Dawn Perlmutter's "Dark Subculture"
© 2006 Ambrosio
Date October 28, 2006
Dedicated to Soreaux of Washington State
"People fear that which they do not understand, and they hate that which they cannot control."
- Old Maxim
It's been almost twenty year since I wrote the first version of this article.
However, her book is still sold online in Kindle format and hardcover, which keeps this criticism relevant.
In this article I am going to challenge the validity of a forensic textbook from a major academic publisher. You might question my qualifications for doing so since I don't have a degree in Sociology, Psychology, Criminology, or Forensics -- but neither does the author of the book. Her advanced degrees are in Philosophy.
The book is Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes by Dawn Perlmutter. Among other things, the author claims that Gothic, Vampire, and Fetish communities are in what she calls a "perpetual state of sacrificial crisis" which leads inevitably to "ritual murder."
The author is a self-described expert on religious terrorism. Her qualifications -- quoted from the conference program for the International Association for Identification's 91st International Educational Conference -- are as follows:
Dawn Perlmutter, director of the Institute for the Research of Organized & Ritual Violence, LLC, is considered one of the leading experts in the areas of religious violence and ritualistic crimes. She regularly consults for and trains local, state and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States on identifying and investigating ritualistic crimes and terrorism perpetrated by extremist religious groups. She is the author of two books and numerous publications on ritual violence in contemporary culture.
Dr. Perlmutter is a philosophy professor in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy from New York University and a master's degree from The American University, Washington, D.C.
From reading her bio it appears that she has no academic or professional background in her field of expertise --- excepting her role as the director of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence (formerly the Institute for the Research of Organized & Ritual Violence, LLC.) What are less obvious are the credentials of her institute. Who besides Dr. Perlmutter is on the staff of the organization? Are there any other officers or employees in the organization or does it consist solely of Dr. Perlmutter? I have been unable to identify any other officer or representive of her organization. The organization's dot com web site (http://www.symbolintelligence.com/) lists no one other than Dr. Perlmutter although it does state that the institute has "an international staff of dedicated professional consultants" and that the institute is "a private organization, founded in 2001 to advance knowledge, information, methodologies and understanding, of all manifestations of collective and ritual violence." Also notable is an absence of a mailing address or phone number anywhere on the site. All contact initial contact must be made through one of three email addresses listed on the contact page. I think it's very likely that Institute for the Research of Organized & Ritual Violence, LLC. consists mainly --- if not entirely --- of Dr. Perlmutter.
The Dark Subculture
I have been involved in both the performance art community and what Dr. Perlmutter refers to as the "Fetish Scene. " It follows that I have been by definition a part of what Dr. Perlmutter calls an "extensive subculture" that is "fundamentally based on violent aesthetics." As a member of the community she condemns, I feel qualified to comment on chapter 6 of her book: "Vampirism." I have little knowledge or experience with the religions and cults she covers in the other chapters so I will restrict my comments to this chapter.
The section on vampirism is long on sensational detail, ominous implications, irrelevant anecdotes, and unsubstantiated claims; but short on first hand research and statistics about the trends. Dr. Perlmutter writes mostly in a bland 8th grade reading level syntax until she is ready to make a point. Then she interjects with alarmist pronouncements that are loaded with qualifying words. Readers who don't look critically at her arguments will assume that they been warned by an expert about a serious threat against the nation's well being.
She uses poor research, faulty assumptions, qualifiers, and omissions to misrepresent several law-abiding communities.
I. Poor Research
There is no indication in her writing that she has any first hand experience with Goth, Vampire, or Fetish practitioners. She cites no first person interviews and her chapter is full of inaccuracies and assumptions that result from armchair investigation.
For one example she claims that the Ankh "refers to the priest of the Egyptian god Horus' use of the bladed ankhs for bloodletting rites." (p. 172)
She doesn't cite a source here and her statement is not attributed to anyone. She's clearly stating this as a historical and verifiable fact. Actually, the use of a bladed ankh in ancient Egyptian bloodletting rites is fictional. It appears 1983 in the horror movie The Hunger (but not in the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber on which it is based.) Ms. Jody --- an amateur Egyptologist who has had dealings with the Vampire community --- has confirmed that there is no historical basis to Perlmutter's Ankh claim.
