by Laura Hutson
(Editor's Note: Read the article I wrote about The Mark in this week's Scene, then delve into this Q&A with Mercury, The Mark's executive director. To help replicate the full experience, I suggest you keep this track playing as you read.)
Mercury: Many EMTs and emergency room techs already understand. If they see symmetry, or matching bruises on both sides, that is not domestic abuse. That was from an S&M top who was very proud of what they do.
Country Life: So what would the bruises come from, typically?
Hands, paddles, canes, any sort of impact. And what you’ll find is that our crowd is technically more interested in symmetry. We are educated in the physiology of safe play. So we’re not going to strike joints — the knees, the ankles, the wrists, the elbows, even the spine, because it’s just a long set of joints. That’s where you cause harm. In S&M play, we don’t mind hurting, but we don’t like to harm. There’s a huge difference.
It seems like the level of discourse that you must establish with people you’re having sex with or playing with must be a lot higher than average.
Absolutely. It’s all about trust, consent. And consent is explicit. It’s not implied consent. “Will you play with me?” “Yes.” And we sit down and we talk about what that play is. Will there be sexual contact? Typically not here. What is the type of play that you’re interested in? Are we using needles? Blades? Floggers? Whips? Canes? Just hands? Is it mental play? Are you just ordering me about, telling me to stay in the corner? All these things are fleshed out in advance. We are a very intelligent, well-read communicative bunch. One of our therapists here said, “I wish all the time that my vanilla couples would talk to each other like you do!” Because it’s very, very specific. We have these frank conversations about what’s going to happen here in the next hour. By necessity. Are you asthmatic? If so, where’s your inhaler? Are you on blood thinners that may cause an issue with bruising? Especially people who can’t show bruising because of their jobs. If you’re a lifeguard, you know. A lifeguard on blood thinners is not the person to be punching around on a Friday night before work on Saturday at the pool. We take that into account. We talk about health and mental concerns. We talk about what happens afterwards. After S&M play, people come down — it’s called aftercare. We take care of somebody after these intense scenes. Some people want to be cuddled, they want to be held. I’m talking about the bottoms here, but sometimes tops as well. And if you know that nomenclature, the top is the one who hits, and the bottom is the one who takes it. The top is the sadist and the bottom is the masochist.
Are those terms interchangeable?
Yes. Although the psychology textbooks define a sadist as someone who cannot achieve sexual satisfaction without pain. Well, I don’t know if I’ve ever met a true sadist by clinical definition. But what we see here is spicing things up a bit. It’s rough sex, as opposed to average everyday sex.
Where would you direct someone who was new to the scene to start? To come to a munch?
A munch — again, that’s part of our subcultural nomenclature — is a meeting in a vanilla — meaning non-kinky, non-BDSM — environment. Oftentimes it’s followed by a play party. It could be a play party in a home, a play party in a hotel. It can be a play party in a dungeon, if the community has one. A slosh is the same term, but applied to a bar. Because of alcohol concerns, we don’t typically schedule play parties after a slosh. So, munches are your first best avenue to integrate into a kinky community.
Did you develop CPI?
I was on the original board of directors.
There was a facility at Nashville called Gatherings, run by a group called Rose-N-Thorn.
What is the biggest misconception about the S&M community? Is that the preferred term? BDSM? Kinky?
Well, the trend is to just call it kink. We're the kinky people, because to people outside of our community, that sounds more fun and playful. It's fighting this grand misconception that we're these evil dark people who eat your kids.
(Laughs) And that’s not true?
Of course not. If that were the case, you wouldn't find 50 Shades of Gray doing so well. You wouldn't find the most highly rated episodes of CSI when Mistress Heather makes an appearance. Everybody — most people — are kinky to some degree. There aren't many people who haven't tried a little spank and tickle in the bedroom. We're just more serious about it.
Why do you think that is?
We've identified it as part of ourselves. And we look to actively engage that, rather than try to hide it and suppress it. And I think that because of that, we are more mentally and sexually mature and well-rounded. We're comfortable with who we are. Now, that doesn't mean that coming into a community like this, you know all about who you are, because some people will come in thinking that the strong male has to be the dominant top, the sadist throwing the flogger. Over time, once they get outside the bounds of those social constructs they grew up within, they realize that it's the bottom they enjoy best. And these are safe environments in which to explore that.
