As tourists outside the Burbank Marriott hop on shuttles headed for Universal Studios, Doug and his partner, Tigrita, are inside a hotel conference room, lecturing on relationships: compatibility, physical attraction, boundaries, communication - all of which could apply to any couple. But this is no ordinary relationship seminar.
"I was married for 20 years," Doug says at a key moment, "and my wife never understood my need for S&M."
And not just S&M. Doug and Tigrita, like all the couples (and singles) here on this Saturday morning, are part of what's surely one of the most politically incorrect relationship dynamics: men dominating women."For me, the pain is the emotion that it incites," says Tigrita, her wavy, auburn hair framing her glasses. She's tall and wears a simple cardigan paired with a red top. Lining the walls of the hotel meeting room are posters of movies including Secretary, The Story of O and Sick. "I don't get off on the pain. I get off on the helpless, pathetic mess I am at the end of the night. And I finally found a safe place to do that."
Doug and Tigrita's talk is titled "Expressing Our Darkness in the Light of a Healthy Relationship," and it's part of a two-day conference called BOLD. For all of BDSM's inherent kinkiness, this is a staid affair, primarily workshops and panel discussions geared toward people who classify themselves as MDHL-fs (male dominant heterosexual leather-female submissives), the leather in that acronym denoting straight men who are into leather as an identifier of their sexual power.
It's the last weekend of February, and the hotel's lobby is buzzing with attendees of all ages and ethnicities. The clothing is overall average, though there's a lone kilt. The event organizers, however, have on black leather vests with crown emblems sewn on the back. Some also have on leather pants. They look like a mix of bikers, guys you'd see at a goth club and ordinary professionals who just happen to be wearing leather vests. They call themselves Monarchs.
Doug and Colin are Monarchs, which they describe as an exclusive "brotherhood" of some 20 MDHLs mostly living in L.A. They range in age from 20 to 60 and include doctors, lawyers, engineers and college professors. They're tight-lipped about the rest - that's "club business."
Still, a few days before the conference, the two agree to sit down at the hotel's restaurant to talk about the idea behind BOLD, as syrupy love songs by Katy Perry and Adele play overhead.
"We've always been a very private group," Doug, 47, says. (Both he and Colin decline to give their last names or occupations.) "But a few years ago we decided to make that more public. We wanted to create a venue for people to talk about those issues."
In its third year, and with minimal online advertising, BOLD - "it was just a cool name we came up with" - has attracted nearly 200 like-minded folks from as far as Australia, who come to learn and connect without judgment from the "vanilla world."
There are no vendors here selling sex toys or people looking to hook up. There's no dungeon.
"What we're offering is in-depth relationship study," says Colin, 55.
"Ninety percent of our attendees have full toy bags," Doug insists. "They don't need a new flogger. There's a much deeper level of conversation going on."
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The weekend kicks off with a discussion of L.A.'s leather history with noted gay leather man, author and L.A.-based psychotherapist Guy Baldwin. Although leather has been historically associated with gay culture, the organizers maintain that the leather lifestyle has a broader context and resonance.
"It's a hodgepodge of different histories that come together mostly from marginalized communities," Doug says. "It's that one, unifying kind of word that everybody can relate to being an outsider."
Later, they introduce the Carter Johnson Leather Library, a traveling collection of thousands of books and ephemera on the history of kink, dating back to the Marquis de Sade, set up here in the back of the conference space. (It's probably the only library where you'll find a girl shining her boyfriend's boots.)
Presenters from across the country teach courses on topics such as "Finding and Loving the Slave Within" and "Race, Gender & BDSM - The Myths and Reality." The classes are divided into male, female and couples, most of whom identify themselves as master/slave or dominant/submissive.
An outsider could easily get bogged down by all the labels. But one commonality is the shared love of leather, which they maintain is not just a fetishized symbol but a community, or, as one of the female presenters defines it, "a tribal feeling."
Doug's interest in BDSM started as early as age 5 or 6. "As I got older, I found it to be a very isolating experience," he says. "I felt that those desires are not normal, and everything in society told me they're not normal."
After his divorce, he started a relationship with Tigrita, and the two have been monogamous for four years, with a shared passion for Japanese erotic rope bondage. "She would describe herself as an emotional masochist," Doug says.
"We have one simple rule," he says. "I'm able to do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. I don't have control. I have a power-based relationship. And she can acquiesce, she can not enjoy it, she can kick, she can scream, punch me or run away. It doesn't matter, because I'm going to do what I wanna do, and that's our agreement. That's how we play. And sometimes when she hates it, that's exactly what she needs. She needs to feel disempowered and injured, in large part because that's how she exorcises that part of herself."
He continues: "She's an incredibly smart, strong and powerful woman. I would put our women psychologically, emotionally and intellectually up against anybody. It would probably surprise a lot of people to know that they identify themselves as feminists. All of this comes from strength, not weakness."
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Colin was attracted to BDSM in his late teens, and recalls the pre-Internet days of writing to adult magazines.
"There was an element of excitement because it was a lot more risky," Colin says.
He currently has six partners - "I'm built to be in a multi-love relationship."
"I have a patriarchal system," he says. "I'm head of the household. I consider it a family. But I have the last word. That's really what it means. It's not 50 Shades of Grey bullshit. That's a fantasy. That's a novel."
He adds. "You can't have control over somebody. Anybody can come and go as they please. But I have authority. If you use it wisely, people are gonna stay around. If you use it unwisely, people are gonna be gone real quick."
Another Monarch is Bondman, 66. Taking a break on the conference's last day, he sits across from his wife, 56. He's retired and she's a nurse. They met online and have been married for 16 years. Bondman's girlfriend lives with them.
They have a total of seven children from previous relationships - they're "out" as far as the kids go.
"We told them we're a family and we do weird stuff," his wife says. "They don't ask too many questions."
What's the biggest misconception about being a submissive? "That slaves have no power," his wife says. "That we're helpless. The service I give him, the things I do for him, he gives it back to me emotionally, sexually, everything that you would think of, tenfold. He's never made feel like I'm less than."
"It's all consensual and it's not abusive," Bondman says. "Because we know what abuse is."
The two call each other master and slave, "but sometimes they call me Daddy," he says of his wife and girlfriend, to whom he refers as "right" and "left."
But not always - it's a different world outside the walls of this Marriott. "It varies," he says. "We don't wanna scare all the vanilla people out there."
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