Posts Tagged ‘communication’

2012 8 Mar

“Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser” NOW AVAILABLE

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Amazon description of the book:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

~ excerpt from interview with pickup artist coach Mark Manson

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

~ excerpt from Psychology Today interview by Scott Barry Kaufman

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

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

Gutsy, troubling, messy, and great

~ Jonathan Korman on Twitter

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

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

~ excerpt from Amazon review by Turiyananda

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

~ Bianca James in a quick review

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

~ excerpt from Amazon review by Katy Huff

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

~ a gentleman Facebook commenter and early reader

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

Clarisse Thorn understands that shit is complicated.

~ excerpt from review by feminist Ozy Frantz

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

~ Lidia-Anain on Twitter

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

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

~ excerpt from review by Infra

* * *

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

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

* * *

2012 27 Feb

Feminist S&M Lessons from the Seduction Community

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

Update! The book is out now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I admitted.

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

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

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

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

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2012 10 Feb

[storytime] The Strange Binary of Dominance and Submission

It’s been a while since I felt simultaneously very into someone, and very sure about him. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve been playing with theories about how “flirtation is basically an exercise in strategic ambiguity” and “insecurity is an integral part of romantic intoxication” and “uncertainty is an emotional amplifier“, and I do think that those ideas are true in many ways. But I got so wrapped up in theory that I forgot how it feels to be way into someone … and only a little bit scared.

* * *

I met Mica at a Saturday night party. When I left the next morning, he said he wanted to see me again as soon as possible. “Monday?” he asked. “Tuesday?”

“Monday,” I said. “Tomorrow.”

He’s a smart, creative thinker. There are layers to him, and he practically shines: so why not call him Mica? I would love talking to him for those reasons alone. But there’s also a kind of certainty to him; a calm presence; an extraordinary quality of attention. Once he’s focused on a partner, there’s a rhythm behind everything he does. He’s so precise that when I’m kissing him, I feel like an awkward puppy.

I observed this very quickly, and something else: that the quality of his attention — often overtook him. Controlled him. In a sexual interaction, it’s difficult to distract him from catering to me. And since he’s excellent at reading my desires, I usually don’t want to distract him.

It made me think of what I was like, years ago, before I understood my submissive tendencies. Mica hadn’t done much explicit S&M before, and when he’d done it, he was dominant. I didn’t want to project too much, or make any assumptions about him … but I couldn’t help noticing.

The second night I was with him, I asked him to inflict light pain on me. Very light. I didn’t want to go further with him, yet. But his instincts for delivering pain and watching my reactions were, as I suspected, beautifully calibrated.

The third night I was with him, he touched my face and kissed me. I felt my eyelashes flutter and my body melt, and he smiled. Then he said, “I’m feeling really gentle tonight. I don’t know how much I’m up for.”

He doesn’t want S&M right now, I thought. Sometimes guys date me and get anxious that I’ll be disappointed when they don’t want to do S&M. This is understandable, given that I’m an S&M writer. But I hate that, because the last thing I want is for one of my partners to feel obligated … and besides, even I don’t want all-S&M-all-the-time. I smiled directly into Mica’s eyes and told him I was fine with it.

In bed, I watched him. Watched his extraordinary attentiveness. Eventually we got to a point where I was leaning over him, kissing him. I watched him give up his body to the kiss. He doesn’t want S&M right now, I thought, … except that his main experience with S&M, so far, is being in charge.

“Do you trust me?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely.”

I clenched my nails into Mica’s side, and his back arched. It was the clearest invitation I’d seen from him and, I suspected, the clearest invitation he knew how to give. If he even knew that he was giving it. It can take a lot of time and experience for a submissive to learn what they want well enough to give good feedback for it. It’s one of those submissive skills that people don’t think about enough, because for some reason we’re always too busy teaching dominant skills.

I kissed Mica again, and tore into his back.

He was ready for it. His breathing fast became irregular; he gasped; he shook in my hands. After a while, I pulled back and simply observed the intensity flooding through him. His body undulated like a wave.

“I knew you were dangerous,” he breathed. “In exactly the way that I want.”

“Dangerous,” I repeated. I hesitated. “What do you mean?” His eyelashes flickered, and I saw that he was too far under to answer me. He probably barely knew what he was saying. (In S&M, we call this state of mind subspace.)

