A Good Top is Hard to Find: Revisiting the S&M Classic Leash 20 Years Later
The thrill of unearthing novel sexual knowledge is one I know well. My first book charted the phenomenon of rediscovery in sex writing, specifically the tendency for basic information about the clitoris to be “lost” and then “discovered” by scientists and experts ad infinitum, from Realdus Columbus who claimed to discover the organ in 1559 to Helen O’Connell who used MRI technology in the late 1990s to map, beyond any scientific doubt, the clit’s massive internal sprawl, though some feminist doctors have been asserting as much since the late 1970s. If one were to consult the historical records, it might seem that no sooner do we learn how to have “good sex”, do we forget. It’s true: sex books rarely present new information. But, if knowledge, and knowledge alone, is not what we seek when we read such guides, what exactly is it that we hope to discover?
Maybe, like me, some just want to take the edge off our inexperience, anesthetize our uncertainty. In my early twenties, I streamed hours of clips of bodies moaning, sucking, tugging, spitting, and stuffing all kinds of objects into every hole. I did this not to jerk off but to learn what others might want to do with my body. Once confident in the range of possible acts, and my ability to perform them, my research pivoted from how to be good at sex to how to best enjoy it, which I later suspected was another way to ensure that I was truly good.
Others go about things differently. Some navigate life’s uncertainty not through exhaustive fact-finding but, rather, a curated loss of control, a masochistic release from the obligation of knowing what one wants and acting upon it. This is true for Chris, the narrator of Jane DeLynn’s brilliant S&M classic Leash, published by Semiotext(e) in the early 2000s.
As a middle-aged, upwardly mobile writer living in Manhattan, Chris has spent countless hours analyzing her own and others’ desires. Nonetheless, lasting satisfaction alludes her. “So often one gets what one consciously does not want and does not get what one consciously wants that one begins to wonder if there’s a pattern,” she tells us early in the novel. Nights spent drinking beer at The Bar no longer guarantee adventure or even distraction. When her partner leaves for the summer to research in Stockholm, Chris answers a personal ad. She soon finds herself blindfolded in a dilapidated apartment building, ordered to undress by a woman she refers to only as “Sir.” Not knowing what will happen next, or anything about Sir, frightens until it liberates.
Cuffed, and with her bare ass high in the air, Chris wonders, “What is behind pain?”
As soon as she learns, she wants more. When Sir presses the cold tip of a latex dildo in and out her unlubricated asshole, it’s a deep, diffuse ache, a pain so great it obliterates all the tedious thoughts in her head. Almost. She doesn’t come, but when she walks out into the warm night, she feels high, alive, and awake.
During her second visit, Chris’ easy elation dissolves into sobs. Sir asks her to perform an act so repugnant she cannot hide, much less control, her inherent disgust. Not yet. Chris resigns herself: the fling cannot go on. This prospect frightens her almost as much as performing the original repugnant act and so, to console herself, Chris stops off at The Bar but quickly leaves. Cruising is now pointless. How can she know who or what she wants if she no longer knows who she is? And what if she no longer wants to want at all?
To explore these questions, DeLynn masterfully employs the epistolary form in the novel’s second section. “The epistolary form always puts the reader in the position of the voyeur,” says Dodie Bellamy, allowing us to snoop around another person’s consciousness. The letters also offer readers a break from the highly-detailed scenes of sadomasochistic sex that otherwise dominate the novel. Here, Chris assures us that she has “another life,” where she is not “a pathetic middle-aged being who lives for random moments of intensity.” However, she offers no details of this other life in subsequent letters. Perhaps, because that life no longer feels real to her. Enter the threat of radical transformation.
With each letter Chris drafts and destroys, the reader experiences the extent to which Chris’ insatiable longing both enlarges her life and threatens to destroy it. Her very consciousness, and sense of identity, comes to be dominated by her cosmic desire.
“What is the point of a relationship like this if everything can’t be known?” Chris writes Sir. In this letter, like all the letters, Chris debates continuing the relationship. Already knowing that she will acquiesce, Chris attempts to establish the terms of their sexual contract. “You’ve GOT to leave ‘my life’ out of this,” she writes. “No lasting marks.” Already she suspects it might not be possible to walk away unscathed.
Chris’ fear of self-dissolution is coupled with the equally potent fear that whatever happens between her and Sir won’t be transfigurative enough. She’s openly afraid she’ll be left with nothing, “no transcendence, no transformation.” In the end, she mails but one terse note to Sir: “I await your command.”
