'Greater Satisfaction' Than Sex: BDSM Becoming Increasingly Dominant in Israeli Nightlife

Changing from Britney Spears to a more fitting soundtrack and attracting party-goers from all walks of life, more and more Israelis are no longer bound to taboos on sex practices that involve domination and pain

Revelers at Tel Aviv’s The Dungeon. The oldest BDSM club in the city.
Mike Moore

A darkened room. A woman wearing leather clothing and stilettos whips a man in chains, his mouth gagged. Collar, whip, handcuffs, a drip of hot wax on a naked body. These images are probably familiar to you even if you never tried BDSM – erotic practices involving bondage, dominance, submission, sadomasochism, and active and passive role-playing that often involves binding. In fact, they are practically a cliché of BDSM, which in recent decades has infiltrated popular culture. But with all due respect to “Fifty Shades,” Rihanna’s hit “S&M,” and “The Story of O” from way back when, what has helped to legitimize BDSM, in 2019, as part of the contemporary discourse relating to sex and sexuality has been a gradual process over many years. If today we, or at least many of us, feel comfortable speaking seriously and respectfully about polyamory or geriatric sex, why should we restrain ourselves when it comes to sex practices that involve domination and pain?

This international awakening is reflected in Israel as well, where a modest but stable BDSM scene has actually existed for some time. Until a few years ago, in this realm, there had been a single club (Tel Aviv’s The Dungeon, in operation for 16 years); several regular parties (so-called play parties) at other clubs; private parties in Tel Aviv (but also some in Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva); one internet site, The Cage; and BDSM workshops taking place under the radar, moving between various clubs and hosted by private individuals.

In the last two years, the variety and number of these activities have surged: The Dungeon now hosts four regular parties, in addition to others such as “Duckdance,” “La-More” or “Temple of Love,” hosted at other clubs. Each one of these draws hundreds, lining up outside. The veteran Cage site has been joined by 20 closed and secret Facebook groups. And we haven’t mentioned the very lively, non-internet community.

A man tied up in a Shibari style,  an erotic art dating to 15th-century Japan that uses different sorts of bondage, torture and detention techniques.
Daniel Tchetchik

At the same time one can also see an increase in munches – social gatherings of people interested in BDSM, which take place in homes or public venues, usually in completely unconventional contexts. The munch itself is not a new invention, explains Tomah Fahrenheim, a blogger and writer on BDSM and fetishism who organizes three different munches. What is new, she says, is the scope, the level of response and the fact that these gatherings are being arranged by means of the internet and secret Facebook groups.

“There are now new, regular parties that are trying to extend the experience to new people, to be slightly softer with regard to dress codes, behavior and rules,” says Michael Cordovox, who runs the Gagarin Club in Tel Aviv and is a central figure in the community. Gagarin, a venue for aficionados of avant-garde, goth, and dark musical styles, has for the last three years been hosting Sin Ethics, a popular BDSM party with creative concepts and elaborate decorations.

Suspended in Jaffa

In the middle of the living room in Cordovox’s apartment stands a kind of broad saddle. When I ask what it’s for, it turns out that it’s the Sybian that’s used in his club – a masturbating machine or mega-vibrator, to which one can affix a dildo, and adjust the level and direction of vibration. “I would turn it on to show you, but the neighbors would really be angry, it sounds like a tractor in the house,” Cordovox apologizes. The Sybian is one of the hits at Gagarin, along with the darkroom and the stage where performers appear, as well as not a few guests. Some classics never get old.

The whips are the most popular attractions at the club, “tut the other components also have their place. Except for urine and excrement, and things like that, which are not appropriate in a closed club,” says Cordovox. “Sometimes sex isn’t involved. Many are looking for domination, or for powerlessness, humiliation or what is called sub-space, the high that is beyond pain.”

'There are now new, regular parties that are trying to extend the experience to new people'
Gabi Chen

At Sin Ethics parties, one feels the BDSM scene blossoming. They take place once every three weeks, “and between 300 and 600 people show up,” says Cordovox. “Not a few people from the scene spread the word. We have created a new nucleus with them. It started with music: I didn’t feel comfortable with the music being played at parties like these in town. Most of it was mainstream. It seemed horrible to me to listen to Britney Spears and use a whip. The moment we decided to put on our own parties with music that’s more in the direction of techno and deep house, we attracted a lot more new people.”

