About a hundred years ago, well before the age of political correctness, Bette Midler had a joke in her stage routine that went something like this:
“Personally I could never get into the whole S&M thing myself. You have to order out too many accoutrement and then no one invites you over because you’re always dragging that shit along with you.”
In truth, being a leatherman – or identifying as one – does carry with it a certain amount of baggage. And not simply the gear one wears or the “accoutrement” one might acquire, but the sheer weight of what being a leathermen represents, both to the mainstream and to those within our own community.
To most who see us, we are the guys into “whips and chains.” We’re into the “kinky stuff.” We’re the men who have sex in alleys, who tie and beat each other up, who parade around in bare-assed chaps or crawl on our knees in nickel-studded dog collars.
At a societal level, leather has become a symbol of the forbidden; of the things we both desire and deride, often in the same breath. It’s a sexual Pandora’s box, one into which we’ve crammed not one, but all of our other “unspeakable” desires. It’s no wonder, therefore, that by the very wearing of leather, all of these expectations are thrust upon the wearer. Suddenly, to some, it becomes more than just a symbol; it becomes an outright declaration of sexual extremism.
So strong are these preconceptions – and so rash the response – that they often bring into question the very nature of what leather relationships are about. Namely, how do they work and how “real” can these relationships possibly be?
In order to properly frame this question, it’s important to acknowledge that “leather sex” and BDSM (comprising “Bondage/Discipline,” “Domination/submission” and “Sado-Masochism’) are wholly independent entities. And while BDSM does fall under the umbrella of “leather sex,” a person into BDSM doesn’t necessarily identify as a leatherman or even part of the leather community. Accordingly, a person who identifies as a leatherman doesn’t necessarily have an interest in BDSM.
In fact, in a recent survey on the SAleathermen website, only 9.2% showed any interest in BDSM, while the greater majority (48%) was drawn simply by the social interaction with other leathermen. (Interestingly, only 13.8% joined to find sex.)
To complicate matters even further, those who partake in BDSM don’t necessarily have interests in all facets of BDSM, with some drawn to the psychological aspects of Domination/submission while others participate in the more extreme sado-masochistic practices.
What all of this is meant to highlight are the vast degrees of variation that exist within a community often seen as a singular unit with singular interests.
Gender studies expert Lincoln Theo, who is completing a PhD research study at the University of the Western Cape on gay BDSM practices and attitudes, strongly believes that “…every individual sees the world through the lenses of his own individual experiences… so there is no single way that a role plays itself out. The identifiers of ‘Master/slave,’ ‘Dom/sub,’ ‘Daddy/boy,’ and even ‘top/bottom’ are merely the language the individual uses to work with their own interests and desires.”
“In a ‘successful’ Master/slave relationship,” says Theo, “two people, who understand that they are indeed equal, voluntarily suspend this equality… based on mutual respect. The focus here is on playing out roles of sexual violence, either physical or psychological, in a safe place where there is no real risk of damage.”
“A Daddy/boy relationship is less about the implicit violence,” he says, “but rather about assuming a parental/child role… which implies a focus more on the caring role than an alienating one.”
“A Dom/sub relationship is not explicitly about either violence or agency, but more about which partner takes the lead, both sexually and perhaps in other areas—while a top is someone who doesn’t necessarily have any interest in sexual role play, but enjoys being sexually dominant.”
So within in this context, do these types of relationships function on more than just established role play, or can the “fixed” power dynamics provide the foundation for a truly functional, long-term relationship? Even in the most typical of relationships, there exists a constant readjustment and re-negotiation of equity by which that relationship either succeeds or fails. And it’s more often the struggle for equality as an ideal than as a cut-and-dry reality.
“…In many ways, Master/slave is least about sex. It takes up every aspect of your life.”
So might Master/slave, in some ways, be a more honest recognition of the limitations of these so-called “50/50” ideals? Theo is not so sure.
“Some Master/slave relationships serve to support a dysfunctional sense of self,” says Theo, “where the slave is using sexuality as an excuse for not taking emotional responsibility, or the Master is over-compensating for his own lack of self-esteem.”
“A healthy and functional relationship is where the dynamics support growth and development of both partners to maturity – where the slave finds power in the role and the Master acknowledges that the slave is indeed an independent being. This is true for a ‘vanilla’ relationship, as well as a BDSM one.”
Still, if one is to believe that a couple can achieve a truly healthy and loving relationship in this context, it begs the ultimate question: do these relationships actually exist?
“A definite yes,” says Tertius van Niekerk, a Cape Town-based artist who is amongst the most prominent members of the South African gay BDSM community. “They do exist, but they’re extremely rare mainly because they require one thing and one thing alone, in my opinion: natural polar opposites. Their Master/slave identities have to perfectly meld with who they are as couple. And to me, finding that is about as difficult as finding your Black Knight in shining armor.”
But the knights do exist. Roger and Porter, two of Tertius’ closest friends, met four years ago and soon after established a committed Master/slave relationship, one to which they formally committed in an official marriage ceremony last year. For Roger (who’s South African) and Porter (an American), the Master/slave dynamics extend not only to their sexual lives, but to every facet of their day-to-day existence.
“In many ways, Master/slave is least about sex,” says Porter. “It takes up every aspect of your life. I function as Master Roger’s social secretary, organising his calendar and schedule, supporting him in every way as he directs.”
“It’s not about fantasy, about tying someone up,” adds Roger. “It’s about balancing what each person wants (in the relationship.) And for us, it’s that I call the shots. I’m the Master. I dominate.”
And while the words may seem jarring and provocative to some, they’re simply a matter of everyday life for Roger and Porter. Both share strong opinions and have an easy candor, and their devotion to each other is clear – as is their devotion to the rules that define who they are as individuals and as a couple.
In many ways, having an established leather community in the US (where they spend half the year) has allowed Roger and Porter’s relationship to flourish in ways that it may not have here, with a greater sense of open-mindedness and community acceptance. To many in this country, however, this is not the case.
“Sadly in South Afric