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Covering the “Washington and Baltimore S&M/B&D Fetish Weekend” looked like a journalist’s wet dream, three days of playing voyeur at a festival of leather and kinky sex. Never mind that the setting could not be more sterile—the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Cheverly, Md. I march into HoJo’s ready for cheap thrills. Or outrage. Or seduction. Or arousal.

What I’m not prepared for, however, is a sing-along. Some 45 “perverts” from coast to coast are sitting in vinyl chairs in the HoJo conference room, looking at mimeographed lyric sheets. There are dominatrices from St. Louis, Chicago, and Philadelphia, an erotic photographer from New York City, sex slaves from Virginia and Baltimore, a foot fetishist/leather man from San Francisco, and a sex-club president and retiree named George Morrell from Beaver Falls, Pa. Yet no sooner do the connoisseurs of kink introduce themselves than Pat Bond, the founder of the oldest S&M group in the country, hands them all song books, puts on a tape of someone playing a piano, and leads them all in a medley of kitschy S&M folk songs with lyrics like “Whips and chains and leather and steel/the more you do it, the better you feel!” Welcome to the Sodom and Gomorrah PTA.

To the participants’ credit, almost nobody joins in. These people aren’t idiots. It’s one thing to build a lifestyle around prescribed dominance and humiliation; it’s another to sing dopey jingles in a room full of strangers. The songs are felonies—think elementary-school talent show—and the few voices that take a stab at them are warbling, off-pitch, and riddled with giggles. But Bond presses on. He sings, “Straight and gay, butch and femme—why not try some S&M?” He croons, “Ain’t it a wonder/I hear thunder/When I’m under your stare.” When he does a version of “My Favorite Things”—”When the whip cracks/When the butt stings”—my boyfriend (whom I’ll call “Bob”) has just about had it. This is an S&M conference all right—it’s punishment to listen to.

The weekend, which promises “Lectures! Demos! Parties! Discussions! Vendors!,” is supposed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of People Exchanging Power (PEP), a national network of support groups for people “in the lifestyle,” as B&D and S&M are known. District native Nancy Ava Miller, a sex counselor and dominatrix who runs a 900 number and trains sex workers in New Mexico, founded PEP, along with D.C.’s local S&M support group, Black Rose. Miller and her partners, the public face of S&M, argue that their hobby is about responsible, consenting adults acting out fantasies and role-playing within safe, pre-established parameters. Yet some of their “play,” which becomes the visceral centerpiece of the conference, will prove hard to take.

Chatter among the S&M conferees inevitably turns to Sharon Lopatka, the woman from Maryland who was killed earlier in the week in North Carolina after she used the Internet to solicit someone to torture her to death. The consensus is that Lopatka’s grisly death had nothing to do with S&M or B&D. “The S&M motto is ‘Safe, Sane, and Consensual,’” proclaims Lady D., a dominatrix from Atlanta. “Anything that doesn’t fall under that is not in our realm. A lot of people get on the computer, and they don’t have any actual experience. There’s a big difference between fantasy and reality.”

A Maryland woman named Bethany, who identifies herself as a slave in the process of “switching”—i.e., training to become a dominatrix—offers another theory: “This was a woman who was suicidal. She was looking for someone to kill her and called it ‘sex.’ I’m disgusted by her, disgusted by him, and incensed that this is the public view of the lifestyle.”

“The image on the street is that we’re a bunch of crazies beating the shit out of each other. That’s just not the case,” says Mistress Sheila, a blond version of Anne Bancroft.

“The media has made us into sick people. They don’t see us having loving relationships,” adds Lady D.

Loving or not, S&M relationships follow a set of carefully crafted rules and terms.

A “pro dom” is short for “professional dominant,” a person who earns money either over the phone or in a professional “dungeon,” where the dominant one controls, disciplines, and/or punishes “subs,” as willing submissives are called. A “lifestyle dom,” on the other hand, lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week as a mistress or master with one or several “subs” or “slaves.” A pro dom is not, I am told repeatedly, a prostitute. The services rendered by a pro dom have to do with power, not sex. The fact that customers may get off sexually on such power wielding is, at least legally, beside the point.

S&M—sadomasochism—involves inflicting and receiving pain. It is different from B&D, bondage and discipline, which is about partners tying each other up and “punishing” each other if they’re “naughty.” S&D, submission and dominance, centers on role-playing and assuming positions of power or passivity. Many people practice a combination. As for the rest of us—the ones who like our sex straight-up and neat—we’re called “vanilla.”

