Shibari: the tie between sexual rope play, Lady Gaga and Pasture restaurant

Shibari – the ancient art of Japanese bondage – has left the shadow of the BDSM world and pops up in celebrity culture, fashion and even a new Auckland bar. Eve Franklin got herself into a twist and joined a rope class that was not about sex and pain but care and connection

After 20 years of marriage, my husband tied me up. I never thought I would write such a sentence about my own relationship that sounds like the opening of a domestic violence testimonial. Far from it. Karl is a gentle feminist who loves surfing and his motorbike. I like cycling and yoga. We were looking for something new to try together, something fun and physical with a spicy dynamic. A tango course maybe. But instead of gliding over a dance floor, we find ourselves sitting on rubber mats at the XCHC (Exchange) in Christchurch, a lofty co-working, cafe and event space for urban creatives. A massive carabiner hangs from the rafter above our heads.

We have signed up for a five-week course in shibari. It’s a form of Japanese rope bondage that has its origins in hojojutsu, an ancient martial art that involves intricately tying up prisoners (and the kimono sleeves of samurai so that they don’t flap around). This gruesome practice turned into an erotic fetish in the 19th century and has been adopted and refined by the western BDSM scene for decades. It also goes under the name kinbaku, which translates as “tight binding”. There are many different styles, schools and grand masters who travel the world to perform – or hold online sessions during the pandemic.

Many New Zealanders only heard about shibari earlier this year when a professor at AUT lost his job after allegedly deluging colleagues with unwanted talk about his sex life that included bondage. However inappropriate his behaviour, the activity he was talking about is more seen as trendy than sleazy these days and has entered pop culture. “Rope bondage is one of the main ‘gateway kinks’,” says United States sex coach Stella Harris who wants to normalise it. “Bondage has long been a feature of movies and television as a way to signify when an individual or couple is kinky or edgy, so it’s something the mainstream has long been aware of.”

That kink has now taken a turn into the limelight. “Rope play”, as it is also called, features in music videos by rapper Jessie J, The Jonas Brothers, Cradle of Filth and Christine and the Queens; in television series like Girls, You and The Good Wife; and in Vogue, which had photos of Lady Gaga in restrained poses ranging from tantalising to purely aesthetic. Lingerie brands now have bondage-inspired bras and fashion designer and stylist to the stars Ashton Michael integrated shibari into his collection. Actor Armie Hammer of Hotel Mumbai fame won a rope-tying contest in 2016 and proved his skills on the Stephen Colbert show. There are more than 770,000 #shibari posts on Instagram – more sexy art than soft porn.

The edgy fashion vibe of this genre hasn’t quite spilled over to our shores yet when Karl and I show up to our first workshop evening. There are three other couples, all in comfortable clothes and all new to this exploration. “It’s good to do something out of my comfort zone,”, the young blonde next to us says. She and her boyfriend have been following New Zealand burlesque star Bonita Danger Doll for a while and are intrigued, “but not as a fetish, just curious”. Like me, she wants to give up a bit of control. To surrender and let go.

Soft beats are playing from the speakers. The vibe is more smoothies and foot massage than latex and chains. Instructor Dave Collins, bearded and bald with smiling blue eyes, is a “rigger” – not in studded black leather, but in T-shirt and jeans. The only giveaway to his hobby are indentations on his biceps. The tattoo is modelled on the rope marks he had after his first rite of passage with “Madam Butterfly” – “a tiny old woman who tied me up in San Francisco”, he says. His rope obsession began 11 years ago when he was watching abseiling videos one night. “The next one that came up on YouTube was of a tied woman.” When she collapsed to her knees, he was instantly hooked.

The 41-year-old climber and electrician takes his side business called “Dodgy Ropes” all around the country. His act will be one of the “provocative performance arts” at the adults only WTF night at Motat on November 21. Dave has given “sensual ties” at a day spa, which he claims left his clients feeling better than after a massage, and he has been asked to come on a relationship counselling retreat on Waiheke. Now he wants to separate his craft from the carnal market and make it more accessible – and acceptable – outside the BDSM scene. “I’m passionate about the psychology behind it.”

Dave spreads bundles of jute ropes on the floor, which he has lovingly waxed and oiled to break them in. They also come in silk, hemp, cotton or bamboo. Despite its historical context, shibari is not about brutality, but creating the right feeling of power and pleasure, he explains. Riggers need to read a person’s body language. Feedback is essential. “Please communicate,” he says. “Safety supersedes everything.”

A pair of safety scissors hangs from his belt so that he can release someone from a pinched nerve, a panic attack or actual strangling within seconds. “Accidents can happen.” I remember a kink friend in Berlin who has a partially paralysed hand, a condition called wrist drop – and then quickly push her out of my mind.

There’s a bit of show and tell to start with. The rope always needs to be tight, “like the string of a tin can telephone when you were kids – you need that tension to talk to each other”. Our first exercise is a single column hand tie. “That’s your connection point”, says Dave, holding up the red, tousled end of his rope with pointed fingers in a “pistol grip”. He explains: “You’re not just tying a knot, you’re tying a person. Remember: It’s not about pretty knots. It’s all about the connection and emotion. The way I tie is more like a hug.”

We get a demonstration. His assistant, Anita, is a trained dancer, with long curls spilling out under a beanie. She also takes her skills to music festivals and electronic dance parties where she’s a bit of a local attraction as “Lynx” (@lynxinjute), similar to circus arts performers. Her hand-dyed orange rope matches her leggings. Davefirmly holds her from behind, her hands crossed over her chest. “Take three deep breaths together and a cuddle. Never release contact.” Only then does he move her arms behind her, in a precise way that doesn’t strain her shoulders. Every move, every touch, every inch of rope on skin has a meaning and follows a choreography that has been practised for years. Even the way the rope end slides over Anita’s collarbone is deliberate: “Hunt for the nice spots on the body. It’s a non-verbal conversation you’re having. Synchronise your breathing and be in a flow together.” Maybe this is closer to tango dancing than I thought.

It’s our turn to copy his technique. We’re a hetero-normative bunch and stereotypically let the men do all the tying. I’m glad I won’t have to remember as much as my husband. Karl fumbles around my wrists and ties them together move by move, nice and neat. Dave leans over us and inspects Karl’s work. Next is a double column tie on my arms. Dave shows Karl how to hook the rope through with his fingers so that there is no friction: “See how it feels better?” It does.

My skin is waking up to new sensations. I notice how rough and hot if feels when Karl pulls the rope out too fast and how much I like the pressure and the restraint of my arms. Karl likes the look of it all – and the change in dynamic. He playfully pulls me up and around the mat on my leash. We’re very “vanilla” – he’s not my master, I’m not his slave, and this ain’t Fifty Shades of Grey – but it’s fun. We watch how Dave puts Anita into a chest harness, then moves her down to her knees, “always in circles, don’t lose the balance point”. All the talk about body mechanics and muscle memory is not that different from my Pilates class either.

Anita offers to tie my chest. It takes a few minutes and is playful, never painful. I feel like I’m being held firmly – not dominated, not tortured, just enjoying the softening of my body. It makes sense that shibari can be used as a healing modality to reduce anxiety and tension. When Anita finally releases the ropes, I experience it more as a loss of protection than relief.

“Coming out of a tie can make you feel vulnerable”, she says and gives me a hug. “I like to make it a caring and nurturing experience. And put a smile on people’s faces when I tie them.”

At home, Anita often ties herself up while she listens to music, putting herself upside-down into a suspension from the ceiling to match her movements with the tunes. For her, shibari is a yoga-like exercise – a deeply relaxing meditation for body and mind. “It’s totally non-sexual and gets me into an altered state of consciousness.” She also takes her skills to music festivals and electronic dance parties where she’s a bit of a local attraction, similar to circus arts performers.

Her approach to shibari is a far cry from the darker world that rigger Ben Worrin* encountered in Sydney 10 years ago where shibari took off after the inaugural XPLORE festival, imported from Berlin.

“It was a real hotbed for attention and abuse – borderline dangerous, fuelled by ego and testosterone,” he remembers. “The limits to which people wanted to push themselves had an adverse effect. Nowadays we look out for one another and enforce boundaries where needed. Our little niche community is a healthy, happy place.”

The finance specialist, an expat Kiwi, guesstimates that the number of active participants in the Australian shibari scene is in the thousands. His rope partner became his fiance. “The hitches and knots are really secondary to the space I hold for my beloved. To really nurture her in her vulnerable state.” They are getting married next year. Ben’s parents in Auckland don’t know about their passion.

