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By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/27/2006 6:42:33 PM ET 2006-10-27T22:42:33

TAMPA, Fla. — While it’s not every night you find yourself stepping off a bus behind a 6-foot man dressed as Little Bo Peep, that’s not why I’m staring at him.

This bus is full of people going to a party at a club here called The Chambers, after spending the day at the Hyatt Regency for "FetishCon," an annual convention that is part trade show, part classroom, part nighttime scene for fetish aficionados and the merely curious.

In a little while, some of the several hundred people in attendance will be chained to large steel Xs and flogged with leather cat-o-nine tails. Men will crawl on all fours and lick the feet of the women who brought them. One topless woman, her skin painted with a mural by a professional artist named Pashur, will dance for hours in a pair of giant boots that make her 7 feet tall.

So compared with this phalanx of PVC, leather and latex, Bo Peep looks practically normal.

No, I’m staring because I’m pretty sure I interviewed this guy the day before on the trade show floor. On my tape of our conversation he talks about being an occasional transvestite, how it helps him land girlfriends, and a little about the whole fetish philosophy.(Some words on my recording are tough to hear because somebody in the background is cracking a bullwhip.)

But I can’t be positive this is the same guy because — no kidding — he looks a lot like Little Bo Peep. He’s wearing makeup, a blonde wig, a bonnet, a blue skirt with petticoats, the whole Bo Peep she-bang, including the shepherd’s staff.

Yesterday, sitting on a couch inside the hotel, he looked all the world like what he said he was, a middle-aged, upper middle-class IT manager for a major international charity. He wore a pair of Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt, his hair cut sensibly short like one of those guys from the 1960s glory days of IBM. He told me he was a Republican.

After spending three days and nights with bondage enthusiasts, submissives and dominants, a man mummified in duct tape, a huge pink bunny (who refused to speak to me because he was a bunny, and bunnies don’t talk), people dressed as ponies complete with actual tack, and a 49-year-old North Carolina housewife turned Superhero fetish icon named Super Becca, I have learned to check my preconceptions at the door.

A mental illness?
No one is sure just how many Americans are into fetish; there aren't any good surveys. The publisher of one fetish magazine says he figures about 7 percent of us could be called fetishists, but he's guessing. Everyone here, however, thinks it's growing, and if you believe the business people manning the booths selling everything from stainless steel slave collars to medical-grade speculums, it is.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules about what a fetish is. Is bondage a fetish or a practice? How about wearing whole-body rubber suits? Being spanked with a leather paddle? Nobody seems able to define it so everything tends to get lumped into it.

Supposed authorities aren't much help. For example, the World Health Organization and psychiatry’s DSM-IV manual classify “fetishism” as a mental illness. The WHO says it is a “reliance on some non-living object as a stimulus for sexual arousal and sexual gratification.” The fetish object might “simply serve to enhance sexual excitement achieved in ordinary ways (e.g. having a partner wear a particular garment).”

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In other words, every woman who ever imagined her man in a pair of buttless chaps, every man who thinks baby-doll nighties are the greatest invention since the centerfold, could be a fetishist.

“Occasionally somebody will find out what we do,” says Melissa, a 33-year-old engineer for a civilian defense contractor in Florida who is newly married to Bob, 34, a corporate controller. (She tells me this as she holds a leash attached to a collar around Bob’s neck. Bob is wearing a leather hood that covers his head.) When somebody does find out, Melissa continues, “often they have done some form of it, too. Maybe not to the extent we do, but they say, ‘Oh yeah, we do handcuffs.’ Lots of people have tried it.”

While fetish can come to seem like any sexual practice that makes the “vanilla” world — the slightly derogatory name that fetishists use for anybody who's not into fetishism — uncomfortable and while there may be no such thing as a typical fetishist, a few commonalities have emerged over the past few days as I wandered the convention, attended the classes and went to parties.

To see and be seen
Fetish is an aesthetic statement, not just a sexual one. For example, though some fetishists might be into swinging and group sex, neither of those activities are a big part of fetish. In fact, some fetishists refer to "lifestylers" (meaning swingers) with a bit of a sneer.

