Posts Tagged ‘BDSM’

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.

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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 1 May

Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy

This was originally published at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot, under the title “When Jealousy is a Turn-On.”

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The above image is from the art site PostSecret.com. People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “I wish you would stop comparing me to your kinky ex.”

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Last year, I wrote a piece called “In Praise of Monogamy.” I currently practice polyamory in my relationships, but I spent years dating monogamously. I’ve noticed that when people talk about monogamy, they usually either assume that it’s the only way to go … or they assume that it has to be thrown out the window entirely.

I think this either-or approach is completely wrongheaded. So the goal of “In Praise of Monogamy” was to talk about the advantages of monogamy in a more neutral, nuanced way. Different relationship models are all tools in a toolbox, and some people are better with some tools than others.

“In Praise of Monogamy” was probably one of my most successful articles ever — it was republished at a ton of websites, including high-profile venues like The Guardian. Simultaneously, the article received mixed comments. Some people felt that I wasn’t praising monogamy enough; others felt that I wasn’t praising non-monogamy enough; there were lots of other frustrations too. My big takeaway was that these conversations don’t happen enough, most people aren’t used to having them, and it’s really hard to know where to start.

Jealousy is one obvious starting point, because people always bring it up in conversations about non-monogamy. I talked about jealousy in “In Praise of Monogamy.” Specifically, I wrote:

Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy — and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory “relationship contract”.)

But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the “jealousy chip.”

And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.

Personally, I used to get a lot more jealous than I do now. I think I’m less likely to get jealous these days partly because I’ve gotten better at finding low-drama men. Jealousy has a reputation for being an irrational emotion, and sometimes it genuinely is an unreasonable, cruel power-grab. But I think jealousy is often quite rational, and often arises in response to a genuine emotional threat … or deliberate manipulation.

There’s another reason, though … I’ve also noticed that some switch in my brain has flipped, and I’ve started to eroticize jealousy. I occasionally find myself fantasizing about men I care about sleeping with other women, and sometimes the fantasy is hot because I feel mildly jealous. I cannot explain how this happened. It surprised me the first time it happened, believe me. What’s really fascinating is that I think the same part of me that eroticizes jealousy, is the part that used to make me feel sick at the thought of my partner sleeping with someone else. S&M masochism: the gift that never stops giving!

I think it’s important to note here that I didn’t become less jealous because I felt like I “should,” or because I was told not to be jealous. In fact, I had an early boyfriend who acted like I was a hysterical bitch every time I got jealous … and he made things much worse. With him, I just felt awful when I got jealous; I couldn’t get past it. I felt like he was judging me for something I couldn’t help; I felt like my mind was fragmenting as I tried to force myself to “think better” without any outside support; and worst of all, I felt like I couldn’t rely on him to respect my feelings.

It was the men who treated my emotions like they were reasonable and understandable who decreased my jealousy. It’s much harder to be jealous when your partner is saying, “I totally understand,” than it is when your partner is saying, “What the hell is the matter with you?” Maybe that’s what makes monogamy such an effective jealousy-management tactic: monogamy can be like a great big sign or sticker or button you can give to your partner that says, “I respect your jealousy.” Which is not to say that monogamy is always effective for this — we all know that monogamous people get jealous all the time! (Which only adds to my point that monogamy might be viewed as just one of many tactics, rather than an answer, when jealousy is a problem.)

Now, back to the current article. Jealousy is a hot-button topic, so I’m nervous about this, but let’s focus in on it a little more.

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The Feeling of Jealousy

Jealousy and its cousin, competition, are both things that happen a lot in relationships. Some people are so uncomfortable acknowledging this that they repress those feelings, or ignore the behavior that goes along with them … but I’ve rarely seen that end well.

I believe that some people lack jealousy and competitive urges … but I’ve also seen a lot of people who feel those things but can’t admit it. Not even to themselves.

