Posts Tagged ‘BDSM’

2011 16 Jan

The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community — it will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, at a local dungeon.

* * *

BDSMers face a lot of stigma around our sexuality, and this can be a major problem when BDSMers are trying to deal with abusive situations. I’ve written before about generally negative conceptions of BDSM — they can briefly be summarized as:

* S&M is wicked,
* abnormal,
* a sign of mental or emotional instability,
* inherently abusive,
* or even antifeminist.

Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:

1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.

2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.

I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that point #2 sometimes reacts with point #1 in a toxic way — that is, it can ironically be harder for abuse survivors to talk about abuse within the BDSM community because the community is pushing back so hard against the stereotype of abusive BDSM. I’ve spoken to BDSMers who feel that the S&M community pushes back far too hard, and that survivors are being aggressively silenced simply because the rest of us are so invested in fighting mainstream stereotypes. I have never personally experienced this, but I would not be surprised if I did. And the fact is that I’m sure there are toxic dynamics in some BDSM communities — we aren’t a monolith, folks — and that even in 100% awesome communities, I’m sure there are at least a few abusive relationships. And even one abusive relationship in the community is obviously too many.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote when the most recent abusive BDSM case hit the media, “Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be substantive.” This is something we should be taking action on. But how?

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2011 7 Jan

[storytime] Predicament Bondage

Note: This entry is more explicit than my entries usually get. You have been warned. Also note: In all of the following anecdotes, I arranged a safeword in advance, and I would have used my safeword if I’d wanted my partner to stop.

* * *

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and/or Masochism. These 6 activities are somewhat different from each other, though they’re intertwined, which means that individual BDSMers enjoy some things more than others.

For example, some people are masochists (who enjoy pain) but not submissives (who enjoy, well, submitting). Some people are really into discipline (with lots of punishment) but not bondage (rope, cages, etc). Some people are sadists (who enjoy inflicting sensations) but not dominants (who enjoy being in control). Some people are switches, who find that they can switch between roles — they can be dominant or submissive; sadistic or masochistic … I am an example of a definite switch.

Me, I get bored if someone takes a long time tying me up. For other people, 45 minutes of elaborate knotwork = really hot foreplay. I don’t understand this, but that’s cool; plenty of people don’t understand my preferences and we all coexist quite happily anyway.

So yeah, “bondage” — rope, cages, etc. — is not my thing. But there’s one phrase I absolutely love: “predicament bondage.” Predicament bondage is usually presented in a very elaborate way: For example, a submissive might be tied up with ropes binding him such that his arms are in pain — but if he moves his arms then his legs will be in pain.

It’s a predicament! And it’s bondage! Whee! Predicament bondage!

However, it doesn’t have to be elaborate to be predicament bondage. I’m not into rope obstacle courses, but I started loving the phrase “predicament bondage” after a friend went to a workshop run by Fetish Diva Midori and reported back. He said:

Midori had two pitchers of water, or maybe a pitcher and a glass. She told us, “This is the simplest form of predicament bondage,” and she had the demo submissive hold his hands straight out at shoulder height. Then she placed the water in his hands. The submissive had to keep holding the water; if he failed, he knew he would be failing Midori. But there was never any threat of “Midori’s wrath” if he failed her. In fact, she spoke as if she was on his side, part of his team. In many ways, her sympathy for his plight made it all the more cruel, because she was the one doing it to him.

She explained this. She knew that his sense of disappointment in “failing” her was worse than anything she could actually do to him.

So, the predicament in that case was the submissive’s increasing arm agony vs. his fear of failing Midori. For me, that concept is infinitely hotter than a rope obstacle course. Although for me, in practice, I’d also want the pain to be a bit more … um … personal.

* * *

The first time someone flogged me, I had no idea what he was going to do beforehand. He and I had the strongest dominant/submissive dynamic I’ve ever felt, and I put myself in his hands with almost-total trust.

A night came around when I felt that itch under my skin, the dark burn in the back of my mind … I knew I had to go see him. I wasn’t hugely experienced, but I knew exactly what that slow burn meant.

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2011 2 Jan

Men Who Don’t Deserve the Word “Creep”

The article below was originally published on October 1, 2010 by AlterNet; the AlterNet editors titled it “Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs?” I have no idea how many people linked to it, but it caused enough of a stir that I got hate mail from a man on the very same day it appeared, and also some of my sister feminist bloggers became upset. I have linked to my favorite responses around the blogosphere at the end of this post. I’ve also included some minor edits in this version of the article, for the sake of clarity.

* * *

This is an article about men, but I’m going to begin by talking about women’s experiences. Many of us women go through our daily lives fending off unwanted male attention; most of us have worried about being attacked by men. So it’s completely understandable that we’re all on high alert for predatory expressions of male sexuality.

But, while certain situations and certain people deserve our disdain — like, say, the guy who once leered at me as I walked out of the public library and whispered, "I can smell your pussy" — most guys really don’t. The pressure put on men to be initiators, yet avoid seeming creepy or aggressive, leads to an unpleasant double bind. After all, the same gross cultural pressures that make women into objects force men into instigators; how many women do you know who proposed to their husbands?

So how can a man express his sexual needs without being tarred as a creep? After all, the point of promoting sex-positive attitudes is for everyone to be able to be open about their needs and desires, right?

