2012 10 Jul

Lots About Relationships; A Transgender Story; and an Intervention

For the last six months or so, I’ve been the Sex + Relationships Section Editor at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot, which meant that I both wrote regularly for the site and picked up other content for it. (I haven’t chosen everything in that section — some was selected by the managing editor — but I’ve chosen a bunch of it.) I was attracted to Role/Reboot because its mission is to make sex and gender issues accessible to a broad range of people outside the “usual suspects;” I saw an opportunity both to reach a new audience, and to promote work by writers who I don’t think get as much attention as they should.

As the site has developed and my writing has continued to develop, my sense of both has evolved — and Role/Reboot’s own sense of itself has evolved, too. One result has been that I’m no longer picking up extra content for the site. I will continue to contribute regularly for a while, but I have other ideas and projects that I want to focus on, and Role/Reboot simply isn’t the ideal destination for the majority of my work. So that’s going to conclude, too. I want to emphasize, though, that I think the intent of the site is good, and I’m glad I had a chance to contribute.

In the past, I’ve given you folks lots of links to my favorite content that I found for Role/Reboot. Here’s a final roundup:

* Bad With Men: Where I Was When Obama Was Elected, by Dana Norris (who runs the ongoing Chicago event Story Club, where I will appear on August 2!). Dana is writing a series of articles about her dating experiences after a huge breakup, and this is probably my favorite — she’s so self-aware! Favorite quotation: “I apologize for having deliberately wasted his time with my grief-motivated flailings for male attention.”

* I Will Not Get Married Just To Please My Family, by Adaya Adler (who blogs at My So-Called Polyamorous Life). This piece is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s awesome.

* I Intervened On A Man Yelling At A Woman: Did I Do The Right Thing? by Richard Jeffrey Newman (who’s part of the blog team at Alas! A Blog). I’ve always appreciated Richard’s thoughts on manliness and masculinity; this is a perfect example of his nuanced, careful writing on the topic.

* What To Do When You Know About An Affair, by Rob Dobrenski (who blogs at ShrinkTalk.net). Rob’s thoughts on how to deal with your friends when you know that one is cheating on the other mirror my own, which is why I chose this piece. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve given this exact advice in the past.

* Journey Home: My Life As A Transgender Man, by Justin Cascio (who is an editor at The Good Men Project). I asked Justin to write this because I think it’s important to have more testimonials of what it’s like to go through major hormonal changes — including mental and emotional effects. He’s been taking testosterone for more than 12 years.

If you have been following my involvement at Role/Reboot and were hoping to contribute at some point, then do not despair! You can still submit something to me and I’ll put you in touch with the right people. The relevant email address is clarisse at rolereboot dot org.

2012 3 Jul

I’m Not Sure Why I Want To Have Children, But I Do

This is a slightly longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

I’m not the kind of woman that most people imagine when they imagine a woman who wants to have kids. I’m a starving artist writing often about my experience with S&M and open relationships. When I think of long-term relationships, I want them to be polyamorous and flexible in other ways, too. The boyfriend I most recently felt serious about had a job that sent him on business trips for months at a time … which was fine with me, because I like doing the same thing.

Obviously, children would change my lifestyle a lot, and I’ve thought extensively about the necessary changes. To be honest, it’s not clear to me why I want to have kids, given the enormous hassle. I just know that I do. When I was a teenager, I liked babysitting (at least I liked babysitting smart kids), but I never had much interest in actual babies, and the desire to have children made no sense to me. Then suddenly, around age 18 or 19, it was like a switch flipped. My feelings about other people’s children remained the same … but I wanted to have my own kids. Like, I really wanted kids. I suddenly had this bone-deep knowledge that if I never had kids, my life would feel incomplete.

The “switch flip” phenomenon appears to be common, though not all women get it. It’s creepy; the desire for kids feels so separate from my brain, from my intellectual knowledge about myself. I’m grateful that the switch flipped early, though, because I’ve noticed that sometimes it hits mid-thirties women just as fast, and they can be caught unprepared. (And then there are women who expect to want kids, but who never seem to contract that bone-deep necessity, like Adaya Adler. So then they’re surprised when the switch never flips!)

A couple mid-30s friends of mine recently had a conflict because she suddenly realized she wanted kids. But when they got married, in their late 20s, he made it clear that kids weren’t part of the deal. Their mutual lives aren’t set up for kids in any way. They broke up for a while, then got back together, and eventually she concluded that she had to let go of the desire for children. The whole situation sounds incredibly harsh, but it also wasn’t anyone’s fault.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? These things are rarely anyone’s fault. It’s more a question of trying to work around them. But this delicate, contextual process can feel so high-pressure, especially for women, since we’re on the clock ….

