In the language of love, a rose is a rose is a rose. Or is it? While most American sweethearts express their ardor with flowers whose stems have been stripped smooth, a much smaller but no less passionate portion of the population prefers the prick that comes from the thorn.
Among them is 35-year-old "Lucius." His home houses an arsenal of amorous equipment: floggers, whips, paddles, clamps, canes, candles, clothespins, cuffs, collars, needles, gags, blindfolds, spreading bars for keeping someone's arms or legs apart, a 7-foot, scrap-wood frame for suspending a person, and a couple thousand feet of strong rope. It seems more the stuff of an Iraqi prison than a Burlington bedroom. "I would consider myself an erotic sadist," Lucius says. "I enjoy inflicting consensual pain for erotic purposes."
One appreciative recipient of such attentions is Lucius' friend "Submissia." Although these two are not a couple, their coy looks and sly comments make clear they know and admire each other's sensuous tastes and techniques. A 43-year-old mother of three, Submissia is a "switch" -- a sadomasochist who gets off on the give and the take. When a whipping is done just right, she avows, "It's scrumptious. I've climaxed with a single-tail whip. It was just mind-blowing."
In the 1960s through the '80s, sadomasochism was mainly the province of gay men in leather. Since then, it's become increasingly mainstream, even chic. Hurts-so-good hip helps sell Hot Topic T-shirts, and masochistic motifs come through Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy, the lyrics of Nine Inch Nails and Secretary, the 2002 film based on a Mary Gaitskill short story. And elements of dominance and submission crop up, at least occasionally, in lots of otherwise ordinary lovemaking.
About one in five respondents in a 1998 Playboy poll reported having used a blindfold during sex, while close to a third said they'd played with restraints, and nearly half tried their hand at spankings. A smaller number -- between 5 and 10 percent of adults, according to a 1990 Kinsey Report -- actively participates in what's known as BDSM; the acronym conflates "bondage and discipline," "dominance and submission" and "sadomasochism."
In the Burlington area, two organized BDSM groups serve around 100 members, including Lucius and Submissia. Here, as elsewhere, BDSMers tend to be relatively well-off and educated. According to Submissia, 90 percent of those involved are "bright -- doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, people who go to Renaissance fairs. They're people who have become bored with traditional forms of loving and are looking for additional challenges."
Lucius and Submissia describe the local community as pansexual and inclusive, relatively free of the cliquishness that factionalizes much of the BDSM world. But even in progressive Vermont -- or perhaps especially here, in a climate of political correctness -- the sexual orientation still carries the sort of stigma that surrounded homosexuality 20 years ago.
Because being outed runs the risk of social ruin, Lucius and Submissia agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they can use pseudonyms. They have also withheld the names of the local groups to which they belong. As Lucius explains, they don't want to "make it too easy" for the casually curious or voyeuristic to find them.
Lucius and Submissia will say that one local group hosts entry-level social events at a public venue, with participants wearing ordinary clothes. The other group meets monthly in private homes, and features folks in fetish fashions engaging in monitored sadomasochistic activities. Groups are active as well in Rutland, Albany, western Massachusetts, New Hampshire and, naturellement, Montreal.
Those fetishistic francophones have access to a couple of commercial BDSM clubs, and a rentable apartment outfitted as a "dungeon." (Vermonters looking for a local BDSM club must make do with the annual "Erotica" night at Burlington's 135 Pearl. The March 19 event welcomes kink connoisseurs of all stripes.)
As with lots of subcultures, belonging to what BDSMers call "the lifestyle" isn't just a matter of walking the walk but of talking the talk. Insiders distinguish themselves from the outside, or "vanilla," world through specialized vocabulary. Those casual, public get-togethers are "munches." In "Level One" BDSM play, the "bottom" receives sensations from the "top." At "Level Two," the "submissive" -- or "sub" -- surrenders to the power of the "dominant" -- or "dom" -- for the duration of the interaction.
