This isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s no rich, cold-hearted Romeo with a high tech modern apartment with a hidden room of toys. There’s no naïve ingénue. There are no beautiful bodies.
At 38, a perpetual single girl on the dating scene, I’d seen a lot. Or so I thought. Then I met Michael, and realized I hadn’t seen a thing. When he offered to take me to a party at his dungeon so I could see what was out there, I couldn’t say no.
The invite was spontaneous. He called on a Sunday morning; there was a get-together that afternoon. Did I want to come with him?
Michael was a quiet guy, serious. Former military, returned to duty on a couple of engineering contracts. He’d seen stuff that hurt in a place he didn’t talk about, but he felt it. He was working for a military contractor nearby, raising his girls part-time. We met online; he expressed a genuine interest in getting to know me. For our first date, he took me to a comedy club. It’s a little thing that took a lot more planning than your average let’s-meet-for-drinks approach.
I knew that Michael was into shibari from his dating profile. I didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up. Shibari (that link is NSFW) is the Japanese art of rope tying. It’s a bondage technique emphasizing the beauty and skill of using patterns and placement of knots and rope, and positioning of the body to rig the model into a euphoric state. In photos, you can clearly see the intersection of ‘erotic’ and ‘art.’ I was endlessly curious.
We met in the warehouse district not far from where America’s Team did their Sunday best. Michael gave me a hug and pulled me to the side of the entrance. “Let’s talk for a minute before we go in.”
Someone who truly enjoys sex play will love to share it with you. They want to teach you the things they enjoy about it, and invite you to explore what you may also enjoy. Michael took seriously his responsibility to introduce me to this dungeon in bite-sized pieces. “It’s okay to look when we go in,” he told me. “It’s going to be impossible not to. I will introduce you to people I know, but they will leave you alone.
“No one,” he tipped my face up to look directly into my eyes before repeating himself, “no one will ask you to do anything. If you want to participate, you can let me know, but no one will ask you.
“Now…how shall I introduce you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What name do you want to use?”
This caught me off-guard. I don’t live my life doing things I’m worried someone will uncover later. I’ve also never been good at fantasy games or Halloween; coming up with a creative alter-ego feels like a lot of pressure. “I’ll stick with my own.”
“What if we run into someone you know?”
“If we run into someone I know, a fake name isn’t going to fool them,” I said, thinking, Man, if we run into someone I know, I’m going to be so much more pleased with the people I know in this town.
“True. But it may make you more comfortable. Hey, if we do run into someone you know, you greet them as if you don’t know them. Accept whatever name they give you. And obviously, protect their anonymity in whatever other context you know them.”
We were waived through reception into a lounge that looked like the TV room in my college dorm, with wooden folding tables of food and non-alcoholic drinks. People relaxed across the furniture: a guy in a jester hat and some sweat pants, with no shirt and a droopy eye; a young lesbian couple in leather vests, one with the nipples cut out, and leggings; a woman about whom I remember nothing except that she was shorter than I, and topless, and it hurt my boobs to see hers drooping down over her stomach like that.
Michael introduced them one by one. “Jester,” “Dragon,” and “Joker” were obviously fake names. As was Angelica. I know this is because you know that really quiet woman at work? The one who works in audit – or accounting? You can’t remember because she is so self-contained that if you tried, you couldn’t get her to tell you even one thing, unless she was correcting you in a work-related context? She’s mousy but not small, a stereotype of her trade without the bun and glasses. You know who I’m talking about. Her name at work isn’t Angelica, but when she takes down her hair and puts on a leather bustier, it is.
And then, we went in.
We went into a large room, cavernous, like a gymnasium, but dark. A cage hung from the ceiling. The room had dark walls, dark carpet, dark cement floor, but it was lit. You could see. On the right was a tiny classroom – chalkboard, desks, alphabet-border and all – for those who like to play Hot-for-Teacher. To the left, a leather pommel horse without the handles, a woman lying on it while her partner traced knives along her face, neck and chest: edgeplay. Ahead a bit, another woman was practicing shibari by herself, rigging her body into complex positions by climbing up and looping herself through a series of knots of her own creation. Michael frowned at this: when you are fully in control, where is the titillation, the art?
Michael took my hand. We looped around a group of elderly people, two women and a man, dressed in variations of black leather, the man with a ball gag in his mouth and the women equipped with whips, which they used on him as he remained tied to the wall. They were someone’s grandparents; I pictured them meeting at church, and wondered how they leapt from that environment, to this. I’m sure this isn’t what they talked about at their cookie exchange. Yet the more I saw, the less sure I became of anything.
A once-velvet banquette lined the side wall, and we took a seat. It crunched like dirty hotel carpet. Near us, a man knelt on the ground. He had been crying, and looked gutted. I looked longer than was comfortable, yet he didn’t move. Michael told me he was a slave, who had “had a rough day. I feel for that guy.” Slowly, slowly he began to rise and collect the clothing from a pile behind him.
“Should we see if he’s okay?” I whispered.
“He isn’t allowed to talk to us. It would get him in trouble.” Moments later, he began to dress; another man came over, pulled the slave to his feet, and held him. In the background, I saw a naked woman on a saddle being tapped with a leather riding crop. I believe things were being inserted into her from behind, but by that time, I was taking in far more information than I could process. And maybe there was some I didn’t want to acknowledge. To the side of us, a couple roughhoused.
Going to a dungeon when you are curious about sex play is like drinking from a fire hose because you are a tad thirsty. An infinitesimal amount of what you are exposed to will actually make it into your system. The rest will be spraying all over, running down the sides of your face and leaving you sopping and uncomfortable in your clothes.
The sheer volume of unabashed nudity was overwhelming, and I’m a person who wanders my apartment naked on a regular basis. It wasn’t Victoria’s Secret catwalk nudity. It was flawed nakedness: flesh-hanging, disproportionately-sized, actively-aged, unclothed physical presence. It was natural, but not pretty. It wasn’t easy. But to those participating, it was comfortable.
I wasn’t participating, and I wasn’t comfortable. It turns out, I’m not a voyeur. The watching was fascinating in a National Geographic, sociology-experiment way, but I didn’t find it exciting. I was absorbing the brokenness of humanity, splayed out before me. I felt like I needed a shower, or a confessional, despite not being religious. Actually, there probably was a confessional somewhere in that room.
Yet there was something splendid about it. No one cared. Everyone was safe. People were free to ask for and receive things that in most other environments were verboten. I may not want to have someone gag and whip me, or push a knife against my throat, but I like to know there is a community where I can ask without judgement, receive with impunity.
Michael (and the dungeon) weren’t for me. Clearly, because he’s now married to a dominatrix, and I’m still out here looking for Mr. Right (Now) with a little less leather, and a lot more support for my boobs.