Leather History and Revisionism…

So from time to time I have to make the choice of either just letting this go for months without posts, or crossposting material from elsewhere. Today crossposting won. This is a slight modification of a response that turned into an essay on Fetlife (http://fetlife.com/groups/245/group_posts/217231)

The original post concerned the perception of a strong undercurrent of leather history suggesting that heterosexual kink owed most of its existence to gay leather culture and did not exist before WWII.

I wrote a post in which I generally supported the concept that het BDSM does in fact have a long history of its own, independent of the gay subculture, while also upholding that a lot of the form of modern M/s is shaped by gay leather biker culture. In the response, I spun out a few new ideas, including a thesis I’ve held for a long time, but haven’t posted that essentially antecedents aside, so much of BDSM culture is made up of people drawn to kink by the internet that it is essentially a “now” phenomenon, not a historical one.

On that note:

I think there are many truths here. Let me say that I was not around “back then.” I joined BDSM in the vast wave of players who began to talk about fetish in the early 80s as something their friends did, and moved into it in the 90s as the Internet made information about groups like BR and Fetish Clubs and lifestyle more accessible.

That said, I’ve an interest in History and find the subject of BDSM history fascinating. I’ve often seen it put forward that modern Kink culture is a hybrid of a soft, swinger-based community that came out of the free-love culture of the 1960s, and the leather biker culture that existed from 1947-1969 but blossomed after Stonewall. A fairly clear synopsis of this theory can be found in Rubel’s Protocols.

Looking around, one can argue that is a statistical “truth” in some ways. If you look at events with a high kink value, probably Folsom is the one I would most expect everyone in the U.S. including those in vanilla culture to have heard of, and it certainly came out of the Pride movement.

As a Trainer, when I talk to girls about M/s, I tend to emphasize the connection to that culture, because I can simply look at it and see that with the exception of the influence of John Norman, much of what passes for “slave training” is influenced by WWII post-military gay leather culture. But that’s only a tip of the iceberg of kink overall. And even there, one can’t seriously suggest that Anne Desclos (Pauline Reage) was in any way influenced by Gay Biker Culture, and I think in Story of O you find a depiction of virtually every element we’d associate with Leather/Kink other than actually wearing leather garments as a primary fetish.

And I think that addresses the key point above. That Heterosexual BDSM does not rely on Gay Biker Culture as its primary line of transmission. That it is not the case that you had “soft” 1960s free love people and “hard” 1960s Gay Biker culture. Clearly there is a well established line of heterosexual kink.

The question comes up as to where it existed. Obviously as Laura Antoniou has written, there probably weren’t houses like Roissy in the 1950s. So…who was practicing BDSM.

We see glimpses of an informal spanking culture in Britain with “The Pearl” the well known underground Victorian magazine. The key thing about “The Pearl” is that it documents a clear transition between the draconian writings of De Sade, and a culture of spanking porn that was playful and social.

One major source was Berlin. There is no question that in 1930s Berlin, there was a hugely eroticized culture that in terms of scope exceeded even San Francisco today. The dark side of this is that it’s because the economy wasn’t all that good and prostitution was legal, so much of the sex work was paid. One of the best sources for understanding the incredible scope of this culture is Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin http://www.amazon.com/Voluptuous-Panic-Erotic-Weimar-Berlin/dp/092291558X . In “credit where credit is due,” I was originally introduced to this book through a presentation at Washington BR. The show and movie “Cabaret” touch on the culture but do not make clear the extent to which fetish was detailed and ritualized. The movie “Klimt” shows vestiges of a similar culture, never as wild or heavily developed, in Vienna.

If a quick perusal of Gordon’s work does not convince you that a strong het BDSM culture (heavily focused though on dominas, not on male Doms) was alive and well in Berlin in the 20s and 30s, I’d recommend the more detailed look that goes with Margarete von Falkensee’s novels. “Blue Angel Nights” (originally The Secret Garden (1931)) is a political satire of sorts, but it also presents a society where roles such as domina are already well established. (http://books.google.com/books?id=kxAhMTZRM3wC&dq=blue+angel+nights&source=gbs_navlinks_s)

It’s worth noting that if Gay Biker culture fetishized leather jackets and vests, leather boots were already thoroughly eroticized in Weimar Germany.

Did any of this influence reach us? Margarete Von Falkensee moved to Hollywood and became a screen writer. Many others fled the Nazis to come to the U.S. and it takes little imagination to assume that they brought memories and stories with them. Not to mention every jaded traveler who sailed the Norddeutscher Lloyd lines to the center of modern culture and experienced the fleshpots of Berlin.

Understand that much of what we call “modernism” came out of Austria and Germany in the 1920s. Art, Science, Human Thought were all galvanized by the culture there. I think it is reasonable to assume that a vast institution, occupying a whole segment of a city and employing thousands, left a significant mark on sexuality as the Bauhaus did on furnishing and design.

Needless to say that culture ceased to exist within months of Hitler coming to power. Within a few years only a thin pale shadow remained. And to a very large extent, it’s been forgotten. Nobody thinks about BERLIN as a capital of sexuality…and looking to Paris they find a certain degree of fetish but perhaps not the hard-core leather-boots-and-whipping culture that we can identify as BDSM.

That said, I think it is important to understand that BDSM, like art does not have a center. To say that a thing “came from” Gay Biker Culture is as simplistic as to suggest that all modern art came from Bauhaus or the Parsons School, or that Rock and Roll came from Detroit or Memphis. The evolution of a subculture, whether it is artistic or sexual has many roots.

Tracking the influences is fascinating and entertaining. It is when single-minded people want to find the “one root” that they become difficult and single minded. One is put in mind of Speke and Burton brawling over the source of the Nile. But in the end there is no one “source” for any current, but a collusion of different influences some small, some large, that make up the end result.

Furthermore in obsessing over a search for the origin, I think we can lose sight of the current day, obsessing over creeks and feeder streams while ignoring the vast current flowing to the sea.

If I was going to make an argument, I would say that the “birth” of BDSM lay in the blossoming of online communication. There can be little doubt that the number of people practicing and understanding the concept of kink, both in private and in community who became involved because of the availability of information from 1980 on dwarfs the number of people involved beforehand. That vast blossom, which aggregated everything from Gay Biker Culture to John Norman to Free Love to bad 70s porn has, through 2-3 decades of writing and discussion created its own norms, icons, beliefs and mythology. I would guess that if all the written reference to BDSM in human history were printed out on paper and stacked up, that 80% of it was written after 1990.

We are the history of BDSM, and while it is good to look to our history it is also important to remember that it is the present day that we live in, and that we ourselves shape “the subculture” far more than its remote antecedents.

click analytics

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.