You see a lot of unusual things at Tuxedo Park, New York’s annual Renaissance Faire. Couples dressed like DC Comics characters cavort with buxom wenches, white people inexplicably wear outfits typical of Japanese rice farmers, and dominants drag their submissives around on leashes.
You didn’t notice the latter? Whether you see people walking their subs around on leashes or not, people who practice kink and BDSM are almost certainly attending the Ren Faire near you.
Having gone to my first Renaissance Faire (in Tuxedo Park) last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the ample cleavage, the obvious interest in fantasy and role-play, and the leather — so much leather. Sex had to be a part of the experience for some of the adults who attended. A hookup culture and relevant meetup groups seemed more than likely.
There were around 200 “Renaissance, Medieval, and Pirate Faires” taking place across the United States as of 2015, according to Renfaire.com’s directory, with some of the larger events, like the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, attracting close to 250,000 people annually. Of course, this means there’s a group for Ren Faire enthusiasts on Reddit.
“Best bet is to join fetlife.com and spend some time searching there,” said one Reddit user in response to my query about finding a BDSM community at the Faires. “It’s a good community, and I’ve seen meetups scheduled there.” Another user echoed this suggestion.
On FetLife.com, an online community for people into kink and BDSM, several forums pertain to the Renaissance Faire. There’s “Renaissance Faire Kinksters,” with 5,321 members; “The Texas Renaissance Festival Kinksters” (1,359 members); “Pa Renaissance Faire. Ye Olde and Kinky” (452 members); and “Wenches, Rogues and Rennies” (363 members), among others. The overlap between BDSM and Renaissance Faires is apparent, and it is born out of many people who just happen to enjoy both activities separately. Renaissance Faires are accepting, convenient places to come together with other kinksters to both play (after hours) and nerd out in costume.
Twisted_Janey (she asked that I use her FetLife handle) is a 24 year-old woman who’s been attending Faires since she was 18 while separately practicing BDSM. Her profile picture on FetLife depicts large breasts (presumably hers) covered in large, hicky-like marks. She only found out about kinkster groups going to her local Faire this year.
Twisted_Janey has visited the Pennsylvania Faire since she was 22, and this year was her first meeting with a group of kinksters who use “a couple of subtle garb additions that signal us out to others in the kink community.” These include “a leather patch in the shape of the FetLife heart” and “a combination of black, red and purple ribbons incorporated into the garb.” While Twisted_Janey doesn’t act out a period- or fantasy-based character at the Ren Faire, like many other dedicated attendees do, she does have a “variety of corsets and skirts” she mixes and matches to create costumes. A “pirate hat” turns her into a pirate, and a sword makes her a warrior.
The outfits don’t exactly “bleed into BDSM,” she said. “I do wear corsets to dungeons, as I consider them a form of restraint and being held. [The Renaissance Faire] is also the only other place I can think of where it's socially acceptable to wear a corset in public, and I do very much love the feeling of having one on.”
Others are more interested in the intersection of kink and the historical aspects of the Renaissance. Ron Murphy, a 40-year-old Pennsylvania man who appears bearded and bespectacled in his FetLife pictures, majored in history in grad school. “As an historian, Ren Faires are a fun way to visit an anachronistic past,” he messaged me on FetLife.
Murphy attended his first Ren Faire when he was in his 20s. “I was hooked!” he said. “Women in seductive dresses, offering themselves to the nearest man. Of course I knew this was all drama, but the fantasy of a beautiful woman willing to be with you was very appealing.”
As a self-identified dominant, Murphy finds his passion for history and BDSM intersect in the archetypal fantasy of “the Dungeon Master in a medieval role-playing game.” He can also “be a monk tempted by a nubile forbidden fruit.” And then, of course, there are the clothes other people wear.
“The layers to undress,” Murphy explained. “It forces you to take time with the person so it becomes a conquest rather than merely a sexual experience.”
