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“Winter Fire is like annnnnnny other conference!” I announced.

“Really? Are there name tags and speakers and breakout sessions?” Bambi* said. “Is there a really awkward kinky banquet?”

“Seriously, it’s just like other conventions: mixers on Friday, classes all day Saturday and Sunday, and that first class is sooo sleepy,” I rambled, “There’s mild boozin at the hotel bar, private parties on Sunday. The big difference is that they transform the ballroom, where they’d generally have an awkward banquet, into a dungeon. And there’s orgies, nudity, and whipping, and all the nicest things.”

“Should I go? Is there a beginner track?” Bambi asked, sipping his beer.

And I thought about it, at our table at the bar, thought hard on whether I should recommend Dark Odyssey Winter Fire, one of the biggest and best-run kink events on the east coast.

“Yeah. I think you’d like it.”

So, trigger warning. If all goes well, this post will be graphic, offensive, maybe triggering, and hopefully enjoyable, as I’m attempting to explain my fabulous weekend at Dark Odyssey Winter Fire (hence shortened: DOWF).

And the big warning: I want to encourage you to attend Winter Fire, or an event like it (maybe a little, local play party to start), if you’re curious or interested by kink. Keep in mind that I’m describing a big event that overwhelms every person there, and sorely tested my mighty extrovert powers. Keep in mind that it will test you and tease you and taunt you, and you might like it, or you might not.

Trigger warning. Upsetting language. NSFW photos. Butts.

And here’s what you oughtta know.

Kink events are welcoming.

So happy! Thanks, "sex is not the enemy!"

So happy! Thanks, “sex is not the enemy!”

The organization of Dark Odyssey knows what it’s doing when it throws Winter Fire. In some ways, Winter Fire can feel deeply subversive because it can be so similar to a normal conference. There’s classes all day Saturday and Sunday, nametags, and security, but the big factor is that festival/conference/exchange vibe. We’re all there together as friends, and every single person at the hotel is a new potential friend.

Like any other conference, DOWF is built on the social cohesion of its attendees, and a sense of trust between us all. In order to ensure everyone’s ease, the conference buys out the whole dang hotel. So for that weekend, every single person in the hotel is kinky.  It makes the hotel bar a much more fun place to be. And it shields attendees from the judgement and denigration of the outside world, giving people more license to be the silliest, kinkiest, most outrageous selves. While serious play is barred in the lobby, there’s a sweetness in the air, of folks chatting, cuddling, and holding hands, with more touching and laughing than any other hotel I’ve every been in. And the hotel staff is fantastically kind to us, though we lose our room keys more frequently than any other conference they host.

One very straight-faced conceirge said, “I’ve come to understand that sometimes, room keys.. and the clothing they were in… can just vanish. Sometimes.”

At some point in our conversation, he said with a laugh, “This isn’t my first rodeo!”

Lovely staff. All of them.

Moreover, this particular hotel seems deliciously well designed for BDSM. The whole hotel is shaped like a tall donut, with the lobby as an atrium in the bottom. Three glass elevators run up and down the middle of the hotel, and the rooms face into the center with big glass windows. It’s a licentious panopticon. If you’re taking the elevator up, you might get an eyeful of folks pushing their exhibitionistic side in their comfortable hotel rooms.

On some elevator rides up, I felt like Mr. Universe from Serenity, the beautiful sex floating all around me, in different frames at different speeds, with changing numbers of people on different beds. There was this one room on the fifth floor that did a lot of strange, delicious shows in their window, like a very very adult puppet show. And if watching ain’t your thing, I found chatting in the elevators just as delightful. Most people at DOWF were incredibly friendly, and willing to have both deep and superficial conversations. It was an easy place to make friends.

I like it.

It’s a great way to make friends.

One of the aspects I’ve always loved about the kink community is the extraordinary welcome it provides to most people with a non-normative sexuality. The phrase often used is “YKIMK” or “Your Kink Isn’t My Kink,” a kinky take on “Different strokes for different folks.” It’s assumed that everything doesn’t turn everyone on, but that for every person, there’s different set of attractive things. As an attendee with somewhat more limited desires, I did feel my comfort with other kinks definitely increased after seeing so many played out.

