Posts Tagged ‘advice’

2010 18 Nov

[advice] A 16-yr-old kinkster who wants “a sense of personal integrity”

When I received the following email, I was sitting in my mother’s living room. I read the letter aloud to Mom where she was standing in the kitchen; she stopped what she was doing, came over and sat down across from me. When I was done, she said, “That’s heartbreaking. This girl sounds just like you.”

Yeah, I relate a lot to this one.

Posted with the writer’s permission:

Dear Clarisse,

I’m sorry to email you out of the blue like this, but I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and it’s been a great help to me. I’m also sorry if this is pretty personal, but I don’t know of anyone else with any relevant experience that I can turn to. You’ve always seemed friendly and open to discussion from what I’ve read, so I hope you won’t mind.

OK. Here goes. Basically, I’ve had what I now know to be BDSM leanings since an early age — tying up the Barbie dolls, bizarre childhood games, the works, gaining a more sexual edge in my teenage years. I never really thought about it, and if I did, I would just think, “Oh well, I can think and fantasise about what I like, it doesn’t hurt anyone, why should I be ashamed?” The difficulty for me has come in my first proper relationship. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 10 months and it’s not a secret between us. I mean, it surprised him, but he’s completely fine with it and he seems pretty enthusiastic (and has consistently over the past nine months or so, so I think it might be more than just to please me, though he’s not as into it as I am). Maybe I should specify. I don’t enjoy labelling myself, but I suppose you would call me a submissive. 

As I’m sure you can relate to, this poses some problems for me. I’ve always thought of myself as a strong, independent young woman. I endured bullying at school and I have always espoused — or tried to, to the best of my ability — a philosophy that can be neatly summed up as “Fuck ’em.” It’s very difficult for me to come to terms with this other side of myself, that, while it was always there, never really intruded on my actual life, if you see what I mean. Now it does. I’m saying these things I’ve thought about a lot of my life, and doing some of them too. There’s a level — well, two, the rational level and the physical one — where I’m completely OK with it, but another part of me — I suppose the emotional part — is entirely disgusted. If it was just the pain, I could deal with that. It’s this desire for submission that makes me feel sick about myself. The thing is, rationally, I know that there’s no reason why I can’t be a strong woman in my relationships and my everyday life but play with a power dynamic during sex acts. I mean, from what I’ve read, you do it fine! I just don’t know how to make that leap. I’m sure you know the feeling I’m talking about.

I should also add that I’m 16 and a virgin, and the same with my boyfriend. This entire kaboodle is new to me and I don’t really know what I’m doing, and this is really causing me quite a lot of anguish. I don’t really know where to go for support. I can hardly ask at the regular sexual health clinic! I wouldn’t know where to start looking for kink-aware therapists, as you did. Besides that, I would have to talk to my parents about it. I’ve spoken to my mother about BDSM briefly in conversation without letting her know anything about myself, and she said she thought relationships like that were “unhealthy” and “destructive”. I’m sure that’s just ignorance on her part, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to come out to her, and explain why it’s OK, at least not until I’m sure about this myself. It still feels partly unreal, as though it’s something I’ve created in myself that will go away if I ignore it — even though I know that’s not the case. I share the feeling that you’ve written about before — I’ve never been in an “other-ed” minority before, being white and middle-class etc. My boyfriend is very supportive and caring, but to be honest, he doesn’t know what he’s doing any better than I do! So I hope that you will be able to offer me some reassurance and advice. Your blog, as I’ve said, has been a great help, but reading something like that, wonderful as it is, isn’t the same and doesn’t have the same power to reassure as a more personal dialogue. I hope you see what I mean and don’t just think that I’m seeking attention. That is not my goal here. All I’m after is a sense of personal integrity. Perhaps in the end that can only come from myself, but, it would be nice to be told I’m not completely mad!

