Warning: This article contains sexually explicit language.
In 2006, U.K. police raided a home in the sleepy town of Darlington after being tipped off that a woman was being held against her will. To their surprise they found the woman in question had consented to live as a slave to her master, Lee Thompson.
The police had stumbled across a sex cult.
Thompson, the cult’s leader, was an enigmatic man who had convinced a string of women he had found online from around the world to become his sex slaves. They spent 24 hours a day at Thompson’s beck and call: servicing his every whim, submitting to his sadomasochistic punishments and even being paraded around town wearing a collar and leash.
However, Thompson’s fantasy lifestyle wasn’t one of his own creations. He had based his cult around a series of science-fiction novels he had read as child—the Gor series. The Darlington “slave master” was just one of 25,000 people worldwide who identify as “Goreans,” people who are inspired by the philosophies of John Norman’s epic Gor series.
Many of these Goreans gather in online communities that appear to be outlets for structured adult fantasies. But on closer inspection of these spaces, it often becomes apparent that something entirely different is going on. While the online activity bears many of the hallmarks of roleplaying, many taking part don’t see it that way. They see the online characters as a true representation of themselves.
It’s more than an escape from reality. It is reality. For those involved, at least.
The origins of Gor
How did this series of books come to have such a profound grip on so many people’s lives? It’s not unknown for sci-fi novels to be used as the basis for a cult, but in the case of the Gor series, it was completely unintentional.
In 1965, a Princeton Ph.D. graduate named John Frederick Lange, Jr. assumed the pen name John Norman and combined his love of philosophy and pulp fiction by writing a sci-fi novel set in a universe of his own creation. Five decades and 33 books later, his Gor series of novels not only have a loyal following but inspire a dedicated group of readers to live by the series’ philosophies. The latest installment, Rebels of Gor, was released in late October.
The books are set in a parallel universe called Gor, which has become a platform for Norman to expound his philosophical and sociological views on modern society, taking cues from Nietzsche, Homer, and Freud.
Everything within the universe is intricately described by its creator, from plantlife and weaponry to ethnography. It’s the culture of these Goreans, the humans living in Gor, that most fascinates the series’ devotees, many who self identify as Goreans.
The Gorean culture shares much with Nietzschean natural order and social Darwinism. A person’s place is dependent on where he or she falls within hierarchies of strength and talent; it’s a society based on dominance and hierarchy. People are either in their natural place or need to be put in it. Muscle-bound male warriors are at the top of the social ladder, while helpless, submissive females are not only at the bottom but overjoyed to find themselves in the ownership of a powerful man.
Many of Norman’s storylines riff off Roman and Greek historical events, as this “natural slavery” philosophy finds its roots in those cultures. Aristotle, among others, justified slavery as a “natural” position for some people:
“He that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and he that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave… Thus the female and the slave are by nature distinct.”
While there are a significant amount of free women in Gor, many of the novels focus heavily on enslaved females, or kajirae, as they are called in the books. These kajirae and the relationship they have with their owners have become a major part of Gorean subculture. Kajirae have rules governing their language, posture, and clothing. They are completely subservient to the wishes of their owner, including sexually, and must be branded and wear a collar.
As one book explains, “Only in a collar can a woman be truly free.”
This slavery dynamic is the primary appeal to many Gor followers, the self-styled Goreans, but the allure of the books goes much deeper than human submission. The Gor world offers an alternate way to make sense of everyday living.
Everything in Gor is codified, and everyone knows their place and is proud of their identity. Inhabitants are divided into castes. Each caste has a specific function to play. High castes include the warriors, physicians, and builders; low castes include the woodsmen, assassins, and peasants. Each caste has a code that they are expected to live by, dictating how they are to go about their professions and how they are to conduct themselves with others.
“Is it honor and the codes, I wondered, which separate us from animals, or, rather, is it they which bring us closer to the innocence of the animals,” reads one part of Swordsmen of Gor.
The welfare of their fellow caste members is more important to a Gorean than their own well being. In return for their loyalty, they can expect protection and care if they ever need it. If they try to leave their caste without the necessary and hard-to-acquire consent, they become outlaws—people of no identity and no worth.
These codes appeal greatly to those within the Gorean subculture, and many people often try apply this structure of living to their real life in some way. For some that might mean identifying with a particular caste and abiding by its rules as part of regular roleplaying sessions. For others, it can mean applying the general principles of honor and pride to the way they conduct themselves in their day-to-day life.
In one way or another, those living out Gorean fantasies are looking to embrace the key tenet of Gor’s inequality-based morality. Doing so allows them to understand their role in life and thus be fulfilled.
It’s not just the rules of Gor that that attract Goreans to its values. For instance every city, town, and village has something called a “Home Stone.” These curious rocks imbue occupants of the habitation with a sense of place and purpose. It represents sovereignty for the individuals who live within the stone’s dominion and to whom it belongs. Whatever caste someone belongs to, they can expect respect from others as long as they have a Home Stone.
Screengrab via Soul Effects/Wordpress
For those who try to incorporate the Gorean way of living into their lives, the concept of the Home Stone is appealing as a counterweight to the acceptance of one’s limitations that comes with the ethos of the caste and code system. The Home Stone represents a way to retain some self-sovereignty.
Finding Gor online
From the earliest days of the Internet, the online world has played an integral part in helping Goreans living out their fandom. They first used Internet Relay Chat and then a variety of other methods to explore their passion for Gor, ranging from Geocities pages to Second Life.
This online activity usually manifests as some form of roleplaying. People choose a character, assign themselves things such as caste and occupation, then they join an online Gorean world. It’s a pastime that requires extensive knowledge of the books, and in-depth research is often needed to make a character believable.
