The Rope Doesn’t Lie19 July 2016
She holds out her right hand, palm up. He drapes the rope over her wrist and wraps it around once, twice, three times.
He feeds the line through the loop.
In a single swift motion, he pulls.
As the newborn knot gently grazes her skin, she looks up to meet the eyes of her fellow classmates. Leaning over the edge of their floor pillows, they are watching with magnetic focus.
Scott*, head instructor at the Melbourne Rope Dojo, is demonstrating how to create a basic column tie. It is one of the array of knots students will learn as they study Shibari, a type of Japanese rope bondage. Influenced by the use of rope to safely restrain prisoners in ancient Japan, Shibari emerged in the early 1900s as a form of artistic bondage involving two people, one being tied with rope by the other. The distinctive aesthetic of Shibari has prevailed throughout the years, lending itself to works of contemporary art, performance and fashion. Less prominent on public radar is the growing practice of Shibari in its full form, by people seeking a new way of exploring their sexuality.
The Melbourne Rope Dojo teaches traditional Shibari with not only a focus on technicality but also according to Scott, an emphasis on “the strong and intimate connection rope creates between partners”. Be it a spouse or friend, for the best learning experience, Scott requests students bring a partner they feel comfortable with to class. Since the school was founded in 2011, it has experienced a steady increase in students.
“There were times when I started where I’d only have one or two couples coming to class.” Scott recalls. “Now, there are at least a dozen couples attending each class.”
The growth in the number of people attending Shibari classes parallels the increasing dialogue surrounding sex positivity in recent years. According to Anna Gabosch, a sex positive activist, this is “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual activities as fundamentally healthy and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation”.
Sex positivity contests the harmful, regressive yet deeply ingrained social attitudes towards sex. It condemns the trivialisation of sex as a male conquest, devoid of respect, as is tirelessly exhibited in mainstream porn; it criticises slut-shaming women for exploring their sexuality and seeking sexual pleasure for themselves, and it rebukes the dominant heteronormative view of sex that silences the voices of LGBTI individuals. With an unabashed sense of urgency, it calls for attention towards how because of these pervasive, yet misconstrued narratives of sex, the importance of consent and intimacy are being neglected.
To tackle the misconception of these topics, young people must be educated about sex. At present, schools are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring it is taught as comprehensively as possible. However, being predominantly heteronormative and focused on biology and contraception, current sex education is not only inadequate but also misrepresentative. Given its limited scope, it is no wonder many young people express dissatisfaction with sex-ed at school. At a crucial time of their lives when they are becoming sexually active amidst peer pressure towards drinking and socialising, proper sex education should be a main priority. Simply teaching students how to put a condom on a banana and making them memorise the anatomy of a vagina neither encapsulates the reality of sex, nor prepares them to engage in pleasurable, consensual and respectful sexual relationships. This approach shortchanges young people, especially those who are also struggling with trying to figure out their sexual identity.
Unfortunately, the other primary source of information about sex that is readily available to young people is porn, which for the most part portrays sex as a male-dominated act that gives no regard to female pleasure. Needless to say, there is only so much young people can learn from porn about what it means to form an emotional connection with someone or to even have sex that is mutually enjoyable.
We need to overcome our cultural avoidance of openly talking about sex. For something that has so much relevance to many of us, the conversation about this issue is needlessly constrained by embarrassment. As such, we are unable to share the knowledge we acquire through our experiences with those who could benefit from it, particularly our youth.
Scott echoed these views. “We live in a society still where there is a lot of shame surrounding sexuality,” he sighed, “so many people push aside their desires because of this.”
The intimate nature of Shibari, with its focus on building trust and communication between partners, offers people an opportunity to fill in the gaps left by sex education in school and porn, and thereby further their understanding of pleasure and consent.
The beginner-level students meet weekly on Wednesday evenings. Under Scott’s guidance, they spend two hours practicing various ties on their partners in an airy, brightly lit dance studio. The students share the space with the intermediate class, who work on more complex rope work in the other half of the room.
After the demonstration, Scott instructs the group to practice the column tie on their own. “Your turn,” he encourages them, “give it a go.”
The students pad over to the plain brown sack in the corner of the studio. Filled to the brim, bundles of rope spill out from it. Each pair collects their rope and begins to unravel it. It cascades to their feet, meeting the ground with a soft thud.
Scott floats around the room, shuffling between the pairs of students as they work. He allows them to practice independently, only attending to them when they are stuck or to check their technique.
In the corner of the room, a couple sits on the floor. With her back faced towards him and her hands folded behind her neck, the woman closes her eyes. Her partner expertly maneuvers the rope, fashioning it into a web of intricate knots across her torso.
On the other side of the room, laughter erupts as another woman tries to free her partner from a tangled net of rope. Scott swiftly comes to the rescue.
“Make sure to always maintain tension in the rope,” Scott instructs the women, “as you learn more, the rope becomes an exceedingly strong communication line. Even small movements of your hands become powerful messages between you two.”
In many ways, Shibari and sex positivity overlap, complementing each other. Both place an emphasis on communicative relationships between partners.
Advanced student Jenny* says that Shibari has helped her express herself to her partner. Reflecting on the two years they’ve been tying together, Jenny says her partner and her have “really grown together”.
“I’ve learnt a lot about myself,” she marveled, “it’s been a big turning point in my life.”
“Shibari requires a lot of trust, you have to let go of your control for someone to tie you,” Jenny explains, “At the same time, when you tie someone, you have to know their limits.”
Scott reinforces this perspective, agreeing that Shibari can strengthen relationships by enhancing open communication.
“Rope creates an intense connection between people,” he says.
“The rope doesn’t lie. Between the two of you and the piece of rope, you feel and sense everything. So if you’ve got any barriers, it’ll become this big, obvious elephant in the room.”
“To be good at rope, you have to expose yourself. You have to be going ‘Here I am; this is me’. You have to put yourself out there in your unadulterated state,” Scott adds.
The sky dims outside as more people trickle into the small studio. Couples arriving for the later advanced class greet Scott and their fellow classmates. Soon, the room is warm with the growing buzz of conversation. Students mingle while unwinding rope and exchange news about their week while binding arms. Everyone moves without hesitation, everyone breathes easily.
The people in this room play an important role in the spreading shift towards a holistic view of sex and sexuality. As they use ropes to communicate, they highlight the need for honest dialogue between partners. As they create secure knots across each other’s bodies, they emphasise the importance of building trusting relationships. They belong to a growing number of people who are ready to embrace sex positivity and endeavor to fill in the gaps left from inadequate sex education.
“In all the situations it comes down to two people creating an experience together. Whatever they’re trying to achieve, they’re working together to accomplish it,” Scott says.
“Let’s not be ashamed of our sexualities, let’s go and explore things and help each other grow.”
Just as openness and communication are fundamental aspects of Shibari, a practice that first and foremost values trust and honesty between partners, so should these qualities also form the foundation of the wider social conversation regarding sex – especially when the stakes are so high. As long as sex remains shrouded by stigma, we will continue to deny ourselves a rich enjoyment of this fundamental human experience. By helping each other shed the layers of shame and unease when we talk about sex, we might all come to feel comfortable in our own skin.
*Last names have been omitted at the request of the interviewees.