Stephen Albrow of Forum interview's Esinem

Posted on Tue, 26 November 2013

Ever thought of taking up an evening class? Woodwork perhaps, or pottery? Well, how does Japanese rope bondage grab you?

Stephen Albrow of Forum finds out more. Some fetishes are so much less complicated than others - for instance, if you're into big-breasts, just find a big-breasted lady and away you go! But for those whose inner urges draw them into the darker realms of BDSM, there are certain rules and standardised procedures that need to be learned if you want to keep proceedings not only fun, but more importantly, safe. And it was with this in mind that Bruce, or perhaps better known by his performing name, Esinem, a veteran of the bondage scene, decided to start a series of weekend and evening classes in his particular area of expertise, Japanese rope bondage. The classes take place in Bruce's swish apartment in Camberwell. Numbers are limited to 12 per lesson, which is Bruce's way of making sure everyone gets plenty of individual attention.

Although passionate about his subject and fully convinced of its wide appeal, Bruce was surprised by the scale of the initial response to his online ads and fetish shop flyers. It seemed there were scores of people just sitting out there waiting to be tutored in one of bondage's most intricate art forms. From bondage virgins to seasoned dominatrixes, they all came flocking to learn from one of the foremost masters of the trade.

FORUM: So, Bruce, tell us how you first got into the bondage scene?

BRUCE: I've had a long-standing interest in bondage, going back as far as my childhood years. There were lots of different games I used to play back then, but any that involved tying or being tied up always had a particular appeal to me – you know, pretending to be prisoners and prison guards or a soldier capturing his enemy. It took a while for it to re-emerge in my adult life – it must have been lying dormant somewhere - but then I started improvising bondage games in the bedroom using neck-ties and belts, although nothing too serious, just in case I frightened my girlfriends off. This may sound surprising, especially coming from someone who now teaches bondage, but for a long time I was very shy about my urges. I was worried my girlfriends would think I was weird, partly because I didn't know then what I know now – that there are thousands of people out there who practice bondage and who love it just as much as me.

FORUM: So it was easier once you discovered the scene.

BRUCE: Yes, I suppose it's the same for everyone. You start off thinking you're the only person in the world who's ever felt this way, then suddenly you discover there are magazines devoted to your particular fetish and special clubs where you can go to meet like-minded souls. For me, one of the most important moments of my life was plucking up the courage to attend the Rubber Ball and realising - to my immense relief, I should add - just how normal and friendly everyone was. They certainly weren't the kind of bogeymen and women that the unenlightened portray them to be, and having really enjoyed my time at the ball, I became a regular at Submission and many other clubs. And since then there's been no stopping me. I've found some of my best friends on the scene and have always been impressed by the great levels of trust and respect I have found. These values are essential for BDSM play, where you can be literally entrusting your life to another, which is perhaps why they are more prevalent on the scene than outside in the vanilla world.

FORUM: Having discovered the scene, how did you then discover the specific technique of Japanese rope bondage?

BRUCE: Well, my initial forays into the bondage world were probably the same as most people's. I was practising very basic restraint techniques, using cheap sets of handcuffs and leather restraints, but I was always keen to reach a higher level, so I started doing some serious research. Then, getting on for 10 years ago now, I read an article about shibari – that's a general term for tying - which talked about tying as a whole erotic and psychological experience in its own right, as opposed to how it's often seen – as a form of foreplay, done prior to sex or kinky play. This was the 'light bulb' moment for me, so from there I decided to find out more. I started with a class by Midori, who is a well-known rope artist and SM educator, and then devoured every bit of information I could find. More recently, my journey has taken me to Japan for tuition from two of their 'premier league' nawashi, Arisue Go and Osada Steve. Nawashi is a title accorded to only the most experienced practitioners. Those who earn the title are held in great reverence by the cognoscenti..

FORUM: What is it that sets Japanese rope bondage apart from other forms of bondage?

BRUCE: Well, Kinbaku, which literally translates as 'tight binding,' is the common name for the type of bondage that developed in Japan. In the West, we also tend to use the term shibari almost interchangeably, although in Japan it is usually understood in the more general sense of 'tying' and only has the meaning of bondage within the SM community. For me the key thing that separates kinbaku or shibari from more general forms of bondage is that it is viewed by its Japanese practitioners more as an art form than anything else. Many of the standard ties and techniques have been developed from the study and reinterpretation of late 19th/early 20th century artwork and of manuals detailing Hojojutsu (the martial art of disarming, capturing and restraining prisoners with rope) techniques used during the Edo Period, around 400 years ago so it has been inspired by art and has developed as an art form. On a technical level, Japanese rope bondage uses equal lengths of 7-8 metre rope, 4mm-6mm in diameter, and most often made from jute. These ropes are applied to a partner using commonly shared and standardized forms and methods intended to produce certain physical, emotional and psychological effects. They are also applied to enhance the beauty of the person tied. It is common for models to be partly or entirely suspended in rope and for the bondage to use many lengths of rope. Kinbaku is, of course, a living type of SM play, so each and every scene will be unique and will depend upon the desires of those involved; and the practice has spread out to include a wide range of materials and kinks.

FORUM: Were you always planning to teach it, or did that just happen?

BRUCE: I honestly can't remember, although I think it must have happened in response to the number of people who asked about learning when I was doing live shows in the clubs around London. As you will have already realised, this is something I'm deeply passionate about. I get a huge amount of satisfaction in being able to pass on what I've learned to others, and it certainly beats doing a proper job. At the moment I still have a day job - if anyone out there needs wood flooring, then I'm your man - but I'm gradually moving to making my living from teaching and spreading the gospel about Japanese bondage full-time.

FORUM: What sorts of people come to your classes?

BRUCE: I get a very mixed bunch. They come from all walks of life - late teens to grandparents, straight, gay and bi. I get singles, couples, some who are just friends and even the occasional polyamorous group. I would say it is usually about 50/50, with a good balance between the two sexes. Some are complete newcomers but quite a few are seasoned veterans of the scene, including a few professional dommes. I often hear people say they were a bit nervous and wondered what the other students would be like, but there's no reason for anyone to feel intimidated. The classes are held in informal surroundings and are always fun and friendly, so that initial trepidation quickly disappears.

FORUM: Are the students largely sub or dominant by nature?

BRUCE: They probably tend towards the dom/switch side of things, but that's simply because what I'm teaching is a dominant skill. Nevertheless, I try to encourage everyone to tie each other and experience shibari from both points-of-view. Even the most hardened domme benefits from being tied, so she gets to know what it feels like too.

FORUM: More personally, do you prefer to tie, be tied or both? BRUCE: I prefer to tie, although I do like being tied, as well. However, these days, especially as I learn more about the art of shibari, I find it harder to relax when I'm being tied. I find it impossible not to sit there thinking about how I might have done it better had I been in control.

FORUM: Well, you're always in control in the classroom. What sort of mood do you try to create? BRUCE: Obviously there are some bits which are very serious, such as the safety issues, but I try to convey everything in a light-hearted manner. And while I emphasise the sensual and erotic potential of shibari, nothing overtly sexual ever happens during the classes. People often comment when they see me do bondage in the clubs that me and my partners always seem to be having so much fun. My reply is 'If it wasn't fun, we wouldn't be doing it,' and that's how I like my classes to be too.

FORUM: That must make for a much more welcoming atmosphere for first-timers. Are your classes a good starting point for those just getting into the scene, or would you describe rope bondage as an advanced technique?

BRUCE: I would go further than describing what I teach as a good starting point and say that it's a life-changing skill for anyone to learn, regardless of whether they ever plan to get into the scene. Rope bondage alters the balance of power within a relationship. A stronger partner can be rendered helpless, which in itself can be an unusual and charged experience, or a naturally submissive individual can take charge for once and find reserves of pro-activity and power that they never knew they had. Discovering these different sides of our character opens up whole new horizons of tactile, emotional, sensual and imaginative possibilities. If I were to select one reason for introducing bondage into an otherwise vanilla relationship, then that would probably be it. Don’t underestimate how unique and powerful this experience can be, even if you only practice it once in a while. As to whether it's an advanced technique, then I'd say rope bondage is a little like backgammon – it's easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. You can pick up the basic techniques with just a few hours tuition, but after that it's a never-ending journey of erotic possibilities. FORUM: How do these possibilities differ for subs and doms?

