When talking about BDSM, someone always mentions ‘the Old Guard’ – often referring to it as ‘Leather culture’, especially in the United States. It is usually to reminisce of how «things used to be different and much better back then»… but are we really sure about that? Let’s clarify things and see what we can gain from that world.
Every small or large group has its founding myths: the she-wolf of the Roman Empire, the bassist who quits and makes the Beatles happen, that amazing concert where you met… and erotic subcultures too. Almost everyone knows the story of Sappho and love between women, or the story of the Stonewall uprising for gay pride – and they play an important role for those who embrace a different way of experiencing sex. Going against common expectations requires a lot of courage, especially in the beginning, and having significant historical precedents on one’s side can provide great comfort.
An excellent example is the (huge!) niche of BDSM, whose participants find themselves more or less unconsciously struggling with deriving pleasure from activities that go against many principles of good manners, morals, or even the religious teachings of their childhood. Prejudice lurks even within the kinky community itself, where it is not uncommon for certain practices or attitudes to be frowned upon because they are considered “less proper” than other ways of expressing one’s fantasies. In these cases, being able to stand by absolute points of reference is a great temptation… a bit like having the Ten Commandments or the Civil Code on your side. And that’s where the almost legendary Leather Culture or, even worse, the mythical Old Guard is usually mentioned. If “they” behaved that way, then anyone who thinks differently must be in the wrong… isn’t it?
Let’s take a journey into the past to understand what the hell we’re talking about. Between 1939 and 1945, millions of men around the world were swept up in World War II and thrust into active warfare. Some of them still remembered the horrors of the First World War, but for the most part they were just young boys: teenagers or slightly older, with raging hormones and lots of adrenaline flowing through their bodies, often virgins, and projected into terrible, females-less environments. Is it surprising that under the bombings, many homosexual passions were born? For many of them, that was just a parenthesis before returning to a “normal” life, but many others were deeply marked by the experience and its symbols: uniforms, hierarchy, honor, discipline…
The return home at the end of the conflict was traumatic. In many countries, being gay was still considered a crime punishable by imprisonment or a mental illness to be rid of by locking up the “deviants” in mental asylums. Imagine being gay and a lover of sexual domination and submission practices to boot. They needed a way to hide – but also to recognize and find each other – without arousing too much suspicion. Among the many solutions found, “motorcycle clubs” with a twist were founded in the United States and elsewhere.
Coincidentally, motorcycle clubs were already characterized by strict hierarchy, official titles, rituals, exclusion of women, punishments, long retreats in secluded places… and clothing characterized by jackets, boots, and hats that closely resembled certain military uniforms. Made of leather, of course. In an era characterized by dreary conformity, a man dressed in meticulously polished leather pointed to very specific tastes.
The so-called Leather culture was born from there, and from the need to learn and pass on the most effective and safe ways to practice fisting, corporal discipline, and various fetishes. Today, especially in the USA, it still appears in the name of some associations, but it has largely disappeared, except for some nostalgic sixty to seventy-year-olds who make touching efforts to keep the myth of a bygone era alive. For good reasons.
The new old generation
The leather community was wiped out in the 1980s by three events. The first was the AIDS epidemic, which decimated a large part of the gay scene worldwide. The second was the increasing tolerance for alternative sexualities, which allowed people to no longer hide. And finally, the spread of new communication systems. Independent publishing, even before the internet, enabled anyone to access information and gatherings that were previously considered “secret”. Suddenly, certain games and techniques became accessible to everyone… to the point that a new name was coined to describe them: ‘BDSM’.
The – obviously younger – newcomers started calling the Leather pioneers the ‘Old Guard’, mythologizing their “ancient traditions” from just thirty years before to an incredible extent. The kinky subculture flourished greatly for the benefit of everyone, giving rise to concepts that we now take for granted, such as safewords, negotiation, SSC, and so on. However, amidst all this, some liars and opportunists also emerged, who decided to invent epic legends to fuel their own passions or status within the emerging community of extreme eroticism enthusiasts.
The Old Guard (which had never given itself a name) held secret conclaves in which they decided the life and death of their members. They had “training castles” all over the world where slaves were trained from birth. They established precise rituals for practicing “true BDSM”. They had existed since the Middle Ages. They demanded money and blood sacrifices to gain access… and a plethora of other baseless nonsense. The biggest of them all? Well, of course: the last True Descendant of the Old Guard happened to be the one spouting the most colossal idiocy. And some people actually believed it.
Initially, the internet also spread the most bizarre notions. However, in the long run, it became the most important factor in disseminating correct information, bringing passionate individuals together, organizing courses and parties, and more. Being able to read an article like this today is just the latest (for now) link in a chain that started eighty years ago, and where misinformation is fortunately becoming less widespread. Is everything clearer now?