Posts Tagged ‘books’

2010 25 Sep

[litquote] How being good in bed is most of all about attentiveness

I would never deny that certain inborn qualities or skills can make sex a lot better. It’s true that size does, generally, matter. But I really do believe that these things matter a hell of a lot less than open-hearted and open-minded attention to one’s partner. And that’s why I love this quotation from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart.

The summer vacation of my freshman year in college, I took a random trip by myself around the Horuriku region, ran across a woman eight years older than me who was also traveling alone, and we spent one night together.

… She had a certain charm, which made it hard to figure out why she’d have any interest in someone like me — a quiet, skinny, eighteen-year-old college kid. Still, sitting across from me in the train, she seemed to enjoy our harmless banter. She laughed out loud a lot. And — atypically — I chattered away. We happened to get off at the same station, at Kanazawa. “Do you have a place to stay?” she asked me. No, I replied; I’d never made a hotel reservation in my life. I have a hotel room, she told me. You can stay if you’d like. “Don’t worry about it,” she went on, “it costs the same whether there’s one or two people.”

I was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward. I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said. “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she threw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so. Just average.”

She smiled. “Same with me. I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree. Which makes me average, too, I suppose. You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded. She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

“To a certain extent those kinds of things are inborn. Talent, you could call it. Some people are nimble; others are all thumbs …. Some people are quite attentive, and others aren’t. Right?”

Again I nodded.

“OK, consider this. Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car. And the two of you will take turns driving. Which type of person would you choose? One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied. “What we have here is very similar. Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important. What’s important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride. Being alert — I think I was starting to get it. For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

The next morning after we ate breakfast together, we went our separate ways.

2010 9 Sep

[review] Best Sex Writing 2010

As a fairly obsessive sex educator, S&M activist, and informal researcher, I didn’t expect Best Sex Writing 2010 to make me think nearly as much as it did. I’d imagined it as an anthology that would hit all the usual bases and say the usual sex-positive things: Sex work should be decriminalized! Open relationships can work! Fetishes don’t have to terrify us! Women deserve to be promiscuous, if that’s what we really want, and we must be empowered to say “no” to sex too!

The first few essays struck me as par for the sex-positive course — though extremely well-written. Indeed, my favorite essay in the book is the sixth (of twenty-five), an absolutely brilliant work by gay escort Kirk Read that made me want to close the book and start selling sex on Craigslist. Still, it didn’t actually challenge any of my current preconceptions, it just made me want to cheer.

But then the book surprised me. As editor Rachel Kramer Bussel explains on the anthology’s website, “I want writing about sex that makes people think about it in a new way, that confronts sex and sexual stereotypes, that opens people’s eyes, that says things people might find uncomfortable.” This even applies to perverts like me, I suppose. The chapters that unsettled me most weren’t the explicit ones, but rather the ones that don’t align with my ideals of positive sexuality: as openly and carefully communicated, for example, or negotiated with an eye to egalitarian ideals. (No matter how extreme the power differential when a gentleman friend whips me, I approach the relationship itself on an equal footing.)

I felt most grossed out by Michelle Perrot’s essay on her upcoming affair, in which she writes: “I don’t want an open marriage, where you and your partner agree that you can have sex with other people. I don’t want hurt feelings and jealousy, all the inevitable trouble that would come with such an arrangement …” but then notes that she’s discussed the idea of cheating with her husband, and that “if one of us were to have sex — just sex — with another person, we’d just as soon not know.”

In other words, Perrot refuses to style herself as one of those open relationship people — and let’s not even get into the stereotypes in her description thereof — because having a tacit agreement with your husband that both of you can sleep quietly with other people isn’t an open relationship. Huh? At the same time, Perrot published the essay under a pseudonym “to protect her marriage,” which would seem to indicate that she’s not actually sure about her husband’s consent after all.

I don’t mean to pick on Perrot, whose essay was quite well-written and gave me a lot to ponder. My point is that Best Sex Writing 2010 has something for everyone, including material to make a jaded sex theorist think twice. It lacks political sensibility by missing some important bases (e.g., trans people, polyamory, and people outside of the US) and makes one or two truly odd editorial choices. (Why on Earth is Mollena Williams’ essay on race play, a fetish so transgressive that it unnerves most people even within permissive S&M communities, placed before Betty Dodson’s much gentler memoir that could serve as an introduction to S&M? Are we trying to blindside and horrify the newbies?)

