Posts Tagged ‘Leather Archives’

2013 12 Oct

Oral History of BDSM Experience: The Your Personal Kink project at the Leather Archives

Back in 2011, I volunteered semi-regularly at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago — the world’s only BDSM museum. The museum’s executive director, Rick Storer, knew that I had a strong interest in the history and culture of the BDSM community. He also knew that I was very interested in understanding different people’s experiences and perspectives on BDSM — the good, the bad, the surprising and fascinating.

So one day, Rick and I sat down and developed an oral history project that we named the Your Personal Kink project. Here’s how we described the project’s goals at the time:

The goal for the “Your Personal Kink Project” is to collect information about the experience of people who do not identify as part of the “BDSM community,” but who practice BDSM in their relationships. By “BDSM Community” we mean the wide network of dungeons, educational demonstrations, conventions, club nights, meetups, and other fora that function to socially network, educate, and acculturate many BDSMers.


2012 11 Oct

Why I’m Not (Yet) Out Of The Closet About S&M

No one was surprised when Ricky Martin came out of the closet as gay.

Today is National Coming Out Day. I cried when I saw Milk and I think outness can be an important political act, but I’m not coming out.

Not yet.

I’ve been writing under a pseudonym for a long time.

In 2008, I decided to take all my theories about S&M — and all my confused feelings — and use them for sex-related activism. I started Sex+++, my sex-positive film series in Chicago, which was an unexpectedly huge success. I volunteered at the Leather Archives, the world’s only S&M museum. I began writing this blog. Soon I was getting speaking engagements. Then I started publishing articles in big outlets. Always under the name Clarisse Thorn.

I had several reasons for writing under another name:

1) I thought I might want to explore a career path at a conservative company. In fact, I spent the first two years of my Clarisse-Thorn-time working for bosses who would not have been okay with the fact that I’m a decently well-known S&M writer.

The social climate now is somewhat liberal — it’s mostly okay to be gay, for example, or at least it’s more okay than it has been for hundreds of years. But S&M is something else. Less than ten years ago, a prominent U.N. employee named Jack McGeorge was publicly attacked in the media because he was an S&Mer. And while you might think times have changed, a sex blogger who called herself The Beautiful Kind (real name Kendra Holliday) lost her job in 2010 when her boss found out.

BDSM — and sexuality in general — is still very stigmatized. People who write openly and personally about sex are taking huge risks with their employability.

2) I’m lucky because my parents are both very analytical, liberal thinkers; they’re deeply interested in gender politics, and they think my work is awesome. However, there are other people in my social network who would not be cool with Clarisse Thorn. For example, one of my closest friends comes from a hardcore religious family. I like her family. I’ve been to their house for Christmas. They’ve told me that they think I’m “a good influence” on their daughter, although they understand that I’m pretty liberal. But if they knew I was kinky, God knows how they’d react.

Another example: a former boss of mine is very, very conservative. In fact, he’s a Tea Party member. This boss has always been incredibly kind and generous to me; I visit him occasionally even though I don’t work for him anymore, and he’s told me that he thinks of me like a daughter. Would he “disown” me if he knew about Clarisse Thorn? I don’t know.

Some people who work in sexuality say: “Well, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who can’t accept me as I am,” or “I wouldn’t want to be close to someone who wouldn’t be okay with my sexuality.” Maybe that’s true for them. But people are complicated, and the world is a nuanced place, and I’ve drawn a lot of comfort and joy from these relationships, even if I disagree with those folks in some ways.

3) I hope to have kids at some point. In USA culture, the most efficient way to go about that is usually to get married. I don’t want a potential husband to be in a position where people will assume he’s perverted just because he’s marrying me; if he wants to be out, then that’s fine, but I don’t want outness to be a precondition. I don’t want to risk his employment along with my own. And if I’m going to meet a fiancé’s family, I’d rather they had the opportunity to get to know me as a person before they Google me and discover this. I mean, I’ve dated men whose families would have had trouble adjusting to the relationship because I was white. Imagine if they knew that I was a pervert.

And my poor potential kids! I mentioned Kendra Holliday earlier; her son has definitely caught some flak at school. I’m pretty sure the famous S&M writer Janet Hardy stayed in the closet, writing under the name Catherine Liszt, until her children were grown — I seem to recall seeing something she wrote where she described kids as “hostages to social stigma,” although I can’t find it now. (Update: Janet did stay in the closet until her kids were grown, but she doesn’t recall saying anything about hostages; see comments.)

There are other reasons for being closeted. I am, in fact, nervous about having everyone in the world know details about my sex life (even though my writing is fairly vague and emotional and political, compared to most sex writing). Personal safety worries me, too.

