by Bryan Van De Mark
Consider this analogy: Let’s say you like roller coasters. There is a certain sense of thrill when you are locked into the seats and you crest that hill and go plummeting downward at speeds upwards of 60 mph. A friend suggests that maybe a bigger thrill is in order: bungee jumping.
You’re a little leery, so you do some checking around to find a place that comes highly recommended. You’re looking for safety, professionals, and knowledge. You like the thrill. Naturally, preparing for bungee jumping requires more communication, such as medical disclosures of ankle problems, for example. It requires more preparation. It requires more trust. And again, you reach that thrill and want to push the limits further. So, you try skydiving. Taking your thrill-level to the next climax requires further communication and disclosure, further desire, and further trust. You are, in effect, placing your health — if not your life — in another person’s hands.
The analogy is set to explain the fundamental drives and elements contained in what is called the “safe, sane and consensual leather experience.” As a further expression of the parallel, the first roller coasters on Coney Island were designed to provide carnival-goers that sense of thrill and danger (a run-away coal mine car) in a safe environment. In the same way, a leather scene is created to mimic a sense of danger and thrill — but in a safe, sane and consensual manner.
THE LANGUAGE OF LEATHER
“It all boils down to education,” says sheryl dee, American Leatherwoman 2003.
There are a number of terms used to describe the relationships between two individuals in a leather relationship. Dominants are sometimes called Daddies, Sirs, Tops, Masters, Doms or Mistresses. Submissives are often called boys, bois, puppies, bottoms, slaves or girls (a new term emerging in the leather scene). For the sake of our discussion, we will use the terms “Dominant” and “submissive” so as to be all encompassing.
To start off simply, one such educational distinction — the “Dominant” and the “submissive” — has to do with capitalization. Sir Mike and boy jack, is one example. Daddy Bill and boy chris is another. Even titleholder sheryl dee uses lower case because of her submissive identity.
The term “leather community” is typically used as an umbrella term for a wide range of erotic experiences that includes such things as sadomasochism, bondage, dominance, kink and other forms of pleasure-pain experiences.
That is not to say, however, that someone who has a particular fetish of mummification, for example, would relate to the leather community at large. To compare, the term “gay community” is often used to describe a diverse community of homosexual men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and questioning individuals. But there are those — such as a transgender person — who might not associate with the “gay community” at large.
When most people think of the leather community, the most commonly used terms are sadism and masochism. Late-19th century German neuropsychiatrist Dr. Richard Krafft-Ebing was the first to coin the terms “masochist” and “sadist”. Krafft-Ebing defined sadists as being aroused by inflicting pain on themselves or others. Masochists were aroused by fantasies of being controlled, dominated and/or humiliated. Both terms are derived from earlier writers of erotic fiction.
The word “sadism” derives from the 18th century French writer Donatien Alphonse Francois, commonly known as the Marquis de Sade. Most of Sade’s erotic writings were smuggled from his various imprisonments. Confined to the Charenton insane asylum until his death, Sade was mostly known for his own writings that suggested arousal based on some form of bodily mutilation or torture. In the 2000 film Quills, Geoffrey Rush portrays the Marquis de Sade’s last days in Charenton in a manner that is deeply haunting — and revealing — in its sense of history.
The term masochism comes from the 19th century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, most famous for his erotic literature detailing his fantasies of inflicting this “pleasure-pain” on others. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a submissive who was, like the Marquis de Sade, confined to an asylum by his wife, after von Sacher-Masoch’s wife could no longer handle his desires to be physically, emotionally and spiritually dominated.
Creator of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud was the first to blend sadism and masochism into the term “sadomasochism.” People in the leather community today are likely to use the term SM rather than S&M, fusing the two semantically as they are emotionally and physically.
There is also often reference to BDSM or kink. To analogize, “kink” is the “queer” of the leather community. That is, there has recently been a resurgence of identification with the term. For most, BDSM tends to describe the physical behavior that most associate with the leather community the best. Others may simply see it as torture, plain and simple. Advocates in the leather community will tell you straight up that there is nothing plain or simple about their experiences. There are complex, involved — evolved — and deeply rooted emotions and identities involved.
