An Exploration of Anchorage’s Kink Community
by K. Jered Mayer
“Here’s a couch you can sit and relax on, or whatever. I like to suck dick while the guy is reading. It’s the sapiosexual side of me.”
Surprised, I glanced at the man guiding me through the rooms to see if the statement was meant for me. It was not. Not all of it, anyway. Everything after introducing me to the furniture had been an aside to a friend of my leather-clad cicerone as they passed by, but it had been said so offhandedly and received so earnestly that I knew right then I had never been in a place quite like this before.
The Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles–mercifully acronymized and more commonly known as ACAL–has been labeled in the past as “Anchorage’s only sex club.” It’s an oversimplification that people are quick to correct, not least of all the Center’s founder, Sarha Shaubach. The website she set up for ACAL is done so in a way as to put focus on the real purpose behind the organization’s inception. Not for scintillation nor sexploitation. Certainly not for orgies, which require “a lot of planning and connection” to arrange. Instead, the focus is on community.
“Your Kink Community Home Base” graces the top of the main page, followed by a description promising “elevated kink education and foundation building,” as well as a “judgement [sic] free, body positive environment,” and protection and equipment for healthy exploration.
The FAQ section on their website goes even further into detail. Here, BDSM is defined as a more complex, overlapping number of ideas, and not just whips and chains and ball gags. There are answers in this area to questions about privacy, membership costs and advantages and various other things to expect regarding dress codes (there isn’t one), alcohol–there isn’t any of that, either; it’s critical there is zero confusion regarding consent–and what else is offered for those not interested in the tying or whipping side of it. And there is plenty offered: card games, movie nights, bootblacking (the polishing of one’s leathers) and regular classes on rope and knot work to promote healthy bondage and prevent serious injuries.
While the club itself had some initial troubles starting up–Sarha notably sent the Press a letter in December 2014 detailing her struggles getting ACAL up and running in the old Kodiak bar building while co-leasing the space with “Fuck It” Charlo Greene–classes, play sessions, recurring memberships and group events have proven strong enough to keep the community thriving.
So much so, in fact, that it was inevitable a larger venue would someday be needed. When that day came this last summer, ACAL didn’t need to look far to find it. Back in June, weekend events began being held in an 8,000-square foot space on 3rd Avenue. By July, they were fully moved in.
When ACAL finally came to my personal attention last month, they had fully settled into the location and I was chomping at the bit to write about it. Sexuality has always fascinated me in its myriad forms, as has people’s reactions to it and how readily some subscribe to an opinion based on what they think something is and not based on what it actually is.
I wanted to know. I wanted to learn.
ACAL offers a text-based subscriptions service to alert people of upcoming events. When I reached out to Sarha for the first time, she asked if she could sign me up for what she called “the same spam stuff” she gave to anyone interested in attending the Center for the first time. I agreed–I wanted to approach this from the ground up.
So it is that I found myself downtown on New Year’s Eve opening a door with a leather pride flag draped over it. I ducked inside and scaled a gray stone staircase, then waited my turn as the woman in the box office window politely explained to a couple men that no, this wasn’t the entrance to the Latin dance party that was also going on, that was the other side of the building, this was something much, much different. They shuffled back past me. It was my turn.
“Yeah, I’m here for the, ah…” At the time, I only knew it as the Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles, which was a rigid mouthful, or as the “fetish club,” which seemed remarkably ill-informed. Which I was. So I stammered.
“Are you here for the dance night or for ACAL,” she asked. I confirmed the latter. When she asked me if it was my first time attending, I confirmed that too and she handed me a five-page pamphlet on the rules to follow, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and the safe word. Safety, discretion, clear-mindedness, consent and a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech were all heavily emphasized. I signed a consent sheet and returned it to the box office, where I was quizzed on what I had read before being allowed entry.
I passed my quiz with rainbow colors, paid my $25 non-member entry fee and had my license number written down and filed away with my paperwork. Once that was finished, I was assigned a guide to give me a tour of the facility.
“Normally, we’ve got the whole floor,” I was told. “But sometimes, like tonight, we rent out the big room to other events. Only this side is open tonight, but that’s okay. Sometimes I like that more. It’s more intimate.”
The first room I was led into was the social room. Cell phones are allowed here, but strictly for texts. Pictures are prohibited and people are asked to take calls outside, to maximize privacy. There are plenty of seats around the space to relax or recline upon. Snacks or food are customarily set out for guests, as are sodas and water. The night I went, there was a hummus plate. It was delicious.
The social area serves multiple purposes. Members and guests can meet here to discuss activities for the evening, or to shoot the shit, or to take a break from anything that was too exhausting or discomfiting in the play room. I saw an even mix of men and women sprawled out under a number of fantastic art pieces. Variety was the spice of life in the social room when it came to age, body types and dress. T-shirts and jeans here, corsets and leather chaps there. I saw smiling faces. I heard giggles, chuckles and guffaws. It felt safe. Relaxed.
From there, we moved into a second, transitional room. The room with the couch. While my guide took a moment to discuss oral sex preferences and unrelated plans for the weekend, I took in the small area. Some pornography sat on top of a cabinet for anyone needing a primer to get in the mood. On the walls were photos of bound men and women. There was a bookcase packed with books on sexuality and erotica. There was also a healthy collection of close-up, black and white photographs of vaginas with varying grooming situations and piercing statuses. It was fascinating to me, from an artistic perspective, to see such a display of body variance.
The last room, just beyond, was the playroom. Low-lit, blue themed. A long, padded table was positioned near the door for massages or wax play. A mattress was pushed against one corner on the right, covered in a Minions blanket that honestly struck me as the most out-of-place thing in the room. The bed was unoccupied, but the other corner on the right side was not, as a young man practiced different knots while binding his girlfriend. They moved thoughtfully, conscious of each other’s bodies, a sensuous grace about them.
To their left, against the center of the back wall, was a stand meant for kneeling over. A couple was wrapping up their spanking session. It was loud and vigorous and I could feel my cheeks flushing as aggressively as, well, hers.
And still there was more. Directly in front of me was a cushioned bench. A wooden overhang had a metal ring affixed to it. A man walked by me, trailed by a woman, as my tour guide described the layout. He stripped down to his underwear and his companion helped slip a restraint through the ring, binding his wrists above his head. She followed that with some light whipping and tickling. She massaged his bare back. She slapped his ass. The entire time, they communicated clearly.
There was one more room, an off-shoot to the left, that held a cage and two X-shaped structures one could be bound to. Whatever had been going on before I stepped in was over and the women there were busy getting dressed and cleaning the equipment.
My tour ended then, with an, “And there you go! Have fun!”
I did have fun, though I couldn’t help but feel a little like an outsider. I watched these men and women during intimate moments. A woman undressing while her friends bound her with thin rope. A young couple using the open floor space to wrestle, asserting dominance over each other. A lady in a frilly blue skirt being digitally stimulated by a man who looked like a sexy train conductor. I was a voyeur, drinking in the sights, but though I was fascinated, I wasn’t quite prepared for the role. I retreated after a while to the social room. Did I mention the hummus plate was delicious?
I left around midnight. The New Year. The ball had dropped, people were toasting. I left with nothing but positive impressions in mind.
But Sarha and I had agreed that you couldn’t gauge the Center based off one experience. And so a week later I returned. The full floor was open this time for a 12-hour lock-in event. I brought two women with me, neither of whom had ever been, to see how it felt to others.
On my return trip, the playroom I experienced the first time had been rearranged into a general activity room. There were more attendees as well, but fewer sexual activities. Instead, everyone was more focused on games like no-money strip poker and Cards Against Humanity.
My friends and I checked out the other half of the floor eventually, walking into a room I can only describe as cavernous. The floor was bare concrete, which tied up the winter cold and exposed it to us. Heat bars were plugged in, to little effect. A handful of lamps provided gloomy illumination.
There was plenty more room here to put on a show. Tables and mats were set up to lay and play upon. At the back, a silhouette screen and photographer were set up for discrete erotic photo sessions. To one side sat a Sybian. If you’re unfamiliar with those, it’s a sort of vibrating saddle to which you can secure a synthetic dick. A box nearby had an incredible assortment of different lengths, girths and angles.
The room was impressive and filled with orgasmic opportunities, but with so much cold and open space and with so few people occupying it, it felt almost too bare. I recalled my guide’s preference for the more intimate arrangements, and it made sense to me now. This felt less like a shared moment and more like an impersonal display, a sentiment shared by one of the women with me.
All the same, both of my companions–neither identified as particularly fetishistic or kinky–told me they could definitely feel the sense of comfort and community that permeated the walls of ACAL. It was a reminder, again, that this place was meant to be more than just a “sex club.”
My friends and I left and talked about the evening over drinks and in the days that followed I reached out to other members of Anchorage’s fetish and kink community to talk about their experiences in general and to see what their relationship with ACAL–if any–had been like. The majority of responses were positive, but not all of them.
In fairness and full disclosure, I did hear back from a pair of women who had been decidedly turned off by their visits. One lady told me she had been pressured multiple times by men ignoring the No Means No rule–victims of this harassment are encouraged to approach management immediately so the violator can be dealt with. Astoria, who gave me permission to use her name, told me she didn’t have confidence in the level of security or protection the club promised.
I can see how this could be a concern. Aside from having documented signatures and taking down license and ID numbers, there isn’t a way to effectively run background checks on everyone rolling through. Instead, members and guests are expected to be self-reliant and cautious through conversation. When it works–as in the case of convicted sex offender Daniel Eisman who broke his probation by attending last October–the nefarious entity is quickly rousted from the club. But when it doesn’t work? Well, it comes down to observation, communication, crossed fingers and a knock on wood.
That being said, my experiences with ACAL and my research into the community around it left me with the firm belief that these types of incidents are in the minority and that the heart of the organization beats around the desire to provide a sense of normalcy to lifestyles different than what most might be used to. They do this by promoting education, patience, discussion, acceptance and understanding that not everyone is going to get off to the same thing. And that’s okay! The lesson is to be comfortable with yourself.
Wrapping this up, I thought it best to end with something for people who might be on the fence. For that, I went back to the community. I asked Astoria–a 26-year-old local fetishist who says she’s tried just about everything–for one thing she would tell anyone curious about alternate lifestyles.
“SSC,” she said. “Safe, Sane and Consensual. That phrase is a big part of being kinky. People are in the lifestyle because it’s something they enjoy or need to get by with the rest of what life throws at you.”
Being safe, considerate of the comfort of others and treating people rationally. Crazy how key behaviors in an “alternative” lifestyle are the same things everyone should already be doing regularly.
And was there anything else I took home from the experience, I’m going to assume you’re asking. Did I come away with any new interests myself? Well, I’ll just have to get back to you. I’m a little tied up at the moment.
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