Posts Tagged ‘polyamory’

2012 20 Nov

[postsecret] Stories of People Whose Partners Cheated

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating. But it’s a complicated topic, and I try to acknowledge its complexity alongside my emotional baggage.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. Last month, I posted a bunch of PostSecret snippets about what it’s like to cheat. There were a lot of interesting comments on last month’s post, so I decided to do a followup: postcards that hint at the complex stories of folks whose partners cheated.

* * *

(Picture of a baby, then text): “I hate that one day I’ll have to tell him that fucking other women was more important to you than we were.”

At first glance, this strikes me as the archetypal narrative of a woman who was cheated on. But I have a lot of experience with polyamory — that is, open relationships — and I wonder whether there’s a different story here. Maybe this woman’s partner was faithful to a monogamous standard, but tried asking for an open relationship. Perhaps they discussed it, disagreed, and then broke up.

Either way, I have sympathy for the person who wrote this postcard. Breakups are hard. I just can’t help wondering whether they broke up over a betrayal or a disagreement.

* * *

“For a scary, intoxicating moment I thought you were telling me you’re leaving your wife. But you meant you are moving away with her.”

This, on the other hand, is the archetypal story of the “mistress.” And as I said in the previous post, I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

Yet sometimes I think that the best argument against being a cheating facilitator has nothing to do with the pain you cause other people. Sometimes I think that the best argument against being that person is the amount of pain you can open yourself up to. Especially if you want the cheater to eventually commit to you … despite the fact that they are, of course, already a cheater.

It’s also clear that, for some people, being the cheating facilitator is a painful pattern:

“Always a bridesmaid mistress, never a bride …”

* * *

Aaaand finally:

“I feel guilty for making my husband break up with his mistresses.”

I assume that this writer is female. (If the writer isn’t female, then there’s a ton of other potential stories wrapped up in the card!) The postcard talks about how she feels guilty for making her husband break up with his “mistresses,” which leads me to wonder how long she knew about the situation, and whether her guilt is due to breaking some kind of relationship agreement.

Did they basically have an open relationship for a while — where she overlooked the situation deliberately? And does she feel guilty because she suddenly rescinded that tacit permission?

This is one of the most complicated postcards I’ve seen. I can think of several other readings off the top of my head, but if you folks have thoughts, I’d rather hear them in comments.

* * *

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

* * *

2012 24 Oct

[postsecret] What It’s Like To Cheat

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating, mostly due to background info that I won’t write about today. I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

I have also always maintained that it’s entirely possible to cheat even if you’re polyamorous: cheating means breaking the relationship agreement, it’s not about the exact mechanics of the sexual act. So, for example, say that you agree with your partner that you can both have sex with other people, but not kiss them. In that case, if you kiss someone else, it’s still cheating!

With age, however, I have become less fierce about the topic. (I guess people get less fierce about everything, with age.) I am now more willing to listen to reasons that cheating might happen, and what it means to different people. I still don’t advocate cheating, and I don’t think it’s right, but I can understand it better now.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret. It’s an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following cheater-derived images ….

* * *

“I rationalized that having an affair was justified because my wife didn’t seem to trust me, whether I was faithful or not. I figured I had little to lose. I was wrong. I gave up being the guy who would never hurt her like that. Forever.”

This postcard resonates most with me, presumably because the writer seems to take the emotional harm he’s caused as seriously as I do.

* * *

“I’m sleeping with both of you so I can be both halves of who I really am: Innocent / Freak.”

Sometimes, a PostSecret card comes up that makes me wonder whether the writer is talking about cheating … or consensual non-monogamy. For example, maybe this person is being honest with all involved partners. I certainly hope so!

I have always figured that if there’s a sexual desire that can’t be met by a current relationship, then the first step should be to try and negotiate an alternative sexual outlet. For example, if this person wants some BDSM (as the image seems to imply), but has a partner who doesn’t want to do BDSM, then it’s totally legit to say “Honey, can I take on a BDSM partner outside our relationship?” — even if they’re monogamous most of the time.

I know that a lot of people don’t think that way, though. So one of the first “cheating sympathies” I ever had was this: if a person asks their partner for something they feel is important, but the conversation is shut down or ignored … or even if there’s good intentions on all sides, and many attempts have been made, but there’s no apparent compromise. I can understand why cheating happens, then.

* * *

“Because of my husband’s sexual dysfunction, I have been celibate for over a decade. I am not proud of my fidelity. I feel ashamed that I stay.”

This, right here. This seems like the perfect time for a careful conversation about sexual needs and an honest, straightforward request for an open relationship. But I understand why that would be incredibly hard, and I just feel so bad for everyone involved. No one should have to feel trapped in a sexually unfulfilling relationship, but some people are terribly hurt by the idea that their partner would sleep with someone else, and it can be so hard to talk about ….


2012 17 Aug

S&M, Open Relationships, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and Me

LarssenCover2I just finished reading the third book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — it starts with the world-famous The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. They’re good books: incredibly detailed procedural mysteries starring a charismatic middle-aged journalist and a brilliant girl hacker. Actually, they’re a bit too detailed for me — at one point I realized I’d just spent half a page reading about the brands and styles of apartment furnishings that a character purchased at IKEA. Seriously. And no, it was not even a little bit important to the story. So I skimmed a lot. But I guess some people like that, and there’s plenty of other stuff about these books that I like.

Larsson, the author, was apparently a feminist anti-racist journalist who did some pretty interesting work himself. He clearly had a lot of revenge fantasies against men who abuse women, and he liked creating powerful female characters, but those aren’t my favorite parts of these books. I do enjoy how he represents some subtleties of how abuse happens. For example, he shows quite clearly how disabled people (or people who have been designated disabled by the state) are vulnerable to abuse by those who are in charge of them. (Apparently the movie version is more graphic than the books, when it comes to rape scenes; I haven’t seen it.) But those aren’t my favorite parts either.

Mostly, I like how he represents S&M and open relationships.

I’ve said before that if I could get my dream representation of S&M in the media, then I’d want a couple who does S&M … and it ain’t no thing. This is true in the Millennium novels, and I love it. The characters have relationships, some of which are awesome and some of which aren’t. Some of them break up, some of them don’t. The author doesn’t bother being graphic, detailed, or generally concerned about the S&M. It’s not portrayed as a sign of dysfunction, anxiety, or self-esteem problems. It’s just something that the main characters do, and it’s not even a big deal.

Better yet: one of the characters is raped and later does consenting S&M with a consenting partner, and it’s still okay! Amazingly, we have an author who truly gets that consensual S&M is different from abuse! (As I pointed out in my piece on S&M and the psychiatric establishment, there are even people who use consenting S&M experiences to work through past abusive experiences. That doesn’t happen in any of the Millennium books, though; I just wanted to make a note of it.)

LarssenCover1I’ve been thinking lately about how, for me, S&M isn’t something that I personally obsess over anymore. I mean, of course I think about it. I’ve got so many years of experience doing S&M, researching S&M and teaching about S&M that I have a kind of S&M-lens that fits over my vision at all times. I believe it’s really important that we think clearly about S&M, and I think that S&M theory is relevant to a lot more things than most people think. Yet it’s not a thing for me, you know? It’s just something I do. I remember that a few years ago, I knew some experienced S&Mers who told me that they felt this way, and I was like “huh?” Now I get it. And it’s awesome to see it portrayed.

And open relationships. Larsson never uses the term “polyamory,” but there’s an ongoing open relationship between the journalist character and a colleague, and I like that, too. I also like how Larsson doesn’t downplay the difficulties. Jealousy is a problem more than once, and it’s dealt with in a variety of messy ways. In my upcoming erotic romance Switch Seductress (I plan to release it next week!), I’ve been working to portray both functional polyamory and problems that can arise during polyamory. It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re aiming to be accessible to a general audience, and Larsson gets my heartfelt applause for trying.

The books made me think a lot about where I want my relationships to go. I’ve written before that ideally, I’d love to someday have a primary relationship with one person who I live with, raise kids with, et cetera. I’d also like to have secondary relationships with other people when that happens. In the Millennium books, the journalist has a relationship with killer sexual chemistry and extreme intimacy, which is nonetheless a secondary relationship: his partner is married to another man. I want that.

But one thing I’ve been wondering lately is: how much can I develop a relationship like that before I have a stable primary relationship in place? I’m not asking whether people in general can do this; I’m wondering about it for myself. This year a relationship fell apart with someone I care about a lot, mostly because he’s not primary relationship material — and yet he’d be fantastic secondary relationship material. In theory, there’s no reason not to date him, but it’s just that if I don’t have a primary relationship in place, I can’t seem to prevent myself from wanting to escalate the relationship I have with him. It’s difficult and painful territory; and I’m not sure what to do about it, except stay away from it for the foreseeable future.

How much does it even make sense to have a secondary relationship with someone I’d consider having a primary relationship with? But on the other hand, if a man isn’t primary relationship material, then why is he worth having a secondary relationship with? There are so many contextual factors shaping the answers to these questions, and personal factors too: how much chemistry do we have, how bonded do I feel, what’s going on in the rest of our lives.

I guess we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned, folks, as always.

Final note: Larsson gets into sex trafficking a bit during the various plotlines, and so I’d be interested to know how sex worker activists would review the story. All I know about Sweden is that they have a particular set of laws around sex work that some feminists claim are awesome; but I also know that many actual sex worker feminists (and people who study sex work) believe the laws are harmful and bad. It’s one of those situations where certain feminists who are Utterly Appalled by certain types of sex have made legislation that affects the lives of women who are actually having those kinds of sex. And in these situations, the bogey of sex trafficking is often held up as a banner for why that legislation is necessary, even though the legislation is hurting women. So when I see super-dramatized representations of sex trafficking, especially set in Sweden, I kind of automatically feel skeptical. But maybe in this case, I’m jumping the gun. (If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities of the trafficking debate, then I can’t recommend this paper by Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson enough. It’s incredibly nuanced, detailed, and smart.)

LarssenCover3Larsson died before these books were published, and apparently he planned more. That’s pretty clear from the sudden ending of the third, which left loose ends. I’ll also say that the first book, as is so often the case, is just generally better than the other two. Still, they’re all a fun read:

1. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

2. The Girl Who Played With Fire

3. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

(Full disclosure: the above Amazon book links contain my referral code, so you’re kicking me a tiny commission if you buy through one of those links. If you don’t want to do that, then search for the books on your own.)

2012 12 Jul

You Can’t Date Half A Couple

This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests. The comments on the original are great.

I currently approach my relationships as polyamorous, meaning that I prioritize being able to have multiple lovers and discussing the relationships honestly with everyone concerned. A while back, I wrote a piece called My Top Questions About Dealing With Multiple Lovers, in which I mused about some confusing thoughts I’ve had in pursuit of polyamory. My first question was:

What are my responsibilities towards my partners’ other partners? A lot of poly people will tell you that if you get into a relationship with, say, a married polyamorous man, then you must also expect to interact with his spouse. In other words, don’t assume that your relationship means you only interact with one half of a couple. I’m totally fine with this, but on occasion I’ve felt like I was getting sucked into the couple’s problems, or like I was expected to have no individual relationship with my partner — that I always had to go through his primary partner.

Sometimes, polyamorous people put this much more succinctly: “You can’t date half a couple.” If you’re emotionally involved with one person, you’re involved with their other partners by default … even if you’re not having a sexual or romantic relationship with their other partners.

A couple years ago, I dealt with a striking situation along these lines. I was careless … but I think my partner was pretty careless, too. He and I were highly attracted to each other from the start. He had a girlfriend, but I thought they were polyamorous. So I brazenly flirted with him in front of her, and got his contact information. She seemed calm and collected as she watched it happen; I really didn’t think there was a problem.

Boy, was I wrong. I went out to dinner with that guy later in the week — I’ll call him Ken — and we scheduled an S&M date. Ken and I agreed that we wouldn’t have any genital contact, although we planned to hit each other with things and inflict some pain and make out a bit. (Lots of people who are into S&M sort of separate S&M feelings from sexual feelings, but it’s different for everyone.)

Ken and I had fun together. But there was one thing I didn’t know until after the date was over: it was the first time in their relationship that Ken had ever done a private encounter with a different partner! And he hadn’t been very thoughtful with his girlfriend about it, either.

I found out the next morning, when Ken mentioned offhandedly that he was a little worried about his girlfriend. “How come?” I asked.

“We’ve never done this before,” Ken said. “I mean, we talked about polyamory a little bit, but we hadn’t decided to do it until you came along. So last night, she knew I was meeting you, and she’s probably been anxious about it all night.”

I got a sick feeling. I realized that Ken and his girlfriend had fallen into the “monogamous-now, polyamorous-later” trap. One of the big problems with being “monogamous now” and thinking about “polyamory later” is that if a potential Other Partner comes along, it forces the issue. Then, if the couple decides to be polyamorous, and it feels difficult for anyone … then the Other Partner can receive a lot of the bad feelings because the Other Partner is seen as the “interloper.” And I was now the Other Partner.

“Oh my God,” I said to Ken. “You mean you weren’t polyamorous when I met you?”

“No,” he said. I remembered how I’d blatantly flirted with him in front of his girlfriend, and I felt careless and cruel.

“I wish you had told me,” I said. “I wish you’d mentioned that this was your first time meeting someone outside the relationship. I would have suggested that you call her late last night to reassure her, or something like that. Do you want to call her now?”

Ken shook his head. “It’s nice to know that you would have been cool with that,” he said. “But now it’s the morning, and I’ll just wait until we’re done with breakfast before I call her.”

I thought about saying, She should be your top priority. I thought about saying, Maybe you shouldn’t date other women if you’re not sure whether they’d be cool with you calling your primary partner … but I held my peace. I decided that it wasn’t my relationship or my place to criticize him.

I felt a little uneasy about Ken, but I liked him a lot … so he and I thought about having a longer-term relationship. I decided that if we were going to continue, I wanted to do things right. I invited his girlfriend out for a one-on-one lunch so that we could talk.

It was hard to schedule lunch, but I was determined. I went all the way across the city to see her. When we met, she was nice enough … but standoffish. I asked if I could give her a hug, and she said, “No.” Then she said, “I’m sorry,” and told me that it was all a bit new for her.

We talked for an hour. I tried to make it completely clear that I didn’t want to be a threat to their relationship. But I also didn’t want to get sucked in to talking through their problems with her, and there were a few difficult moments where she told me about relationship issues. So I also tried to say, as gently as I could, that I didn’t want to be in a role of “relationship therapist” for their partnership. Although I felt open to talking to her and understanding her concerns, I really didn’t want to be in a position where I advised her about her relationship with Ken. I thought that could create conflicts where there didn’t have to be any conflicts.

By the end of lunch, Ken’s girlfriend said that she felt better and less anxious. But I kept feeling like I was barging in on a situation that was even more complicated than it seemed on the surface. I kept feeling like she blamed me, a little bit. Even though she seemed willing to deal with it, I was uncomfortable.

Although he wasn’t even there, that lunchtime meeting was the major reason I didn’t pursue things much further with Ken.

2012 3 Jul

I’m Not Sure Why I Want To Have Children, But I Do

This is a slightly longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

I’m not the kind of woman that most people imagine when they imagine a woman who wants to have kids. I’m a starving artist writing often about my experience with S&M and open relationships. When I think of long-term relationships, I want them to be polyamorous and flexible in other ways, too. The boyfriend I most recently felt serious about had a job that sent him on business trips for months at a time … which was fine with me, because I like doing the same thing.

Obviously, children would change my lifestyle a lot, and I’ve thought extensively about the necessary changes. To be honest, it’s not clear to me why I want to have kids, given the enormous hassle. I just know that I do. When I was a teenager, I liked babysitting (at least I liked babysitting smart kids), but I never had much interest in actual babies, and the desire to have children made no sense to me. Then suddenly, around age 18 or 19, it was like a switch flipped. My feelings about other people’s children remained the same … but I wanted to have my own kids. Like, I really wanted kids. I suddenly had this bone-deep knowledge that if I never had kids, my life would feel incomplete.

The “switch flip” phenomenon appears to be common, though not all women get it. It’s creepy; the desire for kids feels so separate from my brain, from my intellectual knowledge about myself. I’m grateful that the switch flipped early, though, because I’ve noticed that sometimes it hits mid-thirties women just as fast, and they can be caught unprepared. (And then there are women who expect to want kids, but who never seem to contract that bone-deep necessity, like Adaya Adler. So then they’re surprised when the switch never flips!)

A couple mid-30s friends of mine recently had a conflict because she suddenly realized she wanted kids. But when they got married, in their late 20s, he made it clear that kids weren’t part of the deal. Their mutual lives aren’t set up for kids in any way. They broke up for a while, then got back together, and eventually she concluded that she had to let go of the desire for children. The whole situation sounds incredibly harsh, but it also wasn’t anyone’s fault.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? These things are rarely anyone’s fault. It’s more a question of trying to work around them. But this delicate, contextual process can feel so high-pressure, especially for women, since we’re on the clock ….

And then there’s sexuality. Everyone knows that having kids changes your sex life, but it’s super unpredictable; the change is different for different people. Since I’m a sex writer and sex is obviously important to me, that’s terrifying. I spoke to a mother recently who told me that she was into S&M before she had kids, but post-kids, the desire for S&M vanished. Of course, there are also S&Mers who have kids and never lose that desire, and I suspect that I’m among that group, because my S&M preferences feel at least as deep-rooted as the desire for kids. Yet I could be wrong.

Being in my late twenties makes me feel stereotypically panicked about all this. Why aren’t I married yet! Why do I keep attending weddings as a single lady! How will I ever find a father for my children!! Then I remember that my breakups have all been for excellent reasons. I believe it would be best to marry (polyamorously, I hope) before having kids, if only to have a teammate for all the logistics. But when I’m honest with myself (as opposed to panicking), I don’t have any exes who I believe I should’ve stayed with.

I heard that one of my recent exes will probably break up with his current girlfriend because she doesn’t want biological kids. Of course that pricks my heart, but while he’s a great guy and I think he’ll make a great father, I don’t think we’d make a great long-term couple; we had no chemistry. Another ex-boyfriend recently told me that he thinks I’ll make a good mom, which was wrenching, but I still think it was a good call to break up with him.

Part of me worries about how very wrenching it felt. It took me a while to see how unsettlingly strong my reaction was when he told me that, and how strongly it made me reconsider our relationship. Have I become easy to manipulate in this regard?

Compromise is necessary for relationships, of course, but how far am I truly willing to compromise? As Bailey Elliott recently observed on Role/Reboot, “Some of the people who have said the worst things to me [about being single] are the ones in the most dysfunctional relationships: married to a raging alcoholic who abuses pets while drunk, a patronizing and controlling man, or a man who refuses to communicate in any real way.”

Also, being in my late twenties means that my dating pool now contains divorced men. It’s a jarring reminder that life contains zero guarantees.


