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Lesbians love leather. This may be an obvious statement now, but when Michelle Handelman released her provocative documentary Blood Sisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism (currently streaming on KinoNow) in 1995, it was a decidedly controversial assertion.
Blood Sisters has a wonderful 1990s, gritty, DIY feel—a vibe that captures the spirit of the New Queer video culture from which it emerged. It was for leather lesbians to announce and display their tastes proudly; to be counted as having a sexuality, when so many had erased and/or ignored them. Perhaps the most exciting parts of Blood Sisters are the ways that Handelman and her interviewees boldly counter malinformed claims that write off sadomasicism (SM) as submission to The Patriarchy™.
It begins, as so many New Queer Cinema projects do, with a history lesson. While this brief recap may be redundant and obvious for some, Blood Sisters captures a major moment in Queer history: the period where Second Wave White Feminism broke on social shores and the Third Wave began to crest in Western cultural consciousness. That context, however familiar, is vital: these desires, practices, and communities didn’t just materialize in a vacuum/in a Dungeon one day. What marks Blood Sisters as Third Wave work is its focus: it’s specifically interested in addressing Second Wave Feminists, rather than a Right-wing conservative audience.
Handelman begins her oral history of lesbian SM with biker culture that blossomed in the American West during the 1960s and 70s. She and her subjects poignantly recount the fraught realities of the increased policing and surveillance of their community. These women were coming into their own and participating in SM, at a time when not only was Queer sex illegal but when lawmakers and legislatures took all SM to be non-consensual.
It’s this erroneous, toxic assumption that Handelman uses as the crux of her hour-long documentary. The ostracization of kink groups within Queer communities persists to this day. By allowing these women to speak for themselves, Handelman presents an intimate look at what structures the appeal and erotics of SM for its practitioners. She and her interviewees emphasize the core importance of consent and safety to their Play. For Blood Sisters’ subjects on an individual level, SM is first and foremost a personal relationship with and challenge to their own “primal” limits. Self-knowledge and self-consent are essential to the practice—knowing which of one’s limits can be pushed in Play and which are ironclad capital letters Do-Not-Cross lines is the key to safe, successful SM.
Central to Handelman’s thesis is the idea that SM is a building, strengthening engagement, that the practice of SM is an act of mutual care.
Per Blood Sisters’ subjects, only from this place of self-knowledge can one build the trust and intimacy required for a healthy and rewarding SM experience. Central to Handelman’s thesis is the idea that SM is a building, strengthening engagement, that the practice of SM is an act of mutual care. Abuse leaves damage. SM leaves marks. They should not be conflated.
For all of Blood Sisters’ success in spotlighting the Lesbian SM community, it falls short on the intersections of SM and race. While one of the interviewees is a Black woman, the doc doesn’t address the significance and/or quandaries of navigating the SM culture as a Black woman— the ways bondage and power-play can shift when factoring in race and the United States’ history of slavery, and White Supremacy. This lack of engagement is, sadly, of a piece with too much of early Third Wave Queer discourse.
With that caveat, Blood Sisters offers a strong rebuttal to assertions that SM is inherently patriarchal. As a documentarian, Handelman offers a genuine, heartfelt introduction to and appreciation of the Lesbian SM community—a group of women who have built their community into a tightly bound (sorry) “social and learning system” where safety, acceptance, and information can be shared, and kink-based pleasure can be savored.
For a companion piece to Blood Sisters, consider Dirty Diaries,Kino Lorber’s highly erotic 2009 collection of Swedish Feminist pornography. Composed of 12 short scenes from an eclectic array of directors, Dirty Diaries is a sensual kaleidoscope of sexual expression, one that aims to decenter the male gaze and demonstrate that porn can serve audiences other than Patriarchy.
Dirty Diaries’ gritty filmic quality and DIY nature mark it as a cousin in craft to Blood Sisters. More directly, through the inclusion of shorts like “On Your Back Woman,” “Authority,” and “For the Liberation of Men” that demonstrate Lesbian SM as a pleasurable, even artistic experience. As the Queer performers’ bodies, fingers, and billy clubs collide, and ropes wind, the camera doesn’t focus on pain, embarrassment, or penetration—instead, it captures the players’ care, joy, and skill.
Viewed in concert, Blood Sisters and Dirty Diaries complement each other. Dirty Diaries demonstrates a version of the pleasure derived from healthy SM that Blood Sisters discusses, and Blood Sisters highlights the community who seek and deserve to practice and revel in their kinks free of sanctimony and Patriarchy.