He loops the mustard yellow rope into knots, strong fingers pulling it tight around her skin. One hand grips her shoulder, the other drapes the rope around her chest, pulling it into the first of several harnesses for a full-body "takate kote." It's taken him years to master box-tie suspension, and women like Cherise come here to learn, to spend an hour in someone else's control, hanging from ropes as their body drifts into a zen-like state of numbness.
"We never have sex," says DallasKink, a local rope maker and bondage instructor. "People come here in couples or single to explore things they're curious about or to learn how to tie each other up, and I'm happy to teach them."
Cherise is an average working mom with a day job in marketing and what she describes as a "vanilla life." She invited me along to watch her get tied up, to open my eyes to the sensual lifestyles that exist alongside the rest of Dallas. Her name, of course, is not Cherise, just as no one has ever named their child "DallasKink," but anonymity is vital for keeping their daily lives intact.
"America is still very conservative, and a lot of us could lose our jobs if we were publicly interested in these things," she says. "I'm balancing two different lives. Sometimes I think it's shame they have to be disconnected because the bondage community is certainly not as dark as people are led to believe."
Cherise says she also once assumed the community would be filled with Slipknot music, ass-less chaps and giant whips. Certainly Hollywood depicts the world of sexual dominance as savage and dangerous, but Cherise found the Dallas community to be respectful and welcoming of her exhibitionism and rope fantasies. And she found a teacher in DallasKink, who emphasizes safe practices and the importance of trust.
"My first rule is no neck," DallasKink says. "When you're playing with ropes, you never tie anyone up by the neck. That's when things get dangerous."
Such conversations about safety and proper technique became the inspiration for Bondage Expo Dallas, which was created by DallasKink last year. Now an annual event, this weekend-long convention take place April 25-27 at the downtown Crowne Plaza and runs the bondage gamut, teaching beginner techniques to the eager 50 Shades of Grey reader and heightening the practices of the hogtying exhibitionists. Bondage masters from across the globe visit the expo to discuss the distinction between torture and applied pain, or the psychology of predicament bondage, which embarrasses or humiliates its subject to fulfill unrealized desires.
For outsiders, understanding this need for mental fulfillment can be an entry point into an otherwise unfamiliar fetish. For many people in the BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) community, there is an inextricable link between their childhoods and their desires. This may sound perverse, but research demonstrates that latent desires, thoughts or interests in childhood spur sexual adult behavior. Unsurprisingly, Sigmund Freud gave the first detailed psychological reports of these behaviors, pointing to a child witnessing adults having sex and projecting a scenario of one adult controlling another onto the scene.
"They inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of ill-treatment or act of subjugation," Freud wrote, in an essay on theories of sexuality. "They view it, that is, in a sadistic sense."
In his studies on the topic, Dr. Charles Moser of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco finds the motivations for kinky behavior to be incredibly diverse. But his findings echo the sentiments of DallasKink, in that while the scenarios lead to intensified sexual fulfillment, they create catharsis rather than orgasm.
As Cherise hangs from the steel rods, the ropes taut against her skin, her face takes on a peaceful glow and her breathing relaxes. If she wiggles, the tension shifts, perhaps growing tighter on her right toe or her left shoulder. The knots are tied to create unrelenting pressure, signaling her lack of control. DallasKink explains that he uses the shibari method of rope tying, which dates to the restraint methods of the Japanese Edo period.
In the 17th century, samurai often needed to bind prisoners, so they employed a form of hojojutsu, the martial art of subjugation. In the 19th century, these methods were reappropriated to shibari, which is considered an art of erotic spirituality. To fully create the scenario, the rigger (usually referred to as the top) must be in full collaboration with the model, or bottom. Should the bottom ever begin to feel discomfort, they need only say the word and the top must let them down.
"The bottom is ultimately in control because they're the one at risk for injury," DallasKink says. "Even today this is not a science, a lot of times we're just making things up as we go."
Even when ropes are tied correctly, the bottom runs the risk of nerve damage. Each tie is a negotiation with a unique body. Sensitive spots can differ with each person or each day. DallasKink says it's the responsibility of the top to check on skin discoloration and the way a person reacts to the ties.
"Nerve compression is not uncommon. Tight ropes can cut into circulation and potentially do some serious damage," Cherise says. "It's important that you trust the person tying you up."
In the Dallas community, knowing who has a reputation as a trustworthy partner can be key for a newcomer. At any of the local dungeons (of which there are quite a few), there are strict rules of engagement: No alcohol, no penetration, no cutting, no personal conflicts, no names. You rent the room, bring your partner(s) and create a scenario. Then, you clean up the space and return to your daily life. But outside those walls, at private parties or in someone's house, there are no rules of engagement, allowing things sometimes to spiral out of control.
"If you want to reach a new level of zen, you've got to trust your top," Cherise says. "We're all here for a bit of danger, but you can never forget that your life is tied up in the ropes."
As I left the warehouse, all I could think about was how little we had talked about sex. Walking into the experience, I'd built a titillating narrative about this kinky underground community in Dallas, filled with orgy parties and swingers. Certainly, the community is not without those, but it's more sensual, and perhaps more mature than that. Bondage Expo Dallas (or BED, for short) is a safe place to learn and play. And of course, get a little bit turned on.
Bondage Expo Dallas runs Friday-Sunday at the Crowne Plaza, 1015 Elm St. All-access tickets at the door are $139.