Friday, May 26, 2006

The Last Two Centuries of SM

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #287, May 26, 2006)

The image was arresting. On the screen, in black and white, a naked woman was bent over a fainting couch while a naked man was poised to swing a switch at her buttocks.

What made the image more arresting was the fact that it was from the 1800s. And the man was, as they might have said in the nineteenth century, in full arousal.

Thus began “History of the Development of Sadomasochism in 20th Century America,” one of the final presentations of the tenth annual Leather Leadership Conference (LLC) in New York in April.

One of the presenters was Robert Bienvenu, Ph.D., a sociologist who wrote his doctoral thesis on the development of SM as a cultural style in the nineteenth and twenties centuries. The other presenter was Chuck Renslow, a man who lived (and made) some of the history Bienvenu included in that doctoral thesis.

In the first part of the presentation, Bienvenu described SM practices of the nineteenth century and how SM practices changed in the early twentieth century. Nineteenth-century SM imagery was built around “soft,” essentially feminine materials such as silk, lace and fur. Participants in SM scenes either wore everyday clothes or were nude.

Nineteenth-century SM implements were simple, natural and uncomplicated—canes, switches, whips, or birch rods. SM practices of the time were narrowly focused (on the buttocks, for example), ritualistic and predictable (starting with ritualistically exposing the buttocks), and endlessly repetitive (flagellating the buttocks, then flagellating them some more). Creativity and spontaneity were not the objects of nineteenth-century SM.

By the 1920s, SM had changed to a predominantly “hard,” masculine aesthetic. SM imagery of the time revolved around polished leather, latex and metals. When SM participants in the images wore anything, it tended to be specialized fetish attire, following an aesthetic that came to be known as “bizarre.” Photographic backgrounds were urban and industrial. SM implements and situations showed a broadened focus and increasing creativity, ingenuity, spontaneity, complexity and unpredictability.

Bienvenu discussed three major categories of SM culture in the twentieth century: European Fetish (c. 1928), American Fetish (c. 1934-1938), and Gay Leather (c. 1950).

The European Fetish style, which first became identifiable in 1920s Germany, quickly spread to France and Britain, and then around the globe as far as India and Australia.

The American Fetish style started in New York City in the 1930s and also had outposts in California. Originally an offshoot of European Fetish, it soon developed its own distinctly American look.

Both European and American Fetish were predominantly heterosexual, and the two styles shared many elements: bizarre costumes, uniforms, high-heeled shoes and boots, long black gloves, piercing and tattooing, and every sort of sexual apparatus imaginable. Practices included elaborate role play, cross-dressing, female domination, wrestling girls and human ponies.

Twenty years after the development of the American Fetish style, and with essentially no connection to either European Fetish or American Fetish, Gay Leather developed. It was at this point that Bienvenu turned the presentation over to Renslow, who shared his first-person account of leather’s development and history.

Renslow founded Kris Studios and began photographing and publishing male “physique” or “beefcake” photos in 1950. He and his lover, Dom Orejudos (the leather artist known as Etienne), opened Chicago’s legendary Gold Coast leather bar eight years later. In 1979, they founded the International Mr. Leather Contest, of which Renslow is still Executive Producer (and which is in full swing as this issue of Lavender hits the streets). Following Orejudos’ death, Renslow and former Drummer Magazine publisher Tony DeBlase were co-creators of the Leather Archives & Museum in 1991.

Renslow told of being brought up on obscenity charges, and subsequently acquitted. He told of the original group of Chicago leathermen and their search for a place to hang out. They finally found a club that welcomed them, the Gold Coast Show Lounge. Renslow eventually bought the business, shortening the name to “Gold Coast.” The rest, as they say, is history.

When the presentation was over, I was in awe. We have a history—a history that’s fascinating. But because it has been so hidden over the years, most people don’t know it exists.

There’s strength and power in discovering and uncovering that history. No matter what nasty names mainstream society may call us, we now know there have been other people through the years with the same feelings and interests we have.

Knowing we have a history makes it harder for us to accept being marginalized by mainstream society. Knowing we have a history makes it easier to carry on the fight for our own sexual freedom, and for everyone else’s as well.

That’s why this presentation was so affecting. That’s why the Leather Archives & Museum is so important. That’s why studies like Bienvenu’s are so valuable. That’s why Renslow and his contemporaries, and all the other people who have blazed leather/BDSM/fetish trails down through the years, are such treasures.

