Posts Tagged ‘terms’

2011 12 Nov

BDSM Roles, “Topping From The Bottom”, and “Service Top”

I often say that all consensual sexuality is okay. Open relationships? S&M? Same-sex partnerships? One-night stands? Porn? I could care less how people have sex, as long as the people involved are consenting adults. This means that most of the interesting and important questions are about consent: how do we make sure that we always have consensual sex? How do we ensure that we’re always respecting our own boundaries and our partners’ boundaries? How do we talk about our preferences and our consent? I write a lot about sexual communication for this reason.

Every once in a while, though, there’s something interesting to discuss besides consent. (Totally weird, I know!) One of those interesting things is stereotypes. Also interesting: bad dynamics in the BDSM community.

One example of a bad, weird dynamic is the “one true way” thing. Some people act like there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to do consensual BDSM — as if some consensual BDSM is more legit than other consensual BDSM. Often, people do this via what we call “role policing”: they make claims about “real submission” and “real dominance”. (Even worse, people will sometimes act like dominant people are socially “better” or “more important” than submissive people. Or they’ll act like men are “inherently” dominant, or women are “inherently” submissive. It’s a clusterfuck! Thomas MacAulay Millar has a great essay about this called “Domism“.)

Examples of role policing might include:

* “If you were really submissive, then you would be serving my dinner right now instead of having me serve myself.”
* “If you were really dominant, then you would pay for my drinks.”
* “If you were really submissive, then you wouldn’t be confident enough to write a blog about your sex life.” (Not that I’m biased or anything.)

Sometimes these are hilarious light-hearted jokes. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re bullshit, and they make people feel as though they’re “bad at submission” or “bad at dominance”. Also, it gets really silly when we start thinking about switches — people who can feel comfortable in the dominant role or the submissive role, such as myself.

One very common, relevant assumption is that dominant people always enjoy inflicting pain: that sadists and dominants are always the same group. They’re not! Sometimes people are into sadism, or into dominance, or maybe they’re into a lot of sadism but a little dominance, or whatever. The same thing goes for submission: sometimes people are submissive and like taking pain, but sometimes people are submissive without being masochistic, or maybe they’re into a little bit of submission and a lot of masochism, or whatever.

Or maybe they’re masochists who like ordering their partners to hurt them. I once threw a memorable party at which my then-boyfriend, a mostly-submissive gentleman, arranged for a bunch of our friends to grab me and hold me down while he ate cake off my body. As he did this, I clearly recall shouting at him: “You better hurt me, or I’m going to safeword on your ass.” So he hurt me! It was great.

Because “submissive” and “masochist” aren’t always the same thing — and “dominant” and “sadist” aren’t always the same thing — the BDSM community uses the terms “bottom” and “top”. A “bottom” is a blanket term for a submissive and/or a masochist — the receiving partner. A “top” is a blanket term for a dominant and/or a sadist — the partner who is providing sensation. The point is to have words that indicate who is giving and who is receiving, without making claims about each partner’s preferences. (These words can also be used as verbs. For example, if I am “topping”, then I am in the dominant and/or sadistic position.)

And yet! Even though we have these handy terms “top” and “bottom”, which are specifically designed to help us avoid making assumptions, people end up making assumptions. There are two common BDSM community phrases that are often deployed in tones of disgust and irritation. One of those phrases is “topping from the bottom”. The other phrase is “service top”.


2011 9 Jun

In Praise of Monogamy

There are lots of different ways of approaching non-monogamous relationships, such as:

+ Polyamory: Usually emphasizes developing full-on romantic relationships with more than one partner. Lately I’ve been pondering and working on a number of tricky questions about implementing polyamory. (I’ve been researching polyamory since my teens, but only in recent years did I decide to actively pursue it.)

+ Swinging: Usually emphasizes couples with their own close bond, who have relatively casual sex with other partners. (Another difference between swinging and polyamory is that swingers tend to be more at home in mainstream culture, whereas polyamorists tend to be geeky or otherwise “alternative”. Here’s a great, long piece on poly culture vs. swing culture.)

+ Cheating: One partner does something with an outside partner that wasn’t accepted or understood in advance. In monogamous relationships, cheating usually involves having sex with an outside partner. Cheating exists in polyamorous or swing relationships as well: for example, a person might cheat on a non-monogamous partner by breaking an agreement — an agreement such as “we don’t have unprotected sex with other partners”.

Just in case it needs to be said: I never advocate cheating, ever. As for the first two, I know both poly people and swingers that I consider totally decent and wonderful folks! I have more personal experience with and interest in polyamory, though.

Yet one thing that often gets lost in conversations about all these options is the advantages of monogamy. Of which there are many. Although I don’t currently identify as monogamous, I had a very strong monogamous preference for years. I knew that polyamory existed, and I thought about it a lot, because it’s interesting — but I just didn’t feel like it was for me. (In fact, my most adamantly polyamorous friend used to call me his “reasonable monogamous friend”. He said I had examined polyamory enough to reasonably reject it, whereas he felt most people never consider polyamory deeply enough to have a thoughtful opinion.)

