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How the Leatherdykes Helped Change Feminism

A brief history of lesbian sadomasochism, from the shadows to the front lines of the “Sex Wars.”

"Dynamite Dykes of Pike Street"
"Dynamite Dykes of Pike Street" Leather Archives & Museum Photography Collection

It was Memorial Day, 2004, and Alex Warner was at a barbecue near Washington, D.C. It was an important time for her. She was in graduate school at Rutgers University, planning a dissertation on women’s social justice movements, and had recently experienced something of a personal awakening. A couple months prior, she’d attended her first Leatherdyke play party, and the community of like-minded women she encountered there had embraced her. The barbecue was in the backyard of a woman named Jo, a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, one of the godmothers of the lesbian sadomasochist leather community. Jo told Warner stories about what it had been like, decades before, to be a Leatherdyke before there was a name for it. There were no parties, no barbecues, no safe spaces. Before founding the Lesbian Sex Mafia—a support and education group, despite the name—in 1981, Jo went to men’s leather bars and passed as a man, she explained. She had sexual encounters with men—Jo is a lesbian—to find some kind of sexual fulfillment. She also told Warner about how wonderful it felt, later, finally to find other women who shared her interest in playing around with power and pain.

Warner was moved to tears. It felt, she says, like she was learning her history for the first time—learning for the first time that she even had a history. By the time she got home that night, Warner had decided to switch her research topic to the social and cultural history of Leatherdykes.

The history of sadomasochism is long and complex, but the origin of the term is clear enough. The first part famously comes from Donatien Alphonse François de Sade—French aristocrat, philosopher, and profane libertine author of various violent, blasphemous sexual fantasies. The less famous second half comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian journalist and author of Venus in Furs, a novella that reflects a fetish for dominant women. Together they encompass the practice of deriving pleasure from giving or getting pain or humiliation. SM (practitioners drop the “&,” though usage has varied) has its most popular conceptions today in poorly written novels and the basic image of the Leatherman, icon of the subculture of gay males who draw aesthetic inspiration from biker culture and aesthetics. (We should stop for a moment and marvel at how subversive it was that a Leatherman appeared on the pop charts with the Village People in the 1970s and sang about the YMCA and the Navy, and it didn’t seem to bother anybody.)

Editor’s Note: Some images included in this story may be NSFW.

Russian River Event attendees, 1989.
Russian River Event attendees, 1989. The Anthony F. DeBlase Papers/Courtesy Leather Archives & Museum

The Leatherman, clad in chaps, vest, and motorcycle boots, has penetrated popular culture, but the Leatherdyke—a queer or bisexual women who participates in consensual sadomasochistic behavior—is less well known and less visible. As a sexual practice it’s quite diverse: bondage; dominance and submission; caning, punching, or spanking; and a range of toys and tools, from gags and restraints to paddles and floggers. It is all conducted with consent and in service of power and pleasure, and sometimes humiliation and the trance-like “subspace,” a kind of flow state for submissives. Based on Warner’s research, it is clear that the particular strain of sexual expression this represents has provoked uncomfortable questions in feminist and lesbian circles, and played an outsized role in the development of feminist thought in the 1970s and 1980s. But that impact did not come easily.

Warner’s dissertation research, which she completed in 2011, is the only academic excavation specific to the Leatherdyke in the United States. She drew primarily from archival sources, feminist journals, and what might be called zines. She’s assembled here a selection of quotes from her research that reflect a history of marginalization—from the mainstream, lesbians, and feminists—that conceals the role of the Leatherdykes in opening conversations about sex, power, patriarchy, and consent that resonate today.

Mistress Carol and Kathy Gage, 1987.
Mistress Carol and Kathy Gage, 1987. Leather Archives & Museum Photography Collection

While women most likely had been participating in SM privately for a long time, they only began to connect with one another publicly in the mid-1970s, usually through published works and general workshops on sexuality that came with the decade’s greater openness to sex.