Still, lesbians and sex work and sex education and sex biology and safer sex all appear; S&M comes up a surprising amount, and even manliness gets a mention. Most importantly, Best Sex Writing 2010 is a genuinely layered and challenging book.

This review was originally published at Elevate Difference (formerly the Feminist Review).

Shoutout to my friend Thomas Millar, whose brilliant essay “Towards A Performance Model Of Sex” — first published in Yes Means Yes — also appeared in Best Sex Writing 2010. Go Thomas!

2010 14 Aug

[litquote] “Allowed to feel horny and fucked-up at the same time”

I’ve had some wrenching personal decisions and transitions lately, and it put me in mind of other times in my life when I felt in flux. I love this quotation from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which I first wrote down when I was coming into my BDSM identity.

* * *

I wake up around dawn, and I have the same feeling I had the other night, the night I caught on about Laura and Ray: that I’ve got no ballast, nothing to weigh me down, and if I don’t hang on, I’ll just float away. I like Marie a lot, she’s funny and smart and pretty and talented, but who the hell is she? I don’t mean that philosophically. I just mean, I don’t know her from Eve, so what am I doing in her bed? Surely there’s a better, safer, more friendly place for me than this? But I know there isn’t, not at the moment, and that scares me rigid.

I get up, find my snazzy boxers and my T-shirt, go into the living room, fumble in my jacket pocket for my fags and sit in the dark smoking. After a little while Marie gets up, too, and sits down next to me.

“You sitting here wondering what you’re doing?”

“No. I’m just, you know ….”

“‘Cause that’s why I’m sitting here, if it helps.”

“I thought I’d woken you up.”

“I ain’t even been to sleep yet.”

“So you’ve been wondering for a lot longer than me. Worked anything out?”

“Bits. I’ve worked out that I was real lonely, and I went and jumped into bed with the first person who’d have me. And I’ve also worked out that I was lucky it was you, and not somebody mean, or boring, or crazy.”

“I’m not mean, anyway. And you wouldn’t have gone to bed with anyone who was any of those things.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I’ve had a bad week.”

“What’s happened?”

“Nothing’s happened. I’ve had a bad week in my head, is all.”

Before we slept together, there was at least some pretense that it was something we both wanted to do, that it was the healthy, strong beginning of an exciting new relationship. Now all the pretense seems to have gone, and we’re left to face the fact that we’re sitting here because we don’t know anybody else we could be sitting with.

“I don’t care if you’ve got the blues,” Marie says. “It’s OK. And I wasn’t fooled by you acting all cool about … what’s her name?”

“Laura.”

“Laura, right. But people are allowed to feel horny and fucked-up at the same time. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about it. I don’t. Why should we be denied basic human rights just because we’ve messed up our relationships?”

I’m beginning to feel more embarrassed about the conversation than about anything we’ve just done. Horny? They really use that word? Jesus. All my life I’ve wanted to go to bed with an American, and now I have, and I’m beginning to see why people don’t do it more often. Apart from Americans, that is, who probably go to bed with Americans all the time.

* * *

Why do I love it? I love it because it simultaneously acknowledges that sex can be awkward and weird and intersect with negative emotions, and then deftly points out that this isn’t a problem or argument against sexuality in itself.

Also, I can’t help noting that the only guys I’ve hooked up with who seriously used the word “horny” were British.

(This passage is from the book, not the movie. Alas, the movie version of this scene wasn’t nearly as good.)

2010 14 Jul

[litquote] Hot vanilla sex scene includes checking in

For a sex writer, I’m surprisingly indifferent to sex scenes. Predictably, I’m quoting this one from Kate Furnivall’s novel The Russian Concubine for a theoretical reason: because it gives not one, but two instances of checking in with one’s partner to ensure their continuing sexual consent … and the sex goes on afterwards just fine. One of the most frequently-heard complaints about ensuring consent is that it will supposedly “ruin the moment”. But if that were really true, then you’d never find check-ins being glorified in hot romance novel sex scenes!

