Adventures in the world of pain

The orgy at the heart of the Max Mosley case wasn't just any orgy. It was an S&M orgy. Are sadomasochistic activities an 'affront to civilisation'? Or just part of a wide spectrum of acceptable sexual activity? Paul Vallely on the love that dare not speak its initials
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It is called the Dungeon of Dreams. The walls are painted red. Dangling from hooks are all manner of whips, chains, gags and shackles. There are benches, stocks and a wooden cross to which clients can be secured. It is to be found, bizarre though this may seem, in Accrington – home of the legendary Stanley – outside Manchester. And it is not the only thing in what follows to which the adjective bizarre may be applied.

This is the kind of place in which Max Mosley might feel at home. For in the court case playing out in such torrid detail in the High Court this week, there has been no attempt to disguise the fact that – whether with Nazi overtones or not – the head of Formula One motoring racing splashed out £2,500 for a five-hour session of sado-masochism.

Mr Mosley described what took place as "a perfectly harmless" private activity between consenting adults who were of sound mind. By contrast, the QC for the News of the World, which is accused of an unwarranted violation of Mr Mosley's privacy, insisted "sadomasochistic cruelty is contrary to civilised values and is corrupting of those involved".

This Dungeon of Dreams is run by a thirty-something named Tracy Wilkinson whose day job is working in Peaches lingerie shop in Whalley Road. But by night, under the nom-d'amor of Mistress Pain, she takes charge of the dungeon hidden behind the shopfront and offers her services as a dominatrix to punters at £100 an hour.

There, some 35 members gather once a month to be whipped, spanked, paddled, have hot wax dropped on their nipples (or nipple clamps applied) and be poked in their sensitive areas with electric prods which Tracy's partner Dave – who runs the PC repair shop next door – says can do anything from tickle to inflict a fair degree of pain, depending on what part they're applied to.

"People who don't know about it think it's seedy," Tracy says. "They think it's all about sex. But it's really about role-play, humiliation, being trampled on and belittled. It's about mutual pleasures, not sex." She sounds genuinely indignant when she tells of a chap who came into Peaches the other day and asked for a hand-job. "I told him," she said, "You've got the wrong idea completely'." Yes, says Dave. "It's not just a quick jump, like a massage parlour. And you've got to be a member. We don't want the council turning on us. We've been here for two years." Dave is very keen on health and safety. Amid the instruments of torture is a notice saying, "No smoking please as this is against the law".

What they, like Max Mosley, have discovered is that theirs is not a world view with which the rest of the population has a deal of sympathy, let alone empathy.

"Most people view it with something between bewilderment, distaste and abhorrence," says Dr Michael Reddy, a clinical psychologist who has made a particular study of the sub-culture called BDSM (there are various versions of what the acronym stands for but all involve bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism). "But it's extremely common. Various studies suggest about 10 per cent of the population have leanings in this direction, though far fewer act them out."

At the heart of the phenomenon is the complicated relationship between human pleasure and pain. Physiologically, this has its roots in the role of endorphins. "There's nothing very mysterious about that," says one practitioner, Clair Lewis. "Ask any athlete or any woman in labour." Clair, 35, who describes herself as "single mother, disabled activist and romantic, loving sadist", has had several relationships "with sane and intelligent people" who enjoy being spanked or caned. "After a run, an athlete can feel exhausted but as high as a kite. That's pain and pleasure mixed. Pleasure comes from endorphins and endorphins come from pain."

For some enthusiasts, this pleasure/pain experience is a prelude to more conventional sex but for many – as many as 90 per cent of BDSM practitioners – it is a substitute for sex. "I don't get off on it and want sex after a session," says Tracy, "and I do it once or twice a week."

That is not uncommon, says Dr Reddy. "I've seen no explicitly sexual encounters," he says. "And I've seen some pretty heavy stuff. It's sexually arousing to them to a far greater degree than conventional sex. It amazed me how willingly people allow themselves to be flogged."

Dr Mike Berry, who was for 25 years a chartered forensic clinical psychologist before becoming an academic at Manchester Metropolitan University concurs. "Some people want the pain and no sex at all. Having someone walk all over their chest with stiletto heels or stub cigarettes out on them is enough." The sex is sublimated into power. Dr Reddy adds: "Orgasm denial can be a very significant part of the domination. It's its own end and objective."

The phenomenon crosses both gender and sexuality differences. Men and women, heterosexuals and gay, can incline to dominant and subversive roles. What is common to almost all is the urge for role-play. In the Mosley case, a prison interrogation – together with the searching of the body for lice – was the setting, but other fantasy settings commonly include courtrooms, police stations, hospitals and surgeries and any other setting with a severely unequal power relationship. "People get the buzz from the mind games, not the whips and paddles," says Tracy.

Dr Petra Boynton, a lecturer in international health services research at University College, London, says: "It's not about abuse, because consent is a key thing. It's not about pain so much as anticipation." Exactly, says Tracy. "When you're blindfolded you don't know what's coming next." The paradox is that sensory deprivation heightens the sense. Dr Reddy says: "After they have been beaten, some people feel more physically alive."

BDSM enthusiasts often talk about "pushing the boundaries". The BDSM community insists the absolute key to the acceptability of their acts is consent. Safe sex here is about codewords that all involved recognise must mean everything stops. Green, amber and red are common codes. " 'Don't hit me, stop', may be part of the game," Dr Reddy says. "But 'red' means it's over."

