By Jay Wiseman
For some time now, and in particular within the last year or so, a number of assertions about so-called “Old Guard” traditions, customs, and teachings have come to my attention. Many of these assertions have caused me to roll my eyes and utter a world-weary sigh. I’ll also confess that I’ve been having a bit of satirical fun in this regard (as if I could deny that). Hopefully, nobody has taken serious, lasting offense.
I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll briefly mention it again now, I see the “Old Guard” being romanticized and idealized in a manner similar to how the cowboys of the Old West were romanticized and idealized. Sadly, the reason for this is largely identical — all too many of the people who could set the record straight are dead.
One of my slaves recently remarked to me that people, particularly disenfranchised people (such as we sadomasochists) want to have a history, and if such people don’t have such a history then they will create one and proceed to set about convincing themselves that it’s true. I believe I see more than traces of that going on regarding “the Old Guard.”
Therefore, before these rapidly fading brain cells of mine deteriorate too much further, let me see if I can contribute something that might actually be at least slightly useful.
To paraphrase a line from a current movie: “What do I know for sure?” In other words, what do I know because I actually witnessed it, rather than because somebody told it to me? (By the way, I would suggest avoiding making any strong assertions about the teachings, traditions, and customs of the “Old Guard” until you can cite at least two, and preferably at least three, independent sources for your information — all of which are willing to be named. Some of the people that I personally know well enough to consider credible on this topic include Race Bannon, Guy Baldwin, Joseph Bean, Tony DeBlase, Peter Fisk, Dossie Easton, Pat Califia, Alan Selby, and Gayle Rubin.)
By the way, there is a good general recommendation that if you want information about anything in SM, you should get your information from a variety of sources. Nowadays, I consider this recommendation to be especially true regarding the supposed “Old Guard” traditions. The truth will survive being cross-checked.
Well, anyway, here are a few of my thoughts about what it was like “back then”:
I first came into the SM community in 1975, when I — very nervously — started attending functions at Backdrop. I attended my first Janus function in either 1977 or 1978. (I forget which.) I have been told by sources I definitely consider credible that Backdrop was actually started (possibly under the name of The Menlo Park School of Bondage) by Robin Roberts in 1968. The store currently known as “A Taste of Leather” was, I believe, started in 1967. San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI) was started in, if memory serves, 1972.
By the way, I believe that one could make a very strong case that Robin Roberts is the father of the “relatively het” portion of the Bay Area BDSM community. Many of the current senior prodommes, and a number of the people who went on to become founders of SM organizations got our “basic training” from Robin. To this day, he doesn’t get the respect and recognition he deserves for doing that.
My good friend Bill Burns started the female-dominant organization called the Service of Mankind Church in 1977. I started the male-dominant organization called the Gemini Society in 1978. (Back in those days, a lot of submissive men did not want to be “in role” if any dominant men were present, so at the mixed-energy parties that Backdrop gave the male-top folks would often be in one area and the female-top folks would often be way off in another area.)
So what do I remember about those days?
Well, IMO, probably the most important thing to remember about those days is that SM was a LOT more taboo and vilified than it is now. Please remember that back in those days “simply” being gay was considered evidence of being mentally ill. Being into SM was widely considered to be evidence of being even more mentally ill. For example, in one police training manual published in, if memory serves, 1972 advises the officers in training that a person who was found in possession of sadomasochistic pictures “should be arrested under any pretext whatsoever.” A popular sex book called “The Sensuous Woman” advised its readers that if a potential lover wanted to play with whips and chains the best thing to do was (a) refuse and (b) to urge this person to seek professional help. A book on sadomasochism that I looked over in a college library contained numerous pictures of things like murdered women’s corpses with over a hundred stab wounds in them.
Thus, while there was some discussion about matters such as what a collar meant, who should stand where in relationship to who, what was a good way to whip or bind, and so forth, we spent _much_ more time trying to reassure newbies that they weren’t necessarily sick or crazy. It was _the_ major issue. (The good news was that the “free love” sexual revolution was in progress; the bad news was that it wasn’t including sadomasochism.)
If you want to get a hint about how we sadomasochists were regarded back then, imagine what popular reaction would be today towards people who were members of a group which advocated that sex between blood relatives — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, etc. was OK as long as everyone consented.
You can get another good hint of how negatively we were regarded back then by reading the first edition of “Coming to Power.” The section on the negotiations between the women’s SM group called The Outcasts and the people who managed the Women’s Building so that The Outcasts could meet there is particularly illuminating. References to how the SM contingent was regarded in the Gay Freedom Day Parade are also illuminating. Sadomasochists were frequently only slightly less unwelcome than NAMBLA (basically, the pedophile crowd).
So, point number one, IMO the most important thing to understand about “back then” is that SM was a lot more taboo and vilified than it is now. A _whole_ lot more.
A subpoint of the above is that, because SM was so much more negatively viewed back then, it took IMO a lot more courage to contact the community than it does today, and even more courage to do something like start a club or be an SM club officer. Please remember, in those days the entire “establishment” was asserting that wanting to engage in SM, specifically including consensual SM, was evidence of a fairly serious mental illness. It took a lot of just plain raw guts to be able to stand up to them and say, “No! You are wrong!” If for no other reason, those early pioneers deserve a lot of respect for having had the bravery to show up at all.
Another subpoint: 1973 was “International Women’s Year” and the feminist vibes was very strong back then. Among other things, that was roughly when N.O.W. took its anti-SM position — a position that only now is coming under challenge. Thus, women who wanted to take the submissive role had to face even more negativity than sadomasochists in general had to face.
A final subpoint to the above is that any “Old Guard” which existed at the time did not widely see itself as such. Instead, they were more like, as the song lyric goes “just a bunch of people, doin’ the best they could.”
Point Number Two would be that the community, such as it was, was much, much smaller than it is now. It was considerably harder to find kindred spirits. Subpoint: the main reason why what we are currently calling the mentoring system existed back then was largely because there was no alternative. You couldn’t send someone seeking knowledge to places such as Janus, QSM, or Differences for the very good reason that they didn’t exist.
Point Number Three would be that we didn’t know as much as we do now. Many of the things being taught today were being painfully learned, mostly by trial and error, back then. Also, because SM people (calling what existed back then a community is something of a stretch) were a lot more isolated from one another and more underground, it was much harder to find good teachers, credible books, and other useful information. (This high degree of isolation and fragmentation are the main reasons why I view with a very dubious eye any assertion that the “Old Guard” teachings were a unified, widely agreed upon, body. If there was a, so to speak, “Ten Commandments of SM” I never heard of it.)
Regarding “Old Guard” teachings and customs: When I started going to Janus events (which at the time consisted of one event a month), it was about 85% gay men, about 13% lesbians, with literally a sprinkling of hetfolk like me. Among other things, it meant that “we” had to be careful about what we did and said. While “on paper” Janus was a pansexual organization (I don’t think that the word pansexual was in widespread use at the time), in reality it had a very strong gay male leatherman atmosphere. Thus, being low-profile, relatively quiet, and courteous was a distinctly good idea if you were het.
Even in that atmosphere, there was something of a divide among the gay leathermen between the “highly ritualized” leathermen and the “California casual” leathermen. Interestingly enough, one of the items that was the subject of ongoing and vigorous debate at the time was whether or not it was proper for a bottom to initiate a conversation with a top. If memory serves, no consensus was ever reached.
(My personal “lowest common denominator” definition of BDSM is “ritualized sexual aggression and submission.” I notice that, then as now, some of us want significantly more ritual associated with our BDSM than others want. I personally, as many of you know, definitely lean more towards the “California casual” end of the spectrum. I also notice that the “ritual” folks sometimes regard the “casual” folks as not treating SM with the respect it deserves, and that the “casual” folks sometimes regard the “ritual” folks as taking both themselves and SM with much more seriousness than necessary.)
Regarding the assertion that “people who didn’t follow the Old Guard teaching were excluded from the community” — that ain’t exactly how I remember it. What I remember is that, then as now, if someone was considered to be dangerous, people would warn others about them. Also, then as now, this warning process, while usually well-intentioned, lacked any shred of objectivity or due process. Then as now, abuses of this process, such as malicious warnings, sometimes occurred. I also remember that, then as now, people who were considered desirable and popular could repeatedly get away with things that would have gotten a less desirable, more unpopular person quickly shunned.
There was a sort of general saying that it was better to start out in the submissive or bottom role, but that was not universally agreed upon. I remember one person making this assertion at a Janus program sometime around 1980, and a large, butch-looking leatherman replied with a loudly uttered “Bullshit!” Nobody raced to disagree with him.
My final point is often-not-subtle implication that these supposed “Old Guard” teachings are somehow better than the “regular” teachings. This always makes me scratch my head a bit. Was there some kind of “post Old Guard” decline in SM teachings, traditions, customs, and so forth that I failed to notice? When did “the ‘hood” go into decline? (Some old-timers would say, privately, that “the ‘hood” went into decline when all those damned hets started coming around. I’ve heard this lament from more than one old-timer who felt that I wasn’t like “the rest of them.”)
So that’s about it. To recap my main points:
1. SM was a lot more taboo and widely condemned than it is now. (Het women who wanted to take the submissive role faced particularly strong condemnation.)
2. The SM “community” — such as it was — was much smaller and more underground than it is now, and the different groups tended to be smaller and more isolated than they are now.
3. We didn’t know as much as we do now, and what knowledge did exist was harder to find — other than by personal trial and error. Almost all of the books, clubs, and so forth that exist today didn’t exist back then.
4. The main “teaching” of the time was that being interested in SM wasn’t in and of itself proof that someone was seriously mentally ill.
5. Then, as now, other than, “yeah, SM needs to be consensual or, at the very least, not distinctly nonconsensual” there was a wide spectrum of opinion and a lot of debate about almost all SM-related technical and interpersonal matters.
As the song lyrics go:
He said “They was just a bunch of people,
doin’ the best they could.
Yeah, they was just a bunch of people,
doin’ the best they could,”
and then he said that they did it
“pretty up and walkin’ good.”
— Jim Croce (I think)
copyright Jay Wiseman, All rights reserved.