When I was 23 years old, I was still coming to terms with my S&M orientation, and so I posted to an Internet message board about how "illicit" desire was messing up my life. Soon, I received an email from a guy in my area. He accurately guessed the cause of my anxieties: “If I had to guess as to your kinks, I’d guess that either you want some BDSM play, or you maybe want to add other partners into a relationship. How close am I?” He then offered to fulfill all my wicked, dirty lusts. In fairness, the guy actually referred to himself as creepy during our text-only conversation — but I still feel guilty that when I told the story to my friends, we all referred to him as "the creep."

I obviously had every right to turn down my Internet Lothario. Still, I shouldn’t have called him a creep; all he was doing was being overt and honest about his desires, and he did it in a polite — though straightforward — way. If he’d emailed me with "Hey bitch, you obviously want me to come over and dominate you," then that would have been impolite and unpleasant. But he emailed me a quick and amusing introduction, then asked what I wanted. After a few rounds of banter, I called a halt, and he respected that.

I think the word "creep" is too vague and prejudiced to mean anything anymore. But if I were willing to use the word, I’d say my Internet suitor was the opposite of a creep.

* * *

Although I’ve become more aware of it recently, I think I’ve always had the sense that men are particularly vulnerable to the judgment of “creep." Over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems of masculinity, and in Part 3 I noted that — unlike men — "I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep."

Of course, I could be labeled a slut, which could damage me quite badly. There’s a reason I do all my most explicit writing under a pseudonym. We feminists often say that men’s promiscuity is lauded while women’s is stigmatized, and one point of this argument is purely linguistic: "stud" is a complimentary word for a promiscuous man, while "slut" is a hurtful word for a promiscuous woman. Besides, our culture hates sex, no matter who’s doin’ it — even vanilla, consensual, heterosexual, private sex between cute white married adults is hard for some folks to acknowledge!

But in fact, men aren’t merely enabled to be promiscuous — they’re pressured to be getting laid all the time. This influences situations ranging from huge communities devoted entirely to teaching men how to pick up women, to tragically callous dismissal of the experiences of men who have been raped.

And while there’s immense cultural repression of all sexuality, there’s also a fair and growing amount of modern TV, movies and feminist energy that seek to enable female sluttitude in all its harmless, glorious forms. The stud vs. slut dichotomy is worth discussing, but it has one flaw: it entirely ignores the word "creep," whose function appears to be restricting male sexuality to a limited, contradictory set of behaviors.

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2010 26 Dec

Anger, fear and pain

I like pain. I like submission. What do these things actually mean, though? I don’t like it when I stub my toe, for example, and there are quite a lot of authoritarian situations I don’t like either. My emotional reactions, in particular, can get really complicated. So I need more precise words than “I like pain” and “I like submission.”

This is not a new problem, and around the BDSM subculture there are more precise terms that are frequently used. But when I was first exploring BDSM and didn’t yet have access to the community, I started coming up with my own vocabulary for what I liked and what I didn’t like. The primary words I came up with — words that I still use a lot in my own head, and that I sometimes try to explain to my partners — were “clean” pain and “dirty” pain.

I think of some pain as “clean” because even if it’s intense, I usually … like it. (For lack of a better word.) This is the kind of pain I fantasize about when I’m really craving BDSM. There are certain places on my body that take pain more cleanly — my upper arms, most of my back, my thighs. There are certain types of pain that are inherently more clean — needles come to mind. Wide, deep, blunt bites are good too. Heavy whips made of weighty materials, like suede. Pulling my hair right above the nape of my neck.

On the other hand, I think of some pain as “dirty” because it’s … harder to take. I don’t think of it as dirty because I see it as scandalous or perverse — rather, dirty pain is complex and hard to process. I never fantasize about it. Pain where my bones are close to the surface of my skin, like my collarbone, is dirty. Pain on top of scars is dirty. Pinches and small, narrow bites are dirty. Pulling my hair anywhere besides the nape of my neck is dirty. Electric shocks are extremely dirty.

But this whole “clean” and “dirty” thing, it doesn’t make any sense outside my own body, my own head. It’s hard to explain it. It helps that the BDSM community tends to frame pain in terms of techniques and less-subjective adjectives, using words like “sharp” or “sting” or “thud”. (A lot of people think of “sharp” and “sting” as the same sensation. I usually separate them a bit more, but I’m not sure how many other people separate them.)

Franklin Veaux defines “thud” as “sensation of heavy, dull impact” and defines “sting” as “sensation of quick, sharp pain”. These words are most often applied to floggers (implements for hitting people, e.g.: “this is a thuddy flogger”), but sometimes the words are used for other things too. I’ve found that I generally prefer thuddy-type pain, for example, but it took me a long time to figure that out, because there are so many specific sharp sensations that I love.

Okay. Now for emotions. This is the really hard part.

A while back I got an anonymous comment on my coming-out story that I absolutely love. Here’s a quotation from the comment:

When it came to it, very little about the reality [of BDSM] matched my fantasies. Oh, sometimes what we did matched the way a real-life even can match a fantasy. There were moments that were … Transcendental.

But there were many more moments that … were deeply, deeply conflicted. I NEVER expected to feel that much … anger … toward someone dominating me and inflicting pain. I expected it to be a relief. I didn’t expect to wrestle with hatred.

