Posts Tagged ‘history’

2009 11 Jan

Lawrence of Arabia: heavy masochist

During a recent volunteer day up at the Leather Archives, I organized the file on T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia). Did you know that Lawrence — a famous early 1900s British war hero — was deeply, unmistakably, provably a sexual masochist? Now you do.

There were a couple of in-depth magazine articles included in the file. One, authored by Jack Ricardo, was published in the July 1990 issue of “Stallion”. The other, by Joseph W. Bean, was printed in “The Advocate” on April 11, 1989.

Excerpt from Bean’s article:

In his years at Oxford (1907-1911), Lawrence may have had no actual sex life. Vyvyan Richards, a Welsh undergraduate who was very much in love with Lawrence and shared a great deal with him in other ways, believed “that he was sexless”. His sexuality was either so covert as to go unnoticed or consisted entirely of the vicarious satisfactions found in homoerotic literature.

… Anyone rash enough to accuse Lawrence of heterosexuality does so without the slightest trace of evidence. By the same token, anyone who denies that Lawrence was homosexual and a masochist does so by ignoring not only evidence but Lawrence himself.

… [Apparently a bunch of documents related to Lawrence’s sexuality became widely available in 1968, including some personal stuff that had been held by his family.] There was, as it turns out, an actual conspiracy of silence about the parts of Lawrence’s life that, if they became known … “only … would benefit … the owners of the juicy Sunday papers” [in the words of old friend Mrs. Shaw]. … The new pieces of the Lawrence puzzle primarily filled in the years back in England, after his Arabian adventures. This final period turned out to be the strangest and suddenly the best-documented phase of Lawrence’s sex life. For a time he was attending flagellation parties — sexual but not strictly homosexual — arranged by a man called Bluebeard. When these parties came to the attention of the authorities, Lawrence risked his reputation by attempting to defend Bluebeard. He was unable to help.

Then, from the early 1920s until his death in 1935, Lawrence had at least four (and very likely other) younger men employed to beat him with birches, canes made of twisted twigs. [John] Bruce performed in this capacity for Lawrence for more than ten years, always under the impression that an older relative of Lawrence’s was ordering the beatings and requiring written descriptions of them. Bruce wrote out the descriptions and gave them to Lawrence, supposedly to be delivered to the “Old Man”. It isn’t hard to guess what purpose the detailed letters actually served, since Lawrence had no relative to deliver them to. [Bruce went to the “London Sunday Times” with this story in 1968, and the physical letters were found later by a researcher named Desmond Stewart.]

… [Dr. John E. Mack notes in some psychoanalytic essays about Lawrence that] Lawrence “required the beatings to be severe enough to produce a seminal emission.”

… [in a later account, the writer Maugham met] a sergeant who, when he was a lance corporal, had been invited to drink with Lawrence. The sergeant gave a detailed description of his night with Lawrence in an attempt to seduce Maugham. In Maugham’s Escape, the retelling ends by saying that Lawrence “then persuaded the lance corporal to whip him and then to penetrate him.”

… With his experiences at Bluebeard’s parties, Lawrence knew that his sexual tastes were not unique. For him, though, sex — even the most brutal SM scenes — was never just sex. Sex and masochism were both parts of a spiritual quest with Lawrence, parts of an endless straining toward balance, which he called “my way”.

“I long for people to look down on me and despise me,” he explains to Mrs. Shaw, probably never aware of the ancient tradition of truth-seeking masochism he had entered. “I’m too shy,” Lawrence explains, “to take the filthy steps which would publicly shame me.” … Less than 18 months before his death, Lawrence wrote to Mrs. Shaw, saying that he was ready to write Confessions of Faith. It was to be a complete account of his degradation “beginning at the cloaca [public lavatory] at Covent Garden” and including his last military experiences. In what is a very uncharacteristic burst of optimism, he explains that the book will take a long time to write but that it will encompass human “entry into the reserved element, ‘as lords are expected, yet with a silent joy in our arrival.'”

But before Confessions could be written, Lawrence died … the unfinished manuscript of Confessions is permanently lost.

