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Montgomery County sex-party host must role-play by the zoning rules

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; A01

To understand how Paul Pickthorne got cross-wise with Montgomery County's land-use regulations, you'll need a glossary:

"R-60" is a zoning classification for subdivisions of single-family houses where commercial activity generally isn't permitted. The 6300 block of Tone Drive in Bethesda is such a place, a tidy street of mostly 1950s brick ranchers just across River Road from Walt Whitman High School.

"BDSM" is short for "bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism." Velvet whips, leather hoods, six-inch stiletto heels, that kind of thing. If you were into the BDSM scene and periodically threw BDSM parties in your home -- as Pickthorne, a burly, jovial Briton, does in the castlelike 3,600-square-foot McMansion he rents at 6304 Tone Dr. -- you'd attract quite a crowd.

"Section 59-C-1.31" is the zoning code provision you'd be violating by having said parties in an R-60 zone if the guests pay to get in, as they do (or used to) at Pickthorne's nocturnal get-togethers. His events draw dozens of people. The cost: $20 for a basic ticket, $50 for VIP treatment.

"Kinky people" is the accepted term for folks who derive erotic pleasure from BDSM. "An amazing cross-section of humanity," says Pickthorne's friend Susan Wright, founder of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. "Men, women, transgender, heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals. Every ethnicity. White-collar and blue-collar. It's really very, very diverse -- though we do have an unusually high percentage of lawyers. I don't know why."

Anyway, you can imagine what Pickthorne's non-kinky neighbors think of all this. Fed up, they convened a meeting in someone's living room last week, then fired off indignant e-mails to County Council member Roger Berliner (D), whose district includes their Merrimack Park subdivision.

"I share your sense of outrage that a sex club is operating in your lovely neighborhood," Berliner wrote back. "I want you to know that my office has been advised that our County has moved aggressively to put an end to this blight on your community."

The county moved, all right. Pickthorne received a written warning from a zoning inspector Monday. But hold on. Suppose Pickthorne stops charging admission, as he says he might? Suppose he complies with the regulations and holds all BDSM gatherings as strictly noncommercial functions in accordance with Section 59-C-1.31? What then?

"Well," Berliner says on the phone, hesitating. "Certainly one has to respect everyone's constitutional rights."

In other words, if no money changes hands, and the kinky people don't cause a noise or traffic nuisance, the First Amendment would ring clear: Party on!

Who goes there?

Knock on the front door of 6304 Tone Dr. If nobody answers right away, knock some more.

It's a hulking million-dollar stone edifice built in 2007, dwarfing the modest half-century-old houses lining the rest of the block. The door is rock-hard wood that hurts your knuckles. A Union Jack hangs from a pole on the balcony overhead, flapping in the winter breeze. There's a foot-square spy hatch in the middle of the arched door, protected by ornate wrought-iron bars.

Keep knocking. Eventually the hatch swings open, and this big, round, jowly, grinning face appears, topped by a thatch of unruly orange hair.

"Hel-looo there!" Pickthorne says. He won't let you in. But soon you're driving south on River Road with him, headed to a Starbucks. "Vanilla latte's my usual poison, mate. Forgot my wallet, though." Over coffee, and chatting again the next afternoon, he fills you in on "the scene."

"It's adult playtime, is all it is," he says. He's 38, an information technology specialist currently at liberty job-wise. He says he began practicing BDSM as a teenager in Britain. "Role-playing," he says. "It's naughty schoolgirls and headmasters; it's cops and robbers; it's interrogators and prisoners. . . . It's harmless fun for kinksters who want to escape the everyday."

The lifestyle: There's no simple way to sum it up, his friend, Wright, 46, says. Some kinksters enjoy being punished; others want to wield the cat-o'-nine-tails. Some like costuming as micro-skirted nurses in thigh-high boots and tickling their patients with ostrich feathers; others prefer to be gagged and suspended from the ceiling in fur-lined manacles. On the margins of the subculture are folks who crave true, excruciating pain, Wright says. But most kinksters don't.

