At the Citadel, the lights are never on. William T. Vollmann explores the San Francisco BDSM community and the ties that bind it
So I settled for foreplay on this Saturday afternoon at the Citadel.
“I’d turn on the light but it wouldn’t do any good,” said my hostess, Ms Raven Nevermore. “It’s eight thousand square feet. Once people are here it doesn’t feel that big, but right now it feels huge.”
Since the photographer was late, she set me loose to wander through her realm, which gave me the impression of a hyper-clean attic containing promising treasures: a frame as for a small gallows, a great reinforced X, a device like two wide-runged wooden ladders leaning at head height into a roof-like contrivance, and I nearly forgot the tripod-type entity with eyehooks, straps and attached safety information card. No, maybe the Citadel was not an attic. With its angled carpeted walkway, and the railing around the stage where scenes took place (non-participants could watch from below), and then those various nooks. The place is best described as a pleasure factory with dedicated workstations.
Placing myself on the upper step of a black-painted throne-like platform, upon which a medium-sized mattress supported a smaller one, I studied a certain strand of blue lights which resembled misaligned glowing vertebrae. On a red pillar were affixed Raven’s rope suspension guidelines; among other things, I learnt that the breaking strength of the main support line should be at least 10 times the weight of the bottom, the submissive, alongside printed advice on cleaning dungeon equipment: beforehand with alcohol, then afterward with a substance called CaviCide.
Sitting on that black-painted step up to the double-decker mattress on which so much must have happened, I next discovered on the lower step a golden triangle, scrap from a condom wrapper. Just beneath the clock on the wall stood a shelf with paper towels and nitrile exam gloves. Transferring myself to a narrow straight-backed chair from which much of the seat had been cut out, presumably for the convenient worship or torture of genitalia, I found a black-leathered massage table studded with eyelets and yet another free-standing shelf of cleaning supplies – because in this line of endeavour it is nice to be only as dirty as one wishes to be.
“We’re one of the longest running dungeons,” said Raven. “When I was about 19 years old, I was living in Reno and met a woman that very much intrigued me. She brought me to my first Folsom Street Fair, ’99-ish, and I started coming to that. In 2004, December 21st, that was when this place opened. About six months afterward was when I started at Citadel. I started out as a slave. I was owned by the previous owner of Citadel. I jumped in with both feet because I like to go all the way. I hosted the first women’s parties at Citadel with another woman, helped with all the parties, trained dungeon monitors. I joke with newbies that I started out cleaning the toilets here and now I own the place!
“Over the years I came into my own. I stepped away for a little while because I had adopted some kids, and last year I got a call that Citadel was up for sale, and it just worked out where I was able to buy it. So over the year I was an officer for the Society of Janus, and one of the five founding members of the SF Girls of Leather. I have leather experience. I come from a biker background. Within the leather world there’s a thing called earned leather, which crossed over into BDSM. When you do something extraordinary, or you’ve worked your butt off at some kind of event or helped someone out, the way someone acknowledges this is that they’ll give you a piece of leather. My leather vest, my boots. . . I was also military. Unfortunately that career was cut short because I was outed.
“My background as a child and young adult is a fairly violent one. When I was a slave I used bottoming as a way to heal, to reclaim things I had lost around in my life. . .”
I told her about a dominatrix I used to be close to, a woman who used to beat me speechless and kept on beating me until I seemed to be in a warm dark sack of nothingness. When she learned that there had been corporal punishment in my boyhood, the dominatrix was appalled and said that had she known this she would have done other things to me, but I replied that the flogging made me feel good. I won’t claim that it somehow healed me.
“What you are talking about,” said Raven, “is a sub space, a space of completely letting go, where your mind is able to shut off, and you give this power over to another human being, knowing that you are safe with them.
“The slaves and submissives have all the power,” she continued. “Those of us that are dominants – tops – we wouldn’t be what we are without them. It is an amazing gift that they give us. As a top, you really know how to read people. They may be telling you no, and their body has had enough. There are some who will keep going just to please their top. Then it’s on the top to do the right thing. So your domme, well, she raised the issue with you and then you could both go ahead and keep on playing. She just didn’t want to trigger you. . .”
