The following article contains the subjects of BDSM, SM and Fetish culture and has content that may not be suitable for anyone under the age of 18. Further, this article expresses the opinions of the author as he works his way through personal feelings within the public and private spheres of BDSM. Concerns, clarifications or corrections should be addressed to email@example.com.
I was 12 or 13 when I saw the advertisement in a copy of Animerica for Cool Devices. Maybe it was the leather outfits and the colorfully-haired heroines that enticed me to google a feeling that led me to the bizarre Bondage Fairies , G-Taste and fetish model Bianca Beauchamp. Or maybe it was when I saw a comic store advertisement in the back of an old Overstreet guide, another scantily-clad and collared anime damsel in distress. And what about Saddle I, Paris by Helmut Newton that appeared in a Life magazine I saw around the same time?
It might have been the fuel behind my love of punk rock, even, with the latex and studs of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren. I felt a certain rebellion in my feelings, and started to wonder if it was alright—but quickly hid them as parents called for dinner or when I courted women in high school, college, and graduate school. These were the feelings that lingered though internet searches while I mentally beat myself up for what I could only understand as abnormal.
A man named Jarvis Cocker once sang that “it must be great to be straight”—a line I repeat in my mental damnation of normative sexual practices and gender performances. I have, for the past 13 years of my life, tried to explain away my penchant for fetish culture. I tried to find solace in prayers and partners that my feelings are fleeting, the desperate fantasy of a teenage virgin hopped up on broadband internet. I have read dictionaries of sexual terminology, blog posts, joined associated social community websites and poured over academic works in a multitude of disciplines to try and explain my feelings and personal desires. And yet…
Every time I found something new I found myself further confused. Like a hockey goalie during a line brawl I found myself unsure of my position—to join in the fun at center ice or wait patiently in the crease for the refs to bring back normalcy. As of this writing it is safe to say I finally chucked my blocker, stick and threw my mask to the ice in a step towards Hextall-levels of debauchery.
I recently attended the New England Leather Alliance’s Fetish Fair Fleamarket in Warwick, RI. I was asked by someone years ago after she let me explore my feelings if I would like to join her. I clammed up over economic and geographic distance, stupidly. So, after years of making excuses and pacing in apartments when I should be in bed next to a partner, I am going to something that could ultimately bring me great joy…
…or be my social undoing.
And I’m writing about it.
On the Internet.
My intent in going to the 2014 Fetish Fair Fleamarket is simple: to separate the fantasy from reality in an effort to meet my feelings head on. I am not sure if I will find any sort of camaraderie or even a community, but I want to at least better understand what my boundaries are with my own body and the cultural texts that led me to this place.
According to their website, The New England Leather Alliance (NELA) was formed in the early 1990s after a number of police raids on private dungeons in the greater Boston area. NELA’s mission is to promote what is often referred to as “safe, sane and consensual” information on fetish/BDSM/SM lifestyles and subcultures as active participants. According to their website NELA gives to charitable organizations including GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom while partnering with groups such as The Network la Red who work to raise awareness about partner abuse in the LGBTQ community. NELA also provides and extensive explanation of key cultural terms and information on safer sex and SM interactions both online and in print that works to inform both new and old members of the community. It is important to explain the lengths NELA takes to inform those who visit their site—those within the culture and interested outside parties—in and effort to educate and inform people about the range of sexual preferences that are a part of our modern society.
The New England Leather Alliance’s Website is a great tool for those interested and curious about BDSM/SM/Fetish culture. There are detailed instructional booklets and information on how to conduct sexual fantasies in safe and consenting environments (website)
The NELA website is a great resource in working to navigate the often treacherous world of fetish culture and encourages safe interactions with interested individuals. The website keeps things within the realm of the real with informational sessions throughout the year, which includes the Fetish Fair Fleamarket I am attending. The Winter Fetish Fair Fleamarket is held yearly and brings together members of the community from throughout New England for informational sessions and perusal of vendors. Like a comic con,Magic the Gathering Grand Prix, or any of the numerous gaming expos, the Fetish Fair Fleamarket is a mixture of vendors and informational panels. The only difference from, say, PAX East is that the NELA’s Fetish Fair Fleamarket talks about sexuality openly—on top of that it is a way of showing people that they are not alone.