“So what flavor is S&M?” I ask. “Raspberry ripple?”

Bethany looks at me and grins. “Rocky road,” she says.

That first night, Mistress Kay takes the floor to show us all how to use fire as a sex toy. To do this, she “borrows” Lady D.’s slave, Patrick, who gamely strips down to his leather G-string and stands as if braced for a frisking. Mistress Kay hauls out a 30-gallon fire extinguisher and reminds us that she’s had medical training. Then she takes a candle and runs it perilously close to Patrick’s skin, all over his back, and up the insides of his legs. She dips her own fingertips in rubbing alcohol, lights them, and, moving her hands as if they held castanets, skates purple blue flame up and down Patrick’s back. “It’s the alcohol burning, not the skin,” she assures us. Eventually, though, her own fingers begin to singe, and she has to put them out with a wet towel. “One time, I got so engrossed in this I got third-degree burns,” she says chipperly.

Volunteers are then solicited from the audience, and Mistress Kay relights her hand. A slave named Heather comes up and lets Kay run the flames over her breasts. “Oh, it’s like a warm and toasty bed on a cold night!” Heather coos. Me, I don’t want to get up in front of all these people like a human sacrifice, but in the name of investigative reporting, I suppose I should get an idea of what all the fuss is about. Reluctantly, I have Mistress Kay run fire over the back of my hand. Immediately I understand what the conferees mean when they talk about S&M being predicated on trust.

The sensation is not arousing. I don’t understand what the appeal is—it’s like something kids dare each other to do at summer camp. But maybe that childish thrill is the whole point. After all, children when left to their own devices can be pretty S&Mish themselves. They say, Let’s torture the cat. Let’s see if we can get my little brother to drink dish-washing liquid. I dare you to stick this hanger up your nose.

After the demo, conferees emphasize to me that people in the lifestyle are not freaks or sex maniacs. I don’t have the heart to tell them that they don’t have to convince me. The little I’ve seen has been about as exciting as a dial tone.

When they talk about bondage and domination, it’s all nuts and bolts (no pun intended): Who’s on the board of directors of your support group? Why does this place charge less for whips? How does your branch of PEP do its fund-raising? The masters and slaves, the dominants and submissives—they’re essentially sex geeks—they might as well be discussing computers or fly-fishing—they’re as boring as anybody else whose obsession I don’t share. They’ve managed to make kinkiness pedestrian. They’ve desexualized it. Even the refreshment table is utterly devoid of irony and camp. Where are the licorice whips? The whipped cream? The deviled eggs? When Bond concludes his presentation by saying, “Well, I guess I should tie things up here,” he says it earnestly. And nobody catches the pun. Nobody murmurs “har har har” under his or her breath.

The conference’s second day kicks off with the announcement that a certain Mistress Nona from New York has just given Miller’s husband-cum-slave, Barry, an enema and his first-ever experience with fisting. The crowd applauds. Barry, a gentle-looking man, bows sheepishly. I am impressed that he can sit down.

Then it’s all safe sex and family values—but we’re not talking condoms or school prayer. For the S&M/B&D community, I learn quickly, safe sex means keeping a legal defense team on retainer and literally watching their asses. While performing acts of domination and bondage is legal in some places—including the District—the minute it crosses over into “sexual activity,” it’s often illegal, especially if there’s any exchange of money involved. Needless to say, this line is extremely fine, and members of PEP spend much of the afternoon discussing how not to cross it. A number of dominatrixes want to know, in particular, how to do fisting training and dildo demonstrations without getting arrested. “If it’s done in the name of education, you can stretch the law,” Mistress Sheila informs them.

George Morrell, president of the Tri-State Couples Club, is the conference’s senior partner on S&M case law. George and his wife Marie have been “in the lifestyle” for over 40 years, and in the ’80s they had a dungeon built in the basement for “play parties.”

“Marie and I created a place where people could be themselves safely,” George says. Or so they thought. On April 1, 1986, the club was raided. At first the members thought it was a prank by cop-uniform fetishists. But instead they were read their Miranda rights and hauled down to the station house. “There were 23 police and 25 of us,” George says. “They actually had to borrow some of our handcuffs for the arrest!”

The raid made headlines in three local newspapers, as well as Hard Copy, A Current Affair, and Nightline. George’s sister learned about his “lifestyle” on television and hasn’t spoken to him since.

