50 shades of Sacramento
In search of answers, our writer gets chained up and slapped around by Sacto’s BDSM community
It’s the most beautiful of days, the kind where the blurry sun cowers in the presence of the commanding blue sky. Yet, I’m not enjoying the weather. Instead, I’m traveling up Interstate 80 to Rocklin, nervous as all hell, because I’m about to meet up with Gene Robinson, a man who will eventually let me into his house and lead me to his dungeon.
This journey into the world of dungeon torture is less about personal fetishes but rather rooted in a perverse curiosity about the Fifty Shades of Grey book series—E.L. James’ wildly successful (and wildly vilified) trilogy that superficially uses the bondage, discipline and sadomasochism—BDSM—lifestyle as a major plot point.
While the books are mostly a bastardization of the BDSM culture, there’s no denying their popularity; the impact of Fifty Shades is so great, that libraries struggle to keep up with demand. The Sacramento Public Library, for instance, can barely keep a copy of the book in stock, due to the overflow of requests.
“It’s an unusually high amount,” a dumbfounded clerk tells me. “A lot of people are requesting it.”
Now, as my car buzzes through Sacramento’s outskirts, I become increasingly jittery thinking of an email exchange I had earlier with another man tied to the BDSM community: Daddy Kyle House, the president of the Sacramento Valley Leathermen. I’d asked him about BDSM—what it is, how it works, if it’s safe—and he replied quickly and politely:
“Some BDSM activities are very light in nature, while others are very intense and require a good deal of what we call ‘aftercare,’” he wrote.
The car is already in motion, however and the dungeon is waiting—there’s no turning back now.
Torture: a beginner’s guide
BDSM is a catchall phrase for two different subcultures that both practice extreme erotic encounters: bondage and discipline, which emphasizes restraint and control; and sadomasochism, which focuses on the infliction of pain and humiliation between consenting adults.
Some say the BDSM subculture got its start as early as the ritual whippings of ancient Sparta, but it really took hold, from a cultural standpoint, post-World War II, according to Larry Townsend’s The Original Leatherman’s Handbook, which details the cultural practices of homosexual sadomasochists in the ’60s and ’70s.
Most recently, however, BDSM has poked its leather hood up from beneath the underworld on account of Fifty Shades of Grey, which tells the story of young Anastasia Steele, a literature student who stumbles her way into a relationship with a rich, powerful sadomasochist named Christian Grey. In a nutshell, Fifty Shades, which started out as James’ attempt at Twilight-inspired fan fiction, is the tale of a moronic idiot and her uncanny suitor, Grey, an alpha-male douche bag who’s there to catch her clumsy ass in his meaty, sadistic arms.
If you’re wondering, here’s some dialogue:
“You are quite the disciplinarian,” I hiss.
“Oh, Anastasia, you have no idea.”
The book goes on like that for hundreds of pages—it’s condescending, sexist, cheap and ridiculous, yet has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, beating the Harry Potter series as the fastest selling paperback of all time.
And still, for all its success, Fifty Shades doesn’t teach the reader anything about BDSM.
And it certainly does nothing to shed light on the cracked, leathery, brutal and strange BDSM that people are actually practicing here in the cloak of Sacramento’s sexual subculture. In fact, many in the local BDSM subculture haven’t even read the book at all.
No, to understand what really happens in the Sacramento BDSM culture, beyond the realm of best-selling soccer-mom porn, I decide to meet up with BDSM veteran Sacramento Valley Leathermen (or LeatherCorps) president Daddy Kyle House, who upon my arrival, holds up his leather motorcycle-style vest emblazoned with the organization’s logo (an outline of California with a heart in the valley) like a trophy.
“This is a standard piece of gear,” he says, proudly. “It’s a rite of passage.”
It turns out the BDSM scene is full of rites of passage—rules, regulations and codes of conduct—complete with lingo and even a colored-handkerchief system that a professional cryptologist might have trouble deciphering. House explains BDSM as if he’s reading from an instruction manual. It’s impressive, if not tedious.
Perhaps the real rules of BDSM are just as tedious (but way less hilarious) as James’ fictional rules for the submissive Anastasia Steele. Christian Grey’s protocol of dominance covers everything from exercise to personal safety, hygiene and beauty:
“The Submissive will keep herself clean and shaved and/or waxed at all times. The Submissive will visit a beauty salon of the Dominant’s choosing at times to be decided by the Dominant. … No acts involving fire play. … No acts involving gynecological medical instruments.”
And so on—who would have thought something as carnal as leather and chains could be so well-regulated, even in a work of fiction?
