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Editor’s note: Some last names have been omitted to protect the privacy of sources.

Metal-barred cages. A floor-to-ceiling pole. Ceiling hooks for rope. An X-cross with restraining points. And what looks like a Dexter-style kill room — walls and floors lined with plastic sheeting, a box of 5-mil nitrile disposable gloves and Clorox wipes set to the side. A nurse will be on standby tonight to help draw blood for Grindhouse, a blood play party.

For some, utopia masquerades as a dungeon.

The dungeon of choice for many Colorado Springs residents is Voodoo Leatherworks, a “counterculture community center” founded by Paul Thorns in 2012. Thorns, who served 20 years in the Army, named the club after the intelligence platoon he led in Afghanistan.

It was after participating in a “First Friday Munch” event, hosted by the leather organization Celebration of Power, that he first realized there was a community here in need of a local kink club. Thorns forged ahead, as transparently as possible: He reached out to zoning and business licensing, and was open when explaining what the club was about and the people it aimed to serve. Thorns expected more pushback from the city, but Voodoo’s opening was met with little resistance and a surprising amount of support. The club is, among many things, a safe space for education, exploration and community for the Springs’ kink population. And where it’s positioned — on Busch Avenue, next to a holiness church, below a polka studio, in historic Old Colorado City — feels like a physical manifestation of the incongruities our world encompasses.

“A lot of people call it a sex club. And honestly, I hate that,” says Thorns. “Because if you look at our calendar, pretty much 26 out of 30 days of the month are full of education.” Voodoo is home to arts events, discussion groups, educational courses and member parties. It offers classes for a variety of different lifestyles (dominant, submissive, 24/7 master-slave, age regression) as well as classes that discuss relationship dynamics, communication, negotiation, relationship development and, most importantly, establishing enthusiastic informed consent. There’s also a library and a retail area, which supports local artists and craftspeople. The onboarding process consists of a new member orientation, where they cover vetting partners, setting clear boundaries and establishing consent. At Voodoo, there is a zero-tolerance policy for consent violations.

According to Thorns, the member demographic is broad: “We’ve got liberals, we’ve got conservatives, we’ve got churchgoers, we’ve got atheists, we’ve got people that go to Satanic Temple.”

When he’s not managing Voodoo, Thorns is doing forensic work with police departments and prosecution teams across the country. He’s presented at the Conference on Crimes Against Women, in a panel for a strangulation series that included teaching law enforcement and forensic examiners about kink — and how to discern where consent was withdrawn. Thorns is also executive director of the Marquis Lifestyle Center, an educational nonprofit that aims to demystify kink and build a network of professional support. “Oh,” he says, “I also build dungeon furniture.”

At its core, Voodoo is a place for community, says Thorns: “That’s one of the things that I probably think Voodoo is more than anything else … where they can just be here and be accepted for who they are, how they present. I don’t care about your gender identity. I don’t care about your color. I don’t care about your religion or political affiliations. This is just a place where we can all be home.” 

You will meet your perfect person who can and will meet all your needs. You will marry them. You will be intimate with only this one person for the rest of your life. It’s a social script we’re all familiar with: meet, marry, monogamy ... missionary.

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Even within relationships, or private encounters shielded from outside judgment, this indoctrination finds its way into the metaphorical (and literal) bedroom. Am I a feminist if I like being hit or tied up? If I’m a straight man, is anal play gay? If I want to have sex with other people, can I still be loyal to my wife? And for these questions we turn to the internet (because who is there to ask, really, besides anon Reddit users?) These are also desires we take to the internet to fulfill (porn, hookup apps, FetLife). Ultimately, stigma when it comes to kink is attached to an antiquated belief that sex, intimacy and desire should only be experienced one way.

Perhaps the greatest misconception of all is that kink is inherently intertwined with sex. In reality, most kinks do not involve sex at all. This feeds into a greater misunderstanding of the kink community. “If I’m doing a play scene with someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m involved with them, doesn’t even mean that I find them sexually desirable or anything,” says Tony Graham, a photographer and Voodoo’s new art director. “It is separate from that. Usually, you’re getting into a scene because there was something in you that, through this, is able to get expressed.”

Kink is a spectrum in which different degrees and genres exist. (“Some are up your alley,” says Graham. “Some are decidedly not.”) More popular dynamics fall into the dom-sub bucket: master and slave, daddy and little girl, owner and pet, sadist and masochist. But all kink “scenes,” no matter how basic or straightforward they are, must be negotiated, a term frequently used by the community. It is a contract — a consensual enthusiastic agreement.

