From Issue 1.9 - July/August 1995
You've heard it all before. West Coast S/M folks complain that easterners are rigid and formal about roles and careless about negotiations. East Coast S/M folks snort derisively at westerners' new-age woo-woo spirituality, and groan at the thought of having to negotiate for hours just to do a simple damn S/M scene (and maybe "process" some more when it's over). Groundless stereotypes? Or marks of a genuine difference between the two halves of the country?
Lady Green came of age as a sadomasochist in San Francisco, and has played extensively only in northern California. Mistress Veronika grew up on the East Coast and spent five years in Boston's S/M community before moving to San Francisco a year ago. In comparing notes, we've found that the differences between East and West are probably not as great as some folks would have it, but that they do seem to exist, in at least some communities.
Toys or Tools?
Mistress Veronika says, "I once (only partly tongue in cheek) described East Coast leather as serious people wearing black leather hitting each other with expensive made-for-the-purpose tools (not 'toys'!) in a dark underground dungeon at night, while west coast leather was laughing people, naked or wearing tye-dyed clothes, hitting each other with kitchen implements or tree branches outdoors at midday." We think that's a bit of an exaggeration, of course: Westerners play at night too (although outdoor play in the California climate holds a special joy).
But it does seem true that here on the West Coast, people draw less firm boundaries betwen what's "real" S/M and what isn't. Lady Green, for example, likes to top wearing only a pair of battered jeans and her beloved cowboy boots, and figures that anybody who doesn't think she looks S/M-ish enough doesn't have to play with her. Veronika, on the other hand, still somewhat of an East-Coaster at heart, believes that the setting and accoutrements are a big part of the turn-on of S/M. For her, dressing up in black leather fetish wear and thigh-high boots and playing with whips and chains is a large part of the fun.
In Role or Out?
Lady Green has noticed a difference in attitude among visiting Easterners attending San Francisco play parties: "At the parties I'm accustomed to attending here, you don't get to act like a top or a bottom unless you've negotiated those roles with someone; if you're standing in the social area with a Diet Coke in your hand, your role is irrelevant. But Easterners tend to show up in role and stay in role for the duration of the event." She's had to bite back snide remarks to people who have acted toppish or bottomish outside scene space at California parties, recognizing that their behavior is not intended to be offensive, but to be arousing.
Mistress Veronika adds, "There is a certain degree of formalism to East Coast leather that is lacking on the West. Traditional, established clubs and institutions seem to carry more weight. And it's true that one can hear at West Coast play parties references to zodiac signs and other such 'New Age' concepts that would stick out like a sore thumb in many East Coast circles."
Westerners often seem to have a fluidity of roles that East Coast players don't indulge in. Switching is far more common in the West the player who doesn't switch at all is the exception, not the rule (although most folks generally still identify more strongly with one role or the other). This fluidity extends beyond S/M roles. Veronika says, "S/M play with more than one gender is common here, and those who engage in such play may call themselves bi, lesbian, gay, het, queer or something else entirely. Rules are less strict about orientation identity and behavior being congruent with each other. 'Pansexuality' seems to be increasing in popularity. 'Cross-orientation play' (gay men playing with dykes, gays and lesbians playing with heterosexuals and vice versa,etc.) got its start in San Francisco in the early 1980s.
Genderfuck may be the hallmark of San Francisco S/M, and dykes adopting Daddy and boy roles has become especially prevalent. Transgendered people have also achieved a fairly wide acceptance within West Coast leather communities, although there are still institutions (such as the women-only Powersurge conference) where transgenderism remains a point of contention."
Body or Spirit?
We also see a greater emphasis on S/M as a spiritual or transcendent pathway here in the West. "Even when players do not consider their S/M play to be a specific part of pagan or other religious ritual (and many do), there still seems to be a common sense of S/M as a 'journey' or a method of spiritual self-exploration," says Veronika. We do not know of any specifically spiritual/ritual oriented groups on the East Coast comparable to San Francisco's radical faerie group Black Leather Wings.
Lady Green still knows many players here in the West who feel deeply ambivalent about spiritual S/M, and question whether S/M pursued for reasons unrelated to genital sexuality is "really" S/M; Veronika knew several people on the East Coast who in recent years have begun to integrate spirituality into their S/M practice. So, like many other S/M activities, this may be a playstyle that had its birth in one part of the country and is in the process of spreading outward.
It's Not That Simple
It's important to note that neither the East nor the West coast is homogenous. Boston is not the same as New York, which is not the same as Atlanta; San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles vary widely as well. "The smaller, younger leather community I was part of in Boston is very different from New York City's more established, larger leather scene," says Veronika. "I have not yet had the opportunity to explore the scenes in Seattle or Los Angeles, but I have no doubt that they are in many ways different from the scene in San Francisco."
And of course, the world, even the S/M world, gets smaller every day. We attend leather conferences that draw participants from all over the world to share techniques, philosophies and styles. Several publications are read by leatherfolk from across the country. Many of us participate in international electronic leather communities, with their own jargon and etiquette, which in many ways supersede local traditions, as well as providing a medium for 'cultural exchange' among those in different localities. As these trans-geographic methods of communication expand (perhaps especially as on-line communication grows more popular), we may see a shift away from style differences that are regionally based, and toward communities based on similar S/M preferences and philosophies that transcend geographical boundaries.
Is East "better" than West, or vice versa? You won't draw us into that debate (our mamas didn't raise no fools!). Lady Green is a San Franciscan, and likes it here. While Mistress Veronika finds the West Coast S/M scene friendly and exciting, there's a lot of things she hasn't gotten used to yet, and she still misses many things about the East Coast.
It seems that both East Coasters and West Coasters thrive well in their local scenes but perhaps that's because frequent East-to-West and West-to-East migration allows people to end up in the area that is best suited to them. And of course we can't forget about the great expanse between the coasts and the many leatherfolk who live and thrive there as well.
The Global Community
More to the point, all S/M folk are in the same boat. Our similarities far outweigh our differences and one of our similarities is that we are still a persecuted minority, with a profound need to stick together to defend our flanks. East/West differences are an interesting topic for discussion, but when they are used as a wedge to drive us apart, that discussion becomes detrimental to the goals and needs of the S/M community and the individuals in it. If we recognize our differences for what they are primarily differences in style, not substance we can accept and value them with the same grace that we value cultural differences among those of other races and nationalities.
By interacting with each other, we can perhaps learn enjoyable new
playstyles that we wish to adopt as our own. As long as we are
gathered together under the same banner, the one that reads
"CONSENSUAL MUTUAL PLEASURE," we can help keep each other strong.
Lady Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners and the co-author of The Bottoming Book: Or, How To Get Terrible Things Done To You By Wonderful People (under the name Catherine A. Liszt).
Mistress Veronika Frost is a professional dominant, writer and editor, and public health activist. She has done writing and workshops about bisexuality, safer sex, the sex industry, and leather-S/M.
Reprinted with permission from Prometheus Magazine, the publication of New York City's The Eulenspiegel Society (TES).