Posts Tagged ‘communication’

2011 1 Mar

[storytime] How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

A reader recently sent me an email in which they said:

i know you have always had clear boundaries with yourself (at least how you have described yourself)


I guess I’ve had a pretty good sense of my boundaries, historically, but there have been times when I have not set them well. This is hard to write about, because it happened years ago, and the memories aren’t fun, and I don’t like writing negative things about people I know unless I think there’s a good reason for it. But there are few people in my life, now, who are likely to identify the person I’m discussing. And I’ve asserted before that we should be more willing to write about our screwups; I was writing about BDSM at the time, but I think it’s true of all kinds of relationships.

There was a gentleman in my life, lots of years ago, who I was extremely in love with. We had an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted a very long time. We had an extraordinary mental and emotional and creative connection. We understood each other very well. There is zero doubt in my head that he loved me too.

Our sex life was really terrible, though. (It was not a BDSM relationship. I hadn’t yet come into that part of my sexual identity.) And there were some emotional boundaries he simply wouldn’t respect. At first I was too inexperienced to really recognize how bad it was, though I knew some things were messed up — then, as I got older (and dated other people in the interstices of our relationship), the problems became clearer and clearer to me. Want some examples? Here’s a blatant one: he never went down on me, though I regularly went down on him; he never even offered to try and figure out something else I might enjoy equally. Oh, I knew that was messed up from the start, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-esteem to negotiate something different.

I tried — believe me, I tried to discuss our sex life, in a hesitant and confused way — but he found ways to shut me down, every time. Sometimes the shut-downs were blatant and aggressive and involved shouting. Sometimes they were very subtle, like the time he told me sadly, “You know, occasionally I get worried that you don’t really like having sex with me, but I know that’s just insecurity on my part and I need to get over it.” What a masterful way to say: “Part of me knows you’re not getting what you need, but please don’t bring it up, because that would make me feel bad.”

Today, I would reply: “Sorry if it brings up insecurities. I’m here to talk about those if you like.  But it’s also true, and we need to address it.” Back then, I accepted what he’d said, and felt roiling confusion and pain, and stayed silent.

I’ve got sexual-emotional baggage from that relationship to this day. And yes, I do resent it. Still. Despite knowing that he loved me, and despite valuing many memories from that relationship — when I look back on my time with him, it feels clouded and toxic. I remember that one night, years after I broke up with him, I had one of the worst nightmares of my life: merely a dream that he and I were back together. I woke up shaking, almost in tears.

During an argument, he once said to me, in a voice both angry and wounded: “I just want to feel that you love me more than you love yourself.” And my reaction was not to walk away. My reaction was not to laugh incredulously. My reaction was not to dump him on the spot. My reaction was to cry, and tell him how hurt I was. Hurt: because how could he think I didn’t love him more than I loved myself? Of course I did. What did I have to do to prove it?

For the record — just in case it needs to be said — that is ridiculous. Anyone who demands that you love them more than you love yourself does not have your best interests at heart. My reaction was just as ridiculous. I should not have been looking for ways to prove that I loved him more than I loved myself. I should have been out the fucking door already.


2011 30 Jan

Body chemistry and S&M

The above image — a postcard, showing a pinup-style girl with the text “I gained 30 pounds … & sex has never been better!” — is courtesy of PostSecret, the community art project to which people mail in postcards featuring secrets they’ve never told anyone before.

I often think that good physical health is a widely-ignored element of good sex. I am obviously not saying that people in poor health can’t have good sex (and in fact, I certainly hope they do — more power to ’em). But it consistently amazes me how much my physical health factors into my sexuality, especially S&M. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but here are some examples:

* Food. I am both less interested in sex and in S&M when I’m hungry; ensuring that I’ve eaten well before I take some punishment is especially crucial. I try to eat well in general, but if I’m planning to have a heavy S&M encounter, I don’t cut myself any slack. I try to specifically ensure that I eat enough protein before the date and I try to include some vitamin-heavy foods like beets, leafy green vegetables, etc. Eggs are a good source of protein; nuts, beans and tofu are my primary protein sources. (I was wrong about a previous statistic on eggs that I included here; see comments.) If I don’t have enough protein available for whatever reason, I at least eat enough food that I won’t be hungry when I see my partner.

Part of the reason I’m writing this right now is that I’ve had trouble finding useful resources on the Internet for what people recommend as good pre- or post-S&M food, especially during aftercare. “Aftercare” is an S&M term for how people end their S&M encounters. This excellent page on aftercare describes it thusly (note: “top” is a blanket term for a dominant and/or sadist, and “bottom” is a blanket term for submissive and/or masochist):

Aftercare is the last act of the SM drama. It is the culmination, the pulling together of all loose ends, the finishing touches, the final communion between sharers of the SM ritual, the phase where the participants (usually the tops) formally give the fantasy scene a context in everyday reality. Its technical purpose is to transition both players from the elevated states created in a scene [i.e., an S&M encounter] back into normalcy, returning to the motor control and awareness they will need to drive home once the scene is over. But as any good SM practitioner will tell you, it’s much more than that. It is the time after the action when the participants come together in mutual affirmation that something special was created and shared. It is when affection and closeness is offered and sought. It is, at very least, the proper time to express thanks to the person who has shared this tiny segment of your life with you. It can be, and often is, the most beautiful part of a scene, and it is part of the scene. To skip it altogether is as rude as having dinner at a friend’s house and then bolting once you’ve eaten your fill.