2012 16 Jun

S&M Aftercare … or Brainwashing?

Yes, it’s another article about abuse and S&M, but I’m going to cover a lot more than that. I’ll talk about intimacy and bodily reactions and how these things build a relationship — whether consensual or abusive. And I’ll talk about how to deal with them, too.

Last year, I received an email from a woman who wanted to talk about sexual desire that exists alongside real abuse. She has been abused, but she is sexually aroused by S&M, and she struggles with boundaries a lot. She wrote to me:

Here’s what destroys you: that some of us are designed to shut down and feel terror and horror and arousal and shame all at the same time, to crumple before horrible people, to feel aroused even as they genuinely destroy you. This is not in any one’s best interest. It’s not hot, it’s not awesome. And yet it’s there.

The worst pain for some of us, that makes you want to scream and not exist and makes you want to scream to the heavens that you want to die and escape being in your own body is not that you are afraid he will come back. It’s that you are aroused by the possibility that he will. And other than destroying your very self, you can’t stop it. It is the cruelest of design flaws and the worst people understand it and the most compassionate people don’t.

However, the conclusion is not that some people want abuse. By definition, abuse is something that destroys you, that leaves you feeling violated and harmed in a way you don’t want. And part of that mechanism, that involves the desire for the abuse to continue, is that many of us are designed to want more intimacy once intimacy has been initiated with a person. Many of us don’t want to be left.

And the agony of feeling harmed by being left by someone you never wanted to be there in the first place is confusing and can be debilitating.

No one wants to be harmed in this way. Among abuse survivor communities the arousal involved in abuse situations is often called “body betrayal,” but this doesn’t seem to encompass how deep the desires can be for some people. At the root, the desires are often the same desires that fit into normal healthy intimate relationships. To be loved, to have an ongoing interaction, to be seen and understood at the root of all your emotion, to be taken sexually and feel the pleasure of another enjoying your sexual arousal. But these emotions have been exploited and manipulated for the gain of others.

For some number of people who have experienced abuse, the greatest split within the self does not simply come from how horrific the acts themselves were but from the feelings of desire and pleasure that can happen in human beings even during horrific unwanted acts. For some of us, BDSM can be a safe way to explore unpacking some of this desire and how these arousal patterns got mixed up with horrific things — or were already hooked up to horrific things and that pre-existing fact was exploited by a harmful person. And for some of us, taking that out and playing with it may not be a necessary part of recovery at all.

But simply knowing this — the fact that your arousal and pleasure systems can be activated by harmful people is ok — it does not mean you want it, it does not mean that it was good for you, or that anyone should have treated you in that way. That can be the greatest healing in and of itself.

I want to thank her for allowing me to publish her words. Her description is so far from how I usually discuss or experience S&M; and yet I see connections, too, and people rarely discuss those connections.

* * *

Aftercare: Intimacy Within Positive and Consensual S&M

A while back, a study came out that established that a consenting, positive S&M experience increases a couple’s intimacy afterwards. I cite that study all the time, but I still find its existence kinda absurd; I mean, they could have just asked us how it felt. On the bright side, if S&M is being studied by Real Researchers, it’s a sign that S&M is becoming more widely accepted. Yet for all its hormone level measurements and mood surveys, I didn’t feel like the study got anywhere near the heart of S&M and how S&M creates such extraordinary intimacy. Why would it? Studies are science, and aftercare is art.

I’ve previously defined aftercare as “a cool-down period after an S&M encounter, which often involves reassurance and a discussion of how things went.” That’s a decent quick definition, but there’s a lot more to it. Bodily violence sometimes creates a mental malleability and vulnerability that can be used in good ways … but also in terrible ways. I see aspects of this in competitive sports, especially the ones that involve fighting and hurting other people very directly. (Have you ever seen that phenomenon where two guys fight each other and then become Best Friends right afterwards?)

Being together with an S&M partner during aftercare can be used to free people, to make them feel amazing and establish extraordinary intimacy. But it can hurt people too; it can hurt them terribly.


2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 1 Jun

A Sugar Baby Leaves The Business

This is a slightly longer version of an article that was originally published at Role/Reboot. It also appears in my new collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn, which you can buy for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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Previously on Role/Reboot, we ran an interview with my friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student who had just started having sex for money through a “sugar baby” website called In the interview, Olivia covered a lot of topics. She mentioned that she usually feels powerful in her relationships with her clients. As she put it, “When I show up, I don’t feel like — here is this rich, powerful person who is about to bestow wealth upon me. I feel like — here is this person who is a bit sad and lonely, and maybe I can make their day better.” Olivia also noted that her negotiations can be delicate, because some men are quite squeamish while discussing money. And she explained that she’s married — but it was already an open relationship, and she doesn’t see having sex for money as different from the other kinds of sex that she and her husband were already having with other people. To deal with it, they’re sure to communicate clearly. As Olivia said, “We just have to talk about it.”

