Monday, June 22, 2015

Traditional vs. Modern Leather… and Puppies

At SELF last weekend, I caught a Puppy 201 class that was one of the best discussion classes I’ve seen in years.  It was a class by Sir Justin, IPTC Trainer 2014, and the class was on pup roles… sort of.  The class was something of a bait-n-switch.  It was about pup roles, but really it had a lot to do w/ the general new guard/TNG/kinkster scene and how it differs from traditional leather… and how pups exemplify that.  It was a good discussion that offered a helpful new paradigm for understanding the community, past and present.

Sir Justin began by drawing a contrast between “traditional” leather and “modern” leather/kink.  “Traditional” is the word he proposes to replace “old guard.”  I totally agree w/ this!  “Old guard” was coined by Guy Baldwin c.1989 and recently even Baldwin has said that he regrets the term b/c it wasn’t the best choice for what he wanted to describe, and people have misused it to mean all kinds of things.  For the most part, it’s come to refer to something that never really existed – at least not like the way most people mean when they say “old guard” or, “I’m old guard.”

Not long ago, I did some research on my own (mostly using the website of the fantastic Leather Archives and Museum – check it our) and wrote a series of three posts about this topic, which I think still has gotten more hits than anything else I’ve written (over 1400). 

So, if I could get three wishes from the Leather Jinni, one would be to do away w/ this term “old guard” and the muddy and inaccurate concept that goes w/ it.  Let’s just stop using it!  I like “traditional” so much better.  For one, something doesn’t become a tradition until after the fact, right?  “Traditional” is an inherently backward-looking term.  So “traditional” leather self-evidently isn’t something that started in the 40’s or 50’s or even the 60’s.  It’s the Baby Boomer leather culture that congealed mostly in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.  I also like “traditional” b/c something doesn’t have to be based in real history to be a tradition.  Hanukah is a perfectly valid tradition even though almost all archeologists and Egyptologists agree that there never was a time when all the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, the pyramids weren’t built by slave labor, there was never a mass slave exodus from Egypt, and Ramesses the Great didn’t drown under the Red Sea.  None of that matters in as much as Hanukah is still a perfectly good tradition that does the things rituals and religious institutions are supposed to do.  Or take Christmas.  December 25?  Nobody has any idea when Jesus of Nazareth was actually born.  So we can, likewise, talk about the tradition of awarding the master’s cap w/o having to claim that, “This is really how it was done back in the 40’s by the old guard.”  So far as I can tell, the master’s cap didn’t become a tradition until the 80’s or 90’s.

What else became a thing around that time?

Recently Master Ron K was on the KinkyCast podcast.  One of the things he talked about, which I found to be rather interesting, was that the word “slave” is not the best, healthiest word we could choose.  “Slave,” he argues, is an inherently negative, pernicious word.  By calling our submissive partner our “slave” we tack on to them all of these negative associations and it ends up sabotaging the relationship and perpetuating the stereotype that BDSM is inherently abusive and the people in it are “fifty shades of fucked up.”  The label is “a disempowering, energy sucking kind of thing” (Master Ron K), and while we continue to use it, we will continue to see Masters who abuse their partners and justify it by, ‘He agreed to be my slave,’ and submissive who continue to allow themselves to be abused.  Language influences attitude; attitude influences behavior.

This Master/slave dynamic is now traditional leather… but it’s a great example of how traditions don’t often perfectly reflect history and most traditions don’t go back as far as we think.  According to Master Ron K, this use of “Master/salve” stems from the 1980’s and early ‘90’s.  Prior to that, “master” referred primarily to a mastery of skills (recognized by the community) not a role in a relationship dynamic (i.e. “He is my master.”)  Jack Rinella wrote: “You can read [Larry Townsend’s] Handbook, for instance, all you want and you'll find only few references to slaves… You see, a person into Leather in those days was called an "S" or an "M," which stood for sadist and masochist and had little or nothing to do with dominance or submission.  Even the words top and bottom are rare in the Handbook, as they were rare in the seventies.”  I don’t think D/s or M/s was a big part of the Leather scene until after AIDS scared everyone off from raunchy, primal sex.

