Posts Tagged ‘history’

2011 21 Jan

[litquote] S&M stereotypes, parenting, and community action

The following quotation is from an essay that tears apart awful BDSM stereotypes, and also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent,” and it was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.

The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.

In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.

This tragedy occurred because the pair had made a videotape of a scene they did at a dungeon party in a bordering state. A family member and friend who babysat for the children apparently unlocked the box where the tape was kept, revealed its contents to at least one of the Houghtons’ children, told them their father was abusing their mother, and sent a copy of the videotape to the police. No minors were featured in the videotape, and S/M activities did not take place in the Houghtons’ home. Nevertheless, the videotaped evidence of kinky sex was enough to bring down the wrath of Child Protection Services, who removed the 7- and 12-year-old and kept them in foster homes for more than a year. This was in spite of testimony by one of the law guardians, who told the court the children would be better served by returning them to their parents.

… It’s interesting to think about how we might feel about being parents if we lived in a society where S/M was not stigmatized. … One of the smartest things I ever heard about S/M was uttered by a gay man, Steven Brown, who used to pair up with me to do educational lectures about the scene. He once said, throwing up his hands in despair about the suspicious grilling we were getting, “I do this because I am a loving person. I love and respect the people I play with. And that includes being able to embrace parts of them that are supposed to be unlovable.” This foundation of acceptance and empathy seems to me to be potentially quite useful to a parent, who must be able to see things from a child’s point of view, and deal with a lot of behavior that is extremely trying.

As a top [i.e. a dominant/sadist], I’ve learned how to communicate in terms that will make sense to the other person. I’ve learned patience. I have a deep love for the vagaries of human nature and respect for the wisdom of the body. I am able to create a positive experience within a framework of limitations handed to me by another person. Of course, some idiot will probably assume that by making this list I am saying that I am going to somehow top my child. That would be asinine. I’ve learned how to keep my intense sexual experiences from spilling over into parts of my life where that kind of role-playing would not be appropriate. That is, if anything is, the First Principle of participating in these kinds of erotic fantasies. In order to be a responsible, safe player, you have to know when to be your scene-self, and when to be your mundane self.

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau [two famous BDSM novels] and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide. We are supposed to be content with existing as two-dimensional caricatures of vanilla people’s erotic paranoia, emerging from our warrens only after dark, always clad in body-hugging fetish gear, having no real lives outside of public dungeon clubs and “violent” pornography. What’s really sad is the fact that a number of us buy into this insane picture of how a “real sadomasochist” is supposed to behave. It’s a good way to end up burned out, disillusioned, and in exile from the realm of pervery.

2010 11 Dec

Call for Sexy Documentaries: Sex+++ Has Five New Themes!

I hate to post two press releases in a row, but I’ve been very caught up in some Chicago community issues lately, so I haven’t had time to write anything more personal. I’ll bore you all with details about my life soon, I promise! In the meantime, please feel free to repost this …

pro-sex, pro-queer, pro-kink

Clarisse Thorn :: clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com

+ Q. “What is being sex-positive?”
+ A. “Defining sex on my terms.”
+ A. “Understanding my sexual needs.”
+ A. “Being in charge of my sexual experiences.”

The Sex+++ Documentary Film Series is now entering its third year. We want to make it bigger and better than ever — and take it in new directions! We’re still discussing next year’s film line-up, and we’ve got a lot of ideas, but we also want to throw open the floor. We’re looking for suggestions and submissions: documentaries that are pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-kink.

In 2011, Sex+++ will focus on several themes. We’re still discussing these themes, and they are subject to change as we research documentaries and develop the program, but here’s what we’ve thought of so far. We’re open to hearing more about any and all sex-positive documentaries — but in particular, if you’ve encountered documentaries that fit within these themes, please let us know!

+ THEME: Sex Everywhere

We want to explore how sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure are recorded, experienced, and understood outside the USA.

+ THEME: Love And Sex

We want to explore the many ways sex happens within romance, dating, relationships, marriage, and love.

+ THEME: Sexual History

We want to explore the history of sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure; we want to learn about sex-positive heroes.

+ THEME: Activist Sex

We want to explore sex-related activism and how sex-positivity intersects with other social issues such as class, race, labor, health, justice and the environment.

