Posts Tagged ‘coming out’

2013 8 May

How My Self-Published Book About Pickup Artists Made Me Famous In Germany

On April 27th, I returned from a week-long trip to Berlin, and I’m still kinda shell-shocked. Over that week, I spent hours every day being interviewed by all sorts of people: Europe’s biggest newspaper, for example. The German edition of Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview. Four different German television stations. (Seriously. Four.)

This is all because my first self-published book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, has been acquired by a “real” German publisher. The German translation of Confessions will soon be available in many German-language stores.

Perhaps oddly, this is my first deal with a traditional publisher. I started out as an obscure subculture blogger/activist, and then people started calling me an expert, and then I started selling articles and getting speaking engagements, but all my books have been 100% self-published and self-promoted until now. I used the constellation of platforms that we now call “social media” to aggressively promote my ideas, but I certainly did not expect my self-published book to captivate Germany. I don’t even speak German!

I am handling such complicated feelings. It is taking me forever to write this. But my first TV interview just aired — the channel is Taff on Pro7, and the German translation of my words has occasioned much discussion on my Facebook wall. Unfortunately the interview cannot be viewed from the USA, but there was also a recent article in a well-respected German newspaper, Zeit. (I hear that Zeit is analogous to the Sunday Times.)

There’s been other coverage too, plus a lot more on the way. So I guess now is the time to put this out into the world.

* * *

Where to begin?

The translation deal began with a piece of fan mail last year, early 2012. The message came from Jennifer Kroll, who bought Confessions on Amazon after the book hit #1 in two categories. She found me on Facebook and wrote: “I don’t think I have ever recommended a book that frequently to anyone before, and I work in publishing.”

We talked, and then we talked more. She flew me to Berlin, and then she flew me to Berlin again.


2012 11 Oct

Why I’m Not (Yet) Out Of The Closet About S&M

No one was surprised when Ricky Martin came out of the closet as gay.

Today is National Coming Out Day. I cried when I saw Milk and I think outness can be an important political act, but I’m not coming out.

Not yet.

I’ve been writing under a pseudonym for a long time.

In 2008, I decided to take all my theories about S&M — and all my confused feelings — and use them for sex-related activism. I started Sex+++, my sex-positive film series in Chicago, which was an unexpectedly huge success. I volunteered at the Leather Archives, the world’s only S&M museum. I began writing this blog. Soon I was getting speaking engagements. Then I started publishing articles in big outlets. Always under the name Clarisse Thorn.

I had several reasons for writing under another name:

1) I thought I might want to explore a career path at a conservative company. In fact, I spent the first two years of my Clarisse-Thorn-time working for bosses who would not have been okay with the fact that I’m a decently well-known S&M writer.

The social climate now is somewhat liberal — it’s mostly okay to be gay, for example, or at least it’s more okay than it has been for hundreds of years. But S&M is something else. Less than ten years ago, a prominent U.N. employee named Jack McGeorge was publicly attacked in the media because he was an S&Mer. And while you might think times have changed, a sex blogger who called herself The Beautiful Kind (real name Kendra Holliday) lost her job in 2010 when her boss found out.

BDSM — and sexuality in general — is still very stigmatized. People who write openly and personally about sex are taking huge risks with their employability.

2) I’m lucky because my parents are both very analytical, liberal thinkers; they’re deeply interested in gender politics, and they think my work is awesome. However, there are other people in my social network who would not be cool with Clarisse Thorn. For example, one of my closest friends comes from a hardcore religious family. I like her family. I’ve been to their house for Christmas. They’ve told me that they think I’m “a good influence” on their daughter, although they understand that I’m pretty liberal. But if they knew I was kinky, God knows how they’d react.

Another example: a former boss of mine is very, very conservative. In fact, he’s a Tea Party member. This boss has always been incredibly kind and generous to me; I visit him occasionally even though I don’t work for him anymore, and he’s told me that he thinks of me like a daughter. Would he “disown” me if he knew about Clarisse Thorn? I don’t know.

Some people who work in sexuality say: “Well, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who can’t accept me as I am,” or “I wouldn’t want to be close to someone who wouldn’t be okay with my sexuality.” Maybe that’s true for them. But people are complicated, and the world is a nuanced place, and I’ve drawn a lot of comfort and joy from these relationships, even if I disagree with those folks in some ways.

