I put this reading list together after judging a few leather contests at which I observed a spate of relatively young and new leatherfolk competing for titles that, in theory, put them into leadership positions within the leather community. While I’m not a firm believer in the title circuit, I am a firm believer in supporting the next generation of community leaders, whatever that may mean. And part of that, in my little geeky world, means making sure they’re well-read when it comes to the history and mores of our communities. It behooves us to know about our foreperverts if we’re hoping to lead the charge into the coming decades.
Do you need to read all of this in order to be a titleholder? No. Many of your judges won’t have. But if you want to give yourself a basic education in Leather history, community and common reference points, these readings are worth your time.
Because this community has a rich one, and it’s well worth learning about so you know whose footsteps you are following in – or whose toes you may step on.
- Leatherfolk ed. by Mark Thompson – Fantastic collection of essays by prominent leatherfolk of many genders who’ve been around from the 1920s onward! If you read only one book from this whole list, make it Leatherfolk. (And if you really want to geek out, scroll down for my list of directed reading questions – it makes for some fun homework!)
- The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in Twentieth-Century United States by Robert Bienvenu – Bienvenu’s PhD dissertation covers a huge range of material on the history of fetish and leather as “cultural styles,” focusing on what he calls “American fetish” (essentially heterosexual) and “gay Leather” style histories. With pictures! Downloadable here. (Note that you’ll need to log in anonymously and open the file entitled Rob’s Dissertation.)
- Where Angels Fear to Tread: Feminism, Sex, and the Problem of SM, 1969-1993 by Alex Warner – Warner’s PhD dissertation covers all the ground that Bienvenu doesn’t, in that it is all about the dykes. This is a rare gem – not much has been written to date about leatherdyke history. Downloadable here.
- Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality by Micha Ramakers – An excellent history and visual tour of classic gay male leather imagery.
- Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring – This mesmerizing biography charts the life of a man who was a kind of Forrest Gump of homosexuality in mid-century USA and Europe. Steward witnessed the birth of what we now know as Leather, and makes some fascinating critiques. While not strictly Leather, this book paints a rare and valuable picture of the social context out of which Leather developed.
- The Leather Archives and Museum Leather Timeline – An ambitious project that aims to map the history of SM from 5000 BC to today – ! Highly educational and definitely fun to browse through. Strong emphasis on gay men’s history to the exclusion of most others, but still really cool.
Because we are perverts, after all, and our fantasy material has a prominent place in why we do this thing we do in the first place. Not to mention, a lot of it has real historical significance in terms of the communities it has helped to inspire and create, and the impact it’s had on wider discussions of pornography, censorship, community, feminism and sexual freedom.
- Macho Sluts by Patrick Califia – The premier work of leatherdyke fiction. Worth a read no matter what your orientation. Its underrated follow-up, Melting Point, is excellent. It gives additional insight into leatherdyke culture and some scathing political critique to boot.
- The Leather Daddy and the Femme by Carol Queen – Excellent pan-gender and uberqueer erotic fiction that incorporates tons of historical information and storytelling about San Francisco’s early leather scene.
- Switch Hitters ed. by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel – particularly the story “Dress Leathers” by Robin Sweeney, which gives a heartbreaking glimpse of how leatherdykes and leathermen have related to one another during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
- Mr. Benson by John Preston – The classic work of gay leathermen’s erotic fiction. While you’re at it, read this short article for some understanding of how and why this book had such a huge impact on the Leather community when it was published.
- The Marketplace by Laura Antoniou – The first of a six-book (so far) series about the lives of full-time slaves. Short on insight into masters, but it has a way of getting under your skin, likely because Antoniou lives the real thing herself. (And if you like this one, the series gets better with each new book: The Slave, The Trainer, The Academy, The Reunion and The Inheritor.)
Politics and community
Because they can be tricky but they’re essential to understand. Don’t be afraid of having your own opinion – but do make sure you’re informed about the options!
- Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex by Patrick Califia – An amazing collection of bitingly incisive essays.
- Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex by Patrick Califia – As always, he blows the mind.
- Beneath the Skins by Ivo Dominguez Jr. – Keen observations about leather community from a longtime American leatherman.
- Wild Side Sex: The Book of Kink by Midori – Prominent kink educator gives some intelligent insights about kink community and practice as well as some helpful how-to.
- Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities by Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams – This book will come in handy especially if your experience in community is limited to a specific scene (gay Leather, say). The authors give you a tour of all the many types of community formations that exist out there, and teach you how to navigate them with grace.
Relationships and play
Because it sure does help to get a handle on the dizzying range of relationship forms and practices out there in the wild world of kink.
- Partners in Power by Jack Rinella – The only addition to the recent spate of “intro to SM” books with a primary focus on relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Lots of common sense from an elder of the leathermen’s community.
