This was my second munch, but I still couldn't shake the BDSM stereotypes and journalistic fears.
Was it going to be an intimidating leather-and-chains crowd? Would they want to talk — to share their knowledge and turn-ons as if we were discussing books? Or would questions shut people down?
My first munch — a sort of oddly named informational social hour — had taken place at the Underground, fit with creative lighting and '80s-tastic club music, which nicely veiled discomfort. I'd met a transgender woman named Rachel, who commented on the dainty padlock necklace I wore, saying it was quite symbolic in this company. Quiet and philosophical, she talked about her polyamorous life, and about doms and subs.
She made two things very clear that night: One, communication and respect are the keys to being in the community. And two, hurt should never harm. In that spirit, Mistress Carla, who has a relationship with Rachel as her dominant, invited me to a munch the following Friday, for women who kick men in the crotch.
Delivered with a smile and a chuckle, it was an honest proposal.
Of course, none of this was of any help when I walked into Overtime Sports Bar and Grill — another bar BDSMers have found welcoming — on the northeast side of town a few weeks later. Unlike the Underground, this was one giant rec room, with no places to hide. I camped out at the bar with a Jack and Coke, sucking down some liquid courage and wondering if I just should've gone to the crotch-kicking event.
The munch crowd was the largest in the place, at about 10 people. Like the last time, they were virtually leather-free, just a bunch of mid-20s to middle-aged folks in jeans and sweaters. They looked buoyant and content and — while sipping sodas (no one was drinking alcohol) at a long rectangular table — sort of like friends in a high school cafeteria.
Gathering myself, I marched over and asked if I could join. Amid smiles and handshakes I met MFireOpal, a "lifestyle dominant" and poly in her early 40s, who seemed centered and confident, but motherly. (She asked we use her FetLife screen name for privacy.) When she plays with needles, they're sterile and applied with care. I also met Jeffery Buchan, "Cubbie," who told me right off that he engages in adult baby play — diapers (which he wears anyway for medical reasons), spankings and pacifiers included.
Admittedly, it was a little jarring, especially when MFireOpal mentioned having spanked someone for over an hour straight. But my involuntary cringing was acceptable — people seemed proud of the pain they could stand, and inflict.
And they were used to initiating the uninitiated. Munch newcomers are fairly regular, though some people are too nervous to attend one cold: MFireOpal had planned a meeting with someone in private the next day to ease the transition.
"All of it," she said, "serves people to not feel bad about themselves."
I was soon reassured that not everything involves forceful contact. For instance, people play with "endorphin rushes," light touches of just-created bruises that can launch a sort of sensory overload, from giggles to tears.
MFireOpal turned to me and asked — there's always an ask — if she could touch my arm to demonstrate. She softly brushed my bare upper arm with her fingertip and said even something like that could kindle a powerful sensation. (On my unbruised skin, it was just gentle.)
As the night went on and we talked about triggers, turn-ons and turn-offs — from phobias to toys to exotic "mummification" play — I heard a popular motto: "Your kink is not my kink, but that's OK."
After all, untangling the sex web in our heads is no easy business. "It's a mixed-up, jumbled-up thing," says Buchan. And if you go deep into that work, having a support system is essential.
Buchan found the Springs scene to be a lot more accepting and welcoming than what he came from in Cleveland. While it was a "rainbow community," he said, the adult-baby scene was "cliquey," and he didn't know where he fit in.
Here, though, a sense of belonging was deeply palpable.
"Everybody finds their place."