Note: the main character has never had penis-in-vagina sex before.

It was as if her skin became something other than skin. It grew so alive it leaped out of her control, rubbed itself against his body, her hip pressing against his, her hands touching, searching, stroking, seeking out each bone of his back, his flat wide shoulder blades, the curve of his buttocks. Her lips opened to his and the unexpected sensation of their tongues entwining sent such a shiver of delicious shock through her body that it made him stop, lift his head, and gaze at her with concern.

But she laughed, almost a purr, and wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing him back to her once more. …

[make-outs, make-outs, make-outs]

Abruptly she could hold back no longer and she took his good hand, placed it between her legs. Instantly he lifted his head so that his mouth and her tongue could merge with her own, and his fingers started to caress the moist heart between her legs, gently at first, then firmer, harder. She moaned, and under it she heard a low breathless growl that was him. She lost track of time. A minute or an hour, she had no idea. She wrapped a leg up over his hip and felt his penis tight against her cleft, the pulse of it hot and needy.

And suddenly he was above her. His lips kissing her eyelids until she opened them and found his dark gaze looking down on her with an expression so tender and so full of longing that she knew she would carry it with her till her dying day. His mouth moved against her own.

“My sweet love,” he breathed. “Tell me this is what you want.”

For reply she bucked her hips so that the tip of him slid inside her and she heard his quick intake of breath. His teeth bit down on her lip. Slowly, gently, with infinite care he entered her. A one point a sharp pain made her cry out but he held her close, murmuring, whispering, eating her up.

Quick analysis:

One of the check-ins in this scene was totally non-verbal, and the other one involved only one partner speaking. Moral of the story: if you think check-ins aren’t hot or can’t be done without ruining the moment, then maybe that’s because you have a very narrow idea of what a check-in looks like. If you’re interested in more on this, try reading my post on safewords and check-ins.

(Final note: I don’t know if the author would call this a “romance novel”, which some would say is a scornful term. The Russian Concubine is definitely better-written than your average romance novel, and it also features Chinese history during the Communist revolution, and stuff. My point is that I’m not meaning to insult it or anything, but, like. It’s pretty freakin’ romantic.)

2010 10 Jun

[litquote] Gay alcoholic heartbreak, breakup, and HIV

I’m going to start posting literary quotations that strike me. This one is from Augusten Burroughs’ sweet memoir, Dry. I post it for no reason other than that it made me sigh.

On my bookcase at home, there’s a photo of Pighead trying on a leather jacket I bought him one Christmas. I can be seen behind him in the mirror taking the picture. I’m wearing a ridiculous red Santa hat and my wire-framed nerd glasses. In another picture, I’m swimming in some motel pool in Maine. It was the Lamp Lighter Motel, I remember. It was fall and the pool was freezing cold and had orange leaves floating in it. Leaves and beetles. This was one of our first road trips. We’d known each other for about a year. I remember that after getting out of the pool, we went back to the room and I took a hot shower. When I came out, we ended up fooling around on the bed. We stayed in bed for two full days, leaving only at night to get prime rib or spaghetti at the only restaurant in town that served water in glass instead of paper.

Back in Manhattan, I told him one night, “I think I’m in love with you.” We were leaning against the railing of the esplanade at Battery Park City, watching the planes circle in their holding patterns above us. For New Yorkers, planes circling above at night replace stars, in terms of romance.

He turned to face me. “I love you too, Augusten.” Then gently he said, “But I’m not in love with you. I’m sorry about what’s happened between us. It shouldn’t have happened. I should never have let things get sexual, A. And B, I should never have made you feel that we could be anything more than friends. It’s my fault.”

I felt trapped because I did love him, but also now wanted to cause the most massive harm possible. You will love me, I thought. And then it will be too late.

It went on like this for a year. The sex, always intense, fast and hungry. And the friendship. But no romance. I’d go over to his apartment (mine was always too messy for his taste) and he’d make roast chicken or beef stew. I’d watch his hands work: slicing, stirring, grinding pepper. I would watch his hands and think, I love those hands. And all the while, I knew I had to get over him. It didn’t matter why he wasn’t interested in me romantically. Just that he wasn’t.

