It's three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon and I'm lying on a sea of blue gym mats with my head jammed between the legs of a woman. For the last 20 minutes, I've been rag-dolled all over the place; poked, prodded, and tortured as my limbs have succumbed to submission hold after submission hold.
This time her thighs land around my neck in a move known as the head scissors—seconds later, as my face turns beetroot for the eighth and final time, I tap out.
Welcome to the world of session wrestling, where men pay women to grapple them. Also known as BDSM wrestling, it's an incredibly niche fetish and the UK scene is fast gaining a reputation as leading world champion. The Submission Room is one of London's leading mixed sessions agencies, boasting an impressive roster of 20 female wrestlers, including the brilliantly named Amethyst Hammerfist, the red-haired and flame-eyed Inferno, and Pussy Willow, whose boa constrictor legs I can still feel around my throat.
These wrestlers usually charge £150 for an hour-long private battle in a private mat room, though I got my ass handed to me gratis. The winner (spoiler: it's nearly always the woman) must earn the most number of tap outs, where an opponent taps the mat in mercy; or pins, when an opponent's shoulders are held to the mat for three seconds.
As well as private sessions, the Submission Room runs showcase events three times a year. Last month's took place in a warehouse in Seven Sisters. Handing over the £50 entrance fee, I take my place with the other 20 to 30 men in the audience. As the action begins—the first of a series of semi-competitive all-female fights—a hum of excitement fills the room. Every time one of the wrestlers gets the upper hand, someone in the row behind me makes a sound like a sleeping dog; a low, almost wistful growl.
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There's a burst of laughter when Inferno's right breast nearly topples out of its cup ("Hello?" she says, smiling). During the intermission, the middle-aged man next to me pulls out a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine. There are conversations about holidays and football. When one of the wrestlers calls for some water a young, strapping lad at the back of the room quickly delivers a bottle of Evian. Footage of today's fights will be sold on fetish sites like Clips4Sale, with 30-minute clips going for £14 a pop.
Submission Room founder Pippa the Ripper got into session wrestling as a cash-strapped student after answering an advert in a local paper. "I saw it and thought it would be fun. I was intrigued by the unknown," she says. Ten years on, she's still sessioning—though she's far more on the management side since launching the Submission Room four years ago.
She says that most of the girls on her roster moonlight as wrestlers to supplement another career. Many are personal trainers, fetish and alt models, or professional dominatrixes. Due to its cross 'scene' appeal, recruitment mainly occurs by word of mouth. "It's so unusual. If someone says they do it, there's an interest, and that's how most of the girls come to it," she says.
Unlike pro wrestling seen in the likes of the WWE, in session wrestling there is no 'kayfabe' (a term used in pro wrestling, when staged events are portrayed and reported as authentic in order to further a storyline). When a man taps out, there is no fourth wall. He does so because he's in pain. Pussy Willow made me tap out in 15 seconds. If WWE matches ended that early, no one would pay to watch.
This is how session wrestlers differ most from female WWE wrestlers. It's more intimate, personal—and painful. As one Submission Room wrestler tells me, some of her clients even pay to be choked out. Not 'fake' choked out. Literally choked out; until they lose consciousness.
As Pippa chats to me about the scene, the main event begins: the mixed sessions. By now two-thirds of the audience have gone, presumably getting their fill from the three-hours of all-girl action. The men that remain disappear one by one into the cement-grey bowels of the warehouse and return in gym kit, only to get pinned to the mat by the nimble-limbed wrestler of their choice. It's £10 for five minutes, £20 for ten, and the notes are handed over like candy.
As an outsider, the most interesting aspect is the playfulness. The men have their hair ruffled; they're poked and tickled. When a burly regular pays to get double-teamed, the mirth fizzes from his skin. "Is it cuddle time?" he asks.