At Lawrence’s funeral, Winston Churchill cried openly and said of him, “He was one of the greatest beings of our time … whatever our need, we shall never see his likes again.”

2008 30 Dec

That hilarious weird “vanilla fetish”

I volunteer up at Chicago’s own Leather Archives and Museum; because I have some archival experience, they’ve lately had me sort a bunch of ephemera. I look forward to my time at the Archives — every time I go up there, I discover something awesome in the files. Today was no exception.

The box I went through was devoted to Outcasts, an San Francisco “Educational, Support and Social Group for all Women interested in SM between women including Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Women”. Regrettably, it looks like Outcasts folded in 1997, but there’s some really smart writing in the file (no surprise for an organization that included Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia and Dorothy Allison).

The Outcasts’ newsletter was called “The Lunatic Fringe”, and the Leather Archives has two April Fools issues that are just hysterically funny. The following is excerpted from a “book review” in the 1991 April Fools issue ….

The Invisible Ring and Other Stories, by Ferdinand Bull. Vanilla Press, 1991.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be vanilla? We have all read the sensationalistic newspaper stories of vanilla sex rings uncovered by diligent vice squad officers, or watched the recent television special exposing the squalid vanilla sexual subculture operating in the bars and back alleys of Milwaukee. More than one family has discovered, while going through the personal belongings of a recently deceased uncle or sister, that the whips in the bedroom had never been used and that their relative’s true sex life was confined to a few well-thumbed vanilla porn paperbacks hidden under the mattress. If the contemplation of these more sordid aspects of life make you queasy, or if you approve of the recently passed legislation requiring the IRS to maintain lists of suspected sexual deviants based on those who fail for two consecutive years to claim a tax deduction for purposes of sexual toys and equipment, then perhaps you should ignore this book in favor of the latest blockbuster sadist-meets-masochist romance.

… Following the essay is a group of short stories set in a small Midwestern city. My personal favorite was the first of the group, the heroine of which is Leona, a middle-aged reference librarian at the local public library and a reluctantly closeted vanilla. When a controversy erupts within the library over whether to add a copy of Romeo and Juliet to the library’s collection, Leona finds her closet suddenly too small.

“I don’t see how we could possibly add it,” said Donna. “Our patrons would be upset, and rightfully so.”
Leona fingered her black leather collar and thought once again how she hated it. No matter how loosely she wore it around her neck, it always seemed to be choking her.
“There’s no way we could justify keeping something as disgusting as that,” added Paul.
They can’t do this, thought Leona. They can’t shut us out. They can’t ….
“Well,” she said, “I’m vanilla, and I don’t find it disgusting.”
There was a stunned silence.
Finally the director said, “I think this is a good question to refer to committee,” and turned away.

After her initial outburst, Leona is scared at her own temerity, but sticks to her guns. “I know it’s not great literature,” she pleads with Susan. “But it is a classic vanilla work.” In the end, she wins a qualified victory — the library adds the book but keeps it in a locked case. “And tell Sharon,” says the director, “that she is never to order the video.”

… Bull does his best to make his vanilla characters appealing, but the task of rendering vanillas sympathetically is an overwhelming one, at which Bull not surprisingly fails.

The collection concludes with a series of explicit vanilla fantasies, of which the less said the better.

If you feel you must buy this book a few alternative bookstores do carry it, or you may order it directly from the publisher.

I love this fake book review because it’s not merely hilarious — it also highlights the ways in which BDSM-identified people and media are routinely exoticized and censored. It reminds me of this funny blog post I read recently, which takes a similar tack; of course it also brings to mind Renegade Evolution’s now-widely-linked post on vanilla privilege (that one’s a must-read, if you missed it).

Pretty much the entirety of the Leather Archives is awesome, but if you’re interested in issues of BDSM-related organization and social justice, the Outcasts file is for you.

2008 22 Dec


I’m in New York right now, so I spent part of yesterday (Saturday) at the Lesbian Sex Mafia party, then headed off to a TES event. (Ah, New York.) I met a lot of cool people, but the one whose words I’ll cite in this entry is named Liz. Liz is an older lesbian and top. I love talking to culturally aware people who lived through the feminist / sexual revolution — particularly if they’ve got a specific focus on alt sex communities, which Liz does.

