Hurts So Good
Inside Middle Tennessee's S/M subculture
By Michael Sims, photos by Eric England
MARCH 15, 1999:
Editor's Note: The names in this article, except for the professional names Kia and Rex, are fictitious.
Her ad, in the swinger/alternative magazine Nashville Times, reads: "Lady Kia. A Registered Nurse who can provide complete loving, sensual, erotic domination, intense painful pleasure, and erotic mind control to those select individuals who earn the privilege of serving her."
S/M is shorthand for "sadomasochism," which a dictionary will tell you is an interaction in which one person enjoys inflicting physical or mental suffering on another person who enjoys receiving it. Apparently the need to humiliate is quite matched up out there with the need to be humiliated.
While this sounds like it can apply to many families and even some offices, in general it refers to more carnal relationships. No doubt there are private versions, but the public manifestation--what is referred to as "the S/M subculture"--includes such colorful paraphernalia as whips, spanking benches, and medieval-looking racks. It goes a bit beyond tying up your lover with silk scarves for a little naughty foreplay.
Whatever your mental image of a dominatrix may be, Lady Kia probably doesn't fit it. A 40-something mother of two children, she is friendly and articulate. She is an adjunct professor at a university in the Middle Tennessee region, and a registered nurse. She holds a bachelor's degree in emergency medical care, two master's degrees in sociology and medical anthropology, and a doctorate in emotionally disturbed behavior. She is also certified K-12 in most special education categories.
Not surprisingly, with her busy schedule, Kia is not a full-time dominatrix. She does not make a living from the S/M culture, but does it because it is her chosen lifestyle. Nowadays she is frequently an activist and consultant on S/M issues. Occasionally she still performs paid sessions with select clients, and says that the money goes back into supporting the group.
"That [Nashville Times] ad is the only advertising I have right now," says Kia, who requested that her real name not be used in this story. "A lot of people find me on the Internet, just in searches. But the main thing I do now is repeats with folks who've been to me before. I've worked with some people for six or seven years."
For the last six years, Kia and her husband, Rex, have headed the Middle Tennessee chapter of the international S/M group called the Rose-N-Thorn Guild. (Their motto: "Keep the roses, give us the thorns."). The chapter was founded in Clarksville almost 12 years ago by a woman called Mistress Kay. Today, the organization has nearly 300 members from a six-state area, with regular attendance each Saturday night of between 25 and 55. The membership dues are $35 a year for an individual, $50 for a couple, plus a suggested door fee. This income pays taxes and utilities, maintains the Web page, and pays for the newsletter.
"This is not a commercial enterprise," Kia explains. "We are in the red. We are a support group. We don't show erotic videos. We don't serve alcohol. We don't have exotic dancers."
What they do have is a great deal of arcane (and sometimes alarming) expertise, a permanent meeting place, and a shockingly well-equipped dungeon.
Your Local S/M ExpertsAny field requires expertise and begets consultants. S/M is no exception. An activity as potentially dangerous naturally demands leaders that are not only authoritarian but also authoritative. "We're the local experts," Kia says simply.
Like all disciplines, S/M has its own vocabulary. There are dominants (doms) and submissives (subs), tops and bottoms, safe words, and the great variety of amusements that fall under the general term "play."
"People are gonna play," Kia insists. "Period. You're not going to stop people from playing. So they need to find out how to play safely. The bywords of all groups like this are safe, sane, and consensual. Safe and sane are relative terms; consensual is an absolute. What I might think is safe, you might think is nuts. What I might think is sane, you might think is way out there. But consensual is totally non-negotiable."
As the French philosopher Michel Foucault recently observed, "S/M as an organized subculture is built upon trust." Kia points out that, because of this carefully established trust, there are some short-term ways to forego the rule of consent. "You can consent to give up consent. You can say, 'Okay, for this next hour in this session, or for the rest of my life, I give myself to you, and anything you tell me I will do, and I don't have a right to say no.' But all it takes to break that contract is one person saying, 'I'm not playing anymore. I quit.' Then it's no longer consensual, and it's illegal."
