Want me to turn the heat on?"
Tessa Ayden is dressed all in black, wearing spike-toed combat boots, fishnet gloves and 3-inch finger claws carved from bone. Things are about to get steamy in her Oceanside apartment, so Ayden, a 40-something professional dominatrix, wants to make sure her submissive partner for the night is warmed up and ready.
"Probably a touch," answers V (not her real name), a 53-year-old massage therapist. "You know, 80 degrees is my perfect flogging weather."
The scene that unfurls before me is far from the rough-and-tumble BDSM fantasy I'd imagined. The first 10 minutes are spent in conversation, Ayden expertly walking V, a relative newcomer to the erotic practices of BDSM, through a long list of the night's possibilities—options like spanking, flogging, poking and the use of special toys like vampire gloves. V responds by listing things she's open to and things she isn't.
The duo then quickly review V's body, making sure to set limits in terms of where Ayden can and can't leave visible marks. They also discuss their "safe words"; when Ayden asks V "where you at?" V is instructed to respond with the words "green," "yellow," "red or "purple" ("purple" meaning the action should stop and deep emotional trauma has been inflicted).
"Are you thinking you might want to sit down at work tomorrow or will you be standing?" Ayden asks just before the two begin.
"I'm standing most of the day, but I can sit down no matter what happens to my ass," V answers coyly.
"Is that a challenge?"
Ayden's eyes light up as she stands in front of her nearly $5,000 worth of BDSM toys. She starts with smaller, sensation-type devices meant to stimulate and confuse V's nerves. But by the end of the 20 minutes of BDSM "play," she's whipping V hard across her ass with a huge, buffalo-hide flogger. V lets loose an "Ow!" every now and then, but she's clearly enjoying herself.
The session overall is much more sensual than sexual. The two giggle a lot and act more like good friends than lovers. The whole thing appears to be therapeutic, appeasing their inner desires to play the roles of dominance and subservience.
"A lot of people think BDSM is just foreplay to sex, and it's really, really not," Ayden had explained to me before the session with V begins. "BDSM is really a way to be deeply connected to someone else, incredibly intimate with them, and then anything else on top of that, after you build trust, is a bonus. But BDSM, for all intents and purposes, is not foreplay to sex. It is its own thing. I mean, sometimes it is sex, but it just depends on where you're at with that person."
Ayden stumbled onto the BDSM scene when she was just 16. She spent years as a "sub," or submissive, before finally finding out that she felt most comfortable holding a whip and telling other people what to do. She joined the military and kept her secret BDSM lifestyle going, playing the dominant role mostly for men who enjoyed the rare chance to give up control.
Ayden eventually got married and didn't engage in BDSM for years, but she never completely stopped thinking about it. A medical researcher by day whose main field was in human sexuality, she stayed connected to BDSM by looking into the psychology behind it, laying the groundwork for her future as a dominant who's noted for her expertise in the more psychological BDSM practice of humiliation, degradation and objectification.
"People seem to think that the most dangerous thing we do in BDSM is the black-and-blue marks or people who play with needles or knives or something like that," she says. "My opinion? The most dangerous thing we do is the mind play—the mind fuck—because you poke somebody with a needle wrong by accident, those things heal and you can fix it. With any kind of emotional issue and emotional trigger, that takes work by both people who are involved."
Six years ago, on a whim, Ayden finally worked up the nerve to quit her job. She started working at a sex shop and rejoined the BDSM community as an "out" and active member. A few years into her new role in the BDSM community, she watched in awe and trepidation as her sex-shop clients changed almost overnight when the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey gained popularity. Suddenly, high-school students and grandmothers alike were coming in, looking for whips and bondage gear.
"I would say at least two or three people every night would come in because of that book," she says. "And now, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie was the No. 1 viewed trailer of 2014. More people saw that than the new Star Wars trailer. They're expecting it to be huge, but the biggest problem is, it's a great misrepresentation of what BDSM really is."
Ayden tells anyone with a new interest in BDSM that some of the most important aspects are getting consent and setting boundaries. Fifty Shades, she says, glosses over and twists and bends those basic rules.
"We don't touch anyone without knowing what's off-limits, what's a hard limit, what's a soft limit, where we can play and making sure there's full consent," she explains, referencing a 13-page, printable BDSM boundary list she often has her subs fill out in detail. "In Fifty Shades of Grey, there's no consent . Basically, everything in that book, it falls into the category of abuse."
Inspired by the increased interest in BDSM but worried about newbies with the potential to damage its already-shaky reputation, Ayden has recently taken on the role of sex educator and personal couples coach. Currently, she's holding BDSM classes at Ducky Waddle's Emporium in Encinitas (her next classes are Feb. 21 and March 14; to register, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
"It's not hard to get hurt in BDSM if you don't know what you're doing," she says. "It's a good thing that more people know about it and talk about it and want to explore their own sexuality, but it's not a good thing that people are using that book as a recipe for how to be involved in BDSM . The idea that all you need is a safe word, that's just not adequate."