She can light you on fire, roast marshmallows off you while you burn, and then feed you s’mores while you’re still engulfed in flames. Saskia Davies is often referred to as “Colorado’s Mother of Kink.” She’s the owner and operator of Pavlovia, a Denver dungeon that offers everything from pony play to gynecological exams (not the medical kind). She’s quick to point out that kink isn’t always about sex. People often use it for sexual pleasure, but it can also be a way to feel new sensations or enjoy power exchanges. For some, she says, “it’s even therapeutic.”
Sandwiched between several unassuming businesses, I almost missed it. Pavlovia is inside a rather bland beige building with only an address to give it away. But one step inside and you know this isn’t like any other business. The first thing I notice is its darkness. The walls are deep lavender and midnight blue. There is a juxtaposition here between dark and light. Amid the life-sized crosses, swinging tables, iron neck restraints, and walls dripping with wooden paddles, there are pink tutus peeking out of the corner.
A former social worker, Saskia is as complex as the community she serves. Her voice is soft and melodious. She’s not what I imagined a dominatrix would look like. She isn’t large or frightening. She’s welcoming and sweet. Playful, even. She’s also extraordinarily intelligent. When I ask for a definition of kink I am flooded with a history lesson about World War II and the gay men who brought the leather culture to life.
She says she enjoys kink because it is “culturally defined,” and — like culture — it’s constantly changing. Gender is often checked at the door. It is, she says “playing with boundaries, playing with taboos, playing with neurology.” I suspect she is just as comfortable addressing a class full of college students as she is handcuffing someone to the big, black cross in the middle of the room.
The dungeon caters to kink of all kinds: BDSM, fetishes, cross-dressing, basically anything the client wants short of sex. Her mistresses are not prostitutes; they are highly trained professionals. Unless they have previous experience, each mistress must apprentice for at least a year. This is because kink is about so much more than the body — it’s also about the mind. They are paid to play mind and body games. “I tell my apprentices they will have balls of steel before their training is complete,” Saskia says. Then she spins into a tale about why spitting in someone’s face can be cathartic for both the dominant and the submissive.
BDSM is a combination of overlapping abbreviations for Bondage and Discipline (BD), Dominance and Submission (DS), and Sadism and Masochism (SM). In a nutshell, it’s for people who are into restraint, pain, and/or humiliation. It’s also about giving up control, providing structure, and emotional release. Saskia says play becomes BDSM any time there is an exchange of power. “Orientation doesn’t apply [in kink]. People who consider themselves heterosexual will play with same sex because it’s a power exchange they might enjoy.” Saskia stresses the importance of consent. Nothing is done without the client’s permission. “You are not a good or ethical partner if you’re not meeting your partner’s needs,” she emphasizes.
Pavlovia provides a safe place where people can experience kink without judgment. It’s like an adult Disneyland with maximum endorphin-pumping rides. Many are modern versions of devices that date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Previously used for torture, they are now used for pleasure. There are ropes, whips, canes, floggers, paddles, chains, and handcuffs. The sessions range from the extreme to the sublime. If you want to be handcuffed and beaten, that’s an option. You may also partake in the ancient Japanese art of Shibari. It involves colorful ropes and/or ties. They restrain without the use of knots to create human sculptures, living breathing works of art that often hang from the ceiling.
The dungeon’s offerings include suspension tables, a genitorture chair (yes, that is what it sounds like), a hanging rack, what appears to be a lion’s cage, wooden crosses, and a pillory. Pillories were mostly used in the 1700s to put people on display with their heads and hands held tight through wooden holes. Their pillory is a table. Once the head and hands are locked in, “I put a piece of candy right here,” Saskia says with delight, while pointing to an area just out of reach from where the mouth would be.
Saskia enjoys combining the visual with the tactile. She blames porn for limiting information to the visual. She says what people are shown in the movies or on TV “is very limited; emotions are so much more powerful.” This is where physical sensations like fire play, medical play, and electro play come in. Electro play involves a machine that uses electrical currents for sexual or other stimulation. There is also a special room set up for medical play with everything from gynecological chairs and instruments to a dentist’s chair.
Merriam-Webster describes a fetish as “a need or desire for an object, body part, or activity for sexual excitement.” Saskia and her mistresses have seen them all. A fetish may or may not incorporate BDSM. Again, that only happens when an exchange of power comes into play.
At Pavlovia, there is a room straight out of Old Hollywood designed especially for cross-dressers. It is complete with the aforementioned tutus, as well as dresses, hats, heels, even nail polish.
Pet play is also popular. It may include belly rubs, grooming, bathing, treats, even teaching a command. Saskia uses a language the person doesn’t speak because she says, “When you’re playing with real puppies, they have to figure out what the words mean.”
The dungeon offers quarterly “Funny Farm” parties for people who enjoy both pet play and age play. They are usually themed like Alice in Wonderland and include Easter egg hunts, story time, snack time, dress-up, and more. “The Littles,” as they are called, dress up like children or babies and are catered to the way any child would be.
People can have a fetish about anything. Research shows the most prevalent non-genital ones are foot fetishes. Some clients even request smelly feet. “Imagine,” she says, “trying to get ready for a client who wants me clean with shaved legs, while still having stinky feet.”
Leather is perhaps the best-known fetish of all. It can be a hobby, but it’s usually a lifestyle. People form families that may include moms, dads, children, and/or pets. A couple may also choose a master/slave dynamic. In this scenario, the slave often needs permission for everything. This includes when he or she may go to the bathroom, eat, dress, shower, or perform any other function. These roles are highly negotiated. They usually involve signed contracts detailing what can and cannot be done.
Leather stems from gay male motorcycle groups following WWII. Most of its traditions are based on military protocols and rituals. Returning from war, Saskia says, “they felt they still had a place for their sexuality in a way that wasn’t accepted by the mainstream.” This evolved into what it is today. People of all genders and sexual orientations now participate. Some households are even headed by women.
Clients, as you might imagine, come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. “The oldest client I’ve had was 80 years old,” says Saskia, but most are between 30 and 50. Most are men, with women sometimes accompanying their husbands or boyfriends. Some lesbian couples also come into play.
Many couples visit the dungeon to learn gratification in non-traditional ways. Saskia says educating couples is one of their favorite things to do. For instance, you can have non-genital, full-body orgasms. “Using sensations people are not accustomed to [like spanking] can lead to a high that can last for many, many hours or even days,” she says. There are also generational differences. Gender, Saskia observes, does not play a big role for younger people. They tend to be more fluid because they’ve grown up in a world where gender, roles, and orientations aren’t as big of a deal as they were for older folks. “In my dungeon I see a bunch of undeclared majors,” she jokes.
It’s been a long road from social worker to dungeon master, but Saskia has no plans to stop anytime soon. The reason she loves this work so much is that it’s ever changing. She describes it the way an anthropologist might: There’s always more to learn. The kink culture, she believes, is where the LGBT community was 20 or 30 years ago. There is a lack of research and understanding — there aren’t even legal or psychological terms.
“People refuse to believe that people actually enjoy it,” she says. “[LGBT] people used to be thought of as sick until taboos loosened and people realized it’s not a pathology.” That, she maintains, is where the fight is today, to help the world understand that kink is as relevant as any other orientation or lifestyle.