It's a jungle in there. The lighting is dim, but you can still spy the wild life scattered across the landscape. Writhing, naked slaves are shackled to crosses, their desperate wails punctuated by the "thud...thud...THUD" of leather floggers meeting tender skin. A dispassionate domme watches her collared subbie boy struggle to free himself from the ropes that bind him and the saliva-dripping ball gag forced into his mouth. Audible moans pierce the collective consciousness (and the synth-pop soundtrack) as needles prick flesh, and the room is permeated by the heady aroma of glass electrodes hitting flesh.
It's Saturday night at the Denver Sanctuary, the only public dungeon club in Denver. Although many kinksters own and operate private dungeons in their homes and offices for events and play parties, those are strictly invitation-only. But the Sanctuary, located in a 3,200-square-foot industrial warehouse near I-25 and Sixth Avenue, is open to all who want to answer the call of the wild — and are willing to sign a disclaimer.
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When she took over the Sanctuary five years ago, Love Slave's goal was to provide a safe, non-discriminatory place where everyone could express their kinks without being judged or experiencing negative reactions from the vanilla community, people whose only exposure to BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadomasochism), dominance and submission (D/s), and all the other sexual shenanigans that fall into the catch-all term of "kink" might be the movie Secretary or the occasional episode of CSI. In essence, she wanted to create a wild-life sanctuary.
Much like endangered wildlife, many kinksters hide themselves, their habits and their habitats from public view to protect their privacy — but they aren't just the girls with the blue bangs and lip rings or the guys with the bondage pants and the vampire contact lenses. Kinksters are everyone and everywhere, hiding in plain sight. They shop at King Soopers, sit next to you at the dentist's office and might be your boss, your landlord or the person in line behind you at the coffee shop. "Some people are so far in the closet they may as well be in Narnia having tea with Mr. Tumnus," says local kinkster Skylar.
"None of us are normal, but we hide it very well," says Nyx, an organizer with SKALES (Safe Kink Adult Lifestyle Education and Support, at www.skales.org). "A study was done that estimates 20 percent of the population is at least a little kinky. Whether you know it or not, we're all around you: at the grocery store, the gas station, on the bus, at the hospital — everywhere."
Even so, the mating rituals of Denver's kinksters are widely misunderstood by 'nillas, Love Slave notes. The scene at the Sanctuary is not a free-for-all sex orgy, and dungeons are not to be confused with swingers' clubs. There are both universal and location/event-specific rules to be aware of and followed — or else the leather boot will be used, and not in a good way. While this world might look dangerous to the uninitiated, the difference between kink play and actual abuse is simple: Play is done with safety, respect and consent; abuse is not, and abuse is anathema to the kink scene. The herd must be protected.
Slide show: The Denver Kink Field Guide
And Denver's wild-life scene has its share of predators. The occasional well-meaning but vanilla individual showing up at events, trying to mate with anyone he or she can, is annoying, but the pack will quickly bring the accidental tourist in line. The non-consensually abusive, disrespectful, opportunistic creepers who prey on the protected sub-species will be chased off less gently.
Locations of private play spaces are not freely advertised. Information used to be scattered around bars and clubs or disseminated by word of mouth, but now the key to the wild-life kingdom is Fetlife.com. A Facebook for kinksters, it's the best beaten path for putting up profiles, adding friends and gaining access to the active groups in the area. There are as many groups as there are fetishes — something for every titillating taste and primal proclivity.
Mistress Saskia, Denver's premier dominatrix, says the first step for exploring the Denver wild-life scene is research, learning what BDSM is (and what it isn't) by reading, Googling, networking on Fetlife and attending local "munches" or informal gatherings, demonstrations, workshops and ongoing lifestyle education classes such as SKALES. The second step might be attending one of the Sanctuary's "Gateway" events for newcomers 21 and up that it holds on the last Saturday of every month (find more information at www.denversanctuary.com).
And there's no reason to be shy. "The majority of the folks who participate in this lifestyle are very accepting of others regardless of if they have the same kinks or not," says Love Slave.
"The kink scene here lets me have the chance to just be myself, to not have to hide what or who I am from anyone. It's a wonderful sense of freedom that many wish for," says Denver dominant Daddy. "Just because we are freaky does not mean we are freaks. Well, that's mostly true..."
