In a rather bohemian café in Stockholm, a heterosexual fetishist couple walked in, dressed casually in jeans and shirts.
No leather, no chains, no whips, no gag balls and no flashing.
The lady found a corner for their 2-year-old baby's stroller, while her man ordered two lattés. They then sat down facing one another and politely offered to tell about their fetishist lifestyle out of an interest to “spread knowledge about the culture.”
“I am the very woman you see reading a book on the metro or queuing shyly at the supermarket. I dress normally, have a normal job, normal friends and a normal life,” says Alexandra, 31 and a submissive slave.
After finishing her day job and evening grocery shopping, she goes home to clean and cook, dressed up as a “maid” from the 1950s, while waiting for her husband and “master”, Erik, 45, to come home from work.
“I get down on my knees; I take off his shoes and kiss his feet. I know my place and I love it. I love the look on his eyes when he acts as if he owns me and I am his little slave,” she says, looking Erik in the eye with a cheeky smile.
“Erik is my master and loving husband.”
The power play seems to remain within the confines of their rented three-room apartment in the south side of Stockholm, where they started a website to educate people about Fetishism and BDSM – short for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism.
“We believe that there are so many curious people browsing the internet to learn more about their sexuality and intimate desires, so we thought we'd offer them a guide from our own experience,” says Master Erik.
This couple is one of many who challenge the traditional sexual relationships and try to find that “extra spice” that turns into an exhibitionist lifestyle for some, and remains a private endeavour for most.
BDSM is more widespread now in Sweden than most people realize, thanks in part to many symbolic sado-masochist references in pop culture and internet networking.
The spread of exhibitionist clubs as well as political lobbying among have also played a role, according to Anna Bäsén, a medical journalist at the Expressen newspaper and co-author of the sold out book “Pervers – Sex utöver det vanliga” (‘Perversion – sex that's out of the ordinary').
“It is not unusual to see Madonna or Britney Spears sporting SM clothes and dragging tied up men on their video clips on TV,” she said, noting this was not the norm a decade or two ago.
“We noticed that there is little informative literature about this culture in Sweden or Europe.”
Bäsén's book, co-written by researcher Niklas Långström, looks into most kinks and fetishist preferences within the BDSM culture in Sweden from a medical, social, legal and psychological point of view.
“During the last five years or so, the internet has made it a lot easier for people who have different preferences to meet others who share their preferences, especially sexual interests,” Bäsén explains.
“The club scene has become bigger: there are clubs like Dekadance, Whipclub, Swedish Leather Men – SLM, Lash, Club Sade, Club Sunrise and many more. However, people also arrange private parties.”
She noted that from a legal point of view, private parties enable people to enjoy their sexual preferences without breaking the law – for example, being dressed in German SS Army uniforms, or flashing sexual organs to people who appreciate that kind of “classical exhibitionism.”
Swedish society has also become more accepting of such alternative lifestyles, she says.
This trend was marked officially at the beginning of 2009, when the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) removed Fetishism, Transvestism, and Sadomasochism from its lists of symptoms and sicknesses.
“There are men who feel like going to work dressed in women clothes, and that should not be regarded as sick or illegal,” says Bäsén.
“Nobody rings the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) to get their sick leave benefits because they can't make it to work when they are feeling a little bit sadomasochistic.”
However, she said Swedes remain somewhat less accepting than Danes, for example, because the media in Denmark has long been writing about this subculture.
On the other hand, Swedish culture is more accepting than the UK, where tabloids publish “juicy” pictures of politicians doing fetishist activities.
“There are of course politicians, doctors, teachers, and people from all walks of life with fetishist or sadomasochistic interests,” explains Bäsén.
One Swedish politician with fetishist preferences is Madame Lisa, 29, a “polygamous dominatrix.”
She sits on the education board in one of Stockholm's archipelago islands, representing one of the main ruling parties. She says her sexual preferences never interfere with her job.
“I am a small girl in size, and I love to tie up tall and muscular men and give them a good beating or trample on their bodies with my high heels. To make them feel worthless makes me feel very special and strong…I pick my partners on an internet portal, and most of them ask for more…sometimes there is no sexual contact at all, just sadism.”
She says her sadistic sessions are simply something she does on the weekends, and she has a policy not to leave marks on the face or arms of her partners so they do not feel embarrassed when doing their day jobs.
The Madame went on to explain that the only hindrance to her living up her full dreams is that her neighbours send her letters about “too much noise.”
She said she would love to move into one of the Fetishist Collectives around Sweden, if it wasn't for her permanent job.
“The Lighthouse” is one such collective located just outside Malmö.
According to its founder, there are rooms and facilities for all sorts of interests ranging from golden showers, fake blood baths, student-teacher role-play, confessional room play, doctor-patient role-play, animal role-play, body suspension units, a Kama Sutra themed room, and more.
But most importantly, “everyone who lives in the house understands and respects each others' needs and is not bothered by their lifestyle.”
Bäsén insists that there are still many stereotypes about the BDSM sub-culture, like assuming that people with such interests have lots of piercings, wear leather clothes, and are more inclined to be criminals than “normal” people.
But in reality, things are often quite the opposite.
According to Bäsén, research shows that fetishists and sadomasochists are actually very ordinary people who, in many instances, come from the more well-to-do ranks of society.
“A lot of people have these interests to some degree,” she says, adding that, “it's pretty normal to be abnormal.”