Joshua Rodriguez, known professionally as "Master Joshua," watches as members of Kink Collective prepare 

Paddles, a kink club in Chelsea, for a party on February 23, 2020. 

Amidst COVID Closures, 

A BDSM Dungeon's Leader Takes A Beating – 

Then Creates Community Online 

[Note: although this was created with permission as part of a class, I have removed some names for the subjects' privacy.]

Before its temporary closure, one of the closest-knit spaces in Manhattan was a venue where people got whipped, flogged, and massaged with flames.

As communities and hobby groups around the country respond to coronavirus-related closures in their own ways, one BDSM organization has adapted to engage its community through online meetings. Kink Collective, a “leather family” in New York City, normally hosts parties, called Dungeon, on the second, fourth, and fifth Saturdays of every month at Paddles, a sex club on West 26th Street. Before the fourth-Saturday parties, the group also hosts Lifestyle Discussion Groups (LDGs) at Paddles; before the second-Saturday parties, they host munches – nonsexual social gatherings in street clothes, stylized as “aBSurDisM” –– in either of two venues on West 25th Street: The Blacksmith and Smithfield Hall. At the March 14th munch at Smithfield Hall, the entire space had only a small fraction of its usual crowd. One standout figure, however, was the leader of Kink Collective: 41-year-old “leather daddy” Joshua Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a square-jawed former U.S. Marshal and sergeant in the US Marine Corps, now makes a living as “Master Joshua,” a professional Dominant who hosts parties, leads private sessions with clients, and facilitates educational workshops. He also creates online content with his 55-year-old partner, Cat Orme, in their Harlem studio.

Kink Collective is a “leather family,” a close-knit group of “about 18 members” who practice BDSM, “give or take whoever I'm arguing with that day,” Rodriguez jokes. During a party, leather-clad members of Kink Collective wear glowing red or white armbands to be seen inside the dark space. Some take tickets at the door or monitor the entrance to the couples’ room, but others circulate throughout the space to monitor scenes, answer questions, or give tours to newcomers.

Rodriguez operates all Kink Collective events through the principle of People Before Kink, which he explains as, “Before we pick up the toys, we have to know the people in front of us.” Part of his motivation to keep the parties safe came from the relief he felt at seeing “everyday people that were very inviting” at his first time attending a party at Paddles six years ago.

“Seeing community like that is what really drew me in beyond the ‘deviance’ that we were labeled with,” he said. “There was a sense of connection, people talking with each other and bonding.”

Although he goes by “Master Joshua” professionally, he and the other Kink Collective members only go by their first names at events. In fact, he has no patience for Dominants who refuse to socialize outside of scenes and reminds one Lifestyle Discussion Group that the simulated power structure of BDSM is “all make-believe, it’s all pretend.” Bathed in red light from the neon sign above the bar, he kicks off every party at 9:45 P.M. by standing atop a grope box and explaining, in depth, each of the event’s 23 rules: ask before touching. No means no. House safewords are “red” and “yellow.” Ask if you have questions. Be responsible.

Resident “fire Domme” T., 50, whose ‘scene name’ is “Smitten,” said that most Dungeon parties draw 50 to 100 people. On March 14, though, the environment was decidedly less full. At this party, the last one before New York’s PAUSE Order went into effect, there were no more than 25 people in attendance, including the staff. Although most attendees were veteran partygoers, a few new faces included Michael, a shy 20-year-old in business school, and Pete, a bearded 57-year-old who described himself as a “gentleman pervert.”

Before the party started, Rodriguez had already taken precautions against facilitating the spread of COVID-19, putting out additional two-liter dispensers of hand sanitizer and imploring partygoers via Meetup not to go if they had been feeling ill. Since then, however, Joshua and Cat have moved Kink Collective’s events online for the time being. Now, weekly two-hour Zoom meetings on Saturday nights replace the previous LDGs at Paddles.

Unlike the in-person discussions, in which participants can speak or ask questions at any time, the Zoom meetings are set up such that only a few pre-selected panelists, plus Joshua and Cat, are able to use audio or video. Other attendees can ask questions privately via chat to Joshua and Cat, who then relay the questions to the panelists.

Like the original LDGs, each meeting has a theme. On March 21, responding to the theme of “Social Distancing, Intimacy and Introspection,” 41-year-old Dr. S, a Kink Collective member, talked about how the quarantine had changed her life as a kinkster and as a healthcare professional.

“It’s a little scary, and the rules of my job keep changing every day,” she said. “I also feel love through affection, and I'm used to my kink family being able to hug and touch and see people at least on a weekly basis,” she added. “This platform definitely helps.”

At the end of every meeting, Joshua encourages guests to share their FetLife profiles to make connections, build community, and continue the conversation.

“I'm thankful for all of you for being in my life,” he told guests on March 21, “for being in our lives and for being able to represent this community the way you do.”

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