No Pain, No Gain
The gray-haired professor cracks his whip in mid-air. "Wake up back there!" he commands the two dozen folks lounging around on plush cream couches.
It's time for class.
"It is particularly important to understand the physics of the paddle," says the professor, who is wearing tight, black leather pants. "The secret ingredient in flogging is rhythm. You don't have to hit people with much force to have a big impact. Not to take anything away from you sadists," he adds, with a nod to those who look slightly put out.
As his students munch on sandwiches, he proceeds to describe proper paddling. How to swing from the shoulder, not the wrist. How to avoid possible "emotional landmines," such as hitting the tailbone. How to apply soothing lotions when the scene is complete -- "basic skin care, people."
BDSM -- bondage, domination, sadism and masochism -- isn't all about whips and paddles. It's about skin care, birthday cakes and the community that gathers here at the Enclave, an alcohol-free, 9,500-square-foot facility decorated with Persian rugs and framed artwork and complete with a smoking lounge, handicap-accessible bathrooms, high-speed computer terminals and a game room. The two play spaces are equipped with only the finest bondage tables, steel cages, spanking benches and suspension racks available.
This is the Cadillac of dungeons. And that's just what the Enclave's owners, Michael R. and Deb O'Keefe, set out to create. The husband-and-wife team has spent the past five years building a place that's never existed in Colorado, they say, a place where the BDSM community can gather, interact and play without fear of police raids or neighborhood protests.
As the event calendar at www.enclavewest.com attests, this converted warehouse is kept hopping most nights of the week by folks into alternative lifestyles. On Wednesday, there's a beginners' discussion for those trying to understand the differences between bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism. In another room that same night, there's a Narcotics Anonymous meeting for BDSM practitioners. There are monthly groups for lifestyle dominants, those into controlling their partners, and other sessions for lifestyle submissives, those into physically or emotionally surrendering to others. Saturday nights are almost always reserved for dues-paying members to have their play parties -- when the clothes come off and the whips come out.
Tonight's $15 social event is open to members of the 21-and-up general public; all nudity and sexual activity is strictly limited. It's a time when the professor can instruct newbies on paddling, and when Michael, who's sitting with Deb in the back of the room, can holler out, as the professor bends his volunteer over a bench, "Whack her!"
The professor, paddle in hand, does so, building in intensity to the beat of the Alice in Chains songs blaring from the sound system.
Sitting on an angry chair...
Angry walls that steal the air...
Stomach hurts and I don't care...
The scene ends, and the professor lovingly hugs his volunteer. "That's all for tonight," he says. "Of all the things we do, I think paddling is the hardest to master."
But the professor could be wrong about that. Michael and Deb are now locked in a legal battle with Commerce City over whether their club should be allowed to operate. And they're discovering that it could take more than a whip to beat this image-conscious town into submission.
When Michael and Deb aren't at the Enclave, they're perfectly happy sitting in their suburban Parker home, chain-smoking Winstons and finishing each other's sentences -- "Some people would find us..." "...boring" -- as they explain how they ended up at the center of Denver's BDSM community.
Being a gentleman, Michael lets Deb tell her story first -- though if he wanted to, he could force her to stop at any time. That's how their carefully negotiated 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship works: He always has that veto in his pocket -- whether over what she makes for dinner or what they do in bed -- though he hardly ever uses it, and he doesn't use it now.
So Deb begins, explaining how seven years ago, at age 46, newly divorced with a grown son and a grandchild, she decided to explore why she got turned on when guys told her they were going to own her.
A petite native New Yorker with a spark-plug personality, she was unsure how her career-woman background -- former restaurant manager, real-estate business owner and substance-abuse counselor -- fit with her submissive tendencies. "I was very feminist, and I still am. So the thought of a man flogging me -- what, are you nuts?" she says with a cackling laugh. "How do I, as a very powerful, self-actualized woman, give my power away?" But she decided that true self-confidence came with allowing her partner to meet her needs, even if that meant giving her power away in order to do so. "It's fed my sexual needs, but believe it or not, it's also fed my spiritual needs," she says. "If I'm tied up, it's like being swaddled. I don't have to be a wife, a mom or Deb. I can simply be."
