Watch and yearn

Watching has a unique charge. In The Story Of O, Pauline Réage explores it as a key tool in exquisitely played BDSM.

Designed by Coco de Mer - Photographer Saga Sig

René, who had come over to the two women, said to O: "Watch." And to Jeanne: "Lift your dress." With both hands she raised the crackling silk and the crinoline that lined it, revealing as she did a golden belly, gleaming thighs and knees and a tight black triangle. René put his hand on it and slowly explored, and with the other excited the nipple of one breast. "Merely so you can see," he said to O.

Watching has a unique charge. In The Story Of O, Pauline Réage explores it as a key tool in exquisitely played BDSM. It is the fuel of strip clubs, of night clubs, of a million fantasies and fetishes. In power play, the weight of someone's gaze - that of your lover, your bitch kneeling before you, a stranger walking past - can land with a feeling on your skin as physical as any stroke. 

This summer, Tate Modern's Exposed exhibition was a luscious exploration of voyeurism in photography. While its subjects were diverse, with covert shots of violence, surveillance and celebrity, the show's inevitable emphasis was sex. One memorable series - "Dirty Windows" by Merry Alpern - featured six photographs taken through the windows of a Wall Street brothel. The scenes are grimy; especially when viewed in the rarefied atmosphere of a public gallery, they provoked a frisson, the hackle-raising sense of an illicit peek into the world of bought sex.

Another, Helmut Newton's "Self Portrait With Wife June And Models" has in the foreground the back and buttocks of a model. The model is reflected in a large mirror, as is Newton, peering through his viewfinder, behind her. To the right of the mirror, Newton's wife June sits and observes. It was a striking piece to look at, lightly capturing the triangular dynamic of taker/taken/spectator.

It spoke of the web lotharios summoned to suburbia to tup a man's wife as he looks on. 

Of actors being paid to fuck to please their audience. 

Of that glorious moment in a threesome when one of you pauses to observe.  Picture the scene. You are with two women. Katya walks over to the window to watch you screw Clare. You are dominant, taking Clare, and she has the giddy, passive role of being mercilessly brought to climax. Katya, however, is removed. She is partly excluded. But, as she gets off on you, your cries and sweat and passion, Katya is in some way master of the scene, above it, in control. This tension between the roles is central to what makes voyeurism and its twin, exhibitionism, quite so delicious. It has a mutuality.

From time to time, dogging (defined as "sexual acts in semi-public places performed for the delectation of passers-by", from the euphemism, "Just going to walk the dog, dear"), hits the headlines. A decade ago, Parisian art critic Catherine Millet published her autobiographical Sexual Life Of Catherine M. In it she described how cars would follow each other round the banlieues, and then head off in convoy for anonymous, exhibitionist sex. This may not be your particular bag. But the paler end of the spectrum, the desire to make love in a public place and, however horrifying the idea, risk being seen, is a perennial favourite. Ditto sex on video. Or, if you must, the internet.

Naturally there are laws concerning exposure and indecency. But the Sexual Offences Act (2003) does not specifically legislate against sex in public, and you're off the hook if you can argue you had a reasonable expectation of privacy. It would be foolish to ignore the boys in blue, and the couple who decided to have sex in the grounds of Windsor Castle while the Queen was in residence were, surprise surprise, locked up. But worse is the prospect of your moment of abandon dogging you forever.

While greater privacy is a priority of the coalition government, and the Freedom Bill will, for example, restrict CCTV, it is rare that you are entirely unobserved. While you once had Victorian peeping Toms falling out of trees with their Box Brownies, today a surveillance video or a stranger with a camera phone and a Facebook account might make you famous forever. And there are some things your boss/mother/daughter never needs to see. But, if you get off on sharing, what to do? Get down to it outside, but choose your place carefully. If you want to be watched, a mask or blindfold will be your friend. Go abroad. Better yet, go to an up-market sex club: buy her a leather mask (£100. At Coco de Mer; take her to Nuit Dèmonia in Paris; hang her from the ceiling in full suspension bondage: all around her scenes of glorious debauchery, and for her a depraved and fabulous audience...           

The perfect level of exposure.

Original article published in GQ Magazine, in November, 2010

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