Every Wednesday evening in Manhattan, a small group of addicts gathers in the basement below a shop where the front window display features a male mannequin decked out in a blonde wig, pink corset and matching tutu. Posted on the door is a sign warning that you must be 21 years or older to enter. A second mannequin in the entryway wears a black latex harness and holds a riding crop. Down a staircase tucked behind the colorful array of condoms and lube, past the collection of leather collars and shoeboxes filled with thigh-highs and stilettos, is a set of sliding French doors. Don’t let the St. Andrew’s Cross bondage mount or vintage photo of men in assless chaps fool you: This is a recovery meeting. Only it’s held not in a church basement, but the basement of a fetish shop.
Around 6:30 p.m., the meeting chair sits down at the head of the table, opens a white binder and clears his throat.
“Welcome to Recovery in the Lifestyle,” he announces. “My name is John. I’m an alcoholic and a kinkster.”
Founded in 2005, Recovery in the Lifestyle (RitL) is a nationwide fellowship that welcomes all recovering addicts who identify as kinky (also known as being in the BDSM “lifestyle”), irrespective of their drug of choice. While the vast majority of members are recovering alcoholics, others hail from Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, etc. The only requirement for membership is a desire to be in recovery in the lifestyle.
RitL is the brainchild of a recovering alcoholic in South Florida who went by the name of Stormy (in keeping with the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition of anonymity, people in this story are identified by the “scene name” they use among kinksters, or by a pseudonym). Stormy was a member of the BDSM community and a mistress, or domme.
“For months I had gone to my local A.A. club, where I realized I couldn’t share fully about my double life,” Stormy writes on RitL’s website. “I knew others in the lifestyle couldn’t share their problems.”
A major tenet of recovery in A.A. is being “rigorously honest” with oneself and others. For many, kink isn’t just a sexual preference; it’s an identity. While a 2005 study by Durex found that 36 percent of American adults have practiced some form of BDSM, including using masks, blindfolds or other forms of bondage, people in “the lifestyle” consider it to be a defining aspect of their relationships.
“It’s not just about sex. It’s about how we live our lives,” says a recovering alcoholic and RitL member who goes by the scene name Brother Wolf. “In addition to being a dominant and leatherman, I’m polyamorous, and my submissive is essentially the equivalent of my spouse. My kids and her sons are like brothers, everybody knows what’s going on.”
For kinksters, there are real risks involved with publicly outing oneself. One study conducted by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that 37.5 percent of BDSM practitioners had experienced some form of harassment or violence due to the social stigma attached to their sexual behavior. Parents risk losing custody of their children, others put their jobs on the line.
“Everyone shares about their wives and family members in A.A. meetings,” Brother Wolf continues. “I can’t talk about my two partners. I love A.A., but I also need fellowship with people who understand what being a part of an alternative lifestyle is about.”
Stormy, and others like her, felt that not being able to share openly in meetings compromised their sobriety. It wasn’t that kinksters were especially prone to addiction, but rather that A.A. meetings alone couldn’t meet the needs of her community. So she approached another sober kinkster and proposed that they create a group based on their two commonalities: recovery and BDSM.
The need for special-interest A.A. meetings is nothing new. As early as the 1950s, the queer community in Boston sought to start their own meetings, but A.A. would not list them in their meeting pamphlets. Some recovering alcoholics feared being associated with those they considered “sexual deviants” or “undesirables.”
In the mid-1970s, sober members of the gay community lobbied to have their meetings added to the A.A. world directory. The issue was brought up at the 1974 General Service Conference. As Audrey Borden details in The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, there were arguments, and things got heated.
“If we list queers, what are you going to do next year, list rapists?” someone in the crowd yelled. “Then child molesters?”
A board member stepped in and took the mic.
“I understand that when you listed young people’s groups, you did not go through these shenanigans. Is that right?”
The crowd acquiesced. No one had protested listing women’s groups either.
“Well, what in the world are you picking on these guys for?” he said, and then took his seat.
The issue went to a vote. Out of 131 members, 128 voted in favor of listing gay groups. Shortly afterward, a new resolution was proposed: No A.A. group, anywhere, of any kind, should turn a newcomer away from a meeting. It passed unanimously.
Today there are special-interest recovery groups for artists, atheists and even lawyers.
Stormy contacted A.A.’s General Service Office in New York City and asked permission to reprint and adapt the 12 steps and 12 traditions for a new, BDSM-friendly fellowship. RitL held its first meeting five months later at a dungeon in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Thirty-six recovering addicts and their supporters attended. Like other 12-step recovery meetings, the group opened with the Serenity Prayer, followed by each person introducing themselves by their first name or scene name only, their specific recovery program (A.A., N.A., etc.) and their identification within the lifestyle. There were dominants, who prefer to take control; submissives, who give up control; sadists, who derive pleasure from inflicting pain; and so on. After the meeting, there was an optional play party being held at the dungeon, where attendees could engage in BDSM.