"People play with kink because they like it, because it makes them hot, because it makes them feel good, because it turns them on," notes sex and lifestyle educator Shanna. "We are just people, trying to figure out what turns us on, how to get our needs met, and how to have relationships that are the best for us. I might not understand folks who get drunk every weekend or who go four-wheeling, but I validate that it makes them happy. All I ask is that even if you don't understand us, you validate us."
Here is our Field Guide to Denver's Wild Life. Pseudonyms are being used to protect the innocent, the guilty, and everyone in between.
Description: Dominants are people of any gender or sexual orientation who exercise control in a power-exchange situation or relationship in either a scene/session dynamic or a relationship/lifestyle dynamic. Sexy, huh? Mistress Saskia, a professional Denver dominatrix and headmistress of Pavlovia Denver, and thirty-year-old "Daddy" are both dominants — but Daddy is referred to as a dom, in the masculine form, whereas Mistress Saskia is known as a dominatrix or the truncated feminine, domme. These titles are similar to the less specific terms "top" and "bottom," which denote a physical and situational title rather than an emotional or psychological dynamic." The terms "master" and "mistress" are dominant titles of respect and should be earned, as is the term "slave."
As Daddy explains: "We are in charge. Input is allowed and valued, but at the end of the day, we make the decision of which path to take. The dynamic has been discussed, evaluated and negotiated, where the submissive or slave wishes to not need to think about certain things and wishes to turn over full responsibility to the person they have chosen to have lead their life."
"I geek out on people. I find people fascinating, and I love to be part of somebody's exploration," Mistress Saskia says. "When people engage in something they are afraid of, they get through it feeling stronger and freer. That sounds counterintuitive when someone is submitting or bottoming, but when people are making themselves vulnerable, that takes an enormous amount of bravery. We love catharsis!"
Habitat Range: Inside the Sanctuary, the ones who have not yet mated gravitate toward the social area at the front of the club. Once mated, they migrate to the play area, where they and their submissive(s) proceed to make use of the indigenous equipment, such as racks, cages, crosses, spanking tables and padded benches.
Field Notes: The dominants are the rulers of the terrain, trusted to keep their packs in line and to protect their territory and sub-species counterparts. They can be monogamous or polyamorous, but tend not to play or roam together.
Slide show: The Denver Kink Field Guide
Description: A submissive of any gender or orientation gives up control to a dominant in a power exchange or relationship dynamic; the term is sometimes shortened to sub or subbie. A desire to serve and be punished for disobedience are superb qualities in submissives, as exemplified by Crow, a 23-year-old male sub, and Strawberry, a 34-year-old female subbie.
"The sensations like pain, textures, heat and pleasure during scenes are like nothing I have ever experienced. Imagine the best runner's high you have ever had and multiply by five. No drug can compare to it," says Crow.
"Letting go of yourself and surrendering every vestige of control into someone else's hands is exhilarating, liberating and almost primal," says Strawberry. "I love to be degraded, humiliated, whipped, flogged, fucked stupid. Then the scene ends, and my dominant and I have a sandwich and laugh."
Habitat Range: Unmated subs will roam near unmated dominants, and courtship rituals will ensue. At the Sanctuary, mated submissives will accompany their dominants to the play area to utilize the indigenous equipment, and can later be found at the medical station receiving aftercare for their tender parts.
Field Notes: Submissives serve their dominant counterparts and in return are protected from the elements. They can be monogamous or polyamorous, but they usually do not roam alone.
Description: Switches alternate between dominant and submissive or top and bottom roles in a scene or a relationship dynamic. As ThatOneGirl, a 28-year-old female switch, explains, "Essentially it's about enjoying the role of a top or a bottom in different scenarios. I'm not a dom or a sub, but for me it's about the role of who is experiencing what at what time, and essentially who is running the scene versus who is in their control. It can be sadism or masochism — giving and receiving."
Habitat Range: After entering the Sanctuary, switches usually share the equipment area with the dominants and submissives.
Field Notes: Versatile creatures that can hunt or be hunted, switches keep the herd diverse. They can be monogamous or polyamorous, and they value communication to keep the other mammals aware of which role they assume at what time. Switches are often harder to spot in crowds.
Description: These are people who choose to enter into long-term, consensual, BDSM-based relationships with one or more persons. The relationships can be contractual, polyamorous, encompass a shared living situation and involve "collaring," or the formal acceptance of a slave's service by his or her dominant.
Lady Markette is the owner and mistress of Domus Sadicus, a private BDSM household nestled in a quiet Denver suburb that has five resident members — two of which are males collared to her. "It's a huge time and soul commitment," she says. "You must be invested in this lifestyle 100 percent, or else it's just role-playing." The household she runs is "like a 1950s ideal family situation. There is a head of the household, and it's not a democracy; it's a dictatorship."
According to Domus Sadicus member Noan, "People who do this appreciate discipline and structure — and know how to communicate."
"This lifestyle is not a choice for me; it's my true self," says house member Leonis, a collared slave. "Vanillas think it's just fantasies we need to act out, but there's no acting. It's who we are."
Habitat Range: These mammals tend to establish their own private play areas, but can be found at the Sanctuary, especially for ceremonial events.
Field Notes: These Lifestylers move in organized packs within the herd; they tend to be polyamorous, and can produce offspring that they raise and care for collectively. These mammals are well grounded in their lifestyle and tend to be communal educators.
Description: Leather culture includes, but is not limited to, leather as an open expression of freedom from mainstream sexual values. It's closely associated with males in the gay community but can be associated with BDSM culture for any gender or sexual orientation.
"Leathermen are just like you: We put our pants on one leg at a time," Sir Dan, a male in his early forties, wants non-kinksters to know. "We have our morning coffee and go to work, we pay our mortgages and, thanks to the over-dramatized media, we worry about the economy. We watch our 401(k) and stocks plunge and the gas prices go up."
There are not any hard-and-fast boundaries to what defines a leatherman, he notes: "I have a friend who loves to fist his boyfriend. It is very enjoyable to them both. There is no bondage or whips or spanking. Neither wears a stitch of leather except possibly their belts. Yet some would call them leathermen because they perform something considered not vanilla."
Habitat Range: Once inside the Sanctuary, leathermen tend to separate into groups based on types of fetishes or play. They are excellent guardians of the Sanctuary, or "dungeon monitors," because of their intelligence and keen senses.
Field Notes: These kinksters are considered the progenitors of the kink species. They roam alone or in mostly male packs, can be monogamous or polyamorous, and are easy to identify when wearing their trademark leather garments.
Slide show: The Denver Kink Field Guide
Description: Play piercing or recreational acupuncture is done for the purposes of sensation rather than to produce a permanent body modification.
Grendyl, a male in his thirties, recently took 100 needles at a fundraiser event for the Boulder chapter of the Center for Sex Positive Culture. "Imagine getting a body piercing but you're usually going much closer to the epidermis and you're not leaving anything there when you're done," he says. "This is also usually done with needles much smaller than would be used in a body piercing. Usually 18-22 gauge, but some people like to go larger. It's considered a very intense experience, as it can very quickly cause the brain to begin pumping endorphins. You're kind of tricking your brain into thinking, 'Hey, I've been punctured, fuck — better get ready for big pain!'"
Habitat Range: In the Sanctuary, the needle players tend to group themselves near the medical station, and their sharp cries can he heard throughout the dungeon.
Field Notes: Like mammals with needle-sharp teeth for hunting, needle players are considered edgy even by kink species' standards. They can be males or females, monogamous or polyamorous, and are easily identified by needle bruises and marks.
Description: Fire play is a form of temperature play that uses flames next to or on the skin to stimulate the body's neuroreceptors. It's generally considered to be "edge play," a subjective term used to define high-risk play.
One of Mistress Saskia's specialties is lighting people's bodies — junk included — on fire. "It's not intended to be painful, just erotic," she says. "If there is pain involved, then it's probably not being done correctly. I frequently light people's junk on fire, and they seem to like it — they make happy faces. I also do fire spankings and fire massage: I light my hand on fire and put the flame out by rapidly striking someone's flesh."
There's an art to this kink. "Sometimes when two people know each other," Mistress Saskia notes, "and one of them has a lighter and a can of hairspray and the one person just keyed the other one's car...that's not fire play."
Habitat Range: Once inside the Sanctuary, they camp out near the massage tables close to the fire extinguishers.
Field Notes: These hot-blooded mammals are best observed in low-light conditions.
