Still Unsafe, But Making Good Time
Presented at South Plains Leatherfest
February 27, 2005 – Dallas, Texas
Copyright © 2005, Laura Antoniou. May not be reproduced without her express permission, although sections may be quoted for review purposes.
I had to wonder why I was invited to give this speech at this god-awful hour of the morning. (And what are we doing here at this hour of the morning without a cocktail? At the very least, we should be having Mimosas and Bloody Marys if we dragged ourselves out of bed after a dungeon party.)
But I did have to ask myself, why me? I’ve never held a title; I’ve only managed one event. I never won a Pantheon of Leather Award, or got named person of the year anywhere. In fact, my only entry in the Leather Timeline is for a book I edited about someone else in the leather community. Not that I’m bitter. But see if the Leather Archives gets any more of my #1 signed and numbered copies.
So, being such a non-apparatchik, I had to wonder what was expected of me. Since I am unused to giving political speeches per se, I researched various speeches given at leather events over the past years…I found several on the internet…and have come up with exactly what I think I’m expected to say.
First of all, welcome to all you rugged individualists, you one percenters, the radicals, the loners, who stand against the fierce wind of mundane life to carve your own path amongst the, er, people not like us. Back when I came out, things were much better, and I am sorry you missed that time, when we all got together in our leather bars which welcomed women, our private clubs which welcomed street kids, and of course, the amazing dungeon spaces which were filthy but the best possible places to be a polysexual, polyamourous polymorpheous pervert. Oh, we were tougher back then, wilder and meaner and sexier and freer and our worst problems could be addressed with a shot of penicillin the next day. But we were wrong, of course.
Not like today, when we’re much safer, saner, and… you know. So don’t feel bad that I can’t really take you back to the thrilling days of yesteryear when all tops were honorable, twisted sadists and all bottoms were insatiable, obedient studmuffins. They’re all dead now, or living in McMansions in gated communities with their kids and SUVs and Corgis, anyway.
Now is so much better. Now we celebrate diversity in our leather/sm/fetish/bdsm/ds/kinky lifestyles where we find unity in the community and it’s leather together forever…. whatever. We are free to be you and me, singing Kumbaya as we link hands and wind up in a great big group hug! So, you’re the best and the brightest, the movers and the shakers – honored our shared past and boldly going into the next generation. Thank you.
(From the audience – “Bullshit!”)
No? Well, so much for trying to get along. I guess I’ll just wing it from here. When asked to speak today, and I assure you, it really is an honor and a pleasure, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. Then, Master Jim threw a wrench in the works and said I had to speak about history, something about we’ll never forget, we’ll always remember, yadda, yadda, yadda. History? I’m not an historian! I’m a pornographer. Besides, my history doesn’t look like the farcical one I mentioned a minute before – no one introduced me to the magic of sadomasochism after a bunch of mysterious initiations. I didn’t stumble into a group just like me; I went looking for them after seeing an ad in the Village Voice. Very radical and transgressive, you betcha. I’m not anything special – I’m a member of what I have decided is the Middle Age Guard – too young for the Olde Guarde and too old for the next generation groups. What could I tell you about? The history of phone sex lines in the 1980′s?
I have to tell you, I did, for several months, dutifully consider giving you the history of SM literature. And baby, I could. I got a library at home I could happily go through and I could talk about Gothic romances to slash fiction. I could talk about how the word, pornography, means the writing of whores, which is to say, the writing of sexual outlaws. And then I’d list the obvious people and the people I’d assume are pretty rarely spoken of and I’d out a few authors and let me tell you, by the time I was finished, you’d all be well educated about SM in literature, and dead asleep. This morning thing is not well suited to lectures on literature. But maybe I’ll offer it as a seminar one day. At least then the people who attend will be volunteers.
But that led me back to the question – why me? If, other than my personal experiences, I have nothing to add to the esteemed, uh, field of leather community research, what did they want? I mean, I write fiction, fairy tales. I make up improbable pasts and mingle them with half truths and near truths and then toss in complete lies and things only an idiot would believe and then I wrap them up in an engaging story – I hope – and sell them to people desperate for something that speaks to their experience, something which acknowledges their fantasies and desires and paints a picture of a life they could only wish were real.
