Behind the Mask

Fetish Nights

photograph by Bruce Dye

There were three young men and they could hardly contain their enthusiasm. With alarming zeal they hopped out of the crowd and onto the stage, pulled off their shirts, got down on all fours, and received a whipping from a couple of women in skimpy plastic outfits. Welcome to Fetish Night. Playing out various B&D (bondage and discipline) and S&M (sadism and masochism) acts on stage, Fetish Nights aren't about pretending, they're about really getting the shit whipped out of you -- or getting hot wax poured on you -- and they're as real as the shrieks and grunts and duct tape on some submissive's breasts.

This particular whipping took place at the Atomic Cafe's regular Tuesday night fetish demonstration conducted by a local ensemble that calls itself Torture Technique. Into leather? Whips? How 'bout bootlicking and being humiliated for the sake of a sexual turn on? Maybe you're just curious and want to check out people who are? Currently, there are two weekly shows in Austin where you can either fulfill or get an eyeful of your favorite fetish, both of them on Tuesday, one at the Atomic Cafe, the other at the Red Room.

Now, making a few reasonable inferences about the venues and what's being done in them, you can safely assume that the people participating in such rituals are not playing out their fantasies to a soundtrack of Wayne Newton, Mel Torme, or Tito Puente. Nope. You know as well as I do that Fetish Nights are all about loud, grinding industrial music. For some of the participants, this music is an essential part of the experience. According to Torture Technique's Mistress Ruby, the music is what lured her into the whole world of B&D. "For me, personally, I became interested because the music I listen to strikes a chord inside me that's very sexual and very domineering."

Wow. And I thought Nine Inch Nails just rocked really hard. But is this industrial-Goth-bondage stuff really that stimulating? One of Mistress Ruby's partners in crime, Torture Technique's Joseph, has proof they are: "We've had to literally stop people from having sex out there because of the show," says Joseph. "And people come up to us afterwards saying how turned on they got by the show."

To the virgin eye, the shows can be a bit shocking (initially, at least) and even somewhat stimulating, but to experienced players in the local B&D scene these shows aren't always so fun. According to Geneva, a body piercer at local "educational" establishment Forbidden Fruit as well as an active participant in the B&D scene, she was more turned off than titillated. "I saw some really unsafe stuff and for the average person to come in and see something like that and think, `This is not a show, this is stuff that people actually do to each other. And now I'm gonna go home and do it to my partner,' is really scary to me."

Nevertheless, Fetish Nights are nothing new to Austin. Attempts to establish something on a regular basis date back at least five years to when Eric "Emo" Hartman brought a group called Skin Cage down from Dallas to do Monday night fetish exhibitions at his club. It was such a whopping success that it lasted all of a month.

Apparently, there just weren't that many people who were interested. It may seem counterintuitive as the social depravity curve continues ever upward, but it was actually better business for Emo's to book a band than to put women whipping each other on display. "The first one we did," recalls Hartman, "a lot of people were curious to see what it was all about. Then, as it went along, people just became less and less interested. It just kind of dissipated as it went along."

While fetishes didn't catch on at Emo's, Ohms was already having a modest success with them, the dance club playing host to a weekly Fetish Night for almost two years. Longevity-wise, the shows were a success -- until they ran into the inherent problems of doing a Fetish Night for an extended period of time. "Very very quickly the [performers] started recycling," says Scott, the deejay who used to spin many of those Fetish Nights. "The evil doctor routine with the helpless young nurse gets old after the 57th time."

But imagination isn't the only limiting factor. When people dress up in leather and chains and start doing nasty things to each other, unless that club also has an adult entertainment license, those people can't get naked. Under Texas law, getting naked without the license could cost you a stiff fine. Most clubs can't afford that, as they depend on liquor sales to stay in business. So, while it may be shocking the first couple of times one sees someone get hot wax poured over her back, desensitization inevitably sets quickly, especially if the audience came to see someone get hot wax poured over her exposed breasts. And that just ain't going to happen.

All photos taken at Atomic Cafe's Tuesday Fetish Night

photograph by Bruce Dye

Even with the built-in redundancy factor, Ohms was still able to sustain the run for a considerable length of time because the show did draw people -- even if they weren't typical dance club clientele. "The old men started showing up about six months into the run," says Scott. "Then there was a huge influx of frat groups. En masse. They would stay until we did the show -- we did one a night -- then out the door."

For a dance club, being overrun by dirty old men and frats is bad. Scott notes that it wasn't until the greeks left that the regulars would come back in, and it wasn't until the regulars came back in that drink sales would go back up, which, from a business standpoint, undermined the whole purpose of the show in the first place. There was one club, though, that was able to work around some of the obstacles and use others to its advantage to put on perhaps the most outlandish and sensorially over-the-top version of a fetish night -- the Back Room's "Bloodfest."

The original idea for "Bloodfest" came from Terminal 46 (at the time the band was known as Auschwitz 46). The band approached club proprietor Mark Olivarez with the idea of putting on a show that was a combination of live industrial music and live bondage. "Basically it was like a theatrical performance of bondage acts kind of toned down to make it legal," says Olivarez.

