Posts Tagged ‘community’

2010 13 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 6 Apr

How to start your own local sex-positive meetup

I’ve been reminded that tonight is the one-year anniversary of Pleasure Salon, the sex-positive meetup I co-started in Chicago; a reporter from Columbia College Chicago called me (all the way in Africa!) to chat about it. And over the last few months, I’ve received a number of inquiries about how people can start their own Pleasure Salons in their own cities. Which means it’s time for a blog FAQ!

I obviously haven’t been to Pleasure Salon in quite some time. It sounds like it’s still going strong, at least from what people tell me, but I don’t really know. Still, I remember the process of starting it pretty well ….

* * *


(Readers may also be interested in the FAQ I wrote about Sex+++, my sex-positive film series, which gives advice about how to start your own!)

On the very night that I first announced my sex-positive film series, Serpent Libertine of the Sex Workers Outreach Project got in touch. Serpent is really passionate and outspoken; it was delightful to talk with her about how we could collaborate. One idea that we began tossing around was, in her words, a low-key “bar night”. She fondly remembered sex-positive socials privately conducted by past community leaders; for my part, over the next few months I really got into the community discussions at my film series, and it always seemed a shame that we had to wrap them up within an hour or two.

On a trip to New York a couple of months later, one of my film contacts invited me out to Pleasure Salon NYC. Pleasure Salon was exactly like what I’d been picturing — and the name was pretty cool too — so I requested permission to use it and start a Pleasure Salon Chicago! (Note: I have edited the last sentence because it said that I requested permission to “license” the Pleasure Salon name, which confused some people. I did not need to get a license to use the name. I just asked Selina Fire for permission.)

The two big steps were:

1) Getting together a good group of hosts.
2) Finding a good venue.

* * *


We wanted to recruit sex-positive leaders who would encourage their followers to attend the Salon. Selina Fire from Pleasure Salon NYC advised, in fact, that we at first promote the Salon entirely through our co-hosts and let it grow organically via word-of-mouth — the fear being that otherwise it could get out of control, fast.

In the end, we did do most of our promoting via the community leaders telling their friends; but we also posted the Pleasure Salon announcement to listhosts (for example, I sent it around some BDSM community listhosts, and I also posted it to the Sex+++ listhost), created a Pleasure Salon Facebook page using the Sex+++ icon (you are invited to become a fan!), and promoted the event in various other public online venues (for example, my favoritest swinger couple, The Ultimates, put an announcement on And just recently, Serpent emailed to let me know that Pleasure Salon has an exciting new website and blog.

I think this approach should work fine if your area already has a bunch of different sex communities or sexuality discussions, but if it doesn’t — if it’s hard to get a lot of sex-positive community leaders — then you should choose a few hosts based solely on how well they can conduct discussions or get a group to gel. Then I guess you can just promote in alternative communities, liberal spaces, or whatever: odd bookstores, hipster coffeeshops, your local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, your local Unitarian church, your local Gender Studies university department — all good examples! You might consider having discussion topics, too, though this is something we never bothered with at Pleasure Salon Chicago.

* * *


Pleasure Salon NYC takes place in a really cool speakeasy-style space, with a nice little reception podium in front of a long corridor that widens out into a big room with booths and a bar. The hosts, including Selina Fire, chill out in front to receive new people, hand out nametags to everyone, and help confused new people figure out what’s up. Every night they pass around a jar for donations, and then use those donations to buy snacks and stuff (I think people pay for their own drinks at the bar). I don’t actually know the details of how they arranged this, so maybe Selina can leave a comment explaining.

In Chicago, our primary concern was that the venue be central — Chicago is pretty spread out, and we wanted the place easily reached by folks on the South Side, the North Side, whatever. We also didn’t want the organizers to end up responsible for details like snacks (we did intend to have nametags, but we kinda forgot …), so we wanted a venue that served food. And drinks too; some people have told me that they don’t attend Pleasure Salon because alcohol is served, but certainly when I was around it never got crazy or anything. (The time slot being 6 PM-10 PM helps with that, I think.)

Also important: the venue should have at least one night per month that’s quiet. That way they’ll be really glad to have you around, and — while a few non-Pleasure Salon people will probably show up (unless you can manage a setup like Pleasure Salon NYC) — it’ll still make a good safe space for pro-sex talk. And on that note, the venue should know what Pleasure Salon is and be cool with it. This is really key: don’t hide the subject matter from the venue. That could cause a world of trouble later. Chances are high that the venue really won’t care that you want a group of people to come around and chat about sex once a month as long as they know what to expect (that, for example, an attendee might accidentally leave her copy of Flogging For Beginners behind at the end of the night).

In Chicago, Villains Bar & Grill was great because it was super-quiet on Tuesday evenings from 6-10; it’s in the South Loop, right in the middle of the city; and they were already hosting a swinger meetup once a month, so they didn’t bat an eye when we told them what Pleasure Salon is all about.

