Whips And Chains In Silicon Valley
The geek sex underground

A friend who works the usual 90-hour week down in Silicon Valley keeps complaining that he can't meet sexy, interesting women. Computer people, he says, "have no sex lives. The guys are socially dysfunctional," and the female engineers "sexless and dreary."

See also...
... by Marcy Sheiner
... in the Crave section
... from August 31, 1999

Deciding these drones must do something for kicks, I started investigating. Rumors were going around of a thriving S/M scene for the Silicon Valley set, touting pervy sex as one of this group's most popular pastimes.

All fingers pointed to Odyssey, a fairly new organization devoted to the pursuit of BDSM. Through its website, geeks can connect to a kinky community that hosts frequent and elaborate S/M parties. A high proportion of Odyssey's devotees work in the computer industry, and in one short year the group has grown considerably.

Sure, computer geeks have discipline, but what do they have to do with bondage? One woman in the scene, who calls herself "Dances With Whips," sees a correlation between fellow workers' stress from the demands of the computer biz and the need for a release. She says, "S/M play … mirrors their life in some way, but with an outcome that they can control, tweak, or otherwise fix in their favor. And," she adds, "the high-tech industry gives us large salaries and a great deal of disposable income to invest in accoutrements."

Bingo! Scratch a cultural phenomenon in the land of capitalism and you're bound to find money at its core. I attended an "S/M Prom" sponsored by Odyssey, where over 300 of the faithful convened to tie each other up, whip behinds, and work themselves into an altered state. Yet the event smacked not of spanked butts but of conspicuous spending, and the only altered state achieved appeared to be a bored state of undress.

The party was in the kind of place where Elks or the Sons of Italy might gather, fancy and formal. Stretch limos brought women clad in elaborate get-ups of black or red corsets, swirling skirts, veils, hats, and stiletto heels. Some men wore tuxedoes. The decadent dress was offset by those who chose to go nude, save for strategically placed chains or leather.

In the play space, observers stood on the sidelines, their faces registering wistfulness or curiosity. Nearby a woman hung from a St. Andrew's cross (angled against, and supported by, wooden beams), wearing a pair of black bikini panties while her clamped nipples were whipped by her male partner. A man swung loosely from a metal apparatus, gagged, blindfolded, and bound in leather, while a woman in dominatrix regalia stood by, occasionally slapping or pinching him. No one was actually having sex. No penises were visible. No one screamed in orgasm, though many moaned or shouted in pain.

My partner and I stepped into the main arena to play and were immediately accosted by a gray-haired man in a tuxedo wearing a black armband (one of at least a dozen DMs, or Dungeon Monitors). He told us we could not wander freely unless we had secured a play space. How, we wondered, were we to secure a space if we couldn't look for one? Our friendly DM had no interest in addressing this Catch-22; his chief concern was to keep us out of the line of zooming bullwhips. More rules and less play: this was a bad sign.

Sulking back on the sidelines, my partner and I were again chastised for talking too loudly: we were disturbing serious players. Our humiliation at being twice reprimanded within our first ten minutes sufficiently cowed us.

I timidly approached an elderly woman sitting sideways on a massage table, a bored look on her face. She appeared to be doing nothing, so I asked if we could use the table. She peered out at me through trifocals and said icily, "We're obviously using it." Upon closer scrutiny I saw that her forearms were being sutured: her companion was cleaning droplets of spilled blood from the first arm and preparing to decorate the other. These were medical sutures, mind you, performed with the precision of a surgical procedure. I could discern no sexual energy from either participant in this ritual.

In the lounge area, a crowd discussed real estate and the computer biz along with tips on S/M technique, while munching on shrimp cocktails.

If the hors d'oeuvres were classy, the equipment was staggeringly state-of-the-art. Designed with care and imagination, it gleamed invitingly. One six-foot-long apparatus was reminiscent of a rich kid's backyard playground, complete with swing. Attached at one end was a cage. I stepped into it to see what it felt like. Its creator rushed over to explain the ingenuity of the safety locks. Turned out he'd been the genius behind most of the equipment. His delight in talking about his creations, like a carpenter on This Old House, was a welcome breeze of enthusiasm in the otherwise stagnant atmosphere.

According to "Home Sweet Sweat Shop," an article by Clive Thompson (Shift magazine, 3/99), elaborate parties are a feature of the high-tech lifestyle. Thompson tells of a new employee who, his first day on the job, arrived "to find the office in a fantastic mess from a party held the day before -- with huge tubes that dripped water into wading pools, dozens of performance artists, and a gargauntual [sic] octopus bong."

Valley parties aren't so different from a trip to Disneyland or Great Adventure; a penchant for highly stylized S/M is just another variation on the theme park or party, just another form of entertainment which may be organized and paid for. But this trend is a long way from the old S/M underground of the past. Is hanging suspended and gagged becoming as common as a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean? Middle America may not think so yet, but to those who were into early S/M, the direction S/M has taken is significant, and disappointing.

Layne Winklebleck, editor and general manager of the sex tabloid The Spectator and a long-time S/M practitioner, says that the new scene can be intriguing in its own way. "It's fun to go and see all these babes in hot leather." But, he adds, "The more mainstream S/M becomes, the harder it gets to be an outlaw."

Marcy Sheiner is editor of the Herotica series and of The Oy of Sex: Jewish Women Write Erotica. She has written for Playboy, Penthouse, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and many other publications. Her book Sex for the Clueless will be released in the fall