A lot of tops keep food and water on hand to give bottoms at the end of a scene, which I think is probably a good idea. (Eating post-scene doesn’t feel necessary for me as a bottom, but it might if I weren’t so careful about what I eat beforehand.) Some people say that fruit or fruit juice is the way to go — and indeed, it will give the bottom’s system a sugar boost and may make them feel better for that reason — but I would personally rather eat a protein bar, and I have some friends who feel the same way. Dungeons usually serve snacks, although the snacks aren’t always very healthy.

A final note on food: I know there are people who specifically include food deprivation as part of their S&M. Obviously, this is totally fine by me as long as it is consensual, but I’d encourage people not to expect themselves — or their partners — to react the way they usually do to S&M, as long as they’re hungry.

* Weight. I used to be much scrawnier than I am now, and as my health has improved, I’ve gained weight. Sometimes this freaks me out (it’s impossible to be female in our society and not daydream about having cheekbones that can stab people), but it has been worth it. One time, after I’d been having a lot of anxiety about weight gain, my then-boyfriend emailed me the above PostSecret postcard and perceptively wrote: “Maybe that’s why it’s easier for you to have orgasms now? I think you should investigate this if you try to lose weight.”

I am not in a position to comment about whether being overweight affects sex. But I can definitely assure you that being underweight is not good for your sexual well-being.

* Sleep. I much prefer to have S&M encounters on days when I’ve gotten a lot of sleep the night before; this is at least as crucial as eating well before an encounter. There are approximately a billion studies that show the far-reaching effects that getting enough sleep can have on our health, and they seem to usually recommend around 7-8 hours as a good amount per night (more for teenagers).

As with food, I know there are people who include sleep deprivation as part of their S&M encounters. Again, this is obviously fine by me as long as it is consensual, but I’d encourage people not to expect themselves — or their partners — to react the way they usually do to S&M, as long as they’re tired. I don’t know about you, but exhaustion certainly makes me erratic and overly emotional. If you’re going to be doing something like S&M that can specifically create an erratic and overly emotional state … well, when overlapping that with exhaustion, it just seems like a good idea to be careful.

* Alcohol. Alcohol definitely decreases my pain tolerance (quite dramatically in fact), and it definitely makes it harder for me to get turned on. There is only one bonus to alcohol, and that’s the famous “social lubricant” effect. I personally prefer to limit myself to one glass of wine, maaaaybe two, if I’m planning to hook up with someone; in general, stone-cold sobriety is my preferred state to go into S&M. Good S&M makes me high enough on its own.

I get the impression that some people get drunk before they do S&M because otherwise they feel too anxious to do S&M. As always, I’m not going to tell other people that they shouldn’t do consensual things … but drunkenness frequently makes it hard to communicate and hard to know what’s going on in your head, which means that drunkenness makes consent hard. Not impossible, just hard. Be careful.

A lot of people say that mixing substances and BDSM is always bad. Personally, I figure that if a person has a lot of experience with a given substance, and a lot of experience with a given BDSM act, and a lot of experience with their partner … then I kind of doubt they’re taking a huge risk by doing a familiar BDSM act with a familiar partner in a familiar state of mind. It’s a lot to deal with at once, and again, it’s worth being careful. And of course, substance abuse problems are a whole nother ballgame. But if a person has been drinking a glass of wine with dinner every night for 10 years, then I’m not going to tell her that I consider her incapable of doing BDSM after dinner.

I am not qualified to comment on non-alcohol drugs because I, of course, never do anything illegal. But for all your drug-related questions, the website is often very useful.

* Illness. I don’t have any particular observations about how being sick changes my experience of S&M, but it definitely does. When I get sick and I have the option to reschedule a date, I always do.

* Menstrual cycle. I haven’t tracked my cycle with enough care to know exactly how it affects me S&M-wise, but I’m pretty sure it does. As one of the good people at EduKink once observed, “The great part about playing with a woman is that you have 28 different partners, one for each day of the month!”

I don’t usually write entries like this, so hey, readers: if this was helpful for you, let me know. And, as always, other perspectives and opinions are welcome!

This is another PostSecret postcard, and features a woman running with the text “I run best when I orgasm first”.

* * *

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

* * *

2011 7 Jan

[storytime] Predicament Bondage

Note: This entry is more explicit than my entries usually get. You have been warned. Also note: In all of the following anecdotes, I arranged a safeword in advance, and I would have used my safeword if I’d wanted my partner to stop.

