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Behind the sinuous scenes of kinbaku, as explained by professional teacher Georg Barkas

By Francesca Johnson

Nov 12, 2021

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Bodies beautifully bound, ropes wrapped in an intricate series of patterns, art crystalised in moments of suspension—these are all descriptions of kinbaku, an ancient practice of Japanese rope bondage. Composed of elegant knots that wind themselves around the human frame and gracefully play with restriction and shape, kinbaku marries complex construction with the bewitching art of bondage. The result captivates and provokes intrigue into the world of contorted shapes and the manipulation of human anatomy. Kinbaku is performance, sculpture and an extreme exercise of trust—topped with a knot instead of a bow.

Here at Screen Shot, we like to dive into the deep end of the internet and explore all the treasures we can find along the way. Sex-positive and proud—be it kink, erotica or the mysteries of sexy subcultures—we love to keep up with the latest sex trends, and kinbaku happens to be one of them.

Kinks are crossing slowly into mainstream conversations everyday. From lactation to sex furniture, several fetishes are bought into light as we speak. As it should. Through the spaces made to discuss sex, different practices like polyamory and BDSM are being discovered by many. Yet, a simple scroll through #kinbaku on Instagram will lead you to an intricate paradise featuring over 400,000 posts. Safe to say, it’s clearly garnered some interest on the internet. But you may be surprised to find out that this particular practice is actually centuries old.

Artists and enthusiasts alike have gathered in a community around the world to participate in this Japanese art form. Many have adopted the practice as part of their lifestyle, and welcomed us as outsiders, into their world through fashion editorials, publications and art galleries. BDSM is slowly trickling into the public consciousness with a little push from the explosion of interest in this art of rope bondage over the recent years. Master practitioners like ​​Naka Akira are now at the forefront, still putting out the fires left behind the trailblaze of 50 Shades of Gray and pushing bondage to the mainstream while inviting us to witness the more profound forms of bondage.

Even bondagewear is all the rage now, with celebrities like Rihanna, FKA Twigs, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion sporting custom creations by designer Yeha Leung and her BDSM brand Creepyyeha regularly. i-D reported that the brand got a head start in 2011 “as an aesthetics Tumblr celebrating kinky lingerie and pastel goth fashion,” growing into fabulous fashion wear consisting of garters, harnesses and sexy leather galore. It’s easier than ever before to be suited and booted in latex and leather cuffs. So fashion is going ‘hardcore’, but what about the artistic tradition and history this fetishwear comes from?

What is kinbaku?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, kinbaku is a Japanese practice that came long before the nipple-freeing, throat-choking, handcuffing, smut-loving culture of the internet age. Translated, kinbaku means ‘tight binding’, where the person tying (or rigger) ties the person in ropes (or model) in an intricate pattern with rope. Within this practice, the bottom is sometimes suspended in midair too. Also known as shibari, the term is often used interchangeably as it is a general Japanese word meaning ‘to tie’. The outcome of such a careful craft is stunning and striking, leading many to admire both the end product and the trusted collaboration it takes to get there.

The artistic background of kinbaku dates back to Japan’s Edo period—where the country was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (a military government) and its 300 regional great lords (called daimyos). Here, the practice evolved from shunga—Japanese erotica that also served the dual purpose of sex education for budding newlyweds—and Shijuhatte—often referred to as the Japanese Kama Sutra. With its aesthetic and sexual appeal, it’s not hard to trace the connection between kinbaku and its erotic art roots like Katsushika Hokusai‘s Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife—an iconic reference to rope erotica.

In an interview with VICE, Master “K”—teacher and author of The Beauty of Kinbaku, talked about kinbaku’s practical and decorative functions. Outside of its seductive elements, the practice also doubles up as “Shinto spiritual offerings, Sumo wrestling, and traditional kimono.” In fact, kinbaku was also performed onstage in kabuki theater first seen in the 20th Century.

However, kinbaku is inseparable from its erotic roots as its past is established in twisted, torture ritualism. The brutal art comes primarily from its past in war with a martial art called hojojutsuvery different from the practice as we know it today. According to VICE, “At the time, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, official Tokugawa crime laws used knots to torture and extort confessions from captives and to display alleged criminals.” Pretty grim, right?