- Two or three of the classic 101 how-to books; the following two are good ones. There are lots of ‘em out there and they get really repetitive, but one of these days I’ll post a full annotated list of them so you can pick the one that you think will suit you best.
- SM 101 by Jay Wiseman – Highly safety-focused, almost to a fault, but that shit’s good to know!
- Sensuous Magick by Patrick Califia – Because it’s Califia, it’s way better than most 101 books, but watch for his puzzlingly conformist take on GDIs (God Damn Independents).
- The Ultimate Guide to Kink edited by Tristan Taormino – Super thorough, this book discusses the classics as well as a lot of kinks that weren’t as prevalent 20 years ago, such as animal role play.
- Different Loving by Dr. Gloria Brame – An extensive and accessible book listing a huge variety of kinks explained and then illustrated with people’s real-life experiences in their own words. Great for wrapping your brain around the diversity of kinks out there. It was published in the early 90s, so also check out the recently published sequel, Different Loving Too: Real People, Real Lives, Real BDSM.
- The Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend – A classic in print since 1972, this one’s a bit dated but is historically significant for that reason.
- Dear Raven and Joshua: Questions and Answers about Master/Slave Relationships by Raven Kaldera and Joshua Tenpenny – The single most down-to-earth tome on full-time M/s relationships that I have ever had the pleasure of devouring. If you want more, check out their growing list of co- and single-authored books and anthologies. It’s impressive and covers a lot of ground that nobody else is touching.
- The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy – It’s got its flaws, for sure, but there’s no better intro to the basics of non-monogamy, which you will encounter all over the place among leatherfolk (and the authors are both proud perverts, which helps).
- To Love, to Obey, to Serve: Diary of an Old Guard Slave by V. M. Johnson – The harrowing yet insightful memoir of an African-American woman who, decades later, is still a prominent Leatherwoman.
Directed reading questions for Leatherfolk, ed. Mark Thompson
What did you read in here that was new information to you?
What do you think of the absence of any attention to hetero leatherfolk? Was that omission properly contextualized and explained? Elaborate.
The Hanged Man by Scott Tucker
Tucker has a lot to say about balance in various forms. Find me 2-3 examples of that concept in various contexts. Do you think that (by implication) he overvalues or idealizes the switch? Elaborate.
The premise here is that balance is a good thing. In what ways could a focus on balance instead by seen to limit the experience or value of the extremes?
S/M: Some Questions and a Few Answers by Carol Truscott
Do you agree with Truscott’s four main reasons for doing S/M? Would you add or remove any? Elaborate.
What’s missing from Truscott’s analysis of the psychological benefits of S/M?
What do you think of her ideas about the existence of power exchange in all relationships?
The Molecular Anatomy of Leather by Geoff Mains
What did you read in here that was new information to you?
Mains focuses on the physical and the chemical in his analysis. What’s missing is the psychological. What would you like to see added in that realm?
Her Body, Mine, and His by Dorothy Allison
In the author’s conversation with a gay male friend, why did she lie? I.e. why would her “yes” be a lie? By the end of the essay, do you think she really was lying to him? Or is she lying to the reader?
What do you think of the concept of dyke S/M as somehow carrying forward the gay male dream, shattered by AIDS, of infinite sexual pleasure? Are we leatherdykes “the great hope”?
I Get Real: Celebrating My Sadomasochistic Soul by Tina Portillo
Do you agree with Portillo’s statement that leatherpeople are the next generation in the evolution of sexuality? Elaborate.
Do you think it is always as simple as she says for a white top to get over worry about hitting a black bottom? If you were in that situation as a top, would it feel complicated to you?
A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: Notes on the Materialization of Sexual Fantasy by Michael Bronski
Bronski attributes a fairly specific meaning to his self-construction as a leatherperson. Do you think his perspective applies widely, i.e. that fantasy is always or mostly about wanting to be (rather than do) a different person? For your part, do you think the people you fantasize about being with are people you actually want to be?
S/M and the Psychology of Gay Male Initiation: An Archetypal Perspective by Robert H. Hopcke
How would you describe Hopcke’s ideas about masculinity and leather? What do you think of them?
Do you think Hopcke’s “triple initiation” applies to dykes? If not, is there a corollary process for us?
Dr. Kinsey Takes a Peek at S/M: A Reminiscence by Samuel Steward
What are your impressions of the pre-leather version of kink/BDSM/leatherfolk described here? Does it feel more truthful or powerful, or simply older?
One Among Many: The Seduction and Training of a Leatherman by Thom Magister
What are your impressions of the approach to training a master that is taken here?
What are the values that seem to be associated with that process?
Does it feel more real or true than the ways things work today? Elaborate.
What do you think of the concept that once you open someone they are forever under your responsibility and protection?
Artist Chuck Arnett: His Life/Our Times by Jack Fritscher
What do you think of the idea that the gay leather community was very anti-feminine in the past? Does it apply to the present? Is the same true for dyke leather community?
The Catacombs: A Temple of the Butthole by Gayle Rubin
What common features do you see between the way parties were organized at the Catacombs and the way play and sex parties are set up today, in your experience?
How would you describe the relations between dykes/bi women and gay men in the 70s and early 80s in San Francisco based on the information here? Do you think those characteristics are reflected in relations between those two groups today in the cities we are familiar with?
S/M’s Copernican Revolution: From a Closed World to the Infinite Universe by David Stein
What do you think of “closed” vs “open” S/M communities as described here? How would you describe the different strengths and weaknesses of Old Guard and New Guard approaches to community-building?
What would your ideal S/M community look like?
Black Leather Wings by Mark Thompson
Thompson seems to have experienced the lasting fallout of the anti-feminine stance of the gay male leather community. How does he reconcile his own femininity with his leather interests?
Do you see any evidence that leatherdyke community has faced similar schisms? If so, how have we healed them?
Thompson also seems to equate femininity (faerie) with the spiritual and masculinity (leather) with the physical. Do you feel this is accurate? Do you feel that this also plays out in dyke identities and relationships? If so, how? If not, why not?
A Second Coming Out by Guy Baldwin
Do you think that by “New Age” Baldwin means “New Guard”? If so, do you think he is correct in saying “It has been the New Age leather folks who have developed a code of morality, self-restraint and inclusion”? Elaborate.
Do you think we (newer leatherfolks) are “the early forerunners of a new spiritual tradition”? Elaborate.
Snapshots of Desire: Surviving as a Queer Among Queers by Eric E. Rofes
How would you reconcile the reality of unprotected multiple-partner sex that took place in the gay male fisting and S/M clubs and bathhouses, and the subsequent spread of AIDS, with Rofes’ contention that accusations of blame towards leather people are “stereotypes and ignorance”?
Do you think it’s true that as kinky queers we “have no shame”? Elaborate.
Do you sense the same suspicion and hatred of leatherfolk today in the queer community as Rofes experienced in the late 80s and early 90s when this piece was written? Elaborate.
I Am Your Frankenstein by Wickie Stamps
In your mind, does Stamps’ visible and raw psychological scars, and their imprint on her erotic life, make her a more credible S/M activist or a less credible one? As a leatherdyke, how do you feel about being represented by a voice like hers?
How do you feel about 1980s feminists’ equation of S/M with violence and abuse?
If someone said that Stamps’ sadomasochism is a symptom or result of her abuse history, and therefore not a healthy or valid form of sexual desire, how would you respond?
Swastika Toys by Arnie Kantrowitz
Kantrowitz writes, “To fantasize about [Nazis] is the equivalent of ignoring the sane limits of S/M and fantasizing about ‘snuff sex’; it is courting destruction.” Later, he writes “The people to watch out for are not those who would extend the parameters of sexual freedom, but those who would restrict them,” and, “The bottom line is freedom of speech.” He concludes by praising Tom of Finland’s decision to remove his Nazi drawings from circulation. Do you think he’s contradicting himself? What do you think his position actually is on the use of Nazi imagery in S/M? What’s yours?
What Happened? By John Preston
Do you agree that leathersex has lost its edge in favour of acceptability by the mainstream? Elaborate.
Do you see any parallels between his ideas and Hopcke’s triple initiation? Any differences?
Is he saying that caring for your slave is wishy-washy and bad? Do you agree? Elaborate.
The Limits of the S/M Relationship, or Mr. Benson Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Pat Califia
Do you agree with Califia’s assessment that the reason why bottoms outnumber tops in the SM community is because the bottom role is, or is seen as being, more rewarding? Elaborate.
Califia writes, “The ‘sexual service’ that most bottoms are prepared to offer tops is scripted as a continuation of the scene. It is about the bottom going under more deeply – it is not centered on the top’s pleasure, but on the bottom’s pleasure in being used.” In your experience, does that hold true? What else could sexual service look like?
Califia constructs bottoming as a reward or treat that tops rarely get to experience, and seems to equate bottoming with “going under.” What other ways might a top’s bottoming desires might be constructed or experienced?
The View from a Sling by Geoff Mains
What struck you about this piece? Any particular imagery or symbolism? Why?
There are two messages in every action the fucking men take: one on the surface and one at a deeper level. Mains writes, “Feeble are the eyes that cannot see the soul,” referring to the man who writes judgemental statements on a clipboard. How would you describe what the shrivelled man is failing to see?