YKIMK

YKIMK

And people bring a lot of different kinks.  They don’t exactly ask for your credentials at the door – if you’ve only experimented a little on your own, or with one partner, and only really  do light things, that’s fine. If you regularly masturbate to truly weird, perverted madness, and that’s what you want to try, that’s lovely. If you like to dress like a priest and conduct Inquisition-style scenes with fire and chains, that wouldn’t be unexpected. And there’s a very diverse crowd in ages, in genders, in location and in their kinks. There’s members of the old leather guard, furries, swingers, the younger genderqueer crowd mixing with middle aged bondage enthusiasts. And while people do clique up, DOWF still encourages a lot of mixing and appreciation for other people’s interests across the scene.

I saw this in a very literal way. One of my jobs as a volunteer was to help transform the spaces from classrooms to play spaces, pulling out equipment, putting away classroom displays, and general tidying before and after the spaces are played in. In moving every piece of equipment, some of which was much more medieval looking that my general decorating choices, I was educated in the things that were availalble, and I had a great sense of what people used most, and how. I was gratified to see what people did in the spaces I helped arrange. I dug watching people fuck on the futons that I arrange into neat, 90 degree angles. I loved seeing that people really use the space we left open as a dunce corner for “bad little boys and girls.”

DOWF is built on a few ideas that help keep people in a permanently welcoming, interested place. First is a good schedule, which is both comprehensive and flexible (you never *have* to go to a specific event), involving classes on a range of kink + relationship topics, open play space, performances, and discussions. There’s even a kinky mini-mall in the hotel to stroll through and get gifts for one’s honeybunch. There’s a huge sex room, called sex-o-rama, with the most comfortable furniture I’ve ever… fallen… onto… repeatedly. There’s a room with stripper poles, a medical room, a huge swing in the main dungeon, and a few hidden play spaces. And let me say that the best way to flirt with someone is to ask them to help you set up a sex swing. Great way to meet wonderful ladies and gents.

kink

Oh my gosh, that happy face. Thanks, ‘sex is not the enemy’!

Another big value is privacy.  Privacy is essential, and deeply required for participants at events like DOWF. There’s a seriousness taken to the privacy oath – real names are not used, and only the event photographers are allowed to take photos, and only with pre-approval.  in your registration, you select whether you want to be photographed or not, and wear a wristband of that color. It’s nice to have a closed hotel because the chance of monumental exposure, a risk for the more high-brow Washingtonians and visitors, is greatly diminished. While there are some people who live the lifestyle a majority of the time, there’s many more who only think of it as a portion of their life.

You also never need to disclose all the things you like. You can be totally freaky in one way, but plain as a vanilla bean in other areas. That’s neat. There’s no litmus test, no scale of freakiness, no need to do one kink over another. Leben und leben lassen. Live and let live. And as a not *very* freaky person, other participants never pressured me to do things I didn’t request.

Kink events are about consent.

Long before “consent is sexy” tee-shirts, kinky people were preaching mad love for consent, chiefly in the refrain of the three guiding principles of kink play: “safe, sane and consensual”  Because honestly, without consent, kink isn’t very sexy at all. And with consent, so many things can be crazy attractive.

People don’t touch without permission, unless they’re friends. Play is not assumed. Boundaries are talked out in advance. At the same time, kink doesn’t borrow the “Can I do this? Do you like that?” dialogue I learned in college (which has some critical weaknesses). There’s emphasis placed on articulation of desires and boundaries before any touching begins, and situations that involved spontenaety… actually involve pre-approved consent. There’s always an ability to tap out, to say your safeword, and to pause or end a scene at any time it’s too heavy.

I’m a bit of a softer touch, and something I love about my play partners is that they check in with me far before I feel some level of discomfort. People who are new to play are generally treated with celebration and slowness, to help them build comfort and not rush them through. I had a really great scene with a Top who moves with a lot of care to challenge me, but not in a way that broke me (too quickly.) And in scenes with her, I always learn new things that I like (punching! stomping! things that leave small welts!). When I taught the blues lesson, it was so much easier for this group than any other, because everyone was already so accustomed to using non-verbal communication to assess their partner’s comfort. They moved like intermediate dancers across the carpet. Surprised the pants off me, so to speak.

Kink events also build your ability to discuss consent and practice it regularly. For me, I feel as if I leave an event like DOWF recalibrated, moving along a different intellectual route than before. I’m more aware that partners may find things (that I don’t find sexy) deeply erotic, and vice versa. I’m more inclined to discuss desires, discuss outcomes and examples before jumping into touching. And then, everything is just better.