3) I hope to have kids at some point. In USA culture, the most efficient way to go about that is usually to get married. I don’t want a potential husband to be in a position where people will assume he’s perverted just because he’s marrying me; if he wants to be out, then that’s fine, but I don’t want outness to be a precondition. I don’t want to risk his employment along with my own. And if I’m going to meet a fiancé’s family, I’d rather they had the opportunity to get to know me as a person before they Google me and discover this. I mean, I’ve dated men whose families would have had trouble adjusting to the relationship because I was white. Imagine if they knew that I was a pervert.

And my poor potential kids! I mentioned Kendra Holliday earlier; her son has definitely caught some flak at school. I’m pretty sure the famous S&M writer Janet Hardy stayed in the closet, writing under the name Catherine Liszt, until her children were grown — I seem to recall seeing something she wrote where she described kids as “hostages to social stigma,” although I can’t find it now. (Update: Janet did stay in the closet until her kids were grown, but she doesn’t recall saying anything about hostages; see comments.)

There are other reasons for being closeted. I am, in fact, nervous about having everyone in the world know details about my sex life (even though my writing is fairly vague and emotional and political, compared to most sex writing). Personal safety worries me, too.

There is something shadowy and romantic about having a “secret identity” — and as a dedicated child of the Internet since 1996, when anonymity was the norm, I always liked playing identity games. But this is more inconvenient and stressful than romantic. I mean, earlier this year I spoke at the biggest new media conference in the world. Imagine attending a four-day social media convention while preventing yourself from being photographed or identified. It was intense.


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.

* * *


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:


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.


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.

2010 25 Jan

Where are all the male dominant bloggers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 14 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #4: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think” and related shorts

I’m turning over a new leaf by failing to preface the post with a lot of text. This week’s Sex+++ documentary was pretty close to my heart ….

We showed Erin Palmquist’s “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (check out the official website!) as well as two related shorts, “Leather” and “Cut & Paste”. I was heartbroken that technical difficulties prevented us from showing “Forever Bottom”, which I was really psyched about. Oh well. The “Forever Bottom” DVD worked when we tested it on a laptop; we’ll try to get it to interface properly with the system and show it with a later film.

“BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” is an unfinished film, but it’s definitely on the right track. It tries to describe what BDSM is — i.e., demonstrate that it’s more than a dominatrix in a catsuit with a whip — and work against anti-BDSM stigma by interviewing a bunch of kinksters about what they do, how they do it, how they feel about what they do. I loved a lot of the points it made — they’re obviously very similar to points I constantly make with my outreach presentation and such.

“Leather” is an absolutely gorgeous short film that’s very similar to “BDSM”; it was made in 1995 and specifically features members of the gay leather subculture. It’s less cautious than “BDSM” in avoiding transgressive imagery, and it is more personal and less political than “BDSM”. It features scenes between one specific couple that seem as though they must be choreographed, they’re so lovely. But I don’t mean to imply that it’s hardcore or anything — there’s some bootlicking and hot wax and clothespins and flogging, that’s about it. The whole thing feels more ritualistic and meditative than darkly emotional; these aren’t degradation scenes or fear scenes. This is another film like “Sex Positive” where I wish I’d written down some of the quotations about what the participants were feeling, because they were so beautifully said.

“Cut & Paste” is a BDSM coming-out story, and it’s a well-made one with adorable graphics. I love coming-out stories so much! Better yet, it’s a coming-out story from the point of view of a Black queer woman who uses the opportunity — not just to show what it’s like to come into a highly stigmatized sexuality — but what she absorbed about what Black women’s sexuality is “supposed” to be.

The discussion group after the films talked a little bit about a number of BDSM-related issues, but didn’t go too in-depth about any of them. One interesting question, raised by a gentleman whose name I regrettably do not know, was this: As BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in the media, does that make BDSM more mainstream? If BDSM is becoming more mainstream, then will that weaken ties within the BDSM community?

To the first question, I’d say that light BDSM is probably becoming more mainstream. More people are considering tying up their lovers with silk scarves today, than were 30 years ago. But I think that heavy BDSM play is still very, very stigmatized, and I also think that most people have no idea what forms heavy BDSM play can take. More importantly, I don’t think the mainstream has any real grasp on communication and consent tactics that are promoted in the BDSM community — beyond safewords, that is. Checklists? Check-ins? Simultaneous journals? These things are not being mainstreamed at all. (Although I’m doing my best to work on that with the sexual communication workshop I’ve been giving recently.)

