Posts Tagged ‘BDSM’

2010 25 Jan

Where are all the male dominant bloggers?

Today I had a thought that stopped me in my tracks: I don’t believe I have ever read a single blog post by a male-identified BDSM dominant and/or sadist. I’ve kept this blog for over a year now, and y’all can see from the blogroll on the right-hand side that I’ve encountered a fair number of cool sex blogs; but I don’t recall ever seeing a male top’s blog.

Off the top of my head, I can think of many (oft-updated!) examples of the other combinations. For female bottoms there is of course myself, and violetwhite writes in a lovely, highly personal style. Female tops also represent: over a year after I found it, I can still recall my electrifying first reading of Trinity at SM-Feminist; a trio of clever female tops recently started a group effort called Topologies. And it’s not like it’s just women writing sex blogs — for male bottoms there’s the amazing activist maymay at Maybe Maimed But Never Harmed, the eloquent Orlando at In Scarlet Ink, my adorable college and Chicago-based friend Danny at Sex, Art and Politics, and the always-incisive Thomas of Yes Means Yes fame. And then there’s the queer butch top Sinclair “Sugarbutch” Sexsmith; and I have never seen a trans person’s blog strictly dedicated to BDSM, but Chicago’s own extraordinary Hazel/Cedar sometimes notes her kink experience as a BDSM-switch.

It’s certainly not that analytical, intelligent, well-spoken (and -written) male tops don’t exist. They definitely do. I mean, I’m in a position to know.

Wait, wait, I just thought of one — a dear friend, Sammael in Atlanta. How could I forget him? Well, I forgot him (briefly) because he almost never posts; I definitely wouldn’t know about his blog if I wasn’t real-life friends with him. I’ll have to email him and ask why ….

Because that is the question, isn’t it? Why?

Are they out there, and am I just missing them? But in all the sex-positive blog posts I’ve read, surely there should have been one citation of a male top’s post, sometime, somewhere. Or do they just feel that they have nothing to contribute?

In my masculinity series, I mentioned that I once met a cis male BDSMer who said, “Why bother talking about male sexuality? It’s the norm. Fish don’t have a word for water.” As it happens, he’s a top. Is that how many male tops feel? Certainly, anti-BDSM radical feminists will claim that our society is centered on, even encourages male tops — an assertion that is, I think, born from a complete misunderstanding of what BDSM is plus total failure to recognize the stigma around it. (Take this quotation from well-known BDSM writer Jay Wiseman about his coming-out experience, when he started recognizing his own kinky desires: “I decided to keep myself under surveillance. I made up my mind that I was not going to hurt anybody. If I thought I was turning into someone that would harm somebody else, then I would either put myself in a mental institution or commit suicide. And thus I lived, waiting and watching to see if I was turning into someone that I needed to shoot.”)

Is it partly that they fear misinterpretation, fear being seen as abusers? Certainly, as a female submissive I’ve always felt hyperaware of how my experiences could potentially be read as Supporting The Patriarchy. And I dated one mostly-vanilla guy for two years who enjoyed being somewhat dominant/sadistic in bed, but who was absolutely appalled by the idea of other people seeing him as a top. Indeed, I — being a rather straightforward girl — am often read as dominant (especially by people unfamiliar with BDSM), and in public situations my ex would deliberately play that up such that most people, if they knew about the BDSM thing, assumed I was the domme.

Is it that male tops are blogging but unlikely to be part of the sex-positive blogosphere, because they are unlikely to be familiar with (or unlikely to subscribe to) the feminist language/viewpoint that anchors the community? This feels to me like it might be true …. Maybe because — as I’ve pointed out before — the more stereotypical a man’s sexual identity (and sexual dominance, while stigmatized in its own right, is certainly more stereotypical for a man than submission), the less likely he is to examine gender issues and thence be attracted to feminism. But if that’s the case, what communities are they part of?

But still, among those analytical, intelligent, well-spoken (and -written) male tops that I’ve known, at least as many have been feminist as the analytical, intelligent male bottoms, female tops, and female bottoms I’ve known. So, back to square one: they exist, but for some reason aren’t writing blogs about their male toppish experiences.

Or are they? I’d like to hear more about the experiences of male tops. I hope I’m wrong and/or misinformed, and there’s lots of relevant blogs out there. Post ’em if you got ’em, friends.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have determined that there is actually no shortage of male dominant blogs. The question of how I missed them all is … a question for another day.

2009 30 Dec

Sex-positive women aren’t out to steal your man

Note: This post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

Radical feminists* attack BDSM (and many other marginalized sexual identities) on a variety of ideological grounds — usually claiming that it’s Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome (an assertion that is not only unproveable but is also usually stated in really hurtful terms, thereby serving mainly to drive kinky people away from feminism or guilt-trip kinky people into suppressing their desires). But another tactic many radical feminists use against us is slut-shaming, including resentful declarations that sex-positive feminists are getting all the sexual attention. (They often patronizingly call us “fun feminists”, as if we wouldn’t hold our opinions if we weren’t trying to be fun! fun! fun! As if our opinions can’t be serious, and/or aren’t worth taking seriously.)

If I make the mistake of announcing that I’m into S&M in an unfamiliar vanilla group, then yeah — it’s true — I do get hit on more. Because the stigma around BDSM is particularly sexualized. But that kind of attention isn’t actually what I want, and it frequently takes really unpleasant forms. For instance, before I left Chicago I went on one of my friend Ken’s Chicago Sex Tours. Because it was a sex-related event, I introduced myself to the tour group as Clarisse the S&M activist. Immediately, people had questions, which is fine and great — that’s part of why I’m an activist: to answer those questions. But they also had assumptions — most obviously the man who grabbed my ass while I was ahead of him in a stairwell. Obviously, that dude’s tiny mind was thinking what most similar dudes (and many radical feminists — but I’ll get to this in a minute) think: “Woohoo! A girl who’s into S&M! She must have no boundaries at all! Clearly I can grab her ass with impunity!”

I didn’t want to make a huge scene at Ken’s event, so I just twisted away and told the guy in a freezing tone: “If you do that again without my consent, I’ll kick your ass.” And avoided him for the rest of the tour. (God, what a complete assmonkey. I get angry all over again just thinking about it. I’d like to believe that he realized he was being an ass and won’t do something similar again, but I’ve encountered too many asshole men like him to be sure that he internalized the point. In fact, I bet that if I had decided to make a scene and confront him directly, he would have been all injured innocence. “But you’ve been talking about crazy sexual acts all night! What do you mean I wasn’t supposed to grab your ass? You can’t blame a guy for being a little confused! She was wearing a short skirt, Judge!” Argh. But I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the main point.)

