John Preston the award-winning writer, essayist, and journalist is probably best known for his Leather S&M gay erotica, a genre that Preston was proud of and which he felt made him a better, more honest writer. As he explained in his 1993, Harvard lecture, which he titled “My Life as a Pornographer” (and which he later published in an essay compilation by the same name) “Pornography has made me be honest, about myself and some of the most intimate details of my life and my fantasies. … Once I had exposed my own sexual fantasies, my most intimate desires, I feared little else about self-exposure as a writer.”
Leather S&M porn activism may seem like an odd field of endeavor, but activism came naturally to the Medfield, Massachusetts native, who by age fourteen had already volunteered as a Freedom Rider in Alabama and a tutor in Chicago’s projects. He graduated from Lake Forest College in Illinois, was certified as a sexual-health consultant by the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Medical School, and he also studied theology at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Northwestern Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul. After moving to Minneapolis in 1969, he founded Gay House, one of the first gay and lesbian community centers in the country. He served as its first director until 1972, when he founded Gay Community Services.
By the mid 1970s, he moved to Los Angeles and became the editor of The Advocate (when it was actually a good media outlet). Then at about 1978, he moved to New York and took up fiction writing with a short pornographic story about a young man, Jaime, who becomes the sexual property of a Master named Aristotle Benson. He sent the story to Drummer magazine, which asked him to write an entire series on the exploits of Jaime and Benson. Those monthly episodes exploring Manhattan’s Leather and S&M scene were immensely popular. T-shirts reading “Looking for Mr. Benson” — some with a question mark, some without — began appearing in gay bars across the country. Mr. Benson: A Novel was eventually published in book form, where it set a new standard in pornographic fiction. Other titles followed, including his “Master” series: I Once Had a Master (1984, which became the subject of a Canadian customs court case), Entertainment for a Master (1986), Love Of A Master (1987), and In Search Of A Master(1989).
Mr. Benson is the compelling story of a young man’s quest for the perfect master. In a West Village leather bar, he finds wealthy, sophisticated, exacting Aristotle Benson, who leads him down the path of erotic enlightenment, teaching him to accept cruelty as love, anguish as affection, and ultimately, Mr. Benson as his master. Its unabashed celebration of male sexuality made it a cult favorite among gay men, many of whom wore T-shirts declaring that they were “Looking for Mr. Benson.”
But S&M porn was far from his only literary interest. Working as a journalist and essayist, he wrote for a number of gay magazines and penned a column about gay life in Maine after abandoning Manhattan for a refurbished warehouse in Portland. He wrote straight men’s adventure novels which, in a bizarro-world twist, his publisher insisted on publishing under a pseudonym lest his straight readers find out who wrote them. He then took what he learned from writing those books to write similar action adventure novels featuring gay characters, with story lines that addressed the difficulty gay teens experienced. When AIDS came along, Preston quickly adapted and became among the first to popularize safe sex stories by editing a safe sex anthology, Hot Living: Erotic Stories about Safer Sex, in 1985. He co-wrote, with Glenn Swann, a badly-needed safe-sex guide, Safe Sex: The Ultimate Erotic Guide, and two other rather unorthodox advice books: 1984’s Classified Affairs: A Gay Man’s Guide to the Personal Ads and 1994’s Hustling: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution.
Preston edited several critically acclaimed anthologies, including Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong (1992), Personal dispatches: Writers confront AIDS (1990, which he began compiling soon after his own AIDS diagnosis), and Flesh and the Word: An Anthology of Erotic Writing(1995, with two stories by his friend, Anne Rice). Two of his anthologies, Member of the Family: Gay Men Write About Their Families (1992) and Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together (1994) were honored with Lambda Literary Awards. He died of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 48. His papers are housed at the John Hay Library at Brown University.