Posts Tagged ‘screwups’

2012 30 Jan

Some Transformative Justice Links

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

In the wake of recent conversations, I’ve been looking around for further resources on transformative justice. I haven’t been able to do a lot of intense follow-up on the topic lately, because in mid-January I had major spinal surgery (after breaking my neck in an accident back in 2011); this obviously has involved many painkillers and a lot of sleep and not-working as much as possible. However, I have been able to do some reading, and I want to share some of what I’ve found most compelling.

Since I’m in recovery, I may take a while to moderate/participate in comments on this thread.

* The most thorough overview of community accountability issues and strategies that I have found was created by INCITE!: Women Of Color Against Violence. Here is an awesome Community Accountability Working Document: it’s full of important principles, incisive questions, organizational ideas, and references to groups that are doing this kind of work.

* Over and over, for the past year and especially recently, people have directed me to Philly Stands Up:

Philly Stands Up is small collective of individuals working in Philadelphia to confront sexual assault in our various communities using a transformative justice framework. We believe in restoring trust and justice within our community by working with both survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault. We believe that sexual assault comes in many forms and we are doing what we can to actively combat it.

We work with people who have assaulted others to hold them accountable to the survivor(s) and restore their relationships within their communities. In dealing with perpetrators, we seek to recognize and change behavior, rather than ostracizing and allowing future assaults elsewhere. We support their healing process, and challenge them on their behavior in order to prevent future assaults.

We also work to educate ourselves and others on issues that contribute to sexualized violence. To encourage awareness building, we provide support for other groups and collectives as well as host workshops in Philly and elsewhere.

On the Philly Stands Up site, here is a post about their Points of Unity; here is a more detailed post called “Our Approach, Our Analysis”.

And here is a personal testimonial from a member of the collective. I personally found these paragraphs especially powerful:

We do not have a magic “perpetrator-free” stamp that absolves someone from whatever pain they have caused another person or community; we work to build an honest and accountable space with perpetrators. This demands a good faith effort from both directions. I have friends who upon finding out about the subject of my Sunday night meetings, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? why perpetrators? none of those programs ever work.” Valid response. But PSU isn’t a program. No one is more aware than we are that we can’t work with every perpetrator. In some cases, perpetrators are also survivors of other situations. We try to see the whole person and the whole situation, however complex, and remain aware of our limitations.

It isn’t easy to go step-by-step through our process, since it’s different each time. Typically, we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator either through a referral through [another group] or because someone will email us directly and ask for help or resources. We meet weekly, and commit to “tasks” — whether it’s contacting someone about a workshop, working on an article for a zine, doing research, working on a situation, or being the group’s email checker for the week. We do a decent job of checking our mail, and it’s the responsibility of the email checker to not only check the emails, but to respond based on the time sensitivity of what is emailed (either a “do you need to talk so someone in an hour” or a “can we check in about your request at our meeting on Sunday, which is four days away” type of response). Every meeting starts with a personal check-in and ends with a check-out, and includes a mixture of debriefing current situations and “tasking” new situations, discussing or planning upcoming workshops, projects, or proposals, or doing internal educational work. Committing to work on a situation depends upon what information we know, who can do the work — not only logistically, but also with respect to personal limits and triggers.

… Working with perpetrators, situation by situation, requires that we are continuously checking in with ourselves (individually and collectively) about where we are at, what we need, how we feel, what hurts, what is too much, where is the wall? We can do, feel, and trust this more when we operate in real time.

