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We really have to talk about peak bondage

A few weeks ago I went to Bologna to sit in the jury of the Bizzarro Film Festival, a funny event which also was an excuse to meet some friends and go to a couple of kinky parties. That is how I stumbled on three famed riggers (meaning: bondage experts) among the festival audience, two ropes teachers at the first party and one more at the second one. I had expected to see yet another bondage superstars who founded a school in that town, but I had no such luck. This weird coincidence however had me thinking – especially because, no matter the density of riggers, also absent were six more heads of various Italian kinbaku academies.
The final blow came just before getting back home. I was waiting for my train having a drink in the station bar and two tables away I glimpsed a historical name of Roman BDSM I had not seen in a while, so I took the opportunity for a little chat. «No, I am not very much into the scene anymore,» he confirmed, «also because now everyone’s obsessed with those Japanese ropes… That’s all they do and everyone’s a teacher, including twenty years old kids… What can I say: I’ve always tied up my women, but watching these girls everywhere, trussed up and hanging like cured cheeses, looking all alike… At my age, I have the right to be fed up with that! I’m better off having fun, am I not?»

I couldn’t really counter his point. I have always admitted I am not the biggest bondage fan, however the rope milieu in my country has reached such a saturation that ignoring the situation would be absurd.

The charm of restraints is, truth to be told, unquestionable. Immobilizing a partner touches relational and erotic archetypes as intense as they are arousing; the aesthetics of a bound body is so evocative that it has always been part of the fine arts – even where there is no (really?) sexual intent.
From a psychology point of view, bondage also has the advantage of being a great alibi for those who don’t feel completely at ease admitting their kinky desires. It is as if the unconscious could resolve every internal conflict with: «this is not my fault… Of course I would never have done those filthy things, but my possibility to refuse had been taken away from me…», trumping all repressive education. Bondage therefore obviously attracts lots of people, and it often is the gateway to the world of BDSM. And yet we must admit that, if rope schools have become as common as McDonald’s, something must have gotten out of hand.

Let me share a secret. My own epiphany about bondage only came after ten good years of immersion in the world of extreme eroticism. Before that I had always been wondering what fun there was in wasting half an hour trussing someone up, looking at them for a minute, maybe taking a photograph and immediately undo the whole thing – simply because this is what I had been shown in countless performances, photoshoots, videos, classes and so on. It was all very technical and interesting, sometimes even pleasing to the eye, but deeply senseless. Then, one night in Paris, I happened to see a guy who after suspending his partner from a girder exactly like everyone else… began doing little BDSM games with her and – dare I say it? – sex. I know it sounds absurd when I put it this way, but this very trivial “innovation” – which to this day remains more an anomaly than the rule – hit me like Newton’s apple. «So bondage does have a purpose!» I thought, dumbfounded like a chimp who was shown that bananas must be peeled before eating.
Fact is, in most cases the philosophy of binding for the sake of binding is still the prevailing mode of presenting “the art of bondage”. I even know several instructors who steadfastly deny there might be other implications: they can maybe talk for hours about the history of one tie, about the differences between the various rope types and – on a good day – about the poetic tension in the energy exchange between the partners.. but no, they will maintain there is nothing carnal to it, god forbid!

The heart of the matter is that the prevalence of such a technical approach to ropes makes bondage look more innocuous and accessible (remember the alibi thing?), but it also robs it of any sensuality and honesty, passing it off as a pastime for excentric philosophers, like ikebana. Or, like my station friend said, it is stopping at the first letter in ‘BDSM’, depriving yourself of the pleasure of the other three.
Not only that: talking about Oriental arts, it must be said that nowadays bondage has been reduced to just kinbaku – which is to say the Japanese style of binding with ropes – usually coded in a very limited number of cookie-cutter figures that ignore personal creativity and the other countless ways to play with restraints. It is as if belts, chains, stocks, handcuffs, imprisoning furniture, mummifications, mind immobilizations, bands, restraining garments and the whole rest of gear that for centuries has been part of the erotic domination culture disappeared from our collective fantasy. And that also includes ropes used the Western way, which in these times are more at risk of extinction than the Yangtze finless porpoise.

The obligatory Nipponese aura permeating the bondage milieu brings with it a martial fantasy made of mysterious Oriental rituals, venerable and faultless sensei invested with millenary knowledge, or dojos whose adepts are revealed secret techniques competing with those from other schools, just like we were all back to junior high and the recess brawls where we tried to imitate Karate Warrior as seen on cable the night before. In a sense it is true: learning kinbaku isn’t exactly immediate and it is important to study, especially how to prevent the risk of unprepared practice… but there is a big difference between this and accepting a makeshift cosplay.

Odd bondage by Hajime kinoko

Mark my words, I wish the world to those who enjoy themselves like that. Still, it is hard not to laugh when you see suburban kids wearing Aliexpress-bought kimonos and introduce themselves with shaky Japanese pseudonyms, maybe trying to pass for supreme connoisseurs of the ancient arts. Which, by the way, real Japanese have only reinvented after the 1950s: before that you had at best Seiu Ito, an illustrator who had studied some ancient, forgotten prints where the institutional punishment – and occasionally lethal – ties from a few centuries before were described. The same Ito still worshipped by many enthusiasts, who however in his interviews (he died in 1961) repeated he wasn’t a master, but simply a run of the mill pervert. So much for those who now posing as a new Master Miyagi.

Bondage schools themselves are a rather recent neoliberal aberration. Until a decade ago or so, the figure of the professional bondage teacher didn’t exist at all: you learned your ties practicing with your partner and maybe with your friends, and if you were truly serious about it you studied the books written by those who had spent their lives learning how to use ropes without hurting anyone. I remember my first meeting with Go Arisue, many years ago: he was a kinbaku superstar already, famous for being the rigger of several mainstream movies, but his very embarrassed answer to anyone asking for bondage lessons was that he had no authority to teach.
The logic, the very world view however has changed in the meantime. Today we want everything, now; the result is seen as more important than the journey to reach it… and considering the higher and higher demand – fueled by an emulation wish – a similarly wide offer of courses, tutoring, schools and more has naturally expanded. As if you could just pay a bunch of pre-cooked teaching modules to make the sensuality of bondage yours.

Yet another problem tied with the proliferation of bondage schools is that of course no Shibari Ministry exists to certify their instructors’ proficiency. And since they to can fall victim to the belief that knowing a few knots is enough to be an expert, you may happen into “masters” who are not as apt as suggested by their marketing – or the glowing reviews by pupils who just don’t have the experience to actually gauge their sensei’s quality.
Along my years I happened to see “experts” lacking the barest knowledge of physiology and physics required to ensure the safety of the people they bound; high priests of knottery who were however totally ignorant of the concept of empathy in relationships; maniacs (of every gender, mind you) untouched by the idea of consent; guys convinced they could reduce bondage to a production line for getting quickly rich; well-meaning fellows who parroted plain wrong notions they learned who knows where; the ever-present narcissists looking for redemption after they had been ostracized from the rest of society… In a pinch, many unsavory characters mixed with who behaves most correctly and responsibly instead. Pity that, for someone just dipping their toes in this odd waters, the two are indistinguishable.

Trusting yourself to the wrong teacher, who maybe boasts an impressive resumé but has actually merely watched a few YouTube tutorials, or who claims to have studied under a famed master when he has just taken part to a brief group seminar exposes you to several risks. Safety ones, clearly, but also of falling into that suffocating and distorted view of an erotic practice that can otherwise offer great satisfaction. So, how can you recognize the right instructor?

In my modest experience, the most important indicators are humility and accountability. So steer clear of those making big, unprovable statements or whose CV is entirely self-referential. To fill a website with amazing feats you just need a photographer and an afternoon over WordPress; being recognized by the bondage community is an entirely different matter, and it can be verified with a quick Google search. If worse comes to worst, I would better trust someone admitting to having a limited but solid knowledge (yes, they do exist).
A good teacher, not only in the field of bondage, does not brag about exoteric wisdom nor stirs up feuds between “schools”. Most of all, a good teacher worries about teaching safety principles before handing you any rope – and doesn’t have sex with the pupils, nor abuses them taking advantage of any supposed authority. Because of course that happens too – a lot.

But, even more importantly, a bondage instructor cannot be your sole resource. I am fond of the example of a truly exquisite couple of Sadistique regulars. Years ago, fascinated by the experienced riggers who haunt the suspension beams and the other attachment points in the venue, they asked me how to learn to replicate their spectacular ties. My suggestion was to start with a few books and see whether they really felt like studying the subject. The next month they asked for more suggested books, and only one more month later for a teacher to help them refine what they had learned experimenting at home. At the next party I spotted them in a semi-darkened corner, far from the spotlights other riggers so longed for, playing with their ties in their unique, sensuous and beautiful way. They have gotten better and better since then, all the while staying well away from the competitiveness typical of those who still haven’t “got” what eroticism is about. To my knowledge, they only took one class, but they keep exploring and integrating their discoveries while having a world of fun.

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