Taken from the Latin term meaning “to twist”, the word “torture” has historically mostly been associated in a negative sense, such as during historic times of persecution or inquisition. Like many terms, however, the word today can be used as either empowering or disempowering. In the leather community, maintaining integrity during a play session that involves “torture” means maintaining the highest levels of trust, respect and control. This pinnacle, where the highest level of the triad meets through mutual pleasure-pain experience, is where each individual achieves the ultimate arousal.
The universally accepted credo of the leather community is “Safe, Sane and Consensual”. “Safe”, in that the activities do not involve the risk of serious or permanent harm to one’s person or state of mind. “Sane”, in that the activities are intended to result in the mutual pleasure of both parties and do not result in damage of another’s body, emotions and/or mind for the sole gratification of one party at the expense of the other. Sane play requires that the Dominant first be in complete control of himself or herself. The Dominant must then exercise the control given by the submissive at all times for the mutual benefit and pleasure of both parties. “Consensual”, in that each party has knowingly and voluntarily agreed to the activities engaged in and did not withdraw that consent. Honesty is a prerequisite to knowing consent. Deception and manipulation render consent unknowing and involuntary. All three simply boil down to honesty and integrity when it comes to leather play and in dealing with each other.
In sexual terminology, there is orgasm and there is climax. Often these two elements are biologically fused. In the leather experience, the focus is on mutual arousal and on the process of taking mutual arousal to climax. This does not, however, mean that the focus is on reaching an orgasm.
In fact, in many leather play scenes there is no exchange of bodily fluid and no kind of penetration in terms of genitals. In that sense, it would seem that a leather scene might be one of the safest of sexual environments.
THE CONTINUUM – FROM CASUAL TO COMMITTED
As in all things in life, there is a continuum, from the light torture play to very serious — but safe, sane, and consensual — scenes. Some people find themselves aroused by the very sight of another person in leather or are aroused by the feel of leather or latex against their own body. In this way, simply being in a room with other people dressed in leather might arouse a person.
Gayle (last name withheld at request) is the president of Club X, the largest pansexual leather lifestyle non-profit group, and education and community-based organization for learning and charity in San Diego.
“Being in public in leather for a good number of people has implications of arousal and power,” said Gayle. “It can be erotic in and of itself to be in public in leather because it implies a sense of history and culture for someone who knows the community. For others, who simply participate in the leather functions like Mr. San Diego Leather, it can be that one night of thrill, of danger.”
It also can be very liberating for someone who up to that point has considered his or her interest in leather somehow shameful.
“Showing up in leather in a parade for the first time, for example, can be so liberating,” says dee. “With the sun shining down on your head, you can just be you. It moves it from a dark and shameful place.”
There are, of course, all levels of leather relationships, from novice to edge-play, as well as all degrees of commitment, from the total lifestyle to an occasional experience or adventure.
Some find themselves in long-term relationships where their daily rituals are defined by their role in the relationship.
Mike Russell, International Leather Sir 2003, and Bill Mitchell, American Leatherman 2003, are in long-term role-defined relationships in their homes. In both of their homes, Russell and Mitchell are the dominants and their partners are the submissives.
Russell has been in a committed relationship with his partner for two years, though they have known each other intimately for over 10. “In my relationship with My boy,” says Russell, “his role is to take care of Me and My role is to take care of him. I provide him with the safety and security that he desires and he takes care of O/our home.”
In a household where two individuals have committed to their identities as the Dominant and the submissive, even simple matters of what will be for dinner or what plans are for the evening are decided by the Dominant. Sometimes the Dominant will set the menu or schedule for the evening — or tell the submissive where he or she can sit or sleep or when they can shower, etc.
But this is where the issue of power exchange comes into play. The Dominant is allowed to set the agenda only because the submissive has allowed the Dominant to set the agenda.
Russell says, “It is empowering to U/us both because W/we both know O/our roles and the relationship feeds the desire to be comforted and the boy knows that my Daddy loves me. But the point isn’t that he is serving Me alone, he is doing those same things for himself. There is a great transference of energy.”
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding submissives is that they are somehow disempowered by giving up their identity and being perceived as a “slave” to another. By Western standards, this can be confusing.
On the contrary, says sheryl dee who, incidentally, holds two doctorate degrees. sheryl dee explains this concept of mutual power exchange.
“When we are talking about power exchange, i identify as a submissive. i am not talking about disempowering myself. When i do workshops i am very clear that in a healthy Dominant-submissive relationship we are not talking about codependency. We are talking about my willingness, my desire, to allow someone else to have power over me or give directives. i remain acutely aware that i am special and valued and remain whole within myself.”
Many Eastern philosophies such as Taoism espouse that the real control and the real power comes from being self-evolved enough to submit to the flow.
“Essentially,” says sheryl dee, “we are talking about deliberately moving away from a traditional Western view of egalitarianism and moving to a power exchange where the Dominant shows his or her appreciation of my giving my gifts. In return, i, as the submissive, show my appreciation of His or Her accepting this power while respecting me as a person.”
In public there is also set protocol that most dominants and submissives adhere to, many of which resemble a military-style relationship.
“The discipline, structure and protocol that is used in [leather] relationships comes largely from military traditions,” said Russell. “There is a great deal of structure to the relationship that is basic to military rules and regulations.”
For example, when in public, explains Club X president Gayle, “a submissive partner will stand at a pre-designated position and be attentive to the needs of his or her Dominant. They possess such a heightened level of confidence that they make a choice to serve. It is a gift from the heart that goes beyond words.”
sheryl dee explains her relationship in terms of the power exchange. “When people say to me, ‘I don’t get that, isn’t it disempowering?’ i explain to them that i am achieving my true self and [the Dominant] is being true to Herself. i look for those things that bring Her joy and in doing so, i am filled with joy. She is very appreciative of those things that i do for Her, and so in return what i get are those smiles and those moments where She expresses how proud of me She is.”
The other thing that attracts highly successful people with hard-core and driven careers to be submissives is the focus aspect.
sheryl dee explains: “As the submissive in O/our relationship, i have the luxury of being in a safe place where i don’t have to pay attention to any of the rest of the world. i am allowed the luxury of a single safe focus and all i have to do is to be there to experience that soft, safe place. i can literally be in this very quiet moment where not a word is uttered, where i am free from the world at large and free internally where i can just have a safe, healthy sigh.”
On a practical level, there is even some evidence that might suggest the submissives set the pace from the very start. Russell explains: “There are a lot of submissives out there looking for Dominants. Typically, I have found that it is the submissives who pick the Dominants. They watch the Dominant and approach Him/Her when They are available. The submissive has studied the Dominant and determines whether there may be some common energy there.”
The point then that advocates in the leather community make is that the power exchange is not coercive. On the contrary, it is a clearly negotiated situation.
“Authority in the scene is different than power,” explains Russell. “The Dominant may have the authority, but only because He or She has been given that right by the submissive. The submissive still holds his/her share of the control. The idea that healthy submissives tend to be highly self-evolved persons is further supported by the fact that they are the ones who may be subjected to different ideas. The Dominants may want to expose the submissive to something new and they have to be willing to either submit to that exposure or be confident enough to say no.”
Club X president Gayle explains the power exchange in simple terms. “The power exchange is negotiated and each partner has his/her own source of power. The mutual agreement is for one party to receive the authority and the other party to give up that authority.”
Which brings us to the matter of respect.
THE RESPECT ISSUE
There can be no healthy leather relationship without a core foundation of respect of both parties. While on the surface, it would appear that it is only the submissive’s role to respect the wishes, desires and/or demands of the Dominant, this can be very misleading.
For example, when Mitchell was chosen American Leatherman 2003, his partner boy chris immediately came up on stage and knelt beside Mitchell for the hour of congratulatory exchanges.
“It was absolutely the right protocol,” said Mitchell. “He never moved. He never flinched. he was at the place where he wanted to be and where he should be. It was very erotic. It was one of the proudest moments of My relationship. I had such a respect for him that night.”
As another aspect of a Dominant’s respect for a submissive, it is not uncommon for a Dominant to decide to experience what it is He/She does to a submissive. Mitchell and Russell both shared their experiences in this regard.
“One thing you will notice about healthy Dominants is that They learn the craft of interest from the bottom up,” says Mitchell. “You simply cannot expect someone to do something that you haven’t experienced. That is why we call on experienced leaders in the community who know the various scenes. These individuals are such an asset to the community and healthy relationships in the community. These are our mentors. You have to build knowledge. It is a hands-on craft. I wouldn’t want anyone tying me up for an hour who doesn’t know what it is like to be tied up for an hour.”
“As an example, if I am going to flog someone, I need to know that I have been in their shoes,” says Mitchell. “I had never been flogged before and so I called on one of my mentors with whom I negotiated a scene where I would take my body as physically far as possible so as to experience where my submissive goes into that head space giving everything he has.”
“There are always new fetishes,” says Russell, “so if you want to explore that with your submissive, its a good idea to find a mentor who has experience in that field. For example, I had never had a violet wand [an electrical device that sends a shock when touched to a body part] used on Myself and I wanted to make sure that I understood what the sensation and energy was like. And so I called a mentor and we explored this particular fetish.”
Healthy dominants in the leather community will respect what they do and don’t know. A healthy Dominant will not simply allow a submissive to request a particular scene without first understanding and preparing for that scene.
So why would Mitchell and Russell turn to others in the community rather than to their partners for this education? After all, Mitchell’s boy chris is obviously familiar with flogging.
Mitchell explains: “I would never switch roles in front of my submissive. I bring in a mentor to teach Me new skills [such as the flogging]. Switching roles for U/us would be sending a mixed message. I draw my arousal from my submissive. W/we have an established relationship. W/we have agreed upon set limits. W/we have built time and energy and money into building this relationship. It could, literally, rock the foundation of O/our relationship with this confusion. …
“Play scenes are not degrading. Healthy leather play involves honor, trust and respect. There are pre-established roles between two honorable people. The submissive trusts that you will honor the respect he is showing you by giving him/herself up and that you respect the submissive for achieving that next level — or for being strong enough to call off the scene if there is something going wrong.”
There is formal protocol of communication to indicate if something is going wrong. Typically, these are called safe words. The most commonly used safe words are “red,” “yellow,” and “green”.
“Safe words are one of the primary [tools] we use in safe, sane, consensual leather play scenes,” explains Gayle. “Safe words are tools we use in our erotic encounters as a safety measure for a submissive to relate to the Dominant partner that he/she is having a tough time.”
“Red” means stop immediately. “Yellow” typically means to slow down or change course or to ease up a particular level of play.
Another way that partners express their mutual respect is the time and energy that it takes for the negotiation of the scene.
“There are so many things you negotiate before going into a leather scene,” says Mitchell. “You discuss the submissive’s general limits, any physical limitations such as HIV status, STDs or, for example, prior injuries. If you are about to go into a long-term bondage scene it would be important to know that the submissive once had a shoulder injury, for example, so that you bear that in mind as you proceed. That’s part of the respect involved in a play scene.”
In the more extreme cases, such as needle play or whipping, explains Mitchell, there is also a great deal of preparation and post-scene care. “When you move into the more extreme scenes, you have to take into account things like recovery time and such.”
As in anything, there are scenes that go wrong. sheryl dee explains: “One of the key aspects of any negotiated leather interaction is to know and respect yourself. Even if it is part of something that you want to try but you haven’t done it, you have to show up knowing what you want. Maybe i am a little titillated by the idea of flogging but i have no experience as a submissive. If you find yourself in a negotiated scene with a Dominant and he/she is trying to talk you out of stopping, walk away. If you are using code words to indicate you are uncomfortable and the Dominant says, ‘No, it looks cool, no big deal’ and you respond that you are scared and that Dominant says ‘No, you’re not.’ Walk away.”
THE TRUST ISSUE
The final component, and arguably the most important one, of any healthy leather relationship is trust. And again, the trust must run both ways.