“Why do some people trigger?”
“A lot of it is psychology, especially when you get into newer players. Society has conditioned us to think that this is wrong. Beating someone for fun is not what we do. So you come into a dungeon, you learn all these new experiences, and at some point, your psyche kicks in, and you have your trigger. And sometimes triggering is a good thing. There’s a lot of us that work through our emotional trauma. But it’s also very important for a top to know, not everything, but what their bottom has been through in their life. Granted, they may use it to get into their triggers, but. . . I have had experiences where somebody will kind of leave reality. It’s the responsibility of the top to take care of that person and not just ditch them. They go nonverbal, kind of dissociating from reality. It’s different with everybody. Some people get really really angry. . .”
“In your opinion, how do we get imprinted with our own specific fetishes?”
“I think it kind of goes with the question of nurture versus nature, chocolate versus vanilla; but things that do imprint us, like, ‘He was a child, and it was back in the time when nurses still wore high heels, and he remembers being a boy of five or six in there and the sound of the heels, and, to this day, he has a shoe fetish.’ As we grow, as we mature, new things will come to light. If you’re like me. . . if you’re a trisexual, you’ll try anything once – and then maybe twice, to make sure. I worked from the bottom up, so to speak. But I’m also one that won’t use an implement of destruction that hasn’t been used on me, and I’m tellin’ you there’s not many of those.”
“What’s been your most rewarding experience as a top?”
“Seeing someone through to the other side. Helping them overcome what was once one of the hardest parts of their life. And they didn’t have to do it alone. I came into this very young, and maybe for me it’s been an upbringing; maybe it’s a maturing. In some ways it has made me be patient with people. It’s much easier for me to see when someone is broken and give the person that leeway.”
BDSM does not have to be “therapy,” and mostly it is not. In the words of an experienced male dominant, Jay Wiseman: “Even the most conventional sexual arousal is not ‘rational’…Some motivations are pathological. Dominants may have ‘old stuff’ going on regarding frustration…masochists regarding guilt or self-loathing. But I see no evidence that everybody who enjoys SM has these things going on.”
Raven had a girl (not a slave, she corrected me) named Saranique, who was pretty and still. Raven said: “I think we continually test the roles depending on the relationship we’re in. Like her – she and I have a ‘daddy role’; she’s like my bratty teenager.”
She pulled on her top hat and leather suspenders, and her girl began sweetly snuggling her. She told me: “If you’re on this journey, if you have questions, well, I got in with the people who wrote the books on this! For new people, there’s something called sub frenzy, like being a kid in a candy store. They will end up doing something they will not necessarily do otherwise because they are so excited. I’m a big advocate of mentors. It does take a village. It’s not great to go hog wild, but it’s a whole lot of fun.”
The photographer referred to “someone who feels like sexually they’re still living in this moment of trauma and shame.” She asked Raven: “Where did you feel safe beginning?”
“I come from a very abusive background,” our hostess replied. “I was a foster child, went through many different placements. . . blah blah. Granted, a lot of my healing was done on my own. Did I have some scary instances? Yeah I did. I also went with a kinky therapist. She was a fabulous woman. Hot as hell. Now in her 70s; in the Burlesque Hall of Fame. For a few years she was also my therapist, a professional domme. With her help, and with some of the play I did as a submissive, my first dominant helped me get over my fears in a patient loving way, and it most definitely made me a better person, and now I have the tools in case somebody needs my help.”
Had I been a young female and to her liking, it might have done me good to be broken in by her. Like all the best dominants, she projected trustworthy strength.
