The Society of Janus

The Society of Janus is one of the oldest and most Influential SM social and educational organizations in the United States. In significant respects, Janus is to the West Coast and the San Francisco Bay Area what The Eulenspiegel Society (TES, Leather Hall of Fame 2011) is to the New York City Area. 

The Early Days

In 1973, an ad appeared in The Berkeley Barb, a Bay area underground newspaper, inviting people interested in SM to attend a meeting to discuss the topic. By 1974, that meeting resulted in the creation of the Society of Janus. The ad had been posted by Cynthia Slater (Leather Hall of Fame 2014) and her partner Larry Olsen. Slater was dissatisfied with the possibilities, particularly for SM women, then available in the Bay Area. The exist- ing clubs were professionally oriented, catered to a primarily heterosexual male clientele, and offered few opportunities for the kind of community for which she was searching. She particularly resented the differential treatment of men and women in such clubs. 

The frustrations that led Cynthia to create Janus provide insights into the impact Janus had on the SM world in the Bay Area and beyond. Janus was not a commercial business and it was not exclusively focused on play; it did not prohibit sex among its members, but sex was not the primary goal of the meetings. Janus provided members with a venue for education, political organizing, and socializing. But because sex was not the primary goal, some of the issues arising in sexual situations were less salient. Heterosexuals, gay men, and lesbians might not want to share sexual venues, but they could share social spaces. All of these groups were able to come together to teach and learn from each other. They could organize politically to oppose attacks on SM individuals, institutions, and media. Before Janus, there was little contact among the various SM populations. Janus brought together SM practitioners across gender and sexual orientations and helped forge a common community. 

The founders of Janus described their group as “the only purveyor of sadomasochist liberation outside of New York.” Like TES, Janus was modeled on civil rights movements, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian liberation. But there were also important differences between the two groups. One was the status of sex workers. TES championed a view of SM rooted in political ideals of the 1970s radical Left, and was leery of any sexual activity involving monetary exchange. By contrast, Janus was supportive of the world of commercial SM. Some of the major figures in Janus, including Cynthia, worked as professional dominatrices. These women generously shared their skills and many were central to the organization. 

Another difference between the two organizations was in their success in merging different SM communities.  Like TES, Janus saw a need for an organization bringing together SM people across boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. Like TES, it struggled to make that happen. And like TES, it has now become primarily a heterosexual organization. But while TES was always a primarily heterosexual organization, despite some mixing in its early years, the involvement of gay men in particular was much more instrumental in the early formation of Janus. A few months after the first meeting, Cynthia was close to burning out. She was going to fold the group unless she got some help. Guy Baldwin (Leather Hall of Fame 2012) and Jim Kane (Leather Hall of Fame 2016) became active in the organization. They brought in many key figures from the local gay leather scene, along with a vast repertoire of SM skills and modes of conduct. It was out of this collaboration, begun around the summer of 1974, between Cynthia, a bisexual woman who loved play- ing with gay men, and a group of gay men, that Janus was truly born. 

Larry and Cynthia settled on the name Janus for several reasons Cynthia recalls in a 1983 Growing Pains interview: “There were three basic reasons why we choose Janus. First of all, Janus has two faces, which we interpreted as the duality of SM (one’s dominant and submissive sides). Second, he’s the Roman god of portals, and more importantly, of beginnings and endings. To us, it represents the beginning of one’s acceptance of self, the beginning of freedom of guilt, and the eventual ending of self-loathing and fear over one’s SM desires. And third, Janus is the Roman god of war--the war we commonly fight against stereotypes commonly held against us.” 

The early meetings of Janus were social or education- al. At these meetings, Jim Kane would give a talk spelling out safety precautions. The educational programs could consist of dungeon tours, or classes on enemas, uniforms, role-play scenes, negotiation, dungeon safety, whipping/flogging technique, and basic rope bondage. Besides Kane himself, presenters included Jim’s slave Ike Barnes, Bobby Smith (the elder), Tom B. Smith, Skip Navarette, John Pfliederer, Gene Webber, Murray Eddleman, Ron Johnson, and Don Miesen. They also had an “Ask the Doctor” program that, according to an early member, the presenter opened by saying: “As a doctor I have to tell you the things we’re going to talk about are contra indicated. But since we’re go- ing to do ‘em anyway -- let’s see how to do it safely.” 