More than just BDSM, the variety of kinbaku

To the uninitiated, kinbaku doesn’t seem to have moved too far from its roots in torture. However, practitioners, media outlets like Kinbaku Today and active rope community members would fiercely disagree. In fact, they even argue that it’s therapeutic, given the fact that submissive partners often enter the ‘sub-space’ of meditation and liberation from the experience of bondage.

In order to learn more about the world of rope, we decided to chat with an expert. Luckily, Georg Barkas, a kinbaku teacher at Barkas Kinbaku, currently based in Vancouver, and author of Archaeology of Personalities: a linguistic approach to erotic rope bondage was more than willing to take us through the basics. Barkas offers in-person teaching lessons about kinbaku to teach the art of erotic rope bondage. Through their site, people can book sessions and tailored learning experiences with the practitioner influenced by the teachings of internationally recognised and undisputed masters of kinbaku practice like Osada Ryu, the late Yukimura Ryu and Nawashi Kanna San (successor of the legendary Akechi Denki).

Here’s what Barkas had to share.

Why are people drawn to kinbaku?

“I can only speak for myself. I originally got into it after seeing someone’s facial expression while being in ropes. I told myself, ‘I want to be able to recreate those expressions’. […] I know that others who have talked to me are drawn to it for various reasons; aesthetics, athletics, eroticism, mediation, and more. It’s very diverse and also dependent on first encounters. People come to our workshops and haven’t even thought before that ropes can offer something else from what they have experienced so far.”

What first motivated you to become a kinbaku teacher?

“At some point a teacher asked me to assist and a short time after that, around 2,000 people in Vienna started asking me if I can give workshops about my approach to ropes. Since I already had teaching experience from university, it was relatively easy to adapt.”

Explain a typical kinbaku session with you—are there different classes for different needs?

“What happens in a teaching session: aside from the ones where students come with specific wishes, or the ongoing regular trainings at our space, I try to take the students with me on a journey through possibilities depending on where they want to go. Some classes are more technical in the sense of rope patterns, and some are more technical in terms of communication skills. Some are more emotional. […] As for a tying session, what I want to create with ropes is a space within which the person in ropes feels safe enough to share their vulnerabilities, at least some of them.”

Are there things that bother you about kinbaku’s depiction in mainstream media? Such as kinbaku and shibari, often being referred to as ‘just another BDSM kink’.

“There are many things that bother me. […] For some, Shibari is nothing but yet another kink and that is fine. For others, it is not and that must also be fine. What I would wish for in terms of representation is that those who have the resources to portrait Shibari/Kinbaku would show the diversity of approaches rather than just the BDSM side of the story.”

Are there dangers in practicing kinbaku or being part of the community?

“I’d say, 90 per cent of the injuries that I have seen in my professional career are psychological injuries. The big demon of nerve damage in the hands is of course real and it’s to a degree dangerous to practice tying. The ‘community’ offers the chance to progress and provide the knowledge about how to avoid injuries and it also has the power to deal with them as they happen. On the other hand, it is of course dangerous to rely on that community. […] Locally, there are communities, healthy ones, and sometimes they span over continents, but that’s rare.”

Have you noticed any patterns or changes in the kinds of people who want to learn about kinbaku over the years?

“When I started, most of rope education was about patterns and how those can be used in a BDSM context. That has changed drastically and thankfully diversified. […] People want philosophy, psychology, movement practices, visual art, engineering, etc. It is still changing and that’s good.”

What's your advice for people hesitant to practice kinbaku?

“Make friends, tie with friends, detach ropes from that one romantic relationship because if that breaks up, the rope often also vanishes from your life. And I would further advise you to be active against the things that you don’t want in your community—do not pretend that tying is apolitical. If you don’t state your views, there will be a power vacuum and that is going to get filled by those whose politics are all too often questionable at best.”

Though currently in the process of writing a second book about the practice, Barkas’ main priorities lie in helping marginalised groups specifically through local work to make a difference. Kinbaku is nothing short of art to those that practice it, and with the small community of budding riggers and bondage enthusiasts growing by the day, it only seems to be roping more of us in.