My commitment to PSU is the healthiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with an activist collective. I don’t have to feel guilty about my time limits — for example, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to go to an actual meeting in at least a month because of my work schedule, but my ability to commit to write this article and pull together resources for this zine is internally embraced as a valid part of our work. My emotional boundaries are respected — and furthermore, my efforts to even articulate my boundaries in the first place are appreciated as necessary. People step up and step back on a week-to-week basis. Literally. I was a little dubious that this function of the collective was actually the truth, but I personally have been proven wrong multiple times. I have learned that working with PSU demands a lot of honesty. I have to be honest with myself about my own triggers, limits, boundaries, needs. I have to trust my friends in PSU to help me both identify and respect what I can and cannot do. I have to be able to hear each of their own capacity for our work. I think our commitment to healthy activism works because we centralize it at our meetings (by framing with personal check-ins and check-outs), we have pre-existing/outside-of-PSU friendships and shared/local social networks that are incredibly powerful, and because there is a shared common and radical analysis of power and oppression — which informs not only our Points of Unity, but also our ability to just be there for each other and create a safe space (which isn’t to say that we don’t work to develop that space and challenge ourselves). I can only speak for myself, but I know I approach relationships (whether platonic, intimate, or somewhere in between) in a fundamentally different way since I joined PSU.


2011 9 Dec

What Happens After An S&M Encounter “Gone Wrong”

I’ve often thought that BDSMers should talk more about our “failed encounters”. Sometimes the best way to learn is through “failure”, or by looking at others’ “failures”. But when a BDSM scene “goes wrong”, it’s often highly personal for everyone concerned. So it’s really hard to talk about and really hard to write about — both for the dominant and submissive partners. This is just like any relationship, really. After all, people rarely talk about their most embarrassing or awkward or otherwise difficult “mistakes made” during vanilla sex, right?

(I use phrases like “failed encounter” and “gone wrong” and “mistakes” with caution, because I think these situations can often be viewed as learning experiences, and therefore they are successful for a lot of purposes! But certainly in the moment they feel like screwups, and a lot of the time they can make the whole relationship very difficult, and I think that most people who have been through them feel as though some kind of failure happened … whether it was a failure of understanding, communication, empathy, caution, or something else.)

Much of the problem, I think, is that people have such a hard time communicating after serious miscommunications and mistakes.

The following quotation is from Staci Newmahr’s Playing At The Edge, an excellent ethnography of the BDSM community. (I’ve changed a few jargon terms so I don’t have to define them for you, but I left two terms I’ll be using throughout this entry: “top” and “bottom”. A top is a blanket term for a dominant and/or sadist. A bottom is a blanket term for a masochist and/or submissive.)

Sophie had been engaged in a long and intimate S&M relationship with Carl, a friend whom she deeply trusted. During the encounter she describes below, Carl changed his approach, and Sophie subsequently felt that Carl was somehow not quite himself. Sophie and Carl never quite recovered from the incident; though they remained friends and tried to do S&M again, it was, according to Sophie, never the same.

Sophie says:

He was very much a rope top. That was his big thing, was tying people up. And he was excellent at tying people up. And our dynamic was always — I mean, yes, he would absolutely hurt me when the time came for that, but there was also always this element — even when he was hurting me, it was done in this incredibly, like, touchingly caring way. And especially when he was tying me up, it was this soothing, wonderful thing.

So one day … Carl starts an encounter with me. Carl had decided in his head, from all the things that he’s heard me say about how I play with another partner, that that’s what I really want from an interaction, in order for it to be the most gratifying and valuable. So we proceeded to have an encounter where Carl was not Carl. And I didn’t stop it because it was so like, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand why it felt so horrible. And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, because I trust him completely. [ … ] I just couldn’t figure out what the problem is, I felt horrible through the whole thing. And he was so out of touch with me that he wasn’t even aware of how horrible I was feeling. The encounter went on for some time … and the second it was over, I … was just, like, you know, traumatized. And he was like, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” [and] he carried me into the other room. I said something like, “Where did my Carly go?” and then he started to cry. [ … ] He’s like, “I was trying to give you this sadistic experience.”

In Sophie’s story, Carl’s risk backfires. … The risks were unsuccessful; each ended up emotionally distraught and distant. Ultimately, they sacrificed the relationship. (pages 179-180)

Man, that description is so intense. Let’s talk about it.

