In the weight room, surrounded by swarms of straight, cisgender brodudes in tank tops, I want to be invisible. I wear spandex shorts long enough to cover my scars, and a loose-fitting T-shirt with the sides cut out—giving me the shoulder mobility of a tank top without the self-consciousness of a fitted shirt. Then there’s my black-and-yellow striped knee sleeves and my grey low top Chucks. Last but not least, my headphones. Even if I forget my iPod at home, I wear my headphones. Otherwise some Straight Cisgender Brodude is bound to come up to me and ask me about my tattoos or offer his advice on my bench form.
In the weight room, I wear my most brutal bitchface. I want to be untouchable. Independent. Unfuckwithable. I enjoy feeling superior to all the Straight Cisgender Brodudes grunting and flexing in my periphery. Knowing I can hold my own in a space not meant for me, and that I am as good as—if not better than—everyone else. I may not be able to lift pound for pound as much as the Brodude next to me, but factor in size and weight differences, I’m kicking his ass. Factor in form and technique, I’m lifting circles around the motherfucker. Lifting makes me feel like a badass. The pleasure I get from lifting isn’t just about being strong, it’s also about appearing strong.
During sex, I want to be put in my place, told what to do, what not to do. I want to be controlled. Owned. Mastered. At my partner’s mercy. I want to give my body completely to whatever she might choose to do with it. Or to it. The more incompetent and imperfect she makes me feel, the better.
I first realized I might prefer sex that goes beyond your average dirty talk or occasional slap on the ass on a Sunday afternoon around four years ago. Sam and I were one of those kinds of relationships that should have been a one-night stand but somehow ended up lasting several years. The kind of relationship your friends talk about with each other behind your back, always with that vaguely condescending tone of worry. The kind of relationship whose long-overdue ending surprises no one except you. The kind of relationship where one week you’re looking at rings and the next week you’re looking for separate apartments. The kind of relationship that, for me at least, makes for some really good sex.
When Sam and I weren’t fighting, we had a Sunday tradition of going to a local record store on our way home from mass (Sam’s Catholic, and I’m—accommodating). Aside from a standing quest for Christmas albums to add to Sam’s collection, we never had a set agenda for our trips. On days that we couldn’t find anything good on the shelves, we’d hit up the “Mystery Bag” bin—a milk crate by the cash register filled with paper-bag-wrapped clusters of vinyl. Five random records for five dollars. Occasionally you’d get a Cat Stevens B-side or an early Queen album, but usually you were spending five dollars on music you’d only ever listen to when you have friends over and they’re looking through your collection and suddenly start laughing and ask, Oh my god why the fuck do you have a Pat Boone record, and then put it on because it’s too hilarious not to.
That Sunday, the “Mystery Bag” gods must have been feeling mischievous, because they decided to drop a Barry White Greatest Hits record in the stash. We played it immediately. We laughed, saying shit like Ooh girl I’m going to sex you good or Yeah come give daddy some sugar in our best attempts at deep-voiced, 70’s porn voices. I think the making out started as a joke, like haha wouldn’t it be funny to make out to this shit. Then suddenly we were making out for real, but my mind kept wandering over to the record. I was having an increasingly hard time suppressing my laughter. When Sam moved her hand down to go inside me, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Sam, I can’t do this,” I giggled. “We have to turn this off, I can’t focus with this cheesy-ass shit in the background.”
She looked at me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on her face.
“Don’t you FUCKING DARE turn off that record. I don’t care what you have to do to focus, but you’ve got until I get your pants off. I’m fucking you to Barry White, whether you like it or not.”
And with that, she stood up, bent me over the couch, and fucked me to Barry White. Usually, I need a pretty decent amount of lube for penetrative sex (thanks, Prozac), but from the moment she snapped into Dom-mode I was soaked.
I basically have two ways of being in relationships: overanalyze the shit out of it until I’ve successfully sabotaged whatever could have been there, or adamantly refuse to acknowledge the glaring signs of dysfunction until—well until never I guess. The endings to those relationships are always instigated by the other person.
The first type leave my friends wondering what happened. You two seemed so good together! These relationships generally last a month or two. Once I start feeling smothered, once I sense that someone is falling in love with me. Once we reach the point where, if we keep going, I won’t be able to leave without breaking her heart. The point where I start to lose any interest in sex because I realize I no longer have to work for it.
The second type can last for years. These relationships are with people who keep me in a constant state of insecurity. What I seem to need most is having to work to obtain my partner’s affection—a dynamic in which I am always all in, but my partner is never quite fully in. My sweet spot, it seems, is someone who has such deep-seated trust issues they crave the kind of attention overload I am prone to giving, yet are too afraid of vulnerability to ever fully commit. But these people tend to be crappy partners. At their best, subpar—at their worst, abusive.
Even if these relationships always make me feel like shit emotionally, I have to give them this—the sex is good. That’s the thing though. The sex is good because I feel like shit.
Although I will always have a more productive lift in a near-empty weight room, I enjoy being able to hold my own in a testosterone-glutted, axe-infused gym. I won’t push myself as hard on those days, but I will still leave feeling as satisfied as if I had. Or at least, differently satisfied.