Through websites like www.alt.com, she found others into the same thing -- including Michael.
A Catholic-raised Minnesota farm boy who ended up in Denver two dozen years ago after a stint in the Army, Michael started exploring the local BDSM scene a couple of years before Deb. He had worked as a security guard, a safety inspector, a business manager, even a cop, and had a wife and a family -- but something was wrong, he remembers: "I would find myself wanting to spank someone, and I was thinking, 'You are a wife-beater.'"
Ultimately, he concluded that there was a difference between being respectfully dominant and selfishly domineering, between consensually hurting someone and thoughtlessly harming her. "I have always been a controlling person," he says. "The trick was finding someone like Deb, who I wanted to be in charge of and who was willing to give me that responsibility. I take the responsibility very seriously and thrive on that responsibility."
In many ways, the couple's relationship looks old-fashioned -- "When you think of Leave It to Beaver, the truth is Ward was the dominant," Michael says. "He had that veto in his pocket" -- except for one thing: Deb and Michael communicate.
"I don't know of a single vanilla couple that has the openness and transparency that we have. I need to trust that she's telling me what is good and what is bad," says Michael. "It feels right, it is consensual, it makes her happy. If our relationship is flourishing within this power exchange, why is this bad?"
But many people have told them that their lifestyle is indeed bad -- very bad. Michael partially ascribes the failure of his earlier, fifteen-year marriage to a growing interest in BDSM, and he's afraid that his involvement in the Enclave could cost him his day job. (He asked that his last name not appear in this story.)
One day two years ago, Deb received an e-mail from her father and stepmother. They'd heard about what she was doing with the club, and it disgusted them. They didn't want anything to do with her ever again, they said, and she hasn't heard from them since. "If I could choose to not have this part of my life, I would, because I would still have my family," says Deb, tearing up. "But I can't choose. I would not be honest with myself. I carried about so much shame, and I don't do that anymore."
They don't think other people should have to, either. "Wouldn't it be great," says Deb, "if people who were into this could go somewhere where they would not be ashamed, that was not under the radar?"
Enter the Enclave.
In 2002, after looking everywhere from Montana to New Mexico, eyeing properties from bed-and-breakfasts to defunct ski resorts, Deb and Michael found the perfect place to create a BDSM club: a conveniently located, attractively priced warehouse at 6040 East 50th Avenue in Commerce City that had once been a fertilizer plant and an armored-truck garage. They weren't the only ones buying up real estate in the once-stagnant community crammed between oil refineries and a former chemical-weapons plant. Commerce City is now one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the metro area. The Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer stadium just opened there, part of the city's ongoing development of former Rocky Mountain Arsenal land.
But Michael and Deb set up shop in the gritty, industrial part of town, the section that civic boosters were trying to forget. "Adult entertainment is a workable business in this zone," says Michael, and their facility would be far from schools and churches, as well as prying neighbors. Outsiders would never imagine what the nondescript building held: a new kind of BDSM club, one that -- from the detailed woodwork around the stage to the marble countertops in the bathrooms -- looked much more upscale than other club locations around town.
"Many of the places people were going to were dank and dirty," says Deb. "It reminded me of how I felt when I first found out about it: a dark and shameful thing."
At her club, shame would be left at the door.
The common denominator in BDSM isn't sex or even pain; it's trust. Submissives trust their partners to put them in potentially dangerous situations in ways that will not harm them, only help them, and dominants get off on that trust.
The entire community is built on trust. At a time when many are still scared that the whips and chains in their closets could cost them their jobs, their friends or their children, it takes a lot of communal faith for everyone to come together and let their kinky sides hang out at an event like this fundraiser for LeatherMagick, a local BDSM charity.
It looks like the Stock Show for the whips-and-paddles set. More than a hundred people fill the Enclave this Saturday night, when holiday lights dangle from the eaves. Men in leather vests and caps converse with women in fishnet stockings. An elegantly dressed lady leads another on a leash, past booths of leather-scented candles and whipping canes. On the stage, corseted women writhe in ecstasy to Nine Inch Nails as Deb hawks her videos: "It's like Abbott and Costello meets BDSM."
An organizer quiets the room, asking for attention. "This is your opportunity to give back to the community you love dearly. All of us fall on hard times in one way or another," he says, explaining that LeatherMagick raises money to help those who need a few extra dollars for medicine, bills or Christmas presents. "We try to take care of ourselves and help our own."
Twenty years ago, such an event would have been unimaginable in Colorado. The formalized BDSM community was in its infancy, fractured and secretive. Newspaper ads would alert participants to upcoming play parties, most of which were held in people's basements. "It was much more underground, much more dark. It was still pretty edgy, pretty daring to come out. You were taking some serious risks not just to be ostracized, but to be arrested," says Mys V, co-founder of LeatherMagick. "You had to prove your worth. You had to prove that you were of sound nature and you were not the police. It was hard to find groups."
That changed in the late 1990s, when several local practitioners opened Uncommon Ground, a private BDSM social club, in a rented warehouse in Aurora. Soon after, others in the community opened the Labyrinth, a Denver facility that later moved to Lakewood. "That was the heyday. That's when everybody was close and loyal, and there was kind of an exciting, clubby scene," says Rick, a veteran BDSM organizer. "It was like the hippie movement before everyone went in different directions."
These clubs weren't just about fun and games, though; they were a way for the community to police itself, to protect itself. Here, members could learn how to use ropes and knots that wouldn't cut off their partners' circulation, how to check participants for pre-existing conditions like dislocated shoulders or positional asphyxia, how to be on the lookout for those who might not follow the community's unwritten codes -- predators who wouldn't honor their partner's trust, respect safety precautions or obey safe words that, once spoken, require a play scene to come to an end.
"It's important for people in BDSM have somewhere they can go and learn how to play," says Ms. Phoenix, former president of Uncommon Ground. "We are looked at as hedonistic, self-centered rebels, but the scene has its own set of rules, and we are just as capable of self-governance as the Amish or the Mennonites or the Catholics."
But the clubs also made the BDSM community more susceptible to mainstream exposure -- which members discovered with a jolt four years ago. In the spring of 2003, undercover police acting on a tip that somebody was advertising sex acts at the Labyrinth paid to attend an event there and reportedly witnessed nudity, bondage and discipline. Incensed Lakewood officials argued that the club's owner should have disclosed such publicly accessible sexual activities, and that these activities made the facility an unlicensed adult business in a zone where such businesses were forbidden. The club was permanently shut down.
"Every member of [Lakewood City] Council was shocked when they heard about it," Mayor Steve Burkholder told a reporter at the time. "It does not reflect the moral value of the city or its citizens."
Uncommon Ground closed soon after the Labyrinth did, its membership splitting in squabbles over how to prevent similar exposure. People who'd spoken up for the clubs report being ostracized by friends and family. "When the Lab went down, everyone scattered in the wind," says Missy, a local submissive. "A lot of people who were in the scene for a very long time, they got out and didn't get back in. They got burned and didn't want to risk getting busted up again."
The shakedown was a wake-up call, a "baptism by fire," says Mys V. "It was the first time we ever had to deal with being raided in a hostile environment. It established that we needed a defense system, because these are communities that don't want us."
By then, Michael and Deb were already building that defense system in Commerce City. "The general paradigm was, get a group of people, find a building, rent it and open up and hope you don't get noticed, because, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever licensed a BDSM club within the state," says Michael. "Usually you get some other type of license. And what usually happens is somebody complains and the city looks into it. They don't have to address the First Amendment rights of adults doing what they want to do; they nickel-and-dime you for zoning and coding and licensing, and because you haven't dealt with that, they can get you on it.
"We were going to go to the right zone, we were going to go to the city, we were going to get the adult license if they asked for it, we were going to do it right," he continues. "We wanted to eliminate all those reasons so we have a lot less chance of being raided."