“The Flea” has multiple purposes: 1.) it is a way to promote NELA and act as a fundraiser for other events that they hold throughout the year and 2.) as a way to bring together disparate parts of the community into conversation with each other and 3.) it can bring in newcomers who are unsure where to start safely and openly talking about kink (like myself). The Fetish Fair Fleamarket has been around nearly as long as the NELA and has worked to bring people together for seminars and shopping from local vendors for kink and fetish needs. This year’s flea market brought in 2800 attendees total, according to a press release from NELA.
Participants can peruse the work of artisans and their well-crafted leathers, metal work, whips, canes and floggers alongside name-brand companies and regional boutiques like Hubba Hubba of Cambridge, MA. Grassroots and name brand dealers from around New England huddle into two large ballrooms and individual rooms on the ground level to sell anything from erotic books of yesteryear (like those found at formysir.com) or the “claw paw” made by Totemx Creations. I myself bought a leather cuff from Rubio Leather that I really enjoy while friends I ran into from college (!!!!) bought canes from a local vendor to go along with a class they would be taking later that weekend.
Alongside shopping, different meetups and class sessions are available for guests to take in and learn more about particular practices. From a class on different ties associated with rope bondage, to a group meet and greet of pet play enthusiasts, and all the way to asexuality and kink there is a wide gamut of experiences and informational opportunities available. If learning about new types of spanking or how to use a violet wand is out of your wheelhouse or too in-depth as a newcomer, NELA provides speakers who talk on the importance of communication, safer sex and negotiations. As fun as a class on polyamory may be, it is also important to know how to effectively explain hard boundaries with partners and be aware of the dangers of any type of power relationship—be it in SM or any “vanilla” relationship.
Consent is one of the main building blocks for those involved in the BDSM scene. Though popular culture texts would tell us otherwise, those who are being dominated or submitting to someone’s will are not doing so without first negotiating boundaries and what can or cannot happen. I had a friend once tell me that they always have a set of scissors next to them when they are performing a rope session with a partner in case the tied person, at any moment during their play, becomes uncomfortable or feels endangered in anyway. To paraphrase what she said: they can get more rope–and that no rope is more important than a person. It is a powerful statement to the need for negotiation and expectations from others. Percival Du Chat Gris, the Director of Programming & Education and a member of the Board of Directors for NELA, explained that, “without consent it’s two legs of a three-legged stool. Without that leg of consent you fall flat on your face.” As much as BDSM is about power exchange, it is also about negotiations and consenting to what is going to happen in a given situation.
No one is giving up power, that is to say that both dominant and submissive/master and slave/ top and bottom/pet and owner all have power to say yes or no if they are uncomfortable or unwilling to do something. We are often told the lie of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Secretary, The Pet, Electric Feast favorite Pulp Fiction or countless other popular culture texts that those in the submissive role of a SM relationship are powerless and submit because they solely find pleasure in pain, confinement and humiliation. There is a spectrum of feelings involved in the fetish community, and some can involve giving up control, but that does not mean you give up your ability to say no. It is about living out fantasies within a safe and realistic space, one that can be left as soon as one needs to, willingly and freely.
NELA’s Fetish Fair Fleamarket is a perfect beginner’s convention for kink because it allows people to come together from multiple different areas of interaction to create a dialogue about what is important in the overarching BDSM culture of New England. There is an all-encompassing vibe at “The Flea” as different groups interact and share commonalities. “This is not a high school dance—you don’t have to worry about being left out,” said David, NELA Board of Directors member and the NELA Outreach & VASE Education Coordinator. Newcomers may have anxieties about coming into a community—will they find people who are like them? Is it safe? Are they welcoming to outsiders? NELA uses this event to participate in informing people about the community at large, the resources available, and that there are many others that have similar if not the same feelings that you, as an individual, might be wrestling with at any given moment.