There is something shadowy and romantic about having a “secret identity” — and as a dedicated child of the Internet since 1996, when anonymity was the norm, I always liked playing identity games. But this is more inconvenient and stressful than romantic. I mean, earlier this year I spoke at the biggest new media conference in the world. Imagine attending a four-day social media convention while preventing yourself from being photographed or identified. It was intense.


2012 6 Oct

[classic repost] Lawrence of Arabia: Heavy Masochist

Lawrence of Arabia film posterT.E. Lawrence — also known as “Lawrence of Arabia” — was a British war hero, widely lauded in the early 1900s. He was the subject of a famous 1962 film biography that won seven Academy Awards (and was nominated for ten). One day in 2009, I was volunteering at the Leather Archives and I discovered that they have a file on Lawrence. Because he was deeply, unmistakably, provably a sexual masochist. Yeah!

There were a couple of in-depth magazine articles included in the file. One, authored by Jack Ricardo, was published in the July 1990 issue of Stallion. The other, by Joseph W. Bean, was printed in The Advocate on April 11, 1989.

Here’s an excerpt from Bean’s article ….

* * *

In his years at Oxford (1907-1911), Lawrence may have had no actual sex life. Vyvyan Richards, a Welsh undergraduate who was very much in love with Lawrence and shared a great deal with him in other ways, believed “that he was sexless”. His sexuality was either so covert as to go unnoticed or consisted entirely of the vicarious satisfactions found in homoerotic literature.

… Anyone rash enough to accuse Lawrence of heterosexuality does so without the slightest trace of evidence. By the same token, anyone who denies that Lawrence was homosexual and a masochist does so by ignoring not only evidence but Lawrence himself.

… [Apparently a bunch of documents related to Lawrence’s sexuality became widely available in 1968, including some personal stuff that had been held by his family.] There was, as it turns out, an actual conspiracy of silence about the parts of Lawrence’s life that, if they became known … “only … would benefit … the owners of the juicy Sunday papers” [in the words of old friend Mrs. Shaw]. … The new pieces of the Lawrence puzzle primarily filled in the years back in England, after his Arabian adventures. This final period turned out to be the strangest and suddenly the best-documented phase of Lawrence’s sex life. For a time he was attending flagellation parties — sexual but not strictly homosexual — arranged by a man called Bluebeard. When these parties came to the attention of the authorities, Lawrence risked his reputation by attempting to defend Bluebeard. He was unable to help.


2011 27 Oct

Free Tix to CineKink Chicago AND Group Discount to Reeling Film Fest!

November is an awesome month for sexuality-related films in Chicago. First of all, there’s the ongoing Sex+++: my sex-positive film series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Sex+++ is pro-sex, pro-queer and pro-kink. The films are all totally FREE to attend, and we serve enticing snacks and delicious conversation. Our next screening is November 8, and you can read the full 2011-2012 film calendar by clicking here.

November is also when CineKink: The Kinky Film Festival brings its annual national tour to Chicago, November 18-19 — and I’m offering free tickets again this year!

Plus! November features Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, November 3-12 — and this year, I can offer a group discount to one of the screenings.

For more information, keep reading ….


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

2010 17 Nov

Free tickets to CineKink Chicago!

I am currently offering TWO PAIRS of FREE TICKETS to a film of your choice at the upcoming CineKink: Chicago. If you want the tickets, then just email me with your name, tell me how long you’ve been reading my work, and include the title of the first post you ever read on my blog! (It’s okay if you’ve never heard of me before and the first post is this post.) I’ll put all the names in a hat tomorrow evening (Thursday) and pick two randomly, then I’ll email the winners. And you get to CHOOSE which movie you see for free with a friend or partner!

CineKink Chicago has a great 2010 lineup. These three films sound especially awesome to me:

Friday, November 19th, 8pm: S&M Judge (Trailer)
The 2010 CineKink Audience Choice Award Winner! A compelling drama in which a respected judge finds his job, reputation and family life in jeopardy after he and his wife begin to explore sadomasochism, with an opening reception for CineKink: Chicago to immediately follow the screening.

Saturday, November 20th, 2pm: My Sexuality: A Sensory Experience followed by a panel featuring meee! (Trailer)
Shines light on five ordinary women from different backgrounds, sexual preferences and past experiences as they experiment with activities intended to boost both sense of self and sexuality. Immediately following the screening will be a panel discussion about women, representations of sexuality and sex-positive filmmaking, including Clarisse Thorn!

Saturday, November 20th, 4.30pm: Waxie Moon (Trailer)
Takes the world of neo-burlesque by storm in a thought-provoking and hilarious documentary look at one artist’s unlikely journey.

But there are a bunch of other good films showing as well. Don’t you want free tickets? The films are being screened at the awesome Leather Archives & Museum (up at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue in Rogers Park). Local sponsors of CineKink Chicago include my pet sex-positive documentary film series, Sex+++; the wonderful sex toy store Early To Bed; and the rope bondage convention ShibariCon.

