There I was: fourteen years old, riding the school bus home, my navy blue duffel bag crammed with school books I wouldn’t be opening that night as homework and studying for tests was not something I had ever fallen into the habit of doing. I had Coke-bottle glasses and cystic acne. My frequent growth spurts meant that my pants were always several inches above my shoes. I was underweight and hated everything about gym class. My sister and brother were older than me by thirteen and fifteen years and were out of the house by this time, meaning that I had no older siblings listening to the music they liked and letting listen to their records. Except what I gleaned from the television shows I watched with my father and stepmother, I had no idea about youth culture. I was shy and awkward around anyone my age. My days at school were spent talking to no one, never raising my hands to answer questions, eating lunch with the same studious group of classmates not because of bonds of friendship but because they did not object to my presence.
One stop before mine was His stop. I sat three seats from the front, He sat at the very back. He was a senior and I was an eighth grader. The bus would stop, the door would open, and for seconds that felt like minutes, nothing would happen. Then I would hear the clomp-clomp-clomp of His engineer boots as he made his way slowly from the back of the bus to the door at the front.
He was tall, already with stubble from a full beard on his pale skin. He wore tight, faded jeans, a black t-shirt, a flannel shirt over that, and if the weather was cold a dark blue down jacket. His hair was long and parted in the middle. He walked with a swagger, lurching from footfall to footfall. He never brought home any books at all and never had any with him when the bus picked him up in the morning.
Clomp-clomp-clomp down the stairs of the bus, and then, right outside the door, he would stop, reach into the pocket of his tshirt, take out a box of Marlboros, extract one, and light it with a Bic lighter. His exhale would send some of the smoke back into the bus, so that for me, sitting there three seats behind the driver, the experience was not only auditory and visual, but it had a smell, too.
I longed for Him. I dreamt of Him.
He would pick me out, tell me that I was His now. That meant that I, too, would smoke. Like He did. I could feel the hardness of His body beneath His clothes, smelling the stale tobacco smell on them. In my fantasies, there was no sex. There was only His ownership of me, and that gave me the great gift of intimate proximity to Him.
A couple of years before, I had acknowledged that what the bullies at school said about me was true: I was gay. I was sexually attracted to men. But this was such an inadequate indicator of what was going on. I wasn’t sexually attracted to men; rather, I was sexually attracted to powerful, dangerous, men with a complete disregard for rules and expectations. In time, my fantasies about these men would be fleshed out with narratives involving bondage, domination, and submission. I imagined them bound, beaten, and broken. Or standing over me, exacting promises of obedience to Him and Him alone. The brightly-lit photographs of smiling naked men I saw on rare occasions did nothing for me. They might as well have been pictures of patio furniture. The handsome television actors of the 1970s didn’t register with me as being objects of desire. Only when Paul Michael Glaser on Starsky & Hutch was captured by a drug dealer, tied down to a filthy bed and injected with heroin until his addiction made him bad guy’s lapdog did I start to pay attention.
When I was seventeen years old—and not much less maladjusted than I had been three years earlier—a miracle happened. My sister was renting a room from her friend Gary. Gary was gay, and the room she was sleeping in had belonged to Gary’s lover who had died of AIDS. Gary had stipulated that nothing in the room could be changed; it was to remain exactly how his lover had left it when he made that final trip to the hospital. On shelves with the neatly-folded jeans and sweatshirts, the bong and the record albums, I discovered a stack of Drummer magazines.
In those pages, I found drawings and photographs of those powerful and dangerous men who lived by their own code. And, more importantly, there were stories of these men being carted off to slavery, restrained and tortured, having their humanity stripped from them.
I realized that my fears that once my urges and desires became too strong to withstand and I would end up in prison or a mental hospital, were unfounded. There seemed to be an entire community of men like me out there in the world, who were organized enough to have bars and clubs and publish magazines. I only had to bide my time until I could go out there and find them.
On this hunt, the scent got stronger when I discovered that in little village along the Delaware River near to where I grew up, on the towpath of the canal that went through town, men cruised for sex after dark. Similar to the adage that holds that “all cats are grey in the nighttime,” all men are dangerous stalking through the darkness of a canal towpath. I try to imagine what would be my reaction today of meeting seventeen-year-old me in a gay cruising area. As the age of consent in Pennsylvania was eighteen, I presented a huge risk to these men, and many of them suspected as much. And when some man who I had followed into the more obscure darkness of the bushes along the towpath asked me what I liked, I would say, “I like to be tied up.” Some of them obliged.
That thrill—1:00 A.M., in the darkness, being bound by a stranger, with the ever present threat of discovery by the local police who occasionally made arrests, when my parents thought that I was sleeping safely in the next room—was magnificent. Also, I learned from these dangerous men in the darkness a lesson that I would never forget: they were kind and considerate lovers. Whatever risks I faced, they were not from these men. Of the dozens of encounters I had, I do not remember a single instance of abuse or harm. And, with the frequency of my visits, many of them became familiar to me. There was a wordless, anonymous camaraderie that we shared.
Taking risks, breaking laws, the anonymity like a blank canvas on which I could paint my private fantasies, and that sense of brotherhood were more important to me than when I blew my load in the mouth of the man sucking my dick.
One night I struck gold. Slowly strolling down the towpath towards me was a figure whose blackness seemed blacker than the nighttime. He entered a circle of illumination cast by a streetlight and there he was: Muir cap to Dehner’s in full leather. Instead of waiting and hoping that he would approach me, I ambushed him. I offered my compliments on his leather and told him, in my awkward and stumbling way, that whatever he was looking for I would do my best to deliver. At first, as we talked, he seemed uninterested. But then, suddenly, as I lit a cigarette, everything changed. He asked me if I wanted to come home with him. I said that absolutely I did.
In the family Dodge, I followed him out of town and a few miles up the state highway. We parked outside of a converted barn and climbed the stairs to his apartment. He took off the jacket, kept the harness and the Muir cap and the chaps and boots, handed me a tub of Crisco, and explained what he wanted me to do to him.
Until that night, I had no idea that sticking a fist up a man’s ass was possible little less desirable. But I would slowly thrust in, first one finger, then two, then three, then retract. I quickly developed a sense for when his sphincter would tense and relax; I breathed in synchronicity with him, slowly and deeply. Finally, we were successful. My hand slipped into the soft, warm pocket of his rectum. He was ecstatic. His face beamed. “Oh yessss,” he said, “thank you! Thank you!”
With my hand still inside him, he scooped up a dollop of Crisco and started working his cock like a piston. I did the same. Given my relative youth, I shot first. He gazed up at me in wonder and worship and bellowed when he came.
Afterwards, he explained to me that it was all because of my hands: my large but skinny hands, which he noticed when I held the lighter to light my cigarette. This was the first time after years of trying that he had been able to take a fist. And I was the man who made possible this milestone.
A few years after I was graduated from college, in 1988, I found a job and an apartment in Philadelphia. An odd comedy of errors ensued. As always, I had difficulty making friends and the only acquaintanceships I achieved were with the straight people I met at work. I couldn’t find a gay bar, although I did find the Sansom Street Cinema, which showed dirty movies.
A door from the street would plant you in the box office. Behind a glass panel, a man would take my five dollars and allow me to pass through a curtain. Beyond the curtain was a long room about twenty feet wide. Torn and creaky theater seats faced a screen the size of a single bed sheet at the far end.
Most of the men there were middle-aged closet cases. The ones in business suits I ignored. But when a man who looked lie he drove a delivery truck was in the house, I would change my seat so I was in his line of vision, catch his eye, count to twenty, then get up and move to an area behind the screen and wait for him. Usually, I waited in vain, and would later go home, reminding myself that five dollars for nothing was a lot more than I could afford and promising not to do that again.
One night, at the Sansom Street Cinema, something miraculous happened. It was the dead of winter, and when the front door opened, an icy cold draft filled the small place. I was standing against the wall at the front, the better to see the faces of the men seated in the chairs, to pick out with whom I would plight my trough that night. At the front, behind the curtain, was a commotion, like someone trying to maneuver a shopping cart. A man making his way with the help of a walker fought his way through the curtain and planted himself just to one side of it.
The man was a skeleton, the skin clinging to him, his face was a barely concealed skull with patches of hair that looked like the hair of a doll owned by a vicious little girl. Any thought or hope of making a sexual connection evaporated immediately. It was 1988. This was the Masque of the Red Death. Our deepest and most terrible fear was there in the room with us while on screen, blond California beach boys exchanged blowjobs by the pool.
A man slowly rose to his feet, his chair creaked closed, and he made his way to the aisle and towards the door. Before exiting through the curtain, he halted, planted himself in front of the man in the walker, and embraced him tenderly before leaving. Shortly after, another man left, and as he was leaving did the same. One by one, we all followed suit. Except me. As I passed him, I looked in his cavernous eyes and offered a weak smile, but I was too afraid to take the dying man in my arms.
In the years ahead, when young men, my friends and lovers, would report that they had taken the test, discovered they were HIV antibody positive, and would sicken and die, that night in the Sansom Street Cinema would come to mind. Sex—making each other feel good, making each other spill his seed, surrendering and being surrendered to, all the whisperings of desires that we only shared with our lovers—bound us together, made us care for one another, whether or not we knew each other’s names. Eros is more powerful than Thanos.
That same year, 1988, exactly three decades ago as I write this, another defining event happened. “Master seeking slaves” read the ad in the personals section of the Philadelphia Gay News. I typed out a response on the Smith-Carona typewriter on which I had written my college theses, indicating my limited experience (“I’ve been tied up a few times”), giving the information that would allow him to contact me, put the letter in an enveloped, addressed it to the post office box listed in the ad, and mailed it off.
On a Sunday afternoon, the phone rang, and I set aside the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle to answer it. “This is your Master, slave,” said the voice at the other end.
He told me that I was to address him as “Sir,” and asked for more information about my experience, which I supplied. He asked me to describe myself, I gave my height, weight, and age.
When I told him that I was twenty-three, he paused. “I’m over seventy years old,” he told me. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, Sir,” I answered. “None at all.”
I was given instructions of how to proceed: at 7:00 P.M. on the following Friday, I was to be standing on the southeast corner of 22nd and South Street. There was a store with a display window on the corner and I was to stand facing the window about eighteen inches away. No matter what I heard, I was to keep my eyes focused on whatever was in the window and not turn around.
That next Friday, there I stood.
A few years before, there had been plans to build a cross-city expressway connecting the Schuykill Expressway and I-95 going down South Street. Property values plummeted, so the street, and that corner, were mostly abandoned. No one passed me as I stood my vigil.
My vigil was brief. I heard a car pull up and park, a car door open and slam shut, and footsteps behind me. First, a cloth hood came down over my head. Then, my hands were (for the first time ever) cuffed behind my back. Some piece of cloth was stuffed along with a portion of the hood into my mouth and this was secured by a bandana. I was led across the sidewalk, I heard the sound of a trunk opening, I was told to bend over, and I was manhandled into the trunk of a car. The hood came down, the car started up, and I was the prisoner of a man whose name I did not know and whose face I had never seen.
From watching some detective show, I learned that if you are ever abducted and stowed in the trunk of a car, count the number of times the car stops, note if you cross any train tracks, try to get a sense of if you are on city streets or a highway. I did none of that.
The car slowed and then stopped. The door opened and was slammed shut. The trunk opened. Hands reached in, undid my fly, and took out my cock and balls. He assisted me in clambering out of the trunk, then put a cord around my balls, gave a tug, and led me slowly along. I heard a door being unlocked and opened, and then the command to “go down the stairs.” Slowly, step by cautious step, urged forward and downward by tugs of the leash on my balls, I made my way.
At the bottom, I felt a fat leather collar being secured around my neck and heard the jangle of chains and the click of a padlock. He tugged on the chain, connected at one end to the collar and at the other end to something secure and immobile. I wasn’t going anywhere. The gag was removed and then the hood. My eyes adjusted to the dim light. There was a cage. There was a Saint Andrew’s Cross. There was a sort of scaffolding. There was a leather sling. The walls were lined with peg boards displaying hanks of ropes and cat-o’-nine tails and whips. The details of the night blur together into the recollection of that transformative experience. I was bound at his feet and had my first taste of bootleather. I was secured to the cross, felt a lash to my back, but he intuited that I didn’t like that so much and quickly relented. I was locked in the steel cage. On a small television, I watched a videotape, in which men dressed like this man abused a man naked as I was. The men in leather were smiling; the naked man had fear and gratitude in his eyes. While the naked man was being fisted, the men in leather shaved his head with a clippers. (I hoped that wasn’t on the agenda. How would I explain that at work on Monday?) (It wasn’t on the agenda.)
Finally, I was restrained with arms akimbo and legs spread to the scaffolding. What I would years later find out was referred to as a “parachute” was secured around my balls. A small steel bucket was dangled from that. He sat in a leather arm chair smoking a cigar and lobbed lug nuts and bolts into the bucket. The bucket swayed and grew heavier. As the weight on my balls, exacerbated by the swinging of the bucket, increased, I broke a sweat. He rose from the chair, walked slowly around me a few times as I writhed in my restraints, smiling, then positioned himself behind me. He reached around and started working the shaft of my rock-hard cock. He called me his slave, his property, he told me that this would be my life from now on, serving him, feeling whatever pain he decided to inflict and being grateful for it.
Cumming was ecstatic. I was crying. “Thank you Sir thank you Sir thank you Sir thank you Sir…”
He released me from the restraints. He tenderly guided me, weak in the knees, over to the rug in front of the leather arm chair. He got cans of beer for both of us, seated himself, with me naked at his boots, re-lit his cigar, and we talked. He asked me where I grew up, about my job, about my experience.
After awhile, he drove me home, this time sitting beside him instead of riding in the trunk.
At some point, possibly on the drive back to my apartment, I did the math. He was in his seventies. Let’s say that he was seventy-two. That would mean that he was born in 1916. During the Great Depression, he was a young man. He was almost thirty when the United States entered the Second World War. And he was a leatherman. I had my first life-changing encounter with leathersex in the basement dungeon of a man whose experience extended back decades. Long before Drummer magazine, long before the Stonewall Uprising, he was the Master and he would bring men down to his dungeon and make them his slaves.
Not long after that, purely by accident, I discovered my first leather bar.
There was a woman who called herself Stella, the Man-Eater from Manyunk, who showed B horror movies late at night on local television. I saw a poster announcing an opportunity to meet Stella at someplace called the Bike Stop. That Saturday afternoon, I headed out to meet this Elvira knock-off. I assumed it was at a store that sold bicycles on 12th Street. At the bicycle store, they had no idea what I was talking about, although they were also fans of Stella. In a cafe I found the poster and got the address of this place called the Bike Stop. There it was, down a narrow street, the door under an inconspicuous sign. I walked in, too late to meet Stella, and realized that this was my first leather bar. I bought a beer and watched the afternoon crowd. I decided to return that night.
What to wear? In college, I had been on the fringes of the punk scene, so I had a pair of leather jump boots and a Schott Perfecto MC jacket. Those, a pair of jeans, and a black t-shirt should at least get through the door. And they did.
I got to the bar around midnight. About two dozen men, almost none of them dressed in leather, were standing around in small groups or sitting at the bar. I got a beer and planted myself against the wall. I was profoundly disappointed. The chances of anyone or anyones there abducting me into slavery were negligible. I wondered if leather bars were only found in the pages of Drummer magazine.
I was roused from my disheartened speculations when two men entered. They were the real deal. One man, bigger, older, bearded, was in the lead. A second man, younger, clean shaven, followed. The bearded man wore leather jeans and a vest. The clean-shaven man wore jeans, a mesh football shirt, and had a collar around his neck. They called out a hello to the bartender made their way to the back of the bar, and disappeared through a doorway. After I waited longer than I thought it would take two men to piss in the men’s room, I followed them. I pushed open the door, and there was a flight of narrow, ancient stairs. I descended. Through another door at the bottom of the stairs was a basement cavern, dimly lit, the air filled with smoke and sweat and testosterone. It was packed. Making my way through the scrum of men I was met with fixed stares and hands that groped my ass and my crotch. This is what I had been waiting my whole life for. I was home.
After that, I lived for Saturday nights. With my ragtag leathers on, first I would stop at a neighborhood gay bar called the Westbury. After a few beers and a chat with my favorite bartender Ron, a stocky, hairy man who at that time would not have known he was a bear, I made my way to the Bike Stop.