And lately lots of my monogamous friends have been getting married. So I’ve been thinking about the positive aspects of their relationship choices as I dance at their weddings, devour mini-quiches, flirt with their brothers and try to avoid offending their parents. (Okay, I’ve actually only flirted with one brother. So far.)

A Few Advantages of Monogamy (this is not a complete list)


2011 22 Apr

Going under

“Come back,” an S&M partner said softly, the other day, pushing my hair out of my eyes. I blinked and shook my head in a futile attempt to clear it.

“That’s weird,” I said. “Someone else used to say those words to me when I was coming out of subspace. I … that’s weird.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s a natural thing to say to you. You go under so fast, and so deep. You’re so far away.”

“Not all the time,” I said. “And not with everyone. You’re good at putting me there.”

He smiled. “You bring it out in me.”

Subspace is so hard to describe. I’ve written about it before, in passing, in multiple posts, because it’s so important, but I’ve never come up with a good description for it; and when I Google for it I can see that other people have the same problem. When I’m starting to go into subspace it’s just soft and dark and slow. But when I’m really far under, I’m totally blank. Falling. Flying.

Somewhere else.

Come back.

What is it, where do I go? It’s just submissive, masochist headspace. But I don’t always get into subspace when I submit, and I don’t always get into it when I take pain either. I’m not sure what the other ingredients are: some amount of trust, of course. And strong feelings about my partner make everything more intense … way more intense. Orders of magnitude more intense. Still, I’ve had new partners put me under with surprising thoroughness.

It’s a lot like deep sexual arousal — hard to think, hard to process, hard to make decisions — but the deepest sexual arousal does not put me anywhere near deep subspace. Deep subspace is. More. Than anything else.

Some S&M teachers tell people not to drive after an S&M encounter, not for a while; not until you’re over the subspace. They compare it to an altered state, like being drunk. Some S&M teachers caution that it’s dangerous for the dominant partner to suggest a new activity in the middle of an S&M encounter — something that wasn’t negotiated beforehand — because the submissive may not be able to think clearly enough to consent. (And because in those moments, the submissive will have a harder time than ever saying no.)

I sometimes think that when I was younger and less experienced, I abandoned myself to subspace more easily. I’m better at pulling myself out of subspace now, but I think the cost may be that it’s harder for me to really get into it. (Safety first?) I trained myself to be able to say, “Don’t stop,” when I wanted my partner to keep going. (Sound easy? Trust me, it took a while.) Playing with unfamiliar partners, I trained myself to be on guard. (One of my sex worker friends told me once, “I don’t care how deep the subspace is, I can always come out if the client tries to fuck me without a condom.”) I got better at calling my safeword before I had to — asking my partner to do something else or give me a break, rather than suddenly stopping everything once I hit my absolute limit.

I am nowhere near perfect, of course. In particular, I can rarely answer complicated questions, and sometimes my partners literally can’t get me to answer any questions when I’m subspaced. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come out, and partners may get nervous while I’m surfacing. But I’m not sure these aspects can actually be eliminated from subspace. And I’ve gotten better.

I’m sure that in an emergency, I could talk and function straight out of heavy subspace. I doubt I would be optimally intelligent and thoughtful, however.


2011 2 Jan

Men Who Don’t Deserve the Word “Creep”

The article below was originally published on October 1, 2010 by AlterNet; the AlterNet editors titled it “Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs?” I have no idea how many people linked to it, but it caused enough of a stir that I got hate mail from a man on the very same day it appeared, and also some of my sister feminist bloggers became upset. I have linked to my favorite responses around the blogosphere at the end of this post. I’ve also included some minor edits in this version of the article, for the sake of clarity.

* * *

This is an article about men, but I’m going to begin by talking about women’s experiences. Many of us women go through our daily lives fending off unwanted male attention; most of us have worried about being attacked by men. So it’s completely understandable that we’re all on high alert for predatory expressions of male sexuality.

But, while certain situations and certain people deserve our disdain — like, say, the guy who once leered at me as I walked out of the public library and whispered, "I can smell your pussy" — most guys really don’t. The pressure put on men to be initiators, yet avoid seeming creepy or aggressive, leads to an unpleasant double bind. After all, the same gross cultural pressures that make women into objects force men into instigators; how many women do you know who proposed to their husbands?

So how can a man express his sexual needs without being tarred as a creep? After all, the point of promoting sex-positive attitudes is for everyone to be able to be open about their needs and desires, right?

When I was 23 years old, I was still coming to terms with my S&M orientation, and so I posted to an Internet message board about how "illicit" desire was messing up my life. Soon, I received an email from a guy in my area. He accurately guessed the cause of my anxieties: “If I had to guess as to your kinks, I’d guess that either you want some BDSM play, or you maybe want to add other partners into a relationship. How close am I?” He then offered to fulfill all my wicked, dirty lusts. In fairness, the guy actually referred to himself as creepy during our text-only conversation — but I still feel guilty that when I told the story to my friends, we all referred to him as "the creep."

