THIS ISN'T A ZOO
And at the precise moment it seems like I might get laid, a girl wobbles on her stilettos and stumbles into me, skewering my toe with her shoe. She’s absolutely trashed, in stockings and suspender belt and satin red underwear, fake tanned and peroxide blonde hair. There’s a bloke hanging onto her, all neon face paint and tiny boxers. They’re slobbering all over each other like a pair of teenagers. The spell is broken.
Torture Garden is the largest Fetish club in the world, with up to 2,200 people at their most popular events. Tonight’s “Love Hurts Valentine’s Ball” has three floors; two rooms are clubs, with the main area hosting performances that include anything from burlesque to flesh hook suspension, and downstairs are the dungeons. These rooms home BDSM equipment that you can play on as you please, with Dungeon Masters employed by TG to give you a professional seeing to if needs be. I’ve seen blood drawn often, and screams of pain and pleasure at the smaller, more intimate events. But after several incidents tonight I have to ask; who let the hipsters in?
In my last piece on Getting Into Fetishism I pondered whether the online dating phenomenon of the past decade has drawn Fetishism into the mainstream. Since E.L. James kinked up Twilight with her fan fiction that later became 50 Shades of Grey, apps like KNKI and Whiplr have emerged, the respective Tinder and Happn for kinksters; a sex-positive Air B&B is vastly popular; and spanking has apparently become normal practice for a one night stand.
I can concur with Rebecca Reid on this last point. More often than not, when friends regale their sexual exploits they have been surprised and often upset by the automatic ‘rough’ sex that men seem to think all women want. Seemingly, modern men do not question the need for consent before spanking – something that is considered utterly intrinsic in the Fetish world (although people do break the rules).
I’m standing in a queue with a drag queen in full latex, cute blonde wig and little kitten heels. We’re nervously bouncing around on our toes, not really speaking, when the bloke in front of us, high off his nut, his own music in his headphones and a brown leather waistcoat on, turns around and asks us what we’re “into”. We exchange a glance and I shrug and say “Stuff.”
“Well you guys are a lot of fucking fun aren’t you?” he responds, shoving the earbud back into his ear and aggressively nodding his head to a beat out of sync with the music blasting over the speakers. My friend seems taken aback and seems to shrink into herself. As Jackie she is quite sweet and vulnerable, and this male bravado felt intrusive. It caught me off guard – his attitude, his entitlement, his expectation. It wasn’t friendly or flirtatious, just pushy and demanding. For all he knew, I could be someone’s ‘slave’ – I could have been told not to talk to anyone, or that I was going to be punished if I did. Or, even more radically, I didn’t give a fuck.
Naively, I’d assumed events like TG would only be full of like-minded people. But the underground vibe of fetishism is trendy, bringing with it a horde of young chancers looking to get as pissed up as possible and hopefully go home for a three-way. They aren’t interested in following the rules and respecting the safe spaces that Fetish clubs are, because they don’t want to be part of the “scene”, preferring to hang out in cliques taking selfies in the toilets. Nobody likes a tourist.
It’s 2am and I’m dancing to a heavy bass line, beer in hand, going absolutely bat shit mental flailing myself around like an excitable octopus. Out of breath, I stop to look around and see where my friends have gone, when I feel a hand on my lower stomach. Time slows for a moment, allowing me to observe a munchkin in a Gladiator costume, sliding his hand across my bare skin, like I’m a cashmere jumper in Gap that you want to stroke even though you won’t buy. I yank his hand off me to no reaction, and am left feeling violated. Yes, as a woman I am constantly (infuriatingly) felt up by men in clubs – but it surprises me when it happens here.
Fetish Clubs, and fetish in general, are renowned for having very strict rules. Ariana, 24, told me “Fetish clubs are definitely more explicit about having rules regarding consent. If someone touches you up in a club you can’t really do anything about it, but at TG there’s an awareness (or so you’d hope) and people looking out for you.” And to their credit, if a warden even hears a whisper of something amiss at TG, they are dealt with immediately and strictly. But in a club full of 2,200 people, moments like this slip through the cracks.
