Posts Tagged ‘Leather Archives’

2009 24 Feb

First reaction to Daniel Bergner’s “The Other Side of Desire”

This post is a bit of teaser — I’ll own up to that at the start. I’m not going to review Daniel Bergner’s new book The Other Side of Desire yet … because I will be interviewing the man himself on this coming Thursday, before his 7PM reading at the Leather Archives and Museum. I’ll post that interview, along with my commentary and book review, next week. Exciting!

So if I’m not going to talk about my first reaction to reading the book, what am I talking about?

The Other Side of Desire has been generating a huge amount of buzz, and not just for sexuality geeks. I first heard about it when one of my sexuality geek friends grabbed me and said, “You have to read this ‘New York Times’ article.” We went through the whole thing with much commentary, then rushed to the computer to read excerpts from Mr. Bergner’s book.

I wasn’t sure how to read Daniel Bergner — the writer himself, that is, rather than his material. What does it mean that he compares profiling kinky people to investigating a Louisiana prison, or covering war in Sierra Leone? * What does it mean that he characterizes — or at least, has been reported as characterizing — the greatest benefit of feeling comfortable talking about sex as good cocktail party conversation? ** What does it mean that one of the editorial reviews chosen for the back of his book describes his subjects as “oddly winning”? ***

I mean … seriously? How much was he kidding about the party conversation thing? Did he choose that review himself, and did he himself consider his subjects “oddly winning” — as if it’s such a great big insight that fetishists can be nice people? Was Mr. Bergner making these statements because he was trying to make The Other Side of Desire more accessible to a wide, potentially intolerant audience … or because he, himself, sees conversations with sexual fetishists as analogous to reporting on a war zone in a foreign country?

I didn’t know. I knew already that I wanted to talk to him and hear his perspective, but I had no obvious channels to do so.

A little while later, someone emailed me the “Times” Magazine review of Mr. Bergner’s book. That review, by Lori Gottlieb, shifted me from slight unease to actual irritation — specifically, this quotation:

The only story about a woman — a celebrated clothing designer and sadist who’s in a conventional marriage — is also unfortunately the weakest. To be fair, Bergner doesn’t have a lot to work with. His subject, a narcissist who enjoys torturing and humiliating her underlings, is inherently unsympathetic. … While his other subjects struggle mightily with their unconventional cravings, the Baroness, as her victims call her, denies any inner conflict. In her mind, she’s happy, her victims are grateful, and she is their “beacon.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Why is Gottlieb describing the Baroness’s BDSM partners as “victims”, and what does this imply about how Daniel Bergner described the Baroness and her activities? Of course, it’s worth noting that at the article’s beginning, Gottlieb mentions that the one time a partner asked her for anything remotely untraditional in bed (specifically, he asked her to handcuff him), she flipped out and fled home to tell all her friends “what a freak this guy turned out to be”. (Really — that’s an actual quotation from her article.) I guess Lori Gottlieb has trouble understanding that it might be a good thing for a kinkster to feel sexually unashamed. For her, it’s only acceptable for people to explore their fetishes as long as they feel really horrible about it. Shame is what matters to Gottlieb, not consent. In fact, Gottlieb seems to have much more of a problem with the Baroness than she does with Roy — another subject of the book and a convicted child molester. ****

But even though her perspective is obviously kink-phobic, Gottlieb’s words gave me more questions. What was Daniel Bergner saying? I’d read excerpts from his book posted online; I knew I’d have to read more. Were his words being twisted, was I being too harsh in my assessment? What were his goals in writing this book?

I finally got my chance when I heard about the Leather Archives event. Daniel Bergner was going to be in Chicago, and he’d chosen to do his reading at the BDSM museum! Thrilled, I redoubled my efforts to get in touch. This culminated with me sending Bergner’s publicist an email introducing myself, describing my activist work and then holding my breath. Was this author really all about communicating with us “oddly winning” fetishists … or was this, for him, merely about making good conversation at parties? He’s been featured by the “New York Times” and NPR; I knew he had no reason to talk to me unless he really wants to engage with the BDSM community.

So it counts for a lot, I think, that Daniel Bergner agreed to be interviewed by lil ole me. And as I slowly cover my copy of The Other Side of Desire with underlines and margin notes, I find myself — yes, bothered by aspects of this book, but somewhat heartened as well. I’ll withhold complete judgment until I’ve actually spoken to Mr. Bergner; I’m definitely looking forward to it.

We come to the cliffhanger: watch this space ….

(And if you’re not in Chicago, check out the author’s site to see whether you might be able to catch him in your city.)

