BDSM in Sydney

BDSM is safer (and more everyday) than Fifty Shades would have you believe

We're standing inside a rundown warehouse in Enmore late on a Saturday night watching a young woman dressed in Batman lingerie being spanked by a man in leather.

There are thirty of us, gathered around a small stage at the back of the room. We watch for five minutes as Batman wriggles and squeals with pleasure, her semi-naked arse growing redder and redder. After it's all over, the man in leather turns to the crowd and asks for a 'volunteer'.
 
Someone at the back giggles.
 
"You think this is funny?" Leather shouts.
 
The giggles get louder.
 
"Come here."
 
A young woman makes her way to the front. She looks in her mid-twenties, and is smartly dressed: pencil skirt, white satin blouse, black blazer. As Giggles approaches Leather, it's clear she's no more a volunteer than he is. A woman dressed in a pink tutu comes forward and handcuffs Giggles to a large wooden beam. She unbuttons the girl’s blouse, removes her bra, and gently drips hot candle wax over her nipples. Giggles yelps happily. 
 
"Any more volunteers?" Leather asks.
 
After the show, Pink Tutu informs us she's a human resources manager. It’s a stressful job, she says, but she's found her release: after a hard day at the office, Pink Tutu likes to wind down by donning a collar and being flogged by her husband, Leather, in the comfort of their own home. Warehouses are for the weekend.
 


Most people associate BDSM -- the all-encompassing term for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism and masochism -- with instruments of torture. Think whips, wax and leather, riding crops, gags, masks and rope. The common belief is that BDSM can be a little kooky, even dangerous; something only the psychologically perverted would enjoy.

Anyone familiar with the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon already knows this. The trilogy of books, centring on fictionalised accounts of one young woman's introduction into the world of dominant/submissive relationships, have found their way into the trembling hands of millions of readers around the world. And while the novels have certainly popularised BDSM like never before, they have been widely criticised for making certain assumptions about BDSM and those who practise it, depicting the kink and fetish scene as twisted and lacking in mutual consent, and painting those who enjoy it as freaks.

The books portray the subject of the protagonist’s affections, Christian Grey, as a psychologically damaged man in need of a ‘cure’ from his BDSM fetishes. The truth is far from that.

Most people in the Sydney fetish scene started at Hellfire. Many patrons met their partners here, and some bring their kids to the club after they turn 18.


 
At its heart, BDSM is theatre. In a BDSM “scene”, participants “play” in a loosely scripted and self-directed imagined scenario. Sometimes there are costumes. Those who practise it talk about the need to explore a different side to their personality: a way to indulge secret fantasies or release the pent-up frustrations of day-to-day life. The exchange of power roles can also give those people a way to relate to their partners on levels far removed from discussions of who's taking out the rubbish.

It seems the appeal is spreading.
 
The last comprehensive survey of Australian sexual attitudes was conducted over ten years ago, and showed less than 5 percent of Australians admitted to regularly practicing BDSM. While there are no current stats, those in the local kink and fetish scene say it has grown significantly since then. A surge in online communities and BDSM social networks like FetLife – a kind of Facebook for BDSM scenesters – have made kink and fetish culture easier to access, providing the public with an increasing amount of information on local BDSM events, clubs and workshops.
 
One of the largest BDSM events in Australia is the Gathering, an annual three-day conference that attracts international speakers and guests to a hotel in the Sydney CBD for workshops, seminars and panel discussions on kink culture. Co-founder Miss Dee says Sydney's BDSM community is welcoming more newcomers each year, who are exposed to kink through things like fashion, media and pop culture.
 
"People are starting to explore BDSM because they're curious, rather than because they know it is what they want," she says.
 
Of course, the popularity of something like Fifty Shades of Grey certainly helps, even if most newcomers seem reluctant to talk about what it is that brought them to the scene. (Time Out spoke to attendees at the Gathering who said that even if they had become interested in BDSM because of the Grey books, they'd never admit to it.)
 
Reports from Melbourne are similar. BDSM club Melbourne Chains, run by Master Joe with the help of his wife and slave Kim, emphasises the social aspects of the scene through regular public workshops, charity fundraisers and “beginner’s nights”. The couple, who also run a fetish toys and equipment business called MJ's ToyBox, a support group for those in ‘power exchange’ relationships as well as chasing various creative pursuits (Kim's fiction novel, Souls in Chains, was published in 2010), say their efforts to reach out to newcomers have paid off: Chains now attracts around 25 new members each month.
 


Sydney's Hellfire Club, run by Master Tom and his partner Ultra, prides itself on being the public face of fetish in Australia. Referred to as the "McDonald's of kink" – a moniker the club has embraced – Hellfire hosts monthly events at Q-Bar on Oxford Street that are open to anyone from beginners to connoisseurs, where participants can have hands-on time with different bondage and BDSM toys. 
 
“Hellfire has helped grow the scene locally over the last 19 years more than any other event,” says Tom, who's noted a recent rise in newcomers. "Most people in the Sydney fetish scene started at Hellfire. Many patrons met their partners here, and some bring their kids to the club after they turn 18."
 