In June 1975, Janus first started having regular officer business meetings. The first officers were Cynthia, Dossie Easton, Jeff Novalew, and Richard Brower. That same month also saw Janus send out the first issue of Growing Pains, which remains to this day the newsletter of the organization. But Growing Pains did not start gloriously to endure for over 40 years. Initially, it lasted a couple months and then went extinct. It would be revived in 1978 by Mark I. Chester, a gay male who then went on to become (and still is) a major Bay area radical sex photographer. 

But the goal of being gender inclusive and multi-orientation was not without difficulties. Of the regular members, only 4 or 5 were females. In 1975, Janus conducted a survey of the readership of Growing Pains: 38 percent of the readers were heterosexual males, 37 percent were gay males and 10 percent were bisexual males; heterosexual females were only 11 percent of the readership; bisexual women were 3 per cent, and there were no lesbians. Members were convinced that Janus must be more inclusive but it was not clear that this goal could be attained solely through the existing organization. Kaye Buckley, Amber Rae and Jay Magus thought it would be good to create a women-only group. They thought such a group would provide a safe place and be a stepping stone for women, who might join Janus further down the road. Cardea was created and it was the first women’s SM group in the Bay area. Jay, who was a male, did not attend the meetings, but he provided background support and ideas. Through Cardea, many women, including then-Pat (now Pat- rick) Califia, were able to join Janus. In 1978, Janus decided to have two co-coordinators, one male and one female: Califia was elected coordinator with Skip Aiken. That same year, Cardea stopped meeting: their goal had been achieved.
In her position, Califia made it a goal for Janus to participate in the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, where leather was initially not welcome (to put it mildly). The organization had a small contingent in the Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978, using Skip Navarette’s red Jeep. Some parade organizers protested the leather outfits and the open display of SM. A local lesbian columnist denounced the participation of “the gay Nazis,” clearly missing the fact that Janus was not specifically gay, and certainly not Nazi. The hostility toward the parade contingent was symptomatic of an increasingly overt stigmatization of SM. In 1981, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein decided to shut down classes on safety that Coroner Boyd Stephens had offered to organize for SM practitioners. Feinstein wrote to Don Mines that she “was concerned lest the impression be given that San Francisco, as a matter of official policy, encourages S&M. It does not. And it will not.” 

In putting Janus at the forefront of this political battle with the committee organizing the Pride Parade, Califia was following the principles that had led to the creation of Janus. As stated in the newsletter in October 1974, Janus had started with a clear political agenda aimed at “effecting social change.” This meant fighting against the psychiatrization of sadomasochism, and protesting misrepresentations of SM in the media. But by the early 1980s, Janus’s political focus tended to dissipate, and Janus, without being absent from political battles, increasingly concentrated on educational and social functions. 

At the same time as the purpose of the group evolved, a demographic change was underway. As the female participation was increasing, the male constituency started to shift. While the majority of the attendance at meetings had consisted of gay men, a new wave of heterosexual men began to join. The creation of the 15 Association in 1980 coincided with the departure of gay men, who returned to their own social settings and organizations. This “exodus,” which would only be amplified by the devastations visited upon the gay male population by the HIV epidemic, was something that distressed Cynthia greatly. She felt strongly that Janus should remain a diverse organization, one that attracted gays, straights, and bisexuals. Nevertheless, while there always remained a few gay men, by and large, by the mid-1980s, the organization had become predominantly heterosexual, even while it remained open — and still is — to anyone. 

As for lesbians, several who had been involved in Janus and Cardea founded Samois in 1978. Samois was the first public lesbian SM group
in the US. Initially, Samois was intended as primarily a social and educational group. But the organization would quickly be caught up in the feminist debates around pornography and SM that were escalating in the late 1970s. The presence, among the members of Samois, of Gayle Rubin, then a young doctoral student who had, in 1975, published an article that would make her a household name in feminist theory and politics, and of then-Pat (now Patrick) Califia, who at the time was writing for The Advocate, ensured that as Janus was refocusing on social and educational activities, Samois would be- come a focus of SM politics in the Bay Area (and beyond). 

Thus, the importance of Janus went well beyond Janus itself. Janus served as a channel for women into SM to come out whether or not they were professional dominatrices. It specifically helped with the formation of an organized lesbian SM presence. Similarly, members of Janus such as David Lourea, Cynthia Slater, and Steven Brown played decisive roles in the emergence of local bisexual activism. Later, as the AIDS epidemic hit, many of these same individuals pioneered early safe sex technologies and education. 

