All the flogging and rope-play that goes on within the nondescript exterior walls of Queen Anne's Wet Spot is perfectly safe and legal. It's a sex club for those into whipping and tying each other up, complete with dungeons, restraining beds, and nonprofit status. But in the eyes of a judge or social worker, those activities can be viewed as a threat to one's children: "It's very common to bring up sex," says Seattle-area attorney Robyn Friedman of divorce cases where child custody is at stake, "especially if one partner is looking to ruin somebody's life."
Though, as Wet Spot director Allena Gabosch observes, "that we have to hide something essential about ourselves (our sexuality) for fear that we could lose our jobs, our children... is appalling." BDSM (bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism) has long been a target of discrimination. A 1998 survey by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that 30 percent of regular practitioners report they've faced discrimination, with 24 percent saying it cost them a job and 3 percent a child. The Stranger spoke with one woman, Cassie Johns, a 41-year-old bisexual, who was forced out of her position at a small computer company 10 years ago because she was photographed in the paper at the gay-pride parade.
With Gabosch's help, we found a kinky client of Friedman's whose rights as a father hang in the balance, according to a divorce case currently pending in King County Superior Court. An October 11, 2006, letter in the case file from the man's ex-wife reads, "[T]hough you are not engaging in any sexual act with [our 12-year-old daughter], you are exercising your sadomasochistic behavior towards her in every other way."
Its author describes herself as an "unwilling yet compliant participant" in her husband's BDSM-play and cites possession of pornography and sex toys, as well as "showering with [their daughter], flicking her with a towel, snapping her pajama bottoms, slapping a belt next to her on the bed..." as her main grounds for concern. Her husband's October 19 response downplays the belt on the bed as an isolated incident and argues that his wife showered with the child as well since the couple had agreed that casual nudity was acceptable in the home. He claims that any pornographic materials or instruments are kept out of the child's reach.
It's a classic case of he said/she said, but, as Friedman, who has spoken on legal issues surrounding BDSM at leather and sex-positive events throughout the country, observes, "When you throw children into the mix, all of the burden of proof shifts from the state having to prove the person guilty to the person having to prove themselves not guilty."
Friedman's client's ex calls BDSM an "abusive lifestyle" and "would like to insist" that her husband not expose their daughter to any of his "BDSM friends." But, with 9,000 members and growing—roughly 1.5 percent of the population of the city of Seattle—it's not unlikely that the woman and her daughter have encountered members of the Wet Spot around town.
Kathleen Spears, media-relations manager for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, echoes Friedman's statement about the burden of proof in the tautology she offers when asked what sexual activities could lead to a CPS investigation. "If a child is being exploited, it would cause an investigation," she says. Clearly, the assumption is that the child is being exploited until there's proof otherwise.
Many Wet Spot members have tried and failed to produce such proof. Among them is a 35-year-old woman known as Khaos W. She told The Stranger of how, in the late '90s, a King County judge thought it best for her 5- and 7-year-old sons to be adopted out to separate homes.
Aside from Khaos's sexual practices, her somewhat cluttered house was the only other evidence brought against her. The children were from a previous relationship, so the man she was divorcing was not their father. He didn't want custody of the boys; "he just wanted to punish me," Khaos says.
It was argued that by appearing on public-access talk shows to discuss BDSM, Khaos could harm her children, who might see the broadcast; in fact, she was a more conservative parent on this issue than most, only allowing her children to watch programming she selected and played on the VCR.
But the evidence that tipped the scales against her was gathered in a way that would set off bells for any fan of police television. When a CPS agent visited Khaos's home, she entered the Seattle native's bedroom—which was locked with a latch out of reach of the children—and found a flogger and restraints in a drawer. Unlike a criminal case, evidence gathered in such a way is admissible in disputes over child custody. Khaos was facing allegations that she had molested her boys, and though the items obviously weren't enough to confirm those allegations or even bring up criminal charges, they were enough to cast sufficient suspicion for her to lose custody.
It would seem that anything out of the ordinary sexually could be misinterpreted by the state. In addition to losing a job over bisexuality, Johns—who is a Wet Spot member—is polyamorous and was actually told by an adoption agent to make no mention of her and her male partner's polyamorous lifestyle (she has a female partner as well). They kept that secret—also not saying anything about the BDSM dungeon in their basement—and successfully adopted.
But those aren't always easy secrets to keep. "I know that the club puts an emphasis on privacy," Friedman says when asked about the Wet Spot, "however, all you need is for somebody to see you walking into the building." But people aren't always going there to be tied up and beaten. Though her divorce predates the existence of the Wet Spot by a couple of years, Khaos says she missed the absence of a community like it at that time, and she now assists with workshops on parenting with alternative lifestyles.