Description: Erotic electrostimulation — or "e-stim," for short — is the application of electrical stimuli to create sensations ranging from mild to sadistic, depending on the level of play. Common devices used for e-stim are violet wands (handheld plastic cylinders encasing a high-voltage, low-current electrical transformer) and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS units.
"Have you ever stuck your tongue to a nine-volt battery and gotten that biting/tickling feeling?" asks Lady Markette. "Now amplify that by a thousand. The sensations can range from 'Oh, my fucking God!' to 'purrrrrrrrrrr,' from sweet and light to feeling like someone is carving your spine out of your body with a light saber." It's sensual, yes, but the body's natural reactions don't always stay static. "Electrical play produces a type of pain/sensation that you are not able to build up a resistance to, so it is always intense," she notes.
Adds Mistress Saskia, "I run the current through my hands and brush my hands over someone's skin while I'm conducting electricity, which means I am feeling the same tingles and zaps as the other person is. I am a conduit."
Habitat Range: They tend to group near power sources, like electrical outlets.
Field Notes: These electro-sexual mammals are visible in the dark.
Description: Food play is a form of erotic fetishism involving preparing, serving, eating or even making sweet love with food. It's artistically used in kink scenes involving objectification and can produce sensations with tactile, aromatic and visual appeal.
Daisy, a 29-year-old kinkster, has a soft spot for sweets. "Let's turn a person into a tray for sushi, or desserts, or tasty snacks!" she says. "You can also turn your partner into a cupcake by putting frosting and sprinkles all over them and licking it off!" She loves the intense feelings of food on body: "Whether it's cold wasabi being spread on my thighs or a warm cake and frosting covering my chest, the physical sensations contribute to this happy little place my brain goes to."
There are many unhappy misconceptions about food play, though. "People think of sploshing, which is usually about getting messy and covered in food," Daisy says. "I think that's all part of it, but for me the biggest thing is being this pretty object that people can eat off of, lick or bite."
Habitat Range: Food players form a migratory pattern from the kitchen area to the play area and back again with frequency.
Field Notes: These mammals are omnivores that thrive on carnal knowledge. They are close to their food sources and tend to be quite charismatic creatures.
Description: Rope bondage or rope play is the use of rope to tie, wrap, bind or dress the body, with most modern techniques derived from shibari: artistic Japanese bondage centered on aesthetic appeal.
"The style of rope bondage that I do is very practical and uses few to no actual knots, so when I tie the person I'm working with, I actually don't have a predetermined plan of how it is going to go, other than saying 'chest tie,' 'hogtie' or 'suspension,'" says Colorado Rigging Kinkster, a male in his early twenties. "It just has its own voice and it uses my hands to speak, and a lot of the time the end product is something beautiful and unique to the bottom. I started practicing my art when the girl I was seeing was binding herself up before bed every night. I was not even old enough to vote then, but it was my first experience with something so...intoxicating."
Sadly, rope play is often misconstrued. "As kids, we were taught that the bad guys tie up their victims," he notes. "Or that it's about autoerotic asphyxiation. There is a more sensual and aesthetically pleasing aspect to rope bondage, and those who practice it have a good understanding of that side of it."
Habitat Range: At the Sanctuary, they tend to occupy the areas near the racks and the giant cage, and occasionally the rafters.
Field Notes: These mammals are bound to keep the herd tied up and tend to be easy to capture.
Slide show: The Denver Kink Field Guide
Description: Blood fetishism, or hematolagnia, is getting aroused and/or stimulated from playing with, in, on or around blood, human or otherwise. Is this considered edge play? Most definitely.
Blood players Das Boot Man and his nineteen-year-old wife, Blood-n-Scars, recently did a public blood-play scene using several gallons of cow's blood that they bought from H Mart. As twenty-year-old Das describes his scene experience: "I was naked, with a gas mask over my head, on my knees with my wife behind me, staring at all the people staring at us. Everything went silent. I started breathing heavily. The adrenaline was at an all-time high. Then it came: It was freezing-cold blood being poured on me, over my back, down my shoulder, dripping off my chest — it started pooling at my knees. This high is greater than any drug. I looked up at my lover, covered in blood — she was more beautiful than ever."
Das prefers human blood, though, specifically his own, and is confident that blood play is safe. "Neither of us was hurt in any way whatsoever," he says. "Donating blood is more dangerous than any scene we have ever done."
He started doing blood play in high school "to freak out the norms," he recalls, adding that "idiots and stupid high-school emo-fucktards" should stay away from blood play.