Violations of this rule are not tolerated under any circumstances. To the suggestion that the rationale for such behavior is that it endangers the group, Kia says flatly, "No. It's simply immoral."
People in a session establish in advance a safe word that will instantly end the proceedings. An example of a rare violation of this rule occurred before Kia took over the group. Once Mistress Kay, the founder from Clarksville, was hosting a meeting at her home. A female dom from Memphis was "playing" a male sub when he called out his safe word. Apparently caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, she ignored the word. But the Dungeon Master heard it and interrupted the session.
As Kia describes it, "The woman was immediately escorted to the door, evicted, and has not been allowed--and would not be allowed--to come back to another gathering. The best way to get yourself ostracized from the community is to get the reputation of ignoring safe words.
"We are a support group," Kia maintains. "People can call up and say, 'Tell me about candle waxing.' There's a way to wax where it's fun and erotic, and there's a way to wax where you can blister somebody. Or how do you tie somebody to the bed without causing carpal tunnel or nerve damage in their hands? Don't use handcuffs, because they're not padded, and they can rub across the joint. What parts of the body can you flog and what parts can you not? Which pieces of equipment should you use on which parts of the body?"
In one demonstration, members placed a male sub on the floor with a map of safe flogging areas outlined in lipstick on his body. Afterward he volunteered to serve as a practice dummy for people learning how to flog. "He loved every minute of it," Kia adds.
Frequently people call Kia and describe a procedure that intrigues them and ask how to go about it or if it's dangerous. "Sometimes I have to say, 'Fine, go ahead, if you want to wake up dead. This is not a safe activity.' "
One surprising problem is the relatively simple act of bondage. "There's something comforting about being tied up," Madonna claims in her unintentionally hilarious book Sex. "Like when you were a baby and your mother strapped you in the car seat. She wanted you to be safe. It was an act of love."
Kia disagrees with the Material Girl's take on being tied up: "Bondage is the number one most dangerous thing people can play. People don't realize that." She explains that in the ancient world most crucifixions did not require impalement with nails. The victims were simply hung with their arms tied overhead and eventually the strain on their chest muscles collapsed their lungs and they suffocated. The moral is: Do not attempt this in your home.
Beat Me in St. LouisWith beautiful irony, the Rose-N-Thorn Guild's official meeting place is a former daycare center--a small and unassuming house on a dead-end street in an overlooked corner of Nashville. After years of the Guild rootlessly wandering, Kia and her husband Rex bought the house to serve as both a permanent meeting place and their home when they're in Nashville.
Every Saturday evening there's a social gathering between 7 and 10, followed by private festivities. "Nobody is guaranteed anything when they show up at the door," Kia says, "except that they can come in, and if they are a member or the guest of a member they can stay after ten o'clock. Otherwise you have to leave at ten." After 10 p.m., attendees enter through the smoking area outside the back door. No light leaks out from around the covered windows, but the sound of a party can be heard from outside.
Federico Fellini would have loved this scene on a recent Saturday night. A man who is stark naked except for a chain-mail collar is carrying a birthday cake to a topless woman, while everyone nearby sings, "Happy birthday, dear Amy." She blows on the candles and everyone applauds. Another naked man, extravagantly pot-bellied, chats with a woman whose natural gifts far exceed the capacity of her garter belt, panties, and bra. A slender man in extremely tight black leather shorts sips a 7-Up and smiles at passersby.
The mix of people includes an attractive twenty-something couple wearing black leather jackets, a long-haired truckdriver sort with a camouflage cap, and a number of almost-naked women and men ranging the spectrum of sizes and shapes. Mostly white, the crowd of 65 or so includes a handful of African Americans, including one attractive middle-aged couple. There are so many people in the little house that everyone is constantly saying "Excuse me" and trying not to bump into the nearest naked person. It's a polite, friendly crowd.