It’s a good idea to have one or two backup venues in mind at all times, though. You never know when an awesome venue will suddenly start getting busier, or change management, or close its doors, or whatever — best to be prepared to move on, rather than panicking or (even worse!) having to shut down your Pleasure Salon!

* * *

That’s it!

On the night of Pleasure Salon, be sure that your hosts are ready and willing to stick around for the whole span of the event so that they can greet new people, introduce them around and help them integrate into the group, oversee the vibe, and (of course) get in some time relaxing with their friends.

When people come in the venue door and stand around awkwardly, they’re probably looking for you.

* * *

What’s next for Pleasure Salon?

The reporter who called me today asked an interesting question — So this is the one-year anniversary. What’s next? Obviously I no longer consider myself to have much power over Pleasure Salon, being as I live in Africa and all, and I won’t be back in Chicago for a while. But I do have opinions that I will, as always, happily share.

I’m a pro-sex activist — I obviously think it’s important to destigmatize sexuality in as many ways as possible. Pleasure Salon does a bit of that, I think. But I’ve also said before that I think it would be cool if the sex-positive community had more of a group consciousness; if BDSMers and sex workers and polyamorists and swingers and LGBTQ and, well, all of us pro-sex people saw ourselves as being on the same side. If Pleasure Salon fosters that kind of community attitude, I think that’d be awesome. If Pleasure Salon creates a kind of grassroots political will, I think that’d be cool too. I know that Pleasure Salon NYC has done very limited sponsorship-type stuff — for instance, I do believe they’re a sponsor of CineKink, the Really Alternative Film Festival. I would hope that Pleasure Salon could be the kind of place that doesn’t just sponsor events but politically supports sex-positive change, et cetera.

But (as I emphasized on the phone with the reporter today) I also think that if Pleasure Salon becomes political at the cost of being friendly and approachable, then the cost is too high. Because the biggest strength of Pleasure Salon, to my mind, is the fact that it not only networks and connects different sex-related community members but creates a safe space for hesitant new folks to come learn more. It works best as a low-key conversational space that’s open to everyone, where people who wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a sex club or a BDSM workshop — or even a sex toy store — can just show up and chat (or listen) about sexuality.

For the same reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Pleasure Salon to start offering sex-related demos or sex parties — at least not as part of Pleasure Salon itself. If people promote, say, upcoming bondage demonstrations at Pleasure Salon then that sounds good to me; even if there’s a string of Pleasure-Salon-sponsored bondage demonstrations, that’d be awesome (though Chicago already has a fair number of BDSM events); but I think that if people conduct bondage demonstrations there, that stands a good chance of wrecking the approachable-to-newbies vibe.

* * *

Read the comments!

I’ve asked Serpent, Selina, and the rest of the Pleasure Salon crew to leave comments here if they think of anything I didn’t cover — and if you’ve started a similar sex-positive meetup group in your area, please feel free to leave a comment as well! Even if you don’t have any advice to give, I’d love to hear about your group and how it’s going — or any questions you may have. If you’d prefer to ask questions via email, I’m always available at [ clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com ].

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 20 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 15 May

Vote for your favorite BDSM fiction for a new Leather Archives & Museum exhibit!

Calling all READERS within the Leather / Kink / Fetish / S&M / B&D / BDSM community:

I (Clarisse) have been asked to curate a pansexual BDSM books exhibit at the Leather Archives & Museum (your friendly neighborhood BDSM museum). I know a fair bit about books, but I still need help with this question, so I’ve created an online poll. I’m asking everyone to send in their favorite BDSM fiction title; I’ll base the exhibit on your submissions. This way, the exhibit will be firmly based within the community — please repost this WIDELY, so that we get the most comprehensive community representation possible!

To be featured in this exhibit, a book must be FICTION and it must contain EXPLICIT BDSM.

You can vote in the poll by clicking here.


If you really like your favorite book, then please consider also submitting a comment of 100-200 words, describing any or all of the following:
+ a brief synopsis of the book,
+ how the book represents BDSM,
+ historical significance of the book,
+ other work the author may have done within the BDSM community.

The best book descriptions might be used in the exhibit. So if you want your description to have your name or pseudonym on it, please include that name at the end of your description! Sadly, we cannot pay people if we use their descriptions.

You can vote for books that aren’t written in English, but if you submit a description of the book, then the description must be in English.

It is technically possible for an individual to vote more than once in this poll, but please don’t. I am indeed logging where the votes come from; if the data appear too skewed when the poll is done, then I might have to throw out the results. Don’t do that to me!

Again, you can vote here! The poll will close June 1, 2009 at 12AM.

Thanks for reading!

Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse and LA&M staff will give this poll as much weight as possible! However, we reserve the right not to use all the top winners of the poll, for reasons that may include but are not limited to: adequately representing a pansexual range of identities; ensuring that all books in the exhibit contain explicit BDSM; or suspicious quantities of votes from the same place. All comments submitted in this poll become property of the Leather Archives & Museum.

