Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Sexplorations on the Fringe

An author finds her sexual identity as she explores others’ daring activities.

Bestselling true crime writer Suzy Spencer has taken a different route for her recent book, writing Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringe of American Sexuality. She'd hoped for relief from the darkness of true crime, but she didn’t anticipate that talking to people about their sexual experiences would force her up against her own issues.

Raised Southern Baptist, with a large dose of guilt, this wasn't easy for her. But it was certainly revelatory!

Parallel to her research was a personal journey, as she felt her long-term sexual numbness recede. Objectivity became less an issue than finding herself.

Spencer placed an ad on Craigslist and in several adult forums, and began talking to men and women across America. Most were open about their preferences and styles: She was invited to listen to phone sex, read sexually graphic e-mails, and attend BDSM workshops, among other things. As she learned about these unusual practices, she grew intrigued with the sense of freedom and sensuality her subjects expressed, which made her question her own relationship choices.

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Since I’ve undertaken similar forays into alternative communities, talking with fetishists, dominatrices, necrophiles, and vampires, I thought that Spencer’s “sexplorations” would fit well on this blog. She agreed to a Q&A:

You and I have some common experiences. We’ve ventured into worlds in which we weren’t active participants to learn more about those who are. How did you learn to listen without showing a response that might have curtailed someone’s narrative?

Certainly working in the world of true crime helped, because I learned not to react when someone told me something particularly revealing or incriminating. In true crime, if I reacted, they often backed up and adjusted their stories and usually those adjustments didn’t ring true and/or match other information I’d been given.

Going farther back than that, though, my best training came from a class I took at Baylor University. I was an undergraduate sociology/social work/journalism student sitting in a social work class that taught interviewing skills. Part of those skills included looking relaxed and listening without judgment. That advice has carried me through my career.

Add those two lessons to my absolute curiosity to know what makes people tick, and my sincere desire to understand why people are the way they are, and not reacting or responding in a way that curtails their stories becomes much, much easier.

That doesn’t mean I never say I’m not sure I believe you or “wow.” In fact, as I transcribe many of my interviews, I often hear myself saying, sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly, “Wow. Really.” Most times that “really” has a period after it; sometimes it has a question mark. noted that running through the book was the theme of loneliness and need for acceptance. What about intensity? Did you discover that some people were simply seeking to feel more than traditional sexuality allows?

Frequently, and particularly when I was talking to people involved in the world of bondage, domination, submission, and sado-masochism, my interviewees would tell me that if BDSM became the norm, they’d find something else. So for them, the going beyond the norm, the not being like everybody else, the not being “vanilla” seemed to be what motivated them.

But perhaps more important in BDSM, my interviewees constantly talked about the intensity of connection in their Lifestyle—that connection that one must have to trust another with one’s life.

Why am I speaking for my interviewees? I’m going to let Patrick, a Dominant who has been in the BDSM lifestyle for decades, explain it to you:

“Well, here’s where it might surprise you. Okay. If you trust somebody at the level of ten, what you’re telling me is that if this person told you to go stand on the roof of the house and jump, and he would catch you, that you would do it because you trust him that much. All right? Now you stand in front of somebody that’s got a single-tail whip, this thing has the power, a bullwhip can take the hide right off of you, and it can lay a gash in you eight, nine inches long, three inches deep. It will rip through muscle....You better trust somebody before you go stand up in front of them with a single-tail whip.”

He reels off the names of several TV shows from the 1950s and ’60s—Ozzie & Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and finally Father Knows Best—and points to their marriages.

“Happy marriages,” he says, “long-term, but when you really get down to it, that level of trust that they have in each other is below five.

“In this Lifestyle, that trust level is up between seven and ten. It is the most important thing that there is in the relationship. Above everything else. I mean, what person would not want that—their significant other—that the trust that you have in them be the most important thing in their lives.”

Let me go to Dusty, a rancher in Texas who, unlike Patrick, isn’t hardcore BDSM and doesn’t live the BDSM lifestyle 24/7. Dusty’s was a much tamer and occasional indulgence in kink. He told me that after his kinky sessions with women, they usually didn’t have intercourse, but they did have long conversations. Combine the kink with the conversation and he said it was “one of, if not the most, intimate thing you would ever do.”

(Patrick stated that in the BDSM Lifestyle, the involvement of sex in kink play is less than 15 percent. But 80 to 90 percent of the time, sex got them involved in the Lifestyle.)

So I think, in kink, that often the participants are seeking that intensity of the intimacy, and who isn’t looking for that? In fact, hearing and understanding that might be why I was able to listen without reacting and listen without shutting people down.

What inspired you to take on this exploration and how did you decide on which subcultures to explore?

I desperately wanted out of true crime, because I was burned out and depressed from all the tragedy. I wanted to do something that would make me laugh. Knowing that, my literary agent suggested I write a book about Americans’ alternative sex lives, picking up where Gay Talese left off in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. I thought why not? Talking about sex has always made me laugh, so…

I wrote down every “kinky” sex practice I’d ever heard about. My list went on for pages. (The TV show CSI certainly helped with that!) Then I started researching and writing and realized that my list gave me far too many topics to cover in one book. I quickly dropped homosexuality from the list because it no longer seemed alternative. And then I focused on things that had changed Americans’ sex lives since Thy Neigbor’s Wife, i.e. in the age of the Internet, AIDS, and Viagra.

That got me honing in on websites such as Craigslist, AdultFriendFinder, and And from there I narrowed the focus to seekers of casual sex, swinging, a bit of polyamory, a bit of cross-dressing, and BDSM.

Can you give us an example from those you met of something that really surprised you, or that you didn't expect?

What I didn’t expect was how my sources would change my life, even more than the people I encountered while writing true crime.

The people I lovingly call my “sex freaks” brought me love, laughter, respect, compassion, and friendship….along with some depression and heartache.

They changed how I look at myself and how others look at me, which has been both positive and negative.

But most of all, when I think back about my research, my time writing the book, and the aftereffects of the book being published, what I remember most is their encouragement, respect, and friendship….and the laughter. Oh, we laughed a lot.

Secondly, I didn’t expect to discover the profound depth of loneliness that there is in this nation, particularly among the married. And I didn’t expect to discover how people who are supposedly looking for casual sex are really seeking connection—to be seen, heard, loved, and accepted.

I also didn’t expect how the book would affect readers. People have told me that Secret Sex Lives helped them look at their own lives, gave them a way to have much-needed conversations about sex with the one they love most, and made them feel not so alone in the world.

In fact, one thirty-something woman who’d never had a relationship—physically or emotionally—told me that Secret Sex Lives gave her the courage to delve into the world of love. The last I heard, she’s in a happy relationship.

Beyond that, I guess what surprised me is how my “sex freaks” are so very “normal” in every aspect of their lives but sex. I talked with a school principal, a Junior Leaguer, a truck driver, an engineer, a mechanic, a non-profit fundraiser, in fact several people who work in the non-profit sector, several people in the real estate business, several youth soccer coaches, several PTA leaders, firemen, police officers, nurses. In other words, I talked to your next door neighbors.

Describe one of your most intriguing contacts (a person who then became a character).

Oh, gosh, that makes me feel like I’m being forced to choose favorites. But Coyote always comes to mind. He’s a Texas good ole boy, Vietnam vet, and do-gooder who will have sex with anything and everything, despite being married for decades to a woman he calls an angel and truly loves.

Now on the surface, that doesn’t sound too intriguing. But Coyote was one of my first sources I met while doing my research. That was in 2005. And in 2013, we still talk. And I know that if I were 1500 miles from his home and needed help, Coyote would jump in his pickup truck and come to my rescue.

So while a few people read about him and only see that he constantly cheats on his wife, more people read Secret Sex Lives and see his heart. If I ever get to write a Secret Sex Lives sequel, readers will learn more about Coyote and better understand why he does what he does.

But I can’t leave out Jessica, a 20-something chef who searches Craigslist’s casual encounters for sex without strings, as she tries to determine her sexual orientation and her love life goals. It’s strange how we bonded despite our nearly 30-year age difference. In fact, she and I are also still in touch.

I can’t forget Frank, the swing club owner who was grieving the death of his wife, who he called his soul mate….or Richard, the heterosexual Navy man who has sex with other men.…or Rex, the wealthy stay-at-home dad who is constantly on the Internet seeking phone sex partners….or Holly, the virgin….or Lily Ma’am, the Mary Kay cosmetics sales rep and Dominatrix. See, I can’t choose. Don’t make me.

Did you ever witness what you thought were dangerous practices?

In this book, yes—swinging without using condoms. I rarely witnessed condom use in the swing community. In the BDSM community, well, we’ll have to wait to see if there’s a Secret Sex Lives sequel before I can talk about that.

Has this book influenced what you will do next as a writer?

Most definitely. But how that will play out is to be determined.



Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.


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