Posts Tagged ‘storytime’

2009 14 Feb

Maybe I know why so many people don’t get tested ….

I get tested last week, and I re-noticed one thing about my psychology that always comes up when I get tested: I got really anxious about it.

It’s weird. I try to get tested about once a year or so, and for most of the year, I don’t worry at all about my status. But then — during the time that elapses between getting the test and receiving the results — I start freaking out. I get more and more worried. I start thinking about the conversations I’ll need to have with recent partners if I’ve got a sexually transmitted infection. I start thinking about all the life changes I’ll need to make if I’m HIV-positive. Only when I receive the results do I calm down!

I do this even when I’m in a situation that makes me almost totally positive that I’m clean. For instance, even if I’ve continuously been in the same monogamous relationship with a partner I’m sure is faithful since my last test … I still worry.

I don’t think I’m incredibly neurotic, or anything like that (or at least, no more neurotic than the next person). I do suspect that this highlights something about how people think that can help explain why people don’t get tested.

That is: Just considering scary possibilities is, well, scary. Just putting ourselves in a position to learn something bad makes us fear that we’ll learn something bad. It’s much more psychologically difficult to allow ourselves to imagine a terrifying negative possibility, than it is to simply ignore that possibility entirely.

I’m not sure how to work against this problem. Providing free and easy testing is good, but I think it’s probably best if we find ways to put testing out in the open so that people can’t conveniently forget it. I know that when people set up free testing stations at high-traffic events, those stations get lots of visitors. So it’s not that people are anti-testing, exactly. And most people I know admit that getting tested is important, when it comes up in conversation! So it’s not that people don’t think it’s important. People are busy, of course — that’s the enemy of all preventive healthcare, from working out to testing: it’s simply hard to make time.

But I really think it’s more that people don’t like putting ourselves in a position to feel anxious. If we’re directly reminded of an issue (e.g. by an in-your-face testing station), then we get tested … otherwise, we prefer not to even think about it. Because then we have to acknowledge the potential consequences.

People should be scared of sexually transmitted infections, of course. So I don’t want to encourage people to feel less anxious. What other action can be taken? I guess … simply keep supporting programs that do out-in-the-open testing is good … not to mention sex education that emphasizes our responsibility for our health and that of our partners, etc.

2009 2 Feb

“There is no ‘should'” and the sex-positive “agenda”

What does it mean to be a “pro-S&M activist”? What’s my “agenda”? These are questions I’ve thought about a lot. But here’s the one that preoccupies me the most: What action can I take in the real world to help create a powerful, energetic pro-BDSM movement? I’m trying to think pragmatically and concretely. Sure, I love discussing highly theoretical questions like, “What are the roots of stigma against certain sexual identities?” But what I really want is to have a larger cultural impact, not just worry ineffectually at these mysteries like a dog worrying at a bone.

The first concrete step I took, towards the end of 2008, was creating a slide presentation that I called my “BDSM Overview”. The first slide shouts CONSENT IS KEY! in all-caps, and from there I dive into a whole bunch of stuff. I start with definitions — not just the words bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism, but noting that BDSM is classified as a “paraphilia” and that some people see it as our “sexual orientation”. I go into statistics — the few available ones, anyway. Then I’ve got a slide headed, “Why would anyone do this?”; a discussion of consent, what consent means, and BDSM communication tactics that assist us in figuring out consent (such as safewords, check-ins, journal-keeping, and checklists); and advice on how to tell consensual BDSM from abuse. A rundown of emotional-cultural role issues follows, like those experienced by many feminist kinksters or African-American bottoms; and that makes a good springboard for stereotypes, pop culture, and history. Lastly comes legal issues and BDSM-related scandals, like the infamous Operation Spanner and Jason Fortuny’s disgusting Craigslist “experiment”.