2009 30 Apr

Evidence that the BDSM community does not enable abuse

How can you tell BDSM from abuse?

People ask me this all the time.

The idea behind that question is that BDSM “looks like” abuse. BDSM can leave bruises or other marks of pain. When two people are having a BDSM encounter, then — if an outsider were to walk in in the middle — it might look like a scene of abuse. Hence, one of the biggest fears that people outside the BDSM community have about BDSM is that — although it appears to be consensual — BDSM enables abuse, or is used as a mask for abuse.

Are some BDSM relationships abusive? Unfortunately, some are. But abuse happens, sometimes, in all relationships. There are lots of non-BDSM relationships, whose participants have never even heard of BDSM, that are abusive. And the fact is that the majority of BDSM relationships — just like the majority of vanilla relationships — are completely consensual encounters between adults who have specifically sought out, opened themselves up to, their own BDSM desires.

Just as importantly, there are swaths of the BDSM community that actively work against abuse within the community.

I want to caution, before I talk about this, that the “BDSM community” is a big place. Plus, there are many BDSM communities out there — not just one. There are BDSM communities in cities around the world, and within those city-communities, there are multiple smaller communities. Here in Chicago, for instance, there are communities based around multiple BDSM clubs, multiple BDSM events, and more. And all the BDSM communities that exist are filled with many different voices, and all those voices will agree and disagree with me to varying extents.

But I can observe some commonalities from various BDSM communities I’ve participated in. And one of those commonalities is that many (if not most) kinksters are very concerned about potential abuse. Arguably, the greater BDSM community contains a far higher proportion of people who worry about abuse, than the rest of the world does.

You can tell partly because of the steps BDSM people are frequently trained to take within our relationships, to ensure that we communicate well and do not misunderstand each other. Safewords are the most common example of these kinds of anti-abusive communication tactics. I think the more convincing argument, however, comes from these examples of specific anti-abuse initiatives from the community:

Anti-Abuse Initiative #1: The Lesbian Sex Mafia, an old and respected BDSM group in New York City, has a short page on its website devoted to the difference between BDSM and abuse. The page has a list of quick, comparative maxims designed to explain the difference simply, and ends by providing the number for an abuse hotline.

Anti-Abuse Initiative #2: At one point, while sorting files up at the Leather Archives and Museum, I found a copy of an anti-abuse pamphlet created by The Network/La Red that has been distributed at various dungeons, BDSM workshops, and other BDSM community spaces in the Northeast.

Here’s one panel from the pamphlet — I think it speaks for itself:

(For the rest of the pamphlet, check out the images at my Flickr account — here’s the front, and here’s the back.)

Anti-Abuse Initiative #3: In September in San Francisco, I attended a workshop put on by Angela of EduKink, an excellent BDSM educator. The workshop was titled “Emotional Aspects of BDSM Play”, and there was a section that talked about how to look out for abuse in a BDSM relationship. Angela described:

Four General Guidelines for Recognizing the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

1) Consent. BDSM is consenting; abuse is not.
a) Assuming consent was given — was it informed consent? Did everyone know what they were consenting to?
b) Was consent coerced or seduced from the partner? Did everyone feel like they could say no if they wanted? Was anyone worried about suffering negative consequences if they said no?

2) Intent. A BDSM partner intends to have a mutually enjoyable encounter; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did everyone leave the scene feeling somewhat satisfied?

3) Damage. A BDSM partner tries to minimize the actual damage inflicted by their actions; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did the two partners learn what they were doing before they did it? Did they learn how to perform their activities safely?
b) Were the partners aware of the potential risks of their activities?

4) Secrecy. Abuse often happens in secret. This is the hardest one on this checklist, because — due to the fact that BDSM is a very marginalized, misunderstood sexuality — BDSM often happens in secret, too. But this is one of the benefits of having an entire subculture that deals with BDSM: we look out for each other.
a) Were the two partners involved in the local BDSM scene? Did they get advice from knowledgeable, understanding BDSM people during rough patches in their relationship?

* * *

The moral of the story here is … for a community that’s so frequently accused of hiding or accepting abuse, doesn’t it seem like the BDSM scene puts in an awful lot of work against abuse? Again, I can’t speak for all BDSM communities, nor can I speak for everyone who has had BDSM experiences; and I know that — as with all types of relationships — there will occasionally be abusive BDSM relationships. But the three anti-abuse initiatives I’ve listed above are hardly unique, and many of us within the BDSM community work to emphasize those ideas as much as possible.

