Thoughts for New Clubs
by Russell B
This paper was part of a presentation given at the 2001 Leather Leadership Conference in Chicago.1
Please note that local laws and local interpretation/enforcement of existing laws will vary from place to place, and you are responsible for doing your own legal research as well as for any consequences of your decisions or actions. In other words, this document is not offered as legal advice.
Also, please note that at the time this paper was presented, its accompanying bibliography and resource guide wasn't yet complete. That work has now been completed, and is available at http://www.erotichospitality.com
It is our belief that leather and non-leather communities have a great deal to offer each other, and are stronger together than apart. We wrote this guide to help other organizations that may be interested in serving sex-positive culture as a whole.
- There is no substitute for soliciting input and feedback from members of each community you intend to serve. Good feedback is particularly important before you commit to a location, build permanent walls, redecorate, or set facility-wide policies.
- There is no substitute for building rapport with the leaders of each community you intend to serve. Without the approval of a community's leadership you'll face an uphill battle gaining that community's support, and regular attendance by even one such individual (particularly if they encourage their friends to join) can make a huge difference.
- Choose your Volunteer Coordinator carefully. He or she needs to be comfortable with both leather and non-leather sex-positive cultures, and must be skilled at creating a fun and safe work environment for everyone.
- Most of the communities you will be serving should be familiar with the concept of membership. There are many advantages in allowing admission to your events only to bona-fide members of your organization, and in granting membership in your organization only as part of an application and orientation process that is separate from your events.
- We recommend incorporating as a non-profit organization in your state, under a non-explicit name, and later on (if appropriate) applying for recognition of IRS 501(c)(7) tax-exempt status for this corporation.2 Being able to identify as a non-profit organization legitimizes your claim to be a community-based endeavor. It also provides a legal assurance to your members (particularly members from communities in which your leaders may not be personally known) that their money and time cannot be used for your leadership's personal gain.
- For more information on incorporating as a non-profit, read How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation by Anthony Mancuso. For more information on the implications of 501(c)(7) vs. 501(c)(3) status, read The Second Legal Answer Book for Nonprofit Organizations by Bruce Hopkins and IRS Publication 557. For more information on conducting effective board meetings, read The New Robert's Rules of Order by Mary DeVries. Additional information is available online at http://www.nonprofits.org/npofaq/
- If your current leadership's background is predominantly leather, then there may be a learning curve as you adjust to the fact that some terms (e.g. ``vanilla'') can be experienced as pejorative or offensive by people outside the leather community. There may also be a learning curve as regards other terms (e.g. ``slave,'' ``boy,'' ``mistress,'' etc.) that may have different meanings outside leather culture or only be in common usage within leather culture. In communications with new or prospective members, it's helpful to think about how leatherfolk as well as non-leatherfolk might interpret your language. Try to build a common base of understanding, and don't presume that all of your members have the same background. Additional information is available in ``Speaking to Vanilla Groups about S/M,'' at http://www.leatherleadership.org/vanilla.htm
- It's helpful to host at least some events (and hence volunteer opportunities) that don't involve explicit sexual activity. New members, particularly if they do not personally know your project's leadership, may be more comfortable if their first experience with your organization can be in a more non-sexual environment. In our organization's case, our library, our orientations, our Wednesday drop-in evenings, our drawing classes and dance classes, our discussion groups, our ``Mystery Porn Theater 3000'' nights, and our ``Welcoming Committee'' meetings all serve this purpose. In general, how new members are integrated into and helped to feel comfortable within your organization should be a topic of constant attention.
- The NCSF (see http://www.ncsfreedom.org) has a series of guides for club owners on dealing with law enforcement, zoning officials, and the media, which we strongly recommend reading; in particular, make sure you read their two LEOP documents ``Groups and Law Enforcement'' and ``Zoning and Permits.'' The NCSF is currently working on a guide to performing legal research at the state and local levels, which you should download as soon as it becomes available. William ReMine's Protecting Your Group in a Hostile Legal Environment (which was presented as part of Mr. ReMine's talk at the 2001 Leather Leadership Conference) should also be considered required reading.
