I’m not quite sure how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it: Washingtonians are kinky.
Based on a 2014 report, more than 11,000 residents in D.C., Maryland and Virginia participate in BDSM. Based on population size, this makes Washington, D.C., the kinkiest place in the nation.
California based pornography giant Kink.com recently published an article rating the 10 kinkiest cities in the U.S. It listed D.C. as number five based on porn consumption habits. I spoke with Mike Stabile, Kink.com’s communication director. He explained that Kink’s article used data on users of Kink.com combined with data from FetLife.
So is D.C. the capital of kink? And if so, what does that say about us?
Because ‘No’ Is Naughty
Ana (“no last name please”) is in her 50s and wears the age very well. She’s wearing tight black pants, posh high heels and a soft, thin black sweater. I ask her why she thinks BDSM — often referred to as kink — is so popular in the District. She looks down at her expensive shoe wear and tucks a thick strand of long, brown hair behind her ear as she considers my question.
“I’m something they can never have and that’s something that’s very arousing to them,” she says. “I think when you’re constantly told yes, there’s something very naughty about no.”
Ana lives and works in Washington, D.C. She is a professional dominatrix.
The first time I met Ana was over coffee. Before she would agree to be interviewed, she wanted to meet me and talk about the angle I was looking for. Past press of doms in the District has not gone over well with the BDSM community. As we chatted over lattes, she was surprisingly easy going.
“People have this expectation I walk around with a whip all the time yelling and being really rude,” she says laughing. “There is a time and place for everything.”
Ana says she sees about five clients each week, but never for sex. Let me repeat that: Ana does not sleep with her clients. And, she says, neither do any of her ‘pro-dom’ friends.
She says the professional dominatrices in D.C. are more low key than others nationally. Some of this is for privacy, which, she says, is a necessity in this area given the careers and high profiles of her clientele.
When a potential client contacts Ana, she sets up a place for them to meet over dinner or drinks to discuss what they are looking for. She gives them a form to fill out that has them rate the type of play they are interested in. She reviews the form and then comes up with a scenario. They discuss it, make adjustments and set a date. The form also details what is expected of them during the session. The rules include bringing Ana a handwritten thank you card and dressing in a suit and tie.
“You’re going to walk right in feeling like a million dollars and you’re going to walk out that way too,” says Ana.
“Just open up and talk. You’d be surprised by how much that other person in your life is craving such similar things.— Advice from Ana the dom
When the client arrives for the session, Ana has them kneel to watch as she transforms herself in to her professional dominatrix persona. She says she may show a little leg, but nothing more. Then before play begins, she goes over their safe word — an agreed upon word used to stop activity during play.
Ana says the clients’ requests vary from wanting to watch her change boots to flogging. She says there is a misconception that what she does is brutal. She describes her services as much more erotic, trusting and fun than what is perceived.
The majority of Ana’s clients are male but she says she does have some female clients. Many of them come to her to learn how to do things for their significant others.
“My ultimate goal is to help people become so comfortable with it that they go home and go ‘Look honey! This spoon is not just a spoon anymore!’ and they can put a little play in to their life and not be afraid of it and not feel dirty and wrong.”
It’s 7 p.m. and Julie Fennell stands in front of a class of 150 people at George Washington University. Tonight’s lecture is “Why People Do BDSM.”
Fennell, a professor of sociology at Gallaudet University, has a doctorate from Brown and studies sexuality, contraception and gender. For months, Fennell has conducted interviews across the mid-Atlantic, asking one question: To what extent do people engage in BDSM for sexual or erotic reasons?
Fennell has a serious edge over the few other researchers who have studied kink. She has been an active member of the BDSM community for five years. She is the only person who has researched the scene as an out kinkster herself.
All eyes are on Fennell as she clicks to her first slide and begins presenting the findings from her research.
Fennel found that while sex is the main motivation for many kinksters, it is adamantly not the motivation for others. She found a large portion of them that did BDSM for other reasons including an intense feeling of excitement, for a spiritual experience, or for non-romantic social bonding.
Fennell attributes kink’s popularity in the District to laws that are kink club friendly, strong local organizations, and having some of the most popular kink camps in the nation. She says BDSM and D.C. are a pretty ideal match.
