Michael and I sat in the kitchen of a suburban split-level home, eating tacos and making small talk about the weather, his drive over from Spokane, and how he was about to be stripped naked and tied to a torture device in the basement.
"It's my first exposure to the scene," he said as men in collars and cuffs scampered around us. In a few minutes, they'd be stuffing Michael's face into a sensory deprivation hood, affixing a sneaker to his bare genitals, and meticulously tying him to dozens of hooks with thick yellow rope. But for now, they were just loading our dinner plates into the dishwasher.
I was there to witness a taping of No Safeword, a weekly podcast about sex and kink recorded by a group of men every Sunday (the Lord's day). The hosts, who go by Daddy Tony and Sparky, had invited me into their dungeon studio, which contains a custom-built table with broadcast-quality microphones, a professional audio mixer, a cage, and various fixtures at which guests may attach or insert themselves.
As kink professionals, Tony and Sparky created No Safeword to educate people about lesser-known sexual practices, to demystify interests that once seemed forbidden, and to connect with other sexual adventurers around the world. It's also a way for them to have fun, and tonight's taping would serve all of those criteria. Another of the guests was Sir Rix, a local sneaker fetishist who would be offering tips for incorporating footwear into sex. There were also three pups—subservient men who had adopted the obedient manner of pets—scampering around, making sure everyone's drinks were filled. And various combinations of husbands and partners and buddies were in attendance.
As for Michael, he's a slim, quiet US Marine Corps reservist in his early 20s who stood on the edge of the group and said as few words as possible.
He'd started listening to the podcast a few months earlier, stumbled across Sparky's profile on a porn site, and then finally worked up the nerve to send an e-mail to the show asking how he could find kinky people in his hometown of Spokane. Sparky invited him to come visit for the weekend, and Michael had spent the previous 24 hours tied up in various configurations or stuffed into a sack. He loved every minute, though when I asked him about his favorite parts, he spoke haltingly and shyly. "I wanted to try everything at least once," he said. "I learned what I like. How people talk."
But talking was clearly not his focus. When it was time to record the show, Michael eagerly accepted a hood that robbed him of his senses, and although his mouth was uncovered, he abstained from speech as he lay naked on the basement table. A mechanical pump had been clamped to his dick, and it tugged rhythmically as two pups tied him down and chatted about their jobs at major local tech companies. The pump motor filled the room with a fast throbbing sound like an excited ultrasound heartbeat.
Before my eyes, the naked young marine was transformed into a sexual prop, an inanimate pleasure toy as utilitarian and dehumanized as the table and pump to which he was attached. Leaning in, Rix explored the inside of Michael's thigh with his hand as one would inspect an inflatable doll at a sex shop.
This is all normal for Tony and Sparky, who've been taping their podcast amid scenes of sexual debauchery for two years. "I'd always wanted to do a podcast," Sparky said. "I always wanted a radio show as a kid." He learned about latex and pups from a partner a little over a decade ago, but struggled at first to understand the opportunities that fetishes presented. "I read... what was the name of that book?" he asked.
"Woof?" suggested Tony.
"No, the other one: Grrr!" Sparky answered.
Tony, for his part, has been a professional kinkster for years. He worked for an HIV nonprofit in San Francisco, teaching safe sex by day and performing stand-up by night. "I enjoy being a pervert and funny at the same time," he said.
Tony's entry into kink was through an accidental flogging years ago. He and a boyfriend were visiting some neighbors, and hanging on one wall they saw a flogger—a sort of giant feather duster made of leather straps that, when wielded properly, can elicit intense pain. The boyfriend playfully slapped Tony with it, and the neighbor raised an eyebrow. "Do you want to learn how to do this?" he asked.
"Within a nanosecond, I said yes," Tony recalled. Back then, learning the rules of kink generally depended on real-life instruction. "I didn't have the internet," Tony said. "I had to seek out local people."
These days, No Safeword conveys Tony and Sparky's years of experience to all corners of the earth—along with the muffled moans that accompany the kinks practiced on the table before them. The internet has opened new avenues of education for them and brought newcomers literally to their doorstep. But it can also expose their personal lives to less-tolerant audiences.
