Getting the kinks out

Leather and mesh, PVC and rubber. Dog collars studded with spikes, the occasional piece of chain mail, a riding crop here, a cat-o’-nine-tails there, casually dangling from someone’s belt.

A woman in a red corset and black stockings wiggles over the lap of a man in a black PVC suit that looks painted onto his body, paunch and all. A whole lot of people wear jeans, T-shirts and Nikes, or go-out-dancing miniskirts and little tank tops. A mixed crowd, so to speak. But, hey, it’s summer. It’s hot. It’s midnight on a recent Tuesday evening, and Royal Oak’s Groove Room is packed, because Noir Leather, that notorious Royal Oak retail establishment, is about to present “Sexarama V,” the latest in its long line of legendary fetish shows.

The room gets hotter as the audience gathers around a small stage at one end of the dance floor. Someone asks everyone in the first five rows to sit down, which they do quickly and politely. Even if you’re not really into the scene, there’s a compelling reason to obey someone who might just have immediate access to a whip.

The dance music cuts out and, to an electronic sound track, a woman in a black corset and stockings, wearing high heels and a pair of black wings strapped to her shoulder blades, struts onto the stage. High-pitched whoops and cheers come from the crowd: It seems just as many women as men are getting really into the show. She dances alone for a while, lithe as an exotic dancer, and then she’s joined by another woman in similar gear. They dance together, close, touching.

The song finishes and the next couple — again, two women, this time wearing corsets that reveal the black electrical tape stuck over their nipples — play out another power dynamic, another drama. No dialogue, just movement, almost dancing, as the dynamics of a suitor and a reluctant object of affection change when one woman casts a spell (with the help of a pinch of glitter) on the other, and mimes caresses, licks, kisses, while the first sleeps on top of a padded bench.

Another sprinkling of pixie dust, and the scene is over. A MediaOne camera crew hovers, capturing skin and whips, tongues and lashings, for cablevision viewers.

Several more scenes, similar in tone and theme (Valkyries, it appears, with a penchant for initiating the uninitiated and punishing the disobedient), unfold and then the show ends in a grand finale, all-hands-on-butts free-for-all of spanking, caressing and dancing.

The audience cheers and applauds, calls unsuccessfully for an encore, and the whole scene dissipates back into a crowded, sexually charged nightclub on a warm Tuesday night. A guy comes up and introduces himself, asking about the notes I’m taking. In this atmosphere, I’m suddenly overcome with shyness and mutter something about this story I’m writing, before catching up with my husband. We blend into the T-shirt and jeans side of the crowd, feeling distinctly under — or is that over? — dressed. A decade ago, I would’ve been wearing something skimpy, something black, something leather. But now, call me the perfect jaded observer. I’m a perpetually tired working mom. I joke that leather, like sex, is something I Used to Do.

Outside in

It wasn’t that long ago that fetish gear was kind of outré, even among those of us with more alternative lifestyles. I remember a gay small-town friend of mine rejoicing on a trip to Toronto, because he’d found a store where he was able to buy that black leather hood and cat-o’-nine-tails he’d been lusting for. We giggled as we took turns trying on the hood, and speculated about what he planned to do while wearing it. I never did find out, though. Last I heard, he’d been ordained as an Anglican priest. Go figure.

So if even (admittedly liberal) members of the clergy can have a few kinky toys in their closets, it’s not all that surprising that fetish, bondage and S&M, as a lifestyle, a fashion statement and turn-on of the year, has become a staple of popular culture.

Movies and television commercials play on it (c’mon, you don’t think that “everybody in leather” Gap ad was all about bomber jackets, do you?). Playboy and Penthouse magazines use fetish and bondage imagery in their layouts, and there are more magazines in general devoted to fetishes — from feet to latex and everything in between — than ever before.