The culture, it turns out, House explains, is one steeped in military and religious protocol.
“Some of it looks just like the Roman Catholic Church,” House says. “But without all the religious stuff.”
But for all its cuts and scrapes and bumps and bruises, BDSM is more than twisted, sexual misconduct, House explains. From what I can tell, at its core, BDSM is about an exchange of power, the relationship between the submissive and the dominant. It represents trust—physical, mental and sexual—but above all, BDSM is an exercise that tests the boundaries of human relationships. Really, how many people would you trust on a Friday night with a set of handcuffs, chains, blindfolds and a butt plug?
Safe play and other rules of conduct
To find out if BDSM actually is a test of human boundaries or whether the elevated spiritual talk is simply an excuse for sexual depravity, it’s time to connect with the Sacramento BDSM scene: a BDSM meet-up at the Denny’s in north Sacramento. The event, advertised online as a “Newcomers’ Munch,” seems like the perfect place to dig around for answers.
I park in the lot and stand in the dark, shabby lobby looking around for people who might be into BDSM—perhaps a woman with a dog collar or an overweight dude with a ponytail and a strange glint in his eye—but what does a typical BDSM participant actually look like?
A waitress walks by and notices my confusion.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Is there a, uh, meeting here?” I all but wink at her.
“In the back room,” she says, uninterested, pointing toward a secluded part of the restaurant sectioned off by a windowed wall and a door.
There, I find a group of mostly older men and women.
“Is this the BDSM meet-up?”
An old woman with curly white hair looks horrified. She scowls.
“No,” she says. “This is a church group.”
Not exactly the kind of power exchange I’m looking for.
Defeated, I meet up next with Sacramento fetish photographer Vihil Heather Vigil, a woman who understands the power exchange well. Vigil makes a living by taking artistic photographs of both straight and gay couples in the midst of bondage scenes. Rope bondage is her specialty.
This fascination with BDSM, she says, started with a preoccupation with the shape of the human form, which intrigued her enough to enroll in Humboldt State University’s art-history program. There, she also landed a side-job at a lingerie boutique; that’s where her interest in the BDSM subculture flourished, and she learned how to be a spanker and dungeon monitor, a sort of security guard for the BDSM community who made sure the erotic play at gatherings was consensual, clean (meaning no drugs or alcohol) and, of course, safe.
“There are various parts of the body that are ‘no’ zones,” she says. “You don’t want to hit heavy where the internal organs are directly underneath your impact point; you don’t want to put your bindings so tight that they’re losing circulation; you never want to suspend somebody and gag them at the same time, because it’s going to inhibit their breathing.”
Vigil’s never actually read the Fifty Shades trilogy but, she says, it’s been recommended to her on numerous occasions.
“As long it’s [clear] that it’s not just a bunch of uneducated people beating each other to cause harm,” she says of the book. “And as long as [BDSM] is not trivialized, then I don’t mind it.”
Vigil probably shouldn’t pick up a copy of the novel. Ever.
Fifty Shades of Grey is, if anything, the most trivial book in the history of literature; James’ BDSM pits feminine weakness against masculine domination whereas actual BDSM doesn’t seek to reinforce gender stereotypes and is virtually genderless. Although Fifty Shades reads like a 514-page rape fantasy, there’s also an inherent charm in ridiculous lines such as:
“Christian is running his hands through his hair and pacing up and down his study.
Two hands—that’s double exasperation.”
The rules and regulations of attraction
It’s evident that, like the Leathermen president House, Vigil is serious about BDSM: Her discourse focuses on rules and regulations, but also about the power exchange, an element that is almost untraceable in Fifty Shades.
Fifty Shades is predatory, but in BDSM, the relationship between the sub and the dom is almost symbiotic in its ability to feed both participants.
“I’m very protective of those that allow me to tie them up,” Vigil explains. “I realize I’m in control of their senses—whether they can see or whether they have been gagged … they’re trusting me with their well-being.”
Her attention to protocol mimics the strict rules of the Sacramento Valley Leathermen. BDSM, for many, is a very serious business that’s not as simple as the world depicted in E.L. James’ story of sexual release. Rather, this is about a sacred trust between human beings.
And, of course, rules. Lots of rules.
So, naturally, I feel bad when I decide to skip protocol, ignore all the rules and try out BDSM for myself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never just jump into the lifestyle without knowing what you’re getting into.
I post an ad on Craigslist nonetheless:
“I need to learn about BDSM. I am willing to travel outside of Sacramento. I am not a creepy asshole, just a young guy with a dream: to learn about the magical world of BDSM. As long as you’re not a rapist, I’m OK with whatever.”
