You’ve heard of the Marquis de Sade, right? The guy whose name we use for sadism?
You probably know that he wrote some extraordinarily dirty books, but some of you have missed that he was also a political satirist. His magnum opus, 120 Days of Sodom, is about an Aristocrat, a Bishop, a Judge and a Banker horrifically abusing a whole castle full of commoners and children. I hope I don’t have to spell out the political message for you. It ain’t subtle.
De Sade was writing it while he was locked up in the Bastille and the French Revolution raged outside. Yes, friends, the modern concept of erotic sadism and the practice of guillotining the rich were born from the same historic moment.
The word Masochism comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s, Venus in Furs.
You knew that, but you didn’t know that Venus in Furs is part of Masoch’s never completed Legacy of Cain cycle, in which he intended to explore the themes of “Love,” “Property,” “State,” “War,” “Work,” and “Death.”
Read that list again: love, property, state, war, work and death. Ol’ Leopold understood that they’re all connected.
The guy who assigned De Sade’s name to sadism and Masoch’s name to masochism also did it as a political act.
Richard Krafft-Ebbing (his full name is Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing, and that will never not amuse me) was cataloging sexual deviance for his own magnum opus, Psychopathia Sexualis, which he wrote as a reference book for medical professionals but also for judges. Because ol’ Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing thought that sex ought to be for procreation only and that any kind of non-procreative sex (ie: 99.999% of what you kinky fucks get up to) needed to be fixed by society, whether through the medical system or the legal one.
Certain activities were scrutinized, labeled, cataloged and defined as abnormal by people who had ideas about what kinds of behavior should and should not be accepted in society. That’s politics, kids. And that’s why today you’re talking about flogging on an entirely different website from the one you use to talk about “normal” stuff—because the shit you’re into has been put into a political category of forbidden activities that’s used for purposes of social control.
Modern kink culture began with gay Leathermen. Why is that? There are plenty of het kinksters now. Way more of us than gay men, simply by dint of there being so many straight people in general. Where were they in the 1950’s and 60’s when the first S&M clubs were coming together?
They were blending in with their opposite sex partners. Maybe furtively seeking out a little bondage porn. Maybe trying some naughty bedroom games. But they weren’t forming anything like a community or a culture, because kink was taboo and because they could blend in. Their privilege meant they had something to lose.
Gay folks didn’t have that luxury. They were living through a particularly intense period of discrimination. Large numbers of gay men had been brought together through their service in World War II. They were already marginalized, already persecuted for their sexuality. Many were already alienated from their families of origin.
So some of them said, “Fuck it, why not?” and went all-in. They did all the things you weren’t allowed to do. They built new kinds of families to replace the old.
The first SM clubs were also political organizations. Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook is the first published guide to S&M. In it he talks about gangbangs, bikes, fisting, and electrotorture using disassembled telephone equipment. It’s wild stuff. He also talks about fundraisers, getting raided by the cops, and struggling to get a more liberal City Attorney elected.
Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest Leather event, began as a grassroots political action to stop redevelopment (aka gentrification) plans for the South of Market district in San Francisco.
Early Leatherwomen were especially political. Some of the loudest and clearest voices demanding that feminism prioritize women’s sexual pleasure were Leatherdykes, and their tireless political work paid off in greater sexual freedom not just for radicals like themselves but for everybody. It is your sacred pilgrimage as a kinkster to track down a copy of Coming to Power and read the words of the women and trans people who made possible all the free and open kink websites and kink shops and kinky fiction and kinky clubs that you enjoy today.
Did you know that, in the US, your right to the privacy of your bedroom started with a white man maliciously calling the cops on a black man?
By the 1960’s every US state had some kind of anti-sodomy law. They were primarily aimed at gay men, but were usually worded in a way that encompassed any kind of “deviate sex.” (That’s you.)
In 1998 Robert “Karen” Eubanks called the Houston police and told them there was “a black man going crazy with a gun,” in a nearby apartment. Really he was calling because he was pissed that his boyfriend was hooking up with another guy.
The cops busted in, guns drawn, and found John Lawrence and Tyron Garner getting busy in the bedroom.
Fortunately for your private sex life, the cops did not just shoot Tyron dead and call it a day. Instead, they decided to arrest the couple and charge them with deviate sexual conduct.
That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled that it is none of the cops’ damn business what consenting adults do in their bedrooms. It got to the Supreme Court only due to concerted effort by the hella political folks at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The three most conservative justices of the time dissented.
As an exercise for the reader, stop and wonder how Lawrence v Texas might turn out differently in today’s more conservative court.
Politics defines what is kinky, kink’s history is political from the beginning, and—to the extent that it’s about transgressing taboos and not just slapping asses—the practice of kink is an intrinsically political act.
Kink is political.
Black lives matter.