S/M: THE NEW ROMANCE
Cruelty Without Pain

GAY COMMUNITY NEWS, Vol. 2, No. 30
by Michael Bronski

I've never met you
But never doubt, dear
I can't forget you
I thought you out dear
I knows your profile
And I know the way you kiss
--just the thing I miss
On a night like this
(All lyrics from "Isn't It Romantic?" by Lorenz Hart)


Since the dawning of this age of AIDS, there has been a plethora of articles in the gay press claiming that the very fear of death has signaled a resurgence of the long-forgotten idea of "romance" in gay life. People, they insisted, have stopped fucking around. They are dating now, involved in stable monogamous relationships, celebrating their anniversaries with the same regularity that used to go into planning visits to the VD clinic. Suddenly, they claim, gay men have outgrown their sexual adolescence and are now living in the adult world. And surprise of surprises, it's not only healthier but more romantic, to boot.

Many people have changed their sexual and relationship patterns, and yet, I think these writers are wrong. Not that there hasn't been a romantic revival there has. But not for the reasons they think of with the strategies they've assumed. Being afraid of AIDS may make you change your lifestyle, but it is hardly likely to make you romantic. Dating as we all know from high school--is almost always fraught with insecurities and disappointments. Long-term relationships--rewarding or not are usually a lot of hard work. And celebrating anniversaries is a lot of fun, until you wake up hung over the next morning. No. Romance may be back, but if a rash of gay fiction titles indicate anything, the old "moon and June," candlelight dinners, and tinkling pianos have been replaced with whips and chains, hot wax, black leather and piss-soiled jock straps. The new romance is S/M.

I want to state before I go any further that I am not just saying this to be obnoxious. Or even paradoxical. If we look at the history of romance, of how it has functioned in our cultural lives, and even in our personal lives, it makes perfect sense that we end up with what we have today. The association of the much-touted concept of romance with the much-maligned concept of sado-masochism is not oxymoronic, or even perverse. The simple fact is that romance" has finally come out of the closet.

The very word "romance" conjures up certain images: the moonlit night, the lazy, pastoral idyll, the enchanted evening when you meet a stranger, etc., etc., etc. But these images are moments, frozen in the popular imagination like snapshots to be remembered and treasured. And like all snapshots, indeed, like all picture albums, they do not tell the whole story. Only the nice parts.

The etymology of the word "romance" is complicated and involved, but it is safe to say that the word was used to describe a genre of medieval literature which was concerned with love (both sacred and profane) and all of the details and problems which attended that love. Think of The Romance of the Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris or Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances. From these earliest times, "romance" was closely connected with not only love, but more importantly, earning that love. As time went on, the world became less religious and more secular, but the notion of an earned" love remained. Even in Hollywood the idea still exists: "Boy meets girl; boy loses girl, boy gets girl." And although we've gone some way from that heterosexual mold, you still don't have a good story until you have that middle part when problems arise and someone is hurt. There is, and has been for some 250 years, an entire fiction market from Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1741) to Falling in Love, with Meryl Streep (1984) which is predicated upon love's having a hard time and millions of eyes awash in tears. The road to love is never easy, they say. But who would have thought that gay male S/M would have created a world in which getting there is half the fun.

Homosexuals have been as obsessed with romance for better or worse as heterosexuals. Victorian homosexual literature is fraught with the trials of love, clearly a reflection of the real oppression in the real world. But like their straight counterparts, they were also getting off on the misery of love. In Teleny, written in 1893 and attributed by some to the pen of Oscar Wilde (although one hopes for his reputation it is proven to l,)e by someone else), this pre-S/M, yet torturous, pattern is beginning to emerge as our narrator finds his erstwhile love has plunged a dagger into his own heart:

"Oh, Teleny, why did you kill yourself?" I moaned.
"Could you have doubted my forgiveness, my love?"
He evidently heard me, and tried to speak, but I could not catch the slightest sound.
"No, you must not die, I cannot part with you, you are my very life."...
The people aghast, stood at a distance, staring at the dreadful sight.
Teleny again moved his lips.
"Hush! Silence! I whispered, sternly. "He speaks!"
I felt racked at not being able to understand a single word of what he wanted to say. After several fruitless attempts I managed to make out--
"Forgive!" [p. 173]

Pretty heavy. Not to mention all of those exclamation marks. It is clear that the love in Teleny is inextricably bound up with the suffering.

