Posts Tagged ‘communication’

2013 12 Oct

Oral History of BDSM Experience: The Your Personal Kink project at the Leather Archives

Back in 2011, I volunteered semi-regularly at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago — the world’s only BDSM museum. The museum’s executive director, Rick Storer, knew that I had a strong interest in the history and culture of the BDSM community. He also knew that I was very interested in understanding different people’s experiences and perspectives on BDSM — the good, the bad, the surprising and fascinating.

So one day, Rick and I sat down and developed an oral history project that we named the Your Personal Kink project. Here’s how we described the project’s goals at the time:

The goal for the “Your Personal Kink Project” is to collect information about the experience of people who do not identify as part of the “BDSM community,” but who practice BDSM in their relationships. By “BDSM Community” we mean the wide network of dungeons, educational demonstrations, conventions, club nights, meetups, and other fora that function to socially network, educate, and acculturate many BDSMers.

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2012 20 Nov

[postsecret] Stories of People Whose Partners Cheated

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating. But it’s a complicated topic, and I try to acknowledge its complexity alongside my emotional baggage.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. Last month, I posted a bunch of PostSecret snippets about what it’s like to cheat. There were a lot of interesting comments on last month’s post, so I decided to do a followup: postcards that hint at the complex stories of folks whose partners cheated.

* * *

(Picture of a baby, then text): “I hate that one day I’ll have to tell him that fucking other women was more important to you than we were.”

At first glance, this strikes me as the archetypal narrative of a woman who was cheated on. But I have a lot of experience with polyamory — that is, open relationships — and I wonder whether there’s a different story here. Maybe this woman’s partner was faithful to a monogamous standard, but tried asking for an open relationship. Perhaps they discussed it, disagreed, and then broke up.

Either way, I have sympathy for the person who wrote this postcard. Breakups are hard. I just can’t help wondering whether they broke up over a betrayal or a disagreement.

* * *

“For a scary, intoxicating moment I thought you were telling me you’re leaving your wife. But you meant you are moving away with her.”

This, on the other hand, is the archetypal story of the “mistress.” And as I said in the previous post, I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

Yet sometimes I think that the best argument against being a cheating facilitator has nothing to do with the pain you cause other people. Sometimes I think that the best argument against being that person is the amount of pain you can open yourself up to. Especially if you want the cheater to eventually commit to you … despite the fact that they are, of course, already a cheater.

It’s also clear that, for some people, being the cheating facilitator is a painful pattern:

“Always a bridesmaid mistress, never a bride …”

* * *

Aaaand finally:

“I feel guilty for making my husband break up with his mistresses.”

I assume that this writer is female. (If the writer isn’t female, then there’s a ton of other potential stories wrapped up in the card!) The postcard talks about how she feels guilty for making her husband break up with his “mistresses,” which leads me to wonder how long she knew about the situation, and whether her guilt is due to breaking some kind of relationship agreement.

Did they basically have an open relationship for a while — where she overlooked the situation deliberately? And does she feel guilty because she suddenly rescinded that tacit permission?

This is one of the most complicated postcards I’ve seen. I can think of several other readings off the top of my head, but if you folks have thoughts, I’d rather hear them in comments.

* * *

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

* * *

2012 24 Oct

[postsecret] What It’s Like To Cheat

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating, mostly due to background info that I won’t write about today. I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

I have also always maintained that it’s entirely possible to cheat even if you’re polyamorous: cheating means breaking the relationship agreement, it’s not about the exact mechanics of the sexual act. So, for example, say that you agree with your partner that you can both have sex with other people, but not kiss them. In that case, if you kiss someone else, it’s still cheating!

With age, however, I have become less fierce about the topic. (I guess people get less fierce about everything, with age.) I am now more willing to listen to reasons that cheating might happen, and what it means to different people. I still don’t advocate cheating, and I don’t think it’s right, but I can understand it better now.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret. It’s an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following cheater-derived images ….

* * *

“I rationalized that having an affair was justified because my wife didn’t seem to trust me, whether I was faithful or not. I figured I had little to lose. I was wrong. I gave up being the guy who would never hurt her like that. Forever.”

This postcard resonates most with me, presumably because the writer seems to take the emotional harm he’s caused as seriously as I do.

* * *

“I’m sleeping with both of you so I can be both halves of who I really am: Innocent / Freak.”

Sometimes, a PostSecret card comes up that makes me wonder whether the writer is talking about cheating … or consensual non-monogamy. For example, maybe this person is being honest with all involved partners. I certainly hope so!

