Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

2011 22 Dec

On Change and Accountability

This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot, where I became the Sex + Relationships Section Editor on December 15, 2011. For more of the Role/Reboot Sex + Relationships section, click here.

Do we actually believe that people can change? If so, how do we want them to show us they’ve changed? Is absolution possible? Who decides the answers to these questions?

I very rarely weigh in on Internet Scandals. This is partly because I’ve got lots of stuff to write that I believe has longer-lasting value than the latest flavor of the moment. It’s also because I have much less time and patience for internet flamewars than I once did. I seem to recall that at some point flamewars were kind of … fun? But these days they just feel predictable, tiring and unproductive.

As it happens, though, I unintentionally found myself in the middle of one this week. I feel exhausted and trapped by the whole thing. But I hope I can dim the flamewar into a lantern to illuminate issues that actually matter.

Specifically, I interviewed Hugo Schwyzer, a prominent writer on gender issues, who identifies as a male feminist and teaches gender studies in southern California. Hugo has a very complicated history that includes incredibly problematic behavior: drug addiction; compulsive and destructive sexual behavior, including sex with his students — and one attempt, over a decade ago, to kill both himself and his girlfriend during a drug binge. He has since, in his own words, “cleaned up”; chosen sobriety; recommitted to his religion; confessed his history; and attempted to make amends to the people he feels that he wronged.

Because of Hugo’s history, a lot of people really don’t like him. When I posted the interview at Feministe, one of the top feminist blogs, the comments exploded. Pretty soon, the comments had nothing to do with the interview at all. Some commenters were making amateur psychological diagnoses of Hugo, and other readers were emailing me privately to express shock at how ugly the discussion had gotten. So I closed down the discussion, making it impossible to continue commenting in that particular forum. As a result, I have now received more hate mail from other feminists than I ever have from anti-feminists. (Note: I have not received a small amount of hate mail from anti-feminists.)

In this situation, people seem to expect me to take a position that is primarily political. People seem to believe that I can either “prove my loyalty to feminism” by throwing Hugo under the bus — or I can “prove my loyalty to Hugo” by claiming that everything he’s done is A-OK. Like many political problems, neither of these options are fully human. Both of these options are stupid, limited, and do not get us any further in our lives.

I certainly do not always agree with Hugo, and I have occasionally pushed him to reconsider certain things. But, full disclosure: my experiences with him have been incredibly positive. Hugo was one of the first high-profile bloggers to promote my work — and occasionally, he took heat for doing so when I wrote about controversial topics. Hugo invited me to guest lecture in his class when I passed through Los Angeles, and he’s given me extensive feedback on and encouragement about my work. Even though I don’t always agree with him, and I believe that a lot of feminists’ critiques of his work are valid … a number of Hugo’s pieces make me want to cheer, like his article “The Paris Paradox: How Sexualization Replaces Opportunity with Obligation”. Perhaps ironically, when I once wrote an agonized post about moral accountability and how to deal with friends who have done really bad things, the most thoughtful and nuanced response came from Hugo. (He’s also written about the problem of how too many people will excuse some sexual predators, even within feminism itself, just because those predators do good activist work.)

Other feminists have been angrily emailing me, Tweeting at me, etc with things like “FUCK YOU FOR PROTECTING THIS WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING.” But I have seen no evidence that Hugo hasn’t made an honest and sustained effort at recovery and accountability. I have seen no evidence that Hugo’s religious re-conversion was dishonest. And I have seen no evidence that Hugo continues problematic behavior.

I am telling you this partly to explain where I’ve been coming from during this particular Internet Scandal. But more importantly, I’m telling you this to lend shape to the ethical problems I see underneath it — problems that are intimately intertwined with how I think about gender and sexuality. I’m actually not very interested in picking apart Hugo himself, whether positively or negatively. I believe that the politics of this situation are mostly a cheap distraction from truth and honor.

For me, the interesting and important questions that emerge in cases like this are:


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 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 1 Jul

“Inherent Female Submission”: The Wrong Question

I get a certain question occasionally, from straight dudes who’ve had a number of sexual partners. It goes something like this:

All the women I’ve slept with liked pain. They asked me to hurt them or to dominate them in bed. I did it, and enjoyed it; I loved how much it turned them on … it turned them on a lot. But I keep thinking about it now. Why are all women into being submissive and/or masochistic in bed? What does that mean?

