When asked to write this article on watching and being seen, I thought it would be a walk in the park, a gentle stroll through BDSM 101. I thought I would start this article with an anecdote, a slippery little story to get you warmed up, before the grizzled fist of discourse inevitably follows.
How wrong I was.
Before I start, it’s probably worth explaining who I am and why someone would commission me to write this at all. I may have already consumed your glances, but if this is our first exchange, I’ll trim my nails and bring you up to speed.
See Me Now
I am a London-based sex worker/shibari practitioner and adult content creator. Over lockdown, my professional, fetish and social lives congealed into a semi-homogenous state, which has now become available for download. Like many of you, I’ve dealt with a fleeting and shifting relationship with digital spectators, viewers and audiences. As I’ve returned to my communities’ physical spaces, my attitude to observers has shifted.
This article has made me re-evaluate my relationship to the idea of ‘the audience’ and reconsider what performing means to me. But, most notably, it’s reminded me that my brain and its divergences have textured the path for my deviances. All my kinks are in servitude to a more considerable, more existential lust, a state of hyper focus. This desire to feel terrestrial existence melt away and operate in a mono-syllabic world gets me off. So, performing or actively engaging with an audience is at odds with my quest for simplicity. Even if I could understand what was going on in my brain during a scene and wanted to project whatever garbled filth was there, I do not think I would be able to escape the erotic quagmire constructed for the scene.
“All my kinks are in servitude to a more considerable, more existential lust, a state of hyper focus.”
Exhibitionism seems rigid and defined, and I don’t know if it’s for me. There is something magic in those passive side-eye stares. I love those tiny glances that say “please and thank you” all at once. The differences are minor in appearance but considerable in meaning. The stare of an uninitiated mouth-breather is often uncomfortable, but a glance executed by an experienced ocular fetishist is delicious and creepy in an incredibly erotic way.
My practice has a very confused history. There is an idea that shibari is an ancient and spiritual Japanese artform handed down from the rulers of good taste and societal backbone. There is a sliver of truth in this narrative. A closer approximation of the truth is that the emerging Japanese middle class in the Edo period wanted some live smut. Cut off from the world, adult entertainment venues and publishers rehashed a form of Samurai rope restriction called Hojōjutsu and applied it to geisha. The technique was crude and safety was of little priority. The practice we know today is vastly different from this, and even furthermore from the Samurai practice. This exoticized history of rope has skewed how people practice it and, more importantly, justify it to themselves. It’s much easier to conceptualise rope as some Asian/yogic/artistic/spiritual pursuit rather than pornographic smut created and distributed by Ya-Ku-Za.
Shibari is an artform but what aspect is the art? For me, it’s an extension of my BDSM practice. Thus, any ‘art’ that may occur is happening to and audienced by the person on the business end of whatever implement may be in my hand. I’m more interested in what my actions do rather than how they look. In a shibari scene, emotions are not communicated in grand linguistic gestures. Emotions emerge physically from a part of the brain where language has no place. They are presented in a nuanced and delicate way; they are whispered through a vacuum, like two lovers embracing beneath diaphanous bedsheets.
“Any ‘art’ that may occur is happening to and audienced by the person on the business end of whatever implement may be in my hand.”
What I look for in a scene is curled toes, beads of sweat and struggled shallow breathing. I want to understand what their body is saying and respond in a way that respects their struggle. When amplified too loud, it loses its nuance and ability to soothe my cluttered mind. I hold its ability to simplify the world and inspire my body with sumptuous reverie. It would be a disservice to damage or stifle its capacity to do either, so I try to aim my intentions inward rather than out. So why do I do rope in public? I think it is because I have learned how to consume glances and turn them into something that makes my scene better, not the observer’s night.
A scene is a contained period of time in which a simplified universe is created for the safe exploration of non-normative activities. This universe’s parameters are defined through negotiation, and the texture of the space is, in my case, dictated by endless volleys of horny text messages sent in the dead of night (or when you should be writing an article for Lustery POV). Kink-focused spaces present an interesting problem as different universes become superimposed. These universes can emerge organically and often intersect in unexpected and chaotic ways. Good event organisers are critically aware of this and create the event’s own universe to hold the leash of entropy. When a person is not directly engaged in a scene, they will inevitably be in another scene’s visual or audible parameters.
The way I respond to a glance and the resulting actions is based on the space’s rules. A hungry glance in a sauna will bear different but equally delicious results from a glance in a BDSM play party. The glances could be identical, but the context will always inform their meaning. A well-placed glance has value. And most importantly, when it enters a scene, it has mass.
“A well-placed glance has value. And most importantly, when it enters a scene, it has mass.”
When tying at a play-focused event, I like to be aware of my surroundings, for safety if nothing else. As my gaze volleys up and over the walls of my constructed reality, I often catch a person’s eye. They are on the precipice of my scene and understand that the only thing allowed in is the vector of their stare.
From the outside, our exchange was a non-event. For us, the glancer and I, things are very different. They are a child, face pressed against the glass, and I am the whale, the dolphin, or the shark. The thick glass fourth wall has not been broken. We’re both in the aquarium, but they will remain dry.
If they know the rules, they will realise that the meaning of their stare is no longer controlled by their agency; instead, their gaze is mine.
It goes without saying that I am not a dolphin or aquatic animal. I am a terrestrial sadist who, in fact, is slightly scared of the ocean. I cannot comment on, and would rather not, think about how captive animals perceive stares. What I can do is talk about my experience. When I am being watched, my imagination instantly appropriates their looks. In a small intimate event, the stares change and alter my surroundings. The person tied could be a prisoner or sub-human object of desire. I like the idea that we’re both enslaved, performing to save our lives. I’m contemporary, and my fantasies are never overtly historic or archaic. The fiction of constructed histories will never be as poignant as the double-ended dildo scene from Requiem for a Dream. The collective stares can become crude and abased when I play in a larger space. A deafening hoard screaming “Kill, Kill, Kill” or “Fuck, Fuck, Fuck” is silently transported from the eyes of the crowd to the locus of my arousal.
When a scene has been concluded, and I’m easing into aftercare with my partner, the ‘default world’ trickles back into existence. It’s not a gentle experience. I am rebirthed from a place adjacent to disassociation. The faces of the crowd leak back into reality, and I return their stares with exhausted gratitude. My universe loses its ability to contain. My fantasy becomes diluted to nothing as the surrounding reality floods in.
I gather my partner, clean the space, and ensure my blowhole hasn’t been obstructed.