Even mainstream television shows have played with fetishes: “Ally McBeal” had a spanking episode, and Charlotte, a character in “Sex in the City,” got herself a free pair of shoes by modeling them for a salesperson with a foot fetish — just one of several episodes of that show which have explored that, um, forbidden territory.

So, it’s everywhere. Even in metro Detroit, where fetish is at the (hard) core of a scene that has been growing like a denied libido for more than a decade now. Fetish wear, and the fetish scene by extension, is “redesigning what people find enticing,” Noir Leather owner Keith Howarth suggests. “It’s gaining more acceptance, and people want to be part of it.”

History behind the mystery

You could say Howarth and his store are behind at least part of the metro area’s fetish for fetishes. The little shop on the corner of Fourth and Center in Royal Oak is stocked with anything you could possibly want, from slinky clubwear to stiletto heels, whips and restraints to lotions and dildos. Need a stud for your genital piercing or a riding crop to discipline your disobedient partner? Stop in — it’s probably there.

In the store’s messy back room, Howarth conducts the basics of the business — inventory control, ordering, that sort of thing. A slim, T-shirted guy with glasses and a long brown ponytail, the St. Clair Shores native is hardly the picture of a fetish store owner. Whatever that’s supposed to look like — what, you imagined someone in a black leather mask and a pair of fishnet stockings?

“I used to dress up with the whole goth look, I did for years, but I’m more laid-back nowadays,” says Howarth, who is 46 but looks like he’s in his 30s.

Nowadays, the business is doing pretty well, but as one of the first stores of its kind in the area, it wasn’t always easy.

Howarth, who had trained in college to be a furniture restorer, realized when the recession hit in the early ’80s that antique polishing wasn’t going to be a lucrative business for a while. So, since he was into the punk rock scene, and was good at making things, he started putting together those essential punk rock accessories, studded leather collars, belts and wristbands.

But working out of an unheated Roseville garage wasn’t much fun, so in December 1983 he opened his first store in Royal Oak. Because he still made all his stock by hand, he often worked until 2 a.m., just trying to finish up orders and make his $500-a-month rent. After a year or so, he started to add more fashion items and lingerie, to bulk up the inventory and bring in more customers. They wanted Doc Martens? “I said, ‘I’ll find out where to get these Doc Martens,’” he recalls. Soon afterward, a customer offered to split the rent, and set up Third Street Records in half of the store.

As it turns out, that was one of the moves which started to expose the store and its increasingly varied merchandise to a wider audience.

But still, getting the word out was difficult, so in 1986 Howarth decided to do a lingerie show in the store’s window. That drew a crowd. Unused to seeing sexually related things in public, spectators found it outrageous and exciting. The models weren’t any less clothed than they would be at the beach, but the show was in February. Valentine’s sales went up.

When Howarth moved the store to a new location on Main Street, he continued to put on shows until 1993, when Royal Oak’s city council questioned whether there were safety and insurance issues at hand when upward of 300 people were expected to gather outside the store for a show.

Howarth enumerates the requirements the city wanted to impose: insurance, bleachers, portable toilets, traffic control, police officers … “I thought, oh, man, now it’s changed to a whole different thing.”

And it did. Local bars and clubs were eager to have the attendance generated by a Noir show, and since then, there’s been one, on a grand or small scale, practically every month.

“I mean, where do people wear these clothes?” says Howarth. “I assume they wear them in their bedrooms.”

But part of the fun of fetish wear is getting to show it off to others — and watch others showing it off too. To that end, Noir also sponsors semiregular parties at Detroit’s Labyrinth. Called Hellbound, the events require everyone in attendance to wear some sort of fetish gear, whether it’s PVC and leather or 1940s pinup wear, gothic corsets or frilly lingerie.

“It’s so we don’t get gawkers, hecklers,” explains Howarth. “It creates a safe environment … or it’s like a giant Halloween party.”

And as much as it provides customers with a place to wear their gear, it also acts as a hands-on advertisement for the scene. As such, it creates more acceptance.

Howarth has noticed that acceptance growing, especially in the past few years. “There’s less giggling,” he says. “Even three or four years ago, when we were on Main Street, the tourists in Royal Oak would go by, and they would just laugh, probably because of anxiety. … I don’t hear that anymore at all. One employee called them ‘the chucklers.’”

And now, instead of coming in and furtively checking out the cock rings and vibrators, customers — like two different women did, just the day before — whip out the credit cards and walk out with a full range of bondage gear.

“People get into a hobby, they get the whole hook-up,” Howarth shrugs. “For my customers, it is a hobby. The people who come to Hellbound, it’s their hobby.”

And for Howarth? “It’s my life. It was my hobby, before it was my business, but the whole physical thrill of the game disappeared once it became a commodity.”

Stages of trust

If the physical thrills are somewhat restrained at a Noir show, at least for the audience, the visual thrills are an essential reason why people come. Out.

Liz Cassani, also known by MisMatrix, her dominatrix name, is the person responsible for staging Noir’s shows. Offstage, the 26-year-old is a warm, smiling woman who exudes energy and confidence — the kind of person you’d trust to cuddle your cat while you’re on vacation or entertain your kid while you go out for the evening. The kind of person you’d trust to bind your hands with leather restraints, tickle you with peacock feathers and whack your butt with a cat-o’-nine-tails.

Speaking of which, there’s a lot of trust required in fetish scenes, whether they’re on stage or in your own bedroom. You need to trust that the person you’re with won’t really hurt you. That they’ll respect your limits, and that you’ll respect theirs. That you’ll play your roles safely, sanely and with the utmost care for each other. Believe me, and I speak from experience here, this is not something you want to try on a first date with someone you barely know. Besides the awkwardness, there’s a good deal of risk. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that a Michigan woman was allegedly killed after she traveled out of state to meet “slavemaster,” a man she met in a fetish chat room.

So, there’s some element of drama, which adds spice. And if the number of dressed-up pairs in the Sexarama audience are any indication, it’s increasingly becoming something couples — maybe like the corseted woman and PVC’d man — do together just for the zing of a new thrill.

For Cassani and other performers in the shows, there’s another kind of thrill, which goes deeper into the roots of the culture. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, control — they all get played out on stage. “I think everyone does it for their own reasons,” says Cassani. “Everyone’s their own personal ham.”

As MisMatrix, Cassani says, she can be another person, someone who’s got a kind of mastery over her own life.

“I grew up with the wrong kind of love, the wrong kinds of attachments, the wrong kind of parenting,” she says of her Canton childhood. “I was abused as a child. The only one there for me was me.”

As a result, she says, she makes every effort to overcome that through fetish play, and through the character of MisMatrix. “When I do domination there’s a sense of release and control. … I always felt restrained by people who were swinging the whip at me … so I get to act it out, now — but I’m in charge.”

MisMatrix is a regular character in Noir’s shows, which Cassani has been pulling together since March 1999.

“My fetish is organization, getting it all together,” she jokes. “Sure, I’m a panty-shoe girl too.”

Psychologists and sex columnists alike suggest that fetishes stem from childhood experiences, and many in the fetish world will agree.

“All this stuff parallels my existence,” Cassani says, using her panty fetish as an example. “Underwear is something I wear to protect myself … and I love feet. Feet are what get me around, get me from place to place.”

Trained as a dancer, Cassani ensures there’s a certain choreography that goes into each show. Usually there are around 10 models (seven women, three men), she explains. They may be Noir staffers or customers, or sometimes professional models or exotic dancers. It’s never too hard to find models, she says. “They do it basically for the notoriety of doing a Noir Leather event.”

Like at the Groove Room show, the performers do short scenes that last for about the duration of a song, and the “script” (there aren’t usually any words) revolves around elements of torture, play and erotic dancing with a heavy sexual undertone. The scenes work better when the models get to play out their own personal fetishes, Cassani’s found — they’re more enthusiastic, and the resulting scene is much more believable.