I wanted to post that letter mostly because I think it’s eloquent. Again, I’m probably somewhat biased because the girl who wrote it sounds a lot like me. (The “fuck ’em” philosophy especially. It got a lot better once I got out of public school and went to university, but, man, it was pretty intense for a while there.) There are so many lines in there that I could have written, once.

Even the way she writes, “I suppose you would call me a submissive” …. It took me months — maybe even years, I can’t recall — after coming into my BDSM identity for me to accept the word “submissive” and apply it to myself. I hated that word so much.

Fortunately for the letter-writer, she lives in the United Kingdom, which means that at age 16 she’s not below the age of consent. This, presumably, means that she can hang out in BDSM communities if she likes; in the USA, people have to be over 18 to do so. One thing I suggested she look for is a group called The Next Generation, to see if there are any UK branches. In the US, TNG has branches in a number of cities; it’s a kink group that usually hosts low-key café meetups and the occasional BDSM demo for folks aged 18-35 (perhaps in the UK it’s open to ages 16-35). I also noted that there are probably some UK therapists on the Kink Aware Professionals list, though I don’t know if there’s as much representation over there.

I only know a couple of things for sure about BDSM in the UK. One is that the country contains the Torture Garden, which is the world’s largest fetish club, and which has released some absolutely gorgeous fliers. It’s also where one of the nastiest BDSM scandals in recent history occurred, the infamous and ridiculous Spanner Case, which resulted in a group called The Spanner Trust that works to protect S&Mers.

A sense of community is, in my experience, incredibly helpful for new kinksters who want to talk about the insanity-inducing coming-out process. One of the most powerful moments in my BDSM-integration process occurred during a discussion group at the San Francisco Citadel. It was the first BDSM group I’d ever attended — basically a Dominant/submissive roundtable — and the statement I recall best came from a woman who was happily curled up next to her boyfriend on a couch. She identified herself as a submissive and she noted that she and her boyfriend had an agreement that, every night, she had to kneel at the foot of the bed and ask his permission to get in.

“Some nights,” she said, “I’m really tired, and I don’t want to do that, I just want to climb in and go to sleep. But then I remind myself that this is the kind of relationship I want, and that it is part of my sexuality. That this is part of my integrity as a submissive, to show him that I want to keep our power dynamic alive by asking his permission to get into bed every single night.”

At the time, this blew my mind. Her use of the word integrity …. I don’t personally prefer to have those kinds of agreements — the kneeling-and-asking-permission type agreements — at least not usually. (Rarely do I encounter a man with whom our mutual power dynamic is so incredibly strong, whom I trust so much, that I’m willing to submit myself totally like that. But it has happened — though it had not yet happened when I attended that Citadel discussion group, and I may never experience it again.) Still … even though I don’t personally prefer the kinds of relationships she does, it was still such an incredible relief to see a submissive, who was so clearly in possession of herself and feeling so good about her relationship — to hear her use a word like integrity. To hear her apply the word integrity to her sexuality.

This is one of several reasons I usually encourage people to look into the local in-person community, but not everyone is going to mesh well with their local BDSM groups. Luckily, the Internet may provide another option. There’s a kinky social networking site called FetLife.com where BDSMers can make profiles, engage in discussion groups, etc.; that seems like a good place to start.  (There are even feminist discussion groups on FetLife, of which I am obviously a member.) BDSM blogs other than my own can perhaps function similarly.  I know there are online BDSM fora, and I’ve heard mixed things about some of them, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them.

This girl sounds plenty smart enough to make her own decisions about which groups to participate in and which to ignore, but I did encourage her to keep in mind that there are plenty of BDSM fora in the world. So, if she finds one that’s full of annoying or scary people, she doesn’t have to settle for that one.

In terms of straight-up relationship advice, there are lots of books and blogs out there for that too.  I personally like The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy; the companion volume is The New Topping Book.  And then there’s just generally great advice on the amazing sex education site Scarleteen.  I know Scarleteen has its own message boards as well, though I haven’t participated much over there either.

