Posts Tagged ‘BDSM’

2010 30 Jun

Love Bites: An S&M Coming-Out Story

My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.

* * *

I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.

I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.

Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.

I closed my eyes.

“Mercy,” I whispered.

* * *

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2010 14 Jun

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists

I’ve often written that the BDSM community encourages really excellent sexual communication, and I’ve been meaning to write further about specifics for … um … years. (Oops.) So I’m finally getting around to describing one of my personal favorite sexual communication tactics: checklists!

S&M checklists are long lists of different acts that sexual partners can use to discuss different acts and measure each others’ interest in those acts. Here is an excellent example. Each act on the checklist usually looks something like this:

FLOGGING — GIVING __________________ O O O O O
FLOGGING — RECEIVING ______________ O O O O O

Each partner rates each entry by filling out 1-5 bubbles, with 1 darkened bubble meaning “Not interested” and 5 bubbles meaning “I crave this!”

I think this concept is brilliant because:

1) Too often, it’s assumed that “sex” encompasses certain acts, and if you’re interested in a sexual relationship you must be interested in all those acts. Or there’s assumed to be a kind of linear progression, as exemplified in the “base system” — you know, where “first base” is groping and “home base” is penis-in-vagina sex. (Man, I hate the base system.) Talking about each sexual act as its own self-contained idea short-circuits those problematic ideas about sex and makes it easier for couples to turn down some of the “assumed” acts (e.g., if I don’t want oral sex but I do want penis-in-vagina …).

2) It provides an easy way to communicate desires — if a person is nervous about saying, “Hey, is it okay if I flog you?” then the couple doesn’t even have to talk about it right away. They can just sit down, fill out their checklists and compare results without getting too worried about how to bring up certain desires. I mean, at some point of course they’ll hopefully talk about it, but hopefully the checklist framework makes it easier and lower-pressure.

3) Concurrently, it provides an easy way to turn down acts — it’s much harder to reject a lover’s proposition when ze says, “Darling, can I flog you?” than it is when you simply fill in one bubble on the “Flogging — Receiving” section. In the past, I’ve certainly felt a lot of anxiety when I wanted to turn down partners, and it’s nice to imagine a set-up that would have made me feel less anxious.

In fact, I love the checklist concept so much that when the University of Illinois at Chicago had me design my sexual communication workshop, I created a “vanilla” version of the checklist that had entries ranging from “oral sex” to “sex in public” to “tying up / being tied up”. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely vanilla … well, I wanted to encourage people to voice things they weren’t sure about!) You can download my vanilla-ified checklist here. Also, Scarleteen has their own version of a vanilla sexual checklist, which is way more comprehensive than mine!

I just love the principle of the thing — the principle that a couple can have a lot of fun just by sitting down and talking about every conceivable sex act, being presented with some options that they maybe haven’t thought of before, and honestly describing how into each idea they each are.

If you want to learn more about how I’ve actually used checklists, here’s my article about sex communication case studies.

* * *

Check out the second post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins.

* * *

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 28 May

[advice] Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.'” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

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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 28 Apr

Anti-BDSMers pretending to look out for us are dangerous

Maymay, the brilliant BDSM activist who was recently attacked and labeled a pedophile on the Salvation Army’s human trafficking email list, has drawn my attention to another lovely little initiative from Citizens Against Trafficking: “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”, by Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro.

Firstly, the title. “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”. What the paper actually outlines is one single abusive BDSM relationship — the famous Glenn Marcus case — that is, a sadist who seriously mistreated, raped, and threatened the family of Jodi, a female submissive. No one was moved across any borders; I’m having trouble figuring out when and where the “trafficking” happened.

So why does the paper’s title imply that BDSM is one huge crazy orgy of “human trafficking”?

And if the authors aren’t trying to convince us that S&M is dangerous and scary in itself, then why is the paper full of blanket statements like “A sadist’s goal is the progressive destruction of a victim”?

And what the hell is going on with bits like this:

:::::::::::::::
One of Marcus’ other sex slaves testified in his defense saying that Jodi was a 
willing participant in sex games. She said that Marcus was harmless. 
When prosecutors showed a photograph of this woman’s breasts punctured
with dozens of pins, she still insisted it was consensual: “I love being around
Glenn. He’s a lot of fun.”
:::::::::::::::

Well, the “sex slave” probably “insisted it was consensual” because it was, you know, actually consensual. I have consensually had pins stuck in me as well, so I can see how someone might “insist”. In fact, the first time I ever did piercing, I purchased the needles myself and explicitly propositioned my partner … then handed him the box.

Now, I’m not saying that Marcus’s relationship with Jodi was entirely consensual. But it sounds like this other woman did herself have a consensual relationship with Marcus. And showing pictures of oh-so-scary pins stuck in her breasts doesn’t make this other woman’s relationship with Marcus less consensual.

But let’s get past the doubtful phrasing of those sentences, and start questioning why the authors included such explicit details. What, exactly, is the point of describing that piercing so carefully? Or the consensual floggings that the authors linger over? Or the cages and leashes they lovingly describe? These writers know that mainstream America is not remotely accustomed to this kind of imagery; sounds to me like they’re trying their absolute hardest to freak people out. They do thoughtfully include a “Warning the following includes extremely graphic descriptions of violence and abuse” … on page 6, after most of the descriptions of violence and abuse.

Chillingly, after flinging lots of stereotypes about, the paper ends with this:

:::::::::::::::
If you have been involved in BDSM that went beyond consensual 
activity and someone was making money from your work, sex acts or images 
of sex acts, you may be a victim of human trafficking, either sex trafficking, 
forced labor or both. You can get help by calling the national 24 hour, 
toll‐free trafficking hotline at 1‐888‐3737‐888, or call the local 
FBI office or U.S. Attorney’s  Office.

Donna Hughes has spoken to the director of the national trafficking
hotline. They are prepared to talk to victims of BDSM who may be victims 
of human trafficking.
:::::::::::::::

“Victims of BDSM”? Well, actually, a person who is involved in non-consensual BDSM would be a “victim of abuse”. Once such activities stop being consensual, they stop being BDSM and become physical/emotional abuse.

This reminds me of those awful pro-life “clinics” that “counsel” pregnant women about abortion — you know, the clinics that pretend to have actual medical qualifications so they can pull in desperate women who want abortions and then lie to those women about their abortion options — preferably completely scaring the women away from abortion by means of slanted statistics, religious moralism, and outright lies. (Did you know that fake clinics often set up shop right next to actual abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood, so as to dupe women who come to the area seeking the legitimate clinic?)

“Chilling” is a strong word, huh? But here’s what scares me most about the Glenn Marcus case: Jodi went into the relationship willingly, after deliberately seeking out information about BDSM online. She went with Marcus after having two other BDSM relationships. And at first, she stayed with Marcus not out of fear, but because she enjoyed what he was doing.

I’ve often wondered what could have happened to me if I’d come into BDSM from a slightly different angle — if I hadn’t had the resources or the mentors or the education or even the just plain luck that have kept me from experiences like Jodi’s. I’d like to think that I would never get involved with a sadist who showed such obvious warning signs (Marcus did not, for example, allow safewords from the start) — and I think that most of the wider BDSM community would never enable such behavior — but we all tend to think we’re so brilliant and invulnerable and know exactly what we’re doing, now don’t we?

I recall this moment from my coming-out story:

:::::::::::::::
Richard explained that he hadn’t particularly been satisfied with how he’d dealt with me before he left, but hadn’t had time for anything better. Now, he thought the situation was “healthier”. “What do you want from this?” he asked seriously.

I want the strength to walk away from you, I thought unclearly. I want you to actually care about me. I never want to see you again. I hugged my arms to myself, resting my hands gingerly on swelling skin. “Um,” I said slowly, “nothing in particular?” I took a breath and gathered the one overriding fact: I want you to keep hurting me. “I don’t expect anything from you,” I told him, “and I don’t want you to expect anything from me.”

I knew from his smile that my answer was the right one. I could only hope it was accurate.
:::::::::::::::

Given that I recognized BDSM as something I wanted, desperately — what would I have tolerated in order to get it? Richard isn’t a bad guy, but what happened with him certainly wasn’t my ideal relationship. Could I have ended up in some appallingly abusive situation? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But I do know one thing. The single biggest factor making women like Jodi (and, arguably, myself) vulnerable is lack of social acceptance for BDSM — fear of being outed, fear of associating too publicly with our desires. Note that the biggest method of control Glenn Marcus used was threatening to out Jodi. In other words, he was able to abuse her because she was afraid he would tell people (especially her parents) that she was a kinkster and porn star.

