Kinky Cohen: Part 2 [NSFW]
BDSM, Erotic Humiliation, and Role-Play in the Works of Leonard Cohen

(Part One) - (Part Two)

- Role-play

In addition to adopting the positions of dominant and submissive, many kinky folks enjoy other forms of erotic role-play -- the maid, the schoolgirl, the teacher, the doctor, the nurse, the daddy or mommy, the little girl or boy, the police officer, the cheerleader, the whore, the nun, the priest, and more are all characters enjoyed by many for sexual purposes. The level of role-play can range from complete devotion (attempting to make the scene as realistic as possible) to merely donning a slutty version of the traditional uniform or outfit of the character while still being one's self.

"I'm Your Man" is one of Cohen's more obvious pieces to address role-play. The opening lines of the song are a clue to the listener that the theme of shifting identities will be present, "If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to/ And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you." These words establish not only the service and devotion of a master-slave relationship, but the slave's willingness to adopt other roles for his mistress. The theme is spelled out more plainly in the following stanza:

If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you.

And if you want a doctor, I'll examine every inch of you.

If you want a driver, climb inside,

Or if you want to take me for a ride,

You know you can.

I'm your man.

Subject to the whims of his mistress, the slave expresses his willingness to take on any number of roles she may request. He might be a boxer fighting for his mistress's honor, or a doctor thoroughly exploring her body. Many vanillas may be surprised to learn of the popularity of speculums in sex shops, as the physician fantasy has numerous fans.

Continuing on, the song's speaker offers himself as a simple servant such as the chauffeur and also consents to being ushered around himself. The slave offers his obedience for all of the above.

A more exaggerated version of role-play occurs in "Is This What You Wanted," the opening song of 1974's New Skin. The play expands from the usual kinky fare of maids, nurses, and dress-up to include the assignment of specific people, cultural figures, objects, and actions.

You were Jesus Christ my Lord,

I was the money lender.

You were the sensitive woman,

I was the very reverend Freud.

You were the manual orgasm,

I was the dirty little boy.

Here we see perhaps an ultimate example of power-exchange role-play, as the mistress and her slave play out the biblical account of Jesus admonishing the money lender within the temple. It is difficult to assign one partner more power and control than that of a god, and many dommes actually instruct their subs to address them with the honorific "goddess."

From there, Cohen writes of playing doctor again, this time with the famously sex-focused Sigmund Freud and patient. The mistress then is represented as sex itself, as Cohen refers to her as the "manual orgasm," the high point and catharsis of intercourse. While she is elevated to such a state, the speaker is put down as the "dirty little boy," suggesting shame and powerlessness as well as an element of age play. The designation of "little boy" could easily signify erotic pleasure from acting out age-regression fantasies or playing the part of a child.

This can be a sensitive topic, even within BDSM circles. However, unlike pedophiles and child molesters, the vast majority of those who engage in age play have no desire to harm or engage children sexually. It is important to remember that fantasy and reality are separate. Just because one enjoys calling their partner Daddy or Mommy, or wearing diapers, does not mean they are incest victims who spend their free time luring children into rusty, windowless vans with candy. It is merely a pleasant headspace for some to explore. The purpose is to enjoy feeling the innocence of a child and yielding complete control to one's partner, like a kid does with its parents. Such play need not even involve sexual contact. For the wide variety of those enjoying any form of kink, it's not necessarily the sex, but the wielding and yielding of power within the relationship that is their source of enjoyment. What is important to remember is that playing with this theme within the privacy of the home with one's self or a consenting partner is no different than any of the other activities enjoyed therein.

"Is This What You Wanted" continues its broad scope of role-play in the ensuing lines:

You were Marlon Brando,

I was Steve McQueen.

You were K.Y. Jelly,

I was Vaseline.

You were the father of modern medicine,

I was Mr. Clean.

You where the whore and the beast of Babylon,

I was Rin Tin Tin.

You got old and wrinkled,

I stayed seventeen.

The dynamics of this particular section become muddled in the outrageous roles assigned. Who is dom and who is sub is thrown out the window, as the couple instead favors an abstract fetishistic exploration, taking on iconic actors, sex lube, historical figures, and a familiar bald, pierced corporate spokesman. Cohen creates a sense of mystery by letting these statements hang on their own, not justifying or expounding on the purpose of identifying as such. The later lines are more easily interpreted as sexually enjoyable. Both the man and woman are demeaned, as she is compared to the eschatological Whore of Babylon, while he falls under the repeated theme of dehumanization in his depiction as a dog. Age play then surfaces again, this time in the popular young boy/older woman fantasy. The speaker is never an adult within the relationship, "stay[ing] 17," while the woman enjoys seniority. Insert MILF or cougar joke here.