First example: To say I like punk rock would be an understatement. If my semi-regular reviews of music tell you anything it’s that I need to branch out from behind the shadow of Joe Strummer and Laura Jane Grace. None the less, punk rock is built on an aesthetic more than musical style at times that it is almost laughable. For me, I find a lot of joys in bands that range from The Clash to The Flatliners, but the early punk aesthetic helped me to understand myself better than any song by Bad Religion or The Clash. Say what you will about Malcom McLaren because you are probably right in your own pretty vacant way, but the man knows how to make a statement with aesthetic. S/M outfits, fetish wear and latex became high fashion because of him and Vivienne Westwood. Outfits that were long gone by the time I went “Straight to Hell” with The Clash but an aesthetic that caught me like a rose thorn on a church wall. Suburban as the paneling on my parents’ home, I never had the gumption to rebel in such a shockingly outward way, yet I knew I liked what I saw. Combine that with early internet searches that let me to fetish models and burlesque dancers (plus a massive dose of Catholic guilt) and you have a bound identity that no amount of rope or chains can create.
Second example: for many years I was the only person in my suburban Arizona middle school who read comic books. It was not until I moved to upstate New York that I found anyone that enjoyed/consumed them in the same frantic way I was used to. The same could be said for fetish culture and BDSM in college. Leave it to a small liberal arts college in rural New Hampshire to breed creative and openly sexual minds. I remember clearly walking into the school radio station to visit a friend during her jazz show to see a leather collar around her neck among her otherwise high-fashion ensemble. I was set back, heart beating like a high hat at someone else, who seemingly, had the same interest as I was hiding. Stupidly, again, I repressed my knee jerk reaction of asking her about it, saying something to the effect of “Are you into goth culture, punk? X, Y, Z? BDSM?”—instead shuffling awkwardly to my office to look at the new releases with a mumbled “oh hey erm…gotta go.”
Fetlife is a social media platform used by people interested in fetish culture to meet and communicate with others globally (website)
Two years later when I would have her in my dorm room with a bag of gear and her dressed to the nines in an outfit that can be only described as Catwoman at a cocktail party, I would have an even worse clammed up response that would end in awkward sexual advances and good, solid political pillow talk. And more repressed feelings. I never got to see what was in the bag, out of fear—stupid human fear—that I might like what I saw and, following the white rabbit down the hole, what I would feel.
I was worried about what others might think if they ever heard that I was into BDSM. What would they think if they knew about my sexual preferences? What would future employers think! Then again, why should they know? It’s not their business in the first place. I suppose what I felt was a societal urge to conform rather than standout—that if I thought differently and wanted non-normative desires, then the sex gestapo would come around to arrest me and rewire my brain for missionary position-only sex. It killed me inside to have these feelings that even when a woman, a friend who understood my feelings, walked into my room I cringed and locked my feelings far far away. How do you rewire anxiety? How do you throw away decades of cultural ideology to face what you fear? I needed a hard reboot to my brain, but I didn’t know where the button was.
It is important to think about the ways popular culture shapes what is considered a normal sexual experience. From television shows like Alias and Weeds to memoirs like Candy Girl and Whip Smart there is a correlation between sexual deviations, promiscuity and wickedness. Particularly in recent popular literature, both Diablo Cody and Melissa Febos’s works are egregious in their painting of sexuality and reliance on the godsend that is heteronormativity. Candy Girlhas Cody moonlighting as a stripper and later sex worker in a peep show while coming home to a partner every day. Her story, while meaningful in bringing world of sex workers and unnatural balance of power given to those who employ them to light, comes off as slumming in sexual perversion by the middle class. A perversion that can be removed at any given time.
In a similar way, Febos in Whip Smart chronicles her time as a dominatrix in New York City while attending college and graduate school. Her time as a sex worker, like Cody, highlights the negative stereotypes of the dominatrix and uneven power balance between customers and their domes. Yet, Whip Smart also presents the author’s entrance into sex work alongside her heroin addiction—an addiction that when broken also leads to her ultimate divorce from her job as a dominatrix and, later, movement into a heterosexual relationship.
Though both of these books do great justice to explain the problems and stigmas with sex work in the United States (and the bullshit women have to deal with from the multitudes of male customers) they also connect sex work to other socially deviant experiences (drug use, abuse of alcohol, greed, etc). This is paramount to remember as we see the differences between fantasy and reality. Any empowerment that is meant to be represented in these books by sex workers is actually driven towards a moral that leads back to the normative.
Not all people who perform or live a lifestyle that incorporates BDSM are connected to sex workers, of course, but Febos’s writing on her customers in particular paints a picture of deviancy and the bizarre rather than working to normalize any particular point of fetish culture. At times she revels in the free and open sexual experiences afforded to her, but at all times these events are connected to the altered realities of substances she imbibes. Her memoir, and Cody’s experiences as a stripper, does little to normalize desires and does more to push them underground and out of view. Further, they make participants wrong in new ways.
It can be daunting to read when one has feelings that are “bizarre.” It can make you feel even worse about how you are feeling on the inside. How do you normalize kink, how do you engage in relationships and your sexual desires if popular culture asks you to always be dominant, always to be in control or be labeled deviant? I am not sure, yet at least, and I am still trying to figure out where one can breakout of these stereotypes through communication with partners and those who might be otherwise interested in me but unaware of what things I like to do in our most private spaces.
Though, as a pin I saw this weekend proclaimed, “It’s only kinky the first time.”
Dan Savage has written that everyone is kinky. That what you do in bed with your partner(s) is going to be considered kinky compared to the next person, and what they do will be consider kinky to another person—and so on. I have been fearful of expressing what I want in my own relationships for the past decade. I was, or have, worried about the cultural, social and workplace ramification of my sexuality and wanton desires for partners who are interested in kink and fetish culture. Of course like De La Soul would say, the only person that all of this should matter to is “Me, Myself and I.” It is/was never that easy, for me, at least.
In recent years I have come closer to grips with who I am. At the end of the day it is the realization that you aren’t getting any younger and you have to get on living the kind of life you want to live. If that involves kinky sexy times, so be it. The first step is realizing that you aren’t the only one out there with those feelings, that others have the same feelings as well. NELA’s Fetish Fair Fleamarket opened that up to me, and I am sure I wasn’t the only person on a soul searching mission this weekend. Maybe just the only one willing to write something about it.
It was as if a weight was lifted when I walked around to different vendors and saw fetishists flaunt their different interests in a public forum, surrounded by other community members that respect their boundaries and their needs. Watching the petplay “meet and greet” on the final day of the Fleamarket I didn’t feel fear or danger, I felt joy in viewing others be who they are, jumping around in play amongst others who has similar feelings. Fuzzy ears and tails that would never seem out of place in a furcon or a comic convention adorn by participants as they interact with other pets and their handlers/partners. Pouncing on each other, playing fetch and wagging their tails might be seen as an obscure fetish, obscure as a sexual act, but this is only one instance where people find freedom in performance. Bliss found in a fraternity of fetish, a sorority of sensuality.
Sean X. Ahern (VulgarGenius) is a graduate of the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Claiming Kenilworth, New Jersey as his hometown, he has moved across the United States for most of his life, attempting to return to The Garden State. Likes: Hockey, Football, Devils, Giants, Chargers, Yankees, Superhero Comics, The Bouncing Souls. Dislikes: Basketball, Cowboys, Kings, Flyers, Rangers, Raiders, Temco Bowl Ronnie Lott, and the artistic works of Rob Liefeld. These are his musings.