Cordovox: “A large part of all this is a result of word of mouth, [people] coming from free love camps and not necessarily for the BDSM. Also not a few are from the swinging scene. We’ve created this connection among us, a very complex and delicate and sometimes problematic one. These are two different cultures, and sometimes they conflict. At swinging parties, people come to have sex; that’s the purpose. At BDSM, everything is more elegant, and there is a range of emotions that one needs to take into account. You need to remember that there are people who have a master or ruler who decides for them. There are people for whom sex is just a bonus. Most of the time they don’t talk about sex at all and are not interested in it.”

Are there hot trends now that didn’t happen before?

“One trend that became very popular recently is DDLG (Daddy Dom, Little Girl), a domination game where the master enjoys taking care of, cultivating and protecting his little ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, while the one in the role of the boy or girl enjoys being little and protected. In our line of parties, we set up a corner for them with very childish toys – like dolls, cars, a pool of balls, pacifiers, shirts with pictures of unicorns. It’s a trend that has come on very strong. Lots of daddy issues. At the parties, the interaction between daddies and ‘children’ is less popular. The ‘children’ are more into running off to play, to be seen as children. Daddies is more for home, someone who will worry and take care of you.”

Shibari and Kinbaku excite me

It’s hard to guess what’s behind the door, on the minus-1 floor of a gray building in east Tel Aviv. When you open it, you find a large and pleasant studio. On the floor thick mattresses are spread out and wooden panels are suspended from the ceiling. On the walls, in the dim lighting, are delicate erotic sketches.

One might be tempted to think that people who come to this studio are characterized by a certain edge, but the group occupying it now, beyond a streak of color in their hair or a rebellious tattoo, could pass for a bunch of high-tech workers who are sick of escape rooms and have decided to spice up their team’s evenings with more challenging elements.

Shibari, or Kinbaku – an erotic art dating to 15th-century Japan that uses different sorts of bondage, torture and detention techniques, and inspired by Kabuki theater and woodblock-printed art – is spreading and becoming legitimate in Israel. If once Shibari was a secret pastime which interested practitioners could only experience if they flew off to some European country – today it has become assimilated in local culture; it’s become something people can talk about with friends over a glass of wine without being embarrassed. Anyone interested in Shibari can easily find lessons, workshops, books, articles and Facebook groups. There is a whole culture surrounding acquisition of appropriate ropes in Israel or online. It can be found also at BDSM parties, of course.

In the last two years, the variety and number of these activities have surged.
Ilan Sapira

“I think that we also have a place in this, the fact that Shibari has become a strong trend in Israel,” says Cordovox, from Gagarin. “We gave Shibari a very big stage that it never had.”

A visit to a beginners’ workshop at the studio, which is called Morikai, is not done in secret. Quite the opposite: The experience is pleasant and aesthetic, and almost never involves sex, certainly not on the premises, where the emphasis is completely on instruction.

“For me, it doesn’t involve sex almost at all,” says Lucy, a high-tech worker in her daily life, who is one of six owners of the studio. “People come for a greater satisfaction.” Morikai is not the only Shibari studio around; there’s also Peer Rope TLV and Kshurimot, in Jerusalem, an older studio.

Aside from workshops, on other days, Morikai offers what’s called a jam, involving special trainers and strict safety rules. “There are dangers in Shibari,” Lucy emphasizes, “improper binding can lead to long-term damage.”

The atmosphere during a jam is bit more kinetic and free; the participants are usually more experienced and know what they want. Some remain tied on the floor, and some are bound and hang from a beam. And there are those who prefer to hang themselves – as difficult as that is to hear. Not a few of them come to a session of about two hours and then go from there to the Dungeon, not far away.

Does the binding hurt?

Lucy: “I don’t like pain and I also don’t have a high pain threshold. I don’t do it for sado-masochistic reasons, but with a sado-masochistic mentality. The thought that at the same time I cannot move, I’m helpless – this is what does it for me. So, pain isn’t there. At the same time I want it to stop, but that only adds to it all, because I don’t have the ability to stop the pain.”

Most of the people who go to Morikai are 35 and under, “but we have couples come in of all ages, young and old, married and divorced, from the community and from outside of it,” says Lucy. “I have no idea how they hear about us. We don’t advertise on Facebook or Instagram, because it’s something private. That’s the magic here.”

Slave to the rhythm

The fact that Israel’s BDSM scene has begun to thrive in the last two years can clearly be attributed to a heightened feeling of personal safety at the clubs, on one hand, and the increasing legitimacy associated with speaking out against sexual assault in the community, on the other. In general, the formative, central principle here is SSC: Safe, Sane, Consensual. This is the ideal, but in practice, people who express themselves crudely in the social networks are one side of the violence that is the lot of a minority in the BDSM community; another aspect of this is violence in the clubs – the feeling that there is an invasion of privacy and sometimes a crossing of red lines in the guise of relationships of domination.