(edit Really, maybe I should have made a scene. To his credit, Ken read this post and Direct Messaged me on Twitter to say, “I am so sorry that happened on my tour! Had I known I would have kicked his ass. I had no idea.” At the time, I just didn’t want to disrupt the space because I was enjoying the event, etc. Who knows? Even in hindsight it’s hard to say. But again, back to the main point. end of edit)

Which is: so how was that dude similar to some radical feminists? Because there are radical feminists out there who describe sex-positive women as “freely sexually available” — usually in tones of rage, resentment and disgust. Yes, they use that phrase. They’re so angry at us for daring to indulge our badwrong sexuality that they fall into the exact same patriarchal trap that Tour Dude did. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that sex-positive women have boundaries and preferences, too. Radical feminists of this stripe are (as Renegade Evolution deconstructs in the aforementioned link) actually part of the problem, because they reinforce the awful dialectic around sexuality that they claim to oppose. They are basically stating that any woman who dares to freely express her sexuality thereby sacrifices her right to sexual boundaries. They are declaring us infinitely rapeable — throwing out our rights to bodily integrity just as Tour Dude did.

Why must they do this? Why?!

When I think back to my pre-BDSM days — the days when my opinions were considerably more stereotypical-radical-feminist than they are now — and when I look around the Internet, here’s one of the reasons I find: such feminists actually believe that we don’t have any boundaries, which — combined with some really awful social conceptions of men — makes them feel threatened. The ladies who call kinky women “freely sexually available” are freaking out partly because they feel like we’re setting up some kind of crazy “standard” for how to behave that they can’t match. One example collected from the Internet: these comments about how sex-positive women are stealing men from more virtuous ladies. But a better example comes from my own life:

I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.

It was awful. It hurt. A lot. I still remember all that mixed-up anxiety and pain with a shudder.

What cured me was (a) realizing that there are many different kinds of porn out there and that different people have very different tastes; (b) properly exploring my sexual needs — especially my repressed BDSM identity — and learning exactly what it means to have sexual fantasies that hold no bearing on how I feel about my partners. But I still remember feeling sick, watching those porn actresses enact a script that didn’t feel right for me. And I can imagine a very short jump from how I felt then to how a woman might feel, if she thought that “all men want the same thing” and her own sexual preferences didn’t fit that script — how such a woman might feel if she were confronted with women who professed to like those things, and even to like all kinds of crazier more perverted things …. Indeed, women who want “super-perverse” things would probably make such a woman feel like we’re setting an “even worse standard” than porn, because everyone knows that all men (those slobby hungry beasts) will always desire the most perverse possible thing, right? For such a woman, surely other women who enjoy the acts she doesn’t want to do would seem like a pressure-cage; the same way porn felt like a pressure-cage for me, once upon a time.

(I’m not saying all radical feminists feel this way. I’m just saying, I suspect that some feminists who attack sex-positivity are just trying to break out of those awful societal pressure-cages in their own way. And I sympathize. But that doesn’t make it okay to tell me I ought not realize my own sexuality in the way I want, the way I need to realize it.)

And this has brought me to the other big problem. Another thing disappeared by these awful ideas — women being “freely sexually available”; sex-positive women “stealing men”; men all preferring a certain stereotypical idea of porn — what’s disappeared here is the fact that men have different sexual desires. In other words, these attitudes can only persist as long as one has a really narrow view of men in general. Yes! A man who desires you, my lady, may very well not desire porn sex — or may very well not desire me, the crazy kinky girl! It’s true! People are sexually different! Even men are sexually different! Who would ever have thought?

As a matter of fact, my BDSM identity makes it considerably harder for me to find partners. Really! Yeah, it means that folks hit on me more, but that’s only because they’re operating on a stereotype that doesn’t truly come close to describing me. In reality, most men — like most women — are basically vanilla; and even if they’re into S&M, they’re into very mild S&M. I dated one man for two years who was initially attracted to me partly because I was just discovering BDSM, and he wanted to explore it with me … but ultimately, one of the sorest spots that developed in our relationship was that I needed experiences way more hardcore than he wanted to give. (This experience made me decide to never, ever again date a vanilla-but-questioning guy, because they don’t know what they want and they’ll only break my heart. I am not very good at following this dictum.)

To wind up this post, I’ll share one more example: a former friend of mine who I’ll call Bert. Bert was hitting on me aggressively after he found out about the BDSM thing; he was making all kinds of S&M-ish innuendoes. At the time I was lonely and confused and I’d just had a nasty breakup, so I thought, okay, why not? I told him to write me a letter describing what he wanted to do. Here’s what he wrote:

so i was thinking silk ties or scarves to bind the the other one’s hands and 10 minute intervals of hedonistic pleasure taking turns pushing, pulling and releasing each other’s buttons, knobs, valves, etc…? i.e. fingers do the walking, thar she blows, abc, cum here, hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, omg.

This letter had the effect of making me smile ruefully and shake my head. Why? Because it is not even close to what I’m into. Restraints don’t usually even enter my fantasies at all, but when they do, they ain’t flimsy little silk scarves — they’re being used to actually hold someone (often, me) down. Someone who’s screaming in agony. Someone who’s begging for mercy.

I wrote back:

Oh, dear.  I was imagining something significantly more painful.

… and Bert never hit on me again. Heaven only knows what would have happened if I’d explicitly told him what I’m into. He’d probably hide in the corner every time I entered the room.

* This is not to say that there aren’t lots of radical feminists who are careful, tolerant, open-hearted people and whom I really admire. Honestly, I have a lot of radical feminism in my own outlook.

** Indeed, when I finally got up the courage to say this to a partner in my late teens, he told me that he didn’t feel that assisting me with sexual exploration was his job and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen: the portrait of sexual entitlement. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

2009 5 Nov

Withdrawing consent

While waiting for the firestorm over my three masculinity posts to die down (I’ll post a followup soon, promise), I want to parse out some recent thoughts on — you guessed it — consent!

I’ve been dating a guy here in Africa whom I will henceforth refer to as Chastity Boy.* I recently wrote a piece on my southern Africa experience that included descriptions of my relationship with him. I texted him, asking permission to write about him — which he granted — and then the next time I saw him in person, I had him go over the writing and specifically give consent for the piece itself. I warned him that the writing would almost certainly end up in a public place, though it would be under my scene name Clarisse.

This step accomplished, I sent the piece to some friends for feedback. One of those people was a mutual friend. Chastity Boy heard that she’d read it and wasn’t happy; he asked me about it, saying things like, “Well, it wasn’t quite a red flag, but close …” Naturally, with him talking about red flags, I felt scared that I’d transgressed a serious boundary. My ears perked up, I sat straighter and I tried to figure out why I’d failed to sense that boundary.

We talked for a while. “I don’t understand,” I eventually said. “You knew those pieces could end up in public. That’s why I thought it was okay to send them to her.”

“Well, but that’s different … I knew it’d be in public, but I didn’t expect people I know to see it,” he said. He thought about it some more. “I guess it just took me by surprise.”

“Do you want me to edit some parts of the pieces, or not post them?”

“No,” he said. “You can keep writing whatever you like about me.”

I asked if he was sure. He assented. I asked if he was really sure. He assented again. I asked if there was anyone in particular he didn’t want knowing about my identity as Miss Clarisse Thorn. He told me, and with that understanding, we closed the topic.

