Posts Tagged ‘community’

2011 12 Nov

BDSM Roles, “Topping From The Bottom”, and “Service Top”

I often say that all consensual sexuality is okay. Open relationships? S&M? Same-sex partnerships? One-night stands? Porn? I could care less how people have sex, as long as the people involved are consenting adults. This means that most of the interesting and important questions are about consent: how do we make sure that we always have consensual sex? How do we ensure that we’re always respecting our own boundaries and our partners’ boundaries? How do we talk about our preferences and our consent? I write a lot about sexual communication for this reason.

Every once in a while, though, there’s something interesting to discuss besides consent. (Totally weird, I know!) One of those interesting things is stereotypes. Also interesting: bad dynamics in the BDSM community.

One example of a bad, weird dynamic is the “one true way” thing. Some people act like there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to do consensual BDSM — as if some consensual BDSM is more legit than other consensual BDSM. Often, people do this via what we call “role policing”: they make claims about “real submission” and “real dominance”. (Even worse, people will sometimes act like dominant people are socially “better” or “more important” than submissive people. Or they’ll act like men are “inherently” dominant, or women are “inherently” submissive. It’s a clusterfuck! Thomas MacAulay Millar has a great essay about this called “Domism“.)

Examples of role policing might include:

* “If you were really submissive, then you would be serving my dinner right now instead of having me serve myself.”
* “If you were really dominant, then you would pay for my drinks.”
* “If you were really submissive, then you wouldn’t be confident enough to write a blog about your sex life.” (Not that I’m biased or anything.)

Sometimes these are hilarious light-hearted jokes. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re bullshit, and they make people feel as though they’re “bad at submission” or “bad at dominance”. Also, it gets really silly when we start thinking about switches — people who can feel comfortable in the dominant role or the submissive role, such as myself.

One very common, relevant assumption is that dominant people always enjoy inflicting pain: that sadists and dominants are always the same group. They’re not! Sometimes people are into sadism, or into dominance, or maybe they’re into a lot of sadism but a little dominance, or whatever. The same thing goes for submission: sometimes people are submissive and like taking pain, but sometimes people are submissive without being masochistic, or maybe they’re into a little bit of submission and a lot of masochism, or whatever.

Or maybe they’re masochists who like ordering their partners to hurt them. I once threw a memorable party at which my then-boyfriend, a mostly-submissive gentleman, arranged for a bunch of our friends to grab me and hold me down while he ate cake off my body. As he did this, I clearly recall shouting at him: “You better hurt me, or I’m going to safeword on your ass.” So he hurt me! It was great.

Because “submissive” and “masochist” aren’t always the same thing — and “dominant” and “sadist” aren’t always the same thing — the BDSM community uses the terms “bottom” and “top”. A “bottom” is a blanket term for a submissive and/or a masochist — the receiving partner. A “top” is a blanket term for a dominant and/or a sadist — the partner who is providing sensation. The point is to have words that indicate who is giving and who is receiving, without making claims about each partner’s preferences. (These words can also be used as verbs. For example, if I am “topping”, then I am in the dominant and/or sadistic position.)

And yet! Even though we have these handy terms “top” and “bottom”, which are specifically designed to help us avoid making assumptions, people end up making assumptions. There are two common BDSM community phrases that are often deployed in tones of disgust and irritation. One of those phrases is “topping from the bottom”. The other phrase is “service top”.


2011 28 Oct

Marriage, Singledom, Social Evolution, and that Kate Bolick piece in “The Atlantic”

Okay, so. Since I am a Feminist Commentator ™, many folks have asked my opinion on a piece that recently ran in “The Atlantic” called “All The Single Ladies“, by Kate Bolick. Many of you have probably already seen Bolick’s piece — I’ve got a roundup of a few relevant links and snips at the end of this post. Here are my thoughts about the article, in order:

1) Wow, I dealt with many of these issues and did a better job several weeks ago, when I wrote my piece: “Chemistry“. I’m also going to examine a lot of these issues in my upcoming eBook Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men. (I know, I’ve been plugging the eBook a lot lately. What can I say — I’m a starving artist and I use the platforms available to me.)

2) Well … okay. I’ll try to be more fair. I am coming at this question from the perspective of a 27-year-old woman, who is just starting to think about getting married — and I have considerable experience in liberal sex subcultures. Kate Bolick is coming at this question from the perspective of a 39-year-old woman who has clearly thought a lot about getting married — and who was somewhat influenced by second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem … but is clearly uncomfortable with liberal sex-positive feminist perspectives.