For those who are interested in coming out to their parents, I recommend the book When Someone You Love Is Kinky by Dossie Easton and Catherine W. Liszt (it’s intended for the parents or for any other relatives of a kinkster).  I’ve also heard good things about the “Parents of Alternative Sexuality” pamphlet by Dr. Amy Marsh.

And, as always, there’s plenty of other stuff listed on my S&M Resources page.

And, just in case you’re thinking, “This girl is 16? That’s ridiculous. What does she know about her sexuality?” — I encourage you to read this post by Maymay: Young People Into BDSM Are Not Exceptional. The post is mostly about the community dynamics that occur in some places (though not all), where people who are younger and into BDSM are sometimes seen as “exceptions”, when in reality we’re not exceptional at all. Plenty of us experience sexuality, and have a firm grasp on it, at an age younger than the age our culture chooses to allow us full access to information about sexuality.

I think a lot about younger kinksters — not just because of issues like the ones Maymay raises in his post, either. It’s clear that in-person American BDSM communities cannot allow folks who are under 18 into our ranks, because of the liability we risk. Even if the community’s only and entire goal is education, it’s simply too likely that some concerned parent would find out about their under-18 kid talking to us. Then the parent freaks out and our community comes under attack for “child molestation” or some similar trumped-up charge. Oh, I can picture the worst that could happen, all too clearly ….

But this leaves us in the position of being unable to directly educate people under 18 about BDSM. So the best we can do is encourage those who are under 18 to read as much as they possibly can, both on the Internet and in books, before practicing any of the BDSM they might be attracted to. It’s not great, but it’s something. It’s more than our parents’ generation had.

UPDATE, 2013: I continue to receive emails from young kinksters. My heart goes out to you folks. My final thought is this:

You have time. Seriously, so much time. I know it’s so frustrating if you feel like you have to wait until you leave home or whatever, but hey, you can use this time to read books and stuff. (Like my collection The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn!)

Besides, you are not as frustrated as me, because I have to wait until Thursday to see this new guy I have a thing for, and Thursday is like ONE MILLION YEARS from now. And I already texted him once today.

… You get my point.

Also, one of the teenagers who emailed me was apparently directed to my blog by her mom. The times, they are a-changin’!

P.S.: The comments on this post are excellent, so keep reading ….

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

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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.)

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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.

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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 18 Jul

[advice] How did I know that S&M was right for me?

I love it when people email me interesting questions. This letter is posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse —

I found your coming-out article on “Time Out” and I am both grateful and fascinated by your story. I apologize if this email is a bit personal, but I am unsure where to get honest non-judgmental advice. Recently a lover introduced me to SM and while I have always considered myself a fairly sexually tolerant and open person, I found myself unwilling to let go and trust with a scenario. On the surface, I feel I would very much enjoy what BDSM has to offer, but in practice I am unable to fully appreciate? the fantasy.

My questions to you are: did it take a bit a time for you to … hm … let go of yourself with this type of play?

It seems from your article that you recognized this lifestyle was / is a “fit” for you. How do you know if it is the right lifestyle for you?

Also, you mentioned some therapists who specialize in understanding the needs of alternative lifestyle folks. Could you direct me to some resources for additional information?

Here’s my response:

Hi there,

Firstly, and most importantly, here is the link to the website for the list of Kink Aware Professionals. You can read their FAQ and hopefully find a therapist to assist you there. I recommend that if you have the choice, you visit several therapists before choosing one. I wish you luck.

I can definitely say that once I had spent a little time doing S&M with Richard, the “main character” in my coming-out story, I was absolutely sure that it was what I wanted. It was undeniable, even though it was hard to adjust to it. But at the same time, I had trouble — that’s part of why I wrote up my coming-out story. It took me a long time — years! — to be totally okay with letting go and enjoying S&M. So, yes, it took me some time. And if you think you want to try it, then I think it’s important that you give yourself some time, as well.

But still, your question about “how do you know?” is a difficult one. When I first encountered Richard, I wasn’t very attracted to him. And if he had just asked me, “Would you like to try some S&M?” I might have said no. I had even encountered someone who tried to do S&M — holding me down and biting me — several years before I encountered Richard, and I wasn’t very interested at the time. But when Richard actually started hurting me, hard … I recognized it, and I knew it was something I had been seeking for a long time. So how did I recognize it when he did it, but not when the previous guy did it? I’m not sure.

I think that sexuality is very affected by the way we have a given experience. Our mood before we start having sex; our feelings about our partner; our level of attraction to our partner; our satisfaction with our current relationship; the reasons we have chosen this sexual experience at this time …. All of these factors come together in how we feel about a given sexual act. And then, on top of that, there’s also the fact that the way a given sexual act is performed can change the way we enjoy it. For example, I often get bored (or irritated) if someone ties me up and acts nice, even if they give me oral sex. But if someone ties me up and acts mean — if they try to genuinely scare me, or hurt me a lot in the ways I enjoy, and then they give me oral sex — then I think that’s really hot. So I think that the moral of the story is that there’s a lot of different ways to have different kinds of sex, so it’s often worth trying things more than once (unless you really, emphatically didn’t like it the first time). Recognition can come late.

Finally, just remember the old saying — “The search is more important than the find.” My best sexual experiences happened after I gave up on “finding” something, or “being sure”, and I started simply trying different things and enjoying them for what they were.

I recently wrote a post on my blog about how to encourage sexual openness; maybe it will be helpful for you.

I had some more thoughts after I sent the letter, and they were complicated enough to deserve a blog post.

1) When we showed the polyamory movie at my sex-positive film series, I remember there was one particular woman who stuck around for the discussion afterwards. She was blonde and wearing a sports jersey, and she said that she really wanted to try poly, but there’s a problem: she likes sports, and she’s not interested in science fiction, gaming, comics, or other alternative nerd-type subcultures. A lot of people laughed when she said that because it precisely illustrates something important about the polyamory subculture: most poly people are hippies, geeks, nerds, etc. (For more on this, and particularly more on the demographic differences between polyfolk vs. swingers, you can check out this post from Polyamory In The News.)

The point I’m trying to make is that a person may not be well-suited for the subculture around a certain type of sexual expression, and yet want to practice that kind of sex anyway. I’m not sure what to advise in that case. I think that sex communities are incredibly valuable, and that it’s in a person’s interest to attend workshops, panels, and just generally chat with other people in a given sex community if they want to have alternative sex. One of the awesomest things about the S&M community is how a good S&M workshop will teach us kinksters how to be safer and more skilled at Whatever It Is That We Do.

But … even I would probably be less interested in the S&M subculture if the communities I’ve encountered didn’t contain a healthy number of science fiction- and fantasy-readin’, game-playin’, liberal-leanin’ weirdos just like me. I mean, BDSM workshops would still be valuable if I didn’t know any BDSMers who shared my hobbies and politics … but the group would seem much less interesting. I guess that for someone in that position, I’d still suggest attending the workshops and getting to know people in case you need advice. Unless you really dislike them!

I’d also suggest not making any judgments about your sexuality — about whether you’re interested in BDSM, or polyamory, or swing, or whatever — based on whether you like the local subculture. If you really hate the local S&M group, don’t hang out with them, but don’t assume you hate S&M either! You can learn plenty about S&M from books (like The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy) or even the Internet (the kinky social networking site FetLife has lots of great discussions).

Oh, and before I forget, here’s a fantastic calendar of Chicago BDSM subculture events.

2) It’s so weird (and wonderful) how enjoyment of sex can change completely from a different angle. And I don’t necessarily mean physically — sex is all about emotions and connotations, so different mental angles on sex can matter a lot. As I said in my response to the woman above, being tied up is totally boring on its own … but when combined with a partner I trust and who knows how to hurt me, being tied up becomes a hell of a lot hotter.

