On a particularly blistering summer afternoon, Camilla Taylor steps outside Vegan Erotica’s Capitol Hill headquarters, shielding her eyes from the midday sun. She grabs a chunk of cropped blue hair, yanks on a spiky lock and widens her eyes. “It’s way too hot. Let’s go inside,” she says. “I’m just getting started.
There’s not much work to get started. Summer’s not so hot for sex toys. Sweltering heat is a poor aphrodisiac, especially when would-be lovers are consumed by thoughts of air conditioning and deodorant. Taylor never thought much about seasonal libido dips until she started a career based on catering to people’s sexual needs. It was last year that the 24-year-old Salt Lake City resident assumed the position of owner and operator of Vegan Erotica, an online retailer specializing in bondage gear for those eschewing meat, dairy and animal-tested products. The unique store, located in the basement of a friend’s home, joins a growing crop of D.I.Y. retailers offering vegan-friendly items, from boots and belts to shampoo and contraceptives. Taylor’s business is the world’s only manufacturer and retailer of cruelty-free whips, floggers and other meatless kink essentials'a distinction that carries extra weight given her shop is a five-minute drive from the Salt Lake LDS Temple.
Taylor walks through a modest, well-kept living room, over the hardwood floor and down a flight of stairs to her cramped workspace. There are two rooms, one equipped with an ancient red sewing machine, rivet setter and computer, the other storing stacks of studded belts, red whips and black harnesses. A single light bulb swings above the cutting board, illuminating new designs for customized orders. Business has been slow lately, she says. Still, there are enough orders to keep her occupied. Taylor stretches, pounds, measures and folds swaths of Lorica, the Italian-manufactured, petroleum-based product that fuels the shop’s extensive product line.
Vegan Erotica founder Eric Waters discovered the high-quality, leather-like synthetic in 2002 following an intense search for decent “pleather” clothing. Then 22, he had just returned from a European trek where “the worst belt I’d worn in my life” helped inspire a now-thriving business. Picture something fashioned out of cheap vinyl, poor stitching and frayed threads'that’s what held up Waters’ pants for one month before it ripped to shreds. It irritated him that by vetoing meat, he also had to relinquish comfort, not to mention fashion. Frustrated, he resolved to start a business providing durable, all-purpose clothing to the vegan community. “I made a shoddy little belt, but the funny thing about that belt was that it lasted for about three years, and I wore it every single day,” he says.
Waters registered a Website, ordered some Lorica and cranked out a steady supply of leather-like synthetics from a bedroom in his industrial warehouse. At the time he was unemployed, but rent was cheap. Besides, he didn’t start the business to make a profit'he started it to fill a niche. Before long that niche grew more refined. Waters, along with partners Richard and Jeremy Hurst, expanded their business to include Bambi-friendly bondage gear. He knew a surprising number of vegans who enjoyed getting tied up, whipped and flogged, despite their passion for cruelty-free consumption.
The concept of animal-rights activists willfully engaging in BDSM'bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadomasochism'on its face seems paradoxical. How can people so vehemently opposed to animal exploitation lash out at the animal species Homo sapiens? Taylor, who took over Vegan Erotica when Waters went to work for a local Internet service provider, believes there’s nothing contradictory about her business.
“It’s not cruel. I mean, I think it’s cruel to hold someone down and tickle them if they don’t want to be tickled,” she says, adding that she’d rather be restrained and flogged than tortured with tickles.
Unlike animal testing, BDSM is largely consensual and therefore not the least bit harmful, she observes. “If someone wants to be whipped, why is that cruel? Some people like to have rough sex. Some people like having their hair pulled'it’s just something they’re into,” she says. “The pleasure you experience when you orgasm is so much that it’s really close to pain, but you would never think it’s cruelty if someone inflicts it upon you.
Who would deny a flogging? Most people don’t get off on intense pain. Perhaps, however, their desires are simply untapped. Taylor’s taste for kink developed after an encounter with a former roommate. They tossed back one too many domestic beers, started making out and then, “He turned me over and bit all over my backside. My back was completely purple in the morning,” she says. “But it was incredible. I had never experienced anything like that before. It’s like getting a piercing, kind of. Or biking down a hill really fast.”
Essentially, BDSM is the sexual equivalent of extreme sports. Its tenets appeal to adrenaline junkies seeking thrills in bed. Taylor gets an additional kick out of feeding their addictions. “I feel like they have really specific needs'needs delineated from your need for a better coffee grinder. You can do without [Mr. Coffee], but this is something people lie awake thinking about,” she says. Taylor, who deals mostly with out-of-state clients, enjoys meeting customers particularly jazzed about their purchases. She met an Arizona couple once that credited Vegan Erotica for their newly charged sex life. “It was like they had never learned to masturbate and I just taught them how,” she says. “I don’t think I could get that kind of gratification by making people skirts or T-shirts.
Like Waters, Taylor’s not in it for the money. A typical starving artist, she lives in a west-side warehouse, buys groceries at Ream’s and rarely visits the mall. Most of her clothing is handmade, including the pair of blue velvet slippers she often wears to work. While the majority of Vegan Erotica’s business stems from online orders, Taylor has never made a virtual purchase. She doesn’t even carry a credit card.
“I’m not interested in charging a lot,” she says, adding that she’d rather see her business succeed than shop for organic food at Wild Oats.
Taylor went vegetarian at age 7 and made the switch to veganism at 21. She hates being labeled a radical for avoiding steak and eggs. Last year, the liberal Provo expatriate became an official Suicide Girl, baring it all on the alternative porn site to help pay the rent. But far from unbridled, Taylor believes fetishists should keep a leash on their fantasies. She doesn’t use shock value when promoting Vegan Erotica’s products.
“I’ve encountered people who claim that if I’m making and advertising vegan bondage gear, then I’m only assisting in painting the vegan community as â€˜extremist,’ â€˜out there,’ or â€˜wacky’'that we’re all crazy, bomb-throwing sex maniacs,” she says, opening her mouth in mock horror. “I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think the general bondage community [that uses leather products] is assisting in painting the meat-eating world as crazy sex maniacs.
Taylor knows the world isn’t about to turn vegan. But she knows vegans go out of their way to find ethical alternatives to animal-based products. So long as they do, she’ll go out of her way to provide them.
“I think that’s one thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the world'we all chose to live a lifestyle that initially seems really difficult because we’re following principles we weren’t raised with,” she says. “It takes a lot of commitment to uphold our beliefs.
Taylor’s commitment includes entertaining off-the-wall requests without batting an eye. In addition to Vegan Erotica’s routine selection of collars, ankle and wrist restraints, neck-to-wrist cuffs, slappers, floggers, chains, hog-tie clips, leashes and locks, she often fills bizarre custom orders. One customer recently requested an anal-plug harness'one he could strap on beneath his work slacks at a routine desk job. On a personal level, that’s not Taylor’s “bag.” But she filled her customer’s order. If called upon, she’ll make a harness as durable as an 18-hour bra.
“Comfort is a major concern,” she says, adding that most leather harnesses pay little attention to an individual’s unique anatomy, not to mention personal hygiene. “How well will it hold up to washing? Every sex toy should be cleaned after every use, just for safety reasons, and leather goods don’t clean up well at all. [Lorica] is good because you can get it wet and it won’t stiffen up.
Maybe so, but members of Salt Lake City’s BDSM community might disagree with using Lorica as an interchangeable substitute for leather. For many, there’s no replacement for the look and feel of animal hide. In fact, authenticity is often an integral part of the fetish.
“A lot of it has to do with what you’re working with'I personally prefer leather,” says Andrew, a computer programmer particularly fond of his moose-tail flogger who wanted his last name withheld. “It has sort of a primal feel to it,” he says, leaning across our patio table at a downtown coffee shop. “I’m not sure you could get the same effect from a synthetic.