Tom, 49, met Ultra, 39, at Hellfire 15 years ago. He says he fell into the BDSM scene almost by accident while working for Triple J as an executive producer researching a story about kinky and sex practices in a post-AIDS world. “I was invited to the opening night of Hellfire back in March 1993 for this doco I was shooting and I just thought it was amazing. So I went on a mad shopping spree, came back the second week in full leather kit carrying some whips, and got asked to whip some people. I did it rather well and next thing I know I was being offered a job there as a Master by the guy who started the club, Richard Masters.”
 
After meeting Ultra, a “way cute, 19-year-old dyke”, Tom kept coming back to the club. The two hit it off and finally eloped to Vegas to be married by 'Elvis' in September 2008. They now co-run Hellfire in-between their respective day jobs: Tom as the marketing manager for Sydney Film Festival, and Ultra as the Dining Editor for a local monthly newspaper group. (They don’t have any children, but they do own six cats, fish, and a snail.)
 
People who are unfamiliar with BDSM often assume that it involves a small range of things and that everyone does it for the same reason. This is why the kink community places such special importance on education. All kink clubs in Australia help familiarise new members with the rules, usually assigning a more experienced BDSM player to guide newcomers through the introductory process. The community abides by a single guiding principle: "safe, sane, and consensual".

Consent is compulsory in every type of BDSM role-play and emphasised by every professional BDSM service, organisation or community group around the world. Every role-play is openly discussed before it takes place to give those involved a chance to be certain of their part. A “safe word” is established to ensure anyone can opt out at any time. Afterwards, participants are given the chance to raise any concerns about scene in what’s referred to as the “after care” process. In BDSM, everyone communicates clearly and openly about what they want.

There doesn’t even have to be any sex.
 
"There might be a different kind of climax altogether, of sensation or emotion for example, or no climax at all," says Dr Meg Barker, a senior psychology lecturer at Open University who has studied much of the existing research on kink and fetish culture. "BDSM is actually something more like a leisure activity, a sport, an art form, or a spiritual practice."
 
Part of the appeal is hormonal. Practitioners talk about testing the outer limits of physical sensation, building up to a rush of endorphins akin to the high experienced in extreme sports. This rush is intense, addictive, and for some, erotic.

The community abides by a single guiding principle: Safe, sane and consensual


 
Kavvy, a gay 28-year-old IT analyst from Adelaide, has been practising BDSM for five years. He says the feeling of giving and receiving pain relaxes him. “It’s about taking your body to a place it’s never been before, testing your limits to see how far you can go,” he says. “It’s just like getting a massage. It’s about release, endorphins, and adrenaline. A good flogging is divine.”
 
Although Kavvy discovered he was ‘into’ pain while being spanked and scratched during “vanilla” (non-BDSM) sex, his attraction to BDSM is not sexual: despite being gay, he participates in role-plays with women and straight men who share his tastes. He says in some ways, engaging in kink with someone is more intimate than having sex with them. “I think vanilla couples see BDSM as purely sexual because it’s seen as something to do to spice up your sex life,” says Kavvy. “But it goes deeper than that. You establish a connection with someone and trust them to go somewhere very personal with you.”
 
There's a good deal of evidence to suggest the public misconceptions surrounding fetish and kink originated in the psychiatric field. When University of New South Wales sexual health Associate Professor Juliet Richters first looked into the BDSM culture in Australia, she found that a lot of counsellors and psychologists believed BDSM was a sign of mental disturbance.
 
The problem dates back to works like German psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, an 1886 tome detailing over 200 cases of sexual ‘problems’, from masturbation to shoe fetishes. While the book proved a useful reference guide for psychiatrists at the time – including Freud, who was studying under Krafft-Ebing at the University of Vienna – its definition of sadism, masochism and fetish as sexual 'problems' stuck around for a long time after.
 
“Krafft-Ebing was trying to sympathetically regard people who had sexual problems to say that this was something that couldn’t be helped, instead of being regarded as something evil that must be punished,” Richters says. “But there was so much sexual repression at that time that all the cases got lumped together. People who were genuinely crazy came to be regarded on the same level as those who liked to spank their girlfriend on the weekend.”
 
This misconception has been hard to shake: a famous Canadian case in 1995 saw two children removed from their home after neighbours stumbled across the parents’ homemade BDSM tape. It's stuck in the medical field, too: the American Psychiatric Association only revised its inclusion of BDSM in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) for mental disorders two years ago, effectively acknowledging that sexual sadism, masochism, fetishism, and other paraphilias are not psychiatric disorders.
 
“When you look into the actual scholarly literature of the last few decades, there’s no hint that BDSM practice is in any way associated with mental disorders or that people who enjoy BDSM are in any way sick,” Richters says. “It was a common assumption, but it was false.”
 
The fact that Fifty Shades of Grey has helped propagate this myth has been the source of great frustration in the BDSM community. In the novel, Christian Grey is not a well-adjusted adult with a healthy sexual curiosity; his attraction to BDSM comes as a result of psychological trauma.
 
