The Last Two Centuries of SM

From Chapter 2: Past Life

Originally published in Lavender #287 (May 26, 2006)


The image was arresting. On the screen, in black and white, a naked woman was bent over a fainting couch while a naked man was poised to swing a switch at her buttocks.


What made the image more arresting was the fact that it was from the 1800s. And the man was, as they might have said in the nineteenth century, in full arousal.


Thus began “History of the Development of Sadomasochism in Twentieth Century America,” one of the final presentations of the tenth annual Leather Leadership Conference (LLC) in New York in April.


One of the presenters was Robert Bienvenu, Ph.D., a sociologist who wrote his doctoral thesis on the development of SM as a cultural style in the nineteenth and twenties centuries. The other presenter was Chuck Renslow, a man who lived (and made) some of the history Bienvenu included in that doctoral thesis.


In the first part of the presentation, Bienvenu described SM practices of the nineteenth century and how SM practices changed in the early twentieth century. Nineteenth-century SM imagery was built around “soft,” essentially feminine materials such as silk, lace and fur. Participants in SM scenes either wore everyday clothes or were nude.


Nineteenth-century SM implements were simple, natural and uncomplicated—canes, switches, whips or birch rods. SM practices of the time were narrowly focused (on the buttocks, for example), ritualistic and predictable (starting with ritualistically exposing the buttocks), and endlessly repetitive (flagellating the buttocks, then flagellating them some more). Creativity and spontaneity were not the objects of nineteenth-century SM.


By the 1920s, SM had changed to a predominantly “hard,” masculine aesthetic. SM imagery of the time revolved around polished leather, latex and metals. When SM participants in the images shown by Bienvenu wore anything, it tended to be specialized fetish attire, following an aesthetic that came to be known as “bizarre.” Photo?graphic backgrounds were urban and industrial. SM implements and situations showed a broadened focus and increasing creativity, ingenuity, spontaneity, complexity and unpredictability.


Bienvenu discussed three major categories of SM culture in the twentieth century: European Fetish (c. 1928), American Fetish (c. 1934-1938) and Gay Leather (c. 1950).


The European Fetish style, which first became identifiable in 1920s Germany, quickly spread to France and Britain, and then around the globe as far as India and Australia.


The American Fetish style started in New York City in the 1930s but also had outposts in California. Originally an offshoot of European Fetish, it soon developed its own distinctly American look.


Both European and American Fetish were predominantly hetero?sexual, and the two styles shared many elements: bizarre costumes, uniforms, high-heeled shoes and boots, long black gloves, piercing and tattooing, and every sort of sexual apparatus imaginable. Practices included elaborate role play, cross-dressing, female domination, wrestling girls and human ponies.


Twenty years after the development of the American Fetish style, and with essentially no connection to either European Fetish or American Fetish, Gay Leather developed. It was at this point that Bienvenu turned the presentation over to Renslow, who shared his first-person account of leather’s development and history.


Renslow founded Kris Studios and began photographing and publishing male “physique” or “beefcake” photos in 1950. He and his lover, Dom Orejudos (the leather artist known as Etienne), opened Chicago’s legendary Gold Coast leather bar eight years later. In 1979, they founded the International Mr. Leather Contest, of which Renslow is still Executive Producer. Following Orejudos’ death, Renslow and former Drummer Magazine publisher Tony DeBlase were co-creators of the Leather Archives & Museum in 1991.


Renslow told of being brought up on obscenity charges, and subsequently acquitted. He told of the original group of Chicago leathermen and their search for a place to hang out. They finally found a club that welcomed them, the Gold Coast Show Lounge. Renslow eventually bought the business, shortening the name to “Gold Coast.” The rest, as they say, is history.


When the presentation was over, I was in awe. We have a history—a history that’s fascinating. But because it has been so hidden over the years, most people don’t know it exists.


There’s strength and power in discovering and uncovering that history. No matter what nasty names mainstream society may call us, we now know there have been other people through the years with the same feelings and interests we have.


Knowing we have a history makes it harder for us to accept being marginalized by mainstream society. Knowing we have a history makes it easier to carry on the fight for our own sexual freedom, and for everyone else’s as well.


That’s why this presentation was so affecting. That’s why the Leather Archives & Museum is so important. That’s why studies like Bienvenu’s are so valuable. That’s why Renslow and his contemporaries, and all the other people who have blazed leather/BDSM/fetish trails down through the years, are such treasures.


Bienvenu is currently at work on a scholarly book, American Fetish, to be published by Duke University Press. His doctoral thesis is available on the Web as a downloadable PDF file in either compact or expanded multimedia versions.

© Copyright 2014 Nelson Borhek Press