The cover of this anthology (complete with a moody photo of a dude in a leather harness over smooth, muscular flesh) looks both obvious and subject to interpretation. What is leather? Literally, it’s the treated skin of cattle, a substance with a variety of textures and a certain presence which distinguishes it from synthetic imitations.
Symbolically, leather can signify the range of activities summed up as bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism. “Leather” has been called a lifestyle, a code of honor and a culture with roots in outlaw gangs as well as in all-male military organizations. “Leather” as a deep-down urge to dominate or to submit is suggested in the negotiation scene of a story in this collection, “Willing” by Xan West. A topman describes his conversation with a breathless “boy:”
“His brown eyes stay fixed on the knife as I move toward him. I tease his lip with the tip of it and then speak softly.
‘How black do you flag?’
His eyes stay on the blade. He swallows.
‘Very black, on the right, Sir.’”
A black handkerchief on the right signals a desire to submit to extreme play—in this case, blood sports.
Few of the stories in this collection are “very black” in an SM sense, but actual leather appears in every one. In some stories, leather signifies masculine self-reliance, as in pioneer communities, and in other stories, it is the uniform of a 21st-century urban crowd with its own language and territory.
Simon Sheppard, as editor, shows his characteristic wit, both in his selection of stories by other authors and in his own poignant, post-AIDS leather-initiation story, “The Village Person.” Usually I have qualms about editors who include their own work in an anthology, but in this case, the editor’s story deserves to be in good company.
“Exposed,” the first story in the book, describes a gay man’s first submissive experience in a leather bar. It was written by the legendary Aaron Travis a.k.a. Steven Saylor, and first published in 1987, when it probably looked more groundbreaking than it does now. Initiation stories about “coming out” into a new sexual identity have become a well-worn tradition, but most of the stories in this collection tweak the leather code in new ways.
If the editor—whose essays are as engaging as his erotica—had explained the influence of Aaron Travis as a kind of “daddy” to a later generation of writers in the field, the relationship of the stories in this book would have been clearer. As a reviewer who can never get too much of Simon Sheppard’s writing, I would have liked to read an introduction summarizing this anthology.
All the stories in this book are competently-written, but some are airbrushed fantasies featuring characters who could have been drawn by Tom of Finland, while others are slices of real life featuring flawed, touchingly-honest men. Several of the stories describe the nonconsensual but well-deserved punishment of “bad boys.” Some describe male-on-male leathersex as emotional therapy.
A note on cocks: there are many of them in this book, as any reader might expect. Most are permanently attached to their wearers, but not all. (There is a transman here, as well as various phallic toys.) The loving descriptions of the definitive male sex organ indicate its various moods and significance. The cocks in these stories suggest intimidating power as well as sensitivity and vulnerability. Two cocks together, especially when exposed to each other for the first time, seem to trigger a shifting combination of empathy and rivalry. Often described as “meat,” these organs can only be ironically compared to sausages on a plate. Each one in this meat-market has its own personality.
Several of these stories are notable for their local color. These include Simon Sheppard’s, Bill Brent’s and horehound stillpoint’s tales of San Francisco as a gay-male mecca, Shane Allison’s story of an interracial encounter in a “southern gothic” house, Elazarus Wills’ story of a dusty but magical small town in Kansas, and Jeff Mann’s ballad of very closeted leathermen in rural Virginia, a kind of response to Brokeback Mountain.
Shaun Levin and Thom Wolf play with British stereotypes. Levin’s “master” is an impeccable English gentleman, while Wolf’s “rent pig” is a scruffy young man who grows up on the wrong side of the law.
Wolf’s story, “Community Punishment: The Story of a British Rent Pig,” is a first-person revenge fantasy told by a probation officer who first meets Callum when he is a “sixteen-year-old fuck-up, one of the first cases allocated to me in the Young Offenders Department.” Callum disappears from the narrator’s care, only to reappear as a “rent boy,” available to any man for a price.
The narrator’s cold-blooded lust is more disturbing, at least to me, than that of any other character in the book:
“You dumb, horny, desperate fool, I thought as I fed him the juices of his rectum on my fingers. That single act was enough to convince me that this was a boy who would do absolutely anything to survive. He probably had, hundreds of times before. . . The notion thrilled me. I could do anything I wanted to this screwed-up cunt and he’d allow it.”
The narrator’s hunger to punish a broken young man seems bottomless, so to speak. By the end of the story, he is just getting started.
“Bootlegger” by Thomas Roche also describes a young hustler facing his comeuppance at the hands of older and tougher men, but the tongue-in-cheek tone suggests that there is no real hatred here. What happens in “the leather bar’s upstairs office. . . furnished in Late Post-Sleaze” seems to satisfy everyone involved.
“Capture, Test and Sell” by Christopher Pierce is another nonconsensual fantasy, as the title suggests, but the captured “prey” turns out to be more willing than his captor expects when he first picks him out of a crowd.
One of the stories about leathersex as a form of healing is by the only woman in the book, Alana Noel Voth, who also has a BDSM story in I is for Indecent (reviewed here previously). Voth’s story in Leathersex, “Salvation,” begins dramatically:
“Life, like death, came with a bang. With one laced-up black boot, this guy kicked a door open, then barged into a public bathroom, bleeding on the floor.”
The bleeder, who introduces himself as Steely Dan because he supposedly has balls of steel, seems at first to be more of a victim than the narrator, who was traumatized before Steely Dan burst into his life. By the end of the story, these two have formed a quirky and surprisingly nurturing bond.
The authors of these stories clearly know the score, and several of them satirize a too-rigid approach to “leather” as the lifestyle of Real Men without trashing the culture in general. In “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?” by Karl von Uhl, three older leathermen discuss changing times:
“’These younger people, they confuse everything,’ said Master Richard.
‘And none of them want to join the clubs,’ said Terry.
‘No, of course not, they can’t be bothered,’ said Master Richard.
‘The clubs will always be there,’ said Wade.
‘Not if nobody joins them,’ said Terry.”
The older men agree that educating novices is the way to keep leather culture alive. Meanwhile, they take turns “making a man” of an eager sissy-boy by blindfolding, shaving, plugging, paddling and flogging him.
This book could appeal to readers who “flag” in a variety of colors and positions. The culture of gay leathermen seems to have evolved over time, and most of these stories show a refreshing maturity