This article originally appeared on VICE US
Back in June 2013, porn star Dolan Wolf was teaching a class of 20 gay guys the basics of entry-level bondage at the Eagle, a gay bar in London. In attendance was Or*, a 27-year-old freelance writer. Or had recently moved to London from Tel Aviv and joined the workshop hoping to meet likeminded guys. He liked what he saw and made himself a fixture of Wolf's classes. Later that year, he became one of Wolf's apprentices.
When Wolf moved from London to marry his partner in San Francisco in 2014, Or, along with three other apprentices—Victor, Eddie, and Craig—inherited the night. They formed the Wolf Pack, in honor of their founding member, and pledged to continue his tradition of teaching beginners the intricacies of fetish and kink. For more than two years, they hosted masterclasses at the Eagle London, teaching students the arts of immobilization, electrostimulation, flogging, safe bondage, pressure points, and everything in between.
Their night stood as a regular part of the city's fetish calendar until recently, when the Eagle was "completely refreshed," rebranding itself as something more vanilla. The refurb has left little room for its sex nights, leaving the Wolf Pack without a permanent home. It follows a wave of closures for other gay venues in an increasingly expensive and gentrified city. But what the Wolf Pack is offering—an introduction to the sexual underground for the unacquainted, who may be otherwise intimidated by the rules and exclusivity of the scene—has become more invaluable than ever.
It is by no means this year's biggest casualty on the capital's fetish scene. In October, the Hoist, a gay bar and mainstay of London's fetish community, announced it would be permanently closing its doors by the end of the year.
Without the Hoist, only the Underground Club and Backstreet can bill themselves as permanent kink-friendly spaces in London. The usual toxic mix of high rent, gentrification, and gay dating apps like Grindr and Recon have made venue survival harder, even as more young people become interested in kink.
"I think, by the numbers, that the community itself is growing—you see this in the amount of younger people on Twitter or coming to events," said Or, who himself first navigated the larger kink and fetish scene with the help of social media. "I don't know if I would say trendy, but [kink] has definitely become more acceptable."
The next generation of kinksters may be more social media savvy, but the scene's barriers to entry remain high. Getting into a fetish like leather or bondage often requires mentorship to navigate the finer points of its culture and etiquette. To boot, leather harnesses and gear are not cheap, and high price tags may leave newcomers reticent to get involved. Through their unique, unrefined demonstrations, the Wolf Pack aims to provide such mentorship, preserve the kink scene's tangible social community, and stoke excitement in novices that outstrips idle curiosity—thus sustaining their fetishes for generations to come.
"From equipment malfunctions to us blacking out on explanations, which is always slightly awkward, the best part of the Wolf Pack is that we consider ourselves no better than any student," said Or. "We are not big authorities, so things like that happen and we all laugh about it."
Another Wolf Pack member, 24-year-old Victor, is something of a fetish scene stalwart, with a full time job at a sex shop and freelance photography work for gay weekly QX magazine. Like Or, he's worried about the kink scene's lack of permanent spaces.
"Considering the size of London and the amount of kink and fetish people in this town, the fact that we have a grand total of three [venues]... that's not really great," he said. "This is the largest city in Europe... compare us to Amsterdam, which has a similar amount of clubs and eight times less people—it's kinda disappointing."
According to Victor, apps have undeniably changed London's fetish community, much like they have the wider gay scene. Shyer members can use the anonymity they offer to ease themselves in, while the ability to find nearby private parties makes exploring the scene simpler cheaper and more instant. As successful as they are, their convenience has, at least in part, supplanted the need for physical kink spaces.
"We are in this generation where a variety of sexual ideas are always open to you and you can experiment with them," says Victor. "But people aren't necessarily going out on the scene because we do have apps and also [because] London is expensive, and more of a headache to navigate than whoever is local and kinky on [gay apps like] Scruff or Recon." Whether those apps can replicate the depth of interaction and community sustained by the physical spaces they're supplanting, however, is a different story.
Despite the scene's diminishing number of permanent spaces, larger one-off events (which often repeat monthly, quarterly, or annually) are still attracting huge crowds. The Wolf Pack itself has already been hired this year at London Fetish Week, Amsterdam Fetish Pride, the Sexpression Conference, and Manchester Leather Weekend.
The positive feedback the Wolf Pack has received for its demonstrations is an indication of just how important concrete communal spaces are to such an underground community. Dedicated kink venues—actual safe spaces free from stigma and hostility—cultivate a less insular, more sociable scene than social media or dating apps ever can. They deconstruct cliques and dismantle echo chambers, as Craig puts it.
"I definitely think people should make the effort to go to what few kink venues remain," says Craig. "The big one is Backstreet; that's a wonderful bar, very friendly, very well run—a great space. The Wolf Pack taught in it last Fetish Week and it would be a real shame to see it go. If these spaces disappear, it's incredibly hard to get new ones. They're needed not just for sex but beyond that, to nurture the sense of community and friendships and education spaces."
*Last names have been withheld to protect the privacy of Wolf Pack members.
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