John, an athletic 33-year-old, shimmies up a pole on the carousel beside the Maryland Science Center at the Inner Harbor, holding rope between his teeth. “The best part is to see him climb like that,” says Lily, his partner and a 26-year-old science student at a local university (both prefer not to use their last names). John swings and hangs from the metal rafters that support the red, white, and blue canopy and begins to fasten the rope with bitter cold fingers as his 10 collaborators watch from below, surrounded by the candy-colored horses of the merry-go-round, all encrusted in ice.
The members of the Baltimore Guerrilla Suspension Crew (BGSC)—a loose-knit group of rope fetishists devoted to public bondage suspensions— have been waiting for the first snow, and when it started to fall overnight on Jan. 20, they were ready. “We’ve never done a suspension in the snow,” Lily says, as if this simple fact constitutes a challenge. They drove around Saturday morning scouting spots, and by 3 p.m. they were huddled in heated cars tying ropes around the thighs and waists of the three female “rope bottoms”—including Lily—who were about to hang upside down in the freezing air wearing nothing but underwear, ropes, and gas masks, in view of anyone who passes by.
When John, an avid rock climber and bartender who occasionally works on porn sets, finishes tying an intricate series of knots, he leaps down, and Lily takes off her heavy coat. Then she steps out of her sweatpants, revealing overlapping layers of rope around her waist and her thighs and a pair of pink panties. She pulls a gas mask over her face.
“Ready?” John asks as Lily approaches the rope. He wraps his arms around her and lifts. She grabs the rope and pulls herself up as he connects the rope around her waist to the one hanging from the canopy with a carabineer. He steps away, and suddenly, she is upside down, suspended. She pulls her shirt over the gas mask, drops it, and hangs there, slowly spinning as the harbor and the sprinkling of snow glimmer beneath the gray sky.
In a moment John, also wearing a gas mask, comes and stands proudly beside her as she grabs one of her boots and pulls her leg back, stretching the other upward, in control.
Though they live together and rope play constitutes a large part of John’s and Lily’s erotic lives, there is nothing overtly sexual happening here. The public displays of the BGSC, which they created and run, are about something different: They are out here in the bitter cold as what they call “evangelists of kink,” attempting to turn the dynamics of their relationship into a kind of performance art. Beauty, not pleasure, is their primary goal.
And there is a lot of artistry involved in this activity that the less extreme kinky community calls “edge play.” John makes his own rope and takes the greatest care to make sure that the suspension is safe. “It takes skill to get someone off of the ground with just a piece of rope,” he says. “The mechanics of it are difficult. It defies gravity. But when you do it right, with a cool pose, it looks amazing.”
For her part, Lily finds being tightly bound and suspended in the air liberating. “It is definitely a rush to feel weightless,” she says. “And some of the locations are extremely dangerous, which adds to it.” She sees herself as both model and artist: “I’d never considered myself artistic before this. But I am learning what my body can do, learning my limits. It is a kind of training.”
In a private, safe place, she can hang suspended for an hour; in public, it rarely lasts 15 minutes. Still, the public aspect is central to their art. “It allows you to see a place in an entirely different light,” John says. “Take a dingy back alley full of trash and hang someone in it and it becomes beautiful.”
But when you ask them why they do this, “trust” is always the first word out of their mouths.
John and Lily met just over a year ago at “kinky happy hour” at Shuckers in Fells Point. “She took me home that night, and I never left,” John says.
Both Lily and John say that they led isolated, lonely lives before they found each other and what they call the “kink scene.”
“I’ve been kinky for as long as I can remember,” John says. “How many dates can I go on until I ask to tie you up?” He never felt comfortable with his desires. “Even my gay friends thought I was weird,” he says. “I thought I was a serial killer.”
“You don’t really tell people because they immediately think you need therapy,” Lily adds. “But it is easier as a girl. You can tell a guy to spank you or pull your hair and ease them into it.”
