Posts Tagged ‘casual sex’

2012 18 May

Who Enjoys Casual Sex, Anyway?

A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

The above image is from the art site PostSecret.com. People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “Since I joined a gay men’s chorus, I haven’t had casual sex. Singing is better.”

I can be a pretty brazen lady. Sometimes it surprises me how much this will give people the incorrect impression about my sexual habits. I actually dated one guy (monogamously!) for two years who, towards the end of our relationship, asked me about “all those one-night stands.” I was like, what are you even talking about? and it turned out that he’d gone through our entire relationship thinking that I’d had a ton of one-night stands before we dated. Two years!

I am not so into casual sex. This is not because I think there’s anything wrong with it — and in fact, if you are a lady who’s thinking of going for lots of casual sex, then I highly recommend Adaya Adler’s article on awesome casual sex for single girls. But personally, I’m not so into it.

How to define casual sex, though? I’m taking a polyamorous approach to my relationships these days, and I’m okay with having multiple ongoing sexual relationships at different levels of intensity. So when I say I’m not so into casual sex, am I avoiding one-night stands, or does the phrase cover more than that? I’ve concluded that (for me at least) casual sex is casual as long as there seems to be little potential for a deeper emotional relationship. I don’t have to feel True Love for every guy I have sex with, but I want us to care about each other, to have some kind of ongoing understanding. At the very least, we’ve gotta be able to go out to dinner and have a nice heartfelt conversation.

I mean, for one thing, the sex is just plain better if you care about each other. Anecdotally, this seems to be true for people of all genders, although there are probably exceptions. (When it comes to sexuality, there are always exceptions.) I will point out, however, that research appears to show in multiple ways that women are less interested in casual sex than men. For example, women tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would probably be no good, while men tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would be average. Which is quite reasonable, given the fact that research finds that many men acknowledge not caring about their partner’s pleasure during casual hookups. For another example, as the FAQ for the Kinsey institute tells us, “Many women express that their most satisfying sexual experiences entail being connected to someone.” There could be a lot of different reasons for this — I’m rarely interested in the nature vs. nurture debate — but I think that whatever the source, the general patterns are worth noting.

Back in 2008, when I first started blogging about sex and S&M, one of my first blog posts analyzed my feelings about both casual sex and casual S&M. I had already concluded that neither really works for me. And yet it seems like sometimes I have to re-learn this lesson. I end up “trying it on for size” again, like a sweater unearthed from the back of my closet, whose dullness I forget until I see it in the mirror. I find myself brushing my hair the next morning next to someone who feels like a stranger.

It’s not that casual sex is valueless, exactly — I learn something from almost all my sexual encounters. And I’ve had one or two casual encounters that worked quite well for my goals at the time, and were quite pleasant. But although I haven’t had a whole lot of casual sex, it’s usually been so boring. Plus, after casual sex I get hit with the additional payload of automatic, socially-induced questioning of my own self-worth, being as I’m a lady who just had casual sex. I’d like to say that I’m a Perfectly Independent Modern Girl whose self-esteem is never challenged by this kind of thing, but I’d be lying, and I think that stereotype of the Modern Girl is a problematic stereotype anyway.

Plus, there’s an old stereotype that if a lady has sex on the first date, she “ought” to be treated as “slutty” and “disposable” and “not relationship material” because she did so. This stereotype is dying, but it’s a slow death. And one thing I wonder is whether a relationship is more likely to develop as “casual” if it starts with first-date sex, as opposed to escalating more slowly. Is it really true, that men “won’t respect you in the morning” if you have sex right away? Is it true, subconsciously, even when men say it’s not true — and believe that they’re being honest?

I’ve wondered a lot what it is about casual sex that makes some people react with mild distaste, the way I do, while others react with glee and abandon — and others react with virulent hatred and aggressive rejection. Aside from the apparent gender split, what are the characteristics of people who experience casual sex as usually fun, those who experience it as usually boring, and those who experience it as usually destructive?

From my experiences and observations, it seems to me that people who absolutely love casual sex often:

* Have a lot of physical turn-ons (as opposed to psychological ones).

* Are not carrying difficult feelings from abusive sexual experiences.

* Don’t tend to get attached to partners quickly, or know how to manage their experiences so that they don’t get attached. A friend once told me about a woman who never allowed herself to have orgasms during casual sex, because she had observed of herself that she started getting emotionally attached quite quickly.

But I’m very curious about the experiences of others, and whether anyone disagrees with my brief points above. Comments are quite welcome.

The next image is also from PostSecret … and I can tell you that for me it feels like a punch in the gut, so you might want to take a deep breath before you look at it:

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2012 8 Feb

Manliness; Casual Sex for Ladies; Islamic Sexuality; and of course S&M

In mid-December, I took on the role of editing the Sex + Relationships Section at the gender-focused site Role/Reboot. Role/Reboot is a nonprofit organization that is specifically designed to talk about gender issues with an audience that has little exposure to them.  In fact, this is one of the things that excited me about working with Role/Reboot; like my sex-positive film series, it’s intended to create new conversations, to bring new people and new perspectives into the gender discourse.  The managing editors at Role/Reboot identify as feminist, although they explicitly prefer to position the site outside existing gender discourses.

This editorship is a bit of an experiment for me, and I’m interested to see how it will go. It’s an opportunity to highlight some work that I think is both excellent and accessible. I don’t choose every piece that is published in the Sex + Relationships section, but I choose a lot of them. Here are some of my favorites from the last six weeks:

* Mica: A Strange Binary, written by me! This is a storytime-type article in which I talk about how it feels to start a relationship with a gentleman who’s new to submission, and isn’t sure how to talk about it. And in the end, he and I switched BDSM roles, too … (I later reposted this article to my blog under the title, “The Strange Binary of Dominance and Submission”.)

* Virginity and Sexual Realization, written by Nahida (who blogs at The Fatal Feminist). Nahida is a really interesting writer whose main focus is the intersection of Islam and feminism. This piece is about her understanding of Islam and female sexuality, and her feeling that her Islamic culture is fundamentally more sex-positive than the Western culture in which she grew up.

* Born This Way: Black Box Sexuality, written by Noah Brand (who’s part of the blog team at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?). This is an exquisitely constructed, hilarious piece about why we should treat sexuality as a “black box” — we don’t know why personal sexuality is the way it is, and it arguably doesn’t matter. (I’ve covered similar ground in my old piece on BDSM as a sexual orientation.)

* Picking and Choosing from the “Act Like A Man Box”, written by Charlie Glickman. Charlie is one of my favorite writers on issues of masculinity. This piece follows his earlier piece, The Performance of Masculinity, and it’s a wonderful discussion of the narrowness of our conceptions of manhood — plus ideas on what it means to create a “new masculinity.”

* Awesome Casual Sex for Single Girls, written by Adaya Adler (who blogs at My So-Called Polyamorous Life). If you’re a lady interested in trying casual sex, you couldn’t find a better place to start than by reading this article. Which is not to say that I think you “should” try casual sex; I’m not too interested in it myself. But if you want to, you know where to start reading!

If you’re interested in pitching me your own work, or you know someone who is, please do get in touch with me: clarisse at rolereboot dot org.

2012 5 Jan

One Blurred Edge of Sex Work: Interview with a “Sugar Baby”, Part 1

(This interview was completed for and originally published at Role/Reboot.)

* * *

Sex work is a controversial and polarized topic, and there are many perspectives on it. My position is complex — but for me, when it comes to how we actually interact with sex workers, one important factor is whether they enjoy their jobs. I am absolutely in favor of giving better options to sex workers who do not enjoy their jobs, and I am horrified by the idea of a person being trafficked or coerced into sex that they don’t want to have. But I also know people who have sex for money 100% voluntarily, and I do not want to deny their experience.

My friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student, recently started advertising her services on a “Sugar Baby” site called SeekingArrangement.com. I think it’s important for more people to understand these kinds of experiences, so I asked to interview her. Many people have pointed out that once a person starts thinking about the definition of “prostitute”, it’s a bit difficult to define what exactly a prostitute is. Some of my sex worker friends have asked the question: what exactly is the difference between a person whose partner buys her a fancy dinner after which they have sex — and a person whose partner buys sex with money? Olivia has thought at length about this, and I’m grateful to her for sharing her perspective.

