Posts Tagged ‘anti-BDSM’

2012 30 Nov

[fiction] Near-Future Science Fiction With S&M Plus Moral Questions!

So a few years ago, I wrote this science fiction short story called “Victory,” about S&M and politics with a dash of feminism. When it was done, I felt very uncertain about it, and I left it alone on my hard drive.

And then last week I heard about a fiction contest, and I thought Why not?, and I cleaned up the story and sacrificed it upon the uncertain altar of popular demand.

* * *

 

A hazy image of a woman, viewed through a screen. This is how I think of the story’s main character, Serena.

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If you like “Victory,” please do me a favor and click “Recommend” at the bottom (you need a Twitter account). Also, send it to your friends! Again, you can read the story here.

Commentary is, as always, welcome.

Image credit to freedigitalphotos.net.

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2012 25 Nov

[storytime] Cat Marnell & “Fifty Shades”: Why I Can Be A Kinky Feminist and a Messy Human Being

This was originally published at The Frisky.

* * *

A few years ago ….

Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can. But my friend (?) Richard used to joke (?) that I only called him when I broke up with my boyfriends. Kinda true, kinda false. Regardless — a few years ago — I don’t even call him this time, I just end up at his apartment for some small party.

He scents the pain in me, and suddenly we’re in a back room, alone. One of the reasons he’s so good at this is that he smells vulnerability like a shark smells blood. I don’t remember whether I ask him to hurt me, or he just grabs me. “Something’s close to the surface,” I tell him, while he leaves bite-shaped bruises on my upper arm. He knows me; he doesn’t leave bruises in places I can’t cover with a t-shirt.

“What is it?” he asks, and I choke on it. I’m already starting to cry. We’ve only been doing this for a moment.

“Red,” I say. The safeword. I’m sobbing. “Red.” Richard stops immediately. “Tears,” I say. “Tears were close to the surface.”

We’re on the floor now. I’m curled up in his lap. I tell Richard that the guy I broke up with last year — the worst breakup in my life — I tell Richard that this other guy met me two nights ago, specifically to tell me that he never cared about me. Almost a year after the breakup, my ex decided to inform me that he lied every time he said “I love you.” He could not have chosen a better way to re-break my heart. Why did he have to do that? Maybe he was doing it defensively, to mess with me … and the thought that he would go to the trouble leads me towards perverse, momentary relief. Then it starts hurting again.

“There are other fish in the sea,” says Richard.

“Thanks,” I say. I’m too devastated to say it with the sarcasm I intend. Yet I’m grateful for the attempt.

Richard’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I really enjoy doing S&M with you. Your reactions are so familiar.”

“Even when I break so quickly? Even when I safeword in less than a minute?” I ask. I’m feeling the masochist’s insecurity: I thought I could hold out. I’m so pathetic.

“Even then,” Richard says gently.

It’s these moments that make me think it might be safe to trust him, but the moment never lasts. For years I’m relieved that I never made the mistake of actually dating him, that I don’t rely on him for anything. Every time he stomps on some girl’s heart I shrug and say, “That’s how he is,” with a secret and shameful tinge of pride. And then one day I will realize that I do expect his support, when I’m almost killed in an accident and he outright ignores me. I will feel betrayed and simultaneously blame myself. I’ll decide that we are just fucking done.

But on this night, that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m surprised by how close I feel to Richard. I wipe the tears from my cheeks, then go to the bathroom and wash my face. Pull myself together so I can return to the party. My eyes meet my reflection’s; I’m not sure what I see.

I think I feel better than I did before Richard broke me down, but I don’t have time for genuine emotional processing right now. My chest feels heavy. Did he do me a favor?

* * *

The S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is full of bad messages about romance and S&M. The drugs-and-beauty writer Cat Marnell had a recent and spectacular public breakdown, which has been profiled all over the media. You might think that I’m cynically exploiting Hot Google Trends by bringing the two together — and okay, maybe I am. But for me, they’re similar because they both make me jealous.

Sure, I’m jealous of Marnell’s fragile beauty and James’s million bucks. But that’s the least of it. The writer Sarah Hepola says she’s jealous of Marnell’s writing skill, but me, I’m jealous of what those two get to write. They get to write about a self-destructive edge; about putting oneself in danger.