With the final letter, the narrative resumes its relentless linear charge, moving through one meticulously detailed scene of degradation after another. These fully fleshed encounters ratchet the tension, keeping us fixed in the room, so that we experience the same intoxicating amplification of the present as Chris.
With its precise language, and ever mounting tension, the novel’s structure mimics an S&M encounter complete with anticipatory lulls, whole scenes where Chris does nothing but wait chained to a radiator. However, even the waiting takes on an erotic dimension. As Sir notes, “There is nothing that is not erotic – or at least ‘eroticizable’ – by the attention you and I will devote to it.” Above all, Sir gives Chris the companionate gifts of obsession when they’re apart and full attention when they’re together. Sir notices Chris – the subtle ways she does and does not react to pain, praise, and the world outside the fogged windows. Sir responds to her specific, slippery needs in real time, skewering the notion that one can ever be universally good at sex. At its most literal level Leash can be read as a fantasy of finding the perfect lover, and more broadly, how one’s life can radically change if one is simply given enough care where care is defined as consensual, thoughtful, enduring attention.
Soon this attention is the only thing Chris craves. It’s Sir’s praise, more than their punishments, that drives Chris’ days. Eventually she consents to a dramatic shift in the relationship. From now on, she’ll not only don a dog suit but act like a dog: walking on all fours, eating and drinking from a bowl, defecating on the sidewalk, barking to communicate. At first the muzzle bothers Chris. How will she be able to say her safe word? Soon she realizes this is a misplaced concern. The problem is not the muzzle itself. Even if she possessed the language to tell her lover to stop, she knows she’ll no longer use it. Even if the encounter increasingly threatens psychic self-immolation. Especially if. This is one way domination works.
Eye-level with the other dogs of the city, smelling what they smell, Chris uncovers a whole new world. A world shot through with pure sensation. This is not the first time that DeLynn has used the animal perspective to world-build. In her 1988 novel Real Estate, she embodies the voice of a dog experiencing the dissolution of his owner’s marriage. Jack-the-dog’s perspective creates an empathetic view of his owners’ often insufferable behavior while also illustrating the limits of what we consider free choice. At one point, Jack is confronted with the realization that it’s incredibly dumb to fetch a tossed stick, especially indoors. However, he senses the game brings pleasure to his owner, pleasure he experiences as praise. Perhaps, on some level, they both feel the game is foolish. No matter. They play it together, and it is this mutuality that makes the game worth it.
As with most of DeLynn’s fiction, the characters in Real Estate are not given many desirable options to change their lives for the better, and when they are, they’re often too scared to act. In many cases, regardless of which decision they make, they end up looking foolish as a dog clenching a stick in its mouth. Yet, as Jack assures us, their human foolishness makes them no less worthy of love.
The passages in Jack’s voice are some of the best in Real Estate, with one reviewer going so far as to encourage DeLynn to “tell the dog’s tale.” In Leash DeLynn runs with the advice, and goes whole hog, as Chris becomes increasingly animalistic. The more dog-like she becomes, the more free she feels. As a moderately wealthy white woman in Manhattan, however, one might wonder what exactly she needs freedom from?
In both Real Estate and Leash, DeLynn charts the extent to which fear shapes many of our lives, especially our sex lives. Unlike splashy romps such as Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic acts in Leash are not especially sexy, and Chris often admits that she is afraid during her encounters with Sir. She is scared of what she might be asked to endure but also of stopping. Who will she be if she quits? Which is to say nothing of regret. Hers is an existential fear that cannot be easily eroticized or aestheticized. Joy is reimagined as something one discovers by rooting through one’s fears, not by denying or triumphing over them.
As the book builds to its excruciating finale, Chris is presented with the Magnificent Choice: she must join the Society of the Leash, or leave this new life forever. As a member, she’ll relinquish her human self and live fully as a dog, with her tongue cut and hands surgically stitched into paws. In exchange for total submission, the society guarantees release from all life’s tedious obligations: no more bills, no more rent, no more savings, no more no mores. Under the Magnificent Choice, the exhausting complexity of modern life is replaced by an animalistic existence stripped of both responsibility and agency.
Chris’s choice provides a moment of high narrative drama. However, this climax isn’t necessarily pleasing for the reader. Our hope for a satisfying resolution becomes a kind of sick joke. By ending the novel at the moment of decision, DeLynn subverts our expectations for closure. We never learn how Chris feels about her choice. For she can no longer speak. Is it a relief? We’re left to sit with the implications of the Choice itself: in a universe where freedom is conceived as a search for personal transcendence, is total submission the only logical end point?
