I have just spent three days in a dungeon. The subterranean “playspace” has been the
nerve center of the third annual “pansexual leather education and social
conference sponsored by Black Rose of Washington, D.C.” The description
comes from the Web site of Black Rose, a nonprofit group for practitioners of dominance and submission (D&S), sado-masochism (S/M) and bondage and discipline (B&D).
The incongruity between the phrase “pansexual leather” and the bureaucratese that
follows it reflects all the jarring disconnects I feel during the long
weekend. Middle-aged Americans are indeed wearing name tags, exchanging
business cards and wandering among exhibition booths. But they have also been doing things to each other that I would have trouble watching on a movie screen. The phrase I have clung to in the dungeon — my real-life version of “it’s only a movie” — was “consenting adults, consenting adults, consenting adults.”
The “differently loving” have assembled just inside the Beltway, at the Ramada Inn in New Carrollton, Md. With its narrow tower, which rises like a turret above the rest of the 10-story building, and its flapping flags, the gleaming white motel suggests a medieval castle. Meanwhile, in the 22,000-square-foot underground Exhibition Center, Black Rose boasts the world’s largest dungeon. Having occupied the entire castle for the weekend, Black Rose has rented all the hotel rooms and installed a gantlet of security at every entrance. Sealed from the outside world, the 1,500 registrants are free to ride the elevators all day and night wearing nothing but a harness or a pair of chaps.
On Friday afternoon, the last of the normals are checking out while people in leather pants and didactic T-shirts are checking in. Among the chest messages: “Tell Me What to Do,” “Vanilla is For Ice Cream,” “Remember my name, you’ll be screaming it later” and the re-contextualized “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” During the motel’s metamorphosis, Dungeon Master Alexis, a married submissive, must accompany me everywhere I go. She’s representative of the attendees: In her 40s or 50s, overweight, heterosexual, pleasant and articulate. We stop at a side door to chat with her husband, who’s working security. Like most of the couples I meet, they “play” with others.
Alexis tells me the real action is in the dungeon at night, but during the day, vendors sell their wares in the Leather Market and experts host “workshops” in the motel’s ballrooms. Among the dozens of seminars are “Piss,” “Advanced Caning,” “Duct Tape and Other Forms of Non-Traditional Bondage,” “Negotiating Without Losing Your Hard-On,” “Advanced Mummification,” “The Ebb and Flow of Enema” and my favorite, “The Sting of Cotton: Vegan S/M.”
In the Leather Market, vendors are hanging their insanely expensive wares:
talon rings with spinning spurs, rubber hoods, breathing tubes, tit clamps,
ball gags, chain-mail tank tops, crippling stilettos, leather corsets, all
thicknesses of rope, fur-lined handcuffs, vinyl chaps and bustiers and
lots of flowing Stevie Nickswear. The most exuberantly filthy garment in
the whole bizarre bazaar is a tiny, transparent latex miniskirt — a dingy,
yellowish window for a perpetual moon. Alexis and I chat for a while with a father and son who sell a variety of chastity cock cages — lockable metal structures that confine, contort and sometimes stretch the penis. The objects are beautiful and horrible, like the twisted gynecological specula in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.” “The scene’s about control and surrender,” the mild-mannered father explains, “and guys
who see their power in their cock and balls like it taken away.”
On our way down to inspect the dungeon, a pushy fellow gives me his
card, which, he claims, has no last name because he’s a Fed with a security clearance.
Unbidden, he launches into a lecture about why he’s a
dominant. “I basically like a woman who’s in my power who I can humiliate
and embarrass … It’s like Orwell said in ’1984,’ the way you exhibit
power is to make someone do something unpleasant.” The Fed waits until
three other Black Rose volunteers join us, then starts taunting me: “You’ll
be playing down in the dungeon; you’re going to love it.” I don’t want to
give offense by expressing just how unappealing the prospect is, so I
stammer and my face gets hot. The Fed rhapsodizes, “Ah, a blushing cheek.
