This article was originally published in Refinery29. Image courtesy of Refinery29.
For the average person who dabbles in bondage, adding a pair of handcuffs to their sex life is just a fun way to mix things up. For those who practice shibari, a specific type of Japanese rope bondage, it’s not just BDSM — it’s an art form.
Shibari is a Japanese word that literally means “to tie,” says Lord Morpheous, sex educator and author of several books on rope bondage, including Bondage Basics: Naughty Knots and Risque Restraints.
But let’s make one thing clear: If you’re new to bondage, (a.k.a. restraint play), shibari is probably not the best place to start. Simpler forms of bondage, like sex handcuffs or bed restraint kits, are easier to learn and use safely. “An absolute beginner might want to get a wider taste for several bondage styles and techniques before they focus on shibari,” Morpheous says. However, shibari instructors say that, for those who are more advanced in bondage and drawn to the visual delight of shibari rope patterns, there’s nothing better.
Unlike many forms of bondage within BDSM, shibari isn’t usually meant to foster a sense of helplessness and humiliation for the person who’s tied up (which many submissive people desire). “Shibari, conversely, focuses on the art, beauty, and geometry of the tying style over and above these things,” Morpheous says. But shibari practitioners’ emphasis on the craft itself doesn’t mean it can’t be an intensely erotic and spiritual sexual experience. “It fosters a real connection with your partner or partners, even when there is no other contact or erotic content to the play session,” Morpheous says. (But again, there are plenty of easier ways to achieve this connection, like using scarves or belts as basic restraints in a consensual dominant/submissive scenario.)
While it’s okay for anyone interested in shibari to safely explore the practice, it’s important to understand that shibari has a deep and rich cultural history. “I personally think one should study its history and origins, both Eastern and Western, because it’s interesting and helps one understand certain cultural meanings to why things may be done a certain way that doesn’t necessarily apply to our modern sentiments anymore,” says Kissmedeadlydoll, a New York-based rope bondage educator.
Morpheous says the practice originated from a Japanese martial arts tying style called “Hojōjutsu,” which the samurai used as a method of restraining captives. From there, it merged with “kinbaku,” the erotic practice of rope bondage. Jimi Tatu, a shibari and kinbaku educator, says that kinbaku is a prominent term still used in Japan to describe the act of binding things tightly. “In the West, these two terms have been merged into one, so what we refer to as shibari now is basically erotic, artistic rope bondage,” Morpheous says (though he says that “purists hate that”).
Along with learning about about shibari’s history, it’s important that people interested in trying it take the proper safety precautions — someone’s going to get tied up using heavy duty ropes, after all. Not to mention, shibari is often used in suspension situations, in which the person who’s tied up is dangling from the ceiling, so a lot could go wrong. “It is risky and requires attention to the details,” Kissmedeadlydoll says. If you’re interested in learning and practicing shibari, start by reading a book on the practice (Morpheous has written many) or attend an in-person workshop or class. Kissmedeadlydoll also suggests always keeping safety shears nearby, and both she and Morpheous recommend using rope made of a firm vegetable fiber called Jute.
Does this all sound complicated? That’s because it is. So, if you’re champing at the bit to give shibari a try, just make sure to do your homework before inviting someone over for an evening of beautiful, erotic bondage.