Ten years ago I used to write a column for The Observer magazine called The Small Ads. As the name suggested, I trawled the classifieds looking for stories. The principle was very simple. At the heart of all narrative is change. When someone is placing a classified ad, they are changing in some small way. My task was to seek out the narrative. It was a lot of fun and the best columns ended up complied as book called Superhero For Hire. It confirmed my belief that, if you scratch the surface, everybody has a story to tell. And many of those stories are very strange indeed.
Occasionally, when I’m looking for a character, I look back at them in the Guardian’s archive. I was doing that this morning and came across this one below.
I have no memory at all of writing it. Reading it though, I’m quite pleased. Some of it is poignant, some of it very funny: You’d think the biggest problem would be jealousy. Actually, it’s time management.
(Disappointingly, online they don’t print the original adverts with the articles, as they did in the newspaper at the time… so you have to guess the context).
His girlfriend Amy’s been so busy this week Max hasn’t had much chance to tie her up. Last Thursday he spent the night at his other girlfriend Deborah’s, and they did a nice bondage scene there. Usually he gets to tie people up, oh … a couple of times a week.
Amy – or Mistress Matisse, to give her her professional name – is a dominatrix. She has been Max’s ‘primary’ partner. Deborah is his ‘secondary’; they’ve been seeing each other for three-and-a-half years, it’s a regular Thursday-night date. Aside from BDSM he’s into the ‘poly’ scene – polyamory, having more than one lover. Mistress Matisse is poly, too.
Bondage a couple of times a week is nice. That might include a little bit of bondage-lite, when you meet someone at a party or a bondage workshop and they go, ‘Can you show me how this feels?’ Sometimes he’s found himself tying people up four or five times a week, but that gets too much. It takes the edge off.
His fascination with ropes started in the Boy Scouts back in 1967. A wonderful training ground, says Max. For 30 years he sailed, too, which gave him a respect for rope. When it comes to bondage itself, he was a late bloomer. For 14 years he was happily married. Bondage was not part of the relationship.
Single again at 35, he was casting around. Bondage had always privately fascinated him. He’d seen the adverts at the back of magazines, but somehow didn’t believe anybody really did that. Then around 1990 he saw an advert about BDSM on a bulletin board. ‘Are you interested in getting together for bondage and kinky sex?’ He tore off the number; he kept it in his wallet a year before he had the courage to call it, but by then the line had been disconnected.
But that was a turning point, it was like he’d made up his mind. Some people in a fetish shop put him in touch with the Seattle BDSM community and he’s been tying people up ever since. He loves it. It’s more than sex. In fact, often it’s just play without sex at all. He’s a ‘top’; his partner Mistress Matisse is ‘switchy’; sometimes she likes to be ‘top’, sometimes ‘bottom’. He specialises in ‘suspension bondage’, elaborately trussing people so that they hang by ropes from hooks in a ceiling.
It’s about power and intimacy, he says. So much of our lives is about implicit power, it’s liberating to become explicit about it. And you have to build so much trust between people to be able to tie somebody up. You have to be honest.
Being poly is the same, he says. You have to replace control with trust. She wants to sleep with someone else? If I love her, how can I deny her that? You’d think the biggest problem would be jealousy. Actually, it’s time management.
It was Amy who encouraged him to start teaching bondage. Now he does exhibitions at the big erotica festivals – and once a month in Seattle leads workshops with curiously prosaic names: ‘Rope Bondage 101’, ‘Suspension You Can Use’, ‘When Someone You Know Is Switchy’.
He has to be cautious though – he’s a self-employed consultant; he’s not sure how clients would react. Funnily enough, the friends and relations who do know are more disturbed by the polyamory than the kinky part. People find that threatening. Like his ex-wife. They’re still friendly, and they meet every couple of months for dinner. He feels she doesn’t really understand that. Strangely, when they were married, it was her who had the secret affairs – he didn’t. In retrospect, he’s not sure if that was morality, or lack of imagination.