The first BDSM novel I ever read was John Preston’s classic, Mr Benson. It’s one of the most important pieces of gay pornography ever written, perhaps the most important, because it had a profound impact on how gay kinksters understood themselves. My older brother, who was helping run a kinky bookstore in Minneapolis at the time, sent it to me as a birthday present when I was in my mid-20s. And it had a profound impact on me, although I didn’t actually understand that impact until I was in my early 40s.
John Preston was in his later 20s when the Gay Pride movement got going in the 1970s and he became active in it, founding one of the first gay community centers in the world, editing newsletters devoted to sexual health, and starting in 1975, acting as the editor of The Advocate. He was also, to use his own term, a pornographer. Although he had no pretensions about his writing, he was part of an effort to elevate the quality of gay erotic fiction. Although he authored around 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, all on gay themes, Mr Benson is his most important one.
Preston published it as a serial in the pages of Drummer magazine issues 29-38 in 1979-80. Drummer was, at the time, probably the premier source of information of the gay leather scene, and Preston’s story helped drive sales. In 1980, he collected the story and published it, along with an epilogue that sheds light on and re-interprets the story.
Mr Benson tells the story of Jamie, a rootless young man who is searching for something more meaningful than just the next fuck. One night, at a seedy gay bar in the West Village, he meets Aristotle Benson, a handsome, rich, intelligent, sadistic man who offers Jamie a choice: commit to being his slave that night or walk away permanently. Jamie, not really realizing what he’s committing to, says yes. Mr Benson transforms Jamie into the perfect slave, initiating him into the world of hardcore leather. Over the course of the novel, Jamie is brutally bound, tortured, and transformed into a slave who wants nothing more than to please his godlike master. Then, suddenly, Mr Benson dismisses Jamie without explaining why, sending Jamie into a tailspin and ultimately leaving him prey to a new master who has no regard for Jamie’s desires or well-being. In the end, however, Jamie is reunited with Mr Benson, who explains his actions and then claims the slave as his permanent property.
The novel is a journey through the major kinks of 1970s BDSM: bondage, torture, humiliation, leather, water sports, age play, fisting, and slavery both consensual and non-consensual; if kinky gays were doing it in New York in the 1970s, Jamie probably wound up doing it too. Some of the chapters aroused me enormously when I first read them, disturbing me by how strongly I reacted to them. Those same chapters still trip my triggers today, although I’m a lot more comfortable with kink now.
Mr Benson is important for a lot of reasons. First, it was one of the earliest works of gay fiction that ended happily for the main characters. Given that it was written at a time when gays in film and literature almost universally ended up either miserable or dead, that in itself was a tremendous step forward. Jamie and his master have no shame in their erotic desires and the novel ends with Mr Benson’s version of a collaring ceremony (which involves a piercing, collaring not yet being a real concept). Gays could hardly envision gay marriage yet, but Preston’s characters created their own form of lifetime commitment.
Just as important, Mr Benson set the template for how gay kinksters understood bdsm. The idea that being a master or a slave is a life choice (instead of just a scene choice) was only beginning to emerge in this period, and the novel helped solidify the idea. Mr Benson is absolutely and only a dom; no one would dare suggest that he let himself get fucked. Jamie instinctively responds to Mr Benson’s authority and under Mr Benson’s relentless demands he discovers himself as a lifetime slave. In that sense, Preston was helping create the modern kink scene by offering gay kinksters a model, a lens through which to view their activities and relationships.
The novel also, less helpfully, established the cliché of who a master or a slave is. Mr Benson is, as already noted, the perfect dom, successful in all walks of life, with no doubts whatsoever about what he is doing. It is only in the postscript that we get any sense of what he is thinking. Otherwise we see him only through Jamie’s eyes. Aristotle Benson is every dom you’ve ever met in gay porn, only better. And Jamie completely surrenders his identity as anything other than Mr Benson’s property. He has no job, no family or non-kinky friends, not even a last name that the novel tells us of. He transforms his body to meet Mr Benson’s standards, becoming a prize that Mr Benson will ultimately risk his life to protect. Under Mr Benson’s discipline and exacting standards, Jamie becomes what we today picture as the ideal slave. And Mr Benson belongs to a secret club of gay leathermen who meet to socialize and use each other’s slaves. Any of this sounding familiar in your own fantasies?
So while it was offering us a model of what a Master/slave relationship could be, it was also creating a straightjacket that many of us are still wearing without realizing it. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re either wishing you were Mr Benson or wishing you could find him, even if you’ve never heard his name. In fact, throughout the 80s and into the 90s, a lot of gay doms claimed that they were the original Mr Benson, the man who inspired Preston to write his novel. It’s bullshit–Preston himself denied there was a real Mr Benson–but there were lots of subs in that era who had a “Looking for Mr Benson” t-shirt.
When I first began to think about the issue of porn as sub-centric or dom-centric, I realized that even here Preston offers a template. The portions of the novel published in Drummer are entirely sub-centric. We know Mr Benson only through what Jamie sees and experiences of him. Jamie is never ‘off-stage’, but Mr Benson disappears for several chapters, much to Jamie’s dismay. But in the epilogue, Preston suddenly changes the point of view. It’s written by Mr Benson, who has discovered Jamie’s manuscript and decided that he needs to clarify some things Jamie didn’t understand. So he briefly re-narrates the novel from his perspective, explaining what he saw in Jamie and why he did certain things. Perhaps I was fortunate that the first piece of kink writing I ever read is told from both perspectives, because it helped me recognize what I see as a major deficit in kink porn, a deficit I am hoping to partially fill.
Mr Benson is not a perfect novel by any means. The novel is rather episodic, unsurprising given its genesis, but in the later chapters it’s clear that Preston was searching for an ending. He sets up an ominous mystery that turns out to have a somewhat silly conclusion, like a not particularly good pulp adventure. But the ending still absolutely captures my heart every time I read it. From the standpoint of contemporary kink, there is absolutely no discussion of safety issues. Jamie gives his consent once and is permanently bound by it, going from being a kink novice to being a 24/7 slave in a day. He is not given a safe word, and he is not permitted any real input into Mr Benson’s life or his relationship with him. Mr Benson simply knows what is best for Jamie and consequently does as he wishes. There’s little in the way of aftercare. These concepts had barely been articulated at the time, so the novel offers a problematic model that probably wound up hurting some of the guys who read it and tried to follow its pattern too closely. david stein, who was introduced to the New York kink scene at about the time Drummer was first publishing it, hated the novel because of its depiction of Jamie, which he felt was a terrible model for the consensual slavery that david was seeking (although he admitted to me late in life that he might have judged the novel too harshly).
If you haven’t read Mr Benson, I heartily recommend that you do so. It’s a hot read. But reading it with the context I’ve given here will, I think, help you to see our own contemporary practices in a new light, as the product of ideas that Preston first helped articulate and later reactions against that product. If that helps you understand your own desires and fantasies more clearly, it will be worth the price of the novel.