- If you're looking for insurance, then work with ``brokers'' rather than ``agents.'' Describe your organization by comparing it to other types of organizations which your broker may have already helped insure. Above all, never lie when applying for insurance!
- It's helpful to set policies up-front concerning how events held in your space may be promoted. If it would disturb your neighbors or endanger your lease for explicit flyers to be distributed in your immediate neighborhood, then you should be clear about this with all the organizations that will be sharing your space.
- If you're interested in creating a multi-use space to serve both leather and non-leather communities, then it's helpful to put a lot of thought into how your space can be made flexible and convertible. Heavy play equipment that cannot be moved into storage, or permanent artwork of an extreme nature, might work against encouraging the widest possible use of your space.
Advise on Specific Communities
One point, before we begin... In any area where it is difficult for a sex-related organization to find meeting space, your organization (if it has a leased or purchased space of its own that it can offer) may itself become a catalyst for more groups becoming active in your area. Although you shouldn't depend on this in your financial planning, if it happens it's probably a sign that your project is on the right track.
Once you're finished with the suggestions given below, you might also want to look over the bulletin boards in any sympathetic businesses or clubs in your area, search the internet a little more, and possibly go through some of the steps suggested in the ``meta-guide'' at http://www.sexuality.org/other.html just to be sure you haven't missed anything.
Swinging (aka ``The Lifestyle'')
``Swinging'' is recreational sex amongst (typically het-identified) male-female couples, with an emphasis on sex between couples as a social activity. The swinger's community has developed over the last 50 years in parallel with (though largely separate from) the modern leather community; today it's at least as large as the modern leather community, and like the leather community has a large-scale need for play space.
Of course, once you begin hosting sex-focused events, you may find that they also draw from a subset of your existing leather community and/or start attracting new members who didn't previously hail from either swinging or leather; this section will therefore provide general suggestions on hosting sex parties as well as specific information on the modern swing community.
- Swinger's events are usually categorized as either ``off-premises'' (e.g. dances where couples meet but then go to their homes or hotel rooms for play) or ``on-premises'' (e.g. events where sex is allowed in the same facility where couples meet). There may be a special opportunity for your organization if there are no other ``on-premises'' clubs in your area.
- Female bisexuality is common in the modern swing community, but male bisexual activity is rare; if your organization is coming from a pansexual leather perspective then you probably won't have an issue with any type of sex, and open acceptance of male-male sex might be something that distinguishes your events from most swing clubs.
- There may be potential for a slight culture clash over ``touching without permission'' unless this issue is directly (but politely) addressed during your orientation process. Although ``no means no'' is the standard at every swinger's club I have ever heard of, it is not considered impolite in their culture to (for example) stroke someone's leg while sharing a hot tub without first obtaining verbal permission. Please view this as a cultural difference and avoid condescension, even if your organization chooses to set facility-wide rules addressing permission and touch.
- Many swinger's events are held in private homes with nice carpeting, beds, a hot tub, and perhaps a bidet. If your space has more of a ``warehouse'' feel, then think about using rugs and fabrics and creative lighting to give it a softer look.
- As a new organization, if you're planning to host sex-focused events it's probably best to schedule them for nights when no other on-premises swing club in your area is hosting events.
- In the swinger's community, it's traditional to either not allow singles to attend or else to place stringent gender-based restrictions on singles' attendance: hence, there is a common expectation of ``gender balance'' amongst the attendees. If as an organization you choose not to impose such restrictions and end up with consistently out-of-balance gender ratios, then this may affect your events' popularity or reputation amongst your area's swinger's community. Note, however: as our own experience has shown, such ``imbalance'' is not an inevitable result of refusing to institute gender-based restrictions.
- When hosting sex-focused events, you'll need to provide more ``horizontal'' play space (i.e. mattresses and futons with easily replaceable linens) than you might at leather-focused events. You'll also need to keep the thermostat high enough so that nudity is immediately comfortable. If possible, use soft or colored lighting so that skin tones look especially attractive.
- It's helpful to have a good sound system and possibly a dance floor (often a key part of on-premises swing clubs, like the hot tub). Playing good, dancable music that everyone will recognize offers an extra opportunity to flirt, and can make the whole event feel more alive. You may find it helpful to announce themes for your events; by choosing some sort of theme that doesn't involve extra work for the attendees (or which might scare some of them off), you show that you're devoting personal attention to each of these events.
- We've found it helpful to precede our sex-focused events with a workshop or class. Titles have included ``Pleasure Activism 101: How to Enjoy a Sex Party'' and ``Pleasure Activism 102: Sensuous Giving.''
- Using condoms is now an accepted part of swingers culture, but using latex gloves and oral sex barriers is almost unheard of and most swingers would be uncomfortable with rules requiring them. This should be kept in mind if your organization chooses to set facility-wide safer sex rules.
Here are some recommended resources on swinging:
- The new book The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers (by Terry Gould) is the best way to learn about the modern swing community. It's well-written and insightful.
- The oldest professional organization for swinger's clubs is the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA). Their web site at http://www.nasca.com contains, among other things, a state-by-state listing of affiliated clubs. Finding clubs that aren't affiliated with NASCA can be a bit more difficult, and may involve using the internet search engines.3
- At this time, NASCA's focus seems to be on maintaining and publishing their annual directory of swing clubs; in terms of providing service and advocacy work for club owners, a new organization called the International Lifestyle Association is showing great promise.
- The swing community's equivalent of LIL is the ``Lifestyles Convention.'' See the NASCA web site for details.
- Additional information about the modern swing community (including a brief literature review) is available at http://www.sexuality.org/swinging.html
Men's Sex Clubs or Baths
One general comment... It's always helpful to be familiar with the other clubs in your area; even in cases where those clubs have their own buildings and hence no need for yours, you may want to network with them so you can alert (and hopefully support) each other should the spectre of a police crackdown rear its head.
The Damron Men's Travel Guide 2001 is the best place to start looking for men's sex clubs and bathhouses, though you may also wish to check http://www.cruisingforsex.com and http://www.guidemag.com to be sure you haven't missed anything. For background on the legal and political history of men's sex clubs and bathhouses, pick up a copy of the book Policing Public Sex.
If there aren't any men's clubs or baths in your area, then it might be particularly valuable for your organization to begin hosting men-only events of some kind.
``Polyamory'' refers to various forms of responsible non-monogamy, under which there is an expectation of honesty between everyone involved.
The first place to start is Loving More magazine, and their web site at http://www.lovemore.com. For more links to local organizations, see http://www.polyamorysociety.org, http://www.polyamory.org, and the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory.
The two best books on polyamory (the first of which has also become extremely popular in our area's leather community) are The Ethical Slut and Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits.
It's worth noting that some folks who identify as polyamorous may choose to downplay the sexual component to polyamory, and resent any implication that sex is the key element of polyamory. If this seems to be the general feel of things in your area, then when approaching such groups about using your space you should avoid giving offense by implying that the main reason they might be interested in using your space is that sexual activity is allowed on-premises.
As a practical matter, there may be significant overlap between your area's poly community and its SCA, sci-fi fandom, and/or neo-pagan communities.
Clothing-Optional Organizations (aka ``Naturist'')
Although sexual activity is forbidden at most ``naturist'' events, clothing-optional environments can help those with body image concerns begin feeling more comfortable with themselves. As such, they have at least a tangential relationship to sex-positive culture, if not a direct one.
When approaching local naturist groups about using your space, avoid giving offense by implying that the main reason they should be interested in using your facility is that sexual activity would be allowed; rather, they might be interested in using your facility because nudity is completely allowed and accepted under your facility rules, and because you are supportive of their mission.
For listings of clothing-optional organizations in your area, take a look at The North American Guide to Nude Recreation and the web sites http://www.aanr.com and http://www.naturistsociety.com
Spiritually-Focused Sexuality Groups
The Body Electric School offers weekend workshops, all over the country, on the integration of spirituality and sexuality. Because their workshops involve nudity and some level of explict sexuality (in an educational context), they occasionally face difficulty finding suitable class space. Depending on how your space is set up, you may be in a good position to rent to them: see their web site at http://www.bodyelectric.org for scheduling and contact info. There may also be independent instructors in your area who need class space: see the ``teachers'' list and the ``workshops'' list at http://www.tantra.com for more information.
The key things these groups need are (1) an assurance of a private and disturbance-free environment while their class is in progress, and (2) that the space they're renting has a comfortable and ``neutral'' feel [which may be a concern if your space has heavy SM equipment that can't be temporarily moved into storage].
GLBT Organizations in Need of Meeting Space
The following resources may prove helpful in finding local GLBT resources:
- G: Damron Men's Travel Guide 2001, http://www.gaycenter.org/natctr/state.html, and http://www.radfae.org
- L: Damron Women's Traveler 2001
- B: The Bisexual Resource Guide, the magazine Anything that Moves, http://www.biresource.org/groups.html, and http://www.bisexual.org
- T: the magazine Transgender Tapestry, http://www.tgfmall.com/info/Rsrc.html, and many other web sites (see a search engine or index).
Having a strong variety of GLBT groups as part of your organization's coalition could prove valuable should it face persecution by your local government: accusations of ``homophobia'' or ``anti-gay discrimination'' are ones which liberal politicians may fear, and which less open-minded officials may associate with experienced and effective legal action.4
Although some politicians may want to avoid being seen as ``homophobic,'' there aren't even words in today's political lexicon for ``unfairly persecuting sex parties'' or ``unfairly persecuting sadomasochists.'' In other words, the slogan ``strength in diversity'' may have very concrete meaning for your organization.
Local organizations may be found through the book Alternate Sources, google.com searches for the name of your city plus ``BDSM Community'' or ``Leather Community,'' the newsgroup soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm, etc.
The Leather Leadership Conference (see http://www.leatherleadership.org) is one of the best ways to stay up-to-date on issues affecting clubs; if at all possible, you should send at least one representative from your organization to this conference each year. Additional sources for networking and support may be found via the Kink Aware Professionals list see http://www.bannon.com/kap/ and the sm-act/sm-org mailing lists (send one email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "subscribe sm-act" in the body of the message, and a second email with "subscribe sm-org" in the body of the message).
The Pansexual Community
If your pansexual [multi-gender / multi-orientation] leather community has gotten used to playing in public venues (e.g. public dance clubs) or venues subject to alcohol laws, then some of your members may immediately appreciate the fact that, at your private facility, play is no longer a three-step process (i.e. covering up your nipples for the sake of public nudity laws, engaging in non-sexual play for a while, then taking your pick between driving home to have sex or hanging out/socializing until you're no longer aroused). For other members, the presence of ``sex in the dungeon'' may take getting used to. If you are committed to offering a play space that is accepting and honoring of genital sex in the context of BDSM, then it's important to be sure all of your volunteers, leaders, members, and DM's are in complete understanding on this point.
Despite this, for mixed-gender events (definitely not for men-only or women-only events) you may need a rule forbidding masturbating to scenes in progress. This makes many attendees at mixed-gender events uncomfortable, and learning in advance that it isn't allowed has been the deciding factor for some of our members in deciding to join.
The Men's Community
If your city has a strong and popular leather bar scene, then you may have better luck hosting your men-only events on nights that are not traditional bar nights (particularly if your space has a no-alcohol policy, which in the interest of avoiding the jurisdiction of alcohol enforcement authorities you probably would).
The Women's Community
Depending on prevailing attitudes in your area's women's community, the question of ``who is a woman'' may or may not be a fractious one. Our own policy is that admission to our women's events is predicated on showing valid female ID, just as admission to our men's events is predicated on showing valid male ID. This approach may be seen as too restrictive by some, and as not restrictive enough by others: it is, however, completely objective.
These events are best served by a quieter, calmer atmosphere and softer music. If your leather pansexual events become overly vibrant, crowded, and/or noisy, then some of your members might appreciate having this alternative. Be sure you have a good pair of bandage scissors and bolt cutters on hand, of course.
You'll want quality slings, and if at all possible a place to shower. Bert Herrman's book Trust: The Hand Book offers plenty of tips on setting up a good fisting space, but this is definitely a case where you should ask your local community what they'd like to see.
If your facility has a strict drug policy that forbids poppers, then you may lose some prospective attendees but gain others (esp. those in recovery): unfortunately, it is not possible to please everyone all the time.
