^
Keep Westword Free
4

Rough Trade: COVID-19 Has Put Denver's BDSM Businesses in a Bind

Domina Elle stands in the Black and Blue Room at the Mile High Dungeon. The dungeon has five different themed rooms.EXPAND
Domina Elle stands in the Black and Blue Room at the Mile High Dungeon. The dungeon has five different themed rooms.
Kenzie Bruce

The pandemic is giving Denver’s BDSM community a flogging — and not the fun kind, says Denver dominatrix Elle, co-owner of Mile High Dungeon, which has closed because of both safety concerns and economic challenges.

While other businesses have found some government relief, Elle says that her operation, though legal, is excluded from federal financial support programs. COVID-relief loans and grants are not available for businesses that are “prurient,” according to most application guidelines.

Now, people in the erotic industry are negotiating an impossible bind: whether to keep operating at risk of spreading the virus, or shut down temporarily and possibly lose their employment permanently.

Elle has been a sex worker for the past 21 years. It’s her calling, she says, and she hopes to hang up her thigh-highs and retire as a professional dominatrix when she hits 65 — if COVID-19 doesn’t continue to wreck her professional plans and eat up decades of savings, strapping her with debt.

Her story, which parallels those of many working in the legal sex industry and even underground, is one of liberation. “Through the work I did, I was able to get on my feet and do something amazing and become a healthy, thriving person,” she says.

While the religious right and prudish politicians have targeted sex workers, prostitutes and the publications that advertise their services, Elle insists that the sex-slavery stereotype they're crusading against is hardly an accurate depiction of her world. And she should know: Not only has she offered her own services as a pro-dom, but she's been an outspoken advocate for sex workers' rights nationally as well as in Denver.

She and other dominatrixes opened the Mile High Dungeon five years ago. There, Elle taught clients about the BDSM lifestyle, consent and scene negotiation. She helped people explore their kinks, and even worked in conjunction with therapists to guide their patients in addressing childhood traumas. She's been part healer, part educator, part kink provider. The experience was transformative, she says, both for the people she dominated and for herself.

Back in February, after watching news reports of the coronavirus upending life in Wuhan, China, Elle worried it might come stateside. So Mile High Dungeon shut down operations, with hopes of reopening in a few weeks. Weeks later, the state implemented a stay-at-home order, and the coronavirus has been flagellating the physical and economic health of people in the United States ever since.

Even as other businesses reopened, the dungeon stayed dark.

While Elle has worked with a couple of customers, observing strict mask-wearing and sanitation measures, she has largely avoided appointments. That hasn't just hurt her bank account, but clients: Inexperienced people inclined toward bondage, domination and sado-masochism need an outlet and a proper schooling in boundaries and negotiation, she says, so that their sexual desires — often mired in shame and taboo — don't land them in trouble.

Domina Elle at the soon-to-close Mile High Dungeon.EXPAND
Domina Elle at the soon-to-close Mile High Dungeon.
Kenzie Bruce

While Elle would love to see the sex industry receive a government bailout, she knows that's highly unlikely. Politicians are more interested in cracking down on the industry than propping it up — even though plenty of pols have enjoyed sex workers' services. Democrats and Republicans alike have gone after the industry, so the likelihood of a political solution is improbable.

Now, with COVID-19 cases breaking records again in Colorado, Elle realizes that reopening Mile High Dungeon anytime soon isn't feasible, so she's reassessing how to move forward until a vaccine becomes available.

It’s not just sex workers who are being hit. The entire BDSM scene, which relies heavily on social gatherings, is struggling. Christine Winnie Wenglewick, owner of the Denver Sanctuary, a dungeon and social club, says that old-timers in the BDSM community have largely stepped back from play parties — or they’re holding private gatherings in their homes. Newcomers who show up to her club’s events, which are operated under rigid social-distancing guidelines that are not exactly conducive to community romps and stomps, are often left wondering what the point is of paying for a party when no more than twenty people are allowed in at a time.

COVID has delivered Wenglewick a double whammy because she also owns Denver's Dangerous Theatre. Like every performing arts venue, it's suffered during the pandemic. And Wenglewick's strategy for covering the cost of her underground plays — funding them with proceeds from the Denver Sanctuary — is now failing.

