Every May since 1979, men have traveled from all over the world for the International Mister Leather competition, a multi-day conference that celebrates the leather community. It is, despite the heavy leather theme, more or less the standard pageant fare. There are local competitions that must be won in order to compete for the global prize. There’s the looks portion. There’s the brains portion. And then there are the portions that clumsily combine both — á la the “Pecs and Personality” segment of the competition.
For that, the dress is the classic “Leatherman” uniform of a harness and leather jockstrap.
There was a time, of course, when the only associations people had with jockstraps were gym class and team sports, where they were usually a requirement. In fact, during World War I, the Army issued a jock to every serviceman to help prevent the “excessive fatigue” that might arise without one. This incarnation of the jockstrap was, without question, decidedly unsexy, with Little Leaguers and youth football players generally leaving them in their equipment bag for far too long — like pretty much every other piece of gear — and allowing them to get so crusty that a protective cup no longer seemed necessary.
And yet, somehow, someway — and with great effort from the Leathermen — the jockstrap is no longer a symbol of disgusting teen hygiene. No, in 2017 — nearly 40 years after the first man was crowned International Mister Leather — the jockstrap is a legitimate sex symbol.
First, though, a little history: In March 1897, a Chicago man named Charles F. Bennett filed a patent for what he called a “combined jock strap and suspensory” and said it was meant for bicycle-riders — “though it is useful for all purposes in which it is customary to wear a jockstrap.” From the illustration of the invention, however, his “jock strap” appeared to be little more than three strips of elastic material sewn together.
Bennett had been making the contraptions since he first invented them in 1874 to help ease the suffering of “bike jockeys” (as they were known at the time) who had to painfully bounce all over the city’s cobblestone streets. Realizing there was money to be made in athletically supporting other athletes and weekend warriors, Bennett filed his patent and started a company he called Bike Athletic.
From that moment until 2003 — when the company was acquired by Russell Athletic — Bennett’s plain yet functional jockstraps cupped the balls of more than 350 million men worldwide.
His legacy, though, didn’t last much longer. A few years ago, the classic Bike brand jock was discontinued by Russell, much to the dismay of the men who remembered it fondly as their first jockstrap.
That said, it was far from a surprise. As long ago as 1993, athletes were starting to bail on jocks as in-game protection for their nether regions. “It just wasn’t designed for comfort,” Bob Beeten, manager of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, told Health magazine at the time. He doubted that more than two out of every 100 Olympic athletes in non-contact sports used them. “It rubs, chafes, and the straps go up your butt.”
In terms of more modern usage, Austin Sumners, a publicist for Major League Baseball, says that while the league office encourages jockstraps for certain positions — catcher in particular — they’re definitely less popular than a few decades ago, in large part because not as many Little Leaguers are wearing them. “If you don’t start wearing one when you’re younger, you won’t later on,” he reasons.
In fairness, while a jock with a hard cup is still worth wearing to avoid things like getting hit in the testicles by a baseball traveling at 100 mph, for general support, supportive briefs are just as effective. “I don’t think jockstraps have a function unless you’re wearing one with a metal cup,” says Ira D. Sharlip, a clinical professor of urology at the University of California, San Francisco. He adds that he rarely sees blunt force trauma injuries to the genitalia. In theory, he says, someone could lose a testicle if they got hit with enough force “but it’s really, really rare, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it.”
“So I would say,” he continues, “that jockstraps are on the decline permanently.”
That, however, isn’t accounting for fashion.
Case in point: Joe Rohrbach has owned Jockstraps.com for nearly five years, and while he started out by mostly carrying athletic brands, he says fetish and fashion jocks are now a large portion of his business. These include jocks attached to harnesses for a not-so-subtle penile lift; jocks with snap-off pouches; jocks with zippers for easy access; low-rise jocks for those who want a sneak peek at the package underneath; and jocks built with such see-through mesh material that Rohrbach needs to blot out what they reveal in order to keep his site SFW(ish).
Although none of this necessarily robs them of their strong masculine sheen, which is what drew the Leathermen and other gay men to them in the first place. Especially during the 1960s, “gay men began to regard themselves as masculine,” Shaun Cole writes in Don We Now Our Gay Apparel, a history of changing fashion and identity for gay men. “They adopted a manly demeanor and attire [e.g., bomber jackets, military uniforms and yes, jockstraps] as a means of expressing their new sense of self, and in adopting this look, they aimed to enhance their physical attractiveness and express their improved self-esteem.”
By the 1950s, Cole writes, gay ex-servicemen “with a penchant for rough sex and motorcycles” helped develop the gay biker scene and leather culture. Additionally, bodybuilding started to grow in popularity. Obviously, nothing showed off a sculpted physique better than a jockstrap—after all, it left very little to the imagination.
Though there had been fashion designers surreptitiously making clothing for the gay market for years, in the 1970s magazine advertisements began showing men’s underwear as a way to “sexualize the body,” writes Cole. In his book The Story of Men’s Underwear, Cole writes that the 1990s “saw a revival of interest in sports underwear” for heterosexual and homosexual men alike. This was about the same time that compression shorts became widely available for athletes which took away the need “and perceived embarrassment about wearing a jockstrap,” Cole explains.
Yet brands realized that while jock underwear might not be needed for sports, there was another market they could appeal to. In 1991, Gregory Sovell started 2(x)ist “from the idea that active, body-confident men desire the most out of life”, as the company’s description reads. They’re known for their swimwear, underwear, and their line of jocks. In 2001, Ginch Gonch was founded in Canada and openly targeted gay consumers through underwear parties or sending the “Ginch Gonch boys” to gay bars.
Thus, the Jockstrap Night was born — a popular event at American gay bars throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. “The contest is open to any male who considers himself suitable in a jockstrap,” read an ad for one such night at Cinemattichine, a gay peep show and porn cinema in San Francisco, noting the cash prize of $200. At a time when full frontal nudity may not have been acceptable — or legal — the jockstrap was erotic while still retaining some mystery.
It stayed this way until AIDS hit. As early as 1983, just a few years after the AIDS crisis was first reported, there had been 3,064 reported cases of AIDS — and 71 percent of them were gay or bisexual men.
“A lot of fetishes that were ‘out and proud’ for lack of a better way to put it, went underground,” says Q, the host of Jockstrap Night at The Eagle in New York City. “It became about safe sex.”
Eventually, though, Jockstrap Nights reappeared — if only a couple of decades later. “I get credited for inventing the underwear party, but really I was the first person to do it post-AIDS,” says gay nightlife promoter Daniel Nardicio. More concretely, in 2001, he was trying to find a way to get people into the Slide nightclub in San Francisco. He found a big poster from a 1970s gay bar advertising “Thursday night underwear parties.” As a self-described man who “loves a good ass,” he decided to make it cheaper for men who came in a jockstrap. It was Christmas, a notoriously slow time for gay bars, and Nardicio thought it was worth trying. The turnout was a Christmas miracle.
At The Eagle, Jockstrap Night takes place on Wednesdays, “a school night” according to Q. Yet there’s always a big turnout. It’s one of the bar’s longest-running events and up to 90 percent of the men who attend wear a jock. Better still, even though it’s a leather bar, Jockstrap Night isn’t necessarily leather-centric. “You can’t go to a leather bar in a pair of Fruit of the Looms or fancy underwear,” Q explains. “But you can wear a jockstrap because it’s associated with sportsmanship.”
And unlike with sportsmanship, this usage of the jockstrap isn’t going anywhere. “I feel like it’s going to go on because gay men like expensive underwear as well as love to show off their bodies because they work hard on them,” Nardicio predicts.
He would know. Last year, he threw his 1,000th party, more than half of which have involved underwear or its close cousin — the jockstrap.