I have always figured that if there’s a sexual desire that can’t be met by a current relationship, then the first step should be to try and negotiate an alternative sexual outlet. For example, if this person wants some BDSM (as the image seems to imply), but has a partner who doesn’t want to do BDSM, then it’s totally legit to say “Honey, can I take on a BDSM partner outside our relationship?” — even if they’re monogamous most of the time.

I know that a lot of people don’t think that way, though. So one of the first “cheating sympathies” I ever had was this: if a person asks their partner for something they feel is important, but the conversation is shut down or ignored … or even if there’s good intentions on all sides, and many attempts have been made, but there’s no apparent compromise. I can understand why cheating happens, then.

* * *

“Because of my husband’s sexual dysfunction, I have been celibate for over a decade. I am not proud of my fidelity. I feel ashamed that I stay.”

This, right here. This seems like the perfect time for a careful conversation about sexual needs and an honest, straightforward request for an open relationship. But I understand why that would be incredibly hard, and I just feel so bad for everyone involved. No one should have to feel trapped in a sexually unfulfilling relationship, but some people are terribly hurt by the idea that their partner would sleep with someone else, and it can be so hard to talk about ….

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2012 16 Oct

“Violation: Rape In Gaming” is Out NOW!

How does it feel to be virtually raped? Who would decide to commit rape in a game? Should we, as a society, worry about people who pretend to rape software? What does “rape in gaming” even mean, and why does it happen?

* * *

Good morning, and happy Ada Lovelace Day — “celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and math!”

I figured today would be the perfect day to release this new anthology:

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* * *

You can buy the book now for Amazon Kindle, or in other ebook formats. You can even buy it in paperback!

I developed this anthology with Julian Dibbell, a legendary tech writer who authored “A Rape in Cyberspace” and some fine books about online communities. I am totally starstruck, I assure you!

Plus, I had a great time writing the Introduction, which meshes feminism and S&M theory and gamer philosophy.

And! I’m thrilled to report that we’re donating 10% of the profits to the Electronic Frontier Foundation — “defending your rights in the digital world.” The EFF has long been one of my favorite non-profit organizations, and is probably the closest thing bloggers have to a guild.

Description!

* * *

How does it feel to be virtually raped? Who would decide to commit rape in a game? Should we, as a society, worry about people who pretend to rape software? What does “rape in gaming” even mean, and why does it happen?

In this groundbreaking volume, the technology writer Julian Dibbell and the feminist S&M writer Clarisse Thorn have selected ten pieces that discuss, debate, and explore the concept of rape in gaming. From the classic 1974 roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons to the video games of 2012, rape has come up in every type of game imaginable. How best can we deal with it? Nobody knows for sure, but we have a lot of ideas.

Feminist readers may find that this anthology deserves a trigger warning.

JULIAN DIBBELL has published widely about online life. He is the author, most recently, of Play Money: Or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot.

CLARISSE THORN is a feminist S&M writer who has lectured from Berlin to San Francisco and written from The Guardian to Jezebel. She’s published a lot of stuff lately, including an investigation of the “seduction subculture” called Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.

ANTHOLOGY WRITERS INCLUDE: Patricia Hernandez, Mary Hamilton, Courtney Stanton, Leigh Alexander, Shawn Rider, Daniel Terdiman, Lydia Laurenson, Darren MacLennan, Jason Sartin, Anne C. Moore.

COVER DESIGN BY: Ei Jane Janet Lin.

* * *

Buy it! Amazon Kindle, or in other ebook formats, or in paperback.

And again, if you haven’t already: check out Ada Lovelace Day!

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2012 18 Sep

Reaching People: A Parable with Bookstores, Libraries, Museums, and the Internet

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve worked in more than one bookstore. I read obsessively when I was growing up; I wrote constantly, and I wrote so compulsively that it didn’t occur to me to write professionally until my twenties. I didn’t see writing as work — it was just something I had to do. Stories were sacred. The name Clarisse came from Ray Bradbury’s classic anti-censorship tale of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451.

At my second bookstore, I was working behind the counter one day when a middle-aged Black woman came in. “Is this a library?” she asked.

“No,” I said. My tone edged on rudeness. Wasn’t it obvious that this was a bookstore and not a library? It was a city storefront — whereas libraries have nice façades and sometimes pillars, right? I mean, my library did. I had seen libraries without pillars, but I figured that at least they made an effort, perhaps with elegant doors or incised stone signage.