That eternally postponed triumph of love over suffering is what makes romance. It is the story which connects all of those snapshots, makes them into a cohesive whole, and most importantly, lets us relate to them emotionally. Is it possible that we cannot relate to a simple feeling of "love" as romance? Pure love is a state of being, a place of consciousness. For people to relate to something--especially in any concrete form, such as a novel--it has to be presented as a narrative. And in life, as in art, 'love" and "suffer" go hand in hand, giving us romance.

Isn't it romantic?
Music in the night, a dream that can be heard
Isn't it romantic?
Moving shadows write the oldest magic word.
Hear the breezes playing in the trees above
While all the world is saying: You were meant for love"
Isn't it romantic?
Merely to be young on such a night as this
Isn't it romantic?
Every note that's sung is like a lover's kiss.
Sweet symbols in the moonlight
Do they mean that I will fall in love; perchance--
Isn't it romance?

Literature is always a good barometer of the pulse of popular imagination, and pornography is a good indicator, not only of what gets you hot but of what's on your mind, as well. A great deal of gay male pornography in the 1960s was an imitation of heterosexual love and lust tales. They were True Romance, except that everyone had cocks and you found out exactly what they did in bed. Besides many of them being poorly written, and as excruciatingly sentimental as Teleny half a century before, they committed the worst sin in the porno game: they were unimaginative.

Somewhere towards the end of that decade, appeared a series of literate, humorous and intelligent porn novels which stood out, with alarming clarity, from tile average garden variety. Written by Samuel Steward under the pseudonym of Phil Andros (lover of man, get it?), they immediately garnered a cult following. But for all of their wit, insight and well-formed sentences, their popularity rested upon an even more startling quality: they not only skirted, but jumped right into the world of leather and S/M.

Now that all of the Phil Andros stories are being reissued 16 years later, they no longer seem as adventuresome or as shocking as they did in the late 1960s. The wit and finely tuned writing are still evident, but we have become used to the book's milieu, to the original boldness of their outlaw sexuality. But whatever that loss, there is also a gain. What once may have seemed shocking now seems somewhat sweet.

Andros, the first-person narrator throughout the series, is a good-natured hustler with a terrific body and an extensive knowledge of literature. He is able to quote and critique Keats and Whitman, as well as turn a trick, play top and bottom, or talk his way out of a sticky situation with the police. This happy hooker persona was a fine way for author Steward to examine what was once considered the more outre expanses of gay life; The Tom of Finland covers on the new editions are perfect illustrations of what is to come: all tight jeans, leather jackets, and sculpted physiques. Being a hustler puts Andros on the fringes of accepted sexuality. Because he is a hustler, it is a given that a lot of his sexual encounters involve some form of role playing: nothing extraordinary, just within the plain facts of the business. In Roman Conquests he plies his trade in the eternal city, meeting a series of men who range from sweet (but kinky) to the slightly dangerous (but kinky). In Shuttlecock he takes in a drifter who becomes the embodiment of Andros's most powerful and dangerous sexual fantasies: a straight-identified cop.

Many of the Andros stories read like sexually explicit, story-book romps sort of The Bobbsey Twins Go to the City and Fuck; they all, and Shuttlecock especially, have a dark side. For all of their sex-positiveness and upbeat affirmation of gay life, Steward is always aware of the dangerous side of sexuality, the obsessions which haunt the underside of acceptable sexuality. But rather than pushing the average reader away, it is precisely these qualities, these experiences which make the books so compelling.

Andros is the arch romantic. He falls in love with or at least in serious lust with most of the men he meets. He is hardly ever looking for Mr. Right, because most of the men he meets are (or could be) Mr. Right. But at the same time, it is these dangerous elements which heighten the romance of the stories. The tricks who want to be abused, who want to dominate Phil's body, or who want to learn how to be hustlers themselves, are all part of the dualistic and romantic scheme of Phil's life. His lovers are cops, workmen soldier, gangsters, revealing Phil's middle-class equation of working-class men with powerful and fearful eroticism. In some way this sought-after danger, this playing around with the darker elements of sexuality, both in Andros' book and in our present S/M fascination, is perhaps a way to recreate in a safe, controlled setting those intense feelings of threatened eroticism which have become so identified with romance.

If dreams are made of imagination
I'm not afraid of my own creation
With all my heart, my heart is here to take
Why should I quake? I'm not awake.

