S&M and the Gay World

19720901-08Homosexual sadomasochism is one subject which the gay liberation movement has never discussed. Although gay liberationists have strongly supported transvestites and pederasts by urging repeal of laws against cross-dressing and those governing the age of sexual consent, sadomasochism has been completely ignored.

Most gay men have such a difficult time coming to personal terms with S&M that they treat it as an embarrassment. Gay Liberationists have even actively persecuted sadomasochists. A new and very secret Los Angeles organisation, Gay Zap, has been sending crank letters to several of the Hollywood gay bars that sadomasochists patronise demanding changes in business policies and promising police action if the demands are not met.

19720901-09S&M has been the bad boy of the gay world, and only during the past few months has anything been written about it. Dennis Altman, author of Homosexual: Liberation and Oppression, devoted several pages to transvestism but dismissed sadomasochism in a single sentence by saying it was probably the result of a confused sexuality which would disappear under less repressive social norms. He added that coming to terms with S&M was one of the real challenges for the gay liberation movement.

The largest gay newspaper in the country, The Advocate, has never had anything about S&M although 20% of its personal ads are placed by sadomasochists. By way of contrast, only 1% of the personals concern transvestites and about 4% pederasts. This does not necessarily mean that 20% of all gay men are sadists or masochists. It does suggest that S&M may be much more common than generally believed. We will have to wait until the Kinsey Institute publishes its report on homosexuality this year for any statistics.

The New York City gay liberation newspaper Come Out! published “S&M and the Revolution’ in its January, 1972 issue. This article may be the first about sadomasochism in any gay newspaper. It is primarily an apologetic explanation of S&M and emphasises that sadomasochistic activities are entered into voluntarily between sadist and masochist, and nobody ought to have any right to oppress voluntary sexual conduct.

Gay civil rights activist Peter Fisher wrote a sympathetic chapter on S&M in his recent book, The Gay Mystique, but his coverage seems so superficial that he must have relied mostly on hearsay. It was not until the publication of Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook in March that we can get a real look at gay sadomasochism. Townsend, president of HELP, Inc., a Los Angeles gay legal defence group claims to be intimate with the S&M cult.

His wild accounts of what sadists do to masochists boggle the mind and will certainly stir up a controversy. The Handbook digs deep into every S&M scene from the “toys” the S-men use on the M-men to how to lure your prospective partner (victim?) to your “Playroom”. Most S&M men – even those who admit their homosexuality – are so ashamed of their practices that they keep their sadism or masochism a guarded secret. People just wouldn’t understand. Townsend at least has the guts to put his cat-o-nine tails on the table and let the rest of us know where he stands.

I realise that many gay brothers are opposed to violence of any sort, and it is all too easy to condemn S&M on prima facie value alone. But I believe that many of those who condemn men grooving together in a ritualistic flaggellation aren’t going to say anything about the pusher who sells LSD to somebody and sends him on a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge.

For many, gay and straight alike, no other form of sexual expression seems more repulsive than sadomasochism. Liberation is for all gay people, and not just for counter-culture gays and political radicals because they say they have the proper political or social consciousness, nor is it only for transvestites and other fem-identified males because they have flung their homosexuality in the face of society so long. There can be no second-class gay people who must remain in the closet while the rest are liberated. By ignoring, and even persecuting the S&M people, organised homosexuality – the newspapers, churches, political groups, and liberation organisations – have done exactly what straight society has done to the rest of us.

Within each of us there are elements of sadism and masochism. Most of us have sublimated these feelings towards non-sexual and sometimes undesirable goals. Such socially approved activities as military discipline, football or queer-beating by police often carry homosexual sadomasochistic overtones.

Do you like to give orders to other men? Do you really dig marines, policemen and other authoritarian uniformed types? Like to buddy-ride on bikes or maybe wild wrestling? Perhaps your thing is a wild time in the old bunkhouse with all those butch cowboys and lumberjacks? If you have secret feelings for any of these things you might have strong but unresolved gay S&M urges, and until you act out those feelings you are going to feel frustrated and sexually unliberated.

The S&M man might be especially sexually liberated because he dares to act out fantasies other men only dream about, but more disturbing are the sadomasochistic fantasies in the first place. Perhaps the gay sadomasochist is the ultimate casualty of our anti-sexual Judaeo-Christian heritage – a man so conditioned by the anti-erotic morality of religion that sexual arousal and orgasm are possible only through the giving and receiving of pain.

Social psychiatrist Wainwright Churchill writes in Homosexual Behaviour Among Males that American society is so sexually repressive that furtiveness and anxiety are necessary for erotic arousal in many men, and they are deliberately forced to seek partners whom they cannot trust or might cause them trouble. Churchill reports that such men are even grateful for the laws prohibiting homosexuality because they foster the anxiety-ridden contacts they must have!

According to Ford and Beach in Patterns of Sexual Behaviour, sadomasochism is restricted to sexually repressive societies. Christianity has attached sinfulness and evil to erotic stimulation, and for centuries priests flagellated grovelling penitents to purge them of their sins.

Alex, anti-hero in the motion picture A Clockwork Orange, was programmed by behavioural psychiatrists through drug aversion therapy which reduced him into an asexual half-man who could not protect himself when his past victims sought to do him in. Similarly, the gay sadomasochist has been programmed by a brainwashing technique developed by the Church, and most Americans are so brainwashed by this religious conditioning that they have ceased to be free agents. Deprived of free will, Americans have reacted against homosexuality with a knee-jerk reflex without understanding why.

Gay sadomasochists are the end products of religious conditioning, for it has constructed within their minds an obsessive-compulsive fixation to give and receive pain. Erection and orgasm respond only to pain, and sexual pleasure is partially replaced by pain. Sadomasochists have no free will to choose the sexual activity, they are involved with. We have no moral right to pass judgement on those who cannot help themselves.