The Practice

The first thing worth noting about Sophie’s story is that, while she probably had a safeword, she didn’t use it: she says that she “didn’t stop it.” Sometimes, in really confusing S&M scenes, submissives have trouble using their safewords. This does not mean safewords are worthless … but as Thomas MacAulay Millar puts it, “Tops can never be on cruise control.” Non-verbal signals matter, and if an S&M partner — top or bottom! — starts reacting in an unusual way, it’s great to check in with them even if they haven’t used their safeword. Safewords are a useful additional way of communicating about sex, but they can’t replace all communication.

Note also how hard the situation was on the top partner, not just the bottom. Carl ended up crying afterwards!

Next, what I find myself wondering is whether Sophie and Carl could have communicated past this incident. Sophie obviously trusted Carl, and presumably he trusted her. Could they have talked it out and had a successful relationship afterwards? It would have been hard, but maybe they could have done it.

I’ve (rarely) had similar experiences myself — where boundaries were severely tested, and afterwards it was difficult for both me and my partner to work through it. It can absolutely have an immense impact on the relationship. I write about this a bit in my awesome eBook, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser (read reviews and buy it by clicking here). Here’s a quotation from a section in my book where I’m talking to a dominant partner, with whom I just had such a difficult encounter:


2011 2 Aug

Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

Years ago, when I first started thinking about BDSM and abuse, I was defensive. A lot of feminist BDSMers are defensive about it.

We get scared of the accusation that “BDSM is always abuse” … and we’re accustomed to accusations from certain feminists such as “those of you who pretend to like BDSM just have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome and don’t know what you really want” … and often, we’re also fighting our own inner BDSM stigma demons. We get angry that our sexual needs are seen as politically problematic, or unimportant.

And so, for a lot of people, our instinctive angle on abuse in the BDSM community is: “Shut up! That’s not what’s going on!” And that’s a problem.

Obviously, I don’t think BDSM is inherently abusive! Exploring my personal BDSM desires has given me some extraordinary, consensual, transcendent experiences and connections. I also genuinely believe that BDSM has the potential to control, subvert, and manage power.

BDSM can be a place where people learn to understand bad power dynamics in past relationships; it can be a place where people learn to manage or destroy bad power dynamics in their current relationships; it can be a place where people find glory, self-knowledge and freedom by manipulating their own reactions and responses to power. Here’s a great, complicated relevant essay by Pepper Mint, and here’s one of my favorite quotations on the matter from violetwhite:

It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

Still, I’ve seen things happen in the BDSM community that turned my stomach. Terrible manipulative behavior exhibited by people who have the greatest reputations. Blaming the victim when they try to speak up. Telling “rumor mongers” to shut up when people are trying to talk openly about problematic community members. The BDSM subculture has its own version of rape culture, where “lying bitch” and “drama queen” and “miscommunication” are used against abuse survivors.

Miscommunications do happen. But not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication.

Oh yes, rape culture can happen in BDSM just the same way it happens in the “vanilla” mainstream. And there are certainly people in my local community who I would never get involved with, because I do not trust them. (I like Asher Bauer’s old post, “A Field Guide To Creepy Dom“, which is all about how to spot predators — although, like Asher, I think the post has a few problems.)

Being defensive about BDSM and abuse won’t help; yes, BDSM is stigmatized and stereotyped, but the abuse is still a problem. So after I started blogging, I tried to move past my defensiveness and write more concretely — to write about what exactly the BDSM community does to work against abuse. One of my first posts on BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse“. It highlighted anti-abuse initiatives within the BDSM community.

As I learned more about BDSM and abuse, and my perspective got more nuanced, I wrote a more expansive post called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team“. It covered all the information I’d given in the earlier post, and also talked about how I personally would structure an anti-abuse initiative with alt-sex people in mind.

Looking back now, those posts still strike me as defensive. I was making good points, but I also think that I didn’t fully understand where some feminists are coming from when they react negatively to BDSM. This past year, I’ve learned a lot more about abusive gender-based violence, power, and control. And I’ve concluded that while BDSM is obviously not equivalent to abuse, we need better theory to describe the difference between BDSM and abuse, and we should try to avoid defensiveness while articulating that theory.