The Andros books went further than anything did for their time. They presented an open sexuality which reveled in almost anything, without guilt and without commitments. Reflective of the 1960s, theirs was a vision of self-fulfillment through extensive social interaction (i.e., fucking around a lot). Like the poetry of Walt Whitman they looked to the open road to hear American singing of the body electric. It is a world of "moving shadows" and "breezes playing in the trees," of romantic possibilities and the promise of endless, as well as better and better, sex.

Adventurous for their time, the Phil Andros books no longer have the capacity to shock us. Perhaps we have become more jaded, perhaps more mature, in what we will be willing to accept as heighteners of our romantic instincts and imaginations.

Brought by a secret charm or by my heart's command
My prince will ride in armor just to kiss my hand--
Isn't it romantic?
He will heed my call and bend his royal knee


I saw my own reflection is his black eyes, eyes shiny as mirrors.
My own face was just like his! Hard and intense and powerful as I fucked him. I wasn't like a slave or a dog. I was like a man. Like my sergeant, like the two corporals. There was no submissiveness in my face now, only raw power. Only pure lust! [p. 159]

There is an epilogue to the book where the nameless young man meets the sergeant in a bar, many years later, and they go home together. And although it is sort of sweet it feels tagged on, extra. The real point of the story is that he has discovered his own self and his own capabilities.

Isn't it romantic?
Merely to be young on such a night as this
Isn't it romantic?
Every note that's sung is like a lover's kiss.
Sweet cymbals in the moonlight
Do they mean that I will fall in love; perchance--
Isn't it romance?

John Preston's Mr. Benson was first serialized in Drummer magazine and drew a loyal following. The story revolves around the efforts of a young man names Jamie to prove himself to the man with whom he has fallen in love. Mr. Benson is a highly idealized top who demands that his younger lover make himself acceptable both physically and mentally. There are the usual trails in the S/M genre--torture, separation, etc.--all of which lead Jamie on the course of true love. A great deal of Mr. Benson is very explicit, violent sexuality, but the innate romanticism comes through at the end. Jamie chained to a brick wall, spread-eagle while Mr. Benson does something to his chest:

There, through the slowing flow of blood, I saw a glint again, but too bright to be metal. Mr. Benson came over and slightly wiped away the remaining blood. And there, underneath was a gold bar cut through my nipple. On either end was a small, glittering diamond. I looked up in wonder at Mr. Benson.

"I guess we're hitched now, asshole," he said.

There is actually something disconcerting about such a traditional, even sappy, ending of a hot, pornographic novel. The reader has been so carried away by the extremes of S/M sexuality that such maudlin sentiment seems particularly out of place. It is as though Preston was not able to completely reconcile the means to the end. But it is this yoking together of extremes which makes the novel work so well. You cannot have one without the other, and the archetypal characters fit in perfectly with the extremes of the action. In a very real sense this is a radical revisioning of sexuality within the confines of the traditional romance.

Preston is less convincing in his Once I Had a Master. Here, where the stories are more real, there is less divergence between reality and character.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, not only the culture but sexual interests changed also. The gay liberation movement had promoted an open, playful sexuality which encouraged breaking away from the old restrictions and taboos. The Phil Andros books were clearly a manifestation of this: positive, yet daring to push the limits, concerned with promoting a vision of a healthy, sexual world. But this vision began to change somewhat. It was still predicated on sexuality being open, important and vital, but it had become more personal, less social--more concerned with the self in relationship to distinct others, instead of to a larger social world. A symbol of this change can be seen in the wider interest in, and expression of, S/M.

For the past ten years, S/M iconography has been on the rise and has sparked the curiosity and the eroticism of gay men. Levi and leather bars have proliferated, magazines such as Drummer, Honcho and Dungeon Master have become commercial successes, and finally, explicit S/M themes have emerged in gay novels.

S/M pornography is nothing new. There were titles containing it being published 20 years ago; it was present in the Phil Andros books, and it has become more available, and more explicit, over the past five years. What is new, however, is that small gay presses many of them with distinctly political outlooks have begun publishing high-quality S/M fiction. Alternate Publishing has released Mason Powell's The Brig and John Preston's Mr. Benson, Boston's Allyson Publications has collected Preston's short fiction in Once I Had a Master, and Gay Sunshine will have a double dose of Jack Fritscher in Leather Blues and Corporal In Charge of Taking Care of Captain O'Malley. What all of these books have in common is not just that they are filled with graphic, explicit descriptions of S/M activity, but that they are unabashedly romantic in a truer sense than are most other books aimed at gay audiences.

