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How the Leatherdykes Helped Change Feminism

on Sunday, 07 May 2017. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

A brief history of lesbian sadomasochism, from the shadows to the front lines of the “Sex Wars.”

Atlas Obscura


t was Memorial Day, 2004, and Alex Warner was at a barbecue near Washington, D.C. It was an important time for her. She was in graduate school at Rutgers University, planning a dissertation on women’s social justice movements, and had recently experienced something of a personal awakening. A couple months prior, she’d attended her first Leatherdyke play party, and the community of like-minded women she encountered there had embraced her. The barbecue was in the backyard of a woman named Jo, a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, one of the godmothers of the lesbian sadomasochist leather community. Jo told Warner stories about what it had been like, decades before, to be a Leatherdyke before there was a name for it. There were no parties, no barbecues, no safe spaces. Before founding the Lesbian Sex Mafia—a support and education group, despite the name—in 1981, Jo went to men’s leather bars and passed as a man, she explained. She had sexual encounters with men—Jo is a lesbian—to find some kind of sexual fulfillment. She also told Warner about how wonderful it felt, later, finally to find other women who shared her interest in playing around with power and pain.

Warner was moved to tears. It felt, she says, like she was learning her history for the first time—learning for the first time that she even had a history. By the time she got home that night, Warner had decided to switch her research topic to the social and cultural history of Leatherdykes.

The history of sadomasochism is long and complex, but the origin of the term is clear enough. The first part famously comes from Donatien Alphonse François de Sade—French aristocrat, philosopher, and profane libertine author of various violent, blasphemous sexual fantasies. The less famous second half comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian journalist and author of Venus in Furs, a novella that reflects a fetish for dominant women. Together they encompass the practice of deriving pleasure from giving or getting pain or humiliation. SM (practitioners drop the “&,” though usage has varied) has its most popular conceptions today in poorly written novels and the basic image of the Leatherman, icon of the subculture of gay males who draw aesthetic inspiration from biker culture and aesthetics. (We should stop for a moment and marvel at how subversive it was that a Leatherman appeared on the pop charts with the Village People in the 1970s and sang about the YMCA and the Navy, and it didn’t seem to bother anybody.)

The Leatherman, clad in chaps, vest, and motorcycle boots, has penetrated popular culture, but the Leatherdyke—a queer or bisexual women who participates in consensual sadomasochistic behavior—is less well known and less visible. As a sexual practice it’s quite diverse: bondage; dominance and submission; caning, punching, or spanking; and a range of toys and tools, from gags and restraints to paddles and floggers. It is all conducted with consent and in service of power and pleasure, and sometimes humiliation and the trance-like “subspace,” a kind of flow state for submissives. Based on Warner’s research, it is clear that the particular strain of sexual expression this represents has provoked uncomfortable questions in feminist and lesbian circles, and played an outsized role in the development of feminist thought in the 1970s and 1980s. But that impact did not come easily.


Warner’s dissertation research, which she completed in 2011, is the only academic excavation specific to the Leatherdyke in the United States. She drew primarily from archival sources, feminist journals, and what might be called zines. She’s assembled here a selection of quotes from her research that reflect a history of marginalization—from the mainstream, lesbians, and feminists—that conceals the role of the Leatherdykes in opening conversations about sex, power, patriarchy, and consent that resonate today.


While women most likely had been participating in SM privately for a long time, they only began to connect with one another publicly in the mid-1970s, usually through published works and general workshops on sexuality that came with the decade’s greater openness to sex.

When I was eight years old I was masturbatory, lesbian and sado-masochistic. Subsequently, because of my feelings of guilt, I renounced all three. Then, along came women’s liberation. I learned to affirm my feelings of self-love and woman-love … But I’m still in the closet on S-M. I have admitted that I used to be into it, but said that “those feelings” (I only owned up to masochism) were aroused only with men and attributed the whole thing to what I call my “lousy heterosexual instincts.” … I have not “come out” on S-M.

—Barbara Lipscutz (aka Drivenwoman), in the Journal of Radical Therapy, 1976


Myself and half a dozen women I know are into S&M or bondage and discipline … we’re not exactly sure what we’re doing! I’ve never talked about it with other lesbians. I wanted to sort of come out!

—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976


We had a sexuality workshop a year and a half ago, and I … came out as a sado-masochist there and got no support … from one person out of a hundred women. I was so fed up I almost quit my [feminist health collective].

—Anonymous, quoted by Jeanne Cordova in Lesbian Tide, 1976



As these women were discovering their sexuality, Warner’s work shows, the feminist world was taking notice of SM. First-wave feminism, which dates to the 19th and early 20th centuries, was largely about suffrage and other legal issues. Second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960s, took on a wider range of issues, including reproductive rights, domesticity, sexuality, and violence. Several feminist thinkers of the time, including Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, cast SM in general as anti-feminist because it simulates the sexual power dynamics that allowed men to oppress women for ages, they claimed. There was, however, a counterclaim, that lesbian SM allowed women to reclaim power and consent, and generally upset ideas about how women are supposed to behave.

S&M is a game people play called “who’s got the power.” It’s a game because there are two sides (the sadist and the masochist), but it’s a win-win since both should end up with an equal amount of the power, and with sexual satisfaction.

— Rosenjoy, in GCN, 1976 ...

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