LAS VEGAS, NV—I am as close as you can get to being a virgin while still being sexually active for a decade. It’s for this reason that I volunteered myself (no one was asking) to go to the Adult Entertainment Expo’s annual BDSM fetish party at the Lair by myself, at 10 p.m., on a Friday, with no corset or gimp hood to hide in or under.
I had spent all of Thursday and Friday at the Expo in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, getting interviews and eating despicable turkey wraps from a glorified Hudson News, then writing up my notes back in my hotel room a 10-minute Uber ride away. It was a satisfying lifestyle, if a quiet one. But on Friday afternoon I carried with me a particular twinge of anxiety even as I looked forward to the party for which I had specifically changed my departure flight. It was called the Lair Fetish Party, and it was a culmination of the weekend’s BDSM offerings. BDSM was one of the weekend’s major components, with a whole floor devoted to it. In words of the convention’s website: “The Lair is lined with fetish practitioners of all stripes, often standing next to leather benches or wooden cross-beams or welded-iron contraptions with hooks and eyelets and everything else needed to introduce adult movie fans to what may be, to them, an unknown variety of sex-play.”
An educationally-focused effort sounded beneficial to me, since my idea of a sexy night is watching a family in a Domino’s pizza commercial manipulate melted cheese.
10 p.m. in Las Vegas feels significantly later when you’re (like me) on Eastern Time, and have (like me) not rested in 36 hours. I knew I’d never make it with enough gusto if I remained in my hotel room between the crucial hours of 7 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. (one musn’t arrive on time to the fetish party), so I made myself a night of it.
First, I treat myself to a showing of Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” (their Beatles show in the Mirage hotel), because Cirque du Soleil is a divine art and I feel I must leave the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for my personal health. (It is, as expected, magnificent.) When I made this plan, I somehow calculated that the show would get out at 9:30 p.m., giving me a comfortable 30 minutes to get back to the Hard Rock, loiter casually for a beat as I figured out my angle of approach, then go to the party. It actually gets out one full hour earlier, leaving me in the position of figuring out how to make what happens in Vegas happen.
I play one slot machine at the Mirage, telling myself I will put in a single $20 bill and let whatever fate befalls me befall me. I lose literally all of it in under six minutes, and keep the coupon as a reminder not to be a such a fucking fool. Then, for festivity, I go into the Mirage bathroom (about 7,000 times nicer than the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino bathrooms which are papered in pictures of porn performers and ads for cam companies), and apply a pair of fake eyelashes that I impulsively purchased a week ago. It is my sole bit of costuming (otherwise I am wearing a leather jacket and a mock turtleneck sweater). The eyelashes make me feel like a horse.
I next travel to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. It is still only 9:15—ages before any reasonable Las Vegan would arrive at a BDSM party held in a casino conference room. So I hover for a few minutes at the bar, find it to be intimidatingly crowded, wander back to the slot machines, which are like an odor surrounding me at all times, and scoot in another $20, suddenly devoid of any desire to retain funds. I sit there for awhile, finding an impressive amount of success in the strategy of betting the lowest amount (10 cents) and pressing the re-bet button repeatedly until I forget that I am a thinking, feeling woman and not a money-eating machine. I somehow win $20, miraculously earning back what I’d lost at the Mirage (fuck the Mirage!). As I request my cash-out coupon, a man walks up to me and asks, “Hey girl, do you know where AVN is?” I reply, “No, what is that?” and then smile—the eyelashes make it look like there’s no way I’d even know what AVN is. Parched, I buy a bottle of water. The clerk tells me it’s $10. I scream—my winnings cut in half.
At 10:10 p.m.—I can loiter no longer—I walk into the party space, which is set up with eight round tables all facing a stage that is set, for now, with a single human-sized X, called a cross, upon which the game of sex is played. On either side of the stage there are two crosses, where later, two fetish professionals would offer free flogging to any of the guests. I feel like I’m at an airport spa where spa employees give short shoulder massages to tired flyers, except instead of a shoulder massage, one can receive a crotch flogging. I guess I am feeling tense.
Earlier in the evening I had texted with the one other person I know at AEE that I was going to this event later and feeling squeamish. She had advised, “Get loaded,” so I go to the bar in the room and order a wine, then think better of it, and change my order to a vodka soda. It is $13, the amount I typically spend on an entire bottle of wine—I am now $3 in the red.
I settle into a seat with my scam drink, and take in the room. In one corner, a person in a “bra” with the cups cut out (why?) and X-es over her nipples is stroking the back of a tattooed man draped over the cross. I saw this man the day before, but then he was flogging a woman in the crotch on the main expo floor. I find him unbelievably attractive.
In the front row, a person in a black silicone gimp suit, hood and all, sits with impeccable posture directly in front of the stage, next to a woman in a strappy bra and skirt. Beside me sit two people—one dressed in red silicone leggings, and another in a corset and fashionably floppy hat. The corsetted one strikes up a conversation with me, asking why I’m here, explaining to me that she works for a corset vendor, is interested in renaissance faires, and that there is a secret kink element to them—something I’m sure my parents were unaware of when they allowed me to dress up as a “wench” when I was 13 for the Maryland RenFaire. In fact, she tells me, many RenFaire guilds are specifically for kink. She explains that in her estimation, BDSM isn’t super accepted in Vegas, so at this party they’d just be performing demos, and then attendees can buy the equipment and experiment with it on their own. Moments later, possibly trying to get me in the spirit of the night, she asks, “What’s the kinkiest thing you’ve ever done?”
I reply, “Nothing?”
She says, “Wow, so you’re into everything.”
I say, “No, the opposite.”
She ignores me for the rest of the night.
The show begins. First up, a man in an all-white suit and a woman in a red dress hoisted a large black suitcase on stage. She takes off her dress and, in only underwear, assumes the position at the cross. Technical difficulties force her to wait there for several moments, so she does a little dance. When the music eventually comes on, the white suit man flogs her ably with a variety of implements to a pumpin’ beat; my friend in red silicone whispers, “He’s really good.” He then opens the suitcase while performing a bit of stand-up comedy, exclaiming, “Hold on, I have a black girl in here!” and a nearly-naked adult woman who had been curled up for at least 20 minutes pops out of the suitcase and performs a dance with an unexpected number of actual technical moves choreographed into it, including piqué turns. (At this moment, I discover a dry booger on the tip of my nose and my right eye begins watering wildly, probably due to the eyelash glue.)
My corsetted former friend is now chatting up the six middle-aged dudes at our table. “What’s been your favorite part of the weekend?” she asks. One answers, “Hanging with friends. Making new friends.” They are also too tame for her, I suspect.
Next up to perform are the gimp and his friend; as they stand at the ready, it becomes clear that the gimp’s body suit is just a leotard. The gimp lies face down on his companion’s (his dom’s) lap, and we are treated to the sight of her rhythmically spanking him for about six minutes to a song that sounds like Bjork but yields no results when I Shazam it, leading me, in retrospect, to wonder if I invented the presence of music altogether. The dom grabs his balls, makes him sit upright on the chair, and dusts his crotch with a more petite flogger.
Just as I begin to wonder what the gimp is supposed to do in this public setting after his balls had been so handled, my friend leans over to say, “So this is what we do,” I believe pointing out that I am a voyeur or spy, callously taking notes, when truly—and I mean really, truly—I am here to learn and to write a short/long blog post about my feelings and experiences. But I feel guilty and ashamed. I ask her, “What is he to do now that his balls have been so handled?” She explains that the lack of release is part of the appeal, and a pillar of this kind of BDSM play, and that sometimes subs go days and days without being allowed to come. Try being a woman!!!! I think, just to be funny.
When their act is over, the gimp and the woman walk off stage and share a genuinely sweet hug.
After another act (a burlesque dancer in elegant pasties), I look up and find that my entire table has left. I am alone. Just then, the DJ announces that it’s time for karaoke, my number one least favorite activity to participate in or watch others participate in, and certainly not what I have patience to sit through at 11:02 p.m. PST/2:02 a.m. EST. The first karaoke participant gets on stage—she’s chosen “The Pussycat Song” by Connie Vannett, and waits for the music to start. There is a technical difficulty of some kind.
I see the tattooed man whom I love now flogging an unending stream of women. I wish for a moment that I had the sexual confidence to request a flogging, but I am me, I’m wearing black jeans and a turtleneck, and I truly could never. He has a message written on his stomach: “See How It Feels!!!” I scream internally that I would but I can’t! I am on the job and am wearing embarrassing underwear. I have not asked my real boyfriend if I can be crotch-flogged, and why even would I need to? Get a grip, you stupid woman!