Remember to Bring a Five
The night before her lecture at GWU, Fennell was at a very different event — a BDSM play party at a restaurant near Dupont Circle. She invited me to join her, saying we could do the interview there and I could witness my first “munch.”
Upon arrival, people who know to give the door girl $5 are discretely pointed upstairs to a private event space. Everyone else is sent down the hallway to the restaurant serving mediocre kabobs. Upstairs, the space is square and modern with clean lines, sleek glass and contemporary wall paintings. Everything is white, red or black.
The event has already started by the time we arrive. The organizer is going over general announcements about upcoming parties and classes. He explains that tonight will begin with an information session for newcomers before play begins. Fennell, clearly comfortable and in her element, announces to the group that she’s brought a reporter with her tonight and points to me.
I wave hello.
The 25 newcomers and I file upstairs to the third floor while the rest of the group stays to socialize. The teachers, one male and one female, are both in their mid-20s. They wear the wide-eyed, eager smiles of people about to blow some minds. As they sit down on the couch, the class sits on plush chairs around them.
The female teacher is petite with long, straight brown hair, a round face and stylish black glasses. Her expression turns serious as she begins going over various BDSM terms and identifiers such as vanilla, top and polyamorous. The male teacher is tall and handsome but clearly only has eyes for his fellow educator.
He jumps in to explain what a scene is as well as types of play. They stress how important communication is and review common safe words. Despite the titillating topic, 45 minutes in, the session begins to feel a bit like an HR seminar on spreadsheets.
Seeing the wandering eyes of their class, the teachers dismiss everyone to join the play that has already begun around them. There is no music, but the open space is loud with chatter. Scenes start taking shape around the room.
In one corner, a young woman in her mid-20s drapes herself across the lap of a seated 20-something-year-old man. He has on a single, thick, black leather glove. Starting slowly at first, he lowers his clenched fist against the back of her bare thigh. The sluggish punch delivers a barely audible thud. She groans with pleasure as he picks up the pace.
Fennell is not far from them laying face down on a soft, blue blanket. Her arms are crossed behind her and tied very tight with brown hemp rope. She is wearing red underwear, rainbow knee socks and a ponytail. The man tying her, called a rigger, has quick hands that grip the rope firmly as he secures several knots. He bends her knee, resting her foot on the back of her thigh, and quickly binds it in position. Her white skin pushes out from under the rope like dough. She sighs and smiles.
Secrets in the suburbs
‘Michael’, who asked me not to use his real name, is 52 years old, has a steady girlfriend, works a 9-to-5 job in IT and makes a mean vegetarian pasta. He has also been an active member of the BDSM community for decades and has a dungeon in the basement of his Virginia home.
But 20 years ago, when Michael first moved to D.C., he hadn’t yet discovered this lifestyle. He was struggling with how to handle some of his feelings — specifically, his desire to tie women up.
“I was raised to respect women so I grew up believing there was something terribly wrong with me because of my interest in and attraction to SM,” he says. “I thought I was the only one so I tried to hide it, what I liked and who I truly was. I was split down the middle. It was very isolating.”
But then Michael saw an ad for the Black Rose, a well known BDSM organization in D.C. One night, he attended a meeting specifically for newcomers.
“I walked in and thought, where are all the playboy bunnies and big harry chested dudes in leather pants? These are just normal people,” he says.
He felt a huge sense of relief.
“Maybe I’m not sick after all. Maybe this is just a matter of taste or of preference. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with whether of not you are a good person or bad person.”
Indeed, the people I met while researching the kink community were happy and thriving. Many were in committed relationships that not only seemed to have a strong foundation of open communication and trust, but also an incredible amount of romance.
Fennell says it is “easy to grow up feeling like there’s something wrong with you” if you have these thoughts and desires. She says some people with these desires develop low self-esteem, which makes talking to a partner about fulfilling these needs even harder.
“I think the goal of the BDSM subculture, if there was only one goal, is really to help people find a way to make sense of these desires and try to form healthy relationships in spite of and more importantly because of those desires,” Fennell says.