Friday, October 28, 2005

Leather and “Social Capital”

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #272, October 28, 2005)

Go to a munch—you’ll live longer.

The above oversimplification points to a truth that goes beyond the leather/BDSM community to society in general: in the words of Dr. Robert Putnam, “Our communities don’t work as well, and our bodies don’t work as well, when we’re not connected.”

Dr. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, spoke in Minneapolis last May at a Town Hall Forum presented by Westminster Presbyterian Church. He has spent years studying “social capital.”

Dr. Putnam defines social capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” (Note that word “trust”—an integral component of leather/BDSM relationships.)

Social coordination and cooperation are produced by face-to-face encounters leading to trust, shared values, a sense of belonging and a sense of commitment or connection to others. These qualities allow people to build communities and to weave a social fabric. Strong communities and high connectedness lead to better health, less crime, more economic prosperity and higher educational achievement.

According to Dr. Putnam, connection and commitment are social tools that allow us to get more done in less time, and a social network has benefits and value both for those within the network and for bystanders. Part of the benefit of social networks is reciprocity—as Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”

The picture Dr. Putnam paints of the current state of social capital in America is sobering. For the first two-thirds of the last century Americans were becoming more connected, creating new organizations, new networks, new social capital.

But from the 1960s through the 1980s connectedness leveled, declined—and then plunged. Putnam, citing data from the Roper polling organization, concluded that one-half of our civic infrastructure evaporated in the last quarter of the 20th century. He also cited a more specific piece of data leading to the same conclusion: DDB/Needham, an advertising agency in Chicago, documented a 45% decline in “frequency of entertaining”—we simply don’t invite people over as often as we used to.

In leather/BDSM circles, a frequent topic of conversation is “What’s happening to our community?” Why are traditional gay leather clubs graying, with few younger members in sight? Why is it harder to find contestants for leather contests? Why does it seem as if people don’t go out as often as they used to?

Every other community is asking these same types of questions. What’s happening to our schools? Are parents too busy to be involved in the PTA? Is there still a place for labor unions? Who will be the next generation of members for the American Legion and VFW? Why do fewer people seem to be involved in political parties?

What has caused this situation? Putnam cited multiple culprits, one of which is suburbanization—10 more minutes of commuting time equals a 10% reduction in socializing. The rise of two-career families didn’t help matters, either.

But high on Putnam’s list of culprits: television. In Putnam’s words, “Most Americans watch ‘Friends’ rather than having them.”

The internet, Putnam notes, is not a large factor in the decline of connectedness because the years of massive decline predate the internet in its current form. The internet will either evolve into a Super Television, which will be very isolating, or a Super Telephone, which will be very connecting.

Although some readers of this magazine might not agree, Putnam notes that “You don’t make new friends on the telephone”—it’s part of our network for maintaining connections we already have. Likewise, with the internet there is room for creativity. Society needs to figure out ways to use the internet to strengthen real community instead of fostering further disconnectedness.

“Creativity” is a ray of hope, not just for the internet, but for the entire problem of rebuilding social capital. At the turn of the last century, the situation was much the same as it is today. America was undergoing a transition from an agrarian society to an urban one; many of the old ways of relating and connecting didn’t fit anymore. The problem was fixed in a very short time, however, and new organizations were invented quickly to fit people’s new needs and situations.

That’s our challenge now, according to Dr. Putnam: “We need to invent new ways of connecting that fit the way we live—we need to reinvent the Kiwanis or the Y.”

Hmm. “Creativity”—now who are some of the most creative people you know?

That’s right: us. Who is better than the members of the leather/BDSM community at figuring out new and delightful ways to please each other? Who has more fun finding new uses for things from the hardware store? What other group takes such pleasure in pushing envelopes and blazing new trails?

Instead of worrying about where the leather/BDSM community is going, let’s use our creativity and imagination to strengthen what works and reinvent what doesn’t. In this era of social upheaval and rebuilding, the leather/BDSM community might one day find itself even more relevant, to more people, than ever.

For further reading: Dr. Robert Putnam is the author of a dozen books, including Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Better Together: Restoring the American Community. (Those with long memories will recall that the theme of IML 1994 Jeff Tucker’s title year was “Better Together.” They will also recall that IML 1996 Joe Gallagher’s theme was “Get Linked.”)

Friday, October 14, 2005

What’s your LPT (Leather Personality Type)?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #271, October 14, 2005)

In an effort to understand the world and its inhabitants, psychologists have come up with systems for classifying human behaviors and personality types. Two of the most notable (and currently fashionable) are the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Enneagram.

Both of these systems can profitably be applied to the world of leather. However, after intense observation and analysis, your humble columnist has created a more leather-specific system. The Leather Personality Type (LPT) classification system contains, at last count, twelve types.

Before describing the system, a brief disclaimer: These are archetypes. Almost no single living, breathing human represents one type exclusively. Your personality, and the personality of everyone around you, most likely incorporates elements from several of these types.

Nonetheless, I find it’s good to understand the various types and what makes them tick (and what doesn’t). It helps explain why we don’t necessarily all see things the same way, and why we don’t always have the same likes and dislikes.

In other words, what flips our switch may not flip someone else’s, and vice versa. And that’s okay.

With that said, here are the twelve Leather Personality Types:

LPT1. Leather Club Member: Team players all, LPT1s are committed to strengthening their community by working with other like-minded club members. LPT1s enjoy the camaraderie and family feeling of belonging to a group. Leather clubs were, to a very great extent, where today’s leather community started, which is why they have the honor of being the first Leather Personality Type.

LPT2. The GDI (God-damned independent): An independent member of the community but a solid member nonetheless, free-spirited LPT2s don’t feel the need to join a leather club, although they are often supportive of the clubs and their LPT1 members. Perhaps LPT2s can’t make the significant time commitment demanded by club membership. Perhaps meeting agendas and Robert’s Rules of Order bore them to tears. LPT2s find many other ways to enjoy, be involved with, and contribute to the leather community.

LPT3. The Titleholder: The leather community’s rock stars, LPT3s enjoy the spotlight. They are passionate about their community and their issues and work tirelessly to raise awareness. Sometimes seen by other LPTs as living a glamorous, jet-set life, LPT3s know that under that thin veneer of glamour is a lot of work and a lot of inconvenience. (How glamorous is it to live out of a suitcase 48 weekends of the year?) But for LPT3s, the rewards of contributing are worth it.

LPT4. The Master or Mistress: Resolutely self-assured, strong and confident, LPT4s find gratification and fulfillment in dominating and controlling others. Other LPTs may be envious when they see a Master or Mistress being waited on hand and foot (often literally), and might see LPT4s as somewhat selfish. But the emotionally healthy LPT4 understands that with the pampering comes total responsibility for the subs or slaves doing the pampering, which most people couldn’t handle. Fortunately, the LPT4 can.

LPT5. The Super Sub or Super Slave: Often seen as the polar opposite of the LPT4, LPT5s are surprisingly similar in many ways. LPT5s are often wrongly perceived as weak and lacking self-confidence. In reality, healthy LPT5s are every bit as self-assured, strong and confident as the LPT4s they serve—they simply choose a different way of expressing it.

LPT6. The Professional: LPT6s are so dedicated to leather that they make it their livelihood, and thank goodness they do. The leather community could not function without the merchandise and services provided by LPT6s. If you didn’t personally make that leather vest you’re wearing, thank the LPT6 who made it and the LPT6 who sold it to you. Ditto for other leather-related apparel, toys, dungeon supplies, videos and reading material, and so on. Some might unfairly criticize LPT6s for “taking advantage” of the community or “getting rich” at the community’s expense. This is balderdash—if LPT6s were motivated solely by money, they could find many easier and more secure ways to earn a living.

LPT7. The 24/7: At any moment they could meet the dress code at any Eagle in the world. They are leather and leather is them, and they wouldn’t want it any other way. Or maybe they can’t always look the part, but even in a business suit they’re still leather and proud of it.

LPT8. The Hobbyist: Sometimes derisively considered “Weekend Warriors,” leather is one aspect but not the totality of an LPT8’s life. Perhaps they’re new to the scene, or perhaps they’ve been around awhile and incorporated into their lives the aspects of leather that work for them. By their participation they strengthen the community, so they’re always welcome at a bar, an event or a party.

LPT9. The Specialist: Their interests are narrow but deep. LPT9s may or may not be involved in other aspects of the community (and may or may not be criticized for it). But they are passionate experts at their chosen interest or fetish, be it flogging, single-tails, motorcycles, or anything else. If you want to explore a new leather interest, the proper LPT9 can be an invaluable resource.

LPT10. The Exotic: Puppies. Ponies. Goth. Babies. Not everyone can understand why LPT10s get off on getting into an alternate headspace. But LPT10s enjoy it—and that’s what matters, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else.

LPT11. The Exhibitionist: You might see their image in a magazine or video, or you might see them live on a stage, at a party or in a dungeon. In addition to whatever else they get their kicks from, LPT11s get their kicks from being watched. For LPT11s, leather is a celebration—and they want to share the experience.

LPT12. The “Leatherati”: Carefully observing everything going on around them, LPT12s savor it all, remember it, and write it all down. They do this to preserve the culture for future generations as well as to mirror it back to the rest of the community. Along with mirroring it back, LPT12s often try to analyze and explain things. Sometimes they even attempt to classify and categorize them.