In the months since that interview, Olivia and I have hung out occasionally to talk about her experience with sex work. She’s traveled across the city to meet me, and often bought me coffee; non-judgmental social support for sex workers can be rare, and I’ve seen more of her since she started the job. Although she really enjoyed the work at first, there were tough times too, especially after the novelty wore off. Recently, Olivia decided to stop seeing clients. We talked it through and she gave me permission to write about it. (She also reviewed this article pre-publication.)

Obviously, there were logistical complexities from the beginning. Taxes were a nightmare. Olivia wanted to pay them, but it’s not the easiest proposition. Then there was the question of paying off her debts. Some were simple enough, but then there were loans co-signed by her parents, and there was no way she could make any headway on those loans without talking to her parents… so Olivia had to maintain the fiction that she couldn’t pay.

That was nothing compared to the complexities of feelings and communication, though. I’ve already shown you how hard it was, sometimes, for Olivia to talk about money with her clients. There are other, subtler problems that are hard to handle with empathy: for example, creating the Girlfriend Experience persona.

I’ve talked to sex workers who enjoy creating a “sexy dreamgirl shell” on behalf of their clients. One of them said to me: “I create that persona for my boyfriends anyway. It’s nice to be paid for it.” But as a feminist sex writer who’s spent years working to understand my own sexual authenticity, this freaks me out a bit. I think it would feel terribly toxic and inauthentic for me.

It often felt inauthentic to Olivia, for sure, and that got harder and harder. “These men are very invested in believing that I’m super into this,” she told me once. “I have to keep up the front, and make them feel like I’m interested all the time. It’s literally my job to do that. When they tell me how happy I am, or when they inform me that I’m enjoying myself, I can’t really contradict them, even if it’s not true. Some of them use words like ‘magical’ to describe me, but the person they’re describing is not really me. Sometimes I think these guys pay me because in a non-professional relationship, a woman might push back when he says those things. She might contradict his idea of her too much.”

In fairness, Olivia naturally fits one glam stereotype of the middle-class sex worker: the sexually adventurous young student. It’s such a widely-promoted stereotype that experienced sex worker activists speak derisively about it, and some escorts lie and say that they fit the profile when they don’t. Presumably, clients enjoy believing that a girl is a sexually adventurous college student because it capitalizes on images of “sexy coeds” — and convinces the client that she’s not being emotionally harmed by the work. (I’ve often thought that it’s way past time for “fair trade prostitution,” where sex trade ethics are made into a competitive advantage. I’ve also thought that the most feminist thing I could ever do would be to open a brothel where all the sex workers are treated well. Too bad it’s illegal.)

Of course, actively encourages the idea that a “real relationship” can emerge from these arrangements. (In our previous interview, Olivia pointed out the SeekingArrangement blog post “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?” Another interesting one is called “Sugar Babies Do Fall In Love.”) While some guys on the site really do just want to pay for straight-up sex, some become emotionally invested in the women whose company they buy. And we can tell from Olivia’s experiences negotiating payment that a lot of guys don’t like thinking about how they’re paying for it.

Bottom line: more than one of Olivia’s clients were into her for real, and she felt more and more uncomfortable about it as time passed. One man took a surreptitious photo of her and hung it on the center of his otherwise-bare refrigerator. Another client made faux-offhand wistful comments such as, “If you weren’t already married, haha….”


2012 18 May

Who Enjoys Casual Sex, Anyway?

A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

The above image is from the art site People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “Since I joined a gay men’s chorus, I haven’t had casual sex. Singing is better.”

I can be a pretty brazen lady. Sometimes it surprises me how much this will give people the incorrect impression about my sexual habits. I actually dated one guy (monogamously!) for two years who, towards the end of our relationship, asked me about “all those one-night stands.” I was like, what are you even talking about? and it turned out that he’d gone through our entire relationship thinking that I’d had a ton of one-night stands before we dated. Two years!

I am not so into casual sex. This is not because I think there’s anything wrong with it — and in fact, if you are a lady who’s thinking of going for lots of casual sex, then I highly recommend Adaya Adler’s article on awesome casual sex for single girls. But personally, I’m not so into it.

How to define casual sex, though? I’m taking a polyamorous approach to my relationships these days, and I’m okay with having multiple ongoing sexual relationships at different levels of intensity. So when I say I’m not so into casual sex, am I avoiding one-night stands, or does the phrase cover more than that? I’ve concluded that (for me at least) casual sex is casual as long as there seems to be little potential for a deeper emotional relationship. I don’t have to feel True Love for every guy I have sex with, but I want us to care about each other, to have some kind of ongoing understanding. At the very least, we’ve gotta be able to go out to dinner and have a nice heartfelt conversation.