Age regression is present again in Cohen's 2004 work Dear Heather. In his song "Because Of," Cohen reminisces, as himself, about his sexual encounters with women over the years:

Because of a few songs

Wherein I spoke of their mystery,

Women have been

Exceptionally kind

To my old age.

They make a secret place

In their busy lives

And they take me there.

They become naked

In their different ways

And they say, "Look at me, Leonard

Look at me one last time."

Then they bend over the bed

And cover me up

Like a baby that is shivering.

Cohen sets the scene with traditionally intimate images of a "secret place" and disrobing before sex. As the woman bends over the bed and asks Leonard to meet her eyes, the listener is set up to expect sex as the next logical step in the narrative. Instead, the song deviates completely from its trail of sexual images and ends with the maternal image of placing a blanket over a cold, sleeping infant. These lines might have been written as a metaphor for feeling secure and safe in the arms of a woman, but in a kinky light, they suggest a fetish for age regression and infantilism. It surely isn't Cohen's sole intent in the song, but within the context of his career and its predilection toward taboo sexual themes, it is not out of the question that he knowingly planted the seeds.

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- Transcendence and Intimacy

Fetishes and sexual fixations make up a significant segment of the kink and BDSM community. However, many practice sado-masochistic acts not because of an explicit attraction to rope, chains, discipline, or domination, but rather an attraction to the resulting feelings and sensations produced by the body and mind while engaged in play. In scenes involving bondage or discipline, a dom will gradually increase the intensity or force of flogging, spanking, or other implementation of pain. This triggers the sub's body to respond with a flood of endorphins and adrenaline to dull the pain. The dom, too, will experience their own version of this rush from the exertion and the thrill of controlling and guiding the sub. Scientifically referred to as endogenous opioid polypeptides, the term endorphin is actually short for endogenous morphine. As both the words opioid and morphine suggest, these naturally produced chemicals can alter the moods, sensations, and perceptions in the very same ways drugs do. One could even think of BDSM as a natural, free, legal, low-risk drug wrapped in sex.

Sometimes the rush a sub experiences is so intense and enveloping they enter what is known as subspace.

Also referred to as flying or sub frenzy, the aspects of the euphoric high will vary from person to person. Many report out-of-body experiences, inability to speak or think clearly, a spiritual or revelatory journey, or just a blissed-out state of contentment. Some have linked it with the popular phenomenon known as the runner's high, wherein the stress of a long, grueling race triggers a release of endorphins and adrenaline.

While subspace is undoubtedly a peak moment in a BDSM scene, it does correspond with a perilous valley called subdrop. If one lost in subspace is brought back down from such euphoric heights too quickly or carelessly, the sub may experience fear, sadness, anxiety, and general uneasiness, again similar to the effects of crashing or withdrawing from a drug. It is therefore very important for the dom to remain attentive and anticipate the needs of the sub. Even after the sub has come down for a three-point landing and the scene is over, the dom should continue to assuage the sub by cuddling, soothing, talking, or any other preferred method. This is known as aftercare, and despite public misperception of BDSM as all about pain and punishment, the profound sense of intimacy and security aftercare provides is an indispensable part of any dom-sub relationship.

Just as Cohen writes on the other myriad aspects of the kink lifestyle, so does he detail subspace, from the sexual to the existential. One particular stanza in "Master Song" can be interpreted as the dom guiding his slave through subspace:

And he took you up in his aeroplane,

Which he flew without any hands,

And you cruised above the ribbons of rain

That drove the crowd from the stands.

Then he killed the lights in a lonely Lane

And, an ape with angel glands,

Erased the final wisps of pain

With the music of rubber bands.

Cohen uses the metaphor of flying to show her state of elation; the fact that the dom does this "without any hands" is a clue to this representation and rules out the improbable literal meaning. As she glides through the sky, Cohen issues a wonderful image to capture the master – "an ape with angel glands." The two sides of the master are shown here: the brutish, forceful actions inflicted upon his slave, and the heavenly effects of those actions. The dual nature continues in the last couplet as the slave is rendered completely free of pain, through the use of rubber bands. The last line sticks out as problematic and can surely be taken in various ways; in keeping with the chosen theme, however, one may imagine the "music" is that of the sadistic master snapping rubber bands on the skin of his slave to push her over the edge.

The closing track of I'm Your Man, "Tower of Song" is largely devoid of gratuitous sexual activity, although a few passing lines detail some aspects of subspace remarkably well. Cohen writes, "27 angels from the Great Beyond/ They tied me to this table right here/ In the Tower of Song." These three verses demonstrate spiritual connection in the form of the angels, while the imagined bondage has the speaker unable to move. These states of paralysis and other-worldliness are commonly described by subspace cadets.

