Who would truly have a good time on an assignment like this, except someone in the scene?
Attending this fetish ball in San Francisco 1997 made me pretty uncomfortable, especially seeing my first “beautiful lady with a ball gag in her mouth” tableau. But now I realize the discomfort had more to do with my own red-flag issues of being silenced or constrained by gender performativity. Perhaps genetic/ancestral memory of actual torture is real, or perhaps mixing sexuality with torture is kind of scary, at least to women, for whom sexytime can be a real threat.
Twenty years later, I still live in California and am comfortable around terms like “gender perfomativity” so fetish balls are just whatever, but back then, open displays of sexuality were … unprecedented in my life.
Having come from Southern evangelical suburbia, this Dilettante didn’t enjoy a culturally flavorful upbringing beyond the spiciness of barbecue sauce. But, as a budding wanderer, my thirst for knowledge of underground culture after a lifetime of television lock-up could barely be sated.
The only solution to not knowing everything about all cool scenes ever was to step lightly into each tableau, whip out my pocket-sized journalist’s notepad, and engage in a little light socio-anthropology.
To most kids from the deep South at the turn of last century, one thing about California which seemed literally fantastical was the way Californians talked about sex — freely and openly, like Europeans. They didn’t nervously giggle comments under their breath or timidly wonder aloud, or fan themselves panting like a cartoon wolf — they just posed confident questions and made knowing statements, without fear. Versed in all kinds of different sexualities and gender and kink continuums, they found the fetish scene odd, maybe, but not alarming.
And city folk displayed their sexuality too! Some even wore contraptions in public to exhibit their devotion for their master and whatnot. Without shame! Can you imagine. How exciting, to watch unique people be free in San Francisco, and to find their own tribes.
Even if you couldn’t relate, it was almost like encountering a birthday party: Some other podunk kid with a more deviant-sexuality-driven personality than yours couldn’t wait to get to the big city and Be Themselves among like-minded others, wearing chaps with a thong or whatever.
Bless them and their shame-fighting alter egos.
But still … sometimes sex is creepy. People get creepy with it. Everyone knows this. It’s just a feeling, an intangibility, a poison pheromone clouding the arousing air.
That’s what I didn’t like about my first fetish ball: Too many single guys visually consuming the tableaux without participating. Voyeurs, letching out. And two stunningly gorgeous women (one in the aforementioned ball gag) tied up in fancy ropes, mincing forward on torturous high heels while greasy men led them around on leashes.
But now I know better than to empathize “bottoms” into an imagined helplessness, even if they are acting out the doormat’s role in an ‘80s heavy metal video. In the world of bondage, domination, and sado-masochism, people play the roles they want to play, and they have safe words for when it gets to be too much. Sometimes they even switch between top and bottom.
For all I know, these two women could’ve been a brain surgeon and a high-powered lawyer who just needed to relinquish control for the night. Twas none of my business, and bless them all.
This is the third entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter[Bonus: a trippy video from the Butoh troupe “collapsingsilence,” who performed at this event]