Costumes for kinksters at the fair vary. Scott, a 62-year-old man who lives in Texas and got involved in BDSM before ever attending a Renaissance Faire, dresses up as a “Scotsman” at the faire because he has Scottish heritage. “My faire persona is unrelated to my BDSM practices,” he said.
However, Scott mentioned that kinksters at the fair “will carry whips, floggers, cuffs, and paddles . . . On occasion there will be St. Andrews crosses [an x-shaped setup with appendage-binding at every end] and pillory [better known as ‘the stocks’].”
One is more likely to find gear like that at a faire-adjacent bondage camp. Scott has visited the one by the Texarkana Renaissance Faire and speaks highly of it, though he doesn’t camp there because he has a “broader range of friends” with whom he visits the Faire.
“Activities will generally include spanking, flogging, various forms of binding, etc.,” he said. “To varying degrees there may be cutting, humiliation, possibly suspension [depending] on what equipment is there. There will almost assuredly [be] some ‘service’ activities, like a cigar lounge and boot blacking.” Campers may participate in a variety of these activities or simply act as voyeurs, a form of participation in its own right.
Joanna, a 50-year-old woman located in Houston, has been helping run the Texarkana bondage camp for eight years. (It’s been around for nine.) A self-described dom, she goes by the FetLife handle HellKittenJ, where her profile picture (as of this writing) shows a cartoon man with a tuba stuck in his ass, captioned, “‘A butt tuba’ spelled backwards is still ‘a butt tuba.’” In past profile pics, you can see that Joanna is a busty blonde with a passion for flogging and creating both small- and large-scale sculptures.
Joanna said information about the camp spreads by “word of mouth, and I have a Facebook and Fet[Life] presence.” Since campers come from all over the state, Joanna’s role also includes trying to “hook them up with kinksters from their area.” She also teaches at the camp (“whip stuff or fire flogging”) and spreads the word about events during the festival. She used to have to bring her own dungeon over in an uncovered truck, which caused some problems when it rained or there were “too many vanilla folks” around.
“I now have a group of friends who bring a dungeon from the Beaumont area, so I do not have to do that any longer,” she said. “Thank the gods! Lol.”
Though Faires welcome all kinds of nerdy subcultures, kinksters who attend make a point of respecting “vanillas.” Joanna showed me a map she drew of the bondage camp, complete with tent camping areas with the side note, “Fill in so no vanillas get close ☺.” In other words, bondage campers are encouraged to pack in as a visual buffer from the non-BDSM practicing public.
“We do not want to push our kink on vanillas,” she explained. This year, though, HellKittenJ may take a man around on a leash during the fair. “I have a bottom coming in from Atlanta, and I may have to do something like that for him.”
The emphasis on respecting others’ boundaries jibes with the overall Ren Faire environment. Deven Parker, a doctoral student in English at the University of Colorado in her twenties, has been going to Renaissance Faires since she was 11 years old. Though she’s not involved in any BDSM subculture, she definitely understands why it’s found a place at the Faire.
A self-described “big nerd,” Parker felt like she “stumbled upon this really accepting, inclusive nerd community where you could really just let your freak flag fly” after attending her first Faire. “It draws all kinds of weird nerd subcultures . . . the BDSM community usually has a strong showing there, the Goth community, steampunk . . . and even people wearing Harry Potter or Dr. Who shirts.”
Recently, Parker flew to Pennsylvania to attend the same Renaissance Faire she attended as a kid, this time for her bachelorette party. With mead flowing and entertainers like the “rakish rogues” who are essentially paid to flirt with fairgoers (especially the ones dressed up and there for a bachelorette party), Parker and her friends had a blast. In telling me about her latest Ren Faire weekend, Parker recalled a strange sight she witnessed at her very first Faire.
“I remember seeing my first time when I was 11 . . . a guy walking another guy like a dog and asking my mom, ‘What is that?’”
Her mom’s response? “Oh, that’s just the Renaissance Faire.”