Different Strokes: S/M Mainstreams Whip Appeal

It's 7:30 on a Wednesday evening and in some parts of America, Mom, Dad, and Homer are probably whizzing spitballs at each other over Swanson's Salisbury Steaks. Here, in the third-floor Network Room at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, a family-minded group with a communal interest in pleasure through pain is conducting a whipping seminar.Some people might consider a workshop entitled ''Flails and Tails'' depraved or frivolous or worse. But those are people who've missed the mainstreaming of s/m. There was a time when people thought FAO Schwarz when you mentioned toys. There was a time when Betty Page was not a quaint cultural artifact but a symbol of kink's nether depths. There was a time before dominatrixes wrote their own newspaper columns and Garry Marshall could get a studio to green-light a comedy with a Bondage Island theme.All that's in the past. ''Flagellation,'' explains John W., president of the 500-member Gay Male SM Activist organization, ''is the bread and butter of s/m.'' What better reason to hold a workshop on beating each other safely and sanely for fun? It was the late artist-masochist Bob Flanagan-subject of a biographical film at this year's Sundance Film Festival-who used to say s/m should always have ''an element of fun.'' Flanagan's kinky hijinks started when he was a kid surreptitiously giving himself 39 lashes to the ''Trial Before Pilate'' track on his parents' copy of Jesus Christ Superstar. He went on to mummify himself, have himself hung, pierced, and catheterized, and once even drove a nail through his . . . never mind.The Network Room at the Center is filling up-about 70 people on a frigid wintry night. There's a distinct tannery smell in the air. There are men in leather and men in jeans and men wearing keys and an awful lot of additional hardware. The demographics of the room run to what writer Lance Loud once dubbed ''gnarly leather daddies.'' But even that is beginning to change. ''When I became president of GMSMA,'' says John W., ''the median age was around 45. Our feeling was that the club wasn't necessarily reflecting the scene since, when you go to the Lure, you see a lot of younger guys.''To attract recruits, GMSMA beefed up its workshop series to include evenings devoted to rubber, shaving, rope bondage, piercing, electrosex, and building a dungeon at home. Tonight's program offers members a chance to ''learn the joys of floggers, cats, quirts, signal whips, and bullwhips.'' As a seasoned top, the 36-year-old John W. will demonstrate ''how to use whips and floggers safely and how to take care of them,'' and also how to conduct a good whipping scene.A tall man with a ruddy complexion and rabbit-pale eyelashes, John W. is that apparent rarity, a natural dominant. ''I've just always been a top,'' he explains. Turning to the submissive who's volunteered for tonight's demonstration, John W. offhandedly commands him to undress. The bottom strips to a pair of work boots and white Calvin Kleins. ''Do you want to be blindfolded?'' John W. inquires, in a way that doesn't quite suggest a question. The blindfolded bottom assumes the position.On a dais behind the pair are easels and cardboard signs of the sort traveling salesmen use for motivational tools. One has arrows connecting the words endurance and arousal; another points out how technique is built on ''vulnerability of body part, severity of instrument, and amount of force.''Gently warning those in the front rows to move back so they don't get hit, John signals for a sound technician to start the doomful cello piece he's chosen as mood music. Leisurely swinging his deer-hide flogger in figure eights, John lays the first stroke on the bottom's back.Among other fine points John will convey over the course of this evening is the fact that, while in animal husbandry the idea is not to hit the animal and mark the hide, in s/m this concept is deliberately reversed. ''I like to leave marks,'' he says. ''And if you like to leave marks, symmetry is important.'' John also informs the assembled group that it's good to slowly increase the level of pain over the course of a scene; that a typical scene lasts 30 minutes to an hour; that a good, inexpensive beginner's toy is a leather ''slapper,'' which ''sounds worse than it feels''; that bargain-conscious tops might try paint and hardware stores for wood stirrers and spoons; that there is both ''good'' pain and ''bad'' pain (''Hurt me,'' as he explains, ''but don't cause me discomfort''); that skiers' ear warmers with Velcro binding make inexpensive blindfolds; that a fine source for crops and buggy whips is the Family Farm Center in Pottsville, Pennsylvania; that a piece of inner tube from Canal Rubber, cut in fangs and tied at the handle, makes a particularly vicious whip; that canes also deliver a stern wallop; that a cat-o'-nine-tails consists of three hemp cords of three strands each, braided and knotted at the tip; that thud versus sting is a perennial issue; that cats ''deliver a little more sting'' than floggers; that the bigger the animal, the heavier the hide; that oil-tanned floggers are quite hard and dense, thus ''wonderful'' for bruising; and that you ought to be able to ''shake hands'' with your flogger, the way tennis players do a racket. Otherwise you run the risk of getting flogger's elbow.John is joined by Wolf and Rich, another top and bottom. The two bottoms clasp hands across a metal clothes rack. The tops bring down lashes harder and increasingly faster as Wolf tells his subject to ''breathe it through. Erase it. Concentrate on the pleasure.'' Their backs welting, and presumably concentrating on the pleasure, the bottoms stand as motionless as stumps.''I once bought a $300 deerskin flogger that weighed 15 pounds,'' John W. says, between strokes. ''It was not a good buy. I'd be knocking myself out beating the bottom and they're like they've been at a pillow fight.'' There's no likelihood of that happening now, as Wolf steps up the pace.''If you play the bottom in a scene,'' says Wolf, alternately whacking and hugging his partner, ''it's perfectly okay to bring along your own equipment. Offer it to the top to use as he sees fit. Say, 'Sir, as you see fit.' ''After awhile, the demonstration comes to a close. John W. thanks ''our lovely bottoms'' and reminds the crowd that ''s/m is not about psychodrama. It's not about playing out past scenes.'' Start light, he instructs. Don't go from zero to 60 in two point four. And practice, practice, practice. ''You don't want to be a cheerleader twirling pom-poms,'' he says. ''You don't want to look like Ruth Buzzi swinging a purse.'' He mentions then that there's a snack table at the back of the room. Milk and cookies are being served.

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