“Some folks in the community are on 24/7,” says Graham. “Some are only on [inside] their home. I know plenty of folks that are full-on master-slave dynamics. ... And so, when they’re outside working, they’re one thing, but when they go home, she puts on her outfit, he puts on his, they’re back into the dynamic.”

“But it’s not always about pain, it’s sometimes about control,” Graham continues. (According to Graham, the BDSM space attracts many individuals with stressful careers — ER/trauma nurses, paramedics, CEOs.) “It’s about either exercising control or releasing control. It’s sometimes about just wanting to feel powerful or wanting to feel completely powerless. There are just so many different flavors in this that there isn’t one thing that’s going to necessarily define what it is to be ‘kinky.’ Because one person’s kink is another person’s everyday existence.”

Thorns and his wife are polyamorous and have a 24/7 total power exchange relationship, more commonly known as a master-slave dynamic. It is consensual, negotiated and thoroughly discussed. Thorns recounts a story when his mom was at his house, and his wife had gotten up to grab him a beer. Thorns’ mother had raised her son to be a feminist, and her seeing this, explains Thorns, was like watching the patriarchy reveal itself: “My mom just gave me this look, and she’s like, ‘Oh, Paul, I raised you better than that.’

“I’m like, ‘Mom, what was the point of the women’s liberation movement? That you can make the choices that you want to make for yourself, and nobody is there to tell you differently. This is the choice that she’s making herself. I’m not putting her in that position. I’m not coercing her to be in that position. This was something we both approached openly and honestly and discussed, and it’s got nothing to do with gender. It’s just the relationship that we want for ourselves.’”

Master-slave relationship aside, Thorns describes himself as a “pretty laid-back dude.” 

“We like joking around, we like doing vanilla stuff, and we go on hikes, and we have puppies, and you know, it’s not just all leather all the time,” he says. “You got to have a work-life-kink balance where you are functional in your job and take care of your kids.”

Polyamory is not a protected legal status, notes Thorns. Not only is it controversial and stigmatized, but in certain sectors of society — take for example, the U.S. military — it can have legally actionable consequences.

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The elements that constitute adultery are delineated in USMJC, Article 134: 1) That the accused wrongfully had sexual intercourse with a certain person; 2) That, at the time, the accused or the other person was married to someone else; and 3) That, under the circumstances, the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces. The maximum crime for adultery is dishonorable discharge from the military, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and one year of confinement. These laws can create fear for service members, says Thorns — fear that doesn’t necessarily exist outside of the military.

In fact, this came up when Thorns was trying to obtain his security clearance.

“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

“No.”

“Do you engage in activities that could be embarrassing to you or to the United States government?” Thorns paused. “No.”

The interviewer asked him why he hesitated. Thorns explained that he and his wife are involved in BDSM and that he lives a polyamorous lifestyle. The interviewer then posed a hypothetical: “He’s like, ‘So let me ask you this. Let’s say I’m a foreign agent, and I want to get information from you. So I go to your house, I got a bunch of photos of you and somebody else doing this thing, and I say, “Hey, tell me all you know, or I’m giving these pictures to your wife.” What would you say?’

“I said, ‘Can I get copies of those? Because that’s fucking hot. And my wife is really going to appreciate it.’”

At the end of the day, says Thorns, it’s about whether you can be leveraged or influenced — if what you do in your personal life undermines the strength of the military. 

Marji and Steve, two Colorado Springs residents in a polyamorous relationship, credit their personal growth to their experience with Voodoo. At clubs like these, says the couple, the expectation for authenticity, honesty and good communication is high. In turn, they’ve found themselves becoming better communicators, more open-minded and more at ease with themselves.

“A lot of people have experienced domestic abuse, childhood abuse, sexual assault, things like that,” says Marji. “And there are some of us, including myself, who have experienced traumatic things in their lives. So kink is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic. You can explore these things with someone you trust, and the way that reframes the entire experience into something enjoyable … that is a beautiful thing.”

Lacey was in North Carolina and going through a divorce when she first entered the kink community 25 years ago. “I was seeing a counselor at the time, and I finally broke down. And she was the first person I told that I had these thoughts and these feelings...,” says Lacey. “I was like, ‘Well, isn’t this bad self-esteem or something?’ And she was like, ‘The only one making any judgment on that right now is you.’ And that was completely eye-opening.” (There have been missteps along the way, says Lacey. When she was living in North Carolina, she got suspended from work for five days: “I made the mistake of using a city computer to get directions to a BDSM conference that was in Washington, D.C.”)

