When you whip somebody, it's important not to hit the kidneys, behind the knees, or that small part just below the solar plexus. "It'll make you throw up," explains Gabrielle Antolovich, the 1990 International Ms. Leather, who is pacing back and forth in the front of the Executive House's Miro Room with a slow, deliberate casualness.
She's wearing custom-made black chaps, black leather boots, a leather harness with a large metal ring on her chest, a black leather vest, a spiked bracelet, a studded arm band, lots of earrings and rings. "Actually, black is not my color," she says, flashing a smile. Underneath all the animal skin she wears a black and fluorescent-pink leotard. "Pink"--she winks--"that's my color."
In the Miro Room, where about 20 women listen to her give what amounts to a lecture and beginner's tour of lesbian S and M culture, Antolovich is a striking presence. But out in the hotel lobby, where scores of men lounge and loiter as they wait for rides to the Vic theater for the weekend's culminating event, the International Mr. Leather contest, Antolovich seems small and benign. It's not that these guys are so tough: unlike the thickly muscled, mustached poster leather men, they're paunchy, loose, and flabby.
Still, Antolovich, selected at the women's contest a few months ago, is a bit of a celebrity among the men and women here. But there's little besides her presence here for women. Her workshop is the only women's event on the official schedule. In the "crafts" area, merchants sell cock rings, something called Anal Glow Cream, cock sheaths, handcuffs, a toilet target game called Potty Pot Shots, and videos of men in chains. Nothing except--possibly--the tit clamps (which come in clothespin or scissors styles) might be used as toys by leather women.
"So women need to be more imaginative, more creative about it," says Ruby, an immaculately dressed woman who could pass as a lawyer on her way to court. "The boys aren't going to show us. How are they going to know what we like? Besides, if I want toys, I buy them at the Michigan festival. There's a whole store of them there--things like dildos that look like fingers and handcuffs in women's sizes."
Even though their numbers were small, the few women who attended the 12th annual leather conference and contest, a Chicago original, were enthusiastic and, for the most part, experienced. "It's a life-style, like any other life-style," says Jane, a rotund woman wearing glasses and an oversized, expensive black leather jacket. "You negotiate your needs, your expectations. You write out a contract with your partner--with each partner--and you do what you promise to do. That might mean getting hit--but only if you like to get hit. That might mean doing the hitting--but only if you enjoy that. You decide. Nothing is against your will. Nothing."
"S-M is not abusive," insists Antolovich, who turned 40 recently and who didn't discover her own leather orientation until five years ago. "It's about dominance and submission. For example, I'm a dominant. I have a need to be given to--and that puts me in a vulnerable position." Take the whipping. "Everyone has a different view of what whipping means to them. To the outside world, it all looks the same: flog, flog, flog. But when I have a whip in my hand, that's an extension of me--from the whip to the person I'm whipping. For me, the whip is like a magic wand. When the body of the partner submits, it's a gift."
She stops and points to the center of her palm. "When you use a whip, this part of your hand gets hot. I discovered that in alternative medicine; this is the sexual meridian, the spiritual place. Have you noticed how in Renaissance and other religious paintings, this is where the light comes out?"
In the back of the Miro Room a couple of women in heavy denim and leather smile knowingly at each other. "Whipping sometimes feels like stroking, like being caressed or loved," one of them says. "In a sense, when you're being whipped, you're being taken care of."
"That's not abuse?" asks a tall, plain-looking woman, a technician with the Gay Cable Network, the local-access producers of The Ten Percent Show, a program aimed at the gay and lesbian community. The network is taping Antolovich's appearance.
"Does violence turn you on?" asks one of the denim-and-leather couple.
"No, it makes me more violent," answers the technician. "It brings up issues of abuse for me."
"Look, it's like throwing up," says the woman. "It brings it all up. You get it out, put it on the table. You deal with it. You take it back. It's empowering." She says that sometimes the fantasy that is being acted out requires no physical contact at all. "It can be just verbal abuse. You talk about everything."
Antolovich interrupts and explains that these fantasies, or "scenes" as they're known in S and M culture, are developed by agreement. "That's why we have 'safe' words, words that are mutually agreed upon to stop the scene. If the scene becomes too intense for one partner, then she can use the 'safe' word to stop it. If the partner doesn't stop when the 'safe' word is used, then she's an unsafe player. And word gets around."
Antolovich says trust is imperative between partners. She doesn't recommend that people jump into big scenes right away, but advises that they do little scenes for a very long time. "We go through a lot, work through a lot of stuff. You have to be there when someone else is in trouble, so that you deserve the same kind of attention when you need it."
Scenes may include rape, kidnapping, and other forms of violence, which Antolovich acknowledges can be disturbing. "You can't--when a scene is stopped--go, 'Oh, I thought I was going to have a hot night, and now I've got to deal with all this shit.' You can't do that."
Later, a woman named Lorien explains that it's all a matter of knowing your own limits. "It's never gone too far with whipping or hitting. I'm really into pain--I enjoy pushing my limits. With whipping, what can you do that's too far? Welts heal. Emotionally, you can stop the scene, stop the whole thing. Now, with fucking, there you're dealing with your internal organs. I went too far once. I just kept asking for it harder and harder. But I don't blame anybody but myself. I just didn't know my own limits. I'm too needy and greedy of a person."
"But look, what if I come upon two women, and one is getting beaten in the streets," says one of the women in the audience. "Say there's no leather visible. How do I know what's really going on?"
Antolovich raises an eyebrow and smiles. "I'd call 911. I mean, really."
"Look, it's not about violence," says Lorien. She has brittle blond hair sprouting from the top of her head, and she's shaved around her ears and in the back. "First, there's a feeling, a turn-on. You build on that. I don't know why I like most things I like. They just get me warm and wet."
Antolovich laughs, but it's sympathetic. "Do you really need to know? I mean, why are you a lesbian?"
"Look, it's nice that you have code words and everything," says another woman. "I can see how when you go too far, with blood and all that, you can see it. But the psychological part of this, there's damage there. And not everybody is a licensed therapist or fit to handle it. How do you deal with it?"
Antolovich sighs. "You have to be careful. Yes, you can still cause damage. But what we have to believe is that if I can be damaged, it can be rectified. Just look at the miracle of our survival. We are still seeking love and connection after all the bad propaganda about being gay, about S-M."
The leather women before her nod knowingly. But another woman doesn't like the connection. "S and M and gayness aren't the same thing," she hisses under her breath.
"Look, I go to S-M parties and sometimes I think, 'I can't believe I'm into this,'" Antolovich confesses. "It's ugly. I want to throw up. So I go to the bathroom and tell myself, 'This is your old attitude.' Sometimes I look at my lover and say, 'I can't believe I want to do this to her.' But I know it's just the old stuff, the old propaganda."
Antolovich says that in the long run the S and M life has made her wiser, more community-oriented, infinitely happier. "I have to be worthy to be given to. I have to develop in the way that a person wants to give to me. I look at my lover and I know I can have anything I want. And she knows she can too. It's amazing. Think about that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Floyd Ballou.