He liked to slap my face. Everytime he did it I would feel this burst of pure hatred. At one point he asked if I liked it. I said, “No. I hate it. But I don’t want you to stop doing it.”

I can’t remember right now if any other “coming out” story I’ve ever read included such a visceral description of anger. Of course, I think the last time I read one I hadn’t experienced it myself. Maybe I never noticed it before, but noticed it this time because it resonated with me. But mostly I remember those stories mentioning fear, shame, worry, and embarrassment.

The events in my coming-out story took place years ago, and my feelings about BDSM are really different now. I remember that I was conflicted, furious, resentful. But at the same time, I have often thought that much of my anger and resentment was due to the fact that Richard — my first intense BDSM partner — was not emotionally available. I needed support that he didn’t give me. (To some extent because neither he nor I recognized how much support I needed.) And, of course, much of that anger was due to the fact that I couldn’t deal with BDSM. That I was fighting back against, was unable to take ownership of my sexuality.

As I settled my feelings, reconciled myself to my sexual identity — my emotional reactions became a whole different ball game. (It helped that I dated a string of men who were more emotionally available and assisted me with emotional processing, too.) It turned out that the rage that I had suspected was inextricable from BDSM was, in fact, entirely possible to separate. I entered a stage where I learned how to avoid that anger. To work around it. I learned to sink myself into fear and desperation, which I love, and which are easier to work with.

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2010 18 Nov

[advice] A 16-yr-old kinkster who wants “a sense of personal integrity”

When I received the following email, I was sitting in my mother’s living room. I read the letter aloud to Mom where she was standing in the kitchen; she stopped what she was doing, came over and sat down across from me. When I was done, she said, “That’s heartbreaking. This girl sounds just like you.”

Yeah, I relate a lot to this one.

Posted with the writer’s permission:

Dear Clarisse,

I’m sorry to email you out of the blue like this, but I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and it’s been a great help to me. I’m also sorry if this is pretty personal, but I don’t know of anyone else with any relevant experience that I can turn to. You’ve always seemed friendly and open to discussion from what I’ve read, so I hope you won’t mind.

OK. Here goes. Basically, I’ve had what I now know to be BDSM leanings since an early age — tying up the Barbie dolls, bizarre childhood games, the works, gaining a more sexual edge in my teenage years. I never really thought about it, and if I did, I would just think, “Oh well, I can think and fantasise about what I like, it doesn’t hurt anyone, why should I be ashamed?” The difficulty for me has come in my first proper relationship. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 10 months and it’s not a secret between us. I mean, it surprised him, but he’s completely fine with it and he seems pretty enthusiastic (and has consistently over the past nine months or so, so I think it might be more than just to please me, though he’s not as into it as I am). Maybe I should specify. I don’t enjoy labelling myself, but I suppose you would call me a submissive. 

As I’m sure you can relate to, this poses some problems for me. I’ve always thought of myself as a strong, independent young woman. I endured bullying at school and I have always espoused — or tried to, to the best of my ability — a philosophy that can be neatly summed up as “Fuck ’em.” It’s very difficult for me to come to terms with this other side of myself, that, while it was always there, never really intruded on my actual life, if you see what I mean. Now it does. I’m saying these things I’ve thought about a lot of my life, and doing some of them too. There’s a level — well, two, the rational level and the physical one — where I’m completely OK with it, but another part of me — I suppose the emotional part — is entirely disgusted. If it was just the pain, I could deal with that. It’s this desire for submission that makes me feel sick about myself. The thing is, rationally, I know that there’s no reason why I can’t be a strong woman in my relationships and my everyday life but play with a power dynamic during sex acts. I mean, from what I’ve read, you do it fine! I just don’t know how to make that leap. I’m sure you know the feeling I’m talking about.

I should also add that I’m 16 and a virgin, and the same with my boyfriend. This entire kaboodle is new to me and I don’t really know what I’m doing, and this is really causing me quite a lot of anguish. I don’t really know where to go for support. I can hardly ask at the regular sexual health clinic! I wouldn’t know where to start looking for kink-aware therapists, as you did. Besides that, I would have to talk to my parents about it. I’ve spoken to my mother about BDSM briefly in conversation without letting her know anything about myself, and she said she thought relationships like that were “unhealthy” and “destructive”. I’m sure that’s just ignorance on her part, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to come out to her, and explain why it’s OK, at least not until I’m sure about this myself. It still feels partly unreal, as though it’s something I’ve created in myself that will go away if I ignore it — even though I know that’s not the case. I share the feeling that you’ve written about before — I’ve never been in an “other-ed” minority before, being white and middle-class etc. My boyfriend is very supportive and caring, but to be honest, he doesn’t know what he’s doing any better than I do! So I hope that you will be able to offer me some reassurance and advice. Your blog, as I’ve said, has been a great help, but reading something like that, wonderful as it is, isn’t the same and doesn’t have the same power to reassure as a more personal dialogue. I hope you see what I mean and don’t just think that I’m seeking attention. That is not my goal here. All I’m after is a sense of personal integrity. Perhaps in the end that can only come from myself, but, it would be nice to be told I’m not completely mad!

I wanted to post that letter mostly because I think it’s eloquent. Again, I’m probably somewhat biased because the girl who wrote it sounds a lot like me. (The “fuck ’em” philosophy especially. It got a lot better once I got out of public school and went to university, but, man, it was pretty intense for a while there.) There are so many lines in there that I could have written, once.