Sex at fetish parties in public spaces is frowned upon, partly because it can be illegal but also because it's considered a breach of etiquette. (In private, or in small gatherings, people sometimes do have forms of exhibitionist sex if that's their fetish.) Here the idea is to see and be seen — imagine a sex-oriented Star Trek convention.

For most fetishists, privacy is critical. Even at fetish events like this one, a young woman tells me, “You do not walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe, I am a corporate banker.’ You do not give out personal details because there is a risk involved. We value our jobs.” She happens to be a microbiologist who works in waste water treatment for a Florida municipality.

Many trace their interest in alternative sex practices to youth, or even childhood. “My earliest memory — I didn’t even know about sex — was the warm feeling a spanking would give me,” a woman named Rita, who works at the Kink Shop in Shreveport, La., recalls. “When I couldn’t sleep as a girl, if I thought about spanking, I could drift off.” She was married to the same man for 31 years “but I could not get my husband to hit me for anything.” She’s now involved with a “master” who obliges.

Media often provide a first introduction to the fetish world. Some fetishists cite comic books, sci-fi movies and fantasy art like that of Frank Frazetta, famous for his hugely muscled barbarian men and voluptuous, mostly naked women.

“I was 8 years old and up late and saw a movie on HBO,” Melissa says. “A man, fully clothed, spanked a partially nude woman in a hallway and it spoke to me. I thought, there is something about this I like. I have to know more about it.”

The Internet has been a powerful force in the mainstreaming of fetish. For example, the day Rita got a connection, she typed “spanking” into a search engine and realized for the first time “that I was not the only person in the world.”

“Dude, it started off with, like a 300-baud modem,” James, a 27-year-old electrical engineering student from Knoxville, Tenn., tells me. “Even as a little kid, before I even knew anything about sex, I used to really like tying people up. Then my dad went back to school to study computer science and we had like, an old 286 computer. It took five minutes to download one picture! But I could look up whatever I wanted.”

Once a taboo is overcome, a new world opens. “You cannot turn back,” James says.

“That’s true. You can’t go back to vanilla sex once you taste this,” agrees Anastasia Pierce, a professional fetish model, actress and movie producer based in Los Angeles. “It’s a very adrenaline thing. You try stuff constantly and go, 'Oh, this feels good! I never tried that!'”

But as much as fetishists love what they do, many express mixed feelings that fetish has gone mainstream. Fashion layouts in Vogue and big budget movies like "The Matrix" use fetish clothing, and thousands of “goth” kids show up at clubs dressed in fetish attire.

“Yes, they’re being rebels,” Pierce says sarcastically of the young arrivistes.

On the other hand, many fetishists I talk to here have been among the most thoughtful people about their sex lives I have ever encountered. They have to be.

“What a lot of people in the vanilla world do not understand is that this entails an extreme amount of trust,” a “lifestyle master” who works as a real estate agent tells me. Part of his job is to dish out just the right amount of pain to his girlfriend. “It is a trust that goes beyond what a lot of people in everyday vanilla relationships have. Left and right they are lying to each other, doing things behind each other's back. A lot of that does not happen here.”

Abuse, degradation and love
Some say the very nature of participating in fetishes like bondage, sadomasochism and humiliation requires a level of communication between partners that many other couples never experience.

They also argue that the vanilla world misunderstands the practicalities of fetish. While some do seem to immerse themselves in it as an almost full-time way of life, most don’t.

“A lot of times you come home after a long day and you’re tired and you really do not feel like spending 30 minutes tying somebody up,” says James, the engineering student. “Then it’s like, can we just have sex?”

“What we do is a very big part of our lives,” Bob explains from behind his leather hood. “But it is not strictly this. We have a normal life. We have [regular] sex. This is part of our sexual relationship but it is not who we are. We are very much in love.”

His wife, Melissa, describes one way they express that love: “I put him in his place. I verbally abuse him. I degrade him. I spit on him, urinate on him, absolutely anything I can think of to take that smug little look off his face.”

And then she looks at Bob and they both laugh the warm laugh of affection.

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and MSNBC.com's Sexploration columnist, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is chronicling his work in the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing. In the next installment in this series, he ventures into the world of online exhibitionism.

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