It is totally reasonable to feel uncomfortable with sex, or with a certain kind of sex. But figuring out where that discomfort comes from and how it ties into your desires will help you open new doors and broaden your sexual expressions. Figuring out what turns you on or makes you uncomfortable even at a very simple level can take a long freakin’ time, so don’t expect to know all the answers right away. And don’t be surprised if your desires are more fluid and changeable than you ever imagined!

Here’s some questions I’ve found helpful for identifying new angles on sexuality. Maybe they’ll be useful or maybe other people will hate them or maybe they’ll make some people feel uncomfortable. Always keep in mind that if you don’t want to have sex, that’s okay — so if you really hate the idea of doing something sexual, and you don’t feel like trying to figure out why, then suit yourself! Feedback and examples are welcome, as always.

A) If you’re interested in a certain act: What inspired your interest? Did you see or hear something that appealed to you? What elements of this kind of sex seem hot?

B) If you’re not interested in a certain act: Are you sure you don’t like it, or are you willing to try it? If you tried it and didn’t like it, can you tell what turned you off? Is there something that could make you more interested?

C) Just for fun, some basic exploration questions: What are the hottest things you’ve ever seen, read, experienced? Can you describe those things to your partner? How do they make you feel and are there elements of those things that you want to try with your partner?

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

2010 28 May

[advice] Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.'” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

* * *

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 6 Apr

How to start your own local sex-positive meetup

I’ve been reminded that tonight is the one-year anniversary of Pleasure Salon, the sex-positive meetup I co-started in Chicago; a reporter from Columbia College Chicago called me (all the way in Africa!) to chat about it. And over the last few months, I’ve received a number of inquiries about how people can start their own Pleasure Salons in their own cities. Which means it’s time for a blog FAQ!

I obviously haven’t been to Pleasure Salon in quite some time. It sounds like it’s still going strong, at least from what people tell me, but I don’t really know. Still, I remember the process of starting it pretty well ….

* * *

PLEASURE SALON: THE FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS!

(Readers may also be interested in the FAQ I wrote about Sex+++, my sex-positive film series, which gives advice about how to start your own!)

On the very night that I first announced my sex-positive film series, Serpent Libertine of the Sex Workers Outreach Project got in touch. Serpent is really passionate and outspoken; it was delightful to talk with her about how we could collaborate. One idea that we began tossing around was, in her words, a low-key “bar night”. She fondly remembered sex-positive socials privately conducted by past community leaders; for my part, over the next few months I really got into the community discussions at my film series, and it always seemed a shame that we had to wrap them up within an hour or two.

On a trip to New York a couple of months later, one of my film contacts invited me out to Pleasure Salon NYC. Pleasure Salon was exactly like what I’d been picturing — and the name was pretty cool too — so I requested permission to use it and start a Pleasure Salon Chicago! (Note: I have edited the last sentence because it said that I requested permission to “license” the Pleasure Salon name, which confused some people. I did not need to get a license to use the name. I just asked Selina Fire for permission.)

The two big steps were:

1) Getting together a good group of hosts.
2) Finding a good venue.

* * *

Hosts

We wanted to recruit sex-positive leaders who would encourage their followers to attend the Salon. Selina Fire from Pleasure Salon NYC advised, in fact, that we at first promote the Salon entirely through our co-hosts and let it grow organically via word-of-mouth — the fear being that otherwise it could get out of control, fast.

In the end, we did do most of our promoting via the community leaders telling their friends; but we also posted the Pleasure Salon announcement to listhosts (for example, I sent it around some BDSM community listhosts, and I also posted it to the Sex+++ listhost), created a Pleasure Salon Facebook page using the Sex+++ icon (you are invited to become a fan!), and promoted the event in various other public online venues (for example, my favoritest swinger couple, The Ultimates, put an announcement on Meetup.com). And just recently, Serpent emailed to let me know that Pleasure Salon has an exciting new website and blog.

