May 112006

Laura Antoniou (alias Sarah Adamson of the Marketplace series) got me thinking with the keynote speech she delivered at the South Plains Leatherfest last February.

It’s probable that our earliest storytellers told stories to communicate fears and beliefs and to teach the “right” way to do things according to what went on before, or what people believed went on before. So, cautionary tales and heroic epics both serve to warn and inspire; to provide a sense of stability and continuity. In small, insular communities, stories serve the primary purpose of alerting us that we are not alone; they give us a link complete with codes to recognize each other. I remember cruising chicks by asking them which story in Macho Sluts was their favorite. (If they said, Birthday Party, ohhh, cool…Calyx of Isis? Run Away! Those chicks were too high maintenance!) Of course it was natural for the slaves at Hellfire to have Story of O collars and rings, for the men in the bars to read Mr. Benson and then act their favorite parts out! The literature brought us together and celebrated our sense of community.

But mostly, living your life according to fiction is a BAD IDEA. You’d think this would be self-obvious, and yet – it’s not. And how can we even begin to address history seriously when so much of who and what we are is partial – if not purely – fiction?

I’d be steaming as someone would write something like – and this really happened – the Marquis deSade used the term BDSM. Cite! I insisted. I can trace usenet newsgroups back to the very first mention of the acronym online, hell, I was practically there. But this person insisted that they’d read it in some biography of the man, somewhere. It was at someone’s house. He couldn’t recall the title, but yeah, it said the Marquis lived the BDSM lifestyle. And very few people had the balls to call folks like that on their bullshit and shoddy research techniques, let alone the fact their IQ was, at best, questionable.

And while I ignored a lot, there were also times when I just went off on someone being so obtuse I wanted to find them and hit them across the head with a clue stick. Because it’s one thing to say “I think Anne Rice is really Pat Califia.” It’s another thing to insist on your own level of reality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

This is the personal history part, and the part where I, as a fiction writer, may be uniquely qualified to speak to you today.

For crying out loud, folks, stop the fucking lies.

…if you really want to be known as Mistress Anorexia of the Clan Slimfast, I don’t care! No one cares! But when you try to tell people that your secret clan of ninja BDSMers goes back 100 years to the founding members in Budapest, and these are the secret rituals and clothing styles passed down by the Daughters of Dementia, and then you pass this kiddie crap off as real – come on. Just because a lot of people are gullible doesn’t mean everyone is. Pull the hype back a bit and cop to the fact you made it up.

I’ve run across this trope a few times. I’m told there’s a person on the Collar Me message boards who tells an elaborate life story of being a red-headed albino born as a slave and raised in the “fighting pits” of some Marketplace-like slave training society, and she’ll insist all of this is true.

This is not a new trope in BDSM culture. In Sacher-Masoch’s time, there were plenty of people who styled themselves as nobles, putting the artistocratic “von” in front of their surnames. Sacher-Masoch’s first significant mistress, Fanny Pistor, styled herself “the Baroness Bogdanoff.” He pawned one of his mistresses onto a Polish count, who turned out to be a Russian petty thief who gave her syphilis. He met his first wife through an elaborate complex of assumed identities, based on letters by two different women both calling themselves “Wanda von Dunajew.” He also had a mysterious encounter with a man calling himself “Anatole”, but when he arranged for his wife to meet Anatole, she met a different man. Novels and letters let people construct their own fantasized identities, and draw other people into supporting them.

The erotic book publishing business was full of fabrication and misinformation, and it’s hard to distinguish the fantasy from the pure horse manure. Did Henry Spencer Ashbee really think that The Mysteries of Verbena House was a true account of a flagellant house? We’ll never know, but the fantasy of a secret realm of sadomasochists goes back at least to Sade’s 120 days of Sodom.

Going back even further, you can see traces of this in the “world upside down” peasant revolts of the early 1500s. Anti-clerical and anti-artistocratic sentiment made some people mock/emulate the nobles and priests by adopting/parodying their titles and attire.

BDSM is playing with power, and also playing with identity and history, which is all well and good. But the widespread ignorance (even willful ignorance) and the preference for fantasy over documented history makes me think that this book is even more important and necessary.

On a list of the top 50 kinky books, 27 books are “how to” manuals, 14 are fiction and 6 are art. Quibbles about the canon aside, none of them are about the history, society, culture, legality, etc. of BDSM (with the possible exception of Diane Atkinson’s Love and Dirt: the Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick). We know what we’re doing, and we have great stories and visuals, but we have no historical understanding of who we are and what we do.

BDSM does have a history, but it has nothing to do with secret societies and “true masters” and other fantasies. To paraphrase Patrick Califia’s “Mr. Benson doesn’t live here anymore”, the Club of Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden has closed and everybody has gone home.

On a personal note, I would extend a “Hear, hear!” to Ms. Antoniou.

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