Old School BDSM versus New School BDSM

Laura Antoniou (author of The Marketplace series of books), wrote in an article called  “Leather traditions”, “houses” and other myths people try to sell you on:

There are no “old leather traditions.” There are behaviors that individuals and small, isolated groups developed as customs (Bob has a new bike! Let’s all pee on it!) and there are behaviors individuals established as relationship habits (Call me Lady!) but there are no unified, recognized leather “traditions.”…

There’s a BIG difference between “This is the way someone told me it should be,” and “This is an old (kinky) tradition,” or worse, “This is a standard belief/truth/requirement in our subculture.” There’s also a huge difference between, “This is what works for me” and “This is how it must work for you.”…

So, if you want a spiffy new hat, go get yourself one. Especially if you look good in hats. If you feel it would be better to “earn” a spiffy new hat, then tell your lover/partner/friends/super secret club. Perform your feats of strength and derring-do. Earn that spiffy hat and wear it with pride. But don’t call what you just did an Ancient Leather Tradition of the House of The Reddened Tuchus. There’s no such thing as the Old Guard Hatting Ceremony. And if you just decided to get a hat because you look good in hats, wear it with pride because you should always walk with pride in what makes you look and feel good about yourself.

Here’s the trick though – just because something is untrue, or limited to a certain time and place and not universally accepted as truth, does NOT deny its romance or mythic power. We should by all means create rituals and styles and protocols and traditions in our little communities. These are the ways human beings interact, find connection and meaning, mark exciting and worthy experiences and times in their lives. Just OWN that we are, if not trying to re-create something that never was, actually creating something new and uniquely US.

Which isn’t to say, I think, that things haven’t changed. I think if you were a flow-charting kind of person, you’d probably find that your critical node was the Internet (or more specifically, the second wave of the Internet where everyone and their dog was suddenly online).

Prior to that, things were very physical by necessity. If you wanted to meet potential partners, or hang out with like-minded people, or learn things, or validate/express your lifestyle (or whatever your motivation), you found communities and you left your house, went out and interacted with them.

Just being physically in a place with people, probably on a regular basis, exposes you to group norms and you absorb that and learn the codes of behaviour that allow you to fit in and thrive in that environment. You know who the regulars are, who’s giving time to the community, who’s particularly good at a certain skill, who’s highly regarded (and why), who’s not liked (and why), what relationships that are successful look like, what you like and don’t like.

With the internet you got the easy option. You could shortcut a whole lot of time and effort from the comfort of your own home, you could do it anonymously, if you stepped on some toes or were a little too direct with someone then it didn’t matter because there weren’t really repercussions, it wasn’t really like you were going to see these same people again next week at the same bar, they didn’t really know you.

And there’s a saying… “give someone a mask and they will show you their true face”. Or maybe it’s “on the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog”. It offers great opportunity for those who know little to pretend they know much more than they do. It offers the timid a chance to reinvent themselves as someone more direct. People say things they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone in real life.

We had a great leap forward in accessibility, but at the expense of many of the codes of behaviour and the community vetting process that just occurred naturally when people actually had to physically interact with other people.

I’m oversimplifying, obviously. That’s just one major node you’d draw on your flow-chart. In the past 30 years there’s been a lot of changes in society’s standards regarding individual empowerment and political correctness, our understanding of complex issues like abuse/consent and discrimination, and we’ve had generational shifts (and value shifts) from Boomers to GenX to Millennial.


RedHankyThere were community protocols “back in the day”, though of course protocols in another city might not have been the ones in yours. But the Old Guard, or Old School BDSM, was not a collection of arcane rituals and ceremonies. First and foremost, it was a mind-set. It was a form of good manners and etiquette. It also encouraged thinking wider than the self, which brought in concepts like integrity, honour, respect and (community) service.

There’s been a great movement in society to equalise and homogenise. We’re now in an era of empowerment, and you’ll rarely hear someone call their boss at work “Sir”, or even “Mr (or Ms)…”. Now it’s just “Steve”.

And, in a way, that encapsulates New School. It’s part of that equaliser. Make the rules as simple as possible, get rid of the labels and titles and be yourselves as you like it. Your way.

It’s not that the wider concepts have been lost, but sometimes they look different because they’ve taken on slightly different forms. We have YKINMKBYKIOK (your kink is not my kink, but your kink is OK). We still have people working hard in the community. We still have standards of manners.

In real terms, there was never really Old School BDSM and New School BDSM. In mind-set, perhaps there was. But, the divide between the two is much smaller than some people would lead you to believe. Often we’re talking about the same things using different language.

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