Tanith, a computer operator from Oakland, leads Gareth onto the slave auction block. A husky, pale younger man, Gareth is accustomed to lifting 75-pound pipes at his warehouse job. Tanith is short, plump, and dark haired. Both wear loose white costumes with extremely low neck lines.
"Gareth is a submissive for women only," Tanith tells the assembled auction bidders of around twenty or thirty people -nearly all of them men. "No marks. He has to go to work on Monday." So the woman who buys him in the auction must not leave any scars on him for whatever sadomasochistic play she has in mind. "He can play an elf, or a captured barbarian slave boy...." "What's the bid?" asks the auctioneer.
Two of the five women in the group count their money. A call goes out five thousand. Tanith signals to her slave, who then gets on his knees, legs apart. The bidding suddenly shoots up to fifty thousand. Alliances are formed among the bidders and money is borrowed. Sixty thousand. Sixty one. Seventy...
All in play money, of course. Did I forget to mention that? The only real money to exchange hands this evening is the admonition charge of $25 per couple. The atmosphere here isn't really like an underground Tunisian captive market - it's more like a bridge game. Who will win the bid? Two hearts, three clubs, four no trump...
In a nondescript warehouse building in Richmond runs the bi-weekly slave auction of BackDrop, a "sex fantasy" organization that has been floating around the Bay Area in one form or another since 1967. That doesn't mean "sex club," not in the sense of allowing open fornication in the hallway. In fact, the club expressly does not allow that. And there is no nudity at tonight's auction. The club is dedicated instead to the ritual fantasy games, especially bondage and discipline and sadomasochistic fantasy (B&D and S&M, in personals ad parlance); the theatrical art of tying people up, telling them what to do, maybe slapping them around a little, and having them like it. The club tells people where to buy materials, how to make their own fetish items, how to use those items safely, how to meet other people who want to use them as well. It offers the nuts and bolts of bringing off psychodrama without injury.
Backdrop's last calendar, for May and June, reads like the index of Psychopathia Sexualis: May 8, "Golden Showers, `Dos and Dont's`"; May 9, "Spanking Demonstration"; May 13, "Foot Fetish Day"; May 17, "Enemas, Etc."; May 23, "Mistress/Slave Training Session"; May 31, "Pony Girls and Boys: :Equestrian Training as a Fantasy"; June 7, " Hospital Fantasies: Doctors, Nurses, and Hospitals."
The world of S&M fantasy games is largely hidden, so it's hard to say whether BackDrop is the oldest active organization of it's kind. No one can remember any place running that preceded it in California, however, or possibly even the United States - certainly not any place so public, so open to singles and couples alike, to all faiths and fetishes, to anyone over eighteen.
"When there was nothing else in the area, BackDrop was the only game in town," according to "Frank," a spokesperson for the society of Janus, a widely respected organization that claims to have the largest membership of any purely S&M group in America.
Frank then qualifies his statement: BackDrop was the earliest local group of it's kind that "was not out to screw anybody." There have always been sadomasochistic services. They have not always been trustworthy.
Club director and founder "Master" Robin Roberts - a bespectacled, heavyset, 48-year-old man - is tonight's auctioneer, as well as one of the most active bidders. He's dressed in plain, technocratic work clothes, and one imagines him with a million pens sticking out of his shirt pocket. He looks like a computer technician, which, in fact, is what he is.
"I think of Robin as a pioneer," says "Mistress Kat," S&M columnist for the adult newspaper The Spectator, "If he's not the first, he's one of the first."
In 1967, shortly after Roberts had left the Navy, he and some friends opened the Menlo Park School of Bondage, a small private organization. About a year later, it became BackDrop-with a more accommodating policy for gaining new members. From Menlo Park it moved to Berkley, then Hayward, Oakland, Berkley again, Redwood City for awhile, and a few other places along the way, until Roberts and what he calls his "zero profit" organization ended up in this 3,200-square-foot Richmond warehouse building. From the front parking lot one can see some low hills, a set of train tracks, a park, and not much else.
It is a fairly non-sensual piece of architecture - consistent with the interior design. The front room, which is stocked with phones, paper work, computers, computer parts, and books about computers, also serves as Robert's office in his electronics consultant job. The furniture in the meeting rooms is rundown and often uncomfortable.
Thick, nondescript material covers the windows. Besides two meeting rooms, the club features a video viewing cloister, three bathrooms, and a small area full, primarily, of bondage pornography.
Near the front office is a workshop, containing a computer bulletin board and tools to custom-make bondage equipment: chastity belts, body harnesses, toe straps. The organization has outfitted a mountain cabin basement with $3,000 worth of dungeon equipment. Future plans include a wedding in BackDrop's large meeting room - the bride in leather, the groom in chains, their families presumably in shock.
In a hidden corner of the building is the sessions room, which anyone can rent to play out their private fantasies. Equipped with strong hooks in the ceiling and a rack on the wall, it can be outfitted to look like a prison, a child's nursery (for those who like to dress up as babies), a hospital - whatever.
Roberts gets downright pedantic talking about the mechanics of all this: Each ceiling hook in the warehouse will hold at least 500 pounds. The tubular webbing straps he uses for bondage have been tested for up to 1600 pounds of pressure. And here's how the money is sorted for the auction: a computer shuffles the play money into several envelopes, giving each envelope the same number of bills, with arbitrary denominations. Before the auction, everyone pulls an envelope out of a box. It is all very plain and precise.
There is nothing especially glamorous about the people gathered for the auction, either. One usually imagines S&M crowds all young and sleek, clad in black leather and chainsaw earrings. With a few adjustments, however, the crowd tonight could easily pass itself off as PTA. Some people here look middle-aged, some older. Many could stand to lose a few pounds. They are nurses, technicians, carpenters, computer experts, a disproportionate number of ex-Navy men -people you see every day and don't think twice about. If one of them approached you on the street with a whip, most likely you wouldn't even think of saying, "Don't hurt me, master." You'd probably just assume they drove horses for a living.
As a child, Roberts says, "I played cowboys and Indians like all the other kids on the block, except I knew why I was playing." He traveled around in the Navy and ran into people who were also interested in bondage. After awhile, he found himself writing 200-250 letters a month to these contacts. The club more or less evolved from that. His parents, whom he describes as a straight, staunch couple, have remained open-minded about all this, he says.
It's worth noting that a lot of what comes under the categories of S&M and B&D are staples in what has been traditionally considered mainstream culture. For example, a common fetish among people who like to act as slaves is to cook their master or mistress's meals, or to clean their house - "Nothin` says lovin` like somethin` from the oven," or words to that effect. Another example: Around 1973, Roberts branched out into commercial "bondage" photography - understandably having become an expert at tying up women and getting their picture from a flattering angle. Sometimes he's worked for periodicals commonly branded pornographic. Occasionally, however, it's been for pulp-detective magazines - the kind you always see in grocery stores.
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