Ms. Jody writes:
The ankh in ancient Egypt was the symbol for 'life'--not 'eternal life' as many people have erroneously stated. The symbol for eternity was called shen. The shen symbol was altered to form a cartouche--the loop that encloses the hieroglyphic name of royalty. Ankh amulets were popular talismans for both the living and dead, being made out of almost any material available.
The only ritual knives I'm aware of were those used in mummification to create the incision in the cadaver. These were made of obsidian and not in any particular symbolic shape. It was the stone's sharpness, durability and color which seems to have had the most importance here.
Blood was understood by the ancient Egyptians to be a necessity for life, as loss of it caused death. It was therefore considered an element of power in such a way that it could draw the attention of unfriendly spirits or carry the essence of the animal it was obtained from when used in medicine or magic.
The only reference I've come upon regarding human blood and priests is that a priest was considered 'unclean' if they had an open wound and could not fulfill their duties at such a time. The thinking was again that the blood could attract unwanted forces. Also there is made mention of women being ritually unclean during their mensis for the same reason.
I have not found evidence of any bloodletting rites or other such nonsense. There has been speculation that at the dawn of ancient Egyptian society, known as the Pre-Dynastic Period, that there may have been cases of ritualistic cannibalism. This is still hotly debated, but given the antiquity of the time period and the fact that Egypt is in Africa...I personally would not be surprised if it did occur.
The priesthood in general was not so much cloaked in mystery as some certain romantics may like to portray it. Many temple employees held the title of 'Priest' in different capacities; the word did not carry the same definition then as it does now. Some were allowed into the presence of the God (cult statue), others were responsible for the purification of items used in ritual, the recitation of funerary or cult litanies, record keepers, etc. The temple itself was a microcosm within Egyptian society and in large cult centers the staff could number into the thousands. Not all priests dedicated their entire lives to temple service. Many were part-time or held other government offices and the title of 'Priest' was more honorary or utilized only on very special occasions. All priests, regardless of ranking, were allowed to marry and have children. The restrictions regarding sexual interaction with women were for ritual purity reasons and applied only at certain times or before certain temple duties.
Incubae and Succubae
She confused incubae with succubae: She defines incubae as the female demons and succubae as the male demons. For the sake of simplicity, the reverse is generally known to be true. (Strictly speaking some medieval theologians believed that incubae and succubae were the same demons and they were able to change their gender at will.)
Perhaps these factual errors are insignificant in relation to the rest of the chapter. If it had been another writer with another perspective perhaps I wouldn't be quite as offended by her inaccuracies. I'm willing to concede that these minor inacuracies are the least important of her offenses.
II. Use of Qualifying and Imprecise Words.
In Hell's Angels Hunter S. Thompson explains how journalists uses qualifying phrases to make exciting copy in the absence of supporting facts:
... anyone who has worked on a newspaper for more than two months knows how technical safeguards can be built into even the wildest stories, without fear of loosing reader impact. What they amount to, basically, is the art of printing a story without taking legal responsibility for it. The word 'alleged' is a key to this art. Other keys are 'so-and-so said' (or claimed'), 'it was reported' and 'according to.' (p. 34)
The learned doctor uses this technique repeatedly. She writes at length without qualifiers -- most of this chapter consists of illustrative anecdotes, lists, and facts -- but when she makes pronouncements the about level of threat posed by these "dark subcultures" she tempers the otherwise ominous language with discreet uses of weasel words such as "often," "many," "conceivably," "potential," "possible," "can," and "occasionally." When you peel away the academic and ominous language her conclusions don't really conclude much of anything; but left as they are, they do leave an impression of a significant threat to the public.
Here is one of her most obvious examples:
Similar to other new religious movements that embrace violent self-gratification ideologies, Vampire religions can erupt into situations that have criminal consequences. (p. 176)
The operative word is can.
I'll include further examples throughout this article.
III. Unsubstantiated Assumptions
The Extensive Subculture Assumption
Perlmutter's definition of the dark subculture is broad:
Practitioners of Vampirism are referred to as Vampires and form part of an extensive subculture that includes Goth, Modern Primitives, Vampire Role Players and the Body Modification and Fetish Scenes. (p. 145)
She means vampires to include authentic blood drinking vampires, recreational vampires who play vampire role playing games such as "Vampire: The Masquerade," psychic vampires, and anyone else who chooses to be called a "Vampire."
