"This is a real boy beater."
Patti Brown hoists a large wooden plank. The short end has been molded to comfortably fit the contours of a hand, the long end sanded to a smooth finish.
The onlooker gulps.
"Wouldn't that really hurt?"
"Isn't that the point?" smiles Brown.
The two-by-four plank is but one of a large assortment of paddles of varying sizes and makes -- some wood, some rubber, some leather -- hanging in a corner of The Leather Rack. Brown, 55, has been general manager at the Connecticut Avenue store for two and a half years, and a part of the leather community for the past quarter century. So when it comes to the playthings used in the GLBT community, and in particular the leather SM/BD community, he's somewhat of an expert.
Face it, most gay men and lesbians get into a little fun and games every now and then. And sometimes such fun and games call for a toy that's, well, not necessarily insertable, but rather can be used to flog, whip, beat, restrain, deprive, prick, sting or electrify. These are the toys made legendary by leather.
"You have to understand what's at the heart of this kind of play," explains Jim P., president of the local SM/BD organization SigMa. "You're trying to reach a point where you, in essence, get out of yourself. And during this play, you actually transcend to a different plane. The edgier the play gets, the more intense it is. And you take this kind of play to an edge in order to experience a sensation far beyond what you might experience otherwise.
"You just have to trust the people you're playing with."
Toys are often used to enhance a fantasy role-play or to augment what is known in the leather scene as an "exchange of power," in which a submissive gives him or herself over to a dominant.
Role-playing often take a lot of imagination on the part of both participants.
"You really have to be imaginative to create a wonderful scene for both people," says Max Steiner, a prominent figure on the D.C. lesbian leather scene. "You want to create an entire fantasy scene or mood where you can forget about all of your responsibilities, forget about this awful job that you have to go to in the morning, and just give up control and power or assume control and assume power, and get lost for a few hours."
Steiner, whose partner Schelli Dittmann is a manager at the D.C. Eagle, cites a few examples of role-play, including one in which the submissive is a prisoner of war held by a dominant ruthless captor.
"One of my personal favorites is ‘The Guinea Pig in the Mad Scientist's laboratory,'" Dittmann chimes in.
"Don't say guinea pig," admonishes Steiner. "Call it a ‘Human test subject.'"
Role-play can be as simple or as elaborate as one wants it to be, but most of it involves some sort of fetish.
"There are more fetishes in the world than there are people," says The Leather Rack's Patti Brown. "There's something for everybody, and there's a toy for everybody. And you don't necessarily have to be into leather to be into these things."
FLOG ME IN THE MORNING, THEN JUST WALK AWAY
One of the more common toys used in the leather world is the flogger, a whip-like item boasting a thick leather shaft from which twenty to fifty thick or thin individual strands of leather -- called falls -- branch. It is not to be mistaken for a whip, and nor, cautions Brown, should it be used as one.
"Inexperienced people who come into the store will see a flogger and think it's a whip," he says. "They pick it up and wanna like go whap on something. But a flogger should really dance on the body.
"With some of the heavier floggers," he continues, "you use a slapping technique that produces a thump and leaves red marks. But the best flogging technique is when the tips of the falls caress the body. It should be a very sensuous experience."
Brown says that novice tops interested in flogging should learn technique before trying it out on a person. (Dittmann and Steiner recommend practicing on a pillow, a hanging sheet or "an experienced bottom who can teach you how to flog them.")
"You do not want to flog someone in the area of the lower back," says Brown, explaining that "the kidneys are located in the lower back and are not very well attached inside your body. They're easily jarred and bruised. You can cause some major damage and [your flogging partner] might end up in the hospital if you're not careful."
Melissa Fishman, regional manager of Night Dreams, which has outlets in Bethesda and Tyson's Corner, suggests that beginners intrigued by "impact toys" start out with "something thin and wooden, like a small paddle." She also recommends riding crops, which "are very easy to guide" and are unfailingly accurate.
"You can hit someone with anything that you want," says Fishman, "as long as you know what you're doing and are being controlled about it."
"I was in a class once and a woman talked about how she like to get spanked," recalls Dittmann. "She started off playing with wooden spoons and a flip-flop."
Dittmann notes that there exist "impact toys that don't cost a fortune -- things like rulers and hairbrushes and all kinds of common items that people really have a fetish for." To that end, she and Steiner have combed local Staples and Home Depots for "pervertables" -- affordable, everyday items that can be used in SM/BD.
As an alternative to the flogger, Brown recommends a bamboo cane -- perfect for that Naughty British Schoolboy scene -- or a good old-fashioned leather paddle -- one, preferably, with holes to reduce air resistence.
