An Introduction to Leather Kink and Culture

When many people think of kinks and fetishes, they picture a dominatrix cracking a whip, wearing leather from head to toe.

Leather has a strong place in the kink community. Unlike some other kinks, it can be recognized on sight by passersby if you’re walking around in a crowd wearing a harness, because people in the leather community don’t mind wearing it with pride. It’s probably also so popular because it’s pervasive. Anyone into bondage uses or has used leather restraints, and most people would be turned on by their partner wearing a sexy leather thong.

The origins of leather in the kink space go back a long time. It’s interesting to get a glimpse of that world and use it to give us perspective into what the leather community looks like now.

What is leather culture?

Leather culture involves the use of leather garments like jackets, vests, boots, chaps, and harnesses for sexual purposes. It’s not just a style of dress. The fashion is sexually arousing, but also allows people from the culture to identify each other. This would look like wearing lots of leather or distinctive items like harnesses, rather than just wearing a leather jacket.

Leather culture is strongly associated with BDSM. Leather tools like restraints, paddles, and whips are often used. However, members of the leather community engage in all sorts of BDSM play that doesn’t have to do with leather at all.

Leather culture is very much tied to the gay community, since the movement started there. We’ll go into the history a bit more later. If you’re not gay, don’t worry. The leather community has mostly opened itself up to other queer people like lesbians and trans people, as well as straight people with open minds.

Ways to be turned on by leather

Leather is an exciting medium for kink, since it can be experienced in many ways. People might be turned on by leather for different reasons.

Most obviously, a leather kink can be a clothing or garment fetish. This means that the person is aroused by the sight of a person wearing leather or by wearing leather themselves. This is probably the most common type of leather fetish. People may be aroused by how they feel in the material, how the person looks in leather, or even the sounds leather makes when they move.

Leather kink could also come from hyphephilia. This is sexual arousal from touching or rubbing a certain type of material like skin, hair, fabric, or, of course, leather. A similar fetish is doraphilia, which is arousal from the smell and feel of animal fur, skin, or leather. So if you’re into the feel or smell, leather is probably for you.

Lastly, leather can serve as a type of empowerment. This can be part of the Dressing for Power (DFP) community. Members wear sensual clothes for BDSM purposes because they make them feel sexy. Different types of clothes can denote different roles in a relationship. For example, in puppy play, this might mean leather pants and a harness for the master and a puppy mask and collar for the pup.

All of these forms of leather fetishism are valid, and they’re all represented in the leather and BDSM community.

Leather and BDSM

Leather and BDSM are very closely tied together. The leather community has engaged in BDSM practices since its inception, which is a big part of the reason we associate them with each other. Leather has become an icon of kinky sex for many people, regardless of sexual orientation. But why do leather and BDSM fit together so well?

First, there’s the utilitarian purpose. Leather is the perfect material to make durable clothes, restraints, and other sex objects out of. It is multi-faceted and leaves room for a lot of interpretation. By choosing what pieces to wear and use, you’re curating your look and your sex life all in one.

Putting on leather can make you feel powerful, more sexually attractive, and more dominant. This can put you in a dominant headspace and lead to rougher, more exciting sex. On the flip side, when your dom puts on their boots and harness, they can transform into a different version of themselves, letting you let go and serve them. You can also grovel while wearing a leather ball gag or leather restraints.

It can act as a sort of second skin. This is partially because it goes over your skin, of course, but it helps that it’s actually made of skin. It can make you brave to be yourself in a new space like a leather bar or just ask someone to dance at a normal club. It makes you more dominant, even outside a sexual situation, so maybe you can take it to a sexual one.

History

Old Guard

The leather community was largely formed by gay men, and was based off of post-World War II biker culture and the “rock leather” look by musicians like Rob Halford from Judas Priest. 

But the early gay male leather subculture wasn’t formed until around 1972 when the book Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend was published. It contained a code with strict rules for those who wanted to participate, like staying formal and no switching roles. It was largely considered the S&M rulebook.

The scene during this time was small and mostly dominated by older men. The rules in Leatherman’s Handbook resonated with them because of their history in the war. Participants only had a few under the radar venues in large cities where they could meet each other, so it was almost entirely underground. During this time, there were very few lesbians or heterosexuals who were a part of the scene. 

Soon, leather culture started to become less underground and more mainstream. Baby boomers started trying out the scene, and “anything-goes” sex clubs were created. These clubs were a safe way for men to try out the scene without fear. This caused younger men to start joining the culture.

New Guard

New Guard leather culture emerged in the 80s. This was when the term “Old Guard” was coined and used in a negative way. People who coined the term “New Guard” thought that their form of BDSM and leather was more inclusive and less set in the old ways. They thought the rules from the Leatherman’s Handbook were too restrictive. However, many people think that the New Guard ways aren’t that different, especially when it comes to power dynamics and protocol of BDSM practices.

The main difference in the New Guard Way is that it was more inclusive to people of different sexualities. Pansexual clubs were opened that were open to all. This allowed lesbians, more trans people, and straight people to become active on the scene.

Importance of Gay Culture

For some people, the association between leather play and gay men has been erased. While having a leather kink is of course open to all, the leather community is still dominated by men. 

If you go to a pride parade, you’ll see lots of men walking around in leather harnesses, collars, and boots. You’ll see men engaging in puppy play walking their pups on a leash. (As you can probably guess, puppy play is a BDSM practice that involves one person being the master and one pretending to be a puppy, and it’s mostly practiced by gay men.)

It’s important not to forget about this contribution to the kink community. Now that leather is so mainstream, few people are aware of its history.

Bars

Unfortunately, the number of leather bars has greatly declined over time. Luckily, some major US cities still have leather bars. Check them out:

New York City: Eagle NYC, The Cock

San Francisco: Powerhouse, Eagle SF, 440 Castro

Los Angeles: Eagle LA, Faultline

If you’re going to a leather bar for the first time, you’ll probably be pretty nervous. However, people there are generally very friendly and inviting. A great thing about leather bars is that they’re open to people of any size, something that’s rather rare. 

Some bars will let you come in a t-shirt and jeans, but others have a strict dress code that requires legit leatherwear. Make sure you check the website before you go all the way there or buy an expensive outfit you didn’t need for your first time. It never hurts to get a plain black harness, though. This is sort of the go to uniform and will help you from sticking out.

Try to go with someone who’s more experienced than you, if you can. They can guide you and make sure you know what’s going on. The scene can be a little intimidating if you’re new. If you get into a sexual situation, especially something that involves pain play, make sure to tell your dom that you’re new. You don’t want to get hurt or bite off more than you can chew.

And most importantly, don’t gawk. Everyone there is trying to be their true selves, and they don’t want to be treated like zoo animals. Get prepared before you go to the leather bar by watching some porn or Googling some of the things you might experience there. It’ll go a long way.

International Mr. Leather Convention

There are several leather events throughout the United States each year, and more internationally. Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend happens in mid-January in Washington D.C., which garners thousands of attendees. In July, kinksters throw Bear Week in Provincetown, MA.

But the culmination of leather events is the International Mr. Leather Convention (IML). It happens every year in Chicago at the end of May. It’s evocative of a leather beauty pageant, although of course beauty isn’t the only criteria the judges look for. Contestants are scored based on leather image, presentation skills, and physical appearance. One of the most interesting parts of the competition is the speech, which sometimes gets political.

Of course, the competition is a great excuse to let loose and party. Thousands of people (mostly gay men) gather to attend five days of parties and other exciting events. There’s a vendor hall that sells all sorts of leather equipment, where some people get their first piece of leather gear. There’s a puppy playtime where masters come with their pups. The pups run around on all fours, chasing each other and barking. Along with the leather competition, there’s a bootblacking competition where people polish leather boots to win the coveted prize.

Most people in the leather community dream of attending these events. They’re the epitome of open, excited leather culture. If you live in a city without an active leather scene, taking some time out of your year to go to an event can be a great way to integrate with the culture.

Leather kink in pop culture

Media creators and celebrities have noticed the rise of leather culture, and many have started to integrate it into their work. In the past, this would have been extremely taboo, but audiences have mostly taken the inclusion of kink in media in stride.

Back in 2009, Adam Lambert pioneered the use of leather imagery. He performed his first single called “For Your Entertainment” at the American Music Awards. Several of his male dancers wore leather harnesses or other leather clothing items, and at one point he pulls a guy across the stage by a leash. Also during the performance, he kisses a guy. Admittedly, there’s a lot going on.

Everyone freaked out. This was partly due to the BDSM content and also because it was gay. ABC received a bunch of complaints, and the Parents Television Council wasn’t pleased. The network even decided to cut the whole thing for the West Coast broadcast.

Contrast that to now. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian has his Red Room, which is basically covered in leather. He even has a leather bed with no sheets, for crying out loud. This might have opened more people (particularly women) up to leather in a sexual way.

There are better portrayals to talk about than Fifty Shades, though. The Netflix show Bonding is about a gay man who serves as an assistant to a dominatrix. There’s lots of leather throughout the show, in hats, whips, and bodysuits. Leather is actually probably one of the least controversial things that happens in the show.

IRL, figure skater Adam Rippon started the trend of wearing leather harnesses at red carpet events when he wore a Moschino harness to the Oscars in 2018. Then in 2019, Timothée Chalamet wore one to the Golden Globes, and Michael B. Jordan wore one with flower print.