It’s 11:09 p.m. and karaoke has not been fixed. I am no less tense. An update from the DJ: “Look at all this free play time you’re getting.” In my understanding, miss, play time is always free. A bit of eyelash stings my ball.
At 11:14 p.m. we are told that karaoke will be resolved within two minutes. My tattooed boyfriend is flogging harder than ever, in a rhythm that resounds through the meeting room—ba da bee da ba da bee da—it’s the rhythm of a tap step I used to do when I was a tap dancer in high school, though that’s neither here nor there. I think about how I wasn’t allowed to participate in both my dance studio’s tap company and jazz company back then, even though another girl was allowed to participate in both the hip hop company and the jazz company, and I begin to feel steamed up. Also, it is 11:17 p.m. and karaoke still has not been solved. Tell me, someone, what is a reasonable deadline for karaoke to be solved?
The crowd is getting restless. The DJ tells us to hang at the Play Stations at either corner of the room which gives me alone a chuckle. I overhear that in order to be flogged, you need to speak with the professional flogger about what you’ve done before, what your level is—I interpret that it is similar to the UCB improv comedy-level system, though that is likely an incorrect interpretation.
I watch my new tattooed boyfriend try to dance to “Is This Love” by Bob Marley and he isn’t great, but this humanizes and endears him to me further.
It is now 11:34 p.m. and still no karaoke. I resolve to stay until midnight and then leave the Lair, due to my 8:00 a.m flight. If, by then, I have heard no karaoke, good. If I have not made contact with my tattooed boyfriend, tragic.
At 11:42 p.m., the volume of the music spikes to an intolerable level. Unclear if this if this means karaoke, but at least it means change.
At 11:43 p.m., a man in a captain’s hat who has served as our MC for the evening says, “Thank you for bearing with us while we’ve been kicking some technical ass,” (have they, though?) and as he introduces the next act, the karaoke lyrics for “Boogie Nights” appear on a projector without anyone requesting them.
I only have 15 minutes more to learn all I can about BDSM, and I vow (to myself) that I will use that time to take in all there is to take in. The woman in the next act, the last I’d see of the night, takes off a silicone trench to reveal a bra that’s just the underwire part. She squeezes her boob a few times to a track of what I presume is her, giving instructions to a theoretical sub, which she performs, meaning she’s basically being her own sub, a relationship that feels familiar to me because it’s what I do every time I attend a barre class. (Note: This is a hateful joke that I wrote in the heat of the moment.)
Meanwhile, my tattooed boyfriend very sexily turns a girl (not me) around and pushes her down onto a bench. I feel jealousy.
At 11:52 p.m., my time at the party is necessarily nearly finished. The last act I am lucky enough to see is introduced as some kind of magician. I am baffled. A magician? Here? The magician screams into the microphone, “AVN, HOW ARE WE DOINNNNNNNN’?” And “IT’S SO GREAT TO BE BACK IN VEGAS CITY OF SIN CAN I GET AN AMEN?! CAN I GET A HALLELOOOOOOOOYAH?!”
He announces that his “act” is that he will be making his doll come to life, and rips a blanket off a chair to reveal a living person, sitting as still as possible to pretend they are a doll. The person in the chair is the host of the evening—Mistress Cyan, a former director of operations for a multi-billion dollar houseware and woodenware corporation who discovered the BDSM community in the ’80s and never looked back. Mistress Cyan quickly comes to life—it’s already 11:57, and I’m nearly on the move—and began spanking the magician. I understand in this moment that his magic trick is to be spanked and nipple-tweaked, but not much more.
As I leave, my red silicone friend is getting stroked by a glow-in-the-dark flogger, the magician is getting what he deserves, and my not-boyfriend is exchanging numbers with a woman he just serviced. I am acutely aware that this event had featured one of the most respectful and welcoming groups of people that I encountered at the convention—happy to encourage me to participate and then, when I said no, to let me sit like an asshole on my phone in a chair for two hours.
“Say goodnight everyone,” Mistress Cyan instructs the magician when she’s finished.
He groans. “Goodnight everyone.”
Back in my hotel room, nauseous from the $13 (yet somehow cheap) vodka, titillated by “See How It Feels!!!,” thoughtful because of my friend who clearly wanted to engage with people in similar spirits and I had only let her down, I rip off my eyelashes. It hurts a little. I think I am into it.