Nawdy Little Girl, or Nawdy, as she's known in and out of Humboldt's kink circles, steps behind the St. Andrew's cross, a 6-foot wood and metal "x" with wrist restraints. It towers over the cropped blonde hair that tops her 4-foot-7-inch frame as she explains how the whole apparatus bolts together and breaks down to fit in her car like a piece of Ikea furniture. "When you have a sub who's a welder..." she says with a shrug.
She and a handful of volunteers are setting up for Fetish Night at the Siren's Song Tavern. This month's theme is The Matrix, so she's zipped into a shiny, black jumpsuit and over-the-knee boots. In another hour, some of the braver women and men who've paid the $5 cover charge will line up to stretch out on the cross or the padded spanking bench for a few minutes of paddling and flogging at the hands of a pro. One of those seemingly tireless floggers is Whitefeather Trotta, a broad man in a leather vest with a sharp widow's peak, a goatee and a slick, black braid of hair.
Trotta heads up Sex Positive Humboldt, the most recent organization to put on the underground sex parties attended by hundreds of locals. The scene has had some turnover. Trotta and Nawdy have become two of the kink community's more visible faces in recent years. Beyond keeping the public and private parties rolling, both are on a mission to educate and bring BDSM — bondage, domination and sadomasochism — out of the dungeon.
The memories of some of those involved in Humboldt's sex party history are understandably fuzzy, but in the early 2000s, Club Risqué, a loosely formed band of revelers who emerged from the rave scene, began hosting to-dos with all manner of swingers and kinksters around the county. The more formally organized Impropriety Society then took over with its inaugural Cherries Jubilee event in 2008. The group brought in legal waivers, rules of conduct and teams of trained volunteers with the mission of keeping participants safe and happy in a confidential, judgment-free setting. And so it went, with a few bacchanalias a year, until founding members of the society, or "the Imps," decamped for Portland in 2012. Since then, Safer Sex Humboldt, Something Different Humboldt and now Sex Positive Humboldt have taken up the mantle.
Those with means can travel beyond the Redwood Curtain for massive affairs that cater to their specific kinks and tastes, but up here, according to partygoers, if you want to play, you have to get along. The population is just too small to maintain distinct factions. The swingers, the LGBTQ crowd, the furries and the BDSM fans mingle and party shoulder to shoulder here. Which is not to say there is no tension — one kink community member who asked not to be named says the BDSM people can be a little "kinkier than thou" — but mostly the peace is kept with the mantra, "don't yuck on my yum." In other words, live and let whatever.
Sitting across a café table in a gray sweater with his large hands folded in front of him, Trotta hardly seems like the same man who used a wooden Smashball paddle to smack a bound man's rear on Fetish Night. He speaks quietly enough that one has to lean in to hear him, and his full cheeks and the crinkling corners of his blue eyes suggest he might one day (with a little stuffing) make a fine Santa.
Originally from a rancheria in the Sacramento foothills, Trotta is Miwuk Indian and Italian. He has no children of his own, but says he came to Humboldt County 17 years ago to help with the care of his nieces. Most days, he's up pre-dawn to work in a bakery, where he deals in perhaps our culture's second most shameful sin: bread.
Trotta has been active in Humboldt's kink community for the last 15 years but in "the lifestyle" for 24. By lifestyle, he means BDSM. Asked what appeals to him about it, he chuckles. "I like rules." He also likes the communication that BDSM play and relationships require: clear discussions, written contracts outlining what is and is not acceptable, continual checking in, and safe words that can halt everything.
Trotta sees himself as an educator, both in the community and at events like Fetish Night. "Many people here don't go outside of [Humboldt's] bubble," he says. "I try to bring experience from outside so they can have a safe and sane experience and try to learn." It takes proper equipment and technique to keep things safe. Shoddy benches and crosses, hitting too hard or in vulnerable spots, or binding someone in the wrong place can lead to serious injury. Trotta says, "In my years of practice, I've seen some pretty terrible things. Can I stop that? I can try but the best thing I can do is educate."
Trotta himself is a dom, or dominant, always the one in control, or "topping" the other person, as opposed to a sub, or submissive, who chooses to submit to that control. He says he's not "wired" to submit to anyone but his parents, whom he considers his best friends and whose faces are tattooed over his heart. "They don't get it but they support what I do," he says.
Plenty of people don't get it. It was only in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders published in 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association moved BDSM out of the section for paraphilic disorders, dysfunctions related to extreme and socially unacceptable sexual desires, some of which (pedophilia, for example) are non-consensual. Kate Knight, who teaches introductory classes on BDSM at Good Relations, says BDSM is an umbrella term for "an energetic back and forth between two people ... [that] may or may not even involve their sexuality," and that the rough stuff is in pursuit of "that neuro-chemical cocktail" of endorphins our bodies produce in response to pain. Other sensory play can lead to a good cocktail, too, and not all of it is sexual. Then there is the psychological aspect of playing roles. Ideally, says Knight, "at the base of all BDSM ... there's this underlying idea that we're all equal and we're going to play a game where we're not."
