Tracing the history of leather terminology is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands: just when you think you've got a grasp on the word, it slips away.
Robert Davolt, editor of Bound & Gagged magazine, says that part of the problem is that, throughout much of leather history, there was "no Algonquin Round Dungeon Table where folks sat about discussing the finer points of SM."
Leather historian Gayle S. Rubin makes a similar point. "From my point of view, we haven't had enough linguists doing research on the terminology of perversion, so to speak. I think most of whatever any of us say now is preliminary, and bound to be superceded."
So no firm conclusions can be drawn about the history of the leather terms "dominant" and "submissive." Nonetheless, it appears that the varying usage of these terms for leather participants is a classic case of culture clash.
"The Latinate variations around 'dominant' and 'submissive' were rarely used among gay S&M men in the 60s and 70s when the popular words were: 'Top,' 'bottom,' or 'S' or 'M," author Jack Fritscher recalls from his own memories of the period. "The initials alone depended on context and on East or West Coast vernacular as 'S' meant 'sadist' or 'slave' and 'M' meant 'master' or 'masochist.' The initials changed like the wearing of keys, which on the left in California meant 'Top' and on the right in New York meant 'Top,' which meant that in flight on planes coast to coast, we had to switch our keys."
During the sixties, though, a different vocabulary was used by heterosexuals who were interested in SM.
"The passive male yearns to be dominated by a female," crooned a 1961 issue of the bondage & discipline magazine High Heels. "A typical situation consists of a passive male who is humble, submissive, relegated to a position slightly (usually a great deal) beneath that of the aggressive female."
The aggressive/passive terminology got passed by in the race to find the juiciest words to describe female pre-eminence. A Dutch dominatrix who arrived in New York City in 1963 was urged by an SM magazine publisher there to find another way to describe herself. "Dominant Female 38-24-36," read the advertisement of Mistress Monique von Cleef, as reported in her autobiography, The House of Pain. "Wants Submissive Males."
Men soon got the message, as can be seen from a letter read at the 1967 prostitution trial of Mistress Monique.
"Please, mistress, do you have a full-length photo of yourself you could send me?" asked one of the dominatrix's clients. "I could take it with me when I travel and be completely dominated by you."
The word caught on. A 1969 issue of Bizarre Life trumpeted on its cover, "Female Domination." Then, just to make sure its readers got the message, the cover proclaimed: "Office Domination." And finally: "Dominant Dorothy."
Dominance and submission were certainly practiced in the gay world, and those terms occasionally showed up in gay publications. "Attractive submissive, 22, 5'10", 160, seeks domina[n]t men for wild, funky, dirty sex," said one gay man in the June 1975 issue of SMads. But in 1972, the first nonfiction book about gay leather was published, Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook. It popularized the terms M and S among a new generation of leathermen.
Meanwhile, other attempts were being made to bring SM to a wider audience. In 1971, the first pansexual (mixed-orientation) group was formed in New York City, The Eulenspiegel Society. Its members, who were mainly straight and bisexual, took their cue from heterosexual magazines on how to label themselves.
"M/DOM/St/40/W," wrote one man in the society's newsletter in 1974. "Wish to contact F/Sub/St or Bi. B/D, S/M, fantasies, educated finger. I strive to please."
The TES members may have decided to use the terms dom and sub because the term M was needed to describe the gender of male advertisers.
Jack Fritscher recalls first seeing "dominant" and "submissive" catch on as leather terms after a San Francisco pansexual organization, the Society of Janus, began in 1974. "Some of us believe that the intertwined drives toward domination and submission are common to all humankind," he quoted from Janus literature in a 1979 article he wrote for the gay leather magazine Drummer. Likewise, Gayle Rubin encountered these terms when she entered the San Francisco leather community in the late seventies. Practices varied, though. When Gloria G. Brame got involved in the New York City heterosexual scene around 1985, she recalls that Master, Mistress, submissive, and slave were the preferred terms.
During the late seventies, the personal ads in Drummer, which was published in San Francisco, referred to S's and M's - or SM's and MS's, in cases of the versatile. Not until the early eighties were S and M replaced by other terms in the personals: sadist, masochist, top, bottom, master, slave, daddy, boy, and the ubiquitous WM. The terms "dominant" and "submissive" showed up rarely.
With "dominant" and "submissive" being used as common terms for heterosexual participants in SM encounters, it was only a matter of time before those terms would begin to be used to describe what the gay world called leather.
In October/November 1981, the Society of Janus's newsletter reported a dispute between its members over whether DS should be a synonym for SM. Some of the members argued that DS was a broader term than SM. The editors of the newsletter obviously decided to take no chances in offending anyone, because the February/March 1983 issue referred to the "DS/SM community."
Gloria Brame, whose 1993 book, Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission, helped popularize those terms, recalls witnessing the narrowing of DS's meaning. "When I started up an online SM group in 1987 (on Compuserve), we either used S&M or S/M, B&D or B/D, or D&S or D/S, and used them all fairly interchangeably," she says.
Over at the newsgroup alt.sex.bondage, though, some people were using a more refined vocabulary. "There are three different terms used in various circles: B/D, S/M and D/S," a member reported during a December 1990 debate over terminology. "B/D refers to Bondage and Discipline. . . . S/M refers to Sadism/Masochism. . . . D/S refers to the role one plays (dominant/submissive). This may involve either or both B/D and S/M or it may only involve emotional dominance and submission."
Gloria Brame has never been comfortable with the splitting of the terminology. "Instead of emphasizing the fraternity of SM/leather/kink by embracing all the variations as legitimate, it creates an artificial and subjective hierarchy, with lots of internecine nastiness about who most truly represents the BDSM/leather model of authenticity."
Meanwhile, dominant and submissive have remained popular terms for heterosexual players. But in the gay world, which has a plethora of terms to describe the participants in leather encounters, the need for such vocabulary has seemed less pressing. To some older members of the gay leather community, the words "dominant" and "submissive" remain foreign.
"I'm still uncomfortable with those words among gay men – too new and modern for me," author Joseph W. Bean says. "From my old-fangled perspective, [the term DS] still feels extremely heterosexual in both its history and the overall sense of its meaning."
Robert Davolt has a more pointed perspective on this topic. Anyone "who remembers the first time they read 'dominant' or 'submissive,'" he says, "obviously was not doing enough dominating or submitting at the time."
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