Behind the sinuous scenes of kinbaku, as explained by professional teacher Georg Barkas


By Francesca Johnson

Nov 12, 2021

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Inside China’s BDSM and polyamorous dating scenes and the technology allowing them to thrive

By TONG

Apr 28, 2021

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‘Dating in China’ is a three-part series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG with the aim of providing our readers with an insider’s point of view into what dating in China is truly like from a young person’s perspective. In order to offer you the deepest insights into China’s dating culture, each piece is centred around the point of view of one Chinese citizen (and serial dater).

In the third and final part of our Dating in China series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG, we look at China’s most stigmatised dating scenes such as BDSM (which stands for ‘bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism’) and polyamory (the practice of intimate relationships with more than one partner with the informed consent of all partners involved) as well as the technology allowing both communities to grow and connect them with like-minded daters. To truly get into the nitty gritty of China’s underground dating culture, we spoke to Lily, 25, about how she first got involved with this scene, the dating technology she used to explore her sexuality and the impact it has had on the way the country views and approaches these sexual preferences that are still deemed ‘unusual’ to this day.

Having touched upon the dating industry in China with a more global analysis in the first Deep Dive of this series and then shifting the narrative to focus on the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community in our second part, it made sense for Dating in China to end on a more niche dating culture in the country, one that can only grow from here. Although we live in an increasingly sexually liberated world, China’s culture added on top of its traditional government means that sexual self-expression and organised underground communities like the BDSM one have a hard time finding acceptance from the majority of the population.

That being said, all over the world, numerous kinks are still seen as taboo by many, leading them to remain stigmatised in most cultures. Kink, fetish and BDSM practices often involve consensual violence made up of both psychological and physical submission as well as domination and masochism, which can explain our society’s scepticism towards the community. According to an article published by Slate on China’s growing rope bondage community, until 2017, “most local bondage practitioners were self-taught, tying privately in their homes and relying on YouTube and Vimeo videos.” It should be noted that the two video-sharing platforms have been inaccessible from mainland China since 2009 because of their Western origin.

Until 2017, the subculture was not welcomed on China’s internet. In fact, still to this day, many BDSM communities choose to keep their circle as tight as possible—pun intended—in order to avoid getting shut down by the country’s government. However, slowly but surely, mainstream social and dating apps like WeChat and Tantan turned into breeding grounds for communities attracted to these somewhat unconventional sexual preferences. Here’s where it’s at in 2021.

Meet Lily, 25, living in Shanghai, polyamorous dater and member of China’s BDSM community

From the BDSM community to non-mono—polyamorous—meet up events, it’s safe to say that Lily has a lot to share about her involvement in China’s underground dating scenes. When she first got in contact with Screen Shot Pro, Lily explained a bit more about how her interest was initially sparked by the world of BDSM, “In the first place, it wasn’t through your typical dating app, it was on WeChat using a feature that allows users to find people that are nearby.”

WeChat is a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. First released in 2011, it quickly became the world’s largest standalone mobile app in 2018, with over 1 billion monthly active users. Famously described as China’s “app for everything” because of its wide range of functions, WeChat provides its users with an impressive range of features such as text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, broadcast (one-to-many) messaging, video conferencing, video games, photographs, videos and location sharing.

At the time, Lily was a high school student living by herself in Anhui away from her family and friends who lived in Shanghai. She first started using WeChat’s “附近的人” feature (meaning “People nearby”) to meet new people in her area. “I didn’t know about any other social networking software, and since WeChat was something that everyone used, it was easy to download and convenient to use. Later on, I felt that WeChat’s ‘People Nearby’ feature showed very little content to strangers, as there were even fewer people I met that I could talk to and share common interests with. That’s when I discovered other social networking apps.”

From there, Lily turned to the dating app Tantan to connect with more like-minded people. One day in 2019, she matched with a man whose profile pictures “looked pretty interesting” and who openly shared his polyamorous status. Only then did Lily really decide to learn more about polyamory and shortly after, BDSM. However, it wasn’t the first time she came across these terms. Let’s rewind a little bit.

When asked about her opinion on BDSM and polyamory before she got involved in both, Lily admitted acknowledging their existence before actually experiencing them first hand. “I thought that there was nothing to blame as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone and respects the person’s wishes. When I was in college and heard that a student would play BDSM with his lover, instead of passing the rumour on again, I acted as usual, like learning from others what he likes to eat,” she shared.

When she ventured into the field of BDSM a few years later, Lily often thought of him and felt able to discuss some of the related issues with him. As for polyamory, she first learned about it through a YouTube video, “I thought that polyamory was a very difficult model of intimacy where you have to schedule it, deal with jealousy, and more.”

From a Tantan match to becoming an active member of the community

By the time Lily was back in Shanghai, which in turn led her to meet this mystery man on Tantan, she had been single for over a year and was yearning for intimacy. Although she had met a few people she liked, none of those had resulted in a serious relationship. “I just thought that because Shanghai is such a big city and people here are always moving, they might not be in the city for long. Actually, no one can be here all the time, and I don’t know why but the guys I met were not willing to commit to our relationship.”

After meeting this person who openly spoke about his polyamorous status and through learning more from him, Lily first decided to attend one of the polyamory guided discussions he had told her about. “I got the chance to be involved in the non-monogamy community and soon enough, I started my own open relationship with another guy I matched on Tantan.”

Speaking about the reasons why she chose to try polyamory, she reiterated the struggles she faced when dating people in Shanghai. In this light, polyamory seemed like a fitting solution, “so I wouldn’t be afraid that my lover would have to leave Shanghai, as I could still develop relationships with other people and not put too much pressure on each other.”

Only then did she simultaneously get involved within the BDSM community after learning more about it through, for example, the event mentioned above. “Trying something new excited me, and at the time BDSM was a mysterious new thing to me. At a non-monogamous party, I heard from seniors about their experiences with various BDSM relationships and their partners, and it was so interesting and new that I wanted to try it myself,” said Lily.

After matching with the second man she mentioned, Lily felt like she could share her newly found interest in polyamory as well as BDSM with him, who she thought seemed open-minded enough. “During our interactions, I found him to be polite and respectful of other people’s ideas as well as having his own. One night after hanging out for three months, we talked late into the night. I told him about my desire for intimacy and being part of a non-monogamous community, and after explaining to him what polyamory was, he expressed interest in trying an open relationship with me if I was serious, so we got together after that.”

A deep dive into Shanghai’s BDSM and polyamory scenes

Respect is one of the key values that keeps what kinksters do from being abusive. Similarly, in a non-monogamous relationship, all people involved not only need to consent, but feel respected too for it to work in a healthy way. According to Lily, that same key value is apparent through Shanghai’s BDSM and polyamory scenes, “The community I am in is mostly made of foreigners and everyone is quite friendly and follows the rules. Newcomers have to get at least three votes to join us after talking to ‘old’ members. We hold regular talks and workshops where people can suggest ideas for an event.”

Speaking of events, Lily went on to explain that no one will force anyone to do something they don’t enjoy. “If you want to play with someone, you have to ask them (and their partner) if it’s okay and what behaviour is not acceptable. It’s also worth mentioning that we have a girls’ group where girls can ask questions, discuss and share or complain about a man who has harassed or offended them online or offline, and depending on the seriousness of the behaviour, the person complained about can be warned or kicked out of the community.”

At the time of our interview, Lily had recently attended a ‘fetish ball’ in Shanghai with a strict dress code consisting of “leather, rubber, kinky, sm.” Most of the people attending the event were Chinese, and by looking at the posters, Lily expected a rope bondage show, “but I stayed until midnight and saw no sign of rope. Instead, there was a group of girls dressed in skin-showing clothes, breast patches, thongs, fishnet stockings, and collars in front of a DJ booth with a man spanking them with a long, loose whip.”

Inside China’s BDSM and polyamory dating scenes and the technology allowing them to thrive

Lily continued to describe the evening, “The audience just gathered around them, watching and dancing. The lights were dim, the music was loud, and the scantily clad girls looked a bit shy, pushing and shoving as they were pushed out by the uproarious crowd to receive spanking. I think this might have been from some local Chinese BDSM community, but I’m not a big fan of events like this, they’re too casual, not private enough, and can give the wrong impression to those who don’t know BDSM.”

