Learning About BDSM—By Doing It Myself

Jenny Valentish's Academic Journey To Physical Extremes

The man I’m meeting is a strongman coach. He trains people to flip tires, hoist Atlas stones and deadlift three times their body weight. But today I’m talking to him about his other job. As a professional dominant, he has a Twitter account—that I’ve given a good browsing—in which he posts photographs of himself carrying a naked woman over his shoulder, or standing by some desolate outbuilding, brandishing a self-made leather restraint. “Sir James” is like his villainous alter ego.

When booking Sir James, you’ll be asked what experience you have with bondage, discipline and impact play (that’s striking, with various implements or appendages), and he’ll get very specific about it. This conversation will provide the parameters within which he can move during your visit. He is the dom, after all, so once a session starts, he’s in control. His pre-appointment instructions might include “Wear a dress, or a skirt and blouse, that I can take off easily at my own pace.”

These are the instructions I’m given, anyway. I figure that the full Sir James experience is a claimable expense for an author writing a book about endurance.

The fetish dungeon is in the industrial backstreets of Melbourne’s Oakleigh South, almost indistinguishable from the auto-repair shops and warehouses surrounding it. I press the buzzer at a discreet door and am met by a woman who takes me to a small reception room. It’s separate from the exit, to avoid clients sighting each other. If you’re being walked down the hallway to a dungeon, or the medical room, or the cross-dressing room, your fetish provider will also check the coast is clear.

While I wait for Sir James, I flip through the book of services, which include electrical play, genital torture, anal fisting, sensory deprivation, tickle torture, suspension, voyeurism, golden showers, medical procedures, cuckolding, public humiliation and babyism (including nappy change). Facilities include a gyno chair, crosses and stocks for naughty villagers. There’s a poster on the wall that warns, no condom, no sex. Sex? How suburban.

Sir James enters, so tall he blocks out the light. He’s dressed like an off-duty fascist in a crisp shirt, black leather braces, black pants and black lace-up boots, and he has the kind of full beard favored by strongman athletes. He asks me a few questions about phobias and medical issues, and explains the verbal red/orange/green code for stop/mmmmmaybe stop/don’t ever stop. For the first time, anxiety creeps in. It’s not dissimilar to the feeling when I committed to a bungee jump—the wait at the top platform was the worst part. Let me just hurl myself into the abyss already.

Admin complete, he leads me to one of the dungeons, which is painted black and red. Mirrors line one wall. In a corner, there’s a shower. Sir James snaps on surgical gloves. Within seconds I’m in a headlock and bent face-down over a black leather table, being tethered to it by straps around the wrists and ropes around the ankles. He explains a rule. There are no one-word answers: every utterance must end with “sir”—even unintelligible protests.

Over the next ninety minutes, I’m put into various submission holds—against the wall, on the table, across the concrete floor. I warn him I’m experienced in Muay Thai. He responds with a guillotine choke. As it turns out, Sir James has a solid background in wrestling and jiujitsu. I’ve done a bit of wrestling training myself, so we incorporate some moves. I laugh at the sight of myself in the mirror, legs flailing, or face flushed and pressed against the table.

“You can also overwhelm people by not giving them time to acclimatize, which will often make them hypersensitive.”

Tradition and common sense dictates that my bottom takes most of the impact work. It holds its own through floggings with a cane, a switch, a studded paddle. Sir James observes it doesn’t easily bruise. “We both know you tried,” I commiserate, and earn myself more thrashing. He tells me I’m a “brat”—a subgenre of submissive. Somebody who answers back or disobeys orders is a brat. That’s a convenient comeback for a dom, isn’t it? Especially when “brat” seems to cover both impudence and independent thought.

With abrasion now upon abrasion, I press myself against the concrete floor to escape the blows and hinge my legs at the knees to defend my rear escarpments. I’m not a screamer, but I find that the dungeon is a place in which you can yell with impunity. And it feels good.

Afterwards, I drop into a service station to buy a can of Coke, because something sugary is advisable after a good flogging. In the restroom I look over my shoulder into the mirror and examine Sir James’s lattice work on my flesh. A few friends get surprise photos. It’s important to make memories, isn’t it? We’re living in the experience economy now.

*

A week later I’m back, this time in journalist mode. I meet Sir James in the dungeon office, which has a heavy green banker’s lamp on the desk and is stocked with bondage magazines. Oddly, one of the pictures on the wall is of a couple having vanilla sex. Making love, even.

