I fairly recently finished making my way through William Carney's The Real Thing. I say "making my way through" because it was a bit of a slow read. Published in 1968 and technically an epistolary novel, The Real Thing is more of a leather primer and, I gather, a sort of paean to a formalized leather culture that may or may not have existed but that almost certainly doesn't exist any more. My knowledge of the gay S&M subculture of the 1960s (in New York City) is really less than zero, but that's not so much the point of this post, and, besides, I know you all really just come here for the pictures, anyway.
The Real Thing isn't so much the point of this post, either, but I will note a couple of things. First, epistolary novels -- especially those where you read only one side of the correspondence -- are almost generally dreary affairs, and this one is not an exception. Second, while there is a certain sociological interest in reading The Real Thing, it fails as both a novel and a leather primer. (It's probably just as well that I can't recommend it to you since it's not exactly easy to find.) The character(s) and plot are not believable, and the leather information is dated and incomplete. I do, generally, believe in the power of story to instruct, though I tend to think that it's easier and better to pick these things up orally. I still remember a guy I had an entirely awesome two-hour shag with who told me many things that other guys had done to him. I would never have known to shove an ice cube up other guys' asses if I hadn't run into that guy. And there are many other tips that I've picked up through written and spoken tales. Instructional manuals, not so much, except maybe for the right way to tie certain knots. (Which, alas, I'm still not all that good at. I should have been a boy scout. Maybe I could have picked up a nice uniform fetish while I was at it.)
I have tried long and hard to understand the appeal of submission generally and bondage particularly. For its true aficionados, that is. I am very much a dabbler, and I know exactly why I enjoy tying guys up: because it gets the submissives so excited and because it gives me something to talk about at parties. True dominants seem a particularly joyless lot to me: I can't help but think that they're trying to compensate for some past or present sense of shortcoming. True submissives (and I believe they're much, much more common), though, seem to experience their submission with a religious fervor. Their expressions are the same expressions I've seen on the faces of pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. The submissives also have erections that just won't quit, which to me is additional evidence that there's something working at a very deep level.
There is, obviously, something extremely seductive about giving over control to a higher authority, be it a dominant (or even someone playing at being a dominant) or a deity. If you can manage it, it completely removes from you any sense of responsibility, and you reclaim a primitive and childlike condition where thought and decision are unnecessary. Everyone enjoys this state of mind to some extent. Even if you don't want to be bound or have someone making your decisions for you, you probably enjoy the clear mind of meditation or the extinction of conscious thought of Nirvana.
My guess is that people approach submission from one of two sides of the same coin. And that coin is security. If you let yourself be put into a state of submission, it implies that you trust that you'll be taken care of, that you'll be safe, and safety is something illusory and much sought after these days. I reckon that some submissives never had that feeling of safety in childhood, so they're looking to get something now that they should have had when they were very young: something missing from and crucial to their development. Others, I think, deal with difficult situations and/or authority most of the time and are looking to escape the complex danger of reality for the simple security of submission. (I apologize for all of the alliteration today: it isn't planned, but sometimes it just happens.)
I have my own flirtations (at least notionally) with discipline and rigor. Certainly, if there were enough sex involved and if I didn't have people depending on me, I'd embrace a monastic life. It seems to me that the safety of structure provides a framework that you could build a lot on. In other words, with hours of meditation and semi-ritualized erotic play, you'd amass a great store of creativity to release in your free time. Of course, the world generally doesn't allow for large-scale monasticism, and my life particularly doesn't give me the opportunity to flee the major and minor atrocities of contemporary life, but I certainly have the hunger.
How many of our resources are spent chasing security? I speak in an individual and a collective fashion. How much time and effort do Americans, particularly, spend trying to collect so much more wealth than everyone else has in order to guard against insecurity? The capitalist system that allows some of us to make lots and lots (in varying degrees) of money requires that we spend that money on, say, health care. Or that we create huge portfolio nest eggs because we don't have any other way of ensuring that we're secure if and when we ever get around to not working all the time.
When I hear large economic statistics bandied about, I frequently sigh and think that if we had real safety nets, none of us would have to worry so much about the gross domestic product or about staying near the top of the income distribution. If you knew that you could rely on reasonable health care and an adequate income in retirement, would you really care that you didn't have so much money right now? And would you mind working a reasonable amount of time to support that system? I know I wouldn't.
But it's not just money that we're worried about. At least since the advent of the Cold War, but most acutely since 9/11, we all feel that our freedom and our very lives are threatened. I generally try to avoid political arguments, but it's hard not to think that a feeling of insecurity has been exploited by opportunistic politicians to achieve and retain power.
The economic and political and emotional phenomena are not unrelated, either. The immense amount of wealth that we spend because we feel threatened in some military or quasimilitary sense is wealth that we divert from security in other areas. And it's the same desire to avoid personal intellectual responsibility that leads many Americans (who, I'm going to come right out and say it, are just not very bright) to vote for someone who proposes simple -- albeit costly and horrific -- military solutions over complex political and social strategies.
I also believe that there's a strong correlation between the vacuous pride of patriotism (where, in effect, you're proud of yourself for managing to be born in the right place: go you!) and the hollow gluttony of greed. In this country, there are many, many people who judge you based on how ostentatiously you wave the flag and the size of your throbbing net worth.
Anyway, I don't have any solutions. Or at least no solutions that Americans are going to swallow: the solutions are fairly obvious. You have only to look to Europe to see people who are a great deal more content with less because they aren't constantly worried that they're going to be left without anything. But in America, we equate looking out for others with giving up our own freedom. Not, I think, that any of us is as anything like as free as we used to be.
I'm afraid that my solution to collective ills is to concentrate on the individual good. Sticking my head in the sand and making sure that I and my family are happy and secure seems like a necessary and reasonable strategy, but in another way, it's just a form of submission. Don't worry about what's out there, focus on what's right here. Relax, boy: you're going to like it.