Written in the early 70’s, The Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend predates the peak of the AIDS crisis by almost a decade, and much of the information and references are either out of date or are at odds with our new understanding of the spectrum of sex and sexuality.
That said, despite its age – or perhaps because of it – this book should still be required reading for anybody (wherever you sit on the Kinsey and gender spectrum) interested in the leather scene, because if we are to effectively shape the future of our community, we must first understand its roots.
In this review, I’m not going to give you an artistic critique of the writing (which at times is straight up pornographic – unsurprisingly from an author who made is mark in gay erotic fiction). Instead, I’m going to share the top four concepts within its pages that struck a chord and explain why and how I feel they relate to me and our community today – closing in on half a century after this book was first published.
1. The wearing of leather does not make you a Leatherman
One of the most offensive things you can say to a serious Leatherman is that leather is merely another form of drag, and yet even we, dressed in our best and sipping our schooners, often tar ourselves with that exact brush.
For those who have an item or two to get them through the door at leather parties, sure, it might be dress ups and there is no judgement in that. But for a Leatherman, the donning of leather is an embodiment of our identity.
Whether a full timer, part timer or fringe-dweller – one should understand that a true Leatherman conducts himself in a certain manner, regardless of whether he is wearing leather or not. For myself, these centre around my guiding principles of honesty, empathy, accountability, respect and trust. In a very real sense, I am always guided by the tenets of my H.E.A.R.T.
Almost anyone who considers themselves a part of the leather community will (or should) have a variation of the same principles that govern how they interact with others on the scene, be it in or out of play. Those without these principles who perhaps assume that because of our association with kink there is an open invitation to fondle, or who feel that kink equals promiscuity and therefore the normal rules of consent and respect are somehow suspended, are unlikely to make it too far in the scene.
Leatherfolk hold themselves to a code of conduct, the standard to which often intimidates and has sometimes led to the misguided notion that we are uptight or unapproachable or that we take ourselves too seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a young gay man just finding himself, the leather scene was the first place to welcome me with open arms. In it, I have found my home and my family.
To those wanting to enter the scene, don’t go like a bull in a china shop – take the time to make connections, friends, and eventually playmates. Respect our bodies and our spaces and you will find a whole world of fun open up to you.
2. Torture is something you do to people that they don’t like
I’m into sensation play – colloquially I guess I’m what you’d call a pain boy. Flogging, biting, hot wax, pegging, if it offers a new sensation, I’m halfway there. I am also currently very keen to rekindle my interest in fire play. These are the things that get me hot under the collar and make my body come alive. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy run of the mill sex – in fact, if you can’t get me wet with the basics, there’s no way in hell I’m letting you do anything else to me.
However, the type of play I like is the kind that leaves marks. For some, if the act itself isn’t overly confronting, the lasting evidence of play can often be more so. It makes it real rather than the ignorant, whipped up fantasies marketed to the masses by the likes of E.L James.
Bruises, bite marks, scratches and even burns are the byproducts of the type of play I enjoy, and while none of these are permanent, it can lead to others feeling that I am somehow being abused or that the person doing these things to me is some sort of violent torturer.
Here’s the rub – no-one does anything to me that I do not explicitly permit. Negotiation and consent is paramount to what we do. It’s true that it takes a certain personality type to be able to do the things these sorts of things to people, just as it takes a certain personality type to want to have them done. But before you judge too harshly, let me give you a little insight.
I use pain not only to achieve sexual gratification. I have been at the hands of some true monsters in the past that left me traumatised and carrying some fairly serious trust and abandonment issues. In serving a Master, I must trust them. I am in training, with my body and my mind learning to interpret my pain and trauma more positively, and lessening my grief. Also, by setting goals and exceeding those goals, the sense of achievement increases my confidence and gives me the the focus I need to succeed in arenas outside of our play space.
When in the submissive role, my obedience to my Master and my adherence to our protocols teaches me humility, gives me a purpose and stops me from rising too far above myself (even though my cheek does need to be reined in occasionally). By trusting my power to someone else, and having the faith to follow where He leads, I become a better, stronger man.
It isn’t torture, and the person doing these things to me isn’t violent. We work together to set goals, we are in constant contact and I revere the Man who I permit to do these things to me. And it isn’t all about pain. For instance, this very post was born out of an assignment set by the Man who I am honoured to be able to call my Sir.
And if you still want to judge – what we do is perhaps less extreme than the corporal mortification practices chosen by some religious sects. We are doing it for more earthly reasons, but in essence the discipline and the principles are the same. It is only the sexual aspect that for some reason makes it taboo.
By the way – for those playing at home – the Fifty Shades saga isn’t so much a tale of kink and fantasy as it is a tale of emotional abuse and coercion. Let’s put it this way, if you change the story so that Christian is living in a trailer park instead of being a billionaire, it becomes an episode of Law & Order SVU. E.L James clearly has zero understanding of the kink space and her portrayal actually does more harm than good to the kink community. Just saying.