A sadist appreciates a blush like a painter appreciates a cloud moving
across the sky.” Maybe I could do a little flogging, I think as I listen to this
After he leaves, a few people sidle up and mutter, “That guy’s an asshole,
don’t listen to him.” Alexis introduces me to a submissive, saying, “Now,
he’s nice.” And he is nicer.
(By Sunday night I realize that I like the
bottoms, the subs, the masochists more than the masters. And not just
because they give me what I want — better interviews — but because they
consider questions and form thoughtful answers. They seem more at peace
with their kink, while the dominants swagger and bluster and
overcompensate. The tops answer questions I direct at their partners,
sometimes after the bottom defers with his or her eyes, sometimes without
such a cue. Because I’ve seen men, especially men of my parents’
generation, treat women this way all my life, the female-topped couples
seem better balanced. Plus the male submissives — compact, muscular guys
in dog collars — are the most attractive quadrant: visual oases amid the
rolling dunes of pale flab.)
Alexis takes me across the parking lot and down the steps into the
Exhibition Center, where it looks like the set-up for a satanic prom. A
young woman is sticking black roses into styrofoam half-spheres to decorate
the columns scattered across the floor while a guy in jeans folds shiny
black police tape into bows. Many of the 200 volunteers and 45 Black Rose
staffers who set up, monitor and mop up after the festivities are
scurrying around the gigantic basement with tape and extension cords and
The dungeon is sectioned into vague rooms with hospital curtains. Spanking benches share a nook with a ventilated coffin, stocks for different extremities, a stretching rack,
an X-shaped lashing cross and a 3-by-3-foot cage with a tiny footstool
inside. Enormous toys like these pop up all over the vast rumpus room; the
really weird shit is cordoned off in the corners. Through a loading gate
at one end, they’re tossing in bales of hay and building tiny wooden stalls
for the equestrian show, a bizarre phenomenon I will experience fully on
Sunday. Pretending to be a horse or a dog, a Canadian explains to me that
night, is “the cutting edge of depersonalization.”
In the far corner lies the fluorescent-lit bloodletting space. Atop the
temporary linoleum floor are a gynecologist’s table with stirrups,
examining lights, dentist’s chairs, medical waste containers and tables
for temporary piercing and “cutting,” as Alexis puts it. The latter term
conjures depressed adolescents on psych wards, and it all starts to seem
less theatrical and more pathological.
“Great,” I think, “maybe there’ll
be a place for bulimics to puke, too.” Does “cutting” only sound more
unhealthy than the rest because I know it as a term for self-mutilation?
Though the American Psychologists’ Association has removed
“S/M” from its manual of disorders, aren’t all these tortures somewhat
insane outside a sanctioned “playspace”? Is it less crazy to have someone
else wound you or to wound someone than it is to wound yourself?
The answer appears to be yes in the flogging workshop, where two large
“Impact Acceptance” charts, anterior and posterior, color code the
potential for permanent injury to various body parts. Though a roughly
equal number of women and men attend the conference, almost everyone in
this circle of whip-crackers, including the two instructors, is male. Many
are wearing camouflage and other military garb.
A gray-haired butch woman peels off her shirt and bra and offers up her tiny back for a
demonstration; an Englishwoman who seems to be her partner stands in front
of her, holding her hands and comforting her. The teacher smiles
clench-jawed every time his flogger, a bundle of half-inch leather strips
about three feet long, hits her reddening back. Over her friend’s
flinching shoulders, the Englishwoman admonishes the crowd, “Don’t ever hit
the kidneys or the neck, people. That’s just not cute.”
Throughout the weekend, I find I can only stay at the Ramada for a few
hours at a time, so I end up making five separate trips out to New
Carrollton. As I drive home at dusk on Friday, Billie Holiday’s
“Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” comes on the radio.
With a collage of fragmentary images swirling around my
head — the Fed who wants to humiliate women, the Englishwoman urging classmates to leave the kidneys alone and the roomful of men with whips — I try to follow the singer down into her seductive masochism. I want to understand, not judge, but when I add overpowering and pain and sex, I keep coming up with domestic violence and rape. My “consenting adults” mantra helps me accept that woman offering up her back, but it doesn’t work as well with the men so eager to whip her as effectively as they can.
Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.More Virginia Vitzthum.