I pushed him a little farther. I only used my nails, but you can do a lot with your nails. I said his name, over and over. He struggled, he fought his own body. I observed the struggle and saw myself in it. “I know,” I told him.

Eventually Mica said, quite seriously, that he wanted to stop. I was certain that he could take more. A lot more. I might have been able to convince him to continue, and had him thank me for it later. But he needs to know that I’ll respect him when he says to stop. Also, in a somewhat self-interested way, I don’t want to set a precedent where his boundaries are entirely nonverbal; where his limits depend on my capacity to see through him. Maybe someday, when we know each other really well. Right now, it would make it too easy to seriously harm him … and for him to hate me afterwards.

So I stopped.

“No one has ever touched me so deeply, so fast before,” Mica said, later. And, later later: “This changes everything.” I lay still, kept my arms around him, listening. “That was total catharsis,” he said. “I mean –” a note of doubt crept into his voice. “Do you actually like doing that?”

“Yes,” I said. I said it fast and hard, because he needs to believe it. I understood why he was asking: I’ve been there. When I was first getting into S&M, the first time I felt that way, I had a hard time believing that my partner actually liked doing that for me. It felt so incredible. It felt like I couldn’t possibly be giving back as much as I received. Sometimes, I still feel that insecurity.

(more…)

2012 2 Feb

Orgasms Aren’t My Favorite Part Of Sex, and My Chastity Urge

The following pieces were originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests: here’s Orgasms Aren’t My Favorite Part of Sex, and here’s My Chastity Urge. I’ve combined them in one post because they feel, to me, like they deal with fundamentally the same issues, and belong together.

A month or two ago, I published a piece called A Unified Theory of Orgasm. In that piece, I talked about my own history, and how long I took to learn how to orgasm. Basically, learning how to orgasm took a long time and a lot of angst. And I’m really glad that I eventually figured it out — and that I have many years of experimentation still ahead of me.

That piece was really well-received, and a lot of people have thanked me for writing it. As always, though, there’s some mixed feedback too. And I’ve been worried about one thing in particular: it seems like a lot of people missed the part in my article where I said that, now that I’ve learned how to have orgasms … orgasms aren’t even my favorite part of sex. It’s a long article, and I can see how people would miss that, but I did say it and I think it’s important.

Specifically, I wrote:

[It may help some people] not to prioritize orgasms. I am not saying orgasms aren’t important; I just don’t want the importance of orgasms to wound you, the way it wounded me. For me, it is helpful to imagine sex as a journey. For me, it helps to focus on having fun throughout, instead of doing what it takes to reach the “goal” of orgasm. If you’re not taking pleasure in the journey — or at least indulging some curiosity — then why keep going? Why not stop and try something else?

Experimenting sexually in an open-ended way has been, for me, the most productive possible attitude. And in fact, once I knew how to make myself come, I discovered that — though it’s helpful to be able to attain that release if I really want to — orgasms aren’t actually my favorite part of sex! There are lots of other things I like better.

It’s also worth noting that our definitions of “orgasm” are fairly narrow. Some research indicates that there may be other ways to conceptualize orgasms than the stereotypical genital-focused approach.

And now I want to talk about it some more.

It may be ironic that I spent so much time feeling terrible and broken and depressed because I couldn’t figure out how to have orgasms … whereas now I prefer not to focus on them. In fact, I estimate that most of my current sexual encounters don’t include my orgasm, and very few of my most pleasurable sexual encounters have included my orgasm.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know everything about sex, and there’s a lot that I haven’t experienced. Anything might change. But seriously. The best sex I’ve had in my life has been connective and emotional and, for me personally, has frequently involved intense BDSM. My favorite sex so far? Has also mostly been orgasm-free.

Some people in some sex-related communities have asserted that for maximum amorous power, it’s actually best to limit one’s orgasms, because then the contained sexual energy ends up channeling into a deeper connection with one’s partner. I can see that. For me, another way of thinking about it is that I’m really into being teased — and I’d rather experience hours of being teased without an orgasm, than have a quick encounter that ends in orgasm.

