The Kink Club: inside the secret world of BDSM

The Kink Club: inside the secret world of BDSM

A growing cohort of Torontonians are indulging their wildest fetishes—and negotiating every slap, spank and lash of the whip.

The Valentine’s Fetish Ball, at the Opera House in Riverdale (Image: Craig J. Galbraith)

Lord Morpheous, arguably Toronto’s reigning king of kink, lives in a downtown penthouse with a panoramic view of the skyline. He’s one of the city’s premier rope-bondage experts, though nothing about his appearance conjures the clichés we normally associate with BDSM: he’s an affable, bespectacled man in his 40s, greeting me at the door dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. His decor only hints at his adventurous sexuality, like a framed print of an Alberto Vargas pin-up girl and an oversized painting of sexy stiletto heels. He keeps his toys tidied away but is happy to showcase them when I ask for a tour. In the office there are boxes of coiled rope in every colour, and a small horse saddle designed to fit a human. The living room has a custom-built side table that magically converts into a spanking bench, with metal loops for convenient restraint. He doesn’t have any pets, but he keeps a large dog bed in the corner for role-playing games.

Morpheous, who asked me not to reveal his real name, grew up on a farm near Hamilton. His parents wanted him to stay in his hometown, get a blue-collar job, find a wife and have a bunch of kids. Morpheous had other plans: he wanted to live in the city. He wanted to go to art school. And he wanted kink, specifically bondage and domination. “I always had these desires,” he says. “That was the late ’80s, so there wasn’t any Internet. I thought there was something wrong with me because I wanted to tie girls up.” Morpheous largely repressed his impulses in his youth—he didn’t know anything about the Toronto kink scene until he was 26, when he started dating a woman he met on a kayaking trip. After a month, she confessed she was not actually a personal trainer like she’d claimed but a professional dominatrix. Morpheous was thrilled. “I felt like a kid in a candy store. I had the chance to try all sorts of activities that I had only dreamed about,” he says. “She was a domme in her professional life, but in our relationship she was submissive.”

In a converted Parkdale factory, around the corner from the Cadillac Lounge, he received an accelerated education in the finer points of BDSM. His girlfriend’s loft was insulated for sound, with a separate dungeon equipped with bondage tables, wall shackles and a spanking bench. It was a place where they could safely negotiate and communicate their desires—and where Morpheous could try his hand at the rope bondage he’d been fantasizing about. “Because I was from a farm, because I was a boy scout, I knew how to use rope. I tied her like I would tie a bale of hay.”

After they broke up, Morpheous started teaching rope-bondage classes at Come as You Are, the sex shop that had just opened on Queen West. He moved to Bloordale and set up his own 1,300-square-foot dungeon, where he hosted parties for fellow kinksters: it had a full wall of mirrors and a cage for confinement play. All of his intimate relationships from that point forward involved dominant-submissive or master-slave dynamics. As his reputation grew, people started to seek him out. He brought in high-profile out-of-town presenters, like the Japanese bondage expert Midori and the American erotica author Laura Antoniou.

He was living a double life: in the kink world, he was teaching bondage seminars, mastering bondage photography and having the kinds of relationships he’d always wanted. Everywhere else, he was in the closet, worried about alienating his family and losing his job (which he asked me not to disclose). Once, when he was house-sitting for his parents, his mother found a few sex toys in the dishwasher leftover from a day of play. She screamed in horror—and didn’t speak to him for a week. He started controlling his image to protect his family, making sure that when a camera popped up at a kink event, he immediately turned away.

Things changed for Morpheous a few years ago, when he redeemed a quick pick lottery ticket at the corner store. Bells rang and an alarm wailed—he’d won millions. Suddenly he could quit his day job, allow his family to retire, and set up education funds for his nieces and nephews. But the new wealth also brought out money-hungry “friends” trying to take advantage of his good fortune. People he hadn’t heard from in more than a decade were suddenly calling and emailing, asking for money. Yet despite his new wealth, his kinky friends treated him exactly the same as before and never asked for a dime. “I think it’s because the kink community understands boundaries,” he says.