Kink events can help your relationships grow.

http://humon.deviantart.com/art/Sneaky-Cuttlefish-293754048?moodonly=69

Relationships! Thanks to humon!

Thursday, the day before Winter Fire started, I was heaving with regret about attending.

The one person whose boundaries I like to push the farthest… is me. As much as I try to live in the moment and keep my options open, the part of me that yearns for self-improvement – “The Planner” – has a few weapons it uses to keep my pushing onwards. If my inner Planner senses than a life-changing event could maybe be seen as stressful, and thus, avoided, the Planner gets angry. And when the Planner gets angry, it makes a Plan. In this case, the Planner throws a Hail Mary down the field, obligations to bind me there. Little grappling hooks keeping me in the event, regardless of my anxious desire to squirm away. In this case, the Planner knew that I might prove tetchy about Winter Fire and, in advance, sneakily agreed to help organize a blues mixer, and applied for a volunteer spot. If I was given the volunteer slot, the event would be free, in exchange for a few hours of work and the obliteration of my sleep schedule. The Planner had the edge. In the choice between sleep or sex, earning dark bags under my eyes have always had a winner.

So as the event grew closer, and I felt more threatened by it, and less excited, I decided to give it to fate (ie. the volunteer coordinators) to decide my weekend.

- If I got the volunteer slot, I would go.
- If I didn’t get the slot, I would mostly stay home.

[The anxious part of my mind dreamed it out: “I would cocoon and do a million other events planned for the weekend. Events normal, nice people do. I tried to get excited about it, the nice parties with board games. Happy dances to live, wonderful bands. Nice things. Normal things. Nice and normal.”]

Then, I got the volunteer shift. But I didn’t want to go. At all.

In a graceful, adult manner, I lay in a little ball on my bed and spewed negative malarky about the event and my own Planning mind. I was wretched and mean to one of my closest friends who had strongly encouraged me to attend. I just felt… unprepared, unsexy, vanilla, boring, stupid, uninterested, ugly, and… monogamous. While a lot of the pre-event jitters were striking hard at my esteem, the latter feeling was the most difficult to think through. Really, I just wanted to chill with my wonderful partner, Spider. I love Spider. He is perfect and kind, smart and thoughtful, patient, beautiful, and silly. Far and away, he’s the light of my life. We hadn’t really had a Valentine’s Day, and I’d be out of town for a long while directly after DOWF, so I really didn’t want to run off without a delicious weekend of (exclusive-ish) sodomy and kisses. It’s hard for me to be excited about playing with hundreds of people when there’s one person who’s irresistible, and in line to absorb my time. I mean, sex parties are all well and lovely, but sometimes, a sex party of two can be splendid.

And play parties take a lot of energy, which frankly, I didn’t have. On Thursday night, I didn’t want to fly my freak flag and ask beautiful queer women to abuse me, I just want to cuddle and stay in and be an old woman.

But I had made my promises, and those hooks of the Planner kept me at Winter Fire off-and-on for three days.

And I’m so happy I did. Here’s what I did: I reassessed what I wanted from DOWF. Rather than feeling urged to mix and mingle and be the best slut that ever slutted, I decided to take what I learned and use it to grow my primary relationship with Spider. After all, different marginalized communities can teach me quite handily about different types of love, and I’ve always considered conventions a great way to grow my options and ideas.

For me, it’s always about building relationships. And at DOWF,  the majority of classes stressed good ol’ communication, and how sexy good communication is, as well as renewing one’s interest and exploration with a partner. When I’m at an event like DOWF, I see so many things that are on the fringe of interest for me, that I’d be interested in talking out with Spider. There were classes on non-monogamy, on sex in long-term relationships, and on different styles of kinky relationships.

For me, I consider the metaphors at route for the play I like. I certainly sexualize control, and can interpret it as care; I feel the level of knowledge my play partners have of me (and all my feelings) can cut more deeply than so many of my close friends. So, control and knowledge, that’s my sexy business. You can put your notepads away now, campers.

Dirrrrty Crafting

Dirty Crafting

In this line, I took a class that danced around those ideas in a very loose sense – Dirty Talk, taught by Sinclair Sexsmith, who writes a amazing erotica at Sugarbutch Chronicles. We talked about what drove what we said (besides the garbled ideas of my arousal-stupid brain), and how we can make our dirty talk more intentional and amazing. While we spoke about talk that enforced some of the top/bottom roles, we also thought through talk that has different intentions: dirty talk that plays with gender, dirty talk that builds confidence, that maintains engagement, that makes scenes more silly and raunchy and plays with ideas that are not physically possible or practical. We built a twinge of fantasy in our nasty words.