I mean, for one thing, the sex is just plain better if you care about each other. Anecdotally, this seems to be true for people of all genders, although there are probably exceptions. (When it comes to sexuality, there are always exceptions.) I will point out, however, that research appears to show in multiple ways that women are less interested in casual sex than men. For example, women tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would probably be no good, while men tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would be average. Which is quite reasonable, given the fact that research finds that many men acknowledge not caring about their partner’s pleasure during casual hookups. For another example, as the FAQ for the Kinsey institute tells us, “Many women express that their most satisfying sexual experiences entail being connected to someone.” There could be a lot of different reasons for this — I’m rarely interested in the nature vs. nurture debate — but I think that whatever the source, the general patterns are worth noting.

Back in 2008, when I first started blogging about sex and S&M, one of my first blog posts analyzed my feelings about both casual sex and casual S&M. I had already concluded that neither really works for me. And yet it seems like sometimes I have to re-learn this lesson. I end up “trying it on for size” again, like a sweater unearthed from the back of my closet, whose dullness I forget until I see it in the mirror. I find myself brushing my hair the next morning next to someone who feels like a stranger.

It’s not that casual sex is valueless, exactly — I learn something from almost all my sexual encounters. And I’ve had one or two casual encounters that worked quite well for my goals at the time, and were quite pleasant. But although I haven’t had a whole lot of casual sex, it’s usually been so boring. Plus, after casual sex I get hit with the additional payload of automatic, socially-induced questioning of my own self-worth, being as I’m a lady who just had casual sex. I’d like to say that I’m a Perfectly Independent Modern Girl whose self-esteem is never challenged by this kind of thing, but I’d be lying, and I think that stereotype of the Modern Girl is a problematic stereotype anyway.

Plus, there’s an old stereotype that if a lady has sex on the first date, she “ought” to be treated as “slutty” and “disposable” and “not relationship material” because she did so. This stereotype is dying, but it’s a slow death. And one thing I wonder is whether a relationship is more likely to develop as “casual” if it starts with first-date sex, as opposed to escalating more slowly. Is it really true, that men “won’t respect you in the morning” if you have sex right away? Is it true, subconsciously, even when men say it’s not true — and believe that they’re being honest?

I’ve wondered a lot what it is about casual sex that makes some people react with mild distaste, the way I do, while others react with glee and abandon — and others react with virulent hatred and aggressive rejection. Aside from the apparent gender split, what are the characteristics of people who experience casual sex as usually fun, those who experience it as usually boring, and those who experience it as usually destructive?

From my experiences and observations, it seems to me that people who absolutely love casual sex often:

* Have a lot of physical turn-ons (as opposed to psychological ones).

* Are not carrying difficult feelings from abusive sexual experiences.

* Don’t tend to get attached to partners quickly, or know how to manage their experiences so that they don’t get attached. A friend once told me about a woman who never allowed herself to have orgasms during casual sex, because she had observed of herself that she started getting emotionally attached quite quickly.

But I’m very curious about the experiences of others, and whether anyone disagrees with my brief points above. Comments are quite welcome.

The next image is also from PostSecret … and I can tell you that for me it feels like a punch in the gut, so you might want to take a deep breath before you look at it:


2012 1 May

Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy

This was originally published at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot, under the title “When Jealousy is a Turn-On.”

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The above image is from the art site People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “I wish you would stop comparing me to your kinky ex.”

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Last year, I wrote a piece called “In Praise of Monogamy.” I currently practice polyamory in my relationships, but I spent years dating monogamously. I’ve noticed that when people talk about monogamy, they usually either assume that it’s the only way to go … or they assume that it has to be thrown out the window entirely.

I think this either-or approach is completely wrongheaded. So the goal of “In Praise of Monogamy” was to talk about the advantages of monogamy in a more neutral, nuanced way. Different relationship models are all tools in a toolbox, and some people are better with some tools than others.

“In Praise of Monogamy” was probably one of my most successful articles ever — it was republished at a ton of websites, including high-profile venues like The Guardian. Simultaneously, the article received mixed comments. Some people felt that I wasn’t praising monogamy enough; others felt that I wasn’t praising non-monogamy enough; there were lots of other frustrations too. My big takeaway was that these conversations don’t happen enough, most people aren’t used to having them, and it’s really hard to know where to start.

Jealousy is one obvious starting point, because people always bring it up in conversations about non-monogamy. I talked about jealousy in “In Praise of Monogamy.” Specifically, I wrote:

Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy — and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory “relationship contract”.)

But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the “jealousy chip.”

And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.

Personally, I used to get a lot more jealous than I do now. I think I’m less likely to get jealous these days partly because I’ve gotten better at finding low-drama men. Jealousy has a reputation for being an irrational emotion, and sometimes it genuinely is an unreasonable, cruel power-grab. But I think jealousy is often quite rational, and often arises in response to a genuine emotional threat … or deliberate manipulation.

