Posts Tagged ‘community’

2013 12 Oct

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

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

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

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

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2012 13 Nov

[review] Burning Man 2012

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was originally published at The Point, a Chicago-based print journal on contemporary life and culture. It will also be printed in Issue 6, and here’s the Issue 6 Annotated Table Of Contents.

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BurningManWhen I wake up at the hotel in Reno, my memories are a messy pastiche. I reach for an image to encapsulate my review of Burning Man, but everything I grasp feels like a flat cliché. Dancing beside a fluorescent art deco bus and a fire-belching metal octopus. Bonding with a new friend by solving a maze’s secret doors. Randomly encountering a fake film crew composed entirely of trenchcoated noir buffs, who welcome me into their game. Accepting, with gratitude, the recitation of a poem about self-awareness and another about kissing. Walking to the edge of a desert dance floor to stretch and greet the dawn with an exhausted grin.

Each of these are all of it, and yet the smallest piece. So I’ll start at the beginning.

* * *

I am in a garage with a neuroscientist, a sales executive, a teacher, a bike co-op manager, and some dude whose deal I don’t know. Me, I’m a feminist sex writer specializing in S&M and moonlighting as a new media consultant. We’re loading a truck with toolboxes, barrels, bicycles, and more. This camp’s theme is watermelons; the garage is strewn with watermelon umbrellas, and we pack in a bike rack painted to look like a giant watermelon slice. Unknown Deal Dude doesn’t recognize it for a full minute. “Ohhh! It’s supposed to look like a watermelon!”

“Maybe that’s a sign that the theme has become too abstract,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

“Maybe it’s a sign that it’s become abstract enough,” he says serenely.

I wander into the back and pick up a plastic bag full of sequined watermelon pins. “Where did these come from?” I ask the teacher. She shrugs. In the corner, someone is wrapping a cooler packed with dry ice in a Mylar space blanket. The plan, apparently, is to transport an ice cream cake to the desert. Apparently, there will also be many watermelons.

The executive is “working from home” during the 40-hour drive, using a batch of car chargers and a cellular uplink. As he clicks away on his laptop, we discuss the philosophy of social networking sites; the neuroscientist’s latest research on rat brains, and her anxieties about handling her undergraduate mentees; the people in our lives who we wish we hadn’t lost touch with; the ethics of eating human meat; plus the spiritual usage of psychedelic drugs.

I learn a new phrase: “thinky thoughts.” The co-op manager tells me that it describes “thoughts one has on acid that seem really deep, and are.”

A few hours in, we pull up at the “World’s Biggest Truck Stop.” (Their words, not mine.) I wander through the place with Unknown Deal Dude. We are floored and astonished by this culture clash. I am so floored that I text my best girlfriend.

Me: Sold here: wolf and horse t-shirts; confederate flags, “don’t tread on me” snake flags, “mess with the best die like the rest” US marine flags; John Wayne DVDs; auto tags for “redneck girl”; infinite self help books

Her: I’VE BEEN THERE OMG

Me: Is there any vegan food?

Her: Haha.

Me: Fritos it is!

Me: Dude, on the way out I noticed the door says “support independent truckstops.”

I emerge, slightly shell-shocked. “That place is confusing,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

He grins. “Confusion is an important state of mind.”

* * *

Burning Man began in 1986 when the founder Larry Harvey decided, on a whim, to Burn a wooden Man on a San Francisco beach. Five years later, Harvey had acquired some dedicated co-conspirators and the event had morphed into a bigger, artier free-for-all in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Twenty years after that, it’s an internationally-famous camping-out festival that drew over 50,000 attendees in 2012.

I first heard about it as an Internet junkie in the 90s; one of my online friends enthused about the explosions and gun usage, another about the drugs. Apparently, when the Burner population got too large and a basic “no gun” rule was instituted, some folks felt this was an unacceptable infringement of their freedoms that made it not worth going anymore. But plenty continued to attend, and the sheer size of the crowd led to further mild regulations and infrastructure. This included the development of a circular layout with street signs, a medical station, a Department of Mutant Vehicles, a post office, radio stations, an airport, etc. The year 2000 marked the creation of the Temple, which became one of the most important structures: a space to meditate, reflect, and mourn loss. The temporary city of Burning Man — which is only fully-realized for a single week per year — is called Black Rock City.

In 2004, Larry Harvey tried to pin down Burner culture by laying out “ten principles.” These are:

Radical Inclusion: Anyone is invited and welcome.

