Valentine’s Day at the Westin Hotel: a gigantic leather and fetish expo, no photography, interviews, or journalists allowed. The convention gave us—two vanilla neophytes—a new context for fetishes, consumerism, and clamps. Strapping us with wristbands, staff asked, “You want it tight or loose?” For the third year in a row, Providence hosted the New England Leather Alliance (NELA) Fetish Flea Market (FFM), which has run biannually since 1992.
Bruce, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in the Westin Anymore
Floors one through four of the Westin are all but cordoned off for the privacy of the leather enthusiasts. The ground floor is designated for check-in ($20 for non-NELA members) and for hands-on tutorials: Military and Interrogation Scenes, Pony Paddock, Ask A Rope Expert. Waiting at the top of the second-floor escalator are two stamp checkers, who are vigilant about making sure FFM patrons don’t go wandering down the wrong hallways. Past them, on the second and third levels, are the goods. More wide open rooms, carpeted wall to wall. Everywhere we look: sex gadgets, clothing, and accessories for sale. A rubber role-play doggie helmet qualifies as all three, we suppose: $75. A high-quality leather bodybag, fitted with metal clasps, $1000. The say it’ll last you a lifetime.
We ride the escalator up from the lobby, out of the last zone of vanilla, what everyone here calls people like us. There’s a traffic jam getting through the second floor hallway to the first room—people are being too polite instead of hustling through the crowd. But then we notice a leash between one couple. Is the sub(missive) in front not permitted to say “excuse me” without permission? Is that why we’re entering so gingerly?
There are a lot of clothes on the second level. Your correspondents fumble with a black latex corset, can’t quite get it to fasten. Bruce, a leather daddy, intervenes. He is fastidiously tightening and loosening the stays, as if your correspondent has their hands around a bed post and it’s Gone with the Wind. “Lean forward, if you don’t want my boot in your ass,” Bruce says. And then, “I could lace you up for hours.”
The place has a certain medieval vibe to it, the abundance of torture instruments aside. All jammed together, small business owners and independent artisans peddle their homemade wares. We try to soak it in without sticking out. Our jeans and t-shirt outfits were seriously deviant and elicited stares, hinting dangerously at our outsiders’ interest in the fair. With respect to dress code, the sex trade fair is not that different from a Star Trek or comic book convention: everyone’s trying to look the part. No Spock and Kirk here, just a couple of nipple-clamped old men harnessed together, gagged and clopping about nobly. Minor celebrities in the local fetish community, they’re known as ‘the horses.’ Most fair-goers kept it low-key (leather pants; dog collar; fishnets)—which in these circles doesn’t necessarily mean tasteful. A remarkable portion of the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged crowd was spilling out of its clothing. But in an environment where limits are meant to be pushed, and open-mindedness is mandatory, that was just fine.
Bruce unwittingly encapsulates the thing about there being, at the convention, all this stuff but absolutely no fucking, the fetish being a deferral of any genital sex act via toys and preparation: those hours spent loosening and tightening the stays of the corset just as Penelope weaves and unweaves at her loom.
In psychoanalysis the fetish is an object that stands in for an absence, a memory, a trauma, a parent—so it shouldn’t be surprising how much the event seems to be about gear. There aren’t very many traditional sex toys (when a dildo shows up, it seems a little crass and cheap) and besides canes and paddles, the clichés of mainstream kink, not even everything is necessarily so overtly ‘sexy’ or ‘kinky.’ The way everyone’s chatting, this stuff could be bike parts or audio equipment. And as with machines and gadgets, the stuff here is more than just a replacement: it’s got a particular material presence of its own, the aura of delicacy absent elsewhere at the fair.
The goods here cover a spectrum from the kind of non-explicit junk sold at Newbury Comics to extremely high-end artisanal objets, like the gorgeous, handmade, three-foot-long suede and wood flogs we found at one stall. Turns out the guy manufactured them in his basement. Your correspondents had not yet been instructed in flogging—that came later—and one of us complimented him on the beauty of his “tassle thing,” another embarrassing revelation of our vanilla status. In the next stall over was Eric, by day a carpenter at Tufts Medical Center and by night a fetish-artist who specializes in erotic gas masks, most of which came with dangling faux dreadlocks. He also had a high-concept photo album full of harness-driven 69s, lots of dungeon imagery, and close-ups of his face, pierced and bleeding, thanks to a tiny stainless steel pitchfork. Eric said business was okay but his work wasn’t about the money—this was his first real trade show.
Eric was an anomaly: the convention was very much a business event, putting the commodity in fetishism, not so much a lifestyle summit as a place where wholesalers, retailers, and consumers could network. For example, upstairs, where the stalls filled the hotel rooms like a live pun on the bedroom-meets-commerce theme of the whole event, your correspondents started chatting with a Big Baby, one iteration of a fetish that involves primarily older dudes wearing frilly little dresses, sissy socks, maryjanes, and big curly wigs. One of your correspondents, in an honest but gauche moment, wondered out loud: “I’m trying to figure out what this is all about, like, uh, who gets off to this stuff really.” The Big Baby sneered. “Not me! I’m here to sell. We import from every continent ‘cept Antarctica. Then again, if you got an ice fetish...” Without the pancake makeup, he could have been selling us a used car.