And so, if someone were new and decided to explore kink, what would they be encouraged to start out with? You said that you can use paddles, needles, hands. I mean is there some kind of quiz you can take where if you get mostly Bs you're probably a top?
No. But what we advise is to experiment, and to try things out. As far as toys and play and technique goes, I always steer people to start with spanking, just using your bare hands before you start rising up the food chain to things that have more potential to cause harm. Because it is about skill. You have to know how, where, why, to hit things. You don't hit somebody in anger, so there are mental issues [to take into account]. You don't strike the backs of the knees, because there are physiological impacts. There is also guidance that we give people, like not to make assumptions. You can't assume by looking at somebody that you can classify them. Within our membership, you cannot be certain of somebody's gender, sexual orientation, S&M orientation, D/S orientation, whether they're married or single — sometimes these words cross over and have no specific meaning anymore. I tell people to watch and learn. Be patient. Take things slowly. Do research. Talk to people. Ask for references and check them. I often say that it's like going through puberty for a second time. Because the same angst that you had in learning about foundational sexuality repeats itself when you step into a different world of sexuality. You don't know how to dress, you don't know how to talk, you don't know what to say to somebody, you don't know if you should show up early or show up late, or any of the societal rules associated with this subculture.
How long have you been participating in the subculture?
Oh my. About 30 years, in some form or fashion. Of course, this subculture was different five years ago, ten years ago, 20 years ago.
Why is that?
The methods of communication were not there. Now we have the Internet! Before we had Fetlife we had Yahoo groups. Before Yahoo groups you had vague newspaper postings in the newspaper column. Before that, you knew a guy. We have in the Nashville area at least 6 munches that meet a month. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there might have been one munch in a state. And somebody might drive 300 miles to be with a collection of 10-15 people with whom they could talk to freely. It was a whole lot different. My first trip to a dungeon was with my head down in the back seat while they drove some circuitous path so I couldn't figure out how to get back there.
That sounds kind of cool.
Well, there are some people who wish we could go back to those old days.
How did you find out about it?
I had just moved to a new metropolitan area and asked one of the guys who worked at an adult book store if there was anything like that here. And he gave me an address to write, and I had to write a letter — you know, put a stamp on it — and wait around for someone to reply.
And you knew that you were interested in kink before that, even?
Well, I knew I was different in, like, the second grade. That's a long story. I wasn't able to put a name on it until high school. And I wasn't able to understand it until college. And all that was about access to books and literature that grew with me.
What do you mean?
Well, high school didn't have the S&M books that the college did.
Right. So, want to show me around?
I could debate whether we're in the top five, but nobody would argue that we weren't in the top ten dungeons in the U.S. We have people who fly here to play in our space. We have members in Canada, in Florida, all around. People love us. We are a private club, no walk-ups. Facility rules: No minors, no alcohol (we don't need it!), no drugs, no firearms, no solicitation.
We play music, because it helps the party atmosphere and covers casual conversation and whispers. We're trying to provide a safe place here for community and play. Cleanliness is the first thing. Second is that we have good equipment. Everything here is very strong and well-engineered. It's welded steel, it's heavy wood.
More rules: No cell phones — we have members that are in lines of work where a single photo can compromise their entire career. There are safety and clean-up stations. Once you play with something, you clean up after yourself, just like a gym. We provide Band-Aids and gauze, because blood happens in a dungeon, sometimes when you don't want it. We're very blood-born pathogen cognizant and aware.
This is our Saint Andrews Cross. The Saint Andrews Cross is in every dungeon anywhere in the United States. I think you probably can't be officially a dungeon unless you have one! Ours is a little different — because it's 440 pounds. It's a good example of why play here. You can have a Saint Andrews Cross at home, but typically they're made out of 2x4s, they fold up and go under your bed. Something like that is going to wiggle, wobble, but 440 pounds isn't going to go anywhere.
What's it made out of?
That is Southern Yellow Pine.
So people must have to change the way they think about pain in order to play here, right?
A lot of times people build up a tolerance for pain. A lot of times it depends on how much they trust their partner, not how much they can take. Some of it is no different from any sport — boxers don't start out being able to take those really heavy punches that they can take later in life, but it builds up over time. Some aren't interested in pain at all! It's all a matter of taste. There are some people who love the medical play area. And then there are others who don't even look in that direction because medical things have nothing to do with fun to them. Sometimes things evolve. This is a wonderful sociological laboratory to watch how people interact.
How many people are generally in the room at a time?
