London Alternative Market: BDSM, but not as you know it.

LAM or the London Alternative Market is disappointing. But it’s not disappointing for reasons you might expect. It’s disappointing by just how normal everything seems. It’s not disappointing because it’s gross. It doesn’t disappoint because it’s a toxic environment or because it’s overpoweringly intimidating. Nope, it’s actually just pretty normal.

That is, for the most part (and to the relief of your dear author here), a good thing. I was sweating cannon balls in anticipation for the depraved debauchery it actually wasn’t. The venue (a branch of Revolution Bar in north London somewhere) had a few people standing outside, some dressed up, some in drab street clothes. ‘That’s weird’, I thought, ‘they look suspiciously normal‘. Little did I know, that’s actually going to become a running theme as the day continued.

Inside, a desk was set up for you to awkwardly exchange cash to enter the event. “Yes, I would like to pay money to look at whips and spikes and PVC boots, please” is what I was expecting to say but instead, when they asked me if I was here for the market I nervously shat out a “y-yes please” like some sort of worm. So this thing takes place in a bar? Okay then. I was expecting some ornate gothic architecture with screaming nymphs chained to the walls, poor slaves being whipped mercilessly, the air filled with muffled moans and cries for help somewhere. I was still sweating nukes at this point so the sight of a bar filled me with joy. I promptly ordered up a double gin and tonic and practically injected it into my veins, desperate to be drunk to endure the ensuing carnage. Clearly, my expectations had run away into fantasy land and being drunk was the only way to reign them in.

By the time I’d cleaned the inside of the glass and made my way downstairs to the main event, I’d started to notice the distinct lack of anything to be worried about at all and, actually, therein lies the disappointment. There wasn’t anything strange happening. No wild sights to marvel at. It was really, really normal. Almost so normal that actually, it threatens to ruin the mystique. The other thing I noticed is the absence of anything erotic at all, which is a problem for an event hinged around erotic lifestyles. Booths of stockings and thigh-high boots are manned by people called Mandy or Tracey or Emma, inoffensively normal looking Benidorm holiday style Brits, all beer guts and stretch marks and walking sticks. People who look like they drive forklift trucks or serve tea to builders for a living make up a large part of the event, peddling BDSM weaponry to thirsty punters. Not a complaint from yours truly, mind, just an observation as well as a relief – relief that people who come from such unspectacular backgrounds take their sexuality as seriously as this, that they are in it for more than superficial thrills – they take this stuff seriously.

Expect cringe like this and more.

Okay, great. So apart from truck drivers walking around in gimp suits, what do you actually do at LAM? Well, once you’ve paid money to gain access to the place, you can then spend more money on whips and paddles and chains and BDSM attire. There were long whips. Large whips. Small whips. Thin whips. Fat Whips. Whips of any kind, basically, but something that really caught my eye was hilariously titled a “tackle box” – this is a box with a large opening for your penis to fit inside (“large” might be a dubious term for the phallically challenged like myself) with smaller holes around the box for your fleshy appendage to be stabbed and poked and prodded with presumably sharp pointy sticks, sort of like a torture box for your Johnson. There were predictably dull and tiresome kinky nurse outfits as well an assortment of stockings and PVC suits, there were large paddles, tools, chokers, and shockers… basically, stuff you could buy online if you wanted to, but the real draw is the opportunity to meet other like-minded freaks and geeks in a setting where you’re able to talk openly about what makes you so different without feeling like a monster.

That’s where LAM really shines, then. After the market got instantly boring (and trust me, stalls upon stalls of whips and chains do get boring) the allure of LAM focusses in on two things: Socialising around kink (hello, the venue is a bar, right?) and education based around kink and BDSM. The former is self-evident. You get a drink and you talk to people wearing naughty outfits, but the academic aspect was much more interesting to me. I sat in on a talk by someone who gave herself the title of “the kink shrink” a title that admittedly made me smirk for all the wrong reasons, though, I happily ate my smirking arrogance rather quickly because it turns out she knew way more than I ever could reasonably claim to. She was an older and obviously very experienced member of the BDSM community, someone who felt passionately about sex, about kink and BDSM. She talked a lot about ‘sub drop’ a phenomenon that a submissive might experience following a heavy play session. She explained the finer points of aftercare and gave a much more nuanced and thoughtful explanation of how to take care of your sexual partner than I could possibly give here. It wasn’t exactly news to me, but her perspective on it felt fresh, authentic and lived.

