Opinion

Meet The Londoners With A Fetish For Being Tied Up

Samantha Rea
By Samantha Rea Last edited 7 months ago
Meet The Londoners With A Fetish For Being Tied Up

"I was in the Scouts learning knots and ropes, when I wondered if I could tie up a person," says Paul, a 26 year old from Lithuania who has in fact just been tying up a person. He explains, "I was into tying up from an early age, but I didn't know how to put it into words. It was only recently that a friend got an inkling that I might be into bondage, and she signed me up to FetLife — that's how I found this class."

FetLife is 'the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community' and the class we are at is a Rope Jam at Anatomie, the UK’s first and only dedicated shibari studio. It's a tranquil space filled with soothing music and fluffy rugs, the walls lined with kimonos and cushions. But in the corner, there's a crate filled with ropes, and looking up, I see sturdy straps hanging from wooden beams.

I get bound by Anna Bones. Photo: Samantha's secret sidekick.

"It's like hugs with bruises!"

Shibari, for the uninitiated, is Japanese rope-binding, which is a form of bondage. "It comes from sado-masochistic porn in Japan," says Anna Bones, who runs the Peckham based studio with her boyfriend Fred Hatt. While participants are welcome to be naked, ("since nudity isn't unsafe we simply don't have a rule for it") everyone keeps their kit on. I am pleased about this, because I'd rather not be bound with a rope that's rubbed against someone's backside.

But the attire isn't all leather and latex. In fact, if you wandered in before anyone was bound, you might mistake the Rope Jam for a yoga class, such is the predilection for Lululemon leggings and loose printed cotton trousers getting an airing between Goa and Glasto. I'd probably put money on at least one of the guys running a pop-up Beard Bar in Nunhead, selling artisan moustache wax made of oils secreted from his girlfriend's scalp during a head massage from monks in Tibet.

Photo: Bones and Rope

Shibari is, "geeky, very brainy, and it can be very intellectual," says Anna, who discovered it five years ago, towards the end of her PhD at UCL. "I was looking online for kinky activities and I found this event called Peer Rope London. I fell head over heels for it!

"I like the closeness — connecting and having a conversation with another person through physical movement. As humans, we crave to be touched, and that's what rope is," Anna explains. "You're touching another person, they're touching you and it feels nice."

"I like being close to someone," adds Paul. I understand the need for closeness — I'm just not sure why there've got to be ropes involved. Can't you just have a cuddle? Ben, who's been to several classes, explains, "Anna and Fred talk about the rope being an extension of your hands, so if you've got lots of rope, it's like you're giving them the biggest hug." Ben is here with his girlfriend Bella, who adds, "it's like hugs with bruises!"

Photo: Anna Bones at Anatomie

"Our relationship didn’t need spicing up — it was spicy already!"

The session starts with a few ice-breakers to get us chatting to different people. "Go to this end of the room if you're a cat person, and that end if you're a dog person," says Anna. "Now go over there if you want to be tied, over there if you want to tie, and over there if you're a switch!" A switch is someone who is happy to both tie and be tied. Committed to experiencing the full shibari shebang, I stand in the spot designated for switches — and find myself jostling for space with about 80% of the class.

Ellie, who's 41, is here for the first time. She tells me later, "I enjoyed being tied up — I liked the sense of touch, and squeezing, and the rope brushing past my skin." She also enjoyed tying her partner, another woman she met that night. She explains, "I want to learn the skills and technique, so I can tie other people, so they can experience it as well." Paul also identifies as a switch. He tells me he liked being tied because, "I like being touched gently," and he enjoyed the tying because, "I like the artistic side of the knots."

Photo: Bones and Rope

Ben and Bella also switch, "we take turns to practise on each other. That's the best part," says Ben, "especially today. I was tired and stressed, but now that's disappeared." It was Ben who saw a friend's shibari snap on Facebook. "It looked like something you could nerd out on, that would be fun to learn together as an alternative to movie night." How has it impacted their relationship? "It's improved it, in that we've got more to do — but our relationship didn't need rescuing," says Ben, "it didn’t need spicing up — it was spicy already!" I ask Bella if shibari turns her on. She says, "for me it's more a sensual thing — the sensations on your skin, the intimacy you can have with your partner." She adds that she finds the studio calming, echoing Ben who's, "glad it's not a dungeon."

But while the class seems pretty innocuous, when I Google image search shibari, I'm hit by an abundance of naked women suspended from ceilings, trussed up with their legs tied apart, orifices available for penetration (including their mouths, which are sometimes held open with a gag type contraption). Is Shibari reinforcing the idea of women as passive sex objects? "Those are just the images that get popularised — it's a reflection of the fantasies people have," says Anna. She tells me many women fantasise about submission. "An analysis of PornHub data showed more than half of searches for female submission are actually by women. So I don't think it's a patriarchal conspiracy to show images of women in positions of submission!" Furthermore, Anna adds, "I don't think there's anything passive about female submission. That's a mainstream misconception. Submission can be powerful!"

"It's all about the knots." Photo:  Shizu Okino

"It reflects what men want to see, because that's what they want to do to women"

But if you're all tied up, how can you stop someone taking advantage of you if they choose to? And even with a respectful partner, do safe words really work? Talking it over with friends, one points out that, "freezing is an instinctive response to trauma, or boundaries being violated — plus the whole concept seems to ignore the aspect of social coercion and not wanting to be the one to say stop." I wonder too, if women are really seeking submission. My friend Becky suggests that the popularity of these images owes less to a female audience than a male one: "It reflects what men want to see, because that's what they want to do to women."

Another friend, Lisa, sees the pictures as, "part of the wider culture of female objectification," and thinks that while women may be looking at these images, "it doesn't mean that's what they want. The majority of women would only agree to be tied up like that because they want to please their partner or have been pestered, coerced or bullied into being "more adventurous" or acting out something he's seen online." Nikki points out that, "victims of abuse sometimes search for what they've been through in order to normalise it." And Gemma wonders whether women's fantasies of submission stem from absorbing society's more misogynistic messages.

I'm not sure about this malarkey. Photo: Samantha's secret sidekick

I'd asked Anna about this and she tells me, "it's an impossible question to answer," but offered this analogy: "I cannot tell you whether I'm wearing a skirt right now because I've been brainwashed into believing that as a woman I have to wear a skirt. But I can tell you I like wearing a skirt." She adds, "it's the same with kink — I can't tell you if it's a product of me having been exposed to too many images of it, I just know I like it. I feel empowered and free."

In the class, I work with a 22 year old Belgian guy who's been in London for two months. We are making a muddle of binding each other's wrists but he tells me he's enjoying it. "It's relaxing and stress relieving," he says. This is his first class but he's tried bondage and domination before, and he intends to come back to the Rope Jam. "I'm always looking for something to please my partner, so I am trying a lot of things." I ask if he thinks his girlfriend will like this. "I don't have a girlfriend," he says, "but I have some partners."

Photo: Bones and Rope

"I'm pansexual. That means I'll fuck anyone"

In this, my young Belgian rope buddy echoes other participants, two of whom have told me they're pansexual. "That means I’ll fuck anyone," says one guy, helpfully. I'll call him Roger. Roger, who's 55, announces he's a dom and informs me he likes mind-fucks. He's here because his sub is desperate for him to learn shibari. "She wants me to suspend her. I won't be able to do that, but I'll be able to hurt her," says Roger, who tells me he usually ties her up with buckles and whips her with a belt. Unfortunately, Roger's sub was unable to join him at tonight's class. "I wanted to partner with a single woman, but she went with someone else," says Roger. Roger is quite annoyed about this. Unable to snare a single woman, he resorts to pairing up with another guy. "It was a downer," he tells me, "I was bored."

Luckily, other participants had more positive experiences. Kasia, who's in her 40s, is here for the sixth time. Originally from Poland, she's lived in London over 20 years. She says, "I'd heard of shibari, so it was at the back of my mind, then I went to a workshop run by Anna at a Togetherness weekend." Anna's talk struck a chord with Kasia. "I'd thought rope binding would be hardcore, but Anna talked with feeling about the thought behind it — it's not just about torturing someone!" Kasia, who identifies as a switch, tells me she likes the aesthetic, and the intimate interplay between two people. "It's going to take some time to be good at it. I don't find it easy but I will keep on doing it." Kasia comes by herself, but would like to find a partner. "People here are friendly so there's no trouble finding someone to work with, but I haven't practised outside the session yet — it would be nice to have a partner to tie with."

Photo: Samantha's secret sidekick

"I wondered why people enjoy it and I wanted to see if I'd enjoy it too"

Neil, 25, has just moved from zone 6 to zone 4 and sees this as an opportunity to explore London. "I've set myself a task to explore the fetish scene," he tells me. So far he's ticked the boxes for nude swimming, and a BDSM club, and this is his second shibari session. "I wondered why people enjoy it and I wanted to see if I'd enjoy it too," says Neil, explaining, "I've been allowing people to tie me up so I know how it feels if I tie someone else up. I'm a carer so I want to understand someone's need for that fetish and why they're turned on by it. I'm not turned on by it myself, but now I can understand why someone else would be. I'm preparing myself mentally and physically for when I meet someone, but it's also about awareness and understanding these things so I don't judge them."

Neil's dedication to preparing himself for a partner he hasn’t yet met certainly puts my relationship efforts into perspective. I've considered boyfriends lucky if I've changed the sheets and emptied the litter tray. The current one's meant to be eternally grateful that I've got him in some Gaviscon. But perhaps my laissez-faire attitude explains why I don't "get" this shibari malarkey. It seems like an awful lot of effort and I wonder what it's all for. But hey, the people are lovely and they do a nice line in soothing music, so if you fancy a bit of bondage with a side order of hipster networking, Anatomie is a charming place to try it.

All the names of the participants have been changed.

Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.

Last Updated 26 April 2018