I obviously had every right to turn down my Internet Lothario. Still, I shouldn’t have called him a creep; all he was doing was being overt and honest about his desires, and he did it in a polite — though straightforward — way. If he’d emailed me with "Hey bitch, you obviously want me to come over and dominate you," then that would have been impolite and unpleasant. But he emailed me a quick and amusing introduction, then asked what I wanted. After a few rounds of banter, I called a halt, and he respected that.

I think the word "creep" is too vague and prejudiced to mean anything anymore. But if I were willing to use the word, I’d say my Internet suitor was the opposite of a creep.

* * *

Although I’ve become more aware of it recently, I think I’ve always had the sense that men are particularly vulnerable to the judgment of “creep." Over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems of masculinity, and in Part 3 I noted that — unlike men — "I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep."

Of course, I could be labeled a slut, which could damage me quite badly. There’s a reason I do all my most explicit writing under a pseudonym. We feminists often say that men’s promiscuity is lauded while women’s is stigmatized, and one point of this argument is purely linguistic: "stud" is a complimentary word for a promiscuous man, while "slut" is a hurtful word for a promiscuous woman. Besides, our culture hates sex, no matter who’s doin’ it — even vanilla, consensual, heterosexual, private sex between cute white married adults is hard for some folks to acknowledge!

But in fact, men aren’t merely enabled to be promiscuous — they’re pressured to be getting laid all the time. This influences situations ranging from huge communities devoted entirely to teaching men how to pick up women, to tragically callous dismissal of the experiences of men who have been raped.

And while there’s immense cultural repression of all sexuality, there’s also a fair and growing amount of modern TV, movies and feminist energy that seek to enable female sluttitude in all its harmless, glorious forms. The stud vs. slut dichotomy is worth discussing, but it has one flaw: it entirely ignores the word "creep," whose function appears to be restricting male sexuality to a limited, contradictory set of behaviors.


2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

UPDATE 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

* * *

Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.

One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.

Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)

The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.

Recently I was going through the SM-Feminist archives looking for a couple of posts to cite in a piece that I’m working on, and I was stunned to see how much of it overlapped with things I’ve written — even though I’ve specifically tried not to recapitulate what’s already been said over there. Some examples:

* This post basically encompasses everything I said in my old post BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Complications of the Orientation Model, except that it’s more complicated, and also touches on some points I made in my more recent post 5 Sources of Assumptions and Stereotypes About S&M.

* The post How a Girl Learns to Say No elegantly makes one of the major points from my post on safewords and check-ins.

* This post on the term “vanilla” is a more complicated and interesting take on a question that I first started considering way back when I started blogging, in my post Vanilla: Dissection of a Term. It even encompasses all the things I meant to write when I wrote the followup to my post, you know, the followup that never actually happened.

And then there are the SM-Feminist posts that say things I’ve either never gotten around to saying, or that I simply haven’t bothered to blog about because I know they said it better. I’ve even cited some of these posts in lectures. Here’s a (doubtless incomplete) list of those posts:

* BDSM and Self-HarmI want to make this perfectly clear. I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point.

… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

* Why BDSM?Radical feminists are quick to point out to any kinky person who feels uneasy hearing that her fucking is just standard heteropatriarchy that they’re not trying to control what anyone does in bed. “I’m not trying to take your whips away,” etc. They’ll be extremely careful to mention this, and understandably irritated when someone goes “They’re trying to make me hang up the whips and go home,” given how clear they are that this isn’t what they want to do.

What I don’t understand is exactly what good the theory does at all, if they’re not trying to change people.

* OppressionIn discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

“People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you’re insulting people who really are oppressed. It’s as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. “

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we’re using. I realized that I don’t actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it’s used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don’t know an official definition, such that it’s possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don’t have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren’t close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

* Safer Communication PracticesThere are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like “safeword” or “safe, sane, and consensual”. And sometimes they’re tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they’re tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they’re attempting to express.

Last but not least, I’m just going to list the titles of some posts on BDSM and abuse:
* Wut About The Abuuuuzers?
* Not Your Usual BDSM and Abuse Story
* Confession
* The Nature of Abuse

The influences on my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse are obvious.

So there you go, folks. Right there, in the above links, are actually most of my major theoretical influences as a pro-SM feminist (and, indeed, as a general S&M practitioner). Someday I might find something to say about S&M and feminism that Trinity (and her fellow bloggers, occasionally) haven’t already said five times, better ….

… but I’m not holding my breath.

REMINDER from 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2010 30 Jul

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping

I’d like to thank all the brave pioneers of the BDSM community, for plumbing the depths of human sexuality, and coming back with maps.
~ an unsourced quotation provided by commenter Motley on my gigantic manliness thread

* * *

I’ve already written about S&M checklists and S&M safewords, and how both those things can set really great examples for everyone’s sex life — not just us BDSMers. This entry will be about journal-keeping!

Some BDSMers play with really, really strong power dynamics. A good example of this is couples who choose a “24/7 dynamic”: one partner is dominant and the other is submissive … all the time. I attended a workshop once with Sir Top and slave bonnie, two wise BDSM educators, where I learned that slave bonnie was only ever allowed to disobey orders of two kinds:

* Suicidal orders,
* Orders that would cause financial ruin.