With Raven and Saranique sat two young women in animal suits. Their names were Cynthia and Cali. In case I might want to emulate them, the Citadel offered a promotional card entitled ‘Let’s get FURRED UP!’, on which I saw a young woman in a midriff-showing rainbow top, holding the leash of an almost-naked human who crouched on all fours, wearing a blue animal head. Then there was a human teddy bear with an arm around the shoulder of an animal-headed man whose testicles filled his pink underwear. A mischievous-looking creature in a black bra and G-string, whose dark animal head might have been feline, knelt before a tall someone who stood immobilised in a full-length black animal suit, with red belts strapping his or her legs together and more red belts securing his or her arms in folded position across the chest; this furry faced to the side like a naughty elementary school pupil commanded to face the corner. The card inveigled me in a double white line of unstable capitalisations: Featuring Music by DJ NightKat, Fursuit headless lounge, Puppy Hood Raffle, Tons of snacks!
(What kind of furry would you be? My dominatrix used to call me a dolphin, but I would rather be something lazier, such as a basking seal.)
“My alter ego is a wolf,” said Raven. “Cyn is also a wolf, but so much cooler. My girl is a fox, and then we have the species-fluid one over there. She bounces around from deer to fruit bat.”
And on a wall, nor far above a fire extinguisher, I presently spied an image of Raven’s wolf above a multiphasic moon.
“I didn’t choose,” Raven continued. “I’m native and many many years ago I went on a spirit walk, thanks to a shaman. I connect very well to ravens and wolves. It’s different for everybody. I know people who connect as a dragon. Anything is an option. That is the best thing about this community. Whatever your mind can come up with! But consent is important. We get to be who we are. Some of us just happen to be wolves. Just watch out for the foxes. They nip.”
This was when I began to perceive that the Citadel sheltered and nurtured any number of unique dream-identities. Back when I played in this world my experiences had seemed ‘raw’ and ‘real’. I offered myself to be beaten. Later I tried pleasing submissives in the way that they asked to be pleased. To me it felt much like any other sexual activity: My partner did something to me, or I did something to her, or we simultaneously did something to each other, as if it were ‘spontaneous’. But how spontaneous is it when a couple always takes the missionary position, or there has to be a spell of cunnilingus, or a certain kind of pillow talk? (“Some of us just happen to be wolves.”) In those days I failed to comprehend my similarity to people who engaged in pre-scripted roleplay. Whatever I did with whomever, my partner wanted something and I went along, or my body desired this or that, which was as far as I thought about the matter. I was who I was. Nowadays I prefer Raven’s “We get to be who we are.”
But when she had said, “As we grow, as we mature, new things will come into light,” I did not know what to make of it. On the one hand, I was pleased with my sexuality, pleased enough that in my old age I rarely tried anything new. Others might have called me smug, or boring, but only I got to live my life, and if I was satisfied. . .
“If you’re like me, if you’re a trisexual, you’ll try anything once, and then maybe twice, to make sure.” Well, why not? But was I like her? As I sat around listening to those four ladies, I learned about lives very different from mine. Would I try them someday? Maybe once, and maybe twice. Now let me tell you some of what I heard. . .
One of them was talking about a blood scene: “He asked if he could bring his wife and just sit and watch, and I said no. I don’t do that; I just. . .”
Then Saranique was saying: “I used to hang out at a pro dungeon a lot, I was collared to a dominatrix there, and there was this guy with a step-aerobics tape, and he wanted her to do it and just wanted to be the step. . .”
And Raven said: “There was a guy in the back dungeon who got beat and fucked with vegetables last night. It was a very healthy scene. There was a girl rubbing her clit with a piece of chard.”
“Were there vegetables all over?” I asked.
“We have mops and buckets. I don’t allow splashing here. If I think it’s getting too messy, I will shut it down. You need to lay down a sheet and clean up when you’re done.”
Cynthia reminded me: “We have twelve cleaning stations: sharps containers, puppy pads . . .”
To this Raven added: “And if you still can’t do it, don’t come back. Nobody wants to clean up your lube butt prints.”
“Men’s parties are much different,” they remarked. “The culture of consent is different.”
“Their kind of consent, it wouldn’t fly in the pan(sexual) community,” said Raven. “It wouldn’t fly in the women’s community.”
“It’s still consent,” put in Cynthia. “But with the men, you’re consenting unless you say no. With us, you have to say yes.”
“To be fair,” they told me, “it was a party called Horse Market. They bring the bottoms in, which are called mares. They blindfold them, stick ’em around the dungeon, and the stallions will go around breeding whoever they want. And the mares never see who fucked them.”
“Then we have some stablehands who lead them away, and take the mask off,” said Cynthia.
Raven added, just in case I didn’t get it: “They wear a red mask for use a condom, a white mask for no condom, and almost all of them are with white masks now.”
These various scenes sounded quite exotic to me. I suppose that if I participated long enough in any one of them, it would become nothing more, or less, than part of my life.
Raven’s sister wolf and “the species-fluid one over there” were those two married furries named Cynthia and Cali. They certainly lived out their fetishes, for which I admired them.
“I took her naked in the woods in Maine, and there was snow in the ground,” said one of them.
“There’s a great picture of me with great snow boots, an epic one,” said the other.
“I used to give tours,” the first furry said, “and that picture was in sight and they’d say, That’s really hot and I’d say That’s my wife you’re talking about!” – and they laughed.
“And this is how it is in the Citadel,” said Raven. “We’re a bunch of goofballs. I just appreciate getting rid of the perception that dungeons are deep dark scary places. No. It’s much more of a family, a community space.”
Cynthia was “the volunteer coordinator and fucking Jesus”. Cali was a manager.
Cynthia said: “If you put on a fur head and you can’t do facial expressions, you have to make big movements to do anything. Like, if you want a hug. . .”
“But watch out, furries will attack,” laughed Raven.
“Like once a month, 60 furries show up,” said Cynthia, “and each costume can be a couple grand. I work in tech, so I’m just used to throwing money at the problem. But with a furry suit you can’t do that all at once. People start with partials. Like, you make friends with someone who has a fur suit and who will let you try a head. I loved it. Then I realised how sweaty I was. They are making a suit that is purposely big and loose so people can try it on at play parties: Delicious Disguises, up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Well, I literally went to this artist, to be a wolf – I like purpose – and I had literally 20 revisions to it. The suit is not super well-made and the character is weird, but it is the one I’ve designed.”
Trying to clue me in, Raven interjected: “Puffs don’t wear fur. They’ll wear leather hoods or harnesses, special knee pads; whereas furries are more human-centred. But there’s also the distinction between pet players.”
They went on educating me. What I took away was hyperspecific subclassifications, as with any other form of sexual activity. Or was what the furries did even sexual? What we all did was arbitrary, and hopefully fulfilling; wasn’t that good enough?
“Furries come from, like, an anime fandom fan fiction,” explained Cali, who had blue-green hair. Her furry suit was grey with white blazes and a green star, a green S-like streak and a rainbow tail. “Pet players come from leather and punk and service, like military: obedience. Animals like hanging out with owners. Furries are single.”
Laughing, Raven said: “There is no one that can handle furries. Trust me!”
Cynthia said: “At fur cons you can tell pretty easily who is a pup and who is a furry. Who wears the harness over the fur? The problem with furries is when they bring their fur suits, they bring their giant tote bags. We’ve ended up cordoning off the back dungeon with fans to cool off your head. We call it breaking the magic when you take your head off, and that’s a definite no-no.”
Cynthia was in her furry suit, and Cali was in her bra and panties. I asked them: “What kind of feeling do you have when you do this?”
“That’s a really solid question,” replied Cynthia. “It’s a unique experience and I’m feeling a little bit of freedom, loud, or cute and shy. I’m usually a loud person. There’s a lot of dancing at fur cons, so I can dance without being concerned. The key is dissociation between who you are and your character.”
Was that what had happened to me in the warm dark sack? And when they call an orgasm ‘the little death’, was dissociation what they meant?
One of her sleeves was longer than the other. That was why her suit only cost her a grand; she yelled at the maker and got 50 per cent off: “You cut the materials, but your work was shoddy so I’m not super down.”
“The key thing about what I’m feeling is warmth,” she said. “Some people wear vests with ice packs. But without the head on I can be like this for hours.”
“Do the suits stink?”
“You can take the foam out to wash, and can then throw it into the washer and the dryer. Sometimes furries spray their suits with perfume before entering them.”
