BDSMPerspective (downloadable PDF)
This article is about the challenges facing establishments offering BDSM and other forms of consensual adult activity,
particularly as this relates to our local community. This is an area of concern that many in the BDSM scene like to talk about at
length but few really understand. We hear terms like “flying above (or below) radar”, “legal status” and “proper permits”. It is
easy for us to become confused about what is legal and what is not.
First and foremost, understand that we are dealing with multiple levels of law. Part of our activities are governed to some extent
by criminal law and other activities fall into the areas of zoning and licensing. All of which are influenced to some degree by
our First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.
This topic is particularly difficult to define because criminal laws vary from state to state. Also zoning and licensing regulations
vary between city and county laws within the same state. Still further complicating things is the reality that certain zoning and
licensing requirements may be selectively or even arbitrarily enforced by individual local officials.
First, the big picture is that all states have laws against assault and battery and most states now have specific laws covering
domestic violence and abuse in addition to the basic assault or assault with battery statutes. We all know that what we do is not
violence, nor abuse but the law often has trouble drawing that distinction. From the site I pulled up the
following working definition of Assault/Battery:
“In most states, an assault/battery is committed when one person 1) tries to or does physically strike another, or 2) acts in a
threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm. Many states declare that a more serious or “aggravated”
assault/battery occurs when one 1) tries to or does cause severe injury to another, or 2) causes injury through use of a deadly
weapon. Historically, laws treated the threat of physical injury as “assault”, and the completed act of physical contact or offensive
touching as “battery,” but many states no longer differentiate between the two.”
There are also laws against more serious offenses such as rape and kidnapping. In addition, all states, with the exception of
Nevada outlaw prostitution (sex for money) and many states have varied laws restricting various forms of (consensual) sexual
behavior. All of these laws govern criminal behavior (as defined by the individual state).
When we talk about being “legal” with respect to BDSM we must distinguish between law enforcements’ responsibility to
investigate what might look like a crime versus subsequent steps in the process such as actually making an arrest, having the
District Attorney bring a charge in court, going through a trial and actually convicting a person of a crime.
An example of how this is applicable to those of us practicing consensual BDSM: If we are doing a “play abduction” scene
originating in some location where a passerby happens to see and report what appears to be a kidnapping, the police will most
likely investigate, and may make an arrest based on a reasonable presumption that a crime has occurred. Where that process
might end depends upon a huge number of variables that including the personal beliefs of the DA and Judge.
Be aware that just because a bottom in a given scene is happy with the scene and swears to officialdom that the kidnapping was
consensual does not mean that police cannot still arrest and a District Attorney cannot still charge and prosecute the top. In the
bay area this type of prosecution is mercifully rare but that does mean it can not happen even here.
This situation can occur even in a private home where a neighbor observes “something” through a window or hears “something”
that he or she finds suspicious and decides to call the police.The net result is that there is no place we can do BDSM play without running some risk of having an unpleasant encounter with
law enforcement. The risk may be greater or less depending on where we choose to play. Mitigating that risk is not the subject of
this article but it is something we all need to keep in the back of our minds as we discuss zoning and licensing of play spaces.
There are two approaches employed to dealing with officialdom. One approach is the so called “fly under radar approach”. Here
the concept is to keep what you are doing shielded from the public eye. Generally play parties at private homes are adopting this
strategy. The party in most cases will only be advertised by word of mouth and the parties host will generally want to meet all the
guests prior to extending an invitation. Folks tend to choose homes for parties where it is less likely to disturb the neighbors and
risk a complaint to the local Police.
This is not the tactic that most public venues use. Within smOdyssey for example, we believe in the opposite approach “flying
above the radar”. In this approach local law enforcement, licensing, zoning and other cognizant public safety officials are
contacted in advance and our intentions regarding our parties are openly discussed.
We enjoy this sort of relationship in both the City of San Jose through the past efforts of smOdyssey pioneers like Jerome, and
in Santa Clara through the continuing efforts of Ali at Edges.
Numerous issues crop up when you attempt to do BDSM parties in commercial spaces. Fire safety regulations, zoning
restrictions, local laws on adult entertainment, business licensing requirements and use permits all come into play. A common
misconception is that a space needs one specific license as a BDSM club. In fact, no such single license exists. Every business
needs a local business license and most will need additional licenses and permits to cover various activities. That being said,
being licensed as a business is not sufficient protection if the business has not been up front with local officials about the true
nature of contemplated BDSM events.
For example Edges has several different licenses and permits. They have a basic Santa Clara City Business license for
photography and video production, and they have another county required permit to offer non-accredited educational courses.
Additionally they have special use permits to allow use of the facility for construction and or repair of what we would call play
In addition they had to pass through the scrutiny of both the local Zoning Department and the Fire Marshall. They are housed in a
building zoned for industrial use, which in Santa Clara is the least restrictive zoning possible and the ideal location for an adult
Members Only BDSM club. They also routinely pass inspections by the Santa Clara City Fire Marshall.
Equally important to getting all of the above permits and licenses though was being upfront with the city and county officials
issuing those permits. Recently, Edges ownership sat down with Police Department Officials in the City of Santa Clara and spoke
to them more than frankly about the activities within their building. No additional permits or licenses were required for Edges.
This is due to Edges’ excellent track record in their first year of operation along with their strict members only status and
membership policies. Both the Police Department and Fire Department are fully aware of the type of activity the space is used
for. The good news here is that if for any reason fire, EMT or law enforcement had to come to the site their superiors would
know in advance about the activities within Edges. This greatly reduces the likelihood of an officer deciding to issue citations or
make arrests and thus leaving it to a judge to sort it out.
None of this is a guarantee that Edges and smOdyssey will always be welcome in Santa Clara County or City. Indeed no
Dungeon space or leather event has such a guarantee in any county or city within the United States. Local standards of public“morality” can change at anytime and today’s cooperative public officials might be replaced with the next season’s elections by
those opposed to sexual freedom.
Neither Edges nor smOdyssey is an activist group. It is neither of our goals to create confrontation and then test our first
amendment rights in court. Our goals are the same, to provide access to safe, sane, consensual; risk aware, BDSM/Leather
oriented social and educational opportunities. We both work to be as open and transparent as possible with our local authorities
and to be good neighbors in our communities. While we can never guarantee absolute safety in pursuing our BDSM interests we
can and do offer the highest possible degree of safety to our respective memberships.
Many have expressed dismay about the inconvenience of having to go through an application and orientation process for
becoming members of smOdyssey and/or Edges. These measures are necessary to distinguish our organizations from Adult
Erotic Entertainment facilities that would not be nearly as welcome within the city limits of Santa Clara in the same way that we
are at current. These measures also assure that a level of screening stands between sincere BDSM folks and those who are merely
curious and/or potentially disruptive.
Ricci Joy Levy, Executive Director
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation
1325 Massachusetts Avenue
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
p: 202.628.3333
f: 202-330-5282
Direct Line: 610.212.5555


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