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Britain's secretive S&M scene

Whip

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Sex seems to be everywhere these days, yet the details of Max Mosley's privacy hearing have helped lift a veil on one type of sexual behaviour still shrouded in secrecy - sadomasochism.

As well as the whipping, the searching of hair for lice, and the harsh commands barked in gruff German, a News of the World video shown in Max Mosley's High Court case has revealed a more tender face of the supposedly dark sadomasochistic lifestyle.

There were images of a post-session impromptu tea party between Mr Mosley and his female companions, alongside courtroom evidence from friends. It's something advocates for tolerance are keen to talk about, amid concern the Mosley case will further increase suspicion of such activities.

In doing so, they come up against the guardians of traditional morality - such as the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) group which condemns "unconstructive" relationships based on "the dominion of one person over another".

Max Mosley and umbrella
Max Mosley has called it "a perfectly harmless activity"

Nobody knows how many people are involved in the "scene": a loose grouping of people across the country who enjoy an unorthodox - and under current laws potentially illegal - sexual lifestyle. However, one US study suggests 11% of women and 14% of men have engaged in BDSM - an abbreviation for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism - activities.

If those figures are translated to the UK, it could mean around four million people have tried BDSM. A smaller, but still substantial, number has chosen to make it a "lifestyle choice".

The Mosley case has also confirmed historical prejudices about Britain's long-standing "spanking" tradition - the famous flagellation scene in the 18th Century novel Fanny Hill, being just one example. "Just a little harmless English S&M", was how Time magazine headlined its account of the court hearing. It concluded: "On this island where manners mean everything, one takes one's whipping with a stiff upper lip."

According to the former editor of the Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling, Britain is "still known abroad as the 'nation of floggers'".

"A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children," says Ms Pelling, "sending them away to boarding school from an early age. Plus, the British are thought to be repressed - and any repression will result in somewhat recherche and unusual sexual activities."

Fetish parties

Faith, a professional "mistress", offers up a starker insight. Reclining on a large velvet covered bed in the "playroom" attic of her country cottage, and surrounded by the tools of her trade, she describes sometimes extreme acts in words of "trust" and "consent".

Faith
When a client walks through the door I will have them strip and kneel on the floor in front of me
Faith, a professional mistress

For 160, usually preceded by an e-mail discussion as to what will happen, she offers "to help explore a client's fantasy, self and sexuality".

Although at ease with her chosen lifestyle, she would rather her identity was kept secret to save any grief from neighbours.

Anonymity is a basic tenet of the BDSM world. Many of the men she sees are married or, like Mr Mosley, she says, in high-profile jobs that prevent them from taking part in Britain's lively BDSM "scene" with its fetish parties and informal get-togethers.

"Most clients I see are submissive - they want me to be in control," she says. "When a client walks through the door I will have them strip and kneel on the floor in front of me - they will not even question that."

What follows depends on what has been previously agreed, but Faith is adamant that she offers not just the indulgence of a fantasy, but therapy that helps those who are distressed by their fetish - or disappointed when the reality of their fantasy fails to live up to expectations.

"At that point I need to find something that he can cope with, that he actually needs. So it needs me to be very supportive at that stage - to instantly switch into nurturing, trying to pull him together and pull him through and explore what will work for him."

She muses over her clients' motives. "It's a natural part of human nature to seek some kind of endorphin rush. You can do that through sport and nobody thinks that wrong. If you take that same rush and put it into a BDSM environment you can see why people like spanking. They have got the fear of coming into this environment and fear of putting themselves in that position of trust.

Brutal murder

"Then they get the pain and challenge that creates the endorphins - so they accentuate that with the pleasure.

"For me, it's about instilling a little fear - to get a rush."

DAVID AKA MASTER COSMIC
"When we are out socially, she will go ahead and open the door for me."
"When she serves coffee it will be placed carefully in my upturned palm so I don't have to reach for it."
"There is a big difference between a dominant and a bully. I am very aware that I am receiving the gift of submission. "

Psychologists say that those who embark in BDSM "play" usually come to an agreement about the roles they will play: dominant ("top"), or submissive ("bottom").

Sometimes the practices move out of the bedroom and into everyday life.

In such cases, both people consent to a longer-term master-slave relationship, based on mutual trust, and on the condition that either can pull out at a time of their choosing. But lurid reports of BDSM sessions that have gone wrong - such the brutal murder in 2004 of film agent Rod Hall during an S&M "game" - have helped create a difficult environment in which these relationships can flourish openly.