"What it's about is an intense sensation," she explains. "Some people like rock climbing or jumping out of airplanes or bungee jumping. You'd never catch me doing that. But if you're talking about a good spanking, then yes, absolutely."

Pickthorne says he had been active in the Washington area BDSM scene for years before the big stone house came on the rental market last summer.

"A friend of mine was like: 'You've got to come see this place, dude! It's sweet!' And it's funny, being British, and being in the American scene for so long, people love the British thing, my accent, you know? So when my friend saw the castle, he was like: 'You got to live in a castle, dude!' "

He and four roommates, all kinksters, moved in and equipped the house with an array of dungeon apparatus, he says. He says he has thrown four or five parties since then, most recently two weeks ago. His guests park their cars in a Unitarian church lot nearby. The guests have included the owner of the house.

Pickthorne's published rules go on and on: "Street clothing only outside the house. . . . You are welcome to drink but not become drunk. . . . Please have your IDs out when you arrive. . . . No illegal drugs. . . . Do not touch anyone in any way without express permission. . . . Please be conscious of noise levels. . . . No single-tails. The dungeon is too crowded and the cracks sound like gunfire to the neighbors who may call 911."

As for selling tickets, he says: "It's so I don't have to dig into my own pocket personally to buy everything. Whatever's left, if there is anything left, I just donate to the NCFS," meaning Wright's sexual freedom group. She confirmed the contributions.

Back at the house now, at the curb.

"Thanks for coming," he says.

So any chance of getting a peek inside?

"Oh, no. Sorry."

Pleeease?

"Afraid not, mate."

Vice squad visits

Try finding some angry Tone Drive residents willing to voice their gripes publicly. It's not easy. Tom Adams, a conservation lobbyist who lives with his wife and two children on Marjory Lane, right behind the castle, says neighbors thought Berliner's office would keep the situation out of the news.

"There are an awful lot of people who are ticked that this got leaked," says Adams, 46. "The desire was to resolve it quietly and not draw attention. . . . Clearly, anyone thinking about buying a house in the neighborhood will think twice about it now, knowing this is going on."

Frank De Lange of the Department of Permitting Services and two police officers from the vice squad showed up at Pickthorne's door last Friday.

"The gentleman just essentially explained that it was consenting adults coming into these parties," De Lange says. After 31 years as a zoning inspector, he says, he has many "wild stories" to tell about unorthodox land use -- but none this strange. "When I asked what he was charging, he said something about asking for donations, and there was some kind of cause that advocated for people's sexual freedoms or whatever it is."

The vice officers wanted to take a walk through the house, but Pickthorne said no. ("Just because I'm British doesn't mean I don't understand the Fourth Amendment," he says.) After politely instructing him on prostitution and pandering laws, the officers left, and so did De Lange. "At this point there's no discernable evidence of any criminal violation," says Capt. Paul Starks, a county police spokesman. "It appears to be consensual activity between adults."

After the visit, De Lange says, he looked carefully at Pickthorne's Web site, which has since been taken down. "I noticed how he put 'tickets' in there, that you had to purchase tickets. To me, that was enough to hang my hat on and issue him a notice of violation, Section 59-C-1.31, which I did subsequently on Monday." The notice is a warning. "I have to follow up and make sure he complies." If he doesn't, he could get a citation, which carries a fine.

Follow up how? "We don't elaborate on investigative procedures," De Lang says.

"I can assure you," Berliner says, "our county will be exploring every legal means available to ensure that the activity taking place at this particular residence does not have an adverse impact on the community."

He says, "I have spoken with the police commander personally with respect to this matter."

Meanwhile, Pickthorne has a few more weeks to figure out how to abide by Section 59-C-1.31 without going broke.

His next party is later this month. Its theme: "Dark Odyssey Winter Fire."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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