I started dating. … It was a year later when I finally thought I was over him. When not every song reminded me of him. And I was able to go for entire days without thinking about him on a constant basis. I was able to imagine the possibility of someone else.

One evening he called me from his car and told me to meet him downstairs. It was Friday. Probably I had plans … “You need to come downstairs. Now.”

I climbed into his car and foul mood. “Jesus, what the hell is the matter with you?” I remember asking him. Maybe not those exact words, but close enough. “You have to keep everything in perspective. Nothing is this bad. Your fucking job is just a job. It’s not like you’re HIV-positive.”

But it was. He’d tested positive.

That night, I slept over at his house, holding him, showing him that it didn’t matter to me. I wanted him to know that even if there was no cure, there was hope. The kind of hope that is powerful, because it comes from such need. That was the night he told me that he loved me. That he was in love with me.

But hearing him say it made me feel like he was saying it only because he was afraid. Afraid he’d never get anything better. I made it my mission to fall completely out of love with him, yet be there for him as a friend. That virus was something I just didn’t want anything to do with. And I was angry with him. Furious that I had spent so much energy falling out of love with him, only to have him fall in love with me after he became diagnosed with a fatal disease. Part of me felt deep compassion. And another part felt like, You fucker.

So now we’re friends and I thought I was way past all that crap. But obviously I am not over all that crap. Obviously I am sort of a mess.

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:

(more…)

2009 15 May

Vote for your favorite BDSM fiction for a new Leather Archives & Museum exhibit!

Calling all READERS within the Leather / Kink / Fetish / S&M / B&D / BDSM community:

I (Clarisse) have been asked to curate a pansexual BDSM books exhibit at the Leather Archives & Museum (your friendly neighborhood BDSM museum). I know a fair bit about books, but I still need help with this question, so I’ve created an online poll. I’m asking everyone to send in their favorite BDSM fiction title; I’ll base the exhibit on your submissions. This way, the exhibit will be firmly based within the community — please repost this WIDELY, so that we get the most comprehensive community representation possible!

To be featured in this exhibit, a book must be FICTION and it must contain EXPLICIT BDSM.

You can vote in the poll by clicking here.

NOTES!

If you really like your favorite book, then please consider also submitting a comment of 100-200 words, describing any or all of the following:
+ a brief synopsis of the book,
+ how the book represents BDSM,
+ historical significance of the book,
+ other work the author may have done within the BDSM community.

The best book descriptions might be used in the exhibit. So if you want your description to have your name or pseudonym on it, please include that name at the end of your description! Sadly, we cannot pay people if we use their descriptions.

You can vote for books that aren’t written in English, but if you submit a description of the book, then the description must be in English.

It is technically possible for an individual to vote more than once in this poll, but please don’t. I am indeed logging where the votes come from; if the data appear too skewed when the poll is done, then I might have to throw out the results. Don’t do that to me!

Again, you can vote here! The poll will close June 1, 2009 at 12AM.

Thanks for reading!

cheers,
Clarisse Thorn

DISCLAIMERS!
Clarisse and LA&M staff will give this poll as much weight as possible! However, we reserve the right not to use all the top winners of the poll, for reasons that may include but are not limited to: adequately representing a pansexual range of identities; ensuring that all books in the exhibit contain explicit BDSM; or suspicious quantities of votes from the same place. All comments submitted in this poll become property of the Leather Archives & Museum.

2009 10 Mar

Interview with Daniel Bergner, author of “The Other Side of Desire”

I was all set to dislike Daniel Bergner. As a member of the BDSM community and an advocate for greater societal acceptance of BDSM, I was unimpressed by the reviews of his new book, The Other Side of Desire. I get annoyed when I see media depictions that play into BDSM stereotypes or create other problems for the BDSM community image; it seemed to me that Bergner had written a book that did just that. At best, it sounded naïve — at worst, cynical and insensitive. I requested an interview with him, wondering whether we’d end up at each other’s throats … and then I read the book.