The next week at the Christchurch XCHC, one of the couples has pulled out. They were expecting something less tutorial and more tactile. I’m glad that there’s no pick-up vibe in the room. If anything, our class reminds me of the karate training I did many years ago, especially with all the new Japanese words. I get a futomomo (“fat thigh”) when Karl ties my shin to my leg. We do a “box tie”, with arms behind the back and one that resembles the short arms of a dinosaur. I learn how to sit sideways while being strapped in ropes, how to get up, how to let myself fall, and I try not to recoil at the “hog tie”. Sounds horrible but feels good.

Karl is really getting into it all by now. I murmur appreciation to spurn him on because he’s doing all the hard work. But it’s a win-win because the technical side appeals to the sailor in him. While my job is to be passive, he gets more and more perfectionist and even practises knots with video tutorials at home. As Armie Hammer said in a Playboy interview: “It’s a man’s version of knitting – it’s all logic, and it’s incredibly useful.”

It’s also achingly cool. Auckland’s fancy restaurant Pasture surprised some guests in July when it promoted the opening of its bar Boxer with an artistic Japanese bondage video. A photo from the session now lives on the bar’s back wall. For co-owner Hillary Eaton, it reflects the dynamic of her minimalist venue – and more. “The relationship in rope play between top and bottom is an interesting one involving learned skill, control, submission, trust, pleasure and mutual growth,” she explained, adding: “It’s also part of a lifestyle we enjoy.”

This lifestyle is growing in Aotearoa, with rope groups from Taranaki to Tauranga. Scarlet Darling, who runs the Auckland Rope Dojo in Glen Eden, is mentored by teachers in Japan and Australia. She tries not to culturally appropriate or fall into the pitfalls subjugating women. “We have a lot of women tying women, of gender non-conforming people. We ask pronouns at the door, and we’re big on consent culture.”

The 33-year-old who did ballroom dancing for years compares the adrenalin high from ropes to “a really good waltz”. She especially likes to play with female sexual shame, a component of traditional shibari. “There is a big difference between putting on a pretty pentagram chest harness over pretty lingerie compared to a whole emotional rope journey with your partner”, she says. “The amount of release people get from exposing and processing shame can be cathartic.”

In week four, Dave has a surprise for us: vibrators for each couple. Is this going to turn into an orgy in the end and the disappointed punters from the first night quit too soon? Not quite. We stay fully dressed. After Karl has put me in a firm chest harness, his job is to run the vibrator slowly up and down the ropes. It’s tingly, like an electric current. This could definitely be a turn-on with knots strategically placed, not just on the chakra points.

Shame, release, catharsis, arousal: I’m not feeling any of it yet when the last class rolls along, however, more and more curiosity about what lies behind these hidden doors. So when Dave and Anita offer to tie me up for a final experience, I put my hand up. One of my legs is a “fat thigh”, the shin tied to a rope that Dave pulls through the metal hook that hangs from the ceiling. I’m dangling with my head down over the floor, like a ham at the butcher – twirling, excited, laughing, light. Captured but free.

A few weeks later I’m at a funky Burning Man party in a warehouse outside Christchurch. DJs are playing while fire artists are twirling their poi. And there is Dave, tying up a half-naked woman in front of a crowd. “Ouch, that looks painful,” one of my friends says and pulls a face. I smile and say: “Actually, it’s amazing. You should try it.”

Good for people who are shy or stuck

Stella Harris (40) is a sex coach in Portland, Oregon.

“I suggest trying bondage to lots of clients, even if they don’t identify as kinky. The process itself creates time and space for intense focus and attention, which is something a lot of people are craving. It’s a fantastic way to ease into the sensual and erotic with another person – not just to tie them to the bed for sex, but to transmit energy and intention. It also gives you a road map for where to touch someone’s body, which can be good for people who are feeling shy or stuck. Bondage also helps to turn your mind off, to simply lay back and receive, which can be a great tool for someone who has a hard time receiving pleasure. And it doesn’t need to be sexual – it can be done with all your clothes on. Although rope bondage is getting more and more mainstream, please remember that it’s still risky. Be sure to learn about the safety elements. Always have some EMT shears handy and never leave someone alone when they’re tied up.”

*name changed

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