Even the way she writes, “I suppose you would call me a submissive” …. It took me months — maybe even years, I can’t recall — after coming into my BDSM identity for me to accept the word “submissive” and apply it to myself. I hated that word so much.

Fortunately for the letter-writer, she lives in the United Kingdom, which means that at age 16 she’s not below the age of consent. This, presumably, means that she can hang out in BDSM communities if she likes; in the USA, people have to be over 18 to do so. One thing I suggested she look for is a group called The Next Generation, to see if there are any UK branches. In the US, TNG has branches in a number of cities; it’s a kink group that usually hosts low-key café meetups and the occasional BDSM demo for folks aged 18-35 (perhaps in the UK it’s open to ages 16-35). I also noted that there are probably some UK therapists on the Kink Aware Professionals list, though I don’t know if there’s as much representation over there.

I only know a couple of things for sure about BDSM in the UK. One is that the country contains the Torture Garden, which is the world’s largest fetish club, and which has released some absolutely gorgeous fliers. It’s also where one of the nastiest BDSM scandals in recent history occurred, the infamous and ridiculous Spanner Case, which resulted in a group called The Spanner Trust that works to protect S&Mers.

A sense of community is, in my experience, incredibly helpful for new kinksters who want to talk about the insanity-inducing coming-out process. One of the most powerful moments in my BDSM-integration process occurred during a discussion group at the San Francisco Citadel. It was the first BDSM group I’d ever attended — basically a Dominant/submissive roundtable — and the statement I recall best came from a woman who was happily curled up next to her boyfriend on a couch. She identified herself as a submissive and she noted that she and her boyfriend had an agreement that, every night, she had to kneel at the foot of the bed and ask his permission to get in.

“Some nights,” she said, “I’m really tired, and I don’t want to do that, I just want to climb in and go to sleep. But then I remind myself that this is the kind of relationship I want, and that it is part of my sexuality. That this is part of my integrity as a submissive, to show him that I want to keep our power dynamic alive by asking his permission to get into bed every single night.”

At the time, this blew my mind. Her use of the word integrity …. I don’t personally prefer to have those kinds of agreements — the kneeling-and-asking-permission type agreements — at least not usually. (Rarely do I encounter a man with whom our mutual power dynamic is so incredibly strong, whom I trust so much, that I’m willing to submit myself totally like that. But it has happened — though it had not yet happened when I attended that Citadel discussion group, and I may never experience it again.) Still … even though I don’t personally prefer the kinds of relationships she does, it was still such an incredible relief to see a submissive, who was so clearly in possession of herself and feeling so good about her relationship — to hear her use a word like integrity. To hear her apply the word integrity to her sexuality.

This is one of several reasons I usually encourage people to look into the local in-person community, but not everyone is going to mesh well with their local BDSM groups. Luckily, the Internet may provide another option. There’s a kinky social networking site called FetLife.com where BDSMers can make profiles, engage in discussion groups, etc.; that seems like a good place to start.  (There are even feminist discussion groups on FetLife, of which I am obviously a member.) BDSM blogs other than my own can perhaps function similarly.  I know there are online BDSM fora, and I’ve heard mixed things about some of them, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them.

This girl sounds plenty smart enough to make her own decisions about which groups to participate in and which to ignore, but I did encourage her to keep in mind that there are plenty of BDSM fora in the world. So, if she finds one that’s full of annoying or scary people, she doesn’t have to settle for that one.

In terms of straight-up relationship advice, there are lots of books and blogs out there for that too.  I personally like The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy; the companion volume is The New Topping Book.  And then there’s just generally great advice on the amazing sex education site Scarleteen.  I know Scarleteen has its own message boards as well, though I haven’t participated much over there either.

For those who are interested in coming out to their parents, I recommend the book When Someone You Love Is Kinky by Dossie Easton and Catherine W. Liszt (it’s intended for the parents or for any other relatives of a kinkster).  I’ve also heard good things about the “Parents of Alternative Sexuality” pamphlet by Dr. Amy Marsh.

And, as always, there’s plenty of other stuff listed on my S&M Resources page.

And, just in case you’re thinking, “This girl is 16? That’s ridiculous. What does she know about her sexuality?” — I encourage you to read this post by Maymay: Young People Into BDSM Are Not Exceptional. The post is mostly about the community dynamics that occur in some places (though not all), where people who are younger and into BDSM are sometimes seen as “exceptions”, when in reality we’re not exceptional at all. Plenty of us experience sexuality, and have a firm grasp on it, at an age younger than the age our culture chooses to allow us full access to information about sexuality.

I think a lot about younger kinksters — not just because of issues like the ones Maymay raises in his post, either. It’s clear that in-person American BDSM communities cannot allow folks who are under 18 into our ranks, because of the liability we risk. Even if the community’s only and entire goal is education, it’s simply too likely that some concerned parent would find out about their under-18 kid talking to us. Then the parent freaks out and our community comes under attack for “child molestation” or some similar trumped-up charge. Oh, I can picture the worst that could happen, all too clearly ….

But this leaves us in the position of being unable to directly educate people under 18 about BDSM. So the best we can do is encourage those who are under 18 to read as much as they possibly can, both on the Internet and in books, before practicing any of the BDSM they might be attracted to. It’s not great, but it’s something. It’s more than our parents’ generation had.