I dated a guy last year who told me at the start of our relationship that he never got jealous. At first I took him at his word, but I quickly noticed that he changed the subject aggressively when I mentioned past lovers. We had a mutual friend with whom I had a lot of chemistry; when the three of us were together, my boyfriend acted uncomfortable and irritable, and when I specifically acted in ways that made it obvious I was with him — like by giving him Public Displays of Affection in front of the other guy — he relaxed.

I sighed internally when I observed this, and I felt frustrated, but wasn’t sure how to talk about it without sounding like I was calling him a liar. Fortunately, he brought it up later. “I think I do get jealous sometimes, and I just don’t like to think about it because it makes me feel like a bad person,” he said, one night while we were making dinner. In that moment, my respect for him skyrocketed. It’s hard for people to keep track of themselves like that, and to shift their self-image when confronted with new evidence.

Some people seem to interpret their lovers’ jealousy as a sign of love. I’ll admit that I’ve had moments of being flattered or pleased when my boyfriends show signs of jealousy — or when they act a little competitive. Sometimes those things are scary, though … or threatening … or frustrating, like in my example above. It’s complicated!

However, I often see those dynamics play out in ways that the participants won’t admit, no matter how much evidence comes up. I think it gets especially complicated when people experience jealousy as a sexual thing, a turn-on. Most people have a hard enough time discussing their sexuality in the first place. When you add an ingredient as controversial as jealousy, the potential discussions become much more combustible.

When I was researching pickup artists for my awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I found a number of discussions in that community that praise competitive feelings because they’re seen as making the relationship more fun. A lot of these guys say competition among different lovers within open relationships is awesome because it keeps everyone a little uncertain, and encourages them to be “on top of their game.” This contrasts drastically with most polyamorous perspectives; in my experience, poly folks see jealousy and competition as things that should be compartmentalized and managed very carefully, rather than encouraged or exalted. For polyamory theorists, a feeling of safety is often the goal, as opposed to a feeling of competition.

And emotional safety is certainly a concern, because jealousy is one of the most intense and overwhelming emotions out there. It’s a hard feeling to sit with and work through. My worst experiences of jealousy felt like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe, like I was sick to my stomach, like I was terribly obsessed, like I couldn’t think of anything but the jealousy and how much it hurt. And yet … I’ve occasionally felt jealousy that was weak, almost nice, where I felt a little twinge of it and turned to my lover and got reassured … and that made me feel more safe, more cared for, more loved.

The bottom line is that people experience jealousy and competitive urges in many different ways. It’s important to acknowledge that and honor it. I don’t see it as productive to frame things like “jealousy is bad,” or “competition is awesome.” I’d much rather frame things like: “Jealousy and competition happen sometimes, and how do we deal with them when they come up so that everyone involved feels comfortable and happy?”

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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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2012 9 Apr

[classic repost] BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

I originally published this post in slightly different form back in 2009. I decided to edit it a little for clarity, because I’m going to include it in the upcoming Best Of Clarisse Thorn … so here’s the edited version.

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I love this image:

(The image is a list with “Homosexual Agenda” written at the top. There follows a list: “1. Spend time with family, 2. Be treated equally, 3. Buy milk.”)

I love that because it so perfectly highlights how preposterous all those right-wing accusations about “the gay agenda” are. Actually, gay people just want to live their lives like everyone else; the to-do list for most gay people looks a lot like most other people’s. (Apparently the image originated at a site called TopPun, and you can buy it in stickers and keychains.)

In a way, that sticker also highlights some problems with the very concept of sexual orientations — the way we sort ourselves into groups based on sexuality and its apparent innateness. Why do people have to insist on being so different from each other? A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts: is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? And I have such mixed feelings about that question. I feel intense BDSM as an incredibly important aspect of my sexuality, perhaps an innate one, but I don’t want us to fall into the same traps that beset homosexuality.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. At the time, I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists, and I thought I was saying something radical. I was scared that my words might appear too radical to be taken seriously. Also, since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/queer, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBTQ was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real,” as “deep-rooted,” as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/queer person? Would I offend GLBTQ people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real,” “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs?

