Posts Tagged ‘pro-sex outreach’

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 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 20 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 17 Apr

My KinkForAll NYC presentation: Outreach, media management, privilege, BDSM orientation, more!

Back in March, I attended a sex-positive unconference in New York City called KinkForAll; it was mostly slanted towards BDSM, but there was a lot of generally sex-positive talk as well. (You can read my post-KinkForAll followup thoughts by clicking here!) Part of the deal at KinkForAll was that everyone contributed in some way to the event, many of us by doing 20-minute presentations. I loved the loose, quasi-anarchist conference model. It worked very effectively (and if you’re interested in that kind of thing, I encourage you to read more at the KinkForAll website about how such events are organized).

At KinkForAll New York City (KFANYC), event organizer Maymay felt strongly that he wanted all the available information made further available to the general public, so he recorded all the presentations to be posted on the Internet. I don’t post images of myself, so he just took an audio recording of my quick talk on BDSM outreach strategies. You can download the recording by clicking here.

I had less than 20 minutes, and I didn’t have much time that week to prepare for KFANYC … to my ear, my talk sounds rushed and disorganized. I guess that’s how it goes. Certainly, expect it to be informal when you listen to it!

Now let me give some references and clarify some points:


+ Most importantly, check out my sex-positive documentary film series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum!

+ Here’s the interview I did with Daniel Bergner, who wrote a “New York Times Magazine” article on female sexual desire as well as The Other Side of Desire, a book profiling four sexual fetishists.

+ I describe Pleasure Salon NYC during the recording, and there’s an interchange with Selina Fire. A month after that presentation, I got a committee together to start a Chicago version of Pleasure Salon, and it was awesome! If you’re in Chicago, come out to the next Chicago Pleasure Salon — they’re on first Tuesdays, 6-10, at Villains (649 S. Clark).

+ On the recording I quickly note that I attended a Chicago Bloggers Meetup, but I don’t mention the coolest thing that came out of that meetup: Arvan Reese, who organizes the thing, was inspired to start a new community blog on Sex / Gender / Body! One of my favorite things about doing this sex-positive outreach activism has been seeing my message inspire other people to go out and do similar projects. This movement is gaining some serious traction, people. The Sex / Gender / Body community blog goes live next month, and I’m psyched.

Followup Thoughts and Clarifications

+ I think I was a bit disingenuous about tactics on getting out a diverse audience — because that’s not something at which I am succeeding very well. That is, I think I’ve definitely succeeded at getting people with a huge range of sexual experience out to the Sex+++ Film Series, though the crowd is still a bit slanted towards the BDSM community (of course, that’s the community I’m most personally involved in, so this makes sense). But I have not succeeded at getting out — say — lower-income people. In other words: I’m doing well at some kinds of inclusiveness and outreach, badly at others.

Maymay wrote a great followup KFANYC post, and in the comments I talked about how I think these events are awesome but I really want to see more efforts to get different kinds of participants in on the mix. The sex-positive movement is overwhelmingly white and middle- to upper-middle-class; how can we make the information we offer accessible to other demographics? After I left my comment on Maymay’s post, there were a bunch of really great comments. My favorite was one from subversivesub:

To me, the solution is neither outreach nor (necessarily) changing one’s project but identifying what the absent demographic groups are already doing, or considering if there’s a good reason why those groups aren’t presently part of your group — and may not want to be. I think the question is not so much “how can we get more people involved” but “how can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity.”

… to which I responded:

I think that the way we develop our communities is, or at least can be, separate from the way we choose to spread information. I also think that we can expand the audience to which we make our information accessible, without changing our community. Indeed, for me, it’s not really a question of getting more people into our community (though that does frequently seem to be a collateral effect of my approach). It’s more a question of ensuring that more people (a) know our community exists in the first place, (b) are not under false impressions regarding our community, and (c) can easily access the information we have to offer.

Of course KFA is a community-building event as well as an information-spreading event. But I am under the strong impression that it is designed and intended mostly an an information-spreading event. This is certainly how I would promote it if I had time to organize one in Chicago.

I think that the approach you suggest — “How can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?” — is not actually very different from the approach I am suggesting, which might be summarized as: “How can we frame the information we’re offering such that it is accessible to people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?”

So my answer to this question is: I don’t know, and I’m always open to suggestions and conversations about it. In fact, I’m due to have lunch soon with someone who wants to start a kink group for people of color … hopefully I’ll have time to blog about that when it happens, though the list of topics I want to blog on is already as long as my arm ….

I don’t necessarily want everyone to agree with me about everything regarding sex, although I must admit I think it would be super awesome if everyone agreed there is no “should”. But I do, at the least, want everyone to have access to information that can help form healthy, safe, consensual sexuality. I want everyone to know where they can go for that information, and to feel welcome if they seek it out.

+ Another thing I may have been disingenuous about: my immense privilege. I try to be as aware as I can of the incredible privilege I carry through my life: I’m white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, mostly heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, naturally slender, with live parents … there’s probably others I’m forgetting. The reason I bring this up is that I think privilege was a hugely important factor in my ability to start the Sex+++ Film Series, and I didn’t acknowledge that enough.

For instance, the most obvious factor: I am privileged to have the familial and personal financial support that enables me to work at an extremely flexible part-time job; I would never have been able to do this free series if I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time. The same goes for a lot of my other activism.

But I still think there’s a lot that everyone can do, even if they don’t have a ton of time or resources! Support local sex-positive events and groups. Write letters to the editor opposing sex-negative press coverage. Try to be frank, open and tolerant about all forms of consensual sexuality in your everyday life — for instance, don’t insult furries at the local BDSM meetup. Outreach and activism aren’t just the domain of dedicated activists: they’re attitudes; they include small habits everyone can get into, small actions anyone can take.