Besides the element of performance, there’s an element of self-discovery that goes on. Maybe the models are learning to overcome the stage fright that goes with appearing half-naked in front of a crowd. Maybe members of the crowd are finding out what kinds of hard-core lingerie turns them on — or off. After a recent show, one audience member was overheard saying, “I’ve had wilder sex than that on first dates!”

But come on, it’s not like they’re actually having sex on stage. It’s about performance, about simulated sex, just like any strip show.

“Live is definitely more for the fun of it,” says Cassani. “In private, it’s 75 percent role play and 25 percent feeling sexy about it.” Besides, there’s got to be a certain degree of belief, on the part of the participants, that what is happening between the Police Officer and the Naughty Driver is real. “If it’s not mental,” says Cassani, “it just comes off as weird experimental play.”

Turn-ons online

While events like Sexarama and Hellbound draw sizable crowds, it seems the time has yet to come when Detroit merits a full-time fetish bar. Various locations, at one time or another, have had the rep for being the fetish scene’s favorite hangout, but the people who are really into the scene have always had their places to go.

For a while, Cloud 9 in Hamtramck had a dungeon in its basement, and MisMatrix was the club’s resident dominatrix. “That was sort of on the down-low anyway,” she says. The basement has since been closed.

So, where’s a kink-curious Detroiter supposed to go between the public events of fashion shows and fetish parties? Of course, there are people who take it home to their own bedrooms, to enjoy in private what they’ve witnessed in public. I’m not going to blab anyone’s kiss-and-slap stories, here, though. Personal preferences are, well, personal.

But getting involved, or finding friends who know how to wield a paddle, isn’t that hard. Start with the public events. Ask around. And get online. Several local organizations meet regularly, in plain clothes, at various bars and restaurants, and hold regular discussion groups on topics related to B&D/S&M.

Don’t try this at your workplace, kids, but there are hundreds of kinky Web sites out there that are sure to get your mouse clicking in the right direction. One such site,, had me blushing in all the right places (like in the privacy of my own office). When I discovered it was based right here in Detroit, I had to know more.

As it turns out, the site is owned by a husband and wife, who, since they both still work straight day jobs, wanted to go by the names of Mistress X and Mr. X for the purposes of this story.

At, viewers put $34.95 a month on their credit cards to become members of the site. Then, they can type in requests and watch as a real live dominatrix and submissive respond to their commands. It claims to be one of the few adult sites in the world that presents live performances online, and possibly the only one that does live fetish performances.

The idea for the site came to the X’s one day about three years ago, when they were driving home from a trip up North and reading an newspaper article about a woman who was making money with her own adult Web site. Since they had a bunch of friends in the fetish scene, and fetish wasn’t really online at all at the time, they figured it’d be a great business venture.

Today, says Mistress X, there are about 700 members, mainly from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, at any given time. Not a bad venture at all.

“I think it’s becoming more mainstream, and the Internet has helped,” says Mistress X. “I think it’s allowed them to explore something they haven’t been exposed to.”

Cringe in delight

The fetishplayground Web cam is set up in a converted theater in Detroit, which has been made into the dungeon of users’ dreams (or nightmares). For three hours a night, pairs of performers do scenes of bondage and torture, doing everything from dripping hot wax onto each other to pinching breasts and genitals with clips, riding each other like ponies and inserting objects (anything except a live penis is fair game, legally) into bodily orifices. The kind of stuff that would make ’70s feminists (and a lot of church ladies) cringe.

Hell, it makes me cringe, until I think about it for a while. It’s meant to induce cringes. That’s the thing. Kinks, turn-ons, fetishes — they’re not all pretty. But they all celebrate the body in a unique, extreme way. They push our limits, open our minds, tweak our imaginations — and bring us closer to our own ideas about what is and isn’t sexy.