The rest of the time, bonnie obeyed Top — all the rest of the time.

Obviously, relationships like this are totally cool with me as long as they are — say it with me, everyone — 100% consensual! Such relationships can also encourage the use of interesting communication tactics, because many of the usual tactics don’t feel right to the participants. For example, these relationships often take place between people who feel such a strong power dynamic that it would be almost impossible for the submissive to feel comfortable safewording — safewording can feel disconcertingly like a form of resistance.

One way of dealing with this problem is for both partners to keep journals that are open to the other partner. (With some couples, only the submissive keeps an open journal.) They talk about their romantic feelings, they process their sexual encounters, they articulate anxieties, etc. Here’s an example of some great submissive journaling prompts. The idea is that it’s easier to express these things when there’s a designated space for it outside the relationship; the journals mean that partners (especially submissives) can talk about what they need without fearing that they’re undermining the power dynamic.

I find the concept of simultaneous journals intriguing for a number of reasons. One is that I’ve used similar tactics myself; I kept a private journal for many years, and once in a long while I’d give entries to my partners when I needed to explain something complicated about my feelings. I only did this a few times, ever, but it was really effective when I did.

Later, I took to writing love letters that I noticed were very similar to both my journal entries, and to the simultaneous relationship journals suggested for Master/slave couples. I realized that I was writing letters because, at the time, I felt more comfortable writing about my desires than talking about them. I’ve gotten a million times better at talking about my sexuality honestly and shamelessly since then; but back then, there were definitely things I wrote to my partners that I couldn’t have said aloud. I also wrote because — just like Master/slave couples — I wanted to communicate my feelings outside the anxiety-inducing frameworks of the “serious discussion”, the bedroom, etc.

So when I developed my sexual communication workshop, I encouraged love letters. I gave two suggested points of departure for a love letter:

1) Describe what happened during a sexual encounter you had together, with particular emphasis on what your partner did that you really liked — and what you liked about it. (“I love it when you fuck me” is a great thing to say, but you give much more information to your partner if you say “I love it when you fuck me from behind,” or even better, “I love it when you fuck me from behind and it feels amazing when your balls hit my clit.” This blog does not necessarily reflect the desires or encounters of Miss Clarisse Thorn.)

2) Describe a fantasy you have. Bonus points if you explicitly put your partner in it. (“I like to imagine you sinking your teeth into me until I scream.” This blog does not necessarily … oh, who am I kidding.)

* * *

Check out the previous posts in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists and Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2010 3 Jul

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins

Everyone knows about BDSM safewords … or at least, everyone thinks they know about safewords. But one of the initial moments that really impressed me about my current boyfriend was when I asked him, many moons ago, if he knew what a safeword is. He paused, then answered, “I think I’m familiar with the idea, but I probably don’t know much more than a stereotype, so I’d like to hear you define it.” Humility and open-minded curiosity are so incredibly hot!

Righto. Hot boyfriend aside, I’m here to explain safewords and check-ins, and how those concepts can exemplify excellent sexual communication for everyone — not just S&Mers — in a world that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to communicate sexually.

When two (or more) people have a BDSM encounter together, generally they set a safeword — a word that anyone can say at any time to stop the action. (Sometimes people don’t use safewords. This is their choice and I totally respect it. I would not recommend going without safewords for anyone who doesn’t know their partner extremely well, and I would be seriously sketched out by anyone who pressured a partner to go without safewords.)

When I give advice about setting safewords, I usually offer the following:

A) Some people like to say that it’s good to use a safeword that’s jolting, and is likely to make your partner feel totally unsexy. Isn’t there a “Family Guy” episode in which Lois & Peter’s safeword is “banana” or something?

B) In my experience, the generally accepted safewords in the S&M community are “safeword” and, more commonly, “red”. I consider it useful to go with the “public standard” because that means that in the future, you’re likely to be attuned to the correct word if you practice BDSM with other partners as well. (It also means that if you ever do S&M in a public space such as a dungeon, everyone in the place will recognize your safeword if you scream it.)

C) At first I wasn’t that excited about this, but I’ve grown to love the fact that the safeword “red” also sometimes encompasses “green” — and “yellow”. That means that if I’m in the middle of an S&M encounter, I can say “red” and my partner will stop; I can then catch my breath and say “green”, which means “by God keep going!” Or, if I’m a little uncertain about the territory but don’t actually want my partner to stop — if I just want my partner to be a little bit cautious — then I can say “yellow” (and, of course, I can move to “green” if I become really psyched, or shift to “red” if I really want my partner to stop).

I know that this probably doesn’t sound sexy at all, but it totally can be! Consider the following example: during my last vacation to America, I had an S&M encounter with a dude I’ll refer to as Klark. (It’s not my fault. He requested the pseudonym.) At one point, Klark was experimenting with hurting me, and I had my eyes closed and was whimpering / crying out in a totally glorious way. (The poor overnight desk clerk. He was only one short flight of stairs away from us.) I think Klark was legitimately having trouble detecting whether I was enjoying myself, though — understandably, because we had only just met, and I enjoy sinking myself into dramatic masochistic misery — so he leaned over me and said, in a low dark voice, “Red, yellow, green.” Immediately, I gasped back “Green”. Because he spoke in a gritty and dominant voice, and the check-in was quick, we were able to maintain the mood — and it was actually kind of hot in itself.

Which brings me to the other thing: check-ins. Sometimes, you want to check in with your partner. Which can be easy: you can just say, “Hey, how does this feel?” or, as a more precise example, “Give me a rating of 1-10 on how good this feels (or how much this hurts).” But if you want to do it quickly and without shifting the mood, you can do it as I outline above in the Klark example. Or even quicker, as for example with the hand-squeeze system, where the participants agree ahead of time that you can squeeze another person’s hand twice and expect two squeezes back — and if there aren’t two return squeezes, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going wrong. (Squeeze system: also very helpful when gags are involved.) (And here’s a literary example of check-ins in a vanilla encounter.)

Sometimes submissives will have a hard time safewording — whether out of pride, inexperience, or eagerness to please — and that’s another reason check-ins can be good even when there’s a set safeword. If you aren’t sure how to read your partner’s reactions and you suspect ze may be uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you might consider checking in even if ze hasn’t safeworded, because your suspicion may be right.

What I love about safewords and check-ins:

1) Hypothetically, mainstream society acknowledges that anyone could say no at any point during sex, but in practice, this is really hard. A variety of forces — girls socially pressured not to be so-called “cock-teases”, boys socially pressured to supposedly “prove their manliness”, and everyone anxious to please their partners — work against people’s capacity to say no; and while there is a vague understanding that “no means no”, that vagueness is as far as it gets. There’s no explicit framework in place for how to say “no”, and no understanding of how to continue an encounter (or relationship) after one’s partner says no. Even worse, there’s an assumed linear progression of sexual activity — the best example is the “base system”, which places sexual interaction on a metaphorical baseball diamond where “first base” = groping and “home base” = penis-in-vagina sex. Have I mentioned that I hate the base system?

So anyway, the biggest moral of the story with safewords and check-ins is that consent does not only happen once. Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn. Adapting my understanding of sexuality to reflect this — even in my non-BDSM sex — might have been the best thing that ever happened to my sex life.

2) On a related note: Good sex is not about entitlement. If we acknowledge that anyone can safeword out of any sexual act at any time, then we acknowledge that no one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — ever. If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice. If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice. Those two are easy, I think, but how about these?

+ If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you are married to your partner, but ze doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.

By the way, if you (like I once did) feel as though your partner is entitled to sex of any kind, I encourage you to re-examine that feeling. Ditto if you’ve got a little voice in your head telling you that you “ought to” be up for sex all the time just because you don’t get it very often … or that you “ought to” be up for sex if you’ve done it with your partner before … or whatever. The other best thing that ever happened to my sex life was when I finally, finally, finally internalized the idea that my partners don’t ever “deserve” sex for any reason — that there’s no reason I ever “should” be having sex — and that the only reason I should ever, ever, ever do anything sexual is because I legitimately want to.

Of course, if you truly believe that you need a certain kind of sexuality in your life, then you’re absolutely entitled to ask your partner to consider it — and you’re entitled to leave the relationship if ze isn’t up for it. But this doesn’t mean that you “deserve” to do that act with that person, or that your partner “owes” you a certain act.

And hey, if your partner isn’t down with one specific sexual act, then that means you’ve got the chance to explore all kinds of other sexuality. Another other best thing that ever happened to my sexuality? Quite possibly, it’s my current boyfriend — whose religious adherence has drastically limited our physical sexual options.

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Check out the previous post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists, not to mention the next post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2010 14 Jun

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists

I’ve often written that the BDSM community encourages really excellent sexual communication, and I’ve been meaning to write further about specifics for … um … years. (Oops.) So I’m finally getting around to describing one of my personal favorite sexual communication tactics: checklists!

S&M checklists are long lists of different acts that sexual partners can use to discuss different acts and measure each others’ interest in those acts. Here is an excellent example. Each act on the checklist usually looks something like this:

FLOGGING — GIVING __________________ O O O O O
FLOGGING — RECEIVING ______________ O O O O O

Each partner rates each entry by filling out 1-5 bubbles, with 1 darkened bubble meaning “Not interested” and 5 bubbles meaning “I crave this!”

I think this concept is brilliant because:

1) Too often, it’s assumed that “sex” encompasses certain acts, and if you’re interested in a sexual relationship you must be interested in all those acts. Or there’s assumed to be a kind of linear progression, as exemplified in the “base system” — you know, where “first base” is groping and “home base” is penis-in-vagina sex. (Man, I hate the base system.) Talking about each sexual act as its own self-contained idea short-circuits those problematic ideas about sex and makes it easier for couples to turn down some of the “assumed” acts (e.g., if I don’t want oral sex but I do want penis-in-vagina …).

2) It provides an easy way to communicate desires — if a person is nervous about saying, “Hey, is it okay if I flog you?” then the couple doesn’t even have to talk about it right away. They can just sit down, fill out their checklists and compare results without getting too worried about how to bring up certain desires. I mean, at some point of course they’ll hopefully talk about it, but hopefully the checklist framework makes it easier and lower-pressure.

3) Concurrently, it provides an easy way to turn down acts — it’s much harder to reject a lover’s proposition when ze says, “Darling, can I flog you?” than it is when you simply fill in one bubble on the “Flogging — Receiving” section. In the past, I’ve certainly felt a lot of anxiety when I wanted to turn down partners, and it’s nice to imagine a set-up that would have made me feel less anxious.

In fact, I love the checklist concept so much that when the University of Illinois at Chicago had me design my sexual communication workshop, I created a “vanilla” version of the checklist that had entries ranging from “oral sex” to “sex in public” to “tying up / being tied up”. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely vanilla … well, I wanted to encourage people to voice things they weren’t sure about!) You can download my vanilla-ified checklist here. Also, Scarleteen has their own version of a vanilla sexual checklist, which is way more comprehensive than mine!

I just love the principle of the thing — the principle that a couple can have a lot of fun just by sitting down and talking about every conceivable sex act, being presented with some options that they maybe haven’t thought of before, and honestly describing how into each idea they each are.

If you want to learn more about how I’ve actually used checklists, here’s my article about sex communication case studies.

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Check out the second post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins.

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2009 9 Apr

[storytime] Switching — have I always been a domme?

I spent last night (that is, Tuesday) at the very first Chicago Pleasure Salon, which went incredibly well! I had an amazing time, and from the feedback I got, lots of other people did too. Pleasure Salon will continue on every first Tuesday, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Planning all these sex-positive events keeps me busy, and my non-activist life is eventful, too. Lately, that’s made it hard for me to find time to actually … you know … have romantic encounters and process what’s going on in my head. (I guess that’s ironic, huh?) But although keeping up with myself has been challenging, there’s been an unmistakable shift. Namely, I’ve gone from being “pretty sure” that I’m “mildly” interested in topping, to “dead certain” that I love topping. I thought I might be a switch; now I’m sure. And the way that’s playing out is making me rethink all my previous relationships. (For those unfamiliar with BDSM terms: “switch” refers to a person who feels comfortable either as a top — that is, a dominant and/or sadist — or a bottom — that is, a submissive and/or masochist.)

I’ve written before that I always had sadomasochistic fantasies — since I was very, very young. Apparently, I was wired for BDSM since day one. (I don’t think everyone who practices BDSM feels it as quite such an intrinsic identity, but there are a number of us who do. I’ve had the “you mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls when you were a child too?” conversation many times!) In my early teens I had a bit of a freak-out and repressed it all; then BDSM came and found me almost a decade later. With a vengeance.

I came back into BDSM as a bottom, and it was a crisis. It was impossible to deny how much I wanted it, but I hated it too. On some level, I thought, “Well, this makes perfect sense” — it felt right. But on another level, I was horrified. I couldn’t reconcile my integrity as an independent, rational feminist with my need to be subordinated and hurt. It was a confusing, incredible time. I cried a lot, and I drank a lot, and I didn’t sleep much. I hated how fulfilled my bruises made me feel. It took a while for me to find some semblance of balance.

I adjusted: I took ownership of myself as a bottom. I believed it, accepted it, and gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. Let me say that again: I’ve gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. I love feeling agony I can’t escape; I love feeling as though I’m enduring shocking brutality; I love being hurt until I cry …. I love it. I love it.

And yet. I’ve always been a bit controlling, a bit fierce, a bit challenging. (More than a bit, really.) As I began to think of myself seriously as a bottom, I needed a way to mentally slot those personality traits into my new identity. Thus I concluded that I’d “always” been a bottom, but that part of that had “always” been challenging people in an attempt to get them to smack me down. The “bottom” label helped me adjust and figure out what I wanted, but perhaps it limited me, too. I decided that the dominant parts of my personality had always been an attempt to find strength in others; to provoke viciousness; to encourage others to lash out at me and subdue me. I did do some minor topping — but it was very minor. I never saw it as important, as necessary; I didn’t recognize that need the same way I felt my masochistic urges, which were a desperate near-overwhelming craving. I never thought of it as serious.

Still, at the same time, the energy between myself and my significant male partners was always such that outsiders were routinely shocked if they found out that I was the submissive. I guess it was evident that I took on a lot of power in my relationships. When I fell in love, it was with men who focused on me; who poured energy into me; who put a lot of thought into what I wanted, listened closely when I talked, admired me as much as they wanted me. The biggest thing I’ve sought in my lovers has been vulnerability, openness. To feel like they craved me, needed me. To feel like I could shape them. Arguably — to feel that I had a significant measure of actual control.


Recently, I met the first male submissive where the energy between us felt compelling. He got my attention by offering me the gift of his fear … simply saying that he was scared of me. Intrigued, I focused on him, started to watch. Over the course of months we would see each other occasionally at social events; every time I saw him, I felt him more strongly. All we did was talk, but magnetism hung in the air around us like heavy perfume. I remember one conversation we had — our words were so charged that several people around us at the dungeon stopped talking and just watched. When I finally set my nails into him weeks later, it was like I’d been holding my breath. He closed his eyes and flinched against my hands; I finally exhaled.

