I'm watching a Dom session, being taken through a procedure of inflicting pain, then rewarding, withholding then giving. It's an art, being plied by a professional dominatrix, Mistress Marilyn. The metal folding chair I'm sitting on becomes cold and harsh. There are nearly twenty other identical folding chairs in the small back room of a now-defunct gallery that specialized in "fetish art." A video projector at the back of the room splashes images of the session against a not-quite-white wall. Artwork has been taken down to make room for the projected image of this scene, but the scene is blemished by the picture hangers still mounted on the wall. The gallery is having an opening of its newest exhibit. As part of the opening, it is debuting this -- art film? Documentary?
If one can call this a documentary, it is not completely shot in pristine cinema verité. The participants are actors. There is a plot line: A dominatrix exercises her craft on a man, plying tender parts of his body with such things as a tooth brush or her nails, then rewarding with caresses. As this goes on, his girlfriend watches.
I felt as if I have slipped into the surreal world of melting clocks oozing over the edge of my psyche. I know the dominatrix. She is co-owner of the gallery and several months earlier, the gallery had exhibited some of my excruciatingly tame nude photos. The story of the film arcs into the final plot point. The "girlfriend" climbs onto the table on which her boyfriend, the victim, is strapped and begins to have sex with him.
I slide off the brink of the surreal into the world of the sublimely bizarre. The woman whose shoulder is pressed against mine in the sardine-packed room is the same women writhing in ecstasy on the less than pristine wall. I am torn between not looking at her for the sake of not succumbing to morbid curiosity and observing her reaction as a journalist/writer. I look. Her eyes sparkle at her own image. Her face is placidly smug, betraying a Mona Lisa smile.
I have been pulled deeper into a world I only knew of through quick lurid peeks at magazines at Quimby's, the local alternative bookstore. I am not a participant, strictly an observer who has been allowed beyond the first curtain to the world of "Fetish". I would find that observation is a big part of the Fetish scene, just as I would find that "bondage" is only a small part of the whole scene called Fetish. I find it hard to believe that after taking this half step, I am still also in Chicago, the Third Coast, the biggest city in the still provincial Midwest. That was two years ago.
Flash forward to the present. I'm still asking myself, what is Fetish? I go to my Webster's Unabridged and find that there is no entry with a capital F, so I stick with the lower case f. 1) An object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or a having magical potency. This would be something like a dream catcher or a rabbit's foot. I read further. 2) Any object, idea, etc., eliciting unquestioning reverence respect or devotion. This connects more with what I have seen, at least at an abstract conceptual level. 3) Any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response. Without the exclusion of the genitals, this takes me much closer to understanding to what I saw. Still, it begs the question, what is Fetish with a capital F? What is Fetish as a sub-culture?
Piqued by inadequate understanding I find myself at Bondage A-Go-Go; a weekly event on Thursday nights at The Exit. The fingers of my left hand are hooked in one diamond of a chain link fence. The fingers of my right hand are wrapped around a glass of club soda. I work to remain the passive observer. Staying an observer isn't hard. Remaining passive is the challenge:
"You want to go up?"
Hell no, I'm thinking. I'm not even in the game. I'm just watching. I look over to the guy they are just taking down. He's been shackled to another section of chain link fence for the last 10 minutes while three women take turns dripping hot wax over his shoulders and down his back. The question of my wish to participate was put to me by one of those three women. "Not in the least." In the next sentence, I make it clear that I am not a player, not in the game. "I'm a writer. I'd like to talk to you." Her eyes demur. She doesn't leave and I get the nod. So I ask her what she gets out of doing what I just witnessed.
"The money is good."
There it is. In this society, money is code for empowerment. There are lots of way to make money, but this way has got to be empowering beyond the fiscal gain.
A week later in another conversation, distanced by the safety of e-mail, one of the other three women, Miss Maya Sinstress, is a bit more forthcoming in her answer: "I have always been a naturally domineering woman, a bitch and a sadist. I made the decision a few years ago to become professional because it is so natural for me."
Fig1. A member of a Fetish ensemble performs
at the Fetish Ball at Double Door in 2002.