(If Bolick weren’t uncomfortable, then when she tried to get a grip on the modern dating scene she might have talked to lefty feminists, rather than speaking only to the relatively conservative Susan Walsh. As a matter of fact, Susan Walsh has openly insulted and attacked a number of high-profile modern feminists, including women who I greatly respect. Personally, I find Walsh to be somewhat interesting and mostly harmless; during our brief exchanges, I’ve gotten the impression that she feels the same way about me. I have found some of Walsh’s critiques of sex-positive feminism echoed in my own experiences, and I try to take such critiques into account during my ongoing project of building more flexible and universal sex-positive feminist theory. But I 110% disagree with where Walsh takes those critiques — for example, Walsh has been known to assert that we ought to do more slut-shaming. Which is just no. The last thing we need is more slut-shaming.)

3) Given that Kate Bolick is a bit more conservative than I am, and given that she has very different experiences, it’s not surprising that she has taken such a different journey in her thoughts about this topic. What’s more interesting is that she arrives at very similar conclusions. Like many other commentators, I liked where Bolick was going at the end of the article, when she talks about potentially building collective lives with like-minded people, rather than depending on marriage to create our family structures.

Unlike many other commentators — and unlike Bolick, apparently — I already have a great deal of experience with collectives and cooperatives. I don’t usually write about this, because it’s not directly relevant to sex & gender, but I’ve mentioned it before, like for example in my old post “Grassroots Organizing for Feminism, S&M, HIV and Everything Else“. I hate to sound like a true believer, but I really think that cooperatives can be the wave of the future … if we let them.

Building an intentional living community with like-minded people is very difficult. But there are thousands of examples of cooperatives around the world — some dealing with housing, some dealing with other matters. Most of my experience is with housing cooperatives, and I can attest that participating in even a very functional housing cooperative can be infuriating, heartbreaking, and scary by turns. But functional housing cooperatives have also taught me an enormous amount about humanity, relationships, grassroots action, interdependence, efficiency, and sharing. (Awww. I know. It’s so sweet.)

And I fully expect that my experience in building intentional “family” will be great for me as I grow older and my life takes me either into marriage, or not into marriage. Cooperatives are living communities that do not depend on these outmoded ideas of nuclear families. And, by the way? Living in a cooperative does not preclude marriage. Plenty of married couples live in cooperatives together. Some have kids in the cooperatives!

I wish that Bolick had wound up her article by doing some serious research on the cooperative movement. But she didn’t, so I’m going to give you some resources off the top of my head right now. If you want to learn some basics, then definitely check out the website for the non-profit organization North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO).

As it happens, NASCO is about to host its yearly educational Institute, which is a totally awesome opportunity to learn more. I wish I’d thought to post this sooner, because I just realized that today is the last day you can register for NASCO Institute. The conference will happen from November 4-6 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Another great resource is an old article by a gentleman named Jim Jones, who used to work for NASCO. This article is called “Death in the Co-op” and it’s a brilliant exposition of Jim’s thoughts on why co-ops go under — what the potential weaknesses of co-ops are. As far as I know, this paper has basically been passed hand-to-hand for years, but has never been posted openly on the Internet. I view it as required reading for anyone with a serious interest in housing cooperatives, so I’ve put it up on my own site for download.

4) Aaaand back to Kate Bolick’s article. Do I have any other thoughts? Just one: at least it wasn’t another article by Caitlin Flanagan.


2011 14 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel?

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

I already wrote Part 1 of this post about the political side of this question. Now for Part 2 ….

The Embodied Side of BDSM versus Sex

Although Part 1 was all about how the divide between “BDSM” and “sex” is often nonsensical, or purely political, or socially constructed … that doesn’t mean that the divide does not exist. I once had a conversation about ignoring social constructs with a wise friend, who noted dryly that: “One-way streets are a social construct. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.” Just because the outside world influences our sexuality, does not mean that our sexual preferences are invalid.

Some polyamorous BDSMers have very different rules about having sex with outsiders, as opposed to doing BDSM with outsiders. For example, during the time when I was considering a transition to polyamory, I myself had a couple relationships where we were sexually monogamous — yet my partners agreed that I could do BDSM with people who weren’t my partner. Those particular partners felt jealous and threatened by the idea of me having sex with another man, but they didn’t mind if I did BDSM with another man. Maybe the feelings of those partners only arose because they categorized “BDSM” and “sex” into weirdly different socially-constructed ways … but those partners’ feelings were nonetheless real, and their feelings deserved respect.