It was so intense, so different. But as I got into it more, I started seeing how similar it is to the way I’ve acted in the past; and as he started telling me how he thinks about submission, I felt my viewpoint on my own power shift. He told me about how he thought of some childhood fantasies — dreams of being controlled by women in apparently powerless positions … and I thought about some of my own fantasies, of being a captive or a courtesan or in some other overtly powerless position where I nonetheless would have emotional dominance over my captor. He mentioned that he’d thought about dominating, but only as a submissive — taking control only because his partner wanted him to … and I thought about one of the most affecting BDSM encounters I ever had, where my partner reduced me to tears and then put his arms around me and said he’d done it only because he loved me.

You have to be careful with these after-the-fact realizations about selfhood. It would be easy for me to go back and edit all my memories and say: “Ah, I see now; at all these points, I thought I was bottoming, but really I was in control. I thought I dreamed of submitting, but really I wanted power.” I still think I’ve always been a bottom, but I wonder at some of the dynamics I’m remembering now. Perhaps one could say that I have also, on some level, always been a domme.

Bottoming is heavy, deep. When I’m doing a good scene as a submissive, I go under. I can barely speak …. Everything blurs into darkness. Doing a good top scene is so different. It sparkles. I laugh. All my words are precise as scalpels. Everything is clear. It’s true that both topping and bottoming make me lose myself, go blank, in a similar sensual-sexual way, and I see commonalities between them. I don’t act the same in both roles, but I want similar things: as a bottom, I dream about bleeding; as a top, I crave blood on my hands. Still, the difference in how I feel when topping vs. bottoming is significant.

So, yes, of course I see why we’ve come up with the top/bottom breakdown. I feel no need to question its existence, or call it unnecessary. Most gender and sexuality theorists these days acknowledge that sex and gender exist on a continuum, rather than as black-and-white absolutes, and I bet there are people out there asserting that there’s no reason for the black-and-white top vs. bottom; but I think that the black-and-white top vs. bottom is useful even if we can’t quite parse it all out. The distinction helps us draw the map, create these acts, decide what exactly will happen between us.


He makes me cry because he loves me. Is he the dom or the sub? I’m a princess locked in a tower, with a strong knight defending me. Does he serve me, or do I belong to him? I’m a beautiful courtesan with haunting eyes, charging fabulous prices for my favors. Am I bending men’s hearts, or doing their bidding?

I still think it’s true that my provocative tendencies can be submissive. That I sometimes seek to create a combative dynamic in the hopes of losing. Craving to fight and be defeated. Craving to be broken, tormented, enslaved — to belong to him ultimately and completely. But I also crave his devotion — I want to own my lover. I crave power over his desire, the agony he endures for me, his ultimate submission. And I crave a shifting dynamic. I pull his head back, laugh low in his ear, I smile as I hurt him until he — overwhelmed — breaks out of my hold and takes control.

Top. Bottom. Switch. Both. All.

I want it all.

2009 8 Jan

“Vanilla”: dissection of a term

One of my favorite people, who happens to be relatively vanilla, asked me to write a post on the term. Who am I to refuse?

On the most basic level, “vanilla” is just a word the BDSM community uses to designate “people who are not into BDSM”, or “sex acts that are not BDSM-related”. For me, when I use the term “vanilla”, I don’t feel like I’m insulting “vanilla people”. They’re vanilla; I’m not. Some people are gay; I’m not. We’re all friends here. … Which makes me feel a little puzzled, when some vanilla people feel bothered by the designation “vanilla”.

It gets a little more complicated when we consider the cultural connotations of “vanilla”, though. (Not to mention what happens when we start thinking about whether “vanilla vs. non” is a black-and-white thing, or whether there’s more of a continuum there.)

Let’s start with something most of us agree on: vanilla is delicious! It is a layered, complex and interesting flavor that can be used in many exciting ways. But, while there are lots of awesome things about vanilla, most people also agree that it’s not as awesome as richer/more exotic flavors (particularly the perennial favorite: chocolate!). Think about the way we talk about “plain vanilla” … it wouldn’t be “plain” if vanilla weren’t considered boring, expected, dull. The major cultural connotation of “vanilla” is “not as good as chocolate”.

So … if BDSMers refer to non-BDSMers as “vanilla” … does that mean we’re looking down on their sexuality? That we’re saying it’s “not as good”?

I’ve tried thinking about this from the vantages of other alternative sexualities. For instance, if “straight” weren’t such an established term — if it weren’t a word that I’d grown up using — I think I might feel slightly miffed that it’s the word for non-LGBTQ folks. I mean, I may primarily be interested in having sex with men, but must the word for that be “straight”? Am I “straight”? Is all of my beautiful unique snowflake personality a “straight” one? … How boring!

Obviously “straight” is only a descriptor of my sexual preferences and not my entire personality. But that’s not necessarily how it feels when I hear it. And from that perspective, it’s somewhat understandable that some vanilla people feel insulted when called “vanilla”. No one wants to be “not as good as chocolate”!

