SOCIETY

The Secret Sexual World Of America’s Renaissance Faires

Just beneath the surface of one of America's family-friendly traditions lies a bubbling sexual subculture
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Of corset's right there under your nose. — REUTERS
Oct 16, 2015 at 1:27 PM ET

One of America’s favorite family summer traditions is home to a simmering sexual subculture, where lovers of kink and BDSM gather among families and fairgoers. The Renaissance Faire—family friendly, olde-worlde theme parks marketed with the tagline “Where Fantasy Rules”—is a veritable Disneyland for kinksters.

The festival widely considered the first modern Renaissance Faire, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, was held in California in 1963. Just over 50 years later, that event now attracts over 20,000 participants annually, and is one of 172 registered fairs across the country, not to mention dozens of copycat festivals held in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and a handful of other countries.

A Vocativ analysis of online forums related to renaissance faires and to kink revealed that these festivals are a favorite recreational destination for some local BDSM communities. One of the world’s largest BDSM forums, collarchat.com, features a number of stories from members who met their kink-partners, or first discovered BDSM, by attending a renaissance faire. Forum user CallaFirestormBW joked: “I started off my journey into out-of-mainstream life as paid staff at a Renaissance Faire. Gotta watch those — they’re ‘gateway’ recreation.”

Vocativ also found strippers and other people who participate in various kinds of sex work talking online about going to the festivals. Some of those who were discussing their trips to the faires just went for fun, like anyone else, but others went to shop for some of the costumes on sale there.

This kind of close proximity between family-friendly fantasy and sexual fantasy has caused controversy at times. In 2013 one group set up a bondage camp near the entrance of the Texas Renaissance Faire. Despite complaints from parents, a local RenFaire newsletter praised both the bondage camp and a nudist kink group called Clan Dragonborn (aka “The Naked Knights and Disrobed Damsels”) for displaying a “refreshing step away from the hyper-family-friendly” direction that some faire devotees believe the festivals are taking. The bondage camp has since disappeared from festival forums, but Reddit users say that the Texas festival is still home to a clandestine BDSM camp.

When Dr. Rachel Rubin, a professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, set out to write a book about the history of the Renaissance Faire, one of the things she found was that even early on the festival was a hub where people gathered to celebrate certain sexual behaviors, and to discover new ones. Visitors and staff at the faire dabbled in costumes and role play, which often carried straight from the medieval fairgrounds to the bedroom after dark.

“People said with great gratitude that the Renaissance Faire introduced them to new things,” Rubin told Vocativ. She said many of her interview subjects expressed the same sentiment: the festivals were the first place they felt they could openly display their participation in BDSM culture without feeling judged.

Buried in some of the pageantry and costumes are in-jokes and subtle tells which mean nothing to the average fairgoer, but are red flags to members of kink communities. (There have long been rumors that some people use codes in their costumes involving animal tails to suggest their sexual preferences and desires. Some people may actually do this, but it may also be largely urban legend, like “sex bracelets” and “rainbow parties.”)

Many kink communities go online to share tips for finding each other in person at the faire. “People are real careful about it,” said Rubin. “There are also things going on after hours with people who work at the faire. You have to be in the know to access their communication.”

It’s also common for vendors of leather products, weapons, corsets and other historical paraphernalia to have private spaces where items specifically for people with an interest in BDSM or other kinks can be sold. A forum user called thishereboi described one such insider secret at a RenFaire in Michigan: “There is a leather stand, at the fair that comes to Detroit, with a back room for kinksters. I got an awesome pair of cuffs there and they had some wonderful floggers.” User slavekal replied: “We got great stuff from their back room. They recognized us for what we were right off the bat and took us right to the back.”

Some people online also discussed after-hours “play parties” held in these spaces. Since trust is crucial to BDSM culture, forum users generally advise newbies against approaching strangers with sexual advances even at places with a more open culture like the faire, suggesting new prospects start with symbols and friendly introductions instead.

Over the past decade, kink communities have started to emerge from the shadows and plan their own explicit festivals, like the Golden Tether in Baltimore, where they can openly celebrate the pursuit of pleasure. In 2015, the Wicked Renaissance Faire in New Jersey featured various fetish workshops, including “negotiations for play,” BDSM with asexual partners, sex toys 101, and for the more advanced, a seminar in using real whips.

The Facebook group for this faire has more than 700 members. George Bogorad, the instructor who led the whip workshop there, has been attending and performing at Renaissance Faires for 18 years. He started as a juggler and quickly met fellow performers at the festival who also used whips and other leather goods. “A lot of people that go to the fairs are very much into BDSM,” said Bogorad. “I know some [BDSM] groups that plan outings at the fair together, and certainly a lot of people who have met others and connected with these communities at the fair The Wicked Faire will return in spring 2016, around the same time as the debut of the Kinky Renaissance Festival in Texas, which already has over 1,530 guests “attending” on Facebook.

Bogorad says BDSM groups can easily blend in to the more mainstream faires when wearing corsets, collars and kilts, but that the festival culture generally is widely accepting of these kinds of subcultures. “I’d like to see more people publicly accepting different lifestyles,” he said, “and these events are really helping out with that.”