I later found out that some LGBTQ people do get offended by it, and others don’t. Sometime you end up with ridiculous arguments like this one from a comments thread on an incredibly BDSM-phobic blog: one person says, “As a lesbian, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people comparing BDSM to homosexuality,” to which another person replies, “As a queer person myself, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people who claim that I ought to see my BDSM and my queerness differently.” As for me, Clarisse, I’ll be frank with you — I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a dog in that fight, and I’m staying out of it. I’m straight as the day is long, but I’ve also been invited to speak about BDSM at queer conventions and to write about BDSM on queer blogs. So I’ll hang out with the people who are cool with me, and everyone else can kick me out of their LGBTQ circles as much as they want.

But I used to feel a lot more worried about how I’d be perceived for talking about BDSM as an orientation. Still, as weird as the concept of “BDSM as an orientation” felt when I first thought of it, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity.

The “BDSM orientation” idea cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself, like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something that it was desirable to accept, come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM as an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda boring. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. Here’s an article about a BDSM-related legal case that quotes sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that people exist who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do. They don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. There are also plenty of people who have equally strong feelings about their BDSM sexuality, but who have different BDSM preferences from mine. And that’s totally okay with me! I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

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2012 3 Apr

April Fool’s Day… and some things I actually believe

Firstly, just in case anyone missed the update: my previous post was an April Fool’s joke. There is a long list of things that I don’t believe in that post, and I decided to write a post to cover the big ones.

Also, this picture is awesome:

Anyway! Things I Said In My April Fools Post That Contradict My Beliefs:

* The most important thing I don’t believe is that cheating is a good example of polyamorous leanings. While I’m sure some people resolve non-monogamous leanings by cheating, I see cheating in a monogamous relationship as a huge red flag, even if that person later decides to be polyamorous. This isn’t to say that people who cheat are Incontrovertibly Bad People, and I understand that relationships can be very complicated. I try to be empathic to people who feel trapped in relationships for whatever reason, even if they cheat. But the bottom line for me is that polyamory requires a lot of honesty and self-knowledge and integrity, and cheating is usually the opposite of those things.

I will freely admit that I have some intense personal baggage around this topic, but I’m not the only polyamorous person who espouses this view. Many poly people get especially pissed at people who cheat and then label “cheating” as polyamory; that is not okay. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent piece by Technomom called Coming Clean: Transitioning from Cheating to Polyamory:

Note: I use male pronouns in the following article for the sake of simplicity, but I’ve encountered both men and women in this situation. My advice is the same to both.

Frequently, newcomers to various poly groups introduce themselves with a tale of woe. Alas, after entering into a committed monogamous relationship (usually a marriage), the poor man has just discovered that he is, in fact, polyamorous. In most cases, the newcomer has already strayed into infidelity, and wishes to have his cake and eat it too now. He asks for advice regarding how he can convince his wife to accept the relationship with the new lover so that they can all live happily ever after.

The newcomer, who I’ll call Phil, is usually surprised to find that he is not, in fact, welcomed with open arms. Most of us are very hostile to people who cheat on their partners and call it polyamory, because that has absolutely nothing to do with how we are living our lives.

… In over 20 years of being polyamorous and knowing other poly people, I have never, not even once, known of anyone who has been able to move from an affair in a monogamous relationship to a healthy polyamorous relationship involving the same people. I’ve known of people who did cheat on their partners in monogamous relationships who later moved on to be polyamorous, but they did not salvage the original monogamous relationship.

