March/April 2001
Coming Out
Author Unknown

Remember those swashbuckling pirate movies of your youth? The ones that had the hero (or villain, for that matter) bound, spread-eagled, to the rigging, being whipped to within an inch of his life. At the time, it didn't seem like a very wholesome way to take a tropical cruise. But it was mystifyingly exciting. We always liked to see the hero win in the end; but the images of those bodies being abused (some tanned and/or muscular; others helpless and desperately in need of being saved) would stay with us for a long time.

Fast forward to your first sexual awareness. Those teen years when you went through the motions of being a good boy or girl, dating as you were supposed to, but sneaking into the drugstore to find magazines with pictures of men and women that seemed to mean a lot more than just a nice set of muscles. At the time, some of us were inexplicably, drawn towards bikers on their Harleys. Was it the bikes? Was it the leather? Or just the idea of being down and dirty?

Others among us liked ritual and ceremony. Perhaps we never even associated them with something a bit, a lot deeper.

The evolution from admiring and getting that unexplained feeling from the sights in films or magazines to actually touching those bodies takes many years for some of us. Others are fortunate enough to pass through the phase in a matter of weeks or months. It takes one through quite a bit of mental trauma. "Should I, shouldn't I? I want to so much...."

Some people had intense feelings of shame and guilt that they had a form of unnatural perversion. This led some of them to bury their SM feelings, and hide the ones they did acknowledge. There was a kind of puritan feeling that we should not enjoy ourselves too much, particularly with such "perverted" activities. At this stage of our coming out into SM, we were not yet sufficiently confident of our sexuality. It is a stage similar to that of homosexual men and women who know their sexual orientation, but are not yet ready to accept it fully; not yet ready to equate "kinky" with a healthy sex life.

The descriptions above and below summarize the experiences of a typical gay man into SM and leather, as described by David Stein in Leatherfolk (adapted with permission). Lesbians and bisexual and heterosexual men and women who like SM were also out there looking for that special something; and having many similar feelings.

In society at large, there is a great deal of pressure to conform, or at least to be seen to conform. Often, this causes those coming out into SM to hide their sexuality, which further damages their self-confidence and self-esteem. Our city of Toronto has been rated by at least one UNESCO survey to be the most culturally diverse city in the world. We speak over 140 languages here. Yet it is outwardly a very conservative city, and is only slowly accepting all aspects of its diversity. For example, it took more than eight weeks of wrangling with editors for one reporter to get a positive piece about SM into one of the three major newspapers.

The pressure to conform leads some people to our local institute for psychiatry, in the search for a "cure." For many of the applicants, the physicians find that, in the same way that those who want to be "cured" of homosexuality, there is really no illness, only a harmless, healthy deviation from the norm.

The phrase "coming out" is used by homosexual women and men to describe the process of accepting their homosexuality. The process of accepting that one enjoys SM follows similar patterns of fear, guilt, experimentation, and acceptance, so we use "coming out" to describe acceptance of SM feelings. Also, please note that leather does not necessarily mean SM, nor does SM necessarily mean leather. There is, however, a significant overlap.

Some homosexual men and women "came out" during the golden years of gay history, the early seventies, after Stonewall and before AIDS. It was an era of free sex and abandon for the homosexually active. Anything that could be done, was done. (A decade earlier, a similar liberation occurred for the heterosexual community.) In those days, when men went to gay bars and discos, they always went dressed in the hot look of the day: plaid shirt (or no shirt), or perhaps construction boots and hard hat. They were all construction workers (clones, as they were known). The New York pop group The Village People reflected the homosexual culture of the day. All of its members represented popular fantasy images that could be seen any night in the bars. All the fantasies could be put together without too great an expense.

In the heterosexual community, fantasies tended to be generally less well explored or expressed. (Maybe because the heterosexual men and women had not gone through a "coming out" process, thereby forced to face some very uncomfortable realities about their sexuality.) There were not many places where sexual fantasies could be freely engaged in. Images of the fantasies could readily be seen in movies, skin magazines, and even on the street. They were, however, still compelling.

Back then, fantasy played a large role in our lives. But there was something missing from the reality. That is, until we walked into a real leather or SM bar. Totally intimidated and very frightened, we summoned up the courage to fake a stumble into some hot number so that we could run our hands over one part or another of that body. We earned ourselves a scowl, thought we'd be punched or thrown out of the bar, and left. Never quite the same, we wanted to be one of those people, to fit easily and seamlessly into such an establishment.

This is when we started our "fashion awareness" phase. It was easy to become a leatherwoman or leatherman. All we had to do was buy a leather vest, maybe a pair of chaps, and act cocky. We knew we'd fit in.

And fit in we did. Many in the bars were in "leather," too; others were in lace or latex; still others in little more than chains. We would go out to the bars, get well turned on by each other, and then go home to have what has since become known as "vanilla sex." This was just what we had been doing during all those years of boredom and frustration.

But something was still missing, despite the kinky clothing. We didn't fail to notice that, although porn was hot, it was always better when someone was in bondage or being controlled in some other fashion.

If anything was going to happen, it looked like we'd have to hang around in the "serious" leather bars. Those ones that we had been so scared to go into a while back. The people there seemed to take their leather much more seriously than the leather-clad "disco queens" (to use a gay phrase). There were few leather bars, even in a big town. Finding them was perhaps easier in the homosexual community; at least they advertised themselves. Once in the bar, we could easily have been the ones who coined the phrase: S and M means Stand and Model. We were terrified of rejection and/or ridicule. We started to go to leather oriented competitions, such as the International Mr. or Ms. Leather, or leather conventions such as Living In Leather. At these events, we had wonderful, if sexless, times surrounded by some of the hottest leather people we'd ever seen. It was Stand and Model all over again. We were so afraid of being brutalized or injured if we met someone who might really give us what we thought we wanted. The trouble was that we still didn't know what we really liked or disliked. Lots was going on, but you still had to be invited to the party.

As is the case in other parts of our lives, the invitations seemed to go first to the young, the beautiful, and the reckless. You couldn't talk your way in, because bar etiquette (at the time) required that you should not ask naive questions. To do so was to admit your inexperience. This, it seemed, was a sure way to ensure that you did not get the experience you sought. So, if you didn't know the score already, you'd better be prepared to fake it, or you'd never get a chance to play.

Where were our role models and mentors to assure us that SM was OK, to show us that it could be done safely, positively, and not self-destructively? There we were, leathermen and women, full of inner inhibitions and turmoil.

Until, that is, we met our first warm, gentle, and skilled player. He or she was willing to share knowledge unconditionally, to take us gently as far as we could towards where we wanted to go. After playing once or more with this mentor, and possibly with others, we knew that a new world of eroticism, sensuality, sexuality, and fantasy had opened up for us. We would never look back.

The above could be the story of many a homosexual man into SM. The feelings experienced during the coming out process are shared by most people, but the actual process of coming out is different for lesbians and heterosexual men and women. The homosexual male community is based upon its sexuality, and, therefore, its expression tends to be more obvious in their clubs and bars.

For women, particularly homosexual women and those who are Bottoms, the potential for and reality of abuse looms large during the coming out process. And from two directions. There is the abuse itself and the prejudice of others who feel that any woman as a Bottom is being abused and/or violated, whether or not she enjoyed the play. During their coming out into SM, many women try to convince their partners to experiment by taking the role of the Top (with varying degrees of success and safety). Many of those women found that all they got was abuse or a disinterested beating. It is rare to find anyone who understands the emotional content of SM, or those feelings and yearnings that were described above.

Generally, heterosexual bars are not based specifically around their clients' sexuality. This means that finding partners in bars is nigh impossible. Feelers have to be put out until the right people (or perhaps the right sex toy stores) are found. These lead to other people and information about SM, and reassurance that SM can be practised safely and with due consideration for all parties involved.

At the beginning of our "coming out" into the SM world, we all wondered if we'd be able to experience those exceptional times that would encourage us to continue our exploration of SM, or whether we'd be put off by the whole experience. At some point, we all get at least a taste of how much pleasure we can derive from SM. Besides, that compulsion to look at fantasy in movies, that compulsion that first drove us into the bars where we could express our SM tendencies, would likely have continued to drive us until we did experience what we were searching for.

The search will be much easier if you have some play that works so well during your "coming out" into SM that you continue the search for what you want. Having the courage to ask someone, or being lucky enough to find a mentor will ensure that you finally get there.

Come with me.

I will take you places you have never been before.

I will show you things you have never seen before.

I will teach you things you have never known before.

Having tasted the glass of wine, we wanted the whole bottle.... We knew that this was what we wanted, but it raised a lot of questions:

  • What role do I play? Top or Bottom? How do I use it to have a fantastic time? Can I be Top one night and Bottom the next?
  • What techniques do I use to ensure that the play is safe? What do I avoid?
  • What are the other fetishes and activities that might turn me on, but that I've never even dreamed of?
  • How do I find and use, and safely at that, all that fascinating equipment I've seen in catalogues?
  • Is it OK to be into bondage, but not pain? Can I like mild pain but not heavy pain?
  • Is it OK to be turned on by electricity but not by flogging?
  • If I just want a little tit play and a bit of spanking, will I be thought too much of a novice?
  • Etc., etc., etc.....

During the process of coming out, the feelings of being alone, of being the only one with a need for this alternate sexuality, were abating. We still had to be careful with our friends who were not into the SM world, however. We "knew" that if we opened up to them about our desires, that they wouldn't understand. So we had to deal with the feelings of being ashamed of our fantasies and pleasures.

If one were to define a novice as someone whose SM life consisted largely of fantasy or who is still feeling some form of .about SM, then, at this point, we were novices. More and more, though, we met people who were into the same things as us; many even more so. We saw what great people they were in their own right, outside the arena of SM play. This gave us confidence that, not only were we not alone, but also that it was OK for us to come out into SM.