Whips. Leashes. Restraint collars. Nipple clips. Who’s not into dressing up for a night of wholesome family fun on the town? Assuming, that is, your notion of “wholesome” leans more toward the aesthetic of Marilyn Manson than that of Marilyn Monroe.
If you belong to the subset of the local population that describes itself as the BDSM community, a typical night out in the Green Mountain State can be blander than a single scoop of vanilla ice cream with nothing on top. And who doesn’t enjoy a good top?
BDSM is a catchall term that encompasses a jaw-dropping array of activities and accoutrements involving bondage, discipline, servitude and sadomasochism. Many of its Vermont enthusiasts have long bemoaned the dearth of public events and venues where they can come together and celebrate the darker sides of human erotica, from anal beads to zippered masks. When they aren’t driving hours to clubs in Montréal, Boston or New York City, much of their communal playtime — which many consider a fundamental element of the BDSM lifestyle — goes on at small, private parties arranged online.
Enter the Spectacle of Sin, a night out that bills itself as “Vermont’s biggest and best goth/fetish event.” Barely a year old, it will be held at Higher Ground for the third time on Saturday, March 27.
The Spectacle was the brainchild of Chaim Rochester — yep, that’s his real name — who set out in 2009 to create an evening of stimulating entertainment unlike anything he’d ever seen in Burlington. In the process, Rochester wanted to demystify a healthy niche lifestyle that is frequently misunderstood and caricatured in the mainstream media as sick and deviant, if not downright criminal.
“Every bar and club [in Burlington] has the reggae night going on, and the jam band thing, and the blues thing,” he says. A night that celebrates corsets, handcuffs and candle wax? Not so much.
Rochester, 32, emphasizes that he is neither an active member of the BDSM community nor one of its spokespeople. In fact, his interest in throwing an S&M ball and fashion show initially sprang from his music. Rochester plays guitar in Amadis, a local band whose style he describes as “larger-than-life, late-’70s arena-metal rock … in the Kiss sensibility.”
Understandably, the band’s tight-leather aesthetic and over-the-top, testosterone-fueled theatrics appeal to certain members of the BDSM scene. So, when a friend of Rochester’s, who designs a line of gothic clothing, suggested they marry a rock concert with a goth fashion show, the idea snowballed from there.
The first Spectacle of Sin, which was held last March in the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge, featured a variety of local and regional acts, including dancers, musicians, a DJ and fetish performers. They included a man from Massachusetts known only as the “Human Floor,” who lies on a bed of nails and invites women to walk on his face and genitals and jump rope on his chest.
Jade Lotus, a Burlington tattoo and piercing studio, put together an acrobatic performance featuring artists swinging from the ceiling, trapeze-style, suspended by piercings through their shoulder blades.
The second Spectacle of Sin, which took place the following September, featured a man on stage spread-eagled and shackled to a St. Andrew’s cross — if you’ve never seen one, look it up on Wikipedia, then buy one on eBay — and flogged by a statuesque, leather-clad dominatrix. “It was all a very overstimulated, sensory kind of scenario,” Rochester recalls. “The idea isn’t to create a shocking, horror-show type of thing, but something very sensual.”
Rochester says he wanted the audience to feel like potential active participants in that show, not just passive spectators. Indeed, as several attendees later reported, some of the more entertaining aspects of the evening were completely unplanned and unscripted, such as a woman leading a man in a full-body vinyl suit around on a dog leash, or the impromptu paddling sessions that sprang up on the dance floor. As one attendee of both events puts it, the Spectacle of Sin creates an atmosphere where “someone can feel amazingly comfortable asking a complete stranger the best way to spank someone with a riding crop.”
Since Rochester himself isn’t intimately tied to the BDSM community, he relied on reports from others to get a read on the crowd’s demographics. Based on what he heard, at the first show roughly half the attendees were active members of the kink scene and the rest were curious spectators. But at the second event, the mix was described as more heavily skewed toward the serious scenesters.
