Photo by James BunoanAbout the time you read this, Jeanne Ryan will be describing images that may seem derived from the Marquis de Sade, speaking to Orange Coast College students in that school's Introduction to Human Sexuality class about bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, penning on the board such words as "fetish" and "swinger" for 300 students.
The 57-year-old is a kind of Margaret Mead in the archipelago of American sexuality, detailing the manners of her secret world—for 20 years now—to generations of Orange County psychology and sociology students. This grandmother, lawyer, lecturer and "switch" (someone who enjoys both dominant and submissive roles in sex play) was a founding mother of the Southern California chapter of the Society of Janus (among the region's first sado-masochism clubs) and a regular speaker on what's called the lifestyle-convention circuit. Key discussion topics include safety in the scene and letting nascent sado-masochists know there are like-minded people out there.
So how does such a fearsome-looking practice survive in a county that has always seemed more Ashcroftian than libertarian? One reason might be the crowd it attracts. "Lawyers are very overrepresented on this scene," Ryan says, and "cops, too. I think there's a real reason for that: I think people who are attracted to issues having to do with power are also attracted to the law."
Cops into rough sex? "My personal experience is that an inordinate amount of male police officers are into being doms—male dominants," Ryan says. "The local gendarmes and the ones I played with in the Highway Patrol were fun. They had the right attitudes. They were safe and sane, caring and protective."
Those were the OC cops. "But a couple of guys in the LAPD scared me," Ryan says. "The way they acted, their attitudes, the things they laughed about—like how much fun it was to beat that guy until they saw his brains come out the back of his head—that scared me."
That sort of real evil is nothing like the impulse that brought Ryan into the scene decades ago, why she became an academic expert on fetish, and how she came to design accouterments like handcuffs for such shops as the Wicked Chamber, the Costa Mesa store she co-owns. Ryan says it's the thrill and unlikely intimacy she finds in the power relationship. Like every good marriage, every successful bondage-and-discipline relationship is built on communication. "This is two people having fun together, not a mugging," she said.
Twenty years is a long time in the evolution of American sexuality, and Ryan has noted a trend—from hostility toward fetish activities to acceptance. During her first talks in the Reagan era, she says, student questions—"Is it fair for you to have children when you have this problem?" "Do you do it with animals and children?" "Are you a Satanist?"—were ways of establishing public opposition rather than expressions of real openness. By 1993—about the time Bill Clinton entered the White House—reaction to her talks had shifted, she says, and students began to ask, "Where do you get all the neat toys?"
More recently, Ryan has run into something she never expected: boredom. She occasionally catches students sleeping through her talks on whips and spankings as if they've seen it all. And they have. Everybody has.