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Brian Alexander
updated 1/14/2008 8:29:59 AM ET 2008-01-14T13:29:59

Becoming the msnbc.com Sexploration columnist proved to be much more of an education than Brian Alexander had ever anticipated. The questions from readers covered a huge range of sexual activities, some of which were rather eye-opening. Many questions could not be used in the column because they were too, well, just too much. "But they made me wonder what we were really up to in this country, especially considering the so-called 'culture wars,' many of which are just euphemisms for sex," he says. "Since people often prefer to keep their sexual escapades quiet, the voices I was hearing through the column’s correspondence weren’t being heard. I wanted to go find them."

So off he went, traveling the country over a period of a year, reporting for a series we called America Unzipped and for his new book of the same name. Througha chain of adventures, Alexander discovered that many Americans are much less buttoned-up than is generally thought. He attended a hot-sex seminar for evangelical Christians and an erotic toy party for housewives in the heartland. He "learned the ropes" at a fetish convention and became a salesman in an adult superstore. He even donned PVC pants for an evening at a popular sex club in Seattle. Adapted from his provocative and funny new book "America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," out Jan. 15, here's a look into a "fire play" seminar held at the club:

I have arrived in Seattle to put myself in the hands of Allena Gabosch. I had asked Allena, the director of an organization called the Center for Sex Positive Culture, popularly known as the Wet Spot, to mentor me. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a member of a sex club where BDSM, fetish, swinging, pretty much the entire gamut of America’s sexual menu, played out. I thought becoming one with my inner perv, overcoming my intransigent vanilla persona, would allow me to reach a new depth of understanding.

Allena was a good choice. She is hopelessly funny and has a sense of humor about the scene and the people in it. Yet she is also a big, dominating, tattooed, tender earth mother, with long, dark stringy hair and a gapped-toothed smile and a lot of pounds she would like to shed because she thinks skydiving ought to be her next adventure. Finally, Allena has the advantage of having been around awhile. She has seen how much sex, and our attitudes about sex, have changed over the past decade. Mostly, she is encouraged, but she is no blind cheerleader.

When I called her, we talked about my travels so far and how sex had become such a cultural focus. I told her about the mail I received from msnbc.com readers and she wasn’t surprised. A new era of sexual experimentation had clearly taken hold, she said, and not just by the usual suspects of free-love hippies and dissolute hipsters with too much money, but everybody from all walks of life were starting to show up at the Wet Spot seeking information about sex that heretofore had been considered edgy and rare. She wasn’t exactly sure why this was happening now — we talked about the Internet and pop culture but these didn’t seem completely satisfying — just that over the past five years or so, her clientele had boomed. The Wet Spot now had eight thousand members in the Seattle area, the eldest 81 years old. All of them had redefined “normal” for themselves.

Allena was most excited by the center’s new status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Many companies in the area have programs that match employee contributions to 501(c)(3) charities, and Allena was joyful from knowing that companies like Microsoft and Boeing, both of whom have employees who are Wet Spot members, could help subsidize the center.

“Bill Gates is going to be supporting Sex Positive!” she said several times. This was a sign to her that sex-positive culture, a vague term that implies a celebratory attitude about all kinds of sexual variation among adults, had arrived and was now an ineluctable part of mainstream life in America.

On the afternoon of my arrival in the city, I drive over to the Wet Spot. It is situated not far from downtown Seattle almost under a bridge overpass. From the outside, it’s not much, just a white concrete block building with a rutted, mainly dirt, parking lot and a small sign by the steel front door saying SPCC. Not just anybody can walk in. A small reception desk inside the front door is always manned and there is paperwork to fill out and identification to provide and releases to sign stating that you know what you are in for.

People are also asked to provide a name to be used by the organization in case they prefer their real names never to be spoken. There are a few prominent citizens who belong despite the risk that some unscrupulous fellow member might contact an employer, say, and out a member. I fill out my paperwork and show my identification, promising to abide by strict confidentiality rules.

Despite never having seen Allena in person, I recognize her right away. Though a half dozen other people are here, nobody else could possibly be her. She runs up to me and gives me a hug as if we have known each other for years.

Allena shows me around with all the pride of a woman who has built something from virtually nothing. She and her volunteer staff overcame the obvious social and political barriers to create a place Allena feels is safe and welcoming to everyone. A small snack bar with soft drinks and bottled water and juices is built into the wall closest to the front of the building. Facing inward, three rooms line the right-hand side: Allena’s office, a small library offering reading materials on sex, and an operating room with medical equipment.

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The operating room isn’t for show. When I ask about it, I am told that they “don’t actually remove any organs or anything,” but small bits of tissue might be taken or incisions made.

The far left side of the building has a small shower and a locker room, an after-care room with a futonlike bed where submissives recover from their sub-space trips, and a play space with BDSM gear. A custom-made steel and wooden bondage bed, more gear, and a cubicle with a regular bed where people can have sex await in a back room.

I have come this evening specifically for the Fire Play Seminar. I’m not sure what fire play is, and having learned a lesson when I casually asked a woman at a fetish convention about genital torture, I have not asked for details. But Allena tells me I’ll love it because it is one of the edgier modes of BDSM action. I will learn from a man named Paradox, a 45-year-old dean of libraries at a major state university where the administration has no idea their dean is well-known in BDSM circles for lighting naked women on fire. Paradox thinks such news might cause consternation.

As people begin arriving for the seminar, I think I notice a type. A short, muscular, bald man in a canvas kilt and Doc Martens stands off to one side. He introduces himself to me as Fandar. Another man, tall and bald, arrives wearing a black leather tricorn hat, a silky black poofy pirate shirt, leather pants with a codpiece attached, and leather boots that extend over his knees.

“These are Renaissance fair people,” I say to Allena.

“Oh yeah, and sci-fi geeks. Totally. I know I was. It’s all about fantasy.”

We settle down into folding chairs and Paradox begins. “Fire touches our inner core, our animalistic side, our fear. But it also touches our intellectual core…”

At first Paradox was afraid to play with fire. But nine years ago, a dom in Nebraska (a dom in Nebraska? I’m not sure I ever expected to hear that exact pairing of words) taught him how to do it safely, and ever since he has considered it “one of the more fun aspects of BDSM play. This is very much edge play,” he says ominously. “It is very easy to screw something up badly. With this stuff, safety protocols are all important … Play with fire long enough, you will get burned.”

Fire and nudity are two things I would have thought are best avoided in combination, but Paradox keeps emphasizing the fun. He starts with a list of safety precautions, explains the importance of using 70 percent isopropyl alcohol as our fuel source (30 percent of it is water and that acts as a barrier between the alcohol and the skin), and explains why the head of the submissive should be covered: burning hair puts a damper on the mood.

Paradox is a handy fellow. He makes much of his own equipment, mainly from stuff he finds at Home Depot. Paradox says he walks down the aisles looking for “pervertibles,” hardware ostensibly for one use that, with a little imagination, can take on entirely different uses. For example, a few wooden dowels, some cotton batting and string can be used to create “fire wands,” small torches. Paradox has a half-dozen of them arrayed on a stand next to a table where his demonstration model, Jenny, is lying topless, a long skirt still tied around her waist. Each one of these constructions must have taken Paradox fifteen minutes to create and that was after the trip to Home Depot. Yet the flames will last seconds. BDSM is a lot of work, which may be why I’ve never taken to it. I’m more the “feed me grapes and bring me wine” sort of hedonist.

First, Paradox applies flaming Q-tips to Jenny’s naked back. This is the “warm-up period.” He rubs them up and down her spine until the flame dies, then repeats with another, a series of blue and yellow dancing fairies tripping up and down her body.

Next he lights his fire wands and gently beats Jenny. The flame wooshes through the air, the wand hits Jenny with a thud, and the wand goes out, usually after one or two hits. Jenny, a short, fleshy young woman with a number of healing bruises, stands up and Paradox whaps her, not very hard, with the fire wands. I look around to watch the dozen or so people observing Jenny being hit by the wands and the flames. They like what they see, but I sense no erotic charge at all.

Fire wands are just the beginning, the easy intro. Over the next half hour, Paradox uses canes, exploding flash cotton of the type used by magicians, and then twin floggers made of Kevlar that he soaks in alcohol, lights, and uses to flog a now-naked Jenny as she stands braced and tied against a big wooden X. Allena dims the lights so we can appreciate the full effect of the whirling, flaming floggers.

“Whoa!”

“Cool!”

“That is awesome!”

Woosh, woosh, woosh, the floggers fly in big blazing circles hitting Jenny and then wheeling back in an arc of fire.

For his pièce de résistance, Paradox lays Jenny back down on the table and forms trails of alcohol in patterns across her back, butt and legs. He orders the lights dimmed. Then he fires up a violet wand and lets the blue and yellow static electricity spark — zzit zzit — through the air. Holding it just above her back, he activates it again and a spark flies from the glass tip onto Jenny’s back, igniting the trails of alcohol.

“Aww! Brilliant!”

But he’s not done. While she is still lying down, Paradox uses soft wax to form a bowl on the small of her back. He pours in some alcohol and lights it. Jenny has become, one audience member says approvingly, “a human candelabra!”

“That is so sexy.”

Adapted from America Unzipped by Brian Alexander. Copyright (c) 2008 by Brian Alexander. Reprinted by arrangement with Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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