Oh… well, there’s something I can speak to.
Fiction is often mistaken for history, and I use the word mistaken deliberately here. Fiction is generally more accessible to someone than hard history, and friendlier to engage with. That’s why millions of people think the historical figure Tokugawa was named Toranaga. James Clavell’s Shogun is a highly entertaining romp, a Samurai Action Adventure which happens to deliver more than a few historical facts along the way. But it’s a novel. In addition to being short on facts and using different names for his major characters, the book takes great liberties with the Japanese language and philosophies of the time. Does that lessen its greatness as a work of fiction? Not by my standards. Fiction is judged on entertainment value, not on accuracy.
The trouble comes in when people rely on fiction to tell them the truth – and fiction is the diametric opposite of truth. Fiction writers use truth as a tool, the same way we use metaphors and archetypes. When it suits us, and the story, we add truth. When the truth is inconvenient, or ill suited to drama, we make up our own version of the truth.
Now, sometimes, using fiction as a guide is helpful! It’s probable that our earliest storytellers told stories to communicate fears and beliefs and to teach the “right” way to do things according to what went on before, or what people believed went on before. So, cautionary tales and heroic epics both serve to warn and inspire; to provide a sense of stability and continuity. In small, insular communities, stories serve the primary purpose of alerting us that we are not alone; they give us a link complete with codes to recognize each other. I remember cruising chicks by asking them which story in Macho Sluts was their favorite. (If they said, Birthday Party, ohhh, cool…Calyx of Isis? Run Away! Those chicks were too high maintenance!) Of course it was natural for the slaves at Hellfire to have Story of O collars and rings, for the men in the bars to read Mr. Benson and then act their favorite parts out! The literature brought us together and celebrated our sense of community.
But mostly, living your life according to fiction is a BAD IDEA. You’d think this would be self-obvious, and yet – it’s not. And how can we even begin to address history seriously when so much of who and what we are is partial – if not purely – fiction?
Don’t wave the Leather Archives at me, folks. You can’t point fingers at one organization as though it relieves you of your own responsibility. The history I’m talking about it personal. It’s all very well and good to support our community attic by continuing to send them anything we need to get out of our closets and basements and storage rooms. It’s another thing entirely when so many people in our little corner of humanity can’t seem to tell the truth if you lit a fire under their ass and offered an extinguisher for one established fact.
And I will speak more on that in a moment.
Personal history is vastly different than institutionalized history, as well. We assume that much of what we think of when we say the word “history” is stuff that really happened. Wars, treaties, discoveries, births and deaths, a stream of reality which we parse accordingly. If someone said that the Soviet Union collapsed because aliens landed and taught us all about peace and brotherhood, that’s nonsense. And yet, there are people in this room who are thinking “well, if that’s someone’s opinion…..”
Look folks, opinions are like assholes, common and more important to us individually than to others in the room. Also, I will borrow a quote from Harlan Ellison, you are not ‘entitled’ to your opinion. You are entitled to your INFORMED opinion, and there is a huge difference.
I was, for a couple of years, on the Leather History mailing list. A more frustrating exercise in futility I have never encountered, except in building Ikea furniture by myself. Every week, it seemed some poor schmuck would log in and ask “where are the rules for the Old Guard?” or “Who was the first person to use the term BDSM?” Now, the questions themselves are harmless, even if they were repetitive. It was the answers that drove me insane! People would take it on themselves to offer the LAZIEST comments: guiding the questioners to the same web sites, or giving completely wrong information. And I’d be steaming as someone would write something like – and this really happened – the Marquis deSade used the term BDSM. Cite! I insisted. I can trace usenet newsgroups back to the very first mention of the acronym online, hell, I was practically there. But this person insisted that they’d read it in some biography of the man, somewhere. It was at someone’s house. He couldn’t recall the title, but yeah, it said the Marquis lived the BDSM lifestyle. And very few people had the balls to call folks like that on their bullshit and shoddy research techniques, let alone the fact their IQ was, at best, questionable.
