My Brush With Kink (And Then Some)
Several months ago, I was at brunch with my friend Raani.
"I went to this festival last week and I really want to go to the closing night party," she said. "Do you want to go?"
"Sure," I said.
"It costs $30."
"Forget it." I'm cheap, lest you forget.
"But I met this really cute filmmaker at the festival and I told him I'd see him at the party, before he leaves town," said Raani. "And I don't want to go alone."
Raani reached into her bag and took out what looked like a fancy invitation. It read, "Sexalicious Film Festival Closing Night Party: The Chariot Couples Club."
It turns out that Raani had just attended a sex film festival. Or, as described on the Sexalicious NYC website, a festival "featuring a specially-selected program of films and videos that celebrate and explore a wide diversity of sexuality." Raani described a few of them for me. Some sounded like silly sex comedies, others pretty much like straight porn.
"Mostly the films were really bad," she said, dropping her voice the way she always does when criticizing a movie, even a big movie – like she's worried McG is going to be sitting at the table next to us. "I mean, bad. We could have made something way better."
"But why would we have wanted to?" I asked.
Raani shrugged. "Why not?"
As far as I knew, Raani had never written a scene that had gotten beyond a hot make-out with added innuendo. Raani is a screenwriter from a traditional Muslim family. She didn't drink until her 30s and still mostly confines herself to Bellinis -- although I have seen her catch a healthy buzz off of them. I knew her dating history contained very little casual sex, much less casual pornographic kinky sex.
"Okay look, what if I pay for your ticket?" she asked.
"Really? Okay." Free stuff! Free stuff!
"Great! What are you going to wear?"
"I don't know," I replied, contemplating for a moment. "I don't think I could possibly own the right thing to wear."
"Well, we don't want to give anyone the wrong impression by wearing something too sexy anyway."
"True. We wouldn't want anyone to think that we were at the sex party for sex. Honestly though, it's probably just going to be a bunch of filmmaker wannabes."
When it comes to uninhibited sexual behavior, I've seen a bit and heard about a lot more -- but most of my stories are about actors and easily-coerced PAs...and occasionally people in the art department. Filmmakers themselves? By and large, conservative and fond of rules. They like to think they can think outside the box, but in terms of actually stepping outside of it themselves, not so much. Truth is, they prefer the box. I mean, have you ever read a book on how to write a screenplay? I rest my case.
I arrived at 8 pm at the address Raani had emailed me, which corresponded to a shabby office building that couldn't have looked less like a den of iniquity. But then a group of three people arrived, including one guy who was checking me out in a really obvious way that seemed to say, "Hey baby, are you going to the same sex party I'm going to?" So I felt fairly sure I was in the right place.
Raani arrived and, on her heels, the two guys she'd met at the festival. Harry was the cute Australian she'd had her eye on, and the other was an American named George. Just as I'd expected, they were your kind of average filmmakers who had made some sexy comedies just to be edgy. George's was a pilot about a couple that opens an S&M club to make money. Harry's was a short about a guy who thinks he's foiling a kidnapping, only to find that he's beaten up the husband in a consensual bondage scenario. Apparently this second film had caused some controversy at the Q&A.
"Were people upset at the violence against women?" I asked.
"Sort of," Harry replied. "This woman stood up and asked, 'Why is this a comedy? This is our lifestyle, it's not funny.' Then someone else got up and started attacking me about the same thing." He looked a little demoralized. "I think the humor was just too Australian."
We arrived on the third floor, where we handed our coats to an extremely tall transvestite. "We don't serve alcohol but you can order beer from the deli next door," she related as she hung them up. "There are showers on the right and lockers in the back."
A healthy, uninhibited buzz definitely seemed called for, so Harry and George got on the phone. Raani and I each gave them a couple of bucks.
"I guess we can't order Prosecco," Raani sighed. "Come on, I want to get a locker. I don't feel like carrying my bag around with me."
We passed a "bar" where a fulsome woman in a tight leather bustier was selling soft drinks; the afore-mentioned, grey and institutional shower; a couch area where a bunch of rather unattractive men, most of them middle-aged, turned away from the porn playing on the tv next to them to stare at us as we walked by; and a bunch of tiny rooms which had chairs, pillows and some lumpy little foam beds. Nothing was separated from the main room by more than a flimsy curtain. My first impression: not very sexy. Not even the porn. But my personal feeling on most straight porn in general is that it's directed at men who like women who have been physically enhanced to the point where certain parts of their anatomy look like they might just explode at any moment. I mean, really, why not just get an inflatable?
