As I ascended the stairs to the venue hosting the weekly "munch" - a gathering of people interested in kink - the butterflies in my gut were in full flight mode. I had no idea what to expect, as this was my first kink event. When I walked into the dimly lit space, I was surprised to find it completely empty. A dozen unoccupied chairs sat around a long table lit by white Christmas lights twined around metal rafters. I took the seat of honor at the head of the table, noting for future reference that apparently kinky people are never on time.
As the first one to arrive, I got to talk to almost everyone as they came in. I was relieved (and a little disappointed) to find that there was neither latex nor cat-o-nine-tails in sight - just average-looking people ready to meet me with a smile and a friendly greeting.
Stephen Hazelton, the munch's organizer, has been actively involved in the fetish scene here in Charlotte for decades. He helped to found the Carolina Area Power Exchange (CAPEX), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting "safe, sane and consensual" BDSM practices. The day after my first foray into fetish events, Hazelton helped me put my experience in context with the overall kink scene.
"The basic definition of a munch is an event that's held at a restaurant or someplace that sells food where people that identify as being kinky meet and have a meal and talk," Hazelton explains. "It's basically dinner with kinky people. It's not a demo or a class; it's just kinky people getting together."
Munches, like the weekly one hosted every Thursday at Upstage in NoDa, are meant to be safe zones where kinksters can come together and enjoy companionship without judgment. It's a place where you meet interesting people and hear the most fascinating conversations - stuff like "one of my tops is a massage therapist" and "we sell chastity devices, if you're into torturing men with celibacy."
Munches aren't always about kink, as my recent experience revealed. For the most part, our conversations were completely average - foods we like, how cute our pets are - with the occasional joke about bending someone over your knee or the like. It was fun to be able to make those comments and allude publicly to private fantasies without getting "the look" from those around you. You know "the look" - the one where their eyes say, "What the hell, you freak" while the previously carefree conversation lapses into an awkward silence.
"We wanted to create a comfortable environment, particularly for women, because there are going to be a number of people that come in that are nervous about being there to begin with," Hazelton says, striking right at the heart of my own experience. "So it's important that you can meet people face to face that potentially have similar interests to you."
By the end of the munch, I hadn't gotten whipped, and no one wore leather. We were just people with something in common, getting together for a stress-free evening out. No one approached me with sexual propositions (even though I looked damn fine that night) and I even made some new friends. I later connected with some of the people I met that night on Fetlife.com, the social media site for kinky people.
"I think it's important that people who identify as kinky have a place to meet and talk to others in an environment that's not necessarily a sexually charged one," Hazelton says. "Especially for people who are new, just starting to explore, [munches are] about as low-pressure a social setting as it can be."