Sir James has changed into his civilian wear of a T-shirt and jeans, and is slightly out of breath, having just seen off a client whose partner is sadly no longer interested in bondage. “It was basically a lot of spanking, being tied up and reassuring her that she was a dirty girl,” he says.

It’s not unusual for a dom to assume the title of Sir, Master or Daddy. Sir James is a “sir” because he feels it has a more liberal authority than the traditional master/slave dynamic. “I don’t like my visitors or play partners to be robotic,” he says. “I like to engage and dominate them, encouraging them to have a bit of fun fighting back before accepting their fate.”

Before he was a sir, he would go out drinking every weekend with his friends, but realized he wanted to do more with his life. Then came an unexpected segue into working as a dominant. “Some people I met through athletic endeavors recommended I try it. My demeanor and imposing body and frame of mind gave me an edge when it came to expressing what a lot of clients want,” he says.

He began with a few months of observation and then undertook a year-long apprenticeship, working with clients under supervision. Eventually, he was invited to work as a professional dom at the dungeon.

“In a very short period of time, they go from ‘I want to experience this. Please don’t hurt me too much,’ to ‘I want to go home crying.’”

Most people who come to see him for the first time only know that they want to be engaged in activities where they feel pain. “Something’s happened during sex, or they’ve seen something or read something, and they realize they really want that,” he says. “It’s like this unknown expression. In a very short period of time, they go from ‘I want to experience this. Please don’t hurt me too much,’ to ‘I want to go home crying.’”

I understand this desire to up the ante. During our conversation my eyes keep sliding to the picture of the love-making couple, and eventually I realize I’m just looking to the right to search my imagination. Sir James will mention some appalling activity, such as spending an hour wrapped in cling wrap, blindfolded and shut in a box with only a breathing tube for air, and my initial recoil is swiftly followed by consideration. Clients being highly suggestible—including to themselves—is something he has to keep an eye out for.

“With new people, their minds often race ahead of where they are,” he says. “I know I’m going to lose clients because I won’t do the most extreme things on the first day. We will certainly work up to that.”

He doesn’t ask in-depth questions about a client’s life, but he’ll get to know them intimately through experimentation. Can they be tied up for ten minutes without struggling? Can they adapt to and breathe comfortably in awkward positions? Progress must be incremental.

“A lot of people write and say, I saw some fetish porn where somebody had their nuts crushed in a vice and were getting punched in the face,” he says. “They write in and say, Will you injure me? I’m not going to do that. There’s a difference between inflicting pain and causing permanent disfiguration. It’s an industry where as a professional you also have to be honest with yourself: What do I feel comfortable doing? And permanently injuring someone is not my fetish.”

Has anyone asked him to kill them, I wonder.

“People have asked for things that would kill them, but they probably don’t realize it,” he says. “Like ropes around their neck so they can be tied into certain positions upside-down for an extended length of time, or to be choked and held unconscious, or for me to sit on top of them for five minutes.”

It’s impossible to tell how many of these emails are just people getting off on writing them, but the staff at the dungeon have to assume that a small percentage of potential clients might have a real fantasy of dying.

“If that’s the case, we will often direct people to . . . ”

Your mate Dave?

“A suicide hotline.”

*

The pursuit of  feeling alive—really alive—can bring us close to death, as I discover when I recruit a black belt in jiujitsu to choke me unconscious.

I’ve never so much as fainted before, but having begun to move in fighting circles, curiosity about the infamous blood choke has naturally got the better of me.

It’s a common maneuver with those skilled in certain martial arts, and maybe some rogue bouncers. It’s also known as the sleeper move, the rear-naked choke, the hadaka jime and the mata leão, which translates as “lion killer.” Unlike the air choke that asphyxiated singer Michael Hutchence, it works by cutting off the blood supply to the brain from the carotid artery or jugular vein, and in just ten seconds can render someone unconscious. Not relieving the pressure can result in death.

I sit with my legs out flat in front of me and my arms up in the air so that the black belt can ascertain the exact moment I lose consciousness. There’s an instant, as he squeezes my neck harder between the forearm of his left arm and the bicep of his right, that I think, Oh. I don’t like this.

Being blindfolded will often make impact play feel more violent than it is.

