One Foot Out Of The Closet

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From the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle -- 10 February 1980

Sadism and Masochism in the Bay Area

Phil Bronstein

It is a chilling sound: the one made by a whip coming down on the naked buttocks. The sound is heard again and again during a scene from an hour-long documentary which will be aired Monday at 10pm on KQED/Channel 9.

Called "SM: One Foot Out of the Closet", it is the first comprehensive look local television has taken at the growing phenomenon of sadomasochism around the Bay Area. The culmination of more than seven months of research by reporter Phil Bronstein, the show is serious in its approach to the subject not for the squeamish.

"It is a perfect exercise in investigation journalism because I started out knowing nothing about S&M. I had no opinions," said Bronstein.

"I had to learn everything there is to know. I had to get people who everything to lose, and nothing to gain to talk to me. It took two months of hanging out at Folsom Street (where there are several S&M bars) and private clubs before people trusted me enough to talk. I eventually interviewed 50 people."

What Bronstein learned is that contrary to belief, S&M is as widespread among straights as gays, although straights are often not as open about it. The image that people who practice S&M as "crazies off to kill someone" is also not true. In fact, many are average middle class Americans. The owner of The Chateau, a sadomasochistic club for straights, describe his clients as "doctors, lawyers, professors, a judge from Superior Court and a movie director."

People who practice S&M described it to Bronstein as an exchange of power between two people; the dominant who does the beating, and the submissive who willing takes it. The documentary shows scenes of a dominant partner inflicting pain on a submissive by pinching his nipples, burning his arm and whipping his naked body, which the person receiving the beating later described as "wonderful".

Although the pain and humiliation in exchanges like these are sexual turn-ons for the people involved, "you can have very good S&M without sexual expression," Bronstein said.

In most S&M encounters, there is a code for the submissive to let the dominant person know he or she is going to far. There have been instances of serious injury and even death, but these are abhorred as much by the people in the S&M movement as those outside.

"The people in S&M are a pretty close knit group. They soon find out who the sickies are and weed them out. If a person with a bad reputation is seen coming on to someone in a bar, the other people warm to stay away.

Certainly one of the most bizarre people interviewed was a man who has a woman he keeps as his personal slave, including parading her through downtown Ukiah on a leash.

Bronstein, who has done investigative reports on sweatshops, allegations of police brutality and housing in Chinatown, described this assignment as "definitely the strangest." The idea came from Roxanne Russell, the news director at KQED who was intrigued by the ads she had seen in the "Berkeley Barb". for "slaves wanted".

Initially Bronstein was to do a segment on S&M as part of the station's "Evening Edition", but as he learned more about the subject, he realized it would take a full-length documentary to do it justice.

If the response he has gotten from his friends and colleagues is any indication, the show is certain to engender controversy. Whenever Bronstein and his cameraman Bob Frisk would return from interviewing for the documentary, all of which was done at night, "people would look at us as if we had been on Mars".

As a journalist, Bronstein said he "can't afford" the attitude of some people who say they don't want to know about the subject as far out of the realm of their experience as S&M. For one thing, he pointed out, although no exact numbers are known, a growing number of people are involved in some aspect of sadomasochism. The private clubs and professional mistress for people in S&M are "doing very well".

"Some viewers may feel we are condoning sadomasochism by doing a report on it. But we haven't taken a positive position for against it. We are simply trying to make people aware that it exists."


A Personal Note from Robin

Phil Bronstein visited BackDrop in Redwood City and interviewed many of the Club staff and members.


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