Weekend after weekend after weekend, I would go to the Bike Stop, meet a man, take him home, and fall in love. Although I was in my early twenties and the men I was going home with were considerably older, again and again I was put in the role of being the Top. I felt like I won the lottery the night a big, handsome, well-built man whose well-cared for leathers shone in the scant light, agreed to come back to my place. It was so exciting to walk through the streets of Philadelphia next to this man who looked like he had stepped out of a Tom of Finland canvas, his keys and wallet chain jangling.
Back at my apartment, there he was, on his knees, sucking my cock, and calling me “Sir.” Inspired, I removed my belt, and took a few exploratory whacks to his broad, muscular back. “Oh fuck yeah, Sir!” he encouraged and stripped off his t-shirt, continuing to be a good cocksucker all the while. Brand new at giving a lashing, I was afraid that I would do it too hard and hurt him. He was holding his hands behind his back. I looped the belt through the buckle, cinched it half way, lowered it down his back, snared his two hands, and pulled it tight. He was in heaven.
So was I, having this big, handsome, muscular man under my control and taking what I dished out.
Another night I went home with Clint. Clint was tall, about six-feet-six, with an “Aw shucks” manner. Back at his place, Clint wanted me to piss so he could drink it. Like my fisting experience, I had no idea until that night that that was on the table. I also learned that regardless how much beer I had to drink earlier that night, I was powerfully pee shy. Clint was good about it.
It was leathersex—where one man is in charge and the other man is clearly not in charge—that drove me to seek out those men and those places where they were to be found. Along with the leathersex I found friends, I joined clubs, I had opportunities to learn, and, later, I had opportunities to teach. Too, I got lost along the way.
At this time, and through much of the 1990s, leathermen were pariahs. To my gay friends to whom I disclosed what I was into—tentatively, always tentatively, like admitting to being a kleptomaniac or having a problem with drugs—it was met with nervous laughter and vague concern. It wasn’t healthy. It didn’t sync with the more or less well-adjusted person they knew me to be. They encouraged me to get it out of my system by finding a nice vanilla guy and settling down into a relationship. Which is what I did, a few times, and these proved to be disastrous. I was distant and did my best to conceal myself. While we were having nice, “healthy” vanilla sex, I was spinning fantasies of subjugation and obliteration.
In the middle of one such vanilla relationship, my quiet domesticity founded on rigid self-policing was invaded by America Online. The effect that AOL had on human sexuality cannot be overstated. There I was, loupgaru, in the slave4Master M4M chat rooms. I would seek out men calling themselves Master at a safe geographic distance from me. Mention of “24/7/365” in their profiles was key. This meant that I would leave my life behind and spend the rest of my days as their property, chained in a basement next to a bucket. My fantasies, although rococo, were essentially snuff fantasies. What I wanted, what I desired most, was to end my life. Not necessarily stop my heart from pumping the blood through my arteries (although nooses and hanging certainly held an attraction and still do), but I wanted to end my sham of a life. I wanted to leave behind the dinner parties and the vacations and the home improvement projects, and the feeling that I was cast in a role in a play that went on and on and on, me improvising my lines in a script that I never studied.
AOL made everything even more miserable. Jumbled in among the 24/7/365 Masters wanting to weld the collar around my neck, men who were probably, like me, off in a remote corner of the house while their unsuspecting domestic partners of whatever gender watched television or slept soundly, there were actual men who were looking for a man who they could collar and call their own, and together, they would find a way to negotiate life as Dominant and submissive, a life wherein the great times in the dungeon would be buoyed up by love and mutual respect.
I had gotten lost along the way, but out there was the possibility of having it all.
In addition to being stridently vanilla, my partner, perhaps sensing that he was sharing his home and a his bed with a stranger, was suspicious, jealous, and controlling. My ice-cold responses to his angry outbursts resulted in more frequent and angrier outbursts. Finally, in the weeks of shock and recovery that followed September 11, 2001, I did us both a favor and left him. What followed was a golden era, and one that still continues.
In this new era, I explored not just leathersex, but I dove into the the counterculture that was built around it. I read all the books I could get my hands on. I joined GMSMA, Gay Male SM Activists, and became deeply involved in the workings of the organization. Mentors presented themselves and I latched on for everything I could get out of them, going to events such as Mid-Atlantic Leather, International Mister Leather, Inferno, and Delta.
I came to think of myself as first and foremost a leatherman. Leather was the well that I would go to express my sexuality at its fullest, but also for friendship, fellowship, personal growth, exploration, and a sense of belonging.
All these came together under one roof every Saturday night. I would shower, shave my head clean, select from my expanding collection of leathers and boots, put myself together, and head to the LURE. The doorman, there to turn away anyone who had not at least made an effort to comply with the dress code, would greet me by name. As would the bartender. As would half the men there. There we all were, dressed to get laid, floggers, whips, paddles, hanks of rope, and handcuffs dangled from our belts. We would smoke cigars, talk, flirt, cruise, catch up with each other and catch each other up. I would fill up my empty beer bottles with my piss and press the warm bottle into the hand of a deeply appreciative man. With out-of-towners, visiting New York City from London or Los Angeles or Atlanta or Toronto or Amsterdam, we would play the game of “by any chance, do you know…” and it didn’t take more than three or four names before commonality was established.
Most Saturday nights, I would see him.
He was always dressed in full-on Langlitz, mirrored aviator sunglasses, Muir cap, big black Wesco harness boots. He drank Budweiser out of a can and hauled on cigars or Marlboro Reds, the pack sticking out of the breast pocket of his leather police jacket. He spoke to no one, just stood there, outside of the cone of defused light.
