"You guys look under 45," the guy says with a smile.
After trying to decide if I should say thank you or glare, I realize that the comment is meant to be neither complimentary nor insulting. When you're at one of Strictly Spanking New York's bimonthly parties, something like this is merely observational.
My friends and I are, indeed, under 45 -- and the same can't be said for many of the other people milling about the room. There are a few younger people: I spy a 20-something girl mulling her options by the raffle table and another one who could be even younger munching on Swedish fish next to a table piled high with snacks.
Mostly what I see is people getting spanked. A lot. Those who aren't lying someone across their lap or lying over someone's lap behind one of the red curtains are socializing in the main room, chatting the way they would at any other mixer. But this isn't any old mixer, as evidenced by the name tags, which reveal information far more relevant than just names: red tags are for bottoms, blue tags are for tops, and yellow tags are for those who switch between the two.
The man who determined we're under 45 is a top and is also probably the most handsome man in the room -- though, it should be noted, this is not a group that's going to be confused with the one lining up for fashion week at Bryant Park. There doesn't appear to be a sign of plastic surgery or a gym-sculpted body in sight -- just the sort of normal-looking folks you might see at the DMV or an airport. "In a world where everyone is obsessed with being skinny," someone tells me later, "this is one place where people want big butts over cute little ones."
It seems, in fact, that there's only one thing to be ashamed of in this environment, and that's being someone without a kink -- a vanilla. And it takes our group's comparatively handsome would-be spanker about 20 seconds to diagnose us, correctly, with this malady. "I'm not entirely a vanilla," I start to object. Then I realize I don't know if "vanilla" in this context is a noun or an adjective (is it "I'm not a vanilla" or "I'm not vanilla"?), which causes me to abandon my pathetic attempt to fit in. "Yes," I finally say, glancing at the bottles of hand sanitizer in between all the Swedish fish and sandwiches on the refreshment table. The scent of cold cuts wafts under my nose as I add, "I am vanilla. A vanilla."
The reason I'm standing on the third floor of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center in the West Village defending my kink-free life is that Jessica, a playwright I know, has brought me here after swearing that this was a community worth writing about. She met Jules, the vivacious brunette who runs SSNY, in a writing class. "I asked her to direct one of my plays and she did an amazing job," Jessica had told me. "It was about a boss and secretary and she really pulled out the power dynamic."
Let's just say that Jessica knew how to pick directors, since 36-year-old Jules is something of an expert on power play: Not only has she been throwing these over the knee (OTK) spanking parties for the past three years but she's also been in a daddy-daughter relationship for the past two. The woman is an impresario of the spanking world; she carefully screens every party guest (women are approved through e-mail while men must pass muster over the phone), arranges annual spanking events in Atlantic City that draw people from as far away as California and even Europe, and is in the process of expanding her current website with message boards, chat rooms, videos and lists of all the spanking parties going on around the world.
I soon find myself in a conversation with Gary, a 47-year-old switch who's an actor and sometime caterer. He, like most everyone else here, is uncharacteristically friendly and seems all too happy to talk to me about his passion for spanking. "I don't enjoy it the way I enjoy ice cream," he explains. "I think of it like I'm scratching an itch. It's necessary more than fun." He, like the others, tells me that you're either into spanking or you're not, and if you are, you know that you are from a very young age. "I knew," he says, "at 7."
Back then, the idea of "liking to be spanked" would have sounded nuts. Until the '90s, there wasn't even much of a scene at all. (There are several different forms of spanking, including disciplinary, role play, playful, sensual and sexual/erotic; at SSNY parties, participants are encouraged to stay away from sexual and erotic play.) Although a bondage community began flourishing in the '80s, spanking isn't really bondage; though, as one spanko told me, "it could be considered sort of like a gateway drug to it." But those gathered at the SSNY party are, for the most part, like Gary: They aren't so much getting off on having their asses slapped as they are fulfilling a need. And the need isn't, some say, sexual. "If spanking is sexual, it ruins my head space," Jules tells me a few days after the party. "It's like if a woman who had a rape fantasy suddenly had a guy going, 'Are you OK?' in the middle of it. Sex ruins the fantasy, and if it's not 100 percent not sexual, it feels like incest." (At the same time, Jules admits that she fantasizes about being spanked when she masturbates and that she's gotten wet while being spanked.) Still, people do not, for the most part, have sex at the parties, nor do they tend to pair off and have sex afterward. The spanking is the entrée, not the appetizer.
Time and time again, the spankos I interview tell me they were fascinated with spanking from a young age and thought they were alone with this obsession. They cite movies and TV shows with spanking scenes that captivated them as children (a 1963 John Wayne movie called "McLintock!," Elvis' "Blue Hawaii," "Bonanza" and "The Little Rascals" seem to have been quite popular) and mention how they would look up the word "spanking" in the dictionary just to get the temporary thrill that would come from simply seeing the definition written out.