Janus was part of a constellation of organizations and institutions that durably shaped the social and sexual world of SM in the Bay Area. In addition to SM groups such as Samois and the 15 Association, there was significant overlap with the local institutions of sex education, and of sex clubs, notably the Catacombs. Although the Catacombs was primarily a gay male fisting club, Cynthia Slater connected its owner, Steve McEachern, and Janus. Janus held meetings at the Catacombs, and eventually, both women’s parties and mixed gender parties were held there. These events helped break down the boundaries among gays, lesbians, heterosexual females and males, and in so doing, they helped form a distinct SM identity in the Bay Area. Together, these two entities provided an organizational structure and a venue that gave the local scene a unique quality, and made possible a kind of pan-SM consciousness that emerged in the Bay Area, particularly in the early-to-mid 1980s. Janus made it possible for SM practitioners to do activism across boundaries of gender and sexual orientation, and the Catacombs made it possible for them to also share sexual spaces. The inclusive sexual spaces were never the only game in town, and in fact they were more successful when more exclusive options were available at the same time. But their existence allowed for a sense of brother- and sisterhood, a sense of freedom and a possibility for explorations where people did not feel threatened in their identities as gay, lesbian, or heterosexual. They created a space that was too gay to be heterosexual, but too heterosexual to be gay; too female to be exclusively male, but too male to be really female. Janus and the Catacombs made the San Francisco scene distinct among other US scenes. That sense of commonality was almost irreparably wounded by the devastations of the HIV epidemic. 

The Internet

Another major change that unarguably has had a huge impact on BDSM has been the Internet. As Jay Wiseman has noted, the Internet “has made SM more findable.” Starting with the early online newsgroup “alt.sex. bondage,” information about BDSM, including Janus, has become ever more accessible. 

One byproduct of the Internet’s effect on BDSM has been the advent of “munches”, low-pressure gatherings for meeting other like-minded scene folk. The original munch or “Burgermunch” took place in the SF Bay Area in 1992. STella, who later became a Janus member, posted an article on the asb newsgroup, inviting anyone interested to join her that evening at Kirk’s, a hamburger stand in Palo Alto (located about a 45 minute drive south of SF. Thanks to STellaTM, these munches are now commonplace not only throughout the United States, but the world. Janus hosts the San Francisco Munch, regularly attracting large crowds of veterans and newcomers alike. 

A New Century

Janus struggled in the 2000s, and its membership slowly dwindled. In the early 2010s, Janus worked to revitalize itself. Its presence on social media increased. Efforts were made to return to its pan-sexual roots (an effort that is always ongoing), and a renewed commitment to gender diversity has been enshrined in Janus policies along with policies about consent at Janus events. Janus today is a group that sees itself as a nexus for the Bay Area kink community. The organization works to forge connections with and assist other groups and events, and to increase the accessibility of BDSM knowledge and social opportunities. Membership is once again increasing, and Janus finds itself still relevant and strong. 

As Janus approaches its 45th anniversary, the organization has become an indispensable pillar of SM in the Bay Area and beyond. Its importance was recently recognized in an art installation placed along Ringold Alley to commemorate San Francisco’s leather history. Bronze plaques in the shape of boot prints honor individuals who created and established important facets of San Francisco leather. Cynthia Slater and Jim Kane are among those whose names adorn a boot print. The Society of Janus is itself honored on Ringold Alley, with its name incised on a granite marker, indicating its enduring importance as one of the preeminent institutions of leather and kink. 

In the very early 1970s, Janus and TES in NYC were pioneering social, educational, and political SM organizations, and among the only ones serving diverse genders and sexual orientations. In the 1980s, similar groups formed in other cities (for example, LA Janus, DADS in Denver, Chicagoland Discussion Group, ORGASM in Portland, and the PEP groups), and the National Leather Association aspired to assemble a truly national leather organization for all genders and orientations. With the advent of the internet, SM information has become widely available and kinky people can more readily find like-minded individuals. SM groups, conferences, play spaces, munches, parties, and educational programs are proliferating across the US at once unthinkable velocities. The Society of Janus has been one of the foundations of this modern kink community for nearly a half century.