* * *

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and/or Masochism. These 6 activities are somewhat different from each other, though they’re intertwined, which means that individual BDSMers enjoy some things more than others.

For example, some people are masochists (who enjoy pain) but not submissives (who enjoy, well, submitting). Some people are really into discipline (with lots of punishment) but not bondage (rope, cages, etc). Some people are sadists (who enjoy inflicting sensations) but not dominants (who enjoy being in control). Some people are switches, who find that they can switch between roles — they can be dominant or submissive; sadistic or masochistic … I am an example of a definite switch.

Me, I get bored if someone takes a long time tying me up. For other people, 45 minutes of elaborate knotwork = really hot foreplay. I don’t understand this, but that’s cool; plenty of people don’t understand my preferences and we all coexist quite happily anyway.

So yeah, “bondage” — rope, cages, etc. — is not my thing. But there’s one phrase I absolutely love: “predicament bondage.” Predicament bondage is usually presented in a very elaborate way: For example, a submissive might be tied up with ropes binding him such that his arms are in pain — but if he moves his arms then his legs will be in pain.

It’s a predicament! And it’s bondage! Whee! Predicament bondage!

However, it doesn’t have to be elaborate to be predicament bondage. I’m not into rope obstacle courses, but I started loving the phrase “predicament bondage” after a friend went to a workshop run by Fetish Diva Midori and reported back. He said:

Midori had two pitchers of water, or maybe a pitcher and a glass. She told us, “This is the simplest form of predicament bondage,” and she had the demo submissive hold his hands straight out at shoulder height. Then she placed the water in his hands. The submissive had to keep holding the water; if he failed, he knew he would be failing Midori. But there was never any threat of “Midori’s wrath” if he failed her. In fact, she spoke as if she was on his side, part of his team. In many ways, her sympathy for his plight made it all the more cruel, because she was the one doing it to him.

She explained this. She knew that his sense of disappointment in “failing” her was worse than anything she could actually do to him.

So, the predicament in that case was the submissive’s increasing arm agony vs. his fear of failing Midori. For me, that concept is infinitely hotter than a rope obstacle course. Although for me, in practice, I’d also want the pain to be a bit more … um … personal.

* * *

The first time someone flogged me, I had no idea what he was going to do beforehand. He and I had the strongest dominant/submissive dynamic I’ve ever felt, and I put myself in his hands with almost-total trust.

A night came around when I felt that itch under my skin, the dark burn in the back of my mind … I knew I had to go see him. I wasn’t hugely experienced, but I knew exactly what that slow burn meant.


2011 2 Jan

Men Who Don’t Deserve the Word “Creep”

The article below was originally published on October 1, 2010 by AlterNet; the AlterNet editors titled it “Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs?” I have no idea how many people linked to it, but it caused enough of a stir that I got hate mail from a man on the very same day it appeared, and also some of my sister feminist bloggers became upset. I have linked to my favorite responses around the blogosphere at the end of this post. I’ve also included some minor edits in this version of the article, for the sake of clarity.

* * *

This is an article about men, but I’m going to begin by talking about women’s experiences. Many of us women go through our daily lives fending off unwanted male attention; most of us have worried about being attacked by men. So it’s completely understandable that we’re all on high alert for predatory expressions of male sexuality.

But, while certain situations and certain people deserve our disdain — like, say, the guy who once leered at me as I walked out of the public library and whispered, "I can smell your pussy" — most guys really don’t. The pressure put on men to be initiators, yet avoid seeming creepy or aggressive, leads to an unpleasant double bind. After all, the same gross cultural pressures that make women into objects force men into instigators; how many women do you know who proposed to their husbands?

So how can a man express his sexual needs without being tarred as a creep? After all, the point of promoting sex-positive attitudes is for everyone to be able to be open about their needs and desires, right?

When I was 23 years old, I was still coming to terms with my S&M orientation, and so I posted to an Internet message board about how "illicit" desire was messing up my life. Soon, I received an email from a guy in my area. He accurately guessed the cause of my anxieties: “If I had to guess as to your kinks, I’d guess that either you want some BDSM play, or you maybe want to add other partners into a relationship. How close am I?” He then offered to fulfill all my wicked, dirty lusts. In fairness, the guy actually referred to himself as creepy during our text-only conversation — but I still feel guilty that when I told the story to my friends, we all referred to him as "the creep."

I obviously had every right to turn down my Internet Lothario. Still, I shouldn’t have called him a creep; all he was doing was being overt and honest about his desires, and he did it in a polite — though straightforward — way. If he’d emailed me with "Hey bitch, you obviously want me to come over and dominate you," then that would have been impolite and unpleasant. But he emailed me a quick and amusing introduction, then asked what I wanted. After a few rounds of banter, I called a halt, and he respected that.

I think the word "creep" is too vague and prejudiced to mean anything anymore. But if I were willing to use the word, I’d say my Internet suitor was the opposite of a creep.