Kink, once Morpheous’s fiercely guarded secret, would become his primary lifestyle. Since that initial impulse to tie girls up over 20 years ago, Morpheous has evolved into one of the city’s foremost BDSM advocates and sex educators. He’s published two instructional guides, How to Be Kinky and How to Be Kinkier. His latest book, Bondage Basics: Naughty Knots and Risqué Restraints You Need to Know, launched in Hollywood last January at a party sponsored by Hustler—an extravagant affair complete with bondage demonstrations and adult film stars.

Lord Morpheous is at the centre of a thriving kink culture in Toronto, an underground community of people who derive their pleasure from pain, congregating at parties, meetings and classes. FetLife, the hugely popular social networking site for BDSM participants, lists more than 41,000 kinksters living in Toronto. Users identify their sexual tastes and what they’re looking for, post photos of their bruises and rope marks, and narrow down potential partners and friends by fetish, searching for things like caging and confinement, clamps and clips, nun and priest play, or a standard flogging.

BDSM is an overlapping abbreviation of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. It covers a continuum of practices outside of mainstream sex, which means something as tame as a blindfold or as intense as a caning falls under the same wide umbrella. A kinky encounter is often referred to as a scene: a single interaction where participants pre-negotiate safe words and acceptable activities. Scenes can involve consensual bondage, confinement and violence—including spanking, slapping, pinching, cutting or choking—but relationships can also be full-time, where a submissive is “owned” by a dominant partner, sometimes wearing a collar to indicate his or her status. Outside the bedroom, subs can provide non-sexual services to their dominants: they may cook, clean, run errands or shine their master’s shoes. Though from the outside doms seem to be calling the shots, the submissive partners hold equal power. They’ve voluntarily surrendered control—and can take it back at any time. Arrangements are as varied as the people who create them, and can be complicated and delicate to maintain, which means constant communication is key to their success.

Last October, the Toronto BDSM community was thrust under a harsh spotlight when several women accused Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of CBC Radio’s Q, of abuse. He defended himself on his Facebook page, claiming he’d participated in “a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey”: rough sex, dominance and submission. Later reports suggested Ghomeshi hadn’t received consent, and he was charged with several counts of sexual assault. “All of a sudden he choked me, slapped me in the face a few times,” said the actress Lucy DeCoutere of their sexual encounter. “It came out of nowhere. It was unprovoked.”

Ghomeshi-gate has been a PR problem for Toronto kinksters, who worry their consensual practices are now wrongly tied to allegations of violence. Worse still, the case exposed the criminal grey area that kink occupies: in Canada, a person can’t legally consent to bodily harm. That puts some Toronto practitioners in a precarious position—a rope burn, bruise or chokehold could lead to a potential assault charge.

As long as couples have been having sex, they’ve been incorporating consensual pain, control and surrender—erotic BDSM appears in the Kama Sutra, ancient Roman poetry and Etruscan frescoes. Modern kink culture came about in the mid-20th century, colliding with the sexual revolution and queer movement. Kink as we know it grew out of the gay leather scene in 1950s New York, San Francisco and Berlin: after World War II, young men started establishing underground fetish and sex clubs, favouring chaps, harnesses and rough sex. In the early 1970s, the first two official North American BDSM organizations were established: the Eulenspiegel Society formed in New York in 1971, and the Society of Janus in San Francisco in 1974, both focused on education and support for those in the closet. It was in these societies that the movement finally crystallized, and practitioners developed a shared ethos, rules and vernacular. These early proponents characterized their behaviour as “safe, sane and consensual”—a guideline meant to distinguish kink from abuse. By the end of the millennium, BDSM imagery had bridged into pop culture—Madonna played the sub and the domme in her music videos, Isabella Rossellini begged to be hit in Blue Velvet, and CSI detectives encountered the wisdom of the dominatrix Lady Heather.