What would it be like to go home with a man like that? Would anyone ever hear from me again? Would there be conversations along the lines of “whatever happened to Drew Kramer..?” and speculation about whether I had moved away? He was all kinds of dangerous. I wanted in.
One night, I added a double shot of Jack Daniels to my beers and made sure my black handkerchief was plainly visible in the back right pocket of my leather jeans. Slowly and full of purpose, I made my way across the room. I positioned myself six feet directly in front of him with my back to him, crossed my arms at the wrist behind my back, lowered my head, focusing my attention on a spot on the floor two feet in front of my boots, and waited.
And waited forever.
I knew when he made his move before I heard him or saw him. The energy in the room changed. Slowly, very slowly, he circled me once, twice, then three times. Then returned to his position behind me. I waited some more. My eyes and my attention focused on that spot on the floor.
“I’m versatile!” I would tell anyone who asked. But I wasn’t versatile that night. Everybody in the bar could see how not versatile I was.
He walked slowly around me and stopped facing me, his Wescos now occupying that spot on the floor. He took a deep haul on his cigar and blew the smoke in my face.
“Fuck boy, you’re looking good tonight. What are looking for, boy?”
“Sir,” I answered, “I want to serve you, Sir.”
“What are your limits, boy?”
“Sir, I’ll go as far as I have to not to disappoint you, Sir.”
Damn. This is really happening. I was scared shitless and my dick was hard as lead pipe. Just the way I like to be when I set off on a leathersex adventure.
“Stay right here, boy. I’ll be back.”
He left. I stayed put. Staring at the spot on the floor.
After awhile, he came back. His tone was slightly, but only slightly, more conversational. “Here’s the deal, boy. I made arrangements to meet another boy here tonight and take him home with me. I want to honor that. I spoke to him, and it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for him if you came back to my place with both of us. How does that sit with you, boy?”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
He introduced me to the other boy, Rick. His name was Mike. The three of us left the bar, Rick and I four steps behind him, and bundled into a cab, with Mike in the middle. He gave an address on the Upper East Side forced both of our heads into his crotch, and mine and Rick’s tongues went to work on his Langlitz leather britches.
Mike lived on one of the upper floors of a high-rise, large rooms, sparely furnished with black furniture and grey industrial carpeting. It was seriously Mr. Benson. Inside the door, he got a beer for himself and one for Rick. “No beer for you, boy. You’re gonna be my urinal.”
I got on my knees.
“Ever drink piss before, boy?”
“Sir, no, Sir.”
“Okay with drinking mine?”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
And so I did. The taste was not as bad as I thought it would be. It vaguely had a taste like fresh cut straw smells. I was careful not to spill a drop.
As we moved to the bedroom as ordered, I got my first good look at Rick. Rick was hot as hell. Well-built hairless body, the hair on his head the color of cast bronze, full lips, an aquiline nose. I worried I would be something of a third wheel.
In the bedroom, Rick was ordered to lie down on the bed face up, spread eagle. I stood “at ease” while Mike restrained Rick with chains and padlocks. Rick, shirtless, muscles taut, still wearing his boots and leather motocross britches, looked amazing.
Mike dug in a drawer, took out a flogger, and tossed it to me. “Give that boy a beating. Get him ready for me.”
The flogger was beautifully made, no doubt Lashes By Sarah, although I didn’t know that then, and, as I also didn’t know then, on the thuddy end of the continuum. I had never wielded a flogger before. But, I had just been ordered to do so. I decided to focus my efforts on Rick’s well developed pecs. With the flogger relaxed at my side, I swung backwards in a slow 360° arc and brought it down on Rick’s chest. The flogger made the sound that only a flogger makes with a well placed stroke. Rick grunted, recoiled, and drew a deep breath. As he exhaled, I let him have it in the chest again, slightly harder this time. And again, and again, and again, intuitively paying attention to his breathing and the tensing and relaxing of his body.
I looked up at Mike, seeking his approval. I got it. Mike was grinning at me. “I’ve created a monster,” he said.
[To this day, when I see Mike, which is all too rare, he greets me with the words, “And here is the monster I created.” I laugh. I love the man dearly.]
I continued to work Rick over with the flogger, exploring ways that I could vary the stroke, moving down to his six-pack abdominals, then giving it all I had to make the force of the blow penetrate the thick leather cushioning his crotch. Rick’s vocalizing became animalistic, in a low, growling register. I didn’t know it then, but I had for the first time given a man an endorphin rush.
Mike ordered me to stop.
Rick, panting, looked up at Mike.
One hand behind his back, Mike mounted the bed and straddled Rick’s heaving chest, red from the flogging. Smiling, his eyes boring into Rick’s, Mike took from behind his back his gloved hand holding a huge Bowie knife. The knife shone like a diamond in the dim light. Rick’s eyes widened. “Okay, Sir. You’ve got a knife. I see the knife, Sir. I see the knife, Sir.”
Rick’s voice was panicky. Pleading. Mike continued to stare him down. He held the knife to Rick’s throat. Slowly, Mike gently traced a design with the point of the blade on Rick’s heaving chest.
“I bet I could off you right here, tonight, and no one would even miss you, boy.”
Mike let up with the knife. His posture became slightly more erect.
“Boy,” he said, “did you just piss yourself?”
“Sir…” Rick choked on his words, “I pissed myself, Sir. I’m sorry, Sir.”
“That’s beautiful, boy.”
Mike stood up, laid the knife on the bed next to Rick’s head, unzipped Rick’s leathers, and out bobbed Rick’s dick, wet with piss. I got the order to suck Rick’s dick. Which I did for all I was worth while Mike held the knife to Rick’s throat. I didn’t have to suck for long.
“Sir! Permission to cum, Sir?” Rick begged.
Mike pressed the knife deeper against Rick’s neck, just over the carotid artery. “Granted.”
And then to me: “Swallow the pig’s load, slave.”
With Rick still chained down, Mike and I knelt on the bed on either side of his chest, working our dicks, while Mike told me what a good goddamn slave I had turned out to be, how he was really fucking proud to own a piece of talented meat like me, serving as his urinal, serving as his footstool, getting good use out of me until I was used up.
When Mike shot, I shot, all over Rick’s chest. As Rick was unchained, none of us spoke. Then, leathered and booted from the waist down, we three lay on the bed together, Mike in the middle again, kissing, smoking, “work my dick and balls, boys,” until the sky outside of the windows started to lighten.
Saying we would never be able to catch a cab, Mike gave us a ride back down to the Meatpacking District. Mike was a lawyer, Rick was a CPA, I ran a social services agency.
When he dropped us off, before he drove away, Mike said, “This was great. Let’s do this again sometime.”
Watching his taillights, Rick said to me, “I am so fucking glad you were there. Although when he pulled out that knife, all I could think of was that you were both in on it together.”
“And you really pissed your pants?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said laughing, “but I always piss my pants. Every time I go out I piss my pants. It’s mandatory.”
The next day, at the Leatherman on Christopher Street, I bought my first flogger. A weekend-long workshop on singletail whips courtesy of GMSMA served to introduce me to the two men who would mentor me into the world of singletails.
I was, Andrew said, a natural, the room resounding with a crack the first time I threw the whip. I bought my first whip, a signal whip from David Morgan in Seattle, and practiced every chance I got, according to the regimen that Andrew and Joel had prescribed: backhand, sidearm, over-the-shoulder, sidearm, backhand, switch hands, repeat. If there was shrubbery in an out-of-the-way place, I would take my signal whip from my satchel bag and throw until my arms were tired.
Andrew and I met for dinner. I told him how practice was going. “That’s all well and good,” he said, “but you have a lot more bushes to whip before you’ll be ready to whip a man.”
And whipping a man was what I wanted to do.
In addition to cracking whips, one of the only things in life that I have been fairly good at from the first try, as part of the GMSMA workshop, Andrew and Joel described the dynamics of the scene, “Start easy and build slowly, watch for when his body relaxes, listen to his vocalizations: low register means endorphins, high pitched means adrenaline and that’s what you don’t want..” And then they talked about after you’ve laid on the last stroke.
“This man you’ve just whipped, you have to take care of him. You have to hold him while he cries, keep him safe while he puts himself back together, you have to be there for him, for as long as it takes.”
That described no experience I had ever had. What would it be like to hold a man in my arms while he cried? What would it be like to whip a man to the point just beyond what he can take, to break him, to have the mask drop and he reveals himself, raw and vulnerable? That power and intimacy, the fully human and fully alive dynamic of the experience called to me.
I practiced to get myself ready for that first time.
On a trip down to Fort Lauderdale, I agreed to meet up with a whip guy with whom I had chatted online. In my rental car, I found my way to his house. I brought my whips with me, and we spent time in his back yard, cracking our whips, cracking each other’s whips.
I was a little taken aback that he threw his whip using what Andrew and Joel had described as “gym towel style”: holding the cracker out behind him with one hand and flicking the wrist of the hand that held the whip. “If I see you doing that, you owe me five,” said Joel. But gym-towel style was the only game this guy had.
After awhile, my host said, “So, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
We went back into his house, and there, in the middle of the living room, on his knees, head bowed, was a beautiful boy.
“He’s for you,” said the whipsman.
I took him aside. “Thanks, but I’m not ready yet. I only learned to throw whips a year ago. I’ve never whipped a person yet.”
He smiled at me and said, “This would be a good first opportunity. He loves getting whipped. I’ve whipped him plenty of times, and you’re a lot better than I am.”
And so I did.
I warmed him up with floggers, starting with thud and progressing to sting, and then a braided cat. Then, I moved in close, gently playing my fingers over his bright red back, slightly slick from the sweat and white blood cells, with the texture that Joseph Bean described as “orange peel” in his masterful book “Flogging.”
I kissed his back, tickling him with my whiskers.
“Thank you for this, boy. It’s an honor to whip you.”
“No, thank you, Sir!” he said.
And so I whipped him, laying on stroke after stroke. There came that moment when I first drew blood, like tiny red rubies on a sandy beach. I had made a man bleed. He shed his lifeblood for me. I pressed on, attuned to him as I never had been before to the body and psyche of another person.
I didn’t break him. I pulled up short. (Early on, I hesitated to go as far as I wanted with whipping. I was fearful of giving the man more than he bargained for. One of those men who gave up his back to me way back when told me years later that he thought I was a lightweight but that I showed promise. It took me a long time to give myself permission to whip a man for all I’m worth, because I owe him the best I can bring him.)
And then, the three of us sat out by the pool. Javier’s face was radiant. “That was so great! Thank you!”
I can’t count the number of men I’ve sat with after. I take my cues from them. If they bury their heads in my chest, I carefully enfold them in my arms. If they’re giggling and punch-drunk, I giggle with them. Or we lay quietly side-by-side. Or I let them show me how much they appreciate my efforts. I was in charge during the whipping, afterwards, they take the lead.