I’ve known people whose spouses cheated on them in monogamous relationships who ended the monogamous relationship, then went on to explore polyamory very happily themselves. (That fact surprises a fair number of those seeking help in this situation.) What you have to realize is that the real issue between you and your spouse right now is not polyamory or sex. It is your betrayal of the agreements between the two of you. It is about your dishonesty and dishonorable behavior. You have broken her trust.

She then gives advice anyways, and I think it’s really good advice.

* My standards for consent and communication are not “too complex.” What does it even mean to have standards for consent and communication that are “too complex”?

* I don’t believe that “true submission” is about allowing your partner to dictate your life, and I think any statement about “what submission really means” is intensely problematic. Submission (and dominance, and every other type of S&M) is different for everyone; for more on this, there’s always my post BDSM Roles, “Topping From The Bottom,” and “Service Top”.

Sometimes, in the middle of a really intense BDSM scene, I will enjoy having my partner tell me to do something that I actually really hate … but this is not the norm for me, it requires a lot of trust and intense connection, and I certainly don’t think it’s a good norm for everyone. I explored this a bit in my post on Anger, Fear and Pain.

Also, while I accept that some people are cool with it if their partners demand major life changes as part of the S&M relationship … that’s not how I do things personally. And I have trouble imagining any situation in which I’d choose a man over my writing. If a guy really feels so threatened by my writing that he wants me to stop entirely, then we are a terrible match and I’m kind of surprised we started dating in the first place.

* I would never use the phrase “real man” outside a sarcastic context. It capitalizes on too many socially-inculcated male insecurities that I think are completely unfair. For more on this, I really like Charlie Glickman’s article Picking And Choosing From The “Act Like A Man” Box. I’ve also explored the topic of masculinity in many places, including my old “questions” series and obviously in my super awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.

* I love the Beatles, but I was always skeptical of the quotation “Love is the answer.” I mean, love is awesome, don’t get me wrong; I’m very pro-love and pro-empathy. But … “the answer”? The answer to what? Does this mean we never have to work on our relationships or make space for each other because love will magically make everything work? My most problematic ex-boyfriend once told me “I just want to feel like you love me more than you love yourself,” which was the point that I should’ve walked out the door. Anyone who says something like that does not have your best interests at heart.

* Finally, “You have the second prettiest hair I’ve ever seen” is just not a very good neg, at least not for me. I like my negs served with epoxy, thank you.

The image at the top of this post shows a classical Greek-style picture of a couple at a table, except that the woman is smoking a cigarette and the man is reading a newspaper and the table is kind of Victorian-looking and there are coffee cups. I have no idea where it came from but I love it so much.

2012 1 Apr

I Found The Answer

I am surprised to find myself writing this blog post. But I always try to leave space for my feelings to evolve, and I’m really happy to say that I think I’ve come to a new and much healthier place.

Honestly, I’ve had a rough year. I broke my neck, I emerged from a toxic obsession with pickup artists, etc. At times I despaired of whether I could ever possibly find True Love.

But I’ve met this amazing man, and I know it sounds so cliché, and I am just embarrassed to be writing this right now. But like the Beatles say, “Love is the answer.” He caught my attention by saying that I have the second prettiest hair he’s ever seen, which showed me that he reads my work and can effectively throw a neg. He’s in a monogamous marriage, but he’s cheating on his wife with me, so it seems obvious that there’s room for this to develop into genuine polyamory.

And … this is so important, but I don’t know how to say it in a way that you will all understand. I’m going to give it a shot, though. I recognize now that my standards for consent and communication have been much too complex, and I need to just put all my trust in a real man. Actually, it makes me genuinely happy to be in a relationship where it’s my job to make him happy, no matter what. That’s what submission really means. I hope you all can support me in this decision, even if you don’t agree with it.

My partner doesn’t want me to blog about my sex life anymore, and obviously I will defer to his wishes. I’m hoping that maybe he’ll allow me to write about relationships in a more general sense — like giving advice on how to maintain a relationship and keep your man. Thank you all for reading my work for so long. I appreciate it immensely and while I know that I am taking a very different stand from my past writing, I hope that some of you will follow me if I get permission to write about my relationships again.