We arrived at the lockers, where a very nervous, young, slightly overweight woman in a short black skirt and low-cut blouse was trying to unlock one.
"Do you know how these work?" Raani asked her. "Do we just pick any --"
"I--I–-I don't know!" stammered the woman. "I've never been to one of these before!"
She quickly turned and walked away.
After Raani stored her things, we rendez-voused back with Harry and George and the beer and continued our look around. In one of the dim rooms toward the back, we were lured in by the sight of an impressive set on handcuffs chained to the wall.
"Hey, put those on, I've got to get a picture," I said to Raani.
She obliged, smiling in an "If this picture gets out I'll kill you" kind of way. Then we all gathered around something that looked like a gymnast's vault. George, who, like any self-respecting filmmaker, had done a fair amount of research for his S&M film, knew the ropes already, so to speak.
"It's a spanking horse. You climb up on it and get spanked. And you know what this is for, right?" George said, pointing at a set of stocks that fully evoked The Scarlet Letter. "Here, put your head in here, and your arms here," he said to Raani.
She did, and he closed them up.
"Ow," she said.
"It's supposed to hurt," said George. "These were used for punishment --"
"Well right now they're punishing me," said Raani, "so can you let me out?"
As George released her, the busty bartendress entered.
"Let me know if you guys need anything, if you have any questions."
"What do you have for spanking?" asked George, trying to impress us with more of his expertise.
"Well, you're supposed to bring your own," replied the bartender. "But there are people here who may have something you can borrow. Are you looking for something stingy?"
George shrugged. "Yeah."
"Well, let me ask around. And we have tablecloths if you'd like them, Saran Wrap..."
"Anything you need, just let me know," she said, this time directing her smile, laser-like, at Harry.
Uh oh. If Raani had to compete in a one-night-stand situation with a woman who wore a leather bustier and knew her way around a spanking horse and Saran Wrap, the odds might not be in her favor.
We all headed back into the main room, which was definitely starting to fill up.
"Those middle-aged men are creepy," Raani commented.
There were a large number of them now, ogling us and pretty much every woman in the room like they actually thought they had a shot.
Little did we know that they actually did. I soon noticed that one of the middle-aged guys, who wore an unbuttoned orange shirt with a wide collar that more or less screamed "Swinger here!" was rubbing himself up against an attractive 20-something Asian woman in semi-see-through attire. And she seemed to be okay with it. When, a few minutes later, she started kissing his navel, I concluded that she was definitely okay with it. Then there was the chubby, rather pasty guy in the bowtie who started feeling up the tall, geeky-looking girl in a kilt who seemed to have come with her boyfriend. But her boyfriend, who also was tall and geeky-looking, was standing right next to her, watching, seemingly unperturbed. Oh, and holding a cat o' nine tails.
I think this was the point at which I started thinking to myself, Um, okay, what the fuck is going on here? But don't get me wrong, I was fascinated. Two genuinely consenting adults can do whatever floats their boats to each other as far as I'm concerned. I just didn't quite get the appeal. Well, okay, the spanking thing I kind of got. You could look at it like a sport almost -- only a naughty and therefore, for some, titillating sport that you could only play with certain people in an environment like this. And I am not unfamiliar with the one-night stand, I know the appeal of a hot, no-strings-attached sexual experience when you're drunk and horny, and then you leave in the morning (or that night, which tends to be my personal preference) and never have to see that person again. But this was not that. For one thing, the men were extremely un-hot. So was the dingy and public setting. Where was the romantic music, the satin sheets, the candles, or at least the light switch? Although with the open plan and all of the open ogling going on, I was starting to realize that public was at least part of the point.
Now, when I get into situations that make me uncomfortable -- which generally means parties full of people I don't know, should impress, or who are distantly related to me and cover their furniture in plastic -- I snap into research anthropologist mode. This involves a certain level of alcohol consumption and a willingness to talk to anyone about just about anything, but it allows me to mingle in a way that a former social outcast like myself would normally not be able to. And it works because people love to answer questions, and I like to be nosy.
"Is that yours?" I asked the geeky lad, in my studiously non-flirtatious, curious-but-only-in-the-interest-of-science tone of voice, pointing to the cat 'o nine tails.
"Yeah," he said. "We brought it." On closer examination, it was kind of like a leather feather duster.
I turned to George. "You could borrow that."
