Imagine a Black man. He is kneeling, hands bound behind his back, face wet with tears. He’s not to speak unless spoken to. His chest is scratched, bruised, and sore. A bottle of water has been poured over his head. He has been slapped in the face multiple times all while doing his best not to move or react. But when he is slapped for the third time, he can endure the indignity no longer.
He blurts out his “safe word” — the verbal signal he uses to indicate he has had enough. His antagonist stops, the ropes are undone, and the aftercare begins.
The beating he has just endured was one he signed up for and even helped design with his partner, because this Black man is a sub — or “submissive” — in the Bondage, Discipline/Domination, Sadism/Submission, and Masochism (or, more colloquially, BDSM) community.
Over the past year and a half, San Franciscans have taken to the streets in protest of many things: The carceral system, violent attacks on elderly Asian Americans, and the exploitation of gig workers, to name a few.
Some of the largest, loudest, and most viral protests have been aimed at the insidious spectre of systemic racism within our country’s police forces. It is this sinister legacy, which undoubtedly informed Derek Chauvin’s decision to remain on George Floyd’s back even as the prone Black man and onlookers pleaded and protested with the former Minneapolis police officer, imploring him to relent.
And yet, there is a place where some Black men — along with women and gender nonconforming individuals of color — choose to go to be subjected to acts of physical abuse, verbal harassment, and other indignities: the dungeon.
That any Black person would, in 2021, voluntarily sign up to be gagged and bound, whipped and slapped, insulted and humiliated could be difficult for some locals to wrap their heads around. Why would a people who have suffered under institutionalized inequality for centuries willingly participate in such degradation?
The answer is simple: Because it turns them on.
Yeah… it turns out white people aren’t the only folks shelling out for a Magnum Subscription to the Savage Lovecast.
However, the BDSM scene historically has been thought of as a white space. That could be due to the overwhelming whiteness of porn, or the assumption that one must be coming from a place of privilege to request pain in private and in public spaces — such as the Folsom Street Fair, which made it’s post-COVID return in July and returns for another round this Sunday.
The fact is that freaky fetishes are not allegiant to any creed, class, or color — even if certain individuals presume that they are.
“Kink is political. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” says Ivy Limieux, who has been in the Bay Area kink community for 10 years. “It is absolutely a microcosm of the vanilla world complete with all of the racist, sexist, -phobic interactions that everyone faces there.”
Limieux, who is Black and uses they/them pronouns, runs several BIPOC-exclusive kink groups — including SOUL, a bi-monthly BIPOC-only play party, and Kinky Colorful Conscious, a monthly roundtable discussion group for kinksters of color held at VoxBody Studio (these are discussions only as VoxBody Studio does not permit exchange of bodily fluids on its premises). “The difference between the vanilla and kink worlds is that our communities are much smaller and that we interact in more vulnerable ways.”
In recent years, the global BDSM community has been increasingly vocal about the responsibility and care it takes to destigmatize the kinky life. First, advocates set their sites on problematic pop culture narratives. The 2015 film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Gray drew harsh criticism for framing stalking as a kink, being dismissive of consent, and encouraging rape culture.
On TV, Showtime’s Billions and the Netflix original Bonding took efforts to reframe the kink community’s messaging around consent and negative portrayals by introducing a normalized version of the BDSM world. However, these fictionalized universes were overwhelmingly white.
Paul Giamatti’s Billions character, Chuck Rhoades, privately enjoys his sessions with an Asian dominatrix. He hides his kinky side for two seasons before embracing it publicly. It’s not until the second season of Bonding that people of color are introduced in the show, albeit in non-speaking roles. If pop culture representation matters — and it does — the dearth of kinky BIPOC characters on television and in movies serves as something of a bellwether for the broader community.
San Francisco has long prided itself as a city welcoming of all queer folk. But the social upheaval of 2020 has helped to blow that conversation wide open — inspiring kinksters of color to advocate for their own safe spaces and push for a truly inclusive kink community.
“If you look at the protests that have been going on all summer [in 2020] you see way more white people out there,” says King Noire, a Black master fetish trainer and co-owner of Royal Fetish Films. Along with co-owner Jet Setting Jasmine, who is also Black, Noire has moderated diversity discussions for the S.F.-based Kink.com and made one of the aforementioned non-speaking appearances in the second season of Bonding. While the progress may be slow going, he believes progress is being made.
“I think that it’s the same kind of thing we’re seeing in the kink community — that there’s more white people who are like, ‘I don’t want to be racist.’” King Noire continues, explaining he has seen more kinky white people who are asking the questions and making space for kinksters of color. Still, he notes, there are too many who are allies in the streets, but performative or downright racist in the sheets.
While the pandemic helped focus the public’s attention on issues of race and class in America, shelter-in-place orders and the economic crash also had a chilling effect on such conversations.
In August, the Bay Area kink community took a hit when Bondage A-Go-Go (BAGG), San Francisco’s weekly BDSM/kink community institution, announced it would be closing its doors due to COVID and other internal issues. In its 27 years, BAGG provided what was considered a communal space for experimentation, safety practices, and learning to improve techniques when using toys in kink.
The same month BAGG closed, San Francisco-based Kink.com began running an educational diversity discussion series called Flip the Script. The events were developed to prioritize BIPOC conversations in kink and provide a safe space for open dialogue.
“There is a tremendous shift right now in the kink community around race and attendance,” Limieux says. “There is absolutely no way to ignore the fact that for a very long time these spaces were nearly exclusively white and that the leadership never had an issue with that because it wasn’t a problem for them.”
Kink.com co-hosted a Flip the Script event in February with San Francisco-based Green Apple Books, a virtual book release and demonstration for the anthology of short stories called Kink: On and Off The Page. The demonstrations included a presentation on “race play” — the act of fetishisizing someone’s racial identity in sexual role play. The discussion touched upon the motivations behind the practice and problems that may arise when it is introduced during play with white or interracial partners.
“Acts of race play for us [Black people] can bring up all types of trauma — can unlock trauma for us and trigger us and do us actual harm,” Noire says. “Or compound harm we’ve already had done to us.”
Playing with social taboos and inflicting both physical pain and mental anguish always have been a part of the kink community. To engage in these acts ethically, consent is key — and open discussions about boundaries have long been standard practice. However, in 2021, racialized fetishes are facing fresh and intense scrutiny.
“For white people, you can call it ‘play’ because you go back to not thinking about it ever again. You can experience whatever it is in that particular dungeon or bedroom and then when that shit is over, you can go right back to not giving a fuck about our existence,” Noire says. The lack of equity in kink spaces to experience freely still holds limitations for Black kinksters.
The long and layered history of objectification, humiliation, degradation, denial, and racial power imbalances — beginning with the institution of slavery, and running through the Jim Crow era and civil rights movement to present day — has a way of complicating the BDSM world for Black kinksters. How could the crack of a whip or the squeeze of a rope be pleasurable given such shared trauma?
The questions are even more tangled for those who identify as both female and Black, as the cross-cultural and pan-racial issues of body shaming and misogyny collide with Eurocentric beauty standards. It’s enough to discourage those who are BDSM-curious from even exploring the community.
“When it comes to whatever we’re into sexually, Black pleasure has never been, in [the United States of] America, the number one reason or even close to a top reason for us to have sex,” says Noire. “Black people were permitted to have sex for procreation during slavery or for the pleasure of slave owners. Pleasure was never a consideration. Even farther on the spectrum when pleasure seeking, for BIPOC, was using flogs or whips as a means for enjoyment.”
Another difficulty that makes kink a different experience for anyone in the kink community, but particularly for people of color: The issue of doxxing — weaponizing the kinky lifestyle choices of another to jeopardize their careers, deal damage to their reputation, or gain leverage in a divorce or child support hearing. Discriminatory barriers in the job market and the courts already present an obstacle to people of color, and, in this way, can discourage them from being fully engaged in their pleasure seeking.
“It is incredibly important that anyone outside of the kink community understands that people do not understand and will judge what we do.” Limieux says. “We have families and jobs and these activities are not accepted or understood; it can cost us our jobs, social or family relationships. I have seen it happen to my friends.”
The owner of VoxBody Studio and a Bay Area bondage ropes instructor who goes by the scene name Blue, explains: “We don’t live in a very sex-positive culture and definitely not kink-friendly, so there is a need for scene names and privacy.”
Blue, who is white and considers themselves an ally, opened VoxBody Studio four years ago. Both Blue and Limieux have expressed the need to take great care in vetting participants in the courses, and reassuring participants so they are comfortable being part of the classes. “There’s so many different ways that because of the way this society is, this [kink] could really damage a person’s life, family and career. So it’s pretty standard protocol for people to choose a scene name.” Doxxing, Blue continues, often prevents people from living out loud, and having a scene name allows for some anonymity and protection.
”A lot of the kink shaming that we do within our own community was taught to us by somebody else,” Noire observes. “A lot of the ways that we act out towards one another, whether it be physically, verbally or whatever, is our colonizer speaking through us.”
Noire explains that being involved in kink often is dismissed by the Black community. “I think that there’s this perception that anything we do that’s remotely kinky or freaky or whatever, we want to call it as some white people shit,” he says.
“The problem is not that BIPOC kinksters are rare,” Limieux adds. “It’s that they rarely want to put themselves in situations where they are vulnerable and open and raw around people who will not appreciate what they are giving outside of the novelty and entertainment of it.” All the same, there is an increasingly visible and growing movement of Black people in kink and leading nontraditional lifestyles, such as polyamory.
Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Pleasure Activism, released in 2019, centers on the notion that the act of seeking pleasure and joy for people of color is an act of resistance. Pleasure Activism explores pleasure from a cultural perspective, and Brown speaks with the people she has met from her time in the Bay Area, including Nenna Joiner, owner of Feelmore, the Bay Area’s first Black-owned sex shop. The anthology asks the question: “How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience?”
Creating safe spaces for Black people to experience pleasure without survivor’s remorse is part of the equation. That’s important, according to Noire, who believes the survivalist mentality often runs counter to self-actualization and pleasure-seeking. “We don’t afford ourselves those kinds of experiences,” he says, because grappling with systematic oppression and racism is simply a much greater priority.
Noire explains making time for exploring likes and displeasures goes beyond a survival instinct and using kink to find joy and pleasure is a way to fight against the injustices in the world, and find meaning in existence. “It’s super important to not just survive but to really thrive in life,” he says. “I think as long as there is a lot of aftercare and you go over it safely and where this [trauma] even comes from for you, it can help you work past it.”
VoxBody Studio hosts BIPOC-exclusive rope education nights and discussion groups monthly, with the aim of maintaining a safe space for open experiences without the fear of feeling fetishized by white participants. “By creating these safer containers where our people knew that their race and culture were going to be one less thing to worry about, to explain, or to ‘other’ us by, we saw a huge boom in attendance,” Limieux says.
Changes like these are never easy to come by, but the BIPOC kink community is making inroads. A host of groups can be found using social media. Kinky POC Bay Area, an online community, and Experience Covet, an exclusive members-only group for BIack folks in kink, are two such groups.
And then there is Folsom Street Fair 2021-2022 strategic plan, which makes its first objective “Being an Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive orgranization.”
For Noire, it is a welcome — if long overdue — change.
“It is so close-minded of anyone to think that we’ve been on this planet for millions of years and the white people were the first people to spank somebody on the ass or enjoy people dressing up for sex,” Noire says.
Brandy Collins is a contributing writer. Twitter @MsBrandyCollins