The fetish world has shaken off its sleazy image and emerged from its heavily fortified closet into the public domain with club nights and fashion shows for the masses. Trussed up in rubber, Gareth Mason went to the ball looking to get hot under his dog collar....
Cross-dressed in rubber clergy-wear is no way to go through life. No way to go through Brixton High Street on a Saturday night either. And is every occupant of those grid-locked cars staring at me? Paranoid? Possibly. But perhaps that’s due to the dog-collar protruding from my overcoat and the car lights reflecting off my shiny spray-on strides. Tonight, the French maid to my right agreed, the best part of the journey was arriving.
The venue is Mass, in south London’s St Matthew’s Church, for The Torture Garden (TG) Rubber Ball. This is the climax of a series of Halloween events and the regulars here just don’t fit in with the crowd from The Dog and Parrot. Once safely inside, we joined a lengthy queue snaking to the cloakroom where we shed our cloaks of respectability and emerged like contestants from some Hell-based Stars in your Eyes.
We met several other couples. Each friendly, middle class and a little nervous – all first timers. Downstairs, the entertainment centred on a couple of dim-lit rooms where large screens flashed surreal images, flanked on either side by bars, which looked down over the dance floor. Here the manic threw themselves about with sensual abandon in a sea of latex and rubber like a horny version of a sinking Titanic. Drum & Bass was the musical backdrop and I was soon persuaded that requesting something from Donna Summer’s erotic back catalogue would fall on heavily-pierced deaf ears. Break beats and hard house were the other main musical themes while the dungeon room was set to a more fitting ritualistic, tribal and experimental vibe.
The entertainment included a fashion display from the House of Harlot, a fire-eating show from Lucifire and a lower gut wrenching display of penile dexterity from Paul and Rough-A-Yella displaying unusual ways of lifting weights while inserting nails into less than obvious places. After the show, the crowd cruised back and forth like sharks seeking prey, but there were few easy pickings.
Frustrated by the lack of action, we found our way to the dungeon in the bowels of the building. Here, one man was being flagellated rather half-heartedly by a middle-aged woman in scarlet leathers. A non-committal crowd mused close by. The man in the opposite corner had far better prospects. Big-boned and sparse on top, he was being caressed by a bevy of women – blindfolded either to heighten the erotic impact or delude himself they were the nubile beauties of his dreams. Good work for a fat, bald man. But his pleasure seemed to embarrass the audience who felt more comfortable gazing with curiosity at the streaked buttocks of the man being whipped.
My companion, a follower of the old school who we’ll call Mistress X, told me lurid tales from equivalent events a dozen years ago. ‘It was more underground then. People did more than parade themselves – they were up for a bit of action. They weren’t so passive,’ said Mistress X, ‘I remember a man in a cage shuddering with pleasure when I threw my drink in his face. At my first event, I was followed by a man dressed head to foot in rubber who could have been my grandfather. The guy with me told me to tell the rubber man to buy me a drink which he did for the rest of the evening whenever I summoned him.’
There were few inhibitions on these nights. ‘People would bunch into these booths and get up to all sorts of things. And I remember these ‘pony’ girls and boys who’d walk around on all fours dragging a cart behind them – I think they had their own club in the country. Generally, there was a lot more active role-playing, slaves being dragged around by chains – that kind of thing.’ Her abiding memory was the stentorian command of a well-spoken middle-aged man who’d noticed his wife flinch as he caned her with undisguised glee. ‘Stick it out Susan! Stick it out!’ he bellowed. We can only presume Susan bent back over and thought of England.
Many in Brixton were there to observe, lurking the dimmed corridors, seeking something not found in Battersea wine bars. Among the heavily-tattooed, androgynous and pierced which make up the hard core are people that look like...well, my estate agent or those more suited to the local rugby club drink and belch ball. Guys with regular haircuts wearing token leather cross straps on their otherwise bare chests thrust their heavily worked out pecs in our faces. Like me, I suppose, with my almost publicly wearable rubber trousers which could pass as a poor man’s leather if you could cancel the sexual undertones with, say, a big woolly jumper from Tibet.
But clearly, I was there for professional reasons and these guys weren’t selling any houses. Mistress X spoke to a 30-something Berliner – an enthusiast keen to experience a British take on erotica. He was disappointed by the lack of role-play. She spoke with him pleasantly for several minutes before curtly telling him to go away. He left without a word, grateful that someone knew the rules of the game. I was befuddled by such behaviour. Mistress X was unaccountably cold and dismissive for most of the evening before I realised she was revelling in her dominatrix role. The next day, I found out a trio of women had asked how ‘her slave’ performed. ‘What slave was that?’ I asked with genuine innocence. I almost choked on my Frosties when she told me.
In the mind of every casual new visitor is one burning question – what really goes on? There is an expectation that your £15 ticket has bought you a licence for untold thrills or at least watch other people having them. Is this the place where fantasies become reality? The hungry look in some of the prowling men seemed to be asking that question, but dress codes, which vary from drag body mutation and cybersex oriental to fantasy fetish and new flesh, tend to keep the lone predators away. If many of the men wore a mask of frustrated ambition, if not latex, the women appeared more at ease.
I’d perused the small ads in that worthy tome Skin Two – London’s Free Fetish Newspaper. There were 38 ads for men seeking women and four from women looking for men. Of the women, two were looking for dinner partners while the other pair had, politically, travelled several light years from being manacled to the kitchen sink. ‘Dominant 32-year-old blonde enjoys chaining and masking her slave who she wants to be submissive, silk-clad and able to take pain and punishment while serving her well.’ While the ‘29-year-old rubber vixen’ next down the column was after a compliant, leather-clad male to pander to her every whim.’ The men were dominant only in numbers. Typical was the ‘attractive male seeking an intelligent, stiletto-wearing woman to worship and use him as a doormat’ or the ‘well-dressed 45-year-old into corporal punishment, restraint, chains, whips and being dominated.’ You get the picture. In economic terms, it’s a beaters market.
I spotted a few snarling dominatrixes winding regally through the rubbery masses but there were far more Indians than chiefs. But clearly the floor was not about to turn into a writhing copulating mass so I asked a TG spokesman if Torture Garden was moving into mainstream respectability. He explained its ethos: ‘To us it hasn’t changed much in the last four years. We don’t do house music or sex shows. We’re not looking to attract a trendy club crowd. We are more art and show-based. Other organisations cater more for the bored suburban couples – we’re more alternative. For instance, we made a conscious attempt to incorporate body art into our dress code.’
Talking of which, my rubber trousers are safely back in the wardrobe hanging like some giant reusable condom. And if the club circuit starts to feel a little staid and conventional, I’ll know there’s an alternative where you can leave your taboos at the cloakroom. Here people of all ages, sizes and types can wallow in a highly charged sexual atmosphere which brings sensuality and exhibitionism swaggering out of the closet. What goes on afterwards is in your own hands or the small ads of mags like Skin Two. Publicly, British prurience may keep us behind our continental cousins in the sex stakes but in the dim-lit corridors of such clubs we’re staying in touch with every stiletto-shod step.
Women’s Health 1999