Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness



[This is the text of the book review from episode 27 of the podcast. It includes notes in brackets of information I’ve learned since the episode aired and I gained access to internet at home i.e. internet that didn’t block certain sites, keeping me from sharing as much information as possible.]

This episode’s book review is Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness: Life, History and Culture in the Leather/BDSM/Fetish Community as captured by Steve Lenius. It’s a collection of articles from fifteen years at Lavender Magazine, as well as other places.

It was recommended to me by Dan and dawn of Erotic Awakening when I asked for something to read about Leather—the lifestyle rather than the material—and I certainly got what I was looking for.

Though, fittingly, I suppose, the first essay was how to make your own leather vest from raw leather. And I mean really raw. Fresh-off-the-cow raw. I have an entirely new appreciation for what goes into that process, let me tell you.

The book is in two parts: Part 1: The Leather, which is about activities. Then Part II is: The Life, which is more about community. Within those parts are chapters and within which are essays.

Each essay has the original date it was published and notes about anything that had changed by the time the book went to print in 2010.

In the introduction, Lenius says:

…the substance of this book is observation, reportage, journalism, some analysis, some commentary, some essays. The focus of this book, like the focus of the columns and other writings collected in it, is the leather/BDSM/fetish community and the life, history, and culture of that community. It’s about what it’s like to live a life in which leather and the leather community are significant parts. It’s about shared values and ethics.

That pretty much sums it up.

There are footnotes, which are great fun and show personal growth—Lenius wasn’t afraid to admit when he had been mistaken.

At the start of a review entitled ‘Sex Machines Book Features Local Celebrity’ our author begins quoting what he refers to as a very famous bawdy limerick that starts:

There once was a young man named Gene
Who invented a screwing machine…

I was not familiar with this limerick so I had to find it. It turned out there were two versions. I couldn’t decide which I preferred so here they are:

There once was a young man named Gene
Who invented a screwing machine
Concave and convex
It served either sex
And it played with itself in-between.

Second version:

There once was a man from Racine
Who invented a screwing machine
Both concave and convex
It could please either sex
But, oh, what a bastard to clean!

Never let anyone say The Pageist isn’t the classiest show around.

The book he reviews in this piece is called Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews by Timothy Archibald and you know it went on Mount TBR.

There were two excellent essays back-to-back about what SM is actually about—one called ‘What’s the Deal with SM?’ and another ‘SM: It’s About Respect, Not Abuse’. There’s a lot in the book that pertains to the wider BDSM culture—not just Leather—those are two such essays.

In a piece called ‘Intertwined Histories’ Lenius talks about BDSM terminology used in the past such as ‘working on’ someone rather than ‘playing with’ someone and they called implements or toys tools. This makes sense to me because if you can cause permanent damage to a person it’s not really a toy. It may be fun for you and everyone involved, but it’s an implement. Of pleasure or the fun kind of pain, but a toy? Okay. I prefer tool.

There’s a piece about the last two centuries of SM, which is about the doctoral thesis of Robert Bienvenu, PhD. His thesis is on the development of SM as a cultural style in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which covers the way SM evolved in Europe and America in both centuries—from silks and satins to leather; from flagellating only the buttocks for a good long time to having at anything that was safe to have a whack at. I’ll have links to his doctoral thesis: The development of sadomasochism as a cultural style in the Twentieth-Century United States in two versions—compact and expanded multimedia on the website when I can get copies.

He may have links on the website that accompanies the book, which is I don’t know because it’s one of the sites that’s blocked by my coffee shop office. I’m including the link to the website at any rate, as I’m sure it has lots of other information relating to the book. You’ll get to see it before I do! Exciting!

[There are not copies of the PDFs on Lenius’ site, but the essay about the thesis itself is. It’s here.]

In an essay called ‘Fear of Leather’, Lenius talks about various types of fears people have, and, oh, are they manifold, because everyone loves to judge one another, and what their genesis might be. Also, how to confront them. In this essay he says:

What if you’re one of those people who play the ‘My kink is okay, but yours is disgusting’ game? Maybe someone else’s kink, or the way they practice it, really isn’t safe—in which case some mentoring and education is in order. But more probably this game is another form of internalized kinkphobia. If their kink bothers you that much, ask yourself why. What buttons are being pushed? One of many possibilities: Maybe you secretly want to try it but are ashamed of your desire. What can you learn from your discomfort, and what can you then do with that knowledge?

Overall Lenius is articulate and level-headed about just about everything, really.

Some of the terminology surrounding trans issues is a bit outdated, but an inclusive sentiment is there and Lenius encourages people to be accepting of all people who feel drawn to the Leather/BDSM/fetish lifestyle.

Many things in this book remind me how fortunate I am to be in this community. There’s an essay entitled ‘Even Daddies Need Daddies’, which is about how there’s greater acceptance for people of all ages and relationships with age gaps are less problematic. Praise the bingo gods and bring on the middle aged ladies in business attire.

‘The Zen of Hankies’ is a multi-stanza haiku to the hanky code—it’s too long to read here, but it’s glorious. There are stanzas for all sorts of colours and activities. Maybe it’s on the lifeleatherpursuit website. Have a look.

[Alas, it is not.]

(If this is your first episode of the show—I’m not usually this haphazard—typically I know about the sites I’m sending people to.)

There’s a section on Leather titles and contests—their history, evolution and intentions. This includes his notes on judging an International Mr Leather competition and a profile of his perfect Mr Leather.

In that section he talks about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Saying:

The opposite of wisdom is intelligence used in the service of ego, in which case ideas are used to measure worth and to impress others; the ideas become ends in themselves.

I used to be that person. That person was an asshole. It’s no good having more information than other people if you’re going to make everyone hate you. Commute your intelligence into wisdom—you get to keep all of your knowledge and people don’t want to punch you in the throat! Try it today!

In an essay about the language we use to describe ourselves and what we do he says:

Being sexually attracted to another man comes as naturally to me as breathing—there’s nothing ‘queer’ to me about it. I like the look of black leather or a nice, masculine uniform on a man; to me that’s natural and normal, not a ‘fetish.’ To me it’s not kinky, it’s just the way it is.

Correctamundo, friend. A popular topic amongst kinky people is, ‘If everyone were into kink would you still be?’ They discussed it on Perverted Podcast at some point and I’ve seen it discussed on FetLife. And I think… It just wouldn’t be called kink then. If a person says, ‘I only do edgy, dangerous things because other people don’t,’ I’d recommend they rethink their motivations. Making any life decision that involves your body or the chemical make up of your brain, which is what kink play does, based on someone else’s choices, is questionable.

That’s not to say that if something that already appeals to you also carries the frisson of the verboten that’s not just a naughty cherry on the bad, bad cake. But if you wouldn’t be interested in something at all because everyone was doing it. Well… congratulations. You’re a hipster.

What was I talking about? Oh right, how I totally get the whole, ‘I’m not kinky, this is just how I’m put together’, thing. It would be great if that’s how everyone approached other people and their preferences. From, ‘I’m a-romantic, asexual, agender,’ To, ‘I’m a poly, pansexual genderfluid try-sexual (as in, I’ll try anything once).’ And other people would say, ‘Whatever. Are you having the tandoori chicken or what, I’m starving.’

It would be understood that people are who they are because they just are and you don’t choose what speaks to you romantically, sexually, mentally or intellectually anymore than you choose what food you enjoy or what films you like to watch. You like what you like. Rather than trying to fix, shame or bring a person into a line that changes depending on culture, time or geographic area, we could find the things we had in common and, I don’t know, be happy. You could accept yourself and accept others.

Except for people who like licorice. You all need therapy. I know you can’t help it, but… The rest of us have to see you eat it and see it in the shops and it’s not okay.

