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Kinksters Work to Stay Out of Public Eye
By Kitty McConnell
Published: Thursday, February 18, 2010 10:13 AM EST

Nearly a century and a half after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published the erotic novel that led to the psychiatric definition of masochism, fetish sexuality remains mostly under the radar of vanilla society. While David Ives's Venus in Fur, a play based on the novel, debuted off-Broadway last month to rave reviews ("90 minutes of good, kinky fun," said The New York Times), local kinksters remain a guarded, discreet community out of necessity.

Is there still moral harassment of such sexual activity in the 21st century Midwest?

"Absolutely. There's a monster-ization of what we do," said Barak, co-founder of Columbus's most prominent fetish group, Adventures in Sexuality (AIS).

AIS members include everybody from the person "who brings handcuffs out once a month and says `honey it's time' to 24/7 lifestylers," said Barak. The group has nearly 1,400 members in Central Ohio and hosts the annual Winter Wickedness Festival in Columbus.

Barak said AIS serves an important educational function for those interested in exploring the kind of sexuality that falls under the acronym BDSM (standing for bondage, discipline and sado-masochism).

"When this isn't available in the mainstream, they'll find some information that isn't necessarily safe. Then you have people experimenting without any mentorship. They may hurt themselves," said Barak. "What we're trying to do is allow the mainstream more access. We're not recruiting, but we're making ourselves more available."

Indeed, finding local BDSM/fetish groups or events is work. Lifestylers don't send out invitations on Facebook. The social networking site fetlife caters to the national BDSM community and has 1,518 Columbus members. Even so, information is often hard to come by.

For security reasons, organizers generally withhold the details of gatherings until previously vetted group members buy tickets. That's because even in larger metro areas, private fetish parties sometimes are broken up under the guise of zoning restrictions. As reported earlier this month by the local ABC news affiliate, a man throwing private sex parties in his suburban Washington, D.C. home was shut down and threatened with fines by zoning officials.

Columbus's AIS members experienced similar harassment firsthand during last year's Winter Wickedness convention in a Holiday Inn north of Columbus. Evangelicals, frenzied by a national anti-homosexual blog and local AM radio hosts, picketed the hotel and launched a barrage of phone calls to Columbus health and zoning officials in efforts to stop the conference.

"We don't hate homos," one of the out-of-town protesters explained to The Other Paper outside of the hotel. "We just don't like them having a conference here."

AIS, which welcomes straight as well as GLBT members, had reserved an entire wing of the hotel to maintain participants' privacy. The event, which featured demonstrations on everything from light flogging to stapling, was in compliance with local health and zoning laws (as confirmed by Columbus officials). According to organizers, the hotel even informed incoming guests that an adult-themed convention was taking place and "offered guests alternate accommodations."

This year, Winter Wickedness organizers were stealthier than ever. Despite their increased secrecy, AIS's 2010 gathering had sold out its 300 passes by early December. Porn star and author Nina Hartley was the keynote speaker at the February event, which also featured classes led by experienced BDSM practitioners, sales by toy/furniture vendors and guest "play" spaces.

Experimenting with the various activities categorized as BDSM/kink can present a challenge for those who are uninformed, said Barak. There are various skill levels, and those entering the lifestyle must first become aware of their physical limitations, he said.

"I'm concerned with people being able to find out about this safely," said Barak.

In addition to taking part in AIS, Barak and his wife, Sheba, are pursuing a relationship with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a political and legal social advocacy group that's currently petitioning to have alternative sexual behavior declassified as a mental disorder.

Groups like AIS and gatherings like Winter Wickedness teach consenting adults the basics of the BDSM kink lifestyle, from the importance of communicating with partners to the different roles played by members within the scene, Barak said. "Once you learn the basics of interacting in the community, you learn the rules about how to get what you want without hurting others."

"We find that within everything we do, the depth of communication is so much deeper because you really have to ask for exactly what you want," said Barak. "It raises self-awareness."

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