As you’d expect, the topic turned to consent, a natural topic at a BDSM event obviously but at the back of my mind I wondered how all these folks, who presumably have many years of kink and BDSM experience under their belts, need to be constantly lectured about consent, to constantly ruminate over the minutiae of saying yes or no. That’s not to say it isn’t immensely important but it’s important in the sense that water is wet, that the sky is blue and food is important for survival. It’s the utmost basic lesson you should learn before even considering sex in it’s most basic, vanilla form, let alone hardcore anal torture. As surprising as it was to me, perhaps it’s just a sign of the times. The internet has brought in renewed interest in this niche lifestyle and books like 50 Shades of Grey have both helped, and hurt, the BDSM community in equal measures. The short-sighted characterisation of the books titular dominant has routinely misinformed newcomers to kink and BDSM on the etiquette of a dominant partner – both popularising spanking, rough play and power imbalances – but also popularising the insidiously manipulative relationship of the two leading characters from the books. So while I can’t help but be confused by BDSM’s constant, vigilant lecturing, maybe in these times where right is wrong and where paranoia has eroded our sense of trust, maybe it pays to be safe.

This guy ruined it, folks.

One thing about the BDSM community is for sure: You need to be confident. While newcomers are rightfully expected to be nervous, they are also expected to come out of their shells sooner rather than later and I got the distinct feeling that loners, socially anxious outcasts, people who have trouble speaking to strangers will really live or die based on their first interactions with a group. Luckily, I’m not so introverted that my social skills take the hit – I managed to speak to a lot of folks about their time in the scene. I was told there’s a huge turnover of people. People who peek behind the curtain and realise this life isn’t for them, people who find it impossible to come out of their shell – there’s a time limit if you can’t overcome your shyness. So while nerves and shyness are expected, it definitely outstays it’s welcome. You’re not necessarily guaranteed to have found your tribe – merely attending isn’t a safe bet in and of itself – you have to put in the work and in some strange way, it unwittingly puts a soft limit on who you might expect at a BDSM event.

Not to take away from the generally tolerant vibe, though. There was a lot of support for the LGBTQ community, and during her talk the kink shrink herself directly addressed a trans girl on the front row in a very beautiful and positive way, but I felt like it probably isn’t tolerant to people who need a little coaxing out of their shells or who are on the kinky spectrum but not fully devoted full time, 24/7, to having their arse flogged redraw. For those of us stuck between vanilla life and BDSM, those of us who like a bit of filth and debauchery when we can take it, we are the interlopers. If you’re into bodily fluids, power imbalances and spanking, well, that’s entry level stuff to some of these guys and you’re gonna feel pretty boring by comparison. That can screw with your confidence in ways you won’t expect.

And that shouldn’t be read as a damning indictment of the community. In truth, the event seemed more like a demo mission for the full game. A taster of the full platter, and having this limited exposure only made me want to peek behind the curtain more. It’s just peculiar that for a culture that self styles itself as a home for the outsiders, I feel that the true lone wolves of the world wouldn’t last long among the veteran gaze of the old guard. A cultural group with a different, more extravagant aesthetic, they operate like any other form of culture but the screws are slightly misaligned and idiosyncratic. It’s checks and balances ward off dangerous hunters from vulnerable prey, protecting the sanctity of their hobby while also sanding away the rough edges from the explosive spontaneity you’d expect from an alternative erotic lifestyle. Any fears you have should be quashed. Any lack of confidence be stowed away. The disappointment with LAM isn’t how seedy you think it is, it’s with how normal it actually is.

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