The Other Side of Desire is far more complex than I initially gave it credit for. There’s too much silence around alternative sexuality, and it breaks that silence — not by promoting an agenda, but with a plea for personal understanding. I found myself believing that Daniel Bergner really had done his best — not to put us deviants on display like animals in a zoo, but to give profiles of human beings thinking about human concerns. Still, there were gaps in the book that I found very troubling, and I wanted to see if he could defend them.

I arranged to meet Daniel at the Leather Archives and Museum, a museum devoted to leather / fetish / BDSM on Chicago’s north side. There, I found him looking over the Archives’ BDSM history timeline. As he greeted me, I was impressed by his measured speech and unexpectedly dark eyes. There was an openness to him — even, perhaps, a vulnerability — that didn’t come across in photographs. I could see how he’d gotten so many people to open up about their sexuality, and I warmed to him instantly.

The most obvious question to start with was what fetishes Daniel has, personally. But he’d already told other interviewers that he’s totally vanilla …

* * *

Daniel Bergner: (laughs) Did I say totally vanilla? I think I’ve — I think vanilla-ish, let’s go with that.

Clarisse Thorn: There was a part of your book’s Introduction that made some kinky readers wince a little bit. It’s at the beginning, where you compare your coverage of sexual fetishists to your previous journalistic experiences … one experience was interviewing convicted prisoners on death row, and another was covering war in Sierra Leone. Do you think it’s problematic that you compared alternative sexuality to a war zone in a foreign country?

DB: Now, I think that comparison was misunderstood. I do not see the erotically unusual as comparable to criminality or to utterly damaging violence, like in a war zone. What I was trying to say was that in each of those previous books I’ve gone to a very extreme place in order to learn about things that are universal.

Here, with sexuality — again, not comparing criminality to alternative sexuality — but I was comparing journeys of looking at lives that might fall outside “the norm”, and I’m putting quotes around “norm” because I think that whole concept of normal is suspect. Looking at lives lived outside the typical boundaries might help me, might help readers understand more about the lives we live sexually, how we come to be who we are sexually, and what we do with our sexuality.

CT: I’m interested to know what you knew about alternative sexuality before you started this book. What did you think of alternative sexuality? What stereotypes did you have? In particular, what kind of experience did you have with BDSM?

DB: I think I’ve come to all the writing I’ve done with a very open mind. Some people would say “too open”. It’s not just that I hesitate to judge. I think I’m missing the judgmental gene somehow.

I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. I had no, or little, direct contact. It was new.

CT: You wrote on the blog for Powell’s Bookstore that you met fetishists for your book through “friends, therapists, and the Internet”. Can you shed some more light on that?

DB: I met the sadist I profiled — The Baroness — through a writer friend who very much admired The Baroness. Others I met through therapists who knew my writing and trusted me to be careful in my perspective. Ron, who’s the central figure in the last story —

CT: The amputee fetishist.

DB: — the amputee devotee, yes — I met him very indirectly through the Internet; I was having conversations with people in that community.

CT: In a comment on the blog “Sex in the Public Square” you said that you are “not, primarily, an advocate.” In other words, you didn’t see yourself as writing this book in order to advocate for alternative sexuality. Making alternative sexuality more acceptable was not a major goal for you. Is that right?

DB: I rely on and am indebted to advocates, because those who advocate for — in this case, sexual freedom, in other cases, for a more humanistic vision of convicts or what it means to live in a West African village — that kind of advocacy allows for what I do. I couldn’t do what I do without it, because it causes people to be open-minded and take an interest. What I do is try to tell complex stories about complex human beings in a way that makes us feel our humanity intensely, and deepens our humanity.

I think it’s very hard to create politically driven art. There are some examples of it that succeed, but I think often, people have to make a choice. I think it’s really difficult to do both.

CT: I guess those of us who are more concerned with advocacy just thought that it seems strange, even heartless, to write a book like this without making advocacy a goal. You must know that there’s a battle on — there are people out there, like the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, who are working really hard towards alternative sexuality acceptance.