I'm again wondering what is Fetish, with a capital F. In the weeks previous to attending Bondage A-Go-Go, I had been to Nocturna and Whiplash and I would have claimed that it really was an anachronism, dress up. You know, like Trekkies who meet at conventions dressed up like Klingons. At Nocturna, Tuesday nights at the Metro, everyone moved through a thick, heavily back-lit, smoke-fog to a psychosexual driving techno/rave beat played by DJ Scary Lady Sara. Most were dressed in Goth attire: black, lots of black. At Whiplash, the attire and the music was the same, only this time Scary Lady Sara was behind the bar and the DJ Chilly Willy managed the techno rock that is pure sex itself. Whiplash had a bit more bite to it, with soft bondage playing on the video monitors -- sort of the same way a sports bar has video monitors tuned to ESPN. Putting Fetish in the same light would definitely make it a "contact" sport. Still, it was nothing like what I had seen two years earlier in the film in the back of a gallery.
Miss Maya provided insight for me about the link between Goth attire and Fetish. "Many members of the scene dress in a Goth manner because it is romantic. An exotic woman, dressed in black, clad in a corset plays upon many people's fantasies." Her description matches the "Goth" I know as a subculture; predominately young people who wear tattoos and piercings and write a lot of angst-ridden poetry. Still, as an exercise, I decide to once again pull out my Webster's Unabridged and look up goth.
The first instance is the entry of Goth with a capital G. It defines a Teutonic people who invaded the Roman Empire in the 3rd to 5th Centuries and describes barbarian people with no couth. The image of uncouth barbarians doesn't fit with the rather glamorously dressed folks in black and corsets.
Let's go to next entry, goth, with a small g. 1) A type of architecture? No. That wouldn't be it. 2) Pertaining to a type of painting and art of the 13th through 15th century, depicting realism. Not likely. 3) Pertaining to music of Northern Europe in 11th to 14th centuries. Not unless the Druids played techno. There are seven more definitions, all along these same lines. None of which were a real help in defining today's Goth and some possible insight as to how it fits in with Fetish.
So, the next step is to Google. Bingo! My first hit is a "Goth" site where a woman (I'm assuming) who calls herself Beatgrrl and considers herself a Goth, shares her definition. "...being Goth, for me, is seeing beauty, and its coming destruction, at the same time. For me... It's the last dance as the walls are crumbling around you..." This is much closer to my experience. Beauty and destruction are companion concepts in the Fetish world, also.
The site goes on to talk about the Goth and the Columbine Murders, but quickly asks, then answers, What is Goth?
"It is basically indefinable, because 'Goth' means different things to each follower. Many adopt unusual fashions in order to separate themselves from other youth. Gordon A. Crews, associate dean of the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University in Bristol, CT is an investigator of what he calls the 'occult' which -- in his opinion -- includes the Goth culture. He said: "It is up to the individual to define what Goth is for themselves ... The mentality is, 'I want to be left alone but I want to be seen. I want to see the shock on other peoples' faces."
The site goes on to list a number of Goth attributes, which support my observations of disenfranchised young people wearing black, tattoos, piercings and writing depressed poetry. The only link to the dictionary definitions of Goth and goth is a claim that Goths have an interest in Medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history; each of which is a period so substantially different from the others that it only muddies the picture further. The important thing to take away from this is that Goth as a contemporary subculture is, like all subcultures, an entity of its own that is hard to define and better experienced to be understood.
Fig2. Fetish wear ranges from the revealing to the
outlandish, depending on what the fetish is.
Clearly there are layers to Fetish. How deep do the layers go? Deep, I would soon find out, below-the-skin deep. In asking around, I was put me in touch with a mistress who was a lifestyle mistress. We will simply call her "Mistress J," not her real name. Mistress J distinguished herself from a dominatrix, in that a dominatrix gets paid to perform a service but otherwise has minimal relationship with her "slave" outside of "business."
In contrast, Mistress J has a very definite relationship with her slave. He is her husband. Being a mistress is a lifestyle decision that impacted her dating, courtship and formulation of her marriage. She further delineates a difference, stating that a mistress such as herself is more into control; whereas a dominatrix is more into sadism. Mistress Maya seems to concur. "I have always been a sadist. I like playing the role of a God and administering people's Karma. I like mentally and physically hurting people and watching them squirm. I enjoy that they endure pain to please me."
In Mistress J's marriage, she is in charge of everything, including finances, who takes out the garbage, how the laundry is done as well as dominance in the bedroom. This leads to the question of how much of Fetish is sexual. For many of us not in the lifestyle, there is an assumption that Fetish is a sexual proclivity, but clearly it goes beyond the bounds of the boudoir. "BDSM [Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism] can be sexual in nature," says Mistress Maya. "It deals with many sensations both mental and physical. Some people feel it is very sexual, others do not. It also depends on who you are playing with. Some aspects of BDSM are very sensual and intimate, but in a professional setting, it never reaches sexual actions."