For the last few years, I have written mostly about S&M. I write about other things, too, but I’ve focused on S&M because I know it well. Because it’s important to me. Because I believe that S&M can be life-affirming and intimacy-building and can coexist with feminism, with justice. Indeed, the available psychological research shows clearly that consensual S&M is not, in itself, harmful.

But as I’ve written about feminism and S&M, I’ve also known the rules about what I get to write. I’m not sure how I internalized these rules, but I know them like I know my face in the mirror. When I write, I’m supposed to emphasize the emotional health of my relationships — both with my lovers, and (separately) with my parents. I’m supposed to emphasize my physical health, decent diet, and exercise habits — although it’s okay to mention it if I’m injured, because that’s not my fault. I’m allowed to mention being an outcast in high school, but God forbid I talk too much about the emotional impact. I must stress excellent communication with my partners. I always, always have to mention safewords.

I am a politician. The arenas for debate are both my mind and my body. The personal is political, indeed.

I didn’t know I was waiting for it until it came, in Cat Marnell’s most recent column: doing S&M and then blaming it on drugs and self-destruction. She writes:

This is amphetamine logic: I am eroticized by pain. And that’s a lie. How turned on could I have actually been?

Marnell describes being hit in the jaw until she saw stars (and by the way, folks, there are safe ways to slap people and then there are unsafe ones; if a person is seeing stars, that’s a bad sign). In Fifty Shades, it’s a similar dangerous narrative: the dominant guy is scarily stalkerish, the relationship is packed with bad communication.

Fifty Shades was written to let people enjoy the hotness without taking responsibility for emotional safety. Without asking the dangerous question of whether S&M might be part of a truly positive, thoughtful relationship.

(more…)

2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 25 May

My Mom’s Rape Story, and A Confused Relationship With Feminism

This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

My mother is a rape survivor. In 1970, when she was in her twenties, she came home alone one day with the groceries. As she was opening the door, a man came up behind her and forced her into the apartment, where he violently assaulted her. For years afterwards, my mother had Rape Trauma Syndrome — a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that affects rape survivors — but neither RTS nor PTSD had yet been identified, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with her.

Later in the decade, my mother dumped one of her boyfriends. He then came to her apartment one night, broke in, and raped her. As he got in bed, she was in the middle of a flashback. She cried and said “No,” and he had sex with her anyway. When she tried to tell him later that what he’d done was unacceptable, he informed her that because she’d pursued him during their relationship — because she was the one who originally asked him out — a rape case would never stand up in court.

My mother met my dad many years after these incidents. Mom first told me that she’d been raped in my late teens, because she was considering telling her story to our church congregation, and she wanted me to know before she did that. The full stories came out during intermittent conversations in my twenties. I love both my parents with the fire of a thousand suns, and let me tell you, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about murdering the men who attacked my mother. I doubt I could find the first guy, but I could probably find the second, and in my early twenties I often imagined shooting him in the head. (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t think about that anymore.)

Within the last few years, I started thinking about asking Mom’s permission to write about her experiences and my reaction to them. I always shelved the idea because I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Last year, the topic came up in conversation, and I finally asked permission; she said yes immediately. I double-checked her consent twice this year, and she said yes both times. Still, I was hesitant, and I only got around to it now — for Mother’s Day. I also asked her to review this piece, and to feel free to veto anything within it.

I am doing my best not to co-opt or appropriate my mother’s story. But her story and her life have shaped mine, intimately — including my views on gender issues, and my course as a feminist activist and writer. A few years ago, a widely-read Harper’s article by established feminist Susan Faludi asserted that the relationship between younger feminists and older feminists is like a battle between girls and our moms. I read the article with interest, but also with a sense of displacement. As a teenager I fought with my mom all the time, but she and I rarely argue anymore, and we never argue about issues of feminism or sexuality at all. If “young” feminism is about rebelling against our mothers, then I missed that boat completely.

In fairness, my mom’s not easy to rebel against. When I was 15, I asked her what she’d do if I ran off with a Hell’s Angel. She laughed. “I’d probably be jealous,” she said.

* * *

I started blogging in 2008 because I wanted to write about sexuality, particularly S&M. However, I identified myself as a feminist from the start, because I wanted to make it obvious that S&M and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The conflicts of feminism and S&M have been a major theme throughout the Feminist Sex Wars. I tend to repeat myself when I write about this, so I’ll just mention my favorite quotation on the matter; it comes from the German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, who said that “Female masochism is collaboration!”