Habitat Range: Once in the Sanctuary, they favor wide-open spaces so that they can set down tarps.
Field Notes: These hard-core, bloodthirsty mammals may leave their victims feeling drained. Their natural enemies are the emo-fucktards, other slow-witted mammals they tend to prey upon and dominate.
Description: Costume play, or "cosplay," involves dressing and accessorizing to represent either characters or ideas. This can be highly sexualized, and often costumes are revealing and made from non-traditional materials like latex.
Twenty-nine-year-old LaLa is a cosplayer. "I learned about costume play from my ex-boyfriend, who is a cross-dresser. He was always putting together different outfits that were sexy and had a theme. I usually try to keep true to his ideal by keeping an overall theme to my costumes and making sure they flow," she says.
"My costumes are outfits I either got at local stores or on the Internet," LaLa continues. "I put together costumes from finds at thrift stores. They are fun clothes to put on to promote my image of being a sexy baby girl, so I have a lot of schoolgirl outfits, a Bo Peep, and lots of ruffled petticoats and panties. I have seven-inch platform heels I wear, and I always have my teddy bear in hand."
Lovinlatex, 23, clarifies that latex can be for the kink scene or just for the shiny hell of it. "The wonderful thing about it is you don't necessarily need to be kinky to wear and enjoy it," he says. "If you look at popular music in the last several years, you'll see an explosion of latex clothing. Celebs like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and several others have all worn latex at one point or another. And there are a lot of regular people who wear latex around their house just for the pure joy of it."
Habitat Range: These mammals like to see and be seen, and they tend to migrate to the Crypt at 8 Broadway when they're not at the Sanctuary. According to manager Jared Guerts, the Crypt has "sexy merchandise for adults who enjoy all kinds of erotic experiences, from vanilla to extreme; from the beginner to the highly advanced; from the feminine to the butch."
Field Notes: The brightest-plumed creatures in the kink forest, these mammals stand out from the pack and are easy to identify. They also tend to roam together.
Description: Internet players are more reserved creatures who are most comfortable conducting BDSM relationships online, with partners who don't have to be in their geographic location — and the proliferation of online sites makes that possible.
CaptKirk, a 27-year-old male dominant, says, "The scene has been growing at an almost explosive rate, and that is directly due to the Internet sites.
"The biggest pro of online is that you can connect with people that you may never otherwise run into, and you can get to know them a little before actually meeting them in person," continues CaptKirk. "The biggest con is that you never know if you are talking to a woman, a fourteen-year-old boy or a fifty-year-old man."
According to DarkSteven, a 55-year-old male dominant, alt.com is the "granddaddy" of the sites, while Fetlife.com is the most popular kink networking site at the moment. He's also had favorable experiences with Collarme.com. "It's actually two sites: Collarme.com, which has member profiles, and Collarchat.com, which has the chat forums," he says. "Their profiles let you state your kinky and -kinky interests and provide a prose self-description. You can also specify your gender, your orientation and what you're looking for. The forums are a great place to 'meet' people from around the world, and a great place to get others' opinions and insights. I met two sub women from there who relocated to be with me."
Beautiful Black Cat, a 27-year-old female submissive, also recommends Fetlife.com, but has a different opinion of Collarme.com. "Not the greatest or one I'd recommend," she says. "I do like the options of having a forum board, private chatting and games, but a lot of people on there are only looking for a third or fourth person to join their household."
Those opportunistic, dominant kinksters looking for multiple subs are pejoratively nicknamed "collectors."
But some kinksters choose to conduct entire M/s or D/s relationships online, never meeting their partner(s) in real life. Online BDSM may seem less personal, 47-year-old female submissive Merike acknowledges, but her relationship with her online dom is "not meant to be a typical relationship," she says. "Our general interest lies in the D/s experience only. We are both open to whatever happens together and apart — no strings, truly."
Here's how Merike describes a typical online scene:
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Master (actually wearing mask while typing): "On your knees, serve me, make yourself worthy of my cock, you wet little whore!"
Slave: "I am ready to serve you, Master, as soon as I can figure out how to get myself out of this cage you had me lock myself into last night.... Oh, fuck, I gotta pee!!"
Habitat Range: Internet-only players prefer to stay near their wireless routers.
Slide show: The Denver Kink Field Guide