SM Recognition Signs and Leather

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October 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Are there any clothes, lapel pins, or whatever, that can be worn in public and yet will signal to others in the SM scene, "I'm a dominant in search of a submissive," or "I'm a submissive in search of a dominant"?

<A> Outside the scene, none that I know of. Most people clad in their Brooks Brothers' finery are signaling about other kinds of power, and if you're such a person, a whip or a set of keys swinging from your belt is only likely to sign to your confreres that you've lost your marbles.

Within the scene the signs don't so much say that you're looking, but rather that you identify (or wish to be identified) with one position or another, at least for the moment. (Stories are legion about switches switching things around once they've spotted some hot number dressing on the same side they are – but I digress.) This is sort of like the gay bar hanky code that was popular in the 1970s & 80s, and is still used to good effect by people with the brain capacity to remember all those colors. These days, in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, keys (or a hanky, or a wrist strap or a cockring) worn on the left generally signal that you're a top; on the right, they generally signal that you're a bottom.

The signs may vary from one locale to another, however, or from one decade to another, so if you're slinging your keys from the left in 2001 Kuala Lampur and some sweet thang impresses you into a different sort of chain gang, don't say Daddy didn't warn you. In any case, after you've done a certain amount of cruising and have ascertained that the person you want to play with dresses on the opposite side from the one you've adopted, a little bit of verbal communication is probably still the best way to be sure you and your potential partner are looking for compatible evenings.

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<Q> Why is leather the symbol of SM? Does something fundamental connect leather and erotic power exchange? Or is this just the way history evolved?

<A> Oh, Gentle Reader, I'm a psychotherapist – I don't think anything is "just the way history evolved"; I think there are reasons for everything. But I may be wrong. Still, my readings, my keen psychological wit, and some conversations I've had with a few very long-term players suggest several associations between leather and SM.

First, leather itself is a fetish for some people: they like and may be erotically aroused by the sight, smell, and/or feel of what they regard as a "second skin" – hence Skin Two, the posh British leather-fetish-fashion magazine, took its name from the second definition of "skin" in a dictionary.

Where the fetish for leather comes from is harder to answer – especially for me, since I don't share it. When they were little tots did lots of future players crawling around on the floor come nose to toe with a bunch of shoes and boots just at feeding or changing time? Does the skin of another animal trigger a response in the most primitive portions of our brainstems that says, "Hunt. Kill. Eat"? Or did the hides of animals make the toughest available flexible fabric when warring folk needed shields and armor, so that leather could acquire some SM fetish feel as a consequence of its association with raw power?

Animal skins of all sorts have totemic power in many societies, and wrapping up in the hide of a slain enemy – or of dinner – is thought to have mystical value in some still-existing pre-Industrial civilizations. Certainly wearing leather must have come before wearing much else than leaves, if only because such hides make a quick and obvious solution to the need for clothing.

But this particular fetish may also have some specific cultural cachet – as many fetish costumes have.* Much of the leather-and-lace garb affected these days by both serious professional Mistresses and the cartoon Mistresses of salacious porn springs straight out of the pages of Victorian governess control drag, with only a little augmentation or diminution for what we moderns believe to be the more explicitly erotic features of the female body. And the chest harnesses affected by the most spectacularly pectoralled men at the Drummer contests and the Folsom Street Fair sometimes seem to me intended not only to make a comparison between the skin that defines the muscle and the skin that defines the skin that defines the muscle, but also to remind the casual onlooker of macho bandoliers full of phallic bullets – now reduced to studs.

This last association takes me back to the answer I offered a couple of months ago to the reader who asked why the color black has come to symbolize the SM community. We are to some extent genteel descendents of the rowdy 1950s motorcycle gangs. Their black leathers were utilitarian – they didn't show dirt, but more important, they protected men against cold, rain, and long 75-mph shoulder-skids on asphalt and concrete. As we adopted their protective coloring, so, perhaps, we adopted their protective cover as well, and for some of the same reasons: to say, We are here, we are outlaws of some sort, and – yes – we are proud of who we are.

*For example, adult diaper fans who were babies in the era of washable cloth diapers tend to prefer washables as adults, whereas those who grew up after the advent of disposables tend to prefer the throw-away variety.

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