Sex+++ will continue at its current amazing venue, Chicago’s own Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Click here to learn what’s up with Sex+++ right now. And again — if you’ve got any documentaries to recommend, please get in touch! The primary contact for Sex+++ is Clarisse Thorn, who can be reached at clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com.

(Note, as of February 2011: The fifth theme, Talking Sex — about how we discuss sexual pleasure, desire, and consent — was ultimately dropped due to a lack of corresponding films. We’ll cover related stuff, though.)

2010 3 Dec

Introducing :: Project “What Are You Into?”

Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’ll be helping out at the friendly neighborhood museum again! Here’s one of the projects I’ll be handling. Please feel free to repost this!


Clarisse Thorn
clarisse at leatherarchives dot org

The Leather Archives & Museum, a cultural center in Chicago devoted to preserving the history of alternative sexuality, is seeking to compile resources about fetishes that we don’t usually hear about. We hope to expand our collections to include toys, magazines, videos, recordings, websites and other objects that cover a wider range of alternative sexualities.

We are interested in anything that has to do with unusual fetishes — objects, stories, pornography, erotica, websites, conversations — really, anything! Fetishes we don’t have much experience with include feet, fursuits, amputations, robots, dolls, balloons, tentacles, sneezing, crushing objects — but there are simply too many fetishes in the world for a comprehensive list.

We at the Leather Archives & Museum have plenty of experience with coming to terms with unusual sexual desires. Our goal is not to exoticize alternative sexuality, nor do we intend to shame anyone who discusses alternative sexuality with us. Our goal is to preserve the history of alternative sexuality — all alternative sexuality.

We respect your privacy. Anything you send us or tell us can be kept under your real name or a pseudonym, as you prefer.

The point person for this project is Clarisse Thorn, who can be reached by email at [ clarisse at leatherarchives dot org ]. You can also leave her a voice message if you call the Leather Archives at 773.761.9200.

ABOUT THE LA&M: The Leather Archives & Museum is devoted to preserving the history of alternative sexuality. By sharing your experience with the Leather Archives & Museum, you will be helping us document sexual practices that are not widely recorded or understood. The Leather Archives & Museum is located at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL, USA; you can visit the website at

2009 23 Mar

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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.

* * *

2009 18 Mar

Ride that lion, leatherman!

Yet another awesome image from the files at the Leather Archives.

Obviously, it’s from the cover a 1994 packet of materials from a group called Philadelphians MC. What’s not obvious is what exactly is going on in the picture … but whatever it is, I like it. And I think the lion secretly likes it too.

2009 9 Mar

Various thoughts post-KinkForAll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 21 Feb

Early Folsom flier, Instigator card and awesome condom instructions

My latest Fun Finds ™ * while volunteering up at your friendly neighborhood BDSM museum, the Leather Archives:

1) Instructions on how to put on a condom, from Scat Dancer Brand Rubbers. These were pretty run-of-the-mill until step 4:

4. do not reuse. and for god’s sake men, know your limit.

2) Cards for “The Instigator” (what a great name):

The front. I think I may adopt “Low Morals, High Standards” as my new motto.

The back. I’m not sure what’s going on.

3) The cover of a 1984 pamphlet for Folsom Street Fair, the biggest BDSM festival in the world:

I think the sewer monster is my favorite part …. “Now, nothing can stop me” might be a better motto, now that I think about it.

* I’m not really trademarking that, but maybe I should.

2009 11 Feb

Sex-positive documentary report #2: “Sex Positive”

edit: 3.23.09 After writing this entry, I got in touch with Richard Berkowitz — star of “Sex Positive” — and arranged an interview. You can read that interview by clicking here! end of edit

* * *

Last night at my sex-positive documentary film series, we screened the documentary “Sex Positive”, courtesy of Regent Releasing. I thought it went really well — we had at least 50 people, and again, just about half the audience stayed for the discussion!

Firstly: great film! I was so floored by it that I had to take a few minutes to gather my thoughts before I even could start talking during the discussion group.

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

As someone who grew up in the late eighties and nineties, it’s stunning for me to think about a time when safe sex was considered a sex-negative idea. Everyone in the subcultures I run in takes the idea of safe sex for granted … including just about everyone I’ve ever met in my age group (though maybe we should keep in mind that I was raised in liberal New York). Sure, we aren’t always perfect about practicing safe sex, but we take it for granted that we should be — and we all know exactly where we can go to get information on how to have safe sex. In fact, safe sex messages bombard us so thoroughly that we’re practically bored by them (another point highlighted by the documentary).

This was one of the earlier points that came up during the discussion group — a lot of the younger people in attendance were humbled to realize just how much we owe Richard Berkowitz. (And it was so cool to hear the perspectives of our older attendees, who were having sex through the 70s and 80s and could offer further commentary.) The documentary made it clear that the first safe sex initiatives did not come from the government, or from any well-funded bodies — they came from activists who poured out their hearts and received very little in return. In fact, the film asserts that Berkowitz wrote the very first safe sex pamphlet (it was titled “How To Have Sex In An Epidemic”) on his own typewriter at home — and he struggled to find someone who would print it, even within the gay community. The eventual printer published it only on the condition that certain scary medical theories be removed (no matter how true those theories might be).

In a way, I find Berkowitz’s story inspiring. I grew up in the midst of lots of great safe sex initiatives, so obviously his movement — the safe sex movement — has had a powerful and important effect! But of course, Berkowitz himself is now broke and largely forgotten, and safe sex education is under attack from any number of conservative social forces … as well as the ennui of a generation that doesn’t get just how good we’ve got it. So his story frightens as much as it inspires.

I think that there’s a sweet little pre-packaged idea of activism that it’s easy to fall into, today: you know, the one where you attend all the correct cordoned-off marches, and sign all the petitions, and never sacrifice anything or shock anyone. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, and there’s lots of things right. But it takes some real willingness to go the distance if you want to have a bigger effect. Yet all your passion and drive won’t protect you or even necessarily work, no matter how true or important your message is.

So, the film raises personal questions about how important certain messages can be — how important we find certain messages, and what we’re willing to sacrifice to promote them when we know the task could be (a) totally thankless and (b) an eventual failure, partially or completely.

And here’s another activist-type question, arguably harder, raised by Lisa during the discussion: Obviously, Berkowitz was somewhat silenced by his community because his criticism was perceived as an attack … but his criticism was also necessary and important and, in the end, lifesaving. So how do we ensure that our communities allow space for tough criticism? How do we make sure that we ourselves give a fair chance to messages that could require us, and our communities, to change — change in major, identity-threatening ways — but that could be so important?

God, I’ve written all this and I haven’t even described most of the discussion, or talked about half the notes I took during the film. I feel as though I’ve only covered the most facile points — I can just imagine the Onion headline: “Wide-eyed young American totally floored by the idea that activism can be hard.” I’ve just written about a few activism-related questions, and there are so many others.

For instance, I thought representations of sex work and BDSM in the film were interesting. Berkowitz expresses reservations about his one-time career as a professional BDSM dominant. It’s unclear how much he thinks sex work is a bad thing in general, but he doesn’t come across as very happy that he did it. He talks about his BDSM activities, and those of his clients, as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community; it’s unclear how much he thinks BDSM in general arises from those things. As a BDSM advocate I feel very wary of such representations. I feel even warier of the way Berkowitz, at one point, smiles while recalling how he always made a point of doing the things his partners said they absolutely did not want him to do. Yikes!

(I am often interested in the way BDSM consent was negotiated in past times. The fact that Berkowitz specifically ignored some partners’ boundaries is obviously sketchy, to say the least. But I’ve heard people argue that the BDSM subculture didn’t have such clear-cut notions of exact consent and negotiation until feminists like Andrea Dworkin forced us to address those concerns. So I do wonder how unusual Berkowitz’s approach was, historically speaking, at the time when he lived. If anyone from the BDSM community who lived through that time would like to share some insights, I’d love to hear them.)

Still, it’s also worth noting that Berkowitz said some beautiful things about BDSM, how it made him feel, and how he connected to his BDSM partners. I wish I had written his statements down.

