Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
The thing you don’t realize until a few days after attending a sex party is just how many people saw you naked. Is the guy giving you the once-over in the work elevator doing so because you’re wearing a short skirt or because he was one of the 12 gentlemen who had his hands all over you two nights prior? Is the girl on the spin bike next to yours one of the half-dozen you kissed while a crowd of voyeurs watched? You don’t know. I didn’t know.
Well before the “50 Shades of Grey” phenomenon, I had been intrigued by domination and submission. I’d flirted with it in the form of cheap handcuffs and haphazard requests for my boyfriends to spank me, and I’d even gone to a sex party in college, back when the image of a woman being flogged on a St. Andrew’s Cross had been a go-to fantasy. I had a slight chip in my front tooth from a ball gag accident gone awry.
Maybe it was my own furtive attempts at BDSM that annoyed me so much about “50 Shades of Grey.” The wide-eyed virgin Anastasia didn’t seek out a shadowy subculture to test the limits of her own desire; she stumbled into it, and she just happened to hook up with a hot and mysterious millionaire who knew exactly how to turn her on. The book seems to confirm the infuriating failure of modern women to find sexual pleasure on their own, and its wild popularity has also thrust an underground world of kink into the mainstream. The sex-toy store Babeland hosts workshops inspired by “50 Shades” and confirms their sales of bondage equipment increased in the past year. Moderators on the kinky social networking site Fetlife.com have seen a surge in dom/sub members. And sexual educators around the country are using E.L. James’s book as a jumping-off point to inspire the “vanillas” of the world to learn more about BDSM. The book has inspired vigorous debate on Fetlife between those grateful that BDSM is losing its stigma and those worried that dilettantes and gawkers will ruin all the fun.
If they do, I wouldn’t count myself among them. After all, I’m no Anastasia Steele ingénue: I’m a 29-year-old writer with a drawer full of sex toys that number firmly in the mid-to-high double digits. I was just a sexual deviant who’d never been spanked.
As I was bitching to anyone who would listen about “50 Shades of Grey,” I got an e-mail from a guy I’d known in a writing class whom I’ll call Matt. After a few flirtatiously casual back-and-forths, Matt sent me some of the photos he’d been taking. The images were girls tied in rope, wearing ball gags, naked. I blushed.
Hot, I typed.
Typing turned into talking, which turned into an invite to a play session at his apartment later that week. He’d always thought that I’d be interested, he explained. I was. I’d recently stopped drinking and missed the adrenaline rush of being out, the feeling that anything could happen. This gave it to me. In the days leading up to our meeting, I used my vibrator constantly, so much so that the glue between the shaft and the on-off dial came undone. Finally, I would be getting what I’d wanted: A night of no-holds-barred submission.
As soon as I came over, Matt made me change into a crotchless body stocking and locked a collar on my neck. I felt helpless — and incredibly turned on — as he hogtied me while I lie on the floor. Then, he blindfolded me and used a vibrator on me, bringing me just to the edge before he stopped.
“Do I look slutty?” I asked. It was a word I’d tried to use in past relationships, but men wanted to avoid it. They’d change the word to hot or sexy. But I wanted to reclaim the word as one that proved I had control over my sexual urges. I wanted to be completely uninhibited.
“Definitely,” he smiled. It was clear we weren’t ever going to date — he was in an open relationship, and both of them “played” with a lot of people. This was just two friends having very adult fun. I begged him for more experiences.
The next weekend, Matt invited me to a “play” party at a bar downtown. The party, advertised through Fetlife, was attended by people ranging from their twenties to their sixties. I wore a white see-through leotard and a tiny schoolgirl skirt with black stockings. As soon as we got there, Matt assessed the scaffolding in the center of the room; it was there for anyone who wanted to play with rope. He pulled a ball gag from his backpack and tied it over my mouth.
I loved the fact that I was being watched. I felt as charged as I did when I was drinking, but without the hangover and regret. I even loved the humiliation factor — the idea that anyone could touch me. The more out there I was, the more I’d be rewarded with attention.
And attention was what I got. Once he untied me, a group of partygoers circled around me, saying I’d done a good job, even though I hadn’t done anything. But the fact that I was willing to get up there and have my butt spanked while being half-suspended was enough for them to warmly accept me into their group. Instead of using their real names, they tended to go by “scene names” — variations of their Fetlife profiles that often had the word dark or danger in them. I liked that. It reminded me of camp, and so did the way everyone seemed to tolerate each other, even if they didn’t like each other. Matt gave me the lowdown, telling me who was who, who was with whom, and who he’d trust to play with me. He told them to go easy on me, but as soon as he was distracted, I went off on my own.