And …. (Oh no, I can already tell this is going to get complicated … but hey, sex is complicated, so I’ll give it a shot.) …. Especially when I’m doing BDSM, it can actually be hot sometimes if I don’t have an orgasm. For example: if I go to sleep so turned on that I can’t dream about anything but my partner, and then I wake up in a damp mess, and then my partner makes my life difficult all morning, it’s pretty awesome. (Although it’s very nice that I know how to give myself orgasms now, because that means that if I’m really feeling overwhelmed by my own sexual energy, I know how to give myself release if I have to. You know, like … if I need to get some work done.)

Aaaaand … here’s the most painful, ridiculous, circular irony of all. Ready? Here goes: now that I’m capable of having orgasms, I’ve found myself occasionally having orgasms only to satisfy my partner. How absurd is that? Plus, I know I’m not alone, because I’ve talked to other women who do the same thing!

I’ve written before that in the past I’ve felt trapped by fake plastic ideas of “what hot girls look like during sex”; I’ve written about how the pressure to “perform” my sexuality can hurt. What has amazed me, as I’ve gotten older, is just how pervasive that pressure can feel with some partners … and how little pressure there is with other partners. The question of how to create a low-pressure environment for sexuality to flourish is big and complicated, so let me just say here that although I’m all about people giving each other orgasms … it’s no good if my partner’s desire to give me an orgasm turns into pressure for me to have an orgasm!

(more…)

2012 16 Jan

Submissive Skills

This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot, where I became the Sex + Relationships Section Editor on December 15, 2011.

I write a lot about my experiences with BDSM — that’s a 6-for-4 acronym that covers Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. I have a fair amount of experience engaging in BDSM; I also have a fair amount of experience in the BDSM subculture. The subculture consists of meetup groups, educational workshops, dungeons where people practice BDSM, a set of well-reputed books and resources, Internet social networking sites, etc. The subculture also has its own norms and pitfalls.

Many BDSMers use the word “bottom” to refer to a masochist and/or submissive, and “top” to refer to a dominant and/or sadist. I am a switch, which means I feel comfortable in either the top or the bottom role. I haven’t observed every BDSM group in the world, but in my experience, one BDSM subculture pitfall is that we don’t explicitly teach very many “bottom skills”. In fact, a lot of the time, “bottom skills” aren’t even recognized as skills.

But bottom skills are totally the skillsiest skillz you can imagine. Let me start by describing my ex-boyfriend who was most in touch with his bottom side. When I met him, I was much less experienced than him at BDSM, and I was basically unaware of my top side. I think there are probably a lot more women than we think who would be up for being BDSM tops, but since cultural norms tell us that women aren’t dominant, lots of those women simply don’t recognize those feelings. My ex-boyfriend agrees, and as a result he’s specifically trained himself to surreptitiously draw out a woman’s dominant desires.

With me, he started by giving me the gift of his fear. We saw each other around the community a few times, and I guess he took note. Then one day, we were both at a BDSM meetup, and from nearby — while he was speaking to someone else — he remarked that I terrified him. He knew that I’d overhear.

I looked at him. He avoided my gaze. Eventually he worked his way around the crowd so he was actually speaking to me, and that was when he actually met my eyes and said directly to me, straightforward, in a charming and casual tone: “I’m terrified.”

Of course, this is vulnerability on a silver platter: it’s confident vulnerability. You scare me. Yet I’m still talking to you, even though I’m sure you could hurt me real bad. He was being so obvious, yet there were still so many tacit dimensions to what he was doing, and I had never quite seen anyone like him before. I was intrigued, and felt myself gain a predatory focus.

He was like that throughout our relationship. Throughout the flirting, throughout the BDSM encounters. He communicated very directly when there was a need for direct talking. But he also showed me so much of what to do. When I put my nails in certain places, he’d arch his body directly into them and groan. When I did something that was difficult for him, he’d get quieter and less responsive in an extremely obvious way while he dealt with it. He’s the only man I’ve ever seen who knew how to tip his head back for a kiss (he was also tall, so most women would have to be in very particular positions for this to work, ahem). A lot of this was instinctive, of course; many bottoms would recognize themselves in these tendencies … but he’d learned his own instinctive responses and fine-tuned them.

