September 25 2002

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The domme next door

Arts and crafts, magic wands, and the Palmolive of sex – Mistress Morgana brings S-M to the masses.

By Alissa Chadburn

'IT'S LIKE A Tupperware party gone very, very bad," Mistress Morgana says, laughing, to the audience of a dozen or so women, single and in couples, gathered in a semicircle around her for tonight's Good Vibrations After Hours class. She dips the thick cotton end of a long, thin metal rod into a basin of alcohol. With a wall of lube and erotic books as a backdrop, the professional dominatrix and S-M educator has thoroughly covered tonight's topic, "Fire and Ice: A Guide to Erotic Temperature Play," demonstrating on her submissive, Vivian, how to play with everything from ice cubes to hot wax to peppermint oil to the magical Violet Wand, a toy that creates a crackly charge of static electricity when run over the skin. Now, for the grand finale, she's about to set Vivian's pale, fragile-looking skin on fire.

Vivian lies stretched out on the table in sequined hot pants and matching pasties. At more than six feet in heels, the voluptuous Morgana towers over her in a simple black dress and fishnets, her hair pulled back lest it get caught in the flame. She lights the menacing-looking torch and expertly moves it over Vivian, swiftly tapping the cotton on her chest, stomach, and thighs. She lets a low blue flame linger on each spot for a moment before stamping it out with her bare hand. As she explains, it's actually the alcohol that's burning, not Vivian's lovely skin. Morgana teases the submissive with the heat, dancing the flame over her body. When it does finally make contact with her skin, Vivian arches her back slightly, and small gasps escape from her parted lips. As Morgana concentrates on the flame and Vivian's responses, her eyes reflect the warm light and gleam with a ferocious intensity. This is one of Morgana's favorite forms of S-M play, and it shows.

Morgana comments on the fact that tonight's participants are all women, which is unusual, and I wonder if it has more to do with her approach or with the subject at hand. Morgana says she's not surprised that women, queer women especially, would be attracted to "edgier" forms of play. Queer women have always been on the cutting edge, sometimes literally, in S-M practices, eagerly exploring their boundaries with activities like piercing, cutting, sensual rope bondage, and other more extreme forms of sensation play. Whatever the reasons they're here, she's happy – as a queer woman, she enjoys teaching in this environment.

I study the mild-mannered-looking bunch, who are politely and intently focused on Morgana. They're clean-cut and casually dressed; no one is wearing anything more fetishy than a pair of simple black boots and a studded belt. It's hard for me to believe they would be interested in S-M at all, let alone charging their partners with electricity or setting them on fire. But despite some initial hesitation, when Morgana offers to give us a taste of the sensations she's been describing and demonstrating, everyone wants to see what it's like. One by one, holding very still, we stretch out our arms to feel the flame from the torch. To our collective surprise, it looks much scarier than it feels, which is pleasantly warm and tingly.

After class, with the smell of singed body hair still lingering in the air, a small group gathers around the Violet Wand as Morgana explains what each of its mysterious-looking attachments does. Some of the women seem intrigued. Others chat excitedly about the fire play and look ready to go home and make their own wands, as Morgana does. Perhaps they'll come to her next class, "Supermarket S/M," where participants will learn how to make kinky implements out of household objects.

It's no wonder Mistress Morgana has been dubbed the "Martha Stewart of S-M." Creating kinky crafts is one of her specialties (and like Martha, she makes an art and science of party hostessing). Last December she taught a Good Vibes class on holiday-themed S-M, turning her demo models into human menorahs and Christmas trees. (Who knew garland could make such a fabulous bondage material?)

Morgana is a very kinky girl you could take home to mother, and she's proud of it. She describes the not so rare occurrence of having friends introduce her to people as "that nice dominatrix I was telling you about." Laughing at the phrase, she says, "I think for about 80 percent of folks in the city who have a 'nice dominatrix' story, I am it."

For the past four years Morgana has been teaching basic S-M classes designed primarily for "vanilla" folks, rather than out-in-the-scene kinksters. This season, however, she's incorporating some of the edgier elements to show a fuller range of S-M experience. Her goal in teaching – and, to some extent, in her private practice – is to "proletarianize S-M." Her philosophy is that everyone has a little kink in them and that, like sexuality in general, BDSM happens on a spectrum. "S-M is the Palmolive of sex – we're all soaking in it," she says. "Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all engaging in power play when we have sex. S-M just seeks to articulate that."

Kink-positive San Francisco supports a thriving BDSM community, and on almost any given night in the Bay Area, classes can be found on every type of S-M imaginable. Groups like the pansexual Society of Janus and the Exiles, the city's only S-M group for women, hold classes regularly and provide a sense of community for both newly out and long-standing players. But for the kink-curious who don't want to join a club, coming to terms with desires and fantasies – and communicating them to a partner or potential partner – can be a difficult task. Morgana hopes to "reach out to folks who don't own chaps, who see leather bars and get scared, who see portrayals of S-M in film or on TV and think, 'That has nothing to do with me' – but who want to pinch each other's nipples and smack each other's bottoms in the bedroom." She can give them the skills to practice S-M safely and develop a language to discuss what they want – and often what they are already doing.

Working tirelessly to bring kink to the masses, Morgana teaches classes, conducts private tutorials, and lectures at colleges and universities around the Bay Area on S-M and sex work. And now, with Good Vibes' Sexpositive Productions, she's taking the message to living rooms (and hopefully bedrooms and kitchen tables, too) across America with her new educational video, Whipsmart. While many videos on the market are geared toward seasoned S-M players, Whipsmart is explicitly aimed at the vanilla and the kink-shy among us. Demystifying S-M terminology, demonstrating basic rope bondage and restraint, spanking, and sensation play, and showing negotiation and hot scenes with real-life couples, Morgana soothes the viewer like a kinky airplane stewardess. But instead of belt buckles, she guides the nervous novice through square knots and half hitches. Intentionally, Morgana says, there is no heavy fetish gear, and the action takes place in a home in order to provide the comforting atmosphere of a "kinky Masterpiece Theater."

Still, though Morgana is known for this kind of "kinder, gentler, warmer, fuzzier S-M," as she calls it, appearances can be deceiving. While in class she teaches square knots, at home or in the dungeon she's doing suspensions and piercings. She likes to tell the story of one of the first play parties she attended in San Francisco, in the early '90s. On witnessing, among other things, an intense piercing scene and people hanging from the ceiling, she was utterly shocked and totally turned off. Little did she know then that she would be trying, and really enjoying, those things herself in the not too distant future. In class she uses that story both to reassure and to raise the consciousness of her students. It's OK, she makes it clear, to never want to play the way she likes to, but she also lets them know that she can teach them S-M, that they can look at her and not be scared by her. "Just keep in mind," she says, "some of the stuff that you've seen in the movies that freaked you out, I'm probably going to go home tonight and do a bit of that."

Alissa Chadburn is a kinky writer who lives in San Francisco.

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