3. Hard drugs, and those who use them, have little place in the leather and kink scene
A friend of mine said recently about someone on a dating app: “He’s not into kink, he’s just into meth”. Sadly, it rings true. As most drugs (including alcohol) suppress inhibition, people often do things they woudn’t normally do when they are sober, and nothing makes me fear for the future of the gay community more so than the words ‘eighteen year old fisting bottom into PNP’.
The problems with drugs and kink play are many. Lines of consent are blurred, and shame or regret set in as the cold, harsh light of sobriety coupled with the come down make a person feel isolated, miserable and thoroughly used – and not in a good way. Psychologically, the association between the drugs and the kink act become intertwined, and eventually the only way you will be able to do the act is while on the drugs.
Aside from addiction, physical ruin, potential sexual assault risk and psychological trauma, there is also a very real threat to life.
Consider this – as a submissive, do you really want to be at the mercy of a sadist who is hopped up on amphetamines? Do you fancy being immobilised by someone who hasn’t had a decent meal in several days who could potentially fall asleep or keel over at any time? Is it your desire to have someone who could likely ignore your negative responses in pursuit of their own selfish fantasy?
Conversely, as a dominant, do you want to play with a submissive whose responses are likely to be erratic and unpredictable? Do you seek to potentially trigger someone into a paranoid episode because they have pushed themselves further than they should due to their altered state of mind, which could potentially cause lasting psychological damage?
There is no place within the kink scene for narcotics, and yet they are rife and some would even argue they are becoming synonymous. It’s a tragedy wrapped in a disaster wrapped in a calamity. If you need drugs to explore kink, then perhaps you are aiming too high and need to set yourself smaller goals.
The exploration of kink is a marathon, not a sprint. Drugs might seem like a convenient shortcut, but the long term damage is not worth it, and takes even longer to undo – if it ever is.
The drug scene creates a synthetic sense of community – much like the synthetic sense of empowerment the drugs themselves offer. However one thing is forgotten – nurture is such a huge part of what we do as kinksters, in particular the after care. With the drug scene, it’s all togetherness when you’re riding the high, but in the end everyone comes down alone.
4. The role you assume in the leather scene will probably be the closest thing to a true expression of your ego.
Your identity within the leather community will actually be a fairly accurate assessment of your actual self, mostly because those who are into the scene must acquire a pretty high level of self awareness in order to negotiate play effectively.
To understand who you are and what you want is in itself an massive personal undertaking, which is why it is important not to burst on to the scene all guns blazing. If you have an end goal, that is great. But set yourself some intermediary steps to ensure that you don’t go to hard too fast and end up scaring yourself off. Learning to kink is a bit like learning to walk. One doesn’t simply start running – you have to be able to hold yourself upright first.
The first step, and often the hardest, is admitting that you have an interest in kink. It might not seem like much post the sexual revolution, but there is still a lot of shame and stigma associated with kink play. Being open with yourself about your interests doesn’t negate being discreet with your play. It simply means having the sense of self to be able to admit ‘this is what I want’.
Once you are comfortable with yourself, it will make the progression to discussing it with others easier, and assist you in negotiating your play. In being firm with yourself and your limits it will ensure that there is no hesitation in your negotiations – lowering the risk of potentially being coerced in to something you are not entirely comfortable with.
Who you are and what you are into will evolve – as we all do – and we will try on and discard kinks like trying on clothes at a department store. After all, sometimes you have to put it on to see if it fits. The most important thing is to do it on your terms and the terms negotiated with your play partners. Knowing how far you can go will allow you to push yourself, but you have to know where the boundary is to ensure you don’t go too far – or not far enough and end up boring yourself silly.
Ultimately, being a kinkster and a Leatherman is similar to any other discipline. You start out learning the basics, and progress according to the goals you set and the skills you acquire along the way. Self actualisation as a Leatherman comes through achieving your fantasies and putting the puzzle pieces of your ego together to form a complete picture – and there is nothing more intense or more intimate than the journey to self discovery and sharing that journey with amazing people who are on a similar path.
I love my community, and as I become more involved with the dynamics with my boyfriend and my Sir, I find that while I have a fair idea of who I am, there is still much for me to learn and my voyage of discovery and my evolution continues.
It is intense, and difficult and often confusing. But I am surrounded by those on similar voyages who are loving and supportive – none more so than my boyfriend, a man who I am in a relationship that permits us both to explore our fantasies both with each other, and other people. It’s complicated – and communication within our relationship is tantamount to its survival, especially given our relationship is so new.
But, as in all things, I go back to the tenets of my H.E.A.R.T – honesty, empathy, accountability, respect and trust. I know that my leather principles will guide me right, and my Sir and my boyfriend do a pretty good job together of keeping me in check. They get along very well, which is lovely. Ours is an unconventional world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But even unconventional worlds need governing principles.
The Leatherman’s code is mine.