And then there’s sexuality. Everyone knows that having kids changes your sex life, but it’s super unpredictable; the change is different for different people. Since I’m a sex writer and sex is obviously important to me, that’s terrifying. I spoke to a mother recently who told me that she was into S&M before she had kids, but post-kids, the desire for S&M vanished. Of course, there are also S&Mers who have kids and never lose that desire, and I suspect that I’m among that group, because my S&M preferences feel at least as deep-rooted as the desire for kids. Yet I could be wrong.

Being in my late twenties makes me feel stereotypically panicked about all this. Why aren’t I married yet! Why do I keep attending weddings as a single lady! How will I ever find a father for my children!! Then I remember that my breakups have all been for excellent reasons. I believe it would be best to marry (polyamorously, I hope) before having kids, if only to have a teammate for all the logistics. But when I’m honest with myself (as opposed to panicking), I don’t have any exes who I believe I should’ve stayed with.

I heard that one of my recent exes will probably break up with his current girlfriend because she doesn’t want biological kids. Of course that pricks my heart, but while he’s a great guy and I think he’ll make a great father, I don’t think we’d make a great long-term couple; we had no chemistry. Another ex-boyfriend recently told me that he thinks I’ll make a good mom, which was wrenching, but I still think it was a good call to break up with him.

Part of me worries about how very wrenching it felt. It took me a while to see how unsettlingly strong my reaction was when he told me that, and how strongly it made me reconsider our relationship. Have I become easy to manipulate in this regard?

Compromise is necessary for relationships, of course, but how far am I truly willing to compromise? As Bailey Elliott recently observed on Role/Reboot, “Some of the people who have said the worst things to me [about being single] are the ones in the most dysfunctional relationships: married to a raging alcoholic who abuses pets while drunk, a patronizing and controlling man, or a man who refuses to communicate in any real way.”

Also, being in my late twenties means that my dating pool now contains divorced men. It’s a jarring reminder that life contains zero guarantees.


2012 24 Jun

Open Thread, San Francisco Edition (incl. upcoming reading at Good Vibrations!)

I’m in San Francisco! I’ve had a weird couple weeks, and I’m also — as always — distracted by this glorious puzzle-box of a city, so I don’t have much to say. I’ll just tell you that I’m reading from The S&M Feminist at the Polk location of classic feminist sex toy store Good Vibrations on July 5th. Come see me and buy my books! (I’ll have copies of Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser there, too.)

Also, general notice to commenters: I’m going to be at a music/art festival here in California starting Thursday the 28th, and through the night of Monday the 2nd. Internet access might be iffy or nonexistent up there, and I apologize in advance for slow comment moderation.

Oh San Francisco. The story I always tell about this hallucination city took place years ago, when I dragged a close friend out to walk along the cliffside. “It’ll be foggy and cold,” he said, and I said “No it won’t!” and then it was foggy. He didn’t say “I told you so,” because he’s a good friend. He also consented to walk with me through the fog for a while, anyway. It was still beautiful.

Eventually we came to a restaurant. “Come on,” he said, “it’s cold, let’s go get a drink.”

“Noo, I want to follow this tiny dirt path I just found,” I said. “Just for a moment? Please?”

He shook his head, but went with me, and then two minutes later the fog suddenly opened upon extraordinary ruins.

(photo credit to Patton at this blog)

The Sutro Baths. In how many major American cities will you suddenly find ruins while wandering around?

And where else could you turn around after descending a staircase, and realize that the grey-from-above stairs look like this from below?

(a staircase near Grand View Park, with a slice of mosaic set under the lip of each stair; photo credit to a blog about filming locations)

I love this place. The city calls you to take that extra moment for chasing down a tiny path. It also calls you to keep your perspective open to radical rearrangements of what’s behind you. The moral of the story is obvious.

Also, open thread! If you have something random to say, feel free to say it in comments. Or don’t.

2012 16 Jun

S&M Aftercare … or Brainwashing?

Yes, it’s another article about abuse and S&M, but I’m going to cover a lot more than that. I’ll talk about intimacy and bodily reactions and how these things build a relationship — whether consensual or abusive. And I’ll talk about how to deal with them, too.

Last year, I received an email from a woman who wanted to talk about sexual desire that exists alongside real abuse. She has been abused, but she is sexually aroused by S&M, and she struggles with boundaries a lot. She wrote to me:

Here’s what destroys you: that some of us are designed to shut down and feel terror and horror and arousal and shame all at the same time, to crumple before horrible people, to feel aroused even as they genuinely destroy you. This is not in any one’s best interest. It’s not hot, it’s not awesome. And yet it’s there.

