Content warning: this article contains descriptions of kinky actions and imbalanced power dynamics.
It is relatively safe for work.
After driving 12-hours from Chicago for the All The Laughs Comedy Awards fest in Atlanta, my partner and I vow to follow the spirit of adventure wherever it takes us. The next morning, we discover a “geek & kink” convention occurring near our hotel.
We are both nerds with familiarity with kink, though I’ve not actively pursued the lifestyle. We have friends steeped in the community, and I know well enough to not shame folks for their sensual expression. Still, if we were to attend, we would be the Midwestern tourists at the sex fest. A couple of Prudy Judys.
But, alas, our vow to follow Lady Adventure… So, we bought two passes for FroliCon and split our weekend between two worlds with two very different definitions of “provocative.”
Speaking of definitions, the qualities, and features separating a “fest” from a “convention” completely elude me. A comedy festival, in my experience, is “where several comedic performances and screenings occur over a set period of time, occasionally with workshops thrown in.” It’s a place where goofs and provocateurs meet other career-minded comedy nerds. A geek kink convention, in my (limited) experience, is “a world of vendors, dance parties and games, featuring 40+ panels by experts, PLUS an open gym dungeon.”
It’s a place where Rick from Rick and Morty can walk Marriot’s hallways sporting a leather harness underneath his open lab coat. Growing up, fests were defined by their increased odds of featuring a petting zoo, and conventions were where people shook hands about “the biz” with reverence.
For as many comedians I’ve seen use kink in their jokes, few seem to speak from first-hand experience. (And that’s okay; dating is hard!) Sex pops up in sets for an easy shock: low risk with a high reward. A person can tell sex jokes without sharing personal experiences and still get laughs. Conversely, I heard no one talking about comedy while strapped to a St. Andrew’s cross.
I heard laughter, though. And plenty of small talk. Especially when chatting with two women crotcheting Christmas stockings. It’s early Saturday afternoon, and we were waiting for the seminar on erotic hypnotism to start.
“It’s October, but I have a lot of stockings to make,” one said.
“She’s making one for me” the other woman glowed. “I’ve known them only for a little over a year and I feel like part of the family.”
It’s Saturday, and we sit in a hotel conference room with a make-shift stage. Up and down this hallway are seminars ranging from sacred sensuality, advanced electrode techniques, and a writer’s panel on writing kink. In front of us, a man with a headset sets up the stage for erotic hypnotism. He’s tall with a mighty beard. An ornate velvet jacket drapes over his shirtless muscular chest. He is the archetype of Eastern mesmerist swami, but sexy. A massage table stands center stage with a blanket draped over it.
The hypnotist leaves the stage to cue up a soft Eastern flute meditation track, then takes the stage with powerful, deliberate steps. It’s a rehearsed forceful presence.
He stops center stage and scans the audience with an affectless face. “My name is Captain Nemo,” he says “Captain Nemo is not my name on FetLife,” the prime social network for a convention like this. “My name on FetLife is coded, and you must ask me afterward for the correct information.” I thought it was a fairly funny opener fitting the domineering character he’s made.
Captain Nemo goes into the weeds of mesmerism. In short: when we are hypnotized, we enter “subspace,” where our psyche exists outside of everyday life. After bringing a person into this trance, a hypnotist holds supreme power.
There is hypnotherapy that helps people quit smoking. This is different.
He brings out an assistant and tells us that he doesn’t usually have an assistant but he wanted to try something different. Captain Nemo (ugh that name) asks the audience to get comfortable and invites us to join in on the mesmerism. We kickoff our shoes, put our feet up, relax and get ready to be second-hand hypnotized. He asked that if anyone was going to leave, to leave now, as to not disrupt the energy of the space.
It’s not up for debate: I’m getting mesmerized, or at least setting myself up for mesmerizing success. Given the options of laying down and being mesmerized versus passively watching, I’ll take the hotel carpet.
I cannot share the full details of what happened during hypnosis here. GOLDComedy is a wonderful place with taste and standards. (Thank goodness!) But I will give a gist of how things went bad:
In the process of being led through visualizations, the hypnotist took a sharp turn in his language.
The tone of the session became aggressive, and the suddenly demeaning relationship shocked me out of the meditative state (itself already compromised by the day’s coffee.) I wasn’t offended, but I did want to tell him off. Maybe I could stand up and shout “Listen, buddy, I decide who’s daddy here!” Alas, I did not. I didn’t leave either, as I still felt obligated to maintain “the energy” of the space for others.
Why the hell should I feel this obligation to a person’s performative energy? Is it because I trusted them blindly? I began to feel like I deserved what happened, which I knew was not correct. During the question and answer portion, a person asked if this dynamic was pre-planned with the assistant. It was, and the hypnotist said he has never done something like this on stage before.
I wasn’t alone. My partner and I both felt the same unease and had a recuperative lunch unpacking this new and complicated hurt.
Kink looks like a free-for-all, but bacchanals have social mores, too. In reality, kink is sustained by the amount of communication, safety, and wellness that goes into each act.
