The More Things Change, They Stay the Same
“I have problems with the way in which the distinction between ‘Old Guard’ and ‘New Guard’ is sometimes deployed. While there are many differences between leather/SM as it was practiced in the 1950’s and as it is practiced today, the shorthand terms can exaggerate and oversimplify our past and present.
Most of the alleged differences popularly thought to differentiate ‘Old Guard’ and ‘New Guard’ – formality versus informality, strict etiquette versus a more casual style of social interaction, deliberate training versus less organized acquisition of skill and knowledge – are more a matter of degree than absolute distinctions.” (Old Guard, New Guard; Cuir Underground; Gayle Rubin; 1998)
Even though this was published 23 years ago, it is as true today as it was then. Just change the terminology from “Old Guard” and “New Guard” to “New Guard” and “The New Generation.” Nothing which is being done today, is new. It has come full circle back to the beginning of Leather and kink in the 50’s and 60’s. Not quite back to the free for all and burgeoning organization(s); more of an organized chaos where there is less emphasis on exclusive organization and more on the individual and the sharing of information. Leather, both organized and unorganized, was near the beginning of a more overt kink culture in the United States. Their ideas, culture, and some of their traditions are still defining our journeys today, whether we want to admit it or not.
The Spirit of Kink Preserved
“All through this Handbook I will be at great pains to point out that much of what I have to say is opinion….. Your reaction may be entirely different, and your desires may exceed or fall short of the action I describe. This is exactly as it should be. No one – Larry Townsend or anyone else – can even begin to set the standards for your sexual needs and/or behavior.” (The Original Leatherman’s Handbook; Larry Townsend; 1972) This was the spirit of kink from the beginning which still pervades today. That there was not and will not be one way, one true way, or one way to be/conform to. Kink has been and still is a rare bastion of freedom in a world where everything we do from the wearing of socks to what shop we buy our coffee from becomes scripted.
If you are interested in, or are part of, a clan/house/family in BDSM you most likely have agreed to a structure and set of rules to be part of that organization. All well and good. However, all of that is dependent on being in the organization. Not kink, not Leather, not BDSM. It is their way, and possibly yours. I am not arguing against organizations, only saying that the structure and rules, are not kink dependent, they are organizationally dependent. Kink is its own animal; wild, untamed, and free. How it is expressed by the multitudes is up to each individual which can include a thousand rules, or none at all.
There Are No Magical Answers – Only History
There is still a lot of debate regarding what, if anything, the “Old Guard” was. I hear some people talk today about how they are like the “Old Guard.” How, if three generations back they were confused as to what it really was? Guy Baldwin, in a speech he gave in Tacoma, WA (September 20, 2014) referred to the subject by characterizing it as the, “….single most troublesome, misunderstood, divisive, and distracting issue to bedevil our leather world, and for succeeding generations: of course, I refer to The Old Guard.” (Full text of the speech available here Old Gods Die Hard | by Leatherati | Leatherati Online)
Even Jack Rinella stated he was a relative latecomer to Leather (circa late 70’s). Having done research into this subject himself he freely opined he had a hard time pinning down what the, “Old Guard,” was and he was much closer to the source than we are today.
They did not refer to themselves as, “Old Guard,” and by admission (through available essays and writing) many who were around in that era freely stated it was chaotic, a jumble of expectations getting loosely defined by organizations which began to form over time. Feeling their way through life, just as we are now. Figuring it out as we go along. There was no roadmap to help them preordain the way it would turn out as many historians would like us to believe.
Yet, there are many aspects of that era which survive today and things which we have added along the way. This forms an ever-evolving way of looking at and practicing kink. Where there was once S/M now there is BDSM which was not coined until decades later. Where safety and accountability were certainly mentioned in points of S/M history; Safe, Sane, and Consensual became a watch phrase born in the early 80’s. Early on there were not even Tops or bottoms let alone Dominants/Masters and submissves/slaves. All of this evolved through time. Much of which during can be considered in the, “New Guard,” era. If there is such a thing.
Even through evolution, the best ideas and values seem to survive.
Honesty and Integrity: “Real Leatherman keep their word: they do not borrow or lend money; they conduct their affairs with honor and integrity – they don’t lie.”
Recognition of experience: “Experience in the Scene determines social seniority (Top or bottom), not age, not size, not amount of leather worn, and not offices held in organizations, awards received or titles won.”
Courtesy: “….all are expected to observe rules of social courtesy – bad manners are inexcusable and can lower one’s status in the Scene….”
(The Old Guard History, Origins and Traditions; Drummer Magazine; Late 80’s; Guy Baldwin)
These are just a few examples of values set early on in the kink scene, which survive today. A quasi roadmap which did not exist in the 50’s. At least today, we have these bits and parts to lean on as a tacit guide. We may not be standing on the shoulders of giants, but path was certainly forged for us (and still is being forged) by some rather brave individuals.
Without their contributions to kink and the Scene, we may not have some of the generally accepted values today. Those values and contributions, in my opinion, are what lead people today to have a certain reverence for the past, keep us guessing about what it was really like, and if we are doing it “right” today.
Does it really matter?
Yes….. and no. It matters if you are like me; who understanding where we came from, can help inform us why we are the way we are today. If you are one who just likes to forge ahead without putting a whole like of pondering into it, maybe not. But those basic values and concepts which run through our community such as respect, courtesy, honesty, integrity, safety, etc inform our lives and the way we practice kink. Even for those who may not realize (or care about) how it all began.
Lessons hopefully passed on and learned; some traditions preserved and better ways of doing things being thought of every year and incorporated; and a spirit of freedom are at the heart of what it is that we do. An oral (sometimes written) history. Knowledge passed from the older generation to the younger in hopes they will carry the torch and keep improving on it. Some of the changes over the years have chapped my ass. But that is the nature of change and, “The New Generation,” certainly has the right to live kink in a way that makes the most sense for them.
We have a more conscious way for kink which fits with this era. One which is much more inclusive, much more safety conscious, and dare I say, much more, “out.” I cannot say the last decade has been entirely comfortable for me since the release of Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) popularized kink, but it has been certainly exciting, as well as exhausting. I look forward to the developments coming in the next ten years.
Note: For more information on the authors referenced in this article, please visit the links included below (in order of reference):
Gayle Rubin – Gayle Rubin – Wikipedia
Larry Townsend – Larry Townsend – Wikipedia
Jack Rinella — Jack Rinella’s Home Page (leatherviews.com)