The fetish industry in the UK is booming. But do whips, chains and nudity offer women the chance to own their sexuality – or are they merely a front for exploitation?
When I’m asked if I’d like to go to an extreme fetish night, I feel something akin to horror.
I’m not really the sort of person who’d spend their Saturday nights in a latex dress, feeling unrepressed and free while people whip each other with wild abandon. In fact it’s literally never occurred to me to go to one, and none of my friends have ever suggested it. We’re infinitely more likely to be drinking Prosecco and dancing to Destiny’s Child at 3am rather than having a PVC-related orgy.
So when a friend urges me to go to one with her, her boyfriend and his friends, I think of about 19 possible excuses before finally admitting that I have no good reason not to go. As a young, newly single person I’m meant to try new things, aren’t I? Even if those new things terrify me.
I don’t feel much better when I’m sent the details for Torture Garden, the world’s largest fetish event that we’re going to in South London. The night started in 1990 and is held monthly in different venues around the world.
“Torture Garden is an extreme fetish event with an extreme dress code which is not optional, if your outfit isn’t full (head to toe) fetish/fantasy attire, you will be turned away…if you can wear your outfit to another event without getting stared at, it isn’t extreme enough for TG! The dress code rules are exactly the same for men and women.”
Clearly a little black dress isn’t going to cut it. My friend tells me the best website to get an outfit for the occasion (no, I don’t Google this at work) and after trawling through pages of fetish contraptions and bits of clothing I don’t understand, I order a black cat suit in two sizes, just in case one is so tight I can’t breathe.
I’ve been told that latex is tricky – think Ross’s leather trousers in Friends – so I go for PVC. Surely I’ll need the loo at some point?
On the morning of Torture Garden - even the name makes me feel funny - I try on the cat suit for the first time and show my flatmate, who chokes on her coffee in disbelief and amusement. I feel exposed, even though I’m covered up. Wearing something so overtly sexual that would deliberately titillate men with a penchant for PVC suddenly feels at odds with my feminism.
I wonder if I’m going to feel like a sex object, or whether it’ll be like saying to men, “I’m doing this for you”.
Ten hours later, as we queue for the club, we have to pass two outfit inspections just to get in. A woman in a gimp mask looks me up and down as my heart jolts at the thought I’ll be turned away. I really don’t want to have to order an Uber now.
Thankfully I make the grade but one of the girls in our group is told she looks “too normal”. She may be wearing suspenders and a kinky red dress but they want latex or something freakier. We manage to sneak her in and then, once we’re inside, I feel surprisingly strong and powerful, surrounded by men and women in all kind of fascinating, incredible and sometimes shocking outfits.
The people here are very much of all shapes, sizes and ages. I see a completely naked man with a ball gag of at least 60. A gay couple dressed in sailor hats and latex Speedos. A woman with her breasts out wearing black burlesque knickers. A man in a gimp mask being led around by a woman in a dominatrix latex suit. A totally naked woman in red body paint. People in animal masks, others in militia uniforms. A blur of flesh, whips, glitter, underwear, chains. It’s an extreme fashion show designed by the most imaginative, erotic corners of the human brain.
It’s impossible to get bored, there’s so much to explore. There’s a huge main dance floor – we’re in a music venue called The Coronet - playing house and techno and another dance floor playing swing music.
There’s a room with meat hanging from the ceiling: they call it “medical slaughterhouse décor” and, as a vegetarian, I can’t say this does anything for me. Inside there’s bondage equipment and a hospital bed to which a woman is tied while a man with a foot fetish touches up her feet. There’s a room where couples queue up to have sex and there’s a spanking room, where people stand in cages and get hit with paddles or whips.
I quickly realise this isn’t a world where men rule.
In fact, from talking to fetish club regulars I learn that this world is dedicated to the idea of consent and, unlike in your average high street club, a man wouldn’t dream of touching a woman unless she asks him to. It’s true that in the seven hours we spend at TG, not a single person makes me feel uncomfortable or objectified. You can just tell that the women here are dressed up as they want without feeling like they’re going to get harassed.
What’s more, everyone is extremely polite. A man in a latex suit starts chatting to me at the bar and compliments me on my height - I’m 5’11 and he’s much shorter than me - and he tells me in a friendly tone that he’s a submissive and likes to be dominated by tall women like me. Would I like to dance?
I politely decline and, rather than being appalled at my rejection of him, he keeps chatting to me about the world of fetish nights, Christmas traditions and the best place to get really good falafel in London.
It’s surreal, fun and very eye-opening. I catch myself staring at people, feel rude but then remember this is a world of exhibitionism. As it gets later, the club is imbued with a new, intense sexuality. In a basement downstairs my friends and I watch a burlesque dance show but when the dancers are done, a couple get onto the stage and start having sex on a chair, the woman clearly initiating it. People are milling around sipping cocktails like nothing’s happening.
Then I notice that right behind me, a middle-aged woman is fellating a man. They’re laughing, clearly drunk, and catching the eyes of onlookers. Realising exactly why we’re forbidden from taking photos inside the club, I decide that voyeurism isn’t for me and go back to the dance floor where things are a little lighter.
The night will go on until at least 6am but by 3 I feel ready to leave this brave new world. As I peel off my PVC and put Netflix on, I wonder whether that elderly man in a ball gag will be visiting his grandkids in the morning, whether that girl in a gimp mask will get a promotion at the office on Monday, whether that latex-clad couple will argue about the washing up tomorrow.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of the fetish world but I feel a new sense of strength from wearing my sexuality brazenly in a space where consent is key. Those who accuse women of “asking for it” have lots to learn from nights like this.
That said, I think I’ll give this month’s Torture Garden Winter Wonderland event a miss. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone enough for 2016 - and I’m not sure I could handle a latex-clad elf.
Torture Garden: everything you need to know
How did it start? A DJ called Alan Pelling and an art graduate and fetish fan David Wood formed Torture Garden as a Fetish Club in 1990 when fetish and SM was still taboo.
When is it? There are events every month in various London venues for 500- 2500 people plus three events a year in Edinburgh, and occasional international tour events in Rome, Tokyo, Toronto and other countries.
Who can go? Anybody from any age group (18-60+) of any sexual orientation and gender.
Cost: £35 per ticket
What to wear: Rubber, leather, latex, PVC – or anything imaginative. It’s all about fantasy. Their motto is, “if your outfit wouldn't turn heads in the street, don't bother to wear it to Torture Garden.”
Celebrity fans: Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Teese, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Boy George, Katie Price, Courtney Love & Marc Almond. Adam Ant was turned away for not dressing up enough.