“It turns my blood to stars,” says Silva Tenenbein, leaning forward, the red of the dungeon walls dancing in her eyes.
“It’s the red of invagination,” offers Elaine Miller, sitting across from her friend. “If you were knee-deep in a cunt and you were looking around with a flashlight…” she trails off, trying to describe the exact shade of red she’s painted her play space walls.
The two leatherdykes have invited a couple of friends over to Miller’s basement to discuss leather and SM culture, what draws them to sadomasochistic play, and the state of Vancouver’s leatherdyke community.
“Why do I do SM? It makes me hot,” says Miller succinctly. “I have decided that it is ethically not a bad thing to do. I do not think that it harms anybody.”
SM has a certain mythology, acknowledges Tenenbein, remembering the time the room went silent when she came out as an SM player to a group of queer faculty at Simon Fraser University.
“The vilification of SM is because of the addition of sex,” says Miller. People can watch as much horror or violence as they want but as soon as you add sex it somehow becomes bad.
The women all nod, all of them thinking back to times they’ve come out to negative responses, particularly from health care practitioners who automatically associate bruising with abuse.
But consensual sadomasochistic play is not about abuse, they say. It’s about power dynamics, and riding the power that others try to ignore.
It’s about owning one’s preferences and communicating them honestly.
It’s about engaging in sex more fully.
It’s about the intensity of the sensations and the intimacy of sharing them. It’s exhilarating.
And most of all, it’s fun.
“If it’s not fun, I’m taking my bat and my ball gag and going home,” smiles Miller, adding that it’s typical to hear laughter mingling with the screams emanating from her dungeon.
“[SM] elevates the whole relationship between two people into something that is really artistic,” says Uschi, who has been playing since the days of Mac’s Leathers in the early 1980s. She’s had spiritual experiences with vanilla sex but nothing that compares to the feelings that come up during SM play.
“When we’re playing really hard it’s like trumpets blowing,” says Miller.
SM brings in so much more of ourselves, adds Uschi, who asked that her last name not be published in case her current employers share society’s squeamishness towards SM.
A lot of people only know the cartoon version of SM, the one with the nasty dominatrix and the overtones of abuse and unhealthy behaviour, says Miller.
But the thing about pain is that when you’re in a situation where you can change it, the sensation itself shifts, says Uschi. You start to own the feeling.
It changes your whole perspective, agrees Miller. Whether you’re a top or a bottom, pain ceases to be the “big frightening unknown” that Western medicine is always trying to eradicate.
These days, it seems more and more women are starting to embrace that unknown, if the traffic on Miller’s leatherdyke website is any indication. She’s noticed more people joining the online discussions since she and her partner Spike launched the site in 2003.
Vancouver has a small but vibrant leatherdyke community, says Shaira Holman, from her spot on the bench by the big armoire full of whips, floggers, paddles, canes, chains, cuffs, collars and other toys.
“We’re not the mecca that San Francisco is,” she notes. “We don’t have the critical mass to support that kind of community.”
San Francisco’s leather community just hosted its annual Folsom Street Fair last month, shutting down 12 city blocks for SM demos of all kinds, while Portland and Seattle are famous for their biennial leatherdyke conferences, PacificFriction and Wicked Womyn (the latest incarnation of the legendary Powersurge).
But Vancouver’s community holds its own and then some, the women assembled in Miller’s dungeon agree.
“We are the envy of many other cities,” says Miller proudly, pointing to the relative lack of infighting among Vancouver’s leatherdykes, and the regular if unofficial events like August’s Bride of Pride.
Holman and Tenenbein both credit Miller and her partner with building much of Vancouver’s current leatherdyke community. Their website “gives us a way to communicate with each other,” Tenenbein says.
About 600 leatherdykes regularly log onto Miller’s online community, though only a fraction of them live in the Lower Mainland.
“It’s a really good tool for connecting up,” acknowledges Miller. “A conversation will start online and move forward into our living rooms.”
Still, despite the vibrant online community, the growing numbers and the regular play parties and events, Vancouver has no official leatherdyke organization at the moment and has had difficulty sustaining one over the years.
“A few of us tried to start a leatherdyke group a few years ago” but faltered on the women-only terminology, says Tenenbein.
“We were willing to accept anyone who self-identified as a woman,” she recalls of the short-lived Raven. But that left out tranny bois and other gender queers who didn’t feel welcome. The group only lasted about seven months as a result.
Before Raven, Vancouver Women in Leather lasted a couple of years and earned a reputation for being really open and friendly, until internal politics, burnout and board departures weakened its structure and the group fizzled.
That’s the problem with volunteer groups, says Miller. The work falls on a few people, “so the organization often fails when those workhorses fall over dead.”
Another popular play party fell victim to developers when the building got sold out from under Studio Q.
Studio Q was Holman and Miller’s brainchild. They threw parties people still talk about in Holman’s 3,000-square-foot studio in Chinatown, until they lost the space five years ago.
The 1990s saw a few women’s play parties of its own, like Muffs & Cuffs and Bound. Neither one exists today.
Uschi still remembers slowly finding other leatherdykes in clubs like John Barley’s in the early 1980s. There was no organized community, let alone leatherdyke group, back then, she says, so they sometimes partied with the men of Vancouver Activists in SM (VASM).
She also partied with her counterparts south of the border. “When I was coming out, we had a real strong connection to Seattle,” she says, noting the Powersurge conferences among her cherished memories. “For a three-day conference, I think I brought 10 pairs of shoes!”
“Leather conferences are some of my favourite things in the whole world,” sighs Miller. You get to the gates with 300 other leatherdykes, all about to start menstruating, with hotties in chaps and women “with bustiers up to their ears. It’s one of the seminal parts of community building.”
Tenenbein agrees, though she increasingly dreads crossing the border.
The women trade stories of border searches and hassles. Uschi remembers the time a border guard pulled out her dildo, Miller the time she got turned back. “It would be nice to go to a conference without having to cross a border,” she says.
Some of the dykes on her website have actually begun toying with the idea of holding their own leatherdyke conference here, she confides. There’s been “a tiny bit of conversation” about expanding the Seattle-Portland circuit to include Vancouver.
As the local community grows and expands, and more women who enjoy SM reach out to embrace the identity, Vancouver leatherdykes may someday find they’ve attained a critical mass of their own comparable to the larger, more established communities down the coast.
In the meantime, Miller will continue hosting the website and opening her home to regular play parties. “We recruit,” she laughs, the big, black sling beckoning softly from its four ceiling hooks behind her.