Note: this article includes some sexually explicit and graphic content.
There’s something especially spicy about mid-century, femme-dominant S&M — and that’s saying something, considering Sadomasochism has been shaking things up in the bedroom since (roughly) 1785, when the French philosopher Le Marquis de Sade first published his erotic fantasy novel, Les 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom).
Fast forward 165 years. It’s the era of the American Nuclear Family fantasy, of washing down episodes of Leave it to Beaver with kitsch snacks like “Almonds in a Haystack” (true story, here’s the recipe), of McCarthyism, feeling paranoid — and, apparently, seeking a good spanking.
This collection of privately circulated photographs by John Willie (born John Coutts), taken between 1937 and 1961, shows a rare peek at the ins-and-outs of the leather clad, ball-gagged pin-ups who were a far cry from the Stepford Wife veneer of the 1950s that pervaded so many Western countries. He was one of the earliest champions of fetish wear, a fascination born from the beauty standards of his Edwardian Era childhood, and was entranced by the constricting nature of women’s clothing (i.e. the corsets, the boned skirt structures).
He also acquired a taste for photographing women in towering stilettos, and by 1945, he’d created his own line of ‘exotic’ footwear called, “Achilles,” perfected the G-String tie that even Houdini hated getting out of, and created a series of fetish fantasy characters like “Sweet Gwendolyn” and her dominatrix, “the Countess”. His photographs and characters thrived in the pages of the revolutionary, albeit short-lived magazine Bizarre (1946-59), which became one of the first publications not only to cater to, but educate those interested in S&M. “Unless a model is a good actress, and has ‘that type’ of face, it’s difficult for her to look sad and miserable when working for me,” he said about his work, “My studio is a pretty cheerful place, and quite unlike the atmosphere that surrounds Gwendoline when the Countess gets hold of her.”
“Cheesecake shots of movie starlets and burlesque stars were the order of the day,” explains the sexual history platform, Whores of Yore, “but the second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of men’s magazines such as Playboy and Modern Man of the 1950s. Soon, this type of magazine was the primary medium in which pornography was consumed.” The more publicly it was consumed, the racier it could get. At its peak, Bizarre had carved out a space for everyone outside of heteronormative social expectations, and it was a tragedy when the magazine folded due to paper shortages of WWII.
With the loss of Bizarre, Willie retired to LA , and destroyed most of his archives. These must have been amongst the few surviving shots…
And of course, when you look at the rise of S&M in America, you can’t ignore the the Kinsey Report. The findings on human sexual behaviour (published between 1948-53) dipped their toes into taboo waters by asking things like, how much sexual pleasure do men and women get from being bitten? (50 and 55 percent, respectively), or, how many men and women find S&M literature arousing? (12 and 22 percent, respectively). Dr. Kinsey’s methods and data divided many, but the book was an instant bestseller. Kink, it seemed, was becoming a part the cultural conversation.
Bettie Page famously became a (relatively) approachable S&M figurehead for the American public — she was just the right blend of Girl Next Door and raven-haired rebel. In the mere seven years she worked as a pin-up model, said ABC, “she appeared in more magazines than Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford combined.”
Her infamous bondage films, while tame by today’s standards, were revolutionary. The raciest of the lot was one in which she wears a leopard-print bikini, getting chained-up and spanked by her ‘displeased’ dominatrix:
But Bettie’s work is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rougher erotica of the era, which was otherwise tricky to come by and largely censored despite the fact that, according to Kinsey, Americans were craving it.
These archives not only show how theatrical S&M can get, but gives us a rare look at the prep-work of its spectacle (i.e. the women nonchalantly tying up one another’s wrists). It’s a dossier that makes us both voyeurs to the process, and spectators of the final product…
“There is something psychologically interesting about the fact that each generation finds new ways to deny female sexual agency,” explains sexual behaviour specialist Dr. Robert James King, “There have been eras where women had to eat bananas in private clubs because of the effect this might have if they did it publicly. Well—some women like kinky sex and the modern moral mavens had better get used to it.”
You can learn more about Willie’s life and work in the book Possibilities: the Photographs of John Willie.