I want to make it clear here that I don’t want anyone to “perform” a type of sexuality that they don’t like; trust me, I know just how much a person can feel responsible for “acting out” their sexuality. I’ve been there. But that’s different from a person taking their own desires and reactions, and honing them for maximum communication power. That kind of thing takes experience and self-knowledge. Which is one of the things I value most about BDSM — the inner exploration it can enable. I just wish we taught about it better.

I definitely think the BDSM subculture is great at teaching certain topics: for example, how to perform certain activities safely. In major USA cities, there are often workshops on how to safely hit people with whips. Communication also gets a decent amount of airtime; for example, everyone in the community knows what a safeword is (indeed, a lot of people outside the community know about safewords, too). Sometimes, tops are even “judged” on their “dominant skill set”. But bottoms are usually seen as just being “along for the ride” — or are merely judged for “how far they’re willing to go”, which is even worse, because it discourages some bottoms from setting boundaries.

(As a side note, here’s a pro tip on looking for tops. If you’re talking to a top who can’t stop bragging about how awesome and experienced they are, I advise you to walk away. Or perhaps I should merely say that I, personally, would walk away from that. My favorite, most respectful dominant partners have all had a hefty sense of humility and been very willing to learn — even if they were very experienced.)

So why sub skillz got no respect? I think it’s partly because a lot of them are subtle and hard to see. In general, any “receptive” social role is going to get less credit in an interaction, because lots of people think that the “initiating” social role “does all the work” — but the truth is that the “initiating” social role simply does more visible work. You see this happening with mainstream gender roles, too; for example, some men complain about how women expect them to do “all the work”, like asking women out on dates. But the truth is that for any role played by one gender in the usual heterosexual mating dance, there is an opposing or matching role that takes its own kind of work. For every man who has trouble asking women out, there is a woman who has trouble appearing approachable … or who wants to ask men out but thinks that she will freak men out by doing so (and indeed, she might well be correct). Things are tough all over, baby.

(more…)

2012 9 Jan

One Blurred Edge of Sex Work: Interview with a “Sugar Baby”, Part 2

(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 posted it in two parts. Part 1 is available if you click here. In Part 1, Olivia told us that she usually uses the site SeekingArrangement.com to find clients; she described the nature of a “sugar baby” site, and she talked about some things she’s learned about gender roles. Now for part 2:

Clarisse Thorn: In Part 1, you mentioned that you feel powerful in your relationships with these men. But there are issues of your safety, right?

Olivia: I think there are issues of safety anytime a person meets someone they don’t really know, especially if they plan to spend time in private. And especially if you’re dealing with topics as sensitive as sex or money. There may be more issues of safety with this because some people really do believe that money can buy them anything. But for the most part, when I meet people they seem very respectful.

Things I do to increase my safety are that I tell my husband and my friends where I’m going to be, I tell them exactly where I am. I’ll do things like take down a client’s license plate number and text it to my husband. I’ve been thinking maybe I should look at each client’s driver’s license too, and text the client’s name and driver’s license number to my husband. I think some clients might feel threatened by that, though.

The most important thing for my safety is that I’m willing and able to walk away from situations. I’m not desperate — I won’t starve or die if I don’t do this work. I meet all my clients in public first for a meal, and if someone sketches me out, I leave. I’m not so desperate that I’ll get into a situation that scares me.

I guess I am at risk if I meet a really crazy person who wants to chop me up and put me in a dumpster. But I could meet a person like that during a normal night at a bar, too.

The major risks that I see include that I might catch an STD — but I use protection. I might end up alone with someone who believes that the money he’s paying actually gives him the entitlement to do whatever he wants to my body, but I’ve never encountered anyone like that. The thing is, as I said before, I haven’t met anyone who I think would actually describe themselves as paying for sex. The terms on which I continue to see these men are probably less explicitly negotiated than an escort’s terms would be. I don’t have flat rates, for example.

I’ve heard escorts complaining that people who use sugar baby sites are unprofessional, and I think that from an escort’s perspective they probably are.

Clarisse Thorn: If people are unwilling to actually talk about sex for money, it must be hard to negotiate your encounters. Do you have a set of steps for negotiation?

