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?” SexGenderBody.com 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.