Across their dining-room table, Bob and Erin eye each other like muskrats in mating season. As they make polite conversation and pick at their melon salads, they exchange private smiles and prolonged gazes. I meditate briefly on the sexual charge generated by subtlety, repression, and politesse. I also wonder whether perhaps I shouldn’t allow the couple some time alone.
Erin is the Martha Stewart of fetishism, the Laura Ashley of kink. Along with Bob, her husband of 30 years, she runs the Naughty Victorian, an Annapolis mail-order house that sells spanking implements, enemas, and above all else, a genteel approach to love’s uncommon needs. Bob explains that the Victorian era appeals to customers’ yearning for a more civilized world. “They like a little order in their lives,” he says. “They want somebody to say no, somebody to care about them. They want their mommies and daddies.” In Bob and Erin’s universe, exquisite pain happily coexists with potpourri and flower-shaped soap.
The Naughty Victorian catalog charts the world of “domestic discipline,” a planet many, many light-years away from the one occupied by most sex-toy purveyors. The text lauds the implements’ superior workmanship while dispensing little history lessons—explaining, say, why the rattan cane replaced the birch rod in Germany. (Because heavier clothing came into vogue, the flimsier rod was no longer up to the job.) The product line includes the Amazing Grace Paddle (“made of beautiful, exotic African hardwoods Padauk or Purpleheart”); the leather Ladies Spanker (“the ideal choice for the novice disciplinarian…has a sting almost identical to the palm of the hand”); and the Lochgelly Tawse, a multitailed leather strap favored in Scotland. A combination enema/hot-water bottle will “cleanse the wickedness from a naughty charge”; the discriminating can accessorize with a peppermint enema-soap concentrate.
S&M aficionados find the Naughty Victorian’s corsetry and fetish-wear laughably cutesy. But all the same, many of the items are the sort unavailable at malls. Spanking pants, for instance: adult-size rubber underwear intended to fill their wearer with shame, make his bottom tender and sweaty, and otherwise heighten his anticipation of the discipline to come. “I like to carry a pair in my purse when out of the home,” Erin writes in the instruction sheet. “Should my charge misbehave in a situation where an immediate spanking would be inappropriate, I can simply hand them the pants and send them to a restroom to put them on. It gives a whole new meaning to the term, “Wait till I get you home!’ ”
The Naughty Victorian’s fictional offerings—both short stories and hardback novels—delineate the worldview even more clearly. In general, the tiny genre sticks to a basic plot. The main character (usually a man) upsets an orderly world with some trifling wickedness: forgetting to pay the bills, perhaps, or making a rude remark to a sensitive soul. A disciplinarian (almost always a woman) explains to the main character why he must atone for his misdeed. The man agrees that he has erred, and further agrees to submit to physical punishment. After a significant pause, during which the scoundrel meditates on his malfeasance and the pain to come, the disciplinarian delivers the excruciating penalty. The wrongdoer feels cleansed and well-cared-for. Sex may or may not follow. When it does, it seems anticlimactic. The point is that a rightful order has been re-established—through hairbrushes, razor straps, or any other means necessary.
“This genre is very erotic,” Bob says, lifting a tufty eyebrow. “But the erotic component is only the propellant. It’s what gets people into it. Then they start finding other benefits. Discipline becomes spiritual. Really it’s all about cleansing and forgiveness and love.”
The phone rings. Somewhere, someone has dialed 1(800) R-STRICT. Erins answers from an extension in a back bedroom, chats briefly, and begins taking an order. Seconds later, another line rings. Bob apologizes for abandoning me, picks up that line, and enters a new name into his precious database.
I study the decor. The house is California modern, with skylights and cathedral ceilings. But amid all that sunlight lurk hints of kink. A whip hangs decoratively on the living-room wall. Near the whip stands a Victorian classroom desk. To the unitiated, it appears simply a lovely antique; to those in the know, it’s a perfect prop for spanking a make-believe schoolboy. Similarly, a basket of fancy soaps nestles on a bathroom shelf—merely pretty until deployed to wash out a husband’s foul mouth.
Back from the phone, Bob says that for years after he and Erin were married, he never spoke of his heart’s desire. “The first part of a relationship, that’s all lust and heat,” he says. “Fantasies don’t enter into it. But when people have been married for 10 or 15 years, they get to talking about their deep secrets.”
When Bob finally began to drop hints, Erin misread them. “After we’d been married for five years, Bob suggested that I take up horseback riding,” she remembers. “He said it’d make me more “aggressive.’ He’d buy me five or six whips at a time, and I still didn’t get it. I’d say, “I only have one horse, and he’s not bad.’ ”
Eventually, though, Erin caught on—and caught fire. “It was like opening Pandora’s box,” she exults.
The couple searched for the accoutrements of their new lifestyle, a fearsome quest that led them into the depths of vulgarity. “Everything was either sleazy—you felt you had to get into an overcoat—or they’d rip people off,” Bob laments. “And besides, we couldn’t find anything we wanted.”
They sensed that others shared their longings—and thus, they sensed a market. They launched the Naughty Victorian two years ago by placing discreet ads in the Atlantic Monthly. Since then, their product line has ballooned, and the mailing list has burgeoned to 5,000 names. Bob and Erin say that their customers are well-educated, split almost evenly between men and women, and include a high percentage of dedicated regulars. Some even correspond. Erin shows off a stack of Xeroxed letters from which the writers’ signatures and return addresses have been obliterated. One new convert thanked her for the personal note that accompanied his order: “In a world increasingly crass and commercial, such gentility and grace is rare. Do you love rain? I do. It brings life and beauty to the earth, like a kind act, such as yours.” One suspects that Larry Flynt has received few such notes.
As the company’s spokesmatriarch, Erin has achieved a small fame among her customers. Even so, she asks that I not reveal her and Bob’s last name—not because she’s embarrassed by her business, she explains, but because she hopes to spare her daughter the taunts of her high-school classmates.
Such anonymity may soon disappear if the company grows as quickly as Bob predicts. He optimistically estimates that their wares appeal to at least one couple in 10, and certainly, the company has been expanding at an impressive rate. In November, Bob and Erin launched The American Matriarch, a slim magazine containing fiction, customers’ letters, and Erin’s advice column. In April, they published the first issue of Decorum, a personal-ad magazine. Video filmmakers plan to adapt Naughty Victorian short stories for the small screen. And Bob and Erin have just booked the first Naughty Victorian retreat, a gathering of 50 couples to take place in Rhode Island this August. Scheduled activities include a costume ball, a meeting for women only, a seminar on constructing a proper birch rod, and, of course, personal appearances by Bob and Erin.
Still, the couple dreams of more. Bob says they’re now looking at New Jersey real estate on which to construct the Naughty Victorian Village, a kind of Disneyland for well-bred fetishists. There’ll be a Naughty Victorian general store, plus a schoolhouse, and maybe a restaurant. And, oh yes—Bob smiles—there will most certainly be a woodshed.
Erin smiles too, with an unsettling gleam in her eye. It again occurs to me that perhaps I should be going; that perhaps Bob has committed some transgression, and Erin is waiting for me to leave before meting out his punishment. I say my goodbyes quickly. If the couple is relieved to see me go, they mask the emotion with expert civility—which, I suspect, only contributes to the frisson.