With some creative input and fine tuning -- from the venue as well as the troupe performing the acts -- the Back Room and Terminal 46 put on a show that differed from your run-of-the mill everyday Fetish Night. Aside from having live music (as opposed to the standard deejay), Bloodfest had another little wrinkle most other fetish shows lacked.

"The cool thing about it was the theatrical acts didn't all happen on a stage," explains Olivarez. "They were in little stations positioned throughout the club so that really, when you walked in, it was an experience. It wasn't just an event. From the moment you walked in, you pretty much got the idea what a Bloodfest was all about."

Unlike Emo's experience with fetish shows, Olivarez's was po$itive. Based almost entirely upon the size of the financial take, the Back Room ended up putting on a good number of Bloodfests over the course of a year without hitting the brick wall of routine. Olivarez recognized that the intrigue was a commodity to be meted out parsimoniously, so he spaced each Bloodfest about six weeks apart. "We tried not to overdo it so that it was always kind of a new thing," says Olivarez. "Something that's so extravagant you didn't want to run it into the ground."

While Bloodfest and other wild unions between industrial music and sexual (mis)conduct are extravagant, excessive, and entertaining, they're not typical. Mistress Scarlet DeMedici, a professional dominatrix here in town, recently held her first "Dare to be Dominant" workshop specifically for people interested in exploring B&D and learning some of the basic "rules" involved in creating a safe environment for acting out dominant and submissive roles. Unlike Fetish Nights in the clubs, the workshop was as sexually stimulating as, oh, a chemistry lecture.

That may seem strange, but there's a good explanation for it: People into B&D and S&M aren't doing it to shock a third party. Neither are they doing it to draw people into their living room so that they can sell alcohol and turn a profit. Says DeMedici, "These are real people with real relationships and they want real relationships that involve trust, but they also want this real edgy thing." People into B&D are not necessarily swingers or exhibitionists. In fact, most of the people at the workshop had partners. While the people conducting Fetish Nights are into the whole B&D/S&M scene, what they are doing on stage isn't representative of what the majority of the people in the scene are doing. The "real people" into this kind of deviancy are probably boring couples like everyone else -- well, relatively speaking.

Forbidden Fruit's Geneva explains: "Very few people in the scene go to [Fetish Nights]. And when they do, they're usually a little disturbed by what happens, so they leave. It's a different thing. One is put on for show, for entertainment, and the other is a very sensual thing that partners will do together.... If you got 10 to 20 people that were into S&M or B&D to get onstage and do their thing, the people in the audience would probably yawn and go home. It wouldn't interest them. It may be the same as a couple having sex in bed as compared to a couple of porn stars having sex."

Yes, but if you're at home, your not going to put "Anal Staircase" on at ear-bleeding volume and set a small fire for visual effect. That's done at the club, and it's done just for show. Besides, if you did it, your neighbors would probably call the cops. But hold on, back up a bit. If the people going to these Fetish Nights are not people in the scene, as it were, then who the heck are they? Basically, it's the voyeurs.

photograph by Bruce Dye

Some are the expected. Walk into a Tuesday night fetish show at either Atomic Cafe or the Red Room and you'll see them. There are the dirty old men and the dirty young men. People think condescendingly of the former group but for every person over 40 there are twice as many half that age. Some are watching, some are playing the part, some are dressing the part. One Atomic Cafe patron decked out half-assedly in S&M garb was not into S&M at all; he was just a self-described "bored kid, trying to have some fun."

Others are not so expected, at least not to Olivarez. "What I didn't want to be pigeonholed into was to have this kind of a night where all the freaks come out and all the people that were way into bondage and that kind of thing," he says. "And I'll be darned if Bloodfest wasn't the event that everybody knew about but no one wanted to admit that they came to. I mean, without using any names, there were notable business people, people from every age group -- 18 all the way up to 50. You had people coming in leather outfits and business suits. It was the oddest mixture of people you've ever seen, but everyone there had the same frame of mind. That's what made it so entertaining."

Curiosity doesn't always end with entertainment, though. Fetish Nights apparently have a very real social function: For people with no contacts in the B&D/S&M sub-culture, these shows provide a way for them to at least witness fetish acts (as noted earlier crowd participation is usually an option) and see how they respond to them. For those individuals, going to a club that also features music and dancing may be a comfortable way to check things out.

"I absolutely believe that music can be a gateway to experimentation," says DeMedici. "And it's a place where taboos can be explored and broken. It's kind of a safe space for that, because it's behind the mask of entertainment. And that's a really cool thing."

Mistress Cassandra, the ringleader of Torture Technique if you will, believes that exposing the potentially interested to B&D and S&M acts is in indeed a service that they perform. "I like to think that I have a hand in helping people feel free and explore things -- feel comfortable enough to explore things that turn them on rather than feeling like, `Oh no, I'm a horrible person because I've always wanted to give in to this fetish that I have.'"

Of course, there are those who don't see the purveyance of fetishes as heroic or socially beneficent. Says "Emo" Hartman, "It seems to me in a lot of ways that the whole Fetish Night thing is more or less a way of trying to get a bunch of horny guys to come out and drink beer thinking they're gonna see something they're not going to see normally. That's kind of a blunt way of putting it, but that seems to be the way it goes."

Well, not exactly. The really adventurous ones can get whipped.

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