When I was eight years old I was masturbatory, lesbian and sado-masochistic. Subsequently, because of my feelings of guilt, I renounced all three. Then, along came women’s liberation. I learned to affirm my feelings of self-love and woman-love … But I’m still in the closet on S-M. I have admitted that I used to be into it, but said that “those feelings” (I only owned up to masochism) were aroused only with men and attributed the whole thing to what I call my “lousy heterosexual instincts.” … I have not “come out” on S-M.
—Barbara Lipscutz (aka Drivenwoman), in the Journal of Radical Therapy, 1976

Myself and half a dozen women I know are into S&M or bondage and discipline … we’re not exactly sure what we’re doing! I’ve never talked about it with other lesbians. I wanted to sort of come out!
—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976

We had a sexuality workshop a year and a half ago, and I … came out as a sado-masochist there and got no support … from one person out of a hundred women. I was so fed up I almost quit my [feminist health collective].
—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976

Nina Darst, Ms. San Francisco Leather Contest, 1989.
Nina Darst, Ms. San Francisco Leather Contest, 1989. The Anthony F. DeBlase Papers/Courtesy Leather Archives & Museum

As these women were discovering their sexuality, Warner’s work shows, the feminist world was taking notice of SM. First-wave feminism, which dates to the 19th and early 20th centuries, was largely about suffrage and other legal issues. Second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960s, took on a wider range of issues, including reproductive rights, domesticity, sexuality, and violence. Several feminist thinkers of the time, including Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, cast SM in general as anti-feminist because it simulates the sexual power dynamics that allowed men to oppress women for ages, they claimed. There was, however, a counterclaim, that lesbian SM allowed women to reclaim power and consent, and generally upset ideas about how women are supposed to behave.

S&M is a game people play called “who’s got the power.” It’s a game because there are two sides (the sadist and the masochist), but it’s a win-win since both should end up with an equal amount of the power, and with sexual satisfaction.
— Rosenjoy, in GCN, 1976

Another thing I enjoy about S&M is being able to be as strong as I am. Not feeling like I have to hold back and treat her like, or be treated like, I’m fragile.
—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976

I believe that the world’s problems can be solved in the bedroom. … S&M is a liberating game; it liberates both man and woman, butch and femme without necessarily taking their chosen roles away from they (if they still want to keep them once they understand the game). S&M teaches you that both sides have the power and how they can use it to their best advantage.
—Rosenjoy, in GCN, 1976

If I want to scream and yell I can do that too. I’ve never been allowed to make those sounds before. I feel that’s positive and political. In this society you are not allowed to express your body as much as your mind …
—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976

Talking about pain … when I am getting progressively more turned on toward orgasm, pain gradually diminishes and turns into something else. So for me, being bitten really hard or being scratched, or being beaten is a turn on. When I’m down and cooled off I might say, my god, what I have been doing, but because I was aroused it’s a whole different expression.
—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976

Masochism springs out of a sense of inadequacy so great one yearns for a redeemer, attributing to a stronger person superhuman powers and yielding every right over oneself. Masochism is a kind of spellbound, childlike dependency.
—Josephine Hendin, in Ms., 1976

Pride March, New York, 5th Ave., late 1980s.
Pride March, New York, 5th Ave., late 1980s. Efrain J Gonzales Collection, Courtesy Leather Archives & Museum

In 1978, with lesbian SM a recurring topic in feminist circles, a small group of women founded the first independent lesbian SM group, named Samois, in San Francisco. It was named for Samois-sur-Seine, the fictional estate of a lesbian dominatrix in the controversial 1954 French novel Story of O. In its first year, Samois published What Color Is Your Handkerchief, a booklet that explained the group’s philosophy and its fervent belief that lesbian SM was a feminist practice. Samois was a confrontational organization, and its disagreements with other feminist organizations—tracked by Warner—helped propel the discussion of SM, which pushed the practice into the national public eye.