Olivia: I haven’t been doing this for very long. It’s varied so far. Usually, I meet them for some kind of meal, and we chat. We have a perfunctory conversation, like — “How was your day?” Then one of us will say something like, “Tell me a bit more about what you’re looking for. Why are you on the site?”

Then we’ll explain our deal to each other. Like, he might say: “I’m divorced, I’m looking for companionship.” At some point, money comes up. I am always extremely vague when I talk about money. I’ve found a good deal of variation in how squeamish people are about money.

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2011 9 Dec

What Happens After An S&M Encounter “Gone Wrong”

I’ve often thought that BDSMers should talk more about our “failed encounters”. Sometimes the best way to learn is through “failure”, or by looking at others’ “failures”. But when a BDSM scene “goes wrong”, it’s often highly personal for everyone concerned. So it’s really hard to talk about and really hard to write about — both for the dominant and submissive partners. This is just like any relationship, really. After all, people rarely talk about their most embarrassing or awkward or otherwise difficult “mistakes made” during vanilla sex, right?

(I use phrases like “failed encounter” and “gone wrong” and “mistakes” with caution, because I think these situations can often be viewed as learning experiences, and therefore they are successful for a lot of purposes! But certainly in the moment they feel like screwups, and a lot of the time they can make the whole relationship very difficult, and I think that most people who have been through them feel as though some kind of failure happened … whether it was a failure of understanding, communication, empathy, caution, or something else.)

Much of the problem, I think, is that people have such a hard time communicating after serious miscommunications and mistakes.

The following quotation is from Staci Newmahr’s Playing At The Edge, an excellent ethnography of the BDSM community. (I’ve changed a few jargon terms so I don’t have to define them for you, but I left two terms I’ll be using throughout this entry: “top” and “bottom”. A top is a blanket term for a dominant and/or sadist. A bottom is a blanket term for a masochist and/or submissive.)

Sophie had been engaged in a long and intimate S&M relationship with Carl, a friend whom she deeply trusted. During the encounter she describes below, Carl changed his approach, and Sophie subsequently felt that Carl was somehow not quite himself. Sophie and Carl never quite recovered from the incident; though they remained friends and tried to do S&M again, it was, according to Sophie, never the same.

Sophie says:

He was very much a rope top. That was his big thing, was tying people up. And he was excellent at tying people up. And our dynamic was always — I mean, yes, he would absolutely hurt me when the time came for that, but there was also always this element — even when he was hurting me, it was done in this incredibly, like, touchingly caring way. And especially when he was tying me up, it was this soothing, wonderful thing.

So one day … Carl starts an encounter with me. Carl had decided in his head, from all the things that he’s heard me say about how I play with another partner, that that’s what I really want from an interaction, in order for it to be the most gratifying and valuable. So we proceeded to have an encounter where Carl was not Carl. And I didn’t stop it because it was so like, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand why it felt so horrible. And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, because I trust him completely. [ … ] I just couldn’t figure out what the problem is, I felt horrible through the whole thing. And he was so out of touch with me that he wasn’t even aware of how horrible I was feeling. The encounter went on for some time … and the second it was over, I … was just, like, you know, traumatized. And he was like, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” [and] he carried me into the other room. I said something like, “Where did my Carly go?” and then he started to cry. [ … ] He’s like, “I was trying to give you this sadistic experience.”

In Sophie’s story, Carl’s risk backfires. … The risks were unsuccessful; each ended up emotionally distraught and distant. Ultimately, they sacrificed the relationship. (pages 179-180)

Man, that description is so intense. Let’s talk about it.

The Practice

The first thing worth noting about Sophie’s story is that, while she probably had a safeword, she didn’t use it: she says that she “didn’t stop it.” Sometimes, in really confusing S&M scenes, submissives have trouble using their safewords. This does not mean safewords are worthless … but as Thomas MacAulay Millar puts it, “Tops can never be on cruise control.” Non-verbal signals matter, and if an S&M partner — top or bottom! — starts reacting in an unusual way, it’s great to check in with them even if they haven’t used their safeword. Safewords are a useful additional way of communicating about sex, but they can’t replace all communication.

Note also how hard the situation was on the top partner, not just the bottom. Carl ended up crying afterwards!

Next, what I find myself wondering is whether Sophie and Carl could have communicated past this incident. Sophie obviously trusted Carl, and presumably he trusted her. Could they have talked it out and had a successful relationship afterwards? It would have been hard, but maybe they could have done it.

I’ve (rarely) had similar experiences myself — where boundaries were severely tested, and afterwards it was difficult for both me and my partner to work through it. It can absolutely have an immense impact on the relationship. I write about this a bit in my awesome eBook, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser (read reviews and buy it by clicking here). Here’s a quotation from a section in my book where I’m talking to a dominant partner, with whom I just had such a difficult encounter:

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2011 22 Nov

[advice] How To Break Up and Take It Like A Champ

Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying. And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying thinking, “I am falling to the floor crying,” but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it — you knew it would happen and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well. ~ Richard Silken

I do my best to maintain a healthy sense of irony about everything. Including death, taxes and breakups.

But breakups are terrible and soul-searing; I’ve been observing some breakups lately that make me feel gun-shy about ever wanting to be involved with another human being. Also, I’m never sure what to tell my friends in these situations. I find the above quotation to be a totally awesome description of how I feel after a nasty breakup, but it doesn’t contain much actionable advice.

There are two resources I’ve found that had the best breakup advice ever. One was aimed at women, and one was aimed at men, but both of them work for people of all genders. The one aimed at men is shorter, and I’ll reprint the whole thing in a moment here. The one aimed at women is more hilarious.

Here are those resources, plus some advice from me. And also, if you’re going through a breakup, then you have my sympathies. Virtual hugs, my friend.

* * *

Resource #1

The lady breakup guide is the book Exorcising Your Ex by Elizabeth Kuster. Here is one of my favorite excerpts. This isn’t one of the advice parts of the book; it’s solely funny. Even if you have broken up lately, it will hopefully make you laugh:

… This seems as good a place as any to share with you the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) story about post-breakup stuff that I’ve ever heard. It came from a woman who initially professed not to have any post-breakup stuff. Naturally, I was skeptical. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Me: You are sure you have absolutely nothing around the house that reminds you of your ex? Nothing he gave you?
Her: He didn’t give me anything.
Me: No cards? No letters? No pictures?
Her: No. Well … there is one thing, but I’m not sure it counts as “stuff” the way you mean it.
Me: Aha! I knew it! What is it?
Her: Well … I have my ex.
Me: What?
Her: His ashes.
Me: What?
Her: In an urn. On my mantel.
Me: What?!

Turns out that she once dated a guy for two weeks. A few months after she broke up with him, he died in a motorcycle accident. She had to handle all the funeral arrangements, since his brother — his only living relative — lived thousands of miles away and couldn’t deal. So she had her ex cremated, as he’d wished, and then she called his brother to find out when he was coming to get the ashes.

“I can’t right now, because I’m in the process of moving,” he told her. “Can you hold on to them for a while? I’ll call you as soon as I’ve settled in.”

“That was two years ago,” she says. “I still have the ashes, because I don’t know what to do with them. It’s really getting me down. I haven’t dated anyone since this happened, and sometimes I think that the spirit of my ex is preventing me from getting dates.”

… It would take a very sick person to find anything funny about this story, so let me assure you that I am that person. … I suddenly remembered an article I’d clipped from the “Dallas Morning News”. The title of the article was, “Can’t Part with Fido? Freeze-Dry Him”, and it was about a Colorado Springs company that freeze-dries dead animals into “lifelike” poses so that their owners can keep them for all eternity. … I, of course, immediately wondered if it would work on people.

I made a quick call to the company (Timberline Taxidermy, in case you’re interested), and was informed that, theoretically, it would. All they’d have to do is ice your ex’s corpse until it reached 180 degrees below zero, and then put it into a vacuum chamber and suck all the moisture out of it.

The process is expensive — freeze-drying a 9-pound pet costs $550, so freeze-drying a 200-pound ex would cost about $110,000 — but think about the possibilities. You could have them pose your ex so it looks like he’s begging for forgiveness. You could have them pose him in a sitting position, put him on the couch and tell your parents you’re married. (They’ll be none the wiser, especially if you insert a remote into his lifeless hands.) (pages 118 – 121)

I frequently quote Ms. Kuster’s line where she says “It would take a very sick person to find anything funny about this, so let me assure you that I am that person.” It’s kind of my favorite quotable quote ever.

