BEIRUT: Sitting outside a coffee shop in Sassine, Ziad gestures to himself and says, “Look at me. Who could guess I like to whip women? ”It’s a fair question, like other members of the clandestine Lebanese BDSM community with whom the Daily Star spoke, Ziad comes across as an average, middle-aged guy, the kind you’d expect to see at the office or chain smoking in a cafe. Human sexuality comes up in ordinary conversation often, but BDSM – an umbrella term for bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism – is not a sexual preference many understand.
Rarely addressed in the mainstream – though the explosive success of novels such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” suggests change – its practitioners often face stigma.
Some in the Lebanese community have responded to the stigma by banding together for regular meetings starting in September 2011.
“We’ve built this group as a way to be there for newbies ... to try and promote awareness for anybody who wished to listen,” says Hadi, a group founder and a “master,” meaning he prefers to play the dominant role.
The group counts about 10 members, all of whom reside in Lebanon. They hold a “munch” once a month to chat and have a drink, just like any group of friends.
“A lot of people have been reticent to join us, they somehow believe we’ve got big stickers on our heads that say who we are,” says Charlotte, a Canadian “sub,” or submissive partner. Topics discussed can range from the banal – such as where to find a good dentist – to more BDSM specific – such as where to buy good bondage rope.
While there are a wealth of different practices that fall under the BDSM umbrella, one unifying characteristic is safety.
Hadi, who was trained as a master at the Black Orchid Academy in Paris and can teach others professionally, explains that different people are interested in different kinks, which can range from role playing or the use of collars, whips, canes and floggers, to the more extreme, such as burning. He even knows one man who “enjoys being beaten. ... That’s what gets him off.”
Whatever the fetish, there are two key things: safety and consent.
“There are ways to do it safely, as not to leave marks if the person doesn’t want marks, and if the person wants marks, there are ways not to do any damage,” Hadi says.
What is striking about the BDSM scene is the communication. Not just on the communal level, but also between couples in a relationship, such as Charlotte and Ziad.
For Charlotte, exploring her limits with Ziad was an awakening. She first came across BDSM in her early 20s. The man she was dating at the time tied her up, cut her with a razor and made her stand in the corner, though at the time she was unaware these were sexual behaviors that would fall under the BDSM classification. All she knew was “this was part of who this man was” and she liked it, she says.
It wasn’t until she became involved in the BDSM scene in Lebanon, and became Ziad’s play partner and submissive, that she finally began to understand this part of herself. Ziad gave Charlotte an extensive list of kinks for her to explore so that she could determine her limits.
Their relationship is characteristic of the BDSM scene, where partnerships usually form between dominants and submissives. It’s not an unusual concept; in most human relationships, there is a power play between those in control and those controlled. What BDSM does is to formalize this dynamic in a way that gives both ends of the spectrum satisfaction sexually.
What it doesn’t mean, however, is that the dominant has free reign.
“The important [thing] is the constant communication between both sides, the dom cannot do as he pleases,” Hadi explains.
It is a misconception that concerns many, “I’ve seen so many sub men and woman who think they have to put up with s--t,” Charlotte says.
But when done right, BDSM can lead to intense pleasure. While for many the idea of giving up control might seem foreign or even frightening, for submissives, the loss of control can be euphoric. The community has given this pleasure a name: “subspace.”
Describing subspace, Charlotte says “it’s a bit similar to being drunk, you don’t really feel safe to drive.” She explains the theory behind the intensity of subspace, saying, “It has to do with an endorphin rush. ... Your endorphins go up to help you deal with the pain, and the high comes from the endorphins.”
The flipside to subspace is subdrop, which, as Charlotte succinctly puts it, “sucks.”
Similar to the premenstrual syndrome many women suffer from monthly, subdrop, which has only happened to Charlotte a few times, is an intense feeling of insecurity caused by the lack of BDSM pleasure.
“My whole body was aching and I felt tearful,” she says.
The solution to subdrop differs for everybody, but one solution is endorphin-triggering chocolate.
When recalling their first session together, Charlotte is effusive in her description.
“It felt like everything had clicked into place, and I was finally congruent,” she says.
Ziad agrees: “The first time I whipped you, you said it felt like the universe had come into place.”
THE DANGER OF SECRECY
Without a trusting partnership, some Lebanese would prefer to keep their kinky practices outside of Lebanon. Nadine, who considers herself bicurious and a “switch,” meaning that she can play both dominant and submissive roles, resides in the United Arab Emirates.
“If I was in Lebanon, I don’t think I’d be able to practice kink like I am right now,” she says. “Lebanon’s a small country, and almost everyone knows everybody. As a woman I cannot risk it.”
Protecting anonymity is key. Before anyone new is accepted into the group, they first meet one on one with a member to establish their motivations. But in other countries, this level of security is often unnecessary, members say.