And the second biggest factor? Lack of freely-available information about BDSM, what makes a good BDSM relationship, and how to practice it safely. Jodi did not run screaming from a dominant who flat-out disallowed safewords … perhaps she didn’t have good community support?

Remember how I mentioned that I initiated the piercing scene with my first piercing partner? I basically read a few webpages, bought the needles, and dove in. And based on that limited information, my partner and I did a couple of things that I now recognize as dangerous — things we wouldn’t have done if we’d had access to better resources on piercing. “Better resources” might include the KinkForAll sexuality conferences that maymay pioneered, the same thing that then — oh yeah! now I remember! — got him labeled a pedophile and trafficker by Donna Hughes et al.

If people like Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro are so concerned about BDSMers’ safety, then they ought to be speaking out on behalf of S&M; they ought to be trying to create a safer social climate for us to explore and access our desires; they ought to support the free spread of kink-related information. Panicky reports like this “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking” are therefore doing the opposite of helping, as are insane crusades like this anti-maymay thing.

But methinks their actual goal has very little to do with protecting actual women, and everything to do with scaring the public into supporting their fundamentally conservative agenda — and also scaring people away from accepting or practicing BDSM. Hence, they offer “support” with one hand — support that would doubtless tell callers that kink is Bad Wrong Awful Must Avoid At All Costs Intrinsically Abusive! — while promoting awful stereotypes about kink with the other. Just like those horrible clinics. It’s chilling.

I wish I were in the States right now so I could call this human trafficking hotline myself — which has apparently been oh-so-well primed to talk to kinksters — and see what they really think about BDSM. If any of my readers have voice acting skill and time to kill, plus maybe a voice recorder standing by, I invite you to try it. I mean, they must be well-prepared to help all those “victims of BDSM”! After all, Donna Hughes talked to them! Even if no actual S&Mers did.

NOTE: If you are a BDSMer and think you might be in an abusive relationship, then I encourage you to seek support, but not from Donna Hughes and her ilk. There may be therapists listed in your area on the Kink Aware Professionals list, and sometimes feminist sex toy stores such as Chicago’s Early to Bed host kink-friendly workshops for abuse survivors (but you may want to call ahead to ensure that the workshop facilitator will be kink-aware). Indeed, your local kink scene may specifically have workshops for kinky abuse survivors (if you’re in Chicago, here’s a calendar of local BDSM events). For more on the subject of BDSM community anti-abuse efforts, see my blog posts The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team or Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:

(more…)

2010 15 Apr

Blood, roses, and a better blog name

I’ve been negotiating a pro blogging gig for a while, and that has been keeping me from posting as much as I otherwise might. I’ve been trying to save my best ideas for pro work! But due to contract considerations, it’s looking like I’ll keep most of my content here, even if I do work as a pro blogger. (Those “rights”! They are so pesky.) It’s also been making me think about how I want this blog to look — I had a strong vision when I thought about blogging elsewhere, with the chance to start over and build an opus from the ground up — whereas this place is a little bit more of a hodgepodge. That’s okay. But I would like a unifying theme.

When I first started this blog, I styled it “Clarisse Thorn: BDSM Outreach”. I retitled it simply “Clarisse Thorn” later, as it became clear that I was going in a much broader sex-positive direction what with my sex-positive film series and my current work in Africa and all, though my main interest will always be S&M. And then there were the pesky gender-theory outposts, like my crowd-pleasing manliness series, which has nothing intrinsically to do with BDSM or sexuality at all. (Over 800 comments now on my final post in the series! And the conversation’s been going since 2009. I call that a success.)

So now, the title you see above. “Clarisse Thorn: Sex-Positive Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism”. I think that covers it.

This also seems like as good a time as any to explain my icon, the white rose in a pool of blood. Blood is, in fact, a serious fetish of mine. It’s certainly attracted me for years — since before I had any real clue how deep my S&M sexuality went. And then, I mean, what kind of romantic doesn’t love roses? (I assure you, despite any sarcasm or sadomasochistic cravings you may have noticed, I’m a definite romantic.) In college, years before I came into BDSM, I was seized by mad genius to do a quick series of ink pictures: roses in blood. The picture that’s currently my universal Internet icon was my favorite.

It’s funny to me, looking at it now, that I had no real clue how much I was craving hardcore S&M. But so much of it was buried. How could I know?

And then there’s that song from the Smithereens, one of those older rock bands that no one in my generation has heard of: “Blood & Roses”. The song didn’t inspire me so much as slot neatly into my mind when I first heard it, mid-teens. Here’s the chorus (and I promise, I will not make a habit of posting song lyrics!).

It was long ago, but seems like yesterday.
I saw you standing in the rain and then I heard you say:
“I want to love but it comes out wrong.
I want to live but I don’t belong.
I close my eyes and I see blood and roses.”

Sometimes I think the blood-and-roses were a mental shorthand: the back of my mind trying to tell me what I was looking for, despite all the repression and anxiety; despite the fact that I had no clue how to name it. I want to love but it comes out wrong. I wanted it so much, but it could never come out right until I understood what I needed.

2010 13 Apr

Kink bloggers open thread: how do you feel about BDSM blogging?

A while back I wrote a post called Where Are All The Male Dominant Bloggers?, because I didn’t feel like there are very many male dominant bloggers out there. I recently discovered that before my post, Thomas over at Yes Means Yes wrote one called Where Are The Women Tops? Where Are The Men Bottoms? Which just goes to show.

So you know what I think we need? A Kink Bloggers Open Thread! If you know about an awesome BDSM blogger, post ’em. If you yourself are a BDSM blogger, post about that. Any gender, sex, orientation, whatever is welcome. If you feel like adding any special details, you can talk about what you like best about the blog(s) you’re posting.

Also, I would love to have some cross-talk on the following Exciting Questions!

1) Do you have any frustrations about kink blogging?
1a) Are there any topics you’re nervous about or afraid of posting about? Why?

2) Do you think you have weaknesses as a kink blogger?

3) Hey, what do you actually like about being a kink blogger?

4) Do you blog under your real name? How many people who know you in the mainstream world know about your blog?

5) Got any questions you want to ask other kink bloggers?

2010 3 Apr

Salvation Army attacks sex-positive activist through its human trafficking email list

Sometimes people try to tell me that no one has a problem with S&M; that all stigma against S&M is in our heads and that if we BDSMers would just get over our victim complex, we’d discover that society has no real problem with us. I’ve got tons of counterexamples, but today I’m only going to talk about one: my friend maymay, a sex-positive activist and kinkster who has now been painted as a child molester, starting with an attack from the Salvation Army (specifically, two women named Margaret Brooks and Donna M. Hughes).

I admire maymay; he’s done some incredible sex-positive activism. He created the sex-positive unconference model KinkForAll, which swiftly went viral, and co-created Kink On Tap, a smart sexuality netcast with tons of audience participation. Maymay is also out of the closet under his real name, which is an incredibly ballsy and badass move on his part, but one that puts him in all the more danger when absurd and libelous personal attacks like these are launched.

What I find most notable about the Salvation Army attack is that — although maymay’s events and activism focus on general sex-positivity more than BDSM in particular — it’s BDSM that got up their noses. When the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking jumped on maymay, they implied that the “The specific goal of the event [KinkForAll] was to foster an acceptance of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.” Well, I attended and presented at the first KinkForAll in New York City, and while a lot of BDSM information was shared, the specific goal of the event was definitely to be generally sex-positive.

So why is BDSM the centerpiece of Salvation Army’s little freakout? One might say that it’s because maymay identifies as a submissive, and frequently blogs about BDSM; or perhaps it’s because KinkForAll attracted a large BDSM community contingent, probably because we’re very accustomed to talking and trading information about sex in a KinkForAll-compatible style. BDSM thus becomes the lightning rod. But it couldn’t function as such if BDSM weren’t seen as deviant, sick, unacceptable, and disgusting. If society really had no problem with BDSM, then why would the Salvation Army be sending messages to a sex trafficking listhost attacking a BDSM-associated event?

(Tangentially, it’s worth noting that talking about sex trafficking — which is a genuine and serious problem in many places — has been used throughout history as a tactic to attack, shut down, criminalize or control various forms of consensual sexuality. If you’d like to learn more about this, I strongly recommend the brilliant blog Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex by Laura Agustín. Start with “What’s Wrong With the Trafficking Crusade“. If you don’t mind academic writing, Agustín’s paper on the history of sex worker “rescue” initiatives is also particularly good.)

The other thing that really gets me about maymay’s attackers — in his post, he engages one one blogger in particular — is the assertion that sex-positive activism leads to “doing whatever” with no regard to the emotional consequences. In her argument with maymay, the blogger states that:

all the things I’d been told about sex – again, on whatever end of the spectrum – had quite clearly missed the point. “Don’t do it” with not explanation leads to rebellion or shaming. “Do whatever” leads to heartbreak. That has been my experience.