"Paddling can be very, very mild to quite severe," he says. "Even the little lightweight ones can make it uncomfortable for someone to sit for days."
SHOW SOME RESTRAINT
Aside from spanking, the most popular toys in the leather community are those that incorporate a little bondage and discipline.
"We sell a seven-piece fantasy restraint kit for beginners," says Night Dreams' Fishman. The kit includes two Velcro ankle restraints, two Velcro wrist restraints, two tethers "which hook to the cuffs" and can be "easily looped around bedposts" and, the piece de resistance, a fitted blindfold. "It's Velcro-adjustable," says Fishman. "It's very comfy and it keeps you from seeing anything."
"Bondage is a whole different category," says Brown. "It's not really part of SM. You're really just giving yourself over to the dominant person, and your loss of mobility is anywhere from partial to complete."
"Bondage is one of the first places most people start," says Dittmann.
But, adds Steiner, good bondage is extremely reliant on trust and a profound knowledge of procedure.
"You have to make sure that if you're going to tie someone up, you can untie the knot in a hurry if you need to." A bondage expert, Steiner recommends reading up on techniques or taking a class on the topic at one of the local fetish clubs.
"Mind you," says Steiner, "I learned on my own, so I learned ways not to do it as well. But nowadays there's many resources out there if you know where to look."
Both Lambda Rising Bookstore and Night Dreams have a vast array of tomes on the subject. The internet is another such resource -- and many newcomers turn to freshly met online buddies as a way of satisfying their hunger for BD.
"A lot of people have gotten into trouble with the internet thing," says Brown. "They've found somebody on the internet, chatted with them three or four times, and then gone to meet them to do something. You hear these horror stories of everything from people not treated right to people who are found dead. There are all kinds of wackos out there, so you really have to be very, very careful."
Adds Jim P.: "For some people, giving up control is one of the attractions [of BD]. But should you just go out willy nilly and do it? I wouldn't advise it. When I got into this, I didn't just wander into a bar and say ‘Hey, tie me up and do what you will.' I got to know people on the scene, I got to find out what they were about, I got to find out what kind of play they did and started playing with them in ways that would interest me.
"[This is] not necessarily about traditional sex," he continues. "It's not about hooking up with somebody as you might do if you're cruising somebody in a bar. It's much more involved than that. The biggest sex organ we all have is our brain. I don't care how well-hung a guy is, it's what you do with your mind and how you work it with everything else. That's where it all comes together."
THE ELECTRIC FACTORY
Sometimes where it all comes together is in the wonderful world of electricity.
And within that wonderful world lies a handy, albeit pricey, item known as The Violet Wand, a hand-held generator that comes complete with multiple glass and metal attachments which, depending on how much power is juiced through them, produce anywhere from a tingling sensation to a full-blown shock to the system.
"The Violet Wand is a very low voltage type toy," says Brown. "It's something that came about at the turn of the last century that was used by doctors to cure everything from headaches to kidney disease to female troubles. These little low doses of electric shock were thought to be the new medical breakthrough at the time."
Of course, the wand didn't cure anything. But it might have aroused more than a few highly charged prurient interests.
"The simulation it provides can be very erotic," says Brown. "And it can get extremely intense depending on what you're doing with it."
"The Violet Wand is used for a sharp, stinging pain," says Fishman, who specializes in electric play. "You can use anything metal, taking it anywhere from just making a wet spot to actually branding someone."
Fishman, who maintains a relationship with a woman, but has a male slave on the side, owns eight cases full of Violet Wand accessories. She even has some internal play attachments for the wand, which she notes "are hard to get and really expensive."
Steiner also enjoys dabbling in electricity, preferring what's known as a Tens Unit, a generator onto which any number of metal pads and insertable devices -- including anal plugs, vaginal plugs, cockrings, nipple rings and clitoral clips -- can be deployed.
"I'm not going to talk a lot about electric play," she says somewhat defiantly, "because I don't want someone just to pick it up and use it."
Indeed, electric play can be quite dangerous if, says Brown, "you use it on someone with a heart condition or a pacemaker." Both he and Fishman note that you should never "cross the heart" in electric play. And both note that, again, understanding a toy before utilizing it is a good idea.
Fishman tells the story of a lesbian couple who were both wearing Tens Unit devices. "They each were wearing a vaginal attachment, wet, warm and inside," she says. "And they open mouth kissed and closed the circuit. They shocked the shit out of each other."