I am not suggesting that we abandon our critical capacity or feminist politics, or that the personal is not political. On the contrary, I am proposing that a commitment to the notion that the personal is political requires a more complex political assessment of sexual diversity, based on case by case examinations. Both the mobilization of the sexual fringe, and the increasing politicization of sexuality, challenge feminism to develop a politics which can be pro-sex while remaining anti-sexist.
—Gayle Rubin, What Color Is Your Handkerchief, 1979

It’s time and time past for some angry, emotional words to be published in favor of SM by a Lesbian and a feminist. … After a while explanation begins to be an apology … And I don’t think that anyone should have to apologize for their sexuality. … I feel like I’ve been much more open when I look at views opposed to SM than most of the opposition has been. And, I’m tired of it. I don’t want to hear any more disguised puritanism or any more unreasoning fear parading as moral or political righteousness. … Anyone who starts stepping on our rights—be warned: you won’t get away with it.
—Janet Schrim, What Color Is Your Handkerchief, 1979

We are told S/M is responsible for practically every ill and inequity, large and small and that they world has ever known, including rape, racism, classism, spouse abuse, difficult interpersonal relationships, fascism, a liking of vaginal penetration, political repression in Third World countries, and so on. … [We] are being labeled anti-feminist, mentally ill or worse … we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, on the ‘other’ side. We are being cast out, denied. We become heretics.
—Samois, “Coming to Power,” 1981

I am grateful that Samois was here when I needed you all. I am even more grateful that you gave me the space to find my own way, the time I needed to process. Indeed, I love you for being Lesbian-feminists who do S/M …
—Anonymous, Samois Newsletter, 1981

"Dykes on Bykes," 1987.
“Dykes on Bykes,” 1987. The Anthony F. DeBlase Papers/Courtesy Leather Archives & Museum

A significant movement within second-wave feminism was opposition to pornography, led by a Bay Area group called Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM). WAVPM was strongly against sadomasochism in general, which it felt perpetuated and glorified violence against women—even when conducted among women. Samois countered: WAVPM was conservative and puritanical. The conflict between these groups and related ones—protests of movies, picketing of strip clubs, public campaigns, in one case even a suspected bomb threat—were some of the early salvos in what became known as the “Feminist Sex Wars.” There were many facets to the Sex Wars, but one of the primary divisions was between anti-pornography feminists and pro-sex feminists. Samois was among the earliest advocates of sex-positive feminism, Warner says.

Gabrielle Antolovich, International Ms. Leather, 1990 (right, with friend).
Gabrielle Antolovich, International Ms. Leather, 1990 (right, with friend). Leather Archives & Museum Photography Collection

The debate soon went national. In 1980, the National Organization of Women specifically labeled lesbian SM as outside the parameters of the feminist agenda. Shortly thereafter, Samois published a manifesto, Coming to Power. In the pages of Ms. magazine, the writer Alice Walker critiqued lesbian SM for its insensitivity to the experiences of black women. Things came to a head at a contentious conference at Barnard College in 1982, very publicly picketed by anti-pornography activists. The schism within feminism garnered a great deal of attention, and a national discussion of pornography that resulted in Ronald Reagan’s 1985 order for an investigation. This resulted in a 2,000-page report produced by the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, also known as the Meese Report, in 1986.

The third wave of feminism developed in the early 1990s and, depending on whom you ask, is primarily built around ideas of individual identity and diversity, with a greater openness toward non-white women, queer women, and the variety of ways women can take control of their sexuality. It’s a reflection that the pro-sex version of feminism that lesbian SM communities encouraged has found a wider, more receptive public.

You can learn more about the history of leather, kink, and fetish lifestyles with a private tour of the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago on Obscura Day, May 6, 2017. The Museum has a Women’s Leather History Program, which includes an exhibit curated by Alex Warner.