A few in the community wondered if this zealotry was necessary, insisting that as long as they ran a licensed, private social club, Michael and Deb didn't have to worry about things like adult content. "Michael and Deb and I definitely have different models," observes Love Slave, who runs a non-profit, private BDSM club that's been in operation, under different names, since 2004. "We are legal here. We fit all the legal requirements for a private-member social club in the city of Denver, and we fit all the zoning requirements."
"If it is a bona fide private club and in the appropriate zone district, we don't regulate -- whether they are a bunch of numismatists or Masonics or whatever," agrees Denver Assistant City Attorney Kerry Buckey. "They still are forbidden from doing anything illegal there, but that is regulated by other codes and generally would be a police issue."
But Michael and Deb didn't want to take any chances. "My experience with BDSM clubs is that the city says that until someone complains," says Michael. "We are all private clubs, and intuitively you would think that would eliminate the adult-business license requirement, but the fact of the matter is, people are paying money to attend these functions, and municipalities can see that as a commercial enterprise."
That's why they made sure their renovated warehouse met every possible fire and building code. That's also why they told Commerce City officials exactly what they planned to do at the Enclave. And when both the Commerce City planning department and its city attorney said that even though the Enclave was a private social club it needed a sexually-oriented-business (SOB) license to allow nudity and flogging, Michael and Deb got their operation up and running minus the flesh and flagellation.
A year later, they went ahead and applied for the SOB license. "We decided, 'Let's stop lying and hiding,'" remembers Michael. "So they can't sneak in and bust us."
They got busted anyway.
"You all listen up," Michael says to the 65 Enclave members who've shown up for this private party. "For those who aren't reading our e-mails, we've added needle play." There's a whoop from the crowd. This leaves a very short list of no-nos at the facility: autoerotic asphyxiation, bloodletting and other fluid play, fire play and, of course, old-fashioned fornication. ("That is a personal hygienic decision," says Deb. "We are not a sex club, so we think sex is best done other places. People can get titillated and warmed up. It's like foreplay.")
From the crowd comes a wise-ass question: "How about chainsaws?"
Michael smirks. "It's fine until you break the skin."
Members head off to play. In the downstairs dungeon, a mustached man straps a gray-haired woman to a vertical wooden frame and prepares to send her into subspace -- using pain, restraint and other sensations to create an endorphin-fueled high where the standard boundaries of pleasure and pain don't apply. From a toolbox, he withdraws a slender, single-tail whip. Leather connects with flesh, and her muzzled mouth cries out. He pauses, massaging her back. "I'm a sick fuck, aren't I?" he whispers. "What else do I have..." From his toy box, he withdraws an electrical cord, which he plugs into a device attached to his waist. To his fingers he attaches short metal claws, which he runs above her skin. Sparks crackle as she writhes and gasps.
Michael, observing the scene, whispers a secret: "I've felt that on its highest setting, and I get a bigger shock from the doorknob at home."
That doesn't matter when you're in subspace.
Upstairs, a man straps a blindfolded woman, arms outstretched, to a vertical rack in the center of the play room and slaps her with a riding crop. At one point, between giggles and squeals, she reports, "I'm not liking that, sir." He pauses and holds her, whispering in her ear before switching to other techniques.
At a plastic-covered table in a corner, a latex-gloved woman removes small needles from a surgical toolbox and slowly pierces another woman's alcohol-swabbed back. The recipient begins to weep, and her partner hugs her, kissing her face and rocking her back and forth.
Soothing sitar melodies and hypnotic techno beats flow from the speakers, adding to a meditative vibe that's more yoga studio than naughty sex party.
Michael and Deb watch it all, pleased. This is the largest play party they've had in months. "This is how the building is supposed to look," says Michael. "If the city had not dicked with us, this would be an average night."
