I was fortunate along with anniebear to sit down with some BDSM legends, Ernest Greene and his wife Nina Hartley. I asked them about the history of BDSM, where it’s headed and also the rise of BDSM porn. I hope you enjoy part one of this three part interview. -Dexx
Dexx: Great to have both of you! Ernest Green, you’re known to many of our readers as the author of the hit BDSM novel Master of O, but I gather that you’ve been into kink for a lot longer than that. Maybe we can start with you telling us how you first discovered BDSM?
Ernest: It discovered me! I’m one of those for whom it’s a basic orientation in the way that being gay is for others. I’m hardwired for BDSM. I have never had a sexual fantasy that was not sado-erotic in some way. Starting with my very first girlfriend I did BDSM play and it’s been pretty much like that ever since. I’ve had one vanilla relationship in my entire life trying to prove a point in my early twenties that I could do it and I proved a point all right but that wasn’t the point I wanted to prove! I couldn’t do it! It wouldn’t work for me. It was a very long year and a half and when it was over I was really glad. That experiment was settled and I never tried it again. So I really think this is not true of everyone who’s interested in BDSM nor does it need to be but there are some for whom it really is part of them. There’s interesting anecdotal evidence, unsupported by any organized research because no one will fund it, that it’s heritable, in the way that being gay is heritable. There seems to be a kink gene that appears in families in different branches in different generations who were brought up widely apart and had no direct contact with each other. I had two uncles, one of whom was just the most normal guy on earth. Then there was my other uncle who clearly had the marker.
Nina Hartley: And his mother.
Ernest Greene: Yes exactly. As the completely normal uncle said to me near the end of his life, “You know your Uncle Mel, he had this weird streak of sexual cruelty to him.” Uncle Bernard was 86 at the time and when people are 86 they have no filter. They have no time for small talk. We were at a family dinner and all the air went out of the room. Then there was a brief sort of nodding off moment and then he looked at me and said, “And your mother she had that too.”
I came out to my parents when I was about 28 and I was very surprised at my mother’s response. She looked vaguely embarrassed and said, “Gee I hope it isn’t something I did.” I said “No I think it’s more like something that you are.” She nodded and agreed that could be true. (Laughs) We’ve always been open about it and I’ve always been this way. I do understand that it can just be recreational, spicing up sex more conventional sex, and I think it is for most people. And then there are those for whom this is it! Luckily I found someone whose kinks are a little different from mine but they overlap enough so that things work very nicely. I’ve been married to women who were wired too much like me and it was a problem. If two people’s wiring is too similar it really is difficult to make the adjustments necessary for a happy day to day life, because most of the time we’re a happy day to day couple. Around the house our protocol is pretty relaxed. Nina always wears her collar, for instance.
Nina: And I’m usually naked. (Laughs)
Ernest Greene: We’re not a 24/7 couple, we joke that we’re a 7 to midnight couple. When we have the time and there’s nothing else going on then we can indulge that fully. But we do not “live the lifestyle,” a term I don’t really like. This thing chooses you. Its not like you decide one morning to be a kinky person. One morning you wake up and realize you are one! You can fight it but if you’re like that will only cause frustration. It would also be a disservice to your partners to leave them wondering why it is that you don’t seem very interested in them if you choose someone who’s completely vanilla. Don’t choose a vanilla partner if you can’t be one yourself. I’m also against attempting to change anyone’s basic sexuality. There’s a lot of that going around at the moment. In one Facebook group I moderate that question comes up far too often. Anything that begins with “how can I get my partner to …” goes nowhere good. If the desire is already there and not yet awakened you can certainly offer it as a possibility. But for most people it’s a music they cant hear. I don’t think they can learn to hear it by trying even with the best of intentions. You’re either tuned to that frequency in whatever degree or you’re not.
Dexx: So in your formative years presumably there was not the same amount of BDSM porn available as there is now so what were your sources of inspiration or did you have any mentors who kind of taught you some of the things?
Ernest Greene: The world was so different back then it’s hard to describe. First of all yes there was always lots of BDSM erotica around, you just had to know where to look for it and believe me I found out. I made a point of it. An early inspiration for both of us was John Willy’s artwork. We loved it then, we love it now. There was a limited supply, compared to today, of BDSM oriented erotica, but it was mostly better because it was done by people who were not expecting to make money on it.
Ernest Greene: Those who created this material never expected it to be seen. As a result they created their work in a sort of soulful, passionate, personal way that you don’t see too much of these days. But yes, yes I did hit puberty right around the time erotic books first became available in the US – to date myself very seriously—I read “Story of O” when it came out over here.
