I'll admit it. Getting to spend 30 minutes talking about kink and leather with the Great and Powerful Hardy Haberman made me tingly in my Important Parts. I hope you enjoy our kink session as much as I did.
What do people get out of participating in BDSM? Why do people mix pain with pleasure?
See: I have trouble with the word “pain” because what I consider it, is intense sensation. I know there have been a lot of studies done – I’m not a doctor – but I do a lot of reading on this. During functional MRIs they put someone in an MRI machine, and will take them through experiences to see what their brain does. When they give them something that they would consider pleasure, like a soft touch on their hand, their brain lights up. When they give them something painful - in this case I think it was something hot on their hand - the same area of the brain lights up!
Which to me confirms what I’ve longed believed: that pain and pleasure are a continuum. It’s really all the same thing; the way you interpret it and how much there is.
In other words, if we’re having wild, hot sex, and I spank you on the ass, it's probably not going to be considered painful the way it would if someone walked over and hit you on the butt.
I think it has it do with intent and the way you interpret it. So that’s kind where I come from. I think it’s an augmentation to the vanilla sex – which would be just regular sex. For me, it’s an orientation. I have a kinky orientation. When I’m going to have sex it’s going to have an element of kink in it. It doesn’t have to be full blown wild crazy S&M, but there does have to be something kinky about it.
That leads me to my next question: do you think kink is a lifestyle, a sexuality, a combination of both of those?
It depends who you are. I know there are some people - kinky, BDSM, whatever - where it’s just something they use to spice up their relationship. They could put it away tomorrow and never touch it again. It wouldn’t change much. For me, and for a lot of people I know, it’s integral to what we do. It's integral to our sexuality.
I’ve looked back at my life and my history, and found that there is an element of pain and pleasure going through it that was always there even back when I was a child. I’m not talking about sexually, I’m talking about experientially. I enjoyed playing with things that most people would consider painful. It’s just a matter of how you interpret it.
The classic example I give to people is if you’re into the BDSM scene, there’s a good ouch and a bad ouch. So if I bend you over a spanking bench and we do an erotic spanking, that’s good ouch. If on the spanking bench there happens to be a staple and you snag on that, that’s bad ouch. Because that one you weren’t expecting and you weren’t eroticizing and the other one you were. Does that make sense?
Yes. It’s the difference between causing harm and causing a pleasurable sensation through the administration of a spanking or something similar.
Yeah. There are lots of ways to do it. Like for people who enjoy bondage. Something that most people would consider abhorrent, they wouldn’t like it. For people who like bondage, that gives them the freedom to let go. A lot of times people can’t play and have fun in a dungeon unless they are shackled or bound or they have to be tied up. That gives them permission, in their heads, to enjoy what otherwise might be considered deviant.
You mentioned your history which has been with the leather community. What is the difference between Leather and Kink?
I think the difference between Leather and BDSM – I think they are aspects of the same thing, but I think Leather probably has a little more fetish to it. You will hear people say that Leather is all about honor and discipline and rules and that’s really not true.
When I got into Leather, it was the hyper-masculinity that I was attracted to. Guys dressed in leather jackets and hats and vests and chaps and all that kind of stuff; reminded me of Tom of Finland growing up, or Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” So it was hyper-masculine. And that’s what attracted me to it.
As a gay man, that’s what I was looking for anyway. I wasn’t looking for androgyny or a feminine look. I was looking for guys that look masculine in the traditional sense.
In fact in Leather, it’s almost masculine in a stereotypical sense. But that stereotype is a turn on. So the difference to me is, the Leather element of it has to do with a look and a feel and the way that you interact with one another.
In the Leather clubs and the Leather community I think people interact with one another on a level in which they care about each other as a community. I know people who play in BDSM without a community. I’m not saying that people who don’t identify as Leather are not sincere, but I think the sincerity of community is part of what might be different. There are Kinksters and a Kink community too, but I think Leather is a little bit stronger.
I hear people say Leather is all about honor and tradition and trust. The way the honor and trust came about is because when you’re playing with someone – and when I say play, I mean doing BDSM activities with someone – if I am going to let someone let someone tie me up and whip me, I have to trust them. How I do that is by finding out what their reputation is. I talk to other people and they tell me if they are honorable or not. And if they’re honorable, that’s fine. If they aren’t, then you have to approach with caution.
So I think that’s where that came from, that honor part of it. The regalia and all the rest that you see in Leather clubs really came from motorcycle clubs and military. They co-oped and bought into it, because Leather started after the end of World War II, and they grew out of that.