The whole incident got me thinking, though. Eventually, if I publish those pieces, he won’t be able to withdraw consent. I myself won’t be able to, either: after all, once published, it’s published. Even if circumstances change drastically, even if I’m outed, etc. etc. etc. … it’s out there: end of story. Especially in today’s highly backed-up and mirrored world, it’s nearly impossible to bury something once it’s been tossed into the public arena.

The ability to withdraw consent is one of the cornerstones of BDSM communication. (In a hypothetical world that did a good job of teaching vanilla relationship communication, I’d think it would be one cornerstone of that, too.) Hence our most basic tactic — safewords, which even most mainstream folks have heard about by now. There are some tricky aspects of using safewords well: you want to ensure that the safeword is easily pronounced, for instance; you want to ensure that both parties have access to some kind of safeword-signal at all times, even when (for example) gagged. Most importantly, you want to ensure that all parties feel comfortable safewording. This is often the hardest part, since (for example) bottoms can have a ton of pride wrapped up in not safewording, or be so desperate to please the top that they’ll feel guilty for safewording. (And tops may feel as though, since they’re “in charge”, they have no “reason” or “right” to safeword.)

Ultimately, I think all those issues come down to mastering good communication tactics and learning to read one’s partner. For instance, I’ve had a number of tops stop the scene before I safeworded because they accurately sensed my distaste before I was sure we should stop (and I’ve done the same myself, while topping).

But the situation with Chastity Boy isn’t like that. His consent is bounded by factors beyond my control, which any amount of good mutual communication can’t change. Past a certain point, he can’t withdraw consent.

It reminds me of a situation I once saw outlined on a FetLife discussion board. A fetish model who’d had a relationship with her photographer was posting. She said that she’d signed a model release (that is, a document giving up all rights to his pictures of her), and that they’d taken photographs together for years. Now they’d broken up, and she wanted him to take down the pictures, but he wouldn’t do it. She was asking the group if she had any recourse.

My initial reaction to her question was to feel indignant on her behalf. Obviously, I thought, her ex was being an ass! She might have no legal recourse, but I figured that at the very least she might be able to ruin his reputation in the BDSM community, and I said so. Then, however, I read some of the other comments, and I reconsidered. It’s true that her ex was perhaps being a jerk, but he also might not have been; it’s impossible to tell without his input. As a photographer, those photos were part of his livelihood, and was it reasonable for her to demand that he lose that money just because they’d broken up? Too, there’s the fact that models who sign model releases with other photographers would never be able to “take back” the pictures: those photos aren’t theirs and never will be. It might arguably be different for a fetish model than it would be for, say, a Nordstrom model, because leaving fetish photographs public could affect her future relationships in ways that a Nordstrom photo shoot wouldn’t. But the basic commercial framework is the same.

So here’s the question that came out of this, for me. What are my responsibilities in a situation where consent, ultimately, will have to be permanent? What were the photographer’s responsibilities?

Hmm. But maybe I should back up a bit! Maybe the situation of the model and of Chastity Boy can be compared, if not to a heated BDSM encounter itself, then to a BDSM encounter that has lasting effects: for instance, one that leaves bruises or scars. In such a situation, I think the top has the responsibility to ask the bottom ahead of time where it’s okay to leave marks (and what kind of marks are acceptable). A top who deliberately marks a bottom in a place where the bottom doesn’t want to be marked has violated that bottom’s consent. But if a bottom gives permission — with full understanding of what the marks will look like and how long they could last — then there’s no way to withdraw consent once marked.

True, the bottom could have “morning after” regrets, just as the model had regrets upon breaking up with her ex. But those regrets do not a violation make. The only potential violation would arise from a top’s (or photographer’s) failure to clarify the consequences of their acts. I do think that it’s incumbent upon all partners to be open to feedback, of course! The good tops I know are open to discussing a bottom’s morning-after regrets, if the bottom has any. But it’s also incumbent upon a bottom to take ownership of their own responsibility for those regrets.

One might argue that the responsibilities of a writer are different from the responsibilities of a kinkster. Must I as a writer be as careful as I am during BDSM, in gaining consent? After all, there are plenty of writers out there who aren’t anywhere near as cautious with their muses as kinksters try to be with our partners …. Still, I think any artist who plans to portray a sexual partner explicitly should observe the same care with that person’s boundaries as they would while actually having sex with them. Other personal information (for instance, writing about how my boyfriend drinks his coffee) may require less care; but sexual boundaries are as sensitive when portrayed in a memoir as they would be in person, and deserve the same respect.

So, here are my responsibilities — as both kinkster and sex writer: not just to get consent ahead of time, but to be very sure that my partners know exactly what the long-term consequences could be.

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* This moniker arises from the fact that he’s got a vow of chastity going — yeah, I know, it’s beautifully ironic that a sex activist is dating such a man! And I do, of course, have his consent to call him that.

2009 20 Oct

Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights

Click here for the first installment, “Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?”

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In the 2006 documentary “Boy I Am“, a trans man talks about how one of his mental barriers to transitioning was the fact that after transition, he would be a “white male”. And, he laughs, the “last thing in the world” he wanted to be was a white male!

A year or two ago, I attended a lecture by Jackson Katz, a rather overtly masculine, cis male anti-abuse educator who lectures in colleges around the country. Bullet-headed and aggressive in stance, he said a lot of valuable things — particularly about how men ought to take ownership of problems we traditionally consider “women’s issues”. It’s certainly true that if we want to end male abuse of women, men must participate in the movement. But although Katz discussed some issues of masculinity, I heard little about how we can make things better for men. His proposition of a men’s movement was centered around correcting the things some men are doing wrong. (I attended in the company of my friends Danny, who blogs at Sex, Art & Politics, and Sammael, who started his own BDSM blog this year. Hey guys, got any good memories of Katz?)

Although they’re often watered down, many feminist concepts have gone mainstream. For instance, Americans have some consciousness of traditional feminist critiques about how women’s bodies are represented in the media. Indeed, that consciousness has become so endemic that, in a grandly ironic twist, marketers now capitalize on it to sell beauty products: the nationwide Dove Campaign for Real Beauty attempts to use deconstruction of the media’s representation of women to sell Dove soap. Americans are also quite aware of men as the privileged class — sometimes regarded outright as the oppressors.

But this shift in awareness about gender issues faced by women has not been accompanied by a widespread understanding of gender issues faced by men. And that creates situations like an activist working towards a masculinity movement that talks mainly about how men are hurting women, or a trans man who has trouble with the idea of transitioning partly because he doesn’t want to be a white man — one of the oppressors.

How can awareness of oppressive dynamics make it difficult for men to own their masculinity? Does male privilege ever make life harder for men? When does male privilege blind us to oppression of masculinity? There’s some mainstream awareness of gender issues faced by women; is there any similar awareness of the problems of masculinity?