Andrew’s interest in BDSM sparked several years ago, but his ex-wife felt uncomfortable with role-playing, power exchanges and painful erotic pursuits. After they divorced, he attended a monthly fetish night at private club Area 51 where his dormant passions ran wild. Soon thereafter, Andrew hooked up with a local artist who taught him the finer points of leatherwork. Together, they founded Sin Crafters, a bondage-gear company specializing in exotic leather. Vegans would be appalled at the vast array of deer, goat, bison and other animal skins the company manufactures into bondage gear.
Andrew walks to his car and retrieves a duffel bag stocked with various sex toys. He pulls out a flogger in brilliant shades of blue and purple. “This is kangaroo,” he says. Imported from Australia, it’s the strongest leather known to man. It’s also lightweight, which is probably why Nike used it in their popular line of Air Jordans. Unlike cow leather, its durable skin stretches without breaking. The kangaroo lace is hand-cut, doubled and dyed by hand. All Sin Crafters sex toys involve complex braid and knot-work, but you won’t find these displayed at local arts festivals.
Sin Crafters products are, however, a big draw at regional conventions such as Colorado’s Thunder in the Mountains, or San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, the largest leather, alternative and fetish fair in the world, with more than 400,000 attendees. Next year marks the Fair’s 22nd gathering, a testament to BDSM’s lasting appeal. During the celebration, organizers block off the street to anyone under 18, so naked men in collars can walk around without damaging fragile psyches. Members of the BDSM community try to remain decidedly below radar. Even routine trips to local tanneries are ripe for disaster, especially when small-town customers ask too many questions. While their fetish may seem monstrous, the BDSM community isn’t full of monsters, Andrew says.
“We don’t like to throw it in people’s faces,” he says, taking a sip from his lemonade. “If they think you’re some sort of sexual deviant, they’ll assume you’re into all types of sexual deviance, and that’s simply not true.
Andrew belongs to SLC Kink, a pansexual (meaning all-inclusive) bondage/BDSM group open to 18-and-over locals of any gender or sexual orientation. Salt Lake City is also home to several BDSM groups with varying codes of conduct and sexual proclivities. SLC Kink’s nondiscriminatory policies allow each member to explore BDSM. Sixty-year-old gay men mingle with 23-year-old bisexual female college students and middle-aged couples at public and private gatherings. They share coffee in popular cafes, or meet in undisclosed locations for educational sessions. Seasoned vets lecture on the importance of safety, demonstrating the right and wrong methods of “play.” In fact, the community’s main objective is safety.
“We want them to have fun, but we also want them to know what they’re doing when dealing with powers of control,” Andrew says, referring to the psychological implications of dominant/submissive relationships. Partners engaged in BDSM often adopt a formal contract expressing their intents. Putting those desires in writing defines interaction as consensual. Who knows why some people get off on being controlled, or by controlling others. It’s simply a fetish, like a penchant for breasts or feet. The only difference between dominant/submissive relationships and foot fetishists is that the latter only need worry about catching some sort of fungus. The former have more serious concerns.
“If you’re doing some sort of impact play, you really have to know where all the major vessels and veins are so you don’t cut off circulation to someone’s legs. You don’t want to cause great discomfort.
BDSM groups across the country abide by the credo, “Safe, Sane and Consensual,” an anthem designed to eliminate messy gray areas in a largely unsupervised subculture. Besides avoiding broken bones and messed-up heads, members are encouraged to educate themselves on STDs and blood-borne pathogens. Andrew, for example, uses a whip with disposable tips to ensure safe play. Safe also means no drugs or alcohol to numb the senses or weaken defenses. Sane means making sure participants aren’t engaging in Russian roulette-type practices involving asphyxiation or suicide.