2011 1 Mar

[storytime] How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

A reader recently sent me an email in which they said:

i know you have always had clear boundaries with yourself (at least how you have described yourself)


I guess I’ve had a pretty good sense of my boundaries, historically, but there have been times when I have not set them well. This is hard to write about, because it happened years ago, and the memories aren’t fun, and I don’t like writing negative things about people I know unless I think there’s a good reason for it. But there are few people in my life, now, who are likely to identify the person I’m discussing. And I’ve asserted before that we should be more willing to write about our screwups; I was writing about BDSM at the time, but I think it’s true of all kinds of relationships.

There was a gentleman in my life, lots of years ago, who I was extremely in love with. We had an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted a very long time. We had an extraordinary mental and emotional and creative connection. We understood each other very well. There is zero doubt in my head that he loved me too.

Our sex life was really terrible, though. (It was not a BDSM relationship. I hadn’t yet come into that part of my sexual identity.) And there were some emotional boundaries he simply wouldn’t respect. At first I was too inexperienced to really recognize how bad it was, though I knew some things were messed up — then, as I got older (and dated other people in the interstices of our relationship), the problems became clearer and clearer to me. Want some examples? Here’s a blatant one: he never went down on me, though I regularly went down on him; he never even offered to try and figure out something else I might enjoy equally. Oh, I knew that was messed up from the start, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-esteem to negotiate something different.

I tried — believe me, I tried to discuss our sex life, in a hesitant and confused way — but he found ways to shut me down, every time. Sometimes the shut-downs were blatant and aggressive and involved shouting. Sometimes they were very subtle, like the time he told me sadly, “You know, occasionally I get worried that you don’t really like having sex with me, but I know that’s just insecurity on my part and I need to get over it.” What a masterful way to say: “Part of me knows you’re not getting what you need, but please don’t bring it up, because that would make me feel bad.”

Today, I would reply: “Sorry if it brings up insecurities. I’m here to talk about those if you like.  But it’s also true, and we need to address it.” Back then, I accepted what he’d said, and felt roiling confusion and pain, and stayed silent.

I’ve got sexual-emotional baggage from that relationship to this day. And yes, I do resent it. Still. Despite knowing that he loved me, and despite valuing many memories from that relationship — when I look back on my time with him, it feels clouded and toxic. I remember that one night, years after I broke up with him, I had one of the worst nightmares of my life: merely a dream that he and I were back together. I woke up shaking, almost in tears.

During an argument, he once said to me, in a voice both angry and wounded: “I just want to feel that you love me more than you love yourself.” And my reaction was not to walk away. My reaction was not to laugh incredulously. My reaction was not to dump him on the spot. My reaction was to cry, and tell him how hurt I was. Hurt: because how could he think I didn’t love him more than I loved myself? Of course I did. What did I have to do to prove it?

For the record — just in case it needs to be said — that is ridiculous. Anyone who demands that you love them more than you love yourself does not have your best interests at heart. My reaction was just as ridiculous. I should not have been looking for ways to prove that I loved him more than I loved myself. I should have been out the fucking door already.


2009 26 Jan

Storytime with Clarisse, slash Communication Screwup Post #1: isn’t tickling cuuute?

I had a conversation over the weekend that reminded me of an incident with one of my exes — a communication screwup that really highlights how strangely our culture thinks about consent, and how BDSM ideas of negotiation can work against that.

Wow, I’m realizing that I’m about to write a totally serious post about tickling. I hope I don’t sound too pompous.

Anyway, story!

So, I was lying around having a casual conversation with this particular ex, and he started tickling me. I really wanted him to stop, so I asked him to. He didn’t. I safeworded, and he still didn’t stop. Furious, I lashed out and scratched him badly enough to bleed. I do believe I left a scar.

