‘Out of the Dark’
Daniel, a junior Computer Science major who’s given talks at both Sex in the Dark and Ted Sex, describes his experience as a BDSM enthusiast and volunteer at Voodoo Leatherworks, a Springs community center for those interested in alternative sexual lifestyles.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview by Pema Baldwin.
Photo Courtesy of Daniel Barnes
“Basalt is a very small town. It’s near Aspen. Some people will consider it a suburb of Aspen, but it’s 25 or so miles away.
I went to a high school with a graduating class of around 78 people. When I was there I think I was the only out gay man. I came out my junior year of high school pretty publicly, and people were overwhelmingly pretty good about it. There’s always going to be people who will make fun of anything under the sun, and that’s just how it is for everyone, but I feel like I was pretty lucky with the town I grew up in.
I haven’t come out necessarily publicly in my hometown about leather — mostly because there’s no reason that people would want to learn about it — but I am pretty open on this campus because it’s so much work to carry all my leather in a bag to my car and then change in there. I’m just going to wear it out of the apartment. I don’t care anymore.
I consider myself a gay leatherman.
Even as an adolescent I had some sort of wonder for bondage, in particular. I would see movies where someone’s tied to a chair and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s really interesting to me.’ I wouldn’t really understand why — kind of weird. Didn’t really tell anybody about it. And then when I started to be a little more sexually aware, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s something that’s arousing to me for whatever damn reason.
From there I started watching videos online . . . Allegedly when I turned the age you can watch videos online. I started to learn like, ‘Okay, this is something. I’m not abnormal. I’m not twisted.’ I just have an interest in something that isn’t quite mainstream. So once I discovered those resources, I started looking online at different websites and learning like, ‘Okay, this is how people participate in these things. This is how they do them safely.’
I ended up telling my parents about it. It’s obviously a little alarming when you’re like, ‘Hey, I like to get beat with whips.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, can you please not get hurt?’ And I’m like, ‘But I want to’ (laughs). So there’s a little bit of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ there as far as just like, ‘Okay, do your thing, make sure you’re safe, and we trust that you’re an adult and it’s going to be okay.’
But yeah, I’ve been interested in BDSM for a couple of years now, but only recently joined a local organization called Voodoo Leatherworks. It’s downtown in Colorado Springs, near Old Colorado City, and it is a community center, art gallery, education and play space for people interested in different alternative sexual lifestyles, including BDSM.
There are fetishists, swingers, furries, just all kinds of people who feel like they don’t quite fit into vanilla society. So I joined Voodoo Leatherworks in April, and I’ve been volunteering there pretty actively, just trying to get involved in any way I can to learn more about kink and BDSM myself while helping others along their journey as well.
Throughout the week, like in the evenings, they have different classes and discussion groups, including skills workshops about things that you’d never even think of. There are also discussion groups where you can get resources for things you’re going through that aren’t necessarily things you can get a lot of advice about anywhere else . . . like there’s a group for polyamory, BDSM, self-care, people in power exchange relationships, stuff like that.
On the weekends there are different socials and play parties. Sometimes there are game nights where people just play card games, and every Saturday and a couple of Fridays a month, there are play parties where there’ll be a dungeon night, a swingers’ night, or a mix of the two called the fusion night.
They’ll have tasting nights where a bunch of people who are very talented in a certain skill will all be set up around the play space, and you can walk up to them and they’ll give you a little demo about like, ‘Oh, I use electricity to pleasure people. Let me show you how I would do this. I’ll give you a five to 10 minute demo using a Violet Wand [electricity toy] on you,’ and those are great nights for newbies. People who want to learn more can test things out before going out and buying a, say, $300 electricity kit, not knowing if they’ll like how it feels.
BDSM doesn’t have to be expensive. There’s a lot of stuff that you can pick up at, like, Home Depot. People call them ‘pervertables.’ Things that you can buy that can be used for sex pretty easily, but aren’t necessarily designed for that. If I go to Home Depot and buy a couple bags of rope, that’s going to cost maybe $15, and I can do all kinds of crazy bondage with that. There are things that end up being more expensive, but you can almost always find cheap alternatives if you need to.
