"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." - Carl Jung
It's a typically frenetic Friday night at the Annex: The bass thumps, the lights are low, the flashing strobe captures dancers in slow motion. I order another gin and tonic and sit down with a table of friends. We scream over the DJ's blaring beats, just to talk.
The crowd thickens and the room gets hotter as more Madison revelers pack the bar. Not an unusual sight in this party-happy town on a Friday night, except I'm wearing a red lace corset, hot pink wig, black leather skirt, and ridiculously huge PVC boots. And the crowd is similarly decked out. My friend Kat is one of the more arresting figures in her full-body black and silver latex catsuit custom-made in Austria.
Suddenly, the music slams to a halt and a hush falls. People push toward the stage in anticipation. This is the moment we've been waiting for.
The performers take their places on stage as the MC and host of the party, Mistress Jade - covered head to toe in shiny black vinyl and matching combat boots - struts mightily to the mike. Her collared slave is perched obediently at her side.
A low rumble of anticipation rises from the crowd. And then a man, nearly naked, is lifted into the air by an intricate series of chains, pulleys, and huge metal hooks. The hooks suspending him are attached through holes pierced in his flesh. He is swung through the air, a human puppet on metal wires.
I am witnessing my first human flesh-hook suspension - an act so surreal that I drop my drink. The audience erupts, as does the bone-crushing music; the entire crowd rejoices in this paramount expression of the art of masochism. And I think: we're a long way from Kansas.
This was the premier of Kink(ed), the newest and boldest celebration of fetish and BDSM in Madison (that's shorthand for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism). The event, like others in this quickly growing scene, is equally sexy, shocking and seemingly safe - and, unless you've been to certain bars in Bangkok, unlike anything you've ever seen.
I've traveled in the Madison fetish crowd for a little more than a year now. Beginning as an experiment of sorts, my experiences have been more enlightening than I ever could have imagined. Granted, my first attempt at squeezing into a latex skirt and wobbling to a club in six-inch patent leather boots was a bit nerve-wracking, but somehow I worked my way into the fetish scene with only a few rips in the fishnets and one twisted ankle.
I've discovered that a once stigmatized and carefully hidden subculture is now entering the mainstream of Madison clubs and even surfacing in everyday life. Have you noticed how many pierced and tattooed people you see on the streets today? Everyone from the bank teller to your older brother seems influenced by the scene. While much of the public is still baffled, if not repelled, by the idea of fetish celebration, kinky communities and their fellow travelers are thriving all over the country. Madison is no exception.
Kinksters, as they sometimes call themselves, are happily emerging from the underground in their leather and latex, paddles in hand. Sure, the idea of dressing in rubber or being tied up and flogged in front of a crowd may seem outrageous. But to many it's as normal as a night at the R-rated movies.
Well before my time, Madison's fetish scene began quietly in the basement of the Hotel Washington with the opening of Rod's, the notorious gay bar with its own leather room. It was the first place in Madison, I'm told, to openly celebrate kink. Since Hotel Washington's fiery demise in 1996, Madison's fetish scene has grown only larger and more open.
The best known outlet for kinksters is the Inferno, where, on the first Saturday of the month, fetish-lovers don their leather, latex, whips and collars for Leather and Lace night, a hardcore combination of hot outfits, drinking, and all-night dancing to techno-goth-industrial DJs.
Located on Madison's east side, the Inferno remains the most popular kink club in town. Because it sits on a town island (a vestige of the town of Burke), the Inferno remains a last refuge for smokers, which, for much of the kinkster crowd, only adds to its decadent appeal.
At a recent Leather and Lace, my friends and I stumbled upon two guys just getting started in the rope-bondage business. Never one to turn down a new opportunity, I volunteered to be tied up. Now, this was not some novice finding a few feet of rope in his garage and experimenting; real rope-bondage, like the Japanese art of Shibari, is an intricate - and quite amazing - affair.
When young Roger finished tying me up, I was not only entirely constricted and borderline breathless, but nothing short of a work of art. I strutted around for a while, until the feeling in my arms was almost completely gone. Another model showed off the "tortoiseshell" rope form, designed specifically for pregnant women who still enjoy a little bondage with a bun in the oven.
And, oh, yes: The rope burn on my chest is still healing.
Several blocks east of the Square, the Cardinal Bar's long-running Fetish Night allows kinksters to tickle their fetish jones every second Tuesday of the month. More mainstream than the Inferno, the Cardinal feels more like a costume bar and less a home for serious scenesters - fetish lite, if you will.
Baseball cap-wearing college boys happily pay a higher cover to ogle the fishnets. The Cardinal also serves as a hangout for bony young college girls wearing outfits indistinguishable from some of the costumes you see every Halloween on State Street, rather than genuine fetish attire. In fact, last fall I invited a friend who had never been to a fetish event to join me there for drinks and people-watching.
"I have nothing to wear!" she exclaimed through her cell phone. I recommended she dig out last year's Halloween costume. Sure enough, she pranced through the door a half-hour later decked out in a tight white vinyl "naughty nurse" costume, complete with white stockings and turquoise pumps, and fit right in.