The dicking began in 2004, when the couple received a letter from Neighborhood Services Inspector Orphie Sitkoski, stating that their SOB license application had been denied because their property was allegedly within a thousand feet of an "Urban Renewal District," a violation of the city's adult-entertainment regulations. But that didn't make sense. Before purchasing the warehouse, Michael and Deb had asked city officials if there would be any problem going for an SOB license, and no one had mentioned any such district. The only land the letter could possibly be referring to was a fenced-off area down the street, a former Superfund site posted with signs reading, "Warning: hazardous contaminants, do not enter." And even if this area was slated for redevelopment, that shouldn't have mattered: A close reading of city code revealed that adult-entertainment facilities could be within a thousand feet of Urban Renewal Districts. They just couldn't be located inside them.
The couple appealed the denial, and at a hearing on their case, Commerce City officials agreed that the Urban Renewal District statement had been incorrect. But they still weren't getting an SOB license. The city had double-checked, and it turned out the Enclave was located next door to a house -- which would also prohibit an SOB license.
"I presided over that hearing," says Councilwoman Reba Drotar. "That was an absolutely fair hearing."
Councilman Tony Johnson agrees: "Personally, I dislike that type of business, but there is a place for it, and they don't meet that criteria."
But Michael and Deb had known about the house before they bought the property and had asked planning officials if it would be a problem. They say Sitkoski had told them not to worry, that the home's owner ran businesses on the property, and according to city code, once a residence in an industrial zone is used for businesses that are normally allowed in that zone, its residential status is terminated.
Commerce City Assistant City Attorney Tom Merrigan disagrees with that interpretation. "We don't use our zoning to drive them out of town, but we also don't want them in an average subdivision. Right next door to the Enclave is a house. And that, of course, sends up a big red flag," he says. "Based on what I've heard, it sounds like [the businesses on the property] could well be something you have in a residential use."
That comes as news to Mel Summers, longtime owner of the property in question. "We are zoned industrial," he says. "They are going to have difficulty calling it a residence, because when I tried to refinance the house as a residence, they said, 'No, it's industrial, and we want to keep it that way.'" That's why, twelve years ago, he registered the lost-luggage delivery service he ran out of the property as a business, not a home occupation, and that's why he recently did the same for the new business venture located there, a company that provides armed security guards and installs security cameras.
Commerce City has no record of the luggage-delivery business license; it may have been lost to time, officials say. They're currently processing Summers's license application for his new business.
In the years since the Enclave has been open, Summers has had no problem with the club. "They are a good neighbor," he says. "They only occupy the place a couple of times a week. They don't park on my yard, they don't throw beer cans, I don't hear yelling and screaming. They are a very quiet bunch."
That didn't matter when Michael and Deb appealed Commerce City's SOB license denial to Adams County District Court. In November 2005, the court found that the city could consider the house next door as part of the license-denial appeal process. But Michael and Deb didn't think the judges had given adequate consideration to whether the nearby house was an appropriate justification for a denial. So they appealed again, this time to the Colorado Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, they say, Commerce City continued to screw with them. Although city code required that they be issued a provisional SOB license pending the results of the appeal, Michael had to fight with Commerce City officials to get it. The couple was also told that recordings of their city council hearing didn't exist -- either the recording device hadn't been turned on properly in the first place, or the tapes had been thrown away in routine housekeeping -- even though those recordings were relevant to their appeal. A police officer stopped by Summers's place to warn him about the Enclave, saying she'd heard the club involved "goths and dead rats hanging from the ceiling."
As a former cop and lifestyle dominant, Michael believes in process and structure. But eventually, even he had had enough -- and the couple hired attorney David Lane to investigate whether they should file a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Commerce City, whether or not they win the SOB appeal. "I am a law-and-order guy. I thought if you did everything right, the system worked," Michael says. "But we did everything right, and the city broke a stick in our ass. All of a sudden, it's dawning on me. This is personal. It's content. It's morals. They are trying to change their image and put a better face on Commerce City, and maybe we don't fit into that plan."
While last week Commerce City residents overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to change their town's name, the fact that the proposal was on the ballot at all showed that a conscious effort is under way to clean up the image of Commerce City. "They realized having an S&M club would offend people in power in Commerce City, so they backtracked," says Lane. "Cities traditionally have used zoning as an excuse to zone out people that they don't like. That's what this is all about. If they make one move to shut them down, they are going to court."