More accounts of clarity, painlessness, and spiritual enlightenment are present in one of Cohen's most gratuitously sexual songs, "Paper Thin Hotel."

I listened to your kisses at the door

I never heard the world so clear before

You ran your bath and you began to sing

I felt so good I couldn't feel a thing

It's written on the walls of this hotel

You go to heaven once you've been to hell

Subspace is not necessarily a state that one must be whipped into. Many slaves describe slipping into subspace through merely being restrained, reuniting with their master after time apart, or just the sound of their partner's voice. This is not an everyday occurrence; slaves do not disappear into subspace at the drop of a hat, but the associative properties that come into play in a BDSM relationship are very powerful for some people. The cuckold voyeur of "Paper Thin Hotel" is one that derives deep levels of pleasure just from what he hears through the door. He expresses feeling light and unburdened. The line "I never heard the world so clear before" smacks of the clarity of religious enlightenment, and the ensuing couplet speaks again of the theme of painlessness. Without a doubt, the cuckold is feeling unbounded joy and contentment. Although experienced through different channels than a bound and disciplined slave, the song's closing lines espouse the bondage and discipline dogma quite succinctly: Accept the pain so that you can break through to a higher plain.

Feelings of transcendence are also present in the song "If It Be Your Will," off 1984's Various Positions. Unlike the previous means explored, such as physical pain, bondage, and cuckolding, it is through service and obedience that this slave finds exultation.

If it be your will

That I speak no more,

And my voice be still

As it was before,

I will speak no more.

I shall abide until

I am spoken for.

If it be your will.

If it be your will

That a voice be true,

From this broken hill

I will sing to you.

From this broken hill

All your praises they shall ring,

If it be your will

To let me sing.

If it be your will,

If there is a choice,

Let the rivers fill,

Let the hills rejoice.

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell,

If it be your will

To make us well.

The slave demonstrates his commitment to his mistress by remaining silent unless otherwise directed and singing her praises when so prompted. Permission to speak is a common aspect of service upon which many master-slave participants agree. The repeated phrase "if it be your will" also echoes the refrains of "yes, master," "yes, sir," or "as you wish" in which some slaves are instructed to respond while serving their master. It is in the third stanza that elements of subspace are found. The slave reveals the jubilant, merciful and healing powers that his mistress holds for him. The mistress is able to make the slave's world one of joy and relief if she so chooses. It is her decision whether to let her sub linger with the "burning hearts in hell" or elevate him to the rejoicing hills.

The themes of transcendence and intimacy are most evident in Cohen's song "Light as the Breeze," off The Future. The explicit imagery and actions present are almost inarguably BDSM.

She stands before you naked

You can see it, you can taste it,

And she comes to you light as the breeze.

Now you can drink it or you can nurse it,

It don't matter how you worship

As long as you're

Down on your knees.

So I knelt there at the delta,

At the alpha and the omega,

At the cradle of the river and the seas.

And like a blessing come from heaven

For something like a second

I was healed and my heart

Was at ease.

Kneeling in front of his naked mistress's vagina to "worship," the slave's service to his partner, his "alpha and omega," is exalted to the divine. The speaker's perception of the "cradle" introduces intimacy and security as the build-up continues. Finally, the slave experiences his epiphany as the scene yields "a blessing come from heaven," temporarily killing away all his pain and anxiety. Few songs in Cohen's repertoire describe the endorphin rush that is unique to BDSM as well as "Light as the Breeze." From the traditional starting point of many kink scenes, kneeling, to the wave of euphoria that washes over the willing slave, Cohen takes the listener on a fast-forward journey through its virtues.

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- Snuggle and a Cigarette

Leonard Cohen's work is hardly one-dimensional. One source of his genius is the seamless blending of a variety of life's fundamental themes -- sex, love, faith, youth, aging, loss, happiness, depression. Although many songs may be interpreted in different ways, the presence of sex, kink, and BDSM among those interpretations is unavoidable. In this arena, Cohen has soared where others have barely lifted off. He does not limit himself to clever double-talk, suggestion, puns, or a passing graphic reference. Cohen embraces sex. He embraces the boundaries, misperceptions, joys, drawbacks, and virtues of sex. Descriptions of intimate scenes do not stop at the surface in a Leonard Cohen song; the listener is presented with the entirety of the experience. The alluring risqué façade of kneeling, whips, restraints, and other easily recognized symbols are accounted for, but unlike most others, Cohen then delves into the effects, the purposes, and the meanings of their use. It is not just the actions, but the emotions -- elation, pain, anger, climax, fear, devotion, love, excitement -- that are detailed. In doing this, Cohen illuminates the importance, mystery, and obsession that all human beings associate with sex, be they kinky or not.

After hearing Cohen sing the praises of kinky sex though, one may opt to give it a shot.

(Part One) - (Part Two)