Sadomasochism is easily the least understood part of the gay world. People envision tough, leather-jacketed queers attacking youths and torturing and mutilating their bound and gagged victims in scenes of wild abandon and depravity. In actuality, most gay S&M people engage in acts of controlled fantasy, often in psychodramatic roles involving domination and submission such as Marine Corps boot camp, fraternity initiation, or cowboy bunkhouse. Much of it simply involves such symbolic acts of humiliation and servitude as bootlicking or calling the sadist “sir”. Heavier S&M usually includes a considerable amount of “discipline” and frequently includes bondage and flagellation with a whip or studded belt and that can cause real pain.

Really hard-core practitioners become so addicted to S&M that they may not become sexually aroused without pain. Occasionally some sadomasochistic activities go beyond moderation and include real torture such as castration. Larry Townsend gave a graphic description of such a castration where the severed testes were stuffed into the victim’s mouth. Things like this make S&M revolting to anyone.

Although S&M tends to be role-oriented, “rough sex”, which means a lot of brawling and heavy wrestling, could be considered S&M without the role playing. Most writers of sadomasochism ignore rough sex. A lot of S&M is also fetishistic and requires that one or both partners wear certain articles of masculine garb such as black leather jackets or cowboy boots. Before we condemn fetishism, how many straight men are turned on by women in spike heels and black garter belts?

It would be unfair to brand all gay leather-men, cowboys, or other masculine-oriented types as S&M. Many gay men wear leather, denim, cowboy outfits, hard-hats and similar attire because they feel more masculine in it or it helps attract sex partners. After all, male homosexuals are attracted to men, not to a man who looks and acts like a woman. Some critics – mostly effeminate types from the “fluffy sweater” or transvestite crowds – charge that the denim-leathermen are “male impersonators” and “straight-identified”.

They claim that female drag is the only proper clothing for the really liberated male homosexual, and one must act effeminate and become fem-identified. These critics are also often straight-identified … as heterosexual women, and they are simply continuing straight society’s definition of the male homosexual as some sort of pseudo-woman. No, the denim-leathermen are not male impersonators, just male.

Organised S&M and leather-oriented gay social clubs exist in several cities, notably Los Angeles, San Fransisco and New York. Los Angeles has 17 bike and leather-denim social clubs with a combined membership of perhaps 225. Most of the nine leather-western Los Angeles gay bars are members of HELP, and several of the HELP officers and many members are involved in the leather-S&M subculture.

This subculture is a very stable element in the gay community (many bike clubs have been going for years) and constitutes an organisational reservoir, but because most leather-men have tended to be “closet queens”, they have been apathetic as far as political action goes, and it has only been recently that they have shown an interest in gay civil rights. We will find them becoming increasingly prominent in the gay rights scene.

S&M supporters have given two main reasons for sadomasochism. First they argue that S&M is entered into voluntarily by both sadist and masochist, and people must not be concerned about the habits and lifestyles of others as long as they remain voluntary. But how voluntary is S&M? Are we really dealing with an obsessive compulsive behaviour which people cannot control? Even Townsend admits that a sadist freaked out on drugs can be deadly. There seems something suicidal and homicidal in S&M, and I have heard and read of hair-raising stories about high voltage electricity, castration, branding irons, needles through the teats and scrotum, rack stretching, and burning chemicals applied to the body. Even if electric prods or red-hot pokers are not your thing there is little one can do to stop the application of these goodies to the body if bound and gagged.

A traditional argument against homosexuality is that it destroys society. One could also argue that S&M destroys the individual. Besides the ultimate danger – death – there are lesser dangers leading to permanent injury to the body – genitals ruptured and mutilated, the insertion and breaking of sharp objects in the rectum, hepatitis from sticking dirty needles into people, and permanent blindness from gonorrhea in the eyes resulting from infected urine if splashed over the body.

The second argument for S&M is that it supposedly directs violence by channeling it to certain specific sexual encounters. Men are drawn from those sublimated homosexual desires which have boiled over into war, and violence would be eroticized into sex. Ever read about the origins of the Nazi Party? Many of the early Nazis were homosexual sado-masochists, and they didn’t sublimate anything

On the contrary, S&M is common to all anti-sexual militaristic societies, and sadomasochistic sex is basically part of a general tendency of the violence within such a society. In fact, the propagation of S&M might have a detrimental effect on society by increasing the general level of violence in the same way psychologists say that television violence affects children. Fundamentally S&M is authoritarian, demanding superio-inferior relationships, and, I have a disturbing suspicion, a penchant for an authoritarian society.

Sexual equality is probably the strongest argument for homosexuality because heterosexual relations always involve role-playing simply because of the differences between men and women. Gay sex offers the possibility of equality between partners as well as relationships. The husband-wife roles taken by the transvestite and his “husband” is an imitation of the heterosexual relationship. S&M sex is another kind of role-playing involving dominance and submission. If one argues that a masculine homosexual is straight-identified, such a gay man is only enacting a role expected of men. With the elimination of extreme social roles, gay relationships will tend to change to what will be expected of men, but it is necessary to liberate all men, not just gay men.

Gay sadomasochism is a confused and muddled issue. It is liberating insofaras the practitioners act out otherwise suppressed fantasies and oppressing because of the dominant-submission role-playing and the giving and receiving of pain. I profoundly hope it will wither away as sexual norms liberalise and men are not straight-jacketed into social roles they cannot fulfill. Rather than persecuting sadomasochism we should turn our attention to its causes.

Reprinted with love from Gay Sunshine, 1972

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