Love and Leather: What’s your safe word?

By Arts & Culture Reporter

Between the notorious smut of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the leather-laden imagery of a plethora of pop-stars like Rihanna, Madonna and Lady Gaga, BDSM—once an underground phenomenon—has penetrated the mainstream culture, though public reactions still vary.

BDSM—variously known as kink, leather or fetish—is a catch-all term for lifestyles and sexual practices that involve bondage and discipline (B&D), domination and submission (D&S) or sadism and masochism (S&M).

Chester Munro, 2010 winner of the annual Mr. Chicago Leather Contest, first encountered the leather community when he visited The Eagle—a former Chicago leather bar—15 years ago. Since then, BDSM has been a cornerstone of Munro’s life, he said.

Now, Munro lives with his husband and a “boy”—an adult male who acts as a third-party to their marriage. The boy is more than 18 years old and does not wish to be identified, Munro said.

“My boy is specifically my boy. He’s not our boy,” Munro said. “There is a certain amount of sex he is required to have with me that he is not required to have with [my husband], but if the two of them want to play, I am OK with that.”

Prior to beginning his relationship with his boy, Munro developed a written contract, which outlined a protocol for communication, responsibilities and boundaries. These guidelines helped clarify the nature of the relationship and prevent unnecessary strife, Munro said.

However, Munro is no disciplinarian.

“I tend to be on the easy side of things. [My boy] isn’t cleaning house or touching my heels all day,” he said. “I’m a daddy, not a sir.”

Munro switches between sleeping in his husband’s bed and his boy’s bed every other night. He said it is important to him that his boy has his own space.

While the relationship between Munro and his boy is casual, other relationships may be more severe. Munro differentiated between the varying levels of discipline present in “daddy-boy” relationships, “sir-boy” relationships and “master-slave” relationships.

“I always say that I can’t manage my own checkbook, so I really don’t want to manage your life,” he said.

Munro’s lifestyle has raised a few eyebrows, but he said his three-way relationship has been tremendously beneficial to his marriage.

“It’s been great. We travel together. We even [were with] with my boy’s family on Thanksgiving,” he said.

Head Mistress Desiree from The Continuum Chicago, a professional BDSM dungeon located at the intersection of Lake and Wells streets, observed a similar disconnect between public perception of her personal life and its actual content.

“I don’t have a lot of time to entertain what other people think,” she said. “Today I’m going to make homemade lasagna and bread from scratch, and I bet that doesn’t fit in with a lot of peoples’ images of how a mistress spends her days.”

Victoria Shannon, an adjunct professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department who teaches “Gay and Lesbian Studies,” said the terminology now employed is a modern development, and human behavior has exhibited a tendency toward BDSM since the dawn of time. Images of ritual flagellations and religious ceremonies that merged ecstasy and agony can be found on ancient Etruscan frescoes. More prominently, the term “sadism” was derived from the name of 18th century French writer the Marquis de Sade.

“It really only takes a cursory review of literature or a basic historical analysis of sexuality to see that people have had the desire to engage in all kinds of sexuality for as long as history has been recorded,” said Rick Storer, executive director at The Leather Archives, a Chicago museum dedicated to BDSM history and culture. “It’s always been there.”

Still, practitioners of BDSM-related activities and lifestyles have drawn medical and legal scrutiny.

Prior to 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified BDSM-related activity as a paraphilia or deviance, according to Susan Wright, spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. As a result, those who participated in the BDSM community could have lost their jobs or had the custody of their children revoked.

Additionally, accidental injuries that occur as a result of consensual BDSM-practice are often subject to mandatory report by medical professionals, Wright said. Because of this, those in need of medical assistance must either forgo treatment for fear of stigma or take the risk of provoking wholly unnecessary assault charges.

From 2008–2013 the NCSF fronted the DSM revision project, which succeeded in convincing the APA to drop the references to BDSM practices as paraphilias from the updated DSM-5.

“It has made a huge difference,” Wright said. “We have seen discrimination truly start to decline.”

The Leather Archives has also been involved in efforts to preserve BDSM culture.

Chuck Renslow co-founded The Leather Archives with Tony Debassé in 1991 to preserve collections of BDSM paraphernalia, artifacts and documents that were left behind by members of the gay community lost to the AIDS epidemic, Storer said.

“As these people were dying, their uninformed families were coming in and finding these collections that evidenced their secret kink and fetish lifestyles, and they would throw them out,” Storer said. “Chuck Renslow and others in the leather community saw this happening and decided they had to stop it so these collections could be saved, rather than going in a dumpster.”

Korey McWilliams, a sex counselor at Center for Personal Development and an adjunct professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, said despite myriad cultural misconception, research suggests people who partake in BDSM lifestyles do not usually suffer from post-trauma or struggle with violent tendencies. In fact, many members of the BDSM community are more well-balanced and stable than others.

“One of the ways in which the kink community is a role model is through communication,” McWilliams said. “[The kink community’s] ability to express their needs and desires and give feedback about their experience is a model for all relationships.”

Munro stressed that before any BDSM “scene” takes place, an extensive conversation is held between the participants in which boundaries, expectations and protocol are established—everything is done with complete consent. Most importantly, a safe word is chosen. If at any point during the scene the safe word is spoken, the activity stops immediately.

Brad Sagarin, professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, documented the effects of sadomasochistic practices on couples by measuring the levels of cortisol and testosterone in their saliva before, during and after BDSM sessions in his 2009 study “Hormonal Changes and Couple Bonding in Consensual Sadomasochistic Activity,” published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, an academic journal on sexology. His findings consistently evidenced that intimacy and trust were enhanced by these practices.

Widespread recognition of these elements has led to efforts to reclaim BDSM as a healthy psychological expression, which can allow for self-realization and even facilitate personal healing, McWilliams said.

“I think there’s more to come,” McWilliams said. “Middle America is going to start to say, ‘Oh, I do like being spanked during sex-play’ or ‘Yeah, I like being blindfolded’, and then they’re going to say, ‘That’s BDSM?’”

Head Mistress Desiree noted that, though not exclusively, The Continuum Chicago’s demographic is primarily white-collar.

“They’re married to the right women, they have a membership to the right country club [and] their kids go to the right schools,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re in a position to do anything terribly freaky.”

Munro concurred that BDSM is already more common than the public thinks.

“It’s not just sex clubs,” Munro said. “A good deal of your neighbors are probably doing this stuff in their bedrooms next to you. The difference is a room rate!”

Munro also noted that even 15 years ago, the leather community was relatively private. However, the International Mr. Leather convention is now held annually—Beginning next on May 27, 2016—and the public is far less reactionary to the sight of men and women in BDSM attire.

“There are always going to be a few lookie-lous, but for the most part, everyone in the city shrugs,” he said. “We don’t want to chase them down the street with a riding crop and a dog mask on—You just keep walking; I have things to do in the hotel.”