As a young man, Trotta was introduced to bondage after a friend saw some of the traditional Native American leather craft he'd done and asked him to make some restraints. Later, he met an older woman and her dominant, and for two years the pair mentored him in the tools of the trade, as well as the dynamics of BDSM relationships.
But Trotta was raised never to strike a woman, and getting past that, even with consent, "was huge." Having studied martial arts, he says he was eventually able to approach elements of pain play — spanking, flogging and the like — the same way he sparred with women in his kempo karate dojo: with control and consent, and without malice or anger, a practice from which both parties benefit.
Unlike many people in the kink scene, the 42-year-old Trotta always uses his given name. While he tries to be discreet when he runs into people from parties out in the world, he's not shy about his own lifestyle. "I don't get embarrassed very easily," he says. Traveling with his parents, both academics, to poor and less developed places in Europe, Asia and the Middle East as a child humbled him, he says, and taught him "you have to make yourself happy." These days Trotta, who identifies as polyamorous, has a primary girlfriend and two subs, or submissives. "I'm very fortunate," he says, adding, "it's not for everyone. ... I live by Google Calendar."
Those calendar juggling skills come in handy with Sex Positive Humboldt. According to Trotta, who has helmed two events so far, planning with the core committee of a dozen or so volunteers starts three months out. Trotta fell ill a few weeks earlier and was forced to push back the next party to April, but it's his goal to apply the management and organizational skills he uses at his day job to whittle the process down to a month of work that someone else can step in and manage if need be. "It's a matter of making checklists and organizing people."
The whole thing costs somewhere around $2,500 to put together. First, the group needs to secure insurance — typically a $1 million policy for $400 to $500 — and book a venue, the price of which varies. Ideally, the location is a little out of the way and large enough for up to 300 people. Bayside Grange, he says, worked out well (though a grange volunteer said she recalled no events booked under the organization's name). It needs to have separate rooms or a layout that can be broken up into a dance floor, performance stage, food area, "blue room" (a non-sexual space to take a break), a walled-off BDSM area and half a dozen or more mattresses separated by partitions and equipped with viewing chairs, stacks of clean sheets, laundry bins, lubricants, condoms and baby wipes. The staff (which includes security and clean-up), can number around 75. The live entertainers are all volunteers, says Trotta, and nobody takes home a check. Whatever money is left over from the sale of $30 and $40 tickets after paying for the DJ, catering, laundry, advertising, equipment, décor and other supplies and incidentals rolls over into the next event. Even the mattresses are donated by individuals and local businesses.
For months ahead of an event, volunteers get together for weekly crafting parties, painting, glittering and glue-gunning decorations to transform the chosen venue on a budget. "Pinterest is our friend," says Trotta, smiling. Those gatherings are social, too, a non-judgmental "place where they can come and be uplifted." Back home with his Native American family, he says, "there was always somewhere to go or something to do," opportunities to talk openly in groups that he doesn't see enough of in mainstream culture. He sees craft nights with like-minded kinksters filling that void, particularly for people who don't fit in easily elsewhere.
According to Trotta, the parties are organized for the comfort of attendees. There is no touching without permission, there are no camera phones, the BDSM room is always set apart to avoid freaking people out and the "Vibes Crew" is on hand to guide nervous newcomers, bring water to those catching their breath or just point folks to the bathroom. The waiver, which is being updated, has undergone a few changes. Most significantly, no booze or drugs are allowed on site. Trotta says the changes in the definition of consent at Humboldt State and other universities to "an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity" spurred the shift. The previous, more lighthearted mantra, "drunk isn't sexy," has given way to dry parties. Not everyone is thrilled with the on-site ban on social lubricants and liquid courage; some attendees say the rule isn't enforced and others worry it will encourage people to drink more heavily before the event. But Trotta stands by the ban, saying that those who are too drunk to give consent are not allowed in, and while he has no problem with people drinking in general, he doesn't want participants at a Sex Positive Humboldt party looking back and thinking, "Oh my God, what did I do?"
The crowd is rolling in at the Siren's Song when a woman in a red bustier scurries over to the low sofa where Nawdy is sitting to inform her that someone is leading a woman around with her hands cuffed.
"In front or behind?" asks Nawdy, who decides to let it go so long as the woman isn't left unattended. Nawdy won't be doling out any lashes this evening, instead she's working the room as hostess. While volunteer Fire Candy cheerfully twirls a pair of leather floggers over a squirming woman like the captain of a nefarious flag drill team, Nawdy puts her hands on her hips and surveys the room. "I was supposed to beat a guy but he wound up with a flat tire," she huffs.
Nawdy, who prefers not to use her given name, is always Nawdy — like a superhero who has abandoned her civilian identity. The diminutive mother of two has been a fixture on the Humboldt scene since she moved here from Oregon 12 years ago and started hitting Club Risqué parties. She tried her hand at throwing a big party herself a couple of years ago, but found the workload overwhelming. She prefers these days to throw smaller private events for which she curates guest lists, as well as running Fetish Night and keeping her hand in events like Humboldt Pride and educational workshops she might be invited to. While she does make some money through parties and Fetish Night, she laments that it's not enough for her to quit her other work.
"I think AOL changed my world," she says, laughing at how she first started exploring kink and BDSM: "Dial-up." At 19, she was chatting online and later she started web camming with people for fun. She didn't exactly find a mentor there, but she did find men who wanted her to tell them what to do, which she found hilarious and fascinating. Over the years, she's done some fetish modeling, phone sex and dominatrix work, but nothing involving actual sex for money. "Then I would feel like a prostitute," she says. Not that she's against legalized prostitution; Nawdy concedes that prostitutes provide a valuable service and that "lack of human touch is a very sad thing."
Waving a hand at the roped-off spanking area, she says, "This was really important to bring this out." For her, this forum, tame as it is compared to other scenes, is about letting people ask questions. There is plenty to be gleaned online and from books (Nawdy rolls her eyes at the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon — "everybody saw the movie and now they're a pervert"), but nothing beats hands-on learning.
Like many in the kink community, Nawdy feels BDSM, though entirely consensual, has gotten a bad rap as sick and violent. "The girls are at roller derby in fishnets slamming into each other ... and if I was out there nobody would ask why." In fact, she likens BDSM to sport, insofar as it's physical, produces an endorphin rush and requires skill. She is quick to say that not all BDSM is about pain — or even sex and intercourse — and much of it is about roles and power. "For me, it's about being silly and playing and having fun ... I enjoy giggling in the dungeon," says Nawdy. In other places, like big cities, the vibe is deadly serious and that kind of levity is frowned upon, but in Humboldt, a light touch, as it were, prevails.
The parties, big and small, are still fun for Nawdy. Echoing the sentiments of a number of attendees and volunteers, she marvels at humanity's endless variety — while very little shocks her, there's always something at a party she hasn't seen before. "I get off on other people getting off," she says.
It's hard to imagine Nawdy blushing, but she admits that now and then at an event, she'll come down off the cross after a spanking (she's a "switch," meaning she plays both dominant and submissive roles) and feel a gut-punch of panic at seeing someone she knows from outside the realm of kink, like a former co-worker or fellow parent. And while she refuses to be shamed, she's not immune to the judgment or criticism that come with being public about her lifestyle. "It bothers me that it bothers me," she says.
Like Trotta, most of her family members know what she's up to (her mother sometimes calls to wish her a good Fetish Night). Her conservative father, who is still getting over her smoking pot, remains in the dark. Her kids know, but not explicitly. While she says neither of her children — a 16-year-old daughter currently staying with her father and a 9-year-old son at home — have seen any sexual goings-on, they've seen equipment going in and out of her car and her son has even helped thumbtack decorations to venue walls for events. (He no longer helps, according to Nawdy, as it creeped out a fellow volunteer.) "I thinks it's an extension of Pride for him," she says, a community celebrating rather than being ashamed of being different, and an opportunity for a little silliness. "He knows that we are a family and that we care very deeply about each other."
That sense of community, vital though it is for her, is not without battles for territory, competition over events and general drama.
Knight, the BDSM teacher at Good Relations, has known Nawdy for years, Knight says she's happy to see her "cranking out the stuff she does," but concedes that Nawdy is "a very direct person ... and she can rub people the wrong way. ... But I think she does more good than bad."
Nawdy's involvement in the kink community hasn't always been easy on her romantic relationships, either. She identifies as heterosexual despite having dated a few women. "I'm not a very good lesbian," she sighs, adding, "I love humans." She would like BDSM and parties to be part of a romantic relationship, but it's not a deal-breaker for her so long as she can do her thing. Alas, not everyone can see the friendly joys of spanking other people. "We have a lot of platonic intimacy," she says. "How can you not, with someone you've seen naked a hundred times, and seen their ass get beat or seen them having sex with their partner?" Intimacy, she argues, doesn't have to be just between you and your monogamous partner.
The Siren's Song Tavern is packed now, and a cluster of people dance by the DJ table while the spankers take five. Fire Candy rests her head on Trotta's shoulder and the two smile contentedly. Asked to rank the implements laid out on the side table, they agree that the studded leather paddle is on the wimpy end of the spectrum, along with the wooden Smashball paddle that produced a loud enough thwack to make onlookers jump. The long wooden paddles — the sort you might see with fraternity letters carved in them — are what deliver the real pain. "It needs some air holes drilled in it," jokes Trotta, "less wind resistance." When Fire Candy tests a leather spanker on her thigh and sees that its cut-out letters leave the word "slut" on the skin in white relief, she gives Trotta a couple of playful slaps with it.
One by one, women and men coming off the cross and spanking bench wobble over to the couch in the corner and take proffered glasses of water from Nawdy and her crew. A giddy woman inches down like someone easing into a hot bath, landing with a "whoo!" She and another woman hoot and wince as their friend takes a lashing on the bench before them, close enough to feel the wind off Fire Candy's floggers. They're still laughing when she climbs off to join them and they scoot over gingerly to make room.