RECAP: For a chance to win TWO FREE TICKETS to CineKink Chicago, all you have to do is:

1) Email me, Clarisse Thorn: clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com.

2) In your email, tell me how long you’ve been reading my work, and write the title of the first post you read on my blog. (It’s okay if you just found my blog, and the first post is this post! And if you can’t remember the title of the first post you read, just tell me what the post was about.)

3) Sit back and wait until Thursday night. I will email you if you win the tickets! And remember, if you win, you get to decide which CineKink movie you see for free!

2010 7 Feb

Chicago-area pro-BDSM, sex-positive events this week!

Now that I have successfully ambushed my good friends in their home, I can break my semi-secrecy and announce that I am home in Chicago! This week only! (My favorite part was when I dashed into a close friend’s room, threw my arms around him from behind and was already squeaking with joy by the time he realized it was me and shouted “Holy shit holy shit!”)

Because I am me, I have arranged a host of sex-positive, pro-BDSM events for your pleasure even though I am only here for a week. Note that all these events are free and open to the public (though one comes with a suggested donation)! Check it out:

* * *

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 800 S Halsted

Every town has one. She was notorious in your high school. The girls harassed her; the guys had her. Or did they? Who is the slut? Can one be both virgin and whore? What does the word actually mean and why is it often shrouded with invention and intrigue? And should “slut” be added to the ban on “7 dirty words” from radio and television broadcast? Come out and join us at the ongoing Sex+++ Film Series for delicious documentary and discussion, and also some fascinating snacks! Chicago’s own sex-positive activist Clarisse Thorn, the original Sex+++ curator, is visiting from her work in Africa and will facilitate the post-film discussion.

* * *

Wednesday, February 10, 3.20-4.20 PM
Northwestern University, Ryan Auditorium, Tech Building (near corner of Noyes & Sheridan)

Imagery deriving from bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) is becoming commonplace — and we all know (or think we know) what a dominatrix is — but most people don’t have much idea of what BDSM actually involves.  Although it is increasingly accepted as an alternative sexual orientation, BDSM remains surrounded by stigma, scandal and occasional legal action.  In this presentation, pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn will describe the basics of BDSM (however, it’s not a how-to lecture — you aren’t going to learn how to use a whip, though you’ll learn where to go if you want to find out!).  She’ll also poll the audience to see what else they want to cover — BDSM history? cultural landmarks? BDSM & feminism? legal issues? we’ll have to see!  This event is generously hosted by the Northwestern University Department of Psychology.

* * *

Thursday, February 11, 7-9 PM
University of Chicago, 5710 S Woodlawn Meeting Room

What is masculinity or male advocacy as a movement, and how is it in dialogue with contemporary feminism? Can it be incorporated into feminism, or can the values of the sex-positive feminist community speak to its concerns? What does positive, productive talk about masculinity sound like? Feminist, pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn — currently on vacation from working in Africa — will discuss the above questions in a short lecturette and then facilitate small discussions on kinky male sexuality, men in the pickup artist community, and men who buy sex. This event is generously hosted by University of Chicago student group The Feminist Majority.

* * *

Friday, February 12, 7.30 PM
LA&M, 6418 N Greenview Ave

Graphic Sexual Horror” takes a peek behind the facade of, a notorious bondage website, exploring the mind of its artistic creator and asking hard questions about personal responsibility. Original Insex footage, behind-the-scenes interactions, and interviews with website creator PD, models, members, and staff reveal deep fascinations with bondage and sadomasochism that run parallel, and in fact become irreversibly entwined with the lure of money. InSex was shut down by federal prosecutors, but its story asks questions that are still relevant. Can paying a BDSM partner distort his or her consent? Why were prosecutors so easily able to force a legal business to fold? Director Barbara Bell is coming to town for the post-film discussion, which will be moderated by pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn. This event is a fundraiser for the Leather Archives & Museum, and we are requesting a $5-10 donation from attendees. Special thanks to our sponsors: Sex+++ Film Series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; and ShibariCon, Chicago’s own rope bondage convention, coming up in May!

* * *

And just in case you were directed to this page by a friend or something and have no idea who I am, here’s my adorable small bio:

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered workshops on both sexual communication and BDSM to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and several Chicago universities. She created and curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; she has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable BDSM institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. Currently, Clarisse is working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She blogs at and Twitters @clarissethorn.

2009 15 May

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

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

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

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

You can vote in the poll by clicking here.


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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

Clarisse Thorn

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

2009 30 Apr

Evidence that the BDSM community does not enable abuse

How can you tell BDSM from abuse?

People ask me this all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four General Guidelines for Recognizing the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

2009 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.