I walk around the main hall, keeping carefully to the edges. When I trod on someone’s toes, I turn to apologize and nearly collide with an elderly man who is wearing nothing but a red g-string. Several feet in front of me is a massage table with another naked man lying on it. A woman works busily above him, and it takes me a moment to realize that she is wrapping him in saran wrap. He resembles nothing so much as a plastic mummy.
Further into the hall, two women face each other with several meters between them, as if they are duelling. One is tall and blond and statuesque, her low-cut top revealing most of her breasts. The shorter, stouter woman is wielding a single-tail whip.
It is March 23rd, and I am at the 10th Anniversary of Cornucopia — Nanaimo’s longest-running BDSM/kink group.
Not All Foot-Beating and Needles
“I recently did needle play for the first time,” Sarah tells me. She pulls down the neckline of her shirt, slides her bra clear, and inspects a faint mark above her nipple. “The bruises are finally gone.”
We are in Sarah’s car, parked by the lower cafeteria at Vancouver Island University. The day is bright, our conversation loud. The 10th Anniversary party is two days away.
“I want to talk about kink,” I had told her hesitantly when she bounded up to my table an hour earlier and hugged me. I was irrationally worried that she’d misunderstood my email and maybe expected the interview to be about parking costs or tuition.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she had replied, laughing, “but I’m kinky!”
And she is. She talks about her bruised breasts with a kind of delight. She answers my questions with a matter-of-factness that makes me blush. For her, this is fascinating. For her, this is fun.
The needle-play comment takes place during a conversation about the most extreme things Sarah has been involved in. Also on the list is bastinado, which involves beating the soles of the feet with a thin, whippy rod. “There’s a reason that’s used as torture in some places,” Sarah tells me. “It’s really painful with very little effort.” She pauses, and adds emphatically, “It was kind of amazing.”
It isn’t all foot-beating and needles. “My very first play party,” Sarah says, “the only thing I did was a tickling scene. I had no prior knowledge of this kink, but I met a really friendly couple who explained it to me. They were showing this device that’s about the size of an electric razor, and it has two little metal points, and it’s electrically charged in some way, and it tickles like heck when you run it over your skin.”
There are terms for the various things Sarah likes and the categories that she fits into. The best known of these is the acronym “BDSM,” which can be broken into three different subsets: “BD” stands for Bondage and Discipline, “DS” for Dominance and Submission, and “SM” for Sadism and Masochism. Sarah, with her frank answers and wild giggle, is into a little of all three. She’s toyed with bondage. She’s masochistic – likes being flogged and spanked and occasionally jabbed with needles. She identifies as a Submissive, though her current boyfriend is not really a Dominant. “He’ll tell me to go to bed, and I have to go,” she says of their dynamic. “He thinks it’s quite cute actually.”
BDSM is to an extent about redefinition. Negatives blur into positives, pain distorts into pleasure. The definition of a healthy relationship is stretched and folded to encompass something new.
It’s also about community — much of which, like most communities these days, exists online. Fetlife.com is a sort of kinky version of Facebook. With approximately two million members worldwide, it’s a way for kinksters to meet like-minded people (a quick search for members in Nanaimo reveals nearly a thousand profiles), but it is also a forum for information sharing.
Sarah was directed to it early in her search for a kinky, romantic relationship. “I started off doing the wrong thing by trying to post on Craigslist,” she says. “Fortunately several responses immediately pointed me towards Fetlife, just to arm me with more information. Just for my own safety and my own education.”
While Sarah doesn’t feel the need to tell all and sundry about her sexual preferences — “You wouldn’t tell people if you really liked missionary,” she points out — she is a firm believer in the importance of this community.
Safety is one reason. “Say you were new,” she posits, “and you were in a DS relationship. You could have a partner try to convince you of all sorts of rules and expectations, and you would have no way of gauging that against anything else you’d ever heard or seen. You would have no one to bounce that off of who would have any clue. And so if you don’t have anybody who can relate to you, you could be in physical or emotional danger.”
From Fetlife, Sarah went straight into her first DS relationship. It wasn’t until that ended, and she needed the support of people who understood where she was coming from, that she sought out the “Munches” and Play Parties that make up the community’s real-life presence in Nanaimo.
“I didn’t want to feel like all of my kink and my interests were hinged on one person,” she tells me. “I wanted to know that I had the power over that for myself, that it could live on without him, basically.”
Munches, she explains, are venues where “curious or kinky people get together – at some sort of pub, usually. It’s just to get to know people in a casual environment without any kinky expectations, without any pressure. Nobody’s showing up naked.”
