How individuals choose to identify is an incredibly delicate process, particularly as identity relates to sexual roles. In the kink community, we navigate profoundly complicated dynamics and, as a result, have come to a rough consensus of what certain expressions connote. This is an important part of communication, as it allows us to succinctly indicate where our interests lie in order to find like-minded individuals. While this has been effective for some time, there’s a lingering sentiment that these labels carry more weight than the individuals they are affixed to. At some point in time, the purpose of these labels seems to have shifted from communication to classification.
Leather history is an integral part of general kink’s development, and leather culture is still a significant contributor to social changes that help further acceptance of kink. Exposure and visibility are huge factors in stigma reduction, and in this way leather’s influence is unparalleled. The leather community’s continued ability to hold events that generate meaningful representatives still serves two significant functions: helping to make the community accessible to newcomers and providing examples that reduce negative stereotypes. As stigma diminishes, people begin to see things they find appealing that were overlooked when still shrouded in distaste. It’s this progress that allowed each and every one of us to even feel that initial twinge of interest; without it we would have only seen negativity instead of viability.
When we begin exploring kink, we’re thrown into something where we have very few trustable resources and where our only reliable exercise is fantasy. It’s no secret that fantasy breeds misconception, and it’s part of why few individuals will inherently understand the system leather has developed for establishing oneself as a Sir or boy. No one can start off knowing history, no one can intuit established protocol, and no one can immediately know where they fit into a spectrum they are unfamiliar with.
We all just started off with a healthy curiosity, a desire to learn, and a hope that our fantasies will eventually come true. As we pursue these new interests, it poses challenges to our identity that are apt to leave us feeling vulnerable. Many of us faced ostracization or judgement from peers, and most subs have ended up in at least one bad situation that made us doubt submission was right for us. As our experience grows, it is easy to not only forget where we came from but also that other people began their journey from different starting points. For every person who started off confident in their interests or chanced into finding an amazing chosen family early on, someone else was too intimidated by the complexity of the culture, leaving them unable to find a mentor. Leather’s insistence on policing how individuals identify leaves this latter group woefully underserved, and I personally know several (eventual) boys who avoided the community for years solely due to this attitude. What this attitude does is deny boys the opportunity to figure themselves out before being expected to fulfil the role as others see fit. It should go without saying that any boy’s dissatisfaction with this presumption is wholly justified.
No one would deny that D/s dynamics are incredibly complicated and unique, but there are primarily two variations of how boys are perceived: that boys are to have specific guidelines that must be adhered to at all times, or that “boy” covers many different stages of development and levels of protocol that need to be recognized. The most important thing to note about these two interpretations is that the former precludes the latter while the latter allows both to exist. The former tells people “you’re not good enough to call yourself that” or “you can’t sit with us,” while the latter says “good for you for exploring.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when someone’s identity is constantly scrutinized they tend to shut down; when you’re being held to standards you don’t yet understand, it isn’t exactly conducive to learning. If someone is growing comfortable enough to show to their submissive side in controlled situations it should be nurtured and cultivated, even if we don’t see the growth of that dynamic publicly.
Most of the concerns people tend to express regarding the route boyhood has taken center around social interactions; they don’t see boys being as submissive at events, or witness interactions with Doms they feel are inappropriate. While public interactions are crucial to most Sir/boy dynamics, they are, logistically, a small part of the lifestyle.
There is a wildly offensive hubris in judging a boy’s right to identify as such based only on social situations; at the very least it amounts to an imbalanced level of significance being placed on public interactions vs private play. The prevailing expectation is one where respect is demanded of all Sirs, despite the fact that each Sir will have different expectations of their boy’s behavior. A Sir could feasibly want service or protocol-based behavior restricted exclusively to himself, and this standard is a disservice to that sort of Sir. Presuming a baseline of respect is reasonable, but conflating earnest, implicit respect with adherence to others’ protocol is an oversimplification of these dynamics. If someone expressly wishes to be held to across-the-board protocol, that’s amazing (and incredibly hot!) and they should feel free to enable an expectation of such behavior. However, if someone cannot yet reach that level of submission in a public setting or with unfamiliar individuals, they do not deserve to have their identity called into question. We see a small fraction of a boy’s dynamic with whomever they elect to exude submission, and as such we are in no position to question the validity of their identity.
For a community in which mentorship is a pillar, how new people perceive the community and its activities is paramount; guidance will never be sought after if interest is never piqued. Not only does the presumptiveness surrounding submission disinterest a significant amount of potential allies and participants, it also gives them an incorrect view of how D/s dynamics should function. When a new boy sees that submission is expected towards all Sirs and dissent is prohibited, they attribute this to private behavior as well since they are unable to witness exceptions.
It is not reasonable for a community to expect newcomers to grasp complicated concepts unless they are actively engaged in demonstrating a wide array of possibilities; a narrow scope cannot possibly yield broad understanding. A newbie doesn’t likely start with intimate scenes and complicated discussions, they first see how dynamics function in a social setting. It’s important to recognize that anyone entering the community is not privy to the dialogue that leads to these practices, they are only able to see the resultant norms. As leather expands and knowledge dilutes – a process that began years ago – this model puts developing boys and submissives in a position of elevated risk by neglecting to openly show subs their rights.
When someone sees an image that appeals to them, it’s only natural that they want to exemplify what they think it entails until they learn to make it their own. In the case of submission, assuming a role without understanding the conditions and nuances leading to it is nothing short of dangerous. When a single standard is enforced, the likelihood of someone trying to participate in a dynamic they don’t understand is increased, as is the potential for harm. Conversely, the more options people see the more likely they are to observe and pursue a path that suits them rather than one they feel needlessly obligated to.
What happens if, instead of demanding standardization, we simply respect others’ identities even when we may disagree with which box or category they fit into? We empower everyone to grow into – and perhaps even more importantly out of – roles and titles as they see fit. We end up with examples that pose less risk when imitated without education. We allow experience and insight to become more valuable than adherence to standards, granting access to a wealth of knowledge that may otherwise be overlooked. We ensure that everyone coming into the community knows it’s okay to have differing approaches to every role instead of feeling trapped on a specific, potentially detrimental path.
There is no right way to approach kink or D/s dynamics, only different paradigms which have varying appeals, setbacks, and limitations. If we can publicly demonstrate that we equally value all interpretations of varying roles, we ensure everyone understands a differing approach to something we identify as does not jeopardize our own identity. What we end up with is those coming into the community learning to respect others’ identities as much as they respect their own, and an environment where people can explore and develop their dynamics, safely, at their own pace.
Dick Cashman is the secretary of the Windy City boys Troop in Chicago.