And there are also unmistakable ways that BDSM feels different from sex. There is something, bodily, that is just plain different about BDSM, as opposed to sex. I often find myself thinking of “BDSM feelings” and “sexual feelings” as flowing down two parallel channels in my head … sometimes these channels intersect, but sometimes they’re far apart. The BDSM urge strikes me as deeply different, separate, from the sex urge. It can be fun to combine BDSM and sex, but there are definitely times when I want BDSM that feel very unlike most times when I want sex.

The biggest political reason why it’s difficult to discuss this is the way in which we currently conceptualize sexuality through “orientations”: we have built a cultural “orientation model” focused on the idea that “acceptable” sexuality is “built-in”, or “innate”. Some BDSMers consider BDSM an “orientation” — and I, myself, once found that thinking of BDSM as an orientation was extremely helpful in coming to terms with my BDSM desires. But one thing I don’t like about the orientation model now is that it makes us sound like we’re apologizing. “Poor little me! It’s not my fault I’m straight! Or a domme! Whatever!” Why would any of these things be faults in the first place? Our bodies are our own, our experiences are our own, and our consent is our own to give.

The orientation model is one of the cultural factors that makes it hard to discuss sensory, sensual experiences without defaulting to sexuality. As commenter saurus pointed out on the Feministe version of part 1 of this post:

Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” — of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s totally sexual.”

I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals. (I’ve written about such encounters several times, like in my post on communication case studies.) And I’d like to stress that when I have encounters like that, they can be very satisfying without involving sex. The release — the high — I get from a heavy BDSM encounter can be its own reward.

I’ve also had BDSM encounters where I got turned on … (more…)

2011 9 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, Part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.


2011 2 Aug

Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

Years ago, when I first started thinking about BDSM and abuse, I was defensive. A lot of feminist BDSMers are defensive about it.

We get scared of the accusation that “BDSM is always abuse” … and we’re accustomed to accusations from certain feminists such as “those of you who pretend to like BDSM just have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome and don’t know what you really want” … and often, we’re also fighting our own inner BDSM stigma demons. We get angry that our sexual needs are seen as politically problematic, or unimportant.

And so, for a lot of people, our instinctive angle on abuse in the BDSM community is: “Shut up! That’s not what’s going on!” And that’s a problem.

Obviously, I don’t think BDSM is inherently abusive! Exploring my personal BDSM desires has given me some extraordinary, consensual, transcendent experiences and connections. I also genuinely believe that BDSM has the potential to control, subvert, and manage power.

BDSM can be a place where people learn to understand bad power dynamics in past relationships; it can be a place where people learn to manage or destroy bad power dynamics in their current relationships; it can be a place where people find glory, self-knowledge and freedom by manipulating their own reactions and responses to power. Here’s a great, complicated relevant essay by Pepper Mint, and here’s one of my favorite quotations on the matter from violetwhite:

It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

Still, I’ve seen things happen in the BDSM community that turned my stomach. Terrible manipulative behavior exhibited by people who have the greatest reputations. Blaming the victim when they try to speak up. Telling “rumor mongers” to shut up when people are trying to talk openly about problematic community members. The BDSM subculture has its own version of rape culture, where “lying bitch” and “drama queen” and “miscommunication” are used against abuse survivors.

Miscommunications do happen. But not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication.

Oh yes, rape culture can happen in BDSM just the same way it happens in the “vanilla” mainstream. And there are certainly people in my local community who I would never get involved with, because I do not trust them. (I like Asher Bauer’s old post, “A Field Guide To Creepy Dom“, which is all about how to spot predators — although, like Asher, I think the post has a few problems.)

Being defensive about BDSM and abuse won’t help; yes, BDSM is stigmatized and stereotyped, but the abuse is still a problem. So after I started blogging, I tried to move past my defensiveness and write more concretely — to write about what exactly the BDSM community does to work against abuse. One of my first posts on BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse“. It highlighted anti-abuse initiatives within the BDSM community.

As I learned more about BDSM and abuse, and my perspective got more nuanced, I wrote a more expansive post called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team“. It covered all the information I’d given in the earlier post, and also talked about how I personally would structure an anti-abuse initiative with alt-sex people in mind.

Looking back now, those posts still strike me as defensive. I was making good points, but I also think that I didn’t fully understand where some feminists are coming from when they react negatively to BDSM. This past year, I’ve learned a lot more about abusive gender-based violence, power, and control. And I’ve concluded that while BDSM is obviously not equivalent to abuse, we need better theory to describe the difference between BDSM and abuse, and we should try to avoid defensiveness while articulating that theory.


2011 29 Mar

Grassroots organizing for feminism, S&M, HIV, and everything else

I wrote this for Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Coming-Out Day Blog Carnival; the goal is to talk about feminist “click” moments.

* * *

Earlier this month, my sex-positive documentary film series screened “Jane: An Abortion Service”. The film tells the extraordinary story of “Jane”, an underground network of women in Chicago who provided thousands of safe abortions in the years before abortion was legal. It was totally inspiring.

“Jane” was started accidentally by a woman named Heather Booth. Booth was a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s when another woman came and asked her — secretly, of course — whether she knew any abortion doctors. Heather Booth found one, and she also found that other women started coming to her for references.

As one woman in the film put it, in those days, women who sought abortions were all “hysterical and desperate and scared”: if you needed an abortion, you knew you would have to come up with some fabulous amount of money and take a life-threatening risk. Some women committed suicide when they got pregnant instead. Information about abortion was at a premium.

So Heather Booth began looking for abortion doctors, and better than that, she started vetting them. After finding the doctors, she sought testimonials about those doctors. Common problems with abortion doctors ranged from being rude to actually assaulting their patients; some doctors, who already charged sky-high prices, would demand more money at the last minute. Booth kept a list of abortion doctors who didn’t do those things. Pretty soon, there were other women who had her list too, and they were vetting doctors and spreading the word as well. The group also provided counseling before and after the procedure, letting the patients know what they could expect — physically and emotionally. They called themselves “Jane”: a woman who called them and asked for “Jane” was seeking an abortion.

After some time, the women of Jane figured out that abortion isn’t a complex procedure, and they convinced a doctor to teach them how to do it safely. And then they taught each other. So then they didn’t have to refer patients to doctors: they did all the abortions themselves, and they did them for whatever the patient could spare rather than charging prices that were out of reach for many women. Jane members continued to provide emotional support, as well: in the documentary, one member reminisces about how she would have patients over to dinner with her kids and talk to them for a while before performing the procedure. It got to the point where doctors and medical students sent women to Jane, rather than getting referrals from Jane.

That is positive activism. That is building the world we want to see.


2011 16 Jan

The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2010 26 Dec

Anger, fear and pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2010 26 Nov

Social responsibility, activism, and giving thanks

Tonight I had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her boyfriend. Some friends of my mother attended, one of whom is a lesbian who I’ll call Kay. Kay attended dinner with her mother, who is unaware of Kay’s sexual orientation. One of the reasons Kay’s mom doesn’t know about Kay’s sexual orientation is that Kay’s mom has already behaved quite badly towards Kay’s elder sister, who is an out-of-the-closet lesbian.

I knew this whole situation going in, and one thing that struck me was how much of a nice person Kay’s mom is. I mean … she’s really nice. I mean, she clearly tries to be a good person. She also tried really hard to help me do the dishes. (I didn’t let her because I wanted them all to myself.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to engage with people who have done bad things, or who are currently doing things I think are bad (like shaming their lesbian daughters). It wouldn’t have been right to throw my sex-positive ideas on the table while talking to Kay’s mom — mostly because Kay specifically asked me not to, ahead of time. But. The most powerful tool for getting people to reconsider their stigma against alternative sexuality is personal engagement. Don’t I have some responsibility here? Is there something I can do?

Other examples of this are rife. One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life … every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

When I was in high school, one of my closest male friends raped a female acquaintance of mine. She didn’t press charges and they later had a romance that was, to all appearances, consensual. I pieced events together slowly — he did acknowledge what he’d done, though never directly to me. I didn’t know what to do, at the time, and I still feel as though I should have done so much more. He and I were so close. I never had the nerve to directly talk to him about what happened, because — even though we never talked directly about it — I saw evidence that he felt terrible about it, and I was sure that I could devastate him by talking about it more. But still … I should have talked to him.

I also feel as though I should have supported her more, but I don’t know what I could have said. There were people who told her that she shouldn’t be having a consensual relationship with her rapist. It seemed wrong to tell her that — I felt like it eroded her agency, attacked her right to choose — so I didn’t say it. If I had said it, though, would that have been helpful to her? What could I have done to be a better resource for her? Especially given that I was such close friends with him?

I was young(er), but that’s no excuse. Then again, what am I excusing? I did nothing. But I should have done more.

