Gal détourN reports from fetish clubland, where safety seems to come first
Fetish clubbing is more popular than ever. The furtive raincoat brigade has been replaced by top-name djs playing house, garage, funk and ambient to 1500-plus people at clubs advertised by glossy flyers. But is this a sign of our society becoming more sexually liberated? Or is it that a growing number of adults are seeking escape within rubber playpens?
'For over 90 percent it's about transformation', says David TG, one of the co-organisers of the Torture Garden. 'Only a small minority want activity at the club.' Those clubbers who do want 'activity' are a few fetish and S&M people at one end of the scale, and swingers at the other. But there is no harmonious and liberated garden of Earthly delights. 'Both ends have a mutual distrust of each other', states Rubber Ron Elliston, a thirtysomething black dj and head of Club Submission. 'They have strong conservative views. People on the fetish/S&M side will look down on the swingers and think they are disgusting because they all want to shag each other, but people on the swinging side look down on the S&M people because all they want to do is whack shit out of each other. In different ways they've got the same conservative viewpoints - you'd think they were the bloody Monday Club or something.'
For most clubbers, the emphasis is not really on a fetish for one particular mode of second skin, or the desire for sexual adventure, but on being just a little outrageous. Most people go to fetish clubs not to do, but simply to be, and this reflects the same morality of caution that characterises wider society. 'There is definitely a level of caution there', says Ron. David TG has another angle: 'People like to escape their everyday boring lives and transform themselves and become a character. Fantasy dress and uniforms are very popular right now.' But if the fetish has gone, and there is little desire for sexual experimentation, surely all that remains is fancy dress?
For some, the desire to escape has been eclipsed by a belief in lifestyle. Alt culture 'outsiders' and piercing devotees form a definite subgroup within the fetish scene, and, like much of the piercing world, they view themselves as being progressive because they are using their own bodies as a canvas on which to experiment. 'A lot of people at our club have alternative lifestyles during the daytime', claims David. 'In a way it links back to festivals and ritual things from the past in eastern and European countries.'
The growth of fetish clubbing, along with new-age strands and personal therapies, is indicative of our growing inability to root our beliefs in anything outside of our personal lives. When taken too seriously, it is a cul de sac.
For example Julia Collings, assistant editor of Skin Two magazine, told me that 'it's played an important part in my life. When I go to normal clubs now, I realise that the experience of fetish clubs has become ingrained in my personality. I'm much less tolerant of certain behaviour from blokes now, I just can't put up with it'. Fair enough, but is a retreat into night-time fetish ghettos really the way to assert female equality? Wouldn't a slap round the face in a 'conventional' club be braver? Or even a debate about the position of women in society?
Ironically, one can feel quite wary of making advances in fetish clubs. 'Women can go and not get chatted up', says Julia. 'There's a freedom of expression that you don't find at other clubs.' But let's be honest, most clubs are potential places to meet new sexual partners. If a woman is not into it, most men will get the message and beat a retreat. Any breakdown of this process is not about 'freedom of expression'; it is more like imposing a new etiquette on how people can behave. Ultimately, true expression involves your voice being heard outside of your personal circles.
Fetish clubs are undoubtedly mainstream. The majority of clubbers are not exactly raving perverts, and the alternative fashion freaks, fetishists and new agers are a minority. So who else attends? 'A lot of them are disenfranchised clubbers who have been there since the beginning of dawn and are fed up, so they want to try something a bit different', says Rubber Ron Elliston. Some of clubland's more adventurous souls are bound to be bored - the hedonistic experience that many dance flyers allude to is usually corporate artifice, a ritual with no sense of uniqueness.
But is fetish clubbing any different? The music is usually the same testament to creative poverty that fills conventional clubs, and for most attendees there is little else apart from the dressing up and exhibitionism. As David TG notes, 'fetish clubs have become very normalised, like a fashion without any substance. Dressing up has such a long tradition, especially because of the whole youth culture thing'. And on the fetish club scene, as in youth culture, notions of sexual liberation are confined to the unthreatening terrain of self-expression.
Fetish clubs can be a great laugh, but they cannot be viewed as a barometer of how experimental and progressive society is. They are not very experimental themselves, and even if they were, the experimentation involves no engagement with the public sphere. The 1990s has been the most identity-conscious yet superficial decade ever. You can be wacky, pierced, camp, religious, secular, tribal or futuristic - you will be applauded for merely surviving or simply expressing something about yourself. Auntie Trisha and the nanny state will be sympathetic about your fetish playpen, as long as you play by the wider rules.
Fetish clubbing might be fun, but it poses no threat and your local 'straight' club is just as good a venue for a bit of agreed extramarital sex. It's much cheaper, too.
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999