This article contains sexually explicit material.
Andy Smith still remembers the night in 1998 when he fell victim to the Southport Sockmen.
“I was at a bar in Liverpool city center and there were these two guys in the place and there were photographs being taken and these guys are kind of attracting a lot of attention to themselves in a jovial manner,” he told the Daily Dot in a recent Skype interview.
Curious, a teenaged Smith called them over to his table. Claiming to be collecting for the well-known charity The MacMillan Nurses, the two men asked for cash donations, but followed up with an unusual request.
“‘We understand times are hard, being in a recession,” Smith recalled them explaining, “‘so we have a novelty target the people can contribute towards as well, which is to collect 10,000 socks.’” The Sockmen claimed that the socks would be recycled, which would free up money for the charity.
At the time, Smith had had a few too many drinks. He didn’t quite know what to make of the request, but he gave the two men one of his socks anyway. Then they asked him to do something even more bizarre: pose for a photo with his sock.
“[They] said, ‘We need you to pose with your sock because we need to show our organization that you’ve given consent to take your property away,’” Smith said. “So I held my sock aloft and they took a snap and they went off.”
Smith didn’t think about the incident again until a few months later, while chatting with a friend on the phone. “He recounted that night and said ‘Do you remember giving your sock away?’” Smith recalls. “You’ll never guess what happened to your sock.’”
Smith’s sock had fallen into the clutches of two men, Steven Bain and Steven Gawthrop, who later came to be known as the Southport Sockmen. The men’s apartments were eventually raided by police, who suspected that they were running a fake charity. Inside Bain’s house, police found thousands of meticulously catalogued individual socks wrapped in sandwich bags with individual donors’ photographs attached.
“They were everywhere and anywhere,” a police officer later testified. “They were all over the furniture, hanging from lampshades and even in the microwave, frying pan and cooker. It was like there had been an explosion in a sock factory and socks had blown all over the place.”
“They were everywhere and anywhere…They were all over the furniture, hanging from lampshades and even in the microwave, frying pan and cooker. It was like there had been an explosion in a sock factory and socks had blown all over the place.”
Tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mirror reported that the Sockmen were charged with conspiring to commit acts of gross indecency, the law that sent Oscar Wilde into hard labor service and chemically castrated Alan Turing. According to Smith, this is untrue. Bain and Gawthrop were convicted of inciting grievous bodily harm on one another and sentenced to 18 months in jail each.
Many of those conned by the sockmen felt violated and endangered by their behavior. Sensationalist headlines calling the Sockmen “perverts” also appeared to have further heightened the public outrage against them.
But Smith isn’t one of the emotionally wounded, and the experience of being swindled by the Sockmen has permanently shaped his life in a positive, albeit surprising, way. He’s a filmmaker and the brains behind the upcoming short film “Holes in Their Souls,” which tells the story of the Southport Sockmen and the many people who’d fallen victim to their ruse.
Now, Smith is crowdfunding the documentary on the UK website Crowdfunder. So far, he’s raised £5740, or approximately $8995.
Smith had been pitching the film for a while, but the project didn’t gain much momentum until Smith came across a now-defunct Facebook forum called “I met Southport Sockmen,” where there were more than 100 testimonials from people who had also been swindled by the Sockmen.
Smith interviewed folks from the forum before pitching the project to the British Film Institute. But they weren’t interested unless he could get an interview with one of the criminals. He was able to track down one half of the duo, the “Sock Gimp,” and offered him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.
The deeper Smith got into the story, the more apparent it became to him that there had been a master/slave relationship in play between the Sockmen, with the sock master regularly beating the Sock Gimp and even persuading others to do so.
And what brought the abuser and the abused together? God, of course. “These guys,” Smith explains, “and definitely the sock gimp, were into religion.”
In fact, that’s how the two Sockmen met: The master approached his slave-to-be at a spiritualist church and told him he’d been conversing with angels, who had told him that he had to collect 10,000 socks. So the promise of socks lured the sock gimp into subservience.
The master approached his slave-to-be at a spiritualist church and told him he’d been conversing with angels, who had told him that he had to collect 10,000 socks.
During their interview, the sock gimp said his sock fetish started while he was in primary school, when he was an adolescent. He was so aroused by the smell of socks that when the police raided his apartment, they found socks in the microwave. “He was heating these things up to extract the aroma,” Smith said.
But as much as the Sock Gimp enjoyed smelling socks, his relationship with his Master clearly blurred the lines of consent. “In terms of the beatings, that was something he didn’t enjoy,” Smith explained.
While shooting the film, Smith found out more about the Sockmen’s daily operations. They would go to bars and job centers, persuading people to sell them their socks for £5 for “charity,” always taking pictures of the wearers posing with their donated articles. (Police later found out that one of the Sockmen actually did work for the MacMillan Nurses, the charity that they claimed to represent when they approached Smith. This, apparently, was just a side project for them.)
“People were like, ‘Well, yeah, of course you can buy my socks,” Smith said, laughing. “People became reliant on their trade… You got students starting to wear multiple pairs of socks, hoping to bump into these guys so they can make £10 to £15 [and] buy a couple drinks at lunch time or some marijuana.”
Surprisingly, most of the kids approached by the Sockmen didn’t think the men were weird. They thought they were quirky and cool.
“The majority of this crowd were skater kids. They were in their own subculture,” Smith told me. “The kids are seeing it as something that’s quite high jinx and weird and different. Southport’s a boring place to grow up and now we’ve got this secret subculture thing going on…[they thought] ‘We’re getting paid to put our feet on this weird guy’s face’ and it’s all cool.”
After a few months of cruising, the Sockmen started to recognize their regular customers and invited them to their home to sell the socks directly. At a certain point, the interactions went beyond just selling dirty socks.
“Once kids kept on visiting and visiting, [the Sockmen] would say, ‘Well, if you want to make a little bit of extra cash, would you be willing to rest your feet on my friend’s face for five minutes and I’d take some photographs?’,” Smith said. While not everyone would say yes to this request, the handful of people who were willing to go a bit further would engage in foot fetish play and other behavior with the Sockmen.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with liking feet or S&M. But Smith acknowledged that grooming, persuading and sort of bribing hardup kids to participate in your fantasy is less savory than partaking in your safe and consensual foot fetish. The fact that most of the Sockmen’s donors gave up their socks under false pretenses further complicated the legality of their scheme.
“I know it sounds ridiculous,” he admitted, “but it’s kind of foot prostitution… If they had just been collecting socks they mightn’t have been charged. I don’t know, but as soon as you attach a photograph to this sock, then that that infuses that item with some kind of energy. In the minds of these guys, it’s almost like they have got control of you.”
Eventually, the Sockmen were caught trying to develop photos of their victims with their socks at a developer on High Street. After months of taking their sock photos to the same developers, one of the technicians saw an S&M scenario that showed the Sockmen covered in blood and alerted the police. Judge David Maddison convicted them and sent them to jail for months for their “bizarre and serious” behavior.
Still, one question remains: If Bain and Gawthrop’s BDSM relationship was totally consensual (albeit dysfunctional), why were they sent to the slammer?
Smith says that “some of the grey area” came from the fact that the kids the Sockmen hung around with were under the age of consent. “Although there was no kind of penetrative sex, there’s this element of paying money to do something you would not necessarily do,” he explained.
After conviction, the Sockmen served 18 months in Walton Prison, where they, appropriately enough, served out their time working in the prison laundry room.
“They were still trading in prison,” Smith said, “trading tobacco for other prisoners socks. There is even a rumor that some of the prison guards gave them socks.”
More than 10 years later, the Sockmen are no longer on the UK sex offender registry. But the legend of the Sockmen still looms large. Smith said the Sock Gimp’s family suffered tremendously in the wake of the Sockmen scandal.
“He has a younger brother that wasn’t able to return back to the school because he was just getting that much abuse and being tormented by other people because of what his brother had done. So there’s a real sensitive side to the story that I have to be careful of,” Smith said.
As for the other Sockman, he’s thought to have committed suicide. The film is still in production so all research is not yet completed, but the rumor is that his body was pulled out of the River Mersey. (Smith has a contact in the police force who’s trying to find him—unless, he added ominously, “he finds me first.”)
As is the case with most urban legends, the lines between fact and fiction tend to blur. It’s hard to believe a lot of what Smith says about the Southport Sockmen, in part because he has some doubts about some of his sources. That’s why Holes in their Souls—an obvious play on the word “soles”—will straddle the line between truth and fiction, relying on both first person testimony and speculative fiction.
“What I want to avoid is having it upfront at the start of the film and this is based on real events,” Smith tells me. “I thought, ‘Let’s drop people into the middle of this weird set-up with these guys.’” Or as he puts it nebulously: “Some people will believe it and some won’t.”
But the short isn’t the end of Smith’s fascination with the Southport Sockmen. After the short is done, he plans to turn the story into a full-length documentary. “In a feature-length film I could really explore talking to people with foot fetishes, psychologists and all the rest that goes with it,” he explained. “And just the general opinions of people on the streets: Is it right, or is it wrong that [the Sockmen] went to jail?”
Like any good documentarian, Smith is very protective of his subjects, particularly the remaining Sockman—the Sock “Gimp”—whose life was ruined by the scandal. He wants to make sure he doesn’t mock the players in the story the way the British tabloids did.
“After all, this is a guy who likes feet,” Smith said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Photo via Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)