And while I ignored a lot, there were also times when I just went off on someone being so obtuse I wanted to find them and hit them across the head with a clue stick. Because it’s one thing to say “I think Anne Rice is really Pat Califia.” It’s another thing to insist on your own level of reality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
My breaking point occurred when someone on the list actually compared me to a Holocaust denier, because I was informing people to not give my original “Unsafe at Any Speed” essay away. Apparently, this person was so unaware of what copyright laws said – even after being referred to the official US documents, the international treaties, the various forms of proof, aka historical documents – she could only grasp at one of the lowest forms of life to express her frustration. Let me remind you, this was on a list supposedly for the investigation of leather history. And of all those budding historians? No one spoke up about the outrageousness of such a comment.
An interesting thing happened last year, and was buried in American news. Deborah Lipstadt, an historian, wrote a book on holocaust deniers, and mentioned one by the name of David Irving. Irving has been championed by as diverse a group as you can imagine – from Klanners in their white sheets to Noam Chomsky, to Christopher Hitchens. See, he’s entitled to his opinion.
But you see, when the opinion is based on history, you can actually put the opinion to the ultimate test. And when Irving, in his hubris, sued Deborah for defamation, he opened his “research” to examination by professionals, in court. They took him apart. They exposed his shoddy techniques, his predisposition for ignoring evidence which did not suit his thesis, his contradictions, his lies. And in the end, he lost his suit, and is probably licking his wounds somewhere, giving a speech on how the Jews controlled the trial. But it was curious how many historians came damn near to defending him; people who you would think knew much better. One of them said to Deborah, at one point: “none of us could withstand such examination!”
Ah! And that’s where historians mistake themselves for the final arbiters of fact. None of us has the final truth; we can only dig for more truths, hold them up to the light, and assemble the most truth possible at the time. And yes, we must expect to be questioned! We must demand questions, even as we question each other. It’s called research, folks, and research has rules and guidelines which you may find helpful. Evidence, for example. Citations. Pictures. Letters. Minutes. Clippings. Diaries. Not “I read it on the internet.” That’s about as smart as saying “I heard it on the telephone.” The internet is just a format; we need to know where the knowledge is, not the medium.
And folks, if you don’t have answers, then don’t pretend you do. You look stupid, and what’s worse is that you pass your dimness onto some poor schlub who doesn’t know the difference, and somewhere, an historian – or even a fiction writer – is losing their brain cells. And it’s your fault.
Now, I quit the leather history mailing list, because my masochism only extends so far. SM-ACT is about as much pain as I can take in my mailbox on a regular basis. When you get to be a member of the Middle Aged Guard, you have to pick your battles wisely. Having survived burnout once, I am not tempted to try it on again for size. But I can’t escape the blurring of fact and fiction which is not only buried in differing opinions of who did what first and where and to whom, and what hanky color that would be – but in so many individual connections I’ve made over the years, and in the stories I’ve heard from others, and oh, yes, in that vast ocean of information and garbage we call the internet.
This is the personal history part, and the part where I, as a fiction writer, may be uniquely qualified to speak to you today.
For crying out loud, folks, stop the fucking lies.
Just stop it! Please! For decades, we sadomasochists have drummed ourselves on the back, saying we’re so smart and creative and bold and honest and brave and loyal and faithful and true, we’re the modern age romantics, the knights in black leather. But let me tell you, all of that gets shot to hell every time someone dubs themselves MasterHighLordBubba@aol.com and starts collecting “subbies.”
I know – you’re sitting out there nice and smug, thinking “well, it’s not me, I’m real.” And maybe it’s true that every person here uses the name they sign checks with, avoids uncommon or archaic titles, uses correct grammar, never invents a personal history at odds with, oh, anything resembling reality, and never exaggerates their years of experience, past adventures, or future plans. Maybe – just maybe – everyone here does go home and live the same life they talk about at leather events, down to the smallest detail. In this crowd, I am sure we hare surrounded by the very crème de la crème of the Olde Guarde, total power exchange, Euro-Gorean 24/7 leather Levi fetish BDSM kinky lifestyle. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that just because someone likes to be called Master means they’re a big fat liar. I know lots of nice masters, mistresses and whatnots. And the fact is, role playing and secret codes and fancy names and make believe are all part of what we do, even the most serious, blood and thunder “living the lifestyle” purists. I wouldn’t want us to throw that good stuff away any more than I’d expect a French chef to stop using cream and butter. Fantasy – it’s what’s for dessert!
It’s when it becomes commingled with fact and history that pushes my buttons. For crying out loud, people, if you really want to be known as Mistress Anorexia of the Clan Slimfast, I don’t care! No one cares! But when you try to tell people that your secret clan of ninja BDSMers goes back 100 years to the founding members in Budapest, and these are the secret rituals and clothing styles passed down by the Daughters of Dementia, and then you pass this kiddie crap off as real – come on. Just because a lot of people are gullible doesn’t mean everyone is. Pull the hype back a bit and cop to the fact you made it up.
And what the fuck’s wrong with making shit up?? You’d think it isn’t any fun unless someone tells you a story about how authentic they are, or their toys are, or their methods are. Believe me, it’s way more fun to know your partner has an imagination than to slowly come to the understanding that your partner is a loony.
Isn’t it interesting, though, how we at the same time call ourselves rugged individualists AND seek to join special secret clubs? And we so desperately want to belong somewhere. That’s what colors and leather and uniforms and styles and fashions and creeds and oaths and big parties are, really. But here’s a clue and please pass it on to newbies when you meet them? Top secret ancient houses and clans and covens and klaverns of sadomasochists – IF they existed, and I am not saying they do – would NOT seek out members by chatting them up anonymously online!
No, really. They would be much more devious and creative.
And again, I hear you thinking at me, “But Laura, I know that crap! I don’t fall for it!” And yet, even when you escape the clutches of Master Ox of Box and his Martian Love-boys, you still steer people to his website, doncha? After all, he has a lot of great articles and a personal ad services and some hot pictures of well hung guys. Or, you remain silent when Grandmaster Rooty-Tooty of the House of Pancakes is invited to a panel discussion and he proceeds to talk about his third generation training house, aka the double wide. Hell, you invite him! You pay his airfare! Rooty-Tooty there might be a great guy, a fun player, and his little slave chicks Fresh and Fruity might be eye candy, but the fact is, they’re playing Klingons and we give ‘em a place at the table because they play LOUD Klingons.
Yes, Klingons. These people, when they aren’t at your leather affair are at a Star Trek convention with a horseshoe crab glued to their foreheads, screaming Ka-plach! at each other. The next weekend, they take the crab off and tell you how to live the master slave lifestyle, and you sit there and grin and say nothing. Honey, is that what you really want?
Stop the lies, people. Put the brakes on pretension and consider the most basic truth of all – we are valued by what we leave behind us, not by what is already gone. You think your spiffy blue collar needs a name? Fine! Name it whatever you like, name it George! But don’t call it an Olde Guarde Collar of Discipline. You just confuse the newbies and make the alterkackers laugh at you behind your back. You want to call your split level ranch the Seat of Clan Silverwolf of Thunder Mountain? Knock yourself out. Just don’t try to sell me on the way your parents trained you to be the Alpha Bitch of your Wolf Clan starting at age 9, and that’s how you are born and raised to dominate all two legged creatures everywhere. Puh-leeze, folks. Do we really need more episodes of CSI?
(Although, if they want to bring back Lady Heather, I’m all for that.)
I’m not saying you can’t play games! I love games, and I love a good story. But when you take elements from someone else’s story – like when you try to be Gorean or Klingon, or even (shudder) Marketplace, you are selling yourself short. What you can be alone or with your partners is so much greater than what can be found in text on paper. And when you find you need to make up a story painting yourself greater than what you once saw in the mirror, remember, it might have be the story that gets their attention – but you, the person, need to keep it. Throw the story away and see if they stay. I guarantee it – you are better without it.
Believe it or not, what we do, no matter what you call it, is still transgressive, even though you can find SM books at an occasional Barnes & Noble. It is still exciting and different, and fun and challenging, eve if we do seem to have more organizational meetings than orgies. I realize that when people grasp at a fake history, fake names, fake philosophies, what they are saying is, “what I do, who I am, is special; I have a great story.” We don’t want to be common, and who does? What I want to tell you though, is the truth is exciting, it is special, it has its own value, and what’s more, it’s easier to remember and defend.
Every contestant in this year’s contest said, more than once, that one key to their relationship is honest and open communication. And for over 20 years, I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of the same people say the same thing, praising themselves and each other for being “honest and open.” You’re not being honest and open by pretending you’re royalty. Honesty requires truth – openness invites scrutiny. You want excitement and thrills and danger? Then come out of your closets. You want faith and truth and loyalty? Then inspire them with actions, not Dungeons & Dragons names and imaginary histories. You want respect and admiration? Then foster them with behavior and deeds.
And for those of you smugly sitting there full of the knowledge I am not talking to you, your job isn’t done. Silence is the voice of complicity. When you remain quiet in the face of bullshit, you are lending it your credibility. You are saying it is so, merely by saying nothing. You don’t have to confront every pretentious blowhard calling himself Lord Nightwind of Destiny House. But don’t afford him the same time and prestige of someone who goes by a more common name and has an actual address and fails the drama queen test. If someone has a real history, they should have something to show for it. Records, writings, photos, friends, organizational notes, something that says ‘I was here then and did this.’ Something more than a web page with a black background, flickering torches and rinky-dink electronic dungeon music.
So when your bullshit meter goes off, don’t support the lies! Let’s learn to celebrate our storytelling without pretending it’s real. You can call yourself the Marquis of the Grand Duchy of Fenwick for all I care. But you still need a Metrocard to take the subway. Remember to laugh at yourself and feel free to say, “I’m more than what I used to be, and this name makes me feel good.” There’s nothing wrong with that. But, when you sit there and tell people desperate to be the heroes in their own stories that you were born naturally ready to take a role, that you never disobey, or doubt, or betray, or hurt without cause – that you live a life even fiction could not amply express, where there is plenty of time, plenty of energy and above all, you are always honest, truthful, loyal, devout, obedient, submissive, dominant or always ANYTHING, you are setting my bullshit meter off loud and clear and I’m fucking tired of it.
Believe it or not, we are making good time, we, the leather/kinky/BDSM/Master/slave whatever community. When before, we worried about whether we could meet at all, now we worry about whether to pick the Hyatt, the Sheraton, or the Crowne Plaza. When before, we reached out by mail, looking for code words in personal ads, now, we connect by the hundreds of thousands online. When before, we spread our stories in briefly published, highly perishable and questionable newspapers and flimsy porno books, now, our shelves are full of our realities and our fantasies.
And I say again, what we are doing is fantastic! Fun, sexy, dynamic, exciting. Whether you play on the edge or you are so far on either side of it you can’t see where the edge is, this is good, hot stuff. And despite any setbacks we see, we can only get bigger and better. But as we careen down the highway, tearing up the asphalt, we will always get lost when so many of us insist on lying and supporting liars. As a fiction writer, I invite the clan-masters and the Euro house mistresses and the Grand High Inquisitors to join me on the shelves, where we belong. Let our stories entertain and inspire, not inform. Leave the history real, the reality simple to verify, and the stories where they do the most good – next to a vibrator or a comfy chair or tucked in a travel bag. Don’t make make-believe into one of our hallmarks. To do so insults the real people whose deeds and names the liars can’t even list. And together, let’s celebrate the art of the story teller, who is valued for entertainment.
In conclusion, I will remind you that there is no shame in admitting you love a good story. I do! And my best lovers over the years found that telling me bedtime stories is a joy I can barely stand to ask for and thrill to every time I get it. There is an honored and wonderful place for our pompous names, our wordy oaths and contracts, our costumes and props and scenes.
But let’s make an effort to keep fiction where it belongs – and fact out front and center. It might be hard to let Onyxheart, slavegirl of Mythos Manor go. And if Onyxheart is who you are inside, go for it and change your name. But your mama is probably always gonna call you Nancy Ann anyway.
Copyright © 2005-2014, Laura Antoniou. May not be reproduced without her express permission, although sections may be quoted for review purposes.