There’s another reason, though … I’ve also noticed that some switch in my brain has flipped, and I’ve started to eroticize jealousy. I occasionally find myself fantasizing about men I care about sleeping with other women, and sometimes the fantasy is hot because I feel mildly jealous. I cannot explain how this happened. It surprised me the first time it happened, believe me. What’s really fascinating is that I think the same part of me that eroticizes jealousy, is the part that used to make me feel sick at the thought of my partner sleeping with someone else. S&M masochism: the gift that never stops giving!

I think it’s important to note here that I didn’t become less jealous because I felt like I “should,” or because I was told not to be jealous. In fact, I had an early boyfriend who acted like I was a hysterical bitch every time I got jealous … and he made things much worse. With him, I just felt awful when I got jealous; I couldn’t get past it. I felt like he was judging me for something I couldn’t help; I felt like my mind was fragmenting as I tried to force myself to “think better” without any outside support; and worst of all, I felt like I couldn’t rely on him to respect my feelings.

It was the men who treated my emotions like they were reasonable and understandable who decreased my jealousy. It’s much harder to be jealous when your partner is saying, “I totally understand,” than it is when your partner is saying, “What the hell is the matter with you?” Maybe that’s what makes monogamy such an effective jealousy-management tactic: monogamy can be like a great big sign or sticker or button you can give to your partner that says, “I respect your jealousy.” Which is not to say that monogamy is always effective for this — we all know that monogamous people get jealous all the time! (Which only adds to my point that monogamy might be viewed as just one of many tactics, rather than an answer, when jealousy is a problem.)

Now, back to the current article. Jealousy is a hot-button topic, so I’m nervous about this, but let’s focus in on it a little more.

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The Feeling of Jealousy

Jealousy and its cousin, competition, are both things that happen a lot in relationships. Some people are so uncomfortable acknowledging this that they repress those feelings, or ignore the behavior that goes along with them … but I’ve rarely seen that end well.

I believe that some people lack jealousy and competitive urges … but I’ve also seen a lot of people who feel those things but can’t admit it. Not even to themselves.

I dated a guy last year who told me at the start of our relationship that he never got jealous. At first I took him at his word, but I quickly noticed that he changed the subject aggressively when I mentioned past lovers. We had a mutual friend with whom I had a lot of chemistry; when the three of us were together, my boyfriend acted uncomfortable and irritable, and when I specifically acted in ways that made it obvious I was with him — like by giving him Public Displays of Affection in front of the other guy — he relaxed.

I sighed internally when I observed this, and I felt frustrated, but wasn’t sure how to talk about it without sounding like I was calling him a liar. Fortunately, he brought it up later. “I think I do get jealous sometimes, and I just don’t like to think about it because it makes me feel like a bad person,” he said, one night while we were making dinner. In that moment, my respect for him skyrocketed. It’s hard for people to keep track of themselves like that, and to shift their self-image when confronted with new evidence.

Some people seem to interpret their lovers’ jealousy as a sign of love. I’ll admit that I’ve had moments of being flattered or pleased when my boyfriends show signs of jealousy — or when they act a little competitive. Sometimes those things are scary, though … or threatening … or frustrating, like in my example above. It’s complicated!

However, I often see those dynamics play out in ways that the participants won’t admit, no matter how much evidence comes up. I think it gets especially complicated when people experience jealousy as a sexual thing, a turn-on. Most people have a hard enough time discussing their sexuality in the first place. When you add an ingredient as controversial as jealousy, the potential discussions become much more combustible.

When I was researching pickup artists for my awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I found a number of discussions in that community that praise competitive feelings because they’re seen as making the relationship more fun. A lot of these guys say competition among different lovers within open relationships is awesome because it keeps everyone a little uncertain, and encourages them to be “on top of their game.” This contrasts drastically with most polyamorous perspectives; in my experience, poly folks see jealousy and competition as things that should be compartmentalized and managed very carefully, rather than encouraged or exalted. For polyamory theorists, a feeling of safety is often the goal, as opposed to a feeling of competition.

And emotional safety is certainly a concern, because jealousy is one of the most intense and overwhelming emotions out there. It’s a hard feeling to sit with and work through. My worst experiences of jealousy felt like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe, like I was sick to my stomach, like I was terribly obsessed, like I couldn’t think of anything but the jealousy and how much it hurt. And yet … I’ve occasionally felt jealousy that was weak, almost nice, where I felt a little twinge of it and turned to my lover and got reassured … and that made me feel more safe, more cared for, more loved.

The bottom line is that people experience jealousy and competitive urges in many different ways. It’s important to acknowledge that and honor it. I don’t see it as productive to frame things like “jealousy is bad,” or “competition is awesome.” I’d much rather frame things like: “Jealousy and competition happen sometimes, and how do we deal with them when they come up so that everyone involved feels comfortable and happy?”