Remember the opening club scene in Blade? Imagine that, but instead of men in short-sleeved bowling shirts and Kangol hats, you have guys in rubber jock straps and stilettos. Women in corsets and pasties rather than capri pants and pleather jackets. Fire eating, angle grinding, and sex acts instead of human blood raining from the ceiling and Wesley Snipes attacking a load of vampires with a shotgun.
That place is Torture Garden, where a guy getting a blowjob by the bar or a woman whipping a man tied to a St. Andrew's Cross is all part of an average night out. Started in 1990, the iconic fetish club—the largest of its kind in Europe—is throwing a big party this weekend in Elephant & Castle to celebrate 25 years of torture.
My first experience of Torture Garden was in 2003, when the club took over the Brixton Academy for another birthday ball. The main floor overflowed with bums, tits, and gimps strapped into figure-hugging rubber, leather, latex, and spandex, in traditional fetish black to bright and bolder colors.
In the couple's room (the main "play" area), I wandered around with a guy I was casually dating. We were two young gay guys looking on incredulously as hundreds of people in various states of undress made out, sucked, and spanked one another. From mild make outs to full-on butt whacking, the unapologetic indulgence of it all was arousing and entertaining—the kink having an almost Carry On aspect to it.
My previous experiences of "sex in clubs" were either horrid dark rooms in tacky Gran Canaria gay clubs, or the full-on fuck fest of London's queer fetish scene, which was usually far too extreme for my tamer vanilla tastes. By contrast, Torture Garden was—and still is—playful, cheeky, and sexy. And, of course, extreme if you want it to be. But above all: It's fun.
I lost my friend in the playroom and came across a table where a woman—naked bar her heels and a diamante bra—was fucking a guy. She was beautiful, and he was incredibly fit. I wasn't sure which of them I found more of a turn on. A crowd gathered around, a mix of guys and girls watching. Some of them other couples, kissing. Nobody took advantage. They just watched the guy and girl fuck, while the couple clearly appreciated the attention. I didn't perceive her as acting whorish or slutty, or any of the other names society likes to throw at women who openly enjoy their sexuality. She was completely in control, of the guy and of her audience.
To really comprehend Torture Garden's uniqueness, you have to understand where the club came from and why it's so impressive that it's still here, over 25 years later. In fact, that it still exists at all is something of miracle.
Its first event "was on a Wednesday or a Thursday in October of 1990, at Opera on the Green, a gay fetish venue in a shopping precinct in Shepherd's Bush," says David TG—who created Torture Garden with business partner Allen TG—over coffee in Soho.
Back then, Britain was a very different place. Thatcher's time in office had just ended. The country was in a painful recession, and the national tabloids rejoiced in immoral front-page scandals. It was the golden age of the Sunday newspaper exclusive, in which tabloids frequently broke stories of the sexual misadventures of MPs and royals, all while editors were hoofing up gear and downing champagne. The nation's favorite conversation point, other than the weather, was talking about the wrong kind of sex that other people were having.
In the conservative Britain of the 1990s, a club like Torture Garden could actually thrive, appealing to a section of society that desired a refuge in which to embrace its sexuality, not repress it.
"We came from the alternative gothic scene, which had become a bit retro by the end of the 80s, just as the rave scene was happening," says David. "We were one foot in each. We wanted to be a contemporary club. The music was always progressive, fresh, and edgy, mixing in all those elements with performance art and the body art piercing and tattoo scene, which was just beginning to explode. It was a different crowd to anything that existed before."
Torture Garden's theatricality brought fetish into the world of clubbing. That first event attracted around 100 people. The next event pulled in 500.
But the road to international success was far from easy. Police harassment of the venues Torture Garden operated in was not uncommon, and the club inevitably attracted the attention of the media. Two exposé style newspaper stories ran: first the Sunday Mirror in 1991—"Naughty Nights in the Garden"; followed by the News of the World in 1992—"Whips Club Weirdo Dies in a Nappy." Torture Garden lost venues as a result of both reports.
"In those days, you wouldn't tell people you went to a fetish club," David recalls. "You'd put your coat on, get in a taxi, and arrive somewhere, and it'd be quite clandestine. You wouldn't tell your family or work colleagues. People could have lost their job if their employer found out. Even just wearing latex was quite exciting, perhaps even a revolutionary act."
Slowly, the public discussion around sex opened up. "A lot changed with the media's gradual exposure to sexuality and all those Channel 4 documentaries," says David. "So many people are open about sexuality now. It's quite an acceptable, normal thing to dress up a little bit, even if you're not into the hardcore S&M thing."
The club found its first long-term home at Electrowerkz (now the Islington Metal Works) and then, most famously, Ministry of Sound. "The first event at Ministry was a big thing, because we were always fragile with venues and never knew where we'd be in terms of legality, so it was a big thing to have a powerful venue backing us," says David.
It wasn't long before the media snooping stopped, and the police backed off. "We haven't had any negative issues with the press, authorities, and venues since 1993. And our experiences have been of a very liberal and tolerant atmosphere since then," says David, adding that they've also never had to compromise or censor any of their events in London.
As the world of high fashion and fetish collided—such as with Alexander McQueen, who visited the club—Torture Garden's profile exploded. David brought Dita Von Tease to Europe for the first time. The club had a burlesque and cabaret room from 1993, years ahead of the scene as it is now.
"No other club has that diversity," David says proudly. "It is beyond people's expectation of a fetish club. We always thought of fetish as a much more open concept, as much about imagination and fantasy and exploring sexuality and the body's boundaries. It's transformative for those who come—you can become the most amazing character you can imagine."
So where to for the future? "We didn't think it'd last six months," says David. "Clubland is so fragile—you don't expect this longevity. Every year, every month could be the last. In clubland, if you have three bad events, it could be the end."
The biggest threat the brand faces is no longer from a right-wing media or nosy police force, but London's insatiable appetite to demolish club spaces and redevelop them. Three of Torture Garden's most famous venues have fallen victim to gentrification: SeOne in London Bridge; Canvas in Kings Cross; and its latest home, the Coronet in Elephant & Castle, which is due to close next year.
"London's always been a bit limiting because almost every venue for more than two thousand people has been closing," David sighs. "The last event at the Coronet will be the December party, and we're looking at Pulse for 2017. The way the venues are at the moment, if we lose a couple more big ones it changes the landscape of what we can do."
Despite the difficulties facing London's clubbing future, David doesn't sound overly morbid at the prospect of change. More than anyone else, he knows that his club was born out of a desire for innovation, and there's no doubt it can reinvent itself again. After all, a new venue is just another outfit change, and Torture Garden's wardrobe is as wild and expansive as its imagination.
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