More recently, the practice of BDSM has grown from a niche subculture into a mainstream obsession. The catalyst, of course, was Fifty Shades of Grey, a kinkified Twilight fan fiction series that sold 100 million copies, spawned a $40-million movie and triggered a worldwide fascination with spanking, leather, cuffs and Ben Wa balls. All across town, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the growing demand for kink. Over the past three years, the Yonge Street fetish shop Northbound Leather has experienced a 20 per cent increase in sales of harnesses and collars, which range from $10 plastic versions to $2,500 diamond-encrusted chokers.

It used to be a challenge for kinksters to find like-minded practitioners, but now there are dozens of places for them to congregate. “The scene hides very quietly under the surface of everyday life,” says Morpheous. “You just have to know where to look.” At pubs and cafés across the city, kinksters gather for munches—casual meetups to discuss relationships, coming out to family members or new rope tricks. Munches are designed to be as anonymous as possible: organizers prohibit photography and toys, and guests wear street clothes instead of fetish wear. “These people are often just talking about, like, the new Star Wars movie,” Morpheous explains.

The city is also packed with places for kinksters to indulge their fetishes. Studio 10, just south of Trinity Bellwoods Park, is a play space often booked for kinky classes and private assignations: it’s equipped with a spanking horse, padded bondage tables and a sex sling. It’s best known for its parties, where kinksters can watch porn and participate in live scenes on-site. In the west end, near the Gardiner Expressway, is the Subspace studio—a soundproof 1,800-square-foot dungeon featuring a jail cell for confinement play, a medical room for doctor-patient fantasies, a Jacuzzi, trap doors, and a selection of toys and props. It rents for $50 an hour. Craig Galbraith, the owner, refers to it as a kink clubhouse, and sees consenting adults of all ages and body types drop in for birthday parties, private photo shoots and bondage classes. For Galbraith, who’s been running elaborate kink events in Toronto for close to a decade, the dungeon has been only marginally profitable—he calls it a labour of love.

In conjunction with the studio, he hosts Subspace Fetish Party, a lavish monthly event that takes place at venues like the Great Hall on Queen West or the Opera House in Riverdale, with a mandatory dress code of fetish wear. Another destination is Genesis, a monthly do at the Oasis Aqualounge sex club on Mutual Street, featuring private bedrooms, saunas and toys. But the biggest BDSM event in town comes from Lord Morpheous, who hosts Morpheous’s Bondage Extravaganza, an all-night rope-tying marathon that runs in tandem with Nuit Blanche every October. It’s the world’s largest single-night rope bondage exhibition, with hundreds of performers and more than 5,000 attendees. In the last two years, the event has expanded to satellite parties in Orlando and San Francisco.

A couple of years ago, I attended MBE at the Great Hall. In a sweltering room, amid a sensory overload of lasers, black lights and ambient music, scores of people were tying or being tied. Some performers were bound with rope to makeshift frames, some suspended in the air, others spanked, whipped and confined. I stood, overheated and overwhelmed, among the hordes of gawking viewers—kinky and otherwise—all clamouring to get a look at the sexy display. On my way out, I spotted a lingerie-clad woman tied with rope at her wrists and ankles to a small metal bed frame, her body contorted at an awkward angle. From only a few feet away, I watched as she lay there on the exposed mattress, writhing in ecstasy against her restraints.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Heather Elizabeth, a 32-year-old file clerk, enjoys receiving pain at dungeons and parties. (Image: Dave Gillespie)
 

Despite its popularity, kink is still the subject of intense scrutiny and stigma: until 2013, it was classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. BDSM was only depathologized after a lengthy campaign by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an American advocacy group that argued the existing definitions failed to distinguish between consensual sadism and abuse. Many kinksters still feel like their sexual preferences put them at risk of persecution: most of the people who appear in this story asked that I use a pseudonym, afraid they might be outed to their families, friends and employers. It’s legal in Canada to fire someone for BDSM activities if the disclosure is deemed damaging to the brand of the company—though many kinksters see their sexual preference as an orientation, it doesn’t fall under the protection of the Human Rights Code. Even Lord Morpheous hides his real name and face from the public. “I’m not ashamed. Anyone who wants to meet me can come out to an event,” he says. “I just prefer to have control. I like my world a size I can manage.”

