Is 91/2 weeks long enough to learn all about bondage?

LIKE MANY people, I have mixed feelings about bondage. Of course, it's fashionable. In certain circles, I accept, you take a pair of handcuffs with you on a date as matter of course. It's regarded as perversely unworldly not at some point to have been led around in a dog-collar or wrapped up in cling film or stood in a corner, roundly insulted and made to cry. But having been thrashed black and blue only once, and then when I was seven, I feel somewhat out of my depth.

So it was tremendously exciting to read in the latest edition of The Spectator that Bondage for Beginners lessons are now available in certain parts of London, along with cruising workshops and seminars on how best to run an orgy. The writer Leo McKinstry had been appalled to discover that London health authorities were using taxpayers' money to fund organisations with names like "Rubberstuffers" and "Big Up".

Trilling with moral outrage, and with many an obligatory reference to political correctness, McKinstry attended a Bondage for Beginners meeting in Earls Court. There he was brought up to speed on simple restraining techniques, knot-tying and whip selection, given a mobile S&M dungeon (clothes-pegs, candles, sandpaper - the usual stuff) and told to go away and practise on his own. He was so scandalised by all this that he had to attend a cruising workshop in Soho to confirm just how depraved it all was.

Naturally the Daily Mail gave the story front-page-headline treatment, recounting its details with eager, wet-lipped disapproval and doubtless causing shudders of appalled delight in lounge sitting-rooms across the home counties.

But out here among the grown-ups, the question must surely be: why has this essential service so far been restricted to the gay community? Have not the rest of us the right to be shown the ropes by qualified operatives? Since the ground-breaking film 91/2 Weeks, this kind of behaviour has increasingly been presented as an entirely normal part of sophisticated relationships. It has even reached agreeable British sitcoms. Who could forget the moment in an early episode of Game On when Samantha Janus, handcuffed to a bed after some zany misunderstanding, yelped with excitement at the idea?

The problem here is that zany misunderstandings rarely occur in real life; that this whole area of mastery and submission raises questions of social behaviour rarely covered by the etiquette books.

How, for example, do you get to first base, bondage-wise? Indeed, what is first base? The problem was brought into focus not so long ago by an article in The New Yorker. A distinguished, somewhat literary female writer wrote of her particular enthusiasm for practices some way beyond the scope of Bondage for Beginners classes. The most important part of a new relationship, she revealed, was that its move beyond the conventional should always be a surprise. Shifty negotiation, a delicate, liberal-minded discussion of the acceptable parameters of pain, completely destroyed the point of it all.

Suddenly the reason for the crisis in modern sexual relations becomes clear. No wonder young men are so edgy and afraid. Who can blame them for preferring to stay at home and express their confusion and insecurity in gentle, tearful novels rather than risk the humiliation of the dating game? And no wonder, come to think of it, that alcoholism is said to be spreading like a forest fire through the ranks of young women. With their impossible demands for both sensitivity and mastery, they increasingly find themselves sitting in bars, angry, unloved and alone.

Because how exactly does a man know? A sudden impulsive move into Hitler mode, a swift, wordless journey back to a well appointed Manhattan dungeon, may work with one distinguished, somewhat literary writer for The New Yorker; with another, it will possibly land you in court with a massive lawsuit for emotional trauma and aggravated assault with a clothes-peg.

Hence the need for Bondage for Beginners workshops. When he returns from holiday, our caring Health Minister Frank Dobson should announce a government task force to look into this increasingly fraught area of gender relations. To those who complain of the cost, he should point out the vast benefits to manufacturers - factories that until recently were producing manacles for Third World governments will find that, with minor modifications, their products can be sold on every high street.

Pleasures enjoyed for so long by the cultural elite, from Swinburne to Francis Bacon, will become the people's pastime. Here at last will be an area in which Britain can cane the opposition.

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