I’ve thought a bit about the way Berkowitz, in the documentary, discussed his coming-into-BDSM. He talked about how he didn’t initially think of himself as a BDSM type — but his partners convinced him that he was perfect for it, started giving him leather accoutrements and grooming him into a BDSM top. Berkowitz certainly describes liking BDSM play — again, there were some beautiful quotations in there — but he doesn’t seem to take a lot of ownership of BDSM as an identity. Which isn’t to say that everyone who does BDSM must own it as an identity! It just makes me wonder where he puts BDSM sexuality in his own self-conception.

The discussion group largely did not seem to feel that Berkowitz made a lot of moral judgments over the course of the film, and I think in the end I do agree … but I also wonder how much pride Berkowitz takes in the activities he once engaged in, and whether he would speak in favor of sex work advocacy or BDSM advocacy.

A fascinating character, Berkowitz!

In the end, I give “Sex Positive” five stars — I’m so glad we got to screen it as part of the series. Regent Releasing tells me that they’re not sure when or how the movie will be released for a wider audience, but if you want to keep track of that, you can always check their website (here it is again).

Our February 24th documentary will be “When Two Won’t Do” — made by a polyamorous filmmaker and her boyfriend, it covers all manner of consensual non-monogamy and will give us all a lot to think about in terms of love, fidelity and the ideal relationship. The screening is courtesy of Picture This Productions. See you there!

2009 28 Jan

Sex-positive documentary report #1: “Kinsey”

Before I report on “Kinsey”, first things first: two of my blog posts have been listed in the most recent Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy. This Carnival was hosted by Sugarbutch Chronicles — check it out for at least a day’s worth of awesome sex-positive reading!

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks ….

The Sex+++ documentary film series premiere was last night! We showed the documentary “Kinsey” (2005), courtesy of The American Experience. I was completely thrilled by how well it went. We were reduced to standing room only during the film, and about 30 people stuck around for the discussion. Awesome!

Firstly, I am so lucky to be working with such great people. Sponsors Early to Bed, Women and Children First and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum all deserve yet another thank-you. Also, radical arts educator Lisa has been the best partner I could have imagined in this endeavor — and our unexpected amazing volunteer, Kim, deserves a big round of applause for all her help!

Secondly, I am so pleased that we were able to screen such a great documentary! Alfred Kinsey was a remarkable figure, and I felt both moved and inspired. I’ve read a lot of reviews that said that the documentary gave a nuanced portrait of Kinsey’s life — one that described his accomplishments fairly and also didn’t miss his flaws — and having seen the film, I totally agree.

And thirdly, the discussion was great. It was a bit loose, and we skipped around a lot of generally sex-positive topics without delving too deeply — I thought it was just what we needed to set the tone for the series. I was happy to talk with people I knew personally, as well as people I’ve previously encountered only through the blogosphere (Aspasia, I’m looking at you), but there were so many people I’ve never met — and that’s so cool!

There were a lot of BDSMers in attendance, at least at the discussion. It wasn’t all kinksters by any means, but there were a lot of us, and I worry that the discussion slanted a bit towards BDSM as a result. This partly has to do with my own resources — as someone who is involved in the BDSM community, I obviously have a better idea of how to promote it there than elsewhere. Additionally, members of the BDSM scene are more likely to know me personally and are therefore more likely to attend at my invitation.

I really did my best to contact non-BDSM people; for instance, I called every Unitarian church, gender studies professor, and AIDS nonprofit I could find in Chicago, and I invited them all. I sought out women’s centers and free speech groups. I had coffee with Serpent of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and got her advice on contacting sex workers. I also contacted a number of LGBTQ organizations, polyamory folks, swingers, and one furry listhost. And we posted fliers advertising the series all over Chicago. I will continue to try reaching out to everyone — I sincerely hope that the next groups are more diverse, and I ask that everyone invite all their friends, no matter how they might identify sexually! (They’re even welcome if they’re :gasp: straight, monogamous, vanilla, and “mainstream”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there ain’t nothing wrong with vanilla, it’s delicious!)

There were some great critiques of the documentary that came up in the discussion. My favorite was this: this documentary about Alfred Kinsey himself treated alternative sexuality in some pretty weird ways. Why is this film, of all films, still marginalizing some kinds of sex?