The Princess and the Flog
Back down on the ground floor, in room Narragansett B, we bright-eyed pupils sit in the front row, ready for a flogging tutorial. As the place fills up, one of your correspondents marvels that “anything goes here,” and the other disagrees. Just because we’re vanilla and can’t read the codes of a culture doesn’t mean they’re not there. The polo-shirted fat guy sitting next to us added, “there’s a lotta different kinds of kink in one building today.” It was a collision of niches that all happen be in close proximity in the banal atmosphere more befitting Model UN or a company retreat: conference rooms, meet’n’greets, lots of free swag with logos (admittedly, most of it was lube and condoms). At the FFM, there are codes of a bunch of different niche scenes, all subsumed into middle management trade show model, with those rules too. So even if the guy giving the lecture happens to feel up his model’s tits in front of the crowd, even if a lot more flies than usual at the Westin during Saturday lunch time, it’s certainly not that anything does—walking around topless, for example, is 100% prohibited.
Our flogging tutor, Dark Teddybear, is a prosthetic-legged, “fancy school”–educated redhead with lots of fuzzy facial hair. Also, he’s an ordained minister. He takes the stage, sub in tow, audience captive. He’s going to hit this girl over and over, and we get to watch. The flog, he tells us (though it’s plain to see that those who need telling are in severe minority) consists of a handle, usually made of wood, and several ‘falls,’ made of rope, suede, or rubber. It is a versatile instrument and can find its way into pretty much any ‘scene.’ It becomes apparent through the day that much of the appeal of BDSM (Bondage-Discipline/Dominant-Submissive/Sado-Masochism) activity lies in role-playing scenes, in visually stimulating performance. The sub pulls down her skirt and lets Dark Teddybear hit her with a series of flogs, some more painful than others. She shimmies, she grins, she yelps. As the actors become further entrenched in the scene, especially in front of an audience, their interaction becomes almost totally mediated by rhythm of the flog. The act becomes a surrogate, a fetish object itself.
The flog can be used in a gentle, soothing manner. Dark Teddybear, in a move called The Florentine (see Glossary for more terms) wields two flogs, making a figure eight as he hits her with each, one at a time. The repetitive motion seems to put her into a meditative state. On the other hand, violent flogging produces one of two sensations. Flogs with shorter, lighter falls slap the skin sharply. Longer, heavier falls hurt more like a punch. In Fetish lingo, thud vs. sting. The sting is felt immediately, whereas you might not fathom the force of a thud until you see bruises the next morning. Despite the surreal, jovial atmosphere of the whole ritual, Dark Teddybear reminded the audience of the crucial importance of communication, trust, and precision in certain scenes. Especially when using blades, whips or canes (all common sights at the Flea), he told us, the dominant must stay level-headed. Dangerous “edge-play” that gets out of hand can cause the sort of bodily or psychological thud that doesn’t stop hurting for a long time.
Taking the DSM out of BDSM
It’s these kinds of misunderstandings, both between tops and bottoms, and also between fetish and vanilla communities, that has led to legal recourse. Almost all cases deal with the issue of consent between partners. So-called “slave contracts,” or consensual non-consent agreements, do not hold up in court. Advocacy groups like the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom recommend lawyers, doctors and therapists from a large network of specialists in cases related to BDSM, swing and polyamory.
In an infamous case in the late nineties, a Barnard undergrad took Columbia grad student Oliver Jovanovich to court for binding, raping, and torturing her over the course of twenty hours. The case was dismissed after Jovanovich spent a year and a half in jail, when written evidence emerged that the plaintiff had enjoyed and encouraged the experience.
In 2000, police broke up a consensual Attleboro, MA SM “play party” whose guests all knew one another. Two individuals were arrested. The incident is a well-known outrage in the online BDSM community.
The NCSF has also pushed for the removal of the ‘paraphernalia’ section of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-IV) that classifies certain BDSM practices as indicators of mental illness.
Before leaving, your correspondents stopped by Bruce’s stall to say goodbye, and ended up trying on another corset. One woman approached, and secured our firm permission before simply saying, “you look great.” This was another revelation of the strangeness of the sexual subtext here—as much as the event can be painted as just another consumerist scene, kink is about sex, and the potential for breach was perpetually hovering.
“I used to have a great wardrobe, latex cat suit and everything, now I have too much mom weight,” she added, just a plain middle-aged woman, too much wobble belly showing but otherwise straight-dressed. Her wrists were chained together.
“Now I’m a sex slave,” she added, “so I don’t have to wear much.”
“What does your master wear?” we asked.
“Whatever he wants,” she answered, serious as death.
We couldn’t afford the corset.
Talk Like a BDSM Insider
Aglophilia: Sexual arousal from experiencing pain
Altocalciphilia: High-heel shoe fetish
Bastinado: Heel torture
BDSM: B&D (bondage and discipline, D/s (dominance and submission) and S&M (sadism and masochism)
Catherine’s Wheel: a large wheel, usually made of wood, to which one is affixed and rotated
Cat o’ Nine Tails: A leather whip with nine thin strands
Dread Koosh Flogger :A rope handle is affixed to several Koosh balls. The ultimate thud
Edgeplay: Risk death or serious injury by incorporating guns, blades or axphyxiation
Monoglove: Latex sleeve into which both arms are placed
Risk Aware Consensual Kink: The typical consent agreement at play parties and between two partners, to ensure everyone is on board with what’s going to go down
Soft Limit: Loose imposition set with respect to how painful or dangerous a scene becomes. Compare to a Hard Limit
Squick: A very sudden repulsion to something a partner does
Wartenburg Wheel: A little instrument which looks like a pizza cutter, except the wheel has little spikes. Also used by neurologists to test nerve function