Samois logoSAMOIS (1978-1983)



As feminists, we oppose all forms of social hierarchy based on gender.

As radical perverts, we oppose all social hierarchies based on sexual preference.


Samois, Our Statement, 1979


Samois has a unique place in SM and leather history. The group’s formation in 1978 did not inaugurate an entirely new type of SM organization: Samois was inspired by groups such as the The Eulenspiegel Society (TES) started in New York City in December 1970 (LHOF 2011), and the Society of Janus, created in San Francisco around 1973 (LHOF 2018). Its founders were trailblazers for another reason. Most inductees in the Leather Hall of Fame have been recognized for an innovation they introduced, an event they established, or their role in improving or enriching the leather community. Samois and its founders created what was (in the current state of our historical knowledge) the first lesbian SM organization anywhere in the world. They did not simply change or enhance the social organization of lesbian SM: they began to construct a social world for lesbian SM where none existed. Samois took on a multitude of functions: the social, the political, and the educational. But its primary contribution was to create communities, articulate political visions, and give public voice to SM lesbians.


The structures of sexual subcultures tend to reflect the features of the larger society around them, and the SM world is no exception. Prior to 1970s, there were two major SM subcultures, strongly divided along lines of sexual orientation, and largely insulated from one another: heterosexual and gay male leather. Heterosexual SM reflected the prevailing relationships of gender power and considerable male privilege. These networks revolved around producers of erotica and the sex work industry. Commercial porn and professional domination catered primarily to male customers, while women tended to be service providers. Nonetheless, images of lesbian SM were common in “bondage” porn, and some pro-dommes would see women for sessions, or play with them privately. Moreover, a certain amount of bisexuality, particularly among women, was tolerated or even cultivated, although there was considerable uneasiness about gay male sex in most of these circles. But some SM lesbians hung around, and found a place in, the predominantly “heterosexual” scene.


The worlds of gay male leather were more institutionally varied. Gay leather revolved around bars, motorcycle clubs, bathhouses, and private parties. And it was gay. But of course, gay male bars were not a fruitful site for women to find other women. This dilemma was eloquently expressed by Linnea Due, a Bay Area writer, who recalled that in the sixties, an SM world was “about as attainable as waking up in the middle of The Story of O. That didn’t stop me from trying– since age seventeen I’d been storming gay male leather bars and being tossed out on my ear more times than I wanted to remember. Why was I so obsessed with Folsom Street? Perhaps because it was the only game in town for a budding leather queer.”


In the aftermath of World War II, both straight and gay SM worlds were shaped by the constraints of the 1950s US society. The social movements of the 1950s and 1960s opened up new opportunities for dissident communities and individual expression. TES and Janus were a new kind of SM organization, made possible by the civil rights movement, anti-war activism, the counterculture, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian liberation.


Women’s liberation had attacked the sexual double standard and asserted women’s claims to sexual pleasure and autonomy. In the SM world, there were many women who were fed up with routine forms of sexism. Moreover, although in different ways and to different degrees, women were among the key leadership in both TES and Janus. One of the founders of TES was a woman (Terry Kolb, LHOF 2015), and Cynthia Slater (LHOF 2014) was a founder and driving force of Janus.


Nevertheless, gender inequalities did not disappear in either organization. A Janus survey conducted in 1975 revealed that women comprised only 15% of the readership of the Janus newsletter. Gay and heterosexual men were almost evenly represented (37% of the membership were gay men, 38% were heterosexual males), and 10% were bisexual men. Only 11% of the respondents were heterosexual women, and 3% reported bisexual identifications. Significantly, there were no lesbians.


To encourage a more female-friendly atmosphere, three Janus members formed Cardea, a female-only group. Cardea was open to all women, and most of its members were straight or bisexual. However, some lesbians joined Cardea. In 1978, Janus resolved to elect two co-coordinators every year: one male and one female. In June 1978, Janus elected its first female co-coordinator: a young lesbian who had joined through Cardea and who was destined to become a prominent SM writer and activist: Patrick (then-Pat) Califia. But the increased presence of women, including a few lesbians, led to another problem: women in general, and lesbians in particular, resented the harassment they felt from straight men who often had no prior experience of socializing with women in sex positive environments. Complaints about poor conduct surfaced regularly in the pages of Growing Pains, Janus’ newsletter.


In the spring of 1978, Gayle Rubin moved from Ann Arbor to the San Francisco Bay Area. She had previously met Califia, and soon met other kinky lesbians, including Susan B. Although she joined Janus and attended some functions of Cardea, Rubin was among those who felt a need for a specifically lesbian SM group. There had been an attempt at forming such a group in San Francisco in 1975, but it was short-lived. This failed attempt, however, was part of a growing network of kinky lesbians in the Bay Area. Some of these women met through Janus or Cardea, others through San Francisco Sex Information, and yet others emerged from the vibrant local lesbian feminist community. Having gotten tired of hearing complaints about the lack of a lesbian SM group, Susan B produced a flyer calling for a meeting to form a “Lesbian-Feminist S&M Support Group.” On June 13, 1978, seventeen women showed up at Susan’s flat on Potomac Street near Duboce Park in San Francisco, and started the group that would become Samois.

A month later, the name was chosen. “Samois” was a reference to Story of O, the 1954 French erotic SM novel written by Dominique Aury (under the pseudonym Pauline Réage). Story of O was quickly hailed as a masterpiece of SM literature, and although most of the interactions in the book are heterosexual, there is a section in which O (the masochistic central character) is taken to Samois, a small town situated a little south of Paris, where she is placed under the control of a female dominant whose entourage is composed entirely of women. Samois was therefore one of the most prominent literary locations for female SM. Choosing such a name for the nascent organization was well within the traditions of queer and kinky groups, which had often, starting in the 1950s, gone by cryptic terms that did not immediately identify their aims or constituencies. This was the case for two of the earliest homophile groups: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Eulenspiegel and Janus, the SM organizations formed in the early 1970s, had similarly discreet titles.


Naming Samois in this way signaled that some of its members anticipated political and social challenges such as those faced by the early homophile organizations, as well as by TES and Janus. Using such a veiled name was also an indication of how stigmatized SM was, not only in the society at large but also within lesbian communities. And since Story of O had been written by a woman, and featured SM activities among women in the village of Samois, the name also signaled, if obliquely, the group’s purpose and membership.


Ideologically, Samois inherited ideas from women’s liberation, radical feminism, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and the nascent “SM liberation” politics of Eulenspiegel and Janus. Situated at the confluence of women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, and SM liberation, Samois brought together women with different backgrounds and attitudes. Some hung out at Janus where they socialized with gay and straight men and women; others came through Cardea, whose membership was female but mostly heterosexual or bisexual. A few had been admitted to the gay male parties at the Catacombs, a legendary gay male fisting venue. Those women were used to playing among, and often with, gay men. Most identified as lesbians, but others were bisexual. Some even identified as heterosexual but still played with other women. Among the lesbians, there were also many differences of personal preference and political orientation. There were many different versions of lesbian feminism at the time, and these were all present among Samois’ members. Samois itself had a very limited set of principles, and there was a great deal of political variation within the membership. But there were shared principles. One important goal, articulated in the Samois Statement of Purpose, was to “develop a lesbian-feminist perspective on SM.” Another key conviction was that SM was not intrinsically antithetical to feminism. Samois never claimed that SM was, per se, a feminist practice; but Samois was adamant that there is no inherent opposition between feminism and kink.


Some Samois members were separatists and did not want to be around men at all, even at meetings, much less in play spaces. Some did not even want to share space with bisexual women. Others identified just as strongly as lesbians but felt committed to the liberation of all women, and some were committed to the advancement of all kinksters, including men (even straight ones). For still others, being kinky mattered more than being a lesbian. Along those lines, Patrick Califia famously wrote in 1979 about identifying more strongly as a sadomasochist than as a lesbian, and stated that “If I had a choice between being shipwrecked on a desert island with a vanilla lesbian and a hot male masochist, I’d pick the boy.” The many varied backgrounds and political orientations within Samois resulted in periodic political conflicts. But despite the tensions, the group was energetic, productive, and extremely influential.


Samois’ primary purpose and first task was to create a space for lesbian SM social life: a place where kinky lesbians could meet lovers, find friends and play buddies, support one another, talk openly, share techniques and learn from each other. Samois began to hold monthly meetings that featured a wide range of educational programs for its members. The enthusiasm of the early organization was infectious; members wanted to share their excitement and extend education about SM to the wider community. This led to a series of public events, including a discussion and forum about lesbian SM held at Old Wives Tales, a local women’s bookstore, and “Spring Fever,” an evening of kinky entertainment at an East Bay lesbian bar. In 1981, Samois held the first Ms. Leather Contest, and what was planned to be an annual women’s leather dance. There was a Halloween Costume Ball and Erotic Costume contest in 1982, and a Lesbian Pride Leather Dance and a Valentine’s Day Uniform Contest in 1983. There were also women’s play parties. These were initially in private homes. Later, Patrick Califia rented the Catacombs and began hosting play parties there until the venue closed abruptly in 1981. The last of these early women’s play parties were held at another gay male club, the Caldron.


Samois grew in visibility as it became a voice for SM lesbians and as SM became extremely controversial within the women’s movement. In 1978, the Society of Janus had a contingent in the Gay Freedom Day Parade. This scandalized several of the parade monitors and the presence of an SM organization in the parade was denounced in some of the local gay press. The following year, a group proposed to ban SM and leather from the gay parade. Members of Samois organized to prevent such a ban from being enacted, and Samois members marched proudly in that parade, many wearing Samois’ first official t-shirt. These shirts sported the Samois logo and the slogan “The Leather Menace,” a deliberate reference to the “Lavender Menace,” a famous phrase used by the activists who mobilized to protest the marginalization of lesbians and lesbian issues from the mainstream women’s movement in 1970.


Despite the successful effort to stop the proposed leather ban at the annual gay parade, there were many other instances of harassment and exclusion. There were many individuals who believed that SM was inevitably anti-female or anti-feminist, and Samois had to continually challenge such assumptions. In 1981, Samois had rented a room at the San Francisco Women’s Building to hold a reception for local SM lesbians and visitors coming to town for the annual gay parade. A few weeks before the event, the Women’s Building staff refused to confirm the reservation and insisted on a series of tense and unpleasant discussions about the ostensible “politics” of SM. The reservation was finally confirmed, and the fees paid, after which Samois was informed that there were “conditions” – insulting conditions not imposed on any other women’s group. The Women’s Building later adopted a formal policy banning SM groups from renting space there. This policy was finally revoked in 1989.


The most rancorous public disputes that engulfed the organization arose from two other Samois activities: its active program of publication, and the involvement of the organization and several of its members in opposing the early feminist movement against pornography.


Much of Samois’ impact resulted from its publications, which began quickly in 1978 with a tongue-in-cheek hanky code for women. Hanky codes had emerged in the gay male leather community in the mid-1970s, apparently initially among fisters sporting red bandanas in their back pockets. Soon bandanas of many colors were adopted to signal other erotic interests: black for SM, grey for bondage, yellow for water sports, and many more. As the colors proliferated and the schemes multiplied, bars and retail businesses printed hanky code cards listing the various bandanas and their presumed associations. Samois’ hanky code card for women was so popular that it required a second printing.


Most of Samois’ publications were handled by a committee dubbed, with flippant irreverence, the “Ministry of Truth,” or “MOT.” This was an explicit, if lighthearted, reference to George Orwell’s 1984. At one of the early meetings, someone noted that for many of the members, “freedom was slavery.” The humor stuck, and the Ministry of Truth was christened. MOT, and its publications, became one of Samois’ most signature projects. MOT took on the editorial and production tasks of assembling What Color Is Your Handkerchief? A Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader. This 1979 pamphlet contained Samois’ statement of purpose, a glossary of SM terms, a handkerchief color code for lesbians, an SM bibliography, and a resource list. It reprinted several key SM texts by both men and women, gay and straight, and included original articles by members of the organization. The booklet was so popular that there were five printings between 1979 and 1981. However, it also encountered resistance. Some feminist newspapers refused to run classified ads for it, and some feminist bookstores refused to carry it at all. Others, including A Woman’s Place Bookstore in Oakland, CA, insisted on shelving the book only with disclaimer cards.


Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on lesbian S/M was a more ambitious undertaking. Published in 1981, the book contained over 200 pages of original essays, poetry, fiction, memoir, and photography. Once again, controversy attended its publication, with nasty reviews, rejected advertisements, and bookstores banning or hiding the book. Nevertheless, Coming to Power quickly sold out, and there were two subsequent editions, the last published in 1987. It was a landmark anthology, similar in its impact to Mark Thompson’s 1991 collection, Leatherfolk.


Samois became embroiled in combatting a movement against pornography that had emerged within feminism in the late 1970s. The first feminist antipornography organization was San Francisco’s WAVPM (Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media). Because many Samois members were active in feminist politics, they were quick to realize that SM was central to the antipornography analysis and program. Initially, those activists assumed that the antagonism to SM in antiporn publications and rhetoric stemmed from lack of understanding of SM practice, and that more accurate information would lead WAVPM to focus on actual violence rather than mere kink. This belief proved to be naïve, and Samois and WAVPM had a series of poisonous encounters. These culminated in a 1980 WAVPM Forum on “S&M in the Women’s Community,” which consisted of a series of denunciations of SM and SM practitioners. Some of the principals who spoke at the Forum were later instrumental in assembling the anthology Against Sadomasochism, published in 1982. Samois picketed the forum with a leaflet stating: “This Forum is a lie about SM.”


Samois and some of its members were among the first to challenge the antiporn movement, and were key in mobilizing resistance to the antiporn agenda within feminism. As a consequence, antiporn partisans tended to call anyone who opposed them—and there were many others who did so, and for a wide range of objections —sadomasochists.


Some Samois members have been public figures, and the organization is often equated with them. But Samois was begun with seventeen individuals, and at its height, had over a hundred members. The actions, publications, public events, and political and social impact of the organization were due to an astonishing assembly of skills and talents of many individuals, most of whom were not public figures or who chose to remain anonymous in the SM world. Many of the women who came into Samois had experiences in publication. Some were professional writers. Others understood the process and business of production. They were conversant with typesetting and layout and knew the local printers. There were artists who provided visual material. There were people who knew how to produce events and where to book space. Many of the early members were deeply embedded in the Bay Area women’s communities and feminist institutions, and they used their connections to get things done and to get the organization established. Samois benefited from all these individuals and from an exhilarating outburst of energy and joy.


Over time, new members came into the organization and others left. One of the initial founders—Susan B, who had produced the flyer that led to the first meeting—moved away when she got a job in another state. There were internal disagreements that led to the departure of others. Fighting with hostile external forces was draining, as was the work of distributing Coming to Power. And over time, there was the exhaustion that often afflicts volunteer organizations. As the membership declined, custody of the book and concern that it have a stable future became the last challenges for the remaining leadership. That responsibility was met when the book was placed with a gay publisher (Alyson). In 1983, shortly after the paste up boards were finally shipped off to the press, Samois was quietly terminated. But in its meteoric five years, Samois left an indelible mark on feminism, on the lesbian community, and on the worlds of SM and kink.




For inquiring minds…


Califia, Pat. “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality.” The Advocate. December 27, 1979. Reprinted in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, by Pat Califia. Pittsburgh & San Francisco: Cleis Press. 1994. (quote p. 158)


Califia, Pat. “A Personal View of the History of the Lesbian S/M Community and Movement in San Francisco.” 243-287 in Coming To Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. 2nd edition. Boston: Alyson Publications. 1982.


Due, Linnea. “Blackbeard Lost.” 8-14 in Opposite Sex: Gay men on Lesbians, Lesbians on Gay Men, edited by Sara Miles and Eric Rofes. New York: NYU Press. 1998. (quote p. 9)


Rubin, Gayle. “Samois.” Leather Times, 21: 3-7. Spring 2004.


Rubin, Gayle. “The Leather Menace: Comments on Politics and S/M” in Coming To Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Palo Alto: UP Press. 1981.

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