He got upset because he was bleeding, and I got upset because he hadn’t listened to me. I can’t remember how exactly we talked it out; it was a pretty tense moment. I think I might have apologized, but I also might not have. I was really angry, and my stance was, “So I drew blood — how else was I supposed to get you to stop? You should have respected how much I don’t like that, and it is totally not okay that you ignored my safeword!” He snapped back that it simply never occurred to him that I would actually safeword, for real, against being tickled. Tickling just seemed like such a mild, unimportant thing to him ….

If we’d been in the middle of doing BDSM stuff, then he would have stopped instantly. Indeed, I did safeword with him a couple of times in the middle of BDSM stuff, and at those times, he did everything exactly right — he stopped immediately, he calmed me down, he reassured me, and so on.

I think one of the hardest parts about relationships is learning that your partner really doesn’t work entirely the way you do. That there are things that absolutely drive your partner crazy, that literally don’t matter in the slightest to you … and vice versa. That sensitivity is so hard to build.

I also think that when people engage in careful, consenting BDSM relationships, they learn that kind of sensitivity more quickly — and, more importantly, they learn how to communicate about those boundaries. If I hadn’t had a safeword at all — if I’d been in a “normal, vanilla” relationship with my ex — I’m not sure how I would have even tried to communicate about the tickling problem. What would I have said, if I hadn’t been able to draw on BDSM experience? “No, really. I didn’t like that. No, really,” — over and over, until he got the point? Thank God I had words for how I felt: words better than, “I wasn’t trying to be cute, I really meant it.” I had these words: “You ignored my safeword. You know what a betrayal that is. You know that’s never okay.”

There’s this stereotypical image we have — of the cute couple where one person is tickling the other, and the second person is protesting but secretly enjoys it. I’m sure everyone reading this has encountered that image; you see it in romantic comedies all the time. And that situation is totally fine … if the second person really does secretly enjoy it.

But I don’t think most people have considered what happens if the second person, who “secretly enjoys” being tickled, doesn’t actually enjoy it. How does that person show that they really hate it? Protesting won’t necessarily work, because people are expected to protest against tickling even when they like it.

There’s a limit to how much we can expect “No, really, I don’t like that … no, really,” to work in such a situation. This is part of what feminists are talking about when they discuss a “rape culture”. We have a culture where certain acts are considered acceptable, simply because they’re “not that bad”, or they’re “unimportant”; and sometimes people are expected to protest those things at first. So, (a) it becomes hard to tell when the protests are real, and (b) people are trained to ignore protests. Almost nobody is actually trying to be insensitive, but the culture in which we find ourselves encourages us to be.

BDSM is unusual in its approach to specific sex acts: the rest of the world is far less likely to think about consent in terms of “I consent to this act, but not that one.” (Instead, it is fairly common for people to assume that the existence of a sexual relationship or sexual agreement implies consent to all manner of acts. As a random example, if two American adults are dating, then frequently there is an assumption of consent to oral sex.) And the BDSM community often emphasizes that members must consent to each specific sex act. But this is something we must teach everyone — not just kinksters — to communicate effectively, because that’s what all good relationships are built on: trying to make sure that we mostly do things we like together, and avoiding asking our partners to do things they dislike.

It is so telling that my ex violated my boundaries with a vanilla act, but never violated them with a BDSM act. To me, it indicates that — for all that I talk about how BDSM ideas of consent can influence us into being more respectful about our relationships — sometimes, our ingrained assumptions about “normal” consent can be so powerful that they overwhelm what we’ve learned from BDSM.

2009 2 Jan

BDSM-related relationship screwups

Bloody Laughter has recently started a fantastic series of posts about BDSM screwups, and how it would be helpful if the BDSM community were more willing to talk about the encounters we’ve had that went wrong. You know: the encounters where we miscommunicated — felt confused — felt like we were pushed into things before we were ready — pushed our partners into things they weren’t ready for ….

Miscommunications happen even in committed, loving relationships. (They even happen in totally “normal”, heterosexual, vanilla relationships — imagine that!) Sometimes those miscommunications are overall positive, because they help partners figure out where their boundaries are. Sometimes they’re overall negative: they strain the relationship, they cause fights, someone ends up feeling violated, someone else feels misunderstood. But either way, talking about these things is one of the best ways to figure out how to avoid them in the future. We cannot create a truly safe, consensual BDSM community unless we’re willing to articulate and describe what it means to be unsafe and unconsensual.

