Every decent pervert establishes limits to his perversion. I won’t give my credit card number to porn sites, get a lap dance, introduce a third party into a relationship, or encourage my wife to get breast implants. But any decent pervert devises complicated ways to get around his limits. Mine is journalism. So, armed with the excuse that I was writing this article, I spent a few months trying all the sex stuff in Los Angeles I’ve always been curious about, to find out which of them I’m into. Not since Jayson Blair has there been an abuse of journalistic credentials like this.
For a warm-up I stopped at the Pleasure Chest, the famous West Hollywood sex shop on Santa Monica Boulevard whose New York branch has been packed with busloads of middle-aged women since it was on an episode of Sex and the City. Most of the store was full of items a Sex and the City viewer would expect at a sex store, but I did see some stuff that surprised me, including a case of sex toys you could power with your iPod and a section for bongs. After walking past a shelf of giant dildos and a rack of different lubes, I felt I should buy something, so I picked up a $65 bucket called Create-a-Cock—in case my wife ever wants a replica of my member, which will be never—and a device known as the Fleshlight.
Shaped like a flashlight, it has a removable top that hides a vagina-shaped latex entry for very lonely men to make sweet love to. I have never put my penis in anything nonhuman—no pies, no veal cutlets, no inflatable sheep—having always believed deeply that if there’s one thing men don’t need help with, it’s masturbating. So I stared at my Fleshlight nervously for weeks before I had the guts to touch it. It was, to my shock, an improvement upon my 37 years of expertise. The improvement, however, was outweighed by the fact that I now had to think of myself as a guy who had his way with flashlights.
Since getting married six years ago, I’ve bought two video cameras with the overt objective of chronicling our vacations and the covert hope of taping my wife and myself in bed. Not that I ever got around to trying it. So I signed up for a class at the Pleasure Chest: Danielle Emerick’s Bedroom Photography 101. Let me first say that Emerick was nice and takes beautiful, supersaturated pinup photos worthy of David LaChapelle. But her class was the most depressing two hours of my life since my parents sat my sister and me down to explain they were getting divorced. You know how when you are about to watch HBO’s Real Sex you think, “Hey, this sounds titillating,” and then you watch it and get sad? Imagine that slower and without editing and no remote to change the channel.
The class was for couples, but my wife, Cassandra, caught a cold, so I went alone, thus saving my marriage. There were folding chairs set up behind some curtains in a corner of the store, and the only other students were one couple. Dressed in Wranglers and a black T-shirt with a drawing of a Corvette on it, the man was in his forties and referred to himself as a “photo buff.” His partner, also in her forties, was on the heavy side and carried a cane because she’d broken her hip. After hobbling around the store with Emerick to find an outfit, she returned wearing only a black thong and a black camisole, holding a paddle, a whip, bondage tape, and a blindfold. I desperately wanted that blindfold.
As the injured model sat with her legs taped to the chair and the whip between her teeth, Emerick encouraged her by saying, “Make a growling face. You’re a tiger.” Midway through, a guy in his fifties wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a Bluetooth headset walked in with a lady who looked like Brigitte Nielsen does now. She had giant breasts, short platinum hair, a sparkly silver fedora, and fingernails of alternating colors. He told me that she was Kandy Kaylor, a high-end escort ($400 to $800 an hour), and he was her pimp. “The reason I brought her here is she’s a lousy model. It’s tough to get her to be more feminine,” he said, as if I was the kind of guy who could empathize with the aesthetic frustrations of a pimp. Kaylor used to be a bodybuilder in Germany before coming to L.A. and registering as a massage therapist. She was also certified by the state as a sexological body worker, meaning she could legally have sex for money. If only she could growl like a tiger. Soon after donning an oversize schoolgirl skirt, she dropped her top, lay down, and spread her legs. “You’re not wearing any underwear, so this will be interesting,” Emerick said. That’s about the time I excused myself from class. Needless to say, I have not taken any naked pictures of Cassandra.
Hoping for something that might weed out the sad and needy, I stopped by the Stockroom, an S&M storefront in Silver Lake. Though Joel Tucker opened the boutique a year ago, he’s long owned the 30,000-square-foot factory behind it, in which latex pants, leather leashes, and other fetish gear are made. Tucker started the company when he was a student at Occidental College in 1988 and, I’m guessing, freaked out everyone at the school. The retail space is beautiful, with that boudoir chandelier thing and pictures of naked women. The Stockroom is really three stores: a big latex clothing store ($326 for a spanking dress with a big hole where the butt goes); a leather store; and a hard-core S&M equipment counter upstairs with some truly clever gear, like a ball gag made out of a jawbreaker candy and another gag with a toilet paper dispenser attached. A custom latex outfit requires four to six weeks to make, so I checked out the off-the-rack collection instead.
If I had to pick one word to describe what it feels like to wear latex, it would be “supergay.” If I had two, it would be “supergay supergay.” I had to apply lube to my body to squeeze into it and more lube to the outside of my outfit to make it shine. But it did do a nice job of corseting me in a way that made me appear thinner and as if I actually have muscles. Like I said, “supergay.” I also learned that in the BDSM community different-colored clothing means different things: Red piping signifies that I’m into fisting, yellow that I enjoy playing with urine, blue that I like uniforms, and gray that I’m sort of a fetish generalist. BDSM fans, quite obviously, don’t have much time for talking.
Store supervisor Merlyn Reyes, a short, friendly guy, pulled out some things that helped me realize I am not nearly as into S&M as I thought I was. I figured this out when I got nauseous. Not so much when I got a glimpse of the latex foot with a hole in the ankle for men to make more sweet love to (“The right foot is more popular than the left,” Reyes said. “I don’t know why”), but around the time when I saw the chicken wire “rooster cage” for one’s penis (it looks like it hurts), the electric butt plugs (they look like they hurt more), and the metal rods you put in your urethra and ping with a little tuning fork to make them vibrate (just looking at them hurts).
Until then I thought I might have been a candidate for the “kink” community in L.A., where people go to parties and tie each other up and, I imagine, have a lot more fun than I have at parties. But now that I knew about genital torture and “urethra play,” I was starting to have a whole new fear: that I’m totally vanilla. To find out more in a safe environment I could talk Cassandra into attending, I signed up for a private, unadvertised class on erotic Japanese rope tying given by Master K.
Master K is one of those people who call every time you e-mail them to go over lots of unnecessary details and who give you lots of historical perspective; I felt like I was in the 1980s with a guy who saw Shogun and then read a bunch of books about the samurai he just had to talk about. He said, about ten times, that kinbaku—Japanese bondage—was an erotic art based on a martial art and was “sophisticated” and “not misogynistic.” We met him at a hotel downtown that looked like it was built in the 1980s by a guy who saw Shogun and then read a bunch of books about the samurai. Cassandra and I got there early and waited in the lobby, where we were certain that this one guy who could double as the lead singer of Judas Priest was Master K.
When we went up to the hotel suite, we discovered that Master K resembled a heavier Dr. Phil in a Hawaiian shirt (I wish Merlyn at the Stockroom had told me what Hawaiian shirts signify), drinking a chai latte. Sure, he gave Cassandra and me a book that contained photos of tightly bound Japanese women with fake blood on them, and he definitely said “kar-ah-tay,” but he was kind of cool. And not only were his five students, who drove up from San Diego for their $350 lessons, normal seeming, but the three women in the group were attractive. They went to the bathroom to switch into tank tops and shorts, and the punky one with dyed-red hair stretched out like she was about to run the 400. After we started talking, she told me that she was Mistress Soma, a professional dominatrix. I would not have guessed. Though I wouldn’t have guessed nun, either.
The two guys from San Diego tied the women up in intricate cat’s cradle patterns that bound their breasts and went between their legs. While they did this everyone appeared very serious, like it was some kind of sculpture class. Occasionally one of them would break the silence by talking about alternative routes to avoid traffic on the way back to San Diego, or Master K would make comments, the most master-ish of which was “Remember, you have to use the waist ropes to balance it. You keep forgetting that.” He explained how the soft jute rope could be used to stimulate the erogenous zones. In fact, he told Cassandra that she could probably tell her neck was an erogenous zone when I touched her there. “Back when he did touch me there,” she said. Master K laughed the kind of laugh you laugh when tying up another man’s wife in front of him. To make matters worse, he and my wife then told me that kinbaku would “slow me down.” How did Master K know I needed to be slowed down? As he tied Cassandra’s arms behind her, telling her how beautifully long her arms are, she did look particularly hot.
When we left the room and got in the elevator, I tried to gauge how freaked out/angry Cassandra was about the experience. “It’s intriguing,” she said. “I thought it was going to be either really skeevy or really nerdy. I felt like it was pretty legitimate erotica. It’s better than putting on masks. I give it a thumbs-up.” I may not have learned that much about myself, but I was learning a lot about Cassandra. Also, for the record, I never suggested anything about masks. And I guess I won’t.
For my final voyage I kissed Cassandra good-bye and went off to confront my perversions alone, like a man on a quest that doesn’t involve swords or helmets or soft jute rope. I drove to a 7,000-square-foot warehouse near LAX that houses Passive Arts, the nation’s largest fetish playground, which, I’m guessing, means the biggest fetish playground in the world outside Germany. It’s hard to describe the lobby unless you’ve seen, or even imagined, a whorehouse. There were women in lingerie walking around with Styrofoam cups, a fat guy with a mop, a heavyset woman in an adjacent room watching TV. Owner John Lavine, who started his first dungeon in 1974, hires both dominants and submissives, who charge about $100 a half hour plus tips—and a fee of at least $100 if you want to whip the person hard enough to leave a mark. It’s all legal, and there’s no sex involved, just lots of yelling and whipping. Business, Lavine said, had declined over the last few years, so he’s added a Web site for homemade videos and Saturday-night parties that bring in between 70 and 400 S&M fans. Young people don’t need to pay to be dominated anymore. “It’s become mainstream because of the Internet,” he said. “People find each other. People are a lot more open with each other before they get married. Ten years ago places like this were underground. They were basically gold mines.” The in fetish right now, he told me, is tickling: About 25 percent of his customers are into tickling, and the majority of them want to be the ticklers. I am definitely pitching the Tickler as the next Batman villain.
I signed up with a pretty, blond, thirtysomething dominatrix who was five foot eleven, though with stiletto boots she was about eight foot three. She wore a see-through dress with strategically placed leather patches and a black thong. She gave me a tour of the place so I could choose a theme room, each done up like a movie set: the doctor’s office (no), the schoolroom (no), the Mae West boudoir with a drawer of women’s clothes for cross-dressers (no), and four dungeons (sure). As we sat on a bondage table with Velcro shackles and chatted, she asked me a series of questions so that she could prescribe the right combination of domination and fetishes. Unfortunately, I seemed to fail this interview; my dominatrix said I wasn’t sub enough and that she wanted to call off our session. I didn’t know whether to bark or catalog the times in my life when I had been really low on confidence, but instead I went with extreme enthusiasm about having the chance to pay her to beat the crap out of me. She said she hated when men try to tell her what she wants to hear. Only I would choose a dominatrix who was a psych major at UCLA.
Finally my dom took me to the Elizabethan room, where she told me to remove my clothes. I did not, somehow, see this coming. There is nothing specifically in my wedding vows about not taking off my clothes in an Elizabethan-themed dungeon in front of a dominatrix, but I figured it went against the spirit of the thing. So I said, “Point of clarification…,” to which the mistress replied, “You can keep your panties on.”
She tied my hands and feet to a board and had me lean against it. Then she pulled down the back of my underwear and spanked me, first with her hands, during which she said, “Your ass is the perfect consistency for spanking,” which I’ve since added to my CV. After that she hit me with some kind of twig and then that spatula-like tool one uses to beat rugs. Let’s just say that from now on, if my rug is dirty, I will bring it outside and gently shake it.
Next, my dominatrix tied me to a table and poured hot wax on me. Colored wax, it turns out, doesn’t hold as much heat as noncolored wax, and it felt kind of warm as she massaged it into my chest. Then I put a clothespin on my nipple, but as the pain began to build, my first instinct was to remove the clip. At that point the dominatrix had had it with me, and she stopped. “Psychologically you’re not committed to having some broad run your show. That’s not your thing,” she said. I felt both incredibly hurt and sure that she knew nothing of my marriage.
She refused to go on, telling me that most of her clients are either into seduction, which I was surprised to find out is what she did to me; corporal, where she yells at guys; or one version where she gets men to do menial tasks and then has them beg for her attention. So she made me wipe down all the gear we used, which turned me on about as much as cleaning anything does. Rather than spending my cleaning time wondering if I was pleasing my mistress, I silently did postgame analysis, berating myself for not doing better, like with the clothespin.
Driving home, I was faced with a moment of self-realization that I was secretly hoping for. No, I didn’t find a new type of sex I wanted to add to my repertoire. Most of what I saw seemed interesting, but I didn’t have the energy to do any of it right. What I did learn was that I’m in the middle of the bell curve of sexual normality; I’m a man who would bore Alfred Kinsey. I just thought I was more open-minded than I am because, unlike most people, I love to talk about this kind of thing. People who want to be normal keep all this stuff quiet, in a warehouse by the airport.
Photograph by Michael Kelley