According to Darren Langdridge, co-author of a book about BDSM, Safe Sane and Consensual, the media "have focused on the non-consensual examples of BDSM - but there are many couples who make BDSM a part of their stable relationship".

The problem, he says is that when sex and violence get mixed up, people struggle to understand it, and get worried.

"But in my view BDSM as just another extension of everyday sexual experience."

It's not an argument that wins over traditionalist opponents of the BDSM lifestyle. Seeking pain, they say, is "not constructive".

"We feel strongly about the value of human life, and whilst these sorts of things may happen between two consenting adults... it is the dominion of one person over another," says a spokesman for Care. "Because it is this sort of relationship we do not see it as constructive. These practices can also lead to serious injury, or even death. And it is the families of the people who die who suffer in the end."

Puppies

But many of those in BDSM relationships are fiercely protective of their lifestyle choice. Some are almost evangelical about its benefits.

A "dominant" calling himself Sir Guy says it's a "chance to forget all adult responsibilities and - in the best sense of the word - be irresponsible. One of my puppies [his term for a submissive] refers to his sessions as 'holidays from humanity'."

Skin Two ball
The Skin Two Rubber Ball, for those who can take their BDSM public

Another, "Suzanne", a 42-year-old submissive married to her dominant "master", says she has given herself "totally to the man".

"We never argue and his word is final. It means that I don't have to worry about making decisions. It's a relaxed lifestyle that gives me a tremendous sense of freedom."

Some research backs up anecdotal evidence that people who choose BDSM as a way of life are no more unstable than the general population - and might even be happier.

A soon-to-be published study of nearly 20,000 Australians concluded those who took part in BDSM activities were "no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious".

"What we are finding is that people who engage in BDSM activities are not weirdoes," says Dr Richard de Visser, of Sussex University, "they just choose a certain sexual activity."

Yet some say suspicion has helped demonise BDSM and create discriminatory laws - such as the one that forbids, unless "transitory or trifling", blood-letting during sexual play. It is this law that the News of the World claims Mr Mosley broke - and part of its justification for publishing details of a secretly-filmed session.

Yet those who share Mr Mosley's sexual tastes haven't necessarily welcomed the wider expose this case has brought. Deborah Hyde, of the lobby group Backlash - a group that campaigns for human rights issues within the BDSM community - is worried more people will get the wrong idea about BDSM.

"A lot of the time it's about understanding the language - and what really is going on. Actually, at the end of the day it's just a game - and no more threatening compared to the other games people play, like Dungeons and Dragons, or even going to Star Trek conventions."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I have been involved with fetish parties for nearly two decades: for most of the 90s we operated in a large venue in King's Cross, shared by us and every other type of party on other nights of the week. Ours was the only night in that venue when the in-house security staff felt they could work without stab vests or body armour: violence - of an extreme and life-threatening nature - was the rule on every other event, and we were the exception. I could write a whole book about what we learned during those years (until closed down by the Admiral Duncan bomber, incidentally) but all I will say on this occasion is that BDSM is one of those fields where the best-informed freely admit they know only a little; the utterly ignorant are the ones who shout the loudest.
Doktor Gummi, London, UK

It's interesting that every High Street lingerie shop sells fluffy handcuffs or soft rope, yet the press still insist on presenting BDSM as some sort of bizarre secret subculture. It is also disappointing that the press always seem to pruriently focus on the juicier aspects such as dungeons, secret clubs, masochism, whipping etc, and disregards the notion of loving couples engaged in perfectly healthy kinky activities involving role play, spanking, fantasy, restraint, trust, fun and sensation. Ultimately, why is it anyone's business what consenting adults do together privately, as long as it is all safe, sane and consensual?
Ian, Dundee

This to me was an interesting part: "It is the dominion of one person over another," says a spokesman for Care. "Because it is this sort of relationship we do not see it as constructive." I practice BDSM with my partner, I am the submissive in it. There is a great comfort in knowing you can trust this other person wholeheartedly, and you can be who you are. For a BDSM relationship to work the key element is trust - no one can submit to anyone else without it, otherwise the relationships just do not last. It is not all one way either, as a submissive I may be nurtured but I also look after my dominant, helping them relax and seeing them smile. The 'dominion' is carefully negotiated, and our limits respected. Is this really so different from a conventional relationship?
Grissom, Leyland

