Las Vegas regularly finds itself atop various Top Ten lists, and for good reason. Hottest New Year’s Eve spots? Absolutely. Top airport approaches? But of course. Greatest late night bars? You betcha. One of the kinkiest cities in America? Wait a second …
That was my reaction when I scanned the list of America’s top 10 kinkiest cities on alternet.org earlier this week. According to the list’s author, Anna Pulley, “Any city whose nickname is ‘Sin’ shouldn’t raise any eyebrows when it comes to raunchy revelry.” After all, she continues, Las Vegas is home to numerous strip clubs, sexy Cirque shows and the Green Door, which bills itself as the largest sex and swingers club in the country.
I tweeted the link to the story and within minutes my friend Dee Dennis replied with a tweet of her own: “One of the 10 kinkiest cities in the U.S.? Thanks for the laugh. They freak if there is a nipple slip in public.”
Dennis is not alone in this perception. When I interviewed Las Vegas-based professional dominatrix Rowynn Eire earlier this summer, she had this to say about Vegas’ relationship to sex: “Las Vegas is the most sexually conservative city I’ve ever been to. Sexuality is not celebrated here; it’s only parodied.”
There’s truth to Eire’s assessment. And herein lies the rub—as well as one of the more vexing paradoxes of “Sin City”: Despite the marketing genius of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”—a slogan designed to conjure up fantasies about everything you’ve ever wanted to do but never dared—Las Vegas is actually a fairly conservative city when it comes to sex. It’s a place that few people I know would ever think of ranking as one of America’s kinkiest cities.
While I have my own theories about why this might be—e.g. Vegas trades on a naughty but relatively innocuous version of sexuality produced with Midwestern tourists in mind—I wanted to know why others might dispute Vegas’ ranking, so I gave Dee Dennis a call.
Dennis is an event and conference organizer who lives in the New York City area. (And for the record, she loves Vegas.) She’s made three trips to Las Vegas in the past 18 months—twice for the annual Adult Entertainment Expo and once to promote CineKink, the kinky film festival, which, for the past two years, has kicked off its national tour in town. She’s no shrinking violet when it comes to sex, kinky or vanilla.
During a trip to Vegas last year, Dennis organized a rope bondage class at the Erotic Heritage Museum, and was surprised when museum staff got nervous after learning that some participants might take off their tops during the demonstration. The staff bought butcher paper and covered the museum’s windows so no one who happened to walk by would catch a slip of a nipple, should a naked breast appear.
Why all the fuss, Dennis wondered? The staff’s response may have had something to do with the museum receiving heat from Clark County for a mural painted on the side of the museum that featured female nudes. The county argued that the mural ran afoul of a sign code banning the display of the areola of female breasts. The museum’s solution? Cover the nipples with pasties, and chalk it up to yet another example of Vegas’ conflicted relationship to sex.
“It’s shocking how sexually conservative Vegas actually is. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, because nothing happens there,” Dennis tells me.
She continues: “There’s certainly kink in Vegas, but it’s the equivalent of somewhere like Cleveland or Rochester; it’s not the equivalent of New York City, San Francisco or Washington, DC,” (New York City and San Francisco made the AlterNet list, but DC was nowhere to be found).
Las Vegas is a sexy city, there’s no disputing that. But Vegas’ appeal as a tourist destination is based largely on selling what amounts to an extremely narrow definition of sexiness. Artist Laurenn McCubbin has described the dominant version of sexuality that exists in Vegas as “NASCAR sex”—a commodified form of female sexuality that’s easy to digest and relatively inoffensive, geared predominantly toward straight male consumers.
And sexiness, for that matter, is not the same as kinkiness, sex that includes dominance, submission, bondage, leather, whips, ball gags, role playing and anything, according to CineKink founder Lisa Vandever, that falls outside our normal stories of what sex should be.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a kinky Vegas, one that truly embraces diverse forms of “raunchy revelry,” as opposed to a fairly narrow slice. But we have a long way to go until Las Vegas serves up leather daddies, puppy play and little light flogging as regular fare alongside the Girls of the Glitter Gulch. I certainly hope I’m around if it ever does.