* “What,” the people I write about often ask, “are you doing here with me?” I heard the question in Angola Prison, Louisiana’s maximum security penitentiary, where I followed the lives of men sentenced to stay locked up until their deaths, with no chance of parole. I heard it in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where I attached myself to missionaries and mercenaries and child soldiers amid the most brutal war in recent memory. And I heard it as a sought the stories — of eros, obsession, anarchy, love — that fill The Other Side of Desire. (from the book’s Introduction)

** “Well, it definitely deepened my sense of the power of the erotic,” he said. “And if I was always at least fairly comfortable talking about sex, now I’m very comfortable. That in itself has led to something good. It’s good for cocktail party conversation.” (from the “Times” article)

*** See the cover and read excerpts by clicking here.

**** And let’s not forget that to some people, Gottlieb comes across as a veritable “libertine”. Christ.

2009 21 Feb

Early Folsom flier, Instigator card and awesome condom instructions

My latest Fun Finds ™ * while volunteering up at your friendly neighborhood BDSM museum, the Leather Archives:

1) Instructions on how to put on a condom, from Scat Dancer Brand Rubbers. These were pretty run-of-the-mill until step 4:

4. do not reuse. and for god’s sake men, know your limit.

2) Cards for “The Instigator” (what a great name):

The front. I think I may adopt “Low Morals, High Standards” as my new motto.

The back. I’m not sure what’s going on.

3) The cover of a 1984 pamphlet for Folsom Street Fair, the biggest BDSM festival in the world:

I think the sewer monster is my favorite part …. “Now, nothing can stop me” might be a better motto, now that I think about it.

* I’m not really trademarking that, but maybe I should.

2009 17 Jan

Happy belated International Fetish Day!

Via Sex, Art and Politics, I have belatedly learned that today (well, yesterday now) — that is, Friday January 16 — was International Fetish Day!

I wish I’d come up with some clever celebration, but I didn’t know! — and now I’m all tired out from a long day that included, awesomely enough, Threat Level Queer Shorts. (The next Threat Level screening will be in March, and they’re super fun — don’t miss it!)

But here’s something I can offer you, gentle readers. One of the first files I organized when I started volunteering up at the Leather Archives was a file full of old Torture Garden fliers. The Torture Garden is one of the premier fetish clubs in the world — if not the premier fetish club — and I found some really incredible images in that box.

I’ve uploaded five flier scans to my Flickr account. Below are displayed small versions of two fliers I kinda like, but that aren’t much shocking. Below that, I link to larger versions, and also to the other three fliers — which are both prettier and far more scandalous! Be warned that the last two (“Milk Sex” and “Eyeball”) are particularly transgressive, and are probably not appropriate for all or even most audiences. So, seriously, don’t look at them unless you definitely like fetish imagery. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was going to save these for a special occasion, but really, what could be more special than International Fetish Day?

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Flier scans

2009 11 Jan

Lawrence of Arabia: heavy masochist

During a recent volunteer day up at the Leather Archives, I organized the file on T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia). Did you know that Lawrence — a famous early 1900s British war hero — was deeply, unmistakably, provably a sexual masochist? Now you do.

There were a couple of in-depth magazine articles included in the file. One, authored by Jack Ricardo, was published in the July 1990 issue of “Stallion”. The other, by Joseph W. Bean, was printed in “The Advocate” on April 11, 1989.

Excerpt from Bean’s article:

In his years at Oxford (1907-1911), Lawrence may have had no actual sex life. Vyvyan Richards, a Welsh undergraduate who was very much in love with Lawrence and shared a great deal with him in other ways, believed “that he was sexless”. His sexuality was either so covert as to go unnoticed or consisted entirely of the vicarious satisfactions found in homoerotic literature.

… Anyone rash enough to accuse Lawrence of heterosexuality does so without the slightest trace of evidence. By the same token, anyone who denies that Lawrence was homosexual and a masochist does so by ignoring not only evidence but Lawrence himself.

… [Apparently a bunch of documents related to Lawrence’s sexuality became widely available in 1968, including some personal stuff that had been held by his family.] There was, as it turns out, an actual conspiracy of silence about the parts of Lawrence’s life that, if they became known … “only … would benefit … the owners of the juicy Sunday papers” [in the words of old friend Mrs. Shaw]. … The new pieces of the Lawrence puzzle primarily filled in the years back in England, after his Arabian adventures. This final period turned out to be the strangest and suddenly the best-documented phase of Lawrence’s sex life. For a time he was attending flagellation parties — sexual but not strictly homosexual — arranged by a man called Bluebeard. When these parties came to the attention of the authorities, Lawrence risked his reputation by attempting to defend Bluebeard. He was unable to help.

Then, from the early 1920s until his death in 1935, Lawrence had at least four (and very likely other) younger men employed to beat him with birches, canes made of twisted twigs. [John] Bruce performed in this capacity for Lawrence for more than ten years, always under the impression that an older relative of Lawrence’s was ordering the beatings and requiring written descriptions of them. Bruce wrote out the descriptions and gave them to Lawrence, supposedly to be delivered to the “Old Man”. It isn’t hard to guess what purpose the detailed letters actually served, since Lawrence had no relative to deliver them to. [Bruce went to the “London Sunday Times” with this story in 1968, and the physical letters were found later by a researcher named Desmond Stewart.]

… [Dr. John E. Mack notes in some psychoanalytic essays about Lawrence that] Lawrence “required the beatings to be severe enough to produce a seminal emission.”

… [in a later account, the writer Maugham met] a sergeant who, when he was a lance corporal, had been invited to drink with Lawrence. The sergeant gave a detailed description of his night with Lawrence in an attempt to seduce Maugham. In Maugham’s Escape, the retelling ends by saying that Lawrence “then persuaded the lance corporal to whip him and then to penetrate him.”

… With his experiences at Bluebeard’s parties, Lawrence knew that his sexual tastes were not unique. For him, though, sex — even the most brutal SM scenes — was never just sex. Sex and masochism were both parts of a spiritual quest with Lawrence, parts of an endless straining toward balance, which he called “my way”.

“I long for people to look down on me and despise me,” he explains to Mrs. Shaw, probably never aware of the ancient tradition of truth-seeking masochism he had entered. “I’m too shy,” Lawrence explains, “to take the filthy steps which would publicly shame me.” … Less than 18 months before his death, Lawrence wrote to Mrs. Shaw, saying that he was ready to write Confessions of Faith. It was to be a complete account of his degradation “beginning at the cloaca [public lavatory] at Covent Garden” and including his last military experiences. In what is a very uncharacteristic burst of optimism, he explains that the book will take a long time to write but that it will encompass human “entry into the reserved element, ‘as lords are expected, yet with a silent joy in our arrival.'”

But before Confessions could be written, Lawrence died … the unfinished manuscript of Confessions is permanently lost.

At Lawrence’s funeral, Winston Churchill cried openly and said of him, “He was one of the greatest beings of our time … whatever our need, we shall never see his likes again.”

2008 30 Dec

That hilarious weird “vanilla fetish”

I volunteer up at Chicago’s own Leather Archives and Museum; because I have some archival experience, they’ve lately had me sort a bunch of ephemera. I look forward to my time at the Archives — every time I go up there, I discover something awesome in the files. Today was no exception.

The box I went through was devoted to Outcasts, an San Francisco “Educational, Support and Social Group for all Women interested in SM between women including Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Women”. Regrettably, it looks like Outcasts folded in 1997, but there’s some really smart writing in the file (no surprise for an organization that included Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia and Dorothy Allison).

The Outcasts’ newsletter was called “The Lunatic Fringe”, and the Leather Archives has two April Fools issues that are just hysterically funny. The following is excerpted from a “book review” in the 1991 April Fools issue ….

The Invisible Ring and Other Stories, by Ferdinand Bull. Vanilla Press, 1991.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be vanilla? We have all read the sensationalistic newspaper stories of vanilla sex rings uncovered by diligent vice squad officers, or watched the recent television special exposing the squalid vanilla sexual subculture operating in the bars and back alleys of Milwaukee. More than one family has discovered, while going through the personal belongings of a recently deceased uncle or sister, that the whips in the bedroom had never been used and that their relative’s true sex life was confined to a few well-thumbed vanilla porn paperbacks hidden under the mattress. If the contemplation of these more sordid aspects of life make you queasy, or if you approve of the recently passed legislation requiring the IRS to maintain lists of suspected sexual deviants based on those who fail for two consecutive years to claim a tax deduction for purposes of sexual toys and equipment, then perhaps you should ignore this book in favor of the latest blockbuster sadist-meets-masochist romance.

… Following the essay is a group of short stories set in a small Midwestern city. My personal favorite was the first of the group, the heroine of which is Leona, a middle-aged reference librarian at the local public library and a reluctantly closeted vanilla. When a controversy erupts within the library over whether to add a copy of Romeo and Juliet to the library’s collection, Leona finds her closet suddenly too small.

Excerpt:
::::::::::::
“I don’t see how we could possibly add it,” said Donna. “Our patrons would be upset, and rightfully so.”
Leona fingered her black leather collar and thought once again how she hated it. No matter how loosely she wore it around her neck, it always seemed to be choking her.
“There’s no way we could justify keeping something as disgusting as that,” added Paul.
They can’t do this, thought Leona. They can’t shut us out. They can’t ….
“Well,” she said, “I’m vanilla, and I don’t find it disgusting.”
There was a stunned silence.
Finally the director said, “I think this is a good question to refer to committee,” and turned away.
::::::::::::

After her initial outburst, Leona is scared at her own temerity, but sticks to her guns. “I know it’s not great literature,” she pleads with Susan. “But it is a classic vanilla work.” In the end, she wins a qualified victory — the library adds the book but keeps it in a locked case. “And tell Sharon,” says the director, “that she is never to order the video.”

… Bull does his best to make his vanilla characters appealing, but the task of rendering vanillas sympathetically is an overwhelming one, at which Bull not surprisingly fails.

The collection concludes with a series of explicit vanilla fantasies, of which the less said the better.

If you feel you must buy this book a few alternative bookstores do carry it, or you may order it directly from the publisher.

I love this fake book review because it’s not merely hilarious — it also highlights the ways in which BDSM-identified people and media are routinely exoticized and censored. It reminds me of this funny blog post I read recently, which takes a similar tack; of course it also brings to mind Renegade Evolution’s now-widely-linked post on vanilla privilege (that one’s a must-read, if you missed it).

Pretty much the entirety of the Leather Archives is awesome, but if you’re interested in issues of BDSM-related organization and social justice, the Outcasts file is for you.