Without getting so crass as to reveal details, Mistress J's lifestyle practices clearly gets into the sexual arena in what she calls "S & M scenes." After all, hers is a marriage with all the elements of marriage, including sex. Mention was made of paddles with tacks in them. Jack Rinella, on his website Leatherviews.com, uses the term "genitorture." For details on a whole smorgasbord of practices, you can check out his site.
Marriage laws restrict people to having one husband or wife, but don't restrict the number of adults who live together. At the time I spoke with Mistress J she and her husband were interviewing another male slave on their way to building a "leather family." According to Mistress J, a leather family is a group of several slaves ("bottoms") with one or maybe two dominants ("tops") in a structure much like a harem.
How does one go about finding a slave? Like any other community, the BDSM community is a networked community. There are websites to facilitate people in meeting each other, much like more familiar online dating websites. Like any other community, one just gets to know where to go to be known. Practicing BDSM becomes part of the social and dating scene in the same way as being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual molds any individual's intimate lifestyle; all that stuff that takes place after work during one's private time.
Fig3. A green-faced "slave" licks the boot of Mistress Marilyn
while she greets potential minions at the 2002 Fetish Ball.
I could more easily understand being a dominant, either in a leather family or in a professional dominatrix capacity. That's the role that's in control. Doesn't everyone want to be in control? I had to ask, what kind of person becomes submissive, a bottom? Both dominatrices I spoke to, Mistress Maya and Ms. Marilyn, indicated that people who are usually in charge with a lot of responsibility, such as CEOs, find release in becoming a submissive. Mistress Maya states, "If a corporate lawyer has had a really intense day, it is therapy for him to see a professional dominatrix. He can instantly submit for an hour session and it would be the equivalent of going to a therapist for an hour."
Maybe. Mistress J indicated during her "dating" days, she had relations with a large number of men who had military background, not as officers, but rank and file soldiers, accustom to having their lives very structured. I asked Dr. Lori Grifo, a psychologist who sees a number of clients with involvement in the Fetish community. Her answer was that people involved with Fetish come to her to work on the same issues everyone else has, not to overcome their involvement with Fetish. Asking why one person wants to be a submissive versus a dominant is as enigmatic as asking why some couples argue and some don't. It's the wrong question, like asking a trigonometry question in an algebra class.
Is Fetish strictly heterosexual, female dominant, male submissive in nature? No. There is every combination of dominance imaginable. Male dominants are called Masters and their bottoms are both men and women. No one I spoke to could venture any percentage of which gender orientations participate in Fetish more -- although one woman I asked about possible percentages of Masters with female bottoms in Fetish challenged me rather glibly about how much I had examined the typical heterosexual marriage. Well, maybe her answer was more than just a bit glib.
The only really disturbing thing I saw was the appearance of the Sigil of Baphomet on tee shirts and hanging on chains as a necklace. This is the upside-down, five-pointed star that embodies a ram's head. It is the symbol for the Church of Satan. Is this more of that anachronistic stuff, you know just dressing up? The first time I asked this question, it brought the interview to an end and the mistress refused to answer questions. This response baffled me considering Miss Maya's eventual answer. "I would not say there is a link between BDSM and Satan. Most people leave religion or spirituality at the door when they play. I would say any signs of Baphomet that you saw were most likely for fashion only. My website has satanic tones, but I am one in a thousand dommes that caters to religious fantasy."
Where does the Chicago community fall in terms of having a Fetish community? "Chicago has a very small fetish community. Most BDSM play is behind closed doors and not talked about. There are very few fetish events that are regularly held," says Miss Maya. "New York, San Francisco and L.A. have a much better community." She passes this off as being due to Midwest provinciality. "In New York, you have a choice of several fetish events going on in one weekend. Most would have a strict fetish dress code, which Chicago does not have. Most fetish events on the coasts have performances and more interaction. They also charge a higher cover for their events. Stepping outside the U.S., London has one of the biggest scenes globally. Their fetish events have very few rules. One must be clad in fetish attire or they are to be naked. Chicago could never get away with that."
Given all the layers from dress up to leather families, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is Fetish. If you have any interest in checking out the scene, I suggest you start with Bondage A-Go-Go at The Exit on Thursday nights, Whiplash at the Spy Bar on Sunday nights, or check out Miss Maya Sinstress's website at www.sinstress.net.
So, what do you say? You want to go up?