“Sorry,” she said, and left.

An antique postcard depicting the pillared edifice of Chicago’s Blackstone Library branch (only a few blocks from Obama’s house!). The image came from this Chicago postcard history website.

A year later, someone else came in and asked the same question. This time, it was a Black gentleman. I was less snide this time, and more puzzled. He, too, left when I said “No.”

There were other differences in how many (though not all) Black customers interacted with the store. For example, Black customers would often ask for Philosophy but leave empty-handed if I showed them the gigantic section containing Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger. One of my coworkers eventually solved the mystery by asking which authors the customer sought; we learned that when most Black customers came in and asked for Philosophy, they’d be looking for authors we shelved in our tiny New Age & Occult section.

After years of working at that store, I thought I knew all the bookstores in the neighborhood. We even kept a directory of neighborhood bookstores on the counter, so that people could do a bookstore tour of the area. But one day I was out with a boyfriend grabbing brunch at a place we didn’t usually go, and we passed an entirely different bookstore. When I went in, I discovered that it stocked crystals and incense and books by authors I’d never heard of; a lot of the authors were New Age. I browsed for an hour. Not a single other White person came in.

That store? Was maybe four blocks from the store where I worked. It wasn’t in our bookstore directory. My boss had never heard of it. And it had been around for years.

A while after that, my boyfriend and I were driving across an area of the South Side where we didn’t normally go, and we passed a book-lined storefront that sported a laser-printed sign: LIBRARY. “Oh my God,” I said. “Pull over right now.”

“In this neighborhood?” he asked.

“Pull over,” I insisted, and I jumped out of the car before he was even done parking. I ran into the storefront. “Is this a library?” I demanded at the counter, although I could already tell from the spines of the books on the walls.

“Yes.”

“This is a branch of the Chicago Public Library?” I couldn’t believe it. It was a storefront.

“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.

I left, exhilarated by the discovery, but also humbled. I wished I could go back in time and apologize to the woman who’d asked: Is this a library? I hadn’t said anything overtly rude, but my entire demeanor had been rude. I’d thought that my answer was obvious, but she’d been accustomed to libraries in storefronts, whereas I’d never heard of such a thing. The truth was, I had responded to a perfectly reasonable question by being patronizing and cruel.

This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.

* * *

I told this story to my friend Lisa, who works at the amazing Chicago social justice site Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (which incidentally hosts my glorious Sex+++ Documentary Film Series). In return, Lisa told me a story she’d heard about the Smithsonian, one of the most famous and established museums in the world. The Smithsonian offers free admission and it happens to be located within walking distance from some very underprivileged neighborhoods. But the museum collects demographics from attendees, and people from those underprivileged neighborhoods almost never go to the museum.

Lisa was recently involved in curating an exhibit (now open) about the history of a Chicago gang, the Conservative Vice Lords. Brilliantly, the exhibit was placed — not at the Hull-House Museum — but rather in an urban activist gallery that has neither a nice façade nor any pillars. The exhibit includes “pop-up” sections that move around to different places in the Conservative Vice Lords’ original neighborhood. In other words, it goes to the community whence the Conservative Vice Lords came. This is especially important because that’s not a community which is accustomed to having space in a museum, and isn’t likely to go visit one.

So here is a useful moral about making something accessible: outreach is part of accessibility. If an exhibit, or a piece of art, or whatever is really intended to be reached by the public, then sometimes it has to seek out the public.

The Conservative Vice Lords exhibit did not yet exist in 2009, when I went to work in sub-Saharan Africa. But I’d already heard Lisa’s parable of the Smithsonian. It was much on my mind as I spent time in one semi-rural African town; I sought out their library within my first 24 hours. I started feeling like something was wrong as soon as I looked at their books.

The books were mostly in English. That made sense, for that particular area, because books in the local language were scarce and the local language was rarely written anyway. (The newspaper was in English, too.) But the actual books that were stocked … well, there were some African writers, like Chinua Achebe. But the majority of books in the library were donations from the USA.

I found a cheesy thriller featuring a suburban housewife who falls for a handsome kidnapper. I found an obscure novel by my favorite fantasy author, Tanith Lee. I found old books by the early-1900s British humorist P.G. Wodehouse; he sets many of his novels on gently rolling lawns with golf, or in high-class townhouses with butlers. I sat around that library a lot, and my instincts were confirmed when I did not see a single local person read those books. They came in for shade, and conversation, and for newspapers and magazines.

