Friday, 25 July 2008

Everything I've Learned about Spanking

When the Max Mosley "Nazi orgy with hookers" story first broke I scarcely noticed it. Lacking much interest in sadomasochistic orgies, Nazi or otherwise, never having heard of Max Mosley (or, come to that, the FIA: I imagined that motorsport was run entirely by Bernie Ecclestone), and not being a regular reader of the News of the World the fuss barely registered on my radar screen. But then, a few weeks later, came something that did interest me: the revelation that one of the women involved - the very one who sold the story to the Screws, moreover - was married to an MI5 officer. I wondered how much I could find out about her, and the circumstances involved. Was there a grand conspiracy? Who really set Mosley up? What kind of truths, all these weeks later, were still out there?

Cherchez les femmes quickly became my watchword. I searched - and found. No smoking gun, no conspiracies (I lacked Lord Stevens' resources or expertise), but I did discover fascinating details about the women involved in the case. What I found overturned completely all my preconceptions. It may also, in retrospect, have skewed my moral compass.

The process of tracking down the women, originally fuelled by pure, prurient curiosity, slowly changed into something else as I learned more about the world they inhabit and about the women themselves. I pursued them through a network of message-boards, blogs and obscure fetish sites. I learned a new vocabulary, of CP and BDSM, of pro-dommes and submissives, of munches, judicials and paddles. I hung out in deviant chatrooms. I have seen enough photographs of striped, enflamed, bruised and scarred backsides to last several lifetimes. I was never remotely turned on; yet bizarre, disturbing images, which must appear inherently abusive, began to appear normal, even banal. I found this disquieting. But whatever my final thoughts about their lifestyle I have over the past weeks developed a respect and, strange though it sounds, an affection for the women who, for whatever reason, choose it.

What at first seemed to be an undifferentiated group of "hookers" turned out to be anything but. There was the outwardly respectable middle-aged divorcee with a head for figures and an allegedly "dynamite" contacts book; the young glamour model struggling to raise her child alone; the ultra-bright graduate student who craved polyglot humiliation and the firm thwack of a hairbrush; the German with an enigmatic past and hair as dark and lustrous as polished obsidian; and, of course, the villainess, the arch-deceiver, spanking's own Mata Hari, who owned and ran a fully-equipped dungeon in old Milton Keynes. Far from obscure, they were stars in their limited firmament, with an adoring fanbase. Like proper celebrities, they even did their bit for charity.

The treacherous Mistress Abi, who can now be pictured. They're calling her "Michelle"

Whether or not one chooses to use the word "prostitute" of such women is a difficult question (even among themselves), and to some extent an artificial one. At one level, they are obviously providing "sexual services" in exchange for money, even though the services rarely include penetrative sex (and if sex does occur, it is a freely-given extra, on the woman's terms). But in other respects they are most unlike prostitutes, even highly-paid call girls, whose whole raison d'être is to earn money through sex. With the spankees and dominatrices of the corporal punishment (CP) scene, even if spanking is their career (and it usually isn't) it is above all a personal need, an outward expression of inner compulsion. And, indeed, it's hard to see how it could be otherwise. Being hurt for money sounds like the most abject degradation: yet these women are not degraded. They do it because that is who they are. If they aren't paid to be spanked, they offer themselves up for free. And if they can't find anyone willing to do if for free, they may even pay.

Another awkward question raised for some by the professional BDSM scene concerns the political (and, indeed, moral) ramifications of the infliction of pain in exchange for money. Whether or not it is "prostitution", whether or not it is consensual, is it inherently abusive? This is something that particularly troubles feminists. Kit Roskelly, herself an S&M Submissive and self-declared feminist, puts the problem this way in an article posted on The F Word:

While people of every orientation and gender are involved in BDSM, the scenes in which heterosexual couples interact, and particularly those in which a woman takes the submissive role, are of particular interest in the context of female sexuality. In taking on control of a female submissive during scenes, dominant men appear to be enacting all that is worst about male privilege and control. The use of tying and restraints, physical punishment and sexual domination, all ring alarm-bells for the feminist viewer.