The worst pain for some of us, that makes you want to scream and not exist and makes you want to scream to the heavens that you want to die and escape being in your own body is not that you are afraid he will come back. It’s that you are aroused by the possibility that he will. And other than destroying your very self, you can’t stop it. It is the cruelest of design flaws and the worst people understand it and the most compassionate people don’t.

However, the conclusion is not that some people want abuse. By definition, abuse is something that destroys you, that leaves you feeling violated and harmed in a way you don’t want. And part of that mechanism, that involves the desire for the abuse to continue, is that many of us are designed to want more intimacy once intimacy has been initiated with a person. Many of us don’t want to be left.

And the agony of feeling harmed by being left by someone you never wanted to be there in the first place is confusing and can be debilitating.

No one wants to be harmed in this way. Among abuse survivor communities the arousal involved in abuse situations is often called “body betrayal,” but this doesn’t seem to encompass how deep the desires can be for some people. At the root, the desires are often the same desires that fit into normal healthy intimate relationships. To be loved, to have an ongoing interaction, to be seen and understood at the root of all your emotion, to be taken sexually and feel the pleasure of another enjoying your sexual arousal. But these emotions have been exploited and manipulated for the gain of others.

For some number of people who have experienced abuse, the greatest split within the self does not simply come from how horrific the acts themselves were but from the feelings of desire and pleasure that can happen in human beings even during horrific unwanted acts. For some of us, BDSM can be a safe way to explore unpacking some of this desire and how these arousal patterns got mixed up with horrific things — or were already hooked up to horrific things and that pre-existing fact was exploited by a harmful person. And for some of us, taking that out and playing with it may not be a necessary part of recovery at all.

But simply knowing this — the fact that your arousal and pleasure systems can be activated by harmful people is ok — it does not mean you want it, it does not mean that it was good for you, or that anyone should have treated you in that way. That can be the greatest healing in and of itself.

I want to thank her for allowing me to publish her words. Her description is so far from how I usually discuss or experience S&M; and yet I see connections, too, and people rarely discuss those connections.

* * *

Aftercare: Intimacy Within Positive and Consensual S&M

A while back, a study came out that established that a consenting, positive S&M experience increases a couple’s intimacy afterwards. I cite that study all the time, but I still find its existence kinda absurd; I mean, they could have just asked us how it felt. On the bright side, if S&M is being studied by Real Researchers, it’s a sign that S&M is becoming more widely accepted. Yet for all its hormone level measurements and mood surveys, I didn’t feel like the study got anywhere near the heart of S&M and how S&M creates such extraordinary intimacy. Why would it? Studies are science, and aftercare is art.

I’ve previously defined aftercare as “a cool-down period after an S&M encounter, which often involves reassurance and a discussion of how things went.” That’s a decent quick definition, but there’s a lot more to it. Bodily violence sometimes creates a mental malleability and vulnerability that can be used in good ways … but also in terrible ways. I see aspects of this in competitive sports, especially the ones that involve fighting and hurting other people very directly. (Have you ever seen that phenomenon where two guys fight each other and then become Best Friends right afterwards?)

Being together with an S&M partner during aftercare can be used to free people, to make them feel amazing and establish extraordinary intimacy. But it can hurt people too; it can hurt them terribly.


2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 1 Jun

A Sugar Baby Leaves The Business

This is a slightly longer version of an article that was originally published at Role/Reboot. It also appears in my new collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn, which you can buy for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

Previously on Role/Reboot, we ran an interview with my friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student who had just started having sex for money through a “sugar baby” website called SeekingArrangement.com. In the interview, Olivia covered a lot of topics. She mentioned that she usually feels powerful in her relationships with her clients. As she put it, “When I show up, I don’t feel like — here is this rich, powerful person who is about to bestow wealth upon me. I feel like — here is this person who is a bit sad and lonely, and maybe I can make their day better.” Olivia also noted that her negotiations can be delicate, because some men are quite squeamish while discussing money. And she explained that she’s married — but it was already an open relationship, and she doesn’t see having sex for money as different from the other kinds of sex that she and her husband were already having with other people. To deal with it, they’re sure to communicate clearly. As Olivia said, “We just have to talk about it.”

In the months since that interview, Olivia and I have hung out occasionally to talk about her experience with sex work. She’s traveled across the city to meet me, and often bought me coffee; non-judgmental social support for sex workers can be rare, and I’ve seen more of her since she started the job. Although she really enjoyed the work at first, there were tough times too, especially after the novelty wore off. Recently, Olivia decided to stop seeing clients. We talked it through and she gave me permission to write about it. (She also reviewed this article pre-publication.)

Obviously, there were logistical complexities from the beginning. Taxes were a nightmare. Olivia wanted to pay them, but it’s not the easiest proposition. Then there was the question of paying off her debts. Some were simple enough, but then there were loans co-signed by her parents, and there was no way she could make any headway on those loans without talking to her parents… so Olivia had to maintain the fiction that she couldn’t pay.