Lady Kia stops chatting with the regulars and cordially welcomes visitors into the living room/office. She's wearing a black leather bustier with chain straps and a black leather skirt. She explains the routine: A disclaimer form requires each visitor's name (and alias, if applicable) and a signature, but the records are kept locked away in another town. Privacy is essential. Local members, she says, include people in politics and other high-profile fields. There is even one cross-dressing law enforcement officer who comes to Kia for his makeup. To assist the considerable number of cross-dressing men in the group, Kia became a makeup dealer.
Visitors choose between a number of coded adhesive name badges: Gold tells the insiders that you are a dominant or top; red advertises you as a submissive or bottom; blue indicates a switch (someone who does both sides); green is for other interests such as cross dressing or a specific fetish, or even the nonplaying partner of a player; and unbordered white declares that you are just looking and probably don't even know what the hell you're doing here. (The term for people completely outside the scene is "vanilla.")
Two middle-aged men and an attractive younger woman come in together, looking like they're trying not to look apprehensive. When they hear Kia's description of the color-coded labels, each chooses innocent white. Some of the people in the front room wear more official-looking badges that identify them as Dungeon Masters or other roles. Badges for regulars hang by the door.
The room is not exactly medieval: desk, sofa, TV and stereo, a few scattered chairs. A posterboard chart outlines the Guild's progress toward its tax fund goal, paid for by dues, door fees, and consignment sales. Another poster schedules meetings of various special interest sub-groups.
In case the crowd doesn't prove you're in the right place, the decor has a definite theme. Scribbled over two dates on the calendar is the line "Beat me in St. Louis." The cover of a magazine called Assertive Woman shows a woman asserting both her anatomy and her willingness to take fashion risks. Above the sign You Try It, You Buy It, one wall displays consignment items--woven leather whips, a T-shirt showing a nude woman tied to a chair. A poster labeled "Asses of the Month" consists of an array of Polaroids showing naked male and female posteriors, which either have been recently spanked or just naturally have ruddy cheeks. Nearby is a sign announcing the meeting times of ASS, the Adult Spanking Society.
Kia explains the calendar: "The fourth Friday night is the Spankers Only interest group. The second Wednesday is a Submissive Ladies interest group, a support group for women who just want to come and talk, because it's not politically correct in this day and age to admit that you want to be submissive to your husband. We also have a new Leather Parent group, and a new group just for cross-dressers."
In a little room off the kitchen is a table with two-liter Big K colas, vegetable hors d'oeuvre plates, chips, and pretzels. It looks innocent and domestic until you see the refrigerator magnet that declares, There Are Two Kinds of People in the World--Those Who Leave a Mark, and Those Who Leave a Stain.
Two Kinds of PeopleOne room of the house is called the dungeon. It has dark green walls that subdue the light cast by several sconces on a dimmer switch. In the corner a psychedelic light spirals. A sign warns:
Who You See Here
The walls are covered with an impressive variety of pain-inducing toys, everything from the folded-rope whip once favored by the British navy to the rubber billy clubs carried in South Africa by Apartheid-era cops. There are canes, ping-pong paddles, chains, ropes, what looks nostalgically like a hickory switch, even medicinal-looking rubber tubing (for bondage, not for needle drugs).
There is a first-aid kit on the wall. Kia mentions reassuringly that she is a registered nurse and Rex is an EMT, and adds that a sizable percentage of members are medical professionals.
One of the disconcerting things about Kia is her hobbyist's enthusiasm as she explains the craftsmanship that went into producing a certain instrument, and the best way of using it to produce the intended effect. There are a couple of heavy split-rubber paddles lovingly crafted for her by a 75-year-old man who has long been a supportive member of the Guild. One bears the carved inscription "Kia's Little Stinger." A gift from a different member is a wooden paddle that reads "Kia's Board of Education."
Leaning against the wall is a one-by-six pine board with cords attached. It turns out to be a sort of Home Depot version of a charming little toy supposedly dating from the Inquisition. Kia explains that it is called a "bishop's horse."
Not every item has such an impressive pedigree. During December Kia spent a drive to Memphis turning heavy gold Christmas tinsel into a Yule flog. It looks about as frightening as a loofah mitten, but when expertly used it turns into a pom-pom for a cheerleader from hell.