I am unable to pinpoint why or how, or even figure out the moment exactly when, but this world that I have been describing has vanished. I still find men to tie up or wrap in chains secured with padlocks or stand against a cross and offer up their backs to my floggers and whips. However, it’s not easy. In fact, I had to create a monthly BDSM play party to get the leathersex that I need.
I had always understood “Leather” to entail bondage and domination, Mastery and slavery, fisting, raunch, and a category of signifiers under the rubric of accentuated masculinity: motorcycles, uniforms, cigars. Leather, I am now told, can mean whatever we want it to mean. We are all Humpty-Dumpty and this is Alice In Wonderland.
Nothing is the same. Not the bars. Not the events.
Morrissey asked the musical question “Has the world changed or have I changed?”
Definitely I have changed.
In my fifties, I am more vulnerable to the beckoning of comfort and stability, the fires in my loins have cooled considerably, and I have reached the glorious stage in life where I feel I have exactly nothing to prove to anyone, least of all myself.
But this much I believe to be true: the gay male leather tradition was previously the shared undertaking of men in pursuit of a variety of sex involving intensity, and, often, domination and submission, that they could not find elsewhere. This quest was what drove them into bars and to events.
To be sure, it still does, although more likely than not, in this century, the search is likely to result in frustration and disappointment. Bars and events, the places that we used to call our own and where we felt at home, are mired in contests; dubious fundraising endeavors; discussions and workshops that are clinical or academic in their approach to such a degree that make them absurdly out of place; tourists who defend their presence by mouthing pablum like, “I just think men in leather are so damn hot!”; and activities described as “kinky” or “fetishy” that require a lot of scrutiny before any sexual component at all is discernible in the least.
I am often reminded of the parable that Sigmund Freud relates in “Civilization And It’s Discontents.” Freud theorizes that among our ancestors was a clan ruled over by a stern and forbidding patriarch. Able to endure his despotism no longer, his sons murdered their father, parricide being the most unforgivable sin, and compounding this, cooked and ate his remains. In doing so, they unleashed ecstasy: they had violated every taboo and lived. But the experience was also terrifying: without the overlord-father, they had a moment of perfect and absolute freedom. Annually, they would attempt to recreate through ritual the act that had brought about the new order. At first, with some human stand-in for the father, then the sacrificial victim substituted for a bull, and then, just wine to represent the blood, and one year when there wasn’t sufficient wine, they raised a glass of beer. With each repetition, the ritual was robbed of meaning and impact, and in time, it was forgotten why they did it at all.
As I look around me, that is what I see. We put on our leathers (or not), we go to places that call themselves “leather bars,” or, more likely, a “gear night” at an ordinary gay bar. We buy jello shots and tickets for a raffle to support some worthy cause. On raised platforms are someone’s idea of sexually desirable men dancing with glazed expressions on their faces and we become spectators rather than participants in desire, being content to touch their skin as we slip a dollar bill in their jockstrap. Our codes and folkways face slow death by a thousand cuts as they are analyzed and dissected and scrutinized, and their practitioners “called out on Facebook.” Our “sexual spaces” (those scare quotes come with an apology for that bloodless academic jargon) become “safe spaces,” ironic as the sex we wanted was not safe but dangerous.
Interestingly, out on the fringes, you can see dying embers of the longing for sexual experiences that will leave us changed. Our need for transgression and transformation can never be completely sublimated.
Consider, by way of example, the Gainer phenomenon. Gaining exists almost entirely on the internet. The desire is to find a feeder, who, by seduction or coercion or both, will take control of the diet of the the man who submits to him, forcing him to overeat and watching him grow in size eventually to immobility. The transformation in submission to the will of another beyond a point of no return is obvious. The transgression and taboo is striking: “bears,” who used to be gay men who were fat, became “muscle bears.” Among many in the gay community, self-worth depends on results at the gym and not much else.
Another example would be financial domination, in which a Cash Master exacts tribute from his cash slaves in the form of financial payments that leave them close to destitution.
But, obviously, the sexual component is difficult to see. In a way, it’s taking yourself out of the game rather than plunging into it.
And why might this be? Why do gay men younger than forty strike me as being so sex-averse? Why would a sexually active gay man take to the apps to find someone to come over and cuddle?
The answer I propose is that the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s was met with a counter-revolution that reversed the gains completely.
“Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should,” sang George Michael in 1987, by which time, the repudiation of this sentiment was well underway. Starting in 1982, in Kern County, California, hysteria swept the nation in the form of children at day care centers “reporting” that they had been the victims of horrific sexual abuse in Satanic rituals. The accused perpetrators went to prison, or at best had their lives ruined. The phenomenon was the result of an admixture of very bad psychology (still with us today: it is still possible to hear people recounting the memories of early trauma, often sexual, being “recovered,” despite the fact that this is, in fact, the opposite of the way memory works in the human brain) and overzealous district attorneys. Within a decade, trick-or-treating on Halloween was banned for fears that Satan worshippers had inspired the holiday tradition to abduct children in many municipalities. Based on clinical psychological evidence that was either dubious or non-existent, “sex addiction” became a thing discussed among otherwise intelligent people and recovery programs were set up to deal with it.
The most pernicious manifestation was the panic related to overstating the threat posed by sexual predators who victimized children. “Stranger Danger” is what does not happen more than ninety percent of the time; the most likely perpetrators of sexual assault on children are male relatives. A public education effort to counter this would not warn of evil men hunting shopping malls and public restrooms but forbid being alone with fathers, stepfathers, older brothers, uncles, and grandfathers. But, an entire generation of children was told that anyone touching their bodies was likely up to no good. At the same time, anyone younger than eighteen was robbed of any sexual agency whatsoever. No normal child or young person would want to be touched in a sexual way.