UPDATE, April 2: The above was an April Fools joke. :) Here’s what I actually believe about all this stuff.

2012 14 Mar

“Confessions” is doing awesomely! Here’s an excerpt!

I am completely thrilled to announce that Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser is doing awesomely. Within two days of release, it reached #1 in both the Feminist Theory category and the Sex category on Amazon! There are testimonials and reviews linked in my last post (and in the comments). If you haven’t bought it yet, you totally should. (Also, you can become a fan of Confessions on Facebook!)

A number of people have asked whether I’ll release it in physical form, or on another electronic platform. Due to popular demand, I will release physical copies of the book within the next few weeks — but they will be fairly pricey, because it’s a long book and production costs will be high. UPDATE: I also released the book through Smashwords, where it can be downloaded in any format. DOUBLE UPDATE: Click here to buy the book in paperback at CreateSpace!

I’m also really happy to tell you that my panel at the SXSW-interactive conference went well. The panel was about pickup artists and feminism, and SXSW took a recording, so I’ll link you to the recording as soon as it’s released. Also! The well-known pickup artist coach Adam Lyons was on the panel with me, and I was able to snag an interview, so watch this space for more on that.

So yeah. Buy my book on Amazon or on Smashwords or in paperback at CreateSpace. It’s awesome, I promise.

* * *

Before I give you an excerpt from Confessions, let me show you a classic photo of what pickup artists call “peacocking”:

The gentleman in the boots is Mystery, and the one in the snakeskin suit is Neil Strauss.

Aaand … here’s an abridged excerpt from my book! (Previously run on Role/Reboot.)

* * *

My dress was bright red, I was wearing an obscene amount of eyeliner, and I was surrounded by thumping music and flashing lights. I’d spent my evening hanging out with pickup artists (PUAs) in their natural habitat: a nightclub. They were a mixed group. Some seemed shy and awkward, some blustery, and some completely confident. One of them took a shine to me: David, a PUA instructor who wore a lavender rhinestone-studded suit to the club.

Most of the PUAs departed the club around 1 AM, except for David, still hilariously out of place in his sparkly suit.  We hit the dance floor again until David asked, “Want to go get something to eat?”
 
“Sure,” I said, and left the club with him.  On our way out we ran into one of my non-PUA friends, who gave David a sharp look.  “You get her home safe,” said my friend.
 
“Of course,” David said amiably.
 
(more…)

2012 8 Mar

“Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser” NOW AVAILABLE

Sex.
Love.
S&M.
Ethics.
Seduction.
Feminism.
Polyamory.
Pickup artists.

(Cover image copyright © 2005 Beautiful Disasters Photography. Thanks so much to Beautiful Disasters for giving it to me. Cover image description: A girl in a corset with a bowler hat tipped down over her eyes.)

I have basically been running a marathon with my brain in order to release this ebook in time for the SXSW-interactive conference, and I’m a little stunned that I succeeded. You can click here to buy the book now for Amazon Kindle!

UPDATE, March 24: Thanks to everyone who bought it so far! It really made a splash! Within two days of release, the book hit #1 in both the Amazon “Feminist Theory” and the Amazon “Sex” category … and it stayed at #1 in both categories for a week. It’s at full price now, and as of this update, it’s still #1 in “Feminist Theory.” You can now also now buy the book on Smashwords, which offers pretty much every possible e-format.

UPDATE, April 15: Now you can buy the book in paperback form at CreateSpace!

Here’s the Amazon description of the book:

There’s an enormous subculture of men who trade tips, tricks, and tactics for seducing women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground “pickup artists” have burst into the popular consciousness, aided by Neil Strauss’s bestselling book “The Game” and VH1’s hit reality show “The Pick-Up Artist.” Some men in the seduction community are sleazy misogynists who want nothing more than power and control. Some are shy wallflowers who don’t know how to say “Hi” to a girl. The one thing they all have in common is a driving need to attract women.