You’ve written about your journey as a Christian Leatherman in “Soul of a Second Skin.” Do you think that BDSM can be a religious or spiritual experience for some people?
Yes. The experiences that I have in the dungeon playing with people (or where ever) – we connect on a level that I can only describe as spiritual. There’s no religiosity involved in it, but there is a deep connection. To me those kinds of connections enter the realm of the spiritual.
It also has to do with love. I tell people when I play – they say, “How could you beat someone?” I say, “I don’t just beat somebody, that’s not what it’s about. Or I don’t just put needles in them, that’s not what it’s about.” What it’s about is we are both mutually going to a place where we have a peak experience together. An erotic experience that is good for both of us. And at the same time, I always remember that I’m playing with human being, and I try to do it from a standpoint of love. Because that’s part of why I’m doing it. I’m trying to give them the enjoyment; they’re trying to give me the enjoyment. It’s a mutual love that way.
So to me that’s a big part of power exchange. And the leather part of it is where it comes into Christianity. Love is a big part of that religion. In my understanding of Christianity, “Love your neighbor” is the prime directive, and I think you can incorporate that in just about everything you do. You can see it when you play in a good scene, when the partners really love each other. It doesn’t mean that they have a relationship for a long time, but in that scene, if there is a mutual love, respect, and understanding the scene becomes transcending. Amazing. I’m getting really whohoo on you there.
No, I understand completely the experience that you’re speaking about. Is there something you want me to mention that we haven’t covered?
I just got back from Washington DC, from the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit. I’m a chairman on the board of Woodhull and we are trying to assure that sexual freedom is basic human right. That’s our mission.
What I would hope would come across is – you know we have this movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” coming out in February, and just like the book it’s going to open the eyes of a lot of people. Granted, the book is fairly unrealistic and I didn’t think it was a very good book, but it did give people a starting place to talk. It gave people a place to understand a little bit about what BDSM, S&M, Master/slave relationships are really like. These different alternative relationships. I think what we are going to get is a flood of people out in February who will come in and a lot will be sexual tourists who will be looking around to see something titillating, then they’ll go away. But there will be some that will stay. There will be a new influx and it will bring in new blood. And that’s one thing that’s always been important, is to have younger people who understand it and take it to the next level; who explore new avenues for play.
When I got into the Leather scene, what was considered fringe and on the edge today is considered tame. I’m not saying that we’re trying to top ourselves and go with something more extreme, but as sexual outlaws – which I think Leathermen and some Kinksters are – we’re always probing in the darkness for something. How far can sex go? How far can sexuality go? What are the fringes of this? If we can see that, what can we find there we might find pleasurable that might be mutally satisfying? Not “how far can we go” for the sake of going there, but to find something that is mutually satisfying? That has always been where the frontier of sexuality is.
The transgender community has opened up and entered into the BDSM community quite profoundly. I think gender is one of the things that is on the frontier. I think people don’t talk about it enough to understand. What is gender? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? I think it’s important, and those discussions are being started in the Kink community because we are open about a lot of things.
A lot of what we do is about communication. When you play with someone, you have to communicate with them. They have to trust you, and know that you’re going to take them where they want to go and you’re not going to exceed their boundaries and you’re going to be safe, and there’s going to be an element of titillation and fear, but underlying that there’s a confidence and a trust. I think because of that we communicate better than most vanilla people.
If vanilla people – and by vanilla I mean people who are not kinky – communicated as well about sex and as well about what they want out of something as people in the Leather and Kink communities do, there’d be a lot less need for counselors and sexual counseling. Relationships would be better. In BDSM, negotiations begin at the beginning of the scene and until the end. It may not be verbal, but all through it there is negotiation. There is checking-in. There’s stuff at play in the communication between partners. And that is magical.
That is what makes it attractive for me, and it’s one of the things Kink can bring to the general community. If people can learn that kind of communication beyond the dungeon and just take it into their bedrooms, and into their relationships, the world would be a better place. I really believe that.
Mr. Haberman is an author, filmmaker, educator, and speaker on LGBT, Kink, and the Leather lifestyle, as well as a chairperson for Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from National Leather Association International. His written works include “The Family Jewels,” which is an exploration into male genitorture, “Playing with Pain,” and “Soul of a Second Skin," in which he speaks about his journey as a leatherman in the context of his Christian faith. He has also directed two films, the award-winning documentary “Leather” in 1996, and “Out of the Darkness: The Reality of SM” in 2001.
Cover art by Chelsea Bartlett