BRUCE: Well, speaking from my personal experience, as the one who is tying, I find it a wonderful means of communication. For me, it's similar to a passionate dance like the tango, where you're in very close contact with your partner, and one of you leads and the other one follows, and together you produce something magical. I love the emotional and physical effects of rope bondage. It's as if the rope becomes an extension of your hands, producing anything from agony to ecstasy, depending on the interplay between you and that particular sub. The result often puts the person tied, or the bottom as they're known in the SM world, on Cloud-9. They get an endorphin high, a thrilling high, and even orgasms are not unknown. As well as that, for the bottom, it can be a deeply meditative and relaxing experience. Many talk of the comforting embrace of the rope, but it's not always possible to generalise. It affects different people in different ways and can often produce a surprisingly powerful emotional response.

FORUM: You mentioned orgasms there, so is there always an explicit sexual element?

BRUCE: Absolutely not! In fact, there is very often no sexual contact beyond that of a smoochy dance. Like any other type of SM play, the goal goes way beyond a simple climax. It's all about defining the power relationship between the two parties through the dom's control of the bottom's space. A lot of the time, especially in public play or an evening class, I might be tying somebody's partner or somebody that does not want a sexual element, and that requires a certain degree of tact and respect for boundaries. Although that's not to say it can't be damn hot too, or that sex can't have a central place in proceedings.

FORUM: I suppose much of it must depend upon the psychological relationship between the two parties.

BRUCE: That's certainly true – one of the key elements in Japanese-style bondage is the emotional interplay between the participants. Relationships can be developed and heightened over years, as you learn more and more about what a partner wants, although oddly enough I often find I have wonderful sessions with perfect strangers. However, in those instances, it does rely on there being some kind of instant, intuitive connection; and sexual chemistry is very important too. If I don't feel that basic level of attraction, I find myself detaching from the experience and doing what I refer to as 'wrapping parcels,' by which I mean going through the motions without real feeling. Obviously, the very best sessions are when you do have a good relationship and you know the other person literally inside out. At that level, bondage becomes far more than simply a means of restraint. It becomes a whole new erotic language. So on the one hand you have wrapping parcels and on the other there is bondage as a tactile, erotic and passionate encounter, which can range from the sensual to the fiercely sadistic. And it's the latter that I'm trying to teach in my classes. Too many people wrap parcels these days. Bondage can be so much more than that.

FORUM: And it can also be very dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.

BRUCE: Yes, and that's why I take safety so seriously. Bondage probably has the greatest potential for accidental injury out of any common kink. With something like corporal punishment, it's basically a case of the harder you hit the more damage you do, but ropes and restraints offer far more complex problems – things that aren't visible on the surface, like poor circulation and damaged nerves. However, most of the safety precautions involved are just simple, common sense. Above all, the dominant partner needs to keep a very close eye on the bottom, and there has to be a clear, unmistakable, pre-agreed signal or safe word that the bottom can use to alert the top to any potential problems. I'd also recommend keeping a strong, sharp and safe cutting tool to hand, so bandage or EMT shears not a razor sharp knife, so that you can quickly and easily cut through any ropes that might be causing problems. I'm always reminding my students of these things. It's a bit like when you go on a plane – you might have seen the safety demo a hundred times before, but it's always better to pay attention. If you know and use the safety techniques, then bondage needn't be dangerous at all, but you must never grow complacent, because that's when these things come back and bite you.

FORUM: How long can a person be held captive safely?

BRUCE: It's hard to put an exact figure on these things, but I don't really get involved in long-term bondage sessions. I don't like to keep somebody bound in one position for very long, mainly because of circulation and nerve damage risks. Japanese bondage can be quite severe; after all many of the standard positions were originally designed for torture or punishment. Time was the key to the captive's discomfort, so that gives you some clue as to what being tied up for ages what do to a person.

FORUM: Talking of discomfort, should the rope bondage itself be painful, or is it simply a means of restraining a sub who can then be punished by other means?

BRUCE: That depends on what the sub wants. Different thicknesses of rope and the coarseness of the rope's surface will all have an impact on how comfortable or not the bondage is, as of course will how tightly the ropes are applied. But certainly shibari is capable of being a method of punishment, as opposed to just a simple method of restraint. It can be deeply painful, if that's what needed, but one should always distinguish between good pain and bad pain. Good pain transports one to a place of excitement, contentment, arousal, wherever; whereas bad pain is anything that causes injury. A good dom knows where to draw the line.

