The Agony and the Ecstasy

A walk through the "Torture Exhibition" can be a terror or a turn-on, depending on your point of view

The language of the exhibit, as extreme as it is, leaves nothing to the imagination, and I am not surprised to see two young boys, once eager to gaze on the Iron Maiden(aka the Virgin of Nuremberg), ask their mother if they can leave after reading about, and gazing at, the medieval practice of Impaling: A well-smoothed conical stake is deftly inserted in the anus and raised in the air, lifting the victim up with it; while gravity slowly pulls the body toward the ever-widening end, vital organs are evaded, allowing the prisoner to live for several days.

But my imagination is limited. While I can see the aesthetic allure and Gothic appeal of the spike-encrusted Interrogation Chair, Lady Katrina sees possibilities.

"They used to heat it up," she says, earnestly considering history for a moment. "It's a precursor to the electric chair."

The Self-Mortification Belt, a body-hugging item made with 220 barbed-wire points designed to push into the flesh, holds special interest for Katrina.

"Masochism in the name of God," she says coolly, turning toward the highly decorative Chastity Beltfixed with tiny metal teeth surrounding a small slit. "Bondage and discipline in the name of property."

"Now, these I like," says Lady Katrina, eyeing the nearby Cat's Paw and Spanish Tickler, metal claws used for ripping breasts, genitals, abdomen, and back. "They're crude but pragmatic."

"I think the appeal of pain and torture has a lot to do with control or, more importantly for many people, relinquishing control," says Greta Christina, the merchandising director of Blowfish mail-order and narrator/producer of the new Blowfish video Our Friend the Volt: Fun and Safety With Folsom Electrical Sex Toys.

While Folsom's electrical wares are not pain toys like the Violet Wand, which sends static electricity skittering across the surface of the skin, they share shelf space with some elegant sadomasochist playthings in Blowfish's brightly painted 16th Street storehouse: like the Wartenburg Neuro Wheel, a small medical device with incredibly sharp spikes used to test nerve response or torment a partner in those "extra-sensitive but difficult-to-torture" places; the Rope Flail, a multitailed whip made from marine-grade nylon, which is hand-washable (a desirable attribute, I am told, since leather flails cannot be disinfected); the Male Chastity Belt, a G-string-style harness with four locking buckles; and the Whippet, an innocent-looking fiberglass rod with a rubber handle that delivers "a sharp, nasty, biting, super-evil sting," among hundreds of other things.

"I really like the talons," says Christina, who, along with the six other people at Blowfish, personally tests every product -- from dildos to nipple clamps to lube to video to Folsom Electric Company's "metal urethral electrode" -- before including it in the catalog. The Long Single Talons from Effigy Metals are the work of a former San Francisco jeweler who now lives in Arizona, where he handcrafts each 3-3/4-inch-long nail out of sterling silver, brass, and copper, or latex-coated brass and copper, each with a stainless-steel point. They, like many of the locally made whips and flails, are each little works of art.

"And they can really scratch," assures Christina. "They are exquisite to look at, beautiful, but they feel very, very intense, very animalistic."

"The experience of pain really helps me break down barriers," explains Christina. "It cannot be ignored. It keeps me very, very present and connected to my partner. I'm sure people have all sorts of psychological explanations for it -- upbringing, environment, endorphins (there's no denying the endorphin high that can be achieved after an intense session of pain play) -- but I think some people are just hard-wired for it."

Like Lady Katrina, 34-year-old Atheris remembers torturing her stuffed animals when she was 4 or 5. By the time she was a teen she was writing hard-core S/M stories. Now she works as a professional domme, and play includes electric toys, needles, whips, floggers, clamps, canes, dildos, strap-ons, wax, and piercing; she also co-stars in Our Friend the Volt,which she assures is more about involuntary muscle contractions and instant tingling orgasms than pain or torture. Still ...

"That feeling of being able to torture a willing victim really gets me going," says Atheris. "I don't exactly know why I get sexually aroused by inflicting pain, but I do. And always have."

"It's like explaining why a person likes broccoli or roller coasters," says Christina.

"It's just as strange to me," says Lady Katrina, "that someone could look at the Scavenger's Daughter [an arm and leg restraint that eventually causes violent cramping of the abdominal and rectal muscles] and not be titillated. Just a bit."

"Torture Exhibition: European Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment From the Middle Ages to the Present" runs through Oct. 14. The Blowfish catalog can be perused at

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