There's nothing more British than a right royal spanking followed by a nice cup of tea. It helped build the Empire.
James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

What frustrates me about the media coverage is the emphasis writers choose to focus on. There is nothing "immoral" or "wrong" about BDSM itself. Any sexual activity between truly CONSENTING ADULTS where no-one is being hurt emotionally is fine by me. What strikes me as "immoral" whenever these stories come up is the acceptance of hiring prostitutes, or having a sexual relationship outside of your marriage that your spouse has not agreed to. Paying people for sex is wrong, cheating on and lying to your wife or husband is wrong, BDSM in the right context is harmless.
Anonymous, Isle of Wight

You have fallen into the trap so cunningly laid by the News of the World's defence lawyers - it is not what Mr Mosely chooses to do with consenting partners that matters, it is his right to do so in privacy that is at issue. And as a lifelong player of Dungeons & Dragons I take offence at it being compared to any sex act, however innocuous.
Megan, Cheshire, UK

It is a myth that sadism is a common sexual expression for people of naturally domineering, bullying personalities. In my experience people who are alpha-type personalities or in positions of great power and authority in their careers are usually submissive sexually. In this way S&M gives people a chance to let go of the reigns and hand over the responsibility to someone else for a while. It's very cathartic and refreshing. Don't judge what people do in their bedrooms. You certainly wouldn't like it if the tables were turned and missionary-style, vanilla sex was deemed "unhealthy."
SM, UK

For every case that can be located showing some form of injury or death relating to BDSM, at least one can be found showing injury during a "normal" act. In most relationships, one person is more in control and dictates the flow of decision making. How does that differ from a dom/sub relationship other than the fact that it works itself into a little pain from time to time? People do a wide variety of things that cause pain to themselves in one way shape or form. Most of which aren't illegal. Why should this be?
Leilani Newton, Middleburg, Florida, US

I'm part of the "scene" in my local area, and I live as a submissive with my Master, my fiance. We're very much in love, and have a lot of respect for each other, to the extent that we'll try new things, and trust each other to stop when we need to. BDSM play should not be illegal, nor is it the public's right to know who is or is not partaking of such a pleasure. It's as much a part of me as my love of chocolate.
F, UK

Every time there is a new addition to supposedly harmless sexual acts. Why can't we just have normal sexual relationships between a man a woman? But this is the result of sexual "freedom" - deprivation, uncontrolled lust, and really the freedom of indulging into fantasy acts between "consenting adults". I don't think we can do anything about it. It's too late now.
AB, Birmingham

Frankly, it scares me to know what people will do in the name of recreation. How can physical aggression, bleeding wounds, broken bones, dirt, humiliation, orchestrated and ritualised violence and even deaths have any place in the psyche of any rational adult? Anyway, so much for rugby. And boxing, wrestling, judo and any other competitive contact sport you care to name, all of which are essentially substitutes for sex anyway. BDSM sounds much safer, plus there's at least a chance you'll find your fellow participants sexually attractive, unlike rugby. Er, presumably.
Zax, Amersham, UK

What people get up to in the privacy of their own relationships is entirely up to them, unless it's a matter of state security or some such. After all, handcuffs, floggers and gags are available in the High Street courtesy of Anne Summers; this can only be because there is a market for such things. I don't really indulge in S&M (it just hurts, frankly, which is a good way to tell if it's for you), but I have a dominant/submissive based relationship (with me as the S) - it's just the way we are, it works well, and it's no one's business but ours. And hopefully soon the press will stop tainting the lives of my friends and acquaintances with the fear of "being outed", for the way they lead their relationships and their sex lives.
Nic, Surrey, England

It's clear to me that England is becoming more Satanic in nature every day, and the people who work for the BBC must take some responsibility for that.
Dean, Reading

It is as much about how you think as how you act. Certain relationships will work with this, others won't. If people are consensual and know their boundaries - then this can be a healthy relationship or incorporated into one.
Mistress C, UK

My fiancee and I are very much into BDSM and its different variants. To see the News of the World acting as the unappointed and unwanted moral guardians to the country is disheartening. How are we to learn to respect each other when tabloids will swoop on anything unusual and demonise it to line their pockets? This country is simmering with repressed desires and fetishes.
Sun man, Manchester

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