So on the one side we have the NCSF. And then there are people on the other side who do nothing but tell us kinksters that we are sinful, or sick, or deluded, or otherwise screwed up. Anti-BDSM activists are not always religious evangelicals, either. They can come from surprisingly liberal circles. For instance — I identify strongly as a feminist, and there are lots of feminists out there who think that practicing BDSM and feminism are not irreconcilable — but there are also anti-BDSM feminists. Just recently I encountered a popular radical feminist blogger who outright stated that sadists should either repress their sadistic desires, or kill themselves.

We deal with this hostile environment all the time, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who would write a book like yours and then say that he’s outside the conflict. Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m saying. Suppose a foreigner came to the U.S. and wrote a book about four soldiers on the front in the Iraq War. And suppose his book was a huge hit in his country. Suppose that for lots of people in that foreigner’s home country, his book is the only exposure they have to the lives of Iraq War soldiers — that’s all they ever read about those stories. And then suppose that author said, afterwards, “I just wanted to write a book about these particular four soldiers, and their lives as soldiers. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Iraq War, and I didn’t mean to shape people’s perceptions of what being a soldier is like in general.”

What would you say to that author?

DB: That’s a great example, and it makes me feel bad.

CT: (laughs) Sorry!

DB: That’s fine; it’s your job to complicate things and ask difficult questions.

I have certainly read about the legal thinking that surrounds BDSM. Still — I hope this will not sound like too rarefied and irrelevant a thought — I have always been protective of the impulse to tell stories, to render people within nonfiction or journalism. So there’s a part of me that says: Wait. We don’t want all nonfiction, all journalism to become advocacy, because we’d lose something — we’d lose a depth of human investigation. We’d lose a depth that language itself can bring us. We’d lose a level of emotional resonance.

With the prison book, of course that book was in part an effort to have people see human beings that our society has rendered completely invisible, and to have our society see them as human beings. I think a lot of readers did in fact react that way. So when I would speak to groups about that, on the one hand I was protective and I said that I was telling stories about particular people, but that didn’t mean that underneath wasn’t an impulse to make people see in a way that starts to change their minds. Understand on an emotional level that makes them reconsider on an intellectual level.

You’re right: it would be ridiculously callous for me to say, “I just wanted to tell some stories, great, I’m done, goodbye.” Of course that’s not true. Of course I’m concerned with the boundaries that are placed on the erotic, and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t feel that. That was an original impulse behind this book — feeling those boundaries in all kinds of forms, and questioning them. The entire book, in a way, is an attempt to chisel away at those constraints.

Let’s circle back to your radical feminist voice, who wrote that all sadists should either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. There’s an example of politics run amok. That writer is so engaged with her own political viewpoint — from her perspective, she probably sees BDSM as a threat to a feminist sense of independence. But by applying those politics to the realm of eros so extremely, she renders herself absurd. So there, again, I think your point sort of — if not proves mine, at least bolsters it a little bit. Eros is such a complex place, such a place for individual exploration. I almost want to clear politics out of it altogether. It’s difficult enough for us to be us as human beings when it comes to the erotic, without politics getting in there … once politics gets in there, I worry that we’re going to distort things even more.

In any case, I certainly get your point, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I don’t care about sexual freedom. I hope there is an undercurrent of tacit advocacy that runs throughout my book.

(more…)

2009 24 Feb

First reaction to Daniel Bergner’s “The Other Side of Desire”

This post is a bit of teaser — I’ll own up to that at the start. I’m not going to review Daniel Bergner’s new book The Other Side of Desire yet … because I will be interviewing the man himself on this coming Thursday, before his 7PM reading at the Leather Archives and Museum. I’ll post that interview, along with my commentary and book review, next week. Exciting!

So if I’m not going to talk about my first reaction to reading the book, what am I talking about?

The Other Side of Desire has been generating a huge amount of buzz, and not just for sexuality geeks. I first heard about it when one of my sexuality geek friends grabbed me and said, “You have to read this ‘New York Times’ article.” We went through the whole thing with much commentary, then rushed to the computer to read excerpts from Mr. Bergner’s book.