Most of the site’s requests have been for foot fetishes, Mistress X says, suggesting it’s kind of an entry-level kink. “It’s not too strange, it’s even sort of acceptable — people can see (feet) at the mall or whatever.” Next in popularity these days? Anal penetration.

While there are few limits to what the performers might do, they do stay within certain legal guidelines, a fact Mistress X is quick to point out.

“No online intercourse,” she says. “We stay away from that.” Also off-limits is anything involving animals or people under 18. And bondage and penetration aren’t supposed to be shown at the same time, although Mistress X says some adult magazines are pushing the edges on that particular taboo. “They have the lawyers,” she adds.

So, how extreme can it get? Extreme enough that you don’t really notice it anymore, which is the argument some feminists have made about hard-core pornography and its supposed capability to dehumanize women. But there are two important differences here. First is the turn-off factor. As an entrepreneur in the sex industry, Mistress X says she’s noticed something crucial: “The luster goes away after you look at it every day.” Second, and more importantly, is the question of who’s in control. For the most part, the women are in charge.

Who’s on top?

Just ask Holly Glod, aka Castrata, Lady of Pain.

“The way I see it,” she says, “who rules the world? Men. And what rules men? Pussy. And who rules pussy? Women. We could rule the world if we wanted.”

One of fetishplayground’s star performers, the 24-year-old Detroiter is on a mission: “I’m determined to bring sexual awareness and enlightenment to the world … For me, it’s a spiritual thing as well as a sexual one.”

It’s been her preoccupation since she was a teenager. “Originally, how I came to it, was I grew titties really fast,” she says. “I had boobs that were five Ds by eighth grade.”

In high school, that means only one thing: “You’ve got all the boys picking on you. I got so tired of it, I wanted to use it to my angle.”

One day, she was watching an afternoon talk show on which a professional dominatrix described how guys paid her to treat them badly. “I thought, ‘That’s the job for me.’”

At 17, while still in high school, she moved out of her parents’ house and started working as an exotic dancer. Not long afterwards, she was taken to a party where “these old, washed-up hookers were trying to make money taking out their vengeance on men. I looked at them and thought, ‘I could do that a lot better and make more money.’”

She worked at a now-closed Royal Oak massage parlor, doing domination and learning the ropes, so to speak, for several years, until she arrived at fetishplayground. Now, she spends three to four hours, three nights a week, whipping, beating, torturing and humiliating submissives, who, like her, are getting paid for the privilege.

“I really enjoy hard-core bondage,” she says. “I usually like to start by tying them up in a way that’s going to give them a bit of a high, cut off some circulation.”

Then, maybe some hard-core corporal punishment. “I really enjoy beating … and I love clip torture.”

Clip torture? Think alligator clips. Hair setting clips. Even those little clips you use to hold stacks of paper together. Much of Lady Pain’s toolkit, she points out proudly, comes from the shelves of ACE hardware.

Another remarkable fact she sounds pleased to share: “I, myself, can fit 80 clips on my breasts and 40 on my crotch.”

Well, everyone’s got their special skill set, and that kind of thing comes in handy in Glod’s line of work, which is how she thinks of it.

“For me, this is like a career option,” she says, pointing out there aren’t many jobs in the world where women can have this particular kind of equality with, and even power over, men.

Even though her work on the Web site is just a few hours a week, Glod is a full-time dominatrix, doing private sessions with clients that can last anywhere from a half hour to five hours, and net anywhere from $100 to $1,000 a time, depending on how involved it gets.

“This isn’t a poor man’s sport,” she says, explaining that her clients are all educated, higher-income professionals, including accountants and financial advisers. Typically, they’re people who have pushed the limits of their own lives, and are looking for someone who will push them back. “People with lower incomes, who are down on their luck, already feel like they’re battling for control in their existence,” she notes.