A good friend of mine first caught my attention by talking about gender. We encountered each other at a BDSM meetup, and when I mentioned that I’d been thinking about the boxes around masculine sexuality, he launched into a rant about oppressive sexual dynamics. He gave me references to complex sexuality blogs and intelligently used words like “heteronormative” and “patriarchy”. But a month or so after we started talking, I mentioned his interest in gender issues … and he gave me a puzzled look. “I’m not really into gender studies,” he said.

He talks about sex, gender and culture all the time — but he also specifically identifies as highly masculine, and felt that to be at odds with identifying as someone who questions masculinity. As Thomas Millar writes: “There’s a huge unstated assumption that to even address the question [of male sexuality], for men, is to mark one’s self as ‘other.’ … cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question. By even opening up a dialog, I think some folks fear that they are conceding that their sexuality is not uncontroversial.”

Men currently experience this problem in a way that women do not. In other words, women don’t risk being seen as unfeminine as easily as men risk being seen as unmasculine; nor do we have quite the same fears about it. In 2008, a group of researchers published a paper called “Precarious Manhood”. Their concluding statement: “Our findings suggest that real men experience their gender as a tenuous status that they may at any time lose and about which they readily experience anxiety and threat.” Earlier in the paper, they wrote that — although “our focus on manhood does not deny the importance of women’s gender-related struggles” — “Women who do not live up to cultural standards of femininity may be punished, rejected, or viewed as ‘unladylike,’ but rarely will their very status as women be questioned in the same way as men’s status often is.” *

When is it to a man’s disadvantage to publicly examine and question masculinity? Surely the mere act of questioning and examining gender does not make a man less masculine; how can we work against the perception that it does?

At the same time, though, this isn’t a “with us or against us” situation: men who don’t choose to identify as non-normative also don’t tend to join the “opposition”. By “opposition” I mean folks like “Men’s Rights Activists” (on the Internet we call them MRAs). MRAs — at least according to my stereotype of them — are conscious of social and legal disadvantages suffered by men, such as the fact that men are at a severe disadvantage in child custody cases; at the same time, they’re blind to male privilege. It’s a deadly combination. My personal favorite MRA quotation ever is, “White men are the most discriminated-against group in the country.” ** Mercifully, MRAs are a fringe group, but they make a big impression.

My “not into gender studies” friend once told me that although he frequently deconstructs problems of masculinity in the privacy of his own mind, he doesn’t like to publicly have those conversations because he doesn’t want to sound like an MRA. He said, “A lot of the time, men who want to think seriously about masculinity won’t talk about it aloud because we really don’t want to be that,” emphasizing “that” with loathing. He later added, “It’s very tricky to discuss masculinity yet avoid simply devolving into male entitlement. That’s the crux of the problem with the ‘Men’s Movement’ assholes — none of them are addressing the underlying problems of masculinity.  They’re just whining about not receiving the privileges their cultural conditioning tells them to expect.”

How do the current “men’s rights movements” discourage men who might, in a different climate, be very interested in discussing masculinity? Assuming men can reclaim the “pro-masculinity movement” from MRAs, do any men feel motivated to do so? Can men occupy the middle ground between MRAs and LGBTQ, feminist, or other leftist discussions of gender — that is, can men find space to discuss masculinity without being aligned with “one side or the other”?

All too frequently in radical sex/gender circles, the theme has been blame. Men in particular are excoriated for failing to adequately support feminism — or criticized for failing to join the fight against oppressive sex and gender norms — but few ideas are offered for how men can be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine, especially if their sexuality is normative (e.g., straight/dominant/big-dicked).

There are fragments: some insight might be drawn from the ways in which many BDSM communities create non-oppressive frameworks within which we have our deliciously oppressive sex. With practice, one can get shockingly good at preserving a heavy dominant/submissive dynamic that still allows both partners to talk about their other needs. Surely that understanding of sexual roles vs. other needs could be adapted to the service of gender identity. Yet so many BDSMers still fall prey to the same old gendered preconceptions.

Don’t get me wrong: of course anyone would deserve plenty of blame if they refused to let go of their entitlement, or chose not to examine the ways their behavior might support an oppressive system. But I think men exist who are willing to do those things, yet feel blocked from relevant discussions because participating creates anxiety about their sexual or gender identity. It strikes me as unreasonable to attack them for that. Choosing to present one’s sexuality and/or gender identity in a normative way is not in itself a sin. It’s not fair to expect people to fit themselves into a box that doesn’t suit them — not even for The All-Important Cause of better understanding sex and gender.

Where can we find ideas for how men can be both supportive and non-oppressive, and overtly masculine? How can we make it to normative men’s advantage to analyze masculine norms? What does it look like to be masculine, but liberated from the strictures of stereotypical masculinity? How can we contribute to a Men’s Movement that encompasses all three bases — being perceived as masculine, acknowledging male privilege, and deconstructing the problems of masculinity?

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* Vandello et al. “Precarious Manhood.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325 – 1339. 2008.

* Kuster, Elizabeth. Exorcising Your Ex. Fireside, 1996. (I know, it’s hardly the most official of references — but isn’t it a great quotation?)

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Click here for the next installment, “Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men”.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2009 18 Oct

Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?

Over the summer, I wrote a 3500-word piece about masculinity. It touched on some themes I’ve messed around with before, most notably in my reviews of the Sex+++ documentaries “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” and “Boy I Am.” I fondly hoped that I might be able to do something “real” with it, but I’ve gotten rather immersed in my work here in Africa — and I’ve been having some trouble keeping up with America, due to irregular Internet access. Today, I managed to catch up with some of my blogroll and saw that Audacia Ray recently posted some thoughts about masculinity, including excellent links to various new frontiers in the masculinity conversation. Looks like the topic is really heating up — finally! I’ve been obsessing about it off and on for years, and it’s exciting to think that people might finally talk to me about it.

So, rather than letting my masculinity piece languish under a rug — since I’ll probably never be able to do anything official with it before the conversation moves on, anyway — I’m just going to serialize it here. (I’d post the whole thing at once, but I don’t want to inflict 3500 words on everyone’s blog reader!)

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Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?

Why do I care about masculinity?

I’m rather perverted, but not enormously queer. I present as femme, and — although I’ve been known to tease my sensitive (frequently long-haired) lovers for being “unmasculine” — I fall in love with men. I’m hardly one to go for the “manly man” type, but at heart, I love knowing that I’m fucking a man.

However, because I’m cis and straight, I feel profoundly at a loss when trying to articulate problems of (for lack of a better phrase) “Men’s Empowerment”. The issues don’t feel “native” to me; I’ve intersected with these questions mainly through the lens of lovers and friends. Watching their struggle is demoralizing, but trying to imagine how I can give them feedback is more demoralizing.

A male friend once wrote to me, “I think you personally find expressions of masculinity hot, but you also have no patience with sexism. You’ve caught on that it’s tricky for men to figure out how to deliver both of these things you need, that you don’t have a lot of good direction to give to fellas about it, and that neither does anyone else.”

So:
How can men be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine?

