Subcultures: Killer Sex

It was the perfect tabloid story: a former Penn Ph.D. student caught up in a violent S&M love triangle. But the really shocking part may be how much the Internet is changing our sex lives

Certain women in the city, as their clients know, provide a certain service.

I met one of them recently at a coffee shop off South Street, and among her appearance and affects — a soft red sweater, sneakers, wide smile — only her eyebrows alluded to her occupation. They angled along her brow bone, two severe black lines like approaching birds.

“Veronica,” she said, extending a hand. Veronica Bound. Her voice and fingertips betrayed years of cigarettes.

We took a table, and she launched into an easy chat about the tortures and pleasures of professional bondage and sadomasochism. Around us, college students pecked at laptop keyboards, forming a silent social-networking tableau. Bound’s voice rang out, echoing off the walls of the coffee shop. I winced. She had agreed to talk not just about the city’s sexual underground, but about a terrible crime set in that world: A colleague of Bound’s who worked under the name Jade Vixen had recently found herself in a peculiar love triangle that ended in murder.

Was there somewhere else we could go? I asked Bound.

Her place, she said. But first she needed to pick up some special baking utensils.

For a client’s fetish?

No, she said. One drawn raven soared above its perch on her brow. “For cookies.”

At a small kitchen-supply store, the dominatrix picked out a spoon and metal mixing bowl, and a specially coated baking sheet. “Nice, right?” she said. Her boyfriend arrived in a sporty hatchback with a narrow backseat. “Watch your head,” she said without a note of irony, nodding toward something extending from the hatch. “My spanking bench might smack you.”

I had sought out Veronica Bound because while I knew the conclusion of the Jade Vixen case, I still didn’t understand it. The story had flared up briefly in the local papers and New York Post, but then disappeared with little introspection or insight. Here, briefly, is the climax of the murder mystery: An obsessed client of Vixen’s shot her boyfriend to death, abducted her for a nightmarish four-hour ride around the city, then shot and killed himself after a standoff with police. But here we find a murder mystery in which the murder itself isn’t the mystery. The real question lies in the setting: What do Philadelphia’s sexual subcultures reveal about our sex lives — and culture — at large?