First, people agree on what kinks they’d like to explore. From there, they outline their scene. Typically for two-person scenes, each person takes on the role of the dominant or the subordinate (Shortened to dom and sub.) Each person states their desires and boundaries, eventually agreeing on mutually beneficial terms. Pending on the kinks being explored, they assess risks associated with the kink. From there, play begins, which can truly look like anything (you are a person on the internet so you have your ideas.) Based on the agreed terms, a scene ends.
The key to all of this is the final step: aftercare. This is a check-in and decompression from the BDSM headspace when the masks (figurative or literal) come off. Affection and assurance are freely given and received. The parties involved adjust themselves back into a more vanilla world. Cuddles are had, words of affirmation are shared, and hydration is had by all.
In a world of comedians labeling themselves as transgressive, what does being “transgressive” looks like? Comedy scenes have social mores, too!
Here’s a comedy scene: A comic takes the stage. The audience agrees to give the comic some power for the sake of the comic’s set. The comic goes through material devised to elicit audience reactions, and the audience has their boundaries and desires tested.
Before they meet, the comic and each audience member assess risks independently. The comic’s expectation for the audience is to laugh, speak only if asked, and audibly react at the right moments. The audience’s expectation is to be entertained by the comic, but as a baseline to not disrupt the set. The set ends, usually due to time constraints, and the audience member becomes their own person again with ordinary rules. Offstage, the comic maintains some immunity from any offense taken by an audience member during their set.
Compared to comedy, kink is actually less about eliciting surprise emotional shock. And that’s exactly what makes kink transgressive. If you think of successful shock comics (early years Sarah Silverman comes to mind) the shock can be part of a balanced and hard-won schtick.
My anxiety is quick to imagine an angry mob of folks shouting “comedy IS subversive, breaks ALL the rules, and SHOULD keep people on their toes.” I wholeheartedly agree with my faceless brain-baby mob! The issue here is deciding which rules to break or honor, and that comes down to a gumbo of contexts.
Where is the set happening?
What’s the occasion?
How is it delivered?
What are your desires?
What are the audience’s desires?
Comedy comes in many colors, and the aim of writing like this isn’t to simplify everything down to shades of grey. It’s too simple to label every single down-punching outrage-generating shock comic as a “bad comedian.” (Like, again, Sarah Silverman.)
But they are bad doms.
And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. (Domming is hard!)
A dedicated dominatrix makes it look easy. It’s a delicate balancing act of power and pleasure. They create pleasure, aware that any carelessness potentially brings lasting emotional harm. Aftercare exists to address unintentionally inflicted pain from the scene. A good dom accepts responsibility for harm inflicted while they held power. They hold space for the hurt participant so they may process.
The trust and communication that underpins healthy relationships sustain the wellness of what from the outside are considered “transgressive” communities. If this has been the norm in stand-up comedy for at least 50 years, can we really call it subversive?
Comedy can be empowering, but empowerment is not the same as a power fantasy. A power fantasy steals power. Empowerment, instead, questions powerful people and encourages the audience to realize their own power.
A bad dom comic finds power in rebuking a sense of mutual consent because that’s what we’ve come to accept as audience and community. In kink, it’s easier to acknowledge when a dom messes up. Because the kink community expects better.
While it’s a bit overshadowed by the convention, the comedy festival was fun, too! Founder and producer Dominick Racano is an absolute sweetie pie and everyone reading this should submit your acts!
That being said, and to no fault of the ATL Comedy Awards, the funniest performer from the weekend was being tied up during their set.
It’s late late Saturday in the con’s common area. The vibe is “chill bonfire.” Attendees sit in big circles in various states of exhaustion. One of the circles surrounds a rope-play rig, which looks like a tall tent with its cover blown off, revealing a skeletal steel shape (not unlike a gazebo) with slots for attaching carabineers.
The “bonfire” has been replaced by a femme-presenting person in half-dress. Folks are sitting around talking and riffing about nerdy things and the next conventions on their calendar. In the steel gazebo, the knotee is preparing to be tied up. She stretches as a well-dressed man gets his ropes in order. He is very well-dressed for any occasion: Black buttondown, slacks, and a smart tailored blue vest with immaculately coiffed hair. As the tying process starts, he is part “serious engineer,” part “ringmaster.”
The person being tied up is slight in build and height. They are agile and it’s clear they know what she’s doing. They exude it in their attitude of playful antagonism. As the man finesses different ropes and talks with a friend about his years of experience, the sub riffs off how bored she is. The sub riffs with a person sitting along the circle for a moment, long enough so they can both enjoy how preposterous it is. Then they go back to making fun of the guys’ fastidiousness, playing around in the ropes like a bored brat.
It’s oddly wholesome.
Hanging above the ground, floating in a liminal space, she is the focus. And with all the attention on them in this uncertain space, they are crushing it.
Em Haverty (they/them, she/her) is a comedic writer, performer, and high priestess in Chicago, Il. Their last major project was the comedy video EP Show For Ghosts, winner of “Best Solo Sketch Show” at All The Laughs Comedy Awards. Find them on Twitter and Instagram (@ParodizeLost) and see more of their work on Patreon!