On top of my limited perspective, there’s been an echoing lack of discourse — that is, very little mainstream acknowledgement of the problems of masculinity. The primary factor in that silence is that normative cis men themselves tend to be flatly unwilling to discuss gender/sex issues. Often, their first objection is that the discussion is neither important nor relevant. This is true even within subcultures centered around sexual analysis, like the BDSM world — I once met a cis male BDSMer who said, “Why bother talking about male sexuality? It’s the norm. Fish don’t have a word for water.”

But if masculine sexuality is water and we’re fish, why doesn’t that motivate us to examine it more — not less?

Don’t get me wrong: I agree that America’s sexual conceptions are centered around stereotypical male sexuality, and I agree that this is damaging and problematic. Believe me, I’m furious that it took me many years to reconceive “actual” sex around acts other than good ole penis-in-vagina penetration! But if American stereotypes and ideas of sexuality are male-centered, then surely that makes it more useful for us to be thinking about male sexuality — not less.

And those male-centered ideas of sexuality aren’t centered around all men — just stereotypical men. LGBTQ men are obvious examples whose sexuality falls outside the norm; fortunately for them, they’ve created some spaces to discuss that. But there are lots of other non-normative guys who aren’t gay or queer, yet feel very similar sexual alienation — and because there’s so little discourse about masculinity outside LGBTQ circles, they usually just don’t talk about it.

What does it mean to be a cis het man whose sexuality isn’t normative? Which straight cis guys don’t fit — and hence, feel alienated from — our current overarching sexual stereotypes?

Guys who identify as straight BDSM submissives are one fabulous example of non-normative men who are frequently alienated from mainstream masculine sexuality, but who often don’t have a forum. Men with small penises are a second. There are lots of others. In the words of sex blogger and essayist Thomas Millar: “The common understanding of male sexuality is a stereotype, an ultra-narrow group of desires and activities oriented around PIV [penis-in-vagina], anal intercourse and blowjobs; oriented around cissexual women partners having certain very narrow groups of physical characteristics.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that straight, dominant, big-dicked dudes who love boning thin chicks feel totally okay about the current state of affairs. It just means they tend to have less immediate motivation to question it. They also have less of an eye for spotting gender oppression, because — though they’ve got their own boxes hemming them in — they’re still more privileged than the rest of us, and the nature of privilege is to blind the privileged class to its existence.

A male submissive once told me, “Lots of heteronormative men know something is wrong with the way we think about sex and gender. I can see them struggling with it when we talk. They can’t put their finger on it; they have a hard time engaging it. But I engage it all the time; I have to, because my sexuality opposes it.”

When is it to a man’s advantage to examine and question masculinity and stereotypes of male sexuality? Which men are motivated to do so?

It’s tempting to assert that men whose desires fit neatly (or at least mostly) within the stereotype have it made — after all, their sexuality works within the norm so many of us struggle to escape. But I’ve had this assumption corrected several times, usually by smart “stereotypical” men themselves. At one point, while developing a sexuality workshop, I sent the outline to a bunch of friends. The original draft contained this paragraph: “Our sexual scripts favor a certain stereotype of men and male sexual pleasure, which makes it hard for women to figure out what we really want and what we really enjoy, and also makes it harder for non-stereotypical men to figure that out.” One friend sent that paragraph back, having quietly appended: “… as well as for stereotypical men to discover or explore new desires beyond the stereotypical script.”

When we discuss the limitations around sexuality from a non-normative perspective, how do we exclude normative people who might develop themselves in new directions if they had the chance? What do normative men stand to gain by thinking outside the box about masculinity and sexuality?

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Click here for the next installment, “Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights.”

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2009 30 Sep

Hate Mail At Last: a Concerned Parent Writes In about my Sex-Positive Film Series

Hello blogosphere! I know I’ve been scarce of late. My Internet access is limited and when I can get it, there are often problems (for instance, it can be expensive; sex-positive sites may be blocked by overzealous porn filters; etc). I’m settling into my HIV/AIDS work here in Africa and it’s going well, but I’m still parsing out my thoughts about … well, everything. I’ve been working on some written pieces that I definitely intend to post online, but I’m not sure whether they’ll go here on my blog, or elsewhere. Stay tuned — if I post them elsewhere, then I’ll certainly announce it here.

I have, of course, been following the progress of my beloved sex-positive film series as best I could. The final film screening, “We Are Dad” — about gay adoption — is just around the corner on October 13th. That is, the final film in the original program that I curated … but I am thrilled to report that Sex+++ has gathered a crowd of such amazing, dedicated people that it’s likely to continue past my final curation date! I’ve been tracking the dialogue at a distance; there’s a committee working on continuing the series even now, and although my heart breaks to realize that I’ll be missing more incredible films and discussions, I am also so so so very proud that we created something that struck such a chord. (If you’re interested in being in on the continued progress of the series, go ahead and email Lisa Junkin [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].)

I was always a little surprised that Sex+++ didn’t get more negative attention. When starting it, I was very cautious … I walked on eggshells, really. I believed and continue to believe that comprehensive sex education is necessary for everyone, that adult sex education is a vital step forward, and that sexuality is an important academic topic. But public sexuality is such bitterly contested ground in American culture, I thought for sure that someone would attack a series that’s open, honest and positive about everything from BDSM to sex on videotape.

It took longer than I thought, but it finally happened. A few weeks ago, this arrived in my inbox. It was copied to a number of people at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the series venue, as well as administrators of the University of Illinois at Chicago (where the museum is located):

Dear UIC and Jane Addams administrators: 

I was appalled when I read about this film series!  How you were able to get approval to show these types of movies is beyond me.  You are doing this on a college campus??? Don’t you care about the minds of the students and general public you claim to be educating? 

The movies you are showing are meant to get people to think about every type of sex scenario.  I don’t see how this could have a positive outcome.  Is our society not perverted enough?  We are all affected by everything we see and hear.  These young people are unfortunately exposed to so much talk, filthy music lyrics, movies, and TV shows that can find nothing to talk about but sex.  They must think that is all adults are supposed to do!  These students have so much pressure on them, so many negative influences, temptation to have sex before they are mentally or physically ready to accept the responsibilities involved.  Why are you adding to that?  Can’t you think of something that would fill their heads with something more appropriate, and keep your pornography to yourselves, if that is your perversion?   

I’m sure you are all intelligent people.  Why don’t you use your intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place?  You can start by canceling this film series.

Thank you for considering my suggestions.

Sincerely,
Julie Brown
Concerned UIC Parent

The spectacular Hull-House Education Coordinator, Lisa, immediately went into action. She drafted the following letter and shared it with me; a short version was later sent to Ms. Brown, but Lisa has given me permission to post the original version. It very nearly makes me cry with pride and joy (seriously):

Hi Julie and thanks very much for your email.  I am the person at the museum who runs the SEX+++ Documentary Film Series, and I want respond to your concerns.