We’re not monsters. We’re not trying to do things that our partners don’t want to do. I have never met anyone within the BDSM scene who was not exquisitely aware of how careful we must be to gain consent from our partners. I’m not saying that people who don’t care about consent don’t exist — I’m not saying that abusers don’t exist — even within our community. But the community as a whole dislikes abuse at least as much as any other community. The only difference between us and non-BDSM people is that we feel violence and dominance as a language of love; violence and dominance is not, for us, intrinsically abusive — rather, something to be considered in context and with full understanding of the involved parties’ BDSM needs.

2009 14 Apr

Deadline approaching: Write for the new Sex / Gender / Body community blog!

A while back, I attended a Chicago Bloggers Meetup. I wasn’t sure what it would be like — how would a group of bloggers on a huge cross-section of topics take the introduction of a BDSM activist into their midst?

As it happened, the group was great and very encouraging; the host, Arvan Reese, gave me the excellent idea of starting a BDSM community blog — that is, a themed blog with many contributors and lots of open community discussion space. I thought about it a bit, but unfortunately I concluded that I didn’t really have time to implement it ….

… except that maybe that wasn’t unfortunate after all, because Arvan got in touch soon after and said: “Actually, I think I want to start a general sexuality community blog myself!”

He and I have met a couple times since then, and I’m really excited about his ideas. He’s got a fair amount of experience with political community sites (examples of which include the iconic DailyKos), and he’s created a great skeleton for this one. It will not only have awesome regular featured writers — there’ll be all kinds of ways for everyone to contribute.

The new sexuality community blog is going to be at And imagine how flattered I was when, last time we met, Arvan told me that not only had I inspired him to start this blog in the first place … but that he was hoping to use my bite-size sex-positive quotation, There is no “should”, for the Sex / Gender / Body tagline! I call that proof that this site will have its sex-positive priorities in exactly the right places.

A bunch of amazing people have submitted their work for consideration, but we’d love to see more. You know you want to be a featured writer. The deadline’s coming up, but there’s still enough time for you to go for it! Here’s Arvan’s call for writers:

ATTN: Call for Sex/Gender/Body Bloggers and Writers

Do you write about any of these issues and communities?


Do you work with these communities as an advocate or ally, and do you want to write about your work? Would you like to make an impact across your own affected community and reach out to other SGB communities? Would you like to help bridge the gap among all SGB identities to increase understanding, acceptance, rights and respect?

A new collaborative community blog is being launched that will bring these communities, individuals and issues together in frank, open discussion. Contributions will come from anyone that wants to post at the site, cross-posters from other blogs active in a community, and featured writers.

We are looking for Feature Authors for this site from among the following:


Interested parties, please contact ADMIN AT SEXGENDERBODY DOT COM with the following:


The site is scheduled to begin in May 2009. The selection of Feature Authors will be completed by April 15.

Thank you!

2009 30 Mar

Introducing … Chicago Pleasure Salon!

edit, April 2010: I’ve written up a guideline on how to start your own sex-positive meetup group — so if that’s what you want to do, click here! Otherwise keep reading …. end of edit

* * *

Introducing ….

presented by
SEX+++ and SWOP-Chicago

1st Tuesdays, 6-10pm

+ Become a fan on Facebook — here’s the Pleasure Salon Facebook Page! Invite all your friends!

* * *

Announcing the very first night of Chicago’s new sex-positive meetup! On Tuesday, April 7th between 6 and 10 P.M., come out to Villains — buy a sandwich or a drink — and hang out with Chicago’s sex-positive community. Pleasure Salon, every first Tuesday, will be the place to talk about sex, culture and sexual fun! This event is modeled on New York’s Pleasure Salon, “A Gathering of Sex-Positive Activists”. We want to build networks among all kinds of sex-positive people and create an open exchange of ideas about sex. All are welcome.

Pleasure Salon is hosted by Clarisse Thorn, Serpent Libertine, The Ultimates and Ken Melvoin-Berg, and co-organized with the awesome Pleasure Salon Committee: Cunning Minx, Aspasia Bonasera, Arvan Reese, Ben, and Robyn. We all want you to attend Pleasure Salon — whether you identify as

+ a sexuality activist,
+ a sex worker,
+ a pornographer,
+ a swinger,
+ a polyamory practitioner,
+ a tantric practitioner,
+ a sex educator,
+ a free speech advocate,
+ a progressive pastor,
+ an AIDS worker,
+ a radical feminist,
+ a student,
+ not at all studious,
+ skeptical about our politics and aims,
+ or just someone who likes talking about sex!

* * *

Help us create a more sex-positive world!

1st Tuesdays, 6-10pm
beginning April 7th, 2009

Villains Bar & Grill
649 S. Clark Street

Under 21 welcome, but they obviously cannot drink.

2009 23 Mar

Interview with Richard Berkowitz, star of “Sex Positive” and icon of safer sex activism

Our second film at Sex+++ was “Sex Positive”, a fascinating documentary about the history of safer sex. I’ll be honest: I was psyched about “Sex Positive” from day one, long before I’d even seen it. It was the first film I chose for my film list. In fact, the whole idea for the film series came out of a conversation I had with Lisa (our lovely Hull-House Museum education coordinator) in which I said that I wanted to see “Sex Positive”, and then added, “There are so many sexuality movies I want to see. You and I should have a regular movie night!” She looked at me and said thoughtfully, “You know, I bet people besides us would come to that ….”

