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.
Slick and twisted: Latex maids, lady cops, corset-boys and butt-bags — Coming to grips with the ‘Slick’ fetish ball
by Summer Burkes, 10.20.1997
SAN FRANCISCO, since the Barbary Coast days, has always been something of a hub for sexual depravity. During the Gold Rush, in a city where men largely outnumbered women, miners who couldn’t get any from a ‘good’ woman bought live bodies for illicit and impersonal sexual enjoyment in the bordellos and ‘cribs’ of Chinatown and North Beach.
Today, even though flesh is still heavily traded in the Tenderloin and the Mission, with the 50/50 ratio of men to women, it’s admittedly a lot easier for John Q. Hetero Public to go out and get laid without having to pay.
Always reaching for higher goals, humans have decided to go natural, evolutionary I-like-you-you-like-me instincts one better. Enter those who publicly declare and espouse all manners of what Pentecostals everywhere call ‘perversion.’
As a subculture complete with cliques, sets of rules, and a distinct fashion sense, these fetish freaks’ Big Night came last Sunday – the Slick Fetish Ball. I, well-nigh unaccustomed to the fetish crowd, went.
Unaware of the S&M crowd’s inability to integrate comic relief into their events, I chose as my ‘fetish costume’ my housemate’s old Catholic School uniform, complete with pigtails and knee-socks. I stood outside the club with my befetished, Joan-Jett-alike companion while she enjoyed her last cigarette of the night (damn those laws).
A balding, be-spectacled middle-aged man in uncomfortably high heels hobbled toward the entrance in a short latex sheath with the behind cut out. The first hairy ass I’d seen since the Folsom Street Fair.
Inside, the sign by the ticket booth read, “Nudity and actual sex (direct genital contact) are not allowed at this event.” The sea of black leather, latex, and metal led me to believe that I was partying not at a fetish ball, but with the Borg on some tripped-out Star Trek episode where the characters suddenly get personalities. We stood in the block-long line for coat-check, directly in front of a man in a Zorro mask with a dick-nose attachment.
A baby-faced boy in jammies pulled his pigtailed girlfriend and teddy bear around in a red wagon. (I almost scratched my initial notion that this crowd didn’t like to yuk it up, but after more exploration, I discovered that, besides us and two other Catholic School girls, we were alone.) A mullet-haired man in a leather vest asked to borrow the ruler I was carrying to spank his french-maid girlfriend, to the absolute apathy of the crowd around us.
Past an exhibit of some amateurish, sterile erotic photography, in the next room, COLLAPSINGsilence was performing. A Butoh troupe beyond thunderdome, they all wore head-to-toe white paint, gas masks, and strategically placed tatters of clothing. They grimaced and leadenly carried sundry symbolic objects to and fro for about thirty minutes, accompanied by a soundtrack of sparse, droning white noises. The piece was slow, elaborate, oblique, and gloriously creepy — perhaps the highlight of the night.
We made our way over to the deserted “deviant liquid latex” body-painting booth and watched singles and couples get their twisted prom pictures made at a free, sign-a-release-form-first photo shoot. A smarmy, L.A. record producer type grinningly asked us if we wanted to simulate a threesome for the camera with his bridge-and-tunnel girlfriend in a holographic corset. We politely declined.
Undaunted, she performed an amateurish, ’80s hair band video visual soliloquy, twisting her nipples and sticking her tongue out for the horny photographer. Vampires, Siouxsie Siouxes, and Robert Smiths all passed by sneering, as if their event had just been bought out by Disney.
Downstairs in the ‘dungeon’ was definitely the best place to play Pretend Your Grandparents Are Here. Shocking people were stringing up other shocking people and shockingly spanking them. Hard, soft, ninja style, you name it, it was all shocking. Okay, and I’m not afraid to say it: I DON’T GET IT. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
Now, I know that some people have different fantasies, and they like to play them out in safe environments with like-minded people. That, to me, is perfectly healthy. What doesn’t sit well with me is that many of the fetish crowd don’t seem very comfortable with themselves, and that the ratio of stunning, submissive women to less-than-comely, dominant men was a little too high.
When approval within your subculture includes simulated humiliation and the underlying threat of violence and death, if your self-esteem is already a little low, you might need to find a new peer group. But I digress.
Back upstairs, the kids at Stormy Leather staged a formidable fashion show to wrap up the evening. Shiny and deviant latex maids, kings, devil girls, lady cops, and corset-boys simulated mechanical hot-sex acts to freaky catwoman Twin Peaks music as a satanic overseer lurked in the background. As the lights faded and the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” bellowed over the sound system, we braved the coat-check line again.
A paunchy, mustachioed man in a cup, a butt-bag, and nothing else conversed with a woman in a perfect Batwoman bra. A high-heeled, purple-wigged drag queen and a saran-wrapped Dale Bozzio lookalike ambled by. My fetish-hobbyist companion admitted, “Yeah, this is a cool scene, but I don’t think I’d want to pick up a date here.” Me neither, but someone does.
“You people are SICK!” I gleefully shouted as I walked past the crowd outside. Smiles of encouragement and pride surrounded me. Only on the Barbary Coast, I guess.
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]