In this sense, Leash can be read, not only as a testament to the slipperiness of satisfaction, but also as a hilarious critique of urban consumerist culture and queer exceptionalism. In unsentimental prose, DeLynn shows how the stuff of everyday life – technology, wealth inequality, ecological degradation – frustrates personal transcendence, making it improbable if not impossible. In other words, a fantasy. The book’s publisher Chris Kraus, writes that in Leash “the social is entrenched in the behavior of the individual.” Through the trope of S&M sex, we come to discover how the fantasies that dominate our minds are perhaps the most painful forms of domination of all.
Leash is disturbing, not only for the extreme sex acts it portrays, but also because it graphically limns how the most pernicious social hierarchies, rooted in racism, classism, and ableism, do not disappear in the queer bedroom. In Leash Chris finds herself wondering if Sir attended a good college, a little Ivy like her. She knows that such gross markers of class shouldn’t matter, especially when she’s bound and gagged. However, in her ruthless honesty, she can admit they still matter, and they matter to her specifically. DeLynn reverses the critical gaze, shining the klieg light on herself: her characters are largely white, educated, left-leaning queers. Rather than simply condemning or rationalizing these hierarchies, DeLynn shows how they constrict her characters’ every movement, delimiting their very dreams and desires, even as she attempts to resist them. This anti-utopian through line in DeLynn’s work may, in fact, be one reason you have never heard of her.
Despite a prolific career, publishing over nine literary works starting in 1978, DeLynn is largely unknown, even within feminist and queer circles. She does not currently have a Wikipedia page, and I found only one in depth critical essay on her work, published over a decade ago. This lack of critical attention is intriguing considering that her four of her five novels were published by large trade presses and widely reviewed in mainstream publications, with three titles explicitly exploring lesbian themes. She was also a founding editor of Fiction and served as a correspondent in Saudi Arabia for Rolling Stone during the Gulf War. After Leash, however, DeLynn seemed to retreat from publishing. Where did she go? According to her socials, sailing.
When Semiotexte published Leash in 2002, DeLynn was still somewhat a contentious figure in lesbian and feminist communities. The source of the controversy was her 1990 cruising novel Don Juan in the Village, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award alongside Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble. Unlike the independently published Leash, Don Juan received press in both major and small press outlets, much of it unfavorable.
Negative reviews typically foregrounded the unlikability of the narrator, an unnamed woman once characterized by Sarah Schulman as a “neurotic, boozing sex-driven dyke.” Other reviewers described the narrator of the 14 interlocking tales of sexual conquest and failure as “insecure and egotistical,” a vain “lookist” who openly assesses the women she meets in bars based on their intelligence, physical fitness, class position, sense of humor, and many other petty things. Her exploits rarely satisfy her. Rather, she’s often left disgusted by the world, herself, and her many lovers. Crucially, however, this disgust does not stop her from pursuing connection and companionship. While some might read Don Juan as a nostalgic memoir of a “cantankerous dowager,” others may see it as a nod to the complexities of building communities based solely on identity. Struggles or no, the narrator still sees value in the pursuit. Don Juan never abandons her search.
DeLynn’s anti-utopian portrayal of queer sexuality and elite urban culture may prove more generative to today’s readers. The narrators of both Leash and Don Juan prefigure our current obsession with female anti-heroes. In this sense, DeLynn’s work might be more productively read alongside Jade Sharma’s Problems and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen rather than her contemporaries Eileen Myles and Sarah Schulman. As critic Guy Davidson has observed, “The characteristic narrative arcs of Schulman novels tend to engender in her commentators anticipatory glimpses of a better world” whereas DeLynn’s “representations of lesbian culture and lesbian identity don’t fit easily into the paradigm of queerness as heroic (if only partial) subversion of the hegemonic regime of heteronormativity.” In Leash transgressive sex functions less as a subject, or site of guaranteed liberation, and more as a framework to explore how power moves through us, trapping us even as it promises to liberate us. In the age of pink-washed internet activism, DeLynn’s writing is a prescient reminder that any radical transformation of our sex lives, much less society, will never be painless.
Elizabeth Hall is a full-time lover and a part-time writer. She is the author of the chapbook Two Essays and the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. You can find her on insta @wilderthanher.