Clarisse Thorn, a feminist S&M writer and activist, spent years researching these guys. She observed their discussions, watched them in action, and learned their strategies. By the end of it all, she’d given a lecture at a seduction convention and decided against becoming the next great dating coach. In “Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser,” Clarisse tells the story of her time among these Casanovas, as well as her own unorthodox experiences with sex and relationships. She examines the conflicts and harmonies of feminism, pickup artistry, and the S&M community. Most of all, she deconstructs and reconstructs our views on sex, love, and ethics — and develops her own grand theory of the game.

Also: you should totally become a fan of Confessions on Facebook! I encourage discussion there, and in comments here. I’m very curious to see what people think of it all.

Right now I’m here in Austin for the conference, and even though I’m completely exhausted, I’m also psyched. I’ve been recruited for a panel on pickup artists and feminism that’s being run by Kristin Cerda — it features myself, the female dating coach Charlie Nox, the pickup artist coach Adam Lyons, and the well-known feminist Amanda Marcotte. The panel will take place on Saturday March 10 at 6.30 PM. If you know anyone who will be at SXSW, you should totally tell them to attend!

* * *

Reviews and Testimonials
(I’ll update this as more come in)

I lived and breathed the PUA world for years and I honestly thought I had seen everything. But Clarisse brought some fresh and interesting perspectives, which was really cool.

~ excerpt from interview with pickup artist coach Mark Manson

I found her book to be insightful, thoughtful, engaging, and very well-balanced. She talks about all sides of the community, the positive, negative, and horrendous, and she draws larger lessons about society and human nature.

~ excerpt from Psychology Today interview by Scott Barry Kaufman

Clarisse’s analysis is as interesting, easy-to-follow and well-laid out as it is in all of her writing, but the most compelling thing in this book is not the analysis itself (which I was expecting), but the way in which Clarisse uses memoir to supplement her analysis. Clarisse is a brilliant sex writer with what appears to be (on the page, at least) an unflinching ability to reveal personal information. That talent is highlighted here as Clarisse fleshes out scenes that create a parallel emotional and intellectual journey, allowing the reader to travel with her through the insights and frustration of her time on the fringes of the pick-up artist community. Her intelligent writing about S&M and polyamory help establish her presence in the text as someone with a subaltern point of view, and place pick-up artistry within the context of other sexual subcultures so that the book’s criticism is grounded in an almost ethnographic framework which works to keep the text from becoming sensationalist or exotifying.

~ excerpt from review by feminist science fiction writer and Nebula award winner Rachel Swirsky

Gutsy, troubling, messy, and great

~ Jonathan Korman on Twitter

This is a very good book. Putting hideous in the title implied to me that it was a man bashing book or a condemn all the evil PUA dudes to hell kind of read. However, being a knowledgeable member of the PUA community, i was still intrigued enough to check out the Amazon Kindle preview.

Hello! Finally, somebody — male or female, it didn’t matter to me — has taken this whole PUA seriously and made a real study of it. This book is more like 5 or 10 books in a good way. Tons of great insights, ideas, interviews, stories, etc. A very generous sharing by the author. … And to be completely honest, the really serious student of PUA will want to get this book and read it cover to cover to learn how to be even better at his craft — lots of valuable clues in here (sorry, Clarisse, but you really did spill a lot of beans… thank you :)).

~ excerpt from Amazon review by Turiyananda

I think this is going to become a very important piece of modern feminist literature.

~ Bianca James in a quick review

Clarisse is unflinchingly honest (radically honest, even) about the occasionally hot, often tormented, and chronically analytic headspace she experienced as a sex-positive feminist investigating the bizarre subculture of pick up artistry. She risks endangerment of her sanity, her feminist paradigm, and her person to stalk, interview, and, yes, flirt her way through the underworld of geeks and sleazebags of pick up artistry. … After outlining and explaining this disturbing world, she tore it to shreds in a dissection that is too honest to completely please anyone involved: pick up artists, feminists, and innocent bystanders will all leave with a lesson or two.