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2012 12 Jul

You Can’t Date Half A Couple

This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests. The comments on the original are great.

I currently approach my relationships as polyamorous, meaning that I prioritize being able to have multiple lovers and discussing the relationships honestly with everyone concerned. A while back, I wrote a piece called My Top Questions About Dealing With Multiple Lovers, in which I mused about some confusing thoughts I’ve had in pursuit of polyamory. My first question was:

What are my responsibilities towards my partners’ other partners? A lot of poly people will tell you that if you get into a relationship with, say, a married polyamorous man, then you must also expect to interact with his spouse. In other words, don’t assume that your relationship means you only interact with one half of a couple. I’m totally fine with this, but on occasion I’ve felt like I was getting sucked into the couple’s problems, or like I was expected to have no individual relationship with my partner — that I always had to go through his primary partner.

Sometimes, polyamorous people put this much more succinctly: “You can’t date half a couple.” If you’re emotionally involved with one person, you’re involved with their other partners by default … even if you’re not having a sexual or romantic relationship with their other partners.

A couple years ago, I dealt with a striking situation along these lines. I was careless … but I think my partner was pretty careless, too. He and I were highly attracted to each other from the start. He had a girlfriend, but I thought they were polyamorous. So I brazenly flirted with him in front of her, and got his contact information. She seemed calm and collected as she watched it happen; I really didn’t think there was a problem.

Boy, was I wrong. I went out to dinner with that guy later in the week — I’ll call him Ken — and we scheduled an S&M date. Ken and I agreed that we wouldn’t have any genital contact, although we planned to hit each other with things and inflict some pain and make out a bit. (Lots of people who are into S&M sort of separate S&M feelings from sexual feelings, but it’s different for everyone.)

Ken and I had fun together. But there was one thing I didn’t know until after the date was over: it was the first time in their relationship that Ken had ever done a private encounter with a different partner! And he hadn’t been very thoughtful with his girlfriend about it, either.

I found out the next morning, when Ken mentioned offhandedly that he was a little worried about his girlfriend. “How come?” I asked.

“We’ve never done this before,” Ken said. “I mean, we talked about polyamory a little bit, but we hadn’t decided to do it until you came along. So last night, she knew I was meeting you, and she’s probably been anxious about it all night.”

I got a sick feeling. I realized that Ken and his girlfriend had fallen into the “monogamous-now, polyamorous-later” trap. One of the big problems with being “monogamous now” and thinking about “polyamory later” is that if a potential Other Partner comes along, it forces the issue. Then, if the couple decides to be polyamorous, and it feels difficult for anyone … then the Other Partner can receive a lot of the bad feelings because the Other Partner is seen as the “interloper.” And I was now the Other Partner.

“Oh my God,” I said to Ken. “You mean you weren’t polyamorous when I met you?”

“No,” he said. I remembered how I’d blatantly flirted with him in front of his girlfriend, and I felt careless and cruel.

“I wish you had told me,” I said. “I wish you’d mentioned that this was your first time meeting someone outside the relationship. I would have suggested that you call her late last night to reassure her, or something like that. Do you want to call her now?”

Ken shook his head. “It’s nice to know that you would have been cool with that,” he said. “But now it’s the morning, and I’ll just wait until we’re done with breakfast before I call her.”

I thought about saying, She should be your top priority. I thought about saying, Maybe you shouldn’t date other women if you’re not sure whether they’d be cool with you calling your primary partner … but I held my peace. I decided that it wasn’t my relationship or my place to criticize him.

I felt a little uneasy about Ken, but I liked him a lot … so he and I thought about having a longer-term relationship. I decided that if we were going to continue, I wanted to do things right. I invited his girlfriend out for a one-on-one lunch so that we could talk.

It was hard to schedule lunch, but I was determined. I went all the way across the city to see her. When we met, she was nice enough … but standoffish. I asked if I could give her a hug, and she said, “No.” Then she said, “I’m sorry,” and told me that it was all a bit new for her.

We talked for an hour. I tried to make it completely clear that I didn’t want to be a threat to their relationship. But I also didn’t want to get sucked in to talking through their problems with her, and there were a few difficult moments where she told me about relationship issues. So I also tried to say, as gently as I could, that I didn’t want to be in a role of “relationship therapist” for their partnership. Although I felt open to talking to her and understanding her concerns, I really didn’t want to be in a position where I advised her about her relationship with Ken. I thought that could create conflicts where there didn’t have to be any conflicts.