I wasn’t sure how to read Daniel Bergner — the writer himself, that is, rather than his material. What does it mean that he compares profiling kinky people to investigating a Louisiana prison, or covering war in Sierra Leone? * What does it mean that he characterizes — or at least, has been reported as characterizing — the greatest benefit of feeling comfortable talking about sex as good cocktail party conversation? ** What does it mean that one of the editorial reviews chosen for the back of his book describes his subjects as “oddly winning”? ***

I mean … seriously? How much was he kidding about the party conversation thing? Did he choose that review himself, and did he himself consider his subjects “oddly winning” — as if it’s such a great big insight that fetishists can be nice people? Was Mr. Bergner making these statements because he was trying to make The Other Side of Desire more accessible to a wide, potentially intolerant audience … or because he, himself, sees conversations with sexual fetishists as analogous to reporting on a war zone in a foreign country?

I didn’t know. I knew already that I wanted to talk to him and hear his perspective, but I had no obvious channels to do so.

A little while later, someone emailed me the “Times” Magazine review of Mr. Bergner’s book. That review, by Lori Gottlieb, shifted me from slight unease to actual irritation — specifically, this quotation:

The only story about a woman — a celebrated clothing designer and sadist who’s in a conventional marriage — is also unfortunately the weakest. To be fair, Bergner doesn’t have a lot to work with. His subject, a narcissist who enjoys torturing and humiliating her underlings, is inherently unsympathetic. … While his other subjects struggle mightily with their unconventional cravings, the Baroness, as her victims call her, denies any inner conflict. In her mind, she’s happy, her victims are grateful, and she is their “beacon.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Why is Gottlieb describing the Baroness’s BDSM partners as “victims”, and what does this imply about how Daniel Bergner described the Baroness and her activities? Of course, it’s worth noting that at the article’s beginning, Gottlieb mentions that the one time a partner asked her for anything remotely untraditional in bed (specifically, he asked her to handcuff him), she flipped out and fled home to tell all her friends “what a freak this guy turned out to be”. (Really — that’s an actual quotation from her article.) I guess Lori Gottlieb has trouble understanding that it might be a good thing for a kinkster to feel sexually unashamed. For her, it’s only acceptable for people to explore their fetishes as long as they feel really horrible about it. Shame is what matters to Gottlieb, not consent. In fact, Gottlieb seems to have much more of a problem with the Baroness than she does with Roy — another subject of the book and a convicted child molester. ****

But even though her perspective is obviously kink-phobic, Gottlieb’s words gave me more questions. What was Daniel Bergner saying? I’d read excerpts from his book posted online; I knew I’d have to read more. Were his words being twisted, was I being too harsh in my assessment? What were his goals in writing this book?

I finally got my chance when I heard about the Leather Archives event. Daniel Bergner was going to be in Chicago, and he’d chosen to do his reading at the BDSM museum! Thrilled, I redoubled my efforts to get in touch. This culminated with me sending Bergner’s publicist an email introducing myself, describing my activist work and then holding my breath. Was this author really all about communicating with us “oddly winning” fetishists … or was this, for him, merely about making good conversation at parties? He’s been featured by the “New York Times” and NPR; I knew he had no reason to talk to me unless he really wants to engage with the BDSM community.

So it counts for a lot, I think, that Daniel Bergner agreed to be interviewed by lil ole me. And as I slowly cover my copy of The Other Side of Desire with underlines and margin notes, I find myself — yes, bothered by aspects of this book, but somewhat heartened as well. I’ll withhold complete judgment until I’ve actually spoken to Mr. Bergner; I’m definitely looking forward to it.

We come to the cliffhanger: watch this space ….

(And if you’re not in Chicago, check out the author’s site to see whether you might be able to catch him in your city.)