When clients come to her — often getting in touch through word of mouth — she meets with them first to set down some guidelines. Over dinner, she discusses terms (cash up front), limits, and makes it clear that this isn’t prostitution. “I’m not going to jack them off. This is purely a mindfuck.”

“Professionally, I won’t do anal penetration. I like to stay within the loopholes of the law,” she says, explaining one of the most important rules in the context of paying customers: “A man can jack himself off in your presence at any time, and it’s not prostitution. But if you touched him with your hand, it would be.”

Touching him with a whip, a dildo, a vibrator or a sausage, for that matter, is within bounds. And her clients tend to be cooperative — if they’re not, Glod laughs, she’ll tie them up and leave them hanging, so to speak, until the clock runs out.

But not all of her clients pay for the privilege of being humiliated by the self-proclaimed “sex goddess of Detroit.” Some just do it for free.

Hazard/benefit analysis

One of the fringe benefits of being a successful dominatrix, career gals take note, is having personal “slaves” at your command. These are guys who clean your floors, give you back rubs, help you move or scrub your bathrooms in exchange for a little rough treatment from you. No money changes hands, so the play can get as kinky as you like. (“When I’m with submissives on a nonprofessional basis, I really like fisting, anal penetration,” she says.) And the floors sparkle.

However, Glod warns, there can be a few awkward moments when you first introduce them to your lover, and vice versa. Out of necessity, they hold different ranks in your affections, and that’s sometimes hard for slaves and boyfriends to come to terms with. But Glod points out that her boyfriend knew what she did when they met. I ask what he thinks of her line of work, and he says he chooses not to answer.

In addition to being a crusader for sexual liberation, Glod is a crusader for safer sex. One of the downsides of working in the sex industry, especially in a role which occasionally calls for the release of blood, urine and other bodily fluids, is that health is a prime concern.

“Most businesses you don’t think about health issues, but this one can spread a lot of diseases,” says Glod, who gets tested for STDs every six months.

Besides keeping biohazard trashcans in which to dispose of used materials, she makes sure to sterilize her reusable fetish tools — riding crops, paddles, rope, chains, clips, leather restraints, strap-on dildos — with alcohol and bleach. “You don’t want to catch anything,” she warns.

Safety in general is also a concern. I’m not saying don’t try this at home, but let me recommend visiting a few fetish Web sites (some have useful how-to sections) and maybe attending a few discussion groups that focus on techniques before you go beating your partner with that Ping-Pong paddle. Not all parts of the body are equally able to withstand being hit, and, believe it or not, there really is an art to safely tying someone up.

If society goes the way Glod hopes it will, it’s possible that safer S&M techniques will become just as familiar as condoms are today.

That society might not be so far off, either. Glod says she’s noticed fetish-inspired images and dialogue creeping into mainstream TV and movies, even when it’s not necessarily the theme of the show. Even MTV rap stars, she says, sometimes wear fetish gear.

“I watch public TV, Channel 7, Channel 4, and it’s always the commercials. They put these cute little remarks, they’re always putting something in,” she says, and describes a scene in the film Armageddon, in which a commander is training his crew. “The whole thing sounds like a S&M dialogue,” she says, mimicking the “faster and harder” script. “I get a lot of my input from mainstream media.”

Who knows where it could go from here? Safer bondage techniques, public fetish parties, mom-and-pop whip stores?

“I just think it’ll grow, and become part of the status quo of society,” says Glod. “Back in time, with the Victorian era, this stuff was all everyday. And in (Roman) times, orgies were part of everyday life.”

And if the increase in interest continues, maybe Glod’s dreamed-of state of global sexual enlightenment will come true, with people admitting their sexual natures to each other, and themselves.

“Not everyone’s an exhibitionist,” she says, “but everyone’s kinky in one way or another.”

Just admit it, and your sex life will instantly improve. Trust me. It’s certainly … ahhh, never mind. That’s for another story. Alisa Gordaneer is MT features editor. E-mail [email protected]