Please note that Olivia is exceptionally privileged. What you are about to read is a portrait of what the sex industry looks like for a person who is very privileged: she comes from a white upper-middle-class background, she is not desperate, she is being paid a lot of money, she does not have a drug addiction. Many other peoples’ experiences in the sex industry are different.

The interview went long, so we’re going to post it in two parts. Here’s part 1:

Clarisse Thorn: Hey Olivia, thanks so much for being willing to talk about this incredibly complicated topic. Could you start by defining a sugar baby site? What is it?

Olivia: I use the site SeekingArrangement.com. I don’t actually know how many sugar baby sites there are, but I get the sense there’s more than one. It’s very hard to pin down exactly what it does. I guess it connects people, usually with a big age gap, who are interested in exchanging some kind of material goods or financial resources for some form of companionship that is often sexual — but not always.

As far as I can tell, the site’s founder is very against the claim that this is prostitution. He puts out a lot of publicity claiming that this site has nothing to do with prostitution. At first I thought that he was trying to evade legal consequences, but I think he actually probably believes that. The site has a blog that he controls, and you can look at it to get a sense of what he’s thinking. One post I think is really interesting is called “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?“, which compares being a sugar baby to a kind of “happily ever after” princess fantasy.

So far, no one I’ve talked to seems remotely interested in hiring what they see as a “prostitute”. They seem to want to be having sex with someone they find very attractive who is also someone they feel like they can respect, whose intelligence they respect. For example, someone I see occasionally — the last time I saw him, he gave me money at the end and he said that he felt good about giving me the money because he knew I wouldn’t spend it on, quote, “a designer handbag.” He seems to think that I am reasonably ambitious and have my shit together, and he seems to feel more comfortable giving me money because he knows it goes towards my grad school costs and credit card debt. My ability to write with proper grammar, without overusing emoticons, appears to be my biggest sales point. Men have told me this outright.

That guy also mentioned feeling more comfortable because he thinks I’m from the same social class as he is. There are a lot of class issues coming up in these encounters, I think. Being white and from an upper-middle-class background may help me get clients. My background has also given me a ton of confidence that puts me at an advantage when negotiating. I do not think I radiate “take advantage of me,” and I (nicely) tell guys who start doing that to go away.

The guy I was just talking about — he also mentioned that he feels like he doesn’t want to have sex with someone that he doesn’t feel at least a little bit connected to. There’s a distinction between meaningless sex and casual sex. I think these guys want casual sex — maybe they aren’t at the point where they want to deal with having a partner, or they’re really busy at work, or they already have another partner — they want casual sex but not meaningless sex.

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2011 14 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel?

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

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

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

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

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

I already wrote Part 1 of this post about the political side of this question. Now for Part 2 ….

The Embodied Side of BDSM versus Sex

Although Part 1 was all about how the divide between “BDSM” and “sex” is often nonsensical, or purely political, or socially constructed … that doesn’t mean that the divide does not exist. I once had a conversation about ignoring social constructs with a wise friend, who noted dryly that: “One-way streets are a social construct. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.” Just because the outside world influences our sexuality, does not mean that our sexual preferences are invalid.

Some polyamorous BDSMers have very different rules about having sex with outsiders, as opposed to doing BDSM with outsiders. For example, during the time when I was considering a transition to polyamory, I myself had a couple relationships where we were sexually monogamous — yet my partners agreed that I could do BDSM with people who weren’t my partner. Those particular partners felt jealous and threatened by the idea of me having sex with another man, but they didn’t mind if I did BDSM with another man. Maybe the feelings of those partners only arose because they categorized “BDSM” and “sex” into weirdly different socially-constructed ways … but those partners’ feelings were nonetheless real, and their feelings deserved respect.

And there are also unmistakable ways that BDSM feels different from sex. There is something, bodily, that is just plain different about BDSM, as opposed to sex. I often find myself thinking of “BDSM feelings” and “sexual feelings” as flowing down two parallel channels in my head … sometimes these channels intersect, but sometimes they’re far apart. The BDSM urge strikes me as deeply different, separate, from the sex urge. It can be fun to combine BDSM and sex, but there are definitely times when I want BDSM that feel very unlike most times when I want sex.