One person who agreed to be identified was Heather Elizabeth, a 32-year-old file clerk and self-described hedonist, masochist and sensation enthusiast. Heather, who grew up in a conservative family, was raised to believe that sex was something dangerous and that expressing her urges would brand her as slutty. “I always felt like I was blamed for having intense sexuality. When I’m with kinksters, there’s none of that,” she explains. “Sexuality isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t mean you agree to anything or owe anyone because they find you interesting,” she says.

Heather describes herself as a public player, meaning she likes to experience pain at dungeons or play parties. Her current favourite activities include whipping, caning and face slapping. Receiving pain, she explains, can be a calming, centering force for her. Kink also brings out the qualities in relationships that she finds sexiest—vulnerability, honesty and passion. It’s an opportunity to process some of the anxieties about her sexuality that she internalized growing up. Heather finds it liberating to act out a fantasy of being a sex toy for someone else’s entertainment, or to act on the desires that she has been afraid she’d be judged for: erotic embarrassment, objectification and blending intense pain with pleasure. “I’m feeling shame, and gratitude, and so many emotions at once. And everything is okay in that space for that little while,” she says.

For Jennifer, a yoga teacher in her late 20s, taking pain isn’t scary but lots of fun—when everything is going well, she’ll often burst out laughing. She always knew she was kinky, and she started actively exploring the Toronto scene when she was just 20. “I spent some very good evenings just goofing off, getting tied up for the fun of it. I learned to stop being embarrassed by my masochism and just enjoy it for what it is.” She prefers canings because they leave pronounced, stinging marks. She’s even received compliments about how well she can take a beating and loves wearing the bruises of what she’s endured in the days that follow. “Marks are souvenirs, and walking around with aches and bruises is a wonderful sexy secret that keeps me all hot and bothered for as long as they last.”

Jennifer has been in a committed dominant-submissive relationship for the past eight years, which in her case means she does what she’s told in and out of the bedroom. “It is the most fulfilling relationship of my life,” she tells me. “I get warm fuzzies every time he calls me a good girl or says he’s proud of me. He gets the benefits of having someone focused on making him happy, and I get structure and accountability and focus and praise.” Jennifer has gradually surrendered near complete control of her sex life to her partner—he decides when she has an orgasm (once a month, on average). The result is that she’s turned on all the time without release, which for her is sexy and exciting.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is 36-year-old Andrew, a corporate event planner and dominant who was practising BDSM before he knew what it was—bondage, spanking and paddling, public humiliation, and role-play were all part of his formative relationships. Andrew identifies as a daddy-dom, engaging in what he calls positive-reinforcement age play. “Daddy is a powerful word that evokes many feelings,” he says. “In two syllables, it conveys security, pride, disciplinarian, age, love, caregiver, safety, physicality, trust, masculinity.” Currently, his favourite instrument of discipline is a paddle, 50 centimetres long and 13 centimetres wide, made of black leather with metal studding around the edges. He likes having his partners bend over his bed and count down the strokes—how hard he hits them is negotiated beforehand. “They like to prove they can endure it, and I like to see them succeed,” he says. “I’ll tell them, ‘Just one more, baby girl. You can do it.’ ”

A few years ago, Andrew took a date to the Rosewater Supper Club in the Financial District. Humiliation was her kink, and she wanted him to arouse her with public embarrassment. After they ordered dessert, he told her to remove her underwear at the table. She grabbed the black lace fabric under her skirt, hooking her thumb around the waistband and pulling it down as far as it would go. Her face turned red as she pulled them off one foot and then the other, balling them up and handing them to him across the table.