And honestly, I love to talk. I love to tell Spider all the terrible things I want to do with him, all the time, every day. When I say it, I can feel it.

We also took a class on prostates, taught by the magnificent Strap On Jo, that was… very… useful. For things. Yes.

But with all that thinking about intention, the part of the weekend that sticks with me, more than eating sushi off a beautiful woman’s breast, or watching a husband give his wife a terrific blowjob, was being in the shower with Spider and having him wash my hair. And everything was clean and warm and sweet.

 

Kink events are really good for my brain.

Like other festivals and exchanges, there is a phenomenon of “event drop,” the mild depression lingering days after an event, in which one reintigrates into “normal life”… which involves 200% less touching and kissing. For me, I don’t really feel event drop so much as event boost. After an event like DOWF, I feel more fearless, less restrained (herp derp), more likely to follow up on my feels.

And why? I’ve been in some body-positive spaces, but kinky playspaces, especially more queer-inclusive spaces, have been the most open, least judgy places in the world. I really appreciate being around queer people, and being more conscious of how my internalized views of gender affect how I process situations. There are many, many different types of beauty, and in kink, many more alternative forms of loveliness are avidly adored.

There’s also a much greater acceptance of larger bodies in the kink community than in any other community I take part in. There’s certainly a plenty of conventionally gorgeous people, but there’s no stigma against being larger bodied and nude, and showing all of one’s sexy folds. The phrase “more to love” isn’t quite what I want to say, but it’s close. And honestly, as a person who likes larger bottomed ladies, it’s a wonderful change of pace.

Being in a body positive space makes really evident to me how many of my feelings of insecurity and dysmorphia are triggered by external pressures (like advertizements showing healthy women fretting about their weight). Lindy West’s excellent article “Hello, I am Fat,” addresses the way fat-shaming works, and her ways of speaking out against it.

I am more confident now. Living without shame, both self and externally imposed, is transformative. I feel more motivated to ask for what I want, in and out of play spaces, and be my own advocate.

http://sexisnottheenemy.tumblr.com/post/40366139162                                                                           Cuddling, courtesy to Sex is Not the Enemy.

- – -

Of course, caveats exist. The kink community is imperfect, and safe spaces aren’t always as safe as they seem. Abusers exist, and flout the rules of consent, and cause a lot of damage. The institutions of Kink.com, Fetlife, and the “scene state” are imperfect and still maintain some of the damaging influences of our mysogynistic culture. Some demographics in the kink umbrella are marginilized and otherized. All the classes at DOWF aren’t always perfect, and might not teach what you wanted to learn. For astute critiques on kink culture and activism work, I would follow Maymay’s blog, “Maybe Maimed But Never Hurt.” While Maymay and I may disagree from time to time, I deeply respect him.

The kink community is also predominantly white, and while there are prominent presenters who are POCs, the majority of leadership in the community is white. And somewhat predictably in majority-white situations, there’s some problematic business that’s voiced, thought, and done. While I didn’t have a long conversations about it at DOWF, “Giving Kink a Black Eye” personally addresses some of the issues at hand really, really well. I’m a big fan of Daisy Hernendez’s “Playing with Race” at COLORLINES, which I found linked by the excellent blog “The Perverted Negress.” I’m honestly frustrated by most images of kink – submissives are of white, slender, pretty women; most dominants are faceless white men, often in power-granting costumes. It reinforces the “normal” sexual narrative, and all the sexist and racist issues in there.

Faceless Man Choking Pretty White Woman

Faceless Man Choking Pretty White Woman. Grumble.

And a second caveat: think about what you want from an event you’d attend. What are your expectations? Who do you want to play with? What classes do you want to take, and which teachers do you want to speak with in greater detail? What are things that might challenge you, what might excite you? What ways of taking power or having power taken from you are interesting (maybe listen to “Do I Have Power?” by Timber Timbre for some ideas, or maybe “I Can’t Go for That” by Hall and Oates)? Kink events can be… heavy, no matter how you play. It’s important to take care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Maybe I’ll see you on the floor soon, maybe at Dark Odyssey Fusion?