BDSM also has its own mores. Although its exhibitionist aspect may seem odd, there's safety in numbers. "It's much safer to do it at a party than with a private person you might meet over the Internet," Submissia suggests. Groups screen participants. Organized events are also drug- and alcohol-free, and chaperoned by designated "dungeon monitors." All these precautions make sense when you consider the dangers involved.
Submissia recalls one inadequately monitored party at which a woman was suspended vertically and her hair caught fire. She suffered second- and third-degree burns, but no one wanted to call an ambulance. Instead, they packed her in ice. The next day the victim's husband took her to the hospital, where they concocted a story to explain her injuries. She eventually recovered, but the accident could have been avoided if those involved had known what they were doing, Submissia says.
Good-citizen BDSMers follow the credo "Safe, Sane and Consensual." Safe means taking proper precautions to ensure "no one's going to the hospital or to jail, or being permanently disfigured," Submissia says. Sane ensures participants can distinguish fantasy role-playing from everyday reality. Consensual is what separates a mutually satisfying interaction from abuse.
While misguided motives and manipulation can mar any interaction, responsible BDSMers bend over backwards to avoid unintended pain. Etiquette calls for negotiating the terms of an activity in advance, and then respecting those boundaries. In the ideal scenario, partners agree about how far they'll go sexually, and how much pain the submissive will endure. Predetermined "safe words" -- or signals, for when speech is impossible -- tell the dominant when to back off.
"Clear communication is even more important here than in vanilla relationships," Lucius suggests. "You have to have more honesty and openness."
"This is doctoral-level sex," adds Submissia. "You need to know what you're playing with and what your sub's limits are."
Finding your way to a satisfying BDSM life isn't easy. Lucius discovered that five years ago, when he first dabbled in domination. Newly single, he answered an online personal ad from a woman seeking a dominant. He was responding to an urge he'd always had but had never fully understood.
That initial experience proved to be "a real horror story," he recalls. "She wanted someone to beat her. She was trying to live out some masochistic fantasies," and was completely cold and emotionally absent to him. "I was not aroused by it in the least. I couldn't get an erection. I asked, 'What's wrong with me?'" Rather than trying to give up his drive, he decided he needed to get together with others who shared his interest. After months of research and solitary practice -- tying knots, flogging pillows and hanging towels -- he felt ready for his first "scene."
In BDSM circles, the "Scene" refers to the community as a whole, while a lower-case "scene" is an erotic SM activity, be it a perfunctory paddling or a drawn-out role-playing experience involving elaborate costumes and props. Participants put on scenes for one another at "play parties." While nudity is common in Vermont scenes, these are not occasions with wild sex or singles-swapping. Most participants come, and play, as established couples. And if you're looking for actual genital penetration, Submissia says, you have to go to Montreal.
Like Lucius, Submissia has had sadomasochistic inclinations from an early age. "Since I was a little kid I've loved feeling dominated," she recalls. She's also always had bisexual leanings. But rather than acting on these desires, she married, had three kids, and tried to be the perfect wife -- until her husband left her for another woman. As a single parent, "I was tied to my kids and had no time to date," she says. Then she hit 40, and "made a list of things I wanted to do before I died." Her desiderata included going skydiving, being involved in a threesome, making love to another woman, and getting spanked. "I looked at the list and said, 'My life is half over. When will I do these things?'" she says.
The answer came during an online game of Spades. Submissia told her partner that if he didn't do better she'd spank him. He answered, "Oh, you want to talk about spankings?" and invited her into a private chat room. From there he directed her to a Vermont BDSM website, where she found a personal ad from a "dom" who escorted her to a party. During the course of that evening, Submissia received her first over-the-knee spanking. "It was exciting and titillating and personal and close," she reveals, smiling at the memory. "It brought a blush to my cheeks."
Since then, Submissia has sampled a variety of SM experiences, from being erotically slapped to being pierced with needles and flirting with flames. "There are different kinds of pain," she notes. "With mild pain your endorphins and adrenaline get stimulated. The release of endorphins creates a mild euphoria." The difference between a good and bad flogging, she says, is like "the difference between being a musical instrument that's being played by someone who's tone-deaf versus a master musician." When it's good, she gushes, "It builds. It's exciting."