If you’re expecting some sweeping generalizations about Vermont’s BDSM community, you won’t find them here. It’s a colorful and creative group of people of widely varying ages and proclivities, and includes folks who are gay, straight, pansexual or transgender. Their tastes and desires run the gamut — including polyamory, scarification, needle-and-knife play, foot fetishism and fun with urine, scat, vomit and lactation, just to scratch the surface — leading someone to coin the all-inclusive acronym “WIITWD,” or “what it is that we do.”
Still, there are a few common phrases that can prove useful to newbies curious about the scene. Among them is the acronym SSC, or “safe, sane and consensual” — by definition, any nonconsensual act, sexual or otherwise, is potentially a crime. RACK is a “risk-aware consensual kink.” Some community members believe the latter term is a more accurate descriptor of what goes on, since anyone who participates in activities that involve pain, restraints, sharp objects or implements inserted into orifices runs the risk of incurring wounds and bruises, not to mention the potential embarrassment of explaining their causes to an emergency-room attendant. (See “Kink 101” for more kink terminology.)
Maintaining the anonymity of fellow BDSMers is another central tenet of the lifestyle, particularly in a sparsely populated state. Most people in the community begin by using screen names when they converse online, and pseudonyms when they meet in person at “munches.” These are gatherings held in public places, usually a restaurant, where likeminded folk will get together for a meal, chat and to size one another up. There’s one called the “Twisted Munch,” which is held periodically in Burlington, and another in the Upper Valley. Check the BDSM website fetlife.com for dates and locales.
“Sir Marksalot” is a bearded, late-fifties “dominant” from northern Vermont who’s been active in BDSM for nearly two decades, including with the longstanding group Rose & Thorn. He emphasizes the critical importance of respecting others’ anonymity and desire for privacy.
“I once told a friend of mine who’d gone to medical school what my interests were, and her reaction was, ‘Now I can’t leave you alone with my kids anymore,’” he recalls. “She couldn’t distinguish between BDSM and pedophilia, and her presumption was that I can’t control myself.”
Sir Marksalot says he knows of fellow enthusiasts who’ve dropped out of the BDSM scene after accepting jobs that could be compromised by an anonymous complaint, or just by someone with loose lips in a small town. As he puts it, “All it takes is for someone from child protective services to be having a bad day, and you won’t see your kids for two years.”
But many BDSM enthusiasts say the popular notion that all their behavior is deviant, or even sexual, is a misperception they hope to dispel. “Menagerie” is a 22-year-old self-described “submissive” from Montpelier who has a particular fondness for “domestic servitude.”
“It’s something I like. I enjoy being able to do things for somebody,” she explains. “It’s a personal empowerment thing … and it’s not always sexual.” For her, “servitude” can mean performing such mundane chores as fetching drinks for her boyfriend, or having him pick out her clothes for an evening out.
However, Menagerie says her submissive nature within the context of a romantic relationship doesn’t reflect some weakness or shortcoming in her personality. “I’m 5-foot-8 and can rewire and replumb my own house,” she says. “I’m calm in emergencies and the go-to person when things go wrong.” Her openly submissive and shy persona is “an escapist fantasy. For once, I don’t have to be the responsible and capable one.”
Another popular misconception Menagerie hopes to dispel is that everyone in the scene was abused as a child or is working through some past trauma. For her part, she insists she’s never been raped or abused and had a very healthy relationship with her parents. And, while she’s been hit by past boyfriends, it wasn’t in the context of a BDSM relationship, and it definitely wasn’t a turn-on.
In fact, bucking the notion that the BDSM scene can be dangerous and fraught with freaks and weirdos, Menagerie insists that, even as a submissive, she feels safe and protected at BDSM functions. As she puts it, “It’s certainly safer than a college campus.”
For his part, Rochester says safety is one of his top priorities for the Spectacle of Sin, and privacy another. Although it’s a “public” event, insofar as it’s open to anyone 18 or older who buys a ticket, he keeps photography privileges restricted. And, lest any ticket buyers have fears, or lusty expectations, that they’ll be attending a live sex show, Rochester emphasizes the event’s no-nudity policy. That said, he expects some guests will push the envelope.
“It’s not a no-holds-barred bacchanalian orgy,” Rochester notes, “but it is good foreplay.”