A dark-haired, crackly-voiced woman in an alcove plunks down an all-caps stamp, branding the word “FETISH” across my hand. The mark will eventually fade, but the lurid, surreal images to come won’t dissipate anytime soon.
The first sight on entering the Electric Ballroom’s “What is Fetish?” event is a petite woman with her back to me who is wearing nothing but spiky heels and black lacey skivvies. She turns around to display her front side, which is painted in a Garden of Eden motif of strategically-placed foliage.
The bartenders are clad in dicey little bloomer-and-corset numbers, and lots of people stand around in pairs and clusters, casually fingering their sartorial hardware: chain-mail halter tops, see-through mesh garments, dog collars, chains, spikes, cuffs, belts and all things black leather. One girl with a sullen, bored look on her face leads her man around from a hefty chain attached to his collar. Techno music is bumpin’.
Jay Harris, manager of the Ballroom, gives a quick tour, starting with what he calls the “Human Buffet.” Also known as a “Pleasure Altar,” this staple of fetish shows features a woman dressed in red pleather lingerie lying prostrate on a table, surrounded by piles of loot such as condoms, cigars and trinkets that are up for grabs. “The woman plays the role of a hood ornament, or eye candy,” says Harris. She flashes her bedroom eyes as I grab the first shiny thing within reach: Ultra-Lubricated Lifestyles condoms.
The word fetish has a couple different meanings; it can denote either an object of so-called irrational desire or the use of nonsexual props in sexual stimulation. It also has the historical connotation of magical powers being associated with inanimate objects. The Internet provides an endless stream of imagery, video and marketed equipment for the practice. Some of the kinkier elements are more masochistic—girls in bondage with clamped nipples or being force-fed dildos, for example. Here though, at the Ballroom’s “What is Fetish?” event, the scene is more pacifistic. Even the girls in bondage are laughing rather than wincing. It becomes evident that fetish isn’t just about the line between pleasure and pain—it’s essentially whatever you want it to be, your deepest fantasy. In essence, it grants the freedom to toy with the forbidden, to challenge the status quo of what’s “normal.”
In the gallery, there’s a series of demonstrations, from wax play to suspension to E. stem, or electrical stimulation. Then there are your more white-bread fetishes, like foot worship and bondage. Harris introduces his wife and his girlfriend, who are loitering around the suspension arena, waiting for the next woman to be clamped into the ropes hanging from the ceiling and swung around like a fish on a hook—a practice that is thought to evoke weightlessness. “They’re best friends,” he says of his two significant others.
On the upstairs landing is the vendor section, where booths range from informational, like Planned Parenthood and Saint Tattoo, to retail booths selling all sorts of goodies: soaps, jewelry, and of course, fetish equipment. A guy in a porkpie hat named Vexx sits behind a booth filled with leather whips, belts, cuffs and rabbit fur. Wait, one of these things is not like the other. But Vexx explains, “I’ve made cat ’o’ nine tails out of fur. You know, some people like it soft.” Vexx is passionate about leather, which he uses to do custom-work on just about any fetish accoutrement you can imagine. “My fetish is everyone else’s fetish. That’s why I like building things for other people,” he says. “It allows me to see who people really are. It strips away everything we build up to face society—the mask we wear for society.”
At another booth, Judy Halliday sells lingerie from her store in Morristown, Sensual Romance. At age 49, she’s not the typical fetish enthusiast, but she looks just edgy enough in her red satin corset. “It’s just business. I like this scene, but I’m a bit too old to be dressing like this,” she says. “My husband would love it if I dressed like this all the time.” Though Halliday isn’t submersed in the lifestyle, she expresses the live-and-let-live attitude that pervades fetishism. “As long as you’re not hurting anyone else and it gives you pleasure, I say go for it,” she says.
Anonymity can be a rush. Prowling the crowd downstairs, I feel like a mysterious brooding stranger, tunnel vision guiding me helter-skelter into the underworld. It’s a glimmering, gutsy freakfest.
At the same time, it’s just everyday people in a fantasy world. Stephanie Wright is a West Knoxville housewife, but she’s also the woman from the entrance with the painted-on chest. “I don’t feel self-conscious at all. No one judges you here, even if you put on a little weight,” she says, though she doesn’t appear to have a pinch of flab anywhere on her diminutive frame. “Fetish is just an expression of your real self, even if you have to go to a day job. We’re not dirty. We’re real people. It’s a release from the day-to-day, because you can’t just normally go around in nothing but liquid latex, but here it’s cool.” Wright, who goes by the nickname “Money,” says her husband’s not worried that she attends fetish events essentially topless. “He’s very supportive. He doesn’t really get into the sexual side of it, and that’s OK,” he says. “Our sex life is still really good.”
Just down the bar is Rob Mickles, who, like me, is also a fetish show virgin. He came here to meet more members of the Goth community, and he admits he’s intimidated by some of the more extreme fetish practices. Still, he says, he feels at ease here. “They’re accepting no matter what you look like,” he says, perhaps referring to his “Jesus Freak” T-shirt and relatively conservative look. “I’ve been in the closet [of this scene] for like six years, and I’ve been out for about a year. It’s been a relief, finally finding out who I am.” He’s also part of the Christian Goth scene in Knoxville, and he gets frustrated with the many misconceptions people have about alternative lifestyles. “Some people think you’re satanic because you dress in black. They judge you,” he says. “But Goth doesn’t mean any religion or lack of one. It’s more of a frame of mind.”
