Back in August 1983, Playboy magazine ran a feature on the New York City sexual underground, “A Walk On The Wild Side”, by John R. Petersen (Pg. 88).
Right from the start, Petersen sets up a “descent into the underworld”/”Heart of Darkness” scenario.
It begins with a taxi ride to the West Village in Manhattan, near the docks. Medieval map makers would have marked this space with fire-breathing dragons.
There’s even a guardian at the threshold, whose warnings are duly disregarded.
I have heard about this place from a friend who has been covering the New York sex scene for 20 years. “I thought I had seen everything, ” he told me, “but there are things happening at the Hellfire Club that made me nervous. There is one room… I couldn’t stay in there for more than a minute. You’re on your own. I won’t go back.”
Petersen’s descent into the underworld is in the “bad old” New York of the 1980s, when the city was expected to be an urban hellhole where anything was possible. It’s also long before the modern kink scene, when everybody operated on a first name basis. Some of the activities describe sound more swinger-y, perhaps a sign of a time when HIV had yet to sink into public consciousness. There’s no mention of safewords, Safe-Sane-and-Consensual, or organizations like the Til Eulenspiegel Society.
He quickly divides the people at the Hellfire into those who are seen and those who see, voyeurs and exhibitionists.
It is clear the crowd consists of two kinds of people: the spectators and the performers. There are those who come to present the pure form of their desire, without apology or pretense. For them, the presence of an audience contributes to their excitement. Their ability to respond to one another in front of a crowd of strangers seems to be a declaration. They can achieve that private space against all odds. The observers are something else. They cannot participate, they can only watch.
Petersen makes it sound a little like the cult adult film Cafe Flesh (1982), a future dystopia in which “negatives” get sick if they actually have sex, so they must come to the title venue and watch other people perform stylized sexual acts.
…my attention is drawn to a couple on my other side. A preppie tries to pick up a similarly straight lady. “Are you into S/M? Are you submissive? Most of the women who come here are into domination. It’s hard to find someone submissive. By any chance, do you like to be spanked? My name is Fred. I like to sky-dive and drive my Mercedes fast.” Scratch the surface and this is just another singles bar.
I’m baffled by the thought of a heterosexual kink scene in which submissive women are scarce. Perhaps claiming to be dominant was seen as safer in that environment.
Petersen emphasizes his colonial paradigm under which he operates:
Years ago, Richard Halliburton could swim the Dardanelles or spend the night in the Taj Mahal and write an article that took readers to a new world. Nowadays, the best adventure stories are sexual.
He writes with disappointment about Plato’s Retreat, “Couples lie on pillows watching porn movies. Times have changed: the scene is dead.” His frustration increases as he visit S/M clubs where a handful of men remain and talk about the good old days, or engage in consciousness raising sessions. Subcultures are built on dreams of a promised Utopia, and the flipside of that is nostalgia.
Petersen is a bit more moved by the performances at Mistress Belle’s theatre.
In the next act, a girl is forced to perform a pagan ritual, to hold a skull above her head. […] A man who is swathed in a tattoo of indecipherable design lights a candle and then, with a sweep of his arm, throws hot wax across her body. The act is exact, graceful, succinct. As the drops of wax meet her skin, she does not flinch. He takes the skull from her hands, binds her feet, then hoists her upside down until she spins free of the floor. He works his way through a ring of candles, splashing her body with wax, then extinguishes each one in turn. He removes a knife from his belt and slips it beneath her panties. Blood flows down her stomach in rivulets. He lowers her and they leave the stage. (Later, I hear him explain that the blood was calf’s blood from a butcher shop on Sixth Avenue.)
However, he betrays his lack of empathy when he is unable to process his reaction to a man who has his scrotum nailed to a board by Mistress Belle.
The nail freak appears twice a week, I am told. He is famous for his idiocy. I try to figure out what motivates him. Maybe he needs to prove he is an ironman, that his genitals are invincible. Maybe he is just nuts. It is beyond me.
Petersen doesn’t mention any attempt to interview any of these people, whether they are Mistress Belle’s slave girls or amateurs who want to perform at her shows. He does grasp the importance of trust in this situation, which may be lacking in both committed relationships and what would now be called hookup culture.
Back at the Hellfire Club, Petersen finally starts interviewing people. He starts with a leather crafter, Frank:
…you can’t really explain it. People are always trying to come up with reasons. So-and-so does it to relieve the tensions of being an executive–things like that. But that’s bullshit. We do it because it’s fascinating, because it requires our full attention. It is not casual sex. It is not the old in and out. Most people don’t think about sex; they just do it. We think about it.
One of Frank’s ladies, Deborah, says:
“My parents never showed affection, except when they gave me a beating,” she says. “I knew they loved me when I did something wrong and they cared enough to punish me. I was the only experience of love I had. I don’t know any other way to feel emotion. I was married. I had two children. My husband fucked me while I was asleep. I never came. Then I started hanging out with Frank.”
Unlike a lot of writing on BDSM in this period, Petersen at least partially gets it:
Who is the master and who is the slave? Most agree that the masochist sets the limits; he yields to the master but within clear bounds. Slave and master are equals. They know their parts. This is not a power play but a play.
… I still had to consider the possibility that those people [in the clubs] actually reach true ecstasy because they know exactly what it is they want. Normal heterosexuals may be blundering, ambiguous, noncommunicative by comparison. Without a doubt, the people I’d seen in the leather-and-chain lounges had tapped the primal power of a sexual script — a script that for most of us will always remain beneath the surface.
The word “normal” aside, this is pretty positive view of BDSM for a mainstream article of this period.