The term "Fetish Scenes" is very misleading. Her definition is not one I would have used. She uses the term on the first page of the vampire chapter but it's not until the third page of the offending chapter that she defines "Fetish scene" as the venues where Fetish activity takes place rather than the people who participate in them: "the Fetish Scene entails nightclubs where members of all of the Vampire-related movements come together to engage in all manner of sado-masochism, sexual bondage and blood rituals." (p. 148)
For casual readers it would be easy to infer that Dr. Perlmutter means to include the BDSM and Leather subcultures in her dark cabal. They would seem to be a more appealing and easier target than vampire role-playing gamers and rebellious teenagers in dark trench coats and black fingernail polish. But for unknown reasons she defines the Fetish subculture narrowly. She restricts her definition of Fetish subculture to Fetish themed nights at dance clubs and Erotic Balls.
(Incidentally, I have been active in the BDSM subculture --- and peripherally in the Leather subculture --- since 1994. So if we designate Dr. Perlmutter's Dark Subculture to include BDSM and Leather, I'm comfortable in addressing her accusations in that light as well: Based on over a decade of experience in the "Fetish" community, I will agree that the "Fetish" community and the Vampire and Goth communities overlap to a degree but not to the extent that they would form an extensive subculture. In my limited interaction with the Goth community, it seems to be predominantly a youth culture. Only a tiny minority tends to attend BDSM functions. In over a decade of experience, I would estimate that I've met less than two-dozen "Goths" at BDSM munches and parties.)
These "Fetish Scene" events feature entertainment usually performed by a small paid group of performers --- sometimes consisting of professional female dominants or exotic dancers --- for the entertainment of a large paying audience predominantly drawn from Goth, Vampire, and Fetish sub cultures. (The BDSM and Leather subculture on the other hand, are more participatory. The differences between the players and watchers are transitory and brief.)
The emphasis is on entertainment -- on producing a good show. While the scenarios the performers present might draw upon religious imagery, it is usually for effect and not necessarily a matter of faith. The performers draw upon whatever imagery produces the greatest draw and reaction from a paying audience -- whether titillation, shock, or a pleasurable sensation of fright. One brief entertainment might feature Catholic imagery while another scene might feature an ancient Pagan ritual and another still will have no religious content at all. While I'm sure some performers might incorporate their religious beliefs into the shows, it's not fair to describe Fetish culture --- as the learned doctor designates it --- as a religion or a cult.
She also asserts that Goth, Fetish, and Vampire scenes evolved from Happenings and Performance Art. She takes extreme examples of avant-garde performance art and implies that they are representative of Vampirism and Fetishism (p. 159-163). This is an outlandish distortion.
So essentially she says the vampire gamers --- men and women who enjoy playing a role playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons ---are part of the same dark cabal as the Fetish Night performers --- exotic dancers and their boyfriends who flog themselves erotically on stage during midnight performance at the local Goth-Industrial night club. And the same dark cabal includes practicing vampires --- who drink small quantities for each other's blood for a variety of reasons --- as well as performance artists --- who express political statements through body modification and inscrutable monologues.
Dr. Perlmutter's connections are too tenuous and the components of her extensive subculture are too disparate to be united as a united community.
Presumption of Violence
Repeatedly the good doctor insists that the Vampire community is violent and she uses selective language and an insignificant number of examples to buttress her opinion.
At one point she writes, "Astral Vampirism is the ability to send one's astral body to attack others." (p. 150)
It's interesting that Perlmutter chooses the emotionally loaded word "attack" rather than the more specific and accurate phrase "feed upon." It's one of many ways in which she tries to cast the Vampire community in the image of violent warring gangs.
In contrast, practicing psychic vampire and vampire expert Michelle Belanger defines an astral vampire as a "being that moves through the astral plane and/or subtle reality and feeds off the energy of others." (Berlanger, 270) The phrase "feed upon" can constitute a violent attack but it can also mean a nonviolent theft of energy or a willing exchange.
