The Tab Tries… UEA Fetish Society
It’s the society everyone is talking about- and we sent our Features Editor to discover whips, pinwheels, ankle cuffs… and nerf guns.
It’s with a certain sense of trepidation that I approach a room downstairs in the Congregation hall late Wednesday evening. Dance teams practice, and choirs sing warm-ups in the rooms around me – but the society I’m going to meet this evening is somewhat more out of the ordinary.
Set up just last year, the ‘UEA Fetish Society’ promises “an open-minded, friendly and welcoming” place for students “interested in BDSM, kink, fetish, swinging, and other sexually alternative lifestyles”. Whether it’s foot worship, whips and chains, or masochistic BDSM three-ways, the ‘Fetsoc’ promises to provide a safe and welcoming atmosphere for interested students to meet up and chat about it.
But with the mystery surrounding this society’s meetings and BDSM in general, I have other questions on my mind. Will I walk in and see lots of people suspended naked from the ceiling? Will all the members be dressed up in leather, dragging around their slave on a collar and leash? Or will everybody there just be really, really weird?
Fortunately, I can report that all of those fears and more were entirely unfounded. What I find when I walk in to the Fetish Society’s regular Wednesday meeting is an almost alarmingly normal room. The members of the society themselves are lovely people, who put up with my ignorant gawking, answer all of my questions and kindly volunteer to allow me to keep in contact with them afterwards. Members bring snacks, juggling clubs – and Nerf guns. Some participants chat about the law surrounding extreme pornography in the US, and others excitedly point out a fetish collar worn by one of the male models in the latest edition of Concrete – appropriately enough, the Sex Issue. (They take issue with the restrictive wording of the survey questions asking how many students have had a threesome – “what about group sex, with more than three people?” – and debate whether pornography and S&M are mentioned enough.) Two male members engage in an animated discussion about whether one ought to use PVC or metal piping in a frame designed for tying someone up, while the rest watch a video describing how to tie a knot so complicated, it would make a boy scout nervous. Another member, meanwhile, talks enthusiastically about a new whip he’s made – out of LAN cables.
At times, the Fetsoc appears more like a cross between a meeting of the Assassins Society, a student discussion group, and a DIY club than some notorious on-campus orgy.
It may well be the world’s nerdiest sex club.
James*, a longtime member and Philosophy-student third-year, stands in the centre of the room tying up another student. Tall, and with long hair and open-toed sandals, James looks vaguely like Jesus. The knot he’s tying this week, he explains, is a spider-web formation, one he thought of in a dream – “you know how sometimes, you’ll wake up and you’ll just have this particular mental image left lingering in your head?” – and is now putting into practice, attempting it on Michael*, a willing volunteer.
Tying people up with ropes like this, or “shibari” as it’s known, originates from Japan, and is descended from a long aesthetic (and erotic) tradition. There are two kinds of shibari; ‘Decorative’ and ‘Restrictive’. James is currently tying the former, although he prefers the latter.
“I got tied up last week, and I found out that having ropes bound around my chest makes me incredibly high. I literally zoned out all the way home. I can’t even remember anything for the next few hours. I was floating, like I was on a cloud.”
Isn’t that dangerous, though?
“No, not particularly. It’s all to do with the adrenaline, endorphins making you feel slightly light-headed and happy. “
James is also a keen member of circus society, and as well as rope, he’s brought his juggling clubs, poi sticks and nunchuks along with him to the session. I stare goggle-eyed at his paraphernalia, until James catches me. He laughingly explains that he’s not planning to use these nunchuks in anything to do with S&M.
He has, however, brought another, slightly more sinister-looking device called a Wartenberg pinwheel, which is used in BDSM for sensation play. I roll it along my arm. It doesn’t hurt – until about five seconds later, when I feel a sharp prickling. I wonder how people incorporate it into sex, and eventually conclude that some kind of blindfold must be involved.
Some other members are also well-equipped. One, Mika*, turns up with an entire bag full of his BDSM supplies. Collected over a succession of years, his selection ranges from whips, floggers and riding crops, to arnica and sterile plasters – “just in case.” The other members here, I realize, are the casual gamers – this is the real, Eve-Online level stuff.
Mika takes me through his bag, and helpfully explains the differences between them. “I have feathers – those are used for a kind of sensation play, teasing, tickling. Some whips are short, like this one. You use them pretty much like you use the riding crop. This whip here is used from a longer distance – but you must never crack it, because that means your whip is travelling fast enough to break the sound barrier, and that will break the skin. This one here is just a regular flogger, for hitting. And this paddle has holes in it, for less air resistance. Very stingy.” I point out my slight alarm at the fact that he also carries candles. “They’re safety ones, specially designed for BDSM. Some people like to use hot wax in play. It’s a sensation thing,” he explains.
Chris, the president of the society, is also in attendance. In between engaging in an epic Nerf-gun battle with another member and analyzing a complicated rope-tie, he takes the time to explain the rules of FetSoc and what it is the society actually does.
At regular meetings, Chris clarifies, the members generally practice some rope ties, socialize, and talk about the local kink scene. Sometimes they have guest speakers from the local BDSM community – a few weeks ago, they had a woman come in to demonstrate bondage rope ties. Each meeting is organized around a loose theme, with this term’s topics including ‘Kink on a Budget’ and ‘Dynamics within S&M’. Every once in a while, members organize field trips to local parties and kinky events – of which Norfolk is, surprisingly, home to many. This week, the society members are debating whether to take a trip up to visit another fetish society at the University of Birmingham, and discussing who’d be willing to drive the minibus. It’s all a lot more ‘Carry on Camping’ than 50 Shades of Grey.
Aside from rope bondage, there’s also a strong focus on safety and consent. Members must all abide by a list of rules found on the organisation’s Fetlife page, including treating all members of the Fetish Society as equals, and not touching anybody without their express consent. Other rules include not ‘outing’ any member to their family, or mocking or shaming another member for having a different fetish from them. It’s also not enough in Fetish society to assume that just because someone isn’t saying ‘no’, that they mean ‘yes’ , even in non-sexual contexts – members must explicitly ask permission before even taking a picture, or hugging another member.
The members of the society seem generally happy with this arrangement. I ask a few of them how they feel about the society, and if they’d ever tell anyone about being a member. Answers range from “I’ve not told anyone” to “I’ve only told a few friends – people who are looking to set up similar societies at other universities”, to “my dad drives me to munches.” There’s an overarching worry that people will judge them for what they like and do, or think they’re a freak. A few students note their relief at having found the society, that they’d thought they would never meet anyone ‘like them’ in real life at all. Some others talk about how they were in relationships for years, but were too shy to tell their partner about it.
There’s also some fear about what society in general thinks about what they do, and the image people have in their mind about who takes part in BDSM . One member noted that some tabloid coverage in the recent case of serial killer Joanna Dennehy seemed to focus on the fact that she was a sexual sadist who had formerly participated in BDSM activities – and not on the far more prominent facts that she was a violent killer and a clinical psychopath. He expresses concern that this kind of story might give people the wrong idea about what BDSM is and who participates in it, with people getting the idea that people who like BDSM are ‘crazy’, ‘deviant’ or broken figures. Others worry about David Cameron’s new default-on internet porn filters, which were passed on the premise of protecting children from ‘extreme pornography’. All agree with this basic idea, but are worried that the law also paints fetish pornography and activities as deviant and dangerous, and is too unspecific about what is ‘extreme’.
So what was my overall impression of Fetish Society?
I can confirm that there are no manacled stocks placed in the centre of the room, no chains hanging from the wall, and no masked gimps in their weekly meetings (although one girl wore a pair of elegant diamante cat ears.)
When they weren’t talking about whips and chains, the members were equally happy to expound on their enthusiasm for reading, hummus parties, or the latest season of Game of Thrones. They were all nice, normal people who you wouldn’t mind working with in class or meeting up with for a coffee – because (as I realised, with a guilty start) that is exactly who people into BDSM actually are. Sure, what they do might seem a bit weird to other people – but then again, so might a lot of things that these ‘regular people’ do. The members of our campus Fetish Society have found something which makes them happy without hurting anyone else and are brave enough – and at a university progressive enough – to let their freak flag fly. And who is anyone else to judge that?
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
Fetish Society 101: The Tab’s guide to the lingo
BDSM– standing for ‘Bondage, Discipline, Domination/Submission and Sadism/Masochism”, the term describes a variety of erotic practices and fetishes. Often used as a catchall term for anything in the ‘kinky’ or ‘fetish’ scene, it encapsulates dominance and submission, role-playing, restraint, and other interpersonal dynamics.
Dom – Short for “Dominant”, and also known as a ‘top’, this word describes is the partner in a BDSM relationship or scene who takes an active or controlling role over the submissive partner(s) “Domme” is the feminized form of ‘Dom’ or ‘Dominant’, and is used particularly for a female who adopts this role.
Sub – Short for “Submissive”, and also known as a ‘bottom’, this word describes the partner who takes the passive, receiving, or obedient role in a BDSM relationship or scene.
Munch – informal meeting, where people who have kinky interests or an interest in BDSM can interact and get to know one another in a casual, non-sexualised setting. Members will generally dress in normal clothing, and the meeting could take place at a restaurant, a club, a bar – or even a church hall!
Fetlife: A social-networking site for those in the BDSM ‘scene’. Like Facebook for kinky people, members can join groups, list their fetishes and interests, and detail who they’d like to meet online – “ a friend” “a sub” “a master” Fetlife also showcases the most highly rated notes, pictures and videos on a BDSM theme uploaded to the site on its homepage each day.
Safeword: Saying ‘no’ ‘stop’ or ‘ouch’ can be a part of a role-play scene in BDSM – for example when two people are roleplaying a kidnapping fantasy. (These are also known as “consensual non-consent” scenes, where one person pretends not to be consenting but actually enjoys what’s going on.) A ‘safeword’ is a word or phrase that actually means ‘no’ – like ”red” “pineapple” or “Margaret Thatcher” – and which stops a BDSM role-play right away.