Which was how, by the end of the night, I found myself bent over, skirt high over my hips, being spanked with a heavy fraternity-like paddle by a man who was a stranger ten minutes prior.
Matt came over. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said, as I straightened up and smoothed my skirt.
“Well, I’m just making sure you’re okay. Did you talk to him about your limits?”
I looked him in the eye. “I don’t have any.”
“No. That’s not an answer,” he said firmly. “You do, and you need to know them, because no one will pick them for you.”
“I’ll be fine.” I didn’t like that he was treating me like I was some naïve girl. I was a sexual explorer who knew what she was doing. Which was why I didn’t tell him later that week when I got invited to go to a party on my own, this time with the guy — J — who had paddled me.
This party was smaller. It was in a private loft where people walked around in various kinds of undress. One man was in the corner practicing his whip skills, each stroke cracking against the wall and making me wonder what I was doing. Heavy house music played.
“I’m glad you came.” J pulled me toward him and slid the strap of my tank top off my shoulder. I shed my nervousness with each layer of clothing, and I was ready when he tied me, wearing only a bra and thong, to an iron bed frame.
This time, instead of just a paddle, he’d come with an array of flogs, whips, and canes. I could deal with the paddle, but the whip hurt, stinging my skin and sending ripples of pain through my body.
I don’t like this, I realized. Was I supposed to? I didn’t know. But I didn’t say stop, because saying stop would have ended it. And even though I didn’t think I liked it, part of me wanted it to keep going.
Eventually, he paused.
“What?” I looked back over my shoulder.
“You’re bleeding.” He held his hand to my skin before showing me a few droplets of blood on his thumb.
“Wow.” I was fascinated I’d allowed myself to go that far. Plus, the blood meant he had to stop, right? I stood up, and he stepped forward and kissed me, slipping his hand underneath the waistband of my thong. I was surprised at how turned on I was as he touched me.
“I took it easy on you. Next time, training wheels come off.” He untied me as bruises bloomed on my butt and upper thighs; bright red capillaries snaking toward my hips. The next day, I kept lifting my skirt and looking at them in the mirror, as proud of the marks as I’d been of my skinned knees when I was a kid.
The next evening, I met up with him at another party. Galvanized by the last experience, I shrugged off my sundress like a pro and walked into the party wearing a pair of white lace panties and a white, corset-like bra. Thank God for swim team, I thought to myself. A decade of spending the majority of my free time at the pool in a bathing suit made me remarkably more cavalier about being near-naked in front of strangers than I had a right to be. After all, I’m not model-skinny, I still had major tan lines from last month’s Costa Rica vacation, and I don’t think I’d shaved my legs in the past week.
When I got there, I recognized a few people from the night before, as well as some from Fetlife, where I’d set up a profile and had spent more time than I should have browsing through profiles and responding to the numerous friend requests I’d been receiving. One of the guests offered to take pictures of me (“you can add them to your profile!”), and he led me to a back room with three beds laid out around the perimeter. Posing turned into stripping, which turned into him putting his hands on me, inside of me. Another man asked if he could perform oral sex.
I shrugged. I didn’t care. I would have said yes to anyone. At one point, there was a complicated tangle of bodies: Me underneath a girl who was kissing me, while she was being flogged by another girl. I loved the no-rules sexual world I’d found myself in. I loved being allowed to have stranger’s hands roam all over my body and to never, ever say no. I loved the people leering at us. And so I played to the crowd, sucking my stomach in, arching my head back.
“Do you mind if I bite you?” she asked.
“I want you to bite me.” Her bottom teeth grazed my neck.
“Harder,” I moaned loudly, all too aware that the audience around us was growing.
“Are you topping from the bottom?” she whispered.
“Sorry.” It was a term Matt had used during our play scene when I tried to provoke him into using more rope and tying me tighter. Topping from the bottom is something that dominants hate. It speaks to inexperience, a person who says she’s submissive but can’t give up control, trying to direct the scene into what she or he wants.
See, what people don’t realize is the bottom does have all the control in the scene. He or she just has to play the game, Matt had explained to me.
