Find the idea of fetish somewhat alluring but unsure how to explore it? You're in luck: The Hellfire Club has spent 15 years giving Sydneysiders a welcoming introduction.
"I suppose it's the dungeon door, if you like, to the world of fetish," the amiable Master Tom explains. "It's somewhere that's really meant for beginners, for people who can dip their toe in the water without having to dive headfirst into the more confronting world of private fetish parties that happen around town: we have performances on our little stage of various perverted kinds, and DJs and a dancefloor so that people can come along and experience the world of fetish without necessarily having to participate in any way - although participation is always welcome."
The club's success demonstrates it fills a distinct need: after all, it'd be difficult for a complete newcomer to make the leap from ‘you know, that seems a bit interesting' to ‘rightio, chain me up'.
"Exactly. And the fetish scene's always existed: there've been Hellfire Clubs since the 18th century! But unless you're very brave and self-confident it can be forbidding to enter. If you think you're into this stuff, how do you start?' And that, I suppose, is the dilemma that Hellfire seeks to answer."
For those whose curiosity has gone beyond Hellfire, there's a whole world to explore. "There is a fairly extensive fetish scene around Sydney," Master Tom explains, "largely private parties that happen in people's homes and some professional dungeon establishments around the place: people come along [to Hellfire] and get introduced to it, and a lot of the people who are promoters of the other events come along to Hellfire as well and when people are interested in, I suppose, ‘graduating' to something a little more full-on we point them towards the right people and the right places. And we also run spin-off events - we did one in a three storey dungeon in Chippendale where people could be off the leash, if you'll pardon the pun," he chuckles, "and behave in ways that they wouldn't be allowed to in a licensed nightclub."
That's a point worth making: Hellfire is, after all, a nightclub - with differences that go beyond the obvious sartorial ones. "I guess the thing that I think is very interesting that it does is that it enables different sexual expressions," explains Ultra. "One of the things that we're particularly positive about is the sexual expression of women, which I think gets kind of subsumed in a heterosexual environment: women often expect men to come and say ‘how about it?' and one of the things that we encourage them to do at Hellfire is be sexual aggressors; not because we think that the world would be a better place if women were all sexual aggressors, but because we think women need to learn how to be sexual aggressors and that the world would be a better place if men and women knew how to take different roles.
"One of the things that we like about Hellfire is that women can walk around in scanty clothes and not be harassed or harangued," she continues. "One of things that we've learnt we have to do in order to get this is get heterosexual men a little bit on the back foot, and one way of doing this is having a lot of different sexualities. If there's a lot of gay men and lesbians, heterosexual men sometimes feel a little off-kilter, which means that women can walk around feeling sexy and enabled."
The upshot is less complaints from women – and, it would seem, men. "Well, you probably end up with more sex," Ultra says, matter-of-factly. "If women feel like they're not going to be touched without asking, they start asking 'well, how do I get touched?' At first we were saying 'Can't you see? It's like shooting fish in a barrel: everyone's sexually charged, you're going to get lucky, all you have to do is not be a dickhead, and then everything comes to you!'" she laughs. "We're by far the nicest club in Sydney."
"We often say we blow minds for a living," adds Master Tom. "I've watched this kind of blossoming of people, who arrive very quiet and retiring and then end up the biggest, loudest extroverts on the block. They realise that everything's inverted, where all the conventions about dress and gender roles and body image are all thrown up in the air – and they're all up for grabs."
Hellfire Club happens on the fourth Friday of every month