Who would you be if you were anonymous? (Part 1)
Hidden behind a pseudonym, my entire approach to dating changed.
I sat on my bed, cloaked in the dark. My laptop was perched on a pillow, illuminating my soft smirk. I read, then re-read the introduction to my new OkCupid dating profile:
DISCLAIMER: This is a BDSM profile. If you’ve come across this profile and have no interest in a Dominant/submissive relationship (or have no idea what that is), kindly move along…
My stomach twisted in bright, exhilarated knots. Good, I thought. I’d been up for hours meticulously constructing it. This new representation of myself—an anonymous, kinky dating profile. It continued:
I am a natural submissive. I stumbled into my first BDSM dynamic a year ago, and it was one of the most rewarding and challenging things I've done for myself. Kink is not my primary interest, but without it, my attraction flounders. I've also found that it fosters open communication and acceptance—which are paramount.
The rest of the profile detailed what I was and was not looking for: No dungeons, no drinkers, no one-night stands or one-offs—I wanted a serious, long-term relationship. And while I was vague about my career, I made it clear that in my day-to-day life, I was far from submissive.
At 28 and over a year sober, I’d traded my late nights in dive bars for the gym, powerlifting. For the first time in my life, I felt strong. I’d just ended my first BDSM dynamic with Dan to seek out a relationship better suited to my needs. I spent most nights in 12-step recovery meetings, learning to construct a more honest and daring sense of myself.
It was time to bring that daring to my romantic life, too.
I Google-image searched for a picture of a woman’s silhouette, snagged a photo of a woman hidden behind an open umbrella, and dragged it to my profile. There.
I gave the end of the “About Me” section a final scan. It needed something.
If I’ve learned anything, I added, it’s that there is no shame in asking for exactly what I want.
….provided I ask nicely.
I clicked “Post” and screamed into my pillow.
I’d tried dating like a normal person. I really had. In the weeks after ending my relationship with Dan, I resumed my previous dating life with nice-enough men and women. Perched on countless barstools and ate dollar oysters with cute accountants and graphic designers and entertained the same carousel of first-date cliches:
Where did you grow up?
Do you have any siblings?
What do you do for fun?
What do you think sounds more fun? Answering one more question about what you do for fun or sticking this tiny oyster fork in your eye?
It felt like driving a car that had been knocked out of alignment: All effort. I’d steer the conversation toward more engrossing topics—their audacious dreams, fears, fuckups—but inevitably, they’d drift on back to telling me about that time they went to SXSW and saw Jack White or whatever. They were friendly. Successful. I wanted to believe that was enough, but sitting across from one late-night TV writer at a Mexican joint I caught myself wondering, wistfully, if he’d ever considered the many creative uses of his leather belt.
And I couldn’t shake this quiet dread. Like I was carrying a ticking time bomb. Even if things did go well, what would happen once they found out I was kind of a freak? And bisexual? And sober? Would it even matter to them?
Did it matter to me?
I wasn’t even sure I wanted BDSM, but I needed transparency. Kink cracked open a world in which expectations and desires were made explicit: I knew Dan came over weekday mornings at 6am, he didn’t do sleepovers, and he was textable throughout the day. He knew I hated spitting, loved sending him my journals and, in the end, longed for a true partner. I’d always struggled to advocate for myself, so practicing this way of communicating was both terrifying and deeply soothing. No guessing games, no waiting on the other person to intuit my needs. Shit, I could literally put them in writing.
Instead of pantomiming some poorly-defined dating script, kink demanded clarity. Guidelines. It felt like a game—one where we wrote the rules.
But sipping on tomato soup at Sarabeth’s with yet another tech bro, it felt unimaginable that I might directly say to him: I dated a closet sadist for a year and it made me a better person.
Then, walking home one evening after yet another mediocre date, it hit me: Dan had created an anonymous dating profile stating exactly what he wanted. He’d written the rules, and let the players come to him.
Why couldn’t I do the same?
I woke up the morning after posting my anonymous OkCupid profile and braced myself. I switched on my laptop and sat down with my morning coffee to survey the damage, half-expecting the profile to have been banned.
To my shock, not only was it not banned—it was flooded with messages.
The first few were the exact barrel of hot dogs you’d expect:
mrbigthic420 says: Sup sexy
Onewish_taco says: Have you been a good girl for Daddy tonight?
Reelhorsey says: U wanna see my big sti—
I scrolled through a dozen more clipped, typo-ridden messages, growing disheartened. Maybe this was a mista—
My mouse slowed. There was a longer note, sent only a few minutes earlier. Periods and apostrophes in all the right places. I opened it.
Flight_of_icarus says: Thank you for writing what you did. I’ve been looking for something like this for years but wasn’t sure how to articulate it.
I scanned his profile. No gym selfies or serial killeresque vacation shots with his ex-girlfriend’s face maniacally scratched out. He was attractive and normal-seeming. Nothing in his bio described an interest in BDSM. Had he not messaged me, I’d have had no clue. I made a mental note to respond, returned to my inbox and clicked through to the next message.