As for polyamory and the scene she has been involved in as a result of her interest in non-monogamous relationships, Lily explained that polyamory comes in many forms. “One girl who has dated two boyfriends at the same time and has taken them both to meet her parents is a good example for our non-monogamous community and the three of them can occasionally be seen at events together,” she first said.

“There are also married people,” continued Lily. “There is a couple that likes to go to events together and hook up with people who are attracted to them, and it’s only okay that one of them does something with someone else under the other one’s watchful eye. There also may be a couple where two men are gay, or prefer men over women, and the girls are bisexual—their union is mainly for spiritual support.”

The most BDSM and polyamory-friendly dating apps

Although Lily mentioned Tantan as the main dating app where she met potential partners and other members of her community, she also shared that nowadays, she tends to avoid spending too much time online. “I use social media platforms and dating apps to meet new people and do interesting things together, so I don’t spend too much time on the internet and don’t look for people who are far away from me,” she explained.

However, if you’re looking for advice on which popular apps to use in China when on the hunt for some kinky and like-minded people to connect with, Lily has a few suggestions: “If you care about the looks of your date, then your first choice should still be Tantan because of its large user base.”

If you don’t care much about looks, then she recommends Soul, “Compared to Tantan, I feel like Soul is a really feature-rich and safe app because you can talk through video calls on it without worrying too much.” That is because when videoing on the app, users can choose their own animated avatars, just like Apple’s Memoji. “If you don’t set an avatar, then your whole screen will be made of mosaic and therefore won’t give away any information that might put your privacy at risk. If you want to speak to someone, both parties must follow each other first; the number of active users on Soul is huge too, so when you comment on someone’s picture or chat, your username is randomly generated by the system.”

All of these features offered on the Soul app mean that users have more freedom to express themselves as well as their sexual kinks without having to worry about how privacy issues could impact them in real life. And this is only the beginning for the app, as rumours have recently started circulating about the company behind the dating app confidentially filing for an IPO in the US, according to The South China Morning Post.

As Lily told us, she has Tantan, WeChat and even the video-sharing platform YouTube to thank for first introducing her to these two alternative dating scenes and helping her connect with members who are part of the communities surrounding them. But after making those connections, Lily explained that her interest in social and dating technologies has not expanded much further. “Both communities have regular get-togethers where you can bring new people and talk about whatever you want. Members of the non-monogamous group can add people directly, whereas to join the BDSM group you have to come to the potluck and get at least three votes from old members. Newcomers to the group will be given a document with some basic information about BDSM, including the principle of informed consent and safe areas for spanking.”

This ‘real-life’ aspect of the communities and the way they interact with each other highlights how little a part technologies play in connecting people together once that initial meeting has been carried out. Looking back on the two previous Deep Dives of Dating in China, Lily explains that both heterosexuals and gays can find what they’re looking for on dating apps, “The basic functions of the software are the same as any other dating app—searching for people nearby, looking at bios, matching and chatting—but the LGBTQ+ community is more likely to use dating apps in order to find similar people or circles and get a sense of identity and belonging.”

On the other hand, “For heterosexuals, the purpose of using dating apps is probably more realistic. They may want to date, start a relationship, find a marriage partner, find a playmate or something like that, so their bios will be more realistic, such as graduating from a prestigious school, workplace, spouse selection criteria, etc,” adds Lily.

When it comes to the BDSM and polyamorous communities of Shanghai—and probably the rest of the country too—dating apps (and social networking apps too) have only enabled more of the Chinese population to find like-minded individuals who they feel like they can connect with and share the same interests. That being said, dating technologies do not have much say in how these relationships are then maintained or how they evolve. That is left for members of those communities to figure out on their own, through real-life interactions.

Lily’s top tips on using dating apps in China

So, yes, dating apps are mostly used to create those very first connections, but how can users interested in BDSM or polyamory use them in ways that are as efficient as possible? Here are the last few tips Lily had to share, “Don’t chat online for too long. Instead, ask the person out for a meeting as soon as possible—an afternoon tea or dinner is a good option. When you’re face to face with someone, their appearance, dress and temperament will be very visible to you and this will help you to determine your feelings more. In the end, we’re all here to make friends with living, breathing people.”

 

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