I brought banana bread to my first kink party.
It’s a Thursday night in Yellowknife, and I’ve trudged across a frozen lake to get to the houseboat hosting the party. Rylund Johnson opens the door when I climb aboard in a red flannel onesie, peering through thick rimmed glasses perched above a bushy beard. He asks if I know anything about pellet stoves as he’s currently doing battle with the main source of heat on the boat.
Welcome to Northern Bound, Yellowknife’s BDSM group. Johnson has been one of the admins of the group for about a year, but this is the first workshop he’s hosted on his houseboat.
“It’s very Yellowknife to have a BDSM workshop on a boat,” he says.
He’s also aware it’s a very Yellowknife thing to be able to invite people to your boat on the middle of a dark lake without them imagining you making a dress out of their skin, because they probably already know you and all of your friends. “I can message people in that group and be like ‘hey do you want to come over to my boat and talk about submissive roles’ and they feel safe. Imagine getting that message on Tinder, you’d be like uh, no?”
Hovering around 100 members, the group is organized on Facebook using real names and real photographs in a town that often feels far smaller than it’s 20,000 population. It started about four years ago, with workshops to demonstrate shibari, a specific kind of rope bondage, and since has grown to cover all manner of kink, both great and small. Kind of like a bookclub, but with floggers.
“People show up and they have such ridiculous imaginations, that they’re just going to have an orgy and like they’re going to feel uncomfortable,” says Johnson. “And then they get there we’re having tea and a two-hour conversation about sexuality. And then there’s prescribed reading afterwards, like here’s some articles and a book.”
The one I go to has two topics: being a strong, independent person who also likes to be submissive, and having a kinky, polyamorous life while raising small humans. People brought their own cushions and blankets for comfort, and at some point Johnson pulls out a white plastic cutting board, and slices off hunks of brie with a kitchen knife while someone else passes around a new flogger they just bought on a trip to Calgary.
“That’s probably the second biggest purpose of this group, is just a collective to bulk order sex toys,” says Johnson. (In the north, you can’t exactly just pop into your local sex shop. Everything has to be bought online, or purchased when someone’s in the south. One girl at the meetup had brought her latest acquisitions, bemoaning the fact that a southern shopping spree had outgrown her storage, and her kinky accoutrements were now being stored in four reusable Loblaws shopping bags).
Creating a safe, comfortable space to talk about kink was kind of the point when 42 (the answer to everything, and the name she uses when she’s interviewed about BDSM or her life as a dom) started the group four years ago after she moved to Yellowknife. She noticed Fetlife, the Facebook of the fetish world, wasn’t that popular in the NWT. “ When you go on [Fetlife] and it’s like ball gags and people getting pounded in the ass and chastity contraptions and penis' getting stomped, if that’s new to you that can be a little bit alarming sometimes,” says 42.
By contrast, the banner on the top of the Northern Bound page? A stuffed ptarmigan toy, in bondage. “It’s a fluffy woodland snow chicken bound in shibari. But that was what we wanted people to know. When we first started people were scared, they were like how do I dress? I was like I don’t know… sweatpants? Something flexible? You can wear pleather, you can wear latex if you want to, you can wear your fancy leggings if you want to, you can wear overalls, I don’t care.”
Her goal is to bring BDSM out of the scary shadows. She’s been involved in several communities in bigger cities for over two decades.
“It was a very different environment than it is now. BDSM was extremely underground back then,” she says. “Here there was nothing. So my goal was to start something that was first and foremost a safe place. “
Most of the group are amateurs, although there are a few more experienced people who have popped out of the woodwork and are now leading workshops and sharing what they know. Everyone who joins is invited and vouched for. The night I turn up clutching baked goods, I know several people in the room, either socially or professionally.
“It happens all the time—people show up and they’re surprised to see someone. Maybe they work together and they’re in a meeting the next day,” says Johnson.
Nicole Goodman had thought about BDSM for years but never acted on it until she moved to Yellowknife.
“In another city, I and like a lot of people I can think of would be much more tentative to coming and showing up to these things. Whereas here, as with everything else it’s like ‘oh you played soccer one time, you’re on the board! You’re going to regionals!’” she says.
Like a lot of people in the group, someone slid her an invitation on a hunch it would be welcome after a non-kink party.
“It was totally an accident. I ended up at someone’s house after [a Motown night at the Elks Club] and I was wearing this pair of really awesome vintage white lace pants, and I was going on and on about how comfortable these pants were and so then everyone started swapping different pairs of pants. I didn’t mean anything by it I just really felt that everyone should try these pants. And the next day someone was like ‘so.’”
She wasn’t worried about being found out—quite the contrary. For a lot of people, the fact that you do know everyone in the room isn’t a deterrent—it’s what makes it so safe.
“It’s not like it’s some stranger being like ‘hey do you want to come to a party where there’s flogging by the snacks.’” (Incidentally, she’s been to at least six non-kink events in Yellowknife where someone’s been bent over by the cheese plate).
In the four years the group has been meeting, they’ve never had to kick anyone out.
“We all kind of recognize that Yellowknife’s small and this is a great thing we have going on, don’t mess it up by coming to one of these events and being creepy,” says Johnson. “This group has this great thing where because it’s Facebook and it’s everyone’s real names it’s like if you screw up and do something really inappropriate you know everyone knows who you are and you’re going to be shamed. There’s an accountability to that.”
Sitting on the houseboat, it makes sense. Everyone in that circle is there for the same reason, and has the same stake in following the rules of the group, pinned at the top of the Facebook page: respect the “magic cone of confidentiality.”
“Hard fact: Yellowknife is a small place. You will likely encounter someone you know,” go the rules. “If you find your boss, or your sister, or your grandparents, or your grandparent's goldfish is suddenly a member on this site, then I assure you, they may be equally surprised by you being there. G-Ma may be kinky. It’s OK. So are you. There is nothing wrong with that.”
It’s a mutually assured destruction, or as 42 puts it, a mutually assured support. At a certain point, this is a fucking small town—literally. You’re going to know stuff about other people and can extrapolate even more. But at a certain point, you stop caring.
Enter, W. He’s been involved as a dom for years, and recently ran for public office. Before he did, he had to have a very frank conversation with the people managing his campaign about why the skeletons in his closet were wearing ball gags.
“I said alright, this could be something that gets out during this election, I don’t know how dirty people play but we want to be prepared for it one way or the other. And I didn’t want to hide anything and then have to damage control in the moment, I wanted to preemptively plan if this gets out how do we handle it,” he says.
His team wasn’t shocked when he told them. “They’ve been around politics for a while, and I think they’ve learned that normally in politics comes a lot of power, and when there’s a lot of power normally there’s an escape from it.”
He lost by a very narrow margin, but plans to run again. And next time, he’s toying with being more open about his personal life. (For now though, his team advised him not to be named in this article. Everyone else who was named in this article initially had misgivings, mostly around concerns about outing former partners. Funnily enough, being published outside of Yellowknife was the sticking point).
“It sounds weird but within certain parts of Yellowknife I feel like it almost helps me more than hinders me,” says W. “I feel like it probably would have bought me a younger vote, but it could have been a detriment to an older vote.”
So does the millennial generation, raised on the internet and a world where Pornhub releases yearly statistics highlighting exactly what people were getting off to, care if their elected officials enjoy some light spanking? W’s pretty sure they don’t.
But he’s still aware that as a male, straight, dom, people’s stereotypes about the lifestyle are working in his favour. “For myself, being a guy, if someone finds out that I’m a dom, most of the time I get a high five. For a girl, the stereotype is that they’re a slut. And I hate that attitude, but unfortunately that’s part of the society I feel we still live in,” he says.
For Johnson and 42, changing those stereotypes is a big part of why it’s important to have such a open kinkster community in Yellowknife. It’s about changing the culture—not just around BDSM, but around sex in general.
“A lot of what this group is doing is not even BDSM, it’s just like sexual communication. This is my favourite thing about kinksters, they’re the best people on earth to have sex with, even vanilla sex,” Johnson says. “Before I have sex with someone, and this is part of the group too, it’s like a two-hour interview process. I need to make sure, absolutely sure, you’re comfortable talking and conversing during sex.”
He sees things like the intense focus on consent and communication trickling down from the kink community into every other kind of sex, and relationships in general.
“If someone shows up and they see how comfortable people are with very intense play, like very intense impact play and flogging and role playing and collars, and they see people just talking casually about that, they go back and they’re like ‘oh we can’t talk about whether you’re on top and whether you’re enjoying it?’”
At the end of the day, he says he’s seen that culture start to shift as people become more open about the fact that yes, adults have sex and yes, it should be enjoyable. Even in a small town.
“It’s like yeah I have an exciting sex life, I should shame you for not having one! Do you want to talk about it?”
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.