UPDATE, 2013: I continue to receive emails from young kinksters. My heart goes out to you folks. My final thought is this:

You have time. Seriously, so much time. I know it’s so frustrating if you feel like you have to wait until you leave home or whatever, but hey, you can use this time to read books and stuff. (Like my collection The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn!)

Besides, you are not as frustrated as me, because I have to wait until Thursday to see this new guy I have a thing for, and Thursday is like ONE MILLION YEARS from now. And I already texted him once today.

… You get my point.

Also, one of the teenagers who emailed me was apparently directed to my blog by her mom. The times, they are a-changin’!

P.S.: The comments on this post are excellent, so keep reading ….

2010 17 Nov

Free tickets to CineKink Chicago!

I am currently offering TWO PAIRS of FREE TICKETS to a film of your choice at the upcoming CineKink: Chicago. If you want the tickets, then just email me with your name, tell me how long you’ve been reading my work, and include the title of the first post you ever read on my blog! (It’s okay if you’ve never heard of me before and the first post is this post.) I’ll put all the names in a hat tomorrow evening (Thursday) and pick two randomly, then I’ll email the winners. And you get to CHOOSE which movie you see for free with a friend or partner!

CineKink Chicago has a great 2010 lineup. These three films sound especially awesome to me:

Friday, November 19th, 8pm: S&M Judge (Trailer)
The 2010 CineKink Audience Choice Award Winner! A compelling drama in which a respected judge finds his job, reputation and family life in jeopardy after he and his wife begin to explore sadomasochism, with an opening reception for CineKink: Chicago to immediately follow the screening.

Saturday, November 20th, 2pm: My Sexuality: A Sensory Experience followed by a panel featuring meee! (Trailer)
Shines light on five ordinary women from different backgrounds, sexual preferences and past experiences as they experiment with activities intended to boost both sense of self and sexuality. Immediately following the screening will be a panel discussion about women, representations of sexuality and sex-positive filmmaking, including Clarisse Thorn!

Saturday, November 20th, 4.30pm: Waxie Moon (Trailer)
Takes the world of neo-burlesque by storm in a thought-provoking and hilarious documentary look at one artist’s unlikely journey.

But there are a bunch of other good films showing as well. Don’t you want free tickets? The films are being screened at the awesome Leather Archives & Museum (up at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue in Rogers Park). Local sponsors of CineKink Chicago include my pet sex-positive documentary film series, Sex+++; the wonderful sex toy store Early To Bed; and the rope bondage convention ShibariCon.

RECAP: For a chance to win TWO FREE TICKETS to CineKink Chicago, all you have to do is:

1) Email me, Clarisse Thorn: clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com.

2) In your email, tell me how long you’ve been reading my work, and write the title of the first post you read on my blog. (It’s okay if you just found my blog, and the first post is this post! And if you can’t remember the title of the first post you read, just tell me what the post was about.)

3) Sit back and wait until Thursday night. I will email you if you win the tickets! And remember, if you win, you get to decide which CineKink movie you see for free!

2010 11 Nov

[classic repost] Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing

This was originally posted on January 19, 2009. I am reposting it today in honor of Scarleteen, the best sex education website ever, and as part of the awesome Scarleteen Sex Ed Blog Carnival.

* * *

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into some sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype (but to be clear, it’s not okay that I did that). As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies is that it helps people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. When I developed my first sex education workshop, it was all about describing good communication strategies. I listed questions that all sex partners could benefit from asking each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?”

And I talked about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I took a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I told people that they could try filling out those checklists and giving them to their partners. (The amazing sex education site Scarleteen later implemented the same idea, in a much more comprehensive way than I had!) I suggested that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, or write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

(By the way, I still offer a much-improved version of that workshop on my list of events, lectures, and workshops, just in case you’re interested in bringing me in ….)

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the wonderful sex-positive anthology Yes Means Yes!:

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

POSTSCRIPT: Scarleteen does a really great job of dealing with my five points above. It’s also a grassroots effort, and needs donations to keep running. Please consider donating to Scarleteen. From the donate link: “Scarleteen is an independent, comprehensive and inclusive sexuality clearinghouse for young adults which receives no federal, state or local funding. We serve around 25,000 users daily, providing accurate, nonjudgmental and compassionate sexuality information and education via static content, as well as one-on-one advice and counsel via our highly-moderated message boards, our advice columns and our new SMS service. Tens of millions of teens and young adults have found the help or information they were seeking at Scarleteen.”

So, seriously. Donate!

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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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2010 5 Nov

BDSM vs. Vanilla, Part 1: Why I Pretend I Don’t Date Vanilla-But-Questioning Men

I’ve been thinking a lot about “mainstream” sex versus “alternative” sex. In the S&M community we have a term, “vanilla”, which basically indicates “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But is there really a bright line between BDSM and vanilla? Probably not. Most everyone has their own specific sexual preferences, and I tend to see BDSM vs. vanilla as a continuum rather than an either-or. (Some theorists, such as the amazing Dr. Marty Klein, argue that assuming the existence of a bright line between kink and vanilla hurts both vanilla people and kinksters. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll save it for another day.)