"Some people really like electrical play," says Dittmann, "finding it to be a really sensual experience. But I don't particularly like it because it's kind of like rubbing your feet on the carpet while wearing wool socks and then touching a doorknob. That just plain hurts."
So, what does Dittmann prefer?
"Things that sting."
And that, she says, is what's so wonderful about SM/BD.
"Some people are into feathers. Some people like electricity. Others enjoy needles."
I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU
And still others enjoy having their genitals severely abused.
Or "genitorture," as its known.
There are many forms of genitorture, but one of the most impressive devices is, without question, the ball crusher.
A handsome, heavy chunk of gleaming metal machinery, the base of the ball crusher locks snugly around the testicles. Wing nuts tighten a metal bar securely against the testicles, which are pressed flat -- or as flat as they'll go without popping.
Night Dreams sells a wooden version of the crusher. "Picture two rolling pins coming together mashing the balls," says Fishman brightly.
The Leather Rack's Brown says that he's often surprised by the types of people who purchase genitorture items.
"You'd be amazed at what some people are wearing under their three-piece suits," he says, with a wicked, all knowing grin. "You could look at the most vanilla little twink on the street and never in your wildest dreams realize what that kid's doing with his genitals."
And no, he's not talking about cockrings. There is, he says, no pain associated with cockrings. "If there is pain involved, somebody sold you the wrong size," he laughs.
"One of our more popular cock and ball torture items," says Night Dreams' Fishman "is the Seven Gates of Hell," a series of attachable rings that start their journey from behind the testicles and move up the penis shaft until the organ is entirely encumbered. "They prevent you from getting an erection," she says. "Or, if you do get one, it's really painful."
For those who might not require all seven rings, there's the Three Gates of Hell. Luckily for the egos of gay men everywhere, that's as low as the number goes.
One of the more popular items has less to do with torture and more to do with denial of service: The male chastity device -- which often takes the form of a Lucite, penis-shaped unit that, once affixed to the male genitalia and secured, generally with a small padlock, prevents the wearer from attaining tumescence of any degree.
"If you get an erection while wearing that," says Brown, "it's going to be pretty painful."
Steiner says that chastity devices are popular in dominant-submissive role-playing. "Giving your sexuality to someone to control for you is a very erotic experience."
"It's a way of controlling your partner to make sure there's no hanky panky on the side," adds Brown. "Beside, just imagine if you were wearing that for three weeks. You'd be damn horny by the time it was taken off."
Also in the pain category: nipple clamps.
"Everybody has played with their nipples -- whether they've just rubbed them, pinched them or pulled them," says Brown. "The clamps take that to the next level. Some of the nipple clamps are designed to simply give a light pinch or a pull. Some are design to produce a heavy pinch. And some actually have teeth on them that do a biting thing. You really have to know where you want to go with that pain-pleasure thing to choose the proper one. But that's why there are so many styles to choose from."
And speaking of styles, some of the clamps are downright fashionable.
"They're not meant to be decorative," says Brown. "But some of them can look pretty artsy just because of the mechanics involved."
EXPRESS YOURSELF… SAFELY
When discussing leather toys -- and the accompanying scenes -- safety is an issue that comes up with almost alarming regularity.
"The mantra," says Dittmann, "is safe, sane and consensual. But those are three very subjective words to me, because my definition's going to vary from yours. I tend to think of [SM/BD play] as accepted risk and responsibility for accepted risk. You know what you're getting into is dangerous, you accept those risks and you take the responsibility to do things as safely as you can."
"One of the things that we're noticing in the leather community," adds Jim P., "is that there are younger people who have an interest in SM/BD, but who look at kind of the traditional leather model as being old hat. So a lot of them seek out each other, but often they're inexperienced. And when you have two inexperienced people coming together to try something, it can be dangerous."
One recommendation is to familiarize yourself with the people who you're interested in playing with -- learn what they're into and how well they know their stuff.
"Find a person that's really experienced," advises Steiner. "The one thing the leather community is good about is talking about everybody -- meaning, we will tell you if someone's a good person or not. Just ask about them."
Despite the cautions, Brown urges the curious to not be afraid to try something new.
"SM/BD toys are all about exploring your fantasies," he says. "If there's something that clicks your buttons, explore it. Just be sure to research it first."
All the toys mentioned in this article -- and more -- can be found at The Leather Rack, 1723 Connecticut Ave. NW, Night Dreams at 4866 Cordell Avenue in Bethesda and 373 Leesburg Pike in Tysons, and at the MAL Leather Marketplace in the Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle, this Friday from 4-10 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Marketplace is free and open to the public. For more information on attending vendors visit www.leatherweekend.com.