The BDSM community is full of whip-spinners, wax-drippers, rope-tyers, leather/rubber wearers and wand-zappers who differentiate themselves from sexual deviants like child molesters, bestiality enthusiasts and rapists. In fact, Andrew and his fellow SLC Kink mates are fairly paranoid about being grouped with potential convicts. Even though their activities can hardly be classified as illegal'socially unacceptable, perhaps, but not illegal'they maintain an insular society.
Lt. Melody Gray, assistant to Salt Lake City Police Department’s Chief Rick Dinse, says she and her colleagues are rarely concerned with the sexual escapades of consenting adults. Gray sits on a board featuring members of the GLBT community as well as members of the BDSM community. Their meetings help dispel myths surrounding various subcultural pursuits.
Cory Silverberg, co-owner of Come As You Are (CAYA), Canada’s only cooperatively run sex shop, recalls a time when society labeled taboo any sexual practices beyond standard missionary-style intercourse.
“Adult bookstores were the dominant retail force'they made you feel bad about buying from them,” Silverberg says, speaking from his Toronto-based store. “Everything was under glass and you never felt comfortable asking any questions.
Silverberg believes a shift in social norms has produced a new generation of sophisticated consumers who demand high-quality films, magazines and toys. They come in knowing what they want, and expect to find nothing less.
When Salt Lake City resident and Vegan Erotica customer David Berg shops for his belts and wrist restraints, he expects one thing: A cruelty-free guarantee.
“Using leather is unethical. Living, sentient beings have their own reasons for being around. They aren’t here for people to exact selfish, useless wants on them,” he says. Berg, 28, helped found the Utah Animal Rights Coalition and often spearheads the organization’s aggressive protests. Unlike Taylor, he actively recruits vegan converts, educating them on meat’s drawbacks. “I would also point out to the user of any animal leather that, by nature, it wants to decompose, and rapidly so. You need some pretty nasty chemicals to keep it preserved.
Ethics aside, Berg prefers Lorica to leather for its functional qualities. It’s easier to wash and incredibly sturdy, he says, pointing to the leather-like synthetic watchband he purchased years ago from Vegan Erotica.
Silverberg, who stocks select Vegan Erotica products, also raves about Taylor’s attention to detail. He believes the grassroots company breathes new life into an industry dominated by unimaginative, large-scale manufacturers pumping out a steady stream of cheap, tacky products. Silverberg, who co-authored a book on sex and disability, raves about businesses that open up the sex-toy industry to a broader audience.
Vegan Erotica also helps vegans who, while not into bondage gear, need basic sexual aids including lubricant and contraceptives. Most condoms contain casein, a milk protein, and are often manufactured by companies that test their products on animals. That means vegans have the choice of using cruelty-free condoms, or abstaining from sex altogether'not an enticing option for vegans with sex drives.
“You have to choose your battles. I don’t think there are any vegans who think they lead 100 percent vegan lifestyles because that’s just impossible if you want to interact with society,” Taylor says, adding that even driving a car means operating a machine with a leather steering wheel. “I’ve never known a vegan who told someone they should get off the pill because it’s tested on animals. It sucks that it’s the only thing we have, but it’s better than having a kid.
Taylor, currently in a monogamous relationship, prefers the rhythm method. That’s not for everyone, however, so she recommends others go down under with Glyde, an Australian-based company that guarantees its rubbers are cruelty-free.
“Most manufacturers consider the vegan movement too â€˜fringe’ to make an impact on their sales, so to them it often doesn’t weigh out for them to change their production for just a bit of increased sales,” wrote Ryan Wilson, co-owner of Vegan Essentials.com, an online store based in Wisconsin that specializes in a wide array of vegan-friendly products. “Our current supplier is in Australia, which goes to show how far we’ll reach to source out things that aren’t normally available in the U.S.
The market for vegan and vegetarian-friendly items has matured since Wilson and his wife opened their store as a mail-order catalog in 1998, thanks to proactive entrepreneurs and the cost-effective nature of conducting business online.
