Nobody knows how many people are involved in the “scene”: a loose grouping of people across the country who enjoy an unorthodox – and under current laws potentially illegal – sexual lifestyle. However, one US study suggests 11% of women and 14% of men have engaged in BDSM – an abbreviation for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism – activities.
If those figures are translated to the UK, it could mean around four million people have tried BDSM. A smaller, but still substantial, number has chosen to make it a “lifestyle choice“.
The Mosley case confirmed historical prejudices about Britain’s long-standing “spanking” tradition – the famous flagellation scene in the 18th Century novel Fanny Hill, being just one example. “Just a little harmless English S&M”, was how Time magazine headlined its account of the court hearing. It concluded: “On this island where manners mean everything, one takes one’s whipping with a stiff upper lip.”
“A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children,” says Ms Pelling, “sending them away to boarding school from an early age. Plus, the British are thought to be repressed – and any repression will result in somewhat recherche and unusual sexual activities.”
Faith, a professional “mistress”, offers up a starker insight. Reclining on a large velvet covered bed in the “playroom” attic of her country cottage, and surrounded by the tools of her trade, she describes sometimes extreme acts in words of “trust” and “consent”.
For £160, usually preceded by an e-mail discussion as to what will happen, she offers “to help explore a client’s fantasy, self and sexuality”.
Although at ease with her chosen lifestyle, she would rather her identity was kept secret to save any grief from neighbours.
Anonymity is a basic tenet of the BDSM world. Many of the men she sees are married or, like Mr Mosley, she says, in high-profile jobs that prevent them from taking part in Britain’s lively BDSM “scene” with its fetish parties and informal get-togethers.
“Most clients I see are submissive – they want me to be in control,” she says. “When a client walks through the door I will have them strip and kneel on the floor in front of me – they will not even question that.”
What follows depends on what has been previously agreed, but Faith is adamant that she offers not just the indulgence of a fantasy, but therapy that helps those who are distressed by their fetish – or disappointed when the reality of their fantasy fails to live up to expectations.
“At that point I need to find something that he can cope with, that he actually needs. So it needs me to be very supportive at that stage – to instantly switch into nurturing, trying to pull him together and pull him through and explore what will work for him.”
She muses over her clients’ motives. “It’s a natural part of human nature to seek some kind of endorphin rush. You can do that through sport and nobody thinks that wrong. If you take that same rush and put it into a BDSM environment you can see why people like spanking. They have got the fear of coming into this environment and fear of putting themselves in that position of trust.
“Then they get the pain and challenge that creates the endorphins – so they accentuate that with the pleasure.
“For me, it’s about instilling a little fear – to get a rush.”
Psychologists say that those who embark in BDSM “play” usually come to an agreement about the roles they will play: dominant (“top”), or submissive (“bottom”).
Sometimes the practices move out of the bedroom and into everyday life.
In such cases, both people consent to a longer-term master-slave relationship, based on mutual trust, and on the condition that either can pull out at a time of their choosing. But lurid reports of BDSM sessions that have gone wrong – such the brutal murder in 2004 of film agent Rod Hall during an S&M “game” – have helped create a difficult environment in which these relationships can flourish openly.
According to Darren Langdridge, co-author of a book about BDSM, Safe Sane and Consensual, the media “have focused on the non-consensual examples of BDSM – but there are many couples who make BDSM a part of their stable relationship”.
The problem, he says is that when sex and violence get mixed up, people struggle to understand it, and get worried.
“But in my view BDSM as just another extension of everyday sexual experience.”
It’s not an argument that wins over traditionalist opponents of the BDSM lifestyle. Seeking pain, they say, is “not constructive”.
“We feel strongly about the value of human life, and whilst these sorts of things may happen between two consenting adults… it is the dominion of one person over another,” says a spokesman for Care. “Because it is this sort of relationship we do not see it as constructive. These practices can also lead to serious injury, or even death. And it is the families of the people who die who suffer in the end.”
But many of those in BDSM relationships are fiercely protective of their lifestyle choice. Some are almost evangelical about its benefits.
A “dominant” calling himself Sir Guy says it’s a “chance to forget all adult responsibilities and – in the best sense of the word – be irresponsible. One of my puppies [his term for a submissive] refers to his sessions as ‘holidays from humanity’.”
“We never argue and his word is final. It means that I don’t have to worry about making decisions. It’s a relaxed lifestyle that gives me a tremendous sense of freedom.”
Some research backs up anecdotal evidence that people who choose BDSM as a way of life are no more unstable than the general population – and might even be happier.
A soon-to-be published study of nearly 20,000 Australians concluded those who took part in BDSM activities were “no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious”.
“What we are finding is that people who engage in BDSM activities are not weirdoes,” says Dr Richard de Visser, of Sussex University, “they just choose a certain sexual activity.”
Yet some say suspicion has helped demonise BDSM and create discriminatory laws – such as the one that forbids, unless “transitory or trifling”, blood-letting during sexual play. It is this law that the News of the World claims Mr Mosley broke – and part of its justification for publishing details of a secretly-filmed session.
Yet those who share Mr Mosley’s sexual tastes haven’t necessarily welcomed the wider expose this case has brought. Deborah Hyde, of the lobby group Backlash – a group that campaigns for human rights issues within the BDSM community – is worried more people will get the wrong idea about BDSM.
“A lot of the time it’s about understanding the language – and what really is going on. Actually, at the end of the day it’s just a game – and no more threatening compared to the other games people play, like Dungeons and Dragons, or even going to Star Trek conventions.”
- BDSM Bullshit: How They Turned Good Sex Into A Kink (hipsterracist.wordpress.com)
- Interview with Dr Charley Ferrer, America’s BDSM Expert – BDSM Writers Convention August 21-24, 2014 – NYC (marymenage.wordpress.com)
- BDSM WEEK – GUEST POST: Lisa Henry (boysinourbooks.com)