I don’t think vanilla people would find it insulting when I call them “vanilla”, if they perceived the term to be an expression of neutral preferences. Vanilla people who feel insulted by the term must feel insulted, not because they think I’m describing an unimportant difference, but because they feel that I’m saying something about them. Perhaps this points to an issue about how we think about sexual preference: perhaps we consider sexual preference as defining a lot about a given person. We probably shouldn’t. I don’t think that most people’s in-bed preferences actually correlate highly to other specific personality traits.

This also points to some larger issues. Specifically: this highlights the way that non-“alternative” sex — sex that isn’t BDSM, queer, multiple partners, etc. — is perceived by some as being boring and limited and “plain” by default. That sucks, because there are lots of fun things you can do with straight, vanilla, one-on-one monogamous sex! Straight, vanilla, one-on-one monogamous sex should not be seen as boring and limited by default!

Part of the problem is that non-alternative sex has not been forced to develop the same kind of self-consciousness, ingenuity, negotiation techniques, etc. that other types of sex require and facilitate. We all know that American culture too often shames its members into being unwilling to discuss or acknowledge their sexual needs. But even the liberal subcultures that teach kids to think that sex is a beautiful thing still don’t teach them how to talk to their partner or determine their needs — which means that even kids raised in sex-positive households often find themselves floundering and confused once they actually start having sex.

The only places that provide guidelines for those things are the sexual outlaw subcultures — because we’ve had to develop them. BDSM, for example, has been forced to invent very specific sexual negotiation tactics because if we don’t carefully work out our interactions, we end up violently assaulting our partners. That is, we’ve developed very careful communication practices because if we fail at sexually communicating, the consequences are arguably more serious than they would be for other sexualities. The BDSM community has an entire vocabulary — words like “kink”* and “squick”**, for instance — developed to help us parse our sexual experiences. Within the BDSM subculture, you can frequently find actual workshops or lectures to teach negotiating sexual preferences. You don’t find words or workshops like that in the “normal world”.

I’ve been reading a really great anthology called Pomosexuals; it’s a little old by now (1997), but so much of the commentary in there remains smart and important. It includes Pat Califia’s essay “Identity Sedition and Pornography”, and writing this post brought the following quotation to mind:

Straight people blithely assume it’s their prerogative to write about us [queer people]; but we know a lot more about them than they know about us. We came out of them. Most of us made a rather extensive study of heterosexuality before leaving it behind. Even after we come out, we have to be experts in straight presumption, ignorance, and frailty in order to survive.

… We are not the only group of people dealing with a heritage of sexual shame and repression. Heterosexuals really need our help and inspiration, and I wish they’d admit it.

Moral of the story: No one should look down on vanilla people for being vanilla. Nor should anyone think vanilla sex is automatically “plain” or “boring”. Conversely, vanilla people would do well to understand that they have a lot to learn from BDSM ideas about sexual communication (and from other sexual subcultures, on other relationship topics).

We’re stuck with the word “vanilla” now, along with all its connotations. It would be annoying and probably impossible to invent a different word for “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But, hey — we’ve reclaimed so many other terms in this modern era … why not reclaim “vanilla”? Let’s make “vanilla” mean “delicious, complex, layered and interesting”, rather than “plain”!

As a side note, one interesting thing that my vanilla friend pointed out is this: “I feel like we should have learned by now that all these things occur on a spectrum. Maybe I’m not gay but I am queer. Maybe I’m into handcuffs and blindfolds but nothing else. Maybe there needs to be language to describe that spectrum rather than trying to draw a line in the sand. My sense is that the grey area is vast. Embracing it could be a useful strategy.”

There’s a term, “french vanilla”, that BDSMers sometimes use to indicate people who are “kind of into BDSM, but not heavily into it”. It’s cute, but I don’t ultimately find this term very helpful, and here’s why: as soon as you start talking to BDSMers about their BDSM preferences, you quickly find that they are more into some things than others — and that there are many BDSM acts they just aren’t interested in.

Usually, I think about this in terms of “sliders”. On the most basic level, I envision several BDSM sliders: a Bondage slider, a Dominance slider, a Submission slider, a Sadism slider, and a Masochism slider. Frequently, these sliders overlap — for instance, many people with a high Masochism slider have a high Submission slider. You can get even more complicated and talk about the specific acts that people enjoy or dislike, but I tend to find that those sliders are a good place to start.

So basically, if we’re going to complexify the conversation by talking about the BDSM spectrum, then I think we might as well go straight for the sliders, and skip vague terms like “french vanilla”.

… I just had a startling thought. Arguably … what we’re actually describing, when we talk about “vanilla people” vs. “BDSM people”, is more about the way people think about these acts — how formally people articulate these acts — and less about how much, or how heavily, people actually do them. But this post has already gotten quite long, so I’ll have to explore that idea another day.

* “Kink” = “a specific sexual preference”. For instance, if I like whipping people, then you could say that I have a kink for whipping people.

** “Squick” = “a non-judgmental dislike of a certain sexual act”. For instance, if I feel really bothered by the idea of someone whipping someone else, then you could say that I am squicked by whipping.