I think this approach should work fine if your area already has a bunch of different sex communities or sexuality discussions, but if it doesn’t — if it’s hard to get a lot of sex-positive community leaders — then you should choose a few hosts based solely on how well they can conduct discussions or get a group to gel. Then I guess you can just promote in alternative communities, liberal spaces, or whatever: odd bookstores, hipster coffeeshops, your local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, your local Unitarian church, your local Gender Studies university department — all good examples! You might consider having discussion topics, too, though this is something we never bothered with at Pleasure Salon Chicago.

* * *

Venue

Pleasure Salon NYC takes place in a really cool speakeasy-style space, with a nice little reception podium in front of a long corridor that widens out into a big room with booths and a bar. The hosts, including Selina Fire, chill out in front to receive new people, hand out nametags to everyone, and help confused new people figure out what’s up. Every night they pass around a jar for donations, and then use those donations to buy snacks and stuff (I think people pay for their own drinks at the bar). I don’t actually know the details of how they arranged this, so maybe Selina can leave a comment explaining.

In Chicago, our primary concern was that the venue be central — Chicago is pretty spread out, and we wanted the place easily reached by folks on the South Side, the North Side, whatever. We also didn’t want the organizers to end up responsible for details like snacks (we did intend to have nametags, but we kinda forgot …), so we wanted a venue that served food. And drinks too; some people have told me that they don’t attend Pleasure Salon because alcohol is served, but certainly when I was around it never got crazy or anything. (The time slot being 6 PM-10 PM helps with that, I think.)

Also important: the venue should have at least one night per month that’s quiet. That way they’ll be really glad to have you around, and — while a few non-Pleasure Salon people will probably show up (unless you can manage a setup like Pleasure Salon NYC) — it’ll still make a good safe space for pro-sex talk. And on that note, the venue should know what Pleasure Salon is and be cool with it. This is really key: don’t hide the subject matter from the venue. That could cause a world of trouble later. Chances are high that the venue really won’t care that you want a group of people to come around and chat about sex once a month as long as they know what to expect (that, for example, an attendee might accidentally leave her copy of Flogging For Beginners behind at the end of the night).

In Chicago, Villains Bar & Grill was great because it was super-quiet on Tuesday evenings from 6-10; it’s in the South Loop, right in the middle of the city; and they were already hosting a swinger meetup once a month, so they didn’t bat an eye when we told them what Pleasure Salon is all about.

It’s a good idea to have one or two backup venues in mind at all times, though. You never know when an awesome venue will suddenly start getting busier, or change management, or close its doors, or whatever — best to be prepared to move on, rather than panicking or (even worse!) having to shut down your Pleasure Salon!

* * *

That’s it!

On the night of Pleasure Salon, be sure that your hosts are ready and willing to stick around for the whole span of the event so that they can greet new people, introduce them around and help them integrate into the group, oversee the vibe, and (of course) get in some time relaxing with their friends.

When people come in the venue door and stand around awkwardly, they’re probably looking for you.

* * *

What’s next for Pleasure Salon?

The reporter who called me today asked an interesting question — So this is the one-year anniversary. What’s next? Obviously I no longer consider myself to have much power over Pleasure Salon, being as I live in Africa and all, and I won’t be back in Chicago for a while. But I do have opinions that I will, as always, happily share.

I’m a pro-sex activist — I obviously think it’s important to destigmatize sexuality in as many ways as possible. Pleasure Salon does a bit of that, I think. But I’ve also said before that I think it would be cool if the sex-positive community had more of a group consciousness; if BDSMers and sex workers and polyamorists and swingers and LGBTQ and, well, all of us pro-sex people saw ourselves as being on the same side. If Pleasure Salon fosters that kind of community attitude, I think that’d be awesome. If Pleasure Salon creates a kind of grassroots political will, I think that’d be cool too. I know that Pleasure Salon NYC has done very limited sponsorship-type stuff — for instance, I do believe they’re a sponsor of CineKink, the Really Alternative Film Festival. I would hope that Pleasure Salon could be the kind of place that doesn’t just sponsor events but politically supports sex-positive change, et cetera.

But (as I emphasized on the phone with the reporter today) I also think that if Pleasure Salon becomes political at the cost of being friendly and approachable, then the cost is too high. Because the biggest strength of Pleasure Salon, to my mind, is the fact that it not only networks and connects different sex-related community members but creates a safe space for hesitant new folks to come learn more. It works best as a low-key conversational space that’s open to everyone, where people who wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a sex club or a BDSM workshop — or even a sex toy store — can just show up and chat (or listen) about sexuality.

For the same reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Pleasure Salon to start offering sex-related demos or sex parties — at least not as part of Pleasure Salon itself. If people promote, say, upcoming bondage demonstrations at Pleasure Salon then that sounds good to me; even if there’s a string of Pleasure-Salon-sponsored bondage demonstrations, that’d be awesome (though Chicago already has a fair number of BDSM events); but I think that if people conduct bondage demonstrations there, that stands a good chance of wrecking the approachable-to-newbies vibe.

* * *

Read the comments!

I’ve asked Serpent, Selina, and the rest of the Pleasure Salon crew to leave comments here if they think of anything I didn’t cover — and if you’ve started a similar sex-positive meetup group in your area, please feel free to leave a comment as well! Even if you don’t have any advice to give, I’d love to hear about your group and how it’s going — or any questions you may have. If you’d prefer to ask questions via email, I’m always available at [ clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com ].

2010 31 Jan

[advice] Masculinity & African activism

I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse,

A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.

I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?

Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.

best,
Zoe

I wrote back:

Hi Zoe!

Firstly, thanks for this letter.  If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this.  And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question.  I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”).  I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism.  But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….

As for Africa.  I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.

Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships.  Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult?  Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them?  If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities).  It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.

If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first.  Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university?  Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.

I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.

Thanks again for your letter.  SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!
Clarisse

2009 25 Mar

[storytime/advice] On Collars

I received a lot of really great positive feedback after I gave my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex. One of my favorite letters was this one. I swear, I should start an advice column ….

Her letter (posted with permission):

Hello Clarisse,

I attended your lecture at the Museum of Sex on Friday and I just wanted to say that it was very helpful for me. I’m very new to the BDSM scene and I guess I’m being mentored by a dominant who I am dating. He’s very patient and understanding with me, but I’ve had quite a difficult time accepting even the fact that I am submissive. As I once told him, to me submissive equates weak and helpless. I’ve always wanted to think of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman so I am having a hard time with this. It definitely made me feel better to hear you talk about your similar struggle. I am not being coerced, or lured into anything I don’t want — I am definitely submissive and interested in BDSM and exploring that whole path — but it took me a while to accept that I am submissive, and I do have issues with it a little still. I just want to make sure you understand that it’s not an issue of being forced or asked to do anything I don’t want to do.

But I did want to ask about the use of collars. I don’t know if this is more of a personal preference, but he is interested in buying me a collar and I just can’t shake the association with pets, slaves, a.k.a. degradation! He is the most charming man I know and treats me better than any “vanilla” boyfriend I’ve had, so I know he would never want to degrade me, but I just can’t shake those associations and a collar means a lot to him. Do you have any advice?

I answered:

Of course I can’t tell you whether it’s right for you to let your boyfriend collar you. Of course only you can make that decision. You already know those things, I hope! What I can tell you is about my own experience.

First, though, a side note. You might consider trying to find a different mentor, rather than relying on someone you’re romantically involved with. I mean, you might want to have this man stay your lover, but find a separate person who can mentor you.