Ten minutes after the ad posts, my inbox is full of messages from men wishing to teach me about BDSM. One email simply says, “I have pics if you have blood in your veins.”
Of all the responses, though, my favorite is from Gene Robinson, simply because he attaches dozens of the most disturbing pictures I’ve seen in quite some time: tied-up testicles, nipple clamps digging into flesh, a man (presumably Robinson himself) in a leather mask with a ball gag clogging his mouth hole.
We set a time to meet at his home dungeon.
And so, after that long, nerve-wracked drive to Rocklin, I knock on Robinson’s door in his surprisingly upscale gated community. I realize that I should tell someone where I’ll be—an email or text message—in case I end up in the arms of a madman, but here, my phone gets no reception.
I wait for what seems like an hour until I hear the knob twist open. And there he is, a 66-year-old man with close-cropped orange hair and a beard I recognize immediately from his pictures. He sticks out his hand, and I shake it anxiously.
“Come in,” he says, smiling.
His house is dark, decorated with old paintings and little statues, into a smoke-filled, cluttered back room with a large TV, a computer and a couple of chairs. It’s a normal suburban home, for the most part, except for, well, the metal hooks on the ceiling.
We each take a seat, and I’m wondering where to begin.
“So what is BDSM?” I ask.
Robinson, who agreed to be photographed for this story, flicks out a cigarette, smiles and puts a DVD into the television. “Watch this,” he said, handing me the remote control. “But if you get offended, turn it off.”
“Offended?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ve had a couple people run out of here.”
The DVD plays. Over a soundtrack of ominous organ music, pictures depicting explicit torture flash on the screen—balls tied with ropes, penises in vice clamps, hot wax dripped on reddened genitalia, et al—but none of it’s really offensive, and when the video ends, it’s clear I’ve passed the test.
The truth, chains and other tools of discomfort
Robinson tells me to help him set up his dungeon, which consists of a series of ropes, chains, toys, leather straps, dildos, butt plugs, and other tools and confounding contraptions.
We work slowly. For a half-hour Robinson stands on a ladder hooking up chains and ropes to the ceiling while I wonder silently if this is the room in which I will die. When he’s done, finally, he sits in his chair, exhausted, sweating and out of breath. He lights up another cigarette.
“So, ask me some questions,” he says.
I ask him about the gas mask, leather hood, clamps and some bondage chains.
“Want to try?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, not convinced that I actually I want to do anything.
He smashes out his cigarette, gets up, then tells me to turn around while he stands behind me. He places leather cuffs around my arms, securing my hands in the front with a strip of chain link. Then, he places cuffs around my ankles and a wooden bar between my legs so they can’t move. It’s a helpless feeling, being chained up and incapacitated. My body begins to tremble.
“Get on your knees and kneel against the chair,” he says.
He produces a wooden paddle from his bag of toys and approaches me, sliding down my shorts with both hands, pulling my boxers to my knees until I’m completely naked. And then he begins to paddle me. Slap, slap, slap, slap, slap. Five slaps on each cheek. It’s painful. More painful than I imagined. A rush of incongruous thoughts flood my mind:
I wonder if my legs look fat?
At least I went running today.
Should I have shaved my body for this?
The slapping continues. I can feel my ass reddening. It’s almost unbearable.
“Ouch!” I cry out, finally. I can’t take it anymore.
“It hurts?” he asks. I can almost see Robinson smiling wickedly through his red beard, but I’m chained up in such a way that I can’t actually turn around to see him.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s very painful.”
“Should I continue?” he prods.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sure. Keep going.”
Robinson continues, but I don’t feel much other than pain and maybe some embarrassment. He doesn’t suffocate me; he doesn’t touch me with his hands; he doesn’t attempt to have sex with me, as I suspected he might; he simply smacks me until I tell him to stop.
At no point in our session do I feel the fictitious, giddy, weakness of Anastasia Steele, nor do I feel the fabricated, tortuous domination of Christian Grey. What I feel is quite real: the weighty presence of the man standing before me, his unclasping my wrists and feet, loosening the chains wrapped firmly around my torso, seeing me to the door, hugging me goodbye, and thanking me profusely for our odd little exchange.
While it’s disturbing that a light-witted person such as E.L. James can make millions publishing Fifty Shades of Grey—a misinformed sex novel that banks on humanity’s worst stereotypes—some authentic, compelling truths about bondage exist within Sacramento’s bondage community—a thriving scene full of strange characters and a million-and-one stories.
You just have to know where to look.