fit in but also frankly took some pride in that. John was at least a little bit different than most people, sexually.
I heard something like bewilderment in Brian’s voice when he was talking about church. Doing a little self-assessment here, maybe I feel some judgment in Brian’s refusal to explore whether and to what extent John and Tyler’s relationship was kinky, or just to use any word associated with kink. Maybe I feel some of that judgment directed at me. Maybe I’m driven to question whether and to what extent John and Tyler’s relationship was kinky myself because what I really want to discover is whether and to what extent I am.