That was nothing compared to the complexities of feelings and communication, though. I’ve already shown you how hard it was, sometimes, for Olivia to talk about money with her clients. There are other, subtler problems that are hard to handle with empathy: for example, creating the Girlfriend Experience persona.

I’ve talked to sex workers who enjoy creating a “sexy dreamgirl shell” on behalf of their clients. One of them said to me: “I create that persona for my boyfriends anyway. It’s nice to be paid for it.” But as a feminist sex writer who’s spent years working to understand my own sexual authenticity, this freaks me out a bit. I think it would feel terribly toxic and inauthentic for me.

It often felt inauthentic to Olivia, for sure, and that got harder and harder. “These men are very invested in believing that I’m super into this,” she told me once. “I have to keep up the front, and make them feel like I’m interested all the time. It’s literally my job to do that. When they tell me how happy I am, or when they inform me that I’m enjoying myself, I can’t really contradict them, even if it’s not true. Some of them use words like ‘magical’ to describe me, but the person they’re describing is not really me. Sometimes I think these guys pay me because in a non-professional relationship, a woman might push back when he says those things. She might contradict his idea of her too much.”

In fairness, Olivia naturally fits one glam stereotype of the middle-class sex worker: the sexually adventurous young student. It’s such a widely-promoted stereotype that experienced sex worker activists speak derisively about it, and some escorts lie and say that they fit the profile when they don’t. Presumably, clients enjoy believing that a girl is a sexually adventurous college student because it capitalizes on images of “sexy coeds” — and convinces the client that she’s not being emotionally harmed by the work. (I’ve often thought that it’s way past time for “fair trade prostitution,” where sex trade ethics are made into a competitive advantage. I’ve also thought that the most feminist thing I could ever do would be to open a brothel where all the sex workers are treated well. Too bad it’s illegal.)

Of course, SeekingArrangement.com actively encourages the idea that a “real relationship” can emerge from these arrangements. (In our previous interview, Olivia pointed out the SeekingArrangement blog post “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?” Another interesting one is called “Sugar Babies Do Fall In Love.”) While some guys on the site really do just want to pay for straight-up sex, some become emotionally invested in the women whose company they buy. And we can tell from Olivia’s experiences negotiating payment that a lot of guys don’t like thinking about how they’re paying for it.

Bottom line: more than one of Olivia’s clients were into her for real, and she felt more and more uncomfortable about it as time passed. One man took a surreptitious photo of her and hung it on the center of his otherwise-bare refrigerator. Another client made faux-offhand wistful comments such as, “If you weren’t already married, haha….”


2012 25 May

My Mom’s Rape Story, and A Confused Relationship With Feminism

This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

My mother is a rape survivor. In 1970, when she was in her twenties, she came home alone one day with the groceries. As she was opening the door, a man came up behind her and forced her into the apartment, where he violently assaulted her. For years afterwards, my mother had Rape Trauma Syndrome — a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that affects rape survivors — but neither RTS nor PTSD had yet been identified, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with her.

Later in the decade, my mother dumped one of her boyfriends. He then came to her apartment one night, broke in, and raped her. As he got in bed, she was in the middle of a flashback. She cried and said “No,” and he had sex with her anyway. When she tried to tell him later that what he’d done was unacceptable, he informed her that because she’d pursued him during their relationship — because she was the one who originally asked him out — a rape case would never stand up in court.

My mother met my dad many years after these incidents. Mom first told me that she’d been raped in my late teens, because she was considering telling her story to our church congregation, and she wanted me to know before she did that. The full stories came out during intermittent conversations in my twenties. I love both my parents with the fire of a thousand suns, and let me tell you, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about murdering the men who attacked my mother. I doubt I could find the first guy, but I could probably find the second, and in my early twenties I often imagined shooting him in the head. (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t think about that anymore.)

Within the last few years, I started thinking about asking Mom’s permission to write about her experiences and my reaction to them. I always shelved the idea because I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Last year, the topic came up in conversation, and I finally asked permission; she said yes immediately. I double-checked her consent twice this year, and she said yes both times. Still, I was hesitant, and I only got around to it now — for Mother’s Day. I also asked her to review this piece, and to feel free to veto anything within it.

I am doing my best not to co-opt or appropriate my mother’s story. But her story and her life have shaped mine, intimately — including my views on gender issues, and my course as a feminist activist and writer. A few years ago, a widely-read Harper’s article by established feminist Susan Faludi asserted that the relationship between younger feminists and older feminists is like a battle between girls and our moms. I read the article with interest, but also with a sense of displacement. As a teenager I fought with my mom all the time, but she and I rarely argue anymore, and we never argue about issues of feminism or sexuality at all. If “young” feminism is about rebelling against our mothers, then I missed that boat completely.

In fairness, my mom’s not easy to rebel against. When I was 15, I asked her what she’d do if I ran off with a Hell’s Angel. She laughed. “I’d probably be jealous,” she said.

* * *

I started blogging in 2008 because I wanted to write about sexuality, particularly S&M. However, I identified myself as a feminist from the start, because I wanted to make it obvious that S&M and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The conflicts of feminism and S&M have been a major theme throughout the Feminist Sex Wars. I tend to repeat myself when I write about this, so I’ll just mention my favorite quotation on the matter; it comes from the German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, who said that “Female masochism is collaboration!”

When I came out of the closet to my mom, I had been freaking out about my S&M identity for a while — but quietly. I told my parents about my sexuality because I wanted to go into therapy, but I wanted a Kink Aware therapist who wouldn’t shame me for my S&M preferences. The specific therapist I preferred was out-of-network for my health insurance, which meant I needed help paying for it. My dad was cool with it, but he didn’t say much. My mother paused when I told her… and then she explained that S&M is part of her sexuality, too.

I was shocked. I was also incredibly relieved. If my brilliant, independent mother was into S&M, then suddenly I felt much more okay about being into it myself. It turned out that she had explored S&M late in life — and she went through the same anxiety about feminism and S&M that I’d felt. “You’re not giving up your liberation,” she told me.

Mom also acknowledged the stereotype that S&M arises from abusive experiences. “I once worried that being raped made me into S&M,” she said. “But I remember having S&M feelings when I was very young, long before I was raped. I was like this all along.” When she said that, I caught my breath in recognition.

This is another topic I often repeat myself about, but that’s because it’s important. As it happens, the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and being into S&M. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence within the S&M community that a lot of S&Mers, though not all, feel our S&M identities to be innate (sometimes described as an “orientation”). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with understanding or processing abuse through consensual S&M. The psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process their histories of abuse. However, abusive experiences should not be seen as the usual “creator” of S&M desires. (For more on this, check out my article on S&M and the psychiatric establishment.)

The stereotype that S&M “comes from” abuse is another reason I worried about writing this article. Basically, this is a prettily-wrapped gift to Internet commentators who enjoy writing posts or hate mail about how fucked up I am, or about how dysfunctional S&M is. I guess there’s no help for that.

* * *

“I’m fascinated that you’ve adopted feminism so thoroughly,” my mother told me once. “I never felt like I was into feminism like you are.”

“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”


2012 18 May

Who Enjoys Casual Sex, Anyway?

A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

The above image is from the art site PostSecret.com. People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “Since I joined a gay men’s chorus, I haven’t had casual sex. Singing is better.”

I can be a pretty brazen lady. Sometimes it surprises me how much this will give people the incorrect impression about my sexual habits. I actually dated one guy (monogamously!) for two years who, towards the end of our relationship, asked me about “all those one-night stands.” I was like, what are you even talking about? and it turned out that he’d gone through our entire relationship thinking that I’d had a ton of one-night stands before we dated. Two years!

I am not so into casual sex. This is not because I think there’s anything wrong with it — and in fact, if you are a lady who’s thinking of going for lots of casual sex, then I highly recommend Adaya Adler’s article on awesome casual sex for single girls. But personally, I’m not so into it.

How to define casual sex, though? I’m taking a polyamorous approach to my relationships these days, and I’m okay with having multiple ongoing sexual relationships at different levels of intensity. So when I say I’m not so into casual sex, am I avoiding one-night stands, or does the phrase cover more than that? I’ve concluded that (for me at least) casual sex is casual as long as there seems to be little potential for a deeper emotional relationship. I don’t have to feel True Love for every guy I have sex with, but I want us to care about each other, to have some kind of ongoing understanding. At the very least, we’ve gotta be able to go out to dinner and have a nice heartfelt conversation.

I mean, for one thing, the sex is just plain better if you care about each other. Anecdotally, this seems to be true for people of all genders, although there are probably exceptions. (When it comes to sexuality, there are always exceptions.) I will point out, however, that research appears to show in multiple ways that women are less interested in casual sex than men. For example, women tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would probably be no good, while men tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would be average. Which is quite reasonable, given the fact that research finds that many men acknowledge not caring about their partner’s pleasure during casual hookups. For another example, as the FAQ for the Kinsey institute tells us, “Many women express that their most satisfying sexual experiences entail being connected to someone.” There could be a lot of different reasons for this — I’m rarely interested in the nature vs. nurture debate — but I think that whatever the source, the general patterns are worth noting.

