Review of The Bride Wore Black Leather...


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CIVIL LIBERTIES.altsex

A Review of The Bride Wore Black Leather... And He Looked Fabulous!: an etiquette guide for the rest of us

by Drew Campbell

San Francisco: Greenery Press

Review Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

 

 

Those of us hip & groovy folks who double-park our SUVs in crowded urban blue zones, take cell-phone calls during romantic dinners at Boulevard, stroll across the busy avenue against traffic and the light as if everybody else should also be enjoying our personal lazy summer Sunday at the shore, don't say Please and Thank You, cut into line, sample-graze grapes and granola from the local food boutique's bins, or take some other dude's way cool Niners jacket right off his back because we want it and anyway he's from Oakland - we are all suffering from different forms of a uniquely contemporary malady sociologists call entitlement.

I'm not talking here about the kind of entitlement that derives from basic social contracts among human beings - I'm entitled to like myself just the way I am; I'm entitled to as much opportunity to learn and grow and make something of myself as anyone else; I'm as entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as any other person - no. And I'm not talking about the political entitlements optimistically designed by law to give marginalized people a fair shake on those basic social contracts, either: no. Instead, I'm talking about the psychopathic edge that's lately overcome a great deal of what used to be thought desirable in our civilized discourse. I'm talking about entitlement as the feeling or belief or attitude that I deserve - I am entitled to - whatever I want, when and where and however I want it, with or without earning it, no matter what the cost, no matter who else might lay a better claim to it, and regardless of the effects my taking it might have on others.

Entitlement of this order, spread up and down and all across American society like rancid butter on Wonder buns, is evidence that as a nation we lack civility. And, in fact, civility has been steadily losing ground in America since the 1960s, according Daniel Yankelovich, the bull-goose pollster of the 20th Century. In The Magic of Dialogue, published last fall, he noted the general falling off in practice of many traits that were once thought gracious and that are now possibly seen as quaint if they are seen at all, and that obtained in America for most of the past century and more. His book concerned one way to remedy some of the problems that have resulted from that fall, but it's hard to imagine that when those qualities were in fashion and people strove to know them we would have had much need for someone of his stature to tell the rest of us how to have a civil conversation.

Today I troll before my bookshelf as if I wore a smoking jacket and held a pipe between my teeth. Emily (Mrs. Price) Post and Amy Vanderbilt are there for my consideration in 1937 and 1958 editions, respectively, and if they do not speak about entitlement directly, surely they imply the value of its absence, and the general contentment that is a result of its absence, when they address the matters of civility that mattered to their readers. But the questions they address with so much certainty arise but rarely for me and mine. I don't hear people wonder about how to behave when the maid who's clearing the dinner dishes piles them disrespectfully one atop another, or how to hold my skirts when curtseying before a Queen. Though traditional protocols are meaningful in high leather slave training, the questions people ask in the queerer communities more often have to do with how and when to inquire about another person's gender, orientation, or desires so as not to give offense; or how to come out; or how to address a Master you routinely top when he is topping his female boy who happens to be your Absolute Mistress. Even Quentin Crisp doesn't answer questions like that, though his bitchy, quippy prose is delectable; nor does Judith Martin, the redoubtable Miss Manners; and the Mayflower Madame's first book, which also sits on my shelf, is not about etiquette. But then, I haven't even heard of most of the titles in Drew Campbell's bibliography, and their absence in my life - and perhaps in yours, Gentle Reader - only points up how low a once-mighty wisdom has fallen.

In another of his varied evolutionary stages Drew Campbell achieved some notoriety as the author of Miss Abernathy's Concise Slave Training Manual and Training with Miss Abernathy: A Workbook for Erotic Slaves and Their Owners. As you might infer, queer - or, as he says, altsex - protocol has some real-life meaning for him, and in this volume it is Campbell's chosen task to rectify somewhat a situation of incivility that is distressing in part because its milieu makes it nearly invisible: who in the altsex world believes s/he needs to know etiquette, after all?

Well, Campbell does, for one, and he believes you need to know it too; and after learning a bit about his book I'd guess you'll recognize that he is right. He calls for your attention in his cinematic knock-off title, and in case that's not enough he recalls in his subtitle the way the left-ish Mother Jones, back when it was new, called itself "a magazine for the rest of us." Perusing shelves of traditional etiquette and seeing none concerned with the proper way to introduce your pansexual polyamourous SM Pagan family to your sister's Southern Baptist in-laws, or to determine whether the woman with the three-day stubble you've just met is transitioning or dressing and in which direction, or to answer people who ask about your orientation or proclivities when you don't wish to discuss them, Campbell has written "an etiquette guide for the rest of us."

Right at the start, anticipating a world of innocent ignorance, Campbell explains what etiquette is and what it is not. It is not, for example, "a series of arcane and inflexible rules designed to make your life difficult or trip you up in front of your boss." It is "not a tool of the upper classes to belittle everyone else." It is "not what your mother told you to do." Instead, "etiquette is a system of useful principles designed to help people get along with others." Now, that's simple, isn't it? What this seems to come down to is that etiquette is good manners. But who dictates good manners, and why?

"Traditional etiquette guides walk a fine line," Campbell reminds us: "they are meant to convey upper-class rules of behavior to middle-class people....

"Unfortunately for those of us not to the 'manor' born, upper-class norms don't translate well to middle-class circumstances. For example, when visiting another person's house, middle-class children are taught to murmur some polite phrase about the house itself or to take note of some facet of the decor.... Upper-class children, on the other hand, learn never to comment on their surroundings, as it's assumed that everything will be beautiful and expensive. Likewise, at the dinner table, middle-class people, after the first bite of food, will often make some approving noise or gesture as a compliment to the chef, who is, of course, the woman of the house. Upper-class women don't cook - their servants do - and it is again expected that the food will be superb. Therefore, the appropriate response is simple silence. Consequently, when leaving, one thanks the upper-class hostess for 'the lovely evening,' not 'the lovely meal.'"

Okay, but now that you know how to dine with the Windsors and the Astors, what next? After brandy and cigars, how do you find out if Prince Charles prefers floggers, leashes, corsets, or the dog? What do you call the diapered, grey-bearded Marquis spitting pablum in his crib beside the fireplace? If you're curious or queer, or know someone who is, this book is an ideal place to start your education. As Campbell notes, altsex communities cut across the usual social categories of class, education, ethnicity, and the like. People are transgendered in all walks of life. SM players come in every hue and income bracket. Het, gay, bi, pan, and polyamorous leanings know no boundaries of profession, nationality, or education. So Campbell proposes altsex etiquette that is simply based on "logical extensions of some time-tested rules for treating people well. And who doesn't want to be treated well?"

The Bride Wore Black Leather...is divided into five basic principles, or Rules, each of which reflects the author's conception of etiquette as manners that treat people well:

  1. Context is Everything;
  2. Define Yourself, Not Others;
  3. Do Not Confuse the Public with the Private;
  4. Consider Others Before You Speak or Act;
  5. Play Nice or Get Out of the Sandbox.
Campbell introduces each Rule with a piece of explanation; these remarks range from the couple of sentences that precede Rule 5 to the full page that precedes Rule 1. After each introduction he takes on a collection of questions that all seem to belong more to that Rule than to another. The questions are actually such as might come up for you from time to time if you think of yourself as anything like "altsex," and his answers - sometimes witty and sometimes dour, sometimes terse and sometimes elaborate - are always well-informed and to the point. For example:

Q: I know a lot of lesbians who hate the term "wife" and tell other lesbians that they're "supporting the patriarchy" by using it. How should my wife - her preferred term - and I deal with them?

A: A cold stare sounds about right. If you must explain, keep it brief: "Allison prefers the term 'wife,' and of course I respect her choices." By emphasizing "of course" you give your PC friends the subtle hint that they, too, owe your wife the same courtesy.

* * *

Q: One of my ex-lovers is still part of my social circle. My problem is that he's completely paranoid, and doesn't want me to say anything about our relationship, ever. He's even gone so far as to demand that I pretend that we never dated. (We lived together for two years in the same city in which we both still live.) I respect his right to privacy, but I think this is ridiculous.

A: Privacy is one thing; dishonesty is another. You are under no obligation to lie about your own past to suit someone else. Instead, be mysterious. "Oh, we knew each other once... ," spoken in a wistful tone, will get your message across loud and clear.

* * *

Q: When they learn I'm polyamorous, people often ask why. I never know what to say.

A: It is an odd question, if you think about it - what sort of answer can they be expecting? Honest answers like "Because I fell in love with two people" or "Because it best meets my emotional needs and those of my lovers" just don't seem juicy enough. But they'll have to do. The only other alternative, if you feel obligated to answer at all, is to turn the question around: "Why are you monogamous?"

* * *

The questions sound real because they are. Campbell did research for this book not only by reading other etiquette commentators, but also by posting an interactive survey on his website. He says he got 400 responses in six weeks, and used some undisclosed number of those, along with other pressing questions, in composing this guide. I would guess that additional questions came out of his own altsex life. Neither Emily nor Amy mentions it, but as Campbell observes, until recently it would hardly have been likely that the people at his own recent wedding would even have met, "let alone attended the wedding reception of a Christian leatherdyke and her Pagan female-to-male transsexual Daddy."

Most books are so full of answers that they beg their own questions. Others are full of questions that they leave unanswered. This book answers all its own questions and questions the answers earlier, differently oriented etiquettes proposed. In addition, The Bride Wore Black Leather... defines a need we did not even know we had - for an altsex etiquette guide - by the simplest possible expedient: filling it.


William A. Henkin, the son of a radiologist, is co-author, with Sybil Holiday, of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely. He is a psychotherapist and sex therapist who conducts his private practice in San Francisco.


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