Long before getting involved with BDSM, Wenglewick was active in the theater scene. In Orlando, she ran a space that served as both a hair salon and performance venue. Shortly after moving to Colorado in 2001 to be near her ex-partner and child, she stumbled into the kink scene and found a second home.

Wanting to introduce newbies to the lifestyle, she started a meetup and play party called Gateway. The group started out meeting at people’s homes, but soon outgrew those and needed a larger spot. Wenglewick asked the now-defunct Denver Harbor, a BDSM club, if she could hold Gateway parties for newcomers there, and the owners agreed. Three months later, they came up short on rent money and asked Wenglewick if she wanted to take over the warehouse dungeon. At first she was hesitant, but then she realized that she could eventually use the space for experimental theater performances in the early evening hours and transform it into a late-night place for sexual exploration.

In 2007, she launched Dangerous Theatre out of her dungeon. She's produced more than thirty experimental plays there and also hosted hundreds of workshops, BDSM parties and gatherings where people into kink built community.

“It’s not been a conventional business plan,” Wenglewick says. “But up until COVID, it was one that worked.”

Like most businesses, the Denver Sanctuary and Dangerous Theatre both shut down in mid-March. A sole proprietor, Wenglewick did not consider applying for various small business or arts grants or loans. She was closeted about how the theater and dungeon shared a warehouse, and says she was afraid that potential funders looking at her books would wonder how a small theater that seats no more than fifty could be making so much money.

But not anymore. With both businesses shuttered for months, she found herself $12,000 behind in rent. If she cannot pay that debt by the end of the year, her landlord will give her the boot.

"I can’t fault her too much,” says Wenglewick. “I can’t fault any landlord who lets a dungeon in her space to begin with.”

To raise rent money, Wenglewick has offered some demonstrations and classes in consent and scene negotiation, BDSM 101 and more — though she only charges $10 a pop, hardly enough to pay what she owes. In normal times, the Denver Sanctuary would be hosting workshops in every manner of BDSM play. Now the only hands-on activity that can be done with COVID-19 precautions in place is fire play: teaching people how to light each other on fire...safely.

Christine Winnie Wenglewick of the Denver Sanctuary and Dangerous Theater.EXPAND
Christine Winnie Wenglewick of the Denver Sanctuary and Dangerous Theater.
Dangerous Theater

Dangerous Theatre has also been hosting a handful of productions, from comedy nights to more traditional plays. And now, as Denver again clamps down on capacity, Wenglewick is shifting much of her theatrical work online and streaming shows.

In the weeks to come, she'll be performing Drunk Storytime With Caroline, during which she'll get drunk and act out various popular children's stories, including Dr. Seuss tales and "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs"; she'll also host virtual comedy, kink nights and more.

“Every time I make a business plan, two weeks later [I realize], 'Oh, that ain’t going to work,'” she says. “I’m constantly having to readjust.”

Some members know that the Denver Sanctuary is on the verge of being kicked out, and wonder if Wenglewick will try to reopen the club elsewhere. “People are like, ‘Are you going to find another space?,’" she says. "I say no. I’m not going to find another landlord who’s into this stuff. If I were to take another business somewhere, it would be opening another theater, not opening another dungeon.

I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

But even doing that seems uncertain without a vaccine. “Given COVID, I don’t know the reality of opening another theater,” she admits, adding that at least her cosmetology license is up to date, so "I could always go back to hair.”

As Elle packs up the Mile High Dungeon that she and her fellow doms built, she’s been thinking about how sex work has given her so much personally and taught her about the world. “I was standing in my studio the last couple of nights, because I’m saying goodbye,” she says. “I’m thinking back on all the different things I’ve witnessed and the people I’ve worked with.

“I’ve learned so much about myself and humanity and life,” she says. “It’s really powerful work, and I hope one day our culture can acknowledge it for what it is.”

For more information about the Denver Sanctuary, go to Denver Sanctuary's website. To find out more about Dangerous Theatre's upcoming online schedule, go to Dangerous Theatre's website.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.