It may have been easier, but she still wasn’t able to be entirely honest about her interests in submission. Both Lily and John thought they would have to go to New York or Los Angeles to find other people like themselves. “It turned out Baltimore has a great kinky community,” John says. “People come from New York to party here.”
“There it is more of a scene [in New York] and here it’s more of a community,” Lily adds. “Everybody knows each other, and so it is more comfortable.”
There are a few public locations like the Playhouse in Baltimore and the Crucible in Washington, D.C., that are dedicated to public erotic “play,” but on any given weekend there will probably be five other public-play parties in and around Baltimore (not including private house parties). There are week-long erotic “camps” in the summer where people can openly engage in nearly any fetish that involves two consenting adults.
But both John and Lily first came to this scene through the web site Fetlife, which they describe as “Facebook for kinky people.”
Both say that they really felt like they could be themselves for the first time when they met each other. It sounds like common romantic gush—they use words like “soulmate”— but the amount of thought they put into their relationship is rather impressive.
“It’s a 24/7 power exchange,” Lily says. “Someone is submissive and someone is dominant. There is no gray area, everything is drawn out.”
Lily explains that at first she wasn’t allowed to open doors if John was around, because it made them both more thoughtful. It was his duty to do it, and her duty not to, and it required a conscious effort from both.
“There are diet restrictions,” she says. “I can’t eat without his permission.” John also tells her what to eat. “I don’t want to be a dick and feed her things she doesn’t want,” he says. “I want her to be happy, and I want to show her I’m paying attention.”
When asked if it isn’t tiring to have that much control over someone, John acknowledges that “it’s a lot of work.”
“If I want to get attention, the easiest way is to not listen to him,” Lily says. “It’s not so much sexual, but to see that he cares.”
Lily began to wear a leather “consideration collar,” marking her as John’s (she has several; one version, made of vinyl, had the word whore spelled out on it). But recently, he presented her with her “real” collar in a ceremony attended by their friends.
“It never comes off,” Lily says, referring to the stainless-steel collar around her neck. “It has very little nickel, because she has sensitive skin,” John adds.
“For most people in the scene, that means more than a wedding ring,” Lily continues.
“Wedding rings are the most common collar in this society,” John says. As of now, there is a small keyhole, but she hopes one day to have it welded shut.
Lily says that people expect him to be abusive and her to be meek. “But I’ve gotten so used to being honest, it makes me much more assertive and comfortable expressing myself,” she says. “What’s the worst that can happen if I speak my mind?”
They both repeatedly stress the importance of absolute honesty in their relationship. Though they were monogamous during the first part of their relationship, tonight they say it is evolving. “I’m still monogamous, but she is monagamish,” John says, using a term coined for people who are in committed, mostly monogamous relationships by sex advice columnist Dan Savage. “As long as she tells me, even if I don’t like it, I can’t stay mad at her. You can’t control your feelings, but you can control your actions.”
“But I would never be a bottom for someone else,” she adds. Again, it’s a matter of trust.
Early in their relationship, John and Lily began to explore a mutual interest in rope. They began with what are called “floor ties.” John would hogtie Lily in a variety of poses on a flat surface. “But eventually we took that as a far as we could, and we wanted to try suspensions,” Lily says.
They asked around on the scene, looking for someone to teach them. As you might guess, suspensions can be dangerous—not only because of the obvious risk of falling, but more commonly they can cause nerve damage or cut off circulation. Finally, they found someone, and John began to learn how to hang Lily in the air. They began to do suspensions at parties.
“Suspension is a different form of rope play,” Lily says. “It is performance.”
“When I do a suspension, it is all mental, not physically erotic at all,” John says.
As they continued to craft their personal relationship as art, the performances at fetish parties weren’t enough. “After you do so many suspensions at parties, it just gets boring,” Lily says. “There are only so many things you can do.” They came up with the idea of the Baltimore Guerrilla Suspension Crew.
“You have different backdrops, so you can do the same suspension in 50 different ways—” Lily says.