By the end of lunch, Ken’s girlfriend said that she felt better and less anxious. But I kept feeling like I was barging in on a situation that was even more complicated than it seemed on the surface. I kept feeling like she blamed me, a little bit. Even though she seemed willing to deal with it, I was uncomfortable.

Although he wasn’t even there, that lunchtime meeting was the major reason I didn’t pursue things much further with Ken.

2012 16 Jun

S&M Aftercare … or Brainwashing?

Yes, it’s another article about abuse and S&M, but I’m going to cover a lot more than that. I’ll talk about intimacy and bodily reactions and how these things build a relationship — whether consensual or abusive. And I’ll talk about how to deal with them, too.

Last year, I received an email from a woman who wanted to talk about sexual desire that exists alongside real abuse. She has been abused, but she is sexually aroused by S&M, and she struggles with boundaries a lot. She wrote to me:

Here’s what destroys you: that some of us are designed to shut down and feel terror and horror and arousal and shame all at the same time, to crumple before horrible people, to feel aroused even as they genuinely destroy you. This is not in any one’s best interest. It’s not hot, it’s not awesome. And yet it’s there.

The worst pain for some of us, that makes you want to scream and not exist and makes you want to scream to the heavens that you want to die and escape being in your own body is not that you are afraid he will come back. It’s that you are aroused by the possibility that he will. And other than destroying your very self, you can’t stop it. It is the cruelest of design flaws and the worst people understand it and the most compassionate people don’t.

However, the conclusion is not that some people want abuse. By definition, abuse is something that destroys you, that leaves you feeling violated and harmed in a way you don’t want. And part of that mechanism, that involves the desire for the abuse to continue, is that many of us are designed to want more intimacy once intimacy has been initiated with a person. Many of us don’t want to be left.

And the agony of feeling harmed by being left by someone you never wanted to be there in the first place is confusing and can be debilitating.

No one wants to be harmed in this way. Among abuse survivor communities the arousal involved in abuse situations is often called “body betrayal,” but this doesn’t seem to encompass how deep the desires can be for some people. At the root, the desires are often the same desires that fit into normal healthy intimate relationships. To be loved, to have an ongoing interaction, to be seen and understood at the root of all your emotion, to be taken sexually and feel the pleasure of another enjoying your sexual arousal. But these emotions have been exploited and manipulated for the gain of others.

For some number of people who have experienced abuse, the greatest split within the self does not simply come from how horrific the acts themselves were but from the feelings of desire and pleasure that can happen in human beings even during horrific unwanted acts. For some of us, BDSM can be a safe way to explore unpacking some of this desire and how these arousal patterns got mixed up with horrific things — or were already hooked up to horrific things and that pre-existing fact was exploited by a harmful person. And for some of us, taking that out and playing with it may not be a necessary part of recovery at all.

But simply knowing this — the fact that your arousal and pleasure systems can be activated by harmful people is ok — it does not mean you want it, it does not mean that it was good for you, or that anyone should have treated you in that way. That can be the greatest healing in and of itself.

I want to thank her for allowing me to publish her words. Her description is so far from how I usually discuss or experience S&M; and yet I see connections, too, and people rarely discuss those connections.

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Aftercare: Intimacy Within Positive and Consensual S&M

A while back, a study came out that established that a consenting, positive S&M experience increases a couple’s intimacy afterwards. I cite that study all the time, but I still find its existence kinda absurd; I mean, they could have just asked us how it felt. On the bright side, if S&M is being studied by Real Researchers, it’s a sign that S&M is becoming more widely accepted. Yet for all its hormone level measurements and mood surveys, I didn’t feel like the study got anywhere near the heart of S&M and how S&M creates such extraordinary intimacy. Why would it? Studies are science, and aftercare is art.

I’ve previously defined aftercare as “a cool-down period after an S&M encounter, which often involves reassurance and a discussion of how things went.” That’s a decent quick definition, but there’s a lot more to it. Bodily violence sometimes creates a mental malleability and vulnerability that can be used in good ways … but also in terrible ways. I see aspects of this in competitive sports, especially the ones that involve fighting and hurting other people very directly. (Have you ever seen that phenomenon where two guys fight each other and then become Best Friends right afterwards?)

Being together with an S&M partner during aftercare can be used to free people, to make them feel amazing and establish extraordinary intimacy. But it can hurt people too; it can hurt them terribly.

(more…)

2012 7 Jun

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

At long last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 1 May

Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Feeling of Jealousy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

2012 3 Apr

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

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

Also, this picture is awesome:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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