Okay, so that’s traditional leather and where (I think) it comes from.  Now, let’s contrast that w/ modern leather/kinksters.  Start w/ puppies.  Puppy play started in traditional leather clubs as a way to punish misbehaving boys and haze probies through public humiliation and degradation.  But modern the puppy scene is not about humiliation but fun and play; it’s more silly and has less structured D/s dynamics; it looks more like having a loving pet than a “slave”; and we have a lot of overlap w/ furries and primals – groups still sometimes shunned by traditional leather men.

In modern kink (and puppy dynamics) w have less rigidly defined roles.  I’ve frequently said that I don’t think of myself as “a submissive” in some generalized sense.  Rather, I say, “I submit” to two specific people (well, now going on three).  However, I don’t walk intoa  dungeon or leather bar w/ the expectation that I am going to “lower my eyes” to anyone but my Ma’am and Sir.

Instead of clearly defined roles of Master and slave – and you absolutely can NOT be both, right? – we have more fluidity.  I remember one switchy guest who was on the NoSafeWord Show talking about all the shit he would get from his fellow leather men by showing up at events wearing both his master’s cap and his slave collar.  Traditionalists would be all, “You can’t do that!”  But modern kinksters are much more comfortable w/ switching – and sometimes two partners may even switch off roles together (as our current joke that Hunter is my Alpha and my omega – LOL).

In place of M/s, puppies organize around a looser, more organic, pack structure of Alpha, beta, and omega.  I often confuse people coming from a traditional leather perspective b/c Cuddles is collared to me as my omega.  However, I’m not a switch, and I’m not a Dominant or a Top.  For me, beta/omega is much more of a mentor/mentee relationship, or big brother/little brother.  But I don’t generally order him around, and I don’t generally Top him…

Another trait of modern kink is that complex polycules are a lot more common.  Traditional leather was patterned on either military chains of command or Victorian manner house hierarchies.  However, what’s becoming the norm in modern kink is complicated families where A might be over B and C, but B and C are equal, and B has D, E, and F under him, but only D is also under A where E is collared to both B and F, and A is married to G, but G isn’t kinky and has little to do w/ the rest of the family, and…  I call them “complex polycules”: when your poly family structure maps like a carbon polymer molecule.  If anything, we look more like dog/wolf packs.

Let me highlight two more differences here.  In traditional leather, you started at the bottom (as a submissive probie) and had to earn your way up (to Master).  (At least, that’s the tradition, we can disregard how often that was actually the case.)  Now it’s not uncommon to have a 20-something “Master.”  Many traditionalists mock this, but it’s a legitimate sign of changing times.  Hunter is currently acting in a Dominent role to me w/in our pack structure, even though our difference in years and mileage is pretty significant.  (I started going to fetish clubs when he was in the 3rd grade, and I identified as a puppy before he hit puberty.)

Finally, traditional leather is insular and exclusive; like a biker gang, you had to earn your way in.  Modern puppies tend to be among the most open and accepting segment of our community.  Puppies just want to play get scritches, so we’re usually cool w/ all types of people regardless of gender, orientation, or whatever their particular kink is.  At least that’s been my experience.  Whenever “issues” arise about furries showing up at a mosh or female pups joining the mosh, it’s almost never the pups themselves who have the issues; it’s the Handlers and the event organizers and the leather guys coming out to watch.  The puppies are usually just, “Yea, more people to play w/ me!”  And frequently the puppies are the first ones to lend support to outsider groups like transgenders, furries, ABDLs, etc.

Puppies are kind of on the outer edge of the leather community right now.  Sir Justin made the point that we are largely modern fetishists coming into traditional spaces (leather bars, runs and title contests), and that can be a source for friction and misunderstanding.  Both sides need to have understanding for one-another, and that’s where this new paradigm seems very useful.  I know, the more I thought about it after Justin introduced it, the more it made sense to me.  Your thoughts?

Until next time, may a doggie bag always reward your wait.

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