When I came out of the closet to my mom, I had been freaking out about my S&M identity for a while — but quietly. I told my parents about my sexuality because I wanted to go into therapy, but I wanted a Kink Aware therapist who wouldn’t shame me for my S&M preferences. The specific therapist I preferred was out-of-network for my health insurance, which meant I needed help paying for it. My dad was cool with it, but he didn’t say much. My mother paused when I told her… and then she explained that S&M is part of her sexuality, too.

I was shocked. I was also incredibly relieved. If my brilliant, independent mother was into S&M, then suddenly I felt much more okay about being into it myself. It turned out that she had explored S&M late in life — and she went through the same anxiety about feminism and S&M that I’d felt. “You’re not giving up your liberation,” she told me.

Mom also acknowledged the stereotype that S&M arises from abusive experiences. “I once worried that being raped made me into S&M,” she said. “But I remember having S&M feelings when I was very young, long before I was raped. I was like this all along.” When she said that, I caught my breath in recognition.

This is another topic I often repeat myself about, but that’s because it’s important. As it happens, the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and being into S&M. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence within the S&M community that a lot of S&Mers, though not all, feel our S&M identities to be innate (sometimes described as an “orientation”). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with understanding or processing abuse through consensual S&M. The psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process their histories of abuse. However, abusive experiences should not be seen as the usual “creator” of S&M desires. (For more on this, check out my article on S&M and the psychiatric establishment.)

The stereotype that S&M “comes from” abuse is another reason I worried about writing this article. Basically, this is a prettily-wrapped gift to Internet commentators who enjoy writing posts or hate mail about how fucked up I am, or about how dysfunctional S&M is. I guess there’s no help for that.

* * *

“I’m fascinated that you’ve adopted feminism so thoroughly,” my mother told me once. “I never felt like I was into feminism like you are.”

“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”

(more…)

2012 7 May

The Psychology of S&M

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. It’s sometimes referred to as S&M, B&D, leather, or fetish. As an S&M writer and educator, I get lots of questions about the psychology of S&M. People ask whether it’s a disorder, how psychologists would describe it, etc. I’m an advocate, not a psychologist, but I’ve read up on the history and done my best to keep tabs on current research.

First things first: S&M is not a pathology, and people who practice S&M are not “damaged” in some way. There aren’t many S&M studies, but in 2008, this conclusion was supported by a large and well-designed survey that reached 20,000 people. The survey was done by public health researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and it found that S&Mers “were no more likely [than non-S&Mers] to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious.” Another recent study found that consensual S&M usually increases intimacy for a couple.

I’d like to note briefly that people have told me about using consensual, intimate, trusting S&M activities in order to work through previous non-consensual, abusive experiences that they’d had. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process and deal with past abuse.

Still, as the 2008 Australia survey shows us, most people don’t practice S&M because they’ve been abused or because they’re unhappy. People who practice S&M have the same record of unhappiness and abusive history as non-S&M people. Yet S&M was first described as a disorder in 1886, when a doctor named Richard Krafft-Ebing published the manual Psychopathia Sexualis. This landmark tome hauled many sexual practices into the light, then attempted to categorize them. Of course, the doctor’s ideas hewed close to contemporary mainstream ideas of what was acceptable, and so he thought that basically everything was a disorder — including, for example, homosexuality.

It’s interesting to imagine what our mental health paradigm might be if Psychopathia Sexualis had never existed. It had a huge influence on psychiatry. Later, the psychiatric establishment began publishing a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The DSM doesn’t specialize in sexuality, but it includes quite a lot of it. The first edition of the DSM came out in 1952; it’s currently undergoing its fifth revision, and the proposed new language can be found at the DSM-5 website.

Like Psychopathia Sexualis, the original DSM called homosexuality a disorder. This changed in 1973, partly in response to gay activists. But subsequent versions of the DSM are still criticized for many reasons. Our cultural diagnoses of mental illness are shaped by lots of people with very different motives, and truth is hard to find. A 2010 New Yorker article by Louis Menand outlined many critiques of the DSM, such as the allegation that today’s psychiatry “is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different.” Naturally, the medical establishment has an incentive to do this, since it makes money selling treatments for illness, and more illness means more treatment.