Now, again, I have a friend, a good friend, who assaulted someone. It’s a friend in the local S&M community. I don’t know the survivor at all. I have to talk to my friend about it, but what do I say, and what happens next? Feminism instructs us that we should listen to the voices of survivors, that community mores and community condemnation are what stops rape from happening. I believe these things to be true; and there are people close to me who have survived rape, and I really want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to ensure that rape stops happening. But I intensely wish that I had more guidance on what exactly to say, how exactly to act, to change the mores.

I emailed my ex-boyfriend Chastity Boy for advice, because he’s got one of the finest ethical minds I’ve ever been lucky enough to engage with. Here’s part of what he wrote back:

I’ve tried to distill your messages into a few questions, and I ended up with “How does one parse a situation in which a friend, and an otherwise noble person, seems to have done serious wrong?” and “What are a person’s moral obligations in this case?”

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us. I don’t say this because I think you haven’t considered it, but because I know I’ve had a lot of trouble absorbing it over the years and think it might therefore bear restating to others, too.

As an individual, a person has a relatively large degree of freedom in action and association. I think where this case becomes truly difficult to consider is when we bring in justice and the community. Because the means of enforcement of the rules of these communities is so interpersonal, one’s interpersonal actions take on an unusual role of community-level justice as well as merely justice between two people. I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing and might give you some insight into their character and opinions of the issue.

He’s right. I agree. But. What now? How do I ask, what do I say? How can I tell if my friend has dealt with whatever healing has to take place in order for such assaults not to happen again?

UPDATE, 2012: There are a lot of resources out there on “restorative justice” or “transformative justice,” a phrase that describes initiatives that work with assault perpetrators outside the criminal justice system. Here’s a list of a bunch of those resources. End of update

* * *

Tough questions. But it is all Thanksgiving and stuff, and though I try to avoid mouthing pieties … thinking about these questions has reminded me that I truly do have an incredible amount to be thankful for. And how I want my work — sex-positive and otherwise — to be shaped by the things I’m thankful for.

+ I am thankful for how open and accepting my parents have been about my own sexuality, as well as my choice to engage in sex-positive activism; I can’t imagine how much more stressful it would be to engage in all my various sex-positive projects and writing if I didn’t have their support. I hope to contribute to a society where people can have more open, honest, and understanding conversations about sexuality with their parents. (There are limits, of course. I’m pretty sure my parents don’t usually read my blog, especially not the more intense posts. And it’s probably better that way.)

+ I am thankful for the time I spent in Africa, for all the things I learned there, and for my relationship with Chastity Boy. People who put so much thought into morality are hard to find; CB challenged me in a number of ways, and I was thrilled by how seriously he engaged with my views on sexual morality (many of which were rather new to him). America’s views on sexual morality hurt so many people — from rape survivors, to sex workers, to alternatively-sexual people like me. I’d like to contribute to a society where deep moral thought is encouraged, and in particular, to a society with less harmful views on sexual morality.

+ I am overwhelmingly thankful for the privilege I enjoy — education, class, race, a huge number of safety nets. I hope that I can put that privilege to good use. It was scary to leave Africa partly because I was afraid I was giving up on a life path by which I could really do a lot of good, but now that I’ve been back for a while, it’s incredibly clear that it was the best personal choice I could make … and that there is a lot of potential good to be done here, too. I sometimes feel like I should be putting my effort into “more important” activist type things — as if, for example, the stuff I worked on in Africa “wins” over sex-positive activism in America, when we put things on some kind of social justice “scale”. Or sometimes I feel like I should be looking for the “biggest” issues to work on, such as global warming, which is an actual threat to our species. Or sometimes I even worry that sex-positive feminism is “too privileged” a field to meaningfully be described as “activism” …. (Yeah … in some ways I have privilege issues, I think.)

Still, while I feel committed to keeping my ecological footprint small and all that good stuff, it seems clear that my personal loves and interests and skills are best-suited to sex-positive feminism. I do hope that I can keep the big picture in mind, and stay at least somewhat humble about my approach; and at the very least, acknowledging privilege seems like a good place to start with that. I ought to be thankful that I have privilege that allows me to do things with my time that I find fascinating, rewarding, and important.

+ And hey, reader: thanks to you, too. I learn so much from people who read my work, especially the regular commenters. I heart all y’all. Thank you for your perspectives.

* * *

Part of 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 18 Nov

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

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

Yeah, I relate a lot to this one.

Posted with the writer’s permission:

Dear Clarisse,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… You get my point.

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

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