My first date at the BDSM class

I thought taking a girl I'd just met to an erotic bondage workshop would be fun and progressive. I was wrong

Topics: TMI, Coupling, Sex, Love and Sex,

My first date at the BDSM class

A few years ago, I put my old queen-size mattress up for sale on Craigslist. The first to show at my Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment was an attractive brunette in her mid-20s named Darla. She asked if she could lie down on it, and I politely averted my eyes as she bounced and flopped around. “I’ll take it,” she said. As we squeezed the mattress down the stairwell, she explained that she was on a roller derby team, and that it had kindled in her a new sense of self-confidence and female solidarity. After we tied the mattress to the roof of her Subaru, we exchanged numbers.

We talked amiably over the phone a few times, but I never asked her out. Then one day, I came across an ad in the Village Voice for a workshop called “Erotic Bondage and Dirty Domination,” given by the adult sex shop Toys in Babeland. I was not involved in the BDSM scene — in fact, I’d never even considered bringing sex toys, far less weapons, into the bedroom. But I thought it would be a kind of anthropological adventure for Darla and me. It might speed up the expensive and psychically exhausting courtship ritual, and give us a shared experience to discuss. At the very least, it was more original than a bar or a club or a show. A friend of mine had just been to an S/M party, and returned swearing that everyone should try it. That night, I sent a text message to Darla, suggesting we attend.

I should point out that I had only recently discovered the ease of texting. Suddenly, a hand-held device allowed me to write something I didn’t have the courage to say to someone over the phone, never mind in person, and then to sit back and wait, burning with anticipation, for a response. The city at night seemed aglow with the variety of encounters this made possible. In truth, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to the class. I was half-joking. I was also, frankly, a bit drunk.

Minutes later, a text arrived: “Sounds fun!”

And so on a cold night in November, I pushed open the heavy glass doors of Toys in Babeland’s SoHo shop. Darla appeared soon after, zipped into a sleeping bag-length down jacket.

“Well, here we are!” she said brightly, kissing me on the cheek.

Two employees greeted us — an effete young man in tight pants and a Mohawk, and a voluptuous black-haired girl in a jungle-green velour jumpsuit. Their expressions were identical: endlessly sympathetic, wildly sexual. They handed us packets and pens, and we sat down in a row of folding chairs near the back.

Darla’s green eyes glittered with a kind of teenage mischievousness. But I noticed the packet — labeled “Bondage and Discipline” — was shaking slightly in her hand, as if she was about to give a speech. I instantly felt guilty for inviting her here. There was no alcohol to relax the mood, and the room was full of harsh fluorescence, throwing spotlights on products like the Ophoria Finger Vibe and Penetration Station. Our classmates, with whom I avoided making eye contact, were milling about the vibrator displays.

“That’s the one I have,” Darla said, gesturing at the display table. “The blue one.” The device was large and streamlined, with the kind of wrist cord attachment found on cameras and flashlights.

The girl in the green jumpsuit stepped to the front of the ad hoc classroom, and everyone sat down. She introduced herself as Rosalyn (her name, like the others in this essay, has been changed), and explained that everyone is capable of both domination and submission, that nobody is either/or. Her eyes were smoky and dark — bedroom eyes. When she asked what we wanted to learn, a heavy silence fell over the group.

“Knots!” a girl shouted at last, and the class laughed in relief. The girl was wearing cork-size plugs in her earlobes and holding her girlfriend’s hand. They smiled radiantly, completely at ease under the circumstances. I envied them.

“OK,” Rosalyn said. “Knots. Check! Anything else?” 

Silence.

“All right, well. I hope you guys are ready, because this class is gonna be really fun!”

Darla pounced on the opportunity for irony. “Yes!” she whispered, squeezing my knee. I was uncomfortable being here — far more uncomfortable than I’d predicted — and the benign comment loosened me up to an almost psychotic degree. I laughed into my hand, worried I might giggle uncontrollably for the rest of the class, but the fit soon passed.

Rosalyn stepped back and Daniel, a shifty fellow in a baggy sheep’s wool sweater and wingtips, took her place. “Hey, you guys! Welcome to Erotic Bondage and Dirty Domination!” he said, with considerable sass. Rosalyn had seemed a sensitive and reliable guide, but Daniel looked unsteady; he seemed to be in training for the job. Rather abruptly, he began reading from the packet we’d been given, looking up now and then to establish a rapport with the audience. “The masochist is someone who enjoys inflicting pain on others,” he said, “whereas a sadist … a sadist enjoys being the recipient of pain.”

“I think you got that backwards there,” said a black man in sunglasses and a white Kangol hat near the front.

Daniel blushed and flipped the pages back and forth. He gave an exasperated “Ah!” before redefining the words correctly.

Just then, Rosalyn said, “I smell smoke. Is something burning?” As Daniel turned around, Rosalyn leapt at the table behind them, where a scented massage candle had lit one of the fanned sex-pamphlet displays. “Oh my God!” she shouted, laughing as she brought a hardback erotica book down on the table, smothering the flames.