Roskelly's own answer to this question stresses - as do all apologists for BDSM of any variety - the paramount importance of consent. But some feminists - sharing in this (and not for the only time) the views of the distinctly non-feminist journalists at the Mail - find this less than convincing. And where money changes hands, the "punishment" of a female submissive seems to go beyond the ritualisation of the assumed patriarchal dominance in wider society and to depend on it directly. After all, those paying, whether to spank or to be spanked, or merely to watch the spanking, are overwhelmingly men. They have the money - and therefore, if you accept the feminist analysis, they also have the power.

As "Prime Rib" put it in a comment on CIF, "He [MM] assaulted women (yes, they were prostitutes - so what?). Since when did handing money over excuse violence? What about their 'feelings?' What about their health and safety?... " When I put it to her that the women were consenting and in any case were doing it for their own enjoyment as much as Mosley's, she described my point of view as "bullcrap":

Personally, I find S&Mers largely comic, sad and only rarely disturbing. But that's because they're still a subset of oddballs. Normalise, and the 'boundaries' become far less defined. Too many men (and some women) have 'issues.' Licence to express them sexually, for money, is a recipe for abuse.

Such an argument seems to me to be based on dogma rather than experience, and strikingly similar to arguments made forty years ago against the legalisation of gay sex: that the young and vulnerable would be taken advantage of, or that normalising something deviant will damage society more widely. Yet I cannot dismiss it entirely, and - picking up hints here and there - it seems clear that despite a strongly expressed attachment to the principle of consent the potential for abuse remains. I found this blog comment, for example, by a professional spank model - one of the best in the business:

But when is play not so good for the sub? I guess when what he or she receives is not at all what she was expecting (and is not a slave and so has a right to complain about this) and is really rather damaged from the whole experience both physically and mentally. I have seen (and been subjected to once or twice) the result of bad play and it can really do bad things to both your psyche and your posterior!

What all this emphasises, of course, is the centrality of trust and personal relationships. In an interesting post, Adele Haze (another leading light of the Scene, who was not directly involved in the case) compared herself and her fellow spankees to geishas whose position is, perhaps, similarly anomalous. Among ten points she raised, she mentioned that "both a geisha and a spanking model compete for attention of a relatively small group of people". This, I think, is key. It's a small community of about 20-30 girls who know each other, go to the same parties, show up in the same films and on the same specialist websites, and who therefore put a high premium on trust. It seems far removed from the seedy, anonymous, soulless world of commercial sex. Eady J alluded to this element when he wrote in his judgement,

I was told that there is a fairly tight-knit community of S and M activists on what is known as “the scene” and that it is an unwritten rule that people are trusted not to reveal what has gone on. That is hardly surprising....It is alleged against the woman in question (known as “Woman E”) that she breached that trust and that the journalist concerned must have appreciated that she was doing so.

The judge further quotes a text message sent by Miss A to Max Mosley soon after the News of the World exposé

“ … our scene is based on complete trust and complete discretion. However one of my so called close friends dominatrix [Woman E] has betrayed that confidence by doing what she has done. I am devastated by this act of pure total selfish greed, she has no morals, no integrity, no loyalty, complete disregard to others, cruel, and she is a liar!!! No one … deserves this invasion of privacy.”

Everything that I have learned confirms this impression. Ethics matters to these people. Miss A spoke in court of the "family atmosphere" that bound the women together - and their clients, too, with whom they often come to form close relationships. Although, as in all extended families, there are also quarrels, rivalries and feuds. One important distinction would seem to be between "pro-dommes", mistresses doing it just for the money, and "genuine players", who do it for love. Identifying Mistress Abi as a purely mercenary dominatrix enabled some on the scene to put her betrayal into some kind of context. Yet other pro-dommes retort that confidentiality is just as important to them as to anyone else, and Abi's behaviour wasn't their fault. Who knows when, or whether, the breach will be healed?

