"Is there anyone here who's an undercover cop and will admit it?" asks the instructor. She's joking. I think.
What she's about to do isn't illegal, just lurid. She's a middle-aged woman who looks like she should be pinching cheeks at a bar mitzvah, but instead she's preparing to demonstrate frottage--the art of rubbing up against someone for sexual pleasure. There's a small silence, and then a tentative collective laugh. I look around furtively.
I'm not a cop, only a writer. When I saw the listing for this Discovery Center seminar, "Networking for Kinky People," it seemed like it might make for a good little scene piece. I pictured urbane men and women standing at around a cocktail party, handing each other their business cards and saying, "So, let me know if you ever want to follow up on that golden-shower thing."
Instead, I'm one of very few women in a dark, cramped bar, shoulder to shoulder with a whole bunch of guys.
The frottage demonstration is surprisingly tame. "May I touch you?" our instructor asks a man, and hugs him lackadaisically from behind. Afterward, with no segue, she hands the floor over to a guest speaker, a burly, balding dungeon master who launches into a philosophical discussion of kink. "You either know you're kinky or you're not," he says. "It's like being a vampire. You either are or you aren't."
Everyone else seems as puzzled as me. We stay that way, tentative and subdued, until the instructor takes over again and announces an icebreaker. She hands out slips of paper listing 40 sexual practices--everything from anal play to zoophilia--and tells us to mingle, ask other people about their kinks, and check them off the list.
Once everyone's talking, the mood brightens and the room quickly grows loud with phrases like "The Altoid hummer, that's my specialty" and "I don't want to brag, but I've been told I'm too big for anal." I uncertainly join a crowd standing around a cross-dresser in an ill-fitting black pageboy wig. He's defining some of the more esoteric terms for everyone's benefit. "CBT is cock-and-ball torture," he says, crossing his legs. "Coprophilia--that's when you're into feces." The other men grimace.
As I drift away from the group, a tall man approaches and makes a shy stab at humor: "So, do you want to exchange deep intimate secrets?" After I laugh, he confesses with a blush that he has a foot fetish.
I consider and reject a standard small-talk response--"Oh, really? How did you get into that?" Instead I stammer out, "Did you know that in the Bible, the word 'feet' is often a euphemism for 'genitals'?"
No, he didn't. Would I like to get together sometime? He's so earnest that I hate telling him I'm gay. His face falls for just a moment, and then he wishes me well and excuses himself.
"Guys and girls?" asks an eavesdropping man nearby.
"What?" I say.
"You like guys and girls?"
"No, just girls," I say, and hold my drink a little tighter.
Shit. I realize what's coming a second before he says it: he has this female fuck buddy who's a little bi-curious, and he's always wanted to watch...
OK, I was dumb enough to think for a moment that telling an openly kinky guy I'm a lesbian would fend him off. But when it comes to the sexual nuances of straight men, I have a blind spot big enough to fit this club into.
I'm a pastor's daughter, and I went to college at a small church-affiliated school. My sole heterosexual dating experience took place freshman year, when I went out with a fundamentalist who believed French kissing was only for married people. We dated for three months before breaking up out of sheer boredom. I threw away the Jesus-fish keychain he'd given me. The year after that, I found myself holding hands with a woman, both of us elated and fearful. A few years later I came out.
I might be a liberal big-city queer now, but traces of my conservative younger self pop up sometimes. I don't even know what pot smells like. I don't go to bars much, not out of moral rectitude but because I can't get used to the noise and smoke. And when I do go out and a guy asks if he can buy me a drink, I freeze and think, "What is that code for?"
In other words, I'm in over my head.
After I shake off the menage a trois guy and sit down again, a young man in an expensive-looking orange turtleneck slides over. "How you doing?" he says. "Can I get you a drink?" I say no. Undeterred, he tells me about his first sex party, using my name every other sentence like a telemarketer. "Let me tell you, Anne, it opened my eyes. Nice people. Attractive people. So, Anne, do you swing?"
"Uh, I'm a lesbian," I say. It's not an answer, but he doesn't notice. "Really?" he says, eyebrows up. "But Anne, you're too cute not to like guys!"
I shift uneasily in my chair for the 100th time. A guy with a messy beard walks up and stares at me with an open-mouthed smile. From across the room I hear the instructor tell someone, "If you go to someplace that's pansexual in nature and you're not prepared for pansexual in nature, you might have a problem."
I don't want to have a problem. It bothers me that I do. I've come a long way since my Jesus-fish days. I read Dan Savage every week. I recently helped a friend pick out her first vibrator. I watch Sex and the City.
Besides, these men seem almost brave. I'm not sure they have any more choice about their kinks than I have about my orientation, and I know firsthand how hard it is to finally admit your difference to the world. I know, too, that it's difficult for these guys to find sexual partners--swingers' clubs won't usually admit unaccompanied men, and as my popularity tonight attests, openly kinky women are in short supply. Still, even as my sympathy struggles to squash my fear, I know it's a losing battle.
The icebreaker ends, and our instructor asks for a volunteer willing to take off his shirt. A short, barrel-chested man raises his hand, and in five minutes he's naked to the waist with a row of clothespins across his midriff. They're tied together at the ends to make what's called a zipper, the instructor explains--you leave the clothespins on a while, and then you yank them all off at once. She yanks, and sweat pops out in beads on his forehead. The room starts to chatter again, and the volunteer puts on his shirt and plops down by me, clothespins in hand.
"Did that feel good?" I ask, incredulous.
"Oh yeah," he says, out of breath. "Here, you try." He fastens a few to the inside of my forearm, and I'm too busy listening to the sirens in my head--eep, eep, eep! parameters violated!--to protest. After he pulls, my skin buzzes slightly. It feels a bit like acupuncture: not painful, but not sexy either. He gives me an expectant look, and I say politely, "Not bad."
The night winds down. Men begin to drift outside. On my way to the door, I run into the instructor and thank her for the evening. She hangs onto my gaze for an extra beat. "What's your name?" she asks.
"Anne," I say.
"Anne," she says. "Be careful."