Certain words I dread (“We need to schedule two more dental appointments”) while others I would kill to hear (“Ann Coulter’s physician confirms sex-change operation”).
And then there are statements that defy imagination, such as; “My husband gave me the greatest birthday present last night — a public flogging.” I actually overheard one of my exotic dance students say these exact words last week.
Now, I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the BDSM scene. My education began a few years ago, while browsing the aisles of my favorite sex shop. A man came up to me and asked, “Are you a Dom or a Sub?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I was in a food and wine kind of mood, so I replied, “Dom,” thinking that he wanted to know if I was a champagne or sandwich kind of girl.
It wasn’t long before the light went on. In fact, it was pretty hard to miss the point as he trailed after me in the store, whispering in a plaintive, hopeful voice: “Do I need to be punished, Mistress? I’ve been so bad.” I couldn’t bear to tell him that my inexperience would only result in the blind leading the blindfolded.
After thinking about it more over the next few weeks, I began a journey of research and experimentation. Some kinds of education can only begin when you’re 50 and feeling time is too short to be squeamish. As a result of my investigation, I now understand that cropping is more than a scrapbook technique, dogs aren’t the only animals that engage in kennel play, and you should never insert a CD-Dom into a computer drive.
But public flogging? I checked an online BDSM dictionary, and sure enough, there it was – right after posture collars but before quirts. Here was this very pleasant looking, 48-year-old women extolling its virtues. “We went to our favorite dungeon, and he hoisted me up and proceeded to flog me.” She went on: “Afterwards, the crowd applauded and sang ’Happy Birthday.’ It was fantastic!”
I couldn’t even begin to take this all in. How many dungeons do you have to visit before you can decide on a “favorite?” Was cake involved and if so, was it consumed or used against her as part of the punishment. Did her fellow dungeon denizens remove their leather hoods before the singing started? My head was reeling, so I took the obvious next step — I visited the dungeon.
I wore by best corset and carried along my anthropologist’s hat and a very good friend. We were greeted at the door by two fine male specimens garbed in leather hot pants. They asked us to sign a waver form and then encouraged us to mingle. I was on a mission so I walked right past the soda and bags of chips (alcohol is not allowed) and headed straight for the dome of doom. The apparatus was all vaguely familiar — think Cirque du Soleil meets Gold’s gym.
I first encountered a woman splayed across a pummel horse moaning as a Clark Kent look-alike vigorously applied a paddle to her back. In between slaps, a group of handmaidens rushed in to massage oil into the tender, bruised skin. Another woman, trussed up in clothesline, stood against a rack-like device as several men repeatedly prodded her with a violet wand. The wand is a device used in electrical play that consists of a handle and a high voltage coil. I can only surmise that this was all part of some elaborate role-play with her tormentors taking the part of Nikola Tesla. Dommes walked their submissives around on leashes, public flogging occurred at regular intervals, and the sounds of agony and ecstasy could be heard over the techno-music.
After 30 minutes, two facts became crystal clear:
First, everyone was extremely well-mannered and far more respectful than the inhabitants of a typical dating/mating bar.
Second, I had to get out of there.
I raced to my car, feeling disoriented and shaken to my core. For days and weeks, I kept replaying the images in my head, which, by now, had morphed into an allegorical depiction of Dante’s descent into Hell.
So why did the dungeon trigger such a negative visceral reaction within me?
Was it because the spectators and participants were not the stuff of my dreams?
Would I have reacted differently if the woman was Eartha Kitt, whose purr could arouse even the most cowardly of lions, or if the face underneath the eye patch and bandanna belonged to Johnny Depp?
It’s true that many of the participants resembled Duane Hansen salt and pepper shakers, but surely that wasn’t the problem. After all, I taught women of all shapes, sizes and ages in my exotic dance class, and each week I celebrated with genuine pleasure their desire to feel more sexually alive.
I gradually came to realize that my central problem was the flagrant sexhibition that was on display at the dungeon. I had a front row seat to a public drama, and I was a hostile witness because it violated my definition of privacy.
Let me explain. My sex life is like a child’s activity book, in which each shape is clearly defined in bold print. The boundaries are immutable, and I never, ever, color outside the lines. What happens between me and other consenting adult falls into the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” category. Within these limits, I feel free to engage in erotic improvisation and to act out my fantasies.
Yet, just because I take comfort in securing the door to my intimate emporium with a privacy lock, a limited guest list, and a prominently displayed “Do Not Disturb” sign doesn’t give me right to assume everyone should follow the same rules. Who am I to judge other people’s choices?
People transmit sexual signals across a broad spectrum of frequencies. For these BDSM participants, breaking down the public/private Maginot line is precisely the point. They find enhanced sexual stimulation and release in a more public fireworks display. And truth be told, the dungeon is also marked by boundaries. It is a precisely calibrated theatrical event, a house of mirrors where trust and discretion matter.
What I interpreted as random acts of aggression and exploitation are actually highly ritualized activities. The rules are negotiated beforehand and governed by three principles: safe, sane and consensual.
I admit that it is initially confounding to see how shackles and spiked collars translate into reciprocal romance. But, let’s be honest: Sexual intercourse for a lot of people consists of the woman staring stoically at the ceiling and a man who falls asleep before her final curtain call. He shoots… he snores! It’s pretty hard to justify moral outrage if that’s your definition of mutual respect and pleasure.
Am I interested in a return visit to the dungeon? No. My pain threshold is too low and my privacy needs are too high.
Do I intend to change my closing salutation to “Spanks a lot, Athena?” Only with very good friends. But I have learned one essential lesson: I should spend less time fine-tuning my fortress and more time adjusting my attitude.