What’s confusing is how these people even got in. Apparently a choker and a thong counts as fetish gear, at a venue that once turned Adam Ant away for being too mainstream. Strict attire rules serve not only to keep the event feeling exclusive and exciting, it separates those who are serious about kink and those who just want to oggle. But recently it feels as though many have avoided the Latex vibe and just turn up semi-naked. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself – for the “Not New Years Eve” ball I wore nothing but fishnet tights and Doctor Martins. But those in lazy costumes also consistently stick out as voyeurs. These beefed up 20-something men were all lined up outside the toilets, in boxers with neon paint all over their chests, eye-fucking the women that walked past and occasionally just grabbing various body parts, and it made me want to knee them in the scrotum.
Generally speaking, the Fet world is pretty open and accepting. Compared to the real world, it is relatively easy to find people who are on your wavelength. And because it is all based around sex, however you choose to define that, generally you aren’t going to encounter prudes or people who find promiscuity unseemly. As a woman, being slut-shamed as a kinkster is rare (except when you’re being interviewed for Channel 4 Dispatches). But that also comes with it’s own problems – more often than not you are expected to be “up for it” regardless of what your kinks actually entail. This attitude is prevalent across huge parts of the cultural landscape, but it is disappointing to discover it so commonly in the kink world, especially from young people like myself.
Back at TG, it’s 4am and by this point I’ve sunk into a full on strop. All of the dungeons are completely full – finding a space to play is impossible and the dungeon masters, one of whom I am friendly with, have queues that are hours long. Katherine wants to have the holy living crap whipped out of her by a Master, but the queue to be seen by TG’s finest is winding me up. It’s not the waiting – the anticipation can be quite thrilling, even just to watch. But I’m surrounded by hipsters. The conversations I hear behind me reinforce how utterly clueless I know they are – and the couple that push in front of us into the play area to use the equipment finish the job. She’s in her stockings and high heels, he’s in some black boxers. He puts her head through the guillotine, and I begin to think maybe it’ll be a fun watch after all. His hand rises over her arse and makes contact with a little smack sound. He repeats this a few times and then… and then goes round to where her head is and appears to… comfort her? The people behind me can hear my eyes roll, I’m sure of it. This is the hardcore dungeon – a friend of mine left earlier with blood running down her legs from such a brutal caning. What are these NOOBS doing in here?
That is not to say that newbies to the scene shouldn’t go to Torture Garden, shouldn’t experiment, shouldn’t have fun. In contrast to them, there’s a couple with a dungeon master to our right who are being taught how to cane each other properly and safely. The dynamic between the three of them is lovely to witness – they are flirtatious and sexy, having loads of fun.
These spaces should be relaxed and open to all levels of kink and experience. I’m so in danger of sounding like someone’s mother or a spoil sport. But they are also meant to be safe spaces where you can indulge in the weirdest and most taboo (legal) fantasies that you have – where a 50 year old man in a nappy on a chain should feel safe from being photographed or heckled, even if he is consensually being humiliated. The arts and culture of London is being violently and swiftly destroyed and spaces like TG are hard to come by. Maybe that is why young people are being pushed into the underground more and more. But what will happen is the fetish world will become even more secretive, even more cloaked. And events like TG will have to figure out a way to separate the tourists from the real fetishists. As Caroline Kent succinctly puts it, “If it’s no longer dangerous, underground, or the preserve of the adventurous few, it risks being the new normal. And there’s no bigger turn-off than that.”
If you are curious about fetish, but are adverse to extravagant costumes or unsure of where your limits are, try Belle Epoque or the Camden munches (where you can wear your normal clothes). We want to ease you into this world gently, safely. It’s the long, slow build up that will allow you to handle more in the long run, after all….
Names have been changed