To be clear about how the series works:  SEX+++ Documentary Film Series is not a series about porn.  It does show explicit material at times, though not in the majority of the films, not to minors, and not without voluntary consent forms when needed.  We chose each film with the intent of educating audiences and providing discussion points on sex positivity.  The way we define sex positivity is this: there is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to sex, so long as the behavior is safe and among consenting adults.



Sex positive education teaches that sexual behavior is not something to hate or fear, but something to be respected and enjoyed.  This way of thinking about sex is meant to erase harmful stigmas while encouraging open and honest communication among partners.  Importantly, a sex positive attitude includes the idea that abstaining from sex or preferring one behavior (including hetero, monogamous sex) over another is also completely valid, but it does not allow for judgment of other adults who are behaving responsibly (i.e. with the consent of their partners and with everyone’s health/safety in mind).


I agree with you on several things — especially that there are many negative and harmful portrayals of sex in the media and that young people often feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior.  But this series aims to create a different sort of space — one where healthy sexual behavior and relationships are demonstrated via documentary films, where honest and medically accurate information about sex is made available, where a diverse audience respectfully converses and sometimes disagrees, and where there is no shame in pleasure.

The films that we show are not altogether different than some of the material used in university courses — human sexuality, biology, gender studies — and we treat our series similarly.  The films are meant to expose our audience to other cultures and lifestyles, but we do not promote any given lifestyle — though we do put forth these values: 1) tolerance/acceptance for alternative lifestyles, 2) the importance of healthy, happy relationships, and 3) a belief that honest communication is necessary to healthy relationships.  I would argue that not only are these critically important values for any institution of education to promote, but that they are in line with other efforts at UIC.

I certainly recognize that not everyone’s world view accepts alternative lifestyles, but as an academic professional at a public university, I believe I have an obligation to be nonjudgmental and to provide safe, educational spaces for all types of students.  The SEX+++ Documentary Film Series seeks to do this, and from the feedback I have received, it has been a valuable program for students, staff, faculty, and community members.  The film series is one way that the museum is working to make the world a better, more just, and pleasurable place.

Again, thank you for your email.  I hope that you will consider coming to one of our public programs in the future — we have many opportunities for debate and discussion around important issues.  In addition to the SEX+++ film series, we have a weekly program called Re-thinking Soup, where we discuss issues of food and justice, and we have other lectures, workshops, and events.  Hope to see you in the future.

best regards,
lisa

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Lisa has always been way better than I at staying calm, and her response was so eloquent that at first I wasn’t sure there’s anything left for me to say. But I think I just needed time to figure out where to start.

I have done a variety of community work in the USA, and I’m currently accepting an unbelievably low salary to work on HIV/AIDS mitigation in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not just doing it because I’m interested in traveling and learning about other cultures, but because I truly am seeking to — as she says — use my intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place. I poured hundreds of hours of unpaid effort into creating Sex+++ for the same reason.

I am not much older than the students at UIC. I grew up in America, and I felt the same sexual pressures that they do. When I came up with the slogan “Among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’,” I was thinking just as much about all the sex scenarios I don’t want to fulfill — as about the ones I do.

It’s true that this series grew partly out of my own desire to destigmatize almost “every type of sex scenario”. I don’t think people should ever, ever have to face negative judgment for doing consensual things. The complicated thing is that consent is not as simple as it looks, and it gets harder to negotiate and understand consent when the people involved don’t understand their limits or their desires.

When I think about “there is no ‘should’,” I think about all the times I’ve felt pressured to have sex I didn’t want to have. I think about the times I agreed to have sex I wasn’t enthusiastic about. And I think about all the time I spent being confused about my sexuality, wondering what was wrong with me and what was missing, before I finally came into my BDSM identity.

I think about kissing boys I didn’t really want to kiss, because I didn’t know how to turn them down; I think about the way I cried, how my heart shattered and my mind went into turmoil when I confronted how intrinsic pain and power are to my sexuality.

How can anyone think that repressing sex or driving it underground will make it disappear? How can anyone think that it will make it easier to deal with sex? If sexuality had been wrapped in silence my entire life, I would have still kissed boys and craved pain — but I wouldn’t have had the words to describe what I needed or what I was. In that case, I might have been too confused or too nervous to stop kissing when I really, really needed to stop. Or I might still believe that my sexual orientation opposes my feminism, my independence, and my integrity.

I think it makes the world a better place to teach people their limits and their desires. I think that giving people positive sexual representations will help them shoulder their sexual responsibilities. I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer for their sexual desires, and I think that everyone deserves to know about the many ways they could consensually implement their sexual desires.

I think people will have sex no matter what — and that an educator’s most appropriate role is to show them how to do it honorably, creatively, and with joy.

2009 20 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #10: “Boy I Am”

Since next week I’m going to Africa forever and ever, “Boy I Am” — the June 9th screening at my sex-positive documentary film series — was the last one I’ll be able to attend in person. The film series will continue. It’s going to be coordinated by our amazing Hull-House Education Coordinator Lisa, plus discussion facilitators we recruited from among regular Sex+++ attendees! But I, alas, will be far away being eaten by lions. (Yes. Eaten by lions! … I’m getting a bit loopy from lack of sleep, caused by running around trying to wrap up my life.)

Happily, though, the June 9th screening was a really good one … okay, they’re all really good. But this was really good! There were lots of people in attendance (I’d estimate 30-40), which surprised me — as I said in my last sex-positive documentary report, I was figuring that attendance would generally be lower for the second half of the series. Maybe some people were tempted to come by the presence of filmmaker Sam Feder, who was a great contributor to the discussion! Or maybe I’m just wrong about what films have wide appeal. Or maybe now Sex+++ is getting famous enough that people are just excited about Sex+++, more than about any particular film. Hey, I hoped to start an ongoing salon … it seems like I’ve somewhat succeeded!

Distributed by Women Make Movies, the documentary “Boy I Am” is a fascinating look at the stigma faced by female-to-male transpeople — not just in general, but within specific liberal subcultures one might assume would be trans-friendly, such as lesbian/gay groups or feminist groups.

I’m a BDSM activist, so one of the topics I related to most was the way some forms of radical sexuality have frequently been excluded from gay/lesbian or feminist communities. I’ve read about this before — for instance, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival has in the past famously excluded BDSM activities from its site on the grounds that BDSM is inherently oppressive, etc etc. Only after I learned about the anti-BDSM incidents at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival did I hear about the much higher-profile anti-trans policies; unlike the anti-BDSM policies, the anti-trans policies continue to this day.

I think there’s two issues at stake here, and there were quotations in “Boy I Am” that admirably represented both of those issues. One quotation: “there’s no way to be male without misogyny” … the idea being that identifying as male — or, worse, choosing to identify as male — brings with it an inherent anti-woman bias. I feel like if the woman in question were discussing BDSM, she might say: “There’s no way to exercise power without being oppressive.” Arguments like these are based on a grain of truth — that privilege is terribly easy to both abuse, and forget — and for that reason, they can be compelling in the right company. But they erase the importance of individual differences and desires; and they assume that we can’t learn to outthink our biases, or negotiate our potentially “privileged” and “oppressive” desires in ways that don’t hurt other people.

The other quotation: the “existence [of radical sexualities like trans or BDSM within the lesbian/gay movement] demands a higher level of tolerance than [many L/G activists] are willing to fight for”. The idea being that lesbian/gay people may feel that they are “normal” enough to have a chance at social acceptance — but if they band together with more “extreme” sexualities, they’re worried that they’ll lose their chance. You can see some of this attitude in this Salon article from a couple of years ago, titled “Gay Rights and the Transgendered” by John Aravosis:

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was first introduced 30 years ago. In all that time, it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill. … [Everyone I spoke to about this] felt bad about taking gender identity out of ENDA, everyone supported transgender rights, and everyone told me “pass it anyway.”

Their main argument, which I support: practical politics. Civil rights legislation — hell, all legislation — is a series of compromises. You rarely get everything you want, nor do you get it all at once. Blacks, for example, won the right to vote in 1870. Women didn’t get that same right until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a large umbrella of rights based on race, religion, sex and national origin, but failed to mention gays or people with disabilities. People with disabilities were finally given specific rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but gays as a class have still to be granted a single civil right at the federal level. If we waited until society was ready to accept each and every member of the civil rights community before passing any civil rights legislation, we’d have no civil rights laws at all. Someone is always left behind, at least temporarily. It stinks, but it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way you win.

(Thanks for the link to Sex, Art and Politics.)

On the surface, Aravosis makes a reasonable argument. But when I read the rest of the article, I get an uneasy feeling that this has less to do with practical politics … and more to do with the author’s biases. For instance, Aravosis calls bisexuals “only part-time gays”, and his dislike of trans is even more transparent (teehee): “A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins.”

I might consider the idea that civil rights move slowly to be a reasonable argument … but calling bisexuals “part-time gays”, or wondering what gay people have in common with transsexuals, is simply bizarre. It’s obvious what all alternative sexualities and gender identities have in common: the idea that consent matters more than knee-jerk bias; the idea that everyone has sovereignty over our own bodies. Gaining equal treatment for alternative sexuality can’t just be about convincing people that individual acts or specific identities are okay — because worrying about individual acts in themselves is part of what gives people anxiety about alternative sexuality in the first place.

If we say: “Okay, straight sex and gay sex is fine but I don’t support bisexuality,” we’re making the same mistake that the “normals” make when they say: “Straight sex is fine, but I don’t support homosexuality.” This movement cannot be about acts; it must be about the context of those acts. Consent has to be what matters more than appearance. That’s the only coherent philosophy.

Other points brought up by “Boy I Am”:

+ Some women talked about how they think transitioning stems from women’s negative body image. They argued that it’s really hard to feel okay about our bodies growing up; that women always feel uncomfortable in our bodies, and that female-to-male transpeople transition more because they hate being female — less because they want to be male. They were bothered by this; one was angry, and called it “audacity”. She resented female-to-male transpeople for “walking away” from the issues of femininity that she constantly felt compelled to confront herself. It seems clear to me that this is based more on resentment and frustration than on any rational critique of trans in itself. And while I’m sympathetic to women who hate our culture’s misogyny, I think we always need to make sure that we don’t attack/dislike others personally just because we feel shafted by society.

+ Every human body is a modified body: we all eat hormone-modified foods, we take medications, we wear makeup and piercings and tattoos — indeed, we wear clothing! When we allow smaller modifications like those, it seems strange to prevent larger modifications. One might ask, where’s the line? Well, the line … again … is consent. It’s not the acts, it’s not the body changes in themselves — it’s consent. Always.

+ Is there ever a premature time to transition? How young should we allow people to get trans surgery? I don’t think we do kids any favors by preventing them from dressing / appearing as they wish. I think the surgery question for me boils down to this: why is there ever a reason to prevent someone from getting trans surgery, if the person wants it? If that person recognizes the costs and accepts any potential risks, what right does anyone have to stop that person from doing what they want with their body? If we prevent kids from transitioning, then I think we need to be very clear about why we’re doing it. If we believe that people can do whatever consensual things they want with their own bodies, then the only reason it’s different for kids is if we claim that there are different rules about consent for children. And maybe there are different rules about consent for children — but if we believe that, then we need to be clear that we’re talking about those rules when we prevent kids from transitioning … not anti-trans bias.

1500 words this time! And I have to go pack for Africa; this’ll be my last overly-long Sex+++ documentary report. To summarize — “Boy I Am” is a really layered, fascinating movie. I give it five stars, and I’m glad it was my last one … it means I get to leave on a super-up note.

It’s been great, guys, and I encourage you all to come out to the next film — Tuesday June 23rd, “On the Downlow”. It’s about underground Black gay life. Have fun! Rock the rest of this film series for me!

2009 9 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #9: “The Aggressives”

Cross-posted at SexGenderBody.com

We’re settling into a smaller audience at my sex-positive documentary film series — I think it’s possible that July 28 (which I have mentally dubbed “porn night”) will draw the same kind of standing-room-only audiences we had at some of the earlier screenings, but I’m guessing that we’ll otherwise continue to have smallish audiences (15-30 people). This doesn’t particularly worry me; I somewhat expected it, in fact. The early films I scheduled for the series are both difficult to find information about — few mainstream venues screen documentaries about BDSM! — and quite accessible in tone. That is, early Sex+++ documentaries were more along the lines of introductory or “101”, while the films I’ve scheduled later tend to be about more complicated or esoteric topics.

For instance, “The Aggressives” is about a specific lesbian subculture ….

… and I liked the film a lot! Thanks to Seventh Art Releasing for letting us screen it. And I loved the discussion after the documentary even more — it was very focused, with some eloquent and diverse perspectives. I left grinning ear to ear.

The documentary is about the “Aggressive” subculture in New York — possibly it also exists elsewhere; I don’t know enough about this topic to say — which is composed of lesbians of color. Apparently, Aggressive women focus on creating very butch identities, and have contests/balls where they compete to be the most masculine; these balls feature dress-up themes like “construction worker vs. painter” or “businessman vs. blue collar”. Interestingly and perhaps obviously, this means that many Aggressives work hard to fit themselves into stereotypes of masculinity. Not only do they seek to look “obviously” masculine, but to change other patterns of behavior, like speech and body language; and some do go on male hormones.

Indeed, there was one fascinating interview in which an Aggressive talked about how she sees male hormones as an “edge” in the Aggressive contests, and cited this as temptation to take hormones. It was not apparent to me whether she was as interested in being masculine, as she was in beating other Aggressives at the masculinity game. And maybe it’s worth noting that this particular Aggressive’s femme girlfriend said she wasn’t too excited about the idea of her partner going on hormones — “I still like a woman,” she said.

