This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Mary, a petite woman in a black dress, rolls back the sleeve of Ryan's T-shirt to reveal his newly-scarred flesh.
"Wow, so cool!" she says, examining the still-fresh cuts he's made that form a lattice on his bicep. Then, without a word, she starts slapping him. She's gentle at first, just quiet little flirty ones to the cheek, but they get louder and sharper as she screws up her face and starts properly laying into him, genuinely trying to inflict as much pain as possible. Soon, couples from the surrounding tables stop talking to clap and cheer her on.
Given that we're in a north London gastropub with wrought-iron staircases and ceiling beams—the kind of place where adult men who try to one-up each other with microbrewery trivia might meet up to be awful—this behavior seems particularly odd. But tonight is the venue's monthly fetish speed-dating event. Having a girlfriend already, I'm not here to get slapped repeatedly by a stranger in front of an enthusiastic crowd. But I figured it could be a good place to get a succinct overview of London's fetish scene—a series of four-minute encounters with as many subs, doms, pay pigs, sneaker destroyers and scally gear fetishists as possible, all in a venue without loud music or an aroused naked man locked in a cage distracting everyone there.
I've never been to a fetish speed-dating night before, so I was initially unsure of the dress code—whether I'd look like a nark in a sea of latex and cock cages—but the event's website informed me that smart-casual was fine and that above all I should "be myself." When I arrive I'm greeted by Miss Jo, the organizer, who has run kink clubs in London for the last 20 years. Eating olives out of a ramekin with a cocktail stick, she is jolly and welcoming, putting everyone at ease. She gives me a white sticker to write my name on and tells me to have a good time.
What I've always disliked about the idea of speed-dating is its rote, inauthentic, ruthless nature. Like it or not, you'll be judged heavily on your fitness as a potential sexual partner. If no one enjoys the mental image of you naked, you mope off with no phone numbers, left to get really insecure about your weird neck on the night bus home. But with fetish speed dating there's another layer—after all, your kinks have to match those of the person you're attracted to. And what if the kink you're into is simply too niche for the vanilla nerds who've turned up on the night?
I'm mulling this over as I get chatting to Jack, who's having a cigarette and a pint outside. For whatever reason, I'd imagined a group of femme fatale types in PVC dresses and high heels, but in reality the crowd looks more like a group of mature students about to enroll on an improv course. Jack's in tartan trousers, a frayed green satin shirt, and heavy silver rings.
How many times has he been fetish speed dating before?
"Twice." He looks momentarily bemused. "When it was down Farringdon, like."
Presumably he hasn't met his match yet, then?
"I've met some really nice people. Not really met anyone, though, like."
He laughs ruefully and stabs at his lower lip with a nicotine-stained finger.
"I'm just looking for a girl who'll kick the fuck out of me."
Danny, who's with him, is just over five feet tall in a shiny gray suit, friendly, and keen to chat. He works as a supervisor on a building site and has come down after clocking off, hoping to meet new friends. He's pretty fresh to all of this, apparently.
"I'm just starting to go to events, find my feet," he says.
And what kind of fetish partner is he hoping to find tonight?
"I'm just looking for a girl who'll kick the fuck out of me," he says.
A bell rings, meaning it's time for the men to take their places at tables set out in a private area of the bar. Sitting there with my name badge on, I feel more like I'm at a group interview for an Asda checkout job than a quick-fire fetishist meet and greet.
Miss Jo explains the rules. The guys wait while the girls come and sit with them for four minutes each. If you like one another, you exchange numbers. If not, they move on. As simple as this sounds, I feel her rundown doesn't cover all bases. When do you reveal that you enjoy being stripped naked and wrapped in chili-coated cling film? Up front, or after pleasantries have been exchanged? This isn't hyperbole. The whole point of this event, I figured, is to find your match, so when do you get around to addressing the details?
Another initially disconcerting point: my table is positioned right next to Ryan's, meaning he'll be able to hear whatever excruciating banter I dredge up. Luckily, it turns out Ryan is a friendly guy, and my anxiety on this point subsides. He tells me that he classifies himself as a "switch"—someone who fluctuates between being a dom (a dominant partner) or a sub (a submissive partner). Most people here tonight are just one of the two.
As Ed Sheeran's "Bloodstream" wafts over the sound system, I prepare to meet the first of my four-minute dates.
Miranda, the first girl who comes over, is in her late twenties and wearing the kind of floral dress that wouldn't look out of place on Henman Hill in early July. However, her demure appearance doesn't quite match her somewhat convoluted intimate preferences. "I'm a service dom. That's someone who likes to hit other people. But only because they like it," she says.
So you're an altruistic dom, in other words?
"There's a lot of depravity in me that I can't really talk about. You can't really talk about that stuff after four minutes," she points out, declining my offer of a cheese and onion crisp.
Next up is Hannah, a schoolteacher. She's a sub, and she puts this down to her job. Having to boss kids around all day means that when she's off duty she prefers that someone else hands out the lines. She tells me about the difficulties of dating on the fetish scene.
"I always get subs coming up to me in clubs," she says. "They make it very obvious: 'Can I lick you?' Er no, we just met."
Who's the strangest person she's ever been out with?
"I met a semi-rapist once. 'Is it OK if I do this to you?' he kept saying, then just doing it anyway. No, we're in public! It's just lucky I know self-defense."
Another lady, Lynne, whose husband gets off on her serially cuckolding him, relates how age can also be an issue.
"I'm 43 and I get 21-year-olds getting in touch—they're more than half my age!"
Does it matter?
"Yes, in the sense of experience. We did have a 21-year-old once, and he came within six minutes."
One thing I find confusing is how some of the women I meet have predilections they don't necessarily find erotic. Kathryn, a tax accountant in her mid-forties, explains that her real interest in the mind-numbingly complex art of Japanese rope bondage is not that it's sexy, but that it's "a bit of a laugh." Andrea tells me that she goes to Club Pedestal, where women are fawned over by sub men. But does she actually find putting her feet up on a guy and using him as a coffee table a turn-on?
"No—for sex I'm more about mind games."
So why go to an event like that if it's not about sex?
"It's just interesting. It's different to a normal club night where the women are subjugated to the guys."
"I'm into extreme cock and ball torture," says Samantha. "Extreme."
Laura, who appears to have drunk enough booze for everyone else in there, is more forthcoming about her interests.
"I love dungeons," she slurs. "And I love blood."
"It's really sexy. It's a turn-on. I don't scar easily. I like blood all over the place."
Another woman who's not shy about her tastes is Samantha.
"I'm into extreme cock and ball torture," she says. "Extreme," she emphasizes.
My toes curling involuntarily, I ask if it's dangerous.
"I like staple-gun play."
"And castration, if you want."
"Well, if you wanted. Legalities aside."
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And what does she do when she's not lacerating guys' scrotums?
"I'm a surgeon," she says. She sniffs and looks around. "You know the problem with these events? There are no real fetishists here."
By the end of the night I feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the capital's visible kinky interests, at least among its women. Those interests are, while not exactly mainstream, not quite as unique as I'd expected: the majority fall into either the sub or dom category, which—considering the past decade of films like Secretary, Nymphomaniac, and Fifty Shades of Grey—the general public is already well-acquainted with. Of course, there were some exponents of the more fringe elements nestled in there.
As I'm on my way out, I bump into Danny and ask how his night went.
"Good," he says, and pauses. "But there are a few in here tonight where I thought, Woah, that's a bit hardcore."
All names have been changed.
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