For one thing, it’s a really good idea to have a mentor who is of your “type” — so for instance, as a bottom, I’d advise you to find a mentor who has experience bottoming. For another thing, it’s a good idea in any relationship to make sure that you have resources for advice and assistance other than your partner. And this is especially true of fledgling BDSM relationships, where there’s so much new to learn and understand! Of course, part of seeking an outside advisor is that you want to feel sure that you’re getting unbiased input. But it’s also worth noting that it can put a lot of strain on your relationship for your boyfriend to be, not just your lover, but your major source of BDSM information and understanding. That’s a lot of roles for one person to fill. That might feel okay now — it sounds like it’s a new relationship and you’re both excited — but after a while, being so dependent on one person could become a real problem for one or both of you. Or it might not. Again, I don’t know what’s right for you. This is just some general tried-and-true advice from mentoring groups I’ve encountered.

On to your actual question! There are lots of different feelings on collars, in general. There are people in the BDSM community who simply use collars to demarcate temporary roles. A while ago, I played with a man where we agreed that once he put the collar on me, I would obey him unquestioningly for the evening; then, at the end of the evening, he took it off and the encounter was over. That was just for one night, and in that case, the collar might be considered like a symbol, or a costume — putting us in a certain kind of space together for that time. But collars are also sometimes seen as a deep sign of love and commitment. I know people who consider collars to be as strong a statement as a wedding ring. They wouldn’t even think about wearing a collar just for one night, or for someone they met recently.

Personally, I have evolved a bit on my preferences, and collars mean something different for me from what they meant several years ago. When I first came into BDSM, I was very uncomfortable with it; I needed to take small steps to keep myself comfortable. Also, I was doing BDSM with a man whom I felt emotionally uncomfortable with — I think that I wanted to distance myself from him emotionally whenever we did BDSM. As a result, I believed (that is, I told myself) that I was only interested in the physical sensation: pain. I said that I wanted nothing to do with submission or ownership. I remember that I even told one friend, very emphatically, that I’d never ever wear a collar! Never!

Later, when I had my first BDSM-flavored relationship with someone I loved and trusted, I realized that I did want to wear his collar. I wanted to feel like he owned me and could do whatever he wanted with me. I started to understand that I did want aspects of ownership in my BDSM — I recognize now that I even want aspects of degradation. But I had to come into that slowly, because those things were emotionally very hard to accept for an independent, rational feminist such as myself. And it can be confusing to work out in practice, too, because I don’t want those things from everyone! For instance, I’m willing to do some BDSM with people I don’t know very well — but I need to trust someone a lot before I can enjoy a degradation scene with them. And obviously, since I top sometimes, there are some BDSM partners where it wouldn’t even enter my head to wear a collar. Every relationship has its own texture.

As for the statement, “You own me” — I don’t say that to someone unless I’m totally into them. It feels dark and a little scary, but it also feels real and important. It feels like I’m saying something even stronger than, “I love you.” If I were with a man who wanted to put a collar on me, and if putting a collar on me meant saying to him — whether aloud or silent — “You own me,” then I would have to be totally in love with him to do it.

Desires change over time. Sometimes people don’t like things that they’ll like later. Sometimes people stop liking things. But of course, sometimes people always like certain things … or never like certain things. Maybe someday I’ll wear collars casually. Maybe someday I’ll decide never to wear a collar again! Maybe I’ll even get bored of collars and wear them as nothing more than jewelry!

So maybe you’ll never want to wear a collar, and that’s fine. Just work on it slowly. Don’t rush. Certainly, if wearing a collar feels like degradation to you — and you don’t want to be degraded — then don’t do it! I know you don’t want to ignore your lover’s needs, though. So if this is so important to him, try asking him why it’s important. Does he want to degrade you? Or does he want to feel like he owns you? Or does he just want some kind of mark on you? Or does he just want you to carry a symbol of his? Once you know why he wants to collar you, maybe that’ll help you work out a compromise. For instance, if what he really wants is for you be marked by him or carrying a symbol, then he could give you another piece of jewelry that you always wear.

Hope this is helpful, or at least illuminating!