"The use of blood in performance art, blood sports and Vampire Culture is often extremely violent ... " (Perlmutter, p.163)
It is? I had no idea. How often? Perlmutter gives a handful of extreme examples of self-mutilation performance art but she doesn't back up her assertion with any proof that it's representative of a large trend.
Specific Examples of Vampire Crimes
"Vampire Culture, the most recent manifestation of the occult, has led to many crimes ranging from vandalism to murder." (p. 145)
She does not back up her assertions with any statistics and only a small set of examples. Her time line on pages 166-168 contain 28 examples from all over the world starting with Countess Elizabeth Bathory in the 1500s (in Hungary) and ending with Deborah Joan Finch in 1992 (location unspecified.)
"The relevance of these crimes to law enforcement is that the Vampire Scene literally gives perpetrators their first taste of blood and sanctions the act as acceptable behavior that can conceivably escalate to the following types of crimes: ... "
(The operative word there is "conceivably.")
Her 28 examples --- covering a 500-year period in Russia, Europe, and North and South America --- is (comparatively speaking) an insignificant number. She also fails to show any connection between her 28 examples and the Vampire or Goth subcultures. (Although with a little more research I'm sure she could show some sort of a connection with a few of the crimes.) Even she admits in an atypical attempt at fairness "all the listed crimes were enacted by individuals who were obsessed with blood as opposed to crimes committed by a group with shared Vampire or Satanic religious beliefs... " (p. 166)
She goes into depth on only a single example of an act of "vampire terrorism" perpetrated by a small group of people who were on the periphery of the Vampire scene and who violated it's precepts.
But apparently those 29 examples -- the list of 28 and the one example she actually examines in depth -- are enough evidence for her to decide that the Vampire community is full of violent offenders: "The various Scenes ... are all fundamentally based on violent aesthetics ... " (p.168)
In the end she makes her most alarmist and irrational argument hidden beneath a layer of (seemingly rational) academic obfuscation:
This case is just one of many that entail magical thinking, blood rituals and murder. Violent Performance Art, the Body Modification and Goth Movements, Vampire Culture and the Fetish Scene literally set the ritual stage for sacrifice. Ritual murder is the epitome for Vampire Culture freed from ethical responsibility to society. What begins as artists experimenting with the use of blood and mutilation as a form of personal transformation escalates to an entire culture founded on the principles of a dark mythology manifested in orgiastic ritual. Once blood rituals turn participatory and new religions ideologically validate sacrifice, murder is justified in the minds of true believers. (p.179)
Her central argument is similar to a lot of prejudices that have fallen out or are falling out of favor: all Arabs are terrorists and all Italians are involved with the Mafia. In this case: All Goths, "vampires," and body modification folks are part of a dark cabal that practices human sacrifice.
The Slippery Slope Argument.
Throughout the chapter she makes several authoritative statements of the "rock and roll leads to juvenile delinquency" variety:
In addition to obvious criminal activity, Vampire Culture is relevant to law enforcement because many juveniles and young adults dabbling in the Goth movement are seduced into the more serious levels of the subculture -- the Vampire and Fetish Scenes where blood rituals, sexual sadomasochism and bondage/discipline are regular occurrences. (p. 145)
What is the obvious criminal activity? How are the more serious levels of the subculture relevant to law enforcement? She doesn't elaborate.
"The combination of Role-Playing Games, Vampire clubs and occult ideologies seduce young adults who unknowingly are entering a violent subculture." (p. 146)
Just as comic books led to juvenile delinquency in the 1950s.
Dr. Perlmutter even equates the fictional scenarios of "Vampire: The Masquerade" role-playing games with real world gang violence.
If there is still any doubt that 'Vampire: The Masquerade' is potentially dangerous consider that the publisher decided to reduce liability in the event of future lawsuits by placing a disclaimer in every book stating, 'This book uses the supernatural for settings, character and themes. All mystical and supernatural elements are fiction and intended for entertainment purposes only. Reader discretion is advised.' In addition to the possibility of inspiring acts of violence that are described in the Role-playing Game, 'Vampire: The Masquerade' has even more potential for inspiring players to join Vampire religious groups whose theologies are strikingly similar to the imaginary World of Darkness. (p. 155)
The operative words are potential and possible.
