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Feature Wed Aug 25 2010
This article was submitted by freelance writer Rachel Rabbit White.
Errol and I are in the car. He's been to The Sins Center before and I, well, I have never been to a BDSM club. "So tell me again about the last time you were there," I ask. He shakes his head. "So I walk in, checking out the place and I notice there are a lot of older people. I sit down and this little old lady comes up. Gray hair, you know someone's Grandma, here to pick them up. Then this guy starts tying her onto the equipment, pulling out crops and paddles. And she starts taking a beating. She's got age spots... this guy is whipping them."
We laugh, but Errol says he felt like he needed to watch to make sure that she was OK, and didn't have a heart attack.
The Sins Center is spacious and clean. Saint Andrew's crosses hang against the walls, empty sex slings sag in the corner. An older man with a beard flogs a graying submissive — a naked and bulbous woman bent into doggy style. Her purple posterior takes each of his toys: leather flogger, plastic cane, studded paddle.
The Sins Center has become something of a hangout for older people in the lifestyle. Master Z, the owner of the club, says that about half of the clientele are over 55. "We have a club manager who's 75, a club manager who is 80. As a matter of fact I don't think any of our club managers are under 50 here," says Master Z.
According to sexologist, Dr. Carol Queen, there are precautions that come with age. "Some sorts of BDSM are the erotic version of high-impact sports, a person of any age must take their health and body resilience into account" she explains "Some things to pay attention to with an older partner, is whether the skin is thinning and how their joints are doing. They'll want to make sure they can communicate about health issues to partners."
When I ask Master Z if the aging bodies makes him nervous he replies, "Hell no." In his opinion, it's the kids that get into trouble with hurting themselves, the newbies. The older people tend to know what they are doing, they are the ones who will stop a dangerous scene, and show you how to do it.
But sometimes older people are the newbies. Peaches' hair is gray, her face sloped with age. In a voice shaky and warmed by southern twang she tells me she got into BDSM seven years ago.
"Well," she sighs, " I lost my husband in 1998. After awhile, my sister was trying to match-make but I was from a small town in Louisiana where everybody knows everybody." Peaches decided to play the field online. There, she opened up to a guy about her tattoos. "I always liked pain to a certain extent," she says as she motions to the faded designs on her upper arm. "He suggested I look up BDSM."
For Peaches, it just clicked. "I was born submissive. I mean my grandchildren tell me what to do!"
Online, she met her master. Propped up next to her, Master R looks like a teddy bear. His eyes are murky and blue in coke bottle glasses. In his 80s, he is a little hard of hearing but is still playing hard.
"[Master R] does the violet wand [electrical stimulation], he does knives, canes, he does staples on me. I mean, he does it all," Peaches says, looking at him, the lines around her mouth lifting.
Photo courtesy of The Sins Center
Master R has been in the lifestyle for about 15 years. He too got into BDSM when his wife died.
"I think I've always been interested in BDSM," he says. "I remember the comics that grabbed my attention, the light bondage scenes, I kept going back, re-reading those parts." He brought it up to his wife, but she wasn't interested. "We did some light bondage but nothing really worked. And eventually she died," he stutters. " It took me some time to get over that." When Master R was ready, the Internet was there.
According to Dr. Queen, the Internet is a catalyst for older people. "I think it's easier for younger people, in general, to go out and look for partners," she says. "The Internet levels the playing field and allows older people to seek partners, making it easier to find new romance — or, for that matter, a tryst with a sex worker. It also brings the sexual world to a generation of people who may not have had as much access to explicit materials earlier in their lives, so I think for some, it sparks or gives permission for new erotic interests."
The only worry for Dr. Queen is that being introduced to sex without much education brings risk. "There is recent research suggesting that [sexually transmitted infection] rates among elders is increasing. Widow/ers and divorce(e)s are out of long-term relationships. With a new partner, a person can reinvent her- or himself sexually, pursue long-held or new interests. However, it's obvious that being 'back in the game' brings risks that these folks may not have had to address earlier in their lives. Many seniors haven't learned enough about safer sex and sexually transmitted conditions."
One thing that may benefit older people getting into the BDSM community is that often experience is valued — age can be hot. "I have a number of the younger ones ask me if they could play with me," Peaches says. "Sometimes you get respect because you're older and sometimes you get respect because you deserve it."
While many older BDSM'ers might know how to play, it can't be denied that as the body ages, play must be altered. Sometimes instead of safe-words, couples losing their hearing will use hand-signals. Doms also become more understanding, careful not to break a scene when a sub can't get into position.
"There is indication that heart attack risk increases with new partners, so if someone has heart issues that might dictate no electricity play or play that might result in very strong emotions and adrenaline rushes. This last caution would be especially true of someone just getting into BDSM," warns Dr. Queen.
"My knees burn sometimes, like when I go up two flights of stairs," Peaches says. She also just found out she has diabetes, which she is learning to play around. Peaches and Master R agree that with age, a lowered sex drive can be a limitation, but that playing is what keeps their sex drive healthy.
When I ask why people are so grossed out by older people being sexual, Master R quips, "No one wants to think that their parents have sex!" Peaches points out that even her conservative older sister and her husband, who sleep in separate beds, are still having sex.
"I've heard from more than one woman that as menopause changes their sexual response and how it feels to have intercourse, non-vaginal forms of pleasure gain new prominence," says Dr. Queen. "One of my post-menopausal friends discovered she really loved anal sex even after she was no longer particularly into vaginal 'vanilla.'"
According to a study by the University of Chicago, more than three-quarters of American men and half of women aged 75 to 85 are still interested in sex. But culturally, we don't see this.
Dr. Queen has two theories. "There had been an underlying bias in our culture that sex really is, at bottom, for reproduction. That's one of the things that continues to power homophobia too. After one is out of one's reproductive years, the notion of sex becomes unseemly and even unacceptable to many. The other thing, I think, is that there is societal pressure on us to fear aging, and seeing evidence of older people's sexuality brings up our difficult feelings about getting older, our own body image fears, fears of mortality."
Both Peaches and Master R have tried coming out to their adult kids. Peaches' kids didn't want to hear about it, shutting her up with a quick, "Mom, if you are happy, we are happy." Master R opened up to one of his children, who did not approve. "I know if one of them knows, then they all know, but no one mentions it," he says.
As our collective lifespans continue to increase, that stretch between 65 and 80 is no longer the last phase of life. "I love Sir and I love being out there in my sexuality. And that's it. My children have got their own lives now," explains Peaches. It's a new section of life that we've never had before, and it doesn't need to be spent solely with grand-kids or in retirement and inactivity. Some are realizing this, giving themselves the freedom to get what they want.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.