One description I found for this film on the Internet states that the Aggressives challenge gender stereotypes by acting the way they do. But one question that came up in the discussion group was — do they? If Aggressive identity is focused around being stereotypically masculine, then arguably they’re working more to reinforce our cultural assumptions about gender than to challenge them. There was some footage showing Aggressives doing very “macho”, “dominant” things like rapping misogynistically, or ordering femme lesbians to perform for them. One Aggressive talks about teaching boys to be men and says, “You don’t have to be a man to teach someone how to be one — it’s about being responsible, being the breadwinner.”

So, it does seem as though many Aggressives still fall prey to gendered preconceptions. On the other hand, the film also noted the existence of women who identified as Aggressive … but femme rather than butch! I wish the film had spent more time explaining what exactly it might mean to be a “femme Aggressive”. It seemed as though some Aggressives might switch between roles, but I’m not sure about that.

Speaking of switching puts me in mind of my experiences as a BDSM switch, and takes me to another thought I had during the post-film discussion: there were such obvious dynamics of power between femmes and butches in the Aggressive subculture … it made me wonder what kind of BDSM practices might exist in these relationships, and how those practices might be negotiated. It also seems possible to me that some people in the subculture might be attracted to the ideas of power, strength and dominance so obviously typified in certain Aggressive stances — I wonder if some Aggressives are more attracted to the power dynamics than they are to the lesbian (or, for some, trans) aspect of being Aggressive.

Obviously, this is wild theorizing on my part, and highly biased at that — I am far more exposed to BDSM and BDSM desires than I am to LGBTQ. But I have met multiple people who stated that the BDSM aspects of their sexuality “trump” their straight vs. LGBTQ orientation. My last entry was about the idea of BDSM as an orientation, and Laura Antoniou left a comment that included the statement: As Califia once wrote many years ago, I’d rather be left on a deserted island with a kinky man than a vanilla lesbian; SM trumps gender identity and my otherwise primary orientation to other girls. So, who knows? I’d love to talk to some Aggressives sometime about power dynamics and violence in bed.

This also highlights another question I’ve thought about a lot — how does the available culture shape how we approach alternative sexuality? That is, what happens to someone who has BDSM desires if that person is never exposed to a subculture devoted to BDSM? I see myself as “oriented towards BDSM”, but what would my BDSM practices look like if there weren’t an available subculture showing me certain images of BDSM? If I’d been exposed to the Aggressive subculture and never exposed to the BDSM subculture, would I have been likely to incorporate myself into that? Conversely, is it possible that some of the lesbians who find themselves in the Aggressive subculture are there more because it’s the lesbian community that’s available to them, than because they’re drawn to masculine women or power or … whatever?

Argh, over a thousand words and I’m only halfway through my notes … and I have to run! I feel like I never have time to get out all my thoughts about these films. Oh well. You can buy “The Aggressives” online at the website for Seventh Art Releasing. And I definitely encourage all and sundry to attend the next Sex+++ screening. That’s tonight, Tuesday the 9th, 7 PM as always! The documentary featured will be “Boy I Am”: a look at the experience of three young female-to-male transpeople, and the way they’re treated — not just by society at large — but also by some queer and feminist groups that see female-to-male transitioning as culturally suspect or problematic. Thanks to Women Make Movies for letting us screen it.

“Boy I Am” will actually be the last Sex+++ screening I facilitate because I will soon be taking advantage of a professional opportunity abroad, but the film series will continue in my absence. I’ll post more on that soon — in the meantime, I hope to see you here at Hull-House Museum … very soon!

2009 3 Jun

BDSM as a sexual orientation, and complications of the orientation model

UPDATE, 2012: I cleaned this up, edited it a bit and reposted it in 2012. You can read the new version by clicking here.

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A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals. And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously. Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real”, as “deep-rooted”, as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person? Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real”, “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs … by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity. It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something to accept … come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet … I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

… because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition. In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable … but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic. Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults. If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!” In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality. We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception … rather than trying to change the rule. We are calling BDSM a “fault” … rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”. We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold. If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation … then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings. I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it. But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold. And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language. I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

… But …

… there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model”. I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture, because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay. Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore. If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it? Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM. It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself. I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes. But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

* * *

edit After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation! The post and comments are definitely worth reading. /edit

double edit The excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness. /double edit

2009 20 May

One split in the BDSM subculture: the desire for transgression vs. the dislike of stigma

I’ve said before, and I say as often as I can, that BDSM communities are filled with many different voices — plus, there are many BDSM communities out there, not just one. I hope no one ever takes me as “speaking for BDSM” or accurately describing every possible BDSM community out there. But there are some elements common in the BDSM subculture, and some very general splits that I often find myself noticing within it. (I do welcome other voices, ideas, additions, or disagreements with what I’m about to say! Feel free to leave comments! Especially disagreements — I relish getting different perspectives on the BDSM scene and questioning my own assumptions. Absolutely relish it. Delicious.)

Right now I’m thinking about the split between people who are attracted (or partly attracted) to BDSM because it feels wicked and transgressive — and people who are attracted to BDSM entirely for other reasons. That is, some kinksters are really excited by the very fact that BDSM is illicit and hush-hush … while some aren’t.

On the face of it, I have no problem with this difference — I really don’t care what draws people to their sexuality, as long as they’re doing it consensually! But a consequence of the split is that it creates tension around the question of whether or not we should seek wider social acceptance for BDSM. Arrayed on one side of that tension are kinksters (such as myself) who think it would be totally awesome if BDSM were more widely socially acceptable, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about coming out (or involuntarily being outed) to our parents or friends or employers. We don’t want BDSM to be seen as illicit! But the divide’s other side includes kinksters who feel as though bringing BDSM into the light means disenfranchising their sexual needs, because they want BDSM to seem transgressive and scary …

… and I’m just not sure what to say to that. I had a conversation with a friend today in which he pointed out that for people who are attracted to certain forms of sexuality because they’re illicit, there will always be further horizons to explore. His argument is essentially, “Well, if someone wants illicit sexuality, they’ll always be able to find something that feels illicit. Society will simply never get over most of its boundaries around sexuality, at least not in our lifetimes; we can just move those boundaries around a little. But it’s not fair to expect BDSM-identified people who don’t want BDSM to be illicit to silence ourselves in order to preserve a transgressive quality that attracts others to BDSM.”

I think I agree with him. And more fundamentally, I really don’t like being unable to talk about BDSM with people I respect for fear of their reactions and judgments. I don’t like cloaking a large part of my life. I do not enjoy living with that stigma. And I’m not willing to compromise my efforts to work against that stigma for the sake of other kinksters who want BDSM to be stigmatized because that’s hot for them.

(As a side note: I do recognize that some kinksters feel nervous about BDSM advocacy, or oppose trying to make BDSM more socially acceptable, not because they’re actively attracted to the illicit image of BDSM but for other reasons — for instance, concerns about backlash against the community. I don’t mean to imply that everyone who resists the idea of raising the BDSM public profile is doing it because they really enjoy feeling transgressive and illicit. But I think a lot of kinksters do, and are.)