S&M is currently in the DSM (heh, you see what I did there?). My understanding, however, is that S&M occupies a strange space within the much-edited manual. S&M is no longer listed as all-disorder-all-the-time, though it once was. But if a person has an urge towards S&M, and that person feels unhappy about it, then it is classified as a disorder. In other words, an S&Mer is labeled “healthy” if she’s happy about S&M, and “unhealthy” if she’s unhappy about it.

Actually, this is basically the spot that homosexuality occupied for a while. And the reason homosexuality was taken out is the same reason S&M should be taken out: because a person who wants a completely consensual type of sexuality, and who is unhappy about it, is probably better off working to change the unhappiness rather than the sexuality. Like homosexuality, S&M is stigmatized and misunderstood. A person who is stigmatized and misunderstood is likely to be unhappy, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her.

Within the S&M community, we have ways of working around this problem. Some people are campaigning to change the DSM directly. Others are more indirect. Years ago, the activist Race Bannon made a handwritten list of doctors and lawyers who were S&M-friendly, and began passing it around to his friends. Names were quickly added to Bannon’s list, and when the Internet became popular, the list migrated online. Now, the Kink Aware Professionals list is enormous and includes profession categories from accounting to web design — not just doctors. When I was going through my own complicated and difficult S&M coming-out process, I was lucky enough to find the list. My S&M-friendly therapist talked me through my anxiety and socially-created disgust, rather than diagnosing me with a spurious “disorder.”

There’s a great organization called the Community-Academic Consortium of Research on Alternative Sexualities; one of their projects is an annual conference to sensitize psychologists and therapists to the needs of alternative sexuality communities. The next conference will be Thursday, May 24th, and this year it’s in Chicago. Also in my home city of Chicago, there’s a project based at DePaul University that seeks to change the representation of S&M in human sexuality textbooks. The Kink Representation Outreach Project involves talking to different S&Mers about their actual experience (what an idea!) and getting their recommendations about how these texts might better represent S&M. And finally, if you want some idea of the sparse and scattershot research that’s been done on S&M, the blog Kink Research Overviews is a good place to start.

Within the S&M community, there’s some talk of S&M as its own “sexual orientation.” I have mixed feelings about this, and I’ve written about those mixed feelings. I think it can sometimes be helpful, but I’d rather move to a paradigm where we encourage people to see any consensual sexual act as awesome, rather than talking like “orientation” is what legitimizes sexuality. Nothing legitimizes sex except consent.

* * *

The image at the top of this post shows an old-school phrenology diagram from the 1800s. (Phrenology was a ridiculous pseudo-science that was nevertheless popular, back in the day.) I found the image at the BibliOdyssey blog, which showcases eclectic historic science and art prints.

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2012 20 Apr

“50 Shades of Grey,” “Fight Club,” and the Complications of Male Dominance

This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

Much is being made of the highly successful S&M erotica novel 50 Shades of Grey. People are blaming feminism for making women into submissives, blaming feminism for preventing women from being submissives, blaming women for having sexual desires at all, and a whole lot of other boring and typical stuff that comes up in any conversation about women and S&M. News flash: it’s not the feminist revolution that is “causing” women to have fantasies of submission. S&M fantasies have been around since the beginning of time.

As an S&M writer, I hear a lot of allegations about how “all” (or “almost all”) women are sexually submissive and how this must Mean Something. This is echoed in the coverage of 50 Shades of Grey, in which everyone is demanding to know What It All Means About Women. I wrote a piece a while back called “‘Inherent Female Submission’: The Wrong Question,” in which I took on a lot of this stuff. But there’s another submerged question here — about men. There’s plenty of talk and stereotypes about how men are inherently violent, or more aggressive than women, or “the dominant sex.”

As I said in my previous article: I think it’s quite questionable whether women are “inherently submissive,” but my conclusion is that I don’t care. It doesn’t actually matter to me whether women in general are “inherently submissive” (though I really don’t think women are), or whether submissive women’s preferences are philosophically Deep And Meaningful (though I’m not convinced they are). What matters is:

1. How women (or any other people) can explore sexually submissive preferences consensually,

2. How women (or any other people) can compartmentalize submissive preferences so that their whole lives are safe and fulfilling and happy, and

3. How women (or any other people) can be treated well in arenas that aren’t even relevant to their sexuality — like the workplace.

This is also how I feel about these ideas of “inherent male violence.” I don’t buy that men are “the dominant sex” or that men are “inherently violent.” Based on what I’ve read, it seems quite clear that individuals with higher testosterone levels — who are, incidentally, not always men — often experience more aggressive feelings. Yet that’s a far cry from large-scale generalizations, and it’s also frequently irrelevant to questions about how people can best deal with those aggressive feelings. Plus, psychological submission can be a very separate thing from physical aggression levels.

Much of the time, when it comes to aggression, anger management is the answer, the same way a naturally shy or submissive person needs to learn to set boundaries. But there are circumstances where catharsis is completely acceptable. Lots of perfectly decent men have urges towards violent dominance; what do they do about it? How much do they agonize, like Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey, and how much do they explore their desires in a consensual and reasonable way?

I always thought that the late-90s movie Fight Club was fascinating primarily because of its lens on masculinity and violence. It’s not just about the violence men to do each other, but to themselves. Quotes include “You have to give up; you have to know that someday you’re gonna die,” and “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.” I first watched it before I knew much about S&M, but now whenever I think about it, I think about how the idea of a fight club — where people would get together and fight, for catharsis and community — is so very reminiscent of how a lot of people experience S&M. Fight Club even has safewords. Someone says stop, you stop. I obviously don’t support the endpoint of the Fight Club story (i.e., blowing up buildings), but the idea of establishing a men’s community via a fight club seems reasonable to me.

So, what are the practicalities of dealing with aggressive or dominant tendencies in the sexual arena? As an S&M person, I’ve experimented with dominance as well as submission, but because violence is so associated with masculinity, I turned to some egalitarian male S&Mers for advice. I believe that even for non-S&M people, their perspectives make a really good lens for ideas of gender and violence and power. Of course, the first thing one of my friends told me was: “I’m not sure I really see dominance in general as being particularly masculine. I don’t really think it’s a gender associated thing.”

That gentleman, who comments around the Internet under the name Scootah, went on to add: “I’ve certainly worried about my kinks in the past. I mean fundamentally, I get really, really turned on by grabbing someone by the hair, throwing them into the wall, backhanding them, etc. That’s a pretty disturbing thought for an egalitarian who’s worked with abuse victims. I spend a lot of time considering the ethics of my kinks; my partners’ enthusiastic consent is a major priority.”

Jay Wiseman, author of the famous S&M primer SM101, talks about his own early fears towards the beginning of that book. He writes about how he began having sadistic fantasies, and went to the public library to research them. All he could find was portraits of serial killers, which scared the hell out of him. He writes:

I decided to keep myself under surveillance. I made up my mind that I was not going to hurt anybody. If I thought I was turning into someone that would harm somebody else, then I would either put myself in a mental institution or commit suicide. And thus I lived, waiting and watching to see if I was turning into someone that I needed to shoot.

Fortunately, Wiseman found partners who were open to exploring S&M with him, and went on to write extensively about safety and consent and communication within S&M. Trying to communicate in an egalitarian way is arguably the most complicated part of any S&M encounter; as Scootah told me, “There are certainly elements that could potentially unbalance a relationship in my favor. I’m a big reasonably strong guy. I do usually make more money than my partners. I also have this whole sense of position in the local S&M community. I mostly just try to be aware of those things. I try to be very careful about not taking advantage of that and negotiate clearly and not pressure people.”

There are lots of ways to do clear negotiation, including asking open-ended questions before any S&M actually happens: “What are you interested in? Could you go into that more?” There’s also a huge emphasis on talking through the S&M encounter afterwards, as part of the post-S&M processing we call aftercare. As another gent who goes by Noir said: “It really helped me to have a few great, feminist S&M partners. Having that echo of ‘it’s OK, I want this,’ as well as the honest feedback when I do wrong really helped shape how I experience S&M, and with who. It’s meant I learned how better to read and grasp the people in my, er, grasp.”

Noir also noted, “I strive to use dominance and submission as a tool for helping my partners become stronger, in ways that also feed my S&M preferences. For example, I tend to form long-term interests with women who want a ‘safe space’ to extend and explore their ability to be sluts, with all that can imply. But in the process, we also explore how becoming more confident in one’s sexuality also can reflect into everyday life. Also, just coming to spaces in the S&M community can be a goldmine of information. All a dominant man has to do is read, listen, open up and understand. One thing I learned was that my fears about reenforcing our messed-up society were shared by women into kink… but also that my ways of approaching the topic, as ‘oh, we’re so controlled by society!’ were themselves pushing too much agency out of women’s choices. There’s a balance there that we guys who identify as both feminist and kinky have to respect, and that can come from listening to feminist women struggle with these issues, themselves.”