Technically, the Morrells had done nothing that broke the law, and as outstanding members of their small community they were able to withstand all legal and most social repercussions. But George knows he’s the exception. Like gays and lesbians in pre-Stonewall days, most of the kinky-sex crowd lives in real fear of exposure, persecution, police brutality, and ostracism. “You can be arrested and ruined for life without even being convicted,” Miller says.

Until just two years ago, the American Psychiatric Association classified practicing S&M as a “psychiatric disorder.” People who do it in their own homes—never mind professionally—can lose their jobs, houses, children, and social standing if their activities become public. This irony the folks at HoJo’s understand too well: A man can beat his wife and children for years without repercussions, but get caught once with your pants down and your ass whipped, and you can kiss your reputation goodbye. “Please,” Morrell urges the crowd, “live your life quietly. It’s not nice out there.”

Also, since the majority of conferees are parents and grandparents, the threat of having their children taken away from them, Miller says, is a fear that’s always looming.

The threat of social ostracism, however, is not enough to deter Sharon and Stanley, a nice Jewish couple from a local synagogue. Sharon has pearly-blue eye shadow and a gold Star of David around her neck. Stanley is sunny-faced and mustachioed. They tell me how to save a fortune on sex toys. “You know,” Sharon confides, “you can walk into supermarkets, sporting goods stores, even hardware stores and acquire toys for the S&M lifestyle so much cheaper than the specialty catalogues. I’m telling you: Marshall’s. You can get a ping-pong paddle for $4.95 instead of some custom-made paddle for $39.95. And it’s every bit as good!”

Before they got married, Sharon says, she had never been into B&D. When she accidentally came across some of Stanley’s kinky videos in his apartment, she admits, “I thought something was wrong with this guy.” But now she’s a submissive, and her sex life is “fantastic.”

“I have such a strong career,” she explains. “In my day-to-day life, I have to make so many decisions that at home, I want to be taken care of. It’s nice to let go, to let everything fly from my mind. I’m older now, and I have kids, a mortgage, and pressures. I can still have really great intercourse, but in the middle of it I’ll notice a crack in the ceiling and think that the house needs work. B&D, on the other hand, is a totally out-of-body experience.”

At that evening’s party, a soccer mom has exchanged her Hush Puppies for 5-inch stiletto heels with ankle straps. Sissy Maid, a 6-foot-2 transvestite with a 5 o’clock shadow and a sausage-curl wig, arrives in a giant lavender Little Bo Peep outfit, replete with baby bonnet, ruffled bloomers, and a pacifier. Another photographer, this one tattooed like a biker, circulates photo albums full of pictures taken at a dungeon—plenty of tied and writhing bodies, spankings, leather masks, and bondage for all. Meanwhile, in a corner Mistress Nona is caning Barry, the fwoosh of her strokes punctuating the din of conversation like background music.

Of course, totally incongruous and inane singing has now become a conference tradition. Before the official “caning demonstration” begins, we all have to sit through a medley of show tunes performed by Jerry, an actor friend of Nancy’s. Bob and I are looking through a stack of graphic bondage photos when Jerry starts belting out Broadway tunes from Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me Kate, which, he insists, actually contain all sorts of secret S&M references. The evening reaches the pinnacle of bizarreness when Nancy urges him to sing something from Fiddler on the Roof. It doesn’t have anything to do with S&M, she admits, but it is one of her all-time favorite musicals. I’m staring at pictures of a bound-and-gagged Asian woman with silicon breasts the size of basketballs when Jerry starts singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” and people in rubber and catsuits begin clapping and snapping along like Tevye, tapping their thigh-high boots along in time to the “la-da-de-de-de-de’s.” Oh my God, I think. I’ve died and gone to hell. And it’s a bar mitzvah.

Sissy Maid drops her purple ruffled bloomers so that Mistress Mona can demonstrate the fine art of how to whack someone across the ass with a cane. Apparently, it’s far more complicated than it looks. “Just like any other equipment—a bull whip or a flogger—you really have to practice,” she tells us perkily. Sissy Maid leans over. The cane snaps and fwips against Sissy’s gelatinous buttocks. Sissy winces and shudders. A moment later, though, she seems to exhale in ecstasy. “Thank you, ma’am,” she gasps. Nona delivers another blow. And another. Sissy’s ass becomes striated with pinkish welts. It’s quite a sight, and when I glance over at Sharon, she gives me a panicked look that says, “This is not what I bargained for back at the synagogue.”

