It was after midnight when I went down the steps into Saturday's dungeon party. The sticky wetness of the air hit my skin just as the dull din sharpened into screams, slaps and whip-cracks. Determined to observe the edgiest play, I made straight for the medical area, only glancing at the chained bodies starfished on the upright racks.
My suspicion that men use the scene to abuse women was abruptly flipped by the events unfolding on the gynecologist's table. I saw a man with a shaved head and beseeching eyes kneeling awkwardly, his hands secured behind his back. His mistress, also covered from head to toe in leather, applied a glass suction gun to his penis and his moans became howls. His mistress was grimly expressionless. She seemed very competent. I wondered if she was a medical professional and where she got all this strange glassware.
Another skilled top was across the room sewing shut the mouth of her slave, a thin, shirtless man in a lace skirt. He had fresh scabs scratched in a swirling design around his nipples; she was dressed like Stevie Nicks.
After about half an hour in the medical room, my urge to throw up passed, just as the witchy woman removed the thread from her partner's lips. As the blood dripped, he soaked it up with a white towel he held below his chin. His unsilencing seemed like my cue, and I sidled into a leather sling beside them and asked for an interview. She introduced herself as Lady Chandra, professional dominant, and him as Nicolas, her slave for the weekend. He's an insurance consultant, and they both have vanilla spouses who know about their play.
When I asked Nicolas why needles, Lady Chandra quickly answered, "He likes the endorphin rush."
Nicolas flexed the sensation back into his blood-flecked lips and added, "They're nature's pain-killers; long-distance runners are masochists, too."
I heard many variations on this over the weekend. A cute red-headed submissive dressed as a schoolgirl told me earnestly, "I can't run 20 miles, I can't lift 100 pounds, but I can take a lot of pain. People think a sub is weak, but it takes incredible strength and endurance."
I have to agree that marathoners, nipple piercers and even hazing frat boys and soldiers simply occupy a different spot on the same pain-as-pleasure continuum as Nicolas and all other the willing victims.
I asked Nicolas, Lady Chandra and about a dozen other people if they were abused as children, and they all said no; no studies have proven a link between childhood abuse and sado-masochism (S/M), bondage and discipline (B&D) or dominance and submission (D&S). ("BDSM" is popular shorthand for the whole schmear.)
Almost everyone I spoke with, however, recounted an early fascination with fear, pain or restraint while playing cops and robbers or capture the flag, much like gay and transgender people who "always knew."
"Sexual excitement builds with the pain," Nicolas said, "but for me it's more the fear. Scary movies turn me on." He laughed as he explained his predilection with a refreshing disregard for the sex-positive party line: "I'm just not wired right."
Nicolas also said that having his mouth sewn shut is "erotic and intimate because it forces me to communicate in other ways."
"Language can be so cold," Chandra added dramatically.
Nicolas' large eyes were incredibly expressive with the thread crisscrossing his lips, as were the eyes of the men getting their penises tortured. Because of what was happening to their bodies, I saw only fear and sadness at first, but trust and adoration were there too -- not unlike the expression of a loyal dog.
Being a slave must provide a refreshing break from the confusion of emotional relationships. We've all wondered about our lover, "What does this person want from me? What am I supposed to say?" Not a worry when your mouth is sewn shut and she's telling you exactly what to do.
The longer I stayed in the dungeon, the more I could see nonverbal communication guiding the torture, too. One of the strongest connections I observed was between a pretty blond masochist and her partner, a pleasant-looking man in leather pants. In the first of their two scenes I witnessed, she lay on her back on an examining table in the medical room while he stuck blue-tipped pins into her nipples. As he twisted the pins, he grimaced in sync with her writhing and kicking her stiletto-heeled feet in pain. Later, in another part of the dungeon, he flogged her backside as she bent over a spanking bench; when he was done she folded herself into praying-to-Allah position and kissed his boots. Despite the unpleasant -- to me -- content of both scenes, the couple was compelling because they seemed completely attuned to each other.
After the whipping, he pulled her up and they kissed passionately as I crept up on them. They were remarkably polite about being interviewed, considering how eager they were to go up to their room and have sex. Shining with sweat, she started to answer a question, then broke off woozily, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm really high right now." She composed herself to explain, "It's the endorphin thing and a connection that goes beyond sex." She said she has "eroticized pain" for as long as she could remember. She finally stopped dating vanilla men because they wouldn't hit her hard enough.
Her partner, who is her live-in boyfriend, said that during their scenes, "I know what she's feeling; it's a cosmic connection," a connection that has erased the need for their "safe word." The "safe word" is part of the negotiations that cushion every BDSM interaction. Either party (though it's customarily the bottom) can utter this word -- often "yellow" means "I'm starting to worry" and "red" means "stop now" -- to end the scene. This leaves people free to moan and scream and even beg "stop" as they're being tortured without fear of ending the party before they have to.
The BDSM community is as vigilantly self-policing as e-Bay: Nobody wants to be thrown off the island of misfits for stepping over the line, so pre-play negotiation is thorough and detailed. Although I didn't witness any dotted-line signing in the dungeon, many players even draw up contracts just to make sure that it doesn't go too far.
Other couples exhibited the same "cosmic connection" as the blond and her leather-pants boyfriend. Tops would suspend their flogging or paddling to stroke and comfort just as the cries of pain shifted slightly in tone or pitch. Though it flashed through my mind that batterers also make elaborate protestations of love after they beat the shit out of their wives, I had to admit that the stop-and-start rhythms echoed those of slow, teasing sex.
The tops say that they are just sensitive lovers, giving the bottoms what they want or need. Lady Chandra insisted that it's not hostility that drives her to cut and dominate Nicolas. "As a matter of fact," she explained, "our scenes aren't as good if I'm angry. I'd rather inflict pain because I enjoy it." Another top, who was brought into the scene by his masochist girlfriend, said he had trouble at first torturing her nipples and doing the other painful things she requested. He said, "I've made peace with it by internalizing it as 'making love with pain' to her, like I'd pleasure her with my mouth or my hands."
Seeing violence perpetrated mindfully on people who want it breaks down some of my moral/political/emotional objections. BDSM is a harsh language that I don't want to learn, but I can see that dungeon denizens use it to express emotions that aren't rage. Like the eyes above Nicolas' sewn-up lips, the floggers and needles and electric paddles communicate something words and caresses cannot.