+ Lastly: I stand by my comments on “the orientation model” of sexuality. I still think that our biggest message should not be, “I can’t help my sexuality!” but should rather be, “Whether or not my sexuality is ‘built in’ or a choice, I have the right to do whatever I want with my body and with other consenting adults!”

But we probably shouldn’t entirely abandon the orientation model, because it’s got a lot of legal and cultural power. For instance, check out this recent British Columbia case that could determine whether BDSM becomes a legally protected sexual orientation … i.e., whether it becomes illegal in British Columbia to discriminate against people based on their BDSM choices. My favorite part of that article is the end, which quotes sexologist Charles Moser as he lays out a very clear, eloquent case for BDSM as a sexual orientation.

I’m unwilling to outright reject a powerful potential tool for social acceptance. So on that level, I think it’s cool to talk about BDSM (and all types of alternative sexuality) as an orientation. I just also think that a good priority for the sex-positive movement would be shifting the discourse so that it’s less about whether or not we choose our sexuality, and more about the fact that we have the right to make whatever sexual choices we want.

2009 14 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you write about any of these issues and communities?


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

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

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


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


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

Thank you!

2009 30 Mar

Introducing … Chicago Pleasure Salon!

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

* * *

Introducing ….

presented by
SEX+++ and SWOP-Chicago

1st Tuesdays, 6-10pm

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

Help us create a more sex-positive world!

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

Villains Bar & Grill
649 S. Clark Street

Under 21 welcome, but they obviously cannot drink.

2009 23 Mar

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

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

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

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

* * *

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 14 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #4: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think” and related shorts

I’m turning over a new leaf by failing to preface the post with a lot of text. This week’s Sex+++ documentary was pretty close to my heart ….

We showed Erin Palmquist’s “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (check out the official website!) as well as two related shorts, “Leather” and “Cut & Paste”. I was heartbroken that technical difficulties prevented us from showing “Forever Bottom”, which I was really psyched about. Oh well. The “Forever Bottom” DVD worked when we tested it on a laptop; we’ll try to get it to interface properly with the system and show it with a later film.

“BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” is an unfinished film, but it’s definitely on the right track. It tries to describe what BDSM is — i.e., demonstrate that it’s more than a dominatrix in a catsuit with a whip — and work against anti-BDSM stigma by interviewing a bunch of kinksters about what they do, how they do it, how they feel about what they do. I loved a lot of the points it made — they’re obviously very similar to points I constantly make with my outreach presentation and such.

“Leather” is an absolutely gorgeous short film that’s very similar to “BDSM”; it was made in 1995 and specifically features members of the gay leather subculture. It’s less cautious than “BDSM” in avoiding transgressive imagery, and it is more personal and less political than “BDSM”. It features scenes between one specific couple that seem as though they must be choreographed, they’re so lovely. But I don’t mean to imply that it’s hardcore or anything — there’s some bootlicking and hot wax and clothespins and flogging, that’s about it. The whole thing feels more ritualistic and meditative than darkly emotional; these aren’t degradation scenes or fear scenes. This is another film like “Sex Positive” where I wish I’d written down some of the quotations about what the participants were feeling, because they were so beautifully said.

“Cut & Paste” is a BDSM coming-out story, and it’s a well-made one with adorable graphics. I love coming-out stories so much! Better yet, it’s a coming-out story from the point of view of a Black queer woman who uses the opportunity — not just to show what it’s like to come into a highly stigmatized sexuality — but what she absorbed about what Black women’s sexuality is “supposed” to be.

The discussion group after the films talked a little bit about a number of BDSM-related issues, but didn’t go too in-depth about any of them. One interesting question, raised by a gentleman whose name I regrettably do not know, was this: As BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in the media, does that make BDSM more mainstream? If BDSM is becoming more mainstream, then will that weaken ties within the BDSM community?

To the first question, I’d say that light BDSM is probably becoming more mainstream. More people are considering tying up their lovers with silk scarves today, than were 30 years ago. But I think that heavy BDSM play is still very, very stigmatized, and I also think that most people have no idea what forms heavy BDSM play can take. More importantly, I don’t think the mainstream has any real grasp on communication and consent tactics that are promoted in the BDSM community — beyond safewords, that is. Checklists? Check-ins? Simultaneous journals? These things are not being mainstreamed at all. (Although I’m doing my best to work on that with the sexual communication workshop I’ve been giving recently.)

As for weakening ties within the community … I don’t think that’s happening either, at least not yet. People are more open about BDSM now and that means that more people can come into the community — but a lot of people still don’t feel like they can talk about BDSM with vanilla people. So we have the benefits of people being able to find the community more easily, and we also have the strong bonds created when most of us feel like we can only talk to each other — no one in our outside lives — about the way we approach love/sex.

I doubt the community will collapse even if BDSM goes totally mainstream — if every BDSM act is totally acceptable, and information is freely available to everyone — because not everyone will ever be into BDSM. There will always be value to the community because it will always be the place to go to meet people who speak our erotic language. There may be some fragmentation as the scene gets bigger, of course — and to some extent this already happens, with different groups attending different clubs, for instance.

It’s worth noting that our August 11 documentary will be “Liberty in Restraint”, which is about a fetish photographer. So if you’re really interested in issues of fetish media, then you should attend that one!

But as for now: our next film night is March 24, and it’s a two-theme night. We’re showing “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability and Videotape” — about disability and sexuality — and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” — about female masturbation and orgasm. See you there!

2009 10 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CT: The amputee fetishist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you say to that author?

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

CT: (laughs) Sorry!

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

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

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

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

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

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