The secrecy here can be dangerous, Hadi says: “The lack of openness and awareness ... is going to lead to people who learn from watching porn. They think they know stuff, but they have no guidance.”
BDSM porn, they all agree, is extremely inaccurate. To combat that, the group guides new members on proper practice.
Ziad and Charlotte are teaching a young male submissive how to practice bondage without bruising.
And in a country with a poor reputation for sex education, this kind of practical advice is rare. Speaking from a foreigner’s perspective, Charlotte says, “I accepted this part of myself as just part of myself, I never once felt ashamed of it, never once. But that’s the first thing I notice about the Lebanese people that I meet is this incredible sense of shame. ‘I’m sick and there is something wrong with me.’”
It is something they are keen to counteract. Speaking about their mentoring of the young male sub, Charlotte says, “we’re like his lifeline. ... Thank God he found us instead of people who took advantage of him. He lives for the once a month that he is around people and he can just be himself.”
Ziad recalls the moment when they suggested he try to find a group closer to his age at university – most people who attend the munch are in their 30s or 40s – but were met with panic. “He was like, ‘Are you throwing me out?’”
They also seek to protect vulnerable people from those who don’t respect limits.
“So many people here, unfortunately, because they are desperate to find someone who understands them, they jump into play too early, before they really know the other person,” Charlotte says. “And then, of course, in this society, what are you going to do? Go to the police? You’re going to go to the police and you’re going to tell them you wanted him to tie you up but you didn’t want him to hit you?”
Going PROFor five to 10 days each year, professional female dominatrices, called pro-dommes, visit the country from abroad for private appointments. “As I hear it, they are always fully booked,” Hadi says.
But local pro-dommes are a different story. Some have made the transition from prostitution to professional dominatrix, which doesn’t necessarily involve intercourse. In Lebanon, a customer will pay around $200-300 per session.
Without proper training and guidance, these sessions can be harmful both physically and mentally, by pushing someone’s limits, members of the group say.
“They think that they know what they are doing but they don’t not, they’re just hurting people,” Hadi says.
It’s a concern shared by Nadine, who as a switch enjoys being dominant herself sometimes. “A male sub will pay for this pro-domme to let him suck her toes or to offer her a visit to the spa. It’s just absurd. I played domme, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed dominating that guy ... and I made sure that he was pleased as well.”
As best it can while still maintaining anonymity, the munch is attempting to encourage a more open discussion of BDSM.
“We are trying to make a balance to say, ‘Hey, we are here, we know what we are talking about, this isn’t right.’ We’re not against people making money, that’s their own business. ... We’re trying to promote the correct idea, to make people really understand what this concept is, what this lifestyle is,” Hadi says.
LEGALITY AND ABUSE
Law enforcement in the country is aware of the practice, according to Hadi, who has been active in the scene since 2002.
Back then, he had set up a dungeon in a chalet up in the mountains, with “about 30 people, singles and couples, who would meet monthly to play.” Their group stayed together for around a year-and-a-half before going their separate ways.
He says that the Lebanese scene is currently experiencing a revival, partly because the security forces are preoccupied with bigger problems.
Hadi and Charlotte have both consulted a lawyer about the legality of BDSM in Lebanon, concluding there is nothing in writing that forbids it.
The Daily Star consulted legal experts who asked to remain anonymous. They concluded that there was nothing in the law against BDSM but warned that judges could always find a legal argument against it. For instance, harming another person, even with their consent, would be a pursuable offense under Lebanese criminal code.
“They don’t really know anything about it,” Hadi says. “They just know that some people like to get beaten and tortured and some people do it. That’s the concept that 90 percent of the people have here when you say BDSM, it’s like someone beating someone else. It’s not the same.”
The group’s members point out that there’s a huge difference between BDSM and domestic violence. Charlotte recalls in disbelief a conversation she had after the release of Rihanna’s single “S&M,” when a friend remarked, “She likes to be roughed up, what’s she complaining about that he hit her?” – referring to the alleged incident between the singer and Chris Brown.
“This is a huge stereotype,” Charlotte says. “They think spousal abuse equates to sadomasochism.”
Another prominent stereotype is the idea that people who are into BDSM have suffered past abuse. Charlotte is dismissive of this, saying, “You’ll definitely find some but I don’t think you will find anymore [than] in the general population.”
In fact, while BDSM practices are largely under the academic radar, a Dutch study last year reported in the Journal of Sexual Medicine that BDSM practitioners in their sample had better mental health than those who enjoyed so-called “vanilla sex.”
True or not, experimenting in BDSM requires the same preconditions as ordinary sex: safety, trust and consent. Because, as Charlotte puts it, “when you’re tied up, honey, you’ve got nowhere to go.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the members of the group asked that their real names not be used.