It was a dark and quiet night on Crawford Street. The darkness was warm and lit by the still streetlamps, and even the shadows glowed with beckoning comfort. It was an empty night, perfect for spilling secrets into. The street was deserted except for the purposeful tip-tapping of a single person striding. I was two blocks behind the footsteps, and all I could see of its owner was a vibrant, sashaying crimson. When she crossed the amber-grey road, her masked eyes glanced back at me and flashed knowingly.
We met again at the door. I could see her dress better now: it was tight around the body, strapless, and volumed out violently at her waist. It was entirely PVC, and her black-heeled legs kicked out through its short front. I gazed at the squeaky shine tucked under her shoulder blades and wondered if I’d tried hard enough.
“Do you go to Polytech or Uni?” asked the door people, as they appraised my costume and deemed it scandalous enough. “Uni,” I replied, and they ticked off a column on the desk. “How many tickets have been sold?” 126. 126 attendees to the Dunedin Fetish Ball so far, and another twenty or so to come.
I walked into Sammy’s, which was red-tinged and had tables and chairs haphazardly placed around the hall. There was a rust-coloured Dalek staring out at the crowd, alone between the stage and the toilets. I shrugged off my coat and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of stares the Powergirl-esque triangular hole in front of my breasts attracted. To my right was a young man just as confused as I was about the functionality of the coat check. He was in a gimp suit, complete with a gas mask, and seemed lovely. “Do you know how this works?” I asked him, and a distorted but determined attempt at the human language tumbled out of his mask. “Well,” I nodded, “at least we’re in this together.”
My boyfriend waved at me, a beer in each hand and an altar cloth dangling dangerously from his neck. I adjusted my habit – had to look my best – and went to accept my drink. We strode across the room to a couch that lurked in the shadows. We weren’t first-timers when it came to playing with fetishes, but this was the first time we’d seen the fetish community at large; it was best to observe first. Mum warned me they’d be ugly, but I like to believe everyone is beautiful. The ball-goers probably averaged out at average, but they were all interesting, and as the crowd grew bigger, we found it could be split into three broad types: steampunk, PVC, and playas.
A huge amount of people looked as though they were recycling their steampunk convention outfits. There were top hats, corsets, the odd parasol, and plenty of ankle-flashing. I briefly wondered what a steampunk fetish entailed, and then remembered my teenage obsession with Larklight.
The PVC crowd was the one I wouldn’t mess with. Dancing slowly and creepily for six hours wrapped in sweat-insoluble red and black had to give them some kind of thrill; you couldn’t pay me to do that. They had the slicked-back hair of people who meant business, and more than any other guest it was this group that was most likely to be carrying something that could be used as a weapon (ropes, whips, chains, etc.).
The latter group was largely made up of nineteen-year-old girls in leather jackets and red lipstick, who were “only here because it’s a red card, honestly!” Gurl, $40 is a lot to spend on an event just to demonstrate how TC you are. Throw your own party next time, it’s cheaper and the people there will hate you less.
Mixed in with the crowd were people like us, who wore outfits representing more ‘traditional’ fetishes: teachers, maids, schoolgirls, priests, gimps. One man, who I later learned was actually a “general area act” called Dodgy Ropes, was tying his girlfriend into a pretzel. Her hands were crossed across her chest, and her eyes were blissfully fluttering between closed and mostly-closed. It looked very romantic.
The couple next to us was not very romantic. A Fetish Ball takes all sorts, but sitting a metre apart and browsing social media is universally very non-intimate. We wouldn’t have known they were together if we didn’t see them paddling each other upstairs an hour later.
Deviant Queen, her dress trailing behind like a personal guard and a top hat perched firmly on her head, strode across the floor to emerge onto the red haze of the stage: the night was about to kick off. “Welcome!” she cried in a rare, un-irritating incarnation of the New Zealand accent. The house rules were laid down: no photos of guests, except when by the Dalek; don’t talk about people at the Fetish Ball to people outside it; don’t touch people without their permission. It was like Fight Club, but with better outfits and less conspiracy.
“Needles” was the first stage act. She shuffled out looking strangely morose for someone wearing sequins and a bright blue wig, but brightened up when two massive hooks were driven through the skin on her upper back.
“Come closer!” Deviant Queen suggested, “come and look at the blood!” We pressed against the side of the stage, investigating the bloody rivulets winding down her back. Nothing unusual there, though – everyone bleeds. The exceptional part of the performance was how much Needles enjoyed the two hooks dug into her flesh. When she jumped off a ladder to suspend herself, even the presenters chastised her a little for enjoying it too much. She didn’t care though; she just bobbed up and down like someone on a masochistic swing set. She was having a blast.
We went straight from there to Deviant Queen’s personal table, where her boy-toy was becoming “the human incense candle.” She would heat up an incense stick and then drive it into his hand or forearm, while we watched his unflinching face stare determinedly at the table. Once his hand had come to resemble a murderer’s birthday cake there was nothing more to see, so we headed upstairs.
Upstairs there were two sections: the BDSM corner and the swingers’ tent. BDSM, for the uninitiated, involves a bundle of things that begin with those letters: bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, and masochism. It’s a kink, fetish, or sexual practice where interpersonal relations are a big part of the “play:” there are doms, subs, and roleplaying, and it’s a community where safe words are absolutely imperative. 50 Shades of Grey is a terrible representation of a good BDSM relationship, but if you picture Christian Grey’s infamous “red room” then you’ll have some idea of what the BDSM corner at the Fetish Ball looked like. When we arrived there was a naked woman being whipped, and someone else bent over for a spanking.