She points out an iron-barred cage constructed by the same Kentucky lesbian couple who also provided the lighting sconces. "It had been sitting in their living room," Kia explains, "and they decided they would rather it be here." To a claustrophobe it might seem just about the right size for crate-training a fox terrier, but Kia insists it's useful for all sorts of fun and games, and is essential decor in any fully furnished dungeon.
During their tour of the house, one of the newcomers asks Kia how often the festivities in the dungeon include actual sexual intercourse. After a moment's thought she estimates the frequency as perhaps once every three or four months.
"Jeez," the man mutters, "taxis and elevators see more action."
"People don't come here for sex," Kia explains.
What people come here for depends upon the person. One man never touches anyone else, never spanks or gets spanked. He simply takes off his clothes and walks around naked, chatting, serving Cokes. Another, whether here alone or in the crowd, sheds his street clothes, puts on high heels and a dog collar, and proceeds to vacuum, dust, and clean the toilet. A couple of men have been attending the Saturday evening meetings for years without participating. They just watch.
"The S/M aspect interests a large portion of our members, but it doesn't have to be there," Kia says. "A couple I know here in town are very into the dominant/submission. She doesn't work; she meets him at the door naked and kneeling. If he's home, she doesn't go to the bathroom without his permission. It would drive me crazy." She shakes her head.
"There's no right way except the right way for the individual," she adds. "Some people live the lifestyle 24/7--24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other people just put it on as a way to spice up a married sex life."
One of the visitors pulls an elegant dagger from its sheath on the wall and innocently asks, "What's this for?" as if he expects it to be for dicing carrots.
"Close your eyes," Kia murmurs, "and I'll show you."
He closes his eyes. Kia runs the blade and point of the dagger across the man's neck and throat and cheek. At which point he mutters, "I have never felt more vanilla."
Mama Told Me Not to ComeBy now there are at least 30 people in the dungeon, many of them merely watching the antics of the more adventurous guests. An attractive woman wearing only a garter belt and stockings stands spread-eagled against an X-shaped rack in the corner, while a handsome young man gently whips and fondles her. Kia explains that she is his "toy," and that usually his wife comes along to join them but tonight she isn't well.
Nearby a smiling woman is using a variety of what appear to be riding crops to whip a naked man in time with "Puttin' on the Ritz." The song ends and is replaced by Prince's "1999," and she grins and alters her rhythm. On a chair, an elderly man drones on to a woman seated on the floor at his feet about "sustaining multiple orgasms, I mean seriously."
A leather-and-vinyl bed hangs from the ceiling on chains. A man wearing nothing but a blindfold and a sequined thong clutches two of the four chains, writhing and moaning as a woman slowly creates a Jackson Pollock painting on his torso and groin with dribbles of red and black candle wax. He seems to find the experience satisfying, if not exactly comfortable.
Afterward a scowling Dungeon Master comes over to complain to the woman that she didn't use a tarp on the floor. Now, he says, the carpet has wax all over it.
"I didn't know where the tarps were," the woman protests.
"You didn't bother to ask, did you?"
Later a woman who is waxing a man is heard to remark, in a tone that indicates she may teach preschool by day, "We have to clean up our toys before we move to the next play station."
A spanking bench, like a well-upholstered sawhorse, stands in the middle of the floor. A slender, handsome man strolls over to it and begins to take off his clothes. Nude, he turns to put his clothes on a chair--and coins and car keys fall out of his pants pocket. Still nude, he gets down on his hands and knees to gather the stuff. His nudity isn't noteworthy here, but dropping the coins seems to embarrass him. Then he bends over the bench and a woman begins to spank him with various paddles.
He isn't the only one who seems to have been a bad boy. On a table in the corner, a woman sits with a naked man across her lap. She spanks him first with her hand and then with paddles and other toys. At the moment she's using a slotted wooden spoon. She looks down at his face smushed into the table and laughs. "Are you smiling? We'll fix that."
A large percentage of attendees are couples, either married or dating. This evening one such pair, identified by their badges as Sally and Wendell, stroll into the dungeon. Sally casually leans over the recently vacated spanking bench and flips her dress up around her waist--revealing a conspicuous lack of underwear.