“Sex Positive” tells the story of Richard Berkowitz — and how he was one of the first to spread the word about safer sex in America. Berkowitz, a talented writer, started out as a hot-blooded participant in the promiscuous gay bathhouse culture; later, he became an S&M hustler. When AIDS started decimating the gay community, Berkowitz was instrumental in teaching his community (and the world) about safer sex. As it became clear to some medical professionals that sexual promiscuity spread AIDS, Berkowitz tried to tell the world about their findings. But there was a huge backlash against him — because in those days, the promiscuous bathhouse culture was seen by many gay men as a huge part of identifying as gay and sex-positive … and anyone who argued against it, or tried to modify it, was therefore cast by many people as sex-negative.

You can read my “Sex Positive” followup blog post and quick semi-review here, and Richard Berkowitz himself did just that! He left a comment offering feedback on my review, and I was so thrilled and honored to hear from him that I emailed him right away. We talked a little bit, and met in person last time I was in New York City — and I practically begged him to let me interview him by email. Here’s the results: a discussion of Richard’s history with S&M; what he thinks about advocacy; his feelings about the gay community and its history; and where he finds himself in his life right now.

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Clarisse Thorn: In “Sex Positive”, you mention that you didn’t initially think of yourself as a BDSM type, but that you had partners who convinced you to do it. Do you think you would have gotten into BDSM if you hadn’t had partners pressuring you to do it? Do you think you would have gotten into it if you hadn’t been able to make money at it?

Richard Berkowitz: I was filmed talking in three- to four-hour sessions over the course of a year about difficult, often painful, personal history. At times I felt uncomfortable, I made mistakes, so there are moments in “Sex Positive” that I wish I could clarify — but it’s not my film. That’s why I’m thrilled that you’re giving me the first opportunity to address the moments that make me cringe when I see the movie — and what amazed me is that you nailed most of them.

Me — pressured into S&M? Hell, no. I stumbled across BDSM porn in college, and was both appalled and more turned on than I was to any other porn. I pursued a few experiences as a novice when I was in college, and I was completely turned off to the scene for years. The few Tops I met were clumsy, distracted by fetishes that bored me, and I was convinced a bottom could easily get hurt — so I walked away.

When I began hustling in NYC, I was an angry activist and it attracted S&M bottoms that were happy to teach me what I could do with my anger that was erotic and consensual. To that I added what I had learned that Tops did wrong — and presto! I got really good at it fast — and I loved it. I was doing two or three scenes a day, but because I could often steer a scene to what turned me on, it felt more like play than work.

If I hadn’t had been trained as a Top by older, experienced bottoms who were hiring me, I still would have had S&M experiences on my own. But I doubt that I would have gotten as heavily into the scene if it wasn’t for hustling. That’s where I earned my S&M PhD.

In 1979, S&M was considered the fallback scene for aging hustlers — it was what you turned to when you were losing your youth. There was such a dearth of good Tops. But I had the raw material to be a great Top at 23, and I built quite a reputation on word-of-mouth referrals and repeats. Many of my clients became close friends.

CT: Where do you place BDSM in your sexual identity and self-conception? Do you see it as deeply part of you, or something you chose? Do you think of your BDSM urges as coming from a place as deep, as intrinsic, as your gay orientation?

RB: I think it’s too late for me to answer that question. Turning my libido into an occupation at 23 changed me in both good ways and bad. It would take a book to explain — so let me just say that as a product of gay male sex in the 70s, there was an element of power intrinsic to the sexuality of the times. That shaped me. I don’t see vanilla sex and S&M sex as mutually exclusive because I believe in Tops and bottoms — and that’s the basis of BDSM. “Tops and bottoms” are not exclusive to BDSM; the terms are widely used for assigning roles of power in sex in general. Gore Vidal said, “There is no such thing as gay and straight — only top and bottom”. I believe both are true.

But one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a third of my living space for the past three decades was a sound-proofed dungeon.

I think that a culture like ours that’s based on competition, as opposed to cooperation, can be extremely sadomasochistic. I think bad S&M can be found in many aspects of our daily life, and good S&M is just eroticizing aspects of being human that can enhance sex immensely for some.

CT: What kind of BDSM advocacy have you encountered? What kind of sex work advocacy have you encountered? What did you think of what you saw? Do you have any ideas about how to make those movements effective? Do you have any fears about those movements? Would you consider being part of those movements?

RB: My only fear about those movements would be if they didn’t exist! My neighbor down the hall for the past 25 years built my dungeon and was a co-founder of Gay Male SM Activists, but I always had too much hot sex going on at home to be interested in meetings. Plus, I never stopped feeling like a pariah in the gay community because of the attacks on me and my writing since AIDS began. You reach a point where you just assume people hate you because it’s easier than trying to figure out who doesn’t.

