Long before 50 Shades of Grey made Mr. Grey famous the world over (as a dom in a piece of dreck, best I can tell – I haven’t read the book), I was known as Mr. Grey. Grey, or occasionally Mr. Grey, was the name by which I went during much of my journey through the demimonde of commercial sex. Incidentally, I thought that “Grey” was a clever name, reflecting as it did the story I told myself – that nothing was black and white, that all about me was grey. Turns out? Just about everyone seeking a nom de whatever in that particular demimonde takes “Grey.” Witness L – she chose “Lizzie Grey” without reference to my own history. And, of course, Christian Grey, in 50 Shades of Grey.
And now, now that I’m out of that demimonde and in a new one? “N. Likes” isn’t my name. “Nick,” the name for which “N” is an initial, isn’t my name. “Lizzie Grey” isn’t L’s name. Liza Bennett isn’t Liza’s name.
I asked Liza the other day to suggest a topic for me, and she wrote, “Assumed identities. Why we use them, whether they help or hinder. Are we hiding or protecting ourselves.”
All of us with noms de whatever have our reasons for having such names. Some are hiding from friends, or family; some, from censorious authorities; some, from colleagues, or professional peers. Some of us are protecting ourselves from social, or religious, or criminal sanctions. Some of us are achieving through compartmentalization what we couldn’t through integration: the opportunity to behave in a manner other than that we might wish publicly to be known for, for whatever reason. Or even the opportunity to do a bit of helpful disassociation, allowing us to gain access to parts of ourselves that previously we have hidden – from others, from ourselves.
When I was “Grey,” I was hiding, protecting. I was ashamed, and scared, and the name served to medicate my fear, to put distance between “me” and what I was doing. It allowed me more effectively to compartmentalize, both because it meant that the women I was seeing didn’t know my real name (for the most part, although inevitably, I told them) and because it meant I could tell myself that the guy doing those things was Grey – he wasn’t “me.”
More recently, as I’ve emerged from shame into grace (as they say in 12-step land), I have a different understanding of the purpose of “noms de….”
My wife, T, took a look at Liza’s question and shook her head. (She has a secret identity too.) “Mine liberates me,” she said.
“I know, right?” I said.
I have the sense that Liza’s may well liberate her as well, and (as always) I’ll be eager to read what Liza may have to say on this subject, because I suspect that for her, as for my wife, as for me, there’s no single benefit of hiding behind a pseudonym. Rather, it’s a complex decision, one with multifarious consequences – positive and negative.
For many, assumed identities serve a defensive purpose, to shield their everyday Dr. Jekylls from their decadent Mr. Hydes. Maybe this is to simplify ultimate Senate confirmation hearings, or something else. But in many cases I suspect it’s more primal – that it’s somehow more connected to residual internalized shame. (Tell me I’m wrong – I don’t mean to speak for you.) To the idea that what we’re doing – having adventurous, joyful sex; writing publicly about that which is rightly private – is somehow embarrassing, shameful.
I’m often struck by the degree of anxiety, fear, almost paranoia that characterizes many of us in this world of “sex positive” people. People are deeply worried – worried that they’ll be “found out.” This is as true of people in London (for whom all of the potential consequences are social) as of those in Jeddah (where there might be genuine physical consequences).
For me, for my wife, I daresay for L, it’s a bit different – and, it’s a bit different for each of us, too.
Sure, there’s a bit of the defensive motivation: life is simply easier when the people with whom we interact in our “vanilla” lives assume that our marriage is “conventional” (whatever the fuck that means), that our sex lives are… uninteresting. It’s easier around the neighborhood, at work, at school, if people don’t whisper to one another, “Oh, that’s N. Have you read those super-hot stories about the sex he had with The Historian? I wonder if he’ll hook up with her again. I hope so.”). (For the record, I hope so too…. )
And there’s the practical: I’ve had one too many experiences with people who turned out to be just a little crazy in ways that I couldn’t anticipate at the outset and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing they didn’t know my real name, because they might well have sought to wreak havoc (and, had they known my real name, their ability to do so would have been greater). On top of which, Google makes it such that if we don’t want our kids to discover something about us that happens on the internet, it needs to happen in connection with an identity entirely distinct from our “real-life” identity.
But more than any of that, there’s the fantastical: the truth is, N. Likes is a bit different than the guy who invented him. Not all that different – he’s the same height, build, has the same history, etc. But when N. Likes is with a woman, he’s just a bit more, well, ruthless, than his alter ego is. N’s alter ego’s a damned nice guy. The existence of N. Likes gives me, gives him – gives us – license to turn it up a notch, to experiment, to play around. N is, essentially, a fictional character of my own creation. Or rather, he’s semi-fictional – I conjure him often. (Just last night, I’m fairly certain it was N, and not his alter ego, who grabbed a woman whom he had never met before by the hair in a bar and pulled her toward him as he kissed her, as he grinded into her, even as his wife was engaged in a very similar maneuver with a different guy, just a few feet away.).
Sure, N’s based on his alter ego (a.k.a. “me”), but he is notably different. Incidentally, with both L and T, we have all these permutations of interactions – our “real” selves with one another; our alter egos with one another; and then, even, interactions between a “real” self and an alter ego. All that has happened. And it’s, for the most part, not just fun, but actively helpful – in keeping straight just what’s going on, who’s thinking, feeling, doing what, etc.
In my wife’s case, her alter ego and her day-to-day self are almost entirely distinct. She goes hours, days even, without checking her alter ego’s e-mail, and she consciously, mostly willfully, turns T on and off. For me, the boundaries are a bit more porous: N. is always around, as is my real-life version. They’re constantly present. They both check their e-mails compulsively, they both are hyper-sexual. They just express it a little differently.
So for me, for us, our alter egos serve primarily as enablers – as positive enhancers of our experience.
Do you have an alter ego? What purpose(s) does it serve for you?