~ excerpt from Amazon review by Katy Huff

The book is intense, mesmerizing, disturbing, and sometimes downright terrifying. It’s also amazing: there’s tons of information that I use every time I interact with a partner.

~ a gentleman Facebook commenter and early reader

Clarisse’s big strength in Confessions is her empathy. A lot of times people only understand their little corner of the gendersphere and have ideas that are at best strawmen and at worst outright lies about the other corners. But Clarisse understands why men might take up pickup, and how it would help them, and how it can become destructive. She understands the eroticism of power, both in vanilla and kinky sex. She understands actual sex-positivity, not the caricatured version of “we are all SLUTS because it is EMPOWERING” that idiots continually push.

Clarisse Thorn understands that shit is complicated.

~ excerpt from review by feminist Ozy Frantz

I really enjoy how Clarisse’s writing makes it seem she’s telling me this over coffee. ♥

~ Lidia-Anain on Twitter

If there’s an overriding message, I think that’s it: that whether it’s feminism, or BDSM, or polyamory, or PUA, these are all dangerous, complex, conflicted territories, some perhaps more treacherous than others, but difficult to navigate all the same. Where we stop, who we meet, how prepared we are, how our fatigue and weariness affect us, who we have as our traveling companions, what we bring with us to comfort us, what we encounter that frightens us, what reminds us of home and what reminds us that we’re no longer there… all of these things are of account.

All of them, always, in ways that we know and recognize, and in ways that we don’t, sometimes early enough to correct, and sometimes only too late.

~ excerpt from review by Infra

* * *

If you want to review the book, then I would obviously love that. Just let me know and I’ll post a link to your review. In the meantime, here are some of my past posts on pickup artistry:
* Feminist S&M Lessons from the Seduction Community
* [guest post] Detrimental Attitudes of the Pickup Artist Community
* Ethical Pickup Artistry

OK but seriously, buy it now for Kindle or buy it on Smashwords … or buy it in paperback form at CreateSpace.

* * *

2012 27 Feb

Feminist S&M Lessons from the Seduction Community

This article was originally published in three parts over at the Good Men Project. I’m really close to finishing my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men, and believe me, you will all know as soon as it is done. The book is way awesomer than anything you can imagine. It also has many more fun anecdotes and is less academic in tone than this article.

Update! The book is out now!

Before we get into the article, here’s my absolute favorite comic on the topic of seduction. Description and transcript at the end of this post. Click the image to embiggen:

There is an enormous subculture devoted to teaching men how to seduce women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground “pickup artists” have burst into the popular consciousness, aided by Neil Strauss’s bestselling book The Game and VH1’s hit reality show “The Pick-Up Artist.”

Pickup artists — also known as the “seduction community” — exchange ideas in thousands of online fora, using extensive in-group jargon. One pickup artist site lists “over 715 terms, and counting.” There are pickup artist meetups, clubs, and subculture celebrities all over the world. There are different ideological approaches and theoretical schools of seduction. Well-known pickup artist “gurus” can make millions of dollars per year: they may sell books; they may sell hours of “coaching”; they may organize training “bootcamps” or conventions with pricy tickets; they may run companies full of instructors trained in their methods. The community even generates its own well-thought-out internal critiques.

I am a sex-positive feminist lecturer and writer. I write primarily about my experiences with sadomasochism, but I have a general interest in sexuality. I first encountered pickup artists when smart ones started attending my educational events and commenting on my blog.