Today, for the first time in human history, sex is only good if it is affirmatively consensual, if all parties involved are completely clear-headed and free from any intoxication, and if all due protections are taken against the risk of sexually transmitted infections regardless of how slender that risk might be. In spite of any innocent intention—say, a tap on the shoulder to get someone’s attention—any touch is a sexual touch and is therefore a violation. Seduction is suspect or at least condemned, and in its place is negotiation almost as complicated as the sale of real estate.
By this sexual counterrevolution, quite possibly an entire generation has been traumatized. What would be the impact of hearing from the time you were old enough to understand the words from parents, teachers, religious leaders, coaches, and every other authority figure in a child’s life that the world was filled with bad people who sought to harm them and the way they would do this was through sex? What could possibly lead an adult who had come through a childhood like that to conclude that sex was healthy, pleasurable, harmless, and endued only with whatever meaning we choose?
When I was first coming of age and learning the ropes as a sexually active gay man, the prevailing ethos, a remnant of 1970s gay culture, was to cultivate an attitude of complete and unprejudiced sexual availability. It went by the name of “cruising,” and it was what you did all day and all night. In 1980, if you were a gay man out doing the grocery shopping on a Saturday morning, and you became aware that the man pushing his grocery cart towards you down the aisle was also gay (your eyes met his, he held the gaze, a slight smile), the question that arose in both of your minds was “are we both available to have sex right now and where could we go to do that?” This was the case regardless of age, race or ethnicity, body type, or any other qualification. It wasn’t about finding someone compatible in every way and settling down into a life of domestic bliss, it was about getting your dick sucked, or finding a dick to suck. Simple as that.
In 1970s gay culture, Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Tale” was retold again and again, featuring a haughty and self-impressed good-looking young man who refuses sexual advances until he gets his comeuppance. The moral of the story was always: we’re gay men; having sex with each other is definitionally what we do.
Not so long ago, leather was about sex. And not just sex in theory, but about men meeting each other to have not just sex, but extraordinary sex. Our leather forbears were werewolves, completely given over to their never-quite-satisfied appetites. Leathersex was for them, and is still for a few of us, the organizing principle of life, the Prime Directive, the raison d’être; everything else takes a backseat.
The AIDS crisis was a winnowing. From the early 1980s through about 1998, having sex with another man was an invitation not just to death, but to a terrible pariah’s death, alone in a hospital staffed by people too afraid to clean up your blood and shit. And yet, some gay men had sex anyway. The risks could be reduced, but they could never completely be eliminated. But still, we made the decision again and again and again, “I don’t care if I die, I want to feel him inside me.”
A people who came through that experience can be forgiven for trying their best in the subsequent decades to push sex and sexuality off to the edge of the stage and putting odd stand-ins in their place.
I do my best these days to not be bitter, and most of the time, I am successful in that. Today’s “kink” community isn’t all that bad. It can be fun the way visiting a Renaissance Faire can be fun, although usually without the smoked turkey legs. I have spent most of my life doing community organizing of one kind or another, and I recognize the value and work to bring about inclusiveness and more diverse representation. “Saul, Saul, why kickest thou against the pricks?” It is terrifically likely that we remaining leather dinosaurs, even if we banded together and devoted ourselves to it, could reverse the tide.
The next best thing, and my survival strategy going forward, is a threefold program.
First, seek out others who were there, who understand, who were witnesses; men with whom and in whose company some of that magic can be rekindled. Second, find ways that we can assemble in groups. (So difficult to do. The days when you could rent commercial space in a sketchy part of town, get a beer license and open a bar that survived on the patronage of a hundred or so of your friends and acquaintances are gone for good. These days, no bar owner in their right minds would forgo the business of the masses to cater to the eccentricities of a tiny remnant even if they were inclined to.) And third, tell each other our stories. Surprise! You thought I was going to say have leathersex, didn’t you? And that, of course, is great when it happens.
But I believe that those stories about “that one time I met this guy at the Cuff…” contain the embers of a sacred fire that we have to safeguard.
From my friend Phillip:
One night, out on Fire Island, we had a leathersex party out in the Meatrack. There we were, with the slings and the crosses set up around this bonfire, there were easily two hundred men there. Into the middle of it all rides a park ranger on horseback. “What the fuck is going on here?” he yells. Nobody says anything. Then, like it was planned in advance, he gets hauled off his horse, they pulled off his boots, pulled off his pants, threw him in the sling, and almost every man there fucked him. See that building across the street? (We’re on Christopher Street between Hudson and West Streets.) They say converting someone is a myth, but that night, we converted him. He quit his job with the National Park Service, and his apartment was right in that building, above All American Boy. Remember that store? He died. Didn’t survive the plague. But he was a great guy. And that was a great night.
In telling me that story, Phillip had no reason to lie. And with the experiences that I have had and the the men that I have known and loved, I had no reason to disbelieve him.
Reading that story, what sleeping aspects of yourself are re-awakened? Do you, like me, feel a sense of gratitude welling up in you for the life that you were able live and the men that you have loved and the experiences you have had before the curtain came down?
Here I sit, on the sofa at Townie Bagels & Bakery in Palm Springs, the town that has been my home. I am the old guy in the frumpy, comfortable clothes, reading a Golden Age British detective story on my iPhone. But once, I was a werewolf, prowling the night, seeking whom I would devour, or who would devour me.
“Leather is battle gear for warriors of love.”