Sparky—whose day job involves buttoned-up business development and account management—used to hide his sexual adventures. Then a coworker snooped and spread the word around the office. "A couple people have treated me differently," he said. But he's decided the trade-off is worth it: "It's much easier to be open... If I want to create a world of true sexual freedom, I have to live it myself."
Only seldom does Tony, who still works with at-risk populations, dance around his areas of expertise. "To my 80-year-old father, I say 'education and prevention,' not 'fisting workshops,'" he said, reaching for headphones and adjusting his microphone.
As they counted down to the start of that night's taping, he added, "I think it's easier for us to talk about it because sex has become easier to talk about in general."
Not only is it easier to talk about, it's easier to find people to try things with. I glanced back down at Michael the marine, happily wriggling in his confines and pump, and realized that my own heartbeat had accelerated to match the fast pace of the thrumming motor. I'd joined him in feeling the rush of endorphins brought on solely by the audio reverberating out into the world from a suburban basement.
Amp and Bolt are both the kind of pert twentysomething go-go dancers whose underwear overflows with ones throughout an average working evening. They've also appeared in porn, and they work booths at sex conventions. Bolt's day job is in tech. Amp hand-makes leather paraphernalia.
"We've been called Beavis and Butt-Head by older viewers," said Amp.
"We're more like Dr. Ruth plus Bill Nye for YouTube," said Bolt.
They're close friends (but not a couple! If you ask them, they wrinkle their noses and say "Weird"), and together they host Watts the Safeword, a YouTube channel that's so sexy and fun that viewers might not even notice it's also educational. Recent videos offered playful tips for picking a ball gag, douching lessons with cute emojis, and a giggly demonstration of tools that conduct electricity around your genitals. There's something about their perky chatter that makes fisting seem practically wholesome.
Amp and Bolt aren't the first perverts to offer sex tips on YouTube, but they come to the small screen with some secret weapons: As longtime friends, they have an easygoing, friendly charisma that could just as easily be applied to a series on video games or beauty tips, they have deep and dirty firsthand knowledge of their subject area, and they're young.
With Watts the Safeword, they've managed to mix up a chemistry that's perfect for the most coveted of online viewers—young people, who are far more likely to share and engage with content. "YouTube's getting older, and all these people who started at 13 or 14 are in their 20s," said Amp. "What are they going to watch?"
Rope tutorials, apparently. Puppy play tips are also popular, as is a cozy tell-all about daddy relationships, and also an explainer on the hanky code—an age-old system of signaling your kinks by wearing color-coded handkerchiefs.
It was probably inevitable that Amp and Bolt would come together as they have. For years, their lives almost intersected as they worked or attended school near each other, and their paths would briefly overlap at conventions or on Grindr. But it was over video games that they finally met in real life: Amp was competing for swag at a Dance Central booth, frantically dancing along with an Xbox game to win scarves for friends. Bolt struck up a conversation, and before long they'd transitioned from a dance-off to puppy competitions at the Cuff.
"He was my first friend who was kinky and nerdy," said Amp, and those two qualities have defined both their friendship and their creative endeavors. Bolt helped Amp get a job at a game company; in turn, Amp helped Bolt land go-go gigs.
"I get you sleazy adult things," Amp teased him.
"Yaaay," squeaked Bolt. Watching them interact is like watching one of those videos of two ecstatic dogs carrying one giant stick, which probably explains why the internet loves them so much.
It also doesn't hurt that they're muscle-bound and willing to try anything. Before they could become the internet's kink professors, they had to be its students.
"My first kink was bondage at 18," said Amp. "I'd teach myself knots watching Bound Jocks." He later lived with Daddy Tony, the No Safeword cohost, and had a bedroom with an attached dungeon. His next boyfriend taught him even more, tying him to a backboard and administering electric shocks while Doctor Who played in the background.
"I'd never seen Doctor Who or tried electro," said Amp. "I liked it so much, I kept going." I asked a follow-up question about electro, but at that point the conversation had turned to British sci-fi.