As for weakening ties within the community … I don’t think that’s happening either, at least not yet. People are more open about BDSM now and that means that more people can come into the community — but a lot of people still don’t feel like they can talk about BDSM with vanilla people. So we have the benefits of people being able to find the community more easily, and we also have the strong bonds created when most of us feel like we can only talk to each other — no one in our outside lives — about the way we approach love/sex.

I doubt the community will collapse even if BDSM goes totally mainstream — if every BDSM act is totally acceptable, and information is freely available to everyone — because not everyone will ever be into BDSM. There will always be value to the community because it will always be the place to go to meet people who speak our erotic language. There may be some fragmentation as the scene gets bigger, of course — and to some extent this already happens, with different groups attending different clubs, for instance.

It’s worth noting that our August 11 documentary will be “Liberty in Restraint”, which is about a fetish photographer. So if you’re really interested in issues of fetish media, then you should attend that one!

But as for now: our next film night is March 24, and it’s a two-theme night. We’re showing “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability and Videotape” — about disability and sexuality — and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” — about female masturbation and orgasm. See you there!

2009 9 Mar

Various thoughts post-KinkForAll

KinkForAll was great. There were a variety of amazing presenters and discussions, and I wish I could do them all justice. I loved the conference model — highly flexible and very easily implemented — and I hope to see many more conferences along the same lines.

I gave two talks — one on strategies for BDSM outreach, and one on the Leather Archives and Museum. (Support the LA&M, everyone! They’re having a membership drive starting this month! You can also check out my entries about stuff I’ve found at the LA&M by clicking here.) I hope to distill the outreach talk into a blog post one of these days; I’ll tag it KFANYC when I do. [edit] Done — the post is here! [end of edit]

There was a KinkForAll liveblog done over Twitter. If you’re like me and aren’t much for the Twitter format, there’s also an aggregate of KinkForAll blog posts over on Technorati.

I wrote down a lot of thoughts, and I think KinkForAll will influence my blog for some time to come. Here’s some quick ones:

+ There were some discussions about coming out BDSM — and dragging people out of the closet, that is, telling the world about someone else’s BDSM life even if they’re trying to keep it a secret. I’ve written on this before, but I’ve never talked about how I feel about outing other people. Often, people will say that closeted people who work against alternative sexuality causes — for instance, secretly gay politicians who work against gay marriage — should be dragged out of the closet. By working against their own community, they sacrifice the protection of that community. I can understand that, but what bothered me about the discussion at KinkForAll was that I felt there was an uncomfortable emphasis on outing the family members of anti-sex-positive politicians. For instance, one person stated that if she knew for sure that Donald Rumsfeld’s son was gay, she’d have no problem telling the world.

If Donald Rumsfeld’s son is gay, then granted — he’s related to an antigay politician — but what if he’s not doing antigay work himself? Just because he’s related to a sex-negative politician doesn’t mean that he sacrifices his own right to privacy and understanding. In fact, his relationship to a sex-negative politician probably means that he stands to lose an awful lot if he is outed. He could, for example, be entirely disowned. I don’t think it’s remotely okay for us to drag some poor kid out of the closet — to force him to risk his relationship with his father — just because we disagree with the father. I do think it’s okay for us to talk to the kid in private: “Hey Donald-Rumsfeld’s-son, when are you gonna come out to your dad?” But if we force the issue, then we may not only cause serious problems for someone who doesn’t deserve them … we may alienate that person as well. Why should Donald Rumsfeld’s son help our cause in the future if we create serious personal problems for him now?

+ A presenter talked about the biggest pitfalls of play piercing. One of the biggest risks is probably double-sticks — that is, if you pierce someone and then accidentally stick yourself with the needle. Be careful, folks! The presenter also noted that rubbing alcohol is not a great disinfectant, and recommended a product called Technicare. Plus, everyone keep in mind that if iodine is used as a disinfectant, it requires three minutes to work.

For anyone interested in play piercing, I strongly recommend the book Play Piercing by Deborah Addington (Amazon page).

+ Tilda gave a gorgeous BDSM and culture slideshow. Her kink+culture blog is here. People who want to track BDSM in popular culture should definitely also check in on Peter Tupper’s incredible blog Beauty in Darkness: the History of BDSM.

+ A discussion on youth organizing basically emphasized how important it is that young people get involved in sex-positive activism. Go for it, folks! Actually I should probably say, “Go for it, everyone including me,” since I myself am only 24 … the founder of Polyamorous NYC talked about how he started it when he was only 26. Never underestimate yourself because of your age, my friends.

I’ve been thinking about this question since Trinity posted about it a while back. Those of us whose sexuality is very focused on BDSM will usually practice it if we can, and if we can’t find a safe space to learn how to do that, then we’ll simply do it without enough information … or become vulnerable to predators who offer that information unsafely. Unfortunately, the legal situation in Chicago makes it hard for the clubs to make themselves accessible to people under 21, but there is at least TNGC to provide an environment for 18+-year-olds to learn.

I was hoping that there would be more discussion on how to get BDSM information to people under 18, but there wasn’t really. We’re risking too much legal crap if we attempt to instruct those under the age of consent. I don’t really know how to get around this problem, except for posting as much how-to information to the Internet as possible — I’m really glad KinkForAll posted so much information to the Internet for that reason. And referring younger people to existing awesome kink-positive, pleasure-positive sex education sites like Scarleteen.

+ Maymay gave a talk on gender and technology making the fantastic point that we really need to be communicating with web designers, because they are encoding so much of how we think about gender and sexuality. As a simple example, the people who create social networking sites are influencing our ideas about sex and gender because they are making the drop-down menus we use to express that: for instance, compare your average social networking site — where you can pick “Straight”, “Gay” or if you’re lucky “Bisexual” — to FetLife, which offers many more options — “Straight”, “Heteroflexible”, “Bisexual”, “Gay”, “Lesbian”, “Queer”, “Pansexual”, and “Fluctuating/Evolving”. You can find the slides and links from Maymay’s presentation here.

+ Audacia Ray gave an awesome talk on “How To Be a Public Sex Intellectual Without Getting Hurt”. I think my favorite point that she made was her first: “This might be a really bad idea for you, and you need to consider that before you take the plunge.” Going public is not an act that you can take back and you must, must be sure that it’s what you want — it will affect your entire life. I hope that she recreates that talk as a blog post that I can link to, because I couldn’t possibly sum it up here, and it was awesome. In the meantime, check out her post on when and why to turn down media appearances.

+ Someone who spoke about gender told the story of a transperson he knows who identifies more strongly as BDSM than trans. That person apparently said that if ze had to choose between transitioning genders and being in the BDSM community, ze would rather be in the BDSM community. BDSM is a stronger aspect of hir sexual identity than trans! What an amazing anecdote.

+ Lastly, Boymeat presented on Old Guard leather culture. There was a lot of vilifying of the Old Guard and much of it struck me as, frankly, unfair. Yes, the Old Guard was more closed off to the public … but BDSM was far more stigmatized. The reason our current BDSM communities can afford to be so open is that the stigma against BDSM has been drastically reduced. Boymeat also talked about how rigidly etiquette-driven the Old Guard was as compared to today’s BDSM scene, and while this is true, I think it’s worth considering where that etiquette came from and how it functioned.

The etiquette that surrounded the Old Guard was in place because it helped those people communicate the scene standards. Yes, some of that etiquette was clearly intended to create an “in-group” … for instance, there were rigid ideas of what was acceptable clothing (sweaters were not okay!), and that’s easy to dislike. But having specific maxims and rules helped encode some really important things — as a very basic example, it’s not a bad thing for people to be emphasizing the maxim “discipline, honor, brotherhood, and respect”. Also, let’s keep in mind that the society surrounding Old Guard leather culture emphasized etiquette far more than ours does today: Old Guard leather culture took ideas that were current in America back then and used them to create a safe BDSM scene. Our BDSM scene talks less about etiquette because we young Americans talk less about etiquette.

I’m not saying that those maxims and rules were better than the BDSM scene we have today; I think the BDSM scene we have today is just fine. But let’s not criticize Old Guard ideas so much that we lose track of what was great and important about them.

I think I’ll end this post with two quotations about Old Guard leather culture that I use in my BDSM overview lecture:

It is more useful to understand than to criticize. And perhaps most importantly, what the Old Guard did for the development and expansion of kinky life and butch gay male sexuality can best be appreciated against the backdrop of what had existed earlier — not much of anything!
~ Guy Baldwin, “The Old Guard”

From a larger perspective, it is clear that many of the differences between “Old Guard” and “New Guard” are the differences between life in the US in the 1950s and life in the 1990s. These differences are common to many groups, not just leather/SM.
~ Gayle Rubin, “Old Guard, New Guard”

2009 4 Mar

Coming out BDSM: Outness as a political act, and the perils thereof

There can be serious consequences for identifying publicly as BDSM, and there’s a lot of anxiety in the BDSM community about that. Yet one of the most effective ways to combat the anti-BDSM crowd is for us BDSM people to come out. Being out about our kink can be a very powerful statement: a statement that we aren’t ashamed; that we don’t think there’s anything wrong with what we’re doing; that we are people too … all that good stuff. If you’ve seen “Milk” or “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” — both movies about the famous gay politician — then you may recall that Milk urged all gay people to come out, as a fundamental part of the gay liberation movement. There are BDSM advocates who take the same position.

Recently, I was in a position to observe a great conversation on this subject among a bunch of smart kink advocates, and I’m going to reproduce a bunch of that conversation here. First, though: greetings from New York … I’m back again! I don’t usually spend quite so much time here, but there were a number of events to tempt me. I’ll be giving my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex this Friday; if you know anyone in New York who could use a general introduction to BDSM — how the community welcomes and educates people, the way we differentiate between BDSM and abuse, BDSM-related legal issues, and so on — then you should send them down to 233 5th Avenue, Friday, 7PM. Plus, CineKink was this past weekend, and I was privileged to see a number of really excellent sex-positive films there. I highly recommend CineKink — and it tours, so if you’re in another city, you should check the CineKink website to see if it’s coming to your town.

There’s another great event happening this weekend: KinkForAll, on Sunday. I’m really looking forward to KinkForAll … it’s going to be a huge learning opportunity, not to mention a chance to meet some sex-positive advocates that I admire a lot. I encourage anyone — anyone at all, gay or straight, kinky or non, whatever — anyone with an interest in sexuality to attend KinkForAll.

Here’s something worth emphasizing about KinkForAll, though: taking photos and recording video will be allowed. Not just allowed — encouraged! To quote from some of the early KinkForAll emails, “information from the talks will be spread on the web afterwards. It’s to get everyone in on the discussion on sexuality, it’s to get everyone sharing and teaching with everyone else, and it’s to get sexual information available to all people, regardless of age, socioeconomic station, gender, sexuality, etc.” Of course this is a noble goal, but means that people who aren’t currently seeking to come out are taking a serious risk when we attend KinkForAll.

I recognize that (notwithstanding my recent whiny entry on coming out BDSM) I have not suffered any real consequences for my high visibility. And even if I were properly outed — if my birth name were widely associated with BDSM — I would still be in a better position than most. My parents, for instance, already know about my sexuality, and are totally cool with it. And although I would very likely suffer professional damage if I were outed, my economic status is such that I wouldn’t be out on the street. Still, though I don’t have any children yet, I do plan to — and children are hostages to social stigma … as would be anyone I want to get romantically involved with. If I date someone whose parents don’t know he’s into BDSM, and I’m widely known to be into it, what happens then? We keep our relationship a secret? He risks his relationship with his family to date me? What a mess.

When Maymay, event organizer, first announced to the KinkForAll mailing list that recordings would be encouraged at the event, I made the obvious point: that this would arguably discourage attendance. Maymay responded by saying that the event would institute colored nametags that would indicate the wearer’s status — either “willing to be recorded” or “not willing to be recorded”. I said:

I certainly don’t think recording should be disallowed, because I do believe recording is a noble goal. But I think it will encourage attendance if there is a more effective way to demonstrate one’s unwillingness to be recorded — you know, better than wearing an easily-missed nametag. For instance, maybe certain areas of the venue should be specifically designated as recording-free.

Maymay answered:

I tend to agree with you, actually, that encouraging cameras and recording devices will probably discourage *some* people from attending. While that’s unfortunate, it’s also simply the nature of things. Social change is great and wonderful but it simply can not happen if people don’t put their faces behind the message.

… So, to be precise: [it’s not impossible to institute recording-free zones]. However, the fact remains that even if you confiscated every cell phone, digital camera, tape recorder, and every other recording device you could find at the door to the event, there is *still* a chance that people will be photographed or otherwise recorded even if they ask not to be. There’s no way to stop it and ultimately you’re always asking people to play by the rules honestly anyway.

Disallowing cameras is just not something KinkForAll as an event has much of a reason to enforce. Moreover, in the spirit of spreading information, creating any policy disallowing cameras is itself a counterproductive idea.

… In other words, the message I want to send to people who are considering not coming to KinkForAll because they might be photographed is: we will miss you, and we hope you will be comfortable enough next time around to come out and be part of the discussions with the rest of us face-to-face.

There was a bit more talking at the time, and at subsequent times, but I think the most comprehensive and eloquent argument against allowing recording at KinkForAll was put forth by Corey Alexander:

I guard images of myself, and do not publicize them, with good reason, and in ways that cause some difficulty, in all arenas of my life, including professionally. My personal reasons aside, I think it is important (as someone for whom these issues matter very much) to communicate to you what it may mean to hold such an event, and who you may be excluding because of it. I understand that you intend to go forward with the event as planned and I am very aware of why you are invested in a politics of outness, and I do not dispute this as a political strategy. I just want to talk about risk, and potential cost, because I think that folks that are invested in outness need to be aware of these issues.

I personally would be pretty much guaranteed to lose my job if I were out, and I am not alone there, as would pretty much anyone who works with kids, and who works in the social services or government. Additionally, those with kids or those who intend to have kids run the continued risk of losing custody of their children, should they be publically identified/identifiable as a kinky person. I personally have known several people that have lost their kids, and several who are currently involved in custody battles over this very issue. …. These are the risks that come with outness, and they are just some of those risks, but I find them the most compelling in my life, because they illuminate places where some people simply *cannot* choose to attend your event; they do not have the privilege. In this economic climate, where I have friends getting laid off right and left, I would support anyone who would choose their economic survival over attending an event like this (of course those folks that are assured of the economic support of others or the tolerance within their profession may have privilege that allows such risks). As someone who has lost custody of children I have parented, I would also support any parent who would choose not to take such a risk.

Another thing to note is that any event that is invested in publicizing images of attendees widely is unlikely to attract folks that are survivors of violence that have taken steps to hide their whereabouts.

… More than that, I want to draw your attention to the community resources you will lose, presenters, volunteers and attendees, because of this policy. I am not the only one, I am sure. … As you are interested in Kink For *All*, I would urge you to consider that as you welcome some (through your publicity on the internet), you exclude others (who cannot or choose not to take such risks) by this policy.

Maymay responded:

All of these risks you mention are real and valid but they are ones I believe are ultimately transient for society; that is, they will not always be risks. That said, I do not believe it’s possible to get to a place where kink for *all* is really possible without just such “politics of outness,” as you have described them.

… To date, other sexuality community events have excluded the very people *this* event wants to involve. If that means losing parts of the more traditional and valuable sexuality community, such as yourself, this is a price I am willing, if not happy, about paying.

… There are lots of examples I could give of people who are for one reason or another excluded by most other sexuality community events [such as Sex 2.0, Dark Odyssey, traditional BDSM conventions, and others] and who I believe are fantastically valuable additions, but I had two primary thoughts on this:

1. People who are not familiar with the public sexuality communities and who therefore do not go to the same events as many of us on this list do.

2. People, typically younger ones, who are familiar with the public sexuality communities and find them not to their liking for whatever reason.

Sara Eileen added:

We hope that the Kink For All space will feel safe for everyone who participates. But, in keeping with the core concepts of the idea, we hope to make this happen through encouragement, support, and expectations rather than rules.

These concerns are valid and difficult to answer, mostly because I think we really need to see how this community-focused space will shape up *on the day itself.* In the meantime, the risk of finding the space unsafe may be regrettably too high for some.

I’d like to mention again that if you’re presenting, you are by no means expected to present on an explicit, demonstrative or practical subject. The intersection of sex and life has many issues to be explored, and I truly hope we run the gamut of them when the time comes. I’d also like to point out that our venue explicitly forbids nudity, and the 20-minute presentation time frame makes practical demonstrations very difficult. That’s not to say they may not happen, but I expect to see much more talking than anything else.

We will have colored nametags or markers for people who don’t wish to be photographed. These markers, as with all components of safe spaces, function on the basis of trust. This event is bringing together a lot of different groups and new faces. It’s up to each of us individually to determine whether we have enough trust in the respect and consideration of other attendees.

The discussion went a little bit afield in places, but these are all the points that I found most compelling and interesting — both as a kinkster considering the politics of outness, and an organizer of sex-positive events. If you want to look at the KinkForAll mailing list archives and examine the full threads for yourself, you can find the KinkForAll Google group here.