"The more insidious danger of blood play is that occasionally self-mutilation is not a sufficient mystical experience and can escalate into sacrifice, blood rituals that entail harming others." (p. 165)
The operative words are "occasionally" and "can."
"... blood rituals are addictive -- both psychologically and physiologically when a person experiences pain, endorphins (natural pain killers) are released; however, eventually more pain is needed to achieve the same endorphin high." (p. 165)
She implies that spanking will lead inevitably to sensual chainsaw play and razor wire suspension bondage. The truth is far less ominous. Many masochists will see a gradual increase in their pain threshold over time. Over time many people will try playing with techniques that they might not have interested them before. That's the inevitable result of experimentation. But it has not been my observance that masochism has ever been a self-destructive spiral leading to death and dismemberment. Her overstatement reveals a lack of understanding.
IV. Deliberate Omission of Vampire Ethics
Another of her central arguments is that "essentially, the Fetish scene is a never-ending festival where there are no laws, no morality and no limits on sexual or violent urges." (p. 170)
But a few pages later she writes about the Vampire code:
The code of conduct is enforced by the elders in the tradition of the The Black Veil and is comprised of 13 ethical tenets that all members are expected to abide by. The first and most important is Discretion (keeping sanguine secrets confidential among members), followed by Diversity, Safety, Control, Lifestyle, Family, Havens, Territory, Responsibility, Elders, Donors, Leadership and Ideals. The philosophy of The Black Veil encourages honor, respect, safety, chivalry and unity of those in the culture. (173)
It's very revealing that Dr. Perlmutter discusses "The Black Veil" but that she neglects to elaborate on the "Donors" tenet.
In version 1 of "The Black Veil" (written by Michelle Belanger and Father Todd), the "Donors" tenet consists of the following:
Without those who offer themselves body and soul to us, we would be nothing. We cannot be other than what we are, but it is the donors who sustain our nature. For this service, they should be respected. Never mistreat your donors, physically or emotionally. They are not to be manipulated or leeched off of for more than what they freely offer. Never take them for granted. Appreciate them for the companionship and acceptance, which they offer us, which so many others would refuse. This above all: appreciate the gift of their life. That communion is sacred. Never fail to treat it as such.
In version 2 of the "The Black Veil" (written by Michelle Belanger and developed by Father Sebastian), the "Donors" tenet consists of the following:
Feeding should occur between consenting adults. Allow donors to make an informed decision before they give of themselves to you. Do not take rapaciously from others, but seek to have an exchange that is pleasant and beneficial for all.
Respect the life that you feed upon and do not abuse those who provide for you.
Dr. Perlmutter's omission is very telling -- and unfortunate for the book's target audience. The investigators who read her book are relying on it to contain useful information presented without an agenda. Instead they are given a distorted view of a subculture that will hamper and complicate their investigations.
Dr. Perlmutter has an agenda that she is willing to support by distortion and omission instead of through legitimate research. Through her books, her articles, and her seminars, she is subverting the legitimate resources of the law enforcement community to misdirect them at the "dark" communities. She is complicating the efforts of law enforcement to identify criminals and solve crimes by providing misleading and incomplete information and her own mistaken prejudices.
If you are a scientist and scholar and you agree with my central argument, please join me in writing protests to Perlmutter's publisher, CRC Press through their contact page at http://crcpress.com/content/view_item.asp?ukey=EDITORIAL_CONTACTS. Please specifically write to CRC's Forensic Science Editors (Becky McEldowney Masterman and Carolyn Spence) and to their Senior Vice President (John Lavender.)
If you are a member of the law enforcement community and you are looking for a good book on the topic of occult criminal investigations, please get a better book such as The Cop's Guide to Occult Investigations: Understanding Satanism, Santeria, Wicca, and Other Alternative Religions by Tony M. Kail. Mr. Kail might not have an advanced degree in Philosophy but he is a cop, which adds some weight to his qualifications. More importantly his book is reasonable and impartial.
Unfortunately, while as of September 2022, Dr. Permutter's book was still available for purchase online, Tony Kail's book was out of print. It's possible that a used copy might appear on Amazon.com or intreped investigators might locate copies at their local libraries. And perhaps if there's enough demmand, Tony Kail or his publisher will make an ebook edition available.
