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But Surri admits that not all her SM relationships have been so balanced. After she left her second husband--Doc is her third--she "got tied into a very bad person," she says. One day the man told her to get into a dog kennel, and she willingly complied. But then he left her alone--a major no-no under the safe-sane-and-consensual guidelines taught at SM conferences. As it happened, the apartment building accidentally caught fire. Surri suffered burns and smoke inhalation. "I was nearly dead when the paramedics got to me," she says. When I ask what happened to the man, tears well in her eyes. "Nothing." Surri didn't press charges because she was worried that if the authorities discovered her dominant-submissive lifestyle, they would come for her daughter.
Surri's daughter, a polite, sunshiny 14-year-old, knows that her mom takes orders from her stepdad, but Doc and Surri keep their sexual relationship--along with the floggers and other apparatus--private. Surri says her daughter's most common response to any mention of the BDSM lifestyle is, "Ugh, Mom!" (The daughter's privacy is one reason I agreed not to use real names for Doc and Surri. Another is that there are no legal protections for BDSM; the home-improvement warehouse where Doc works could fire him.)
I left North Carolina unsure what to think about the couple. They seem madly in love--"because we have this kind of relationship, everything has to be spoken, so it's much deeper," says Doc. And they are hardly radicals. Doc is a Schwarzenegger Republican and a big fan of the Left Behind novels, the evangelical Christian thrillers that graphically depict the damnation of the sinful. Both Surri and Doc criticize the moral laxity of parents who allow kids to shirk their chores and sass their elders.
On the other hand, Surri's "biggest satisfaction in life" should probably be something other than "seeing [Doc's] approval." She says it's in her nature to submit--that, in a manner of speaking, she has no choice but to give up choice. But can such thorough submission truly be safe, sane and consensual? Wright says BDSM-ers debate such issues all the time. If SM is to become a more accepted part of the mainstream, those serious debates--and not just the titillating extremes of "S&M" iconography--will have to come out of the closet.