Lately, I’ve been asking a lot of sexually experienced guys I know for some explicit details about their experiences with women. And frankly, it sounds like the vast majority of women — based on this anecdotal evidence — like at least a little bit of pain. One of my most promiscuous male friends was actually unnerved by this. “It bothers me that all the women I’ve slept with seem to enjoy a little bit of pain,” he insisted, with a shudder. He then added, “It’s just creepy,” which goes to show that even being friends with me won’t cure a person of their BDSM stigma.

It sounds like I, as a very heavy submissive masochist, am outside the mainstream more because of my preferred degree of intensity than anything else (although I also enjoy a lot of S&M paraphernalia that seems to be considered inherently extreme by the mainstream, like whips and needles and stuff). In other words, love bites apparently sound appealing to most people; it’s just that the kind of love bites I like most, which ideally leave bruises for over a week, aren’t.

So, is it silly that I tend to seek partners in the BDSM community rather than the mainstream? After all, during one of my recent conversations with a mainstream dude — who is very promiscuous, by the way, with a reported number of partners over 150 (and no, I don’t think he was lying to impress me) — this dude told me that a fair number of the mainstream girls he sleeps with have rape fantasies, slave fantasies, etc. And, gosh, I mean … if slave fantasies are vanilla, then sign me up: I’m Vanilla Girl.

Except not really, because there are some real and important distinctions between most BDSM communities and the mainstream. Firstly, most BDSM communities have a greater emphasis on specific communication and boundary-setting, which I love. My mainstream dude friend seems familiar with safewords (which I consider the Level 1 BDSM communication tactic), but unfamiliar with more complex communication ideas like the sterling example of checklists. Secondly, guys in the BDSM community have already overcome their sexual stigma at least enough to actively seek the community out — which is a big deal, even if they don’t feel S&M as quite a core, innate desire the way I do. And thirdly, guys in the BDSM community are much more likely to have tastes as extreme as my own, which is awesome for me.

Sometimes people ask me, “Can you date vanilla guys?” That question has a very complicated answer. When I date guys who aren’t in the BDSM community, I find that they’re open to some stuff. But:

(a) Vanilla-but-questioning guys are usually open to a much smaller amount of stuff, with sharply delineated boundaries against anything perceived as too “weird” (such as flogging), and a lot of struggling to differentiate themselves from “those people”. I once had a long-term relatively-vanilla boyfriend with whom I did semi-intense BDSM on a regular basis — and yet when I confessed the fact that I had BDSM fantasies starting at a very young age, he replied, “Oh, you’re one of those people.” He was kind of joking, but he also kind of wasn’t. It was important to him that I, as a relatively hardcore self-identified kinkster, be different from him. Other. “One of those people”. And I am frankly a lot less interested in fucking a guy who insists on putting me in an “other people” box (especially when he himself is doing “that stuff” with me).

(b) Recently-vanilla-turned-BDSM guys can’t be relied on to take responsibility for their sexual desires, to do research or think deeply about their sexuality — maybe because they’re too busy fighting off stigma. People in the BDSM community are likely to have processed least some of the stigma around sexuality, especially BDSM sexuality, such that we aren’t likely to freak out randomly and we’re much more able to really get into things. This is presumably true of women too — a mostly-vanilla lover told me recently, in a marveling tone, that a lot of the women he hooks up with request a little bit of pain … but “I mean,” he said, “it’s true that you like pain more, but also it’s amazing how okay with it you are.” I guess he can tell by my whole body, all my reactions to what he does, just how much I’ve relaxed about wanting the BDSM I ask him to do.

(c) A lot of the time a relationship with a recently-vanilla guy will slide, apparently inevitably, back into vanilla territory. In other words, I don’t trust vanilla-turned-SM guys to stick with it. Most of them simply don’t stay SM, and worse, I’ve had cases where a partner will then start getting anxiety because he’s aware that he’s not meeting my needs. Whatever people may say, I’m not so sure it’s sustainable for people to be into something just because their partner is; not in the long term. Doing something new can be exciting, but if it’s extreme and a person isn’t personally drawn to it, then in my (sad) experience, that person won’t retain enthusiasm for it. I’ve met BDSM people who report success with “converting vanillas”, but I tend to suspect that those “vanillas” were already drawn to BDSM.

In many ways I’m lucky, because I prefer to live in large cities and large cities usually have BDSM communities. Also, I can be open about my BDSM identity among my friends, though not with my employers. This removes a lot of potential barriers around finding BDSM partners. At the same time, though, I still find myself interested in apparently-vanilla guys sometimes — partly because vanilla guys often think they’re way more into BDSM than they are, usually due to stereotypes of BDSM as “advanced sex” (rather than “just another flavor of sex”, which is a lot closer to the truth).

Yeah, of course I meet hot vanilla-but-questioning guys, and I always go through this process in my head where I weigh up the emotional risks. It goes beyond questions like “what if he can’t understand how deep-rooted this is for me?”, which is something I can handle pretty easily. It’s more like: “What if he’s all gung-ho about BDSM at first, and then loses interest only after I fall in love with him?” This has happened to me. “What if he freaks out and decides that although he likes me and he thinks I’m awesome, this sexual territory is just too scary?” That’s happened to me, too.

When people ask me, “Can you date vanilla men?” I’ll often say “No,” or “Not unless there are extreme extenuating circumstances,” or “It never seems to work out when I try.” But the truth is that I frequently end up going for it anyway. There are some seriously attractive vanilla guys out there, and non-BDSM sex is still fun, and you only live once!