The Spanking Community
The heterosexual ``spanking community'' has traditionally considered itself separate from the BDSM/Leather community. For the most part, their community is built on personal ads rather than events and organizations. Nevertheless, there are exceptions, and it might be worth doing a quick search for the name of your city on soc.sexuality.spanking, and looking at the organization list at the end of Lady Green's book The Compleat Spanker.
Should You Offer a Library for Your Members?
Starting a library of (donated) sexuality-related books and publications for your members can be a wise step for a number of reasons:
- It gives your members one more activity to enjoy during your events and drop-in evenings (specifically, a non-sexual one that may also enhance the comfort level of novice members).
- It gives your organization a clear educational component, which could prove rhetorically helpful should your local government attempt to make things difficult for you (note: hosting health-related educational events, providing meeting space at no charge to AA or other recovery groups, and even your status as a non-profit organization may further enhance your ability to present your organization in a favorable light).
- It can increase your members' levels of awareness and knowledge, and hence the quality of their participation in your organization.
A list of books and magazines that might be valuable additions to such a library is available at http://www.sexuality.org/seasex.html#BOOKS
Our organization has been in existence since May 1, 1999. We are a non-profit corporation with IRS 501(c)(7) status, organized on a membership-based ``community center'' model, whose mission it is to serve the broad range of our area's sex-positive cultures. Our 3000 members (as of April, 2001) hail from every segment of the our area's sex-positive culture, and we're currently housed in a 4500 square foot building that we leased in June, 1999 and renovated over the following year.
With the exception of our Executive Director and a maintenance specialist, our organization is run entirely on volunteer effort.
As formally defined by its board of directors, our organization's mission is to foster the ongoing growth and development of sex-positive culture by:
- Maintaining a safe and supportive membership-based community center, which serves as a gathering place for the Pacific Northwest's full range of sex-positive cultures.
- Offering extensive informational resources and educational opportunities.
- Offering a wide range of social events and volunteer opportunities to increase our membership's sense of community.
- Generally assisting other efforts to foster sex-positive culture, both within and beyond the Pacific Northwest.
Why We're Doing This...
A lot of us feel that the best way to overcome culturally-inherited guilt around sexuality is to be in the company of others who are in the process of overcoming it, and that the best way to expand and fully enjoy the tremendous gift that your sexuality represents is in a community of others who find pleasure and intimacy to be inherently good.
To us, this sentiment transcends the comparatively superficial differences between the various facets of sex-positive culture, and we feel honored to be part of an organization that accepts them all.
- ... Chicago.1
- See http://www.leatherleadership.org
- ... corporation.2
- We see 501(c)(7) status (``social club'') as an attractive tax-exempt classification for organizations that serve their membership in a social capacity rather than the general public in an educational capacity. In comparison to the more restrictive and demanding 501(c)(3) status, the main limitations are that people can't deduct money they donate to a 501(c)(7) organization on their federal tax returns, and that any interest income the organization receives from investments will not be tax-exempt. However, it's worth noting that neither reasonable membership dues (i.e. an amount paid with the expectation that you will then be able to use a club's facilities) nor reasonable event admission fees could be tax-deductible to the payor regardless of what type of 501(c) entity the payee was recognized as. Restructuring your organization so that it might qualify for 501(c)(3) status (or, alternatively, finding some way for your 501(c)(7) club to create and then live under the auspices of a 501(c)(3) entity, e.g. its library) would probably only be worth investigating if you intend to purchase a building and raise most of the money towards your down-payment through substantial donations from individual members. If nothing else, before you consider 501(c)(3) status, examine very carefully whether by doing so you would affect your ability to regularly host play parties which are not open to the general public.
- ... engines.3
- though there are some regional guides, such as the one at http://www.janesguide.com/travel/travelguide.html, which may be worth checking first
- ... action.4
- This appears to be exactly what happened in Phoenix during Fall, 1999: the city shut down all five of its swing clubs but consciously chose to leave its equivalent men-only sex club alone, and a city attorney was (apparently) quoted as saying this was the reason. See http://www.sexed.org/newsletters/issue02.html#four for details.
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