I fiercely support BDSM advocacy, but mainly from a distance. There’s a limited number of body blows any activist can take before we just retreat. I had my fill — but the response to “Sex Positive” and the new Obama era is nudging me out of my shell. I had a breakup a few years ago that devastated me, so I’ve been out of the scene for almost three years. Now I’m trying to reinvent myself, find one person I can retreat from the world with. I’ve never lied about S&M being an intrinsic part of my sexuality, and because of my early bad experiences with BDSM, I’m thrilled and inspired by advocates for it. If there had been BDSM advocacy when I came into BDSM, then I don’t think I would have had the bad experiences I mentioned earlier. As a BDSM sex worker, I met so many men who had horrible tales of being hurt in scenes, and I did my best to be an antidote for that.

CT: On my blog, you commented that “Of course BDSM was a source of joy in my life but I put it aside when it robs me from having a platform to champion safe sex to the largest possible audience, which BDSM often has.” Could you talk more about that?

RB: Smear campaigns are hard to pin down, and there’s no way to know how much of the contempt against me or my writing was due to my BDSM, my sex work, my safe sex evangelism or simply me. I’m just a dangling piñata for people who have issues with sex!

There are gay people of my generation who are as uninformed and rabidly anti-BDSM sex as homophobes are about gay sex.

I can’t think of anyone who has gone on film with such brutally honest testimony about their radical sexual history as I did in “Sex Positive.” It felt like a huge risk and you can see my anxiety in the film, but to me, this level of honesty is crucial to pro-sex activism. People are so dishonest about sex; many would never talk publicly about their private sexual behavior — and they don’t want others doing it either, so it’s not easy.

There was a doctor I saw once when AIDS began who heard I was into S&M. As he went to take blood from me, he stabbed the needle into my arm. I bolted out of the chair screaming, and he said coyly, “Oh, sorry, I thought you liked pain.” How can I not feel reticent talking about BDSM considering so many people I’ve met like that? And then I think, how can I not?

I’ve seen the most courageous pro-sex writers and activists attacked, pilloried and silenced because of their honesty in writing about their kinky sexual histories. I shudder when I recall the vicious smears against pro-sex feminists by anti-porn feminists back in the early 80s. I don’t want to invite that bile into my life, especially now, when my circle of gay male friends are no longer alive and here to support me when I go out on a limb with my personal radical sexual issues in public.

So why did I speak out? Why do I still speak out? Because I owed so much to the army of men who loved and supported me over the years and no longer have a voice, and because gay men were dying. It was no time to be squeamish about sex. It still isn’t.

CT: Do you have any regrets? — and, concurrently, what are you most proud of? Did the making of the film “Sex Positive” bring any regret or pride to the surface for you?

RB: I have a few regrets about “Sex Positive”, but they pale next to what I’ve gained. I’ve been to more cities with this movie in one year than I’ve been to in my entire life. Young people have been extraordinarily supportive and kind, and it helps me to let go of the past. I’ve been stuck in the past for so long — it’s deadening, but I finally feel that this movie is breaking me free, to finally let go and move on to write about other things. For that, I’m forever indebted to Daryl Wein, the documentary’s director.

What I’m most proud of is how much work I did on safe sex that no one even knows about. I’m putting it all on the Internet as a free archive, as soon as I can find or pay someone to help me with the technical stuff. I’m from the age of typewriters.

CT: Is there anything you’d like to add? Please feel free to also respond directly to points I made when I talked about “Sex Positive” on my blog.

RB: I loved S&M hustling before AIDS so much — sometimes, when I talk about it, I become the part of me that tied people up and dominated them; it’s like a mental erection. I get lost in the reverie of being an erotic, arrogant Top. I begged director Daryl Wein to delete me saying that clients would tell me that I could do whatever I wanted to them except fuck them, and then I would proceed to do just that. I said that when I was lost in a persona, and it makes me sound like a rapist!

The truth is, my most valued expertise as a hustler was teaching men who were afraid of getting fucked how to relax, how to douche, how to open up, how to explore the intense pleasures of receptive anal intercourse and anal orgasm without any pain. I would never rape or violate anyone’s consent — and certainly not customers I wanted to come back! I had tremendous empathy for how difficult it can be to learn how to get anally fucked because I was never able — or had the desire — to do it without being high on drugs. (You have to remember how pervasive recreational drug use was during the sexual revolution. There were articles in the gay press saying how cocaine was good for you. We didn’t understand addiction then as we do now. And we paid a heavy price for that innocence and ignorance.)

When I began hustling in NYC, the lesbian and gay liberation movement was ten years old — and about that mature. We grew up in such an intensely erotophobic and homophobic culture — there was no way to escape it, even after we accepted that we were gay. We didn’t always treat each other well, and it permeated our sexual expression whether it was vanilla or S&M.