* “What,” the people I write about often ask, “are you doing here with me?” I heard the question in Angola Prison, Louisiana’s maximum security penitentiary, where I followed the lives of men sentenced to stay locked up until their deaths, with no chance of parole. I heard it in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where I attached myself to missionaries and mercenaries and child soldiers amid the most brutal war in recent memory. And I heard it as a sought the stories — of eros, obsession, anarchy, love — that fill The Other Side of Desire. (from the book’s Introduction)

** “Well, it definitely deepened my sense of the power of the erotic,” he said. “And if I was always at least fairly comfortable talking about sex, now I’m very comfortable. That in itself has led to something good. It’s good for cocktail party conversation.” (from the “Times” article)

*** See the cover and read excerpts by clicking here.

**** And let’s not forget that to some people, Gottlieb comes across as a veritable “libertine”. Christ.

2009 18 Feb

Latest sex-positive links, publications and Chicago events

Lots to report! Four things:

Firstly: fabulous poly podcaster Cunning Minx interviewed me for her latest podcast! Also on the podcast are her thoughts on “Sex Positive”, the last documentary we screened at Sex+++. Thanks Minx!

Secondly: Richard Berkowitz, the sex education activist profiled in aforementioned documentary “Sex Positive”, left a great comment on my quick semi-review of the film. He and I corresponded briefly, and I will be interviewing him soon — watch this space for more on that! Also, it turns out that you can order his book Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex through his website.

Thirdly: Sugasm #159!

The best of this week’s sex blogs by the bloggers who blog them. Highlighting the top 3 posts as chosen by Sugasm participants.

This Week’s Picks
+The Annual Anti-Valentine’s Day Posting: 2009 Edition “Ahh, Valentine’s Day. Sigh.”
+ Exposed “We talk a lot about putting me on display, and it was even more intense in reality as it has been in fantasy.”
+ Yes “At the edge of the precipice, my nerves rippling with electricity, i tumbled down into you”

Sugasm Editor
+ Sex Work And Compassion: A Call From Baghdad

Editor’s Choice
+ Stairwell

BDSM & Fetish
+ 25 Things, the Kinky Way
+ The Domme Experiment — The Result
+ Firsts, part 2
+ Permission
+ Single Minded Passion
+ My post, “There is no ‘should'” and the sex-positive “agenda”

+ More Sugasm
+ Join the Sugasm
+ See also: Fleshbot’s Sex Blog Roundup each Tuesday and Friday.

Fourthly: Last but not least, let’s talk about some upcoming Chicago sex-positive events! All events are totally free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

+ Thursday February 19, 12 noon: Yes Means Yes! sex-positive anthology discussion at Hull-House Museum. Includes Hazel/Cedar Troost, amazing local trans activist.

+ Thursday February 19, 7.30 PM: Yes Means Yes! sex-positive anthology discussion at Women and Children First. Includes Hazel/Cedar Troost, amazing local trans activist.

+ Tuesday February 24, 7 PM: “When Two Won’t Do” documentary about consensual non-monogamy at Sex+++

+ Thursday February 26, 3 PM: Leadership in the Bedroom: Communicating What You Want and Don’t Want sexual communication workshop with Clarisse Thorn at UIC (312.413.2120 for more information)

+ Thursday February 26, 7 PM: The Other Side of Desire fetish and sexuality book reading with Daniel Bergner at the Leather Archives and Museum. I’m going to be interviewing Daniel Bergner soon — watch this space!

+ Thursday February 26, 7.30 PM: Bound to Struggle kink and radical politics zine discussion at Women and Children First. Simon Strikeback, the zine editor, is really great and also helps run Threat Level Queer Shorts.

+ Friday February 27, 12 noon: Sex education history discussion at Hull-House Museum

+ Tuesday March 3, 7.30 PM: Cheap Sex workshop at Early to Bed — $15, or $10 for students and low-income

+ Tuesday March 3, 7.30 PM: “The Last Days of Desmond ‘Nani’ Reese” post-apocalyptic stripper play at Steppenwolf — $20 with code “5103”

+ Wednesday March 4, 6 PM: Women on Wednesdays meet-up features Babes with Blades at Center on Halsted — $10, women only

+ Friday March 6, evening: Fornication-themed party to benefit the Sex Workers Outreach Project at the Wild Pug — $5-10 suggested donation. Includes awesome sex worker and blogger Aspasia.

+ Tuesday March 10, 7 PM: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” and other short S&M documentaries at Sex+++

+ Saturday March 14, 4 PM: Newcomer’s Social relaxed gathering at BDSM club Galleria Domain Two — 21+ only.