But after several strokes, Sissy turns around completely unfazed, takes the cane, and holds it out to us. “Now, you’ll find there are different finishes on canes, varnished and unvarnished. I prefer them without a finish, but I happen to like this cane,” she says.

Volunteers are invited to come up and have a go. Mistress Julie delivers some strokes, and the rest of the crowd coaches her: You’re hitting too much on one cheek and not the other. Move back and to the right a little. That’s it. Attagirl. Sissy Maid finally steps down, and a woman from Colorado takes her place. The cane changes hands, too. But after a while it’s a little like watching take after take on a movie set: The same motion over and over again gets old, even if it is a flogging. I wander into the refreshment room to get a Pepsi and come back just in time to see a woman named Collette, a heavy-set Washington D.C. economist, reach orgasm leaning against the plastic chair as Mistress Nona canes her and Mistress Karen commands her to come. As soon as Collette climaxes, the whole room applauds.

“The pain, as it dissipates, is very arousing,” Collette tells me when she’s back in her chair with her mistress’s arms curved protectively around her. Apparently, Collette’s mistress has trained her to come on voice command.

“I’ve fallen in love with the cane,” Collette says. “It’s taken me to a new level. It’s a different orgasm. It’s more intense because my mistress demands it. I have to give it to her at once to please her. Vanilla sex—I call it a relaxing orgasm vacation. This is a white-water rafting orgasm.”

After that, the Howard Johnson’s basement is slowly transformed into a modern-day version of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” On a folding table in one corner, Lady D. performs “play piercing” on Patrick. This involves inserting dozens of small medical needles into the top layer of his skin. She makes a heart with her initial in it around Patrick’s belly button. Mistress Karen sets up a rack called a St. Andrew’s Cross, pins a man to it who is wearing only a leather thong, and proceeds to whip him using a variety of implements—a velvet cat-o’-nine-tails, a broom made of chains. In another corner, a fat middle-aged woman in a muumuu paddles a skinny young woman in a red lace bustier; they almost seem to be acting out a primal mother-daughter scene of hatred and intimacy. At the end of it they end up hugging and kissing. Somebody else is getting a spanking. The combined effect of all this is freaky and violent. These people are deriving great pleasure from the very things that most of us spend our entire lives working like hell to avoid: Pain. Humiliation. Domination. Dependency. Abuse. The monstrousness of our own greed for control.

It dawns on me that maybe this is the appeal. Never mind that endorphins kick in anytime you’re in pain. Perhaps by submitting to the worst things that can happen to you, you become liberated. By becoming the masters of abuse—by taming it, codifying it, inflicting it, receiving it, and eroticizing it—on some level you also rise above it. After all, what can possibly hurt you if you derive pleasure from all nuances of pain and tension? It’s got to be incredibly empowering to know that you can walk away glowing from an experience that would break most other people in two. If this is true, than S&M and D&B are not merely about the exchange of power, but triumph over it. It’s the conquering of fear, vulnerability, and shame.

The “S&M Slide Show of Erotic Photography” on the third day is enough to arouse conferees wearied by two days of paddling, burning, and bonding. Ka-click: On the screen appears a multicolor-tattooed penis with its head pierced and a silver ring threaded through it. Ka-click: A woman who’s into scarification—she’s cut rings around her breasts eight times to create enough keloid tissue to create a “natural” breast plate look. Ka-click: A person who’s been mummified, wrapped head-to-toe in silver duct tape in a coffin with only his huge erection poking out.

There are only a few dozen slides, but somehow I find them harder to take than anything from the night before. When Collette gets up to take another caning afterwards, though, I find it even harder. This time, it goes on for a solid half-hour. I can’t bear to watch. The welts on Collette’s ass turn from hot pink to red. The skin seems to break and turns reddish-purple-blue with bruises. Around me, three mistresses and slaves watch Collette excitedly and take snapshots with their Instamatic cameras. “Oh, look at her stripes!” they gush.

I can’t handle this. I feel none of the empathy I felt the day before. Yes, these people are warm-hearted and some of the least cynical and self-righteous folks I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to come to their house for dinner. And I believe they should be free to do as they please in their dungeons. But when Bethany comes to tell me that “Collette just orgasmed five times in a row. Isn’t that gorgeous?” I think to myself: No. You are beating each other to a bloody mess and you’re thrilled by it. I want to go home.

Some names have been changed on request.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: James Watts.