It depends on the party. Slow, non-themed Friday nights may only pull in 8-10. But that's OK if you have some big elaborate scene that involves half the equipment — you're not going to have that on a regular party night. A Saturday party could be 60-70 people. Then the big party nights, like Halloween and New Year's Eve, we have 100-some-odd people.
We offer classes — this one was set up for a fisting demo. Vaginal fisting.
A padded wall: A fantasy many people have is to be thrown up against a wall, and have terrible things done to them. Or to be the thrower. But in reality a wall is awfully hard, or on the other hand you might go through the wall. So we provide a softer version. We also have wrestling mats.
Are any of these pieces repurposed from playgrounds?
Some of it is repurposed from playgrounds, yes. A pommel horse. Chiropractic massage table.
Seats are always set up here?
The number one question that we have from people is, “How close can I get to a scene?” Most people understand the idea of a comfortable speaking distance. Well then there's the ATM distance. [Mercury steps back a few paces.] That rule kind of works here for us. Where we differ is that most dungeons are standing room only. We provide lots of seating. We encourage people to sit where they can watch. Because we're all voyeurs, we all like to watch. Maybe not something specific, but in the end there's always something to watch. If you're interested in something specific, some technique, and you want to see how it's performed, then you can sit closer. Now the general rule of thumb is that you can sit anywhere you want. If someone doesn't want you sitting there, they'll have moved the chair away, or they'll put something in the chair. One of the few universal dungeon rules is you never touch anyone else's stuff. And stuff is not just toys, it's also people.
Swings. They're great ways to meet somebody if you're here by yourself — if you want company, sit on a swing. It's irresistible, somebody has to come up and push you. That's programmed into us since I guess we were two.
If I were to show up on a Saturday night wearing what I'm wearing now, would that be considered weird?
No. We do have an official dresscode — it's basically “look nice.” We don't like cut-offs or flip-flops, no different than any other club in town. People will dress up, there will be people in latex and fetish-wear of all kinds, leather, lingerie. Some people will just go naked, and that's fine, just not around the food table!
That is a vacuum pump. A vacuum makes many, many parts of the human body much, much larger than normal, and in the process much, much more sensitive. So we provide the pump and tubing, and you provide your own cups. Cups tend to be specific on people, and on what it is you're pumping. Breast pumps would be large. Clitoral pumps would be small. Penal cups, somewhere in between.
The OB/GYN table gets a lot of use. We see more men up on the table than women. I think women have enough of that in their lives, and our femme doms have a love of asking their male subs to scootch to the end of the table.
This is our 700-pound operating room table. Our photographers always migrate to this corner because of the stainless steel. This piece is cold no matter what time of year it is. It can be the middle of August and it will be cold.
Where is it from, originally?
I picked it up in Kansas.
Do you know any of its history?
I do not, and neither did its previous owner. But our pieces come from all over. The OB/GYN table came from Vancouver. The matching side table, from Denver. This barber chair, which was originally a dentist chair, I got from a hair salon in West Hollywood. It's the same type of chair that Dustin Hoffman was tortured in [in Marathon Man].
What do you wish people knew about your group?
Our membership completely crosses the socioeconomic rainbow. We have something for everybody. We have tops, bottoms, switch, dominants, submissives, men, women, male-to-female trans, female-to-male trans, gay, straight, lesbian, bi, some cross-dressers.
Basically, we are just a subset and a sampling of the entire population. Our landlord has asked us in the past, “What kind of people do you have down there?” And I say, “Well, have you ever been to Kroger?” And he says yeah. And I say, “We're the same people that you find at Kroger.” And he goes, “Really? Which Kroger??”
This is not a meat market. We’re more like a family. People would be much, much safer here than they would be finding something on Craigslist or any of the more popular, mainstream avenues for alternative sex. We have a trained dungeon monitoring team. We have people who are in charge of safety back here, and we watch all scenes for safety. They are trained, and they’ve been certified in first aid and CPR. We own an AED [automated external defibrillator]. We're the first dungeon in the United States to own an AED.
Have you had to use it?
Never. And I hope we never do. It was the single most expensive piece we've ever purchased and it was for safety and we hope we never use it. That's just odd! But it shows the degree to which we watch out for each other. And we do. If we see some new or inexperienced top hitting someone in the kidney area, we will stop them. That's an area you don't hit, because it goes past hurt to harm, and we don't do that. It violates our basic premise of consent. Nobody consents to be harmed.