I am no expert on any of the matters discussed here. Not sex, nor homosexuality, nor porn, nor leatherlit. I am a broadly educated former Unitarian Universalist minister and English teacher, female, old, and rural, coming at this book from no polemic nor specifically moral position. It is the very alienness that interests me. How close can I get to understanding?
“Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration of Leathersexuality,”
by Geoff Mains
This book has eight sections.
1. ANATOMY OF A CULTURE
The first section makes the case that a group of men exist who are held together from the inside by their intense interactions, near-fusion, and from the outside by the larger culture which finds their activities abhorrent or maybe criminal. These are big tough hairy guys like those on the American Western frontier. Religious groups form with less affinity -- but they also erode and corrupt gradually. Mains uses the idea of tribes, which in Canada are called aboriginals, meaning primal and earliest.
Urbs, of course, are recent. City people never really come to terms with what is possible and even ordinary in terms of flesh, as Mains says. They never kill what they eat or even see it in life. Rural people differ. For instance, my niece has a thriving business doing bovine artificial insemination, very often thrusting her arm into another living being, feeling the guts and heartbeat. She has only given birth twice, but I expect that’s enough. Probably the more arduous chore was packing around a growing boy inside her for nine months. I’m not sure the pleasures of serotonin and adrenaline from fisting compare at all with the roller-coaster of reproductive hormones in action.
But let that go. Clearly there was (and possibly still is) a vibrant and creative tribe of mostly men. How much of their passion is left is unknown to me. There are still extremophiles. “Extreme Fighting” or “Cage Fighting” is very popular in the nearest town, which is an Air Force base. There must be a “tribe” formed around things like sport parachuting. I don’t know whether bungee jumping is still popular. Personally, if I were an athletic type looking for thrills, I’d take up parasailing. But the pain would only be potential. And there would be nothing of the intimate engagement with another person like oneself. It’s flying alone. I’ll admit “groups” are no longer my thing.
2. THE FLOWERS OF PAIN
Two cultural irresolvables stand behind leatherlit. One is the tension between individual and group. The other is between dominance and submission, which is related to the first dyad. I take Mains to be trying to find a solution for at least one kind of man.
There is no way that one person can be hurt by another without the hurter dominating the hurtee, and possibly the receiver being restrained. The argument is that this is done voluntarily, with many safeguards and considerable medical sophistication. This section is carried by reference to the military culture of obedience and endurance, which is powerful and easy to relate to prison life as well. I do understand the explanation of how pain works, how it can be neurologically fused with pleasure. You don’t have to be a “cutter” to enjoy picking scabs, wiggling a painful tooth, little stuff like that. We know that pain and pleasure are in the brain, though the relevant research is more recent than Mains’ work.
This is where emotion enters. Intense emotion can etch sensation into muscles, organs and brain, imprint them. The interaction of emotion and physical sensation can be dramatic, transforming, addictive. Also introduced are shame, guilt, and terror. Or euphoria and bonding.
Vicariously, virtually, our culture loves extreme pain and sex portrayed as realistically as possible: Westerns, war films, crime films, terminal diseases. CGI means that almost anything can be graphically depicted. That’s mainstream or the next thing to it. One dreads to find how what the secret culture does. Actually doing extreme things is powerful and must be a component of PTSD.
3. RITUAL PSYCHODRAMA
Spectatoring, analyzing, discussing appears to be part of the pleasure and the culture of leathersexuality. This interests psychotherapists, this turning out of unconscious pockets. One of the most seductive of experiences is going over a horizon into a new realization. Maybe just as strong is getting someone else to understand something you’ve had to keep hidden or didn’t know was even possible to share. Surviving an ordeal, a shipwreck, a massacre -- even one planned and scripted -- can also change consciousness.
All of this can go very wrong. People die. The culture overrides, corrupts and interferes. A “tribe” can be independent and cohesive only up to a point.
4. BONDAGE AND INNER PEACE
All these chapters quote other work, mostly mainstream and professional. At least half are books I’ve read and used in the study of theology or anthropology or psychology. This chapter is specifically concerned with the management of consciousness, the “connectome” as I am fond of calling it. The actual states of mind include everything from hypnotism, to trance, to dissociation, to dream, to hallucination to whatever it is that yogis can achieve with meditation and physical disciplines such as posture or whirling.