She referred me to a person on Etsy; he or she was named Voodoo Delicious and made “hyperrealistic heads”. “These are made on a resin base, where normal heads are made with foam. Resin is tighter and doesn’t breathe and you have to see out of the tear ducts, not the eyes.”
Meanwhile Cali was getting compliments for having dyed her own rope, which she was now knotting around the tops and bottoms of her breasts, over the waistband of her panties and under her buttocks. “The biggest problem is where my mainlines cross and I can’t get down. So a spotter comes and, like, you go up with your legs half an inch.”
“How dangerous is it?”
“With anything, it’s just about being risk aware.”
She repeated their familiar joke: “That’s my wife right there,” she chuckled, pointing to Cynthia. Then she hooked herself to a metal ring.
Before I knew it she was hanging from the rope-loops around her thighs, spinning easily and freely from the ring in time to the music, with her blue-green hair hanging down, as she archly inquired: “Should I cover my boobs?”
“Like, this is my favourite way to watch the dungeon,” Cali said, peering happily through the huge face-sized ring and adding: “I’m so serious.”
She was swaying, turning and chatting. Her slowly turning flesh was orange lit from the glowing floor-squares just below her. Then Cynthia came and lifted her up for a moment, in a way which seemed to me rather loving.
“Put your head on,” Cali told her.
Then that almost naked woman was hanging upside down and sweetly kissing her furry wife, who stood on the floor in that special suit, which was purple and white and yellow, with striped horns and loving googly eyes.
When Raven put her girl in the standing cage, the latter looked especially glamorous, well kept and ready to please. She gripped the bars, and there was soft light on the sides of her head and her arms.
“When I was submissive, I did a whole primal animal thing in the cage when I was wild,” Raven told me.
“Don’t lock me in, Daddy,” said Saranique.
The photographer asked: “Can we get one picture of you guys just giving each other, like, a cute smooch?”
So Raven reached her arms through the bars and around her girl’s shoulders and kissed her with the quiet lovingness of any married couple, each embracing the other. I was grateful to have seen them but I did not want to keep staring. I never would have asked what the photographer had asked, although very possibly they didn’t mind it.
I think the photographer wanted me to get out of her light, but for another few minutes I stayed where I was, writing about how Raven, whose belly wore a love handle that was tinier and prettier than mine, went happily about tonguing her girl, moving her head so sweetly up and down against Saranique’s face. Saranique wore a corset and there were tattoos on her left arm. Raven looked quite fine in her white wife-beater, her nickel-studded black leather suspenders, her shiny black pants and her black top hat.
“So we and Cali had our wedding right here,” Cynthia was saying. One furry perched on a railing; the other was kneeling before her. “Dude, I seriously love that tail,” said Cynthia.
“Yeah, if I ever get another suit I’m gonna take this tail and. . .”
Now Cynthia was dancing a little, whacking cage bars with a black flogger, and I hovered on the verge of their dream-lives, watching one furry slowly smoothing her second skin, while the other, very comical, alien and wise, rested her snout in her paws. They were twiddling their feet as they sat side by side on a steel bar, peering alertly at each other, snout to snout, while Raven lay on the table, happily caressing her girl, with their feet dangling off, and I dreamed about what would never happen, which is to say being in all of their dreams, while the two furries lived their lives like sweet, slightly out of control, partially tame and residually wild pets in a playground.
Behind them all, two red hearts on the wall overlooked a well-bolted wooden cross, each arm offering an eyelet through which I could squeeze two fingers. What could be more romantic?
“If you watch people walk down the street,” Raven had said, “you can tell who the dominant is and who the submissive is. Even in what we can deem is a vanilla relationship, if the guy is walking two steps behind his wife or a million miles ahead it’s obvious. If a husband or a wife or whatever defers to the partner all the time, nine times out of 10, they’re probably a submissive. At the core, we’re mammals. In the animal realm, you always have a leader of the pack, and I think it’s the same for us. We’re just two-legged animals.”
With that in mind, I said goodbye and returned to my own herd.
Photography Taylor Kay Johnson
This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here