I would get my introduction to something called the “whisper network” on a crisp winter afternoon in 2014. The pub was a dive, orange hues cast over white and burgundy upholstery, a bar riddled with battlescars of patrons past, a jukebox collecting dust underneath a suspended speaker. I saw myself in the other patrons; women with the wild and vibrant hair I desperately wanted, hard femmes in glistening leather, mascs dressed so sharply they could cut glass with their suits. It smelled of wood and whiskey, still a reprieve from the biting cold.
I was sponsored by a woman in the community. “Munches,” as kinksters have come to call these events, are social gatherings meant to help you network in a safe, non-sexual environment as you enter the alternative underground world — the kind 50 Shades authors can only imagine through frosted glass. But my sponsor had soon abandoned me to navigate strange waters on my own, so I did what any good introvert with self-esteem issues would do: nursed a coke and ice while brooding on an empty couch, quietly chiding myself for thinking I could summon the courage to strike conversations with total strangers.