FORUM: You mentioned different ropes type then; are certain ropes better suited to the task?

BRUCE: Jute tends to be the rope of choice, although hemp is also very popular. The key thing is to use a natural fibre, because most of the techniques require the friction this provides. Shibari uses very few knots. It relies mainly on wrapping and twists to hold the bondage, so slippery synthetic fibres won't work – unless you cheat and tie it in knots. Another good reason for using natural fibre is the effect the smell has on a submissive? I know many a sub who starts to space out at the merest whiff of genuine rope!

FORUM: What other implements are used in Japanese bondage?

BRUCE: Candle wax is very popular, while chopsticks can be bound together make an excellent nipple clamp, and whips or floggers are often used. Nose-hooks seems to feature quite a lot in Japan, although they're not a particular favourite of mine, and I have often seen what looks like a white dildo on a bamboo rod in photos, which I think might be some kind of practice sword used in martial arts. In addition, one can call upon the full massed ranks of the SM armoury. I use a wide selection of items, including single tail whips, clothes pegs, ice, vibrators, dildos and all the rest. On the other hand, often no more than a rope is required. A rope can be very versatile when in the right hands.

FORUM: And what with it being so versatile, are you constantly trying to invent new forms of bondage?

BRUCE: I wouldn't say it's something I try to do – it's more satisfying when it just sort of happens. There are times when I really get into a flow and my hands operate almost independently from my brain. It's a kind of 'Let the Force be with you' moment! And it's these moments of free-styling that most often produce the unexpected. Then there are other times when I deliberately set out to solve a particular problem. My main interest at present is to become as proficient as possible with a variety of different classic ties and the different interpretations of these ties by the grand masters. It's a constant learning process for me, just as much as it is for my students. I'm constantly studying videos and photos of the work of the Japanese masters (deleted Midori bit as I wouldn’t consider her work traditional, more an American interpretation)

FORUM: Do you have any plans to add to that body of literature?

BRUCE: Well, no, not with a book, although I have just been asked by Lee Harrington to contribute to Dr Robert Rubel’s latest book in the Power Exchange series. I am also currently working on the first of my own SM bondage videos and an instructional DVD. The latter has had several false starts, mainly because I'm trying to learn video making and I still have have so much more to learn. The problem is the more you learn, the more you realise you have left to learn. Also, it's important for me to get the content of the DVD right. I'm anxious to avoid some of the errors, albeit minor, that have appeared in some of even the most popular books on the subject.

FORUM: And when the teaching and the video making allow you some free time, do you still visit clubs and do live demonstrations?

BRUCE: Definitely, yes! There are very few weekends when I'm not at one SM club or another, either performing a pre-arranged live exhibition or just joining in with the random play. Recently, I've performed at the Skin Two Weekend, Club Antichrist in London and The Clinic in Amsterdam. I usually perform with my partner, Electric Fairie, who I met a couple of years ago when I was working at the Torture Garden. I spotted her looking on, enrapt, as I was doing a demonstration, so I pointed to her out and said: 'Right! You're next!' And the rest, as they say, is history. She loves to be tied and I love to tie, so I guess you could say we're a perfect match.

FORUM: Obviously you and Electric Fairie know exactly what you're doing, but lastly, Bruce, what advice would you give to a curious couple who were thinking of experimenting with ropes and bondage but weren't so certain what to do?

BRUCE: Well, sign up for my classes is the obvious answer, but failing that I'd say the most important thing is communication between the two parties. Come up with a system of staying safe, like the traffic light system, where green means 'go' and amber means 'I like this but I can't take much more' and red means 'stop immediately!' Just a little simple system like that should allow them to play in a safe, fun manner. And the dominant partner must always keep a close watch on his sub – if anything looks wrong, then stop straightaway! So my key advice would be safety first, then it's just a case of learning what do to make it special. Those kinds of thing differ from person to person, so again what matters most is communication. Look for all the usual clues you'd look for during vanilla sex – are they making the all right noises? Is their body reacting in a positive way? And if you're the top, it's a good idea to start thinking of the rope as an extension of your hands. By that, I mean be conscious of how you apply it, whether that be sensuously, dominantly or sadistically; as a means to punish or as a loving caress. And as I mentioned before, it helps to view rope bondage as a passionate dance like the tango. Don't just clomp around out of time with the music. Really feel the rhythm and express yourself!