I used to worry that Fifty Shades Of Grey would create a popular misunderstanding of fetish sex and the fetish scene. But in hindsight, the misconception about what fetishists do existed long before EL James put pen to paper.
TV shows such as Eurotrash, and the documentary Fetishes by Nick Broomfield, helped in the 1990s to create the popular idea that fetishism was a risible, sometimes dangerous under-lifestyle, a kind of murky hidden world populated by freaks and weirdoes. That image stuck for a while.
When I first broke into 'fet', around 2005, I was terrified that the boys at school would find out about it. We'd happily discuss the explicit things we'd seen in "vanilla" porn, and the equally explicit things we'd done to ourselves whilst watching, but any mention of kink and the mood would change.
I remember, distinctly, when the guys found some fet videos on my PC, and I was forced to jury-rig an explanation. A few hours later, we were in someone else's house, watching four men penetrate the same woman, and no-one batted an eye. For the longest time, fetishism felt like a kind of Satanism, like something you did but never, ever told anybody about.
I'm actually grateful, to some extent, to Fifty Shades Of Grey. The calmer attitude I see these days towards fet is down, mostly, to the inevitable loosening of sexual attitudes in general. But James' book, for its myriad faults, is at least centred on a couple.
The sideshow style of fet representation that permeated my early years, whereby every "documentary" was about businessmen who pay a dominatrix six grand an hour to be dressed up like a baby, has partially subsided, and fet is considered, typically now, as simply a quirk in some adult relationships.
You can go to Ann Summers and browse the fetishwear section. Cosmopolitan will run a feature on kinky sex maybe three or four times a year. Fet is in books, movies and on TV. It's out there, and people are prepared to accept, even try it.
But still, the depiction of fetish play in popular fiction is skewed. I'm yet to see a film, or read an article or a book (at least in the mainstream) that understands what D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationships really feel like.
Same as those people on the vanilla dating scene, who hit nightclubs, get wasted and have casual sex, there will always be a contingent of fetish players who want the action without the conversation. Those scenes of half-lit underground clubs, populated by men and women either in leatherwear or states of undress, are accurate to an extent – those places and those people do exist.
But D/s, or fet, or whatever you want to brand it, is barely to do with tying someone up and hitting them and so on. Those are synthetic pleasures – to indulge in them, you have to agree a power dynamic and purchase various props and toys, a process which, I'm sure a lot of fet people will tell you, drains the fun and the emotion from proceedings.
It's not all about sex
Of course, in the cases of edge play, like air restriction, extreme bondage or cutting, we do have to prepare and have discussion about safety and ground-rules. But those are outside cases, and typically a relationship based on fet looks exactly any other.
We aren't weirdos, freaks or psychologically damaged – we aren't kinky sex merely occupying a human body. The last date I had through the scene, we went to Nando's then watched a movie. This isn't a lifestyle based entirely on sex. In fact, I think fet is based less around sex than ostensible "normal" dating.
By proxy of being on the fetish scene, your sexual proclivities are conspicuous to your peers, and likewise, theirs to you. Sex isn't the climax of meeting and getting to know someone – it's an entry requirement. We talk and talk and talk, and sex is just humming in the background. Fetishists, more than vanilla types, are capable of speaking to somebody without expecting a sexual result. We're less fascinated by sex and our interactions, largely, are based on communication and not action.
And the books, the TV shows and the movies don't capture that. Fifty Shades, admirably, is centred around a couple, but it's a couple that doesn't connect much outside of shared sexual desire. They're such fantastical characters, Christian and Anastasia, designed to lock perfectly together, as if fet relationships aren't subject to the same communication and compromise as vanilla ones.
I reiterate: we are normal people. Fet isn't grubby and psychopathic, but nor is it sorcery. We still have arguments, we still have to talk about what we want, we still fall apart. Fet couples aren't sealed permanently together through the magic of kinky sex. Our reality is the same as yours – mundane. If you go into fet expecting creeps to feature in your juicy documentary, prepare to be disappointed.
Likewise, if you're down on day-to-day dating and looking for something that's more "special," you won't find it. Fet people are still people, subject to the same shortcomings and flaws as everyone else you've ever dated. Personally, that's what I like most about fetish dating - the fallibility, the scruffiness and the plainness, and how it's contrary to what everyone on the outside imagines.
I don't want to share my life with a role, with a body that is animated entirely by prescribed submissive or servile behaviours. I date for the same reason you do – because I want to meet a person. Aside from the truly out there types (who do, unfortunately, exist) that goes for everyone on the fetish scene. If you've read all the pamphlets and watched the tapes, be it the rubberneck bunkum that ruled in the 90s, or the magical realism that predominates today, my advice is to disregard everything you've learned about fet and simply start interacting with the scene. You'll find, as I did, that it's better than you imagined.
Ed Smith writes about games, films and culture for IBTimes UK. He has also written for The Observer, Vice, New Statesman and Edge magazine. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed