At Mr. Leather Toronto last weekend, one of the seminars I attended was Submission 101, which was presented by four members of the Toronto Boys of Leather – a group specifically founded to provide community and support for people who identify as boys, i.e. submissive and/or service-oriented people of a masculine (though not necessarily male-bodied) persuasion. One of the presenters was Alex, a fixture on the Toronto bootblacking scene and an all-round nice guy.
I could go on for quite some time about how enjoyable it was to just sit and listen to submissive-identified people explain the ways in which their kink works, what it means to them, how they make choices around living it, and so forth. In truth the vast majority of kink workshops out there are intended primarily for tops or dominants, and taught primarily by tops and dominants, so I’m always intrigued when I see people at the other end of the spectrum take up space and speak. I only wish it happened more often.
I heard a lot of valuable perspectives in this one, but it’s one particular bit – really, only the tiniest portion of the seminar itself – that really caught my attention, and I’ve been sort of musing about it off and on ever since. And that’s the concept of earning leather. You know, the rather Old-Guard idea that a leather item is something that has meaning and charge and value, and so that one should work for it and earn it in some way, not simply pick it up at a store.
Now, the Old Guard – the first leather/BDSM people to exist in a framework similar to that which we currently understand, starting after the war ended in the US but also in Europe and elsewhere – is surrounded by all sorts of mythology. People have romanticized anything and everything that smacks of a BDSM or leather history but in reality there’s virtually no information about these gods (and goddesses, though even that is hotly debated) of old-school kink. Their sheer brutality as players; their rigid rules and heavy protocols; their total devotion to a life lived in leather; their absolute knowledge of the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things; their emphasis on starting from the bottom as a submissive and working your way up to the status of a dominant, without exception and without ever switching along the way except that one time when you go from being an utterly devoted submissive to an utterly masterful dominant in one fell swoop. And of course, their idea that leather is to be worked for and earned, presumably by suffering and serving and striving to please while doing your time as a submissive. And liking it, of course.
Needless to say, most of it is hogwash. Which is not to say there were no players 50 or 60 years ago that resemble the above description (minus the part about absolute right-and-wrong knowledge – I don’t believe that one’s ever true), but rather, that we can’t possibly know what they did or what they stood for or how they played since pretty much nobody around today was alive and playing back then, and the availability of detailed historical writings about relationship styles and play is slim to non-existent, and biased or regionally specific when it exists at all. Not to mention, I raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that kinky people in the 1940s and 50s were any more cohesive in their politics and perversions and play styles than we are today. Our community is in fact a loosely (or perhaps more like “tenuously” or “occasionally”) affiliated worldwide network of amazing diversity, and while I’m well aware that it’s grown enormously in the past two decades, that still doesn’t mean that all the gay guys in a leather bar in 1952 shared all the same opinions on everything. Yeah, right.
Of course there’s a certain appeal in the idea that we, as kinky people, are drawing on some sort of noble tradition. And there is great nobility in a lot of kink, particularly in the realm of dominance and submission. The degrees of trust and devotion and service (in relationship and in community) that people engage in within the context of D/s can be absolutely remarkable and quite humbling to observe and experience. So in no way am I knocking the sentiment behind the desire to have a history; it gives the intensity of the present something to back it up and legitimize it, which is especially valuable when you’re a sexual minority and often seen as completely freakish. I just wish people would get over the whole mythologizing thing and simply recognize that folks in the 1950s were no more enlightened than we are today; they were pioneers of kink and deserve respect for that, but we don’t do ourselves or them any favours by putting them on a pedestal and trying to imitate them in a thoroughly inflexible fashion without ever having been there to understand the reasons for their choices and the realities of their lives.
Now as for the idea of earning leather – I definitely think that if your kink extends to the deliberate and mindful cultivation of a dominant/submissive dynamic, or several over the course of a lifetime, and you wish to symbolize that power relation with items made of leather (such as clothing or collars or whatever else), and if the idea of working for (or making someone work for) an item of great monetary but especially symbolic value, then by all means you should go right ahead and come up with creative ways of doing so. But don’t expect that everyone will relate to their leather that way, and don’t judge them if they like it because it smells good and makes their ass look sexy, rather than because it symbolizes their everlasting devotion to an all-powerful dominant, or their fifty years’ experience as a master in the scene.
Not to mention that, while I am very convinced that having a deep understanding of submission is essential for a dominant, and vice versa, I don’t believe that the only way to get that understanding is to spend a decade practicing a kink that may or may not suit your desires. In other words, I really don’t think the only way to be a competent dominant is to spend years as a submissive first. Dominance and submission are powerful experiences (states?) and there are many paths to get there – working your way “up” is only one.
Plus, I take issue with the idea that there is a fundamental inequality between dominants and submissives in the first place, as though somehow a submissive were less wise or powerful or “qualified” than a dominant and still “working” to earn the “right” to be dominant, after which one deserves – what? More respect? Because submissives are not to be respected? I don’t think so. In truth, the choice to submit or dominate is about one’s personality and turn-ons and approaches to life, not about being “better than” or “worse than” anyone else. Really, in power exchange, there are two equals coming to the table and choosing to skew the power balance between them in ways that are mutually pleasing. That’s it. Creating and maintaining a hierarchy may be a hugely intense experience but in no way does it mean there’s an actual hierarchy in terms of the worth of each person, or that either of them deserve to be treated differently by anyone outside their own very personal dynamic. Ick ick ick. That’s not kink, it’s just bad boundaries.
So that’s my take on Old Guard mentalities and practices. The short version: respect your history but don’t romanticize it; be nice to people whose kink practices don’t look like yours; and make your own decisions based on what makes sense in the present. And recognize leather as being one other type of material, no matter how hottie-hot-hot it may look, that one can buy at a store and wear as appropriate.
With that set of ideas in mind, all in all it seems that I’d be perfectly likely to pick up a pair of hot leather pants and enjoy them for the sexy fashion item and kink signifier they most certainly are. Forget one pair of pants – you would think that as a longtime member of the BDSM community, where leather is fetishized, and as a generalized lover of clothing and fashion, I’d have a closet full of leather clothing just ready to pull out for the next appropriate occasion.
But in fact, I don’t… like not at all. One corset. One pair of buckled leather sleeves, like opera gloves without the hands, which look sexy but aren’t so practical if I actually want to use my arms during a scene (i.e. most of the time). And my jackets, one year-round and one for winter, which I wear pretty much all the time (apart from during the highest days of summer) in contexts that are absolutely un-kinky. But no leather pants. No chaps. No halter tops or skirts or dresses. In fact the vast majority of the time I go out somewhere kinky, my leather gets hung up in the coat check area and I go about my pervy business in something made of cotton or nylon or at most PVC.
There are lots of good reasons I could bring up to explain why I’m remarkably un-leathery for a leatherdyke. The easiest and biggest one is that leather is just bloody frickin’ expensive. But, as I’ve had pointed out to me numerous times, there are lots of places to get leather on the cheap or secondhand, if you look. And as an avid clothing shopper, you’d think I’d have done that by now. But no. Something’s been stopping me for a long time, and I didn’t quite figure it out until MLT.
Just before the Submission 101 panel, I wandered into the vendors’ market with one of my bois, and came across a table stacked high with secondhand leather garments. I looked around, picked up the first pair of pants that my hand fell upon, and saw that it was exactly my size (and affordable – woo-hoo!). The guy at the table encouraged me to try them on; I did; they fit and looked great. I checked my watch, realized I was going to be late for the panel, and sent the boi off to pay for the pants so at least one of us could scoot into the workshop on time. Considering I’ve been sans leather for the full seven years I’ve been in the scene, it was a remarkably quick transaction that led me to own my first leathers. But for the first time it didn’t feel somehow wrong to be buying them. It felt like they’d sprung to my hand for a good reason, and now was the time to make them mine; I didn’t think too hard about why.
Fast-forward to partway through the seminar. One of the audience members asked the boys on the panel how they felt about the idea of earning leather. A couple of them gave fairly unremarkable answers about their own experiences of a dominant making them earn a piece of leather, though interestingly nobody specified exactly what that “earning” involved (I know, I should have asked, I really was curious). Then Alex spoke up and gave one of the most refreshing answers I could ever have hoped for. He said that he had once earned a cap from a dominant he was involved with, and another time he earned a vest. But he’s been in the leather scene for a long time, and hasn’t always had a person in his life from whom he might earn such a thing. And so he decided to go out and buy his own leathers. “After all,” he said, “I’m not going to wait twenty years to earn a pair of pants.”
Aha. A new way of thinking about leather. A hybrid – how apropos. What he seemed to be saying was that earning makes sense but it makes a lot more sense to be realistic about it. Now, Alex and I have completely different experiences in the scene; I’m not a submissive and have never identified as one, so unlike him (even in his limited experience of earning leather) I don’t know who the heck I would have earned leather from at all, or how I’d have done so. But clearly, somewhere in the back of my mind, I have felt that there needed to be some earning in there – that leather, for me, is more than simply a fashion statement, and it never felt quite right to just go by the store and drop a chunk of change for something with no meaning behind it. But that morning I presented a seminar with Jacqueline St-Urbain about leatherdyke organizing, and in summing up our work I realized I’ve done plenty of earning in these past few years – in service to my community if not to a specific person. And all of a sudden it became clear to me that I’m the one who gets to judge when I deserve something to symbolize that.