Membership has its privileges, and here are just a few that come with belonging to one of Winnipeg’s newest members-only clubs:
- Access to a cosy and inviting 1,500-square-foot meeting space located in the city’s historic Exchange District.
- Separate, "well-appointed" lounge with armchairs and couches and food and beverages facilities
- A year-round calendar of educational and social events, including discussions, demonstrations, workshops and theme parties
- Use of a fully equipped dungeon
That last perk aside, Prairie BDSM isn’t really so different from other private clubs, in that it was founded to give like-minded folks a bricks-and-mortar place to meet, socialize and discuss shared interests.
It has a dress code that forbids jeans, tank tops and "scruffy attire," and a protocol to ensure that everyone plays by the rules.
What sets this club apart is its application of the word "play."
If it’s not yet clear that we’re talking about pursuits other than chess or role-playing games with "dragon" in the title, consider that Prairie BDSM’s dress code does allow leather, latex and rubber, as well as military, prison and school uniforms. And while gratuitous nudity is frowned upon, "nudity with appropriate leather cuffs, collar, leash, hood, harness, etc. is encouraged."
For Winnipeggers exploring or living alternative lifestyles, collectively known as BDSM (bondage/discipline, domination/submission and sadomasochism) — research suggests up to 10 per cent of the general population do to some extent — this fourth-floor space is both clubhouse and playground.
And it’s fittingly located in the Exchange District. Because although BDSM is an umbrella term for a wide array of consensual behaviours and activities, at its core, kink involves some sort of power exchange.
Not necessarily or strictly sexual.
"A lot of our BDSM lifestyle is not about sex," says Descartes (his "scene" name), co-founder of Prairie Alternative Lifestyle Support (PALS), which opened the club in February.
The stout, friendly man, who is in his early 60s and uses a cane due to bad knees, is a longtime dominant with "a penchant for humiliation, sharp and pointy things, blood and other pleasant activities." He looks more like Burl Ives than the Marquis de Sade. (The club did hold a birthday party for the infamous French libertine in June.)
The dozen or so middle-aged people sitting in the lounge on this Friday night certainly don’t look like they’re about to break into a big orgy anytime soon. One woman is curled up on the couch with a mystery novel.
In fact, if it weren’t for the rack of corsets and sexy lingerie, and the display case of floggers and paddles, this crowd could probably pass for a book club.
Except for the occasional yelp of pain coming from the other room — which could probably pass for a yoga studio except the eyebolts on the wall aren’t for doing upside down back bends or hanging downward dog. There is a dog crate in there, along with two spanking benches, two medical tables, a St. Andrew’s Cross, a two-way spread-eagle station, and the Rack.
Club co-owner Brackus, who like his old pal Descartes is a longtime "protocol-oriented dominant" with a live-in submissive, says the real excitement and satisfaction in a dom-sub relationship comes from the power dynamic enacted by the partners reinforcing their complementary but unequal roles.
Simply put, Brackus gets pleasure from knowing he’s pleasing his partner, Tranika — by totally controlling her.
"She gives me power over everything and I agree to accept that power and to bear the responsibility of taking care of her," says the late-50ish gent, who is also heavyset and walks with a cane.
"In many ways, our relationship is no different from other people’s. She still has the ability to think for herself, but when she’s with me, she’s my submissive.
Tranika, who is in her 40s, addresses him as "sir," even in public. When they go to a restaurant, she doesn’t sit down or eat until he tells her to. Both work in the financial industry.
Before she took up the lifestyle about two years ago, Tranika says she was too insecure about her body and her sexuality to even wear a tank top. She also thought that The Ball, Winnipeg’s bi-monthly, pansexual fetish social gathering, was a big orgy populated by sexual deviants.
Today Tranika wears a collar — the BDSM equivalent of a wedding ring — with a D-ring so Brackus can "clip her to things."
As ironic as it sounds, she says being a submissive has actually liberated her. "It gives you a chance to explore yourself, to step outside your comfort zone and still feel safe," Tranika says.
"You have to trust your partner and know that even if they push your boundaries, they wouldn’t do anything to harm you."
While they’re aware their lifestyle choices can send shockwaves through the "vanilla world," especially among feminists, kinky folks insist it’s the subs who hold the bulk of the power in any BDSM relationship.
"It’s not that I’m superior to my wife, it’s just that I’m the one to make the decisions — and she wants me to," says Everett, 52, a retail manager who’s been in the scene for 12 years. He and his wife are into "percussion" or "impact" play — any activity involving striking or hitting, such as flogging, spanking or whipping — as well as fire play. (Picture a flaming flogger lightly brushing the skin.)
"It’s how we live as a couple," he says. "The devotion, the love, the protection, that’s all there, too."
Everett, chairman of the Winnipeg Kink Educational Committee, was instrumental in setting up two of Winnipeg’s previous dungeons: Club O 2002 operated in St. Boniface for eight months of that year, and The Playroom Group, also located in the Exchange District, ran from 2006 until the building was sold in 2010.
Prior to that, "We found ourselves renting hotel rooms to play in, which got very expensive," says Everett, who is usually decked out in head-to-toe leather when he plays. His wife also wears leather — even a hood on occasion — or PVC, and a collar with an "E" pendant hanging from it. Try doing that at home with two young kids in the house.
According to Cheeky Blue, a 47-year-old bank employee and former submissive of Descartes, "good available doms are hard to come by," especially if you’re into "needle play" like she is.
Tonight, she’s only getting three 18-gauge needles inserted into each breast — in a symmetrical pattern, two across and one underneath those, called a button — but has had dozens put in at once.
"The first time I had this done, I only had four needles and I had an out-of-body experience," Cheeky Blue, who has her eyes closed, says. "I haven’t had it since, but you’re always striving for that."
The euphoric state of which she speaks, a rush of endorphins released during intense pain play, is referred to as "subspace."
Descartes cautions against entering it without an experienced and caring guide.
"If you don’t know how to do this stuff, you’re playing with fire" (and not in the way Everett meant, although that can be dangerous, too), he says.
The credo in the kink community is "safe, sane and consensual." Boundaries may get pushed, especially in sadomasochism, but it’s the submissive partner who decides whether they get crossed. Anything else is abuse.
Healthy sadism and clinical sadism sometimes resemble each other, but only on the surface, says Dr. James Cantor, a psychologist and sex researcher at the University of Toronto.
"Healthy sadists — or doms — want their partners to experience pleasure. The amounts and kinds of pain they inflict is done with careful, even meticulous, exploration with the masochist (or sub)," Cantor writes in an email.
"Clinical sadists, however, inflict pain and humiliation without or despite any awareness of the effect it has on the victim."