The person being punished may enter, in the jargon, "sub-space". "Sub-space can lead to an altered state of consciousness in which someone can't speak," he says. "To allow them to stop the game there may be other signals, like holding a soft ball clenched in a hand which they let fall to the ground to stop."

Dr Berry warns: "People do work their way up the scale. Men need more stimulation the older they get. What got you aroused when you were 15 might not work when you're 50. Or people get bored with regular, ordinary sex."

This can lead the consensual into the pathological. "A lot of men find violence sexually arousing," he says. "You find this with domestic violence. There are men who have to beat up their wife to get an erection. There are people who find killing erotic."

Dangers can arise even when consent is involved. "It's exciting; it's dangerous," says Dr Berry who used to work with sex offenders. He cites the case of a consenting BDSM enthusiast who allowed his testicles to be nailed to a floorboard and ended up in hospital. The man who did it was prosecuted. "Though there is consent, if you do damage it can end up in a criminal charge."

The extra danger is that consent goes too. One of the cases that Mike Berry worked on involved five homosexual killings, all sado-masochist cases, in which the killer had no record of activity in BDSM.

Clair Lewis is indignant at such talk. "We need to break down the idea that everyone else does normal sex and the BDSM community is somehow set apart," she says. "What is normal sex?" A woman who dresses in stockings for her boyfriend, or a man who slaps his wife's buttocks? "These are all part of the BDSM spectrum. So why pathologise us as if we are a tiny minority."

But there is still a widespread sense that what Max Mosley got up to, legal though it may be in private, is still something most people would prefer to keep quiet. Deep in the Dungeon of Dreams, Dave says: "I don't know what goes on in hotels in London, but it's giving people like us a bad name."

'It isn't all whips and chains ... it's an inherent part of us all'

Miss Slide is a "30-ish pro-domme" who runs a fetish club in London

As a dominatrix, my interest in BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism] is both personal and professional. It's something that goes far beyond sex for me – indeed, very little of what those involved with BDSM do is sexual at all. The thrill is on a far more cerebral level. It's that same urge that entices us to watch scary films and ride rollercoasters.

I've always been fascinated with psychology and the changing tides of dominance and submission in human interaction. Since my teens, I found myself observing and manipulating power dynamics between myself and those around me, which inevitably led to the world of BDSM. It's refreshing to be around people who are truly honest about what excites them.

The right-wing press often attempts to build a wall between "mainstream society" and the BDSM community, whereas I think there's little difference on an individual level. Every human being has a private fantasy world, a darker side to the psyche, and a series of imagined scenarios that stimulate the adrenal glands. BDSM isn't all whips, chains or speaking in a German accent. It's far deeper, and something that's an inherent part of all of us.

'People see us as a threat'

"Sir" Guy Masterleigh, who is in his fifties and retired, has been involved in the S&M scene for 20 years and runs a "Reform School" in the West Midlands where enthusiasts become strict teachers or misbehaving school pupils.

BDSM is a power dynamic, an authority relationship in every interaction between two people.There is an adoption of roles, a playing out of deference or assertion, dominance or submission. In BDSM we deliberately play with this and take it to extremes, just for fun, or to explore our own selves, or those of others.

So Max Mosley is the "pack leader" at home and in business, an unchallenged alpha male. So I don't find it in any way surprising that in his private life he engineers opportunities where he voluntarily gives away power, control, authority over what he does.

We subvert the simplistic model that the major religions try to force on everyone: men are dominant, women submissive, men have sex with women and everything else is perverted. Many hate us for it, usually just because we're different and they don't understand, so they judge us a threat to their cosy views.

'Sex almost never happens'

Miss Tytania is a professional dominatrix who divides her time between her native Spain and her dungeon in Canary Wharf, London.

I first came across the bondage scene while living in a flat with five gay guys. I knew they were into fetishes and leather but had no idea that there was a similarly enthusiastic heterosexual scene. I've always been a rather outgoing person so I thought I'd go look for it. It's probably not surprising therefore that I'm a dominatrix and love being in control.

The dominatrices in the Max Mosley trial were very upset about being called prostitutes and I can see why. The fact is that sex almost never plays a role in the work of a dominatrix unless it is with their own partner. We tend to be strong women who are in control of our lives, don't have pimps and keep every penny we earn.

Personally I have no problem with people selling themselves so long as it is consensual but the way prostitution is portrayed in the media makes us understandably anxious not to be labelled that way.

I've never met Max Mosley so I reserve final judgement on him but I think he's actually done a rather good job of representing the BDSM community.

'It helps me embrace who I really am'

Lucy, 28, became interested in bondage shortly before university but only discovered the BDSM scene in her second year after her partner introduced her to it. She works as a project manager in an engineering firm.

I knew from a young age that I had a submissive side but my mother taught me to be a strong post-feminist woman. To begin with I was a switch – someone who tried both dominating and being submissive – but I soon realised where my tendencies lay.

I think society finds it harder to deal with the idea of a submissive woman because at least a dominatrix is thought of as someone who is strong. The fact is I work in a very male-dominated environment where I have to be strong and commanding but in the BDSM scene I can explore my real side.

When my partner first suggested I should get involved, I baulked. I thought, "I don't want to be with a bunch of freaks." Eventually I relented and I'm so glad I did. Realising there were so many people leading normal lives and loving the scene helped me embrace who I really am.

Interviews by Jerome Taylor