There, I thought when I finished it. If anything can destigmatize BDSM, this can … at which point I started seeking places to present it around Chicago. Which was way harder than just making the damn thing. Some places loved it, but others found it too edgy — like the head of one university’s wellness center, who said that authorizing my presentation would be “just impossible”.

And yet my conversation with her was a blessing in disguise: over our half-hour talk, she became visibly excited and scrawled a page full of notes. When we followed up by email, she started her message by writing: “Just this morning I was thinking about how our talk really opened up some new ways to think about old concepts. For example, I will never again think about consent as simply being yes or no. So thank you for that.” She apologized for being unable to allow me to lecture on BDSM …. But was there any way I could develop a new workshop? A vanilla workshop, on the topic of sexual communication? “Of course!” I cried without hesitation.

I could have worried about “compromising my message”, but that would have been ridiculous. Sure, I want to destigmatize BDSM. But it’s far more important to get people pondering the best ways to talk about sex, what it means to have awesome sex — what it means to have a fully consenting partner who enjoys that awesome sex with you.

* * *

A month or so after I started developing the BDSM Overview, I went to the movies with my favorite feminist friend Lisa Junkin. It was a documentary called “Passion and Power”, covering the history of vibrators and the female orgasm, and we walked out of the cinema feeling deep joy and contentment. “That was great,” I said. “We should have a regular sexuality film night.”

“You know, people besides us might come to see that,” said Lisa ….

From this humble moment was born my most successful project ever: the Sex+++ Documentary Film Series. Lisa is Education Coordinator at Chicago’s own Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she had me create a proposal for her boss. I started by writing out some guiding principles:

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

… and the whole thing exploded from there. The series was approved after a few emails and one meeting, and I researched documentaries about everything from bisexuality, to polyamory, to swinging, to trans people, to homosexuality — I even included heterosexuality … and BDSM! Before I knew it, we were standing outside the screening room on the first night of Sex+++: January 27, 2009. There were sixty people in there, eating pizza and eager to watch “Kinsey”, and I was deciding how to address them.

We’d advertised all over the city, with posters and universities and bloggers and e-newsletters; the audience members could have come from anywhere. I had to define “sex-positive”, but knew the audience would have a wide variance in exposure to integral concepts like third-wave feminism and non-abstinence sex education. What I came up with was this:

“It’s really hard, maybe impossible, to sum up the sex-positive movement in a sentence. But if I had to, I’d say it this way: Among consenting adults, there is no ’should’. The whole idea behind being sex-positive is that we don’t want people to be having — or not having — sex because they feel like they should.”

The audience applauded; I grinned like a pumpkin. That night, I went home nigh-drunk with joy. And it was just the beginning.

* * *

While running around promoting Sex+++, I attended a meetup for Chicago Bloggers organized by a political commentator named Arvan Reese. I kept quiet at first, unsure how the group would react to a sexual deviant in their midst — but eventually I had to bite the bullet and introduce myself. “I go by Clarisse Thorn,” I began, described why I’m a BDSM blogger, and distributed fliers for Sex+++.

Arvan got in touch a month or two later. “You inspired me,” he told me. “I’m going to start a sex-positive community blog. Will you help?” developed swiftly and went live on May 1, 2009. When I asked about the site’s tagline over coffee, Arvan smiled. “I was hoping to use ‘There is no should,'” he said. “That is, if it’s okay with you?”

To this day I’ve only given my BDSM overview presentation a few times — fewer times than, say, my sexual communication workshop. Sex+++ is now in its second year; SexGenderBody has swept the Internet; both encourage kinksters to speak out — but when I look back on it, my effect as an activist seems remarkably unfocused on BDSM. Still, BDSM centers everything I’ve done.

If we’re thinking politically, we kinksters can’t just focus on kink. We’ve got to expand the agenda to cover all consensual sexuality. Lisa’s pretty much straight and vanilla, and so is Arvan, but they’re the best BDSM allies a girl could ask for. And then there are the amazing sex workers, swingers, polyfolk, queer kids and trans people who have supported these projects, become my friends, even occasionally attended some of Chicago’s kinky parties ….

So here is my agenda: Consent is everything. Here is my agenda: There is no “should”. My agenda is this: if someone wants to have sex with men, or sex with women, or sex outside marriage, or sex within marriage, or sex with multiple people, or crazy kinky sex, or sex for money, or sex on videotape, or no sex at all … that’s all totally fine, as long as everyone involved feels good about it. My agenda is to frame good sex as something everyone deserves, that everyone can be taught about and trained in, and — more importantly — to convince the rest of the world to see it that way too.

* * *

This piece was edited and expanded for the sake of clarity on August 3, 2010.

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 19 Jan

Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing

It’s been a while since I posted something substantive; I’m so busy with my awesome upcoming sex-positive film series and discussion group (please attend!), it’s hard to find time! So, I’ll make up for that with a really long post.

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into any number of sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype. As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

Edit: 1/20/09 — A really great comment from PAS led me to pull back and rethink a few of the things I said here. I edited this point a bit, to reflect that I’ve been trying to think through the biases he called me out on.

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies will be that it will help people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. If I ever create a sex education curriculum, I want to describe a bunch of good communication strategies. I’ll list questions that all sex partners should ask each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” (Edit 7/2/10: As it happens, I later did exactly that. end of edit)

And I’ll talk about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I’ll take a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I’ll put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I’ll tell people that they should fill out those checklists and give them to their partners. I’ll suggest that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, if they feel uncomfortable talking. I’ll suggest that partners write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the book Yes Means Yes! (a book of sex-positive essays that I still haven’t read, but really really want to):

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

2008 26 Dec

Casual sex? Casual kink?

I have the benefit of a very sexually open, pro-sex, highly sex-educated upbringing. Perhaps as a result of this, I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It actually took me a while to register that the difference was emotional engagement: sexual acts with people I really cared about were dramatically better. This seems so obvious, I’m kinda shocked by how long it took me.

(For the record: I identify as very sex-positive! — but my issues with the general sex-positive message, or at least the way the message has largely been received, deserve their own post. I’m sure I’ll write one soon.)

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I not only was way more into sexual acts with people I was emotionally invested in; I was really not into sexual acts with people I wasn’t emotionally invested in. I personally dislike casual sex, even when the acts in question are as “mild” as heavy petting. So I pretty much stopped.

On some level, though, my preference against casual sex has always bothered me. For a while, it was because I just didn’t feel “liberated” enough. (I wish I could get every American child with a liberal sex education to write this 100 times: “It is a perfectly valid preference if you don’t want to have casual sex! It doesn’t mean you’re repressed, or warped, or should try to train yourself out of it!”) Anyway, after I got past the “liberation” trap, I started feeling depressed about the fact that this is a huge limit on my sexual experimentation.

I mean, ideally, if I want to explore my sexuality to the greatest possible extent, I need to be open to having sex with lots and lots of people, right? And I’m just … not. Which means that my sexual experimentation is limited to people I already care about, feel somewhat connected to, have built something with already. I find this incredibly annoying! But ultimately, I acknowledge that I feel much worse if I try to force/guilt trip myself into casual sex, than I do when I limit my sexual partners. I feel way better when I’m somewhat frustrated and not getting any, than I would if I tried to take the edge off by screwing some guy I’m not very interested in.

(Oddly, I’ve had one or two casual encounters that I enjoyed. I’ve never been able to figure out why those were different from the others — I’m working on it. Maybe it’s just that I connected emotionally more quickly to those guys than I do to most people? … For the most part, though, I recall my casual encounters with a wince — mostly because I felt so confused. “Why aren’t I enjoying this more?” I was asking myself. “I must be. Sex is fun, right?”)

So. I have established that I’m not into casual sex. I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries with people I’m not very sexually interested in. And I’m okay with that, albeit frustrated.

But what about casual kink?

