Review of Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice

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A Review of Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice

edited by Mark Thompson

Boston: Alyson Publications

Review Copyright © 1991 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



Back in the 1970s, when I was pursuing a career as a vanilla het Lothario, street rumors floated up to my ivory apartment every now and then about one bar South of Market Street that kept a tank of live piranha, another where men lay in tub-like urinals so other men could piss on them, and several where men who liked to cause erotic pain went to meet men who liked to feel it. Though I peeked into the Black and Blue, the Brig, and other of the era's leather bars by day, the Folsom Street environs frightened me by night and I only went into the neighborhood after dark to pay surreptitious visits to a couple of bath houses. In one of them I liked to cruise a play room which featured a sling strung from the ceiling by heavy chains, hoping someone would come by and use it. I did not go to the baths looking for whips and black leather boots, but in my fantasies I certainly did tie my lovers up, spank them, and force them to orgasms over and over again until they cried out for mercy in that agony of pleasure we call ecstasy.

I sometimes wish, these days, that in those years I'd had more courage of my curiosities, and that I'd been willing to follow my heart directly into the scenes that called to me. Instead, I followed a cautious and far more painful round-about trajectory that took me, briefly, to suburbs north and south, and into a marriage so doomed my friends were taking bets at the wedding about how long it would last. Then, less than a year after my wife and I separated, thanks to luck, perseverance, and the graces of the powers that be, I found myself in the midst of what the San Francisco leather scene had become.

One of the first things I discovered was that leathersex, also known by the umbrella term of S/M, could be extraordinarily hot. Almost immediately I found that my whole body could do what only my cock had done before, and on the heels of that discovery came my recognition that an exchange of erotic energy between partners lay at the heart of leathersex, and gave it the potential to be a spiritual path of enormous power and immediacy. I was introduced to the local leather world and discovered that its population held a quantity of intelligent, courageous, open-hearted, and articulate men and women all out of proportion to its absolute numbers. As time went on I learned that in this community I could be more readily accepted for who I was in all my facets than I had ever been anywhere else before. These discoveries of mine are among the attributes of leathersex that chapters in Leatherfolk address.

In the years that followed I met many of the authors whose work appears in Mark Thompson's splendid anthology. I worked with some, I played with some, I liked them all. So while I come to this book with a bias, my bias is that of someone who has at least some first-hand experience of its subject. I also know that the contributors to Leatherfolk – including Guy Baldwin, Eric Rofes, the Rev. Troy Perry, Gabrielle Antolovich, David Stein, Wicki Stamps, and the late Purusha Larkin – are among the cream of the nation's writers and spokespersons on the topic, and that when they speak, leather nation listens.

Leatherfolk is divided into four sections. In the first, "This Leather Tribe," six players and one "sympathetic observer" examine "the political, personal, and psychological meanings of radical sexuality." For instance, the late Geoff Mains, a biochemist and author of the classic Urban Aboriginals, explains the way people can make use of certain brain chemicals, released when the body is under intense physical stress, to achieve transcendent states of consciousness. Dorothy Allison, Lambda Award-winning author and co-founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, writes about "the holy act of sex:"


I am pushing up off the bed into Alix's neck like a great cat with a gazelle in its teeth. I am screaming and not stopping. Frog fucking, pussy creaming, ass clenching, drumming out, pumping in. I am doing it, boys and girls, I am doing it, doing it all the time.


In "S/M: Some Questions and a Few Answers," Carol Truscott, editor of the Sandmutopia Guardian, addresses the ever-present leather questions about power and violence:


Any relationship in which one person wants something the other has is a relationship with an exchange of some degree or some kind of power.... in the end, sadomasochism is about consent. Violence is about coercion. Both words start with the same letter, but other than that, they have absolutely nothing in common.


Section two, "Six Decades of Shadow Dancing," concerns the history of American S/M from the 1940s forward. An essay about the 1970s by Gayle Rubin, an anthropologist and the San Francisco leather community's principal archivist, is devoted to the Catacombs, the Bay Area's premier fist-ficking palace. The details about the days when the local community was in its heady youth – vital, excited, and innocent – reminded me how fear and circumspection had kept me ignorant, by keeping me from walking through the leather door when I first became aware of it.

Mark Thompson himself wrote the 1990s essay, about a group of gay leathermen meeting a group of Radical Faeries several years ago, sharing their mutual concerns over the "long struggle toward selfhood," and joining hearts to become Black Leather Wings. Reading the essay I remembered seeing a nearly naked man from the back one day at last summer's annual BLW gathering, when intense physical sensation and emotional stress were used in ecstatic rituals to provoke high spiritual states, and being struck that his whole body was glowing, radiating as if lit from within. Then he turned around and I saw evidence on his chest that he had recently completed the Sun Dance, also known as "the tearing of the flesh."

Two essays in this section took me entirely by surprise, and they remain among my favorites in the entire volume. Writing about the 1940s, Samuel M. Steward recalls how he was paired with a top by Alfred Kinsey so that the famous sex researcher could film a real S/M encounter. One afternoon Kinsey brought Steward to his garden.


Lounging with legs stretched out and with his back against the trunk of an apple tree was a handsome brute with crew-cut black hair and a somewhat tough bulldog face. He wore a shirt open to his navel, showing a fan of curly black hair. On his lower half were beige jodhpur trousers above brown English boots with lacings at the instep ... for black had not yet become the imperative color for sadists.... I put all my reserve strength into my handclasp when we shook hands, determined not to wince, and discovered that my grip equaled his own. He did not rise from his position, but fixed me with a steel gray stare intended, no doubt, to put the fear of the Marquis Donatien Alphonse into me quite early in the game. I sank to earth, stretching my own legs out. My arms and hands were conveniently close to his feet.

I reached out nonchalantly, took one end of a shoelace between thumb and forefinger, and untied the knot at his instep.

"Humph," I said meditatively. "You don't look so tough to me."

During the next two afternoons, I paid and paid for that remark, as I had with foresight intended it all to happen.


Thom Magister's essay is also autobiographical, but in a very different vein.


The world was a simpler place in the early 1950s. There were no porn shops where a young man could search for titles that would show him the way. There were no gay films, no porn videos, and no magazines like Drummer.... In brief, there was nothing openly sexual for the budding leatherman to read.


But you could be discovered, and Magister describes how as a 19-year-old he was found, courted, and trained by a somewhat older man to be his top. The essay is gentle in its evocation of that "simpler place," and of the love and care the older slave took to place his nascent Master into the proper hands so he could learn expert bondage, whipping, shaving, cutting, "and so on down the line of necessary skills," at least four hours a day for six months. "Charley was my slave but I was not his Master and would not be until ... I had proven myself both expert and worthy. What an archaic concept that seems today – being worthy to Master."

But being a Master was a serious charge: what leatherfolk call "play" today, they called "work" back then. Magister's bondage training Master told him,


If another man places his life in your hands then you are responsible for that man's life. And if he offers you his life and his mind and his heart – then you are responsible for everything. Everything!... Once [these men] have come to you, in sincerity, and given themselves to you they must always remain under your protection.... Pain ... is the Master's gift. Tie a man up, make his body ache with pleasure, and you've given him a gift. Stretch him, bind him, and love him and he'll come after you with his tail wagging like a grateful pup. Give him pain, deep in his body and deep in his mind and then break him completely and he will be your slave forever.... Forever, my young, would-be Master, is a hell of a long time. Remember that when you set about to dominate another man's heart and mind.


Magister and Charley were separated for ten years and had not spoken for three when Charley called Magister and said he needed him. Though living with another lover Magister went immediately to the Veteran's Hospital where Charley, once a muscular Marine, was wasted away and dying of lung cancer. He asked Magister's help to commit suicide. Just as there was nothing for a buddling leatherman to read in 1950, so there was no Hemlock Society or euthenasia movement in 1962. After three days,


My arms encircled him and he rested his head against my chest.

"I think I'm ready to go now. How about you?" he spoke very quietly.

"Sure, whenever you're ready," I replied, holding back my tears.

He reached into his pocket and took out a capsule.

"Just up to the gate, old buddy. I can manage from there."

I took hold of his hand and lifted it to his lips. He took the capsule into his mouth and I could feel his jaw tighten as he bit down, breaking the seal.

"Thank you, Sir."

I closed my eyes and pictured a strong, handsome man striding proudly up to the gate. He turns smiling – raises his arm and waves just as he had in a Hollywood bus station ten years ago. When I opened my eyes he was gone.


The third section of Leatherfolk, "The Body Becomes Politic," is devoted to contemporary leatherworld issues. Here John Preston, former editor of The Advocate and author of some of the most famous gay leather novels ever written, mourns the dissolution of the gay leather scene of the 1960s from the great adventure of an outlaw universe "devoted to breaking the rules" into something that's "gone the way of all politics [and]... lost its edge.... The magic of trusting one person, a mentor, and of letting those one-on-one bondings spread out until a brotherhood was formed has been replaced with impersonal how-to manuals."

As if in response Pat Califia, author of a half-dozen books and advice columnist for The Advocate for a decade, questions leather protocol in general. In "The Limits of the S/M Relationship" she asks if tops should ever bottom, and if bottoms should ever top. Harking back to the glory days of fisting, she observes that in the fisting clubs a man who didn't bottom was unlikely to find partners to top: the issue was not political or social, but concerned trust and experience. So today it is "the focus on the bottom's desire which distinguishes S/M from assault. A good top has to listen to the voice of the bottom within." Knowing oneself will improve communications, Califia says, and greater mutual respect will follow. "We might have to talk to each other more. It might be harder to tell if we were doing things the right way. My God, we might even have to abandon our concepts of correctness and purity altogether! But we'd all have more fun. And that would be a Good Thing."

Section three concludes with one of the most haunting evocations of leathersex I have ever read, Geoff Mains's famous short story, "The View from a Sling." Narrated with the paranoid precision of hallucination, the story concerns a dying man who sees from his hospital bed a medical functionary duly scratching notes on the patient's decline. Meanwhile the patient experiences himself in a sling, while a dream top fists him to a state of surrender where he can "embrace infinity" – where he can die.


Back and forward, again he does it, again, the whole world watching, the whole world waiting. I have gone over the wall, I drift in another universe, and without erection I come upon myself again and again in waves of amethyst and gray, my screams of ecstasy clamoring down the halls of the Slot like Helen's eruption, men crowding into the doorway, the whole world watching my release, the whole world watching as my paragraph body collapses in small folds as he withdraws the arm, and then the fist, and then pulls me up from the sling to cradle my lips with his....

I wouldn't mind if you did this to yourself, or if you let me into the sleaze of your manhole. Or if you did it to me again. I knew what I was doing, what I did. I understood there were dangers, even death, in the fire. I faced those dangers in statements of love and intensity and I stand by them. In the long run, I feel better for it. Me, the rebel. Listening to the sound of the rain.


There's no way to tell from the book's title, but Leatherfolk is largely about the transcendent spirituality of leathersex, which is the explicit focus of section four, "Spirit and the Flesh." As Thompson writes in the book's "Editor's Note," "The leap of faith required to unite spirit and flesh is much smaller than it appears to be. In fact, in my life and in many of the lives revealed in Leatherfolk, there is no distance at all separating the two."

The proximity of spirit and flesh is at the heart of the interview that closes this volume, conducted by Joseph W. Bean, "Leathersex Fairy" columnist and managing editor of all the Desmodus magazines, with the neo-Primitive shaman Fakir Musafar. In a free-wheeling talk the two men compare the functions of a leather top with the functions of a KaSeeKa. Fakir, one of whose many experiences hanging from flesh hooks was captured in the film Dances Sacred and Profane, explains that the Mandan Indian term KaSeeKa is applied to a person "who has gone through the ritual of hanging by piercings and is out there with young men, doing it to them, helping.... I've seen S/M scenes where a person who normally Tops got very humble and very impersonal and started not to Top but to KaSeeKa, and then the quality of the experience changed for both people."

It is clear from Bean's essay, "The Spiritual Dimensions of Bondage," that he understands his process as a top in the same way Fakir understands the KaSeeKa's role, because he understands his entire life as a spiritual process, engaging "that impulse in a man which urges him to discover his nature, overcome his fate, and strive for what destiny offers but does not promise." Spirituality is available to humans, but it must be achieved.


To extend into spirituality, a man may go head first as the yogis do, body first as fakirs do, heart first as monks do, or he may attempt the perilous task of going sexuality first as in certain tantric paths. Strangely, the submission required for bondage is not tantric in nature. It belongs to yet another class of spiritual paths which, because they act to bring all energy centers into alignment and move them "up" together, are called "noble" or "balanced" ways. The spirit in the bondage dungeon is moving within all human energy centers at once. It engages mind, heart, and body; focusing them by way of sexuality....


The Wiccan High Priest, Ganymede, focuses mind, heart, and body through sexuality as his calling, and so, though he does not appear to be a political person in any overt sense, he is a lens for the communities he serves. In light of his own story of coming to power he really does issue a call to all leatherfolk, and the sort of promise that best comes from the cupbearer to the gods and goddesses:


We have suffered four thousand years of guilt, denial, and oppression. A new awareness is called for; we need power from within. I advocate a new awakening of the ancient Age of the Mother, when love was pansexual and sacred. I call for an enlightened anarchy of individual freedom and responsibility: Do what thou wilt. I call for worshipful devotion to the health of the Earth, and all the beings who live on her: Love is the law. What I ask for is a fundamental cultural revolution; a change in every person's values. Until then, sexual radicals will have to remain underground, in secret societies, meeting and loving clandestinely. We have been here forever, and we shall always be.


Amen, say I: So mote it be.


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