* * *

Although I’ve become more aware of it recently, I think I’ve always had the sense that men are particularly vulnerable to the judgment of “creep." Over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems of masculinity, and in Part 3 I noted that — unlike men — "I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep."

Of course, I could be labeled a slut, which could damage me quite badly. There’s a reason I do all my most explicit writing under a pseudonym. We feminists often say that men’s promiscuity is lauded while women’s is stigmatized, and one point of this argument is purely linguistic: "stud" is a complimentary word for a promiscuous man, while "slut" is a hurtful word for a promiscuous woman. Besides, our culture hates sex, no matter who’s doin’ it — even vanilla, consensual, heterosexual, private sex between cute white married adults is hard for some folks to acknowledge!

But in fact, men aren’t merely enabled to be promiscuous — they’re pressured to be getting laid all the time. This influences situations ranging from huge communities devoted entirely to teaching men how to pick up women, to tragically callous dismissal of the experiences of men who have been raped.

And while there’s immense cultural repression of all sexuality, there’s also a fair and growing amount of modern TV, movies and feminist energy that seek to enable female sluttitude in all its harmless, glorious forms. The stud vs. slut dichotomy is worth discussing, but it has one flaw: it entirely ignores the word "creep," whose function appears to be restricting male sexuality to a limited, contradictory set of behaviors.


2010 26 Dec

Anger, fear and pain

I like pain. I like submission. What do these things actually mean, though? I don’t like it when I stub my toe, for example, and there are quite a lot of authoritarian situations I don’t like either. My emotional reactions, in particular, can get really complicated. So I need more precise words than “I like pain” and “I like submission.”

This is not a new problem, and around the BDSM subculture there are more precise terms that are frequently used. But when I was first exploring BDSM and didn’t yet have access to the community, I started coming up with my own vocabulary for what I liked and what I didn’t like. The primary words I came up with — words that I still use a lot in my own head, and that I sometimes try to explain to my partners — were “clean” pain and “dirty” pain.

I think of some pain as “clean” because even if it’s intense, I usually … like it. (For lack of a better word.) This is the kind of pain I fantasize about when I’m really craving BDSM. There are certain places on my body that take pain more cleanly — my upper arms, most of my back, my thighs. There are certain types of pain that are inherently more clean — needles come to mind. Wide, deep, blunt bites are good too. Heavy whips made of weighty materials, like suede. Pulling my hair right above the nape of my neck.

On the other hand, I think of some pain as “dirty” because it’s … harder to take. I don’t think of it as dirty because I see it as scandalous or perverse — rather, dirty pain is complex and hard to process. I never fantasize about it. Pain where my bones are close to the surface of my skin, like my collarbone, is dirty. Pain on top of scars is dirty. Pinches and small, narrow bites are dirty. Pulling my hair anywhere besides the nape of my neck is dirty. Electric shocks are extremely dirty.

But this whole “clean” and “dirty” thing, it doesn’t make any sense outside my own body, my own head. It’s hard to explain it. It helps that the BDSM community tends to frame pain in terms of techniques and less-subjective adjectives, using words like “sharp” or “sting” or “thud”. (A lot of people think of “sharp” and “sting” as the same sensation. I usually separate them a bit more, but I’m not sure how many other people separate them.)

Franklin Veaux defines “thud” as “sensation of heavy, dull impact” and defines “sting” as “sensation of quick, sharp pain”. These words are most often applied to floggers (implements for hitting people, e.g.: “this is a thuddy flogger”), but sometimes the words are used for other things too. I’ve found that I generally prefer thuddy-type pain, for example, but it took me a long time to figure that out, because there are so many specific sharp sensations that I love.

Okay. Now for emotions. This is the really hard part.

A while back I got an anonymous comment on my coming-out story that I absolutely love. Here’s a quotation from the comment:

When it came to it, very little about the reality [of BDSM] matched my fantasies. Oh, sometimes what we did matched the way a real-life even can match a fantasy. There were moments that were … Transcendental.

But there were many more moments that … were deeply, deeply conflicted. I NEVER expected to feel that much … anger … toward someone dominating me and inflicting pain. I expected it to be a relief. I didn’t expect to wrestle with hatred.

He liked to slap my face. Everytime he did it I would feel this burst of pure hatred. At one point he asked if I liked it. I said, “No. I hate it. But I don’t want you to stop doing it.”

I can’t remember right now if any other “coming out” story I’ve ever read included such a visceral description of anger. Of course, I think the last time I read one I hadn’t experienced it myself. Maybe I never noticed it before, but noticed it this time because it resonated with me. But mostly I remember those stories mentioning fear, shame, worry, and embarrassment.