The chapter does not talk about external drugs. Some mind alterations practiced by traditional native peoples, like starvation, exposure. staring at the sun, are not discussed. Nor is anything as drastic as a Plains Indian Sun Lodge that includes the ordeal of flesh bits being torn away, but sweat lodges are noted here, perhaps a bit too easily considering the recent deaths. (It’s important to remember that Mains was writing in the Eighties, thirty years ago.)
The idea of ritual (Victor Turner and Von Gennep) is to somehow jar people out of their ordinary consciousness; while they are in a liminal fluid state introduce new ideas and evidence; then return them to a new ordinary consciousness with new understanding. This three step process is so obvious it seems dumb, but it is an accepted and effective guide to a rebirth, an access to new energy. It is used in both “primitive” ceremonies and religious rites. It can happen to a person without any ritual or intent, just through happenstance.
5. CELEBRATION OF THE HIDDEN ANIMAL
This is the chapter that discusses drugs, starvation, reward and punishment in terms of physiology and their uses in controlling consciousness. “Feeling good is addictive and animal as well as human. And feeling good, although not limited to these, is inexorably tied to basic functions.” He means excretions (feces and urine) and the emotions connected to them that were installed in the earliest years, therefore at the most basic levels of the kitchen midden of ideas accumulated in the brain. Enemas are not mentioned, though they are clearly acts of penetration and injection.
6. SPIRITUAL EUPHORIA
Now it becomes clear that enemas were not in the last chapter because this whole chapter is about “fisting.” So let’s be even more clear: fisting can kill you by splitting your gut. The gut is stretchy but needs a lot of coaxing, greasing, and relaxing. Those who do this are EXTREMOPHILES. They take major risks with their own bodies in pursuit of “euphoria.” They do not do it alone, particularly if they have no expertise. If it is unwelcome, it is not possible, and is the same as rape -- criminal assault.
I’ll approach this on physiological terms, the way Mains does, but using more recent research. (“The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine” by Michael Gershon) The intestines have a kind of sock or second tube around them that is a netting of neurons connected back to the rest of the neural system, including the brain. Gut muscle is “smooth,” non-striated, so it is managed by the autonomic neural system, which directly controls emotion and response to stress. It is not voluntary but it can convey sensation. More than that, it operates with the same chemicals as the brain. Having a “gut feeling,” a visceral intuition, is not just a metaphor, though in the case of things like clenching fear or stammering stage fright, the message is probably coming TO the gut from the brain, or indirectly through organ secretions, rather than the other way around. What fisting seems to do is to use these pathways to deeply affect the brain. It can trigger euphoria, bliss.
Some individuals and cultures call this feeling “spirituality” and consider it access to another realm of being. Those who feel this should not be discredited.
7. THE PRISON OF THE FLESH
The next chapter is about how to think about feeling that one has become transcendent, powerful, and not like others. “The experience of leather is an illusion of mastery. It pits individual against drives, capacities and gaps. It questions and breaks down the image of status, fear and guilt. It does not provide freedom from any of these, but it sets men face to themselves and it gives them an energy to cope with the reality that they may come to see. Minds cleared, conscious of new tools, and free of some of the burden of superfluous gaps, these men are perhaps better able to cope.” (He does mean MEN.)
If you read this book as an intro to just another high or a porn (and it would be easy to read the little personal scenario vignettes that way), you’d be missing the whole point. All this domination/submission, all this top/bottom, turns out to be -- among the truly initiated -- a symbiosis. It begs the question of how to interact with those outside the magic circle, who go right on politicizing, stigmatizing, and even criminalizing the men inside. There may be no answer to that question.
8. LIVING IN THE CLOUDS
Generously, Mains identifies three other communities like “leatherfolk,” not in terms of physical practices but in terms of being tight communities in a hostile larger scene. One is ancient Greece, one is Celtic witchcraft, and the third is Gnostic Christianity. They are all “Western.” The biophysiological threat that has wiped out much of the leather community , including Mains, was African.
Robert Scott Antarctic Expedition
Recent Robert Scott Re-enactment
Mains quotes Robert Scott, the Antarctic explorer who is so admired today that his lethal trek has just been duplicated by a team of extremephiles. “I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.” Extremophiles do not complain.