From Issue 2.1 - September 1995

The Basics: Introductory Books About SM

by Liz Highleyman

Not too long ago, aspiring perverts learned about SM through observation or apprenticeship. But beginning in the early 1990s there has been an outpouring of basic SM how-to books. The books reviewed here represent a sample of what's available. Most are good resources for perverts of all persuasions; even those that are geared toward a particular gender or orientation include information that any kinky reader will find valuable.

The classic of the genre is The Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend (Carlyle Communications). The manual was originally published in 1972. The second edition was published in 1983 and 1989, and the first edition has been reissued. Both contain information on setting the scene, fantasy, and role-playing. LH II contains more information on specific techniques and equipment, including advanced play (e.g., mummification, catheters, military discipline). Scene vignettes are scattered throughout. LH II includes information on HIV/AIDS and safer sex. While this is important, the earlier edition is an interesting document of a seminal period in gay male SM history.

The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual (Lace Publications, 1988) is another classic. Edited by Pat Califia, the book includes chapters by Dana Rosenfeld, Karen Johanns, Dorothy Allison, Beth Brown, Cynthia Astuto, and Diane Vera. Topics range from emotional safety to penetration to first aid. Vera's essays on submission and slavery have been widely reprinted and distributed within the community. Although there are slicker and more comprehensive instructional guides available today, this book remains an important work, and the only one written for lesbians.

Jay Wiseman has a reputation for being a stickler for safety, and SM 101 (self-published, 1992) reflects these concerns. The how-to and safety information is extensive, detailed, well-organized, and easy to find from the table of contents. While experienced players may find Wiseman's advice overly cautious (even paranoid), his warnings are appropriate for the inexperienced. This is not the place to learn about edge play. Although much of the material is pansexual, some parts are geared primarily toward a heterosexual, traditionally-gendered audience (in particular het men). The book devotes a significant amount of attention to genital sex. There is a lot of emphasis on how to find play partners or interest current partners in SM. The heterosexual/mixed SM scene would be a better place if every novice hetero male read this book.

Learning the Ropes by Race Bannon (Daedalus Publishing, 1992) is a slim and easy-to-read volume for those who want a basic introduction. It's also a good book to give to vanilla friends and relatives. Bannon discusses the principles of SM, myths, etc., then gets down to business describing SM as theatre, techniques (bondage, flagellation, cock and ball play, anal and vaginal penetration, nipple play), roles, and gear (including putting together an inexpensive toy collection). Exercises help the reader determine how SM fits into his/her life, and advice is offered on finding partners and a community. Vignettes include male-male, female-male and female-female couples (yes, all couples— no poly or party scenes here). Bannon reminds us of the fun and loving aspects of SM, which can get lost amid discussions of the risks and the intricacies of technique.

Sensuous Magic: A Guide for Adventurous Couples (Masquerade Books, 1993) is an excellent introductory book for those getting into the scene or curious to learn more. Pat Califia is widely known as a sex radical dyke, but she makes SM seem like the most natural thing in the world for adventurous -- though not necessarily kink-identified -- couples to explore. Califia demystifies and demythifies SM in a matter-of-fact, non-threatening way, then goes on to discuss the specifics of bondage, bodily sensation and corporal techniques. Bits of Califia's pro-erotic liberation philosophy are sprinkled throughout, making this one of my favorite introductory books. There is a chapter on "vanilla" sex within an SM context, and some words on Califia's pet topic of how top and bottom roles are not automatically correlated with who gets fucked, gets sucked, or gets off. The book includes a comprehensive glossary and extensive reading and resource lists.The information is pansexual, and the vignettes largely reflect heterosexual experience. With its broad range of material and "friendly therapist" tone, this could be the marriage manual for the 1990s.

On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play by Trevor Jacques, Dr. Dale, Michael Hamilton and Sniffer (WholeSM Publishing, 1993) grew out of a project funded by the AIDS Committee of Toronto to produce educational material for leathermen. The authors expanded their target audience to include men and women of all orientations. Many community experts were consulted, a fact reflected in the book's authoritative comprehensiveness. The material is organized in a different way than in most introductory SM texts, reflecting its origins as a safety guide. The Mind section deals with fantasy, psychological safety, and spirituality. The Body section deals with anatomy (complete with antique medical drawings) and physiology. The Safety section is very comprehensive, with significant space devoted to sexually transmitted diseases and mind-altering substances. There is a useful appendix on group SM courtesy (missing in the couple-oriented books) and an extensive bibliography. This book is probably not the best introduction for someone just discovering SM, but would be an excellent companion volume to the more introductory texts, and a good reference manual to keep in one's dungeon or toybag.

Joseph Bean has been writing about sexual issues for over twenty years, and Leathersex: A Guide for the Curious Outsider and the Serious Player (Daedalus Publishing, 1994) reflects his long experience. This book, written for gay men, is a worthy successor to The Leatherman's Handbook. The book begins with advice on getting started in SM (including communicating with clothing), discusses power exchange, then delves ino the details of specific activities. It includes scenarios for groups as well as couples, short-term as well as long-term relationships. Bean has separate chapters on Playing with Pain (which includes the stereotypical SM activities) and Playing with Pleasure (which includes tickling, therapeutic activities like massage, and genital sex), a division that seems arbitrary to me. This book includes a chapter, Playing with Life and Death, on edge play. There is a brief safety section, a chapter on spirituality, and a short history of the gay leather community. This strikes me as more of an intermediate level volume -- not really for an outsider unless he is truly very curious indeed!.

Each of these books has something of value, and it is impossible to recommed a "best" book for learning about SM. The various authors write from their unique points of view, but sometimes come across as if they are proclaiming universal truths. I was impressed at how truly pansexual some of these books are (especially Bannon's and Jacques'). I'm pleased to see some good resources for heterosexuals (such as Sensuous Magic and SM 101) because they're so scarce and so needed in the absence of the community support and educational resources available to kinky queers. The paucity of instructional guides by or for lesbians is puzzling given the wealth of knowledge kinky dykes share at conferences and similar events.

To really get a good overview of the world of SM, your best bet is to take a broad view and compare and contrast the work of a variety of experts. Happy reading!

© 1995, Cuir Underground

Last updated: 10 October 1995