Nina: Right. (Laughs)
Ernest Greene: When I read it, even though I had no real experience of my own at that point, some of it seemed very vividly described. The level of visual detail was quite striking, but the emotions seemed all wrong. It wasn’t until some years later that I found out the person that wrote it did so as a present for a lover who was into it, and she wasn’t. She basically said, ‘Well, I can’t do the things you like to do, but I can write a book that you would like to read.’
Nina: She got the details right but no insight into why people engage in this behavior.
Ernest Greene: Except for O herself, the characters in the first book are very flat, especially the men. In her late life interviews Anne Desclos, who had started using her own name by then, admitted that she barely knew and didn’t much like the people around whom she built the story.
Nina: No wonder the characters in Ernest’s book “Master of O” are so well rounded.
Ernest Green: Because I know them. They’re all my friends—or at least I hope they’re still my friends.
Nina: They are.
Ernest Greene: At the beginning of my own explorations I looked around and there were, even in those days, the beginnings of small SM groups. The first one here in the U.S was…
Nina: In New York.
Ernest Greene: I went to my first meeting of The Eulenspiegel Society in NYC in 1972. I don’t know what I expected but it was all very light-hearted and good-natured. Happy to say that T.E.S. is still around—
Dexx: Sounds very German.
Ernest Greene: Indeed. Eulenspiegel, I guess, is meant to be some mischievous, imp character who’s curious about thing. and that’s what they named it after. When I moved out here I got involved with the Southern California Society of Janus, which had spun off from the original S.O.J. up in San Francisco. After some of the bickering typical of leather organizations ours changed its name to Threshold. I did six terms as coordinator of Threshold, which makes it sound a bit like doing a nickel in San Quentin, something it at times resembled.
Ernest Greene: Mid to late eighties. I joined in 1983. I was coordinator from 1986-1992 or some crazy thing like that. That is the heaviest session of all, being in one of those rooms during a business meeting, I’ll tell you that right now.
Nina: Heavy bottom session. (Laughs)
Ernest Greene: And you can’t mercy there. There is no safe word for it. The guy who handed that job over to me had had it for six terms and he did his best to warn me.
Ernest Greene: Because even though we only had 64 members, we had about 120 opinions about everything. I have noticed SM people tend to be opinionated. They also tend to be high-maintenance in groups. When Bill handed the sash off to me as coordinator, he said, ‘So did they tell you about the vow of celibacy?’ I said, ‘Vow of celibacy? I don’t remember anything about that.’ He just smiled and said, ‘You will.’ And sure enough, the very first party we gave in my first term was in the middle of summer. It was July, it was sweltering and the club we rented had a busted air conditioner. So I spent the entire night on the roof trying to fix it while the party went on. Actually it turned into a pretty great party because it was so hot in there everybody got naked. At one point, I looked down through the skylight and thought, ‘My God, a whole room full of naked people!’ They had all come fetished out and just couldn’t keep that stuff on.
There were some nice perks though. As a leather group leader, you were a member of the Leather Round Table, which gave you reciprocal membership privileges in every other group. I got to go to gay SM events, bi SM events, fetish-themed events and so on. I got to see all kinds of interesting people doing interesting things. I’d approach whoever was playing at the end of their scene and ask if they could show me how certain techniques were done. It wasn’t formal mentoring of the sort that’s been so inflated subsequently. There was zero snobbery attached to any of it because this was Mr. Regan’s America and everything we did was totally misunderstood and despised at the time. People were very forthcoming with the few who didn’t judge or reject them. ‘Oh you’re interested? You don’t think it’s disgusting and should be stomped out? Okay, cool! I’ll show you what I know.’ It was also a lot safer back then because everything was done by personal contact. The internet in my opinion, has been pretty much a disaster for the world of BDSM. Which isn’t to say we haven’t had some pleasant experiences out of it. We’ve met people online who’ve become friends. We’ve met some of our most compatible playmates that way. But overall the bar to entry is now very low. Anyone can represent themselves as anything on the internet. And enough new people who’ve come in since those books bad books we shall not name came out who just don’t know what is expected and what is permitted and what is okay and what is not. This has given rise to quite a rift between younger and older players because the older ones basically stick to the safe sane and consensual rule, or RACK which is some modernized variation thereof, but a lot of younger people are coming in saying, ‘Oh, that’s just that old guard bullshit, you people are just elitists and don’t know the way it really is.’