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Lacey, who now volunteers at Voodoo, says polyamory is a balance between getting your needs met and still being there for your primary partner. “The truth is that when we go into committed, monogamous relationships, quite often, we are doing it as a compromise,” she explains. “You meet X, Y and Z needs, but A and B aren’t being met … [so] I just won’t deal with that or acknowledge that those are important to me anymore. … If we have something we really want to do or really, really want to experience, and our partner is not interested in it, we either a) don’t do it, or b) find someone else who will.”

Julie, the club’s former art director, has a similar story: She had just gotten out of an 18-year marriage when she found Voodoo. According to Julie, the discussion groups sometimes go like divorce support groups.

“I spent a lot of years feeling like I put myself last,” says Julie. “I was taking care of everybody else. And I felt like, as a woman, is there any way in which I am allowed to find fulfillment that is not serving other people’s needs and not my own? I’ve got to be there for my children and my employer and my husband. … And when you have people saying, ‘Well, don’t forget to take care of yourself!’ When do I have time to take care of myself? Come on.

“And I think I am far from alone in that. I think a lot of people put themselves last. And this was the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt OK making myself the priority. And being like ... I am going to choose myself, my obligation to me. What I need and what I want gets to actually matter. And that’s been huge.” In the kink community, voicing your authentic needs and desires is not just welcomed — it’s the whole point. 

Superhorse has been in the local kink scene since 2013. “For a while, I was the only gay dude [at Voodoo],” he says. “I was also the youngest by far.”

His kink, pet play, is a type of power exchange. “[It] takes it a step further because you’re not even a person,” says Superhorse. “You can’t even talk. You’re not even expected to think like a human or communicate like one. It’s total escapism, which is a ton of fun.”

The specific type of pet play Superhorse participates in is very niche. With pony play, there’s a certain way you dress, walk, gesture and make noises. Superhorse started acquiring gear — bridle, tail, hood, hoof boots, horse tail — on a student budget. He’s now spent over a thousand dollars total on pony play gear.

“I wasn’t even into horses,” says Superhorse. “And then, I was 16, and I saw some photos from this big-time pony play gear maker, Fury Fantasy. Full molded leather hoods, full harnesses hand-stitched to work like horse harnesses for people. … I saw all that, and I was like, ‘Uh-oh, great. Another thing I have to hide from my parents.’ Because I wasn’t even out yet even. I just stumbled upon that, and I’m like, ‘That’s the thing, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I don’t know what any of it is, I don’t know how to do it, but that’s the one.’”

Superhorse has an impressive kink résumé. In 2017, he was the first-ever pony player at International Mr. Leather, an annual conference and contest for leathermen, and made top 20 (out of 72). It’s a trajectory he’s grateful for: “Coming into Voodoo that very first night and then being accepted in that way, to being accepted in that way on an international stage. … It’s life-changing.”

If it were completely accepted, kink wouldn’t be as much fun, says Superhorse. “That wrongness is part of what’s so tantalizing and special about it,” he says. “It’s so cool that I’ve been able to do the things that I have done. I collect experiences. I’m always looking for new things to do, new things to try, new ways to do it. Because I recognize how special it is that I can do that.”

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One of the greatest misconceptions about kinksters, says Superhorse, is that it’s all about sex: “You don’t see the community aspects to it — like the maintaining of a space, the things we talk about just as people (not within a power dynamic), or just the broad spectrum of people who participate in it.” And ultimately, he notes, having a space where you can just be totally authentic will be a space people want to keep coming back to.

Thorns believes messing up (and then not being accepted) is what people are most scared of when entering the community. “You walk in like: ‘Oh my god, am I gonna say the wrong thing? Am I gonna mess up?’” he says. “‘How is a real dominant supposed to act? How is a real submissive supposed to act? And I don’t know these things. All I know is what I learned on Pornhub or YouTube or whatever.’

“But we’ve all been there at some point. There’s a lot of anxiety just about just being out there with somebody and sharing these things … because I started having these feelings when I was like 5. And you don’t have anybody to talk to, and you go most of your adult life without having somebody to talk to you, and then finally you find this place. It’s like: ‘Am I really safe to talk about this?’ Because it’s kind of dark, you know? And then, all of a sudden, you find out that it’s OK, and you’re like — I found my peeps.”

