Is SM Sex?

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August 1992

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Why is it that for some people SM seems to equal sex, or at least foreplay, while for others they appear not to be sexual at all?

<A> SM is a sophisticated erotic activity with several layers of meaning and significance. It may touch some people's genitals, some people's minds, some people's hearts, and some people's spirits – or any combination. Because its energy may be felt as diffuse rather than localized, SM can be intensely erotic without being sexual in a specifically genital way. Even without SM, one person's foreplay is another person's sex, after all, and one person's idea of sexual may be someone else's idea of non-sexual. Why people are sexual in the ways they are requires more discussion than this column has room for. But in the space we have we can certainly cast an eye on some varieties of leather experience.

On one level SM is costume and theatre: the black motorcycle leathers that signal power also mimic the dress of the biker gangs whose rebellious brotherhoods in the 1950s were both the models for and modeled on the famous Marlon Brando vehicle, The Wild Ones. Heavier players sometimes joke that in the costume universe, where people can easily show off their sculpted bodies and present equally sculpted images, the letters S and M simply mean Stand and Model.

On another level, some people truly find it erotically exciting to give or receive the intense physical sensations most people think of as pain. For them, S usually stands for sadist, and M for masochist; SM together stands for sadomasochist or sadomasochism, implying that sadism and masochism are two sides of the same coin and exist together, not separately. These people sometimes assert that by mentally directing the intense sensations achieved by striking, pinching, squeezing, or abrading the skin and muscles of the body into erotic channels they can become far more stimulated than they can by "vanilla" (non-SM) fondling, sucking, and fucking – even though they may fondle, suck, and fuck as well. Some people claim they have gotten or given much more pain during an afternoon's game of touch football than they do in SM, but that no one even thinks that the kind of pain athletes put up with every day is odd because it doesn't have anything to do with sex, and our society is generally afraid of anything sexual.

For still other people into SM, S stands for slave and M for master. These players are more likely interested in the sorts of mind games by which one person (the slave) relinquishes control over what s/he does with another (the master or mistress) for a specified period of time. This kind of SM is also known as dominance and submission, or DS. Some people who play these sorts of erotic games find it mentally relaxing not to have to be in charge of their sex lives for awhile; others find it stimulating to be responsible for what their partners do during sex play.

Finally, many people involved in both SM and DS report that their experiences not only enrich their sex lives, but also open profound spiritual doorways. They say that leathersex bonds them closely to their partners, and sometimes to all of humanity.

The down-and-dirty how-to of man-to-man SM – equally useful for women who play with men – is explained in The Leatherman's Handbook II, by Larry Townsend. The specifics of woman-to-woman SM – equally valuable for men who play with women – is laid out in The Lesbian SM Safety Manual, edited by Pat Califia, published by Alyson Publishers. The social, or tribal, component of the SM world is examined in loving detail in Urban Aboriginals, by the late Geoff Mains, originally published in 1984 by Gay Sunshine Press, and re-issued in 1991 by Leyland Publications (P.O. Box 410690, San Francisco, CA 94141). The spiritual component of SM is explored in many of the essays in Leatherfolk, a collection of articles edited by Mark Thompson, published in 1991 by Alyson Publishers.

The most important SM magazines are Dungeon Master (gay male) and Sandmutopia Guardian (all genders, orientations, and combinations) and Leather Journal (news from all parts of the leather/SM/fetish community. If the world of SM interests you at all, you owe it to yourself and your future partners to take a look at all these books and magazines.

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