We took a seat upstairs, where we could watch the rest of the acts. Needles was back and had a friend with her bare back laced up very prettily and attached to Needles’ hooks. They were pulling away from each other, which was no doubt a very impressive physical feat, but to observers it just looked like two women standing still. Needles’ face was a happy grimace, and her friend’s frown stayed constant.
We ran into two friends at this point, who had just been whipped. They were on top of the world because, apparently, “getting the shit whipped out of you is really relaxing,” and they urged me to try it for “journalistic integrity.” I clambered up onto the little platform glued onto a giant wooden St Andrew’s Cross, and gripped the tops of it. They’d taken their tops off for it, but I just unzipped my dress and pulled it apart a bit; I was dressed as a very modest fetish. My boyfriend was given the whip and safe words were established: “green” for “go for it,” “orange” for “maybe stop soon,” and “red” for “you stop that right now.”
I could feel the sting of the whip, but its bark was much worse than its bite. We’ve played in a dungeon before, and the whips there hurt much more than this. This was “green” the whole time, whereas in previous experiences I was at a constant “orange,” which can be much more satisfying. It really was relaxing; like a massage with many very tiny hands.
I was sinking into it, mumbling “green, green,” at my partner in punishment, when a man came and stood at the top of the cross; it was leaning against the top level of upstairs. The man was small, and of indiscernible age. He could very easily have played Rumpelstiltskin. He was gazing down at me with a mischievous smile, his hands resting on a walking stick that he obviously didn’t need; maybe disability-play is a fetish.
“Hi,” he smiled. That smile was too constant to be healthy.
“Hi,” I replied, “are you really trying to have a conversation with me right now?” He continued to grin.
“I just like to watch.” Well, fair enough.
He watched a while and then wandered off. I jumped down and my missionary zipped up my dress.
“Did you have fun?” We both did. It had been a cathartic experience: I’d had my back tension whipped away, and he’d worked up a sweat. We went to snuggle and watch Zylah, another rope act.
I recognised Zylah from earlier, when she’d been mingling with the crowd. She’d been wearing shiny pants and sitting on the lap of someone in a chain loincloth. Now she wore only bright pink hotpants and a rope. She was being tied up and hoisted above the stage, where she writhed and contorted until she freed herself and then spun around, held aloft only by her tied-up ankle. Her body, like all other nakedness at the Ball, was not sexualised. Like a good stripper, she was athletic and hypnotic.
Following her was a very good stripper, Whip Mistress Serenity. She was far more sensual than Zylah, and when she picked a volunteer from the crowd we could see the blood dripping down his whip-marks from the back of the room. I didn’t freak out too much because Richard Barker’s interview in Critic a few weeks back had led me to believe this whipping would be staged; days later I heard from the volunteer’s flatmate that he still had huge lacerations from the whipping.
The acts became very tame. At one point I turned to my neighbour and complained that I was bored.
“There’s a middle-aged woman being glad-wrapped to a crucifix, her sub is dressed as a dog and tied to a stripper pole, and everyone’s singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ How are you bored?”
He was right. My standards had been set too high by Needles. Missionary and me went upstairs to eagerly stand in line for what I knew would put me back in a party mood: cold branding. Branding has historically been used to mark ownership or crime; these connotations probably helped it flourish in the BDSM scene, along with its painfulness. Cold-branding uses a branding iron submerged in either dry ice or liquid nitrogen; instead of burning a mark into your skin, you freeze it. It doesn’t leave as “good” a scar as normal pirate and slave-style branding, though; we were told ours would have faded after six months.
Waiting in line, we made small chat with the people up ahead, one of whom was a maid and the other was very small. “We love your costumes!” They said, and I felt accepted. My mother-in-loan would be so happy to hear that her dress was a certified A-grade fetish costume.
I read and signed the form to consent to a branding, and chose a big heart shape. I may be kinky, but I’m still cute. They pulled it out of the foggy bucket and pressed it against my upper arm. It felt exactly like getting a wart burned off; no biggie. My boyfriend chose a pentagram, and seeing that particular shape glow bright white on his skin is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. A week later, the scab has nearly disappeared and there’s an adorable pink, heart-shaped scar on my arm.
We went downstairs to nurse our buzzing arms and watch Amadeo, a Spanish man who sets things on fire. His entire show was basically a year nine science class: he made bubbles filled with hydrogen, put the bubbles on a person, and set them on fire. He did this many times. It was clear the night was winding down.
Cydonia, a gothic, cyberpunk-looking belly-dancer made an excellent attempt at regaining our attention, but it was too late. The ball had been going on for more than six hours. That’s longer than I’d spend with people who were actually my friends, and twice as long as my high school ball, which I didn’t attend because I thought it might be boring. Six hours is more than enough time to turn a series of interesting events into a desensitisation occasion.
For the whole night, the swingers’ tent had remained empty except for piles of unused condoms and lube. Deviant Queen, as she told us very politely that it was about time to get out, extended another invitation for the seriously sex-inclined to use the swingers’ tent. Its vacancy and the thriving BDSM tent next door did a fairly good job of summarising the entire evening: the only fetish we saw was BDSM, and no-one was looking for sex, except for Rumpelstiltskin. I wondered about the other famous fetishes: plushies, bronies, and foot-fetishists. Were they here tonight? Or is the only acceptable community fetish BDSM?
In the six hours we’d been there, gimp man had won a “best dressed” prize, Dodgy Ropes’ girlfriend had collapsed due to hours of being the only volunteer, I’d seen too many tits and asses to sexualise, and we’d been vaguely propositioned by Rumpelstiltskin for some “really cool” swinging. Nothing surprised me any more.
I was as dark as the night we walked out into. “My love,” I held my missionary’s hand, and we looked into each others’ soulless eyes. “I feel empty.” He nodded, and steered me away from home.
“Let’s get you some BK.”