The events in my coming-out story took place years ago, and my feelings about BDSM are really different now. I remember that I was conflicted, furious, resentful. But at the same time, I have often thought that much of my anger and resentment was due to the fact that Richard — my first intense BDSM partner — was not emotionally available. I needed support that he didn’t give me. (To some extent because neither he nor I recognized how much support I needed.) And, of course, much of that anger was due to the fact that I couldn’t deal with BDSM. That I was fighting back against, was unable to take ownership of my sexuality.

As I settled my feelings, reconciled myself to my sexual identity — my emotional reactions became a whole different ball game. (It helped that I dated a string of men who were more emotionally available and assisted me with emotional processing, too.) It turned out that the rage that I had suspected was inextricable from BDSM was, in fact, entirely possible to separate. I entered a stage where I learned how to avoid that anger. To work around it. I learned to sink myself into fear and desperation, which I love, and which are easier to work with.


2010 11 Dec

Call for Sexy Documentaries: Sex+++ Has Five New Themes!

I hate to post two press releases in a row, but I’ve been very caught up in some Chicago community issues lately, so I haven’t had time to write anything more personal. I’ll bore you all with details about my life soon, I promise! In the meantime, please feel free to repost this …

pro-sex, pro-queer, pro-kink

Clarisse Thorn :: clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com

+ Q. “What is being sex-positive?”
+ A. “Defining sex on my terms.”
+ A. “Understanding my sexual needs.”
+ A. “Being in charge of my sexual experiences.”

The Sex+++ Documentary Film Series is now entering its third year. We want to make it bigger and better than ever — and take it in new directions! We’re still discussing next year’s film line-up, and we’ve got a lot of ideas, but we also want to throw open the floor. We’re looking for suggestions and submissions: documentaries that are pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-kink.

In 2011, Sex+++ will focus on several themes. We’re still discussing these themes, and they are subject to change as we research documentaries and develop the program, but here’s what we’ve thought of so far. We’re open to hearing more about any and all sex-positive documentaries — but in particular, if you’ve encountered documentaries that fit within these themes, please let us know!

+ THEME: Sex Everywhere

We want to explore how sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure are recorded, experienced, and understood outside the USA.

+ THEME: Love And Sex

We want to explore the many ways sex happens within romance, dating, relationships, marriage, and love.

+ THEME: Sexual History

We want to explore the history of sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure; we want to learn about sex-positive heroes.

+ THEME: Activist Sex

We want to explore sex-related activism and how sex-positivity intersects with other social issues such as class, race, labor, health, justice and the environment.

Sex+++ will continue at its current amazing venue, Chicago’s own Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Click here to learn what’s up with Sex+++ right now. And again — if you’ve got any documentaries to recommend, please get in touch! The primary contact for Sex+++ is Clarisse Thorn, who can be reached at clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com.

(Note, as of February 2011: The fifth theme, Talking Sex — about how we discuss sexual pleasure, desire, and consent — was ultimately dropped due to a lack of corresponding films. We’ll cover related stuff, though.)

2010 1 Dec

News Flash, Pay Attention: HIV Is About Sex

Today is World AIDS Day. I don’t think about HIV as much as I did a few months ago, when I was still in Africa and my job was to help with the epidemic. But today, I’m thinking about it, and I have something very simple to say:

HIV is about sex.

One of the big lessons I learned about HIV in Africa is that many, many people will do amazing mental and rhetorical backflips to avoid talking about how HIV is actually spread. It’s astonishing. You’d think that when talking about HIV, you’d have to talk about sex; you’d be wrong.

In the areas where I worked, a massive percentage of people were infected with HIV. In a number of places it was about 25%. In some populations, it was more like 40%. Think about those numbers for a second — and remember that many people who had contracted HIV had already died. In other words, uncountable numbers of people had already died of AIDS-related causes, and among the people who remained alive, the percentages still got as high as 25% and 40%.

And yet I got the message over and over and over that we mustn’t talk about sex! For example, I was told by some school authorities that I could not give safer sex information to their students because that might “encourage the students to have sex”. In other words: God forbid we tell students where to get condoms and how to use them, because that might encourage them to think sex isn’t wrong and dirty. What the authorities were really telling me is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sexuality, than it is to protect people from HIV.

Another example of this phenomenon is highlighted when we look at how the USA’s HIV charity money is spent. The President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) places rather elaborate restrictions on how the money is spent, and while there’s nothing wrong with restricting aid money in principle, these restrictions include a provision that states that no PEPFAR money may fund an organization that doesn’t actively oppose sex work. In other words: God forbid we support sex workers and help them stay safe while they do their jobs, because that might make sex workers feel like they’re accepted members of society. What PEPFAR is really saying is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sex work, than it is to protect people from HIV.

PEPFAR also demands that none of its money go towards condoms or initiatives that promote condoms; there are rumors that Obama will fix that, but I haven’t heard any confirmation of that yet. Maybe things are getting better on that score? And in one of my articles about Africa, I wrote that:

I can’t help noticing — with an occasional ironic smile — the phoenixes arising from these ashes. Firstly, it turns out that the best way to shut down sex-negative arguments against explicit sex education is to invoke the specter of HIV. One 2008 report from a well-respected local organization argued that AIDS prevention efforts should include straightforward lessons on pleasurable acts, such as oral sex or sex toy usage!

A 2004 “New York Times Magazine” article on HIV in southern Africa made the case that while “many experts contend that sexual-behavior change in Africa is complicated because women’s fear of abusive partners inhibits private discussions of sex, condom use and HIV,” the crisis also contributes to a better environment for those discussions. One researcher is quoted pointing out that, “young South Africans are much more likely to talk about sex and are developing ‘a vocabulary for discussing feelings and desires’.” Furthermore, southern African movements for women’s empowerment invariably cite HIV as a reason change is necessary now. Because gender oppression is acknowledged as a driver of the epidemic, gender equality is an explicit goal of both governments and major HIV organizations. Even admirably sane laws about sex work are being discussed — considerably saner than most Western ones, in fact. The laws probably won’t pass, unfortunately, but at least they’re on the radar.

In other words, in a weird way, the existence of HIV can be a positive thing because it’s a major factor forcing society towards honest, open, respectful conversations about sexuality. I believe those conversations to be good for a variety of reasons, but here’s why they are crucial to stem the tide of HIV — they make it much, much easier for people to both learn about the disease and take steps to avoid it. (After all: if you can’t talk to your partner about sex, then how are you going to communicate well about condom usage? If you don’t understand your own sexual desires or those of your partners, then how are you going to keep yourself out of sexually vulnerable situations?)

But we are not out of the woods yet. We’re not even close. And there’s ample room to slide backwards. I have read that HIV rates in America were falling for a while but are now rising again. And there are so many issues with which America is not doing much better than Africa — for example, our awful societal ideas about sex work. It seems to me that we Americans marginalize sex workers almost as much the African nations where I worked; and when sex workers are marginalized, they become more vulnerable to HIV. Indeed, just about any population whose sexuality is ignored, stigmatized, and swept under the rug is likely to be more vulnerable to HIV; history has shown this over and over, as for example with the gay community.

As long as we can’t have reasonable conversations about sexuality, we will never understand HIV. As long as we can’t have open, honest, non-judgmental conversations about sexuality, we will be hamstrung when we try to cope with it on both the individual and the community level. HIV is about sex. To deal with HIV, we have to be able to deal with sex.

The image at the beginning of this post shows a model wearing an amazing dress made entirely of condoms; thanks to the gallery at the website for The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani’s incredible book about the HIV epidemic and the international response. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. Note that in honor of World AIDS Day, Pisani’s publisher is offering the book as a free download for the next month. Seriously, please read it. I have read very few books that I thought were simultaneously so entertaining, so well-written, and so important.

And, if you’re looking for someone to donate to in honor of World AIDS Day, then may I suggest Doctors Without Borders? Of all the organizations I dealt with in Africa, I was shocked by how little I felt like they wasted time and effort. They’re awesome.

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

2010 26 Nov

Social responsibility, activism, and giving thanks

Tonight I had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her boyfriend. Some friends of my mother attended, one of whom is a lesbian who I’ll call Kay. Kay attended dinner with her mother, who is unaware of Kay’s sexual orientation. One of the reasons Kay’s mom doesn’t know about Kay’s sexual orientation is that Kay’s mom has already behaved quite badly towards Kay’s elder sister, who is an out-of-the-closet lesbian.

I knew this whole situation going in, and one thing that struck me was how much of a nice person Kay’s mom is. I mean … she’s really nice. I mean, she clearly tries to be a good person. She also tried really hard to help me do the dishes. (I didn’t let her because I wanted them all to myself.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to engage with people who have done bad things, or who are currently doing things I think are bad (like shaming their lesbian daughters). It wouldn’t have been right to throw my sex-positive ideas on the table while talking to Kay’s mom — mostly because Kay specifically asked me not to, ahead of time. But. The most powerful tool for getting people to reconsider their stigma against alternative sexuality is personal engagement. Don’t I have some responsibility here? Is there something I can do?

Other examples of this are rife. One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life … every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

When I was in high school, one of my closest male friends raped a female acquaintance of mine. She didn’t press charges and they later had a romance that was, to all appearances, consensual. I pieced events together slowly — he did acknowledge what he’d done, though never directly to me. I didn’t know what to do, at the time, and I still feel as though I should have done so much more. He and I were so close. I never had the nerve to directly talk to him about what happened, because — even though we never talked directly about it — I saw evidence that he felt terrible about it, and I was sure that I could devastate him by talking about it more. But still … I should have talked to him.

I also feel as though I should have supported her more, but I don’t know what I could have said. There were people who told her that she shouldn’t be having a consensual relationship with her rapist. It seemed wrong to tell her that — I felt like it eroded her agency, attacked her right to choose — so I didn’t say it. If I had said it, though, would that have been helpful to her? What could I have done to be a better resource for her? Especially given that I was such close friends with him?

