The weekend of February 16 – 18, the Winter Fetish Fair Fleamarket is holding its 50th event at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. For the New England Leather Alliance (NELA), it’s a milestone. For the 3,000-plus attendees who travel to shop from vendors and take part in workshops ranging from “Not Tonight, Dear – Chastity Play” to “Interrogation and Military Scenes,” it’s a chance to let their hair down. (Or get their hair pulled.)
“The whole point of doing this is for people to have an opportunity to go into a safe space with absolutely no judgment,” says Vivienne Kramer. Kramer has been involved with the Flea and NELA since the mid ’90s. Along the way, she served as treasurer and chair of NELA and director of the Flea, before relocating to California in 2012.
“In the 25 years of running the event, NELA created a place where everybody is truly welcome,” says Kramer. “You have people running the gamut in age from 18 to 88. You see people from every walk of life. The most straight looking, preppy, Dockers-wearing, looks like your cousin from Kennebunkport to crossdressers to guys who dress up like sissy maids. Just every possible representative, from every walk of life. Everybody is kind, polite, nice and so happy to be in the space.”
The Flea has expanded in size through the years and certainly in scope since Kramer’s first Flea, where she worked the door in 1995. Admission was between $2 and $5 per ticket, she recalls, with roughly 30 vendors and 500 attendees. “We had a huge range of toys, books and paraphernalia covering a huge spectrum of the kink community, which covers so many broad and — specific — interests,” she says of that first event. “I was hooked.”
Today, tickets are priced at $20 per day, though there are additional fees associated with some of the Flea’s events. The event is one of the longest running events in the BDSM community, and the price point marks it as among the most affordable.
The philosophy behind NELA’s pricepoint is that, when they aren’t busy planning hypnosis lounges in hotel ballrooms (one of the Flea’s all-day scenario events for Sunday), they’re first and foremost an education and advocacy organization for the kink and fetish community. By capping ticket prices at $20, they limit the chances that anyone in need of their programming is locked out.
We may be living in a post 50 Shades world (“50 Shades of Stupid,” Kramer twice quips), but a high profile awareness that neckties are multipurpose hasn’t translated to a general awareness, acceptance or understanding of all sexual preferences. Just last year the Flea made unexpected news locally when, in its 24th year, a Warwick citizen who preferred to identify herself to news outlets only as “just a regular mom” e-mailed press expressing her concern that hosting the event would turn Warwick into the “Las Vegas of the Northeast.”
The baffling and temporary outrage was swiftly disputed by advocates online, and the Flea ran smoothly the weekend it was held. Despite any preconceptions about Fleagoers, Kramer insists they’re model guests — particularly when compared to other groups who may take over a hotel. “Kinksters tip really well,” she says. “They clean up after themselves. They treat everybody with the utmost respect because, of course, they want to be treated with such.”
Part of NELA’s education and advocacy work can, accordingly, include liaising with police departments and local district attorneys who may have questions about the “legality, morality and ethical sides of the kink community,” Kramer says. “There’s still a lot of really archaic laws in the books.”
She references a past Flea, held in a metrowest suburb of Boston. “The town line literally went down the middle of the hotel we were in,” she says. “At a Flea we have fashion shows, art exhibitions, erotic art, something for every possible interest. In this hotel, the room with the art show happened to be down the middle — one side in each municipality. And one municipality didn’t allow nudity. Half the pieces in the room had to have tape over the private parts and the other half did not.”
In the interest of trying to cater to all interests, programming for the 50th Flea reflects the desires of attendees. There’s expanded programming for all levels. “The majority of attendees are kind of ‘new’ to things and just putting their toes out and exploring,” Kramer says. “But there are plenty of people who have been actively involved in sexual expression for a long time. They want something more advanced than ‘Introduction to Sensation Play.’”
Multiple events through the weekend also address the issue of consent. Kramer cites a correlation between the decision to delve into the topic and what’s happening with the #MeToo movement. “In general, this community is very big on consent,” she says. “It’s the be-all / end-all of everything to BDSM. This year, there’s even more attention than ever paid to having consent and what happens if consent is violated. What are your options and how does the community support you if consent has been violated by a fellow member? That’s on the top of everyone’s list.”
You don’t have to identify as part of the active kink community to go to the Fetish Fair. Chances are, if you’re Flea-curious, there’s at least one vendor or workshop or meet-up designed for whatever your particular proclivity may be. And if you don’t know what that proclivity is, that’s okay, too.
“It doesn’t matter if you never do anything kinky, ever, in your life,” Kramer says. “When I say ‘kinky,’ I mean, put a blindfold on yourself or a partner. Use a silk scarf and tie someone’s arm to a bed. Anything you might’ve fantasized about. It doesn’t matter if you ever do it. This is a place where, for $20, you can go in, spend a day looking, and thinking, ‘How does this fit into my life and my sexuality?’”
For tickets and event listings, visit fetishflea.com.