“Hey can I ask you a question?”
I’m at the Y on a Sunday afternoon—the only time the Y’s weight room populace resembles that of an L.A. Fitness instead of a retirement community clubhouse—and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around to see a muscular dude of average height, mid-twenties, wearing sweats and a ratty tank top. He’s vaguely hipster-ish, with shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair and scruffy facial hair that lands somewhere between five-o’clock-shadow and legit beard. My eyebrows raised, I move one of my headphones just enough to indicate that I heard him, but not enough to imply that I actually give a shit about whatever he wants to say to me.
“Why do you arch your back like that when you bench?”
I soften. I sense enough sincerity in his voice that for a split second, I think he’s asking for advice. For once I am actually a little excited about having to interact with a Straight Cisgender Brodude.
“There are a number of reasons for it. For one thing, arching your back puts your chest higher in the air, reducing the distance you have to move the bar. Another benefit is that, if you get into position right, you create tension in your shoulders that—”
“Well actually, I was asking if you are aware of how bad that is for your back.”
I should have seen that coming. Of course this asshole was here to mansplain my technique to me, not ask for my expertise. Yes, Mr. Straight Cisgender Brodude, I get why you would think that it’s bad for your back, but as I was saying, if you get into position right, it’s actually better for your back because—
“Okay, well I’m a personal trainer, and I just wanted to make sure you knew that you could really hurt yourself. Just trying to look out for ya.”
“Oh my god a trainer? No way! You know who else is? My actual trainer. But really, THANK YOU for your help. I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years studying and perfecting a time-tested technique when I could have just been consulting you this whole time.”
This interaction rattled me. I was so self-conscious the rest of my lift, eventually I had to cut my losses and go home early. It doesn’t matter that I know my form is on point. It doesn’t matter that I have spent years researching and practicing this method of benching. In that moment, the only thing on my mind was the fact that nothing I could have said or done would have changed his perception of me as just some dumb bitch who clearly had no business trying to hang with the big boys in the weight room.
I’m still not sure why being fucked to deep-voiced baby-making music flipped the switch for me that Sunday with Sam. It’s not like that was the first time I had experienced Dom/sub sexual dynamics, or the first time someone had tried to tell me what to do during sex. Granted, most of those experiences were from before I came out, when I was still fucking cis dudes. But why does that make a difference for me? Why does the thought of a cis dude calling me a slut and forcing me to suck his cock until I choke make me want to scream and cry and vomit because of how degraded it would make me feel—but that same scenario with a woman or a trans guy makes me horny as fuck, precisely because of how degraded it would make me feel? Why does being condescended to by Straight Cisgender Brodudes in the gym make my skin crawl, but the same behavior from a woman or a trans partner during sex can bring me to orgasm?
Andi was the first person after Sam I’d consider a “relationship.” We only dated for three months, but things got intense fast. For the first two months, I thought Andi might be my soulmate. Well, sexual soulmate at least.
I forget exactly how we discovered our symbiotic sexual preferences. I think I texted something sort of submissive-y one day and he was like Oh yeah? Tell me more… But once discovered, it escalated quickly. He didn’t mind my scars—he liked them. He wanted to add more. Sam used to throw away my razor blades whenever she found them. Andi would buy extras to make sure I always had enough.
By this point, exploring kink wasn’t new. What was new was the hitting. The choking. The bruises. All this shit I used to fantasize about someone doing and saying to me—Andi was down with it. Not just down with it, he was into it. Most of the time I didn’t even have to tell him what I wanted him to do; he’d have already thought of it. The first time he backhanded me while we were fucking I had to bust out the safe word—not because I didn’t like it, but because I was so shocked he knew I wanted to be hit without my having mentioned it that I needed a minute to process. From then on though, I trembled with excitement every time I thought he was about to slap the fuck out of me.
During the day, Andi would assure me that this isn’t “who he is,” that he only likes that kind of shit in character. “You know I’ll stop the moment it goes too far, right babe? You know I’d never actually hit you, right?”
At first, I thought I knew. I thought I knew this was just a sexual preference, and not a reflection of his character. I mean, I like to be hit and spit on and told to shut the fuck up you dirty slut before I have to shove my strap-on in your mouth and force you to shut up—and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with me. So it has to be true that someone can like doing those things and also still be a good person. Right?
Sometimes it would take Andi a few minutes to stop after I invoked the safe word. I’d say it over and over, so he had to have heard me, but I’d tell myself it’s got to be hard to snap out of character all of a sudden like that. Plus, he always had to be at least six shots of Jamo deep before we started fucking, and he’d usually end up taking two or three more during, so I figured that also probably contributed to the occasional lag time. And he was so sweet during the day. He couldn’t have been actually abusive. He just got a little carried away sometimes when he was drunk. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. He was always so contrite when he remembered having done (or I told him that he did) something kind of traumatic to me, it was hard to begrudge him for what he did while drunk. Like the time I was curled up on the floor next to my bed crying while he oscillated between pacing the room, punching the wall, and screaming two inches from my face about how fucking dare I tell our mutual friend about him cheating on me. Sure, he slept with two different women in one weekend because I was out of town and he was worried I might sleep with my ex (I didn’t), so he beat me to it just in case. But that’s his fucking business and I had no fucking right to tell her and what if she tells his fucking sister? He doesn’t need her or the rest of his judgmental family knowing his shit; he already has enough to deal with since coming out to them as trans. Seriously, what the FUCK is wrong with you. Stop fucking crying and covering your face like you think I’m going to hit you. You want me to hit you? You want a real reason to cry? Just say it, just fucking say it and I swear to god I’ll fucking SLAP THE SHIT OUT OF YOU RIGHT NOW.
I love the adrenaline rush you get from hitting a heavy set that you weren’t sure you were going to make. It’s a release. But not like an orgasm. Or like crying. It’s not how cutting feels, or like purging after a binge. No, the release of a good lift is more like how it feels when you’ve been stuck for what feels like years on level forty-something of whatever game you’re playing and you’re on your last life and you’ve been on this level forever and those stupid fucking jellybeans or whatever the fuck won’t do what you want them to and you don’t think you’re going to make it, oh shit you’re definitely not going make it, but then FUCK YEAH. Finally!
Or how it feels when you ace an exam you thought you were going to bomb, or get accepted into that top-tier grad program you had no business even applying to but you did it anyway because fuck it why not. The release you get from hitting a heavy set feels like sex and power and accomplishment and pleasure and ego all wrapped into one glorious wave of self-assured satisfaction.
I should reexamine my claim about wanting to be invisible in the weight room. It’s not an untrue representation of how I feel, but it’s incomplete. More accurately, I should say this: if the only way for me to be seen in the gym is in the typical way that Straight Cisgender Brodudes see women, then yes, I choose invisibility.
But if it’s possible for me to be seen as untouchable, unattainable—someone you shouldn’t even bother speaking to because you simply don’t stand a chance, because whatever you could possibly say to me will be a complete waste of my time. If I could be seen, not as an object to leer at, but as a subject with strength and agency, an independent human who doesn’t fucking need your help and probably knows more than you anyway—that’s the type of visibility I crave.
In a lot of ways, it’s hard to separate the physical, mental, and emotional components of lifting—mental strength enables me to increase my physical strength, which increases my emotional strength, which increases my mental strength, which helps me increase my physical strength…and so on. Likewise, I have trouble drawing the Venn diagram that shows how love, pain, and sex function in my life. It seems that pain and sex have a lot of overlap. Sex and love also clearly share a lot of common space. But what about pain and love? Do they overlap? If so, how much? Can those lines be redrawn?
A few weeks after my run-in with Mr. Yeah-But-I’m-A-Personal-Trainer, I was approached between sets by an old guy at the Y. He was in his fifties, wearing a worn-out T-shirt and sweatpants, white tennis shoes, and white gym socks pulled up over the cuff of his pants. He had a scraggly, chin-length hairstyle that seemed intentional and also suggested that he has never been married, or, that if he had been married, it ended a long time ago. Normally, I would not have had my guard up with a guy like him. Old guys at the Y just seem to get it. When they talk to me it’s usually to ask a legitimate question or engage in genuine weight room camaraderie. But I was still reeling off that last encounter, so I went into full-on bitch mode when he spoke.
“Pardon me, Miss?”
“Oh, um, I wanted to ask you if you would mind if I took a recording of your bench press?”
“Excuse me?” I jumped to the worst possible conclusions. Was he some kind of weightlifting pervert who gets off on seeing girls lift? Does he have some fucked up fantasy about being overpowered by a woman and wants to record me lifting so he can jack off to it at home? I’m sure my disgust and annoyance seeped through my face.
“Well you see, I’m doing a promotional YouTube series about the Y community here, and I was hoping to include you in it if you’re interested. I’m really impressed by your bench form. You know, I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and I’ve never seen anyone—guy or girl—set up their bench with such precision. It’s clear you really know your stuff.”
I reddened from embarrassment, but his offer was one my ego couldn’t refuse. When I watched the video a few weeks later, I didn’t see any of the anxiety I felt while being recorded. I didn’t see the fear in my chest as I brought the bar down for my third rep, wondering whether I’d be able to push it back up. I didn’t see the self-consciousness that permeated my body, making me instantly regret saying yes. When I saw myself on that video, all I saw was strength. I saw the years of practice that went into pushing my shoulders and arms into position. I saw the balanced focus of intentional breathing as I moved the bar to my chest, paused, and pushed it back upright. I saw confidence in every flexed muscle of my body.
When I saw myself on that video, I saw the woman I hope everyone sees who encounters me at the gym: a woman who has no need for your advice, but will gladly get on her knees and call you Daddy if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in her bed.
Renée Mitchell Matsuyama is a writer who also works as a student services administrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Originally from California, she has spent significant time in Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. If it weren’t for Midwestern winters, Minneapolis would be her favorite U.S. city. Renée holds degrees in English and Higher Education Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is currently pursuing an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She is a Flash Fiction Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine, and you can find her on social media @MatsuyamaRenee.