Snake oil salesmen move into shibari

Posted on Tue, 26 November 2013


I recently came across a couple of "shibari performance" videos recently that demonstated nothing more than shambari executed in a shambolic and unsafe manner posted by people offering lessons in shibari. I'm not talking about just poor style, I mean really ignoring basic safety. As a result, I felt complelled to start a thread, called 'Incompetent Teachers', in the Rope Educators forum of Fetlife asking what could be done. This has kicked off nothing short of a shit storm with accusations of fascism and all manner of excitement.

Much to my surprise, the thread mushroomed into 5 pages in a couple of days. I didn't expect it to generate such interest and emotion. I personally don't have a clue if there is a solution. Lists and vetting systems have all been mooted but they are open to favouritism, corruption or just plain ill-informed judgement. Do we let Darwinian principles prevail or do we intervene at all? When is bad so bad we can't just stand by? Is it even any of our business? Anyway, just as it looked like ideas were taking shape, the moderator pulled the plug on the thread for some reason. Sure, some people were exhibiting a certain lack of social skills but that's not unusual when there is an interesting and heated discussion. Surely, the answer is to deal with the hot-heads and not hinder an possibly useful idea? Anyway, as with all forums, it's their party so it's their rules, end of.

Rather bizarrely, there has been a further development: The moderator of the group deleted the thread! I was under the illusion that the Rope Educators' forum was about promoting safe teaching. It seems very strange that a post seeking to improve this should be removed. I haven't had a satisfactory explanation beyond that the mod didn't like some of the suggestions made by others. He also seemed to think it was divisive bewteen shibari and western styles, disagreeing with my assertion that there were common elements to safety and, indeed, incompetence regardless of style. Although, I can't help wondering if he might be more worried that people might start applying the definition used by those who have learned from Japanese masters given that he teaches "Classic Shibari/Kinbaku Forms" with "15 to 35 feet" lengths of rope. Coincidentally, this is exactly what I was doing when I first started teaching 'shibari' until Osada Steve pointed out it was a contradiction since 23-26 feet (7-8m) is regarded as pretty much definitive. These lengths are the same, if I recall, as Midori suggested in her book The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage, which was my main reference before I started to get teaching direct from Japan. Midori did a fantastic job of trailblazing but the techniques seem to owe little to any of the acknowledged Japanese masters I have seen at work. Of course, shibari has developed even in the decade or so since the book was published, so for all I know it might be representative of technology then. I have heard Osada Steve say more than once "That was how I tied 5 years ago" in reference to his own work.

I think the lack of exposure to Japanese teaching in the US and the preponderance of Japanese-style tutorials has lead to shibari being used as a catch-all term into which many even include The Two Knotty Boys. TKB don't deserve to be lumped into any general category as they are unique and TKB style deserves recognition in its own right. It's not my thing but I can't help admiring them. Trying to enforce style definitions as a criteria for teaching would be a nightmare as the US definition of shibari seems to be at variance with that of the purists, i.e. the US largely defines shibari as what purists call 'Japanese style'. As it is impossible to define when authentic techniques cease to be so or when it's innovation and what is shambari, it's an argument without end. Even I know better than to delve into that can of worms! That said, I am sure there would rightly critcise me or just burst out laughing if I set up as an Amercian football coach and invited students to bring a round ball between 6-12" in daimeter :-)

I threw into the melting pot that we have a group where people could question the safety of work by those who teach. For example, somebody posts a video of a show, tutorial or demo voicing a concern. The originator of the material could then provide an explanation. The reply could be "That's a risky technique, not for beginners", "The risk you perceive is not present because XYZ" or even "Oh shit! You're right! I hadn't seen that". I think it might be a usesful educationally all round. Sadly, the suggestion seems to have been ignored. OK, I'll admit to some sense of mischief but it would weed out those that overnight set themselves up as 'Grand Sensei Nawashi Poohbah'and fount of all knowledge after watching a couple of TKB YouTube tutorials. Oddly, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the grandeur of the chosen screen name and authenic knowledge. Anyway, almost nobody seems to be willing to put their money where there mouth is. It is perhaps telling that allowing peer review seemed so unpopular. I cannot imagine why any teacher professing competence should not be prepared to publicly defend anything that they do that is seen as unsafe or bad practice. Maybe it needs somebody with the confidence to start the ball rolling?

OK, I'll put my balls on the table! I invite any questions about my technique's safety. If there are risks, I'll say why I believe I have mitigated them to my and my model's satisfaction. If I haven't, I'll learn something and know better in future. Any rigger who thinks he can never be wrong and has nothing to learn is a fool. Admittedly, not everything I do is SSC but I regard it to be within acceptable RACK. Performance shibari is like many extreme sports. Yeah, sure it's never safe but there's a difference between taking calculated risks and being a dangerous twat.

I am of the opinion that posting poor work sets a bad example to those who will inevitably immitate. If one makes work public and accepts comments, the negative should be taken along with the adulation. The culture of not commenting negatively means that praise heaped on by the ill-informed makes it look like unsafe practices are being endorsed. What else is the newbie to think with reams of "Beautiful!", "Wow!" and "Fantastic!" comments beneath a picture and rarely a word pointing out deficiencies being allowed to remain? More than often, even helpful, crticism will lead to not only deletion but to your profile being blocked! However, this is not always the case. A couple of prominent riggers have had some positive results by having a discrete word with those who are over-stretching their skill set with their performances or, God help us, teaching. I have spoken to one recently who has been very receptive to my critique and all credit to him.

I know it's not easy to take crisicism. I can recall arguing the toss with some bloke, who I had never heard of, who emailed me out of the blue about my definition of shibari many years ago...he turned out to be none other than Osada Steve :-) Eventually, I began to appreciate that I had been talking complete crap and thus began my education in Japan. From then, Steve tells me I moved from "being unteachable, to teachable, to not teachable any more". I remain unconvinced about the last bit. Every time I see any of my Japanese teachers, I realise there is so much more to learn. It is very important that both riggers and bottoms educate themselves so they can spot dangerous practices. There are too many people with too little experience passing on information they have not mastered themselves. Clover, WkyD_Dave's model and apprentice rigger, has written an excellent Guide for Rope Bottoms, which is a must for anyone who gets tied. There is quite a lot of safety information here too. Here are a few thoughts and I'll try to expand on this later:

  • How does their work compare to acknowledged riggers? Does it look sloppy?
  • Make sure you can see evidence of their work. Given time, any idiot can tie for a photo, so see them work live or at least on video.
  • Take reputable references and ask peers
  • How did they learn? There's no substitute for hands on instruction by world-class experts
  • See if they know where vulnerable nerves are located