Gifting and Decommodification: The event is devoted to “unconditional gift-giving.” Thou shalt not engage in commercial transactions, sponsorships, advertising, or barter.

Radical Self-Reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

Radical Self-Expression: Do as thou wilt, but don’t hurt anyone.

Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility: Collaborate, cooperate, and take care of each other. Oh, and don’t break the law.

Leave No Trace: Don’t hurt the earth, and especially not the federally-protected environment of the Black Rock Desert.

Participation: “We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Immediacy: “No idea can substitute for this experience.”

There are critiques to be launched. So many critiques. Perhaps those of you who share my Advanced Degree In Social Justice Snippiness, claws honed by hundreds of Internet catfights, spotted critiques in my first few paragraphs. For example, while Burners may Leave No Trace upon the surface of the desert, an awful lot of fossil fuels are burned to get there. Scarce resources are used when — say — transporting an ice cream cake in a dry ice freezer. And my spidey sense for “Third World exploitation” was tweaked by those cheap, beautiful, mass-produced sequined watermelon pins.

Plus, the Burning Man organization charges for tickets, which arguably puts a cramp in Radical Inclusion. To be fair, the event has enormous costs to cover, like a $750,000 land usage permit. There are also “low-income” tickets available for a mere $160 apiece (most 2012 tickets ranged from $240-$420), but the bigger individual costs are equipping oneself and getting there. You can already see certain demographics represented in the crew I drove out with — and in our reaction to the World’s Biggest Truck Stop. All my campmates had degrees from prestigious universities, and included a doctor and a Google engineer. Also: I can count the number of people of color I met on one hand.

According to 2010 statistics from the Burning Man census, 20 percent of Black Rock City makes over $100,000 per year (compared to 6 percent of the USA’s general population). A bit over 30 percent of the city makes under $30,000 (compared to a bit over 50 percent of the general population). As a writer, I myself wouldn’t have gone if my journey weren’t heavily subsidized and I hadn’t been given a free ticket by generous, well-heeled friends. And let’s face it: I may not be at my friends’ earning level, but I’m still in their social class. Offering me that access isn’t nearly as Radically Inclusive as offering it to Joe the Plumber would be. But here we have the perennial problem of class segregation: none of us know Joe the Plumber.

Burning Man came from San Francisco, and to San Francisco doth most attendees return. 1986-2012 has seen San Francisco shift from hippie beach town and radical sexuality haven to Silicon Valley boom times. If a bomb hit Black Rock City, then the Valley would need a new crop of CEOs. My understanding is that even the art of Burning Man reflects this evolution. The hippie and radical sex elements remain, but attendees who have watched for ten years say it’s shinier now, costlier, with an “engineered” feel to it.

A worthy comparison might be the super-hippie Rainbow Gathering, which stemmed from a late-60s San Francisco group and first came together in 1972. The Gathering moves from forest to forest each year, is free to attend, does not have a single leader at the helm, and is considerably more working-class than Burning Man. There’s less art at the Gathering and more environmental issues; the Burning Man organization purchases a permit that helps the government deal with its impact on federal land, something the Rainbow Gathering has apparently resisted. On the other hand, the Gathering seems to help genuinely down-and-out folks, like marginalized homeless kids.

With all that said: our Advanced Degrees In Social Justice Snippiness are important, but if I lay mine aside for a moment, I can’t help liking Burning Man. A lot of things are just plain cool, like the art. I love the whimsy of bringing an ice cream cake, even though it uses lots of resources. But most importantly, despite my considerable grumpy skepticism, the festival keeps surprising me.

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2012 16 Oct

“Violation: Rape In Gaming” is Out NOW!

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

* * *

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

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

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* * *

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

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

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

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

Description!

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVER DESIGN BY: Ei Jane Janet Lin.

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

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

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2012 18 Sep

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she said, and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In this neighborhood?” he asked.

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.

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

This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2012 7 Jun

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

At long last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 7 May

The Psychology of S&M

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. It’s sometimes referred to as S&M, B&D, leather, or fetish. As an S&M writer and educator, I get lots of questions about the psychology of S&M. People ask whether it’s a disorder, how psychologists would describe it, etc. I’m an advocate, not a psychologist, but I’ve read up on the history and done my best to keep tabs on current research.

