Posts Tagged ‘education’

2012 6 Nov

Clarisse Thorn Talks Porn: Censorship, Sex Workers’ Rights, & More

A writer named Justin Cascio just interviewed me for an article about porn. I enjoyed answering his questions, so I thought I’d share my answers with you, too.

* * *

The Worst Part About Censorship is [scribbled out]How do you define pornography?

A famous lawmaker was once asked to define porn. He said: “I know it when I see it.” That definition makes me uncomfortable because it’s so unclear. Unclear legal definitions only serve the interests of people in power, and they create a bad environment for everyone else. Unclear definitions force creative people to guess whether their work will fall into an illegal category, and thus they create what activists call a “chilling effect” on free speech. This means that people censor themselves even when they aren’t doing anything wrong, because they basically don’t want to go anywhere near things that might be illegal.

It’s especially important to note that anti-porn legislation and censorship has consistently been used to silence a broad array of people, including sex writers like me who create theoretical or political material. Here is one very mild example: I get tons of emails from people who can’t access my blog because I’m censored by their university or whatever. That’s messed up; I mean, for God’s sake, I’ve lectured at some of these universities! If we must legislate porn differently from other types of media, then it should have a clear legal definition.

However! For everyday folks who aren’t lawyers or judges, the definition of “porn” is quite fuzzy. (Definitions are often fuzzy with sex-related issues.) I don’t see a big difference between porn and erotica, or between porn and romance novels for that matter — except that they have different target audiences. In that sense, I suppose that I think of “porn” as “visual media showing explicit sex, which is usually (but not always) aimed at stereotypical heterosexual cisgendered men.”

I’ve been talking about my new anthology a lot lately, but I want to mention it again because it’s totally relevant here. I just collaborated with an amazing tech writer, Julian Dibbell, to create an anthology called Violation: Rape In Gaming. The anthology collects different essays and perspectives about sexual assault in all kinds of games — video games, roleplaying games, etc. (I also wrote an introduction that explains different types of games, so if you’re not a gamer, you can still understand the anthology.) I think that this volume really gets at the heart of some porn-related issues, and hints at some of the definitional problems; if you’re interested in problems of porn, you should definitely check it out.

What is the ugly side of the porn industry, and how are regular users responsible?

The important issues of porn are the same as the important issues in all types of sex work. Did the participants consent? Are they working in a respectful, safe environment? I recently read an excellent article about cam girls by Sam Biddle, and I love that article because it talks about both the super-empowered wealthy Western women who make great money and live a fairy-tale life … and also the women, often in the Third World, who are clearly unhappy and exploited.

One thing I particularly appreciate about that article is how it points out that exploited cam girls are much harder to speak with directly than rich, self-employed cam girls. I firmly believe that there are many sex workers who freely chose and enjoy their jobs, but the following facts must be acknowledged:

1) Less privileged sex workers — people who are at a disadvantage because of their race, class, gender identity, or whatever — are more likely to be exploited and abused and silenced, because their disadvantages will be used against them. For example, a poor person is obviously more likely to do work that they hate because they’re desperate for money.

2) Less privileged sex workers are less likely to have the time, education, or knowledge to effectively articulate their experience. Sidenote: please check out the Speak Up! trainings, which are intended to educate sex workers on how to deal with the media, and help sex workers describe their own experience.

3) As a result of these factors, the discourse is often dominated by privileged sex workers. This is a serious problem. The activist Audacia Ray, who is a personal hero of mine, has an article about this. When you look at porn, this means that a lot of the sex workers we hear from around the online gendersphere — maybe most? — are having an awesome time.

And I certainly think that privileged sex workers should talk about that as much as they want! Shout it from the rooftops! But I also think we must be cautious about drawing conclusions based solely on those voices. I particularly appreciate privileged sex worker writers who both love their jobs and make an effort to highlight less-privileged voices.

So, what are a porn consumer’s responsibilities? I would be absolutely thrilled if more porn consumers would boycott porn whose employees are exploited. I acknowledge that it’s not always easy to tell whose employees are exploited, and whose aren’t — especially given the three considerations I listed above. Years ago, I published a two-part interview with a BDSM pornographer named Tim Woodman, and the most interesting part was the second half, because that was where he responded to audience criticisms from the first half. Tim received questions like: “If some porn models are being paid hush money, then how are consumers supposed to know which porn is okay?” And his answer was, honestly, that it’s often difficult and nuanced. (The male feminist writer Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote a response piece called “I Can Never Tell.”)