“And it is always different,” John adds.
They wanted to create this performance art out in the public view “instead of being creepy in a dungeon somewhere, like people think of kinky people,” as Lily puts it. “We want to show people that it is beautiful.”
“Tying people up is very taboo,” John says. “You tie people up to keep them there against their will. But it is beautiful if you tie someone because she wants to be there. And then there’s the guerrilla aspect.”
Technically, what they do isn’t illegal—they don’t usually trespass and their bodies, though scantily clad, are covered where it counts. “Public perception of indecency is irrelevant when it comes to the law,” explains “Undercover D,” a Baltimore City Police officer who is in the kinky scene and sometimes accompanies the group to risky locations; he asked that his real name not be used. But even D says he gets a thrill out of “doing something that is considered naughty out in public. You get high. It’s an endorphin rush.”
They have performed suspensions at the federal courthouse downtown, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Power Plant, the Walters Art Museum, the Glendale Sanitarium, and a host of other locations but say they have only been hassled a few times. “Usually we’re done before the cops show up,” Lily says. “So they just tell us not to do it again.”
“We did it in a rich neighborhood in Frederick, and when the cops came they said, ‘You won’t believe how many calls we got about this’ and told us to get out of town,” John says.
One night last spring, John and his frequent accomplice rope rigger Darian hung Lily and a military servicemember who asks to be called G.I. Jane in the Graffiti Alley behind the Load of Fun Studio on North Avenue. John rigged the rope from a steel beam going between the walls of the two buildings, but as Lily hung there in a gas mask and underwear, an ankle tied to her hair, a carabineer broke and she came crashing down to the glass- and debris-littered asphalt.
She wasn’t hurt, but John still cringes and covers his face with his hand when he thinks of it: “The only time. I’m so embarrassed.” He looks over at Lily with what appears to be shame. But John’s shame comes from his failure that night, not from what they were doing.
The couple say they still feel discriminated against by what they would call the “vanilla” world. John had to quit a job when Lily came to visit him one day wearing her collar. “People [saw it and] thought he would be really abusive to women,” Lily says. And when her family discovered some pictures of her suspended, they suggested that she seek professional help. As a result, even when they are doing “normal” things like watching football or going to the movies, they say they feel more comfortable doing it with other members of the kinky community. “Just like people who are really into music do other things with their music buddies,” John says.
Despite appearances and their self-assigned roles, it seems as if Lily is actually the one with all the power—at least in the BGSC. Lily runs the e-mail group and the web sites; she arranges the suspensions and coordinates the clothing of the rope bottoms (or models, since the coordination is for the purpose of photographs). Though she began strictly as a bottom, recently Lily has begun to serve as a rigger, tying and suspending other women and occasionally men in scenic locations. She claims that she can suspend anyone “regardless of height, weight, or gender.”
But today, at the carousel, she is just hanging. Several passersby stop to watch her swing. Two women walk up, a bit baffled but giggling, and start to take pictures with their phones before wandering off. After about 10 minutes, John says, “Ready?” and Lily reaches up and grabs the rope. He wraps his arms around her, unhooks her, and eases her to the ground.
By now a woman named Josie is hanging from another part of the carousel. Someone tosses Lily her coat and then her sweatpants. As soon as Josie comes down, Celeste, a female rigger from D.C. who has also stripped down to lingerie and donned a gas mask, suspends Misha, a young woman with pink hair and tattoos.
“I don’t like the cold,” Lily says, looking on. “It’s harder to breath. That’s why I’m so lucky that my boyfriend is so awesome. He did the most comfortable ties, so it would be easy for me and I could stay up longer.”
A few minutes later, everyone is dressed and all are eager for the warmth of their cars after the rush of a successful suspension: They found a cool spot, embraced the elements, pushed their limits, and “projected their vision to the masses,” as John puts it. The vision may be edgy, but the care and attention involved in its creation make these evangelists of kink seem somehow wholesome—though not quite vanilla.