A dark room containing a large fan heater and a lot of casual nudity. But don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve been invited to a sex club, is all. It was this or write a column about repotting my hydrangea, so I’ve decided to take a walk on the wild side. To those, like me, not on the scene, kink and fetish parties are little more than punchlines. It’s a reaction probably born of ignorance and jealousy, so I’m at an invitation-only club – discreetly signed, in a basement bar under a railway arch – to find out what they’re like. I quickly realise they’re, above all, dress-up parties. This particular event, run by two women called Chloe and Chlöe, changes themes every time – tonight is bacchanalia, and there’s a queue of gods and goddesses at the bar. There’s cabaret, an eclectic playlist. Medusas and centaurs flirt, having fun.
At least some people are. Being a disorganised fool, I have no costume. The website said smart dress is encouraged, so that’s what I’ve worn, but I stick out like a sore bum. I’ve distilled my brand to its essence: a man standing in the middle of a Roman orgy, in a three-piece suit. “Did you not get the memo?” a man in a shoulderless toga grins. “It said Greek, not geek.” (Apparently, “munches”, low-pressure social events, often just a drink in a pub, are a good way to introduce yourself, learn the vibe, be invited to a party and generally make less of a tool of yourself than I’m doing.)
Clothing isn’t my only problem here. Burdened by natural diffidence, I cut a monstrously awkward figure. I’m actually putting people off their stroke. A centurion, poised to whip the bare ass of his shackled consort in the middle of the room, makes eye contact. I give him a watery smile; the smile you give someone with whom you’re forced to share lift-space. I add a double thumbs up to the mix, unsure what he needs from me. Top tip: it isn’t this.
Performative intimacy is a riddle I cannot crack. For those who enjoy public sex in the club’s designated areas, the gaze of others must play a part. I just don’t know which part to play. Rampant desire? Patriarchal disapproval? I settle on ambient appreciation; the expression one wears at a world music festival. I should chill out. The clientele, mainly in their 20s and 30s, are pretty hot, but, even better, they’re warm. A few take it upon themselves to show me round. They’re gentle and genial, and open about their preferences, be they clamps and clips, candle wax or chastity devices. I feel welcome, if incredibly vanilla. (They frequently ask what my kink is, and “splitting an Uber fare” doesn’t cut the mustard.) Eventually, I relax a little. This is normal, I think to myself at one point, despite the fact that a foot away, someone is being fisted.
I don’t know how I’d feel about watching anything more extreme – torture, say. Or breath play, electrical play, Japanese rope bondage or figging. This is an outre world, but a courteous one. There are strict codes of conduct. Consent must be explicitly confirmed before an activity. Pushiness or disrespect would meet with ostracism and ejection. (I said ejection, relax.) As one female member explains: “In regular clubs, women expect to be groped and have guys make persistent, unwanted advances. That doesn’t happen here.”
BDSM is making moves into mainstream consciousness and fashion, while sites such as FetLife and messenger services such as Kik allow parties like this to flourish. Smaller events are also common, with a group often booking an Airbnb together. Many clubs allow kink play only, no sex, and all will have their own unique atmosphere. Specialised marketplaces are easy to find. In fact, “the only thing that has slowed the kink scene is venues closing, much as queer spaces are being shut down due to arts cuts”, explains Chloe (or possibly Chlöe).
For the duration of my time inside, the club feels almost utopian. This is, in a literal sense, the dream: of sex unrepressed. Of course, utopia is not for everyone. I often think a little repression can be the sexiest thing between two people: the energy of the dam under pressure finally bursting forth. Maybe I finally found my kink. Hydraulic engineering and the analysis of spillway erosion? Now there’s a theme I can dress for.