I have often thought that it’s past time for “fair trade sex work,” where ethics becomes a selling point. I have also often thought the most feminist thing I could do would be to open a brothel where the employees are treated well. Honestly, if it weren’t illegal in my home country, I might have done this already. (Which, incidentally, highlights one of the problems of making sex work illegal: making sex work illegal mostly chases away ethical people, whereas unethical ones don’t mind so much.)

In the meantime, there are feminist pornographers who work really hard to put out ethical porn. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but it’s worth checking out the Feminist Porn Awards, as well as the documentary Hot ‘n’ Bothered: Feminist Pornography. Here’s a nice piece called “The Five Hallmarks of Feminist Porn.” And for those with an interest in BDSM, I recommend the challenging documentary Graphic Sexual Horror — it really gets at the meat of these issues.

Extra credit: the male porn star Tyler Knight has some excellent writing about his emotional difficulties, like this piece. Just in case you were thinking that everything is peaches and cream for male porn stars.

Can porn use become a problem?

Anything can become a problem. I don’t have time for people who claim that sex-related stuff is more likely to become a problem than other stuff that feels good.

When I’m with people who are capable of starting the conversation from an agreement that “sexuality is not necessarily bad” and “people have different sexual preferences,” I sometimes have interesting conversations about porn use being a problem. But you have to start there.

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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 ….)

2011 17 Mar

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List: 2011-2012!

SEX POSITIVE
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a FREE documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn and the awesome Sex+++ Committee!

+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

* * *

OFFICIAL FILM LIST: 2011-2012
2nd Tuesdays at 7PM
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted

Sex+++ is a film series and discussion group that’s open to all, where we discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun. When I started the series in 2009, I thought it would only last 9 months (here’s the original film list) — but Sex+++ ended up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams!

This year, we’re exploring some new themes:

+ Activist Sex (how sex and activism intersect),
+ Sexual History (how sex has been viewed in the past),
+ Love And Sex (how romance and relationships shape sex),
+ and Sex Everywhere (how people think about sex outside the USA).

You can RSVP by phone if you like: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

* * *

MARCH 8, 2011: “Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” (1992) + “Jane: An Abortion Service” (1996)
#1: Highlights Margaret Sanger’s pioneering strategies of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of birth control, and discusses some of her early-1900s arrests and trials.
#2: Tells the story of “Jane”, the Chicago-based women’s health group who performed nearly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973 with no formal medical training.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

APRIL 7, 2011 — THURSDAY: “A Jihad for Love” (2007)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, April 7 rather than the second Tuesday in April, because the filmmaker is coming into town for a talkback!
+ Fourteen centuries after the revelation of the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, Islam today is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels the many worlds of this dynamic faith, discovering the stories of its most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims. After we screen “A Jihad for Love”, Sharma will talk about his more than a decade of work and experience in countries like Egypt, where he filmed in secret, without government permission, during Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.
+ Note that there will also be a brown bag lunch with Parvez Sharma at noon on April 8, on the topic of race and identity.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sex Everywhere

MAY 10, 2011: “Sister Wife” (2008) + “The Love Bureau” (2009) + “Muslims in Love” (2010)
#1: A fundamentalist Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage explains how she feels about it.
#2: Profiles a modern-day mail order bride service that specializes in matching Eastern European women with Italian men.
#3: Shows devout American Muslim young people pursuing love and marriage, searching for alternatives to arranged marriages common to traditional Muslim culture.
+ themes: Love and Sex, Sex Everywhere

JUNE 14, 2011: “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papi’ and Wil” (2008)
A unique, sexy, thought-provoking and above all touching portrait of an interracial, polyamorous, transgender couple. The film involves several personal interviews and three explicit sex scenes: the first with Papi’ and Wil; the second involving an extra partner; and the third an S&M role play scenario.
+ themes: Love and Sex

JULY 12, 2011: “Outrage” (2009)
Examines the issues surrounding closeted homosexual politicians and their hypocrisy in voting anti-gay on measures from HIV/AIDS support to hate crime laws — and how they have harmed millions of Americans for many years.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

AUGUST 11, 2011 — THURSDAY: “The Canal Street Madam” (2010)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, August 11 rather than Tuesday. It will also take place at the Everleigh Social Club, 939 W. Randolph St., rather than at the Hull-House Museum, because we are partnering with the Sex Workers Outreach Project on their upcoming sex worker film fest!
+ “The Canal Street Madam” follows the story of Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. When she was busted by the FBI and torn apart in the press, they escaped censure, so after her trial she set out to fight back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

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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 …

SEX+++
pro-sex, pro-queer, pro-kink

Contact:
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 18 Nov

[advice] A 16-yr-old kinkster who wants “a sense of personal integrity”

When I received the following email, I was sitting in my mother’s living room. I read the letter aloud to Mom where she was standing in the kitchen; she stopped what she was doing, came over and sat down across from me. When I was done, she said, “That’s heartbreaking. This girl sounds just like you.”

Yeah, I relate a lot to this one.

Posted with the writer’s permission:

Dear Clarisse,

I’m sorry to email you out of the blue like this, but I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and it’s been a great help to me. I’m also sorry if this is pretty personal, but I don’t know of anyone else with any relevant experience that I can turn to. You’ve always seemed friendly and open to discussion from what I’ve read, so I hope you won’t mind.

OK. Here goes. Basically, I’ve had what I now know to be BDSM leanings since an early age — tying up the Barbie dolls, bizarre childhood games, the works, gaining a more sexual edge in my teenage years. I never really thought about it, and if I did, I would just think, “Oh well, I can think and fantasise about what I like, it doesn’t hurt anyone, why should I be ashamed?” The difficulty for me has come in my first proper relationship. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 10 months and it’s not a secret between us. I mean, it surprised him, but he’s completely fine with it and he seems pretty enthusiastic (and has consistently over the past nine months or so, so I think it might be more than just to please me, though he’s not as into it as I am). Maybe I should specify. I don’t enjoy labelling myself, but I suppose you would call me a submissive. 

As I’m sure you can relate to, this poses some problems for me. I’ve always thought of myself as a strong, independent young woman. I endured bullying at school and I have always espoused — or tried to, to the best of my ability — a philosophy that can be neatly summed up as “Fuck ’em.” It’s very difficult for me to come to terms with this other side of myself, that, while it was always there, never really intruded on my actual life, if you see what I mean. Now it does. I’m saying these things I’ve thought about a lot of my life, and doing some of them too. There’s a level — well, two, the rational level and the physical one — where I’m completely OK with it, but another part of me — I suppose the emotional part — is entirely disgusted. If it was just the pain, I could deal with that. It’s this desire for submission that makes me feel sick about myself. The thing is, rationally, I know that there’s no reason why I can’t be a strong woman in my relationships and my everyday life but play with a power dynamic during sex acts. I mean, from what I’ve read, you do it fine! I just don’t know how to make that leap. I’m sure you know the feeling I’m talking about.

I should also add that I’m 16 and a virgin, and the same with my boyfriend. This entire kaboodle is new to me and I don’t really know what I’m doing, and this is really causing me quite a lot of anguish. I don’t really know where to go for support. I can hardly ask at the regular sexual health clinic! I wouldn’t know where to start looking for kink-aware therapists, as you did. Besides that, I would have to talk to my parents about it. I’ve spoken to my mother about BDSM briefly in conversation without letting her know anything about myself, and she said she thought relationships like that were “unhealthy” and “destructive”. I’m sure that’s just ignorance on her part, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to come out to her, and explain why it’s OK, at least not until I’m sure about this myself. It still feels partly unreal, as though it’s something I’ve created in myself that will go away if I ignore it — even though I know that’s not the case. I share the feeling that you’ve written about before — I’ve never been in an “other-ed” minority before, being white and middle-class etc. My boyfriend is very supportive and caring, but to be honest, he doesn’t know what he’s doing any better than I do! So I hope that you will be able to offer me some reassurance and advice. Your blog, as I’ve said, has been a great help, but reading something like that, wonderful as it is, isn’t the same and doesn’t have the same power to reassure as a more personal dialogue. I hope you see what I mean and don’t just think that I’m seeking attention. That is not my goal here. All I’m after is a sense of personal integrity. Perhaps in the end that can only come from myself, but, it would be nice to be told I’m not completely mad!

I wanted to post that letter mostly because I think it’s eloquent. Again, I’m probably somewhat biased because the girl who wrote it sounds a lot like me. (The “fuck ’em” philosophy especially. It got a lot better once I got out of public school and went to university, but, man, it was pretty intense for a while there.) There are so many lines in there that I could have written, once.

Even the way she writes, “I suppose you would call me a submissive” …. It took me months — maybe even years, I can’t recall — after coming into my BDSM identity for me to accept the word “submissive” and apply it to myself. I hated that word so much.

Fortunately for the letter-writer, she lives in the United Kingdom, which means that at age 16 she’s not below the age of consent. This, presumably, means that she can hang out in BDSM communities if she likes; in the USA, people have to be over 18 to do so. One thing I suggested she look for is a group called The Next Generation, to see if there are any UK branches. In the US, TNG has branches in a number of cities; it’s a kink group that usually hosts low-key café meetups and the occasional BDSM demo for folks aged 18-35 (perhaps in the UK it’s open to ages 16-35). I also noted that there are probably some UK therapists on the Kink Aware Professionals list, though I don’t know if there’s as much representation over there.

I only know a couple of things for sure about BDSM in the UK. One is that the country contains the Torture Garden, which is the world’s largest fetish club, and which has released some absolutely gorgeous fliers. It’s also where one of the nastiest BDSM scandals in recent history occurred, the infamous and ridiculous Spanner Case, which resulted in a group called The Spanner Trust that works to protect S&Mers.

A sense of community is, in my experience, incredibly helpful for new kinksters who want to talk about the insanity-inducing coming-out process. One of the most powerful moments in my BDSM-integration process occurred during a discussion group at the San Francisco Citadel. It was the first BDSM group I’d ever attended — basically a Dominant/submissive roundtable — and the statement I recall best came from a woman who was happily curled up next to her boyfriend on a couch. She identified herself as a submissive and she noted that she and her boyfriend had an agreement that, every night, she had to kneel at the foot of the bed and ask his permission to get in.

“Some nights,” she said, “I’m really tired, and I don’t want to do that, I just want to climb in and go to sleep. But then I remind myself that this is the kind of relationship I want, and that it is part of my sexuality. That this is part of my integrity as a submissive, to show him that I want to keep our power dynamic alive by asking his permission to get into bed every single night.”

At the time, this blew my mind. Her use of the word integrity …. I don’t personally prefer to have those kinds of agreements — the kneeling-and-asking-permission type agreements — at least not usually. (Rarely do I encounter a man with whom our mutual power dynamic is so incredibly strong, whom I trust so much, that I’m willing to submit myself totally like that. But it has happened — though it had not yet happened when I attended that Citadel discussion group, and I may never experience it again.) Still … even though I don’t personally prefer the kinds of relationships she does, it was still such an incredible relief to see a submissive, who was so clearly in possession of herself and feeling so good about her relationship — to hear her use a word like integrity. To hear her apply the word integrity to her sexuality.

This is one of several reasons I usually encourage people to look into the local in-person community, but not everyone is going to mesh well with their local BDSM groups. Luckily, the Internet may provide another option. There’s a kinky social networking site called FetLife.com where BDSMers can make profiles, engage in discussion groups, etc.; that seems like a good place to start.  (There are even feminist discussion groups on FetLife, of which I am obviously a member.) BDSM blogs other than my own can perhaps function similarly.  I know there are online BDSM fora, and I’ve heard mixed things about some of them, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them.

This girl sounds plenty smart enough to make her own decisions about which groups to participate in and which to ignore, but I did encourage her to keep in mind that there are plenty of BDSM fora in the world. So, if she finds one that’s full of annoying or scary people, she doesn’t have to settle for that one.

In terms of straight-up relationship advice, there are lots of books and blogs out there for that too.  I personally like The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy; the companion volume is The New Topping Book.  And then there’s just generally great advice on the amazing sex education site Scarleteen.  I know Scarleteen has its own message boards as well, though I haven’t participated much over there either.

For those who are interested in coming out to their parents, I recommend the book When Someone You Love Is Kinky by Dossie Easton and Catherine W. Liszt (it’s intended for the parents or for any other relatives of a kinkster).  I’ve also heard good things about the “Parents of Alternative Sexuality” pamphlet by Dr. Amy Marsh.

And, as always, there’s plenty of other stuff listed on my S&M Resources page.

And, just in case you’re thinking, “This girl is 16? That’s ridiculous. What does she know about her sexuality?” — I encourage you to read this post by Maymay: Young People Into BDSM Are Not Exceptional. The post is mostly about the community dynamics that occur in some places (though not all), where people who are younger and into BDSM are sometimes seen as “exceptions”, when in reality we’re not exceptional at all. Plenty of us experience sexuality, and have a firm grasp on it, at an age younger than the age our culture chooses to allow us full access to information about sexuality.

I think a lot about younger kinksters — not just because of issues like the ones Maymay raises in his post, either. It’s clear that in-person American BDSM communities cannot allow folks who are under 18 into our ranks, because of the liability we risk. Even if the community’s only and entire goal is education, it’s simply too likely that some concerned parent would find out about their under-18 kid talking to us. Then the parent freaks out and our community comes under attack for “child molestation” or some similar trumped-up charge. Oh, I can picture the worst that could happen, all too clearly ….

But this leaves us in the position of being unable to directly educate people under 18 about BDSM. So the best we can do is encourage those who are under 18 to read as much as they possibly can, both on the Internet and in books, before practicing any of the BDSM they might be attracted to. It’s not great, but it’s something. It’s more than our parents’ generation had.

UPDATE, 2013: I continue to receive emails from young kinksters. My heart goes out to you folks. My final thought is this:

You have time. Seriously, so much time. I know it’s so frustrating if you feel like you have to wait until you leave home or whatever, but hey, you can use this time to read books and stuff. (Like my collection The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn!)

Besides, you are not as frustrated as me, because I have to wait until Thursday to see this new guy I have a thing for, and Thursday is like ONE MILLION YEARS from now. And I already texted him once today.

… You get my point.

Also, one of the teenagers who emailed me was apparently directed to my blog by her mom. The times, they are a-changin’!

P.S.: The comments on this post are excellent, so keep reading ….

2010 11 Nov

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, seriously. Donate!

* * *

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

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2010 2 Oct

Available lectures, workshops and events from Clarisse Thorn

I recently told everyone that I’m back in America and available for lectures or events, but it’s come to my attention that it’s hard to know exactly what kind of sex-positive events I offer without going through my entire blog archive. Sorry about that! I’m fixing it right now by giving you a short list of what I’ve done.

* Leadership in the Bedroom: A Sexual Communication Workshop. Down-to-earth tips and ideas on how to communicate clearly about sex. This workshop was originally requested by the University of Illinois at Chicago, but I’ve given versions of it at other venues as well. It was one of the first workshops I ever designed, and I’m currently working on streamlining it and making it more interactive. I can do it in an hour, but prefer longer.

* BDSM Overview. Imagery deriving from bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) is becoming commonplace — and we all know (or think we know) what a dominatrix is — but most people don’t have much idea of what BDSM actually involves. Although it is increasingly accepted as an alternative sexual orientation, BDSM remains surrounded by stigma, scandal and occasional legal action. This presentation covers the basics of BDSM (however, it’s not a how-to lecture — you aren’t going to learn how to use a whip, though you’ll learn where to go to find out!). I prefer to poll the audience to see what they want to cover on top of that — BDSM history? cultural landmarks? BDSM & feminism? legal issues? I’ve got it all! I have given this lecture at New York’s Museum of Sex and Chicago’s Northwestern University; it was actually the subject of my first-ever blog post. It can be squished into an hour, but I prefer two hours, or even longer.

* Sex-Positivity for Everyone! Including the Mens! What is masculinity or male advocacy as a movement, and how is it in dialogue with contemporary feminism? Can it be incorporated into feminism, or can the values of the sex-positive feminist community speak to its concerns? What does positive, productive talk about masculinity sound like? I talk about all this in a short lecturette and then facilitate small discussions on kinky male sexuality, men in the pickup artist community, and men who buy sex. This workshop was originally requested by the University of Chicago, and based on feedback from that experience, I have been adapting it slightly for my upcoming Reed College appearance on October 5. It should take about 90 minutes.

* The Sex+++ Film Series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and related film screenings. I have now overseen many many screenings of sex-positive documentaries, and facilitated followup discussions afterwards. In the past I have done this primarily to accomplish my own activist educational goals or to raise funds for deserving institutions, but I’d be happy to run a screening or two upon request. Please note, however, that I don’t own the rights to all the films I’ve screened, and so if you want me to run a screening for you, you may need to budget extra in order to cover the rights. Here’s a list of the original film line-up for Sex+++.

I would certainly be willing to design a new workshop or lecture upon request — in fact, two of the above events were created at the request of the institutions that invited me. If you ask me to create a new event, though, please keep in mind that it will be an event I’ve never field-tested before! Still, feedback on my events has generally been good, even on the brand-new ones. And I am planning to start handing out feedback forms to everyone who attends one of my workshops, so I can get ever-more-precise input.

UPDATE: Right, my location! Currently I’m in San Francisco (and about to travel to Portland to give this talk at Reed, obviously). I will probably be here for about another month. If you’re anywhere near California and want me to travel to you, then it would be in your interest to schedule now, since my travel costs would be lower. I will return to Chicago in about a month, probably, after which I’m more available to the midwestish area. And I have family in New York, so I’ll head out that way by late December if not before.

If you represent a super-deserving group, like for example a domestic abuse organization that wants advice on differentiating abuse from BDSM or on being alternative-sexuality friendly, then we can definitely negotiate my honorarium.

2010 16 Aug

[storytime] Sympathy for the Anti-Porn Feminists

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I really felt uncomfortable with and uneasy about porn. I believed it was something that “all men watch” and “all men like”. I didn’t yet realize that there are lots of different kinds of porn out there, and so I believed that the mainstream porn I’d seen represented “all men’s desires”. Given that I didn’t look like women in mainstream porn and I didn’t want to act like women in mainstream porn, this made me suspect that I couldn’t possibly be awesome in bed; so I couldn’t help feeling pressured and threatened by porn’s very existence, because it seemed to be fulfilling “all men’s desires” in a way that I couldn’t. (I felt even more uneasy when I first came across SomethingAwful’s hentai game reviews around age 18. The reviews were so funny that I laughed out loud, but I also literally cried — right in a public computer lab, actually.)

But I accepted that the men in my life watched porn, and I made it clear that although I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t mind — that I certainly didn’t expect them to give up porn while dating me.

Except one. I dated one man who insisted that he didn’t use porn, and I believed him. Keep in mind that I had told him I didn’t mind if he used porn, so his insistence that he didn’t came entirely from him, not me. And then one day I was going through our computer’s search history looking for something I’d been reading the day before, and I came upon rape-fantasy porn. And I was heartbroken.

Way beyond the fact that the man I loved had outright lied to me — which, I think, legitimately entitled me to be angry — my reaction went something like this:

A) The only man I’ve ever met who I thought truly didn’t like porn was lying to me, which means I can’t trust men who say they don’t like porn, and probably indicates that men who have told me they don’t like rape porn were lying too.

B) Porn indicates real preferences, right? So what this means is that all men secretly crave to rape women, but that they are either too afraid of the legal consequences or care too much about the women they love to actually do it.

In other words, I thought something like: I can’t trust men to be honest about their sexuality, and their sexuality is scary and predatory.

This was a highly overwrought and almost totally wrong read on the situation! But that’s how I felt at the time. I couldn’t figure out a way to talk to my boyfriend about the porn without causing a fight (it was a rather non-communicative relationship, and I’m glad it’s long over). So I never talked to him about it, and it took me years to unravel all the incorrect assumptions I had wrapped up in my reactions to porn.

* * *

In the circles I run in today, saying that I’ve got sympathy for anti-porn feminists is kind of like saying I’ve got sympathy for the devil. But the truth is, I’ve got quite a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong: I emphatically do not support censoring porn. I screened some documentaries on feminist and alternative porn when I curated my sex-positive film series. And I often point out that, despite what anti-porn feminists say, there’s absolutely no evidence that porn increases sexual violence. In fact, there’s reason to think that increased porn access reduces sexual violence.

These issues have been highlighted lately with the release of Pornland, a book by anti-porn zealot Gail Dines. I haven’t read it, but from the reviews and excerpts and interviews I’ve seen, it’s obvious that Pornland is breathtaking in its lack of evidence. (My personal favorite coverage is this interview, in which Dines’ own former research assistant — who is now a porn performer — disputes Dines’ claims.)

So how can I have sympathy for anti-porn feminists? Only because I remember how I felt just a few years ago. I remember that I felt so confused about my own sexuality; I remember how resentful I felt, that sex seemed so easy for men — that the world seemed to facilitate their sex drives so thoroughly, particularly by providing all this porn!

I remember how hurt I felt by porn, because I believed that it represented “what men want”, and that therefore I was “supposed” to act like porn women — even though the way women acted in porn didn’t appeal to me at all. I remember how scared I felt, when I believed that rape porn reflected “all men’s desires”, and concluded that “all men secretly would love to commit rape”. The porn that I’d seen felt as though it set the standard for my sexual behavior, and I hated that standard, but I didn’t see a way out. Because even with all my liberal, sex-positive sex education, there were serious flaws in my knowledge about sex. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the concept of fully-negotiated, 100% consensual rape fantasy sex.

And that’s really the heart of the problem with porn: that is, the problem is not porn in itself at all. The problem is bad sex education. The problem is that all Americans are subjected to sexual mores that shame sex; that refuse to talk honestly about sex; that claim we shouldn’t be having sex at all. The problem is that millions of people are too ashamed and afraid and repressed to talk or think seriously about their sexual desires. That millions of people don’t recognize the diversity of sexual desire. And, therefore, that millions of people’s primary source of information about sexuality is highly stylized mainstream porn.

* * *

Anti-porn folks are shaped by society’s irrational sexual fears and stereotypes:

1) There’s a stereotype that male sexuality is inherently dangerous, unwanted, or predatory and that it must be contained or restrained at all costs. This means that porn cannot be allowed to thrive, especially if it seems to cater to men. This is also, I suspect, the source of the claim that porn access increases rape (again, false). Anti-porn activists rely on the societal belief that men’s sexuality is hard to control, scaring us into believing that allowing porn will enable uncontrollable men.

2) There’s anxiety about alternative sexuality. Almost everyone in the world can be freaked out by some form of sexuality, and most people are freaked out by very predictable taboos. This freaking-out reaction doesn’t actually mean that there’s anything wrong with that form of sexuality — because, folks, nothing is wrong with any form of sexuality as long as it is 100% consensual! — but most people don’t think past their immediate freakout. So anti-porn folks often use images of extreme sexuality to alarm people who aren’t prepared to see those images. In other words, they often rely on freaking people out to make their case — possibly because otherwise they haven’t got a case.

3) Does porn create certain desires? Or does it merely cater to existing desires? The answer is probably “a little bit of both”, but anti-porn activists rely on the idea that porn makes its viewers want certain kinds of sex or certain kinds of partners. Many of us (like me, years ago) are afraid that we can’t “live up” to our partners’ preferences, and many of us (like me, years ago) tend to believe that “all men” or “all women” want the same thing. So there’s an anti-porn fear that if we allow porn to flourish, those of us who don’t enjoy acting like [mainstream] porn stars will be unable to satisfy our partners.

Again, I got sympathy. I understand these fears because I used to feel them; I felt them so strongly that it made me cry in a public computer lab. But the solution isn’t getting rid of the porn, it’s getting rid of the fears. The solution is:

1) Reframing male sexuality so that we aren’t so damn scared of it all the time. Men can and will control themselves sexually, and they’ll only get better at it — not worse — if we encourage honest, non-scary, open-minded dialogue about male sexual desire.

2) Encouraging people to see alternative sexuality as just another human preference, rather than something weird and/or freakish. Encouraging people to accept and come to terms with their own sexuality, though this can be a tough and hard-to-recognize process — it certainly was for me. Once people feel comfortable in their own sex lives and recognize their own weird fetishes, they’ll be much less likely to judge other people’s sex lives.

3) Making it incredibly clear that everyone has different sexual desires, that different kinds of porn express different desires, and that “all men” and “all women” don’t want the same thing. Porn can be a wonderful tool for exploring particular desires, and allowing people to explore their particular preferences makes it easier for everyone to find sexual satisfaction, not harder — because it means that people with particular preferences can find each other, rather than ending up in unhappy partnerships where those desires are ignored.

4) Giving more airtime to alternative porn, especially feminist porn, to make it obvious that all porn isn’t the same. [1]

5) Oh, and of course we need to encourage people to recognize that violent sex isn’t necessarily bad sex; that even something as extreme as a rape scene can be 100% consensual. One key idea that I’m trying to push is writing about the amazing variety of sexual communication tactics derived from S&M — tactics that enable some awesomely extreme, awesomely consensual sex.

* * *

I have a theory about how porn affects men in bed. I don’t have any data, I’ve just got my experience, and that means I’m on the same level as Gail Dines (so maybe I should publish a book). I’ve had a pretty fair number of sexual partners at this point, and it’s true that, in my experience, men who don’t like mainstream porn are often better in bed: more attentive and less likely to make assumptions, for example. Perhaps they’re better off because they never learned or believed in the stereotypes of mainstream porn — then again, some guys who don’t like porn are horribly repressed and terrible in bed, so obviously the issue cuts both ways.

However! There’s another group of men who are excellent in bed. Often, they’re even better than men who don’t watch porn. And that group is men who have watched a lot of different kinds of porn and who have thought carefully about their reactions to it. They have learned how many different flavors of sexuality are out there in the world. They are men who have gotten over their sexual repression and learned to talk about sex in an open, accepting, honest way. Those men are fantastic in bed.

And they’ve probably got more exposure to porn than any of the men cherry-picked by anti-porn zealots who talk about the horrors of porn.

* * *

* Footnote: This point (#4) was added in February 2011. It’s late for me to add it in, because this piece has already been republished in multiple venues across the internet, but it’s an important point and I’m mad at myself that I left it out of the original version of this post. I think I take too much sex-positive theory for granted sometimes ….

2010 28 May

[advice] Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.'” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

* * *

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 3 Apr

Salvation Army attacks sex-positive activist through its human trafficking email list

Sometimes people try to tell me that no one has a problem with S&M; that all stigma against S&M is in our heads and that if we BDSMers would just get over our victim complex, we’d discover that society has no real problem with us. I’ve got tons of counterexamples, but today I’m only going to talk about one: my friend maymay, a sex-positive activist and kinkster who has now been painted as a child molester, starting with an attack from the Salvation Army (specifically, two women named Margaret Brooks and Donna M. Hughes).

I admire maymay; he’s done some incredible sex-positive activism. He created the sex-positive unconference model KinkForAll, which swiftly went viral, and co-created Kink On Tap, a smart sexuality netcast with tons of audience participation. Maymay is also out of the closet under his real name, which is an incredibly ballsy and badass move on his part, but one that puts him in all the more danger when absurd and libelous personal attacks like these are launched.

What I find most notable about the Salvation Army attack is that — although maymay’s events and activism focus on general sex-positivity more than BDSM in particular — it’s BDSM that got up their noses. When the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking jumped on maymay, they implied that the “The specific goal of the event [KinkForAll] was to foster an acceptance of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.” Well, I attended and presented at the first KinkForAll in New York City, and while a lot of BDSM information was shared, the specific goal of the event was definitely to be generally sex-positive.

So why is BDSM the centerpiece of Salvation Army’s little freakout? One might say that it’s because maymay identifies as a submissive, and frequently blogs about BDSM; or perhaps it’s because KinkForAll attracted a large BDSM community contingent, probably because we’re very accustomed to talking and trading information about sex in a KinkForAll-compatible style. BDSM thus becomes the lightning rod. But it couldn’t function as such if BDSM weren’t seen as deviant, sick, unacceptable, and disgusting. If society really had no problem with BDSM, then why would the Salvation Army be sending messages to a sex trafficking listhost attacking a BDSM-associated event?

(Tangentially, it’s worth noting that talking about sex trafficking — which is a genuine and serious problem in many places — has been used throughout history as a tactic to attack, shut down, criminalize or control various forms of consensual sexuality. If you’d like to learn more about this, I strongly recommend the brilliant blog Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex by Laura Agustín. Start with “What’s Wrong With the Trafficking Crusade“. If you don’t mind academic writing, Agustín’s paper on the history of sex worker “rescue” initiatives is also particularly good.)

The other thing that really gets me about maymay’s attackers — in his post, he engages one one blogger in particular — is the assertion that sex-positive activism leads to “doing whatever” with no regard to the emotional consequences. In her argument with maymay, the blogger states that:

all the things I’d been told about sex – again, on whatever end of the spectrum – had quite clearly missed the point. “Don’t do it” with not explanation leads to rebellion or shaming. “Do whatever” leads to heartbreak. That has been my experience.

I think that we are sexual beings, yes. This means that our sexuality is part of everything – body, mind, heart, soul. I don’t think we can separate, hard as we might try, the one from the other.

Wow, hey, that sounds just like what I’ve been saying for years! In fact, it almost exactly mirrors some things I said in my landmark post Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. I wrote:

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. … We 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”.

So what’s with this assumption that sex-positive activists have no clue about social issues of sexuality, or matters of the heart? Working to destigmatize sexuality is in no way incompatible with working towards better, more consensual, more meaningful relationships; in fact, I’ll be bound that sex-positive activists do a much better job of this than these “anti-trafficking” folks do. As maymay wrote in a recent email:

Protecting people of every gender and age from falling victim to sexual abuse requires that each person — including every man, woman, and child on Earth — has the right and freedom to learn about sexuality in a non-judgmental environment.

Predictably, Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks are refusing to engage maymay directly. (That’s a typical sex-negative tactic; as I recall, the makers of the appallingly biased anti-porn documentary “The Price of Pleasure” have refused to publicly engage with actual porn actresses as well. Funny how most sex-negative arguments collapse when faced with those of us who freely and consensually choose to do Whatever It Is That We Do.) That leaves the sex-positive community to back up maymay on our blogs, podcasts, and Twitter accounts; and from what I’ve been seeing, we’re doing a good job. We can’t erase Hughes’ and Brooks’ harmful accusations, but we can damn well expose them for the absurdities they are.