So after her admonishment, I lay back, allowing her teeth to sink lightly into my skin. I yelped occasionally as she moved her mouth farther down, keeping her fingers clamped over my wrists. I locked eyes with the people watching us, and knew I had to fake it — and give an even better performance than the night before. I started with low growls of ecstasy, getting louder and louder. I looked into her eyes, hoping she wouldn’t be able to tell, but extremely worried that she had.
Instead, she just smiled. “Good. I knew I could make you feel good.”
The crowd dispersed and J came up, grabbing my ponytail to jerk my head up for a kiss like I was his property.
“Everyone’s had a chance to touch you but me,” he whispered. I allowed his hands to brush against my breasts, down my stomach, feeling an involuntary shiver rise through me. “This isn’t just being slutty for anyone; it’s being slutty for a specific person,” he explained. “Would you be interested in being that with me?”
Um, no. I was here to play, not to have a master for real. But I couldn’t seem to explain that. I didn’t want him to leave. I liked how he had taken an interest in me. “Maybe?” I said.
The next week, we started texting, fast and furious, and I allowed my fantasies to run wild. He called me a slut and concocted sordid scenarios of being tied up, of being taken, of him having his way with me. We decided to meet up at another party, where we’d publicly play and then have sex at a hotel later that night.
The party felt much different. I was no longer a newbie; my performance at the previous sex party had cemented me into the clique of regular attendees. As I walked in, a guy in a leather vest and a collar shook my hand. The party promoter grabbed my ass and called me a dirty girl. One of the girls from the weekend before gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me she’d find me later to play.
And then, I came face to face with J. It was weird seeing him in person after so many back-and-forth texts. He pulled me into him. I reflexively pulled back.
“You don’t seem slutty. You seem nervous.” In any other situation, that would be reassuring, but at a kink party, it’s vaguely accusatory.
I leaned in and kissed him, avoiding eye contact.
For the rest of the night, I tried to seem okay. I faked it while he tied a rope around my torso and led me through the crowd, and I faked it when he drew his initials on my chest in marker — a sign, he said, that everyone would know I was his girl. But when he pulled out his whips and paddles I started shivering uncontrollably. And then, before he even touched me, I started to cry.
“Oh God. What’s wrong?” His face drained of color.
What wasn’t wrong? I was tired. I was running on empty. And I didn’t want to be tied up and spanked or have marks I’d have to hide in the gym locker room. Didn’t he realize I couldn’t have bite marks on my shoulder? That if I had semi-anonymous anything-goes sex in a hotel room with him I wouldn’t feel good-slutty, I’d feel the bad-slutty I’d learned about from my drinking days when I woke up from a blackout? That I was just confused and overwhelmed and had bumped up — hard — against my limit.
But I didn’t say anything like that. Instead, I let the tears flow, knowing they were a cheap, manipulative, effective emergency brake to put a stop to whatever it was I’d allowed to go too far and to ensure that I’d never, ever come back. They were the ultimate sign that I didn’t know what I was doing and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was topping from the bottom in the extreme — a way to flip the rules and force him to follow me instead of communicating clear limits.
I apologized and hurried to the coat check. In the bathroom, I took off my corset and tiny leather skirt and pulled on a gray t-shirt and baggy boyfriend jeans. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone as I dashed out of the club. Without my six-inch heels and down-to-there neckline, it was easy to blend into the shadows.
The uncomfortable truth is, I had a little too much in common with Anastasia Grey. What I’d been looking for was fantasy fulfillment, for situations to cross off my sexual bucket list and add to my mental highlight reel. If anything, the texts between J and I were just an interactive form of erotica, a choose-your-own-adventure where I could place myself in any number of submissive scenarios. But when faced with the reality — the seediness, the anonymity, the lack of intimacy, the fact that he was looking for someone to own, while I couldn’t even properly date — I couldn’t go through with it. I guess I wasn’t that different from all those women getting off on “50 Shades” after all: I was still trying to figure out my own sexual pleasure.
And I was a little sad to discover I didn’t belong with the kinky people. In some ways, the parties were magical: A place devoid of judgment where the conversation about where you live and what you do happened well after a “Can I tie you up and spank you?” request. But they all knew their limits. And until I learn how to properly communicate mine — both in and out of the bedroom or dungeon — I’m much safer sticking to parties where my clothes stay on.
JL Scott is the pen name of a writer living in New York.More JL Scott.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.