Leathersex in modern western culture (US-centric perspective) pretty much begins
with the post-WWII era, with men who returned from combat and began to form a
queer sexuality which was not effeminate in nature or expression.
Leathersex has historically included flogging, fisting, spanking, sensation,
cutting, (traditionally more common among lesbians) piercing, bondage,
age-play and other role-playing.
Modern leatherfolk have moved from being relatively invisible to a time when the
larger society has 'discovered' BDSM and the leather / fetish attire which
are characteristic of leatherfolk.
This combination of increased visibility and societal (mis)appropriation
of leather images, coupled with the vast influx of new participants (aided by the
Internet), has coincided with the time that the "Old Guard" have been decimated
(in the modern sense) by the AIDS epidemic. Because (mostly gay & lesbian) leathermen
and leatherwomen were highly sexual during the early years of the spread of HIV they
were among the groups hit hardest.
This in turn has meant that at the very time that there has been a large increase
in new and inexperienced players, the community was recovering from the loss of
it's most senior and capable people. This has somewhat overwhelmed the old system
of one on one training of new people.
Fundamental to most definitions of leathersex is power exchange. The idea that
some player (or players) is on 'top' or dominant and some other(s) take a 'bottom'
or submissive role.
Power exchange can happen in many ways, the key element however is that at any
moment it can be quite a challenge even for the participants to know who is in
'control' at any point (and perhaps the point is that in a 'good' scene it really
While a 'top' usually will need to use initiative as a tool, there is nowhere for
that to go if the bottom isn't along for the ride. A skilled and caring top
invariably must be able to read the bottom well, and usually a bottom who's really
having a good time simply exudes feedback (often non-verbal). SM scenes without
power exchange tend to look (and feel) regimented. Scenes with power exchange
feel well 'powerful'. (For a wonderfully concrete example read deeahblita's
wu under fisting.)
Leathersex today is quite vibrant and widely pansexual. In the past most
players chose either top/dominant or bottom/submissive role (perhaps graduating
from the latter to the former). Today it is more common to 'switch' than not,
and many people are finding that it is possible to further bend the boundaries
of what is erotic, for instance finding that one need not be dominant to enjoy
masochist sensation play.
Recent writings on leather sexuality include Leathersex and Leathersex Q&A by Joseph Bean, Leatherfolk by
Mark Thompson or Urban Aboriginals by Geoffrey Mains.
In still relatively recent times Benjamin Franklin was a member of the
Hell Fire club of London (actually named 'Knights of St. Francis' by
it's members. Sadism and masochism were of course first widely written
about by the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch respectively.
Leathersex as a term is approximately equivalent to BDSM. The distinction
might be considered semantic. Leathersex is a somewhat more traditional term,
I prefer it aesthetically because sex is right there, hard to miss, because
leather is the traditional way of identifying my community and because
I feel the term BDSM is presently devalued by it's overuse.
Looking at the modern context of Usenet gives the following statistics:
first use 1990 1991
uses '90-92 36 248
uses '92-97 204 560,000
uses '97-02 241 1,800,888 (900 of these by one author)