It’s Saturday afternoon. Sunlight streams through the windows of Tim Hortons at the corner of Robie and Young. A travelling high school sports team files in to fuel up on coffee and muffins. Couples both young and old order their customary blends—medium double-double, small black, large three-cream—and sit contentedly in the familiar surroundings.
Wade Mason enters, orders and takes a seat. With his pale skin, faded winter jacket, close-cropped military hair and blue jeans, the 40-something Mason blends right into this generic, easy-going environment. If it weren’t for his awkward demeanour and guarded expression, this could be any other caffeine-fix on any other day.
Today is different because Mason (not his real name) has agreed to be interviewed about his sex life—or, more accurately, about his alternative lifestyle. Mason, known to his close friends as “Spanker” or “Spankher,” is a member of PALS (People in Alternative Lifestyles), a province-wide group whose members are interested in BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism).
PALS was first formed in Halifax in 1999 by a small group of similarly-interested individuals who met in each other’s homes. There are now roughly 100 PALS members across Nova Scotia and they hope to keep growing. Members meet regularly in Halifax for “munches,” and occasional “playparties.” Twenty members met last Saturday night for a munch (a “social gathering of BDSM-friendly people”) at a local restaurant.
“It’s like any other kind of group, like a card-playing group,” says Mason, “it’s just a bunch of people having dinner together, shooting the breeze. It’s a way to meet like-minded people.”Participants dress in street clothes (“wear what you’re wearing,” says Mason), reserving the leather, latex, whips and collars for playparties where activities can vary from bondage and hot waxing to role playing and verbal abuse.
“I probably shouldn’t be talking about that,” says Mason. He pauses. “I mean, it’s nothing illegal. There’s a thousand shades of gray for BDSM so it could be anything. We try to educate people, do demos, things like that. Sometimes we just get together and have a picnic at someone’s place, it’s a social group for the most part.”
As a social group, PALS takes the prize for “most misunderstood.” Consequently, members are very leery of outsider scrutiny. They fear the hateful manifestations of intolerance and worry about the repercussions of being “outed.” As one concerned member writes in an e-mail, “this is an interesting subject, we all understand that, but publicity may be dangerous to us all.”
This sense of isolation makes recruitment and pursuing social acceptance problematic for PALS—they want to open people’s eyes, yet they don’t want to be seen.
“In the last couple of years we’ve been trying to actively promote more interest in the group,” says Mason, “trying to get more involved in the local community, but it’s hard. It’s a fine line we’re juggling along there. We want new people to come out, but at the same time we don’t want to be recognized. We want to be accepted, but we don’t want to be mainstream. It’s a conundrum.”
TV shows like Showcase’s documentary series KINK help bridge the gap and bring a greater understanding (or at least awareness) of BDSM to the public. But in Mason’s eight years since “coming out kinky,” he’s never met anyone like the characters portrayed on KINK.
“I think they go out looking for the more extreme people they can find, the more off-the-wall types,” says Mason. (Like Jules, who surgically implanted a large number of metal balls into his scrotum and penis, or Chiken, a “trannie death punk,” who went to a cheap motel room to be castrated.)
PALS members, on the other hand, are “mostly just regular folks who like to have fun.” Looking at Mason, you’d never guess he’s a dominant male who likes to tie up submissive women. With his soft features and pale eyes, Mason hardly cuts an intimidating figure. And that’s the point. KINK is to the BDSM world as Hollywood and sitcoms are to the “vanilla” world: flashy, entertaining and unrealistic. Reality, in comparison, is bland. But it’s also much more surprising.
Surrounded by bagel crumbs, coffee mugs and identical beige tabletops, Mason outlines the two most common misconceptions about the PALS group, namely, “that it’s some kind of sex group or swingers thing,” and “BDSM is all about whips and chains and torture.” In fact, explains Mason, the point behind BDSM is to explore yourself. And there is technically no sex involved.
“It’s arousal instead of sexual,” says Mason. “My favourite example is religion. You see over in Rome or wherever, people get up on the crosses or walk down the streets flagellating themselves and bleeding, and they do that to heighten their experience. Of course when we do the same thing , not even to that degree, we’re considered perverts. When all we’re doing is the same thing—it’s just another way of getting to that point.”
The “point” Mason is referring to is called “sub-space” in the BDSM community. “It’s that euphoric feeling,” says Mason. “You get all floaty, high on endorphins and adrenaline. You can blindfold someone and talk them into feeling that way. I’ve actually done that, it’s kind of neat.”
Visibly relaxing, Mason describes the importance of PALS for its members. “For a lot of people it’s a huge weight off their shoulders. They think they’re the only one out there. It’s fun actually seeing someone open up like a flower almost, when they see “oh, I’m not the only one. I’m not a sicko pervert. I’m fairly normal.”
“It’s a decision people have to make: ‘Yes this is me and I want to find out more about myself.’”