The first-time woman whispers to her companion, "I think I recognize her from 'Asses of the Month.' "
The man indicates a nearby sign: NO TALKING IN DUNGEON DURING A SCENE.
But Sally herself is violating the rule. She props her elbow on the bench and leans her chin on her hand--chatting all the while. "I find all this stuff on the Web and I'm like, 'That looks like fun.' And then I get here and I'm like, 'What am I doing?' " She rolls her eyes.
"Sally's very imaginative," Kia says. Meanwhile Wendell is looking around the dungeon for Sally's latest brainstorm: a coaxial cable. Soon he is--carefully but enthusiastically--applying it to her naked rear. Sally stops chatting.
For several members the public festivities serve as exhibitionistic foreplay. Later, as Wendell and his underwearless wife depart, Sally calls out, "We're going home; we're horny."
With a smile the female newcomer asks, "So is this kinky or perverted?"
"Remember that old joke?" her companion explains to Kia. "Using feathers is kinky; using the whole chicken is perverted."
The question comes up again when the newcomers find Kia's husband Rex and another man sprawled on the sofa, watching a video of two women attaching clothes pins to a man's scrotum. Rex is analyzing the women's technique.
Toward the end of the evening a shy, well-dressed man named Barry asks Kia to "play" him. Normally when he is present Barry is owned by a woman named Andrea, a post-op transsexual who, besides whipping him, humiliates her toy by making him crawl naked on the floor while pulling a little cart harnessed to his genitals. This evening Andrea is absent, and Kia agrees to play Barry. She warns the newcomers that, on an S/M intensity scale of 1-10, Barry rates about a 7, and adds, "You may not want to see it."
Naturally they want to see it. They file back into the dungeon, where Barry, already naked, his clothes piled neatly on a chair, is leaning up against the X-shaped rack. He ignores everyone except Kia, who begins spanking him with wooden paddles. Gradually she proceeds to more dangerous-looking items--a couple of small whips, a flog made of strips of heavy rubber. At each new stage she asks Barry if he wants to go on, and he replies with the requisite, "Yes, ma'am."
She asks, "It's been a hell of a week, hasn't it?"
"Everything just piles up, doesn't it?"
The whipping becomes more and more intense. Kia, who is by now snapping huge rubber bands at Barry's penis, encourages him to let it all out. Barry seems to be trying to evict whatever demons have taken residence since his last purge. Tentatively at first, then more passionately, he summons a couple of screams that sound almost incidental to the whipping. Now and then Kia pauses to half-hug him. At last, she tenderly whispers to him, cuddles him, and talks him down. The only visible damage is that Barry's back looks sunburned. After awhile he pulls on silk boxer shorts, then his other clothes, and shyly leaves the dungeon.
Good Old-Fashioned SexThe majority of humanity admits, at least publicly, to little interest in S/M. Thanks to everything from heroin chic videos to the fashion shots of Helmut Newton, however, the formerly scandalous images of sadomasochism are now a part of popular culture.
"The more S/M comes above ground and into the realm of fashion the less dangerous it becomes," Linda Grant writes in her book Sexing the Millennium, "and one suspects that the real sadomasochists must be waiting for their 15 minutes of fame to pass so they can get back to having a good time without all the tiresome theorizing."
Just how much fun, you may ask, can such pastimes be? Are these people simply looking for love in all the wrong places? Many people would say yes. But novelist and biographer Edmund White says of S/M devotees that "their sex lives, one might say, so thoroughly drain off the normal reservoir of nastiness that they emerge as relatively benign human beings."
Merely the mention of S/M inspired an unsolicited testimonial from one Nashvillian: "I guess I just like good old-fashioned sex." The popularity of good old-fashioned sex is unlikely to wane any time soon. But there has always been a spectrum of people drawn to variations. They range from those who feel that the same old routine can use some occasional spice to those in whom, for whatever reason, pleasure and pain are hopelessly entangled. It seems that nowadays both ends of the spectrum, and the vast range between, have no trouble meeting their needs in Nashville.
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