Darla leaned in again and whispered, “Couple on first date dies in Babeland fire.” An image came to me of our blackened corpses lying amid the molten remains of sex toys and flavored lubricants. I smiled. I sensed we were bonding over this strange lecture.

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But the comfort was short-lived. Rosalyn began playing a DVD of “The Devil and Miss Jones,” calling it “a classic BDSM film available for purchase after the workshop.” On-screen, a large woman in a corset, wielding an Indiana Jones-style whip, lashed another woman shackled to a mahogany table across the buttocks. The shackled woman screamed with pleasure and pain. 

I am not squeamish by nature, but I suddenly started to panic. My heart was thumping. Each breath demanded more air than the last. The reason people go to dark bars on dates, I remembered, is to avoid having massive panic attacks. It was like being 13 again, halfway through a first date to the movies, not enjoying myself so much as trying to survive one moment to the next.

Meanwhile, Rosalyn fast-forwarded to a new scene: This time the dom was male, sternly clothed in a tight white T-shirt and black slacks. Jenna Jameson, the famous porn star, hung by her hands from a deluxe home-fitness machine, wearing a pair of vinyl chaps and nipple clamps, her mouth held open by a vicious metal gag. The man lightly flogged Jenna’s vagina in a figure-eight motion, then told her what he was going to do with the knotted, glass-blown dildo in his hand. Jenna managed an obstructed “Oh-ay.” Accordingly, he slid the dildo gently inside her. Jenna coughed out the gag. “Sorry,” she said. The man quietly accepted her apology in a don’t-let-it-happen-again kind of way.

At that exact moment, the guy in front of me put his arm around the woman beside him. It was surprising to see, this act of casual tenderness in the face of what struck me as frightening sexual role play. By contrast, I’d been avoiding any physical contact with Darla, even the slightest grazing of her boot with mine, for fear of implying that I was into this, that she could expect such things from me. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught her glancing at me cautiously.

Later, a professional dominatrix named Sheila came out. Gothic and rail thin, she began tying Daniel to a chair with cold, automatic grace. “This is your basic Lahrer knot I’m making,” she told us. Rosalyn distributed short lengths of rope so we could practice on one another.

This, I discovered with a stab of self-pity, was the last straw. Earlier, I’d feared being summoned to the front of the class to take part in some kinky demonstration. Instead, the rope came to us. The tangible reality of it overpowered any attempt on my part at humor or ironic detachment. Darla and I stared at one another helplessly, like a couple of lost children.

“Should I … tie you?” she said, blushing to her hairline.

“Sure, sure,” I said, offering my wrists like a prisoner about to be handcuffed. Following the steps in the packet, she carefully lashed them together in a trembling approximation of the Lahrer technique.

“Nice job,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said.

Afterward, while our classmates stayed behind for what appeared to be the true goal of the workshop (buying Babeland merchandise), Darla and I walked quickly to the nearest, darkest bar, where we drank whiskey and beer until our self-consciousness all but disappeared. We chuckled at our recent selves as though they were different people, clueless and socially inept.

Had she really wanted to go to the workshop, I asked, or had she been pretending?

“No, no, I wanted to go!” Darla yelled over the music. “I mean, if only so I could talk about it with the girls from derby. One of them gave me an S/M handbook a while back, but I still haven’t looked through it.” 

Had she felt at all queasy during the dungeon scene?

“A bit. I sort of wanted a safe word, you know? To shout if things got too weird?”

Had she thought I was into BDSM?

“Totally. You looked super into it.”

Really?!

“No, I’m joking. You seemed shy about it. Like me.”

After the bar closed we went back to her apartment. She showed me her blue vibrator and the S/M handbook, as if they were evidence that we had indeed been at Babeland earlier, that it hadn’t been a dream. I marveled at the complex contortions and decorative rope bondage (the Dragonfly Sleeve, the Japanese Pearl Harness) depicted in the book. The patterns were amazingly intricate. It must have taken generations to develop the techniques — years of groping in the dark after some elusive form of sensual excitement. All those agonizing botched attempts before someone finally got it right and a surge of pleasure shot up their spine! The thought of it made me feel ashamed for trying to hasten my relationship with Darla to its sexual endpoint. How had I become so blind to the subtleties of dating? Much like erotic bondage and dirty domination, it was a craft one honed over time with the willing and adventurous participation of another. Looking for shortcuts was an exercise in pointlessness, maybe even pain. 

I closed the book and walked to the window. It was then that I noticed her bed. Stuffed animals and a fluffy white comforter had disguised my old mattress beneath. I’d forgotten all about it. 

“How have you been finding the mattress?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s delightful,” Darla said, rolling her eyes in mock ecstasy. “It provides excellent lower back support.”

We lay down on the bed together and stared at the ceiling, where she’d stuck a small galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. I told her I’d had a similar arrangement as a kid. Within minutes, we were both asleep. 

Jed Lipinski is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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