Bolt's entry into kink was in a penthouse by Pike Place Market. "It was very Fifty Shades," he said. (Although his description of it sounds more 9 1/2 Weeks, that movie's slightly older than he is.) Bolt met a guy online and says, "When I got up to his place, he was wearing a bathrobe with his initials... This guy really pushed my limits. It was a lot of pain play, beating, ball torture. Balls tied to a hook in the ceiling. We traded off kinks and played with electro and bondage, and that night got me into a lot of things. That's where 'Bolt' comes from, electro play."
The freedom afforded by kink is a stark contrast to the environment of sexual repression in which they were both raised.
Amp's parents are religious and sent him to Catholic school as a kid. Whenever he gets a grateful comment on a video, he saves it to a photo gallery on his phone so that if his parents ever find out what he does, he can show them how he's changing lives for the better.
"I think I was afraid of sex when I was younger," Bolt said. His Midwestern parents discouraged talking about sex, and so he turned to the internet for surreptitious education. He had just looked up "naked male" on the family computer when it crashed and refused to restart, and everyone was gathered around when it finally came back to life with "naked male" still on the screen. "I spazzed out," he said.
As nicely as he could, Bolt described his mother as an "overprotective empty-nester," adding, "She's very Minnesota." She has only a faint inkling of her son's educational career, though she did find a pup hood in his room at one point. It took his most professorial demeanor to defuse the situation. "I told her pup play is an internal experience I have, a head space I get into that's sometimes sexual," he said. She took that as well as a very Minnesota mom could.
Bolt's hope for his videos, he said, is that they can wipe away the stigma of sex, whether kinky or vanilla, so that the young viewers don't grow up as afraid of sex as he was.
The role of teacher seems to come easily to him. When play partners find out that he's kinky, their first question is often "Can you teach me things?"
"I give them some rope," he said, "and homework."
It was in 1991 that one of Allena Gabosch's friends came to her with a problem. The friend was taking a class on sexuality at Highline Community College, and told her, "We just got to the part about S&M, and it's all wrong. Can you come in and speak?"
Allena was a little taken aback. Sure, she was well known in the kink community. With a friend, she ran the fetishy Beyond the Edge Cafe, located on Capitol Hill where Honey Hole is now. (Back then, there was a dungeon in the basement, and she recalls some guy named Dan Savage regularly coming by to get cookies.)
But she was also unaccustomed to public speaking. Professionally, she was a restaurateur; although she was recognized as a leader in the kink community, it was still just a pastime. The first time she'd ever addressed a group, it was a bunch of students who'd come to hear about healthy food, and her hands shook so hard she could barely pick up a can of tuna.
To make matters worse, sexual anxiety was an integral part of her childhood. She was raised fundamentalist, and as a teen she was forbidden from talking about boyfriends.
But as a young adult, Allena discovered an attraction to kinky sex—what was then referred to as S&M, and today more commonly as BDSM. What's more, she reminded herself, she'd gotten into the restaurant business because she liked nurturing people, and opening eyes about sexual fulfillment could be a way to do that.
"I can do this," she told herself, and she told her friend, "Sure."
"Great," her friend replied. Then she added sheepishly, "Just... don't tell anyone you know me."
Allena laughed as she told me the story. "And I've never looked back," she said.
Although she didn't realize it, Allena was about to embark on an accidental sex-lecturing career that blossomed throughout the 1990s. When Beyond the Edge closed in 1999, she and some friends founded the Center for Sex Positive Culture in the Interbay neighborhood, to educate the public and strengthen Seattle's kinky community.
Now nearly two decades later, the center's mission continues with multiple daily events. Items currently on the calendar: a workshop on incorporating martial arts into sex, a clothing-optional dance party ("Special note: Bring a fun hat!"), an erotic massage class, and an arts and crafts night. Whatever your predilection is, there's a good chance that you can hone it at the center—or if you don't think you have any kinks, that you'll discover one.