* * *

Resource #2

Aaaand now for the dude breakup guide. It originated on the forums at the classic Internet dude site, SomethingAwful.com. The user who originally wrote this guide called himself Lushka16. Lushka16’s advice has been reposted across various nerd sites, so I might as well mirror it here.

Here it is:

~~~

Being dumped sucks.

It is rarely a good experience — no matter how long you’ve been going out, what the nature of your relationship was, or how it ended. The very idea that someone does not want to spend his/her time with you is a pretty big blow to the ol’ ego.

I have been dumped on many occasions for many reasons, for over nearly a decade. I understand that there are many who have never had a girlfriend, many on their first relationship, and many more with little experience with being dumped. Take my advice as you will, but I can guarantee you that when the day comes (and it probably will), you will be better prepared for it, and hopefully won’t end up being a huge whiny turd.

I give to you:
Lushka16’s guide to being dumped, and taking it like a champ

Rule 1: The relationship is over.

This is the most important rule of all. You need to go back to it at least once every minute in the aftermath of being dumped. It is the most difficult part, yet it is also the foundation for healing. The day you come to terms with it, is the day things start getting better.

In my experience, there are three basic parts to being dumped: Premonition, Dump, After-Dump.

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2011 12 Nov

BDSM Roles, “Topping From The Bottom”, and “Service Top”

I often say that all consensual sexuality is okay. Open relationships? S&M? Same-sex partnerships? One-night stands? Porn? I could care less how people have sex, as long as the people involved are consenting adults. This means that most of the interesting and important questions are about consent: how do we make sure that we always have consensual sex? How do we ensure that we’re always respecting our own boundaries and our partners’ boundaries? How do we talk about our preferences and our consent? I write a lot about sexual communication for this reason.

Every once in a while, though, there’s something interesting to discuss besides consent. (Totally weird, I know!) One of those interesting things is stereotypes. Also interesting: bad dynamics in the BDSM community.

One example of a bad, weird dynamic is the “one true way” thing. Some people act like there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to do consensual BDSM — as if some consensual BDSM is more legit than other consensual BDSM. Often, people do this via what we call “role policing”: they make claims about “real submission” and “real dominance”. (Even worse, people will sometimes act like dominant people are socially “better” or “more important” than submissive people. Or they’ll act like men are “inherently” dominant, or women are “inherently” submissive. It’s a clusterfuck! Thomas MacAulay Millar has a great essay about this called “Domism“.)

Examples of role policing might include:

* “If you were really submissive, then you would be serving my dinner right now instead of having me serve myself.”
* “If you were really dominant, then you would pay for my drinks.”
* “If you were really submissive, then you wouldn’t be confident enough to write a blog about your sex life.” (Not that I’m biased or anything.)

Sometimes these are hilarious light-hearted jokes. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re bullshit, and they make people feel as though they’re “bad at submission” or “bad at dominance”. Also, it gets really silly when we start thinking about switches — people who can feel comfortable in the dominant role or the submissive role, such as myself.

One very common, relevant assumption is that dominant people always enjoy inflicting pain: that sadists and dominants are always the same group. They’re not! Sometimes people are into sadism, or into dominance, or maybe they’re into a lot of sadism but a little dominance, or whatever. The same thing goes for submission: sometimes people are submissive and like taking pain, but sometimes people are submissive without being masochistic, or maybe they’re into a little bit of submission and a lot of masochism, or whatever.

Or maybe they’re masochists who like ordering their partners to hurt them. I once threw a memorable party at which my then-boyfriend, a mostly-submissive gentleman, arranged for a bunch of our friends to grab me and hold me down while he ate cake off my body. As he did this, I clearly recall shouting at him: “You better hurt me, or I’m going to safeword on your ass.” So he hurt me! It was great.

Because “submissive” and “masochist” aren’t always the same thing — and “dominant” and “sadist” aren’t always the same thing — the BDSM community uses the terms “bottom” and “top”. A “bottom” is a blanket term for a submissive and/or a masochist — the receiving partner. A “top” is a blanket term for a dominant and/or a sadist — the partner who is providing sensation. The point is to have words that indicate who is giving and who is receiving, without making claims about each partner’s preferences. (These words can also be used as verbs. For example, if I am “topping”, then I am in the dominant and/or sadistic position.)