“Negotiations are critical,” explains Gayle. “It can take seconds with few words or it can take several minutes, or even hours of preparation — it can be extremely prolonged as the dialogue goes back and forth. We are talking about creating an erotic environment, not just a sexual experience, and you are using tools of power, either physical, emotional or spiritual that results in a physical exploration of erotic pain and sensation. You are stretching boundaries and so trust must be at the top of the negotiation.”
“I don’t think it should be a surprise that because we play at extremes and that this is what sets us apart that there is a greater level of trust required,” explains sheryl dee. “Because we play with things that can hurt us, say binding, gagging, things that can really hurt us if used incorrectly, negotiation and trust are so important.”
“Let’s face it, if you are going to fist someone or do breathing-control, there is a lot of trust involved,” says Mitchell. “That submissive’s life is in your hands, and there had better be a great deal of trust involved.” Likewise, should something go wrong, to a large extent the Dominant has to trust the submissive to signal a problem.
“i think we see more trust and communication in the leather community because AIDS changed the way we talked about sex. We were killing each other,” continues sheryl dee. “i may be generalizing, but we are talking about experiences involving adrenaline on the edge, pushing the card, and so that trust comes more easily to us because we are required to communicate more.”
Many studies have suggested that a person’s sexual identities and interests are established around the age of 8 years of age. For most people, the idea of the leather scene can be as scary as it is arousing. Advocates for a safe, sane, consensual leather experience are united in stressing that open communication and establishing mutually agreed upon power exchanges as well as a solid foundation of trust and respect is required for any healthy leather relationship — casual or otherwise.
“Nothing in leather should be a first-date activity unless you have on good authority from other members in the community that this person is a respected member of the leather community,” asserts Mitchell.
sheryl dee suggests that someone interested in exploring leather “start out light and stay present. Hear what you have to say. Be the person you are and be specific about what you are looking for.”
“Our cultural norms are based on public information about each other,” continues sheryl dee. “It is perfectly okay to make mistakes as long as you live with your dignity. Yes, we talk about each other, but it isn’t gossip as much as it is ‘I have really seen her skills improve.’ In the leather community, doing a background check on someone you might be interested in is seen as a good thing.”
“It is also important to understand that not every scene is going to work out,” says Mitchell. “Remember, the goal is mutual arousal, that exchange of energy. If the submissive is not aroused by the Dominant’s behavior, then this will flow back to the Dominant and the scene will likely end. It is about exchange, give and take, yin and yang.”
And asking questions appears to be a mark of confidence and distinction in the leather community. Russell explains. “If I have a question, leather-related or not, and I ask someone, that person doesn’t look at me like, ‘Why are you asking that question?’ They get you a direct response. And if they don’t know the answer, they help you find someone who does. This is because what we do can be on the edge, and the more you push the edge, the more education is necessary. I always tell people, ‘If you’ve got a question, just ask me.’”
“Part of what is erotic for us is that we do push the card,” says sheryl dee in an interview from her office. “This is combined, though, with a desire to be understood and accepted. It is powerful to be part of what many consider an underground community. To some extent it is titillating to sit in my office having this conversation knowing that anyone at any time could walk by. And the leather community has its playful side, too. Let’s face it, walking down the street in five-inch heels and a tool skirt and getting the little gasps can be fun.”
After all, part of the arousal is the seemingly taboo nature of some of the activity. But sheryl dee is also the first to admit that bringing the leather community into the open is an integral part of the education, especially during weeks like this.
Club X’s Gayle explains: We want people to know that this is bigger than they might think. That there is this beautiful wonderful normal set of individuals who have found their own identity through trust and love. It is about exploring oneself and other people. It is rich and healthy and good and wonderful all at the same time.”
American Leatherman 2003 Mitchell puts it this way: “In San Diego, this is absolutely not an underground culture. We have so many past and present national and international titleholders residing in our city limits. It is about a diverse community that will not go to the back of the bus.”
And with a 1990 Kinsey Institute report stating that researchers estimate that 5-10 percent of all Americans — not just in the GLBT community — occasionally engage in SM sex, that would be a lot of people to push to the back of the bus.
For this article, we have adhered to the capitalization and punctuation uses of the leather community.
Feature image: detail of Opulence number 3 by Roberta Marrero