He eyed the flapping tassels dubiously. "That would not be stingy," he said. "That would hurt."
"Oh," I said, realizing that "stingy" was a technical description regarding the whipping power available in the implement. I wondered what the term was for the category that the cat o' nine tails did fit into. Hurty? Painy? I was learning a lot tonight.
Just then, the guy with whom I'd had the stare down in the downstairs vestibule appeared. Only now he was wearing a red silk kimono. Which made him look pretty harmless, not to mention slightly embarrassed.
"Did you bring that?" I asked.
"Yeah, I did," he replied. "It's actually very comfortable."
"Oh, huh…Did you, um, have a film in the festival?"
"No, a friend of mine did. I work on Wall Street. Are you a filmmaker?"
"Yeah, but, my film wasn't in the festival."
"Oh. Well, is it a feature or a documentary?"
Aside from the kimono, this was starting to feel like normal party conversation. Just then, George & Harry reappeared. They checked out Kimono Guy. Harry smirked mischievously.
"Hey, what you got under there?"
"Oh yeah. I mean, literally nothing. It's like a Ken doll under there, just totally flat, wipe it down with Windex."
I appreciated that he had a sense of humor about the situation. But at the same time, he had brought his own kimono.
Then all of a sudden, people started heading to the dungeon room. Raani, George and Harry were quicker on the uptake than I, so they actually got a viewing position on the leather couch ("We had a front-row seat!" Raani later told me), but by the time I got there, it was too packed to get in. I heard slapping and yelping, and over people's heads I could make out the bartendress astride the spanking horse doling out punishment to a woman who I thought I recognized as the one we'd seen at the lockers. She didn't look quite as nervous now, but maybe that was because her skirt was pulled up over her head.
"Pretty crazy, huh? Ever been to one of these before?"
I turned to see a 30-something guy in a goatee and button-down. Because he wasn't wearing a kimono, leather or something transparent and wasn't ogling, I assumed he was another civilian.
"No," I said. "Have you?"
"I came last year for the first time. I'm a producer, this year I had a film in the festival, about fetishes."
"Wow. That must've been interesting. I have to say I don't really get most of that stuff."
"Yeah, I never really understood the whole fetish thing either until I got involved with this film. But once you talk to people it kind of makes sense. Like in the film," he continued, "we have this guy who likes to have his girlfriend stick him with needles, in his arms and chest. It looks really awful."
"But then he explains that when he was a kid, he went to the doctor and watched his sister get a shot. And he swooned, and this nurse caught him and held him to her breast. And that was his first erotic experience."
"Interesting…" This is my favorite word, naturally, when in social anthropologist mode. It fills a lot of gaps in conversation. "So he knows where his fetish came from. I'd think that talking about it would kind of demystify it."
"No, actually, for fetishists, talking about fetishes is a very big part of the process. It gets them turned on. Anyway, from a distribution standpoint, there's a huge market for this stuff, and learning about that, I started to get more into the scene...Hi Lisa!" he yelled to a woman walking by in a very short skirt and revealing a leather thong. "She's the director of the festival. So what's your film about?"
Now if you're the kind of person who likes to answer the question, "Oh, what's your film about?" and watch people's eyes glaze over immediately -- and come on, who doesn't! -- go to a sex film festival party and try to tell people about your film, which has nothing to do with sex. The producer/distributor dude tried to be polite but kept looking over my head in the way that people do at networking parties when they're looking for the person who actually can help their career. Although I think he was looking for a different sort of opportunity, because a short time later, Harry said, "Oh look, there's the producer you were talking to getting spanked." I had never heard that sentence uttered before, but sure enough, it was true.
There was a lot of spanking. With that cat o' nine tails, but also with belts, gloves, and so on. At one point I was watching a woman lay a man in lacy, bright purple lingerie (no, that's not a grammatical mistake, it was the man wearing the lingerie) across her knees and spank him with various implements.
"Is that a brush?" I asked of nobody in particular.
"Yes, it is," replied a distinguished-looking older gentleman who was also observing the process. "People often use a brush for spanking." He pointed at the brush-wielding lady, who looked rather normal and middle-aged, aside from the lascivious grin on her face. "She's very experienced, she's written several books on spanking. Her last book was a how-to to teach men how to explain to their women how to spank them properly."
"Huh. I could see how someone might need help with that."
"I have a whole collection of silver Victorian brushes myself." He somehow managed to say this like it was the most normal thing in the world, the way someone in my world might say, "I have a collection of Bolexes," or, "I have a collection of original 35mm Hitchcock prints."
"Really…" This is another one of my favorite social anthropologist words. "How did you get into that?"
"Well, I've been a lifelong fetishist. But I was involved in a very vanilla relationship, and when I told her about my fetishes she was completely disgusted, so that's when I started looking into things. I've been in the scene now for about 11 years. I'm into Victorian pornography, which is very bondage oriented. An uptight society is very into punishment. It has a huge following in Britain."
"Why don't I find that surprising."
"I'm a longtime supporter of the festival and a close friend of Lisa's --"
"The woman in the leather thong?"
"Yes. Now what's your film about? I'm not a filmmaker myself but I'm very interested these sorts of things."
I sighed, but my inner publicist (who also only shows up after a few drinks) said, "Pitch! Maybe he's a rich dirty old man who also has an interest in non-fetishy topics."
I launched into a description of my film yet again and of course the conversation went nowhere very quickly. Also, the spanking the man had been spectating had ended and he was looking around uncomfortably.
"I don't generally come to the play parties."
I turned to to look where he was looking and saw that the dumpy guy in the tuxedo was performing conalingus on a different woman than the one he'd been pawing earlier -- next to another couple who were having full-on, doggy-style sexual intercourse. A few of the creepy men were looking on, while others had started to make their moves on other women, who seemed receptive.
"Wow," I said. "Wow." It wasn't pleasing to the eye, but it was hard to look away. Like with a train wreck. "So this is a play party? Are there other kinds of parties?"
"Oh yes," replied the man. "Haven't you seen the list?" He handed me a flyer, which read:
Chariot Club Winter Calendar
Feb 1st NYC Swingers Party
Feb 7th Jack and Jill Party
Feb 8th NYC Swingers Women Who Love Men Glory Hole Party
Feb 20th NYC Swingers Women Who Love Women Party
Feb 28th Sinsations.com Party
Mar 5th All Asian Swingers Party
Mar 9th Adult Socials Club Party
Mar 20th School of Sec Club Party
April 3rd Brother D All Women Party
My thoughts upon seeing this list were, in order: sex with buckets?; are there really that many Asian swingers or are there just a lot of men who like Asian swingers?; wasn't this all supposed to be for social adults?; unless they're advertising "School of Seconds," which does not evoke positive sexual connotations in either use of the word, that seems like the kind of typo you wouldn't make at a sex club; and why does Brother D get to throw the All Woman Party?
Basically, I still couldn't wrap my head around the appeal of what was going down around me. So to speak. Aside from the unattractiveness issue with the guys, which also involved their overall sleazy demeanor, if you were a member of this club, you'd see these same people again. Wouldn't that be just a bit strange once they'd all seen you have an orgasm? And what about the person you'd had sex with? Would you just be able to say, "No thanks, once was enough" the next time you saw him or her, and not have it be uncomfortable? Or have him or her say it and not feel like dirt? In other words, even in a world where this is all normal, can you really keep your emotions out of the fray? I could see men managing, perhaps, because men are good at stuffing their feelings away and leaping right in. Like Kimono Guy, he just said "What the heck, I'm gonna go kimono and see what happens!" In contrast, Nervous Locker Woman clearly was feeling all sorts of conflicting shit.
And that's the thing about us women. I do know plenty who sleep around as much as men do, but honestly…most of them really are looking for intimacy. And whatever this party was, it was the opposite of intimate. I guess I have a hard time believing, at bottom, that that isn't what we all want. Don't we all, as human beings, want a good cuddle afterwards? I just couldn't see anyone getting a good cuddle here.
I caught sight of Raani, also looking like she was in overload.
"I think I've had enough," I said.
"Yeah," said Raani. "Should we say goodbye to George and Harry?"
George was sitting on the porn couch watching the porn. He seemed bored but wasn't ready to leave yet. We looked around for Harry as we headed toward the door. He was sitting on a couch in one of the side rooms, deep in conversation with the bartendress. He looked up long enough to wave. We headed out.
"Sorry that didn't work out," I said.
"It's okay," said Raani. "I wasn't in the mood any more."
"I know," I said, "Who could believe that a sex party could be such a turn-off?"
"Yeah, all I really wanted was to make out with him," sighed Raani. "You were talking to that old guy for a really long time."
"He knew a lot about spanking. You never know when that sort of information will come in handy."
I saw the odd look Raani was giving me. "For material!"
And I started writing this blog on the train on the way home.