If you’ve been in the lifestyle for a couple of years, you might invest a little bit of money into a heavy leather flogger or something, but if you don’t have the money to spend on it, you can go buy one of those weird electric fly swatter things. That can be just as intimidating and intense for somebody you’re playing with as a big ol’ Violet Wand set.
Before I joined Voodoo Leatherworks, I basically had told nobody I was into any of this.
I didn’t have a lot of stuff to reach out to in person until I moved to Colorado Springs, which I consider a bigger city. I signed up for dating apps. There are particularly dating apps for gay men who are interested in fetish that I found useful, but I don’t know. I’d look on the app in my hometown and it’d be like, ‘Oh, the nearest person is, like, 16 miles away, and the second nearest person is 60 miles away.’ And I’d be like, ‘Okay . . . Maybe on a weekend . . . Nah. Too much.’
After I joined Voodoo Leatherworks I found all these people who would just openly talk about sex and pleasure with no judgement or reservations, people who are totally okay with themselves and their bodies, and just try to make things better for themselves and others. I realized like, ‘Okay, this isn’t something I need to be scared about. This isn’t something I need to hide. What I’m doing is ethical. It’s legal. So why the hell am I trying so hard to hide this from people?’ It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve started really openly talking about kink and BDSM with people.
I definitely worried that it was weird. At some point I was kinda like, ‘Alright, I’m an open book now, and this is something that’s part of my lifestyle. If people ask me where I’m going tonight, I’m gonna say, I’m going to a sex dungeon. Would you like to come with me?’
Early on, I do remember being a little bit like, ‘I don’t really know how to approach this, how to talk with a partner about it. I didn’t know I’m into this, and I don’t know how I can make that clear or find somebody who’s a good resource.’
I think one time in high school, I got a message on Grindr that was like, ‘Hey, you ever been tied up?’ And I was like, ‘No, but I would love to be.’ I don’t know how this person pinned that to me. I didn’t say anything about it on my profile because I was too scared about it, but it turned out this person was visiting Aspen and brought this entire suitcase full of different bondage gear and did all kinds of things — opened my eyes up to a bunch of new activities.
Each time I play with somebody I learn a bit more and get more comfortable with it. I believe that was my first experience with it. I had one partner before that where we would have vanilla sex, and at some point I was like, ‘Oh, I really wish you would use this handkerchief and attach it to my wrists or something,’ and the person’s like, ‘What are you talking about? What do you want me to do?’ (laughs).
A lot of people like pain play — inflicting pain on their partners. They’re referred to as sadists and masochists, and when people inflict pain on each other, they can get some sort of power trip or pleasure from an authority exchange, and the person who is having pain inflicted on them can get a rush from that, both physically and mentally. Having pain inflicted on you releases a lot of endorphins and can give you a natural high that people really enjoy. They call it sub-space.
During a scene, the idea is not to get angry. The idea is not to get aggressive. You can play whatever direction you want, but at the end of the day, it is consensual, and it’s something you have negotiated with your partner. It’s something you both want to do. Yes, your play can still get very intense and it can have severe emotional impact on you, so something that people are adamant about in this lifestyle is making sure they get adequate after-care. That means the active individual — we call the Top — will spend time with the inactive individual — the bottom. The top will spend time with the bottom to just relax, help them come down from their adrenaline high, endorphin high and reassure them like, ‘Hey, I didn’t mean those things, I said. I really care about you. You did great.’ They’ll cuddle together.
As far as going to Voodoo Leatherworks for the first time, there’s obviously going to be some shock when walking into a play space where nudity is completely allowed and you see everyone’s doing whatever they want. People can fuck right in front of you and you’re just like, ‘Damn. Okay.’
It’s been an extremely positive change in my life. It feels like I have something that I can really put some time into because I really care about it deeply. It feels like the mission that this club is trying to accomplish is one that I can one hundred percent get behind.
I really feel like I’m making a positive difference in people’s lives by helping them feel a little bit more relaxed, learn a little bit more about their bodies, and know how to make themselves happy in a way that society doesn’t quite make easily available. It feels like I’m putting something positive in the world, and it makes me really happy.