Mains writes, “I knew what I was doing, what I did. I understood there were dangers, even death, in the fire. I faced those dangers in statements of love and intensity and I stand by them.” Do you think he really did know what dangers he was facing? Do you think he is defending unsafe sex as a form of higher truth or connection? Elaborate.
A Meditation on Religion and Leatherspace by Rev. Troy D. Perry
Perry went from clueless novice to NLA keynote speaker. What do you think of his choice to leave out the details of the 23 intervening years, during which he became involved in the leather community? Does his lack of personal revelation make his essay more or less powerful?
Living in Leather: An Inner Journey by Gabrielle Antolovich
Antalovich undertakes a journey from emotional unhealth to emotional health that’s intensely played out in her leather explorations. Do you think she used kink as a substitute for therapy? Do you think the leather scene was a good or appropriate place for her to engage in this healing process? Elaborate.
She writes, “The dark side is not so much the whips and chains, the black leather, or the attitudes; it is the unresolved pains from the past being twisted into some kind of sexual desire.” Do you agree that the dark side of kink is about unresolved personal issues? Are there other sorts of dark sides in kink? Elaborate.
The Spiritual Dimensions of Bondage by Joseph W. Bean
Bean writes, “Spirit is that impulse in a man which urges him to discover his nature, overcome his fate, and strive for what destiny offers but does not promise.” Do you agree with his definition of the human spirit? What would yours be?
What do you think of the four types of spiritual bondage Bean lists? Do they encompass your experience? What would you add to or change on his list?
Fantasy, Fetish, and the Goddess by Dianna Vesta
What do you think about a person calling herself a goddess? Is it accurate, arrogant, harmless fantasy?
Without saying it in so many words, Vesta seems to embrace a style of dominance that verges on female supremacy (the belief that women are genuinely superior to men and so entitled to dominance). What do you think of such a highly gendered form of D/s?
Do you believe that women have a stronger connection to spiritual truth than men? Elaborate.
I Am the Leatherfaerie Shaman by Stuart Norman
What do you think of Norman’s view that gay and bisexual people are fundamentally different from heterosexuals—“an inborn andrgynous balance, a sensibility and perceptiveness”?
Do you agree that “spirituality is antithetical to religion”? That religion is a fixed cultural concept while spirituality is always changing?
Norman has a lot to say about our sick culture and our need to “go joyously deeper” into our S/M, sexual and spiritual practices in order to “exercise that magical power to remake the world into one where there is a place for us.” But he stops short of saying how, exactly, the depth of our practice will change the world. Why do you think that is? What could S/Mers do yto change the world that’s not mentioned here?
Do you think we have a calling to change the world because of our queerness and our kink?
Erotic Ecstasy: An Interview with Purusha the Androgyne by Mark Thompson
If Purusha was so enamoured of the idea of divine androgyny, why do you think his work—writing, sanctuary, etc.—was so focused on men?
Purusha seems to equate being penetrated with taking on a feminine role. Do you agree with that construction? Elaborate.
He writes, “If every man and woman were having one full, intense orgasm per day by sexually love-worshiping themselves and others, without guilt, it would transform our species and change the course of evolution in the direction of the fulfillment of human potential.” Do you agree? Elaborate.
Sacred Passages and Radical Sex Magic by Ganymede
Ganymede constructs piercing and tattooing as the deliberate creation of rites of passage. Have you experienced your body modification(s) this way?
Do you feel that if you got pierced or tattooed (again), it would be a rite of passage? If so, from what to what?
Ganymede writes, “Intense erotic experience often leads to alteration of consciousness and the transcendence of limitations. Through it comes the divine release of ego, pride, and attachments, and the healing of deep psychological wounds.” In your opinion, does this imply that once you’re fully healed and enlightened, there is no more need for intense erotic experience? Or that to appreciate the value of it and achieve spiritual growth, one must come into that experience wounded?
What do you think of Ganymede’s excitement about, and desire to imitate, “primitive” ritual? Is there an element of racism or cultural appropriation in his fascination, or simply a resonance that he then translates into his own modern practice?
Magical Masochist: A Conversation with Fakir Musafar by Joseph W. Bean
The man being interviewed talks about “Fakir” as though Fakir were a different person, not himself. What do you think of his choice to name his personae differently and treat them as separate?
What do you think of his idea that if you overdo your S/M experience, you may lose your taste for it? That it needs to be “held in high regard” and not done “too frequently”?
What do you think of the concept of KaSeeKa as described here? “Not power exchange as such,” but “two people working together for an ecstatic experience.” Why would this be related to a top becoming impersonal or disconnected?
What do you think of his strong identification with Native culture and ritual, as a non-Native person?