There are certain benefits to being a member of an established club. There is social pressure to be ethical, and the group can effectively filter people out who are predatory (and inform other clubs about predators). Play parties are monitored by dungeon monitors, or DMs — outsiders whose job is to step in if things go too far. (Thorns calls them “kinky lifeguards.”) At each party, there is a social area where members can mingle; nudity and play aren’t permitted in this area. Then, there is the play area, where the DMs and “dungeon furniture” are; this tends to be a quieter area, for safety reasons. Because they can impair judgment and someone’s ability to consent, alcohol and drugs typically aren’t allowed at play parties. Parties like these are a safeguard against the violences that can occur when internet strangers meet in secluded, private environments.

Like everyone else, Voodoo was hit hard by the pandemic. On March 13, 2020, they closed their doors. “Nobody had told us we had to be closed, but I was watching the rates, and I’m like, ’This is ridiculous. This is gonna be bad,’” says Thorns. “And especially for an organization that kind of relies on close contact. So we’re just like: nope, nope, nope.”

Almost a year later, the club started doing private rentals. Everything had to be prepaid; memberships had to be pre-verified; no more than four people were allowed at once; and they all had to be from the same pandemic pod. This way, Voodoo could better maintain contact tracing. In May, the vaccine-only parties began. And in August, they had their grand reopening.

“Nobody was doing anything with anybody because everybody was terrified of everything,” says Graham. “But now it’s like, once you have that second Pfizer shot, it was pretty much, 14 days later — ‘Bro, I’m ready to party.’” 

BDSM isn’t anything new, Thorns reminds us: “We really are just regular people. We enjoy sex in intensity, and we enjoy the sense of community. And honestly, we’re really not doing anything that humans haven’t done for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. ...

“What kinksters are doing today,” he says, “is just embracing our culture, embracing our sexuality and choosing to not feel ashamed or shame other people for enjoying [their kinks].” 


How to negotiate a scene

1. Share your likes and dislikes, soft limits and hard limits.

2. Obtain informed, enthusiastic consent.

3. Pick a safe word. Voodoo’s standard safe word is “RED.” When someone says RED, everything needs to come to a stop, says Thorns. (“Part of that is because you don’t want to be in a position where you’re trying to renegotiate or talk through an issue while you’re still strapped to a piece of equipment,” he explains. “It’s not a strong position to come from. You also have serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins, all these chemicals going through your body that affect judgment. So this is why we always negotiate everything ahead of time. We’ve got clear boundaries about what stops this activity.”)


Kink dictionary

Definitions from Celebration of Power, celebrationofpower.net/glossary.html (lightly edited).

BDSM: an acronym for bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadism, masochism.

Vanilla: not in the BDSM & D/s scene. People considered “normal” by society’s standards.

Masochism: erotic enjoyment of pain and humiliation. (Degrees vary on one’s tolerance or personal definition of; used usually to describe one into heavier pain, i.e., intense floggings, nipple weight torture, etc.)

Sadist: one who derives pleasure from giving pain, humiliation, or domination to those desiring of it with the respect of limits and safe words.

Play: participating in a scene or activity of BDSM, or D/s.

Scene: a session of play.

Negotiation: conferring with another so as to arrive at the settlement or compromise of some matter.

Consensual: Activities or behavior agreed to by those involved prior to a scene/play.

Limit: the boundary set by both the parties (top/bottom, dom/sub/slave) during negotiations that set the terms of play.

Safe word: a word or phrase or action given by the submissive/bottom to stop or reduce the intensity of a scene or play.

Bottom: a person who prefers to receive bondage, training, corporal punishment, etc. but is not necessarily committed to their dominant/top.

Slave: often used interchangeably with submissive.

Dominant: the person given the control in an agreed-to power exchange relationship.

Master: a title given to one who has conquered or mastered the submissive. Usually used as a tribute or loving endearment to the dominant of a submissive. Also been used as a term of possession. (i.e., “He is My Master.”)

Pony Training/Play: Turning [someone] into a “pony” to be ridden, used to pull carts/carriages, or to perform as a well-trained horse in obedience. The dress of a pony boy/girl can include a horsehair tail attached to a butt plug, a bit gag, a bridle and reins. Clothing is at the “pony” owner’s discretion, though usually heels are added to enhance the clicking sound of hoofs.

Anna Fiorino is a graduate from San Diego State University. She is a journalist with (more than three but less than twenty) years of experience. In her free time, she edits novels.

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