- Belanger, Michelle A., Psychic Vampire Codex: A Manual of Magick and Energy Work (San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2004)
- Kail, Tony M., The Cop's Guide to Occult Investigations: Understanding Satanism, Santeria, Wicca, and Other Alternative Religions (Boulder: Paladin Press, 2003)
- Perlmutter, Dawn, Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes (Boca Raton: CRC, 2003)
- Thompson, Hunter S., Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (New York: Random House, 1966)
Additional Reading for Law Enforcement
- An Open Letter to Law Enforcement by Ambrosio
An open letter to law enforcement from someone in the BDSM community who wants to explain some ways in which BDSM is not domestic violence.
- "Information for Professionals Confronted with Erotic Power Exchange" -- "Serious background information for people, confronted with erotic power exchange in their profession" -- from the POWERotics Foundation at http://www.evilmonk.org/A/pro01.cfm
- Information for Media: part two of eight in the BDSM Background Information series of articles from the POWERotics Foundation
- EPE and law enforcement 1: part three of eight in the BDSM Background Information series of articles from the POWERotics Foundation
- EPE and law enforcement 2: part four of eight in the BDSM Background Information series of articles from the POWERotics Foundation
- "Law Enforcement Field Guide to SM" at http://www.ncsfreedom.org/eop/files/fieldguide.pdf from The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom: http://www.ncsfreedom.org/
- Is Masochism Addictive?
- About Dawn Perlmutter and her claims about "dark subcultures":
- Sheldon LaGrange's Amazon.com Book Review of Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes
- "Dawn Perlmutter and her Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence" by Diane Vera: http://www.theisticsatanism.com/asp/people/Perlmutter/
- "Dawn Perlmutter's claims about various 'dark' subcultures (Goth, Vampire, Fetish, BDSM, Body Art)" by Diane Vera: http://www.theisticsatanism.com/asp/people/Perlmutter/dark.html
- Dawn Perlmutter's Symbol & Ritual Intelligence (formerly The Institute for the Research of Organized & Ritual Violence): http://www.symbolintelligence.com/
- The Abuse vs. BDSM section of this site
- BDSM vs. Abuse by Sir Bamm!
- Why Would Anyone Participate in Sadomasochism? by Keith L. Kendrick
- "Some Notes on Safety for Meeting Online and Off" at http://www.evilmonk.org/A/safenote.cfm
- "Ten Tips for the Novice, Single, Heterosexual, Submissive Woman" by Jay Wiseman: http://www.EvilMonk.org/A/10femtip.cfm
- The Black Veil V.2: A Voluntary Code of Conduct for Vampyres/Vampires by Michelle Belanger
- Michelle Belanger: http://www.michellebelanger.com/
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Additional Articles by Ambrosio
- Eleven Short Tips for BDSM Novices
- Some Notes on Safety for Meeting Online and Off
- Meeting Someone Else into BDSM
- An Open Letter to a Novice Domme
- Perverted Vocabulary: a Glossary of Terms Used in BDSM
- Some Notes on Netiquette and 'Net Basics
- Marginalia on the Old Guard, Leather Traditions, and BDSM History
- Play Nice: Some Notes on Scene Etiquette and Leather Protocol
- A Proposed "Pansexual Protocol"
- Polyamory and BDSM
- An Open Letter to Law Enforcement
- BDSM Gone Bad: Reporting Non-Consensual "Play" and Rape to the APD
- Some Criteria for Consensual D/s Contracts
- Relevant Films on DVD and for Streaming
- Dawn Perlmutter's "Dark Subculture" Witch Hunt
- Anatomy for Flogging: The Back
- A Rant on Mentorship
- A Surprising Discovery - an astonishing realization about the appropriateness of sending unsolicited penis photographs.
- Is Masochism Addictive?
- Some Notes on William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman, and Loving D/s
- Life Looks at Leather (1964)
- Some Notes on Psychology, Homosexuality, and Sadomasochism (This page includes "Two Letters from Sigmund Freud" and "A Brief History of Homosexuality and Sadomasochism in the DSM.")
- ChatGPT and the Truth About Jeanne C. Barney
- The Miscreant's Paradox for Leather and BDSM