For some not familiar with porn, or S/M, flipping through these volumes must be unsettling. Page after random page presents the eye with torture, whips and chains, beatings, piercings, degradation, submission and just plain old roughhousing. And in fact, although these books may be about romance, they are filled with sex. Sex is the means to the end; it is the activity through which the characters find both themselves and their relationships. And because the sex here is almost always connected with violence, it falls totally into the category of "earned" love or eroticism. Like in the medieval romances, it has had to overcome a great deal in order to finally bloom and flourish.

Flannery O'Connor has written: "Violence is a force that can be used for good or evil, and among the things taken by it is the Kingdom of Heaven." Although this sentiment is a little too close to O'Connor's religiosity for my taste, its basic sentiment is perfectly compatible with these novels. Instead of "the kingdom of heaven," these tales are concerned more with the exhalation of the body and the heightened experience of both sexuality and romance. Violence S/M is the means to that end; it is the cathartic which both stimulates and encourages.

The plots in these novels are essentially the same ;he plot of all romances: the endless quest. Each book is the story of a seeker, a young man on a quest who must overcome the trials and tribulations to prove himself worthy. Sometimes this proof is meant for himself, other times for someone else. In either case it is about earning self-respect and love. In The Brig the seeker is a young nameless man who wants to be discharged from the navy for reasons of conscience. Before his discharge he has to spend time in the eponymous brig. While in confinement he is put through the most extraordinary physical and mental exercises, all of which seem to be aimed at controlling him sexually. When we-finish the novel, it becomes clear that the effect of this activity has been to reinforce and reaffirm the young man's sexuality. His relationship with his captors is complex, and at the end of the book he begins to undergo his transformation: Preston had proven himself a romantic in Mr. Benson, he has repeated himself, in a less interesting way, here. Like the Phil Andros stories, these tales only skirt S/M; they play with it and what we are left with are nice, romantic stories which, while well written, are unexceptional.

Leather Blues by Jack Fritscher is an old buddy-buddy love story; there is the explicit sexuality and the theme of the younger man learning from the older. It is also a masculine version of true love, this time between equals, both of whom have learned to love themselves and one another.

Denny wrapped his legs around Chuck's legs. Their naked pecs touched nipple to nipple. Their cocks were grinding into each other. They wrestled in muscled arm embrace.

There wasn't much sleep for them that night. [p. 91]

Once again it is the traditional romance, the one-on-one pairing, which defines the relationship of the book. And it is the S/M relationship with which the author redefines the characters' sexuality to make it acceptable and interesting to contemporary audiences. Looking at all of these novels, it is clear that their popularity is due to the fact that gay men love to read about romance. But it is also clear that the traditional constructs in which romance is presented are no longer very interesting. Readers want their sexuality reaffirmed, and graphically drawn, and by presenting an S/M sexuality in the confines of romantic tradition, these books are able to give both at the same time. It is the S/M which makes the emotional content more varied and vital. It is the romance which makes the more frightening aspects of S/M palatable and easier to deal with.

Corporal In Charge of Taking Care of Captain O'Malley by Fritscher is perhaps the best book of the lot. It is a collection of short pieces, all of which deal with S/M and individual consciousness. Like Genet's work, these are essentially masturbatory fantasies which deal in a closed world of the imagination. They are as violent, cruel and explicit as any of the other writing and as romantic. But while it is clear that the other writers are talking about romance as a fantasy, Fritscher is actually talking about the fantasy of romance. His work is not romantic per se, but rather, is about how we think and talk about sex and romance. It is about the process rather than the product.

In Heartbreak House George Bernard Shaw has Hesione Hushabye say: "Yes, cruelty would be delicious if one could only find some sort of cruelty which didn't hurt." Perhaps the obsession with, the playing around with, and the acting out of S/M fantasies in both real life and pornography is a way of having this cruelty without the pain. It is a way of acting out, and revitalizing, our basic romantic urges in a context we ourselves create and control, and also a way to explore and expand our sexualities and our lives and minds beyond what is acceptable, a way to keep anchored to tradition so that we can go out of ourselves, without ever losing ourselves.

Isn't it romantic?
He'll be strong and tall and
Yet a slave to me.
Sweet lover of my fancy,
Will you ever come to life
to love, perchance--
Isn't it romance?

©Michael Bronski

Copyright 2007 by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED