Not safe for work or home. But it's fashion's latest fetish
To boldly go where noone has gone before, that's the challenge of contemporary fashion editorial.
From the Australian Style spread that referenced asylum seeker protests by stitching models' lips to big budget productions touching on the Iraq war, drug and alcohol rehab and post-op oral pleasure – shot by high profilers such as Steven Meisel and Tom Ford and published in various international editions of Vogue - the race is on, at least at the most creative end of the industry, to find ideas that break new ground, push the envelope and, inevitably, spark debate.
But Frockwriter has a hunch that no edition of Vogue would have published the following Greg Kadel editorial.
The story appears in the first edition of Kadel’s new, independent, biannual fashion/art magazine Let’s Panic and highres images were first supplied to the Fashion Copious blog (our source for the gallery, below) and have since spread widely online.
The only credits are Dannis Lanni on hair, Frank B on makeup and Lou Asaro as “prop stylist”.
In the four images, two hot women, both literally and figuratively – Australian Catherine McNeil and Canadian Caitlin Lyon – engage in a passionate, sweaty tryst that involves plenty of tongue action.
In separate photos, each woman is also pictured with a sheet of clear plastic pulled tight over her face.
The photograph of a shrink-wrapped McNeil is particularly unsettling, as she looks to be gasping for breath.
Our first reaction when seeing this photo was probably not unlike that of many others - including some of McNeil's 18,000 Instagram followers, in response to her recently posting the shot to her IG feed, prompting comments such as "disturbing", "death" and "#twinpeaks". While others thought it was "hotness" and "perfection".
Plastic bag execution was the first thing we thought of.
No way, we surmised, even for an independent fashion title whose self-described raison d'être is to provide "a cultural statement of individuality that transcends the ordinary and allows opportunities to evolve in an arena free of constraints".
Given the sexually-charged vibe of the story, however, not to mention Kadel's well-documented portrayal of BDSM themes and fetish accessories in his recent fashion work, another possibility swiftly sprang to mind: breath play.
Officially termed as hypoxyphilia, asphyxiophilia or sexual/erotic asphyxia, breath play or breath control play refers to the intentional restriction of oxygen to the brain for sexual arousal and heightened pleasure via a bewildering array of breath play accessories that are on the market (including this somewhat hilarious jogging suit). Not to mention the cheaper, more easily-accessed devices of ropes, ligatures, plastic bags and yes, cling wrap.
Breath play is found at the extreme "edge play" end of the BDSM sub-culture. BDSM of course being the acronym for the erotic practices of bondage/discipline/dominance/submission/sadism/masochism.
Frockwriter contacted both Kadel and McNeil, one of the world's most high profile models, to enquire if the deliberate inclusion of cling wrap in not one but two photos and, notably, McNeil's simulated (one assumes) gasping was a celebration of breath play? And if so, does either have any concerns about being perceived to be glamorizing same?
McNeil did not respond to our request for comment.
But we did receive the following from Greg Kadel Studios manager Ernesto Qualizza:
"In no way was it our intention to simulate Breathplay and the use of the cling wrap was purely aesthetic. The story is indeed art and as such open to interpretation" - Greg Kadel Studios
An even more unsettling image made its way into the fashion arena in recent weeks via Italian magazine Grey (below).
The first of 13 covers of the ninth edition of the bi-annual art/fashion magazine - which we note has no connection to J L Martin's 2011 BDSM-themed erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, launching two years before the latter's publication - the image features a photograph of a Japanese woman attached by the neck via four coils of rope to what looks to be a piece of metal piping.
The woman is not just attached to the structure. There is additional information in the photograph: her is damp and sticking to her neck, where what appear to be beads of perspiration are clearly visible.
A still from the Saw torture franchise perhaps?
No, an image taken by Japanese photographer Nobuyushi Araki, whose work is profiled within the issue.
However this is not a file image from Araki's archives, it's a manufactured fashion photo.
According to the Grey magazine website, the cover image is part of a fashion editorial within the issue that was shot by Araki and is called Domo Arigato (Japanese for 'thank you very much'). The model is Japanese actress Hiroe Takei and the story was styled by Valentina Ilardi Martin, who triple bills as the magazine's founder, editor-in-chief and fashion director.
To give you some context here, the controversial 73 year-old photographer - who has been dubbed both Japan's greatest living photographer and its most controversial cultural export - is best known for his reportage on the Tokyo sex scene and notably, his personal series dedicated to the Japanese art of erotic bondage or kinbaku.
Kinbaku - and the closely-related shibari - emerged during the late 1880s in Japan, based on hojojutsu, the Japanese martial art of using a rope called a torinawa to capture, restrain and transport suspects and criminals during the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.
Araki isn't the first Japanese artist to court controversy through their depiction of kinbaku - Seiu Ito's work predates Araki's by a century.
But in a contemporary context, Araki's images of women bound in explicit – some say degrading - positions have seen him dubbed a misogynist and pornographer. He's also a celebrity in Japan.
And needless to say, perhaps, the fashion pack loves him.
Araki’s crossover into fashion editorial appears to have commenced circa 2009, when he photographed the then-emerging Lady Gaga bound-and-tied for Vogue Hommes Japan. Toned-down versions of his work have appeared in other titles such as V Magazine, 10 Magazine, Jalouse and even collaborations with Barneys and Valentino. In March this year, he made a cameo as himself in US Vogue in Mario Testino's ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’ story shot in Japan.
But just how realistic a depiction of kinbaku is this cover? Could the rope "styling" possibly have been improvised - for "aesthetic" purposes, to take a leaf out of Kadel's book?
A position in which rope is tied around the front of the neck and which binds a BDSM "submissive" or "bottom" - or, even more dangerously, someone operating alone - to a fixed object, would appear to be a breach of BDSM safety guidelines, as outlined in such reference tomes as S&M 101: A Realistic Introduction, The Erotic Bondage Handbook and The Toybag Guide to Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies from San Francisco-based BDSM-specialist author and publisher Jay Wiseman, one of the world's leading BDSM experts.
We contacted Wiseman for comment. In his 40 years in the BDSM community, Wiseman told us, such a depiction, although not unheard of, is "extremely rare".
Ilardi Martin did not respond to a request for comment about the cover. But perhaps this excerpt from a 2011 interview with the Way of Women blog of Italian sportswear brand Sportmax provides some insight into her editorial mission statement with Grey:
“Every page of Grey has a thought behind, a reason to be printed, every penny spent in Grey for me is worth it. I still don’t understand how we end up in this situation, how the art of fashion became so accessible and weak. The safeness which is used to commission editorials in magazines made everything look the same, no personality, no challenge, no ideas, no risk” - Valentina Ilardi Martin
Risk is definitely the operative word here.
Thanks to a number of high profile suspected casualties such as Michael Hutchence, David Carradine, British politician Stephen Milligan and just last month, convicted kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro, the public is by now all too familiar with the potentially fatal practice of auto-erotic asphyxiation or 'AEA'.
Auto-erotic asphyxiation is by no means a new phenomenon. The ancient Mayans appear to have practiced it – and The Marquis de Sade described it in his 1791 novel Justine.
But it is widely acknowledged that exact numbers are hard to gauge because of the difficulties in determining whether or not suicide was the actual intention.
An FBI study from 1983 estimated that 500-1000 deaths per year could be attributed to auto-erotic deaths. The American Psychiatric Association claims the figure is more like one in a million deaths/year. Dr. Anny Sauvageau, chief medical examiner in Alberta, Canada and the author of 13 papers on the subject and the 2013 book Autoerotic Deaths: Practical Forensic and Investigative Perspectives suggests the US figure could be as low as 160/year.
Even when practised with a partner, however, breath play is by no means risk-free – with cardiac arrest, brain damage, death and criminal charges among the potential downsides. In 2011, so-called Italian BDSM "expert" Soter Mule, who posted online under the name of 'Kinbaku', was charged with manslaughter after a Japanese bondage stunt proved fatal for one of two female participants.
Kinky, consenting adults aside, there are also ongoing concerns about spread of the potentially deadly "Choking Game" that is being practiced by children as young as six to achieve a drug-free ‘high’, with a growing list of fatalities in the US, the UK and Ireland and also Australia.
Back in 1985, long before the viral spread of info via the internet, a jury found Hustler magazine liable for $182,000 in damages after 14 year-old Troy Daniel Dunaway accidentally strangled himself after reading Hustler’s August 1981 ‘The Orgasm of Death’ story about auto-erotic asphyxiation. The decision was overturned in 1987 after a federal appeals court ruled that Hustler could not have been held responsible for the boy’s death, Judge Alvin Rubin noting that a disclaimer had been placed at the very top of the article and was most likely the first text to be read.
Where are the Let's Panic and Grey disclaimers just out of interest?
There appears to be some concern within the BDSM community that as BDSM culture goes mainstream, its rules will be increasingly ignored.
The tearaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey would appear to have played a key role in this BDSM mainstreaming in recent years, with adult merchandise chains and BDSM non-fiction educational authors such as Jay Wiseman claiming a direct link between the best-selling trilogy/soon-to-be film and a run on sales.
What about a corresponding link between all this increased media coverage of BDSM and AEA misadventures? When contacted for comment, Dr Anny Sauvageau told Frockwriter that "There has not been an increase in recent years in the numbers of autoerotic death (including autoerotic asphyxia)".
But although the media portrayed this recent asphyxia death in Sweden as a "Fifty Shades of Grey-style" game gone wrong, it is well worth noting that BDSM practices do not axiomatically include breath play. As far as Frockwriter is aware, moreover, there is no breath play at all in Fifty Shades. In fact, “No acts involving breath control” is quite clearly stipulated by the trilogy’s tough love protagonist Christopher Grey in the "Hard Limits" of the BDSM consent/waiver contract he hands out to all potential playmates.
And while it may be the look du jour in fashion photo studios, it seems you would be hard-pressed these days to even find breath play being practised in your average S&M dungeon.
It's that dodgy.
According to Wiseman, who has also worked as a former ambulance Emergency Medical Technician, an adjunct professor at the John F Kennedy University and New College of California law schools and as an expert witness in litigation involving BDSM matters, breath play is the single most dangerous aspect of SM-related play and one which, unlike nearly all other BDSM-related practices, holds a risk of sudden death. Strangulation is not the biggest risk, cardiac arrest is and Wiseman cautions his audience to stay away from it.
"There are no landmarks - you can’t say if you limit it to X amount of time, you’ll never have a fatal outcome" said Wiseman of breath play, on the line from his San Francisco home. "There are cases when even a few seconds of suffocation or strangulation have caused cardiac arrest. Whenever you get significant compression of someone’s neck, you’re running that risk.
"In the various S&M clubs here in the US, breath play is almost universally banned. And fewer and fewer educational programs are willing to teach classes on breath play due to the legal risks involved. If one of their students subsequently uses the techniques they learned in the class and they kill somebody, not only is the person who did it looking at being held responsible for that, but there is a very strong possibility that both the person who taught the class and the person who booked the program could also be named as defendants. The risk is basically completely indefensible from a legal point of view".
What does Wiseman think of Araki's Grey magazine cover in particular?
"It’s of some concern to me" he said. "It’s not explicitly saying, ‘Hey this is cool to do’. It’s an artistic image. There are artistic images of all kinds of things. Art plays by its own rules. It’s not advocacy per se. But there’s at least some possibility that people will see this and try to imitate the behaviour. Virtually any sort of image you put out there, at least a certain percentage of people are going to imitate it".