Back in 2008, when I first started blogging about sex and S&M, one of my first blog posts analyzed my feelings about both casual sex and casual S&M. I had already concluded that neither really works for me. And yet it seems like sometimes I have to re-learn this lesson. I end up “trying it on for size” again, like a sweater unearthed from the back of my closet, whose dullness I forget until I see it in the mirror. I find myself brushing my hair the next morning next to someone who feels like a stranger.

It’s not that casual sex is valueless, exactly — I learn something from almost all my sexual encounters. And I’ve had one or two casual encounters that worked quite well for my goals at the time, and were quite pleasant. But although I haven’t had a whole lot of casual sex, it’s usually been so boring. Plus, after casual sex I get hit with the additional payload of automatic, socially-induced questioning of my own self-worth, being as I’m a lady who just had casual sex. I’d like to say that I’m a Perfectly Independent Modern Girl whose self-esteem is never challenged by this kind of thing, but I’d be lying, and I think that stereotype of the Modern Girl is a problematic stereotype anyway.

Plus, there’s an old stereotype that if a lady has sex on the first date, she “ought” to be treated as “slutty” and “disposable” and “not relationship material” because she did so. This stereotype is dying, but it’s a slow death. And one thing I wonder is whether a relationship is more likely to develop as “casual” if it starts with first-date sex, as opposed to escalating more slowly. Is it really true, that men “won’t respect you in the morning” if you have sex right away? Is it true, subconsciously, even when men say it’s not true — and believe that they’re being honest?

I’ve wondered a lot what it is about casual sex that makes some people react with mild distaste, the way I do, while others react with glee and abandon — and others react with virulent hatred and aggressive rejection. Aside from the apparent gender split, what are the characteristics of people who experience casual sex as usually fun, those who experience it as usually boring, and those who experience it as usually destructive?

From my experiences and observations, it seems to me that people who absolutely love casual sex often:

* Have a lot of physical turn-ons (as opposed to psychological ones).

* Are not carrying difficult feelings from abusive sexual experiences.

* Don’t tend to get attached to partners quickly, or know how to manage their experiences so that they don’t get attached. A friend once told me about a woman who never allowed herself to have orgasms during casual sex, because she had observed of herself that she started getting emotionally attached quite quickly.

But I’m very curious about the experiences of others, and whether anyone disagrees with my brief points above. Comments are quite welcome.

The next image is also from PostSecret … and I can tell you that for me it feels like a punch in the gut, so you might want to take a deep breath before you look at it:


2012 14 May

[food justice] Confections of a Pickup Artist Chaser

There are delicious recipes at the end! Read this post for the recipes!

As a vegan, I eat amazingly delicious chocolate chip cookies constantly. Photo credit: photographer Timothy Boomer, agency Dreamstime.com.

I feel hyper-aware that this post may alienate some readers, because it’s not about sex or gender, and in fact it is a post about being vegan, i.e. not eating animal products. Lot of folks are touchy about that. So, I want to do some pre-emptive damage control: I want to clarify up front that I have no interest in calling anyone an asshole. If you’re not vegan, then I want to try and change your mind … but I don’t think you’re an Incontrovertibly Bad Person, and I hope we can still be friends.

And, look, I’m not gonna pretend I’m perfect. I screw up all the time, on all kinds of social justice issues, and I’ll be learning for the rest of my life.

For me, the hardest thing about being vegan has nothing to do with the food, although I think many foods made from animal products are delicious, and occasionally I have trouble resisting them. For me, the hard part is all about social situations. If I’m at a social event where non-vegan food is served and there are no other vegans, sometimes I just eat it — especially if it will Become A Big Social Problem if I don’t eat it. I also sometimes eat non-vegan food that’s been rescued from the trash (some of us call this “freegan”). And occasionally, when I’m spending a lot of time with someone who’s non-vegan, then I’ll sometimes break veganism in front of them in order to reassure them that I’m not judging them. I have vegan friends who consider this an unacceptable level of accommodation; sorry folks.

I am aware that stigmatizing, judging, and attacking non-vegans is one tactic for convincing them to go vegan. Personally, I find it stressful and frequently counterproductive. I’d rather set an example and be welcoming. (Yet I acknowledge that it’s possible I wouldn’t be able to do this effectively if aggressive vegans did not exist. Aggressive vegans help create the space where I get to look “reasonable” and “welcoming.” The blogger Kinsey Hope once wrote a really brilliant activist typology that describes these dynamics. And of course, it’s worth noting that I’m often characterized as an appeaser by feminists, too.)

So. That said? If you think you’re going to Get Upset Or Offended by this post, please just don’t read it. Seriously. But if you’re willing to not freak out for a moment, then here are my two primary arguments for why you should go vegan:

1. It’s easy. Yes, there will be some shitty social situations: awkward moments at restaurants, pushback from your non-vegan friends, and so on. Yes, you will have to avoid some very delicious foods. And food labels will become a whole new world of confusion. But even with all these factors, veganism really isn’t as hard as people make it out to be.

There’s a lot of delicious vegan food out there. A number of my favorite foods were vegan before I went vegan, and some of yours probably are as well. (Recipes coming up!) Here is a free vegan starter guide that includes recipes. Here is a very comprehensive list of vegan cookbooks; they range from “easy” to “incredibly complicated Martha-Stewart-land.” I am a fiend for baked goods, and I like Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. And there’s an increasing number of high-quality all-vegan restaurants. My favorite ones in Chicago are Native Foods (delicious cardamom rose cupcakes!) and Urban Vegan (delicious fake orange chicken!).

I won’t get involved in appeals-to-healthitude, because I know both healthy vegans and unhealthy vegans, and the science is inconclusive … but I will point that out again: the science is inconclusive. Unless you have an unusual disorder, modern nutrition has identified no conclusive scientific reasons for not being vegan. Plus: If you aren’t vegan, but you don’t pay any attention to eating healthy food, then you’re being a hypocrite if you make a “health argument” for being non-vegan even if the science was conclusive, which it’s not. And! If you’re really into health, there’s a highly-recommended book called Thrive written by a vegan professional athlete named Brendan Brazier.

(Full disclosure: the above Amazon book links contain my referral code, so you’re kicking me a tiny commission if you buy through one of those links. If you don’t want to do that, then search for the books on your own.)

Some of my friends specifically do things like convince people to try veganism for short periods, or run Vegan Weeks at universities or whatever, just to show how (a) delicious and (b) easy vegan food can be. It works surprisingly well. A key ingredient in my own adoption of veganism was knowing vegans, and seeing how simple it was to be vegan. I used to push back really strongly … I think I resisted mostly because it was very hard to acknowledge that by eating animal products, I was participating in an incredibly fucked up system. First I had to recognize that I was doing something really bad, that I had been doing so for my entire life, and that most people I love do it too. This is a familiar problem for activists, of course; most people resist acknowledging that they participate in a racist, sexist culture, too. (As one of my vegan friends puts it: “I’ve found that people usually go through the strongest asshole anti-vegan phase right before they convert to veganism.”)

Of all the social-justice acts out there, I actually think veganism is one of the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s just so easy that the only reason non-vegan culture can possibly persist is through a really high degree of not giving a shit. In a way, that’s understandable; I don’t have much of a connection to animals myself. A lot of my vegan friends love animals and want to be around them all the time; I don’t. If a smelly dog never jumps on me again, it will be too soon. But the fact is, animals have senses and feelings. Interacting with any animal for longer than thirty seconds can conclusively show you that animals like and dislike things, and that they feel something that looks exactly like pain. Which brings me to ….

2. If you care about consent, then veganism is transparently the right thing to do. There are environmental arguments and stuff, but I mean, seriously, let’s call a spade a spade: when you eat meat, you’re eating the murdered body of an animal who died for no reason other than your transient pleasure. As for animal products: many things that happen to animals on factory farms are abominable and obscene, as two minutes of Googling or this website or this video can show you.

Even if you decide to eat animal products that come only from well-treated animals, there’s no way to be sure that those animals were actually well-treated unless you’re raising them yourself. As this vegan FAQ points out, there’s an amazing amount of animal suffering that still occurs on “humane” farms. Some of those farms are doubtless fairly pleasant for the animals, but others …. Well, let’s just say that calling some “humane” farms more merciful than factory farms is like saying that being burned alive is preferable to dying in a medieval torture device. Here’s just one article on the topic, from Salon.

Personally, when I went vegan, a lot of the reason it felt easy was because I no longer had to spend tons of mental energy suppressing my empathy. I was amazed at how relieved I felt. Again, I’m not pretending to be perfect about it — I eat non-vegan food sometimes in social situations, sometimes when it’s about to be thrown away, and sometimes just when I’m drunk. If you need to make accommodations in order to feel comfortable being vegan, then I’m the last person who will criticize you. I’ll just be glad you’re taking steps towards being vegan.

It took me a long time to decide to go vegan, and I understand that it might take you a long time, too. I’ve listed a lot of resources in this post and I hope you’ll consider looking at them. Questions are welcome in the comments, although I may not be able to answer them. I wish you luck. And if you’re already vegan, then congratulations and high-5!

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Now for recipes!


2012 7 May

The Psychology of S&M

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. It’s sometimes referred to as S&M, B&D, leather, or fetish. As an S&M writer and educator, I get lots of questions about the psychology of S&M. People ask whether it’s a disorder, how psychologists would describe it, etc. I’m an advocate, not a psychologist, but I’ve read up on the history and done my best to keep tabs on current research.