I discovered my BDSM orientation a few years ago; I went through a period of adjustment, and then I went through a couple of monogamous relationships. Since the end of my last relationship I’ve played, BDSM-wise, with people I didn’t know very well — in a few cases, total strangers. I’m glad I did it, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. But the encounters that rated as most enjoyable were ones where there was more effort put forth to emotionally connect, especially the ones that happened in private. (I think privacy really intensifies my ability to connect to my partner.) *

Not that it’s incredibly easy to connect to me! There’s this stereotype that tops are closed off and emotionally cold, and bottoms are emotionally open — easily taken advantage of. But when I look at my BDSM experiences, I see that I have often been less emotionally accessible than tops I’ve played with. I shut myself down, I don’t talk about what I’m thinking, I give only small wedges of information about myself and what I want. It takes a lot for me to tell a top much of what I’m feeling. This is a pattern I am working to break.

What all this probably means is that it would be good for me to take more time to get to know the tops I’m interested in, before I play with them. I should try to build care before going straight for the BDSM.

Yeah, half of me thinks I really should simply close myself off to casual kink, the same way I’ve pretty much closed myself off to casual sex. Yet the other half is screaming against that, because my BDSM urge is way stronger than my sexual urge. Not that I don’t love sex, and want it, and enjoy the hell out of it! However. I crave BDSM. Going without sex feels less like celibacy than going without BDSM.

It’s also easier for me to enjoy casual BDSM, than it is for me to enjoy casual sex. There’s a few reasons for this. One is that extreme pain can … blank me … much more easily than sex can. And I need to trust my partner way more to immerse myself in the right headspace for sex, than I do to get into the right headspace for masochism.

In conclusion, I’m not sure, but I think I’m coming to a place where I want to limit my casual BDSM. Which is even more frustrating than limiting casual sex! And it’s even worse at this moment in my life, because I got very badly burned in my last relationship — the passage of time just seems to make it more obvious how much further I need to heal before I’ll be ready for a new boyfriend. Am I limiting myself to celibacy until then? Damn it, I don’t want that!

Sigh. We’ll see.

… Of course, preferences do change over time. I’m open to having different feelings about casual BDSM (and even casual sex) now, from my feelings in the future. Also, I’ve been having some surprisingly intense toppish fantasies lately, too (surprising because — until now, anyway — I’ve identified mostly as a bottom). Those fantasies don’t seem to have anything to do with sex, and they feel somewhat … performative. I’m curious to see whether, in the course of exploring them, I’ll find myself interested in topping casually and/or publicly.

* Hey kids! If you are considering having a casual BDSM experience in private, then be careful! If you can, then ask your partner for references — call the references, and see what they have to say. Meet any potential partner in a public place and hash out the details of what you want to happen, before you go private with them. Be sure to look at their driver’s license, and text their real name and license number to a trusted friend before you leave the public place. Arrange to call the friend at a prearranged time later — and instruct the friend to go to the police if they don’t hear from you. (Incidentally, you should probably do the same thing if you go home with a stranger to have sex with them!) Please note that you are usually quite safe if you have a BDSM experience with a stranger in the middle of a community playspace such as a dungeon; if you do that, make sure that you know the house safeword (it’s probably “red”) so you know what to scream if you want outsiders to intervene. Please also note that even if you are a top, you are not totally safe with someone you don’t know or trust: for one thing, you could be risking assault charges if there is a communication failure and your partner ends up feeling violated … or if your partner is a sociopath and decides to screw you over.

2008 22 Dec


I’m in New York right now, so I spent part of yesterday (Saturday) at the Lesbian Sex Mafia party, then headed off to a TES event. (Ah, New York.) I met a lot of cool people, but the one whose words I’ll cite in this entry is named Liz. Liz is an older lesbian and top. I love talking to culturally aware people who lived through the feminist / sexual revolution — particularly if they’ve got a specific focus on alt sex communities, which Liz does.

