Friday, February 4, 2005

Love, Leather-Style

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #253, February 4, 2005)

After Christmas, the next holiday on the calendar of the nation’s retailers is Valentine’s Day. February 14 soon will be upon us, which means it’s time to talk about love, sweet love. It’s time for romance, hearts and flowers, and candy—lots of candy. Especially chocolate, which famously contains the “love-chemical” phenylethylamine and several other mood-enhancing substances.

Leathersex aficionados certainly enjoy Valentine’s Day as much as anyone else. Of course we love to celebrate love—why else would a red heart be part of the Leather Pride flag? But is the concept of “love” in a leather context different from “love” anyplace else?

Being a preacher’s kid, I remember hearing my father preach many sermons on love. (I guess the fact that I still remember them this many years later shows they were good sermons.) Usually he talked about the fact that the English language only has one word for love, and that one word has to cover many bases.

But the Greek language (you will recall, I’m sure, that Western civilization is based heavily on thought and philosophical systems of the ancient Greeks) has different words for different kinds of love, four of which are eros, philia, storge and agape.

While the popular public perception of the leather community may be that it revolves around eros, I think leather culture has a lot to teach the rest of the culture about all four of these words.

Eros is the Greek word for physical love (i.e. sex). Eros was the Greek god of love, desire and passion (Cupid was his Roman equivalent). Both are commonly pictured with a bow and arrow, and it was thought that when Cupid’s (or Eros’) gold-tipped arrow hit someone, they were inflamed with love, passion and desire. It’s interesting to note that to the Greeks these passions were sometimes enjoyable but were sometimes considered a torment, a burning itch that simply had to be scratched no matter what the cost.

Today eros sometimes is translated erroneously as “romance.” The Greeks didn’t have a word for romance because romance had not yet been invented. The concept of courtly love, and the necessity of a man winning a woman’s admiration and adoration through heroic feats, would have been meaningless to them considering the extreme subordination of women in Greek society.

The English word “erotic” is derived from eros. Sometimes Eros was worshipped as the plural Erotes. The pluralization symbolized all the various kinds of attractions Eros inspired—including both heterosexual and homosexual ones. The Greeks thought of eros as strictly a physical, biological urge; they therefore didn’t imbue it with the psychological baggage with which sex today is so often burdened. 

Eros and the erotic have for a long time had a bad reputation, at least in sex-negative circles, as dirty, shameful and immoral. Leather, on the other hand, proudly and joyfully celebrates sex. Entered into with the proper mindset, sex is for adults what play is for kids—it’s a fun, enjoyable activity that can lead to personal growth and to bonding with and closeness to other people. In other words, eros can lead to philia.

Philia is the Greek word for friendship. Modern-day Americans will recognize the word in Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love.” I think it’s telling, however, that in the English language “philia” has become a suffix for words denoting feelings that generally are considered far from noble, and even far from normal; pedophilia, necrophilia, and other assorted paraphilias (sexualization of things “normal” people don’t sexualize) are examples. In some circles almost everything in leather culture is considered a paraphilia, starting with the leather itself. (Many kink-friendly psychologists and other mental-health professionals have spent many years trying to change this situation.)

In my opinion, though, the noble aspect of the original Greek usage of philia is evident at leather gatherings everywhere. “Friendship” seems too pale a word for the sense of bonding and community that goes with leather. The sense of brotherhood and sisterhood often seems almost familial—which brings us to storge.

Storge is the Greek word for familial love, as in the love of parent for child. It may be trite to say “In leather we are family,” but there’s a lot of truth in that statement nonetheless. For some people who have been cut off from their biological family because of their leather proclivities, their leather family is their only family. And how much more familial can we get than daddy/boy (or boi) relationships? Is that storge or what?

Agape is the Greek word for selfless love and caring for humanity. Unlike the other types of love discussed above, which are conditional, agape is unconditional. Outside of Agape Home and Agape Dos, two assisted-living residences in Minneapolis for people with AIDS, I very rarely hear this word outside of conservative Christian circles, who seem to have claimed it for their own.

But the principle of agape, if not the word, is well known in leather culture, as demonstrated by the amount of money raised by the community and the volunteer hours donated by community members. I also see the principles of agape in one of leather’s most basic principles: respect for oneself and for others.

So there they are: four kinds of love, all intensely—and, to a great extent, intentionally—present in leather, there for the rest of the world to see if it cares to look. If one thinks about it, this intense way of loving should come as no surprise—leather’s extreme sexuality needs to be practiced with extreme love, caring and respect. Selfishness in vanilla sexual relationships leads to emotional pain and unfulfilling relationships (and more material for stand-up comics, TV sitcoms and country-western songs). Selfishness in leather relationships can lead to physical injury.

Selfishness run rampant would lead to the end of leather. This is why it is not well tolerated by the community—and why people who value leather tend to cultivate values, attitudes and practices that build up the culture and the community rather than tear it down.

Here’s one more Greek word for one more kind of love: mania, which literally translated means “madness.” Mania is the over-the-top, out-of-control love that made teenage girls scream when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Mania is what made grown women throw their panties or hotel-room keys at performers like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.

For some reason, leather culture has never developed a good sense of mania. It’s not that we don’t try, of course; the concept of leather contests and titleholders have been in the community for years. But whenever a leather contest reaches its peak and the new titleholder is sashed, the only people who rush the stage are the press. I have yet to see a single leather jock or hotel-room key thrown onstage. We, as a community, will have to work on that one.

Or maybe not.

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