Deborah Rose: Exploring ‘50 shades’ of sexuality


The William Way LGBT Community Center is a pretty amazing place.

The center offers a plethora of programs, with something to do for almost everyone. You can peruse original works of art in the lobby, take a tai chi class, receive counseling, get tested, join a bridge club, meditate, play a rollicking game of mah jongg, polish your writing skills, learn about finance or get spanked.


Wait, back that up. What was that last one?

Yes, those who want to explore their 50 shades of the rainbow can check out The Aviary, a kink/BDSM party that happens once a month at the center. FYI: It’s not actually a William Way program, but an event put on by The Aviary — a fetish group that describes itself as an “improvisational interactive theater. ”

The Aviary emphasizes education, community and fun, and we spoke to organizer Deborah Rose to learn a little more about the group.

PGN: I read you listed your occupation as a professional iPod shuffler.

DR: [Laughs] Yes, I am a very proficient shuffler. I don’t like to make playlists so I have just a giant starred list shuffling on my Spotify account.

PGN: What do you really do?

DR: Well, I have the job I do 9-5, and the job I do after 5 o’clock. From 9-5, I work in a nonprofit housing project where I put low-income people in touch with housing resources and options. It’s really interesting and fulfilling, but after 5 o’clock I’m a professional kink promoter. I run kink and BDSM events throughout the city. I promote good community and education for people who are into alternative sexual expressions.

PGN: How did you fall into that?

DR: The same way everyone falls into something weird: In my early 20s I broke up with a girl and my very best friend took me to an event to help me get over my heartbreak. It was a BDSM event and I fell in love with the people and the community — the way that they governed themselves and the way they give back to the community at large. I got involved and never left. It’s evolved to where 10 years later I run parties and events. I’ve gotten to lead a very interesting life.

PGN: For anyone uninitiated, explain what a BDSM event would be like.

DR: [Laughs] Most BDSM events are far more tame than you’d probably picture in your brain. They normally happen at campgrounds or hotels and they’re usually three-four-day weekend events. They generally get anywhere from 100-300 people and will have somewhere between 25-55 classes to educate people about skill sets that we all practice, concepts that we might enjoy, like classes on sacred sexuality, polyamory or different alternative expressions like sado-masochism — how to do it safely and well. The goal is to educate. and then at night we party. There are play parties that happen in what people, when they picture them, call dungeons, but we call them play spaces. They have all the stuff you’d expect to have: Saint Andrew’s crosses, spanking benches, winches mounted into the ceilings. It looks like a giant sexual-deviant playground and it’s a lot of fun! The purpose of these events is always community and education first. Yeah, we like to party but the heart of it is earnest education. We have a large influx of people coming into our community right now because of “50 Shades of Grey,” so our job is always to educate first, party second.

PGN: Are they predominantly LGBT events?

DR: Well, a lot of kink and BDSM grew out of the LGBT community; the gay leather culture was certainly a driving force in bringing the community to heel, getting it under control and well-organized. One of the things I really love about the kink/BDSM community is that it really runs the gamut. There’s no group that does not have representation within the community. We’re all interested in creating as open a space as possible, so no one group is dominant, but there is a very large queer presence. I think the exposure to LGBT people opened a lot of people’s eyes and makes it a lot easier for us all to work together.

PGN: “Kinky Boots” was just in town. Do you think shows like that help the movement gain mainstream acceptance?

DR: Absolutely! In the past few years, there have been a lot of things in pop culture that have come into the national consciousness that have made it easier for the community to come into the limelight, so to speak. There’s a series by Anne Rice, “The Sleeping Beauty” trilogy, which has really resonated with a lot of people. Every day we have new people join who found out about it through a pop-culture medium. And they want to learn what the community is actually about, rather than the fictionalized version. The books and films don’t represent the reality but they certainly get people interested and asking questions.

PGN: What did “50 Shades” get right and what did it get wrong?

DR: I think they got more wrong than right. You’ll find a lot of kinksters took umbrage with the book, but fortunately the movie left a lot of the problematic parts out and what it did well was to give people a visual — an idea of what kink looks like sometimes, not all the time. In fact, we have a phrase in BDSM, called “Your kink is not my kink” because everybody practices it differently and no one person’s way is right. In “50 Shades,” people got an idea of what a personal play space might look like and what a crop and a whip look like and that the whole thing is not as scary and intimidating as it is sometimes portrayed or can appear from the outside. What it got right was that it gave people a chance to say, “This is something my grandmother knows about, so it can’t possibly be the scariest thing in the world.” And while it may still be seen as alternative and other, it’s being more accepted within mainstream culture, which allows people the freedom to ask questions.

PGN: Explain the terms and the difference between kink and BDSM.

DR: There are actually three terms that we use: fetish, kink and BDSM. Kink is an umbrella term that describes anyone who practices alternative sexuality or sexual expression. Fetish is generally people who objectify certain things, and I don’t use the word objectify as a pejorative word. It’s what most people think of, like a foot fetish, or if you’re into the naughty nurse or naughty teacher, those are fetishes. BDSM describes a very specific set of activities. It stands for bondage, domination, submissive sado-masochism. It includes most of what is thought about when you think of kink: impact play, which is the physical hitting of the person, or DS, which is dominant/submissive, which is a power exchange — well-negotiated and agreed upon between two partners. Sometimes DS is a relationship and sometimes it is just a momentary thing, but what is allowed and not allowed is carefully considered and agreed upon.

PGN: What’s the most outrageous assumption someone has expressed to you?