And fortunately, this is all a lot easier now that I’m determinedly experimenting with polyamory. One thing that makes me glad that I finally feel comfortable messing with poly is the fact that if there’s something I want to do sexually and my partner doesn’t, I can go do it with someone else. So simple! The flip side is that sometimes you deal with two quasi-breakups in the same morning, but this is also a topic for another day.

UPDATE: I want to be sure that I don’t come across as saying that dudes who aren’t BDSM, can’t be sexually adventurous. Of course they can!

2010 28 Oct

[litquote/storytime] There It Is

This was originally posted on October 18, 2010, over at Feministe. The comments on the original version are mostly excellent, though some are ridiculous.

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A quotation from Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, a memoir about her experiences as a sex worker:

Marina [a sex worker] had been abused by her dad when she was a girl, and she’d do coke and tell [a client] about it as he jerked off.

Marina! I gasped.  I was astonished.  She didn’t really care.  It gave me flutters of anxiety, her blasé admission, the idea of the creepy man getting off on the rehashing of a child’s abuse.  Maybe the anti-sex industry feminists were right, maybe this was evil work, work that tore the fragile scabbing of every wound a girl ever got, again and again, till pain felt regular, felt like nothing.  Maybe we were encouraging the worst of men, helping blur their already schizophrenic line between fantasy and reality, what they’re allowed to have and what they’re not.  I knew that some girls thought we were actually preventing rape and incest by giving the men a consensual space to act out their fantasies, and it grossed me out beyond belief to think that I was fucking would-be sex criminals, but I believed them.  What I didn’t believe was that any of us, with our cheesy one-hour sex routines, would be enough to keep these men from hurting a female if that’s what they wanted to do.  And what I secretly wondered was, were we empowering them sexually to go and do just that.  Go and do just anything they wanted.

I love this quotation (I’m loving this whole book and I’m not even done yet).  Here’s why: because I can relate.  Oh yes, I think it’s full of problematic negative stereotypes about men, so I’ll note that up front.  (Though this book sure makes it easy to understand where those stereotypes come from.)  And I’ve never done sex work myself, so I don’t want to come across as co-opting Michelle Tea’s experience, or saying things about it that she didn’t mean.

But I believe I recognize those anxieties, because they come up for me sometimes, as a sex-positive feminist woman who can’t stand the idea of actual non-consensual sex.  Hell yeah, I get angry about sexual abuse, and it hurts to think about it.  Hell yeah, it kills me to think about sex workers who are trafficked or abused or desperate, who don’t get into the industry willingly (unlike so many sex workers I know who freely chose, who enjoy their jobs).  And this quotation, its worries about cultural masculinity and sexual power dynamics, most reminds me of the unease I once felt so terribly about my own S&M sexuality.  Unease that still surfaces sometimes, somehow, against my will.  Surfaces, for example, when I hear about tragic cases like abusive relationships that masquerade as BDSM relationships.

How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?

Encouraging the worst of men.  Fucking would-be sex criminals.  Empowering them to go and do just anything they want.

Those words have their teeth in my heart. Have always haunted me whenever I thought of BDSM, sex work, sometimes even sex itself … things that can be warped into something so very damaging.

Like any woman, I’ve got my stories of male sexual co-option.  My experiences have been mild compared to the rape and abuse that are too many people’s awful reality, but my experiences are also real, and shaped me profoundly.  The stereotypes of sexuality that made me into a teenage girl who couldn’t seem to think or communicate my way out of giving blowjobs to a man who categorically refused to return the favor.  Who faked orgasms because I couldn’t figure out how to have them, and because I felt that I had to give the fragile male ego the all-important reassurance that I was coming “for him”.  Who just smiled when a boyfriend I’d actually been honest with told me how convenient it was that I didn’t know how to come: I was good in bed, he informed me, partly because “I don’t even need to give you an orgasm.”

(Those exact words, he said them.  And the crazy thing is that I do believe he was in love with me; he thought he was giving me a compliment.  Somehow, being in love with me still didn’t enable him to see what kind of bind I was in, what kind of screwed-up encouragement he was giving me to suppress and wound myself, when he told me something like that.)

I wrote a whole 20-page paper at age 18 about what I referred to as the “self-guilt-trip”: what many women end up doing to ourselves in a society where sexual stereotypes have nothing to do with what we want.  I spent so long guilt tripping myself into having — even initiating — sex I wasn’t that into, because that was the image of sexuality that I had.  What I thought was expected.  What I thought I had to do, had to be, in order to be sexual with another person; to be sexually liberated; to “earn” a sexual relationship.

God yes, I hate that.  And I hate the reality of rape and assault and harassment, almost always performed by men against women — although other genders get raped too and their experience should never ever be erased.  But here’s the thing.  I also hate the fact that in this world, merely being okay with sexuality — and, for me personally, being okay with my BDSM sexuality — is such an uphill battle.  Rational arguments like “it’s all okay if it’s among consenting adults”, or “it’s stupid to stigmatize and criminalize marginal forms of sexuality because that just makes the situation worse for people who are abused and want to get out” … these arguments are so important, but they don’t always quiet my massive internalized fears.