Stormy and her friends organized a campaign to send promotional information to A.A. groups and fetish shops around the country. Today, meetings are held in 18 cities across 12 states, in addition to recurring kink conferences and three online meetings per week.
Like the New York City chapter, most groups meet in BDSM-friendly spaces such as dungeons or sex-toy shops — though, to be clear, the meetings themselves do not include any kind of play. Some people choose to share about BDSM-related issues, while others just talk recovery.
At one recent meeting in New York City, people took turns reading out loud from a chapter in the Big Book (the A.A. bible, originally published in 1939) about eighth-step amends. “Chances are that we have domestic troubles,” it read. “Perhaps we are mixed up with women in a fashion we wouldn’t care to have advertised.” At this, everybody paused, then erupted in laughter.
* * *
It’s a Friday night, and a crowd of Brooklynites is lined up around the block outside of Williamsburg art gallery Lucas Lucas for the unveiling of an interactive exhibition curated by local sex workers. Inside, men and women carrying plastic cups of wine mill between watercolor paintings and nude portraits. Toward the back of the room, John stands barefoot, staying within earshot of Neena, his mistress for the night. He is wearing nothing but black briefs, a Lycra ski mask, and a leather collar padlocked at the center. Mistress Neena parades past him in knee-high boots to greet another domme, the key ring to John’s collar looped into her belt. Tonight, John and a handful of other male submissives serve as human easels; some wear artwork hung around their necks, others “bottom,” or receive sensation, during public floggings. At some point, an old friend of John’s from A.A. shows up, but he doesn’t recognize John in the mask. Despite the curious onlookers, John appears at ease, sipping water and occasionally dashing to the bar to refill Mistress Neena’s glass. It’s a far cry from the timid and fearful drunk he once was.
John can’t remember a time when he didn’t fantasize about getting tied up. As a child, he was drawn to games of cowboys and Indians, and later to depictions of medieval torture. He carried a secret shame about this fetish into adulthood, enough so that even once he was old enough to enter the kink scene, he couldn’t imagine visiting a dungeon without getting wasted first. John couldn’t imagine drinking normally, period.
This was the mid-1980s, long before the New York Department of Health instituted safe-sex guidelines for bars and clubs. Underground S&M clubs like the Vault and Hellfire were infamous for their back rooms, glory holes, urine-stained bathtubs and cages. John would drink at home or at a bar. Once he had worked up the courage, he would take a private car to the Meatpacking District, lest someone recognize him on the train and ask where he was headed.
“The clubs were scarier then than they are now,” John says. Eventually, John escalated from drinking and smoking pot to binging on crack. He’d lose multiple days in a paranoid frenzy, covering his door frame with tape to keep the vapor from escaping his apartment.
“I’d get paid, cash a check, try to pay bills and buy food, then go on a run” to get more drugs, John says. Between temp jobs, John scraped together just enough money to survive, often falling behind on his rent. When he couldn’t afford proper booze, he bought Goya cooking wine from the grocery store. He drank until he passed out or threw up, whichever came first.
John lost multiple jobs for showing up late or not all. Eventually he hit bottom and got himself into an outpatient program, then started attending A.A. meetings and found a therapist. But when he confided in her about his submissive fantasies, she told him that they were unhealthy.
“When people hurt each other, that’s dysfunctional.” She suggested he attend meetings for sex addiction in addition to A.A.
“I decided then that I didn’t want to be kinky,” John says. He threw out his studded collar and rope collection, along with the S&M pornography he’d collected over the years. In A.A. meetings, he would allude to his familiarity with the sex industry but never said a word about dominatrices.
“I was less ashamed of saying I’d smoked crack than telling people I was kinky,” he says. “I thought I was sick.”
During his first five years of sobriety, he pieced his life back together while remaining disengaged from kink. Sometimes he racked up a high cable porn bill, but he couldn’t imagine integrating BDSM into his sobriety. He’d never been to a bondage club sober; how could he manage it now?
* * *
A.A. has no set policies or guidelines about sex, and the Big Book clearly states that members “are not the arbiter of anyone’s sex conduct.” Still, many kinksters wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing details of their lives in a Methodist church basement.
“Say you’re polyamorous,” says Aarkey, a longtime RitL member, “and your master is spending more time with the other slaves and you’re feeling neglected, but [you] don’t want to jeopardize [things] and just wish you could get another beating every once in a while, to feel connected. Try explaining that to your sponsor, and they’ll look at you like you’ve got two heads.”
Kat, a newly sober 30-year-old in New York, encountered similar issues when she first joined A.A. For six years, she’d been in a master/slave dynamic, where one party cedes total power and obedience to the other for the duration of their relationship. Though she and her master did not live together, he guided her in every aspect of her life: She texted him first thing in the morning and before bed, and she sent him daily journals tracking her gym, career and mental health progress. The only thing she hid from him was her drinking.
“My drinking was always problematic, but at some point the physical symptoms got so bad that I couldn’t hide it anymore,” she says. She was bruising constantly for unknown reasons and couldn’t keep food down.
She came clean to her master after a co-worker found a Coke bottle filled with whiskey that Kat had forgotten at work. She assured her master that she could quit on her own, but months later she blacked out and ended up in the emergency room. He decided Kat needed to take a break from their relationship to focus on her recovery. She agreed but was devastated.
A few months after joining A.A, she heard about Recovery in the Lifestyle. “I was so excited,” Kat says. “At the end of the day, we all want our tribe.” But when she told her A.A. sponsor about the group, the sponsor expressed discomfort.
“She thought it would be a better idea if I waited until I’d gone through the 12 steps in A.A. I think she misunderstood and assumed it was some sort of singles meet-up.”
Kat attended her first RitL meeting anyway, against her sponsor’s recommendation. When it came time to share, she opened up about her ex.
“I’m in my first few months, and I just ended a six-year master/slave dynamic,” she told the group. It was the first time she’d ever publicly outed herself. “It’s hard. He definitely was my higher power,” she continued, tearing up. “I realize now how unhealthy that was.”
Others around the table nodded, as if to acknowledge the gravity of their breakup. The master/slave dynamic is a commitment most in the lifestyle take seriously; ending it can be a difficult adjustment.
“In an A.A. meeting, if I share that my boyfriend and I broke up, people don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” she says. Listening to other people’s stories helped her reconsider her own relationship to kink. “Hearing other people share about living this lifestyle in a healthy way gave me hope.”
* * *
Though RitL maintains an active discussion group on Fetlife, a social network for kinksters, the stigma attached to both addiction and kink prevents many people from disclosing, and therefore from finding fellowship.
“To say we’re fringe would be an understatement,” says Brother Wolf, who now runs the Long Island chapter of RitL. While a regular A.A. meeting in the East Village might have 50 people, a RitL meeting might have only four. Many groups also struggle to locate and maintain meeting spaces.
“Finding a venue is harder than you think,” Brother Wolf says. “The local LGBTQ center doesn’t understand why we needed our own meeting. Churches are out. Diners are difficult because some people are afraid of breaking anonymity.”
Wolf found a local dungeon that volunteered their space for meetings, but when the dungeon unexpectedly closed, the group went on hiatus. For now, they meet twice a month in the private area of a restaurant.
Despite these setbacks, Wolf believes that providing a space for kinksters in recovery to embrace who they are helps him, and others like him, avoid picking up a drink.
“I like to hit people,” Wolf says. “There’s a difference between causing hurt and causing harm.” For people in recovery in the lifestyle, learning to differentiate between the two can be life-changing.
“I never felt fulfilled getting wasted,” Wolf continues. “Coming away from a hot, communicative scene? There’s a fulfillment that no drug or alcohol can touch.”
* * *
Back at the art gallery, the crowd has gathered around Mistress Neena, careful to stand beyond the striking distance of her rubber flogger. One of Neena’s other submissives is off to the side, regaining his composure after an intense impact scene. Neena twirls her cat o’nine tails and scans the room.
“Anyone else?” she calls out to the crowd.
“Mistress Neena!” John shouts, waving his hand in the air.
Neena gestures for John to get down on all fours in the center of the crowd, then she stretches her wrists. “My arms are worn out!” she jokes.
She warms him up, letting the endorphins build over the span of a few minutes. At first, the flails carousel softly against his upper thighs. Then Neena begins to move the flogger in a figure-eight pattern, each strike against his bottom more aggressive than the last. At one point, John moves into downward dog, playfully leaning into the blows. At this, the crowd laughs. A loud snap, and he groans. Her flogger leaves black stains on his sweaty back.
After a few minutes, the scene is finished. Onlookers move along to the interpretive dance in the next room, while John catches his breath along the back wall. Neena crouches down to meet him at eye level. His face falls into her palm; she cradles his chin and speaks softly to him.
It’s a tender public moment that John couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Five years after tossing his collar, he had an epiphany en route to meeting his A.A. sponsor. He was on the train when he spotted a billboard for a bar. “The drink signal came back, bad,” he recalls. Something about that moment made him realize that he hadn’t been fully honest in the course of his recovery. “I’d done step work with my sponsor before, but always left kink out. I knew I had to clear house.”
When John finally did bring up the subject of kink, his sponsor recognized his humiliation. It was, perhaps, the toll that suppressing secrets takes on every person in recovery. “Look,” his sponsor told him, “I can’t drink safely. But maybe some people can do S&M safely.”
“Something changed,” John says. “I walked out of there not feeling ashamed.”
Today, John sees a kink-aware therapist who encourages him to embrace his lifestyle. At a BDSM conference two years ago, he attended his first RitL meeting. Soon after, he decided to organize the first New York City chapter.
The night after the art show premiere, John bumped into the A.A. friend he’d seen at the gallery. To his friend’s surprise, John outed himself as a kinkster.
“I don’t care about that,” the friend told him. “Just don’t stick a needle in your arm.”
“That’s sobriety for you,” John jokes. “Do what you want — just don’t drink.”