First things first: S&M is not a pathology, and people who practice S&M are not “damaged” in some way. There aren’t many S&M studies, but in 2008, this conclusion was supported by a large and well-designed survey that reached 20,000 people. The survey was done by public health researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and it found that S&Mers “were no more likely [than non-S&Mers] to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious.” Another recent study found that consensual S&M usually increases intimacy for a couple.

I’d like to note briefly that people have told me about using consensual, intimate, trusting S&M activities in order to work through previous non-consensual, abusive experiences that they’d had. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process and deal with past abuse.

Still, as the 2008 Australia survey shows us, most people don’t practice S&M because they’ve been abused or because they’re unhappy. People who practice S&M have the same record of unhappiness and abusive history as non-S&M people. Yet S&M was first described as a disorder in 1886, when a doctor named Richard Krafft-Ebing published the manual Psychopathia Sexualis. This landmark tome hauled many sexual practices into the light, then attempted to categorize them. Of course, the doctor’s ideas hewed close to contemporary mainstream ideas of what was acceptable, and so he thought that basically everything was a disorder — including, for example, homosexuality.

It’s interesting to imagine what our mental health paradigm might be if Psychopathia Sexualis had never existed. It had a huge influence on psychiatry. Later, the psychiatric establishment began publishing a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The DSM doesn’t specialize in sexuality, but it includes quite a lot of it. The first edition of the DSM came out in 1952; it’s currently undergoing its fifth revision, and the proposed new language can be found at the DSM-5 website.

Like Psychopathia Sexualis, the original DSM called homosexuality a disorder. This changed in 1973, partly in response to gay activists. But subsequent versions of the DSM are still criticized for many reasons. Our cultural diagnoses of mental illness are shaped by lots of people with very different motives, and truth is hard to find. A 2010 New Yorker article by Louis Menand outlined many critiques of the DSM, such as the allegation that today’s psychiatry “is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different.” Naturally, the medical establishment has an incentive to do this, since it makes money selling treatments for illness, and more illness means more treatment.

S&M is currently in the DSM (heh, you see what I did there?). My understanding, however, is that S&M occupies a strange space within the much-edited manual. S&M is no longer listed as all-disorder-all-the-time, though it once was. But if a person has an urge towards S&M, and that person feels unhappy about it, then it is classified as a disorder. In other words, an S&Mer is labeled “healthy” if she’s happy about S&M, and “unhealthy” if she’s unhappy about it.

Actually, this is basically the spot that homosexuality occupied for a while. And the reason homosexuality was taken out is the same reason S&M should be taken out: because a person who wants a completely consensual type of sexuality, and who is unhappy about it, is probably better off working to change the unhappiness rather than the sexuality. Like homosexuality, S&M is stigmatized and misunderstood. A person who is stigmatized and misunderstood is likely to be unhappy, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her.

Within the S&M community, we have ways of working around this problem. Some people are campaigning to change the DSM directly. Others are more indirect. Years ago, the activist Race Bannon made a handwritten list of doctors and lawyers who were S&M-friendly, and began passing it around to his friends. Names were quickly added to Bannon’s list, and when the Internet became popular, the list migrated online. Now, the Kink Aware Professionals list is enormous and includes profession categories from accounting to web design — not just doctors. When I was going through my own complicated and difficult S&M coming-out process, I was lucky enough to find the list. My S&M-friendly therapist talked me through my anxiety and socially-created disgust, rather than diagnosing me with a spurious “disorder.”

There’s a great organization called the Community-Academic Consortium of Research on Alternative Sexualities; one of their projects is an annual conference to sensitize psychologists and therapists to the needs of alternative sexuality communities. The next conference will be Thursday, May 24th, and this year it’s in Chicago. Also in my home city of Chicago, there’s a project based at DePaul University that seeks to change the representation of S&M in human sexuality textbooks. The Kink Representation Outreach Project involves talking to different S&Mers about their actual experience (what an idea!) and getting their recommendations about how these texts might better represent S&M. And finally, if you want some idea of the sparse and scattershot research that’s been done on S&M, the blog Kink Research Overviews is a good place to start.

Within the S&M community, there’s some talk of S&M as its own “sexual orientation.” I have mixed feelings about this, and I’ve written about those mixed feelings. I think it can sometimes be helpful, but I’d rather move to a paradigm where we encourage people to see any consensual sexual act as awesome, rather than talking like “orientation” is what legitimizes sexuality. Nothing legitimizes sex except consent.

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The image at the top of this post shows an old-school phrenology diagram from the 1800s. (Phrenology was a ridiculous pseudo-science that was nevertheless popular, back in the day.) I found the image at the BibliOdyssey blog, which showcases eclectic historic science and art prints.

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