“There are plenty of stores out there selling vegan goods. If you can’t find them, you’re definitely not looking very hard!” Wilson wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Except if you’re looking for Condomi. Vegan Erotica stocked the German-manufactured, cruelty-free condoms until Waters and Taylor learned the FDA intercepted an order of the cocoa-lubricated rubbers, demanding they adhere to U.S. safety standards. Condomi, which at the time didn’t have an insurance carrier in the United States, stopped supplying all U.S. companies with its Vegan Society-approved product, Taylor says. That makes Glyde the last alternative for sexually active vegans.
Such is life for the hyper-conscious vegan. The price of cruelty-free kink, or even sex, is vigilance. Mainstream businesses won’t typically risk lower profit margins to please a particular subculture. Still, with the growing number of D.I.Y companies offering vegan goods, it seems rather extraordinary that Vegan Erotica is the only store of its kind. Surely someone else might take a gamble on meatless kink.
“I think the question is, â€˜Are the vegans supporting Vegan Erotica?’” Silverberg says, noting that BDSM can be a very private experience. “People who are vegan, do they still use leather when they’re behind closed doors?
There’s no way of knowing, but Taylor believes the lack of vegan bondage retailers is about fear of the unknown. While popular in certain states such as Utah, where vegan-friendly restaurants and animal-rights organizations thrive, veganism is still a relatively foreign concept.
“Because it’s so new, it’s hard to accept,” she says, adding that BDSM is also subject to outsider status'especially when it involves Lorica. “Some people who are into bondage gear have a hard time with it not involving leather. I spoke with some manufacturers who prefer to work with leather because it comes from dead animals'that’s part of the allure.
And vegan bondage gear isn’t easily produced. Taylor buys Lorica in bulk, then doubles it up by gluing it together. She wears a gas mask while working with the toxic substance, making sure no one will be home for at least eight hours before the stench wears off. It’s not pretty. Or cost-effective. Plus, people could always use twine or rope instead. In fact, Japanese rope bondage is one of the more widely practiced activities in the BDSM community.
Taylor knows one other woman who’s attempting to transform her sex-toy business into a 100 percent vegan-friendly operation. The U.K.-based retailer specializes in queening chairs, apparatuses dating back to medieval times also known as “face sitting” stools. The devices are designed for female domination, positioning the woman above a submissive man whose sole purpose is to give her pleasure. Taylor offered to substitute Lorica for the small-business owner’s cow-leather chair straps, but the woman couldn’t afford the heavy customs fees to buy the cruelty-free material in bulk.
Taylor shrugs off the missed opportunity to expand her business. She’s disappointed she couldn’t reach more Salt Lake City customers. It won’t matter so much in September, when Taylor packs up and moves to Arizona with her boyfriend. She plans to continue Vegan Erotica and even expand its already impressive product line to include more options for on-the-go BDSM enthusiasts. Until then, she’ll keep working in Waters’ cramped basement or in her studio producing a series of innovative toy dolls using the sewing machine with which she first modified Lorica. On occasion, she’ll travel back to Utah for a heavy dose of nostalgia. She will not, however, miss a place that never supported her attempts to fill an overlooked niche.
“It will take a long time before Utahns stop widening their eyes in surprise when they hear about my profession,” she says, adding that such acceptance will likely not occur in her lifetime. “It will never be like San Francisco or New York'there aren’t enough people around here to make much of a fetish community.” Communities that shouldn’t flaunt their kinky proclivities, she adds. For her, there’s nothing more sexually irresponsible than taking BDSM beyond the bedroom.
“We have this social agreement that there is one context in which sex occurs,” she says. “I’m not going to give someone a blow job under the table right now, because it’s inappropriate and it’s rude to everyone else in the room.
With that, Taylor gets up, shuts off the lights, walks upstairs and steps outside, cursing summer’s unrelenting heat. She jumps on her bike and heads home to satisfy her own cruelty-free fantasies'behind closed doors.