Was that the rant for the episode? I try not to have more than one per episode. Anyway. In a piece about symbols of pride there was something about how the colours green and yellow were used in Victorian England for the homosexuals to identify one another. I knew that Oscar Wilde and his cohort wore green Carnations, but I didn’t know about the yellow, as well. Lenius then says the acronym for Green And Yellow is ‘gay’. And that’s one of the explanations for how the big homos became known as gay. I don’t know if that’s true, but boy do I hope so, because it’s ridiculous.

It reminds me of one of the episodes of Ellen’s show—her sitcom—just after she came out. There was a very combative lesbian character being grouchy at Ellen about something. They were talking about language gay people use to talk about themselves—I believe—and Ellen said something like, ‘Well, what about “gay”? What does they mean? Are we supposed to be happy and cheerful all the time… though that really isn’t working for you, is it?’

It’s weird what sticks in your head, isn’t it? That was twenty years ago or something. Oh god, that was twenty years ago. I need a nap.

Also in the symbols writing is the explanation of the leather pride flag, which I didn’t know the meaning of. The black stripes are for leather, the blue is for denim, the white stripe is for integrity and the heart is love. It was designed by Anthony F. DeBlase and first displayed in the spring of 1989 at an International Mr Leather contest. Lenius stresses that the black and blue colours were not chosen to represent the phrase: beating someone until they’re black and blue.

I have to admit—until I’d read the book I had wondered if that was part of the intention though I figured the black had something to do with leather.

There’s a piece that was published in June 2000 called GLBT Pride, Leather Pride: Not Yet Obsolete. It’s about the need for pride and what it is and how so many people only know about Stonewall through history books. This piece was especially poignant after the Pulse shooting.

In the piece there’s this:

Oppression results from being hated, either by others or by oneself. To the extent I feel hated by others for being my kinky GLBT self, I am oppressed by them. To the extent I let them teach me to hate myself, what I am and what I stand for, I oppress myself. Pride can be the first step out of oppression, either for an individual or for a group. But this first step can be derailed by anger and hatred and a wish for vengeance against one’s oppressors. This is one of the justifications people use for fighting wars. It’s also why some gay people call heterosexuals ‘breeders.’ These are both examples of how anger prolongs and intensifies oppression.

Later there’s a particularly useful essay on BDSM versus abuse and how therapists can tell the difference. Another useful article is on what to do if law enforcement turns up at a play party or dungeon.

I would put money… well… I have cash since they won’t give us a bank account here… I’d put several pound coins on everyone listening to this show having at least one toy of the adult nature. There’s an article that was originally published in April of 2007 about sex toys and how some are toxic. The entire article [which is available on his site] is quotable and has a crazy-amount of important information. The title is No More Toxic Toys and I’ll eventually have a link to the website of the Coalition Against Toxic Toys or CATT. From the article:

When shopping for toys, CATT recommends using the ‘smell test’: If an item smells perfumey, or like a new shower curtain, it’s giving off chemicals. Medical-grade silicone, glass, stainless steel and stone have no odor because they are not emitting chemicals. A toy should also be considered suspect if it looks shiny or feels greasy.

They also note that just because a product is marketed as phthalate-free, which is one of the bad things that makes toys cheaper but terrible, doesn’t mean it is. There’s no government oversight to make sure companies are being truthful.

[The CATT website turns out to be]

Near the end there’s an excellent write up of an event with Cleo Dubois called ‘Secrets of Being a Good Top’. Yowza.

Topics covered throughout the book included puppy play, SM, bondage, practical leather care, body modification, rubber/latex, whips, knives, erotic shaving, fire play, how to build a leather wardrobe, the Leather Archives and Museum and the Museum of Sex. And all sorts of other things. I’m not covering a fifth of what’s in the book. It’s pretty comprehensive and because it’s a best-of-the-best of fifteen years of writing there aren’t really any weak selections.

Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness provides an outstanding foundation in all things Leather for someone new to the lifestyle or someone like myself who is simply curious about the various terminology. Leather seems to be its own club with its own history, rules and codes… because it is, really. And if you’d like to learn about all of those things, as well as how it overlaps with kink, this is a great place to start. This was a 5/5 for definite.

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