They didn't have anywhere to go until the '80s, when clubs like Hellfire, the Vault and Paddles opened in New York (of those, Paddles is the only one still standing). While the spanking network Shadow Lane launched in California in 1986, a woman named Margaret Davis (sometimes known as Ms. Margaret) says she put spanking on the East Coast map in 1994 when she went to a Eulenspiegel Society party and gave a talk. (Eulenspiegel is a BDSM group founded in the '70s that is named for a character from German folklore who enjoys discomfort.) "I introduced the idea of spanking as a parental thing -- this notion that I'm only spanking you because I love and care about you," Margaret, who now runs the Spanking Club of New York (SCONY), recalls. "When I spoke, half the room went nuts and the other half lost interest."
The half that went nuts grew into an actual community as the Internet flourished throughout the '90s, and Margaret, who declines to give her age but admits to having a grown son, began throwing parties with her husband. (While he's also into spanking, Margaret is open about the fact that this is her second marriage and that her first broke up in large part because her ex didn't share her kink.)
For all that both SSNY and SCONY throw parties at New York's Lesbian Gay Center, the spanking scene is, for the most part, straight. Even the people I hear stories about who walk the line -- like a top executive who arrives at and leaves Paddles in a fine suit but in between wears French maid and schoolgirl outfits while he's spanked by a variety of men -- live straight lives. "His wife," says the person who tells me about the guy, "knows nothing about it."
So what makes some people want to show up on a Saturday night and have their butt whacked? It's a question that doesn't seem to have easy answers. Logic would dictate that the need is Freudian: that spankos were spanked as children and eroticized that abuse. But while many of the people I spoke to for this piece were spanked when they were little, just as many were not.
Yet according to Lori Buckley, a certified sex therapist with a practice in Pasadena, Calif., people don't have to remember an experience for it to have an impact on them. "When there are certain things that really do it for us," she says, "there's often some kind of a cue we got that we may not even be conscious of." The cue doesn't have to be as direct as I-was-spanked-so-I-want-to-be-spanked-now; while Jules was spanked once or twice as a kid, she has a far more visceral memory of telling her dad to "shut up" when she was 6 or 7.
At a certain point, spankos seem to stop asking themselves why and start asking themselves when and where. They can cite celebrities who have mentioned being into spanking in interviews, recent television shows that have had spanking scenes (such as "Californication" and "Weeds"), and statistics. (Some of the spankos claim they've read that 20 percent of people are into this; others say 40 percent. Debby Herbenick, a research scientist and sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, says that there's really no study that's ever been done that would give a solid figure on how common spanking is.) But at the same time, the numbers matter a lot less than the fact that they're in this together.
"I think we all felt like we were crazy so when we find other people who share this, we celebrate," says Margaret. Jules concurs. When she was 30 and her best friend took her to Paddles, she was spanked in a dog cage with a water bowl under her chin. After that, spanking "became my boyfriend." Her real boyfriend -- the guy she'd been dating for six years up until then -- fell by the wayside. Since then, she hasn't dated anyone seriously.
But Jules is far from lonely. Two years ago, she was spanked by a then 53-year-old man named Mike Tanner, and their connection was so strong that she e-mailed him afterward and asked if he'd be interested in doing it again. He was, and now Jules spends about five nights a week at his house in Pennsylvania. To hear her tell it, the fact that Mike has a wife and kids only makes the experience all the better. His wife, Miranda Marx, is also part of the spanking community (she was manning the raffle table at the party) and Miranda jokes about having given birth to Jules. (Miranda also has a "daddy" in her life who, Jules says, is part of their "scene family.") Mike and Miranda have several children who are around the house a lot; according to Jules, they don't really ask any questions. "I think they may suspect something, but all they know for sure is that I'm a friend who's writing a script with their dad," she says.
But Jules, like many in the community, seems slightly conflicted about sharing the secrets of the spanking scene with the world at large. Many are proud of their spanking-related accomplishments -- a video Gary made, he tells me, won the Adult Video Network award for "best specialty spanking video," and Margaret reveals that she's spanked "airline pilots, people from the military and I don't know how many men from the Pentagon" -- but they still try to keep this part of their lives private.
For Jules, the quandary seems to be how to let people know about the vibrant community she's a part of without having to come out. In a vanilla world, her relationship with Mike and Miranda, who both now help her run SSNY, is a secret. (Jules isn't her real name.) Many other people in the scene are in this situation, either keeping their spanking fetish from their partner and sneaking around to parties or simply leaving their relationship rather than coming clean about what really gets them going. Some occasionally bring understanding vanilla partners along, but couples like Mike and Miranda are rare.
And alas, most spankos have trouble dating vanilla people. As Gary, who has an affinity for ice cream metaphors, puts it when talking about how he broke up with a girl who wasn't kinky, "I really like vanilla ice cream, but I like it as part of a banana split; without the nuts and the chocolate sauce and the whipped cream and the banana, I'm bored." According to Jules, "This is either in you or it's not and I can't teach it." But while she admits that she wants to meet someone to spend her life with and eventually have a child, she loves what she has with Mike and Miranda. "The beauty and the downside is that I could go on like this forever," she admits, sounding more concerned than blissful. "I'm totally fulfilled."