The alternative sexuality advocate Pepper Mint (who has his own blog) told me that in terms of putting gender on his experiences, “I am a bit genderqueer, and I personally experience dominance with either a feminine or masculine vibe from moment to moment. Certain activities — like punching — feel masculine, while others — like whipping — feminine in the moment. Also, I switch, meaning that I don’t always take the dominant role. Strangely, my most clearly masculine S&M activity is masochism. I always feel very manly while taking pain. I don’t think I can clearly explain why these things have attached to gender in my head, though presumably I’m being affected by cultural tropes to some extent.”

The consensus in general was that dominance, whether masculine or feminine, is something that happens in an encounter… not outside it. As Pepper put it, “New guys often want to play hard or do hardcore things, and will often boast and swagger. Kinky women almost always recognize this as dangerous bullshit. Learn to chill out and not take yourself too seriously, and learn to start with a light careful touch when playing with someone new. Learn to ask for help and guidance, both from others in your S&M community and from your partners.”

Scootah agreed: “The first mistake I see newbie doms make is trying too hard to be some kind of bad ass. Admit your inexperience. Be seen learning. Be modest and have a good time. Learn to communicate well, and to really be friends with your prospective partners.”

For me, the bottom line of these conversations is that questioning gender roles, and understanding gender complications, is an ongoing process. People have a lot of urges and preferences that are politically inconvenient and which we will never fully understand. Whether we’re shaped by biology or culture, those feelings will still exist for now, and we have to deal with them. There are ways to do almost anything such that people respect each other, though — whatever the implications for gender or power. Violence is complicated ground, but it can be used in balanced and consensual ways that end up bonding people together. 50 Shades of Grey and Fight Club are both examples, and I haven’t even touched competitive sports!

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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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Linkbait time! Here’s what some other folks are writing about Fifty Shades of Grey:

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2012 17 Apr

Can We Make This More Complicated?

Things aren’t black and white. Life is complicated. I’d like to think that these are obvious truths, but how do we express them, how do we understand them, how do we work towards them? Especially while identifying as part of a movement that is, arguably, a blunt ideology … such as feminism?

Some of my most valuable feminist experiences arose from being trained as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Advocates are called in for crisis counseling and to help survivors understand the options they have for dealing with assault. My training instructed me to foreground three themes while interacting with a survivor:

#1. I believe you.
#2. It’s not your fault.
#3. You have options.

The point is to help survivors cope, and help them find resources. But while these principles seem clear, it’s never even close to un-complicated. A survivor’s story is never reducible to stereotypes or easy choices. The advocate’s role is to be there and listen without judgment — to try and help find a path through a thicket of pain, confusion, stigma, medical problems, and legal issues — and to support the survivor in their choices even if the advocate doesn’t agree with them. The point is to understand, not to judge.

I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of activism I am best suited for: understanding, communicating, building. Telling stories, where appropriate (and keeping confidence, where appropriate).

Of course, there are plenty of people that it’s very difficult to feel empathy for, as a feminist. Rape survivors are a group that feminists are expected to have empathy for, and expected to recognize as having complicated stories; we all know that’s crucial. On the other hand, I recently published a book about pickup artists (a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women), and I’ve taken heat from feminists who feel that I’m over-sympathetic to those guys. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not an “advocate” for pickup artists in the same way that I want to advocate for assault survivors. But I believe that there’s value in empathy here, too.

As one of my feminist friends observed while we discussed the pickup artist book, I am arguably providing a valuable service by giving the men in that subculture a non-judgmental space to look at feminism. Also, by giving them — as my friend put it — “space to be ambivalent about some of the problematic things they do.”

When trying to encourage a person to question what they’re doing, it helps to understand that person first — and to offer them a sense of that understanding. I think there are a lot of icky things about the pickup artist community, and some terrible people in it. But it’s not black-and-white, and there are decent guys who learn the tactics too. If a guy is trying to learn tactics for seducing women, is he doing it out of loneliness? Or perhaps out of desire for a strange revenge on the “opposite” sex? What about both? How would these different motives change my interactions with him, perhaps even enable me to influence the way he thinks about women? With me, could he have the space to heal the damage he himself has retained from our broken social norms around sex and gender? And how does understanding his perspective make my own richer — how does it make things more complicated?