Like the books, these online Gorean worlds usually have a very specific focus: the relationship between free people and slaves. (It’s worth noting that none of the caste and Home Stone concepts apply to slaves; their only purpose is to be obedient.)
In many ways, these places are adult-themed chat rooms where the conversation is dictated by the customs of a fictional world. Roleplayers who identify themselves with a capital letter at the start of their name are usually free people, while names in all lower case are slaves, or kajiras. First-time karijas are uncollared—without an owner. They roam the chat rooms looking for an owner, while free people look for slaves. Their interactions then form around their differing social statuses.
A graduation dance in Second Life where karijas show they have been fully trained as a slave.
Screengrab via YouTube
Inside the Palace
Goreans have felt little need to move with the times when it comes to the technology; the online worlds they have created for themselves are relics of a much simpler time.
Prominent among their chosen platforms is “the Palace,” a 2-D image-based chat program that came to prominence in the 1990s. It reached its apex in 2000, when metal band Korn hosted a palace where fans could listen to its music; it’s has been on a downward trajectory ever since.
But the “Goreans” have stayed on. And they’ve made the Palace” their own.
Goreans chatting in a Palace chat room
Screengrab via Gorean Palaces
Independent websites such as the Palace Portal collate all the currently active Gor palaces. Popular meeting places include “Steel Dawn,” whose membership “support, educate and encourage the translation of Gorean-based ideals in a contemporary world” and “Gorean Compass,” where “Gorean protocol, conduct and values, are expected and required.”
There’s a real sense of belonging to a larger community amongst these individual Gorean worlds. A blog called Gorean Palaces keeps track of the various palaces and provides a wider perspective on what’s happening inside them.The blog encourages communal activity and reports on past events, publishing commemorative videos, like this one of the feast of Se’Var.
Other online meeting places favoured by Goreans include the 3-D chat platforms Active Worlds and Second Life. As with the Palace, these platforms have their own overarching community structure. Goreanforums.net not only serves as a place to keep track of all the Gor cities in Second Life, its forums are also packed with lively debate on the correct way for Goreans to conduct themselves within the cities. There’s also fervent theological discussion, with pages from John Norman novels being quoted like Bible verses.
As new philosophies grow and mature, a body of literature inevitably builds up around them; Gor is no different. Numerous Gor resources have been painstakingly put together, including womanofgor.com and thegoreancave.com. The creator of the latter site claims to have spent 35 years creating the vast encyclopedia of all things Gor.
These sites take great pride in backing up their work with direct quotes from the books and often assume the role of mythbuster, taking on common Gorean misconceptions.
Despite this obsession with theological detail, there’s no getting away from the fact that most Goreans are drawn to Gor because they identify with the sexual dynamics portrayed in the books. To understand how the fictional Gor universe influences the real world, it’s important to know a bit more about John Newman.
Photo via Marcus J. Ranum/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)
The creator of Gor claims to be deeply uncomfortable with the way his books are being appropriated, but his 1974 book Imaginative Sex was the first mainstream text to rationalize domination in human sexuality. The book is a manual for introducing master/slave type roleplay into the bedroom. He uses his Gor books as a vehicle for further exploring sexual fantasies that most people would consider to be BDSM.
It therefore comes as little surprise that a large number of people involved with “lifestyle BDSM” are either Gorean or heavily influenced by Gorean thinking. Norman may have advocated exploring roleplay scenarios in Imaginative Sex, but his fictional work has lured people towards the fantasy of non-stop BDSM slavery.
Lifestyle BDSM is used to describe individuals who don’t leave power exchange dynamics in the bedroom. The emotions surrounding consensual dominance and submission have long been explored by humans, but it wasn’t until the Gor books when most of the participants in these activities begin to think they could extend their activities into an all-consuming lifestyle.
To consensually take part in BDSM activities, participants must create and agree to rules. The fictional practices of Gor give them a ready made set of rules to follow.
However, when people apply the rules of a fictional world to real life they can find themselves engaging in truly bizarre practices. Slaves in Gor are marked with a brand: kejiras are marked with a “kef,” a stylised K. The kef is commonly tattooed on female Goreans with some going as far as acquiring an actual brand.The personal blogs where Goreans have posted pictures of these brands both give outsiders a glimpse of this radical lifestyle and help normalize extreme behaviors to others who might be considering getting more involved in the lifestyle.
The influence of Gor has spread far beyond its hardcore fanbase. The rules for the conduct of slaves in Gor have become the basis for many fantasies depicted in mainstream pornography.
For instance, the slaves of Gor wear collars, which have become de rigour accessories for lifestyle BDSMers and a staple of BDSM pornography, often used to emphasise the submissive nature of the wearer. Another example is the slave positions—the poses that Gor slaves must assume when commanded—which are used extensively by Goreans as an assertion of control by an owner over the body of their slave; they’ve been used in BDSM pornography for their aesthetic appeal.
Unlike some science-fiction writers who have ended up influencing the way people live their lives, John Norman had no intention of using his books as an outlet for his fantasies.
“I have written independently of the market, and the market, astonishingly, came to me.”
Yet his writing has struck an unexpectedly strong chord with some of his readers. Some take comfort in the thought of living a life by the codes of Norman’s fictional world, and others use it as a launching point for their own fantasies. The Gor books convinced readers that a life based on hierarchical dominance was desirable, and the Internet has created communities for them to develop and further their desires.
With no figurehead to guide them, those involved in the Gorean cult are at liberty to make of their Gor obsession what they will. Most are sincere and studied in their devotion, but for some have inevitably used the lure of the Gorean lifestyle for their own nefarious ends.
Two years after Lee Thompson, the Darlington sex cult leader first received a visit from the police, he was jailed for forcing another woman to have sex with other men against her will. Clearly, a world in which men keep women as slaves is not as idyllic as many Goreans would hope.
Screengrab via Second Life