Sex

A Brief History of Bootlicking

From gay leather and skinhead culture to an insult aimed at someone who leaps to Richard Branson's defence on Twitter, the term "bootlicker" has a long and storied history.
27 April 2020, 5:06am
bootlicker
Photo: 

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

What would you call someone who takes part in a crowd-funding campaign to buy Boris Johnson a pair of engraved silver cufflinks to thank him for ending up in hospital? How about a mid-tier management consultant who spends their life on social media defending Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson from suggestions they should pay more tax? Or BBC presenter Ben Fogle, who, ahead of the Queen's birthday this week, called for the nation to throw open its doors at 10AM to bless dear Liz with a rousing edition of "Happy Birthday"?

There's only one insult suitable for this sadly all too prevalent form of sycophancy – and that insult is "bootlicker".

Bootlicking is deference to power undertaken entirely for its own sake, rather than out of fear or even material gain. In this respect, a true bootlicker differs from the common sycophant. The sad reality of living in a hierarchical society is that many of us will have been forced to suck-up to an employer at one point or another, but we do this with reluctance, shame and a sense of internal disavowal. The bootlicker, on the other hand, submits to power with giddy enthusiasm.

More than anything, bootlickers love an overdog. They never fail to leap to the defence of those who need it least, and side with the powerful in any given conflict – whether that's the Army, the police, the billionaire class, colonial power or the aristocracy.

As well as being a leftist insult, bootlicking is a sexual fetish. If you've spent any time on Twitter recently, you might have seen someone use a boot-licking gay porn still to mock an Amazon apologist or Royalist op-ed writer (perhaps you even felt a brief flicker of arousal). Interestingly, the history of bootlicking as a fetish is not entirely free of the political associations we assign to the insult, with themes of submission, patriarchal power and right-wing politics being common to both.

While it has certain historical precedents, the practice of boot worship really came into its own within two distinct yet related gay subcultures of the latter half of the 20th century: leather and skinhead culture. After emerging in the post-war period, gay leather culture spread across the major cities of the US from the 1950s onwards, reaching its apex in the sex clubs and BDSM dungeons of pre-AIDS 1970s Manhattan. A particularly important figure in the history of leather culture is Touko Laaksonen (better known as Tom of Finland) – a Finnish artist whose homoerotic cartoons helped to formulate the aesthetic. The act of bootlicking occasionally crops up in Laaksonen's work, where boots, worn by policemen and soldiers, become a symbol of state and military power.

Boot worship in this context isn't politically neutral. Laaksonen, who served in the Nazi-collaborating Finnish army during WW2, has been criticised for drawing eroticised depictions of Nazi soldiers (something he later went on to disavow, while maintaining they "had the sexiest uniforms"). Although it can be argued that BDSM is a space for the expression of uncomfortable desires, that fantasies like the above may even be subversive or emancipatory, it would be facile to claim that sex and politics are always two distinct entities.

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam writes, in his book The Queer Art of Failure, "A gay man, or anyone, who finds Tom of Finland's erotic archive appealing does not want to be accused of a furtive investment in fascism, an investment that sneaks in through the backdoor of desire; by the same token we cannot be sure that all of our interests in erotic material are politically innocent."

Leather culture was primarily an American phenomenon, but the 1980s would see the UK develop its own hypermasculine and politically dubious queer subculture. The skinhead aesthetic became hugely popular among gay men and, by the middle of the decade, there were a number of venues across London dedicated specifically to this subculture within a subculture. An aesthetic comprised of buzzcuts, polo shirts and Doc Martens, it's described by Murray Healy, in his 1996 book Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation, as "almost a cartoon caricature of conservative masculinity". Both boots and BDSM were an integral part of the culture, with boot-licking becoming a particularly totemic sexual practice.

As Healey writes, this would involve "the prone skin demonstrating his subservience before his booted master, whose dominance is secured by the phallic power of his boots". When we call someone a bootlicker as an insult, it usually suggests they are deferring to someone higher up the class hierarchy than themselves, whereas in this case the worship is directed at a specifically working class (and white) view of masculinity.

What It Was Like to Grow Up Skinhead in the UK

As anyone who's seen This Is England will know, being a skinhead is not synonymous with being a neo-Nazi (the film portrays racism as a betrayal of skinhead culture's decidedly not racist and Jamaican-culture-indebted 1960s origins). But although they constituted a small minority of the overall subculture, there was still a crossover between gay and far-right skins. In fact, a number of gay skinheads were involved in the BNP from its earliest days. Nicky Crane, a prominent neo-Nazi in the 1980s, even starred in gay porn films; according to Gay Skins, he can can be seen in one film directing other skinheads to lick his boots while screaming racist slurs.

Without wanting to kink-shame any mid-80s gay neo-Nazis, it's hard not to feel like bootlicking isn't playing into something harmful here. The sexual practices we engage in don't emerge in a vacuum and aren't necessarily free from consequences. As Leo Bersani argues in his 1987 essay Is the Rectum a Grave?, "right-wing politics can, for example, emerge quite easily from a sentimentalising of the armed forces or of blue-collar workers". The same could also apply for eroticising them.

It's through the idea of "kink-shaming" that bootlicker as insult and bootlicker as fetish come into conflict. According to some members of "the kink community" on Twitter, using this insult risks insulting innocent fetishists – one post extols the rousing slogan "Fetishists Lick Boots, Not Fascists", as though the two categories were mutually exclusive. This argument seems to miss the point somewhat, given that the pleasure in bootlicking as kink is (at least partly) derived from the humiliation inherent to the act. Why would you want to remove the shame from something to which shame is so integral? If I was into licking boots, I would be furious if someone tried to tell me that it wasn't degrading.

"I don't find the insult kink-shaming at all," says Alex, a boot worship aficionado. "Ultimately, while the 'character' of a subordinate, worshipful maggot licking boots is a fun thing to play at, I know enough about my boundaries and internal life to keep a stark distinction between the political kind of bootlicker and the kind of bootlicker that I am."

Jeremy, another left-leaning bootlicker, agrees. "I don't feel kink-shamed at all," he says. "For me, being a bootlicker and actual bootlicking are the same thing – it's about being extremely subservient. But if I'm doing it for a hot guy and I get a kick out of it, that's all very positive. It's not the same thing as metaphorically rimming Boris Johnson."

Even if, as Bersani suggests, eroticising certain forms of masculine power can engender right-wing politics, that's not to say it's impossible to separate the two. It's long been understood in the BDSM community that performing the role of a submissive can be a way of reclaiming agency, or even dramatising social tensions. "S&M," Edmund White once wrote, "is too anarchic to serve the designs of fascists."

Although boot-licking as a kink is not, as we have seen, always politically innocent, at least it allows a space for pleasure, eroticism or even – at a push – subversion. It's a very different thing to the pathetic, corrosive deference to authority that blights the UK, a place where the footwear of the ruling classes is never less than spittle-clean.

@jamesdgreig