Long-time kinksters agree that the frat boys and preppy young girls don't make for the most authentic atmosphere, but the Cardinal's fetish night does have one notable highlight that sets it apart: The fabulously dressed transvestites.
Whether it's the exhibitionist vibe that the Cardinal flaunts or simply the fact that the event has been around for so long, these 50-something cross-dressers are always the first ones in the door. DJ Mike Carlson, who plays at most of Madison's fetish events (along with Siberia and DJ Bloodlossgirl), is the home spinner of the Cardinal's fetish night.
The dance floor heats up after 11, and you just might find yourself rocking out with a tall guy in shiny silver thigh-highs, spiked heels and a sequined dress.
Meanwhile, Kink(ed) is the newest innovation of Mistress Jade and Madison Dungeon, who put on similar events at the Club de Sade, Bluefin and Portal bars before heading to the Annex. Kink(ed) has been a revelation.
It goes beyond the usual dressing up, drinking, and dancing to offering an actual playroom, complete with dungeon equipment, where I watched a male friend get tied to a pommel horse and flogged by a horde of leather-clad women. There's fetish apparel for sale by way of Amsterdam, and a huge table of toys - whips, paddles, feathers, and restraints - available for free use. Just hand over an ID, pick out a flogger, and teach your lover the meaning of respect.
Each Kink(ed) show has a different theme; the first was the jaw-dropping flesh-hook suspension. The second was latex-themed, as one young woman was completely encased in a black rubber bubble. April celebrated the Japanese fetish called Zentai: a form of total enclosure that involves suits of nylon covering every inch of the body and face. For May's "total domination" theme, a Shibari-style rope artist in priest's garb tied up a woman dressed in a vinyl nun's habit. June saw nearly naked bodies painted in bright colors.
And most recently, the dance floor was cleared for "ponies on parade." Yup, people dressed up as ponies pranced around under the careful direction of their trainers. At still another show, I was transfixed by a man tied to a crucifix-like structure, blindfolded and tickled by his wife; then I turned around to find myself facing a piercing parlor, where one masochistic woman was having her lips sewn together.
I'm not sure if it was that sight or my giant boots cutting off the circulation in my legs, but I had to sit down.
Over coffee one gray Sunday afternoon, I met the dominantly gorgeous Mistress Jade. Watching her strut slowly down collegiate-themed Regent Street, surrounded by a posse of five Goth gurus, was quite a sight - and seeing them pack into a preppy little café was even better. Mistress Jade has been a professional dominatrix for five years.
After detailing an incident in which she sent her slave-boy, clad in a little vinyl dress, outside to hoe her garden, she filled me in on her goal of bringing the two types of kinksters - the clubbers and the devotees - together under one roof. The growing celebration of fetish in Madison, she tells me, is based on tolerance, acceptance, and the willingness of more people to engage in self-discovery.
"Everyone is really respectful of boundaries, limitations, and desires," she said. "People are just exploring their sexuality more openly now - we don't really have to be quiet about it anymore."
To be sure, these are adults engaging in consensual sexual expression. Any kinkster will tell you that the fetish philosophy rests upon safety and consent: Waivers are signed, safe-words established, open communication required.
And the scene isn't just about club events like Kink(ed). For over a decade, Madison kinksters have gathered informally at meetings that are not about play or dressing up, but deal with support, education, and social connection within the fetish communities. These get-togethers tend to be discussions, often with assigned topics, in which people deal with personal issues relating to fetish or BDSM: determining one's orientation, coming out, dealing with the sexual interests of a friend or partner, and defining personal limits.
Satyricon, for example, is a longtime source of community support for scenesters. Its Mad City Munch-n-Meetings are a safe space for discussion and support of BDSM activities. Satyricon is a partner in the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, which is an alliance representing more than 500 educational and social organizations speaking up for alternative and non-traditional sexual interests.
Alicia, Satyricon's president, discussed her group with me in an email exchange. "Satyricon has a very diverse membership, from blue-collar to education professionals, and sexual orientations including heterosexual, gay, bisexual and transsexual and ages from 18 to 60-plus," she wrote.
Sadomasochism is the main topic of discussion at most meetings. "Communicating the reality of SM interaction is challenging," Alicia noted, "in part because so much of what happens in SM runs directly counter to everything we've been taught about sex, intimacy, love, and pleasure.
"Tenderness experienced through whipping? Personal empowerment through submission? Pleasure through pain? These are strange ideas to people who have no personal experience with SM," she explained. "And yet all of these dynamics are utterly familiar, powerfully important, and quite matter-of-factly real to anyone who has made SM play a significant part of his or her personal and sexual life."
"Claiming an identity that's true to yourself can be hard," Alicia added. "Claiming and defining a genuine sexual identity can be so difficult as to seem nearly impossible. Recovering from the impotence of pretended identities and becoming sexually empowered is an amazing journey. Satyricon is a place where people gather, tell our stories, and share our adventures."
Sir Keith, another leader of the BDSM scene in town, invited me to his house to chat about fetish and his role in Madison's kinky community. Sir Keith, who is in his 50s, is tall, clean-cut, and soft-spoken. He exudes a quiet, gentlemanly charm.
When I arrived at his home, a modest affair on Madison's near-west side, he gave me a tour of his newly renovated basement, which he had transformed into a fully-equipped dungeon for private play parties.
Glowing red lights sliced through the dark room, illuminating huge metal chains on black walls, benches with leather straps, hanging ceiling harnesses, and a table stocked with toys.
A longtime BDSMer, Sir Keith moved to Madison three years ago and brought his interest in the fetish lifestyle with him. After scoping out the scene, he decided to take action.
"Madison was well served both by the club scene and educationally by Satyricon, but Satyricon limits its mission to education. There weren't opportunities for adults to simply socialize in a non-club atmosphere," he said.
So Sir Keith began Madison First Friday, a group of BDSMers who meet at the Bar Next Door, on the east side, to mingle in the company of fellow enthusiasts. Over the course of just a few months, more of Madison's kinky community started coming out of the woodwork. Each gathering now draws 40 to 50 people.
A few months ago I decided to check out First Friday. New to the scene and nervous, I had to fortify myself with a drink. I walked into a typical Wisconsin bar, where the patrons were watching sports and sipping brandy old-fashioneds, and hesitantly climbed the stairs to the room just above the bar. I had no idea what to expect.
I was surprised and relieved. The people were friendly and welcoming of new guests. All of the fixtures in Madison's scene were there, as well as tons of people I recognized from the club events. Oddly enough, it turned out to be like any other Friday at any other bar. Sure, at one point we discussed the deep-seated philosophical relevance of getting tied up, but at another point we talked at length about canoeing.
Sir Keith pointed out that First Friday is not a meeting; there's no formal structure, assigned discussion topics, or official regulations. It's simply a gathering where people can get out and socialize in an entirely supportive place, meet new people, and talk kinks over drinks. And if you're lucky, one of the regulars will make his way to your table and quietly invite you to a private "after-party," if that's your sort of thing.
I know what some of you are thinking: My god, these people are seriously messed up, if not in danger of falling into the clutches of Hannibal Lecter. But before you pick up your laptop and furiously pound out a letter to the editor complaining of dangerous libertines at loose in the city, take a moment to consider how mainstream the fetish culture has become.
Think Madonna, think pop culture, think fashion, think of the guy sitting two cubicles down from you. He may have been at the last Kink(ed) party. Fact is, our culture is richer for its acknowledgement of our kinky impulses.
Harder to justify, admittedly, are acts like the woman having her lips sewn together at Kink(ed). When I talked to the piercer (whose day job is at the Blue Lotus piercing lounge), he explained that the process is no different than a lip, ear, or any other piercing: It's clean and safe, and there is no lasting damage after he takes the sterile thread out.
Still, that doesn't explain why someone engages in such transgressive and exhibitionist behavior. Same with the flesh-hook suspension. I can tell you that as shocking as they seemed, these acts are not, upon reflection, very different from the types of body modification that I learned about in Anthropology 101 - neck rings, mouth pieces, and the extreme piercings of various ethnic groups in Indonesia and southeast Asia.
But I can't pretend to tell you that the cultural context of such traditions has much in common with the kinkster party scene at the Annex on a Friday night.
In search of answers, I visited a Madison psychologist, Dr. Richard Levine, to see if he thought the kinds of behaviors I saw in the fetish communities are truly as sick as some people believe.
"If you came here looking for someone to condemn this lifestyle, you came to the wrong person," Levine told me. "People involved in these communities are no more or no less disturbed than those who are not."
Certainly, there are people within the BDSM community who have psychological issues, he said, but there are many others who are healthy, functional adults. He suggested that much of the shock and alarm elicited from the mainstream was due in part to fear of the unknown.
"The range of possibilities of what we're about as people is more than we sometimes want to imagine," Levine said. "It's hard for us to acknowledge impulses that run counter to our stated values."
Levine pointed to Dominique Aury's The Story of O, the famous 1954 French novel about bondage and sadomasochism. He observed that The New York Times book reviewer deemed it "dangerous" not because of the behavior it detailed, but because of the fear that its readers might face in admitting that the story gives voice to their own dark desires.
Regardless of how you view the psychology of scenesters, there's no disputing the fact that Madison's fetish scene is booming. And why not? It's fun, creative and sexy, and it's more than just a party: Below the club-life surface, the fetish scene is about self-expression and the inner discovery of sexuality and desire.
For those in the scene, BDSM has become a way of life that helps defines their identity. For clubbers out for a good time, it's a reason to dress up, socialize and, even if only for a night, display a new and oftentimes secret persona.
And for me? I'm still discovering where I fit in. I've got my eye on that custom latex corset from Berlin, and calculating how I can afford a trip to London's world-famous "Rubber Ball" in October.