You mention in your blog post that you are wary of how I talk about BDSM as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community. Yes — in S&M and in vanilla sex — I saw how we brought a lot of the culture’s contempt to what we did. But, as I say in “Sex Positive”, many of us came to realize this, and we understood that a lot of sexual fantasies are socially constructed by the times that shaped us. Many of us came to realize that sexual fantasies don’t diminish us as people — they can actually help free and enrich us when we understand what we’re doing.

I’m reluctant to put myself forward as a role model for BDSM and sex work, because of what happened to me after AIDS when I went back to hustling. I was furious that there was no place in the community for me to do safe sex education. I felt so hurt that some people only saw me as a sex worker/sadomasochist and that political differences got in the way of saving sexually active gay men’s lives. You can’t imagine the rage I felt that it took two entire years after we wrote and published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” for NYC to do its first safe sex campaign. I went back to hustling in such despair that I was an addiction waiting to happen, and that’s what did.

In the end, though, BDSM and my love for it is part of what saved my life. If I weren’t so busy hustling with BDSM before AIDS and safe sex, I would have spent much more time at the baths having high risk sex, and died long ago. I think each of us has a limit to how much sex and how many different partners our spirits can bear. Sex can become an addiction, and when you reach that point, people use recreational drugs to keep that level of hypersexual activity going. If I had found a place in safe sex education, my life would have been a much happier, healthier journey. But I never lose sight of how grateful I am to still be here, or how much joy and pleasure sexual freedom gave me until the world I loved started collapsing all around me and taking the men I loved along with it.

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Check out Richard Berkowitz’s web site to read more about him and order his book, Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.

If you’re interested in seeing Daryl Wein’s documentary “Sex Positive”, then keep track of the film’s website. It hasn’t been released yet, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be out to a wider audience later this year.

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

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2009 10 Mar

Interview with Daniel Bergner, author of “The Other Side of Desire”

I was all set to dislike Daniel Bergner. As a member of the BDSM community and an advocate for greater societal acceptance of BDSM, I was unimpressed by the reviews of his new book, The Other Side of Desire. I get annoyed when I see media depictions that play into BDSM stereotypes or create other problems for the BDSM community image; it seemed to me that Bergner had written a book that did just that. At best, it sounded naïve — at worst, cynical and insensitive. I requested an interview with him, wondering whether we’d end up at each other’s throats … and then I read the book.

The Other Side of Desire is far more complex than I initially gave it credit for. There’s too much silence around alternative sexuality, and it breaks that silence — not by promoting an agenda, but with a plea for personal understanding. I found myself believing that Daniel Bergner really had done his best — not to put us deviants on display like animals in a zoo, but to give profiles of human beings thinking about human concerns. Still, there were gaps in the book that I found very troubling, and I wanted to see if he could defend them.

I arranged to meet Daniel at the Leather Archives and Museum, a museum devoted to leather / fetish / BDSM on Chicago’s north side. There, I found him looking over the Archives’ BDSM history timeline. As he greeted me, I was impressed by his measured speech and unexpectedly dark eyes. There was an openness to him — even, perhaps, a vulnerability — that didn’t come across in photographs. I could see how he’d gotten so many people to open up about their sexuality, and I warmed to him instantly.

The most obvious question to start with was what fetishes Daniel has, personally. But he’d already told other interviewers that he’s totally vanilla …

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Daniel Bergner: (laughs) Did I say totally vanilla? I think I’ve — I think vanilla-ish, let’s go with that.

Clarisse Thorn: There was a part of your book’s Introduction that made some kinky readers wince a little bit. It’s at the beginning, where you compare your coverage of sexual fetishists to your previous journalistic experiences … one experience was interviewing convicted prisoners on death row, and another was covering war in Sierra Leone. Do you think it’s problematic that you compared alternative sexuality to a war zone in a foreign country?

DB: Now, I think that comparison was misunderstood. I do not see the erotically unusual as comparable to criminality or to utterly damaging violence, like in a war zone. What I was trying to say was that in each of those previous books I’ve gone to a very extreme place in order to learn about things that are universal.

Here, with sexuality — again, not comparing criminality to alternative sexuality — but I was comparing journeys of looking at lives that might fall outside “the norm”, and I’m putting quotes around “norm” because I think that whole concept of normal is suspect. Looking at lives lived outside the typical boundaries might help me, might help readers understand more about the lives we live sexually, how we come to be who we are sexually, and what we do with our sexuality.

CT: I’m interested to know what you knew about alternative sexuality before you started this book. What did you think of alternative sexuality? What stereotypes did you have? In particular, what kind of experience did you have with BDSM?

DB: I think I’ve come to all the writing I’ve done with a very open mind. Some people would say “too open”. It’s not just that I hesitate to judge. I think I’m missing the judgmental gene somehow.

