"We've been here all along" 

Demystifying the power games of BDSM

Demystifying the power games of BDSM

Check him out,” Mistress Moth said to Maitresse Miss Ann, pointing over to the bar at Nicky Blaine’s. Both dominas — they don’t like the term “dominatrix” — were there for the “Meeting the Mistress” night Moth holds the third Thursday of every month at Nicky Blaine’s. “He’s been glancing our way every few minutes. I’d bet you anything he’s here to see us.” Sure enough, once they lured him over, it turned out he was there to see them.

He couldn’t have seemed more different from those already present, with his button-up shirt, sensibly cut hair, even a pocket protector — as compared to Moth decked out in full glam garb and black latex. And yet they are not so different. In a moment the mundane reached out to the extreme, and the extreme reached back.

BDSM, fetish, spanking, whatever you call it. BDSM is the accepted term among most practitioners, reflecting its threefold nature: bondage/ discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism. In those three mirror images you find all aspects of fetish, from people interested in being tied up and spanked to those who fixate on specific body parts to more extreme interests.

Cloris Anderson-Money, a longtime fetish performer in the group Crimsonmane, is now semi-retired from performance but continues to make educational presentations to groups of health professionals. “I’m legit AND kink!” she said with a sly smile. “It’s mostly directed to STD/HIV health care providers. It’s mostly the basics — the difference between BDSM and abuse, some simple terminology, a lot of why not to jump to conclusions.”

Safe, sane and consensual: the three watchwords of the BDSM community. Those watchwords make up the difference between BDSM and abuse, and are key to the efforts undertaken by Shawn Burt and Robynn Alexander, founders of the educational organization InKink. “That’s the kind of outreach we need,” Alexander said of Anderson-Money’s work. “To demystify it as much as possible. That’s how tolerance begins, or at least the willingness to leave it alone. Sexuality and the right to practice sexuality as a private individual is one of the last frontiers as far as human rights go. The people that we know come from every end of the spectrum you can think of, socially, financially, educationally … Some people have to hide it deeper than others. Or at least, feel that they have to.”

They are certainly less alone than they think. According to a 1990 Kinsey report, between 10 and 20 percent of all Americans have played at least a bit with BDSM. Even then, nobody’s really sure, including researchers, where specific fetishes come from, or why one person is fixated on lace and spankings, and another on fishnets and leather and being bound. “Why strawberries? Why chocolate?” Anderson-Money said with a shrug. “Why does anybody like anything?”

But many do agree on why the power exchange is so compelling. “There’s nothing sexier than knowing you completely trust in or are completely trusted by another human being,” Anderson-Money said. Dr. Larry Davis, sex therapist at the Indianapolis-based Davis Clinic Center for Sexual Medicine, said that BDSM play is rarely a source of distress for his clients, and estimated that about a quarter of Midwestern couples have experimented in some way with at least light restraint. “Its value has to do with whether there’s a good communication around it,” Davis said. “They often will learn quite a bit about how they relate.”

In their private life, Burt and Alexander are in a consensual male-dominant relationship, with specifically preset limits. “She controls the final decisions about her job, the kids, the cash,” Burt said. (An important element in any BDSM relationship; everyone I spoke to agreed that at the core, the real power lays with the submissive and their ability to end it at any time.) They look like any other middle-aged married couple you might meet at a PTA meeting or a church bake sale; ironically enough, their approach to BDSM ended up in a very conservative relationship. “We’ve used the information we’ve found to create a highly individualized version of a traditional married relationship,” Burt said. “The authority I have is given by choice, so I think through the consequences of everything I say carefully.”

“A lot of it comes from the willingness to communicate and really listen,” Alexander adds. “We looked at what we had and found a way to make it work, rather than fit what we had into ‘what was supposed to work.’”

It is in these unexpected corners that one comes face to face with the infinite paradoxes of BDSM. How much difference exists between Alexander’s submission to Burt and the submission of a devout wife to her Promise Keeper husband, except that perhaps Alexander is more aware of it? “It gets down to all the most individualistic choices you’re ever going to make, and that’s how you’re going to be intimate with somebody,” Burt said. “It’s not deviant because you did it, but because of how someone else perceives it,” Anderson-Money said.

And even then the perceptions are changing. Has BDSM become “safe,” almost commonplace? Alexander has an easy answer: “The Internet. You have access to any information, including this. I think that’s what brought a lot of it to the forefront: the connectedness. It used to be you had to get into a car and drive to Chicago or someplace far away to see a fetish event.”

Davis believes that it might not even be that complicated. “Most of us in 21st century America think that we’ve discovered an openness in sexuality that is uniquely ours, and if you look at history, you’ll see that essentially human beings have been doing the same things to each other sexually for several thousand years.”

Fetish is not just in Mistress Moth’s PVC-and-fishnets dark-side wardrobe, nor Miss Ann’s well-stocked dungeon. It is in the nervous giggles of a couple trying out bondage games for the first time with fuzzy cuffs they bought from the mall. It is in the subtle inclination of Burt’s head in Alexander’s direction, and the manner in which Miss Ann makes her conservative business suits part of an unspoken power game. It is in the shy approach of a perfectly ordinary guy in a polo shirt to the dominas holding court at Nicky Blaine’s.

“I was kind of afraid to come over and interrupt, because I didn’t want to intrude,” he confessed to them. “And that’s where you were just silly, sitting over there all scared,” Miss Ann said as she patted him on the hand. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ve been here all along.”

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