I introduced this subject by mentioning how the film described masochism (as a BDSMer, this was the first issue to leap out at me). The film implied that Kinsey’s masochistic experiences were fueled largely by depression, an idea that is at best problematic and at worst outright wrong. (If you’re interested in reading something by my favorite blogger ever, I recommend Trinity’s post on BDSM and self-harm.) The film also used an extremely harsh image of a straight razor during the voice-over describing Kinsey’s masochistic experiences. Yes, there are tons of people in the BDSM scene who play with razors, and that’s fine — but I personally would not choose a scary, gleaming, sterile razor to represent BDSM to a wide audience.

After I pointed that out, there were a couple of smart comments about the way the film dealt with other sexualities. One woman noted that the movie didn’t deal very well with consensual non-monogamy. Kinsey had a non-monogamous relationship with his wife, and although there was nothing overt, I think the documentary still managed to imply that there was something unequal and unhealthy about the couple’s relationship without going into it very deeply. On the bright side, though, Kinsey’s love for his wife — and her love for him — were both strongly emphasized.

Although the film was pretty good about homosexuality, there were a few weird moments nonetheless. This may partly be because of Kinsey’s own ideas about that, though. For instance, Kinsey was remembered as saying in his early sexuality lectures that homosexual women were “like men”. Obviously, not all gay women are like men. It’s unclear whether Kinsey continued to believe this throughout his life. It’s also unclear whether the documentary makers believed it.

Another topic I’m glad we covered in the discussion group was how issues of race and feminism, especially sex-positive feminism, intersect. The sex-positive movement is undeniably dominated by whites; I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and to talk about ways we can try to deal with it. I’ve made a definite effort to obtain films that incorporate race. Since the film list is not 100% finalized, I can’t guarantee how many of those documentaries we’ll actually screen, but here’s hoping! “The Aggressives”, for instance, has been confirmed — it’s a 2005 movie about a particular idea of butch lesbianism, and I understand that all the women covered in the film are women of color. (As a side note, I’ve also tried to incorporate other groups you wouldn’t “normally” find in the sex-positive movement. For instance, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to screen “Equality U”, which is about gay Christians and their activism at Christian colleges.)

For those who want to read more about sex-positivism and race, I recommend this blog post by Mighty Quare Dewd (it’s long, and complicated, and some points take a while to be made — but it deals with a lot of issues and it’s worth the effort). Thanks for the reference to Amber Rhea’s Sex-Positive Reference List.

There’s a lot more I could say, but let’s cut me off here for now. I’d love to hear from other attendees — feel free to leave a comment on this post or email me!

Our February 10th documentary will be Daryl Wein’s “Sex Positive”! Starting in the 1970s, “Sex Positive” “unflinchingly tracks the progress of gay activist Richard Berkowitz as he went from cocky S&M hustler, to angry AIDS activist, to broken but proud harbinger of a message too volatile, scary and true to be heard” (Frameline). The screening is courtesy of Regent Releasing. See you there!

2009 17 Jan

Happy belated International Fetish Day!

Via Sex, Art and Politics, I have belatedly learned that today (well, yesterday now) — that is, Friday January 16 — was International Fetish Day!

I wish I’d come up with some clever celebration, but I didn’t know! — and now I’m all tired out from a long day that included, awesomely enough, Threat Level Queer Shorts. (The next Threat Level screening will be in March, and they’re super fun — don’t miss it!)

But here’s something I can offer you, gentle readers. One of the first files I organized when I started volunteering up at the Leather Archives was a file full of old Torture Garden fliers. The Torture Garden is one of the premier fetish clubs in the world — if not the premier fetish club — and I found some really incredible images in that box.

I’ve uploaded five flier scans to my Flickr account. Below are displayed small versions of two fliers I kinda like, but that aren’t much shocking. Below that, I link to larger versions, and also to the other three fliers — which are both prettier and far more scandalous! Be warned that the last two (“Milk Sex” and “Eyeball”) are particularly transgressive, and are probably not appropriate for all or even most audiences. So, seriously, don’t look at them unless you definitely like fetish imagery. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was going to save these for a special occasion, but really, what could be more special than International Fetish Day?




Flier scans