Years back, as I was writing my military column Soldiering for Universal Press Syndicate, I needed expert opinion on the M16A2 rifle. A friend put me in touch with Jack McGeorge, of whom I had never heard. He turned out to be an ex-Marine of exceedingly high intelligence, ran something called the Public Safety Group specializing in the prevention of terrorism, and was a regular television commentator on such things. He was also president of Black Rose, the main S&M club in Washington. I had heard of such groups, but never encountered one.
Jack and I became friends and he eventually invited me to a kinky party in his place in the Virginia suburbs. I went with some trepidation. Surely there would be burly bikers with missing teeth, severed limbs lying here and there, and such. Sadomasochism was about as sordid and taboo as anything could be, a realm of weirdos.
Not…exactly. It turned out to be more Halloween than bloodbath. Jack’s basement was tricked out like a dungeon. As I went down the stairs to see what was happening, a hulking transvestite with a lantern jaw and five o’clock shadow was coming up, dressed like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly. I sensed that it was going to be a baroque evening. It was.
Below, various men and women were chained, tied, hand-cuffed, suspended, and otherwise rendered immobile, being gone at by other women and men with riding crops and paddles. Some were dressed as cops, Nazis, Batwoman and so on, and some just weren’t dressed. If you wanted bizarre, this was the place. (I worked this scene into my splendid cop novel, Killer Kink
of which you need twelve copies.)
What was much more interesting after the first few minutes—the bizarre gets boring quickly if you aren’t involved—was upstairs. Guests were standing around with drinks in hand, talking politics and current events. It could have been any cocktail party at Caligula’s place in Georgetown. They usually referred to themselves not as sadists and masochists, these I think being too ugly and grotesque, but as “tops” and “bottoms.”
Of what sort were these people, whom I got to know somewhat there and in other venues?
Preposterously, they were ordinary. Other than that, I mean. In age they ran sort of twenty-one (they were carefully legal) to fifty, about evenly split between men and women, and all over the social and professional spectrum: a truck driver, a librarian, military officers, programmers, highly educated and not very, singles, dates, husbands and wives. In conversation they seemed not even slightly crazy. They did not seethe with obvious hostility. They seemed to have known each other for years and to be friends.
I thought this was lots stranger than wearing funny clothes and uncomfortable shoes.
Interesting data point: they were intelligent, I guessed overlapping substantially with Mensa. Maybe to be kinky you have to start with enough string.
When Jack had asked me to this circus, I had used my press credentials to get into the library of the American Psychological Association to read about S&M. What I found was fascinating both for its scarcity and inaccuracy. There was a lot of drivel citing Freud and Kraft-Ebing, neither of whom seemed to have known anything about psychology. They took a dim view of kink. Kinkiness, said the references, was a rare paraphilia. Few women were involved, almost always as masochists. Kinky people were profoundly disturbed folk. They might be dangerous, and needed to be institutionalized.
As I later realized, there were two very distinct types of S&Mers, which I came to think of as the serious and the hobbyist. In my years of wading through the drains of cities as a police reporter, I had encountered real sadists if often only by reputation. For example, the Ted Bundys who tortured women to death and the federal sadists of the CIA. The kinks of Jack’s basement were utterly different. They had normal consciences. They had elaborate safeguards to make sure that nothing bad happened. For example, “safe words,” which, when uttered by the bottom, brought the proceedings to a stop (“Shakespeare!”). These people liked each other. Weirdly, it was the bottoms who decided what was going to happen and what the rules were.
If you liked ornate stories, these were the people to know. On one occasion a bunch of them, and I, went to New York to a kinky club called The Vault, which was like a factory’s subbasement in a Dickensian nightmare. Late in the evening, when the theaters let out, well-dressed people came. There was an elegant bar in the middle of this grunge. I remember a couple of men in pricey suits, suntanned in mid-winter, obviously money. They had drinks in hand and were chatting, with their trousers around their ankles. From time to time a woman in biker’s leather came by and whacked hell out of them with a paddle, after which they said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and went back to chatting. Bond prices, I imagine.
How common is kinkiness? I could never decide. One thing is sure: It is way, waaaaay too common to be dismissed as a psychological outlier. Grotesque, non-hobbyist torture of criminals and prisoners runs throughout history. I learned that every city has its sexual underground with kink clubs for heterosexuals, for homosexual men, for lesbians. Sex shops do a brisk trade in cuffs, dildos, and the other accessories of the field. Clubs begin to pop up openly. There is something called the “S&M Starter Kit” for the suburban adventurous. Yet in most places kinkiness is a conversational third rail. You can talk about homosexuality, but mention kink in Washington and you might end up on the no-fly list.
The kink underground is decidedly not a site of mistreatment of women by men. In Jack’s basement there were plenty of women whacking their boyfriends. They were not man-haters. They just liked whacking their boyfriends.
People in sexual minorities tend to exaggerate the prevalence of their tribes. For example, homosexuals sometimes say that ten or fifteen percent of the population is gay. Sure, and I’m Marcus Aurelius. Yet my best guess, which is about all it is, tells me that kinkiness, though perhaps seldom put into practice, is a tendency much more common than homosexuality. For example, those in Jack’s Circus said that a woman who has fantasized about being raped assuredly has kinky tendencies. (Which does not imply a desire actually to be raped: In fantasy, she gets to be completely in charge.) The internet is awash in kinky porn, some ugly and scary, some hobbyist.
I bring all of this up because this column sometimes appears on web sites partial to evolutionary psychology, a field holding that our behavior results from natural selection. A lot of it makes sense. But I cannot figure out what possible reproductive advantage may attach to being masochistic. Nor could I divine why people were kinky.
Neither could they. They had theories, most of which seemed to me silly. For example, it was held that people who wielded power during the day somehow needed to balance this by having no power at night. I saw no evidence of this.
The evolutionary question is intriguing. What Darwinian pressures select for cross-dressing? On the web there is “cuckold porn,” in which men like to watch their wives copulating with other men. The selective advantage? The advantages for survival of suicide, which remains in the population?
Many have asked why homosexuality does not disappear, since the selective pressure would seem to be powerfully against it. Greg Cochran, an ardent evolutionist at the University of Utah, has thundered to Darwin’s rescue by saying that a virus causes homosexuality, the only evidence for its existence being–homosexuality. Well, I too can be an evolutionary biologist. I figure there’s a virus, T, that causes transvestism, a virus S to cause sadism, M for masochism, and C for cuckoldry-watching. Another for suicide.
And a virus that causes sun spots.
Sexual peculiarities, if such they be, tend to come out of hiding in times of social decay and the loosening of traditional morality. We see this in the infinite attention given to homosexuals, Lesbians, trans-this and bi-that, and the rest. But do these tendencies become more common, or just more open? I do not know.
Afterwards I saw a few of the participants socially around DC for a bit, but they dropped off the beer-and-ribs list. Jack was briefly famous as a member of Hans Blix’s team that went to Iraq to look for forbidden weapons. I saw him occasionally until he died during heart surgery a few years ago. Sic transit gloria mundi.