"The sexual politics within [the book] are seen by many of us in the community as suspect and at worst deplorable," says Master Tom. "The cry 'that’s not what we do' can be seen echoing around the Internet, and to that we concur."
 

 
Back inside the Sydney warehouse, Leather and his colleagues at club Uber are wrapping up their introductory hands-on workshop. They’ve been through how to correctly tie someone up (the French bowline knot is great for wrists and ankles as it does not cut off circulation); the best kinds of wax to use on the skin (paraffin wax for beginners); and how to turn household objects into kinky toys (think spanking with spatulas and clothes pegs on nipples).
 
Throughout the night it becomes evident just how honest everyone in the community is with themselves, and each other.
 
"It’s hard to talk to someone you’re attracted to with all that sexual tension in the way,” Leather says at the end of the workshop. “No one ends up saying what they really think. The BDSM community is upfront about what it wants. We talk to each other. We introduce ourselves and say 'Hi, I'm John, and I like being flogged.' Imagine how much more relaxed everyone is when all the sex talk is out of the way. People are suddenly free to say what they really mean.”
 
That's not to say BDSM is not without its dark side.

There’s fear in the BDSM community that as BDSM goes mainstream, the rules will be increasingly ignored.


 
Not everyone in the community likes to talk about this. While most admit there is an extreme side, and plenty of people who indulge in it, most of the public BDSM clubs tread cautiously when it comes to allowing participants to engage in some of the more dangerous kink and fetish practices, which can involve asphyxiation (breath play), knives and razors (blood play), and sensory deprivation.
 
Where it does happen, those we spoke to say the clubs play it safe, employing “dungeon masters” who regularly check up on participants to make sure everyone is following the rules. It usually happens at members-only private parties that, given their nature, are hard to host – two of the most notorious private fetish parties in Australia, Klub Kunst and another that has asked not to be named, are currently in recess due to inability to find a venue.

Melbourne Chains’ Kim attended Klub Kunst once to see what it would be like. She acknowledges a lot of what she saw was confronting. "I saw two girls in a boxing ring kicking and punching each other in the breasts and between the legs," she says. "I also saw a girl lying on the floor with her legs open being kicked in the vagina by a guy in army boots.”
 
Other members of the community report it’s not uncommon for people to have needles inserted into their back and then tied up like a corset, or be suspended from hooks inserted under their skin. But everyone generally agrees that even hardcore BDSM is subject to the rules, with those getting involved doing so as consenting adults. Kim says all BDSM events and parties, from the public clubs to private gatherings like Klub Kunst, emphasise safety and procedure. Anyone caught breaking the rules is thrown out and immediately earns a reputation as an unsafe player.
 
Kavvy agrees. "There’s fear in the BDSM community that as BDSM goes mainstream, the rules will be increasingly ignored," he says.

“There’s concern that people will suddenly decide to jump into it without setting clear boundaries or knowing their own limits. They’ll think, 'Oh it's fun to beat each other up,' or, 'It's fun to tie each other up,' but it can be dangerous if you don't know how to tie a knot or use the right rope or know how to get someone out of a bondage situation quickly.”
 
This is the fundamental problem with Fifty Shades of Grey. Australian sex therapist and educator Cyndi Darnell points out that explicit consent is glossed over in the book, an aspect that could give people the wrong idea about how BDSM is practised. "There's certainly a power dynamic going on, which I think is the reason why a lot of heterosexual women are attracted to the book,” she says.
 
While the idea of a power dynamic is a common thread that runs throughout BDSM and kink, it's always conscious and explicit power. In Fifty Shades of Grey, the book’s main characters Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele discuss what a dominant/submissive sexual relationship might entail on very general terms, without going into too many details. More often than not, Anastasia doesn’t know what she’s in for until it’s too late.
 
“You don’t just grab somebody off the street and put Duo balls in their vagina without asking them," Darnell says. (This happens in the book.)
 
Many in the community also seem to have developed an aversion to the book for entirely selfish reasons.
“There’s certainly a fear in the community of fetish becoming too mainstream and normalised,” Master Tom says. “People think this will rob it of some of its power and appeal.”
 
US author Laura Antoniou, one of the leading writers in the field of contemporary erotic fiction best known for her BDSM-themed series Marketplace, says this fear of BDSM becoming too mainstream has been ingrained in the kink community since the early ’80s, when leather wristbands, Doc Martens and chains became fashion statements. She says in the end, the Fifty Shades phenomenon has been good for business.
 
“The fact is, as more and more people are ‘out’ about being kinky, it becomes safer for people to try it. A few people will read the book, Google a few terms, buy a sex toy, and maybe even attend a workshop."
 
But the big change – the one that will count – is how many people will begin to see just how unthreatening the BDSM scene really is. People will feel safer 'coming out' as kinky because it will be harder to paint us as rare, dangerous deviants when everyone knows their mother has Fifty Shades of Grey on her Kindle."

Tie me up!


Want to give this BDSM thing a go? We've got recommendations for where to shop and where to get schooled

First published on 4 Feb 2013. Updated on 15 May 2013.

By Laura Parker   |   Photos by Anna Kucera   |  
 

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