Maybe wearing harnesses out and about or at least to formal events will become mainstream. It definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Controversy in leather culture

Like most large groups, there’s a bit of in-fighting. The leather community is diverse, so differences of opinion come up.

There are some people who participate in leather events who want to go back to the “Old Guard” methods. This generally involves excluding women and straight people from the group. It also enforces stricter rules on how sexual encounters are supposed to take place. The “Old Guard” ways are against people being “vers,” or switching roles during sex. In terms of gay relationships, this means one is the top and the other is the bottom. They’re never supposed to change that power dynamic. 

However, it seems impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. Lesbians and straight people have made important contributions to leather culture, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

Another topic of debate in the community is whether or not leather is ethical. As animal rights and vegetarian or vegan culture has risen, fake leather has grown in popularity in mainstream dress like jackets and boots. It is also sometimes used in place of leather in leather play.

When you search for “vegan bondage” on Etsy, you get 1,486 results. These items are generally made from rubber or faux leather. Sex shop Gilded Fetish offers faux leather harnesses, and Darkest Fox sells vegan leather lengiere.

This offers vegans and other animal lovers a new way to experience the kink. Of course, many people think using fake leather defeats the point. The feeling and the smell are different, even if only slightly. But if you want to try out a leather fetish and don’t feel comfortable buying leather, there are options available to you.

Buying leather clothing and gear

If you think you might have a leather kink, it’s time to pick out your first leather piece.

If you’re a guy, we recommend that you start with a harness. They’re generally fairly affordable, for one thing. But they also look super cute and instantly identify you as part of the leather kink community. A kink item like a flogger (usually) has to stay home, and a leather jacket is definitely too subtle.

You’ll need to do a little research into what style of harness you’re looking for. The Bulldog style is definitely the most common, and it’s the one you’ve seen celebrities wearing. But if you want to stand out and make a statement, there are other options. 

You can get an X Harness that you can wear in multiple different ways. The Respiratory Bulldog is kind of a combination of the Bulldog and the X Harness. 

The Archer style goes all the way down your torso and clips to your belt loops at the bottom. (So not for you if you want to go around wearing go go shorts.) The Assassin style looks a little like a backpack, and it goes down to your belt loops as well.

There are other styles from other retailers, so look around and familiarize yourself with how they look and what you like. Think about what you’ll feel most confident and sexy in, not necessarily what you’d like to see someone else wearing. 

You’ll then need to select the color of the harness. Black is probably best for a beginner, since it will go with everything and it’s the most classic. Then, you might have to choose the metal finish (silver, bronze, etc) and whether you want any additional hardware. If you’re into being on a leash, either for BDSM or puppy play, make sure you get a ring on the front under your neck.

Women can start with a good harness, too. They come in lots of styles, so you’ll probably just have to go to each individual retailer and see what they have. Etsy has a great selection. Just remember that one that goes on the bottom half of your body probably won’t be visible unless you plan to only wear that or a small pair of panties. If you only wear a bra or creatively cover up your nipples, a harness that goes around your breasts will work very nicely.

One quick note: leather can be difficult to clean. But if you wear your harness to the club and are dancing all night, you might need to get the smell out. You’ll need to use both a leather cleaner and a leather conditioner. Make sure you keep up on this, or your leather could get ruined and start to smell.

Ways to explore your leather kink

If you’re pretty sure you have a leather kink, welcome to the community! It’s exciting, but you probably feel overwhelmed.

It can be difficult to connect to other kinksters and meet people to experiment with. Since leather bars and clubs have largely shut down, many turn to the internet to meet people. If you’re a queer man, Grindr can be effective. Another great option is FetLife

But once you have a partner and a harness, how can you start to explore your leather fetish?

Know that you don’t have to go from 0 to 100. There are some chill ways to start experimenting with leather. Buy a pair of leather gloves and have you partner touch you with them, or take their leather jacket off of them. You can buy leather clothing like a jockstrap or pair of panties and wear them out in public or to work under your clothes. 

Once you’re ready to go, there are all sorts of ways to get off that involve leather. You can buy leather restraints to fuel a power play dynamic. A flogger is a powerful tool in the bedroom that lets you play with pleasure and pain. You could also get a gag, a blindfold, or a riding crop.

You can decorate your bedroom with leather. Sex swings are often made out of leather, or you can get a leather ramp or pillow to screw on. Even if you’re only ready for some leather throw pillows, this can transform your space.

And of course, if you’re able, go to a leather event or bar. You’ll be able to celebrate leather among others and see some super hot people in the process. There’s something to be said for community, for coming together and letting the world know that you are proud.