Nina: Just get off my lawn, people.
Ernest Greene: Yeah, we knew something about this before those books came out, so if that’s all you know about it, it’s possible we do possess some useful knowledge you don’t. But if you don’t want to hear it, you can piss on the electric fence and find out for yourself why it’s a bad idea.
There are a lot of predators out there that will simply say—‘Anyone who tells you anything different from anything I’m telling you is full of shit, a liar and just in it for the sex. There is one kind of SM that is correct, and it’s mine. Whatever my rules are, are the rules.’ When I see that their status is 19-years-old, male, straight, master, unparternered, I pretty much know what I’m dealing with there. I’m sorry if that offends anybody in the [The Next Gen] crowd, who overall, I think are great. We need new, young people to keep things going. I’m not sorry to see it expand, I’m sorry to see it explode. To get to the point where on Fetlife you’ve got a couple million people, you can expect in any city of a couple million people there are going to be bad guys. If you picture it as a virtual city with neighborhoods, some neighborhoods are going to be safer than others and that’s very much true when it comes to BDSM on the Internet. If you wander in with no prior knowledge and are completely naive and eager to give this a try, as far as you know, all dominant men are just like Christian Grey. They’re all kind of spooky, a little edgy, but they’re really poor injured little boys working off their mommy issues and all they need is the love of a good normal vanilla woman to straighten them out, fix them, and make them normal. That’s pretty far from the actual trajectory of a real BDSM person.
Dexx: So, you must have really seen the public dungeon community emerge from the shadows and flourish since the Society of Janus days?
Ernest Greene: We started out in the 60s. During my first term our group had 67 members. After 6 years, we were up to 700. And this was before the Internet. So it was already a dynamic idea that was beginning to roll. Now, there’s hardly a city of over 250,000 that doesn’t have a club. There are also a lot of posers and hacks as you would expect, but there are a lot of sincere people for whom it’s been a great discovery that they’re not alone. They come from some little town someplace where there aren’t any kinky people they know of and they manage to find this large community that offers both danger and opportunity. There are many more choices of things to do and people to meet, styles to explore, and there are also, occasionally, folks you would not want to meet. That’s why I think it’s important that there be some institutional memory preserved from how things were. In the old days the rule if you wanted to try some new technique, a new kind of whip or bondage, first, you watched somebody who was already an established expert at this demonstrate it. Then, if you had a partner who was willing to let you practice on them, you got to do it under the supervision of the person who knew how to do it. Then if you didn’t screw that up, you had a chance to do it yourself. Now, everybody just strolls through the door and goes at it, whether they know anything or not. Some bad things have happened as a result of that. To some extent the bad influences are counterbalanced by the availability of classes and workshops.
Nina: There’s still plenty of opportunity to learn about consent and safety, but there’s no enforceable requirement to do so.
Ernest Greene: In those days, if you didn’t do the course work, you didn’t get to graduate.
Nina: You didn’t do BDSM 101, you didn’t get to come to parties. Before you were welcome in a public space, there were orientations you had to attend.
Ernest Greene: I did those orientations for many years. I did them with my first wife. I did them with the late great Bob Flanagan. We subjected everyone to a true Salvation-Army-style ear banging on safe sane, consensual and confidential BDSM.
Dexx: On the subject of learning that you’re talking about, do you think that the community now can benefit from some sort of standardized certification or training?
Ernest Greene: I just don’t know how we’d make it work, because what people do in private, they do in private. The worst abuses, I think are, again, are classically committed by the kind of abusive personality that will try to separate their victim from everybody else. They’ll say: ‘Don’t go to munches. Stay away from organized BDSM groups because they’re all full of people who might tell you something other than what I’m telling you.’ I don’t see any way to certify people. What I do think is if you’re considering becoming involved either casually or seriously with a partner and you know anyone they know, you can get in touch with that person and ask what their experience was with this individual.’ So there’s a bit of informal watching of each other’s backs, but it’s nothing like it was in the old days. And again, you couldn’t just go to another city and start over after your bad reputation drove you out of your own community because even in different groups in different cities, your reputation would follow you. There was a small enough total number of BDSM players in the whole country you had to be kind of careful wherever you were. This is no longer the case.
Ernest Greene has been the Executive Editor of Hustler’s flagship BDSM magazine Taboo since 1999 and of Taboo Illustrated since . He has performed in, written, produced, or directed over 500 adult titles, including the Nina Hartley’s Guide series, starring his wife and producing partner, noted porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley. Master of O may be purchased here.