I think that we are sexual beings, yes. This means that our sexuality is part of everything – body, mind, heart, soul. I don’t think we can separate, hard as we might try, the one from the other.

Wow, hey, that sounds just like what I’ve been saying for years! In fact, it almost exactly mirrors some things I said in my landmark post Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. I wrote:

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. … We 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”.

So what’s with this assumption that sex-positive activists have no clue about social issues of sexuality, or matters of the heart? Working to destigmatize sexuality is in no way incompatible with working towards better, more consensual, more meaningful relationships; in fact, I’ll be bound that sex-positive activists do a much better job of this than these “anti-trafficking” folks do. As maymay wrote in a recent email:

Protecting people of every gender and age from falling victim to sexual abuse requires that each person — including every man, woman, and child on Earth — has the right and freedom to learn about sexuality in a non-judgmental environment.

Predictably, Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks are refusing to engage maymay directly. (That’s a typical sex-negative tactic; as I recall, the makers of the appallingly biased anti-porn documentary “The Price of Pleasure” have refused to publicly engage with actual porn actresses as well. Funny how most sex-negative arguments collapse when faced with those of us who freely and consensually choose to do Whatever It Is That We Do.) That leaves the sex-positive community to back up maymay on our blogs, podcasts, and Twitter accounts; and from what I’ve been seeing, we’re doing a good job. We can’t erase Hughes’ and Brooks’ harmful accusations, but we can damn well expose them for the absurdities they are.

2010 22 Mar

Defending my irresponsible, abusive, gender-stereotypical coming-out story

Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

I try to think seriously about about all comments on my work, but I usually just brush off the snide ones. Every once in a while, though, one arrows through and hits me where I’m vulnerable and shakes my confidence, and if it’s nastily phrased, then it hurts all the more. Seeps into me like poison.

Yep, this is another post about my S&M coming-out story, published in February by “Time Out Chicago”. (I’ve received some questions about when I’m going to start officially blogging for “Time Out” — the answer is that we’re still negotiating the terms of my blogging contract and I’m not sure when we’ll be done. I think we both really want this professional blogging gig to happen, so I’m confident that we’ll work it out, but it might take a while.)

Here’s a brief one-paragraph synopsis: my coming-out story talks about how I got drunk with a man named Richard at a party when I was 20; he started hurting me intensely; and I really got into it. I’d known a little bit about the existence of BDSM for a while — had experimented with light BDSM before, in fact — but this experience was much more intense, and in particular led me to the realization that I needed very dark and tearful masochistic encounters. As an independent, rational feminist, it was difficult for me to come to terms with my desires. It didn’t help that Richard and I weren’t well-suited romantically, although we were well-suited on an S&M level. Adjusting took a long time; but after seeing a Kink Aware therapist, coming out to my parents, exploring BDSM on my own terms, and having BDSM relationships with non-Richard men who suited me better romantically, I feel pretty much at peace with my BDSM identity.

I’ve gotten some great feedback on my coming-out story — primarily from submissive women who thanked me for articulating their experience. But here’s the comment that’s been upsetting me, from “emily”:

it’s great when people can come out, even under a pseudonym. but i have to say i have some real problems with the way the author has portrayed her “awakening.” should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? the presentation, not the content, of this story is irresponsible and reproduces stereotypical gender roles. is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? that’s the message i’m getting, whether or not it was intended

In a later comment, she adds:

whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why. i don’t have any problem with your experiences, as i said. i have a problem with the way you’ve presented these ideas without thinking what they might mean in another context. just tacking on your personal bit about feminism isn’t enough. how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues? as a submissive feminist myself, i have no problem with your lifestyle or how you conduct your affairs, and i dont care whether or not you’re a switch. i DO care about women (and men) who get into abusive situations that start out as “safe, sane, and consenual” bdsm play. i take this personally. it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ll do it in sections.

I. “Irresponsible”

Writing my coming-out story induced a lot of anxiety — not just because I was coming to terms with myself in the process, but also because I worried constantly about how readers might take it. Obviously, there’s always the saying “if you can’t please everyone then you might as well please yourself,” but with this … I guess I felt like there was a lot more than “pleasing everyone” at stake. It felt important to portray my experiences as accurately as possible — to write the experiences as close to how I felt them as possible — and yet I wondered how to angle them, too. Because what if a closeted BDSMer, new to everything, finds this and it’s their first exposure to the wider community? (Or what if an anti-BDSMer comes upon it looking for ways to use it as anti-BDSM ammunition?)