TXinNY says: Your profile was such a relief to read. I just ended a long-term relationship with someone who was vanilla. I tried to make it work, but couldn’t.
There were at least a dozen more like this. Earnest and vulnerable messages, more forthcoming than anything I’d ever received on my regular dating profile. Men who, like me, craved to break from the conventional dating script. And the messages kept rolling in. It was like I’d tapped into a wellspring of profound longing that had been there, all along, just below the surface. I’d thought it was just me.
What surprised me was that it wasn’t even so much BDSM that resonated with them—though we certainly shared that interest. It was my willingness to be clear about what I wanted. Framing myself as a submissive seeking a dominant partner simply provided the structure through which I could be honest.
Up until that moment, I’d been terrified that clearly stating my needs would scare people away. It turned out, there was power in stating what I wanted—even if that power came from admitting that what I wanted most was to relinquish it.
Following the traditional scripts, dating had been a chore. This, in comparison, felt like my own personal playground.
I responded to each message with a playful curiosity. What has kink taught you about yourself? I’d ask. What’s the last thing you did that made you proud?
Behind the cloak of anonymity, I had little to lose. I decided I’d approach these dates on my terms. I’d have a brief email exchange, and if someone seemed intriguing and respectful, only then would I arrange a first date. No more happy hours—bars did not make me happy. Parks and local cafes. We’d go for a sunset walk or evening tea, no more than an hour. To be safe, I wouldn’t give them my real name, photo, or identity until after our first date. I’d give them a description of what I looked like, and nothing else. They would have to trust me.
Some men were apprehensive. I didn’t care. I loved the power, knowing that the moment they walked into that cafe, they’d scan the room, aroused and a little bit afraid, just as I had the first time I met Dan. When is the last time you were surprised by anything? I’d ask before we met. It was thrilling.
I knew I wanted my next relationship to feel playful and open—the rest I would have to figure out in real-time. With that, I set off on a series of dates like a kinky Goldilocks in search of my person.
Date 1: Public defender slash sadist who waxes poetic about the legality of spanking an adult in public spaces. Refers to himself as “Sir.”
Date 2: Programmer daddy dom. Tells me that if I want a second date, I’ll have to find all three of the grammatical errors in my dating profile and report back.
Too cold. Also—no.
Date 3: Asexual submissive writer (and closet exhibitionist) who, in a packed coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon, pulls out his laptop and plays a video of him being whipped and pierced by a Dominatrix.
Waaaaay too likely to end up needing that public defender.
In some ways, it was bizarre to walk into first dates knowing people’s deepest, darkest fetishes. In others, it wasn’t totally unlike regular dating: much of the time, I didn’t feel a spark. Still, each date felt like an adventure. We talked at length about the relief of being upfront about all the weird shit we’d done and hoped to do. Freed of our ticking bombs, the conversation flowed easily and openly, with a tiny flicker of TNT.
All along, I maintained two separate OkCupid identities: My anonymous kink page, and my original, vanilla one, with my real photos, name, and bio attached. People continued messaging me on my vanilla page, but my motivation to respond to them slowed to a drip. Even when we shared interests, like books or creative life, those dates lacked a certain excitement. Alternatively, it was starting to feel like my chemistry with the men who messaged me on my anonymous page began and ended with flogging implements.
How could I bring these two selves together? Where was my just right?
I wondered all of this to myself, walking into Jo’s Coffee in the West Village for a date I’d arranged through my vanilla profile. This time, with a 36-year-old director named Steve. I found Steve sitting in the corner of the cafe reading Steinbeck, attractive in the way that pre-teen actors were in the mid-nineties. Steve smiled, stood, and offered to grab me a coffee. I settled into my chair, curious about how this one might go.
He returned and handed me my latte, then dove right in.
”I noticed in your profile you don’t drink—are you sober?” he asked.
“Yes—” I replied, a bit taken aback by his straightforwardness. Most people hesitated to ask why I didn’t drink, if they noticed at all. “Just over a year now.”
“Me too. Four years,” he said and smiled. “It’s one of the things that drew me to your profile.”
Steve and I spent the next hour wandering the cobblestone side streets of the West Village, doing what former drunks do best—swapping war stories. He told me about bottoming out on heroin as a struggling actor, and the long nights in detox. It was oddly delightful to share this central part of myself so openly. But still, somehow, the conversation lacked some central engine—and I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t shake this suspicion that without kink, my interest in him would eventually wane.
We ended the date, and I rode the train home to Brooklyn, dissatisfaction gnawing at my gut. Steve was many of the things I wanted: forthright, healthy, and thoughtful. Why couldn’t I just tell the truth? Was something in me broken?
I’d been so brave in shaking up my dating life, and here I was, hiding out all over again, defaulting to my old, tired beliefs.
I stepped off the M train and felt my pocket buzz. I pulled out my phone and saw a notification from OkCupid. It was a new message, sent to my anonymous kinky profile.
Wittynamehere says: I’ve been in the lifestyle for years. Your profile is a breath of fresh air. When can we meet?
His username and photo looked vaguely familiar. Huh. I clicked on the profile. Stopped cold in my tracks.
The message was from Steve.
(...to be continued, March 31)
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