Obviously, I agree with Bloody Laughter. And I’ve got some ideas for posts about some of the problems that have come up, the mistakes I’ve made in my BDSM relationships. But I’m also terrified of posting them. I identify primarily as a bottom — a mostly heterosexual one to boot … so I’m a woman who likes being hurt and dominated by male partners. (Though I’ll admit to a couple of toppish screwups in my time, too.) And that means that the average audience could map all kinds of scary, incorrect abuse images onto my stories. I mean, even I — when I was coming into BDSM — even I was afraid that my desires meant I “wanted” to be assaulted, that I “wanted” to be raped, that I was participating in something deeply warped and abusive.

Of course I don’t want to be assaulted, I don’t want to be raped — of course I am not participating in abuse. But. If even I had these thoughts, once … then how can I expect an audience containing vanilla people to look at my desires, my fantasies, my consensual experiences without flinching in horror? In this particular case, how do I talk about BDSM experiences that went wrong? If I discuss my less-than-perfect moments here, I think I’m mostly telling them to a BDSM-friendly audience: an audience that will get something constructive out of what I’m saying, and might use my experiences as a guide to avoid screwups themselves. But then again, this is the wide world of the Internet, where the audience potentially contains everyone. And the last thing I want is for Concerned Women for America to pick up one of my blog posts and quote me out of context and tell the world about Clarisse Thorn’s abusive BDSM lifestyle.

Arguably, this is a particularly important problem for me, because I am specifically trying to do BDSM outreach right now. I am trying to let the world know that kinksters are not scary. Do I have more “responsibility” in my self-representation? Is it more dangerous for me to talk about problematic BDSM experiences, than it would be for other people?

So. I’ve got some stuff written out, that I’m scared to post. If I post, am I damaging the BDSM community image? If I don’t post, am I allowing anti-BDSMers to silence me?

(Never mind that every vanilla person ever born has had sexual experiences that crossed boundaries — sexual experiences that were poorly negotiated. That’s understood and expected, goddamnit. For so many people out there, their standards for sexual communication are so low, they don’t even notice screwups that the BDSM community usually recognizes as major. Not that I think the BDSM community is perfect, not that I think every kinkster is a brilliant communicator … but we train sexual communication in ways the outside world simply doesn’t.

For instance, there are so many people out there — girls and guys — who are being pressured into sexual acts they’re not comfortable with. Here’s just one example: How many people don’t understand that it’s unacceptable for their boyfriend/girlfriend to demand — say — that they perform sexual acts at times when they’re not in the mood? How many people don’t feel empowered to tell their partner, “I’m not up for that right now, sweetheart”? There’s a lot of them.

Everyone knows that people are sometimes pressured into heterosexual vanilla sex, and yet no one uses that as an argument against heterosexual vanilla sex in itself.

The contrast just kills me. Sure, there were a few problematic miscommunications with — for example — some of my recent BDSM partners. But my slight frustration when I think of those moments pales in comparison to the rage and resentment I feel against my first real boyfriend, whom I dated on and off for six years. My relationship with Boyfriend #1 was entirely vanilla — it was the most vanilla relationship I’ve ever had; we only indulged in genital and oral sex — and he managed to screw me up way past anything anyone else ever did to me. Just thinking about him makes me feel used.

And it just seems totally unfair that I can talk about anything he said to me and people won’t be shocked; but if I mention some of the things my most recent ex-boyfriend said to me, people could be horrified and use it as ammunition for anti-BDSM rhetoric.)

You know, maybe what I should do is write a series of posts in which half the post is about a totally vanilla relationship screwup I’ve experienced, and half of the post is about a BDSM-related screwup. Just to put it all in perspective.

* * *

Check out my later post, Communication Screwup Post 1: Isn’t Tickling Cuuute?