“I don’t want your dirty panties,” he said. “Drop them on the floor beside you.” She did as she was told, letting them go, certain that the entire restaurant was watching. The waiter came over to inform her that she’d dropped something, picked up her underwear and handed them to her. She looked down at her plate, thanked the server and put them in her purse.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) J.P. Robichaud describes himself as a dominant sadist. He often sends his potential partners a spreadsheet cataloguing 109 activities, letting them fill in what they like to do in the bedroom. (Image: Dave Gillespie)
 

Good kink practice means following a strict code of etiquette. A crack of a whip or a drop of hot candle wax should be thoroughly negotiated, with explicit consent that draws the line between play and abuse. Even after meticulous negotiations, consent can be revoked or modified at any time.

A few years ago, Heather Elizabeth attended a BDSM camping event near Barrie with about 200 fellow kinksters. She ran into Nathan, a slim, long-haired friend of a friend. She’d been attracted to him for years but had always turned down his advances because of his reputation as an intense player—she wasn’t sure she could handle the level of pain he was known to inflict. At the campsite, she decided to give it a try. The pair negotiated a scene that would involve “impact play,” which meant he could hit her with a cane, a paddle or his hand on her thighs, buttocks, back and arms. The plan was for him to warm up, gradually escalating the impact of his strokes to prepare her skin for the hardest blows. She also asked him to turn down the intensity from his usual level. If she wanted to end the scene, she’d use the safe word “red.”

Heather knelt in the grass outside her tent, and the scene began. Nathan, using a solid metal rod covered in rubber, started to hit her. She realized he had abandoned the warm-up—Heather’s flesh started to welt immediately. Things were moving too fast, yet she became insecure about not being able to play hard enough. “I got into this appeasing mode, where it became emotionally devastating to use my safe word,” she says. “I knew I was losing the ability to consent, so I asked him to find a way out of the scene that would work for both of us.”

She and Nathan agreed to finish the scene with five final strokes of a solid wood cane, two and a half centimetres in width. At first impact, he hit her so hard on the upper thighs that she thought she was going to vomit. The second time, he hit her even harder. “C’mon, you don’t want to disappoint me, do you?” he said. At that moment, her self-preservation kicked in: she collected her clothes, told him to go fuck himself and walked away. Afterward she regretted causing a fuss in public, but her fellow campers supported her, telling her she’d handled everything well. “I was super clear with him about expectations. He told me later that his goal was to make me use my safe word, even though we had discussed how I wasn’t able to do that. In the end he was just a liar.”

For Heather, the entire experience was a lesson in developing exit strategies. She understands that kink is an ongoing process of learning to make yourself and your partner as comfortable and safe as possible. Along with her colleague, J. P. Robichaud, she teaches a consent workshop on these issues at places like Playground, an annual sexuality conference that comes to Toronto every November, and at the 519 Community Centre. J. P. is 41, with grey in his beard and full sleeves of complex and colourful tattoos, including a tiny hammer detailed on one thumb and a dagger on the other. He refers to himself as a “dominant sadist”—and understands that in the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal, this designation leaves him in a difficult, and possibly dangerous, position.

In the classroom, the pair scrawl phrases on a whiteboard, like “Ask once and don’t ask a second time” and “Consent is not simply the absence of no.” They offer practical advice, like not changing a pre-negotiated scene halfway through, because the endorphins released when people are in pain alter their ability to make rational decisions. “Sort of like how you shouldn’t grocery shop when you’re hungry,” J. P. explains.

“A lot of things we do in the kink community have trickled down into the vanilla world,” Morpheous says. “For 30 or 40 years we’ve had safe calls, safe place meetings and safe words. Now you see that sort of thing pop up in mainstream media. When people hook up on Tinder, they’ve learned to meet at a McDonald’s or a coffee shop, and to have someone check in on them at certain times. Even Peter Griffin on Family Guy has safe words.”

Mainstream sex often operates on implied consent—no means no—rather than BDSM’s affirmative model of yes means yes. Under Canadian law, consent is not obtained if a person says or acts in a way that suggests no (either before or during an act), is incapable of saying no, or is coerced into saying yes by means of threat or an abuse of power. Kink takes the rules of consent a step further than legally required, but assault laws make things problematic: because a person can’t legally agree to bodily harm, you could be arrested for consensually biting your lover. “That would make hockey illegal,” Morpheous says, highlighting the hypocrisy of applying such a law to heavily negotiated kink.

When he’s connecting with potential partners, J. P. often sends a limits spreadsheet—a document that allows them to check off what they’d like to do, what they might like to do, and what they never want to do—before they even get to the bedroom. The spreadsheet is comprehensive, listing 109 possible activities and toys, including age play, biting, chains, exhibitionism, hair-pulling, handcuffs, leashes, pinching and erotic asphyxiation. It comes with a colour code for partners to use, options including “OMG yes” (green), “curious” (yellow), “meh” (white), “huh?” (blue), and “hell no” (burgundy). “Desires can exist on a spectrum, and it’s a problem to only think of that spectrum as being like and dislike,” he says. “Someone could be willing to do something for a partner that holds no real thrill for themselves.” When prospective partners have filled out the spreadsheet, J. P. compares their document to his own to see how their fantasies might fit together. “For me, it’s a way of saying, ‘Let’s talk.’ ”

All responsible kinksters have their own best practices for discussing consent and adhering to its terms. Morpheous says he doesn’t drink or do drugs, because both impair judgment during negotiations and sexual play. Heather Elizabeth isn’t into contracts—she’d rather tell her partners explicitly how far she’d like to go and let them come to her. During her play, she has two safe words at her disposal—one that says it’s time to check in but the scene shouldn’t end, like when her restraints are too tight or she needs to slow down (“yellow”), and another that says to stop (“red”). She also likes to be clear about the distinction between her hard limits and soft limits—the first being lines she’ll never cross and the second being things that are up for discussion. For her, BDSM is worth the potential dangers. “Aren’t we all adults who can make our own decisions? I don’t judge anyone for skydiving, or downhill skiing, or jaywalking. All of these things also have risks.”

Beyond the leather, riding crops and master-slave dynamics, BDSM confronts head-on many of the things vanilla relationships struggle with—risk, communication, honesty and intimacy. The stakes are higher, but the principles remain the same. The people I met have a heightened awareness of what their partners think and feel, and how to bring them pleasure.

One woman I spoke to is happily submissive to her dominant partner, and their relationship seems like one of the healthiest and most satisfying I’ve encountered. They are in constant, rigorous communication about their wants and needs, sexual and otherwise. She came to kink in her 30s, and for her it’s about much more than sex—it’s about a deep connection with another person, a level of trust she hadn’t previously established in her non-kink partnerships. “I want to be open to somebody,” she says. “I want my friends to understand my relationship, because I’m really proud of it. It’s at an emotional and intellectual level I’ve never had with anyone.” There’s research to support her claims: studies have shown that BDSM practitioners have low levels of depression and anxiety, and that both sadists and masochists report decreases in stress before and after scenes.

For the past few years, Morpheous has been in a committed relationship with a woman he met at an event—someone who eventually became his collared slave. He prioritizes communication to ensure things are working for both of them, asking that she keep a journal to document her feelings about their master-slave dynamic and ask any questions she has about structure and protocol. He responds in writing to her entries on a regular basis—it’s a way to give her a voice and to keep an ongoing document for reference, something he thinks is important for his accountability as a dominant.

Just before I leave his penthouse, Morpheous walks toward a large standing oak chest adjacent to the couch, built from trees he salvaged from his parents’ farm. Opening it, he dramatically reveals an organized array of pleasure and pain implements—riding crops, floggers and switches, bottles of lube, blindfolds, and various other accessories. Every drawer is meticulously labelled with hand-written notes like “Nipple Clamps,” “Vibrators,” “Restraints” and “Gags.” He tells me he keeps the chest open when hosting play parties, letting guests help themselves.

From one of the shelves he pulls out a small purple candle, intended for wax play—it melts at a lower temperature so it won’t damage the skin. He hands it to me with a smile. “Here,” he says. “Take this with you.”