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One of the exciting things about being an Internet writer is that my old writing never goes away. It’s always there, cached and mirrored and easily found by both friends and enemies. Obviously, this is also one of the most un-exciting things about being an Internet writer. It’s rare that I completely disagree with an older article that I’ve written; but there are some old articles that make me feel self-conscious, because I understand the complexity of those topics much better today, and my opinions have become much more nuanced.

An example would be the way that I’ve written about BDSM and abuse. I write a lot about my experiences with consensual BDSM — Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism — and I’m a feminist, but BDSM has always been a controversial topic within feminism. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough that BDSMer-feminists have been silenced: an editor at the iconic feminist magazine Ms. once threatened to leave if the magazine published an article by a masochistic woman, and thereby successfully buried the topic. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough to inspire non-consensual violence: a group of radical feminists literally attacked a lesbian BDSM club with crowbars sometime around the 1980s, claiming that they did it in the name of ending violence against women.

So being a BDSMer-feminist makes for defensiveness, and I began from a defensive position. My first post about BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence that the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse,” and outlined initiatives within the community that oppose abusive BDSM. Around the same time, I remember making comments I now regret, comments that I believed were critical but were actually harsh towards survivors — or comments that gave too sunny a view of the BDSM community, which is far from flawless. My next post on the topic, eighteen months later, was more empathic and complex. It was called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team,” and outlined how I would personally create an anti-abuse initiative that was friendly to alternative sexuality abuse survivors.

Now, these posts seem simple to me, but I was growing out of my defensiveness. I started feeling like I was genuinely moving the conversation forward when I wrote a post called “Thinking More Clearly About BDSM vs. Abuse,” in which I wrote specifically about examples of abusive behavior within the community, and used radical feminist theory about abusive relationships to reflect on how a non-abusive BDSM relationship could look. Building bridges; creating synthesis rather than antithesis.

Women with strong and different sexual desires exist, and especially with the Internet, we can’t be permanently silenced. (Although even on the Internet, there are still some attempts; my comments are often deleted on sites associated with radical feminism, such as the Anti-Porn Men Project, though I do my absolute best to comment inoffensively.) But I try to push aside my self-righteousness, because I really don’t want this to be a fight where all I do is scream “BDSM can be feminist!” I want to acknowledge and deal with real problems, like how BDSM might be used as a cover for abuse and how we can deal with that. I want to be established in cooperation, not resistance. I want to move things forward; I want to make things more complicated.

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2011 9 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, Part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

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2011 21 Jun

S&M Superpowers

I’ve gotten so bored of the biases and stereotypes against S&M. It’s like, “Hey, another person who implies that those of us who do consensual S&M were all abused as children? Sweet! That person is wrong, and I consider those views highly stigmatizing and sometimes damaging. So, can we go for a swim now?” (For the record, however, there is nothing wrong with people who consensually process past abuse through BDSM; see footnote [1].)

It’s much more entertaining to imagine how people would talk about S&M, if we lived in a culture where S&M wasn’t wildly stigmatized. In fact, what if S&M were admired or seen as a great thing … instead of being repressed and forced underground and seen as a dark, evil, disgusting thing? I’ve known people who called S&M and other fetishes “superpowers”, in a kind of ironic twist on this concept.

Many people have written about how S&Mers can offer lessons in sexuality that we gleaned from our outside-the-box perspective (there’s a whole paper on this topic for clinicians, written by a psychologist and titled “Learning from Extraordinary Lovers“). I myself have talked about how S&Mers tend to use much more careful and precise sexual communication tactics than the mainstream (examples include checklists and safewords). But these lessons are hardly confined to S&Mers — there are lots of vanilla people out there who are awesomely careful and precise about communicating sexually.

The superpower framework is a bit different ….

+ For example, it’s been demonstrated that S&Mers are not more likely to have endured non-consensual acts — so we know that despite what Freud would have had you believe, all S&M does not arise from childhood abuse. But maybe it does arise from a childhood experience … an awesome childhood experience. Maybe the Missing S&M Link is that something totally wonderful happened to S&Mers in our childhoods.

Hey, vanilla people? I’m so sorry you all had such bad childhoods. Really, you have my sincerest sympathies.

+ For example, some folks will say that we S&Mers have a wire crossed somewhere; some genetic inferiority. But maybe we are totally way superior. Maybe average dominants and sadists are, say, more empathic than the norm. (There is, after all, actual research showing that consensual S&M increases intimacy.) Maybe average submissives and masochists are better at processing pain and enduring challenges, both physical and emotional, than the norm. [2]

Sorry vanilla people, but we’re going to have to start screening for your gross vanilla genes in the womb. Nothing personal.

+ For example, one of my exes has a story about how he was down in Latin America and he only had access to incredibly cold showers. So he gritted his teeth, stepped into the shower, and told himself that a dominant woman was forcing him to take it. “Actually it made the shower a million times easier to deal with,” he said later. “And I had a raging erection the whole time.”

Aren’t submissives awesome? I pity those of you who lack submissive tendencies.

I leave the question of whether S&M superpowers can properly be attributed to people who don’t feel a so-called “sexual orientation” quality to their kink as an exercise for the reader.

Just because anything on the Internet can and will be misread, I will conclude this post by hammering down the point that this is all a thought experiment, and I do not actually think vanilla people are any less wonderful than S&M people. It’s okay vanilla folks. I love you just the way you are.

* Footnote: For the record, the biggest and best-designed study ever done on this topic surveyed 20,000 people and found that S&Mers “were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity” than the general population. But — also for the record — an S&Mer whose sexuality was associated with being abused would not be “less legitimate” than the rest of us, as long as that person practiced kink consensually. Because what makes S&M okay is consent, right? Right. S&M isn’t okay (or not okay) because of its “source” (whatever that might be) — it’s okay only when it’s practiced consensually, right? Right. So this is all actually kind of a silly conversation to have in the first place, right? Right. It’s too bad stigma tends to make zero sense, isn’t it? Stigma loves to trick you into debating on its own terms.

** Footnote 2: Although I did recently sprain my ankle, and I was not at all awesome at enduring the experience. For the record.

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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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2011 21 Jan

[litquote] S&M stereotypes, parenting, and community action

The following quotation is from an essay that tears apart awful BDSM stereotypes, and also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent,” and it was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.

The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.

In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.

This tragedy occurred because the pair had made a videotape of a scene they did at a dungeon party in a bordering state. A family member and friend who babysat for the children apparently unlocked the box where the tape was kept, revealed its contents to at least one of the Houghtons’ children, told them their father was abusing their mother, and sent a copy of the videotape to the police. No minors were featured in the videotape, and S/M activities did not take place in the Houghtons’ home. Nevertheless, the videotaped evidence of kinky sex was enough to bring down the wrath of Child Protection Services, who removed the 7- and 12-year-old and kept them in foster homes for more than a year. This was in spite of testimony by one of the law guardians, who told the court the children would be better served by returning them to their parents.

… It’s interesting to think about how we might feel about being parents if we lived in a society where S/M was not stigmatized. … One of the smartest things I ever heard about S/M was uttered by a gay man, Steven Brown, who used to pair up with me to do educational lectures about the scene. He once said, throwing up his hands in despair about the suspicious grilling we were getting, “I do this because I am a loving person. I love and respect the people I play with. And that includes being able to embrace parts of them that are supposed to be unlovable.” This foundation of acceptance and empathy seems to me to be potentially quite useful to a parent, who must be able to see things from a child’s point of view, and deal with a lot of behavior that is extremely trying.

As a top [i.e. a dominant/sadist], I’ve learned how to communicate in terms that will make sense to the other person. I’ve learned patience. I have a deep love for the vagaries of human nature and respect for the wisdom of the body. I am able to create a positive experience within a framework of limitations handed to me by another person. Of course, some idiot will probably assume that by making this list I am saying that I am going to somehow top my child. That would be asinine. I’ve learned how to keep my intense sexual experiences from spilling over into parts of my life where that kind of role-playing would not be appropriate. That is, if anything is, the First Principle of participating in these kinds of erotic fantasies. In order to be a responsible, safe player, you have to know when to be your scene-self, and when to be your mundane self.

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau [two famous BDSM novels] and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide. We are supposed to be content with existing as two-dimensional caricatures of vanilla people’s erotic paranoia, emerging from our warrens only after dark, always clad in body-hugging fetish gear, having no real lives outside of public dungeon clubs and “violent” pornography. What’s really sad is the fact that a number of us buy into this insane picture of how a “real sadomasochist” is supposed to behave. It’s a good way to end up burned out, disillusioned, and in exile from the realm of pervery.