Why do we tie?

What draws you to Shibari? Astrid (@desirelinesbondage), a rope switch and co-founder of Embodiment, shares what rope means to her and how this has evolved with time.

A picture depicting Joi, tied in a rope harness with a piece of bamboo poking thier face

The early days of my rope journey

I was first captured by the beauty of shibari, and the intricacy of ties. My first exposure to rope was by the beautiful Una, who tied me in a simple karada at a party. I loved how much attention she gave to this simple act. I loved rope instantly after that. I wanted to be in rope all the time. I wanted to tie. I wanted to feel beautiful in rope. I wanted to create art with the bodies of others, to accentuate their curves, and create dramatic lines on and shapes with the body, the way Una had with mine.

It started off visually for me and evolved into something more complex with time. Somewhere along the way, I started to notice how rope makes people feel. There is this moment in a session when the body loses its stiffness. Where the body starts to accept the rope. Where the nervous system lets the muscles know that what is happening is okay. There is an exhale, and the body becomes more receptive and open. This is when the session begins, even if there are already ropes on the body. As a top, you can lean into this emerging feeling of security and create a lovely comforting tie for your bottom. Or, you can slowly (or quickly) pull the rug out from under them and fuck with this sense of security, creating more intensity (consensually, of course). Or, pursue a wholly different intention in response to the person and the mood you’re both in.

Shibari is free, flexible and open-ended – there is so much you can do with even just one rope, shared intention, communication and creativity.

Detail of a hand tied in rope, Shibari in Cape Town

One of the first times I was tied in a partial suspension, and in a few times since, I have experienced a powerful cocktail of emotions and hormones. That first time was utterly disorienting to my young nervous system. I didn’t know where up was or down; I felt so entirely swept up in the moment. There is a quote from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my favourite book, which summarises a similar experience:

…confusedly aware that he was doing something that for a very long time he had wanted to do but that he had imagined could really never be done, not knowing what he was doing because he did not know where his feet were or where his head was, or whose feet or whose head, and feeling that he could no longer resist the glacial rumbling of his kidneys and the air of his intestines, and fear, and the bewildered anxiety to flee and at the same time stay forever and ever in that exasperated silence and that fearful solitude.

I was absolutely pliable to a brilliant rope top. My senses were completely discombobulated; the people tying at the packed rope jam around me left without me even noticing. When the rope top slowly pulled me up for air, I was giddy as I resurfaced to the meat reality. I have since learned that not everyone is capable of tying like she did, and moreover, not everyone is capable of holding a space like she can. It was so special.

This is an incredibly vulnerable state. With this vulnerability comes immense transformative power. It also carries huge risk. Part of our work at Embodiment is about communally reducing risk, by creating a public space for people to explore this medium.

Embodiment as a place for exploration

If you’ve never been tied before and you would like to experience it, one of the best ways is by coming to a rope jam. In that first partial suspension experience, I was tied in public at a jam. My 22-year-old brain did not really measure the risks involved with rope as well as my current 31-year-old brain can, and I was lucky to be where I was (shout out Brisbane) and in that very particular set of hands (shout out A). I am also lucky that she was not interested in taking advantage of me, and that she limited the scope of our tie to something that was enjoyable for me with reduced risk. I understand those things now, but did not when I was younger.

A picture of Joi's belly, being poked by a piece of bamboo with rope beautifully tied around their waist.

Tying in public means that the person tying you is less likely to overstep a boundary (although there are exceptions to this, of course). Being in community with other ropey people means that there are others nearby who are more experienced than you are in the medium, who can help you identify red flags and predatory behaviour. Is it perfect? Hell no. Power dynamics emerge when there are many people in community together, and as soon as there is a power dynamic the potential for abuse emerges. However, I would take my chances with the nerds at Embodiment over random internet strangers any day.

An image of Astrid actively tying Joi, showing thier lower body as they sit on a Tatami mat.

I have digressed – a lot! Why I tie… Now, 7 or so years into my journey in rope, I tie to connect meaningfully with others. I tie to challenge myself mentally and physically. I get tied for similar reasons. In the South African context, we face so much difficulty day-to-day. For me, rope has become a practice for escaping from the grinding mundanity of day-to-day existence and an outlet for my creative expression. It’s something for me to geek out over and deeply emote through. It taps into so many parts of my brain in different ways. It can be light and fluffy, but also incredibly loaded. It can be fun and platonic or flirty and erotic. It can be red hot, or it can be… beige. It can be shadowy and it can be illuminating.

I like to think of the top as the wind and the bottom as the clouds. Where the interaction in rope shapes the bottom into a thing of beauty, physically and emotionally. Together, they co-create a temporary and precious work of art. Sometimes this co-creation takes a hideous form, also known as uglification, and that is also okay. The ineffability and impermanence of rope scenes are a huge draw for me. This is why photographs really don’t paint the full picture. Photographs are maybe one pixel in a 3-hour complex film shot for IMAX. They give you zero information about how a tie felt, what it meant to the people involved, what emotions came up for both top and bottom and any difficulties they had in creating the tie or the image.

Ultimately, rope is about feeling. The old adage (I am not even sure where it comes from), which says that ‘you learn the ropes to forget the ropes and focus on the person’ is incredibly true for me. Once the ropes become fluid in your hands, you understand enough about safety and consent, the practice becomes less about which knot to use and more about which button to press in the mind, heart, and soul of your bottom.

The question is… what is rope about for you?

Images are of Joi tied by Astrid (@desirelinesbondage), photographed by @vroeteldier.kinbaku and @firelily_kinbaku at SHOOT (previously Brutal) Studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. All have consented to their use on this platform and this consent can be revoked at any time.

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