The Scene is, as it is designed to be, a world of mirrors, in which real identities are submerged behind false names and, occasionally, fictitious details. This serves as a buffer between the scene and the mundane, or "vanilla" world, which is perceived as being potentially threatening. There is a fear that with exposure would come consequences, a sense that the world as a whole, or at least the powers that control it, represent a threat to their lifestyle, to their jobs and to their relationships. With that fear comes also solidarity, a desire to protect each other's security and, when need arises, to circle the wagons.

One important aspect of this security concerns names. "Scene names" are carefully chosen. Sometimes, they will have purely theatrical connotations - "Mistress Switch", for example - and will therefore give no indication as to the actual identity of the person behind the name. Others will resemble real names, but not be. Similarly, clients will tend to use pseudonyms - Max was "Mike", for example - even where their real names are known to their closest confederates. As far as I can tell, that element of confidentiality has so far been largely preserved. Certainly the "real" identities of the women are not easy (though not impossible) to uncover.

The need for trust - and the close personal relationships that this entails - thus exists in tension with circumspection. The girls on the Scene, and their largely male clientelle, are bound together not just by a shared enthusiasm for spanking but through fear of the consequences of exposure. It is this delicate balance that the Max Mosley case has upset. Above all, it was the action of "Woman E" - a professional dominatrix and a close friend of at least one of the four other women in the case - that has sent shockwaves through the community. The sense of betrayal is still raw. Adele Haze, for example, writes on her blog that the affair has left her "numb with anger". She had come to know the scene as a place of trust and safety, "a benevolent, friendly world of kinky humans". E's actions had destroyed all that:

This is why it was such a blow to me that the betrayal of my colleagues (and Max, their client) came not from a mustachioed spy creeping into a dodgy spanking party, but a woman they considered one of their own. This alone was hard to take in, and I still struggle to understand what has to go through the mind of a woman who throws away all relationships, connections and friendships in the scene, gleefully pushing five people off the cliff...

I couldn’t begin to equate my distress to the daily anguish suffered by the girls and Max. I’m safe and well here behind my computer screeen. And yet, the profound disappointment in my scene is looking to haunt me for a long time. I don’t see being able to walk into a spanking party without guessing who is going to betray everybody present.

Shortly after the MM affair went public, one of the leading organising figures on the British corporal punishment scene, Lucy McLean, sent a round-robin email urging her spank-buddies not to blog about the incident, to protect the women involved. She feared that they might lose their jobs or even the custody of their children if their true identities were exposed. The embargo was adhered to until the case concluded last week. By a bitter irony, however, it was McLean herself who was to suffer most.

Together with her husband Paul Kennedy, Lucy runs the Glasgow-based Northern Spanking site, where CP enthusiasts can pay to watch videos of their favourite models being spanked. Four of the five Mosley women were regular or occasional performers in NS productions - indeed, it was owing to a prior engagement shooting for them that Woman D was unable to take part in the first of Max's two parties in March. As a result of these connections, NS came to the attention of a reporter who, unable to find out much about the Mosley affair itself, decided to expose Lucy and Paul instead. The ensuing publicity cost Paul his job and the couple most of their income. There's not a great deal of money in online spanking, it would appear. "It has always been a labour of love for both of us," says Lucy.

In a comment which sums up a general feeling on the scene, Lucy proclaims, "The fact that these animals are allowed to completely ruin people's lives under the guise of "public interest" and "freedom of press" is abominable and must be stopped."

The moment the dangers of exposure really hit home to me, however, came when I discovered the identity of Miss D. Like the Mail a few months later, I had been fascinated to learn of her double life - research scientist by day, professional spank model by night. Her well-written and fascinating blog (now, for whatever reason, defunct) became, for me, a window into a world of which I had hitherto had no knowledge. She came across as open, candid, brave, likeable and popular, with many friends and a positive approach to life. So open was she, indeed, that I began to rue my earlier pursuit of her and (hypocritically, perhaps) became genuinely annoyed that the Mail had, if anything, gone further (and, of course, a national newspaper must be far more dangerous to her anonymity than a relatively obscure blog). And then I found out her real name, the names of her colleagues and supervisors, and the name of the institution to which she was attached. Suddenly it seemed a lot less funny. If anything I wrote contributed to her problems then I am truly sorry.