So even if Michael and Deb obtain an official SOB license, they refuse to rely on the city's current adult-entertainment rules for legal protection. "Once the city acknowledges we have a right to be here, we will look at its administrative processes to add a category to the adult section of the code that addresses our use," says Michael. After all, the Enclave doesn't truly qualify as a strip club, an adult bookstore or anything else currently listed under the city's adult-entertainment definitions.
"It is not really a sexually oriented business, but I know Commerce City has forced them into that distinction," says Master Lee, grand master and president of FOLD, Denver's fraternal order for lifestyle dominants. "I see this as a very positive step, because it will give a classification for a type of business that has forever been thrown onto the heap of depravity. I would hope it would be used beyond the walls of Commerce City, some sort of precedent that could assist other communities."
Still, some members of the local BDSM community worry that all these precedents won't help their cause. They're afraid that once the Enclave's struggles go public, it will be like the Labyrinth all over again. "Personally, it's their fight. But on the other hand, my membership is concerned about the media attention this fight is going to bring," says Love Slave. "It is going to have an effect on my attendance, and I can't afford to have that. We don't want to force this down anybody's throats."
Even Enclave members are wary of the fight. "I am one of those who has to keep my interests hidden from the world I live in," says Kathleen, a club regular. "No one likes to be vulnerable, at least within the club's walls. Letting someone from the 'outside' into that cozy world of protection is frightening, to say the least."
But no pain, no gain. "I believe that what Deb and Michael are doing is very, very beneficial to all BDSM communities, both in the U.S. and abroad," says Lew Rubens, the San Francisco-based owner of BoundNDetermined.com. "I liken us BDSM communities to the gay-rights movements of the '60s. In the long run, I believe that exposure, exposure, exposure is the way to make the best progress. As the shock and novelty of what we do wears off, people will grow to accept the fact that we are here, we are okay and we should be able to do what we want as long as no one gets hurt...who doesn't want to be!"
Deb looks pale and worried, like she's about to submit herself to something painful -- painful in a bad way. "I am getting nervous," she admits, standing with Michael outside the Colorado Court of Appeals on March 27, waiting for their appeal's oral arguments to begin.
Michael is full of nervous energy, too, his hands jittery without their customary cigarette. "I'm sure it will be educational for all of us," he cracks jadedly. "It may be the most boring fifteen minutes of our lives."
But the hearing is far from boring. The moment it begins, the gloves come off and Commerce City is slapped around. One after another, the appeals judges spank the city's lawyer. Hadn't the city made mistakes processing the adult-license application? Could the city have used these mistakes to its advantage, changing its reasons for the license denial at the last minute so that the applicants didn't have enough time or information to respond? If the residence next door had involved professional uses, would that not terminate its residential status?
"What is the point of going through this whole process if the city council can simply do whatever it wants?" asks Judge Jerry Jones. "Where is the due process there?"
After the hearing, Deb and Michael are jubilant. "I think we won," Deb says. But their zoning lawyer, Bob Bruce, tries to calm them down. "You can't have any expectations," he warns. They won't know the judges' decision for several weeks, maybe longer. And even if they win, Commerce City could appeal to the state Supreme Court -- more hoops, more legal fees.
"No matter the way the Court of Appeals goes, either party may ask the Supreme Court to hear the case," hints Assistant City Attorney Merrigan.
That doesn't frighten Michael and Deb. They're ready to go the distance. "I'm not Rosa Parks," Michael says. "I'm not Martin Luther King. But you know what? It's wrong."
Deb can see it now: judicial vindication, an official license and then, the final step -- a legal definition that applies specifically to BDSM clubs, paving the way for similar clubs in Colorado and beyond. That would make them official. That would make them legitimate.
"I'm feeling great," she gushes. But "great" doesn't cut it; there's a better way to describe how she's feeling. "Subspace. I'm in subspace, baby!"
There, in those austere chambers, while Commerce City bent over, they could hear that delicious sound they know so well: whack, whack, whack.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.