I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. I had no, or little, direct contact. It was new.

CT: You wrote on the blog for Powell’s Bookstore that you met fetishists for your book through “friends, therapists, and the Internet”. Can you shed some more light on that?

DB: I met the sadist I profiled — The Baroness — through a writer friend who very much admired The Baroness. Others I met through therapists who knew my writing and trusted me to be careful in my perspective. Ron, who’s the central figure in the last story —

CT: The amputee fetishist.

DB: — the amputee devotee, yes — I met him very indirectly through the Internet; I was having conversations with people in that community.

CT: In a comment on the blog “Sex in the Public Square” you said that you are “not, primarily, an advocate.” In other words, you didn’t see yourself as writing this book in order to advocate for alternative sexuality. Making alternative sexuality more acceptable was not a major goal for you. Is that right?

DB: I rely on and am indebted to advocates, because those who advocate for — in this case, sexual freedom, in other cases, for a more humanistic vision of convicts or what it means to live in a West African village — that kind of advocacy allows for what I do. I couldn’t do what I do without it, because it causes people to be open-minded and take an interest. What I do is try to tell complex stories about complex human beings in a way that makes us feel our humanity intensely, and deepens our humanity.

I think it’s very hard to create politically driven art. There are some examples of it that succeed, but I think often, people have to make a choice. I think it’s really difficult to do both.

CT: I guess those of us who are more concerned with advocacy just thought that it seems strange, even heartless, to write a book like this without making advocacy a goal. You must know that there’s a battle on — there are people out there, like the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, who are working really hard towards alternative sexuality acceptance.

So on the one side we have the NCSF. And then there are people on the other side who do nothing but tell us kinksters that we are sinful, or sick, or deluded, or otherwise screwed up. Anti-BDSM activists are not always religious evangelicals, either. They can come from surprisingly liberal circles. For instance — I identify strongly as a feminist, and there are lots of feminists out there who think that practicing BDSM and feminism are not irreconcilable — but there are also anti-BDSM feminists. Just recently I encountered a popular radical feminist blogger who outright stated that sadists should either repress their sadistic desires, or kill themselves.

We deal with this hostile environment all the time, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who would write a book like yours and then say that he’s outside the conflict. Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m saying. Suppose a foreigner came to the U.S. and wrote a book about four soldiers on the front in the Iraq War. And suppose his book was a huge hit in his country. Suppose that for lots of people in that foreigner’s home country, his book is the only exposure they have to the lives of Iraq War soldiers — that’s all they ever read about those stories. And then suppose that author said, afterwards, “I just wanted to write a book about these particular four soldiers, and their lives as soldiers. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Iraq War, and I didn’t mean to shape people’s perceptions of what being a soldier is like in general.”

What would you say to that author?

DB: That’s a great example, and it makes me feel bad.

CT: (laughs) Sorry!

DB: That’s fine; it’s your job to complicate things and ask difficult questions.

I have certainly read about the legal thinking that surrounds BDSM. Still — I hope this will not sound like too rarefied and irrelevant a thought — I have always been protective of the impulse to tell stories, to render people within nonfiction or journalism. So there’s a part of me that says: Wait. We don’t want all nonfiction, all journalism to become advocacy, because we’d lose something — we’d lose a depth of human investigation. We’d lose a depth that language itself can bring us. We’d lose a level of emotional resonance.

With the prison book, of course that book was in part an effort to have people see human beings that our society has rendered completely invisible, and to have our society see them as human beings. I think a lot of readers did in fact react that way. So when I would speak to groups about that, on the one hand I was protective and I said that I was telling stories about particular people, but that didn’t mean that underneath wasn’t an impulse to make people see in a way that starts to change their minds. Understand on an emotional level that makes them reconsider on an intellectual level.

You’re right: it would be ridiculously callous for me to say, “I just wanted to tell some stories, great, I’m done, goodbye.” Of course that’s not true. Of course I’m concerned with the boundaries that are placed on the erotic, and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t feel that. That was an original impulse behind this book — feeling those boundaries in all kinds of forms, and questioning them. The entire book, in a way, is an attempt to chisel away at those constraints.

Let’s circle back to your radical feminist voice, who wrote that all sadists should either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. There’s an example of politics run amok. That writer is so engaged with her own political viewpoint — from her perspective, she probably sees BDSM as a threat to a feminist sense of independence. But by applying those politics to the realm of eros so extremely, she renders herself absurd. So there, again, I think your point sort of — if not proves mine, at least bolsters it a little bit. Eros is such a complex place, such a place for individual exploration. I almost want to clear politics out of it altogether. It’s difficult enough for us to be us as human beings when it comes to the erotic, without politics getting in there … once politics gets in there, I worry that we’re going to distort things even more.

In any case, I certainly get your point, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I don’t care about sexual freedom. I hope there is an undercurrent of tacit advocacy that runs throughout my book.