First things first: S&M is not a pathology, and people who practice S&M are not “damaged” in some way. There aren’t many S&M studies, but in 2008, this conclusion was supported by a large and well-designed survey that reached 20,000 people. The survey was done by public health researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and it found that S&Mers “were no more likely [than non-S&Mers] to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious.” Another recent study found that consensual S&M usually increases intimacy for a couple.

I’d like to note briefly that people have told me about using consensual, intimate, trusting S&M activities in order to work through previous non-consensual, abusive experiences that they’d had. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process and deal with past abuse.

Still, as the 2008 Australia survey shows us, most people don’t practice S&M because they’ve been abused or because they’re unhappy. People who practice S&M have the same record of unhappiness and abusive history as non-S&M people. Yet S&M was first described as a disorder in 1886, when a doctor named Richard Krafft-Ebing published the manual Psychopathia Sexualis. This landmark tome hauled many sexual practices into the light, then attempted to categorize them. Of course, the doctor’s ideas hewed close to contemporary mainstream ideas of what was acceptable, and so he thought that basically everything was a disorder — including, for example, homosexuality.

It’s interesting to imagine what our mental health paradigm might be if Psychopathia Sexualis had never existed. It had a huge influence on psychiatry. Later, the psychiatric establishment began publishing a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The DSM doesn’t specialize in sexuality, but it includes quite a lot of it. The first edition of the DSM came out in 1952; it’s currently undergoing its fifth revision, and the proposed new language can be found at the DSM-5 website.

Like Psychopathia Sexualis, the original DSM called homosexuality a disorder. This changed in 1973, partly in response to gay activists. But subsequent versions of the DSM are still criticized for many reasons. Our cultural diagnoses of mental illness are shaped by lots of people with very different motives, and truth is hard to find. A 2010 New Yorker article by Louis Menand outlined many critiques of the DSM, such as the allegation that today’s psychiatry “is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different.” Naturally, the medical establishment has an incentive to do this, since it makes money selling treatments for illness, and more illness means more treatment.

S&M is currently in the DSM (heh, you see what I did there?). My understanding, however, is that S&M occupies a strange space within the much-edited manual. S&M is no longer listed as all-disorder-all-the-time, though it once was. But if a person has an urge towards S&M, and that person feels unhappy about it, then it is classified as a disorder. In other words, an S&Mer is labeled “healthy” if she’s happy about S&M, and “unhealthy” if she’s unhappy about it.

Actually, this is basically the spot that homosexuality occupied for a while. And the reason homosexuality was taken out is the same reason S&M should be taken out: because a person who wants a completely consensual type of sexuality, and who is unhappy about it, is probably better off working to change the unhappiness rather than the sexuality. Like homosexuality, S&M is stigmatized and misunderstood. A person who is stigmatized and misunderstood is likely to be unhappy, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her.

Within the S&M community, we have ways of working around this problem. Some people are campaigning to change the DSM directly. Others are more indirect. Years ago, the activist Race Bannon made a handwritten list of doctors and lawyers who were S&M-friendly, and began passing it around to his friends. Names were quickly added to Bannon’s list, and when the Internet became popular, the list migrated online. Now, the Kink Aware Professionals list is enormous and includes profession categories from accounting to web design — not just doctors. When I was going through my own complicated and difficult S&M coming-out process, I was lucky enough to find the list. My S&M-friendly therapist talked me through my anxiety and socially-created disgust, rather than diagnosing me with a spurious “disorder.”

There’s a great organization called the Community-Academic Consortium of Research on Alternative Sexualities; one of their projects is an annual conference to sensitize psychologists and therapists to the needs of alternative sexuality communities. The next conference will be Thursday, May 24th, and this year it’s in Chicago. Also in my home city of Chicago, there’s a project based at DePaul University that seeks to change the representation of S&M in human sexuality textbooks. The Kink Representation Outreach Project involves talking to different S&Mers about their actual experience (what an idea!) and getting their recommendations about how these texts might better represent S&M. And finally, if you want some idea of the sparse and scattershot research that’s been done on S&M, the blog Kink Research Overviews is a good place to start.

Within the S&M community, there’s some talk of S&M as its own “sexual orientation.” I have mixed feelings about this, and I’ve written about those mixed feelings. I think it can sometimes be helpful, but I’d rather move to a paradigm where we encourage people to see any consensual sexual act as awesome, rather than talking like “orientation” is what legitimizes sexuality. Nothing legitimizes sex except consent.

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The image at the top of this post shows an old-school phrenology diagram from the 1800s. (Phrenology was a ridiculous pseudo-science that was nevertheless popular, back in the day.) I found the image at the BibliOdyssey blog, which showcases eclectic historic science and art prints.

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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!

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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 30 Jan

Some Transformative Justice Links

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

In the wake of recent conversations, I’ve been looking around for further resources on transformative justice. I haven’t been able to do a lot of intense follow-up on the topic lately, because in mid-January I had major spinal surgery (after breaking my neck in an accident back in 2011); this obviously has involved many painkillers and a lot of sleep and not-working as much as possible. However, I have been able to do some reading, and I want to share some of what I’ve found most compelling.

Since I’m in recovery, I may take a while to moderate/participate in comments on this thread.

* The most thorough overview of community accountability issues and strategies that I have found was created by INCITE!: Women Of Color Against Violence. Here is an awesome Community Accountability Working Document: it’s full of important principles, incisive questions, organizational ideas, and references to groups that are doing this kind of work.

* Over and over, for the past year and especially recently, people have directed me to Philly Stands Up:

Philly Stands Up is small collective of individuals working in Philadelphia to confront sexual assault in our various communities using a transformative justice framework. We believe in restoring trust and justice within our community by working with both survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault. We believe that sexual assault comes in many forms and we are doing what we can to actively combat it.

We work with people who have assaulted others to hold them accountable to the survivor(s) and restore their relationships within their communities. In dealing with perpetrators, we seek to recognize and change behavior, rather than ostracizing and allowing future assaults elsewhere. We support their healing process, and challenge them on their behavior in order to prevent future assaults.

We also work to educate ourselves and others on issues that contribute to sexualized violence. To encourage awareness building, we provide support for other groups and collectives as well as host workshops in Philly and elsewhere.

On the Philly Stands Up site, here is a post about their Points of Unity; here is a more detailed post called “Our Approach, Our Analysis”.

And here is a personal testimonial from a member of the collective. I personally found these paragraphs especially powerful:

We do not have a magic “perpetrator-free” stamp that absolves someone from whatever pain they have caused another person or community; we work to build an honest and accountable space with perpetrators. This demands a good faith effort from both directions. I have friends who upon finding out about the subject of my Sunday night meetings, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? why perpetrators? none of those programs ever work.” Valid response. But PSU isn’t a program. No one is more aware than we are that we can’t work with every perpetrator. In some cases, perpetrators are also survivors of other situations. We try to see the whole person and the whole situation, however complex, and remain aware of our limitations.

It isn’t easy to go step-by-step through our process, since it’s different each time. Typically, we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator either through a referral through [another group] or because someone will email us directly and ask for help or resources. We meet weekly, and commit to “tasks” — whether it’s contacting someone about a workshop, working on an article for a zine, doing research, working on a situation, or being the group’s email checker for the week. We do a decent job of checking our mail, and it’s the responsibility of the email checker to not only check the emails, but to respond based on the time sensitivity of what is emailed (either a “do you need to talk so someone in an hour” or a “can we check in about your request at our meeting on Sunday, which is four days away” type of response). Every meeting starts with a personal check-in and ends with a check-out, and includes a mixture of debriefing current situations and “tasking” new situations, discussing or planning upcoming workshops, projects, or proposals, or doing internal educational work. Committing to work on a situation depends upon what information we know, who can do the work — not only logistically, but also with respect to personal limits and triggers.

… Working with perpetrators, situation by situation, requires that we are continuously checking in with ourselves (individually and collectively) about where we are at, what we need, how we feel, what hurts, what is too much, where is the wall? We can do, feel, and trust this more when we operate in real time.

My commitment to PSU is the healthiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with an activist collective. I don’t have to feel guilty about my time limits — for example, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to go to an actual meeting in at least a month because of my work schedule, but my ability to commit to write this article and pull together resources for this zine is internally embraced as a valid part of our work. My emotional boundaries are respected — and furthermore, my efforts to even articulate my boundaries in the first place are appreciated as necessary. People step up and step back on a week-to-week basis. Literally. I was a little dubious that this function of the collective was actually the truth, but I personally have been proven wrong multiple times. I have learned that working with PSU demands a lot of honesty. I have to be honest with myself about my own triggers, limits, boundaries, needs. I have to trust my friends in PSU to help me both identify and respect what I can and cannot do. I have to be able to hear each of their own capacity for our work. I think our commitment to healthy activism works because we centralize it at our meetings (by framing with personal check-ins and check-outs), we have pre-existing/outside-of-PSU friendships and shared/local social networks that are incredibly powerful, and because there is a shared common and radical analysis of power and oppression — which informs not only our Points of Unity, but also our ability to just be there for each other and create a safe space (which isn’t to say that we don’t work to develop that space and challenge ourselves). I can only speak for myself, but I know I approach relationships (whether platonic, intimate, or somewhere in between) in a fundamentally different way since I joined PSU.

