S/M in the Media; Reaction in Britain; Of Sex Toys, Metal Detectors and Airport Methatheatre
S/M in the Media
I've been keeping a file for some time into which I throw any media s/m reference I come across. About four years ago, it occurred to me that s/m was about to become a visible presence in mainstream American culture. I predicted it would take about five years, and I must say I think my prediction is right on schedule.
The cultural process around s/m is recapitulating much of the process of cultural change around homosexuality over the last thirty or so years. Before gays started coming out in huge numbers, everyone thought homosexuals were bizarre-looking, demented weirdoes that any upstanding citizen could identify (and avoid) from a block away -- swishy men who walked and talked funny, heavyset women who were mean, arrogant, and had closely cropped hair. In any case, rare deviants among a basically homogeneous "normal" population.
This is very much how the general population now thinks of people into s/m -- strange-looking demons who brandish whips and knives, dress in leather head to toe, look unbelievably nasty or unbearably demure, perhaps slobber a little. Certainly not anyone who could pass for Susie Creamcheese.
The mantle of Designated Pervert is in the process of shifting from gays and lesbians to sadomasochists. This perversion shift happens from time to time, whenever the psychological impact of the previous DP's starts to wane. There are just too many public homosexuals these days for homosexuality to perform the Horrible Perversion function it did once upon a time, when gay and proud were for most people oxymorons.
Not that homosexuality has been accepted by mainstream American culture, of course -- just look at the idiocy being spouted at the Senate hearings on gays in the armed services. But Designated Perverts need to be sexual beings entirely Other, awful, and unspeakably vile to contemplate, and there are just too many all-Americans now who work with gays, have good friends who are lesbian, or cousins who are bisexual to maintain the stereotypes. The Designated Perverts need to be so loathsome, so mythological, that the good people devoted to thinking of themselves as normal can use their generated revulsions to scare their own fringy longings and desires back into the padlocked invisible subbasements of their psyches. Enter s/m.
But even as mainstream culture turns to s/m for its nausea and scapegoat, s/m is coming out of hiding at every turn. What we're going to see -- what we're already beginning to see -- is a normalizing process around s/m that may even preempt the Designated Pervert process. The good people of America are already beginning to see, and are going to have to get used to the fact, that there are sadomasochists everywhere, that they look and act more or less like everyone else, that they include the nice young man at the supermarket, the cab driver, the county social worker, the business executive, the nurse, the real estate broker, and (yes) even the teacher and child care worker. America is about to find out that millions and millions of people have been slapping and spanking and tying each other down (and much, much more) for years -- they just haven't been telling anyone about it. Of course, once the door cracks a little open, we're going to see flowers blooming even more.
The first time my ears pricked up about this was when I read a frontpage article in the Chronicle about the then-impending wedding of Lady Di to Prince Charles. A reporter asked Diana if she was going to promise to honor and obey Charles as part of their wedding vows. As reported in the Chronicle, Diana winked at Charles, then answered, "Of course I'll promise to obey him" as she gave him what was described as a "playful slap on the cheek." Don't quote me word for word, but it was something to that effect.
My, my, I said to myself, not only are Charles and Diana into s/m (how British of them!), but there was a reporter who understood enough to catch the gesture and pass the word to the rest of us, discretely of course. That's when I caught on that s/m was about to emerge into the light of day. Like a good observer, I decided to take notes.
Here are some random tidbits, starting with three comic strips:
3/9/89, Doonesbury. Reporter Roland Hedley deadpans (in a series satirizing the Salman Rushdie death threats):
"Peter, not all the authors panned here today received death threats. Lesser sentences ranged from the removal of a hand to a slap on the wrist. Among the notables, Jeffrey Archer has been condemned to lose an ear, Erich Segal is sentenced to a beating, and Jackie Collins will receive 50 lashes of the whip. Responses have varied. Both Segal and Archer have reportedly hired bodyguards and gone into hiding. Ms. Collins, on the other hand, is said to be looking forward to her sentence."
2/9/90, Mister Boffo. A man is being zapped in an electric chair. He is screaming, "Yes, YES, YES!"
8/3/90, The Fusco Brothers. Lance: "Oh, that explains it..."
Lars: "Explains what, Lance?"
Lance: "You're just watching a cattle drive movie."
Lance: "Well, I heard mooing, and hooves, and whips, and 'Hyaahh!!', and Frankie Laine singing, and naturally I thought you had a date in here..."
11/18/90, Image Magazine crossword puzzle. Clue: "S&M shoppe offering." Answer: "Whip Service."
Late 1990. A story about people in Manhattan chaining their valuable shrubbery to keep from having their plants stolen carries the headline, "Of Floral Bondage."
3/19/91. An article in the Allentown (PA) Morning Call on "Tupperware Parties for Sex Products" speaks of pleasure parties in rural, conservative eastern Pennsylvania. Describing the various sex toys being demonstrated, "Love Cuffs" ("make it a binding relationship") are listed right in there with the Honey Dust Powder, the Pleasure Balm, and the Glow Worm (glow in the dark condom).
11/21/91. The cover story of the San Jose Mercury's weekend Metro magazine, blares "Pictures of Bettie," and then offers a reverential, illustrated life story of 1950's s/m pinup girl Bettie Page, including one fetching photo of Bettie in spike heels and white lingerie, a stern look on her face and a raised whip in her hand. The article announces that Bettie Page has become "the quintessential '90s cult figure."
1/23/92. A Reuters story on France lifting its ban on Henry Miller's writing describes the Marquis de Sade as "the 18th century French aristocrat who taught the world that whips can cause pleasure as well as pain."
2/2/92, Chronicle pink section crossword. Clue: "Mild flavor." Answer: "Vanilla."
3/13/92. Gianni Versace's fall/winter fashion show is lauded by Bernadine Morris in The New York Times as "a theatrical event filled with breathtakingly beautiful clothes." A section of the show entitled "Miss S and M" presents "world famous models" Linda, Christie, Claudia, Naomi, Marpessa, Nadege, and Karen, who are all (to Ms. Morris's amazement) "unconcerned" to be wearing leather skirts, leather fringed dresses and blouses, and floor-length satin dresses accompanied by leather jackets. Under the models' jackets were what Morris describes as "bondage tops," "bodices consisting solely of different arrangements of straps that just managed to cover the bosom." While she quivers at the "disturbing undertone" of s/m, she admits that "the drama was infectious. The retailers swarmed backstage to congratulate the designer; they said he gave an energizing lift to the Milan shows and to fashion in general. The use of leather... was commended."
11/92. Cosmopolitan magazine runs a long article on s/m under the title, "The Scary Lure of Sado-Masochism." "Chains, handcuffs, shackles, ropes -- pleasurable paraphernalia? Yes, say the masters and slaves who believe the straight world of 'vanilla sex' is the one that's really plagued with hang-ups!" The article goes on to give a thorough, if slightly omigosh, discussion of s/m, including "The ABCs of S and M," "The Affection-Aggression Link," and "Respecting Your Limits." The reader learns that s/m is definitely something to be knowledgeable, enlightened, and open-minded about at both office and cocktail party.
12/21/92. A syndicated Associated Press story by Dana Kennedy announces "S&M Enters the Mainstream -- Its influence is being seen in movies, fashion, music, magazines and even on daytime soap operas."
1/24/93. The Santa Cruz Sentinel runs a two-page spread of three feature stories under such headlines as "Fashionable S&M Replaces Pain With Sexual Fantasy" and "The Ties That Bind: Sadomasochism moves out of the dungeons and into suburban bedrooms." One article has Santa Cruz sociologist Wendy Chapkis declaring that "SM has shown that negotiation can be incredibly intimate and vulnerable... fantasies can be really hot." Jenne Blade of Stormy Leather exults that San Francisco has "one of the largest SM and leather fetish communities in the country... many, many houses of domination... the premier professional dominatrixes."
3/15/93. A brief note in Leah Garchik's "Personals" column of the Chronicle tells how Socks, the White House cat, is being kept on a leash when wandering the White House grounds under the headline, "Feline in Bondage."
4/25/93. Image Magazine crossword. Answer: "Cat." Clue: "Stick with a kick."
Spring, 1993. The Bobs, an eclectic but never sexually outrageous a capella singing group, have a new song, "Take Me In," a tongue-in-cheek ditty about a guy who falls in love with the CHP officer who pulls him over for a ticket. "Tie my hands together," he dreams wistfully after their encounter, "handcuff [me] in the back of your car."
Meanwhile In England...
Tuppy Owens reports from England that a new law there makes even s/m among consenting private individuals illegal. According to this law, recently passed by Parliament and now being appealed before the House of Lords, any sexual act causing "grievous bodily harm," no matter how consensually arrived at, is subject to a penalty of two to three years in jail. "Grievous bodily harm" is not defined. A campaign is being organized to protest the law.
Sex Toys You Can't Take on an Airplane
Going to board my flight back from the Western Regional Conference of SSSS (The Society for the Scientific Study of Sex) in Seattle, I was surprised to hear my sex-toy bag set off the security metal detector. It usually does just fine as long as I leave my Robocop home, or remember to stash it with my checked luggage.
The stern, older, black woman watching the screen backs up the belt until my bag is under the x-ray, then points at the screen to show her young, blonde assistant what to look for. I'm in a good mood, not too close to flight time, and find myself smiling to a friend who's taking the same flight and looking forward to a little good theatrical fun.
"Is it all right if I look in this bag?" the attendant asks.
"Sure, if you really want to," I say.
I watch her face as she digs through the cuffs, the latex straps, the blindfold, the ziplock bag with condoms, rubber gloves and lube, the ziplock bag with cock rings, the ziplock bag with miscellaneous tit clamps, butt plug, and so forth, Mark Chester's wonderful spandex fullbody bondage bag (if you don't have one, you should), the wonderful soft leather scratch gloves with the sharp little points scattered all over the palm and fingers. Her face stays 100% deadpan, impressing me with her professionalism.
Other departing passengers flow by, pick up their uncensored bags, note the various toys she has out on the counter or don't. There was a time when I would have been unbearably embarrassed to have my personal sex toys laid out for anyone in the Seattle airport to see, but it's been a wonderful weekend and I'm feeling unusually good about myself, so I'm not embarrassed at all, just wondering what it's like to be an airport security guard pawing through some stranger's bag of sexual equipment. I mean, she doesn't even have gloves on; how does she know whether I've washed the latex dildo or not?
Finally she finds what she's looking for -- what I knew she would get to sooner or later -- my springy little whip with the 6" metal handle, the one that no one knows what to call. (Several people have said, "Well, it's not a quirt....")
The security guard lays my notaquirt on the carpeted little counter rather triumphantly. (The eyebrows on some of the passing passengers do start to rise.) My friend shifts her weight from one foot to the other. I can't tell whether she's enjoying this or feeling uncomfortable. I have my camera with me, but it's not until later that I realize I should have taken a minute to get a picture of the whole scene.
"You can't take this on the airplane," the security guard says definitively.
"Why not?" I ask.
"It's a weapon," she informs me.
I roll my eyes for dramatic effect. "That's not a weapon," I object plaintively, "it's a toy."
She looks me in the eye, neither humored nor annoyed -- like I say, professional. "Whatever it is, you can't take it on the plane."
For a moment I'm tempted to go one step further, but I realize that it's starting to get a little close to departure time. The reality principle intercedes. I don't say, "What are you afraid of? That I'll rush into the cockpit and tell the pilot to take the plane to Havana or else I'll whip his butt? I don't say, "Are you afraid that I'll attack one of the flight attendants and whip her (him) into such a state of excitement that s/he'll beg to help me hijack the plane?"
I do say, "All right, what can I do with it then?"
I'm told that I can take the whip back to the ticket counter and ask them to check it through as a separate piece of baggage. "Sometimes they'll do that, sometimes they won't," she warns. I pick up the bag, then the whip. For the first time, her face softens. She really doesn't hold it against me that I travel with a whip. "Tell them that security said you couldn't take it on the plane. That should help." I thank her for the advice.
Holding the whip in my hand so familiarly among hundreds of people in the middle of the Seattle airport produces extreme cognitive dissonance. (Some of the other passengers' eyebrows definitely do go up when they look at me.) I'm turned on in a Pavlovian sort of way, I'm in public, and I'm beginning to be worried about what to do if they won't check the whip. I remember the story of when Betty Dodson's Robocop (a 8"-long solid brass dildo) similarly set off an airport metal detector. They called that a weapon too and confiscated it on the spot.
I begin to wonder if I'm going to miss the flight. I put aside all the conflicting feelings and get efficient. My friend says she'll go to the gate, save me a seat on the plane if I'm late. I fold the tails of the whip along the handle so I can carry it to the ticket counter without ruffling any feathers along the way.
There's a long line at the ticket counter but I go up to the front and interrupt, explaining that my plane is about to leave and that I have something I'd like to check, something that security won't let me take on the plane.
"What is it?" the ticket agent asks.
"It's a whip," I say matter-of-factly, holding it up to show her.
She looks at the whip, looks at me, looks back at the whip.
"I won't ask," she says, as if to herself.
"I'll tell you anything you want to know," I say with exaggerated solicitude.
"That's all right," she declines.
A college-age woman is at the counter, filling out a form. She has a warm (perhaps knowing) grin on her face, though she's pretending not to be paying attention to what's going on. I catch her eye and we exchange a comfortable (perhaps knowing) smile while the ticket agent goes to get a plastic bag for my whip. Now that I know I won't lose the whip and won't miss the flight, I'm back to having fun.
I lay the whip down affectionately. It becomes a lovely black and silver still-life against the very white lacquered counter. Several people waiting on line check it out, more curious than upset. Theatre has evolved into political education. A properly-dressed, politelyvoiced, rather quiet-looking man is checking his whip. Call it normalization. The young woman finishes filling out her form. She examines the whip alertly, neutrally. I get the feeling this is not the first whip she's ever seen.
I look at all the people and feel like the whole airport -- passengers, ticket agents, security guards -- are giving me the benefit of the doubt on this one because I'm refusing to have it other way. My lack of embarrassment, my lack of apology, defines the moment and tells everyone else how to respond to it. I feel exceptionally powerful. It is the liberation of one more level of coming out, of refusing to be made wrong.
When the agent comes back, she holds the bag open for me. Maybe she doesn't want to touch the whip, maybe she doesn't want to risk damaging it. My sense is that she's letting me put the whip in myself because she has a sense that this is something special. Political education evolves into ritual. I tuck the whip in with slightly exaggerated care, as if to say, yes, this is something I would indeed like to have treated with respect, thank you very much. When I put my name and address on the baggage tag she gives me, the information becomes a ritual affirmation: This whip does indeed belong to David Steinberg, who lives at this address. The agent attaches the tag, pulls the bag closed, ties the string with several knots, as if to reassure me that it is secure and will not come open. She places the bag lightly on the conveyor belt. I watch its weightlessness get carried away, out of sight.
"When you're picking up your luggage, don't forget that this one is a plastic bag," she says as I start to leave.
I look at her and we both smile. "Don't worry," I say, "I won't forget."