Some aspects of pickup artistry are hugely problematic; many parts of the community showcase and encourage misogyny. While exploring the PUA jungle, I observed things that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. On the other hand, I had to admit that some pickup artist perspectives were very interesting. Some had fascinating insights about gender theory and social power. I also felt drawn by their exploits. Learning seduction, and watching hypothetically-dazzling Casanovas run a courtier-like game, sounded like an extremely fun way to spend my time.

I started my journey by talking to a few pickup artists and reading their fora. By the end, I had given a lecture at a seduction convention, and I had decided against developing my own coaching business. Within the next few months, I plan to release a pop-feminist book online titled Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men. In the meantime, I can offer a quick synopsis of my own history, and why I became so interested in PUAs. I will break down some elementary distinctions among the men of the seduction community. Finally, I will offer a few PUA-influenced thoughts on feminist goals.

* * *

I was an awkward little bookworm of a child, but at least I was creative. I liked to draw, invent games, and run amateur social experiments. When I was in high school, most of my friends were on the Internet; I did not date a real-life boyfriend until college. I was inevitably teased by my peers, but even when treated well, I rarely engaged with the social hierarchies around me. I had difficulty grasping how social mechanics were “supposed” to work. A lot of things seemed obvious to other people that were not obvious to me.

For example, in sixth grade, a female friend of mine teased me about flirting with a boy. “What was I doing?” I asked. “Come on, you were flirting!” she responded. While I thought I almost understood what she meant, I was unsure — so I set out to poll everyone I knew about what constitutes “flirting.” Responses were inconsistent. One person said, very definitely: “Giggling.” Others cited examples such as “intense looks” or “making jokes.”

By the end of this experiment, I concluded that no one seemed able to explain “flirting” in terms of consistent behaviors; there were few commonalities in my final list. From what I could tell, flirting could only be explained in terms of invisible interpersonal dynamics. I found this both entertaining and frustrating.

I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if the modern pickup artist community had existed back then, and I had discovered it. PUAs devote a lot of time to understanding seduction in terms of observed behaviors. They have terms for social tactics that run the gamut from creating rapport, to encouraging trust, to building sexual tension, to shifting social power. But although the purpose of these social tactics is to manipulate emotion, the tactics are typically described as concretely as possible. Some PUA coaches provide long memorized “routines,” but it is more common to talk about particular social actions or broader strategies.

One famous PUA tactic is called the “neg.” “Neg” stands for “negative hit”, and one site defines a neg as “a remark, sometimes humorous, used to point out a woman’s flaws.” Like many PUA terms, the deeper meanings and usage vary from PUA to PUA — but there is an especially dramatic range of meanings with “neg.”

Some PUAs see negs as friendly teasing: a way for the PUA to show that he is paying attention to the girl, without appearing needy or overeager. I can offer a cute example of this approach from my own life. I was sitting in a café with a former PUA, and he gazed deep into my eyes.

“Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “Are your glasses held together by epoxy? It looks like you had to repair them at the corners.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

He grinned. “Everything about you just screams ‘starving artist’, doesn’t it.”

This made me laugh for quite a while. I think it worked because he understood that I have chosen (for now) to be a broke writer — but he also recognized the tension I feel about that choice. So this gentleman was demonstrating that he correctly discerned my priorities; that he is not bothered by a choice that makes me feel self-conscious; and that he is confident enough to tease me.

Also, at a moment when I thought he might compliment my eyes, the former PUA shook up my expectations by breaking the romantic pattern. Often, effective flirting involves offering the right mixture of confidence plus charming novelty plus paying attention.

Some PUAs see negs more strategically, as a way of passing a woman’s “tests” or breaching her indifference. They argue that this is necessary for women who are very high-status, very beautiful, etc. They argue that some women develop a kind of immunity to compliments, and that some women actively prefer feisty, faux-adversarial flirting. Most PUAs only advocate using negs on women who meet a certain “minimum” level of attractiveness, or who seem particularly feisty. Neil Strauss, a famous PUA and author of the bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, once wrote that:

(more…)