They ask me this question in vaguely worried tones. Sometimes they say things like, “It’s really creepy.” It is obvious that these dudes are rather concerned about this Terrible Truth.

Here’s my short answer for those guys: If you know women who are submissive and/or masochistic in bed, that means those particular women like being submissive and/or masochistic in bed. It doesn’t mean anything else.

You’re still here? Ah, well. I figured that wouldn’t satisfy. So here’s a longer answer:

Firstly, if you’re a straight dude, and you’re drawing conclusions about “all women” based on the women you get involved with, then stop. Just stop. Even if you have slept with zillions of women, you don’t actually know what all women want, because:

A) Your experience of women is limited to women who got involved with you. You are screening for certain qualities, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously or by accident. If you tend to enjoy the dominant role, for example, or if you use a dominant style of flirtation, then you could be screening for submissive female partners, whether you intend to or not.

B) Everyone has biases, including you. I love the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you have a bias towards seeing women as sexually submissive (and you almost certainly do, because female sexual submission is a hugely prevalent cultural trope), then you’re more likely to see female submission in places where it does not exist.

C) Women, like people of all genders, are demonstrably varied. You really don’t think non-submissive straight women exist? Why then, it must be so inconvenient when I point you to the work of blatantly dominant women, huh? It’s shocking, I know … next I’ll be telling you that queer and asexual women exist! (Not to mention women who switch among roles — from submissive to dominant, from sadistic to masochistic. I primarily go for submissive masochism, but still, I myself play for both teams.)

The thing is, though … no matter how many holes I can poke in these dudes’ anecdotal “data”, I can’t bring myself to worry like they do. Even if a brilliant, well-reviewed study came out tomorrow and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that 100% of women are submissive masochists in bed, I wouldn’t care. (I bet you my left ear this study will never happen, but I’m just saying, even if it did, I wouldn’t care.)

Let me say it really clearly: Even if most women are submissive masochists in bed (and I’m not convinced most women are), there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t care. [ 1 ]

Why don’t I care? Because all this anxiety and argument about submission — and in particular, what it means for women to be submissive; whether all women are submissive; whether women are “inherently” or “biologically” submissive; whether BDSM is an orientation or not … this is all the wrong question.

I’ll note that the research seems to indicate that more kinky women are submissives than dominant. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about the tastes of women who don’t identify as kinky. And it’s probably biased by culture, in that everything from fashion photos to romance novels emphasizes female submission and male dominance. Within BDSM culture, female dominance and male submission are often disappeared, much to the justified frustration of actual female dominants and male submissives. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — sometimes including our own psyches and sexualities. Plus, if the only available patterns for kink emphasize something a person doesn’t like, then that person will probably avoid kink. Note that in the research I linked to, for example, the percentage of submissive women was higher in samples from within the BDSM subculture than in samples from outside the BDSM subculture … perhaps because many BDSM subcultural gatherings emphasize female submission and thereby alienate women who are primarily dominant. Anyway, regardless … this is still the wrong question.

In short, “inherent female submission” is the wrong question.

Certainly, I’ve fought through a lot of personal fears about what my interest in BDSM meant for me as a feminist … but these days I have trouble understanding what, exactly, got me so upset. I can’t believe how long it took me to outthink those fears. Now, it just seems instinctively obvious to me that:


2011 27 May

I’m Not Your Sex-Crazy Nympho Dreamgirl

This was originally published on May 12, 2011 over at the Good Men Project.

There’s this cultural image of what it means to be female, and good in bed. The image includes being young and thin and cisgendered of course, and that can be problematic. But it also includes a lot of behavioral stuff: the way you squirm, the way you moan, being Super Excited about everything the guy wants to do, and Always Being Up for It — whatever “It” is. When people think about “good in bed,” for a woman, that’s often what they think.

Here’s a short list of some things I think are totally awesome:

+ Squirming and moaning during sex in a genuine way, out of genuine pleasure!

+ Acting Super Excited when your partner wants to do something you’re actually Super Excited about!

+ Being up for sexual experimentation and trying new things, while keeping track of your boundaries and saying no (or calling your safeword) to sexual things you really don’t like!

Those things are great. They’re great when they happen in all kinds of sex, and I have no problem with how people experience or deal with with those things — whether people get them from vanilla or S&M sex, or porn, or sex with multiple people, or queer sex, or whatever. All consensual sex is fine with me. (In particular, in pieces like the one you’re about to read, I often have to make it really clear that I’m not anti-porn. OK? I’m not anti-porn. Got that? Say it with me now: Clarisse Thorn is not anti-porn. Yay, it rhymes!)

What scares me, however—what continuously gets my goat, what still occasionally makes me feel weird about sex — is how easy it is to perform those three things I listed above. Because I have always, since before I even started having sex, known exactly what I was supposed to look like while I had sex. I don’t even know how I internalized those images: some of them through porn, I suppose, or art or erotica or what have you; some of them by reading sex tips on the Internet or hearing the ones whispered to me by friends. But I can definitely assure you that before I had any actual sexual partners, I knew how to give a good blowjob. I also knew how to tilt my head back and moan, and I knew how to twist my body, and I knew what my reactions and expressions were supposed to look and sound like — I knew all those things much better than I knew what would make me react.

There was a while there, where my sexuality was mostly performance: an image, an act, a shell that I created because I knew it was hot for my partners. I’m not saying I was performing 100% of the time — but certainly, when I was just starting to have sex, that’s mostly what it was. And, scarily, I can put the shell back on at any time. Sometimes it’s hard to resist, because I know men will reward me for it, emotionally, with affection and praise. It’s much, much more difficult to get what I actually want out of a sexual interaction than it is for me to create that sexy dreamgirl shell: hard for me to communicate my desires, hard for me to know what I’m thinking, hard for me to set boundaries.

And hard to believe that a guy will like me as much, if I try to be honest about what I want. Honesty means that sometimes I’m confused, and sometimes we have to Talk About It; honesty means that sometimes I say no, it means that sometimes I’m not Up For It. Something in me is always asking: Surely he’d prefer the sexy, fake, plastic dreamgirl shell? It’s not true, I know it’s not true, I swear it’s not true — I don’t have such a low opinion of men as that. I know this is just a stereotype, the idea that men are emotionally stunted horndogs with no interest in how their partners feel.

So sometimes, I have to fight myself not to perform. But it’s worth it — because the hardest thing of all is feeling locked into an inauthentic sexuality. I tell myself, I try to force myself to believe it: even if a guy would like me more for faking and holding back and being so-called “low-maintenance” — I tell myself it’s a stereotype, but even if that stereotype is true of some men — no man is worth doing that to myself. No man is worth that trapped, false, sick feeling.


2011 8 May

Towards my personal Sex-Positive Feminist 101

There’s an aphorism from the early 1900s literary critic André Maurois: “The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.” Even though I identify as an activist and genuinely want to make a real impact on the world based on my beliefs … I often think that much of my blogging has been more an attempt to figure out what I believe, than to tell people what I believe. And sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be consistent more than I want to understand what I really believe — or more than I want to empathize with other people — or more than I want to be correct. We all gotta watch out for that.

But I’m getting too philosophical here. (Who, me?) The point is, I am hesitant to write something with a title like “Sex-Positive 101”, because not only does it seem arrogant (who says Clarisse Thorn gets to define Sex-Positive 101?) — it also implies that my thoughts on sex-positivity have come to a coherent, standardized end. Which they haven’t! I’m still figuring things out, just like everyone else.

However, lately I’ve been thinking that I really want to write about some basic ideas that inform my thoughts on sex-positive feminism. I acknowledge that I am incredibly privileged (white, upper-middle-class, heteroflexible, cisgendered etc) and coming mostly from a particular community, the BDSM community; both of these factors inform and limit the principles that underpin my sex-positivity. I welcome ideas for Sex-Positive Feminism 101, links to relevant 101 resources, etc.

This got really long, and I reserve the right to edit for clarity or sensitivity.


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 28 Jan

Manliness and Feminism 3: Rise of the Machines

New open thread on manliness and feminism. What will we do when we run out of Terminator flicks?

As Cessen says,

The manliness followup thread was a bit over 450 thousand words long.
The second followup thread is a bit under 200 thousand.

So, counted together as a single thread (as it should be), we’re at about 650 thousand words.

For comparison, the bible is a bit over 770 thousand words long.

If we yoink out the intra-thread quotations then these threads are probably a couple hundred thousand words shorter than 650. But still. This is a seriously epic thread. It should be preserved for posterity. It’s amazing what joint authorship can accomplish.

Previous posts in the manliness series:
* Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?
* Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights
* Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space for Men
* Manliness and Feminism: The Followup
* Manliness and Feminism 2: Judgment Day

The above image is available in poster form from, or would be if they weren’t out of stock. Gotcha!

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 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

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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.

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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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