This personal account comes for VioletWanda, posted on Fetlife as Violet_Wanda (reposted with permission):
I lived and traveled in Europe for several years [1976-1980] and while in Germany, married a very kinky gentleman who introduced me to S&M. The only place to find the toys, the tools, or the experiences, were through specialty operations in the red light districts. That’s right, you PAID. You paid to receive from a pro, you paid to rent a space or a room or a cabin, you paid to rent or buy the toys to do to someone. The sex trade was (and is) legal in certain areas and S&M was an inseparable part and parcel of the sex trade.
Not every op catered to S&M but you only had to ask around to find those who did, and it wasn’t hush-hush or dark or requiring passwords or rituals or secret knocks on doors. All it took was cash and you could be participating or watching, doing to or having done to. You could fulfill any fetish, including those very touchy ones illegal here (though they are cracking down on those too in Europe now) and the extreme ones that are on very few ‘DS limit lists’. There was no separation of areas of the sex trade; gay sex, escort service, prostitution, pornography filming and theaters, virgin bidding, kink from scat to scarring, dwarfs, amputees and animals–all were under one big umbrella and all could be easily found within the zoned areas if you wanted to. You literally walked down the streets in the zoned areas..sometimes in smaller cities there was just a red light on a building exterior. In larger ones it looked like any other party district where crowds bar-hop and bouncers stand at the doors, sounds spilling out into the streets. You entered, and there was always a bar with overpriced drinks to entice you while you waited. You discussed what you wanted, agreed on a price, introduced to the person or people participating in your experience, and went into mazes of (often) not-quite-hidden back rooms meant to entice you to new experiences (and new ways to dispose of your discretionary income). I chatted often with waiting prostitutes who were as curious about me as I was about them.
My worst experience..a cold quonset hut beside a small airstrip in southern Germany where they were doing scat behind flimsy partitions. My best..a very nice place in Amsterdam that was better and cleaner than most high end hotels. My longest lasting..In Frankfurt I saw my first violet ray (violet wand grandparent) and I was hooked on electricity! I brought two German violet rays back to the US with me. One I still have, the other I broke down to learn how to make them, and make them stronger and safer.
I had a vanilla marriage in between and when I resurfaced after the vanilla divorce circa 1995, there was this ‘BDSM’ in the US which was touted as a lifestyle or relationship model and separate from the sex trade. It makes sense to me, having seen Europe’s end, that servicemen who enjoyed Europe’s RL districts and were able to freely engage in everything from gay sex to sado-masochism without reproach or reprisal, may have brought a little of those experiences or influence back with them to a less enlightened society.
I think the basis that made the short-lived ‘European houses myth’ possible is probably rooted in Amsterdam. There are places that are very high-end that look like fine homes with no outward indication that they are businesses. They cater to a more discerning and affluent clientele. No secret handshakes though; just more money.
VioletWanda’s account doesn’t mention any non-commercial BDSM culture in late 1970s Europe. We know that the Society of Janus and TES started in the early 1970s in America, so there must have been a non-commercial BDSM culture in the US. (Or rather, a non-commercial culture in parallel/symbiosis to the commercial one.)
Fetish Diva Midori once reported that the non-commercial BDSM culture, of munches and non-profit groups and so on, doesn’t really exist in Japan. Such a culture, Midori speculated, is a product of the North American do-it-yourself, third-place ethos. Perhaps the same thing is in effect in Europe?
There’s a long historical pattern of Europe having a somewhat more relaxed attitude to sex and sex work, relative to the UK and USA, going back to the mid 19th century. (However, don’t forget that this image is perpetuated by travelers taking the opportunity to cut loose in foreign climes.)
VioletWanda also reports that BDSM activities weren’t a separate subset of the sex trade, which squares with some other observations I’ve collected over the years.
Likewise, the “secret BDSM heterotopia/European houses” myth goes back at least to the days of The Mysteries of Verbena House in 1882, if not earlier. VioletWanda does provide a good explanation of a real world phenomena (high-end European brothels) that contributed to this myth.
Violet Wanda has also written a short history of the violet wand, from quack cure-all to sex toy.