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2011 22 Dec

On Change and Accountability

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

Do we actually believe that people can change? If so, how do we want them to show us they’ve changed? Is absolution possible? Who decides the answers to these questions?

I very rarely weigh in on Internet Scandals. This is partly because I’ve got lots of stuff to write that I believe has longer-lasting value than the latest flavor of the moment. It’s also because I have much less time and patience for internet flamewars than I once did. I seem to recall that at some point flamewars were kind of … fun? But these days they just feel predictable, tiring and unproductive.

As it happens, though, I unintentionally found myself in the middle of one this week. I feel exhausted and trapped by the whole thing. But I hope I can dim the flamewar into a lantern to illuminate issues that actually matter.

Specifically, I interviewed Hugo Schwyzer, a prominent writer on gender issues, who identifies as a male feminist and teaches gender studies in southern California. Hugo has a very complicated history that includes incredibly problematic behavior: drug addiction; compulsive and destructive sexual behavior, including sex with his students — and one attempt, over a decade ago, to kill both himself and his girlfriend during a drug binge. He has since, in his own words, “cleaned up”; chosen sobriety; recommitted to his religion; confessed his history; and attempted to make amends to the people he feels that he wronged.

Because of Hugo’s history, a lot of people really don’t like him. When I posted the interview at Feministe, one of the top feminist blogs, the comments exploded. Pretty soon, the comments had nothing to do with the interview at all. Some commenters were making amateur psychological diagnoses of Hugo, and other readers were emailing me privately to express shock at how ugly the discussion had gotten. So I closed down the discussion, making it impossible to continue commenting in that particular forum. As a result, I have now received more hate mail from other feminists than I ever have from anti-feminists. (Note: I have not received a small amount of hate mail from anti-feminists.)

In this situation, people seem to expect me to take a position that is primarily political. People seem to believe that I can either “prove my loyalty to feminism” by throwing Hugo under the bus — or I can “prove my loyalty to Hugo” by claiming that everything he’s done is A-OK. Like many political problems, neither of these options are fully human. Both of these options are stupid, limited, and do not get us any further in our lives.

I certainly do not always agree with Hugo, and I have occasionally pushed him to reconsider certain things. But, full disclosure: my experiences with him have been incredibly positive. Hugo was one of the first high-profile bloggers to promote my work — and occasionally, he took heat for doing so when I wrote about controversial topics. Hugo invited me to guest lecture in his class when I passed through Los Angeles, and he’s given me extensive feedback on and encouragement about my work. Even though I don’t always agree with him, and I believe that a lot of feminists’ critiques of his work are valid … a number of Hugo’s pieces make me want to cheer, like his article “The Paris Paradox: How Sexualization Replaces Opportunity with Obligation”. Perhaps ironically, when I once wrote an agonized post about moral accountability and how to deal with friends who have done really bad things, the most thoughtful and nuanced response came from Hugo. (He’s also written about the problem of how too many people will excuse some sexual predators, even within feminism itself, just because those predators do good activist work.)

Other feminists have been angrily emailing me, Tweeting at me, etc with things like “FUCK YOU FOR PROTECTING THIS WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING.” But I have seen no evidence that Hugo hasn’t made an honest and sustained effort at recovery and accountability. I have seen no evidence that Hugo’s religious re-conversion was dishonest. And I have seen no evidence that Hugo continues problematic behavior.

I am telling you this partly to explain where I’ve been coming from during this particular Internet Scandal. But more importantly, I’m telling you this to lend shape to the ethical problems I see underneath it — problems that are intimately intertwined with how I think about gender and sexuality. I’m actually not very interested in picking apart Hugo himself, whether positively or negatively. I believe that the politics of this situation are mostly a cheap distraction from truth and honor.

For me, the interesting and important questions that emerge in cases like this are:

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