I was young(er), but that’s no excuse. Then again, what am I excusing? I did nothing. But I should have done more.

Now, again, I have a friend, a good friend, who assaulted someone. It’s a friend in the local S&M community. I don’t know the survivor at all. I have to talk to my friend about it, but what do I say, and what happens next? Feminism instructs us that we should listen to the voices of survivors, that community mores and community condemnation are what stops rape from happening. I believe these things to be true; and there are people close to me who have survived rape, and I really want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to ensure that rape stops happening. But I intensely wish that I had more guidance on what exactly to say, how exactly to act, to change the mores.

I emailed my ex-boyfriend Chastity Boy for advice, because he’s got one of the finest ethical minds I’ve ever been lucky enough to engage with. Here’s part of what he wrote back:

I’ve tried to distill your messages into a few questions, and I ended up with “How does one parse a situation in which a friend, and an otherwise noble person, seems to have done serious wrong?” and “What are a person’s moral obligations in this case?”

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us. I don’t say this because I think you haven’t considered it, but because I know I’ve had a lot of trouble absorbing it over the years and think it might therefore bear restating to others, too.

As an individual, a person has a relatively large degree of freedom in action and association. I think where this case becomes truly difficult to consider is when we bring in justice and the community. Because the means of enforcement of the rules of these communities is so interpersonal, one’s interpersonal actions take on an unusual role of community-level justice as well as merely justice between two people. I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing and might give you some insight into their character and opinions of the issue.

He’s right. I agree. But. What now? How do I ask, what do I say? How can I tell if my friend has dealt with whatever healing has to take place in order for such assaults not to happen again?

UPDATE, 2012: There are a lot of resources out there on “restorative justice” or “transformative justice,” a phrase that describes initiatives that work with assault perpetrators outside the criminal justice system. Here’s a list of a bunch of those resources. End of update

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Tough questions. But it is all Thanksgiving and stuff, and though I try to avoid mouthing pieties … thinking about these questions has reminded me that I truly do have an incredible amount to be thankful for. And how I want my work — sex-positive and otherwise — to be shaped by the things I’m thankful for.

+ I am thankful for how open and accepting my parents have been about my own sexuality, as well as my choice to engage in sex-positive activism; I can’t imagine how much more stressful it would be to engage in all my various sex-positive projects and writing if I didn’t have their support. I hope to contribute to a society where people can have more open, honest, and understanding conversations about sexuality with their parents. (There are limits, of course. I’m pretty sure my parents don’t usually read my blog, especially not the more intense posts. And it’s probably better that way.)

+ I am thankful for the time I spent in Africa, for all the things I learned there, and for my relationship with Chastity Boy. People who put so much thought into morality are hard to find; CB challenged me in a number of ways, and I was thrilled by how seriously he engaged with my views on sexual morality (many of which were rather new to him). America’s views on sexual morality hurt so many people — from rape survivors, to sex workers, to alternatively-sexual people like me. I’d like to contribute to a society where deep moral thought is encouraged, and in particular, to a society with less harmful views on sexual morality.

+ I am overwhelmingly thankful for the privilege I enjoy — education, class, race, a huge number of safety nets. I hope that I can put that privilege to good use. It was scary to leave Africa partly because I was afraid I was giving up on a life path by which I could really do a lot of good, but now that I’ve been back for a while, it’s incredibly clear that it was the best personal choice I could make … and that there is a lot of potential good to be done here, too. I sometimes feel like I should be putting my effort into “more important” activist type things — as if, for example, the stuff I worked on in Africa “wins” over sex-positive activism in America, when we put things on some kind of social justice “scale”. Or sometimes I feel like I should be looking for the “biggest” issues to work on, such as global warming, which is an actual threat to our species. Or sometimes I even worry that sex-positive feminism is “too privileged” a field to meaningfully be described as “activism” …. (Yeah … in some ways I have privilege issues, I think.)

Still, while I feel committed to keeping my ecological footprint small and all that good stuff, it seems clear that my personal loves and interests and skills are best-suited to sex-positive feminism. I do hope that I can keep the big picture in mind, and stay at least somewhat humble about my approach; and at the very least, acknowledging privilege seems like a good place to start with that. I ought to be thankful that I have privilege that allows me to do things with my time that I find fascinating, rewarding, and important.

+ And hey, reader: thanks to you, too. I learn so much from people who read my work, especially the regular commenters. I heart all y’all. Thank you for your perspectives.

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

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2010 11 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, seriously. Donate!

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

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2010 7 Oct

[porn] The Lone Villain Rides Again

Last week, I posted an interview with Tim Woodman, who’s a fetish porn director and an experienced BDSMer to boot. His interview raised fascinating questions of consent and industry standards within pornography, especially BDSM porn. Lots of people had questions and comments, so here’s a followup interview. Ladies and gentleman, once again … welcome Tim Woodman!

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Clarisse Thorn: On the original interview, Alexa commented, “I agree wholeheartedly with the positions articulated on this in the interview, and I think it’s not going to stop unless some names get put out there in the public sphere so we can know who these assholes are. Tim can make these kinds of assertions all day long, but unless he attaches some names to it and calls them out, he’s not doing anyone a service and appears to be serving his own interests. Not that I doubt him at all (quite the opposite, in fact), but I’d like to know who they are so (A) I can avoid doing business with them, and (B) can let others know to avoid having anything to do with them, either as a consumer or potential talent.”  What do you think?

Tim Woodman: Several responses to my previous interview asked me to ‘name names’ and call out the companies whose practices I disapprove of. Nothing would delight me more, but I was also pointedly reminded by an attorney friend just how much headache could be involved in a libel suit. I would likely win, but only after great expense.

I would, however, be very happy to recommend some companies whom I can vouch for personally as being conscientious and very good about respecting models’ limits and still producing quality content. The absolute best person I know in this industry is Lorelei, from – whatever your kink, whatever you want to search for, if you start at her page, you will only find links to high-quality companies run by good people.

CT: A friend of mine emailed me to say: “Anyone interested in performing for these sites can take a look at the sort of stuff that they shoot and do some research in order to make an informed choice. If someone is totally vanilla, what is it that brings them to these companies? How do the sites recruit and screen folks?”

TW: Sadly, this problem is almost entirely in the hands of the talent agencies. Most mainstream adult performers use a licensed talent agent to get work. It provides a valuable buffer between them and would-be stalkers who might pose as producers. One has to register with the agency to be able to book their talent. A good agent can prevent a lot of bad experiences, and I know that they do. I had to provide a ton of references in order to get registered with some of these agencies, and I appreciate how cautious they are with their talent. Unfortunately, these agencies have to make money too, and can sometimes feel pressured by the larger companies to book any model they request, even if the girl may be in over her head.

With or without an agent, it is not always easy to spot a predator. Most predators can sound quite charming and conciliatory over the phone, until you show up. There’s a reason a well-fed wolf usually has a good set of sheep’s clothing nearby. What the models can do is check around with more experienced models before setting a first date with a new production company.

On the plus side, I know of several companies who do as I do and make it a point to sit with new talent and find out their limits and interests. They honor those limits, and explore those interests, and I really think they end up with better content this way. Certainly they end up with a better reputation within the industry.

CT: You said in the first interview that if a consumer wants to know more about the experiences of a BDSM porn model, then the consumer should ask around.  But as reader Sam commented, “I’m wondering whether he isn’t asking too much of a porn consumer. I don’t know – maybe people who are into fetish movies do know how to do that kind of research, but I can’t imagine a normal consumer, who’s either Googling ‘porn’ or walks into a video store and looks at 3,000 DVDs, to be able to tell the differences. I believe that such industry standards are important, but I [suspect] the expectation that each individual customer has the power to ‘vote’ is exaggerated, not necessarily because the customers wouldn’t, but because I imagine they can’t.”

And Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote on his blog, “Not everybody who wants to watch BDSM porn knows a bunch of kinksters who know people who do BDSM-themed porn and can get those answers. It’s not like the bad model experiences pop up in the Google searches.”  Do you have any more advice for people who really want to evaluate porn, but maybe don’t have as much access to the community?

TW: Most porn stars have a Twitter account. Many have their own websites, or at least a blogspot somewhere. I don’t honestly expect everyone to care enough, or to have the resources to do extensive research every time they wish to purchase a new video, but if you are curious to know which companies have the best reputations, read the comments of the girls who have worked for them. Read their Facebook entries, or note which companies they never mention again after working for them. That’s usually a warning sign too.

CT: A couple of people have pointed out that it’s a tad self-interested for a self-described “small porn company” to critique the “big companies” that, you admit, are putting you out of business.  How do you respond to that?

TW: Guilty as charged. It is totally in my own self-interest to rant and rave about such companies. I was here before them, but I didn’t start out rich. I didn’t have the resources or short-sightedness to flood the market with free promotional clips, drowning out the smaller companies along the way. I watch them fuck up my industry and feel powerless to stop them. I took this opportunity to speak largely to vent my own frustrations. None of this changes at all the fact that I speak the truth. Anyone is welcome, as I said before, to do their own research on both my competition and myself, and draw their own conclusions.

CT: Another friend writes: “There’s also the issue of juggling the demands of a larger operation (which tends to put more pressure on creating new content on a fixed schedule) and making room for the individual performers. This is something that happens in a lot of porn and it’s easier for a smaller company to flex than a bigger one. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be one of the costs of success.”  What do you think about this?

TW: I’d like to think that if God forbid I was ever able to call myself a larger operation, I would be even more willing to lose a dollar or even a whole day’s work rather than risk my hard-earned success and reputation by disregarding the feelings, limits and rights of my models.

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Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, and Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.