One important factor when it comes to safety and security in this realm is the use of DMs (Dungeon Monitors) at clubs.

“Most of the assaults considered severe don’t occur at parties,” says Shai Shpitzman, a social worker who is the founder and manager of the Center for Alternative Sexuality, a site established to enable open conversations about sexuality. On the other hand, there are people who become predatory at parties. “The work of the DM is not necessarily to get involved in keeping people away from each other,” he says, “but facilitating room to play, caring for someone who drank too much – but with empathy. To recognize improper bondage or whipping, which is liable to be dangerous, and to determine whether it's necessary to get involved to help someone who may have been harmed.”

Spanking at The Dungeon. 'At BDSM, everything is more elegant, and there is a range of emotions that one needs to take into account'
Gabi Chen

What about sexual assaults that take place outside the clubs? There hasn’t yet been satisfactory progress there. One of the activities of the Center for Alternative Sexuality, established just a year ago, is to advise people who have suffered sexual assault, exploitation or abuse, and to connect them with therapists, doctors or psychologists who know the world of BDSM and will treat them with understanding and respect. Until now, the center has received about 70 inquiries.

“Most of the time we are talking about dominated women,” reports Shpitzman. “In the great majority of cases they report severe assaults, like rape, humiliating acts and abuse. Many of these are instances in which the ‘master’ simply doesn’t stop when the safety word is said, or crosses boundaries in way that is harmful.”

Along with the disturbing incidents, however, are signs of a more empathetic attitude toward those who have suffered – as well as harsher treatment of assailants – for instance, by means of the internet.

“At the moment, containment of the situation is aimed primarily at the dominated women who have been harmed by dominant men, but awareness of dominatrices who have been hurt by those they dominate, or ‘masters’ hurt by those they dominate, doesn’t really exist yet,” says blogger Fahrenheim.

But there are also "leaks," I suppose.

“Yes, unfortunately, they also happens. A year or two ago someone who was managing a group [online] and worked at a preschool got into a conflict with a member of the group and kicked him out. In response, he exposed her and she lost her job."

Have you begun to feel less extraordinary? It seems as if the number of people willing to come out of the BDSM closet has increased.

Fahrenheim: “It has risen considerably. Until two years ago, besides me, most of the people who were open on the internet, even if with a fictitious name or stage name, were queens (dominatrices) for pay. Lately, you can find people who take pictures without disguises. In general, today it’s not unusual for people in completely vanilla groups [i.e., who engage in traditional sex] to write ‘Hi, I am polyamorous and I like BDSM’.”

How would you describe this new, young generation?

“People who are 19-20 who were just now exposed to the scene – there is something more in your face about their behavior with respect to the 'dinosaurs' of the community, who have very clear rules. The new generation is characterized by less attention to ethics, but most of that comes from ignorance, not malice.”

Fahrenheim, who acts as a “slave” in relations with her partner but identifies as someone who "switches" and also dominates others, highlights two significant trends in the local BDSM scene today. “One trend at present is the harem trend. It is mostly about a single male master who has seven ‘slaves,’ even 10 or 12 – the more the better. The trend today is to expand things. It can be in the form of an ‘internet slave’ who receives a 'stamp' that she belongs to a particular Dom (meaning ‘dominant’), and then relations of domination take place primarily or exclusively online. But it can absolutely happen off-screen, with slaves who come to his [the master's] house every day and belong to him. So, at present, the proliferation of slaves is very hot, which is funny, because three years ago the trend in BDSM was monogamy. No longer.”

The blogger also emphasizes that the DDLG domination game is becoming more popular at present in Israel, as well as on the international BDSM scene, spawning innumerable Facebook groups and Instagram pages.

According to your description, the community is at the height of a positive process – more openness, more sensitivity, more tolerance.

“Absolutely. I've been public in the community for six years already, and, wow, what a change. If once I was afraid to go out to places for fear that I would be harassed, today I go out even alone, because I know that I have someone to turn to. I feel comfortable on Facebook. If six years ago, when I would write that I 'switch' and am looking for a ‘slave’ and get around 1,000 responses, and for every refusal I would receive threats to my life – today if someone acts like that they are kicked out of the relevant groups and will be an outcast. The more there are of us, the more we can allow ourselves to be snobs.”