The bondage artists have just hooked a girl into the suspension ropes. She’s wrapped just below her bottom, which is snuggly contained by black lacey tights, and at her waist and neck, causing her belly to protrude downward. Admittedly, it looks pretty awkward, but she begins swinging above the crowd and the look on her face can only be described as orgasmic. Careening through sheaths of smoky, multi-colored lighting, she holds the attention of the room in the palms of her tightly bound hands.
I ask Novia, a dark, beautiful model who is tied up at one of the booths, whether it is painful or scary. “Actually I enjoy the feeling of it, but you have to do it with someone you trust,” she says. The bondage artist, who goes by the title of his business TN Ropes, looks like he might have been a Van Halen roadie back in the day. He gently pushes a strand of Novia’s hair from her eyes. “For some people, it’s the control aspect. Me, I’ve just always liked the sight of a girl tied up,” he says. “My style is ‘Damsel in Distress’—‘Oh no, I’ve been robbed or kidnapped.’”
Then he does something I do not expect. He asks if I would like to be tied up. Novia, who’s still wrapped in ropes herself, assures me he’ll stop if I begin to feel uncomfortable. I say, “Sure,” and I realize I was actually kind of hoping they’d ask, despite feminist qualms. Palms together, Ropes begins tying the slick, cold rope in several firm loops around my wrists. I feel comfortable, if a little silly. Novia is smiling maternally at me, like I’m a kid melting chocolate in my mouth for the first time. Then he wraps around my waist and then my shoulders, making an apple-sized knot at my chest.
At that point, I am pretty incapacitated from the waist up. It’s not painful, but my heart is pounding hard, from either fear or excitement or both. I am one of those people who checks the back seat of the car for potential rapists, so this feeling of vulnerability is at once daunting and titillating. Still, I feel empowered, rather than subjugated. Bondage, at the moment, feels like the ultimate freedom.
I am feeling less like an outsider at this point, as if I’ve earned my stripes. But it occurs to me that, in the outside world, there is no such easily attainable acceptance for some. Cameron Broyles, a 23-year-old ex-Army member with a carefully-styled clump of mod black hair dangling in his eyes, is running for office—District 18 state House of Representatives—for that express purpose. The self-described “patriot at heart” stands in front of a campaign display papered in American flag patterns. As he’s running against incumbent Stacey Campfield and three other challengers, Broyles recognizes his slim chances, but he’s nonetheless determined. “Pretty much it kinda came down to me just being fed up with the way the system works,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in politics but never knew how to get into it. I finally did some research and saw that it was relatively easy to run for office.”
For now, Broyles delivers at Pizza Hut, but he dreams of changing the closed mindset of Americans. “It’s upsetting that here in the South we’re really not all created equal. Fetish is something that a lot of people are scared of; they call us freaks,” he says. “Myself and my fiancé dabble in the S and M lifestyle and we’d like to see the law acknowledge it as not illegal, because right now it is considered illegal.”
S and M refers to sadism, which is gratification through the act of inflicting pain, and masochism, or gratification that comes with having pain inflicted upon oneself. Sadism is named for the infamous Marquis de Sade, the late 18th century French philosopher who authored a body of violent pornographic literature. de Sade’s guiding principles were sexual freedom and the pursuit of pleasure, which he thought was often reached through excruciating pain. He spent much of his life in jail and in insane asylums for his extremism; he was known to brutalize prostitutes, among other deviant behaviors.
Despite such deplorable exceptions, most fetish and S and M practitioners emphasize consent and trust as crucial elements in making the activity enjoyable and non-abusive for both parties.
Technically, S and M is illegal, but Harris says, “It’s illegal in the same way that oral sex and anal sex are in Tennessee. But how do you control that because it’s always behind closed doors. It’s just one of those antiquated laws that’s still on the books.” However, Harris and others do feel constrained by the laws that apply to public events like this one. “Butt cheeks and breasts must be covered, and we can’t do simulated or actual spanking. They’ve been making it difficult for bars for years,” he says, mentioning that in other states, laws are more lax, allowing flogging and spanking. “What we have is more of an educational thing than what I would call a stimulant show. We’re definitely a lot more conservative than some.”
Do we all have a freak inside of us just dying to get out? This scene’s not for everyone, maybe, but it’s possible that more people would like it if they tried it—or at least they’d gain some knowledge about something they’d once seen as depraved. For the curious, Vexx advises, “Just come out and ask questions. There are no worries or fears here. No one is going to judge anyone.”
That freedom from judgment is perhaps the most attractive, and startling, aspect of fetish. Daily life sometimes feels like it’s glazed in a film; we’re expected to act and dress in certain ways, attain certain life goals, and conform. In some ways, the monotony dulls the pain of loneliness and forgotten dreams. But maybe it’s foolish to avoid such emotion. Being tied up was not so much a revelation as it was a resurfacing and condensing of all the feelings that are suppressed in the effort to be normal. It actually reminded me of a deep tissue massage, when the sometimes less-than-comfortable attention of someone else’s hands on your body frees the physical, emotional and mental realms of yourself to separate and become focused, illuminating the fact that pleasure and pain really are just a hair’s breadth apart.