Culture  Dial B for bondage

Joseph Henry whips his prejudices about fetishism into shape 

Through a long black veil, an older woman in leather says , “make you sure have a good night.” The way she speaks to me, and the way she cups my face in her hands, I might as well be her son going off to war. Except for the half-naked man in a cage behind me and the mass of dancing black shapes in front of me. Her genuine seriousness in a somewhat theatrical environment is appropriate to Montreal’s fetish community, a social amalgamation of invented personas, lost personalities, and sex .

Armed with a green jelly sleeping mask-cum-fetish outfit, I went to the “ANONYMOUS” party at Katacombes with an open mind and a fake name. My preconceptions were probably not much different from those of the general populace — fetishism is centered around a marginalized sexual community, a group of mysterious outsiders engaging in sordid “perversion.” But to me, there was a winking knowledge of their marginality and an admittedly romantic idea of sexual rebellion.

Like many first encounters, some of my assumptions were validated and others refuted. ANONYMOUS could have been a Halloween party in January, albeit with a standardized uniform of black leather. In jeans and the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon mask, I probably stood out more than the guy with the enormous anglerfish costume or the couple in skin-tight plastic masks. Fittingly, I felt a lot more at home at the party in disguise – there’s not much at stake when everyone is costumed and attending for the same reason. The night’s MC articulated the mood: “hello you perverts!”

That kind of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the scene’s own strangeness contributed to it’s surprising approachability. Sexual perversion, made manifest in clichés like sadism, submissiveness, and fetishism, among others, may alienate non-subscribers, but anyone could have gone to this “fetish” party. A high-school science teacher I spoke to had come looking for a master so much as wanting to dress up and drink – theoretically why I showed up too.

A performance that evening embodied the mix of social accessibility and alternative sexualities. Four androgynous dancers in various shades of leather (gender, if not kept anonymous, is often irrelevant) proceeded to act out sex and physical punishment on stage, ultimately stripping each other down to the same black outfit.

Anonymity plays a large role in the sense of ease that is near universal in fetishism, usually for participants’ professional sake outside of events. At Kabaret Kink, an event I attended later, a dancer called Nebula X identified businessmen and doctors amidst the dancing throngs. While waiting in line, I saw a calm group of Quebeckers on a double date, none of them younger than fifty and all clad in black leather outfits that covered only the face, crotch, and feet.

Fetishism’s anonymity extends to the Internet, where most events are organized. Personalities gain prominence through their blogs, like Head Mistress Madame Jade Dragon. A self-described Fem(me)Dom(inante) who runs Club Sin, a monthly party at Café Cleopatra, Madame Jade’s website lists sexual practices, apparels, orientations, preferred locations, and restaurants for those in the know.

I quickly realized that whatever definition of fetishism I had was too limited. BDSM, which often overlaps with fetishism, is a flexible acronym. The “D” and “S,” represent “discipline,” “dominance,” “submission,” or “sadism”, respectively, and are paired with “bondage” and “masochism”. Trying to define fetishism at either ANONYMOUS or Club Sin was at first frustrating, but ultimately needless. From what I could tell, fetishism depended on exactly who was taking part.

At the cabaret show at Café Cleopatra, the BDSM bastion in Montreal’s crumbling red-light district, Nebula X valourized fetishism as a venerable occult practice, “a religion…stimulated by magic,” that could be traced back to the 1700’s. Her characterization of fetishism as “alternative fashion” articulated the highly performative nature of fetish events, from the leather show at Katacombes to the cabaret act that night. Membership into the community is expressed through clothing and public actions, such as a topless woman in the cage beating her hunched over partner at Café . Nebula X stressed that fetishism was “a feeling a human can feel,” something internal and distinctly personal.

A particular preconception I had about fetishism was its degree of specificity. Didn’t everyone have some very particular turn-on – hearing a certain word five times or wearing children’s sports uniforms? Presuming one needed an individual fetish, a friend and I assumed the role of South American twins. But those who come to Club Sin don’t bring their menageries and toolboxes of individual fetishes.

More so than Nebula X, Mistress Irony, a Club Sin performer, represented the liberating experience of fake identity as well as the pitfalls in profiling a community meant to remain anonymous. For a celebrity, Mistress Irony returned no results on any fetish websites, leading me to believe her name was assumed only for one particular night. Her name, she said, was chosen for its decidedly intangible properties. “It can only exist in literature,” she explained. Fetishism was about more than sex for her: “The guys with the gas mask, that could be a political thing.”

Mistress Irony also represented the duality of a fetish persona. She earns forty percent of her income from promoting fetish events, the rest from her job at a church, another potential reason for her name. In my quest to nail down fetishism, Mistress Irony confirmed Nebula X’s assertion and my frustration. To her fetishism was simply, and elementally, “magic.”

Her companion, a faithful Club Sin attendee, travels from Quebec City once a month – a commute demonstrative of Montreal’s position as a Mecca for Quebec BDSM. After World War II, Montreal became a red-light capital in comparison to more prudish American cities, partly for Quebec’s fairly relaxed social policies. Yet there remains an important distinction between strip clubs and sex clubs here.

BDSM events, part of a more unorthodox, if welcoming, subculture, are not generally organized at large clubs, but rather at small venues like Café Cleopatra, and even private houses. Yes, this makes them approachable and available, but certainly also less publicized. The overwhelming majority of club goers I spoke to were Francophone and the median age seemed about 30. The disconcerting image of half-naked old men in chains was mirrored by a large congregation of lone dancing older women, like a chorus of leather-clad Miss Havishams. Suffice it to say, anglophone McGill first-years were not marching into the established fetish scene.

Though fetishism may have liberating aspects, I have to admit some measure of trepidation towards scenes like public flagellation or anonymous hypnotists’ offers of “massages between the legs,”

Among alternative sex practices, fetishism seemed to be a micro-zeitgeist, an attitude of personal preference and expression in a community bonded by the same objectives (and outfits). It was multi-faceted, not necessarily a curiosity cabinet of perversity and not just an occasion for dress up either. Indeed, one’s avoidance of fetishism is understandable, but the undeniable truth remains in the palpable feeling of acceptance available for those who seek it.