Bienvenu is currently at work on a scholarly book, “American Fetish,” to be published by Duke University Press. His doctoral thesis can be downloaded as a PDF file, in either compact or expanded multimedia versions, from <>.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Marriage, Family, Sex: Fantasy vs. Reality

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #286, May 12, 2006)

Sexual fantasy can be pleasurable. Fantasy applied to politics and public policy is disastrous.

PHOTO: Matt Foreman delivering this speech at LLC X.

Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), recently gave the closing keynote address at Leather Leadership Conference X in New York City. Foreman started by comparing some right-wing fantasies about marriage, families and sexuality with contemporary reality. He talked about the negative consequences of having public policy determined by these fantasies. He analyzed how the GLBT community unwittingly helped create this situation. Finally, he suggested what we can do about it now.

Fantasy: Marriage is “until death do us part.” Reality: 43% of all first marriages end within 15 years, and the rate goes up to 52% for women under 45.

Fantasy: Adultery is an aberration. Reality: According to two recent studies, 69% of those surveyed knew of husbands who had committed adultery; 60% knew of adulterous wives.

Fantasy: People who enjoy so-called kinky sex and porn are a small, twisted minority. Reality: An ABC News poll found 60% of sexually-active Americans say they have had sex outdoors or in a public place; 30% say they and their partner have watched sexually explicit videos; 20% have looked at porn websites; nearly one-third of all single men have been involved in three-ways.

Fantasy: Sex with a “prostitute” is extreme fringe behavior. Reality: 30% of single men 30 years or older have paid for sex.

These fantasies, rather than reality, are driving public policy —with profoundly harmful consequences.

Millions of tax dollars have been taken away from HIV and sex education programs that have been proven to work. That money has instead been spent on “abstinence-only” programs. Evidence is growing that participants in these programs are more likely both to engage in unsafe sex and to become accidentally pregnant.

Another example: A new vaccine offers almost 100% protection against the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer in 10,000 U.S. women each year, killing 4,000. Yet the FDA might not approve it because of pressure from the Christian right, which believes the vaccine promotes promiscuity. Foreman noted this should give us some sense of how people would react if we ever got an HIV vaccine.

How did we get to this sorry state? While mentioning this country’s puritanical heritage and the disproportionate influence of right-wing “Christians” on public discourse, Foreman focused on his analysis of how the LGBT community unwittingly helped to create the situation.

Our community’s modern struggle started as the “gay liberation” movement. Calling ourselves “gay” connoted that we were and are complete human beings—more than just sex acts, which is the image that “homosexual” conjures up.

At our founding we were part of a larger social justice/sexual freedom/social change movement. But we quickly became a movement focusing on specific rights—the right to be free from job and housing discrimination, to be protected from hate crimes, to be able to adopt, and now to marry.

But in focusing on specific rights, we sanitized our lives. We took the “sex” out of homosexual and stopped advancing ourselves as complete human beings. We reduced our movement to seeking specific equal rights, not complete equality based on shared humanity.

And, since we were focusing predominantly on gay-specific rights, we inadvertently isolated ourselves from other communities and causes such as immigrants’ rights and reproductive, racial and economic justice.

The advent of HIV/AIDS meant that the very essence of gay liberation—sexual freedom—was portrayed as killing us. Our opponents and many in our own community saw and still see sex as the culprit, not a virus. Not only did we stop celebrating sexual freedom, we ran away from it.

Disconnecting our sexual lives from the rest of our lives for political purposes has led us to some fantasies of our own. Fantasy: If “those people” (meaning leather people, butch dykes and drag queens) would just go away, society would finally accept us. Reality, according to Foreman: “It doesn’t matter how much you emulate straight society. Our opponents don’t care whether you’re a good gay or a bad gay—they hate you because of who you have sex with, pure and simple.

“And they certainly don’t care if the sex you’re having is vanilla or kinky. It’s all the same to them.”

What can we do about this? Foreman suggested three ways to turn the tide:

1. We need to push a change in society around sex and to break down the facade, and all the ugly laws, policies and hypocrisy that come with it.

2. We must consistently and vigorously call out the sexual hypocrisy of our opponents. “The more those most responsible for propping up the facade are exposed, the quicker it will fall.”

3. Most importantly, we need to come out for sexual freedom in our daily lives. Foreman concluded his speech by saying, “This does not, as some people fear, mean that we need to talk about specific acts or scenes. Rather, it’s talking about our lives in a genuine and honest way. Because if we can’t, if we don’t, believe me—no one else will.”