And yet! Even though we have these handy terms “top” and “bottom”, which are specifically designed to help us avoid making assumptions, people end up making assumptions. There are two common BDSM community phrases that are often deployed in tones of disgust and irritation. One of those phrases is “topping from the bottom”. The other phrase is “service top”.

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2011 30 Sep

[storytime] Chemistry

Thank you, all my readers, for your patience. To make up for the long wait, here’s an extra-long post.

* * *

It’s a long story and a short one, but I guess all of them are.

I’m 27. It’s about that age: A lot of my compatriots are getting married lately — most monogamously, some to a primary polyamorous partner. I myself have a stack of relationships in my past. Some were monogamous, some polyamorous. Some have been on-and-off; some short-term; one that lasted six years. Lately I’ve been processing some tough questions about polyamory, but I’d like to stick with it.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want in a primary polyamorous partner. The kind of guy I could marry. I wonder if I’ll ever get to that point. I wonder if I’d know him if I saw him.

* * *

I met Mr. Ambition at one of the aforementioned weddings. Several people recommended that I talk to him, and we liked each other right away. Mutual friends used words like “zealot” to describe him; let’s just say he’s got an intense history of dedicated activism. Charisma, integrity, and pure energy pour off him. His words are almost always articulate and challenging. He can socially dominate a room without thinking. He works a challenging job ten hours per day; exercises two hours; socializes several hours; sleeps and eats when he can. He gives hugs easily, laughs easily, hands out compliments like candy.

Mr. Ambition is most definitely not a neutral personality. Of course, neither am I.

At the time, I was just coming out of the worst stage of my research on pickup artists — a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women. Also, I’d just had one of those breakups where I was too busy feeling stupid to properly understand how hurt I was. (Don’t you hate those?) You can read all about those Dramatic Events in my upcoming book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser. In the meantime, suffice to say that I felt … flattened.

Arguably, I should have had a sign taped to my forehead that read: “Emotionally Unavailable.”

I went to dinner with Mr. Ambition later that week. At the end of the meal, he sat back and looked at me. “You’re so authentic,” he said.

“I haven’t felt very authentic lately,” I said frankly, but his words felt good. Like a balm. Like I was healing.

* * *

We got along excellently, had a lot in common, etc. Typical this-relationship-starts-well stuff. One evening, after we’d been out to eat in a big philosophical group, Mr. Ambition noted the hotness of my intense theoretical bent. “When you were discussing social justice and ethics tonight,” he said, “I wanted to reach across the table and grab you.”

He mentioned marriage within weeks. “This has never happened before,” he told me. “I’ve never dated someone I thought I could actually marry.” Whoa, tiger, I thought, but I had to admit that he hit a lot of my Ideal Characteristics as well. Intelligence, drive, charisma, and morality: it’s hard to argue with that.

Our sexual chemistry was okay, but not climb-the-walls stellar. We’ll develop that, I told myself. He’s less sexually experienced than I am, and we’ll learn each other just fine. Fortunately he’s got some experience with polyamory, but in terms of S&M, he’s another of those vanilla-but-questioning guys (I never learn). When we did S&M, I had to monitor the situation extra carefully because it was so new to him.

And for all his intelligence, it was really hard to talk to him about emotions. It wasn’t that he was cold or distant; on the contrary, he’s one of the most fiery people I’ve ever met. But he had a lot of difficulty explaining what was going on in his head. Indeed, he told me that he had a lot of difficulty knowing what was going on in his head. He did things like laugh when a friend hurt his feelings, then deny that he was hurt, even though I could plainly see the stricken look behind his eyes.

I wasn’t surprised that he was more physical than verbal about S&M. Very straightforward: throwing me around, pulling my head back, digging his hands into my skin. He’s incredibly strong, and sometimes I called my safeword simply because his strength scared me.

There was one particular S&M encounter … early in the evening, I called my safeword because I wasn’t sure he was into it.

“Red,” I said, and he stopped. “Is this okay with you?” I asked, and he nodded.

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