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Fit to Be Tied

Local S/M Community Irate Over Regulatory Crackdown

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/26/2000

Baltimore has long been home to a flourishing bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (BDSM) scene—a pansexual community of individuals for whom spankings, canings, floggings, and/or being tied up constitute a form of sexual expression. When BDSM is practiced correctly, proponents posit, it constitutes a form of safe, sane, and consensual "play" wherein no one is truly injured. The 1990 Kinsey New Report on Sex asserts that 5 to 10 percent of U.S. adults practice some form of sadomasochism (S/M), and the Internet has enabled an increasing number of people to acknowledge and openly act upon their BDSM interests and fantasies. This growing community seems poised to fully emerge from the sexual closet.

Recent actions by City Hall, however, have effectively, if not necessarily purposefully, driven Baltimore's sexual underground back underground. Armed with regulations generally applied to strip clubs and the like, city zoning officials have cited three popular venues where BDSM adherents gathered for providing "adult entertainment" without a license—actions that for all intents and purposes have made it impossible for members of the BDSM community to publicly socialize and "play."

The city's actions have drawn the attention of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an advocacy and lobbying group that promotes tolerance of sexual minorities. "We have a particular commitment to the S/M, fetish, and leather community because no one else represents them," says NCSF executive director Judy Guerin, who's now advising the Baltimore BDSM community.

The problems began last October when the Phoenix Society, a 5-year-old nonprofit BDSM social, advocacy, and education group, moved its clubhouse from Canton to Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn. Spurred by complaints from residents of the largely conservative, blue-collar neighborhood, a zoning-enforcement officer visited the club and cited it for having an improper occupancy permit and for providing adult entertainment without a license. The group has since vacated the building and disbanded.

On Dec. 10, using information gleaned from a Web site, a zoning official attended a party hosted by a BDSM e-mail-list group at Mount Vernon's Play House Studio and Gallery. Donald Small, superintendent of housing-code enforcement for the city, says his officer "observed about 30 people in various stages of dress engaging in behaviors we certainly believe were adult entertainment." The proprietors of the Play House Studio were fined $500 and told by authorities to cease holding BDSM events.

Late last month, Club Orpheus was likewise cited and fined for providing unlicensed adult entertainment, specifically a weekly fetish dance party hosted by the BDSM organization Baltimore Bound. Orpheus, located near Little Italy, remains open as nightclub and dance hall, but no BDSM activity can take place in the "dungeon" Bound promoters had recently installed in the club's basement.

Housing Department spokesperson Zach Germroth says the citations are not aimed specifically at the BDSM community, but are part of a larger, 18-month-old citywide crackdown on zoning violations. "We have not singled out any particular group," Germroth says. But enforcement superintendent Small acknowledges that the initial Brooklyn violations "are what really fired this whole thing," putting BDSM activity on the regulatory radar.

Many in the BDSM community take issue with their activities being subject to regulations primarily geared toward strip clubs and nude dancers. "We don't have dancers, we're not performers, we have no patrons," says Sarah Humble, co-owner of the Play House, which has operated for three years (and was named "Best Place to Get Spanked" in City Paper's 1997 Best of Baltimore issue). "Couples come here and play with each other. We don't have staff mistresses or masters. We are not doing anything that I feel can be constituted as adult entertainment." She says there is no explicit sexual activity at Play House events—"no intercourse, no flagrant masturbation, and no oral sex."

The groups were not cited for violating adult-entertainment laws per se, but for providing what the city considered adult entertainment in places not zoned for it, which falls under the Housing Department's purview. However, even if a BDSM venue were to acquire an adult-entertainment license—a difficult proposition, as such licenses require City Council approval—it could find itself in violation on another front. Regulations governing licensed adult-entertainment venues adopted in October by the Board of Liquor License Commissioners (which has jurisdiction over such establishments) list "flagellation" among the activities prohibited within.

For BDSM advocates, however, the problem is not what constitutes legal "adult entertainment" but that their events are categorized as such. "We'd like to see a different interpretation of the law," NCSF's Guerin says. "We don't see places like the Play House, which doesn't even serve alcohol, as providing adult entertainment. What they do is primarily an educational service for the community, showing people with an interest in [BDSM] how to be safe."

Members of NCSF and the Baltimore BDSM community are scheduled to meet Jan. 27 with officials from the relevant city agencies to discuss the situation. The meeting comes at the behest of City Council President Sheila Dixon, whose office some local BDSM adherents mistakenly accused of triggering the regulatory crackdown. "Obviously, it's of great concern to us if a group is being unfairly targeted," says Dixon's chief of staff, Anthony McCarthy. "We want to make sure there's no discrimination going on here."

Baltimore is not the only city attracting the attention of national BDSM advocates. NCSF is also involved with a case in San Diego, where six people were arrested last fall for engaging in BDSM activities at a party in a rented space. Such activities have long been out in the open in some larger cities. (New York has an S/M-themed restaurant, and a BDSM bed and breakfast recently opened in San Francisco.) But in places where it has remained largely an underground phenomenon, government oversight is likely to increase as the Internet leads more people to openly express an interest in BDSM.

"We're going to have to figure out how to change some of these laws," says Jonathan Krall, an active participant in both the Baltimore and Washington BDSM scenes. "People are going to get together and do S/M. It's better that we have places for people to go to that are safe and monitored. Otherwise, people will hook up on the Internet, get together privately, and then anything can happen."

brennen jensen

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