She made a lot of great comments at dinner. My favorite, though, was when I started talking about BDSM-dar. You’ve probably heard the term gaydar, “the intuitive ability to assess another individual’s sexuality”. BDSM-dar is a similar concept, but obviously for BDSM rather than homosexuality.

I have some attachment to the concept of BDSM-dar. The reason is that I came into BDSM by means of a man who unexpectedly went after me at a party and hurt me — and though I was shocked and horrified, I also loved it. I went back to him and asked him to do it again. Multiple times. And I spent the next year flipping out as I faced up to the fact that I’m a sexual deviant. And once I was done flipping out, I felt far more whole and sexy and powerful than I ever had before.

Let’s call him Richard. And let me make it clear right now that I was never attacked, abused, or assaulted in any way. I could have asked Richard to stop, that first night, and I didn’t. It was difficult for me to come to terms with my BDSM desires, but I have no doubt that they are real and that they have been in me all along. In childhood, I did things like tie up my Barbie dolls and draw sadomasochistic comics; I only started repressing those feelings in adolescence. When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years.

Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.

Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.

I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.

But on the other hand, I don’t have BDSM-dar myself. And I have no proof, no studies or anything approaching real evidence that BDSM-dar exists.

I had one quotation that I thought was powerful evidence for the BDSM-dar concept. It’s from a 1953 book of psychological case studies called Sadism and Masochism: the Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (buy it here — I’m talking about volume 2). The quotation comes from the story of a sadistic woman who came to Stekel for a cure. She tells how she’ll go out to spas and engage the attending men in pleasant, noncommital conversation. She’ll pick one man, and tell him to come to her room. When he gets there, she’ll whip him. Then she goes home and feels incredibly ashamed. Oh Doctor, please help!

Understandably, Stekel asks her how she can possibly identify these men; obviously she’s doing a pretty good job identifying them, since no one’s pressed charges for assault — but how? She answers: “Sadists and masochists have a secret language. I might say a secret alliance with secret customs and secret agreement.” I always figured that since this woman clearly wasn’t hooked in to an established community of any kind, she couldn’t be referring to a real “code”. I figured this was just her way of articulating her BDSM-dar.

Liz, however, told me a bit about how lesbians used to function in the absence of a lesbian community. She said that even without a “central authority”, they would develop little tricks for finding each other. For instance, lesbian-tinged books or movies, referenced slyly. She said that’s how she interprets Stekel’s sadist: not as “sensing” her bottoms through any aspect of their personalities or appearance, but as taking advantage of tiny cultural hints.

Liz also expressed irritation with the preponderance of male tops (particularly older ones) in the scene who will come up to women and say, “You’re a submissive. I can just” — :leer: — “tell.” I get the impression that she’s dealt with a lot of this, which must be particularly annoying as a top.

(Ironically enough — later that night, an older male top I’d briefly played with commented haughtily that a female top we’d spoken to earlier was “a submissive; I can tell.” I gently argued with him for a while on the subject. His stance was, “I’m not being sexist or patriarchal. I’ve got 20 years of experience in the scene, and I just think I’ve probably learned how to tell a top from a bottom.” My stance was, “Okay, maybe, but I really think you need to (a) not say these things in quite so presumptuous a fashion and (b) carefully examine your assumptions.” I wonder if I made an impression. I hope so; it pisses me off to think that I might’ve had a BDSM experience — no matter how casual — with an unrepentant sexist jerk. :grin: That’s the risk with people you don’t know too well, I guess. And maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Anyway, I digress.)

I considered trying to discuss my coming-into-BDSM experience with Liz, but I didn’t really get the chance. I wish I could have heard her thoughts.

So now I find myself back to square one. Did Richard sniff me out with BDSM-dar, or did he just get lucky? Is BDSM-dar mostly just a figment of our assumptions and biases?

If Stekel’s sadist wasn’t using BDSM-dar — if she was instead doing something more like what Liz described — I wish I had some idea what cultural references she might’ve used. Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps.