Feb 282012

Before the proto-punk/goth band the Velvet Underground formed, there was the book, The Velvet Underground by Micheal Leigh, published 1963.

According to Wikipedia:

The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh was a contemporary pulp paperback about the secret sexual subculture of the early ’60s that [John] Cale’s friend Tony Conrad showed the group. [Angus] MacLise made a suggestion to adopt the title as the band’s name, and according to Reed and Morrison the group liked the name, considering it evocative of “underground cinema,” and fitting, as Reed had already written “Venus in Furs,” a song inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book of the same name, dealing with masochism. The band immediately and unanimously adopted the Velvet Underground as its new name in November 1965.

If that was all, this book would have a spot in the history of BDSM, but there’s also the content of the book itself.

In broad strokes, Leigh’s description of the North American sexual underground in the early 1960s is plausible enough. Magazines and newspapers ran personal ads with code phrases like “exotic”, “bizarre”, “adventurous”, “broad-minded” or “uninhibited.”

Superficially, the magazines themselves are harmless enough. They show nudes and lingerie models, and run articles and short stories dealing with sexy, innocuous, situations. They never go too far. They may discuss spanking but never discipline as such, and they never mention what is known as bondage.


Fill in a form, mail in the fee and you would receive regular bulletins with descriptions of advertisers and box numbers for replies. Leigh seems to view the people who operated these clubs as basically pimps, though this was probably more of a hobby than a business. Some of these contact networks were adjuncts to porn (magazines or photosets) or adult toy businesses, selling bondage and discipline gear, leather fashions, etc. Some of the people were amateurs, some sex workers.

There were risks involved in getting involved in this hidden world. Not only was sending “obscene” material through the mail a crime, the legacy of Anthony Comstock, there were people who used or ran these services as a way of obtaining nude pictures for publication without having to pay models or photographers. (Pg.45, 50-51) (Hard to believe that images of naked people were ever so scarce.)

There doesn’t seem to have been a particular distinction between what we would now call swinging/swapping and BDSM. People were surprisingly willing to offer explicit letters and pictures (including their faces), sometimes for trade, sometimes on loan.

A Minnesota man offered himself and his wife for sexual shows, including bondage (including a disturbing reference to “numbed limbs and muscles”), torture and sexual humiliation. An Ohio man described what sounds suspiciously like a fantasy of being taken to a house by a man and two women to be dominated by them. There are other anecdotes of sadomasochistic acts.

I get a strong impression that these people don’t have a good grasp of their own limits, and that there is no shared body of knowledge about physical safety, much less emotional safety. Decades before “safe, sane and consensual”, these people are working without a net.

In the details, however, I have a hard time accepting what the book says at face value, for two reasons.

The first is that I don’t trust Leigh himself. There’s something disingenuous about Leigh’s stance, as if he somehow only stumbled into this particular rabbit hole instead of conducting an ongoing investigation with writing falsified letters to people in these lists. His posture of being shocked and appalled at the material he requested seems studied, like it was expected of him. His moral outrage at people sending softcore nude pictures to each other seems absurd, half a century later.

Leigh’s homophobia and racism is hardly surprising, given the period, and he also seems inordinately upset when the people he sees in these pictures don’t fit standard ideals of youth and beauty.

Don’t forget that he also obtained this information by misrepresenting himself to his correspondents. All this makes me suspect that he exaggerated or even fabricated some of his findings for the sake of making his book more saleable.

The second reservation I have is that much of the information Leigh presents is not his first-hand experiences and interviews, but correspondence with people through these mailing lists. As anybody who’s interacted with other kinky people online, or even in the old days of contact lists and anonymous mail boxes, there’s a certain amount of misinformation, exaggeration, fabrication, fantasy, outright bullshit and general flakiness in this kind of communication. Some of it is malicious or exploitative, some of it is wishful thinking, and some of it is people’s elaborate fantasy lives offered up to anybody who will pay attention. Caveat emptor, to say the least. Leigh may have been both too quick to condemn and insufficiently skeptical of his correspondence.

Nonetheless, this is a document of the sexual underworld of Mad Men-era America.

It’s interesting to note that both Leigh and the members of the Velvet Underground saw the world described in this book as something revolutionary or at least transgressive, the resurgence of the primitive into the modern world (though one condemned and the other approved), while the people described in the book don’t seem themselves as particularly transgressive or avant garde, and are pretty apolitical. Leigh writes, “They are not the so-called dead beats, the alleged beatniks or what used to be called Bohemians…. To the casual observer, they are respected and respectable members of their communities.” (Pg. 13-14) They’re kind of the heirs of Munby and Cullwick, who quietly lived their kinks in private and were not political in the way that was borrowed from gay liberation. I think there is something that was waiting for post-Stonewall society to emerge, which is also when the first above-ground BDSM organizations started, and that is when norms like SSC and RACK were developed.

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