Leather and latex cover some parts of the bodies at Folsom, but not the parts that society typically asks of clothing.
Some folk are bound by rope and chain — others are led by their partner by collar and leash, often wearing full-head leather masks. A woman’s limbs are arranged artistically via rope and knots before she is suspended by hooks, her bound breasts turning slightly purple. She grins wolfishly as the fellow who tied her up pinches a nipple, and she kisses him upside-down — he grips her hair in a show of both force and devotion. A beautiful transvestite rocks a lace bra and knee-high leather boots. A naked man in a ski mask stands in a window on the third floor of his apartment and jacks off what might be the largest erect dick I’ve ever seen. The crowd on the street erupts in cheers when, 15 minutes later, he cums.
These are a few of the scenes I was fortunate enough to be privy to at the Folsom Street Fair last Sunday. For those unfamiliar, FSF is an annual leather and BDSM — Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism — street fair. BDSM practitioners enjoy a myriad toys and methods, many of which I saw at FSF. But for all the variety in sexual preferences — from butt plugs that had horse tails, aerial suspensions via rope and so forth — there was one thing that all the people I saw held in common: smiles. No matter whether the party was a dom — the dominant member in a BDSM relationship — in spiked heels or a sub — the submissive — in a full-face leather dog mask, a totally naked middle-aged man getting his ass whipped cherry-red or a plainly clothed average human walking through the fair, everyone was having a good time bringing bedroom preferences to the daylight or simply watching others do so.
Nearly no one I saw was intoxicated. No one did anything to anyone without explicit consent: Nearly all the sexual activity — be it flogging, spanking or stroking — was between people who already knew each other or was within the bounds of set-up booths. I felt entirely comfortable the entire time. There I was, surrounded by people who were so open, honest and communicative about their sexuality that they chose to air it out in the sunshine. The feel of community and adventure was buzzing in the air.
Oftentimes, people associate the images I painted at the beginning of this article with a sort of deviant, seedy subculture. Part of this is institutional. Older editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychologist’s bible for mental disorders, had listed paraphilia — an umbrella term for “unusual” sex desires like fetishes, BDSM and kink — as a mental disorder. But a Dutch study published last summer found that, of the survey’s participants, BDSM practitioners scored better on measures of mental well-being and the emotional security in relationships than those who only practice “vanilla” sex. Granted, the participants self-selected into the study, so the results may not be representative of society as a whole, but it was still a refreshing shout against the historical villainization of BDSM. And maybe the sort of communication necessary for BDSM — regarding soft and hard limits, for example — does lend itself to healthier relationship skills.
BDSM is simply a personal preference, not an expression of some dark personality twist or abusive history (as with the hero of Fifty Shades of Gray, Christian Grey). The newest DSM does make the distinction between “atypical” behaviors and mental diseases involving those “atypical” behaviors, which is a solid step toward appreciating BDSM as just a personal preference. But I still think the wording is a bit problematic. What’s “typical” and “atypical” when it comes to your inexplicable carnal passions?
An incredible BDSM comic on DeviantArt by artist “Shiniez” said it best: “With sexuality being a taboo on a good day, deviations (have always been) observed with judgmental eyes. They took that small, personal aspect of one’s life, and put a spotlight on it. And under that spotlight sexuality cast an ugly shadow on the society and the society frowned upon it. But there were those who understood that it is a wonderful aspect of the human experience. Wonderful, exciting, intimate, sometimes a bit scary, and sometimes even a little funny.”
Human sexuality is a messy maelstrom of emotion, carnal passion and power plays. It will inevitably materialize differently based on individual tastes. You might not like BDSM. But you also might love it, and it doesn’t say anything seedy about you or suggest anything warped in your past or personality. The happy, loving and confident people I saw at FSF were an ardent testimony to that.
Vi Nguyen writes the Sex on Tuesday column. Contact her at email@example.com