I tell myself it’s just stigma, and that helps.  Sometimes.  Stigma is abstract and nobody’s fault, and it’s something I can think about and be interested by and thereby almost get past how it screws with me all the time, every single day.

You know what helps most, though?  Having a really good BDSM encounter.  If I go without intense BDSM for a while, I almost kinda sorta forget how incredible it can be, though shadows of it always weave through my fantasies and dreams.  After a while, I almost start to wonder why I want it so much.  I start questioning whether it’s worth doing all this emotional labor just so I can feel okay about wanting BDSM.  And then.

Recently I had dinner with a guy I met at a random event.  Not even an S&M event!  Not at all an overtly S&M guy!  He wears hipster clothing and he likes relatively mainstream music — not the typical S&M signifiers, obviously — and I went out with him more because he seemed smart and entertaining than because I expected fireworks.  Towards the end of our night out, I laid it all on the table: he’d mentioned S&M so I turned to him and asked, “What kind of experience do you have with that?”  And he knows about my writing, he’s read some of it, so I guess he compared himself to what he’s read and said: “Mostly playful.  Not really intense.”

I shrugged internally and offered to go home with him.  It was a Monday in San Francisco, so I figured: whatever, maybe we’ll talk for a while, maybe I’ll try making out with him and exit if there’s no energy.  In which case I’d still have time to go dancing at Death Guild!

(I mean, sure, I can enjoy vanilla sex, and I even seek it out sometimes.  It’s just that the best vanilla sex I’ve had was about ten zillion light-years away in awesomeness from the best BDSM sex I’ve had.)

I did not expect to come close to tears; to end up with bruises that forced me into t-shirts for several days.  (I don’t think he expected it either.)  His instincts are extremely good, and either he read me well or he has very compatible preferences.  And there it was.  As pain streaked brightly across my mind, as I spiraled down into the blankness of submission.  He did a few things I don’t even normally like, but everything else was so right, I’d gone far enough under not to care.  (Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did.  Oh yes, consent can be complicated.)

There it was.  I felt the tears building, gasps torn from my throat, I felt myself starting to fall apart and reform: around him, around his guidance and force and demands.  Almost unable to think.  Until finally he relented and said my name, and said softly, “Come back,” and ran his hand reassuringly down my hair.

There it was: the reason I want it so much.

(A lover asked me recently to describe how it feels when I go under.  It took me a long time to come up with words.  I feel blank.  I feel dark.  Desperate.  Engaged.  Transcendent.  If it’s good enough, I can’t communicate.  If it’s good enough, then it becomes hard not to fall in love.  “Huh,” he said when I was done.  “That’s a strange collection of words.”  I had to laugh, and tried to say I was sorry for my lack of clarity, but he didn’t let me apologize, which is just as well.)

I got dressed and walked home across the city, feeling as though I was on fire.  Alight.  It lasted the whole next day; a friend ran into me in the morning and I said “I’m in a great mood!” and she said, “Yeah, it’s pouring off you.”  I got home (well, I got back to where I stay when I’m in San Francisco), and I sat down on the couch and stared blankly at my laptop and I had to remind myself: I am not in love with this man.  I just met him.  It was only one encounter.  This is merely New Relationship Energy.  I’ll get over most of the effect within a few days.  But how could I help loving him, just a little, for where he’d taken me?

(And, since awful stereotypes of men are such a big part of typical anti-sex anxiety, I feel compelled to note that he was unprepared for the scene as well.  That he didn’t expect any of it either; that he had to stop a couple times to process what was happening, that I had to reassure him about what he was doing with me.)

Of course it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even close to the most intense scene I’ve experienced.  I’m sure other things affected how it went: I’d been eating properly, was in good physical shape, I’d had a spectacular weekend vacation just before.  My mood and body were well-shaped to create a good scene.  And I sure as hell did my part in communicating my side of things to him.  But he was the one who took me there, and it felt like such a long time since I really got into that place.  Some people warn new BDSMers: “Be careful, you may feel like you are falling in love with your partner when you are really in love with the BDSM.  Be careful.”  This warning also applies to people who have gone without for a while.  Obviously, it applies.

And there it is.  There, right there.   In the way it makes me feel.  In the connection it creates.  That’s why BDSM is worth it.  Worth the stigma, worth the effort of explanation; worth identifying as my gin-you-wine sexual orientation.  It’s worth the emotional energy and determination required to maintain my wholeness when people try to tell me this is wrong, that it’s bad for you or bad for your partners or bad for feminism or bad for society.  This is one of the big reasons I believe that anti-sex feminists are fundamentally wrong, especially when they outright conflate consensual acts with abusive ones.  (The other one being that censorship and criminalization and other anti-sex policies actually end up putting women at risk.)

Because nothing consensual that feels so good, that creates such a connection, that is so genuinely transcendent … nothing with such potential should be so hated and feared.

2010 19 Oct

[storytime] Guilt, failure and a pre-orgasmic feminist

This was originally posted recently at the blog Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction.

* * *

I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.

This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)

In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:

[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.

I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.

But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.

Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:

I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.

But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.

I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)

The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:

Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)

A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)

Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)

Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.

But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:

You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?

This is especially complicated by the fact that along with the typical advice of “Take responsibility!”, the other typical advice is “Let go of control!” Over at Lady Sex Q&A, Heather Corinna writes:

Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.

I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!

I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?

Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:

I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!

I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.

This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?

Not okay.