And then I’m waking up after what feels like a whole night’s sleep, so deeply have I rested. I’m confused to see the black belt at my side. What’s he doing here? Then I look down and see my hands curled up near my chin, my fingers pincering the air. I’m having a fit. I’m embarrassed that I’ve lost control of my body in this way . . . in fact, wasn’t I just saying something a second ago that I now can’t remember? I vaguely recall a sound coming out of my mouth. Then I notice that my mouth, too, is moving of its own accord, as if I’m loudly appreciating a spoonful of soup.

“I’m sorry, I think I’m having a funny turn,” I say—the most weirdly English expression I’ve ever uttered. And then it comes back to me, as though my mind is a computer that has finally finished rebooting. “Oh. You were choking me out.”

He nods gingerly. “That was surreal,” he says.

Exhilarated, I jump up. It’s a bit like the feeling of getting off a terrifying fairground ride and wanting to go straight back on; a survivor’s high. No wonder when professional prankster and Jackass star Steve-O filmed himself getting choked out by former UFC fighter Chuck Liddell, he jumped for joy into Chuck’s arms upon coming to.

“Another one for your bucket list,” the black belt says. Then he adds: “I haven’t done that before either.”

On the way out to a bar that night, I recount the incident to a friend and realize that I’m gabbling in a manic fashion. I’m also driving too fast. I cut the journey short. Exciting as the experience was, I decide against tempting fate this way in the future. Strokes have been known to occur—though very rarely—and while it’s fun to dance around the void, I at least try to only dance around each void once.

In a sense, fetish providers are there to facilitate someone’s dance, but they’ve cannily developed ways to make clients feel like they’re in danger when they’re not actually at risk.

“I’m going to pull back the curtain a little bit,” Sir James says. “If you put your hand against someone’s trachea without much pressure, they will feel like they’re choking—but you can ask them a question, they can respond. And if you can talk, you can breathe.”

Similarly, being blindfolded will often make impact play feel more violent than it is, and a blunt but cold knife feels shocking, almost painful on the skin, as does being sprayed with icy water. They’re not quite the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of Guantánamo Bay, but you can bet that some service provider somewhere would be happy to oblige with waterboarding or rectal tube feeding if you ask nicely.

“You can also overwhelm people by not giving them time to acclimatize, which will often make them hypersensitive,” he says. “As long as you don’t do this kind of thing to a degree where you’re going to cause psychological damage, these are ways of mitigating danger to the person while still giving them the feeling like they’re going through something intense.”

As a strongman coach, Sir James has a grasp of the fundamental mechanics of human movement that’s vital when administering bondage positions and the safe range of motion of a limb. It’s also taught him when to push and when to stop. He discreetly surveys a client’s heart rate by checking the pounding of their neck, or looking for dilation of their pupils. He’ll stay conscious of any change in their mood or in how they respond.

“I’ve had to monitor quite a few athletes, working intensely with them to find out what their breaking point is,” he says. “So if I’m hearing from a client that they love being hit, and they’re smiling all the way through it, I still need to be able to monitor that and say, ‘Hey, we’re getting to the point where you might not recover the way you want to tomorrow.’ Their body is flooded with hormones that are making them feel great.”

The relationship between pleasure and pain is complex. It’s accepted that pain and reward processing engage many of the same regions of the brain, but further explanations span neurobiology, evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, when unchained by guards in preparation to drink hemlock—his death sentence for corrupting the youth of Athens—is said to have rubbed his legs in relief and remarked on how curiously synergic the two states are: “For they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other,” he said. “Their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.”

___________________________________________________

Excerpted from Everything Harder Than Everyone Else © 2021 Jenny Valentish. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Apollo Publishers. All rights reserved.

Jenny Valentish
Jenny Valentish
Jenny Valentish is an author and journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, Vice, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Cherry Bomb, a novel set in the music industry, and the research-memoir Woman of Substances, the coeditor of the anthology Your Mother Would Be Proud, and the creator of two blogs, New Age Guinea Pig and Hey Man, Now You're Really Living. Valentish is a board director of SMART Recovery Australia and has acted in consultancy and ambassador roles in the drug and alcohol field. Previously, she served as editor of Time Out (Melbourne) and Triple J's Jmag, worked as a music publicist and freelance writer, interviewing rock stars from Jack White to Joan Jett, and was a board member for The Push, a nonprofit music organization that connects young people to the music industry. She has taught memoir and nonfiction writing at universities, to drug and alcohol workers, and to writing organizations. Raised in the outskirts of London, England, Jenny currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.





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