The biggest political reason why it’s difficult to discuss this is the way in which we currently conceptualize sexuality through “orientations”: we have built a cultural “orientation model” focused on the idea that “acceptable” sexuality is “built-in”, or “innate”. Some BDSMers consider BDSM an “orientation” — and I, myself, once found that thinking of BDSM as an orientation was extremely helpful in coming to terms with my BDSM desires. But one thing I don’t like about the orientation model now is that it makes us sound like we’re apologizing. “Poor little me! It’s not my fault I’m straight! Or a domme! Whatever!” Why would any of these things be faults in the first place? Our bodies are our own, our experiences are our own, and our consent is our own to give.

The orientation model is one of the cultural factors that makes it hard to discuss sensory, sensual experiences without defaulting to sexuality. As commenter saurus pointed out on the Feministe version of part 1 of this post:

Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” — of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s totally sexual.”

I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals. (I’ve written about such encounters several times, like in my post on communication case studies.) And I’d like to stress that when I have encounters like that, they can be very satisfying without involving sex. The release — the high — I get from a heavy BDSM encounter can be its own reward.

I’ve also had BDSM encounters where I got turned on … (more…)

2011 20 Jul

[slogan] Start From A Position of Strength

A while back, I attended a workshop run by educator Sarah Sloane on the topic of BDSM and abuse. Sarah centered her workshop on a maxim that I have hereby stolen: “Start from a position of strength, and seek strength in the end.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of not just polyamory and BDSM, but sex in general. All types of sexuality are more pleasurable for some people, and less pleasurable for others; emotionally easier for some people, and more difficult for others. I have zero interest in telling other people how they “should” or “shouldn’t” deal with their sexuality, as long as what they’re doing is consensual. I want to say right now that nothing I’m about to write is intended to tell others how they “should” or “shouldn’t” do S&M; it’s just my own thoughts on how I might choose and process my experiences.

I can certainly consent to whatever, even if that thing is problematic or scary or difficult or complicated — I can consent. The thing is, if I want to get something amazing and positive out of my experiences, I think it’s good to start from a position of strength.

In some ways this is clear. For example, I think that being with a partner who genuinely wants me to have a good experience, who really cares about me, and who wants to see me again — that’s almost always a position of strength. Even if I have fairly intense, dark S&M encounters with that person, I can feel confident that he’ll treat me with respect; that he’ll give me space and lend me strength for emotional processing afterwards.

Also, knowing what I want is a position of strength; understanding how I feel is a position of strength. Being able to recognize my emotional difficulties, hiccups, triggers and landmines is a position of strength. Knowing for sure that I can call my safeword, if necessary, is a position of strength. On a physical level, I prefer to do S&M when my body is in good shape — when I’m well-rested and I’ve eaten healthy food. That, too, is a position of strength.

In some ways this can become murky. For example: I am rarely interested in one-night stands. There are a number of reasons for this, but one reason is that — especially as a woman — feeling like a “slut” can be scary, difficult cultural territory. And when I don’t feel good about myself, my interest in one-night stands is even lower — because I know that dealing with the difficult territory of “sluthood” will be harder with low self-esteem. If I’m feeling happy, strong, competent, valuable, and loved by the world … then one-night stands can easily be fun. If I doubt my worth, or if I doubt how much I deserve love … then one-night stands can be self-destructive.

The same goes for relationships with people who don’t care about me. If I’m sure that a guy has no emotional interest in me, then having sex with that guy can be a dangerous emotional proposition for me, and one that I need to feel strong for. This doesn’t always end up being true — I’ve definitely had sexual encounters that left me emotionally unaffected — but sometimes it’s hard to predict whether I’ll want more emotional investment from a given dude, so I try to keep it in mind for all encounters. (From a polyamorous perspective, I’ve noticed that less-emotional sex is often easier to handle when I’m already in a solid relationship with someone else.)

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2010 11 Nov

[classic repost] Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing

This was originally posted on January 19, 2009. I am reposting it today in honor of Scarleteen, the best sex education website ever, and as part of the awesome Scarleteen Sex Ed Blog Carnival.

* * *

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into some sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype (but to be clear, it’s not okay that I did that). As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies is that it helps people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. When I developed my first sex education workshop, it was all about describing good communication strategies. I listed questions that all sex partners could benefit from asking each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?”

And I talked about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I took a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I told people that they could try filling out those checklists and giving them to their partners. (The amazing sex education site Scarleteen later implemented the same idea, in a much more comprehensive way than I had!) I suggested that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, or write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

(By the way, I still offer a much-improved version of that workshop on my list of events, lectures, and workshops, just in case you’re interested in bringing me in ….)

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the wonderful sex-positive anthology Yes Means Yes!:

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

POSTSCRIPT: Scarleteen does a really great job of dealing with my five points above. It’s also a grassroots effort, and needs donations to keep running. Please consider donating to Scarleteen. From the donate link: “Scarleteen is an independent, comprehensive and inclusive sexuality clearinghouse for young adults which receives no federal, state or local funding. We serve around 25,000 users daily, providing accurate, nonjudgmental and compassionate sexuality information and education via static content, as well as one-on-one advice and counsel via our highly-moderated message boards, our advice columns and our new SMS service. Tens of millions of teens and young adults have found the help or information they were seeking at Scarleteen.”

So, seriously. Donate!

* * *

This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2010 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.

2009 19 Jan

Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing

It’s been a while since I posted something substantive; I’m so busy with my awesome upcoming sex-positive film series and discussion group (please attend!), it’s hard to find time! So, I’ll make up for that with a really long post.

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into any number of sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype. As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

Edit: 1/20/09 — A really great comment from PAS led me to pull back and rethink a few of the things I said here. I edited this point a bit, to reflect that I’ve been trying to think through the biases he called me out on.

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

::::::::::
The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.
::::::::::

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies will be that it will help people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. If I ever create a sex education curriculum, I want to describe a bunch of good communication strategies. I’ll list questions that all sex partners should ask each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” (Edit 7/2/10: As it happens, I later did exactly that. end of edit)

And I’ll talk about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I’ll take a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I’ll put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I’ll tell people that they should fill out those checklists and give them to their partners. I’ll suggest that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, if they feel uncomfortable talking. I’ll suggest that partners write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the book Yes Means Yes! (a book of sex-positive essays that I still haven’t read, but really really want to):

::::::::::
[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.
::::::::::

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

2008 26 Dec

Casual sex? Casual kink?

I have the benefit of a very sexually open, pro-sex, highly sex-educated upbringing. Perhaps as a result of this, I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It actually took me a while to register that the difference was emotional engagement: sexual acts with people I really cared about were dramatically better. This seems so obvious, I’m kinda shocked by how long it took me.

(For the record: I identify as very sex-positive! — but my issues with the general sex-positive message, or at least the way the message has largely been received, deserve their own post. I’m sure I’ll write one soon.)

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I not only was way more into sexual acts with people I was emotionally invested in; I was really not into sexual acts with people I wasn’t emotionally invested in. I personally dislike casual sex, even when the acts in question are as “mild” as heavy petting. So I pretty much stopped.

On some level, though, my preference against casual sex has always bothered me. For a while, it was because I just didn’t feel “liberated” enough. (I wish I could get every American child with a liberal sex education to write this 100 times: “It is a perfectly valid preference if you don’t want to have casual sex! It doesn’t mean you’re repressed, or warped, or should try to train yourself out of it!”) Anyway, after I got past the “liberation” trap, I started feeling depressed about the fact that this is a huge limit on my sexual experimentation.

I mean, ideally, if I want to explore my sexuality to the greatest possible extent, I need to be open to having sex with lots and lots of people, right? And I’m just … not. Which means that my sexual experimentation is limited to people I already care about, feel somewhat connected to, have built something with already. I find this incredibly annoying! But ultimately, I acknowledge that I feel much worse if I try to force/guilt trip myself into casual sex, than I do when I limit my sexual partners. I feel way better when I’m somewhat frustrated and not getting any, than I would if I tried to take the edge off by screwing some guy I’m not very interested in.