So what have I learned? Firstly, more than I ever wanted or needed to about the milieu in which Max Mosley moved undetected for more than 40 years. It's an intimate society with rules and conventions, and one that operates at several levels. There are basically three interconnecting circles: and the Mosley women operated in all three. There are the private appointments - "1-2-1" sessions and small, confidential parties, at which the first rule is absolute discretion. It was such a gathering that was successfully infiltrated by the News of the World back in March. But there are also larger, more public assemblies, which are all ticket affairs including fairly elaborate theatrical tableaux.

It emerged in court that Miss A used to arrange such events in Euston, with financial backing from Max Mosley himself. As described in the newspapers, these were orgies where "up to 30 men pay around £200 to have sex with ten women in a stage-like setting". This led the Telegraph's Kevin Garside to note that "having a financial interest in a tawdry sex den in Euston... is of a different order of perversion" which might have been even more damaging to Mosley's reputation that the goings-on in Chelsea. I've seen photos from similar parties, and they do indeed seem fairly uninhibited; but apart from the odd bit of fondling the only "sexual acts" were being performed on stage between the women. And this account of such a party by a regular participant makes it sound like an S&M version of speed dating:

there was not really enough time to enjoy the CP from all the guys as we had to rush to the next and the next (and so on)....and the implements and caning was particularly speedy (kinda like speed spanking). I felt a little rude asking the guys to come over quickly and do their stuff at speed, particularly as I did not feel I had spent enough time with some of them, however that is the nature of a large party and I have to hope that the guys there understood that.

(Bisexuality would seem to be a near-universal trait among spankees. As Eady J commented at para 121 (getting a little hot under his robes, or so it seems to me), "although the Claimant's sexual activity as revealed in the DVD material did not seem to amount to very much, some of the women stayed on after the party was over and indulged in same sex action purely for their own entertainment.")

The third level is that of the websites and specialist films. There's an obvious overlap here between BDSM and more "mainstream" varieties of porn, much of which features S&M scenarios. But the differences are equally striking, such as the fact that most spanking films do not feature explicit sex; or the fact that almost all the girls who appear in films or on websites are also available for private bookings and attend the above-mentioned parties. Or the fact, admitted by Adele Haze, that physical attractiveness is not always a prerequisite for the women in the films.

The second thing that became overwhelmingly apparent was the strong sense of community and fellow-feeling that exists in the spanking world, and BDSM generally. The Mosley affair threatened them, and they responded partly by closing ranks, and partly by standing firmly behind Max in his fight. He became an unlikely hero; and the women who gave evidence, braving exposure, had at least the consolation of strong support from their network of friends and colleagues. Whether the Scene will re-emerge unchanged, and whether the four women will continue to play their formerly prominent roles within it, it's probably too early to tell. In some ways, its denizens will be safer after the judge's explicit acknowledgement of people's right to conduct their personal sex lives in private. But the fear of exposure will remain; as the case of Paul and Lucy has confirmed, being outed as an S&M practitioner still puts your life and career at risk. And while many ordinary people may take a more tolerant line than the News of the World, or indeed the Daily Mail, the BDSM community remains one of the few against which explicit discrimination is still legal.

The other thing I learned was about myself. I'm not into spanking. Honestly.

© 2008 Heresy Corner, all rights reserved.
Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Chelsea Girls

Saturday's Daily Mail carried a typically unbalanced and exploitative exposé of the women involved in the Max Mosley affair, especially Miss D. One particular quote, attributed to "a blog", regarding Mistress Switch's contacts book, was not mine but rather my translation of an article that appeared in a French magazine. I have no idea whether or not her contacts book is "dynamite"; but if other people in high-profile or influential roles attend her parties or meet her on a private basis, then so far as I'm concerned that is no-one's business but theirs. Read the rest of this article