Allena is in the process of stepping back a bit from full-time education. She's reduced her involvement with the center, though her schedule remains busy. The week that we spoke, she was scheduled to appear at three colleges, participate in a panel, and present to two groups about senior sexuality. She has a podcast called The Relationship Anarchy Show and a coaching business at EroticCoaching.com. She's also a frequent podcast guest, appearing on shows like No Safeword and Polyamory Weekly.
"I have a personal mission statement," she told me. "Remove shame from sex and bring joy." Her college friend's reluctance to be publicly associated with her S&M talk remains a harsh memory, all these years later. She's seen firsthand that feelings of horror around sexual conversations are instilled in us from the time we're kids.
"It's really scary to go to your mom and say, 'Mom, tell me about anal sex,'" Allena said, and I did not argue. "And what about kink or fantasizing? When I was a kid, I depended on Playboy or Playgirl—when I was young, there was nothing."
She added, "In sixth grade, the boys went to one room and the girls went to another. I don't know what the boys learned about. Girls learned about menstruation." (I experienced a similar lesson, and all I remember of what the boys were taught is that you're not supposed to say "boner" in public.)
The forbidden mystique of sex began to fade for her in the mid-1970s when she was 18 years old and living in Portland. Still a bit wide-eyed and innocent, "I snuck into a gay bar and met an amazing trans woman who let me ask her the most stupid questions," she said. It was the best sex education she'd ever had.
Then a month later, she stumbled across her first Pride festival. It was around this time that she was figuring out that she also liked women, and so she cautiously peeked her head in—but as she left, she was accosted by a man with a sign depicting people on fire.
"You queer!" he yelled after her.
"Are you talking to me?" she asked.
"You homosexual," he went on, "you're going to burn in hell."
Allena began arguing back, and she didn't notice as a crowd gathered to watch the verbal sparring. When she turned to leave, the strangers applauded for her.
"I realized there were people out there who hated me," she said, and the memory stayed with her. "I'd have weird sexual encounters and meet people who had judgments about sex, and that guy just never went away." Her defiance never went away, either—and to this day, it motivates her to push the boundaries of her sexual potential and to unlock that potential in others. Wherever he is now, Seattle has a crazy Oregonian street preacher to thank in part for the existence of the Center for Sex Positive Culture.
If sexual shame is something passed down from generation to generation, it seems as though millennials may have broken the chain of inheritance. Allena recently spoke to a group of teens who seemed more comfortable with sex than most adults. "How do you make anal sex pleasant?" one asked. "If a vegan rims a vegan, are they still vegan?" asked another. Questions about polyamory focused on negotiation rather than on the presumption of jealousy.
"There seems to have been a shift," Allena said. "I'm an old hippie—I came from the free-love sexual revolution, but... youth today are having a sexual renaissance. Young people today are more gender fluid, more orientation fluid."
That reminded me of an experience I had a few months ago walking home from the Eagle. A block away from home, I became aware of two people coming up behind me. I gripped my keys and looked around for a door I could bang on for help as the strangers matched my pace.
Finally, one of them spoke. "What's your gender identity?" they opened with. I could see at that point that they were both around 20 years old, slight, walking arm and arm.
"Pretty male," I said.
"We're gender nonconforming," the other said. "We just wanted to make sure you're getting home okay."
When I told Allena about this, her eyes welled up. "What a gift those people gave you!" she said. "It's so scary now to be on Capitol Hill."
It's true—I'm a relative newcomer to Seattle, and I wish I could have been here to experience the adventures that lay beneath what we now know of as the Honey Hole. But times change, and while it's easy to focus on what's changed for the worse, it's also worth observing the ways in which life is better.
"If you'd told me 25 years ago that this is what I'd be doing, I'd have laughed," Allena said.
Since its inception, 18,000 people have joined or visited the Center for Sex Positive Culture. In that time, we've seen a cultural shift driven by those visitors, by volunteers, by educators, and by the simple act of making sex whatever you want it to be.
It's a shift that today allows gentle 20-year-olds to feel comfortable strolling Capitol Hill arm in arm, sneaking up behind strangers to gender-nonconform.