(Oddly, I’ve had one or two casual encounters that I enjoyed. I’ve never been able to figure out why those were different from the others — I’m working on it. Maybe it’s just that I connected emotionally more quickly to those guys than I do to most people? … For the most part, though, I recall my casual encounters with a wince — mostly because I felt so confused. “Why aren’t I enjoying this more?” I was asking myself. “I must be. Sex is fun, right?”)

So. I have established that I’m not into casual sex. I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries with people I’m not very sexually interested in. And I’m okay with that, albeit frustrated.

But what about casual kink?

I discovered my BDSM orientation a few years ago; I went through a period of adjustment, and then I went through a couple of monogamous relationships. Since the end of my last relationship I’ve played, BDSM-wise, with people I didn’t know very well — in a few cases, total strangers. I’m glad I did it, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. But the encounters that rated as most enjoyable were ones where there was more effort put forth to emotionally connect, especially the ones that happened in private. (I think privacy really intensifies my ability to connect to my partner.) *

Not that it’s incredibly easy to connect to me! There’s this stereotype that tops are closed off and emotionally cold, and bottoms are emotionally open — easily taken advantage of. But when I look at my BDSM experiences, I see that I have often been less emotionally accessible than tops I’ve played with. I shut myself down, I don’t talk about what I’m thinking, I give only small wedges of information about myself and what I want. It takes a lot for me to tell a top much of what I’m feeling. This is a pattern I am working to break.

What all this probably means is that it would be good for me to take more time to get to know the tops I’m interested in, before I play with them. I should try to build care before going straight for the BDSM.

Yeah, half of me thinks I really should simply close myself off to casual kink, the same way I’ve pretty much closed myself off to casual sex. Yet the other half is screaming against that, because my BDSM urge is way stronger than my sexual urge. Not that I don’t love sex, and want it, and enjoy the hell out of it! However. I crave BDSM. Going without sex feels less like celibacy than going without BDSM.

It’s also easier for me to enjoy casual BDSM, than it is for me to enjoy casual sex. There’s a few reasons for this. One is that extreme pain can … blank me … much more easily than sex can. And I need to trust my partner way more to immerse myself in the right headspace for sex, than I do to get into the right headspace for masochism.

In conclusion, I’m not sure, but I think I’m coming to a place where I want to limit my casual BDSM. Which is even more frustrating than limiting casual sex! And it’s even worse at this moment in my life, because I got very badly burned in my last relationship — the passage of time just seems to make it more obvious how much further I need to heal before I’ll be ready for a new boyfriend. Am I limiting myself to celibacy until then? Damn it, I don’t want that!

Sigh. We’ll see.

… Of course, preferences do change over time. I’m open to having different feelings about casual BDSM (and even casual sex) now, from my feelings in the future. Also, I’ve been having some surprisingly intense toppish fantasies lately, too (surprising because — until now, anyway — I’ve identified mostly as a bottom). Those fantasies don’t seem to have anything to do with sex, and they feel somewhat … performative. I’m curious to see whether, in the course of exploring them, I’ll find myself interested in topping casually and/or publicly.

* Hey kids! If you are considering having a casual BDSM experience in private, then be careful! If you can, then ask your partner for references — call the references, and see what they have to say. Meet any potential partner in a public place and hash out the details of what you want to happen, before you go private with them. Be sure to look at their driver’s license, and text their real name and license number to a trusted friend before you leave the public place. Arrange to call the friend at a prearranged time later — and instruct the friend to go to the police if they don’t hear from you. (Incidentally, you should probably do the same thing if you go home with a stranger to have sex with them!) Please note that you are usually quite safe if you have a BDSM experience with a stranger in the middle of a community playspace such as a dungeon; if you do that, make sure that you know the house safeword (it’s probably “red”) so you know what to scream if you want outsiders to intervene. Please also note that even if you are a top, you are not totally safe with someone you don’t know or trust: for one thing, you could be risking assault charges if there is a communication failure and your partner ends up feeling violated … or if your partner is a sociopath and decides to screw you over.