She made a lot of great comments at dinner. My favorite, though, was when I started talking about BDSM-dar. You’ve probably heard the term gaydar, “the intuitive ability to assess another individual’s sexuality”. BDSM-dar is a similar concept, but obviously for BDSM rather than homosexuality.

I have some attachment to the concept of BDSM-dar. The reason is that I came into BDSM by means of a man who unexpectedly went after me at a party and hurt me — and though I was shocked and horrified, I also loved it. I went back to him and asked him to do it again. Multiple times. And I spent the next year flipping out as I faced up to the fact that I’m a sexual deviant. And once I was done flipping out, I felt far more whole and sexy and powerful than I ever had before.

Let’s call him Richard. And let me make it clear right now that I was never attacked, abused, or assaulted in any way. I could have asked Richard to stop, that first night, and I didn’t. It was difficult for me to come to terms with my BDSM desires, but I have no doubt that they are real and that they have been in me all along. In childhood, I did things like tie up my Barbie dolls and draw sadomasochistic comics; I only started repressing those feelings in adolescence. When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years.

Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.

Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.

I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.

But on the other hand, I don’t have BDSM-dar myself. And I have no proof, no studies or anything approaching real evidence that BDSM-dar exists.

I had one quotation that I thought was powerful evidence for the BDSM-dar concept. It’s from a 1953 book of psychological case studies called Sadism and Masochism: the Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (buy it here — I’m talking about volume 2). The quotation comes from the story of a sadistic woman who came to Stekel for a cure. She tells how she’ll go out to spas and engage the attending men in pleasant, noncommital conversation. She’ll pick one man, and tell him to come to her room. When he gets there, she’ll whip him. Then she goes home and feels incredibly ashamed. Oh Doctor, please help!

Understandably, Stekel asks her how she can possibly identify these men; obviously she’s doing a pretty good job identifying them, since no one’s pressed charges for assault — but how? She answers: “Sadists and masochists have a secret language. I might say a secret alliance with secret customs and secret agreement.” I always figured that since this woman clearly wasn’t hooked in to an established community of any kind, she couldn’t be referring to a real “code”. I figured this was just her way of articulating her BDSM-dar.

Liz, however, told me a bit about how lesbians used to function in the absence of a lesbian community. She said that even without a “central authority”, they would develop little tricks for finding each other. For instance, lesbian-tinged books or movies, referenced slyly. She said that’s how she interprets Stekel’s sadist: not as “sensing” her bottoms through any aspect of their personalities or appearance, but as taking advantage of tiny cultural hints.

Liz also expressed irritation with the preponderance of male tops (particularly older ones) in the scene who will come up to women and say, “You’re a submissive. I can just” — :leer: — “tell.” I get the impression that she’s dealt with a lot of this, which must be particularly annoying as a top.

(Ironically enough — later that night, an older male top I’d briefly played with commented haughtily that a female top we’d spoken to earlier was “a submissive; I can tell.” I gently argued with him for a while on the subject. His stance was, “I’m not being sexist or patriarchal. I’ve got 20 years of experience in the scene, and I just think I’ve probably learned how to tell a top from a bottom.” My stance was, “Okay, maybe, but I really think you need to (a) not say these things in quite so presumptuous a fashion and (b) carefully examine your assumptions.” I wonder if I made an impression. I hope so; it pisses me off to think that I might’ve had a BDSM experience — no matter how casual — with an unrepentant sexist jerk. :grin: That’s the risk with people you don’t know too well, I guess. And maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Anyway, I digress.)

I considered trying to discuss my coming-into-BDSM experience with Liz, but I didn’t really get the chance. I wish I could have heard her thoughts.

So now I find myself back to square one. Did Richard sniff me out with BDSM-dar, or did he just get lucky? Is BDSM-dar mostly just a figment of our assumptions and biases?

If Stekel’s sadist wasn’t using BDSM-dar — if she was instead doing something more like what Liz described — I wish I had some idea what cultural references she might’ve used. Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps.