Posts Tagged ‘film series’

2009 9 Nov

Sex+++, Best Sex-Positive Documentary Series Ever, Will Continue!

Although it kills me that I’m not there to see it, I am thrilled to announce that Sex+++ — the Chicago sex-positive documentary film series that I poured my soul into creating — will continue past the last film I chose!

My partner in crime, amazing Hull-House liaison Lisa Junkin, is now coordinating a Sex+++ committee that includes activists, sex workers, scholars, and kinksters. This committee will curate Sex+++ for the foreseeable future, and films will now screen on the second Tuesday of each month, 7PM as always, at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

To recommend a film to Lisa, email ljunkin at uic dot edu.

To receive invitations to each upcoming film, email Lisa or just join the Sex+++ Google Group yourself!

If you want to help out with Sex+++, email Lisa or just join the Sex+++ Assistance Google Group yourself!

The next film — which is tomorrow, Tuesday, November 10th at 7PM — is called “Petals”. From the invitation:
This documentary follows the journey of photographer Nick Karras in producing his artistic book Petals, about the beauty of female anatomy, examining the many unspoken beliefs and myths that affect women’s sexual self-esteem. The movie records the reactions of sex educators, women’s health professionals, art critics, and female participants in the project, as well as the man/woman-in-the-street as they confront the mystery of womanhood.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I’d just like to note that what the invitation so delicately terms “anatomy” is in fact “vaginas”.)

So, my friends, I fully expect you all to keep the faith and keep attending Sex+++!

Now 2nd Tuesdays at 7PM

originally curated by Clarisse Thorn

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted
All are welcome!
Hull-House Museum is wheelchair accessible. To request accessibility accommodations, please call the museum two weeks prior to the event.

2009 30 Sep

Hate Mail At Last: a Concerned Parent Writes In about my Sex-Positive Film Series

Hello blogosphere! I know I’ve been scarce of late. My Internet access is limited and when I can get it, there are often problems (for instance, it can be expensive; sex-positive sites may be blocked by overzealous porn filters; etc). I’m settling into my HIV/AIDS work here in Africa and it’s going well, but I’m still parsing out my thoughts about … well, everything. I’ve been working on some written pieces that I definitely intend to post online, but I’m not sure whether they’ll go here on my blog, or elsewhere. Stay tuned — if I post them elsewhere, then I’ll certainly announce it here.

I have, of course, been following the progress of my beloved sex-positive film series as best I could. The final film screening, “We Are Dad” — about gay adoption — is just around the corner on October 13th. That is, the final film in the original program that I curated … but I am thrilled to report that Sex+++ has gathered a crowd of such amazing, dedicated people that it’s likely to continue past my final curation date! I’ve been tracking the dialogue at a distance; there’s a committee working on continuing the series even now, and although my heart breaks to realize that I’ll be missing more incredible films and discussions, I am also so so so very proud that we created something that struck such a chord. (If you’re interested in being in on the continued progress of the series, go ahead and email Lisa Junkin [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].)

I was always a little surprised that Sex+++ didn’t get more negative attention. When starting it, I was very cautious … I walked on eggshells, really. I believed and continue to believe that comprehensive sex education is necessary for everyone, that adult sex education is a vital step forward, and that sexuality is an important academic topic. But public sexuality is such bitterly contested ground in American culture, I thought for sure that someone would attack a series that’s open, honest and positive about everything from BDSM to sex on videotape.

It took longer than I thought, but it finally happened. A few weeks ago, this arrived in my inbox. It was copied to a number of people at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the series venue, as well as administrators of the University of Illinois at Chicago (where the museum is located):

Dear UIC and Jane Addams administrators: 

I was appalled when I read about this film series!  How you were able to get approval to show these types of movies is beyond me.  You are doing this on a college campus??? Don’t you care about the minds of the students and general public you claim to be educating? 

The movies you are showing are meant to get people to think about every type of sex scenario.  I don’t see how this could have a positive outcome.  Is our society not perverted enough?  We are all affected by everything we see and hear.  These young people are unfortunately exposed to so much talk, filthy music lyrics, movies, and TV shows that can find nothing to talk about but sex.  They must think that is all adults are supposed to do!  These students have so much pressure on them, so many negative influences, temptation to have sex before they are mentally or physically ready to accept the responsibilities involved.  Why are you adding to that?  Can’t you think of something that would fill their heads with something more appropriate, and keep your pornography to yourselves, if that is your perversion?   

I’m sure you are all intelligent people.  Why don’t you use your intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place?  You can start by canceling this film series.

Thank you for considering my suggestions.

Julie Brown
Concerned UIC Parent

The spectacular Hull-House Education Coordinator, Lisa, immediately went into action. She drafted the following letter and shared it with me; a short version was later sent to Ms. Brown, but Lisa has given me permission to post the original version. It very nearly makes me cry with pride and joy (seriously):

Hi Julie and thanks very much for your email.  I am the person at the museum who runs the SEX+++ Documentary Film Series, and I want respond to your concerns.

To be clear about how the series works:  SEX+++ Documentary Film Series is not a series about porn.  It does show explicit material at times, though not in the majority of the films, not to minors, and not without voluntary consent forms when needed.  We chose each film with the intent of educating audiences and providing discussion points on sex positivity.  The way we define sex positivity is this: there is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to sex, so long as the behavior is safe and among consenting adults.

Sex positive education teaches that sexual behavior is not something to hate or fear, but something to be respected and enjoyed.  This way of thinking about sex is meant to erase harmful stigmas while encouraging open and honest communication among partners.  Importantly, a sex positive attitude includes the idea that abstaining from sex or preferring one behavior (including hetero, monogamous sex) over another is also completely valid, but it does not allow for judgment of other adults who are behaving responsibly (i.e. with the consent of their partners and with everyone’s health/safety in mind).

I agree with you on several things — especially that there are many negative and harmful portrayals of sex in the media and that young people often feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior.  But this series aims to create a different sort of space — one where healthy sexual behavior and relationships are demonstrated via documentary films, where honest and medically accurate information about sex is made available, where a diverse audience respectfully converses and sometimes disagrees, and where there is no shame in pleasure.

The films that we show are not altogether different than some of the material used in university courses — human sexuality, biology, gender studies — and we treat our series similarly.  The films are meant to expose our audience to other cultures and lifestyles, but we do not promote any given lifestyle — though we do put forth these values: 1) tolerance/acceptance for alternative lifestyles, 2) the importance of healthy, happy relationships, and 3) a belief that honest communication is necessary to healthy relationships.  I would argue that not only are these critically important values for any institution of education to promote, but that they are in line with other efforts at UIC.

I certainly recognize that not everyone’s world view accepts alternative lifestyles, but as an academic professional at a public university, I believe I have an obligation to be nonjudgmental and to provide safe, educational spaces for all types of students.  The SEX+++ Documentary Film Series seeks to do this, and from the feedback I have received, it has been a valuable program for students, staff, faculty, and community members.  The film series is one way that the museum is working to make the world a better, more just, and pleasurable place.

Again, thank you for your email.  I hope that you will consider coming to one of our public programs in the future — we have many opportunities for debate and discussion around important issues.  In addition to the SEX+++ film series, we have a weekly program called Re-thinking Soup, where we discuss issues of food and justice, and we have other lectures, workshops, and events.  Hope to see you in the future.

best regards,

* * *

Lisa has always been way better than I at staying calm, and her response was so eloquent that at first I wasn’t sure there’s anything left for me to say. But I think I just needed time to figure out where to start.

I have done a variety of community work in the USA, and I’m currently accepting an unbelievably low salary to work on HIV/AIDS mitigation in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not just doing it because I’m interested in traveling and learning about other cultures, but because I truly am seeking to — as she says — use my intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place. I poured hundreds of hours of unpaid effort into creating Sex+++ for the same reason.

I am not much older than the students at UIC. I grew up in America, and I felt the same sexual pressures that they do. When I came up with the slogan “Among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’,” I was thinking just as much about all the sex scenarios I don’t want to fulfill — as about the ones I do.

It’s true that this series grew partly out of my own desire to destigmatize almost “every type of sex scenario”. I don’t think people should ever, ever have to face negative judgment for doing consensual things. The complicated thing is that consent is not as simple as it looks, and it gets harder to negotiate and understand consent when the people involved don’t understand their limits or their desires.

When I think about “there is no ‘should’,” I think about all the times I’ve felt pressured to have sex I didn’t want to have. I think about the times I agreed to have sex I wasn’t enthusiastic about. And I think about all the time I spent being confused about my sexuality, wondering what was wrong with me and what was missing, before I finally came into my BDSM identity.

I think about kissing boys I didn’t really want to kiss, because I didn’t know how to turn them down; I think about the way I cried, how my heart shattered and my mind went into turmoil when I confronted how intrinsic pain and power are to my sexuality.

How can anyone think that repressing sex or driving it underground will make it disappear? How can anyone think that it will make it easier to deal with sex? If sexuality had been wrapped in silence my entire life, I would have still kissed boys and craved pain — but I wouldn’t have had the words to describe what I needed or what I was. In that case, I might have been too confused or too nervous to stop kissing when I really, really needed to stop. Or I might still believe that my sexual orientation opposes my feminism, my independence, and my integrity.

I think it makes the world a better place to teach people their limits and their desires. I think that giving people positive sexual representations will help them shoulder their sexual responsibilities. I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer for their sexual desires, and I think that everyone deserves to know about the many ways they could consensually implement their sexual desires.

I think people will have sex no matter what — and that an educator’s most appropriate role is to show them how to do it honorably, creatively, and with joy.

2009 11 Jul

The Long-Awaited Sex Positive Film Series FAQ!

[Edit!] Thrillingly, Sex+++ is now slated to continue past the last film I chose! It’s now on second Tuesdays, still at Hull-House and still at 7PM. Attend it! Love it! Keep the faith! [end of edit]

* * *

Here it is at last ….


Wherein I will answer all the questions I have received about my sex-positive film series and, most importantly, tell you how to start your own!

If you’ve got a question that isn’t answered here, then feel free to email me — [ clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com ] — but I’m in Africa and my email access is very limited, so it will take me a while to respond.

* * *

1) How did you start Sex+++?

Read this! The short version is: my friend Lisa and I came up with a good idea at a lucky time, and put in lots of work to materialize that idea.

* * *

2) Can I still sponsor Sex+++? What does that get me? Can I donate as an individual to Sex+++?

I am so glad you asked! Sex+++ is still under budget and could use your help. In exchange for their money, sponsors get promotional shoutouts at every screening; hyperlinks on the film list and both official press releases; plus listings on the fliers at every screening, the Facebook group, every film invitation, the Sex+++ posters and fliers. If you’re interested in helping Sex+++, please email Lisa [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].

If you would like to donate to Sex+++ as an individual, then we are very grateful … you can be anonymous or publicly thanked, as you choose. For that, you can also contact Lisa [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].

* * *

3) When will Sex+++ be traveling to my town, or showing on TV, or coming out in a DVD box set?

It’s flattering how much you overestimate our resources! Sex+++ is a Chicago-local, activist, grassroots operation. There is no Sex+++ corporation or entity (although, it should be noted, “Sex+++” and the sex+++ icon are copyright Clarisse Thorn & Lisa Junkin). The film series has been generously hosted by Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and an assortment of amazing sponsors have helped us scrape by.

What this means is that we have very limited rights to the films we screen — we only secured the rights to screen each documentary once each. If you miss any of our screenings, then some of the films are available for purchase through their own websites, etc; if you look at the archive page for the Sex+++ mailing list, you will see that we have emailed out purchase information for some of the films. But we certainly don’t have the resources to produce a box set, put the series on TV, or send it on tour. Still, we obviously want the word to spread far and wide, so the second half of this FAQ is all about how to start your own Sex+++ film series … keep reading!

If we get enough money to complete the budget, then Hull-House will purchase library copies of all the films that sponsored Sex+++. That will mean that Chicago locals will be able to borrow the films and the Hull-House or its parent entity, the University of Illinois at Chicago, will even be able to screen them again if they choose to do so. Again, though, this depends on the completion of the Sex+++ budget, which means we need more sponsors to make it happen.

* * *

4) If you’re doing all this with sponsors, and you’re under budget, then what’s your business model? How are you making money?

Sex+++ is a free, activist event intended to educate the public. It is not a profit-making entity.

The Hull-House offered me an honorarium, but I didn’t feel comfortable accepting it while the series was still under budget, so I donated the money back to Sex+++. If the series meets its budget, then I will accept the honorarium. If the series doesn’t meet its budget, then there are simply some things we won’t be able to do. For instance, like I said above, we’d like to reward the distributors and filmmakers by buying library copies of all their films. Then Chicago locals could borrow the films, and Hull-House could screen them anytime. But we’d need another couple thousand dollars to make that happen.

* * *

5) Why isn’t X, Y or Z covered in the film series?

It may be because I felt it wasn’t relevant — it wasn’t about positive sexuality, alternative sexuality, or sexual identity. For instance, I didn’t include sex work in the film series — not because I don’t think sex work can be sex-positive, but because documentaries about sex work tend to cover the laws around sex work or the bad things about sex work. I haven’t heard of any that try to discuss how sex workers negotiate, explore and own their sexuality and sexual identity in a positive way.

It may also be because I was unable to find any films about it that aren’t offensive and exoticizing. For example, there are some documentaries about swingers out there, but they take a rather shocked and scandalized approach to the whole thing. The filmmakers clearly weren’t interested in exploring the swing lifestyle in a positive or understanding way; they just wanted to make the audience gasp and giggle. Hence, there are no documentaries about swing on the Sex+++ list. The polyamory documentary “When Two Won’t Do” mentions swing, but it unfortunately doesn’t portray swinging even-handedly, and I’m sorry for that.

Still, there were some things that I was able to cover in the end, even though I wasn’t sure I could in the beginning! I had a really hard time finding anything about masculine sexuality, but after a few months of searching I succeeded (“Private Dicks: Men Exposed”). I also let people convince me to include documentaries I didn’t initially plan to include — for instance, one of Tony Comstock’s films about real people’s actual sex lives is screening on July 28, though I didn’t originally plan for it.

Here’s my list of bookmarks related to sexuality documentaries. There’s a lot in there that I didn’t include, but I thought they all looked interesting in their own right.

* * *

6) What’s happening to Sex+++ given that Clarisse has gone to Africa?

I’ve been gone long enough that you probably already know the answer to this question, if you care. But here it is anyway: I took care of as many details as I could before I left; Lisa took over a few of the things I’d been doing; and we spread the rest of the work out among a committee formed of awesome people who have been attending Sex+++. The series will continue through its projected conclusion in October.

* * *

7) How can I start Sex+++ in my area?

I would be positively thrilled if you screened our films (or even just some of them), and I have provided advice below! Also, if you email me or Lisa [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ], then we can send you a list with contact information for the distributor of every documentary we screened. In return, all I ask is that you do the following:

a) On your materials, please state Based on the original Sex+++ Film Series curated by Clarisse Thorn. Check out her blog at [ ]. “Sex+++” and the sex+++ icon are copyright © Clarisse Thorn and Lisa Junkin.

b) Please do not charge admission to the films, and please make the series open to the public.

c) Let us know it’s happening! I want to hear all about it, and I’ll definitely help spread the word if I have Internet access at the time.

In short, please DO start Sex+++ in your area — just make sure that Lisa and I get some credit, make sure you link back to my blog, and make it free! Obviously, I can’t force you to do any of these things, but I would really appreciate it if you did. I want to be sure that if someone else starts a similar film series, that it’s wide open to the public — all the public, even people who can’t pay — and that viewers know who created it so they can read about the process here.

Now for ADVICE! Clearly, I’m writing this from my perspective — i.e. that of an independent, grassroots activist. If you’re coming from a different place (for instance, if you represent a major organization such as a university), then your concerns will be different from mine … but hopefully this will still give you a good place to start.

To run Sex+++ in your area, you will need:

1) a passion for getting out information about sexuality,

2) a cell phone with lots of minutes,

3) a large amount of spare time,

4) decent writing and speaking skills.

It’s a lot easier to organize one or two screenings than it is to run an 18-night series. That would probably only make you crazy for a few weeks, rather than for months on end; you wouldn’t have to find nearly as many sponsors (if any), and your venue wouldn’t have to deal with 18 separate events.

The Beginning. My first step was to spend many hours researching documentaries about sexuality. I found a lot! I didn’t select most of the documentaries I found, but I did bookmark their websites; if you’re interested, you can review my documentary bookmarks on (click here!).

After that, Lisa and I wrote a proposal talking about why we started the series, what we hoped to accomplish, and why anyone would ever want to sponsor such a thing. We showed the proposal to the executive director at the Hull-House Museum, and they generously agreed to host the series. (If you’re interested in seeing the original Sex+++ proposal, just go ahead and email me or Lisa — we’ll send you a copy.)

If you don’t already have a venue for your series in mind, then you should start thinking now, because this is a make-or-break question. You obviously can’t do the series at all if you don’t have a place to screen films. Also, a really good venue could help you in a huge number of ways, including:

a) Lending legitimacy to your efforts. Filmmakers and film distributors are more likely to deal with you, sponsors are more likely to give you money, and viewers are more likely to attend if you’re screening your films at a well-known venue.

b) Helping spread the word. Established venues will have their own contacts in news outlets around the area, and they’ll also have their own established, loyal audience.

c) If your venue is a nonprofit organization, then that makes getting sponsors and donors a lot easier! Donors can take a tax write-off if they donate to a nonprofit, and nonprofit organizations cannot donate money to for-profit organizations. In other words — if you aren’t backed by some kind of nonprofit organization, then other nonprofits probably won’t be able to sponsor you, which will put a serious dent in your fundraising efforts.

d) Random other assistance. For instance, after Lisa and I created the Sex+++ icon, the Hull-House designer used it as a springboard to making our gorgeous posters and fliers.

You might find a venue that will let you screen films there, but won’t give you much other support. That’s okay, but you’ll want to find another nonprofit organization that’s willing to work closely with you — maybe in exchange for being a sponsor — so that you can take advantage of Benefit (c) above, and maybe get some more of Benefits (a), (b) and (d). In a pinch, I guess you could try to create a new nonprofit organization yourself, but that would take a long time and a lot of paperwork.

After we received approval from Hull-House Museum, I began securing the films, spreading the word about the series and looking for sponsors. Films are usually made by a team of people headed by one or more filmmakers — but if a film achieves any degree of success, then it will be acquired by a media distributor. Distributors usually own all the rights to a film, and charge fees (usually around $100-300) to people who want to screen it. So, securing the films meant that I called and/or emailed all the filmmakers and distributors, and begged them to let me screen their films for free. First I told them all about the project and emailed them the proposal; once they were convinced that Sex+++ is the greatest thing ever, I explained that we had practically no money — that Sex+++ is an activist education project, that we don’t charge admission, and that I myself wasn’t paid. If they were willing to screen for free, I offered to tell everyone on our mailing list where to buy the documentary after we screened it — and also to put their names on the Sex+++ press releases, the film list, and the Facebook group.

To spread the word and find sponsors, I called or emailed every sex-positive person and organization I could think of. I scoured Chicago for professors who teach about gender studies or sexuality, like the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Illinois; alternative film outlets and organizations, like the Reeling Film Festival; sex toy stores, like Early to Bed; sex education groups, like the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health; museums and other nonprofit organizations with an interest in sexuality or gender studies, like the Leather Archives and the Center on Halsted; womyn-centered spaces, like the Chicago Women’s Health Center; hip news sources, like Flavorpill; and sex-friendly hotspots, like the feminist bookstore Women and Children First. Since I’m a BDSM activist, I obviously asked for advice among local BDSM groups such as Galleria Domain, and I sought out other sexuality communities as well like the Polyamory Weekly folks. I also tried some places that seemed tangentially related — examples: free speech activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union; open and affirming churches like the Unitarians; AIDS-related organizations. (Whoa, I really did call a huge number of people, didn’t I?)

I didn’t ask everyone to sponsor — some people I just asked for advice, some people I just invited to attend. And — awesomely enough — after a while, people started getting in touch with me! For instance, Serpent over at the Sex Workers Outreach Project emailed me the day I posted the film list on my blog. And the people at EdenFantasys SexIs online magazine got in touch just a few weeks ago.

With groups I did think would make good sponsors, I told them all about Sex+++ and how amazing it was going to be. Then I told them I’d put their names on all our materials (just like the filmmakers); I also said that they’d get a thank-you shoutout at every screening, and that we’d announce their events to our audience. At the end of the conversation, I emailed them the proposal and I followed up a few days later if they didn’t get back to me. I asked way more people to sponsor than I successfully convinced, but I did succeed sometimes, thank goodness!

Soon after that, Lisa and I wrote a press release. She sent it to the Hull-House publicity contacts, and I sent it to everyone who had expressed interest when I called them.

In case it wasn’t obvious, the key with a project like this is contacts. Clearly, it helped that I had one important contact from the beginning: Lisa, who works at the Hull-House. I also knew a few other people around the city in sexuality-relevant circles. But I don’t think that starting Sex+++, or creating something like it, would be impossible even if you started with very few contacts. I truly believe that as long as you’re willing to spend enough time on the phone being polite and friendly and enthusiastic, you’ll get the contacts you need. I didn’t know that many Chicago sex people when I started … and in the end, truly, the friends I’ve made with this project are at least as wonderful to me as the project itself.

How It Went! Sex+++ was a huge success, and I know it’s continuing to succeed even though I’m gone. (Alas, I am not indispensable.)

At each screening, we did the following:

1) Serve snacks!

2) Explain what sex-positive means: that among consenting adults, there is no “should”. That being sex-positive means we don’t judge people for having sex in any way they want — with one person, with multiple people, in strange positions, with people of the same gender, for money, on videotape, or with no one at all … as long as it’s among consenting adults.

3) Promote our sponsors.

4) Pose three questions for the discussion group to consider after the film.

5) Facilitate a discussion after the film.

6) Have an excellent time talking about sex and gender with our wonderful attendees.

That’s it!

… Of course, it’s not quite that simple. I continued to call new people for advice, find new sponsors, and promote in new places long after the film series was up and running. We kept distributing fliers and we dealt with logistical issues as they arose. But those are the basics; your mileage may vary but I’m sure that with enough ingenuity and persistence you can make it work – and if you do, the feedback will be incredible. People love this film series in Chicago! I’m sure they’d love it in your area too.

Whoa, that took a while … it’s late and it’s chilly here in Africa (June-August is winter in the southern hemisphere!). My feet are cold and I’m going to bed. I’ll post this the next time I pass an Internet café. Again, if any of your questions weren’t answered, you can email me — [ clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com ] — but it’ll take me a while to get back to you. If you have a pressing question (like, “How can I give money to the series?”), email Lisa instead — [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].

Take care, and enjoy the films!

2009 20 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #10: “Boy I Am”

Since next week I’m going to Africa forever and ever, “Boy I Am” — the June 9th screening at my sex-positive documentary film series — was the last one I’ll be able to attend in person. The film series will continue. It’s going to be coordinated by our amazing Hull-House Education Coordinator Lisa, plus discussion facilitators we recruited from among regular Sex+++ attendees! But I, alas, will be far away being eaten by lions. (Yes. Eaten by lions! … I’m getting a bit loopy from lack of sleep, caused by running around trying to wrap up my life.)

Happily, though, the June 9th screening was a really good one … okay, they’re all really good. But this was really good! There were lots of people in attendance (I’d estimate 30-40), which surprised me — as I said in my last sex-positive documentary report, I was figuring that attendance would generally be lower for the second half of the series. Maybe some people were tempted to come by the presence of filmmaker Sam Feder, who was a great contributor to the discussion! Or maybe I’m just wrong about what films have wide appeal. Or maybe now Sex+++ is getting famous enough that people are just excited about Sex+++, more than about any particular film. Hey, I hoped to start an ongoing salon … it seems like I’ve somewhat succeeded!

Distributed by Women Make Movies, the documentary “Boy I Am” is a fascinating look at the stigma faced by female-to-male transpeople — not just in general, but within specific liberal subcultures one might assume would be trans-friendly, such as lesbian/gay groups or feminist groups.

I’m a BDSM activist, so one of the topics I related to most was the way some forms of radical sexuality have frequently been excluded from gay/lesbian or feminist communities. I’ve read about this before — for instance, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival has in the past famously excluded BDSM activities from its site on the grounds that BDSM is inherently oppressive, etc etc. Only after I learned about the anti-BDSM incidents at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival did I hear about the much higher-profile anti-trans policies; unlike the anti-BDSM policies, the anti-trans policies continue to this day.

I think there’s two issues at stake here, and there were quotations in “Boy I Am” that admirably represented both of those issues. One quotation: “there’s no way to be male without misogyny” … the idea being that identifying as male — or, worse, choosing to identify as male — brings with it an inherent anti-woman bias. I feel like if the woman in question were discussing BDSM, she might say: “There’s no way to exercise power without being oppressive.” Arguments like these are based on a grain of truth — that privilege is terribly easy to both abuse, and forget — and for that reason, they can be compelling in the right company. But they erase the importance of individual differences and desires; and they assume that we can’t learn to outthink our biases, or negotiate our potentially “privileged” and “oppressive” desires in ways that don’t hurt other people.

The other quotation: the “existence [of radical sexualities like trans or BDSM within the lesbian/gay movement] demands a higher level of tolerance than [many L/G activists] are willing to fight for”. The idea being that lesbian/gay people may feel that they are “normal” enough to have a chance at social acceptance — but if they band together with more “extreme” sexualities, they’re worried that they’ll lose their chance. You can see some of this attitude in this Salon article from a couple of years ago, titled “Gay Rights and the Transgendered” by John Aravosis:

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was first introduced 30 years ago. In all that time, it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill. … [Everyone I spoke to about this] felt bad about taking gender identity out of ENDA, everyone supported transgender rights, and everyone told me “pass it anyway.”

Their main argument, which I support: practical politics. Civil rights legislation — hell, all legislation — is a series of compromises. You rarely get everything you want, nor do you get it all at once. Blacks, for example, won the right to vote in 1870. Women didn’t get that same right until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a large umbrella of rights based on race, religion, sex and national origin, but failed to mention gays or people with disabilities. People with disabilities were finally given specific rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but gays as a class have still to be granted a single civil right at the federal level. If we waited until society was ready to accept each and every member of the civil rights community before passing any civil rights legislation, we’d have no civil rights laws at all. Someone is always left behind, at least temporarily. It stinks, but it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way you win.

(Thanks for the link to Sex, Art and Politics.)

On the surface, Aravosis makes a reasonable argument. But when I read the rest of the article, I get an uneasy feeling that this has less to do with practical politics … and more to do with the author’s biases. For instance, Aravosis calls bisexuals “only part-time gays”, and his dislike of trans is even more transparent (teehee): “A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins.”

I might consider the idea that civil rights move slowly to be a reasonable argument … but calling bisexuals “part-time gays”, or wondering what gay people have in common with transsexuals, is simply bizarre. It’s obvious what all alternative sexualities and gender identities have in common: the idea that consent matters more than knee-jerk bias; the idea that everyone has sovereignty over our own bodies. Gaining equal treatment for alternative sexuality can’t just be about convincing people that individual acts or specific identities are okay — because worrying about individual acts in themselves is part of what gives people anxiety about alternative sexuality in the first place.

If we say: “Okay, straight sex and gay sex is fine but I don’t support bisexuality,” we’re making the same mistake that the “normals” make when they say: “Straight sex is fine, but I don’t support homosexuality.” This movement cannot be about acts; it must be about the context of those acts. Consent has to be what matters more than appearance. That’s the only coherent philosophy.

Other points brought up by “Boy I Am”:

+ Some women talked about how they think transitioning stems from women’s negative body image. They argued that it’s really hard to feel okay about our bodies growing up; that women always feel uncomfortable in our bodies, and that female-to-male transpeople transition more because they hate being female — less because they want to be male. They were bothered by this; one was angry, and called it “audacity”. She resented female-to-male transpeople for “walking away” from the issues of femininity that she constantly felt compelled to confront herself. It seems clear to me that this is based more on resentment and frustration than on any rational critique of trans in itself. And while I’m sympathetic to women who hate our culture’s misogyny, I think we always need to make sure that we don’t attack/dislike others personally just because we feel shafted by society.

+ Every human body is a modified body: we all eat hormone-modified foods, we take medications, we wear makeup and piercings and tattoos — indeed, we wear clothing! When we allow smaller modifications like those, it seems strange to prevent larger modifications. One might ask, where’s the line? Well, the line … again … is consent. It’s not the acts, it’s not the body changes in themselves — it’s consent. Always.

+ Is there ever a premature time to transition? How young should we allow people to get trans surgery? I don’t think we do kids any favors by preventing them from dressing / appearing as they wish. I think the surgery question for me boils down to this: why is there ever a reason to prevent someone from getting trans surgery, if the person wants it? If that person recognizes the costs and accepts any potential risks, what right does anyone have to stop that person from doing what they want with their body? If we prevent kids from transitioning, then I think we need to be very clear about why we’re doing it. If we believe that people can do whatever consensual things they want with their own bodies, then the only reason it’s different for kids is if we claim that there are different rules about consent for children. And maybe there are different rules about consent for children — but if we believe that, then we need to be clear that we’re talking about those rules when we prevent kids from transitioning … not anti-trans bias.

1500 words this time! And I have to go pack for Africa; this’ll be my last overly-long Sex+++ documentary report. To summarize — “Boy I Am” is a really layered, fascinating movie. I give it five stars, and I’m glad it was my last one … it means I get to leave on a super-up note.

It’s been great, guys, and I encourage you all to come out to the next film — Tuesday June 23rd, “On the Downlow”. It’s about underground Black gay life. Have fun! Rock the rest of this film series for me!

2009 16 Jun

So yeah, I’m going to Africa for years … starting next week

So it seems I’m leaving Chicago soon — very soon! — and going to Africa.

When I try to tell the story of the sex-positive activism I’ve done here in Chicago, it’s kinda difficult. A lot of it snuck up on me. A lot of it was rather a surprise.

I’ve been on a career track towards going to Africa to do AIDS education for the last two years. I was never sure when I was going to be sent away, though — in fact, my departure was delayed twice. In the meantime, I was solidifying my BDSM identity; I came into that four years ago, and the learning process has only accelerated recently. I was also running lots of events for fun; I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but in retrospect, that was an incredibly helpful learning experience. And I’ve always been extremely interested in sex and culture.

Last year, I briefly dated a documentary filmmaker. Dating him both got me more interested in documentaries — I had previously been far more interested in fiction — and gave me a small window into what the film festival process is like. When I heard that “Passion and Power” (a history of vibrators and female sexuality) was screening in Chicago, I dragged my favorite gender studies friend Lisa to come see it with me.

After “Passion and Power”, the conversation went something like this:

Me: That was great! You and I should have a regular sexuality film night.
Lisa: You know, I bet people besides us would come to see that ….

Lisa works as Education Coordinator at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she has way more experience running events than I do. Our ideas about the film series grew and grew! What started as nothing more than “let’s see fascinating movies and have interesting discussions!” became a Huge Awesome Activist Project. Lisa pointed out that it could bring a bunch of different sexuality communities together. I realized that it would be the best platform ever, not just for adult sex education, but alternative sexuality activism of all kinds — including my personal favorite, BDSM outreach.

So we created the Sex+++ film series and convinced the Hull-House Museum to host it. I took what I’d learned from dating the filmmaker / running events / spending years thinking about sex and culture — and I spent hours upon hours researching appropriate documentaries, tracking down filmmakers and distributors, begging for sponsors, calling everyone in the city who might be interested in sex events, generally driving myself insane …

… but it’s all been worth it, because the series really took off. Really, I was stunned by how much everything — not just the series, but my life — took off.

And then, of course, after the film series exploded and my BDSM outreach exploded and I started doing things like lecturing at the Museum of Sex, or fielding calls from reporters and talk shows, or inspiring others to create their own incredible sex-positive projectsthat was when the African AIDS education program called me. Oh yeah, remember them?

I had a moment where I considered staying here in Chicago. Actually I had more than one moment like that, and I worry that I’m being an idiot by leaving. Not just because leaving halfway through the Sex+++ film series is like planning an incredible all-night party, then leaving at 11PM ….

I’ve been lecturing and leading workshops around the city — around the country! I’ve had multiple opportunities to write professionally about these issues! It seems likely that if I came out (scary as the concept is) and took the time to promote myself, I could develop into a badass sex-positive activist / lecturer / writer. Am I being an idiot by departing now? Maybe. Maybe I am. Maybe I’ll be kicking myself for the rest of my life.

But I have wanted to go abroad for a long, long time. I believe that doing AIDS education in Africa is an unmatched opportunity to do work that needs to be done, to learn many things about sexuality and sex education — not to mention, to learn about being human … stretching myself to the max … existing in ways I never thought of. I know it’s going to be difficult and depressing, and I’m going to be lonely and miserable for large swaths of the experience, and I’m scared that I — the Internet geek, American culture-analyzin’, alt sex-lovin’ girl — totally do not belong in darkest Africa. But hey, I heard somewhere that I’m a masochist. Plus, if I’m going to be thinking about my career, this program will lend me a lot of professional legitimacy — more legitimacy that I can put in service of the sex-positive agenda. (What, you thought I didn’t have an agenda? Damn straight I have an agenda. Fear me!)

So I’m still going. In fact, I’m going next week. If all works out as planned (I never assume that it will), I won’t be back for years. My access to the Internet will probably be irregular; indeed, for the first few months, I most likely won’t have Internet access at all. I will post if I can, and I’ll send back whatever interesting sexuality information I come across. I’m sure I’ll still think about BDSM all the time, even though I’m also sure I won’t have as many opportunities to practice it; I hope I’ll have time to post some of those thoughts as well.

The film series will continue in my absence; I’ve put in many hours — and I’ll put in many more hours for the rest of this week — creating an infrastructure so that the Show Does Go On. (I also intend to post a Sex+++ FAQ this week, so as to make it easier for others to steal my idea and do the film series elsewhere.) Pleasure Salon will continue, hosted by the same great people who have been hosting it all along. I hope it’s still going when I get back!

Worst comes to worst, this opportunity doesn’t pan out and I come running home with my tail between my legs. Yeah, it could happen. But I’ve got to try.

It’s been a great ride. And I’ll be back.

2009 9 Jun

Sex-positive documentary report #9: “The Aggressives”

Cross-posted at

We’re settling into a smaller audience at my sex-positive documentary film series — I think it’s possible that July 28 (which I have mentally dubbed “porn night”) will draw the same kind of standing-room-only audiences we had at some of the earlier screenings, but I’m guessing that we’ll otherwise continue to have smallish audiences (15-30 people). This doesn’t particularly worry me; I somewhat expected it, in fact. The early films I scheduled for the series are both difficult to find information about — few mainstream venues screen documentaries about BDSM! — and quite accessible in tone. That is, early Sex+++ documentaries were more along the lines of introductory or “101”, while the films I’ve scheduled later tend to be about more complicated or esoteric topics.

For instance, “The Aggressives” is about a specific lesbian subculture ….

… and I liked the film a lot! Thanks to Seventh Art Releasing for letting us screen it. And I loved the discussion after the documentary even more — it was very focused, with some eloquent and diverse perspectives. I left grinning ear to ear.

The documentary is about the “Aggressive” subculture in New York — possibly it also exists elsewhere; I don’t know enough about this topic to say — which is composed of lesbians of color. Apparently, Aggressive women focus on creating very butch identities, and have contests/balls where they compete to be the most masculine; these balls feature dress-up themes like “construction worker vs. painter” or “businessman vs. blue collar”. Interestingly and perhaps obviously, this means that many Aggressives work hard to fit themselves into stereotypes of masculinity. Not only do they seek to look “obviously” masculine, but to change other patterns of behavior, like speech and body language; and some do go on male hormones.

Indeed, there was one fascinating interview in which an Aggressive talked about how she sees male hormones as an “edge” in the Aggressive contests, and cited this as temptation to take hormones. It was not apparent to me whether she was as interested in being masculine, as she was in beating other Aggressives at the masculinity game. And maybe it’s worth noting that this particular Aggressive’s femme girlfriend said she wasn’t too excited about the idea of her partner going on hormones — “I still like a woman,” she said.

One description I found for this film on the Internet states that the Aggressives challenge gender stereotypes by acting the way they do. But one question that came up in the discussion group was — do they? If Aggressive identity is focused around being stereotypically masculine, then arguably they’re working more to reinforce our cultural assumptions about gender than to challenge them. There was some footage showing Aggressives doing very “macho”, “dominant” things like rapping misogynistically, or ordering femme lesbians to perform for them. One Aggressive talks about teaching boys to be men and says, “You don’t have to be a man to teach someone how to be one — it’s about being responsible, being the breadwinner.”

So, it does seem as though many Aggressives still fall prey to gendered preconceptions. On the other hand, the film also noted the existence of women who identified as Aggressive … but femme rather than butch! I wish the film had spent more time explaining what exactly it might mean to be a “femme Aggressive”. It seemed as though some Aggressives might switch between roles, but I’m not sure about that.

Speaking of switching puts me in mind of my experiences as a BDSM switch, and takes me to another thought I had during the post-film discussion: there were such obvious dynamics of power between femmes and butches in the Aggressive subculture … it made me wonder what kind of BDSM practices might exist in these relationships, and how those practices might be negotiated. It also seems possible to me that some people in the subculture might be attracted to the ideas of power, strength and dominance so obviously typified in certain Aggressive stances — I wonder if some Aggressives are more attracted to the power dynamics than they are to the lesbian (or, for some, trans) aspect of being Aggressive.

Obviously, this is wild theorizing on my part, and highly biased at that — I am far more exposed to BDSM and BDSM desires than I am to LGBTQ. But I have met multiple people who stated that the BDSM aspects of their sexuality “trump” their straight vs. LGBTQ orientation. My last entry was about the idea of BDSM as an orientation, and Laura Antoniou left a comment that included the statement: As Califia once wrote many years ago, I’d rather be left on a deserted island with a kinky man than a vanilla lesbian; SM trumps gender identity and my otherwise primary orientation to other girls. So, who knows? I’d love to talk to some Aggressives sometime about power dynamics and violence in bed.

This also highlights another question I’ve thought about a lot — how does the available culture shape how we approach alternative sexuality? That is, what happens to someone who has BDSM desires if that person is never exposed to a subculture devoted to BDSM? I see myself as “oriented towards BDSM”, but what would my BDSM practices look like if there weren’t an available subculture showing me certain images of BDSM? If I’d been exposed to the Aggressive subculture and never exposed to the BDSM subculture, would I have been likely to incorporate myself into that? Conversely, is it possible that some of the lesbians who find themselves in the Aggressive subculture are there more because it’s the lesbian community that’s available to them, than because they’re drawn to masculine women or power or … whatever?

Argh, over a thousand words and I’m only halfway through my notes … and I have to run! I feel like I never have time to get out all my thoughts about these films. Oh well. You can buy “The Aggressives” online at the website for Seventh Art Releasing. And I definitely encourage all and sundry to attend the next Sex+++ screening. That’s tonight, Tuesday the 9th, 7 PM as always! The documentary featured will be “Boy I Am”: a look at the experience of three young female-to-male transpeople, and the way they’re treated — not just by society at large — but also by some queer and feminist groups that see female-to-male transitioning as culturally suspect or problematic. Thanks to Women Make Movies for letting us screen it.

“Boy I Am” will actually be the last Sex+++ screening I facilitate because I will soon be taking advantage of a professional opportunity abroad, but the film series will continue in my absence. I’ll post more on that soon — in the meantime, I hope to see you here at Hull-House Museum … very soon!

2009 27 May

Sex-positive documentary report #8: “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” and “Forever Bottom”

I figured that Film Night 8 at my sex-positive film series, which I mentally dubbed Masculine Sexuality Night, would be one of our least-attended nights; so I was glad to see that we still pulled in something like 30 people on May 12. I think about masculinity and the stereotypes and boxes that define it a lot, but it’s not a traditionally hot topic ….

The films we showed included a short called “Forever Bottom!”, about one gay male bottom and how much he loves bottoming, and the feature-length “Private Dicks: Men Exposed”. I had originally assigned “Forever Bottom” to the night we covered BDSM, but there was a problem with the DVD player and we couldn’t put it on. The mistake was serendipitous, though — the short was far better suited to Masculine Sexuality Night!


Let me just start by saying — it was hard to find a documentary about masculine sexuality! My initial film list had one that seemed tangentially relevant, but I wasn’t able to find anything directly about masculinity until a month or so into the series. That was when I first talked to Marianna Beck, an awesome sexologist and Art Institute professor who used to edit the sexuality magazine “Libido”. I confided my woes — “Why, why isn’t anyone making documentaries about masculine sexuality?” I nearly wept — and she suggested “Private Dicks”. (I mean, I wasn’t actually weeping, but I was frustrated. I would love to see something approaching a critique of masculinity and masculine sexuality reach the mainstream, like those of femininity and feminine sexuality that have become generally understood and accepted.)

Part of the problem is that many men themselves aren’t interested in analyzing masculinity — often because they consider themselves unaffected by society’s preconceptions around sexuality — or even because they think that everything about society’s current conceptions of sexuality is only bad for “other people”. Just a couple months ago I had a conversation with some fellow BDSMers on this subject, and when I complained that I was having a hard time finding anything analyzing masculine sexuality, one gentleman said: “Well, male sexuality is the default. It’s everywhere.”

I agree that conceptions of sexuality in America tend to be male-centered, and I agree that this is damaging and problematic. (Believe me, I’m furious that it took me many years after becoming sexually active to reconceive “proper” sexuality around things other than good ole penis-in-vagina penetration!) But … firstly, it’s strange that anyone would take this as an argument that male sexuality doesn’t need to be examined — to me, it seems like the opposite is true: if American stereotypes and ideas of sexuality are male-centered, then that makes it more useful for us to be thinking about masculine sexuality, not less! Secondly, those American male-centered ideas of sexuality are centered around stereotypical men … a very narrow view of what male sexuality can or “should” be. And that drastically limits men in their potential self-discovery, particularly if their sexuality is rather different from the “norm” (for instance, gay men or submissive men).

But anyway, less with the general ranting and more with the films themselves. “Forever Bottom” is a cute short that simply highlights one gay male bottom — i.e., receiver — and how much he loves being on the bottom. There’s not much dialogue, and it mostly focuses on his ecstatic face during various sex acts (some of which take place in inventive places). What I love about this short is that, in a very straightforward way, it forces the viewer to question any assumptions they may hold about bottoming — about how much people like it, whether people can like it, what it means to like it, etc. (In a way, it reminds me of a 17-minute fiction film I saw this year at CineKink — it’s called “Sucker“, and it’s about a gentleman who absolutely loves giving anonymous objectified blowjobs and how he starts building a relationship. It’s got the same feeling about it for me, the same sweet “Ah, it’s so nice to see submissives being validated for once” feeling.)

I like “Private Dicks” too. One thing that slightly bothered me about the film was that, although it questions averages and norms, it centers itself around them too. For instance, the section where men talked about penis size is introduced by a screen that states the average penis size. I suppose this is useful as de-mythologizing information, but I don’t like the way it led the conversation. Again, though, it does a good job of starting a conversation that’s often sorely lacking.

One moment in the film particularly struck me, and a number of people at the discussion group: the part where it talked about the idea of how the idea that men’s sex drives are overwhelming and hard to resist. That is — that men have a harder time controlling themselves, sexually, than women do. That men “think with their penises”. I think many feminists tend to regard this as a myth created by our culture, but I’ve often wondered whether there is — in a mild way — some truth behind it. I am not saying that men aren’t responsible for their sexual behavior just as women are; I’m suggesting that perhaps on average, male sexual desire is a stronger feeling than female sexual desire, and I’m wondering whether acknowledging this could be important in our journey towards understanding the differences.

The way “Private Dicks” throws this question into relief is by highlighting two statements. One: a cisgendered man who says that he refuses to acknowledge the myth of male sexual lack of control; he states clearly that he owns all his decisions, that he makes all his decisions, that he is not controlled by his penis. The second: a trans man who says that in his previous life as a woman, he didn’t feel controlled by his sex drive, but that now he has much more trouble resisting it. He outright remarks that when he was female-bodied, he felt suspicious of male assertions that their sex drives were overpowering … but now that he’s male-bodied, he totally agrees. I can’t remember the exact quotation, but he even said something along the lines of “Women think we can control ourselves, but we can’t”.

What does it mean, if men are (on average) markedly, strongly, dramatically more powerfully affected by sexual urges than women? Or even if they’re just (on average) affected differently? I’m not sure. If it’s true, then is there some way that we can use awareness of that to affect sex education? To affect how we train people to communicate about sex? To affect how we teach people to understand and listen to their partners? I absolutely don’t think that men are entitled to sex “more” than women, or that men get some kind of pass that gives them the “right” to have sex when their partners aren’t feeling up to it … though I do think that all people need to be sensitive, always, to what their sexual partners need. But there must be a way we can discuss and describe this (if it exists) so that real differences aren’t being elided. Of course, on the other hand, perhaps it’s simply unproductive to set norms at all. It’s probably more helpful to place our focus on figuring out each individual’s needs — teaching people both to accept and communicate their own unique feelings, and to accept a partner’s unique needs without reverting to stereotype and culturally-shaped assumptions.

I could keep writing, I really could, but I’m already over 1200 words. How do I do it? In fact, it took me so long to get around to writing this post that I didn’t even make it before the next screening … which was this past evening. Oh well. That was “The Aggressives”, a film about butch queer women of color, and I’ll blog about it soon. In the meantime: the next Sex+++ film will be “Boy I Am”, June 9, about female-to-male transpeople. See you there!

* * *

Edit It occurred to me that this is a BDSM blog and I hardly talked at all about BDSM stuff around masculinity, though I think about it all the time. So I’ll give some quick links. Bitchy Jones is a female dominant who blogs a lot about gender stereotypes around submission; this post, My Hero, is a good one. The submissive blogger Maymay also talks about these issues a lot, and in fact runs an entire blog about images of male submission that don’t fall into stereotypes — a great read both for the pictures and the analysis, though it is dramatically not safe for work! End of edit

Later edit If you liked this post, you’d probably love my blog series on masculinity. End of edit

2009 9 May

Sex-positive documentary report #7: “It’s Still Elementary”

Cross-posted at

I half-suspected this would happen: after our sixth screening (the bisexuality documentary) was overwhelmed with people, the seventh Sex+++ movie was far quieter. It was nice to have breathing room! The really cool thing about this is that I can now promote the film series to new groups … I’ve been afraid to do any new promotion because we’ve had so many people at some screenings, I’m nervous that we’ll be overwhelmed. So now that I can do some more reaching out, I’d love new ideas about new people I can tell about the film series!

In the meantime ….

I’ve taken a while to post about it because I went to San Francisco on the interim, but the last film at my sex-positive documentary film series was “It’s Still Elementary” — courtesy of GroundSpark: Igniting Change Through Film.

“It’s Still Elementary” is a bit of a meta-documentary: a documentary about a documentary! In 1996, a film called “It’s Elementary” confronted the question of how to educate grade-school kids about gay and lesbian issues. It showed a number of grade-school educators taking on the issue — in the 1996 political climate, they risked their jobs to do so! — and it also showed the kids in their classes creating their own respectful, honest conversations on the subject. Of course there was a firestorm of controversy around “It’s Elementary”, especially when it was broadcast on TV in 1999. Conservative religious groups did things like call it a “powerful pro-homosexual propaganda film” and mount fundraising campaigns against airing it, writing to their followers that “If we fail to take a stand to put a stop to this outrage, the sin of sexual perversion could be promoted to a potential audience of tens of millions of children” (source).

That controversy is covered in “It’s Still Elementary”, as well as the process of making the “It’s Elementary”; the progress of the :cough: “homosexual agenda” inherent therein; the way the kids who actually experienced that education feel about it today; and issues faced by leaders who tried to get the film shown to educators in their communities. One thing that particularly struck me was the apparently frequent allegation, made by people who didn’t want “It’s Elementary” shown to teachers, that gay and lesbian issues simply weren’t “important enough” to be worth covering in school. School administrators — who didn’t see themselves as at all bigoted, but simply pragmatic — frequently argued that what’s “necessary” is readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. So of course, since it didn’t fit into that box, they figured training teachers to address gay and lesbian issues wasn’t worth doing.

The reason this caught my attention was that I’ve encountered that argument before. People, even open-minded people who don’t consider themselves to be anti-sex, will frequently argue that quality sex education is simply not something we “need” to be worrying about. Folks will just figure it out, right? Or even if they don’t, raising a generation of sexually confused and ashamed kids is no big deal … right? In fact, this attitude continues — for many people — into adulthood; it’s just phrased differently. As adults, the questions (sometimes stated, but almost always implied) become things like, “Does sexual pleasure really matter?” or “Is it really so important that you explore your sexual needs?”

Now, it’s not that I think everyone should be spending all their time thinking about their sexual needs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there is no “should”. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone their priorities, and I have no problem with freely choosing to prioritize other things over sex … I mean, I do it all the time. Sex is not the only thing in the world. But I do think that this whole idea, that sexual pleasure is unimportant, goes beyond being a crying shame — it’s positively dangerous. Sex, our sexuality, is important. It’s so deep-rooted, it shapes so many things about us, so much of our approach to our lives … whether we’re aware of it or not. How can we know ourselves if we don’t know our sexuality? How can we live as whole human beings? And why, why should we be expected to repress or subvert or twist up a powerful drive that could be such a source of pleasure and power? The idea that sex is unimportant, “not worth it”, is another manifestation of our cultural stigma against sexuality, and a dangerously subtle one to boot.

One person at the discussion group, after we showed “It’s Still Elementary”, noted that the film (and the educators it highlights) was limited — it didn’t take on bisexuality, or trans. That’s a problem. But I’d argue that there’s a bigger problem — that educators limited themselves, are limiting themselves, to orientations when it would serve us better to create a wider curriculum around general sexuality. But, gasp! We can’t have a curriculum about general sexuality for children! What would happen to kids exposed to ideas of sex?

As it turns out, they’d be fine. Unitarian kids get the best sex education in the country through the Unitarian church, starting in kindergarten, and they amazingly don’t grow up to be axe murderers. The key is that sex education really doesn’t have to be entirely about explicit sex. From the website for Our Whole Lives, the Unitarian sex ed curriculum:

Our Whole Lives helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Grounded in a holistic view of sexuality, Our Whole Lives provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.

This is a concept introduced by “It’s Elementary” — the idea that we can have conversations about gay and lesbian issues (which are, after all, about sexuality) with kids without edging into scary sex territory. It’s time to take that idea to the next level and create good, national, general sex education that doesn’t tiptoe around important ideas like pleasure, or self-discovery, or defeating shame. Or so I’d like to believe. In a country where — what is it, 60%? — of schools are still mired in abstinence-only sex education, I recognize that my grandiose plans to teach kids not to be ashamed of their bodies are far from implementation. At least I can do adult sex education … reverse the damage a bit, perhaps. (Interestingly, one of the people I met on this past San Francisco trip, name of Dr. Charlie Glickman, did a dissertation on proposed adult sex education among — guess who? — the Unitarians. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it seems so good.)

It’s been a while since I linked to it, so I’ll wrap this up by mentioning my old post: Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. Which just goes to show that even when you’ve got decent sex education, there’ll be room for improvement.

And now I am off to bed (not in a sexy way, regrettably … I’ve worn myself out, with all this typing about sex!). Check out the GroundSpark website to buy “It’s Still Elementary”, and do come out to the upcoming Sex+++ films “Private Dicks” and “Forever Bottom” — both about ideas of masculine sexuality. May 12th, 7PM. See you there!

2009 24 Apr

Sex-positive documentary report #6: “Bi The Way”

In a minute I’ll review the sixth film at my sex-positive documentary film series, but first I have to say … man, the screening was unexpectedly stressful! For the first time, we simply didn’t have enough space for everyone. In a way I’m thrilled, of course, but I’m also feeling a bit overwhelmed. Previously we have simply been encouraging people to RSVP by phone (312.413.5353) in order to save a seat, but it looks like now RSVPing is effectively a requirement. If you want to attend, you probably want to RSVP by phone … or show up early and hope that someone who RSVPed flakes out! I’ve been encouraging people to RSVP in the last few invitational emails and on Facebook; since last Tuesday I’ve also emphasized the RSVP information in every other Internet venue I have control over.

It’s been suggested multiple times that we switch to a bigger screening venue. This is, however, more complicated than it sounds. One reason for that is that we have very little money for Sex+++. It’s a largely grassroots effort that’s being supported by a few awesome co-sponsors; you can help if you know any potential sex-positive co-sponsors — talk to them and tell them to talk to me!

Another issue is that we want to make sure the event is centrally located within Chicago. This is important because that way it’s maximally accessible to everyone — but it’s especially important because we’ve already printed up the next batch of posters for Sex+++, and they all say it’s at the Hull-House Museum. So, ideally, any new venue would be close enough to Hull-House that people could still make it to the film if they went to the wrong place. You might be able to help us find space if you know of any large, free (or at least cheap), centrally located Chicago movie venues and can convince them to talk to me.


Yeah! Sex+++! Last week’s documentary was “Bi The Way” — all about bisexuality!

This movie was great for soundbites! I must have written down a million quotations. Here’s a few:

+ From a bisexual woman — “I don’t really differentiate sex with men and sex with women as two different things.”

+ From a man who was talking about how bisexuals supposedly just don’t want to “make a commitment” to one sexual orientation — “It’s not fair! The rest of us have to!” (Other negative comments about bisexuals included the assertion that bisexuals are “greedy”, or that they want to “have their cake and eat it too” — whatever that means.)

+ Some kids talking about gender and whether boys can wear pink shirts — Kid #1: “Tough guys can wear pink shirts!” Kid #2: “Yeah, tough gay guys.”

+ From an African-American gentleman profiled by the film — “In the African-American community, gay is not cool. It’s like the opposite of being Black.”

+ A bisexual man talking to his two parents, and complaining about how they tried to limit his sexuality with labels — Bisexual man: “You didn’t encourage me to explore myself. To be ambiguous.” His mother: “Well, I didn’t know that was a possibility!”

The first and last quotations in particular, I think, show how the film did a good job of highlighting issues around limiting sexuality with labels. And it’s great to see a documentary taking on bisexuality as a subject in itself, especially some of the stereotypes surrounding bisexuality. (Speaking of stereotypes, I highly recommend that everyone check out Violet Blue’s recent description of a brainstorming session on assumptions about various sexual orientations.)

I feel so bewildered by some of these stereotypes — I have no idea how to respond to them, much less deconstruct them. The “it’s not fair” and “greedy” ones, in particular, get to me. Only a culture as sex-negative as America could come up with something so ridiculous. I’ve spent the last ten whole minutes trying to articulate the assumptions behind a statement as insane as “bisexuals just want to have their cake and eat it too” (and I’m never getting that ten minutes back). The closest I can come up with is:

Assumption A: For the good of society, there is a tacit social contract imposing limits around sexuality. Society can expand its definitions to handle people who want to have sex with members of their own gender, but only as long as they impose their own limits on sexuality. Bisexuals ignore all limits for the sake of their own pleasure, and that’s selfish.

Assumption B: Sexual experimentation is bad.

Assumption C: People have complete control over who they’re sexually attracted to.

I’m not sure I’m getting to the heart of the insanity, but I think Assumptions A-C are definitely caught up in those statements. And of course, I think all those assumptions are terribly damaging! So, thanks to “Bi The Way” for bringing those issues to the surface.

“Bi The Way” frustrated me in several ways, though. One is that the documentary doesn’t really differentiate between being bisexual and being non-monogamous; it brings up non-monogamy in a way that implies an automatic association between bisexuality and non-monogamy, as if one leads to the other. There’s a stereotype that all bisexual people are non-monogamous or — more negatively — cheaters, and I feel like the film ended up reinforcing that stereotype … which is ironic, considering that it set out to debunk them.

Furthermore, I think it’s good practice for media about different kinds of alternative sexuality to differentiate between those types of alternative sexuality. There are lots of interesting models of consensual non-monogamy out there, none of which “Bi The Way” addressed or even named — which means that anyone interested in consensual non-monogamy who attends the documentary might come away more confused than ever. Such an attendee wouldn’t even know what words to plug into Google. (Want to learn more about different models of consensual non-monogamy, such as swinging or polyamory? Check out my review of polyamory documentary we showed at Sex+++, “When Two Won’t Do”!)

Another concept that was talked around, rather than addressed specifically, is one I consider really important: gender and bisexuality. One researcher interviewed in the documentary mentioned that (apparently) it used to be considered relatively normal for men to experiment with bisexuality in their youth, but not women; now, she asserted, it’s considered relatively normal for women to experiment with bisexuality in their youth, but not men. The documentary also pointed out various appearances of female bisexuality in the media — for instance, the famous (or infamous) Britney/Madonna/Christina kiss — but not much more than that.

The Ultimates, a swinger couple that attends most Sex+++ screenings, noted during the post-film discussion that women in the swinger scene are encouraged to be bi while men are encouraged to be heterosexual. Other audience members agreed that there’s more stigma against bi men than bi women. I don’t personally have much experience with this, but I can attest that I know a lot more heteroflexible women than heteroflexible men. I’m also willing to assert that — although female sexuality generally carries higher stigma than male — within very liberal and alternative sexuality circles, women have more social space to experiment sexually than men. Still, I have no studies or “evidence” to back up that assertion, just my own experience. It would have been nice to see more on that in “Bi The Way”.

A few people I spoke to mentioned that they felt bothered by how “Bi The Way” also brought up both Black gay culture and conservative religious LGBTQ issues, but without going into any depth. Fortunately, Sex+++ be screening documentaries specifically on those two topics: “On The Downlow” on June 23rd (Black gay culture), and “Equality U” on August 25th (Christian LGBTQ activism). (You can see the full Sex+++ calendar by clicking here.)

Overall, though, I was pleased to screen “Bi The Way” and encourage larger specific discussion about bisexuality in itself (rather than simply folding it into the “LGBTQ issues” umbrella, which happens too often). And on April 28th, we screen our next documentary: “It’s Still Elementary”, about educating elementary school kids on LGBTQ issues. See you there!

2009 3 Apr

Sex-positive documentary report #5: “Sex, Disability & Videotape” and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas”

Before discussing the last Sex+++ films, a reminder: next week, April 7th, will not be the next Sex+++ film night because we screen our documentaries every second and fourth Tuesday.

But you know what is happening next Tuesday the 7th? The very first Chicago Pleasure Salon, 6-10PM! Be there or be square. It’s going to be awesome, recurring monthly henceforth. And if you’re on Facebook, you should totally become a fan of the Pleasure Salon Facebook Page.


Last Tuesday, my sex-positive documentary film series screened two documentaries: “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability and Videotape” (courtesy of Beyondmedia Education) and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” (courtesy of filmmaker Marianna Beck).


Although I see some overlap in the issues addressed by these films, I intended this evening to be our only two-theme night at Sex+++. That is, I wanted to show both these movies, so I put them together — but I wasn’t intending to imply that the two topics (disability and sexuality, and female masturbation) are intrinsically related.

Both movies are so great! Made by the adorable Empowered Fe Fes — a peer group for young women with disabilities — “Doin’ It” does a really wonderful job of showing how disabled people can have awesome romantic relationships, as well as highlighting the stigma and stereotypes faced by disabled people when they seek to explore sexuality. My one major complaint about this film is that it didn’t address alternative sexuality among the disabled. There was nothing about disabled folks who are LGBTQ, or into BDSM, or whatever. Still, it did cover some really important topics that could easily have been missed — for instance, social prejudice against disabled people reproducing. I’m hardly an expert on the topic of disability and sexuality, but this documentary seemed like a pretty good overview to me.

I also loved “Orgasmic Women”. Made for Betty Dodson — the fabulous, famous female sexual pleasure activist — “Orgasmic Women” is all about women who masturbate to orgasm, and how they go about it. It’s great, but with this film too there was an absent topic that frustrated me: the movie gave an incredible overview of female orgasmic practices physically … but not emotionally/mentally.

There’s a wonderful array of viewpoints among the women masturbating onscreen in “Orgasmic Women”, and the viewer gets to watch how widely their approach to masturbation varies, but we heard hardly anything about what they think and feel while they masturbate. Some talked about it in a roundabout way — for instance, some described the circumstances that shape their personal masturbation time, and how they negotiate that. But none of them described what they were fantasizing about, what they imagine, what goes on in their minds when they’re approaching orgasm or coming. Considering how integral fantasies can be to sexual pleasure — and considering that certain types of sexual fantasies remain far more stigmatized that physical sexual pleasure, and would therefore benefit greatly from being brought into the light — I thought this was a huge lack. Still, the film did so much to cover aspects of female sexuality that are never ever talked about — and it covered them so thoroughly!

As I said before, I don’t see these films as intrinsically related … and yet there are important commonalities. The big one for me is that both documentaries have a huge emphasis on owning our bodies. For instance, in “Doin’ It”, the Empowered Fe Fes talk about how others will act as though they own the Fe Fes’ bodies essentially because of their disabilities. Doctors or caretakers will act as though they have the right to make physical decisions about disabled bodies they are treating, or restrict the actions those bodies are allowed to take for reasons beyond good medical ones; relatives will act as though they ought to be able to make important culture-related decisions for the disabled. One girl in the film tells a horrifying story about how her aunt tried to trick her into getting her tubes tied — that is, the girl wanted to have children someday, and her aunt felt this to be an inappropriate desire for a disabled person, so her aunt attempted to have the girl sterilized against her will. Jesus Christ.

In “Orgasmic Women”, the overarching theme is that it’s important for people to take ownership and responsibility over our sexuality. This is especially true for women, whose sexual needs are so socially subordinated to men’s; mainstream models of sexuality all focus on a certain type of male sexual pleasure, and so we women need to really motivate ourselves and think carefully in order to learn about our sexuality. (Of course, the current very limited sexual paradigm doesn’t just screw with women — it ends up disenfranchising men with alternative sexual needs, as well!) With its frankness about female sexual pleasure, “Orgasmic Women” shows how beautifully different sexuality can be among different people, and its subjects make amazing role models of women who know exactly how to take control of their own bodies.

“Doin’ It” highlights the same problem by videotaping the Empowered Fe Fes going on a trip to learn about toys and masturbation from Searah at Early to Bed sex toy store. During the visit, one girl tells the camera about how she learned the “masturbation” sign in sign language. Apparently, there are different signs for male masturbation and female masturbation … but when she was learning sign language, she was only taught the sign for male masturbation. Even though she herself is female. It’s hard to find a more obvious example of how male sexuality is considered most important in our society, and female sexuality is simply … ignored.

Of course, these questions — who owns our bodies, who owns our sexuality — go beyond effective masturbation, or female sexual pleasure, or disability rights. They’re integral to the sex-positive movement. For instance, in pro-BDSM advocacy, this problem manifests as convincing the world that we must be allowed to do whatever consensual things we like with our bodies, even if it “looks like abuse”. Like so many sex-positive conversations, we end up returning to the fact that we must promote enthusiastic consent above all else.

Again, we won’t have a film on April 7th. Come to Pleasure Salon instead! But on April 14th — the second Tuesday of April — Sex+++ will start up again with “Bi The Way”: an examination of bisexuality in America. See you there!