Orchestrating the perfect scene comes down to a question of accuracy, says Lucius. It's all about "hitting the right place, giving the right sensation. Sometimes," he offers, by way of example, "I'll slowly drag a flogger across the shoulder and then give it a quick snap and a sting." The point is "to arouse someone, to heighten their senses. Under the right circumstances, you can put someone into that precious head space called 'sub space.'"
Different folks want different strokes, and different tools -- or "toys" -- create different shades of sensation. The held-back caress of Lucius' super-soft rabbit-fur flogger or his achingly supple, deer-hide model offers a torture quite different from the clip of a PetSmart horse crop. Squared-off leather strips land with a "thuddy" thwack. Properly wielded, Lucius' kangaroo-leather bullwhip leaves "hot, stingy kisses" and souvenir marks on the skin. "The women I play with like to be able to see a bruise," he asserts. And he can determine how much hurt he inflicts. To prove his prowess, he asks Submissia to hold out her arm. Then, standing about 10 feet behind her, he snaps his whip, and gently, painlessly wraps its end around her wrist.
Like its vanilla counterpart, BDSM sexuality is as much about the brain as the body. Both Lucius and Submissia say the practice bolsters their sense of self-worth. "If someone is submitting themselves to me, there's a lot of pride in putting someone into that head space," Lucius says. "When someone comes down and they have a big grin on their face and give you a big hug, I love that."
Ironically, enduring pain can also instill pride. And for someone who's recovering from a demeaning relationship, consensual submission can offer catharsis. Voluntarily re-enacting the traumatic experience to produce pleasure rather than pain can be healing. Enacting a negotiated scene can also reinforce confidence in others. And this renewed sense of faith can have a spiritual dimension. In her comprehensive 1993 book Different Loving, Gloria Brame describes "the surrender" as "freedom from ego, a condition where one is completely trusting and indifferent."
On both sides of the power equation, the role-playing aspect of BDSM can provide a welcome release. In one stereotypical set-up, a diaper-clad Fortune 500 CEO pays a dominatrix to punish him for being a naughty baby. This scenario resonates with Submissia. As a single-parenting mom working three jobs, she says, "I'm dom all day long." When she's being submissive, "It's wonderful not to have to be in control. For 30 minutes it's somebody else's game." For his part, Lucius spends most of his days working for someone else. Being the dominant, he says, "is an opportunity for me to be in complete control."
There's control, and then there's control. At hard-core "Level 3," BDSM enters the realm of master and slave. Rather than lasting only for the duration of a scene, the master-slave relationship, a.k.a. "24/7," is a long-term commitment in which one partner relinquishes his or her emotional rights entirely to the other. Lucius lived in such a relationship for more than a year. "It's a lot of work," he says. "You're always working to stay on top, to be the master. There were times when I'd come home from work and be ready to just kick back," he adds, but his slave demanded constant attention.
Even in more casual interactions, domination can be draining. "When you have total control over someone, it's the greatest high," Lucius says. "But when I'm going home alone I'd like to have someone check in with me and make sure I'm OK. Some-times I need a hug. I need someone to touch me." Because this letdown, or "top drop," isn't discussed much, new doms who experience it sometimes don't know how to cope.
It can be lonely at the top -- and at the bottom. The communal aspect of BDSM culture eases the isolation. However, revealing a kinky sexual orientation to the squeamish -- and recently, increasingly Puritanical -- vanilla world is a lot harder. Both Lucius and Submissia have come out to their families. Lucius revealed his dom persona to his father because he wanted someone close to him to know "in case something should happen."
Submissia's brother outed her to the rest of her family when she was going through a bout of depression. "At first they were horrified," she says. After she'd explained the Scene's consensual and safety-conscious ethos, they started to come around. As for the details of what she actually does, Submissia and her folks have tacitly negotiated boundaries they all can live with: Don't ask, don't tell.