Both the wrestlers and their victims giggle like sweaty, happy children. "I get a kick out of it," Pippa admits. "Ultimately, wresting is play fighting, something we did when we're kids, and it's really fun. I like using my strength and my skill and my body to dominate a man in a wrestling sense. "
American Kelli Provocateur is an adult actress, physique model, pro bodybuilder and professional dominatrix. She's wrestled men for 12 years, having been introduced to sessioning by a submissive client. The self-described 'ebony muscle goddess' has toured Australia, the Middle East and Asia. She tells me that the desire to be overpowered by an extremely powerful woman is an overriding global theme.
"It's about feeling the woman's power," she says. "Every time I'm pinning them down they want to feel my triceps and my biceps pumping. I'll have guys that will say, 'I just want you to beat the crap outta me.'" Not surprisingly, Provocateur is a huge hit with men into muscle worship.
Back at the Submission Room I talk with Pussy Willow, session wrestler and professional dominatrix (and later that week, my conqueror with an 8-0 submission victory). She's been wrestling for a year and she's built for it: She's big, tall, and strong and she loves fighting.
"Am I intimidating?" she asks teasingly. "Only in a nice way, I hope? Not in a scary way? In a 'come here and let me give you a punch' way..."
Pussy Willow was introduced to session wrestling a year ago, having returned to the UK after a period as a pro-domme abroad. What started out as a way to augment her services has become a passion.
She wants to make the London scene a bit more like the WWE with storylines and 'feuds'; throughout the afternoon's show she constantly picks on one of the other female wrestlers like a kid trying to get a dog to bite. Of course, it boils over and the crowd are treated to an impromptu fight as Pussy Willow pins her quarry to the mat. There's a reason she's known on the circuit as the Trash Talking Queen.
Beneath the cocky and quick-witted Pussy Willow character there's a deep understanding of the fetish—of both the men that pay to submit and the women that tap them out. She can chart the origins of her own interest, when she began wrestling her brother's friends as a child.
"It was mostly about the play, the sweat, and the intimacy but it was also a tiny bit sexual," she says. "Then I remember being told I was a weirdo for still wanting to play when I was 12. The minute you suddenly become a teenager you have to be a grown up and being a grown up means no play. Wrestling is a really good outlet for that. It's an invitation to playtime in a very controlled area."
Being overpowered and out-maneuvered by a beautiful female wrestler is amazing fun.
On the London session wrestling circuit, Pussy Willow is predominantly known as a fantasy wrestler; a combatant who will mock you as she's smothering you with her boobs (I learnt the hard way that this is not as pleasant as it sounds), or dress up as Supergirl and crush you with Kryptonian thighs.
This fantasy is one of three types of session wrestling. There is also competitive, where the men try harder to win and both wrestlers will use legitimate submission holds, and semi-competitive, which is also hold-heavy but more playful.
On the more competitive side of the spectrum sits Wrestler Mike. He began his journey into mixed wrestling as a kid watching TV show Dynasty and developing "a thing for cat fights." From there he discovered cat fight videos online, then the appeal of the more technical wrestling videos kicked in, coupled with an adoration for WWE wrestler Lita.
"Mixed wrestling is certainly my fetish... Being overpowered and out-maneuvered by a beautiful female wrestler is amazing fun," he says. "There is a slight, competitive side which sees me disappointed when I submit as I always set out to try to win. But I won't lose sleep over it and the sweet, exhilarating feeling on the mats, including those times I have to tap out, is worth it."
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Sunny Megatron is a sex educator and host of Showtime show Sex with Sunny Megatron. She says the appeal for session wrestling is "very individual" but a few things apply across the board: The majority of participants enjoy the intense physical sensation, the adrenaline rush, and the pain.
"Session wrestling is a cross between wrestling, sex, and BDSM with the balance of that combination being whatever the participants decide," she says. "Think back to high school when hanging out with a new love interest spontaneously turned into wrestling around on the living room floor. It's part serious power struggle, part silly playfulness, and incorporates steamy elements of sex. Kinky grappling is very similar."
This it seems is the appeal of wrestling for all: to escape into childhood once again, to lose ourselves in the cradle of sweaty limbs, smelly armpits, and silly insults. It's play at its purest. A way of tapping out of adulthood—and who, every so often, wouldn't want to do that?
This article originally appeared on VICE US.