DR: I do a lot of rope work, and there are always a lot of questions when I say that I tie people up. People will ask, “Doesn’t that cut off the blood circulation?” Just recently, someone walked up and asked the person that I was tying if they were OK. Thinking that I would actually do something harmful! I won’t pretend that there aren’t things that can go wrong and be dangerous but we’re governed by a set of rules and one of them is “Risk aware, consensual kink.” That just says, we know what we’re doing and take responsibility for the actions that we’re consenting to and that we’re educated about those choices.

PGN: Ha. My dumb question was, did you watch those old cartoons of Nell tied to the train tracks when you were a kid?

DR: I did! [Laughs] Snidely Whiplash was a hero to many people I know.

PGN: So where do the events take place? You mentioned hotels and campgrounds.

DR: Those are the big events. Every city has its own play spaces. Philadelphia doesn’t have its own place so it’s usually somewhere we rent out. The Aviary, the city’s largest play party, is held at William Way. We take over the whole mansion and run a really extensive party. We cater to everyone, from the newest person just exploring kink to players who have been on the scene a very long time. Our newbies corner is staffed with people just there to answer questions. We have hosts to give people tours. We have specialized rooms like our wrestling room, a rope room and a full dungeon that’s open to anyone who would like to play. All rooms are staffed with experienced members who can supervise and answer questions.

PGN: When does it take place?

DR: The second Saturday of every month.

PGN: Are there many places to play? I seem to remember The Bike Stop having a dungeon.

DR: Yes, The Pit. People still play there. The Bike Stop has long been the home for leather and BDSM in the city. It’s the oldest leather bar in the country and they have been really supportive of our community. Philadelphia makes it hard for permanent places because of L&I restrictions and vice laws.

PGN: Are you from Philly?

DR: Yes, I grew up right outside of West Philadelphia and have been in the city proper since I was 18. We’re Irish Catholic so I am one of five siblings, right in the middle. My dad has a few more kids than my mom and I have a large extended family, including a few cousins who are queer. My cousin Katie works at William Way.

PGN: And so coming out was …

DR: Not hard at all. They’re very progressive. When I told them at 16 that I was queer, they were very cool and accepting. They never made me feel “other” or unwelcome.

PGN: And as kinkmeister?

DR: [Laughs] That was a little harder! My parents and the family are really accepting of who I am. I’ve always been a little different, a little off, never really fit into the mainstream. At 25, when kink became my business, it became necessary to explain where the money was coming from, so I told them in small doses! Now I’m 30 and they’re … “proud” might not be the right word, but intrigued by the inventiveness I’ve found doing what I do.

PGN: What’s something your folks would say was indicative of your being “different?”

DR: I have never not argued a point. I’ve always known who I was and stuck to it. My partner says I’m the most contrary person alive.

PGN: What were some of the extra-curricular things you were into at school?

DR: In high school I pretty much did nothing except school work. But in college I flourished. I became the president of the Temple University College Democrats and the president of the State Federation of College Democrats. I did that for two years and I was the president of the Temple Feminist Majority as well.

PGN: What led you to get involved in politics?

DR: When you’re in college as a political-science major, the easiest way to make money is to work on political campaigns. It’s not a lot of money but it beats making coffee at Starbucks. So I learned valuable things like how to calculate Democratic performance index in a district and I got work on Congressional races, then a Senate race and it snowballed from there. I got to work with a lot of great candidates who are still in office.

PGN: What nonprofit work do you do?

DR: I volunteer at William Way twice a month and I volunteer for WXPN and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I pretty much volunteer at all the places I used to work!

PGN: You mentioned a partner earlier. How long have you been together?

DR: We’ve been together for two years, but that brings me to something else, which is that I’m a poly-identified person. So I have two partners, one male, one female. I’ve been with the other partner for five years.

PGN: What are the most difficult and most gratifying parts of the relationship?

DR: The most difficult part by far, and almost any polyamorous person will say this, is the scheduling. Scheduling is such a pain, but the most gratifying part is knowing that my relationships give me everything that I need. When I was monogamous, I wasn’t getting all that I needed from one relationship. Now, I never feel bored. I’m always challenged and it’s a wonderful experience.

PGN: What are the misconceptions that people have?

DR: It’s always the same: that we’re sluts and we just want to have lots of sex without forming meaningful relationships. If that’s the case for you, no judgment, but that’s not what poly is about. Poly is ethical non-monogamy. It’s negotiated relationships where all the partners are consenting and know what they want.

PGN: That’s an area that seems to be opening up as well. What do you attribute that to? “Sisterwives”?

DR: Ha. I think poly is harder to pinpoint why it’s gaining wider acceptance. I’m shocked that my parents have been so cool with it. [Laughs] It’s hard for me to wrap my head around my mother wrapping her head around it! I just think that we as a society are opening up. I think the queer movement has opened up dialogue as to what is acceptable sexuality and opening up why we as Americans are so invested in judging and critiquing other people’s sexualities. The more we make strides in the LGBT community, the more we kickstart conversations about what is acceptable. How the way we choose to live our lives is not up for public debate.

PGN: Did you ever worry about the stigma?

DR: You always walk a fine line where they have to know who you are but they don’t need to know everything you do. When I was working political campaigns, it was a concern because you want the focus to stay on your candidate, you never want to become the story. That’s when I began working at WXPN, an alternative radio station. They knew I was poly and had multiple partners, though it’s not like I spoke about my sex life at work. I shared as much about my life as anyone else would share but it allowed me to answer questions and put a face to our community.

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