For instance, I wrote about, not just one, but two relationships that had their origins in drunken hookups. Will that encourage readers to unwisely push boundaries while drunk — even to take advantage of drunk people? (Which is particularly dangerous when S&M-ish violence is involved?) And yet there’s no denying that, in our culture, it’s incredibly common for alcohol to function as a social and sexual lubricant. Yes, some people use alcohol to take advantage of vulnerable partners, and that is unacceptable. But millions use it all the time as part of their normal, entirely consensual dating routine. I don’t actually much like that, as it happens — I’ll drink, and certainly I’ve been known to get trashed, but I’m happier at events where I feel like we’re all having fun sober; still, it really is an endemic part of most youth culture in America. (In fact, one thing I like about the BDSM community is that many BDSM events encourage sobriety or even require it.) When I describe my experiences, including some drunk consensual encounters, I’m describing reality — not just my reality, but that of millions of other young women.

I tried dealing with this kind of thing by shifting my tone at the end of the piece, pulling back and taking a more analytical stance rather than the up-close-and-personal moment-by-moment approach. For instance, I wrote: I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. … Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. It felt incomplete, and yes, it felt tacked-on too; but I also didn’t feel like I could stack on an infinite number of more disclaimers and clarifications without losing reader interest or muddying my most important goal: making people like me feel better about their terrible horrible BDSM needs.

So the “irresponsible” charge, the charge of “not thinking about what [these experiences] might mean”, just kills me. It brings out something I feared so much, and maybe that I did not succeed in evading.

(more…)

2010 16 Feb

My S&M coming-out story — published at last

“Time Out Chicago” has published my S&M coming-out story to their website. It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever written, at least on a personal level, and it’s a little strange to see it finally out there.

I wrote the first half — everything up to the line, “Still, for a moment I wished …” — in early 2006. I wrote it for catharsis more than anything else, though I did submit it to one venue for publication on a whim — but after I submitted, I sharply regretted it. I remember that I was totally terrified it would be accepted. What would it mean if I published something like that? At that point I had no real experience in the BDSM community; I was finally starting to break out of my near-continuous freakout from discovering my sexuality, but I was still drowning in stigma. And I’d simply never written anything so personal before. When I received the rejection letter, I felt the typical burn, but I also heaved a sigh of enormous relief.

I left the piece alone on my hard drive for a long time, healing and adjusting all the while. In late 2007 — towards the end of my relationship with Andrew — I decided to add the second half, though I had no real idea what I’d do with the finished product. I was living in a huge building with communal kitchens at the time, and I remember that at 2AM one morning I went downstairs for a bagel. In the kitchen I came upon another artist, a filmmaker. He’d been living there for months, but we hadn’t talked much. Still, in each other we instinctively recognized the stamp of late-night obsessive artistry. “You’re a writer, right?” he asked. “What are you working on?”

“I don’t talk about my work,” I said. He was very insistent, so I finally told him, “I’m working on my S&M coming-out story.” I figured that would shut him up, but it didn’t — he started wanting to read it. “I don’t talk about my work,” I said firmly, and left the kitchen with my bagel.

“Wait!” he shouted after me. “I’m not done with you yet!” I didn’t look back. A few minutes later, after I’d settled myself in my room — lying across my mattress on my stomach, reading a book — he showed up.

Unmoving, I rested my chin on my hands and looked up at him. He crossed his arms. “Send it to me,” he said. “You know you’re going to need feedback and criticism and stuff.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

A few weeks later, I finished the piece. Then I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while. Had there been any goal besides catharsis? What was I going to do with the damn thing? I couldn’t figure it out, so I sent it to the filmmaker.

He was a remarkable man. Is, I should say. He was the first reader of my coming-out story, and he sent me pages upon pages of the most brilliant critical feedback I’ve ever received. I was stunned when I read his emails — had I really been living with this guy for months? How had I failed to notice him? I think he, upon reading the piece, had a similar intense reaction; and his reaction helped convince me it was good. Maybe it was inevitable that we’d fall terribly in love. Or at least that I would fall for him. I owe him a lot; our relationship was confusing and dramatic and the breakup was awful, but when we were done, I found that he’d really helped release me from my remaining BDSM-stigmatizing patterns. That was when I established myself in the wider Chicago BDSM scene (though I’d obviously been practicing BDSM for some time, I’d only made brief forays into various communities before, usually in foreign cities), and began to volunteer at the Leather Archives. And soon after that I started the Sex+++ film series, and this blog.

After my experience with the filmmaker, I became nearly promiscuous with my coming-out story. I sent it to a lot of new partners so they’d have an idea where I was coming from, and I also showed it to number of friends for feedback. I considered publishing it in a feminist anthology. My comfort with sharing it skyrocketed. Indeed, as I finally started to seriously research the subject of SM, I discovered that pieces like mine are practically old hat — even “Ms. Magazine” will apparently publish “I freaked out about being a submissive feminist, but now it’s okay!” pieces.

So at this point, it’s nearly an anticlimax to have my coming-out story in public. No bated breath, no terror about what it means. Thank God.

* * *

I’m just coming home from a visit to Chicago, and towards the end of my visit I hung out with Richard. To me our relationship feels fragile and fraught, just as it always has, but maybe it is stronger than it was. He’s definitely a friend — a good one — and we’ve even continued to do BDSM together on a very occasional basis. He has joked that I call him whenever I break up with my boyfriends, which is kind of true.

He’s so smart, and he’s very interesting to talk to, and I am still attracted, but even though I’ve adjusted to my BDSM identity — even though I’m no longer so angry, or in denial, about my attraction to him — it can be hard to be around Richard. I sometimes feel as though we are still constantly renegotiating our relationship, even now. I remain afraid of emotionally attaching to him, although these days we can sit around and talk very openly for hours; although we’ve had a few, a very few, BDSM encounters in recent years that felt like there was no distance between us at all.

I sent Richard himself my coming-out story only about a year ago. It took some nerve, but not a lot — it had been such a long time since those events, and by then I’d already shown it to a number of people. At the time, he responded with a rather brief message, saying that it was interesting to get my perspective and that his own sense of that time had been very different. When we talked a few days ago, though, “Time Out” had just published and I got a better sense of Richard’s feelings. I guess the piece is a bit difficult for him — understandably; it’s not easy to see yourself at the center of someone else’s panicked and agonized identity crisis, especially when (he says) it wasn’t clear to him how I felt at the time.

I’ve often thought that of everything I’ve written in my life, this is probably the most unflattering to someone who’s important to me. I tried to be fair to Richard when I wrote it, and in fact — as I’ve aged and my perspective has evolved — it’s undergone a number of edits to make it fairer. But my coming-out story is about me and my panicked agonized identity crisis. It’s true that I don’t want to objectify him, but to some extent, that piece has to be about the way I experienced him. Not about him.

I’ve asked Richard to write something about how he felt when he read it, and maybe about our experiences together as well; I’d like to give my readership his perspective. He said he’d think about it. I really hope he takes me up on it.

* * *

Publishing this piece with “Time Out” is a personal triumph. It’s online, which means it’s widely available and I can link people to it whenever I want. It’s in a mainstream publication, which means that it might educate or assist people who’d be unlikely to encounter it in a feminist anthology or sex-positive site or whatever. It also marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful relationship with “Time Out”: we are negotiating the terms of a contract by which they intend to hire me as a freelance blogger. Basically this means that I’ll be writing the same stuff, but more frequently and probably in a more luser user-friendly way (like, I’ll probably start using pictures more and attempt to shorten my posts, though that’s hard for me). Not sure when that transition will happen — probably a month or two.

I’ve always got a backlog of ideas to post, and I’m reminded of some of them by my coming-out story. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about stigma: where did I absorb BDSM stigma? How does our culture express it? Why did I freak out so much about my desires when I live in a world where even “Cosmopolitan” winks about whip usage? I’ve also been meaning to write a piece about angles: I think our sexual desires are often, largely, defined not by the acts themselves, but the angles by which they come at us. What was the difference in slant between the man who tried to do light BDSM with me in 2003, and Richard? Was it Richard’s forcefulness, his greater grasp on dominant dynamics? How have my BDSM desires evolved since then? And what are the implications of these things?

But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do now that I’m back in Africa, too. It was a 40-hour journey. I am somewhat overwhelmed and jetlagged, and very hot. My trip to the USA was incredible — yet very hard, because it reminded me of all the things I miss (not many BDSM clubs in southern Africa). I have to settle in, get back into the swing of things here, and remind myself that I can survive without BDSM. We’ll see how that goes.