Play Parties are a different creature altogether. The monthly gatherings are part regular party – a section of the venue is reserved for tables where people can sit and chat (cookies and tea are provided, but alcohol is prohibited) – and part recreation. Stations are set up with “St Andrews crosses, benches, plain massage tables, poles you can be tied to.” The event rules are strictly enforced. “It’s an extremely respectful environment,” Sarah says. “More so than any bar. There’s a lot more accountability.”
Some people are uncomfortable with the sort of power-based relationship Sarah enjoys. Some even equate it with domestic abuse. “The big thing about DS,” she says when I ask her about this, “is that it’s consensual. Without consent it’s abuse.”
She’s aware that distinction won’t reassure everybody. Sarah is “out” to some friends and family, and her mother in particular was initially concerned. “She used the example of the crazy monk in The Da Vinci Code,” Sarah says, laughing again. “She wanted to make sure it wasn’t like that, like I felt I was worthless and needed to be punished for it. She wanted to make sure it was for good reasons, that I liked it and that it was fun.”
I’m interested in Sarah’s descriptions of Play Parties. I’m determined to attend Cornucopia’s 10th Anniversary. Determined, and terrified.
Playing with Fire
The sun is shining when I pull into the parking lot at Cedar Hall Community Center. People mingle in the sunshine on the porch, chatting and laughing. On the double doors that lead inside the hall, someone has taped a sheet of paper on which the words “No Swap Meet Today — Private Function” are hastily scrawled.
I pause in the sunshine for a moment, then enter.
I pay at the counter, and am handed a pamphlet explaining the event’s schedule, as well as a lurid green wristband. The schedule could be describing a conference of accountants. The afternoon will be taken up with workshops, after which will come dinner and entertainment, followed by a period of free socializing. The kink is in the details. The workshops are on fireplay, rope suspension, the correct use of a flogger. The entertainment is an erotic juggling act. The socializing is a play party during which people will strap each other to tables and crosses and walls, and cause each other pain in a variety of creative and unusual ways.
I am meant to meet Sarah here, but she is nowhere in sight. I go inside, fill a paper plate with a cookie and some of the sandwich triangles from the food table, and find myself a seat.
The fireplay workshop is surreal, but strangely fun. At each seat is a small package containing a double-sided sheet of paper with explanatory notes, a metal skewer with a loop at the end, two cottonballs, and one small square of cotton mesh. I wonder if we’ll be doing crafts.
Sarah bounces through the doors at the last minute. She waves cheerily at me and takes a free seat near the back as the workshop begins. We are introduced to “Polar,” the solid, grinning man who will teach us how to light our sexual partners on fire.
“There’s no way to make this safe,” he says. “I can tell you lots of things not to do, but at the end of the day you’re still playing with fire. It’s never going to be 100% safe.” Everyone nods. The people in this room are no strangers to risk. We listen closely as he explains the dangers and the best ways of minimizing them.
What we’re doing, apparently, is making fire wands. The cotton balls, once attached to the metal skewer and dipped into 80% alcohol, will act as a wick — the alcohol will burn, but not the cotton. We can then run the burning wand over the naked skin of another person, leaving trails of fire behind. It’s important to use pure cotton, as anything synthetic will melt. We don’t want flaming plastic dripping onto someone’s back, he says, and I am not the only person who winces.
We make our wands. He makes us wave them vigorously around, making sure that nothing is loose or flimsy. “If you wouldn’t want it used on you,” he says, “don’t use it on anyone else.”
Then it is time for the demonstration, and I notice for the first time the woman in a bathrobe off to the side of the hall. We shuffle to the front of the room, some of us still waving our wands absurdly through the air.
Suddenly the woman is naked, the bathrobe bunched on the floor. She hops onto the table, lies face down. Polar lights his wand on fire. He grins widely and rolls the blue flame swiftly up her spine, leaving a burning trail on her skin. His left hand follows closely behind, extinguishing the flames before they can burn her. It is mesmerizing.
The atmosphere in the room is charged. It is sexual in a matter-of-fact way. People are laughing, but intent.
After a few minutes, Polar’s assistant climbs down from the table and he ushers us forward to light our wands. Sarah beckons me over, has me hold out my arm while she runs her wand over it. I force myself not to flinch; the sensation is not unpleasant, but it’s getting there. If the flames were slightly hotter, if Sarah let them burn a few seconds longer, my skin would be uncomfortably hot.
The experience is unsettling, but undeniably impressive.