Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

2013 8 May

How My Self-Published Book About Pickup Artists Made Me Famous In Germany

On April 27th, I returned from a week-long trip to Berlin, and I’m still kinda shell-shocked. Over that week, I spent hours every day being interviewed by all sorts of people: Europe’s biggest newspaper, for example. The German edition of Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview. Four different German television stations. (Seriously. Four.)

This is all because my first self-published book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, has been acquired by a “real” German publisher. The German translation of Confessions will soon be available in many German-language stores.

Perhaps oddly, this is my first deal with a traditional publisher. I started out as an obscure subculture blogger/activist, and then people started calling me an expert, and then I started selling articles and getting speaking engagements, but all my books have been 100% self-published and self-promoted until now. I used the constellation of platforms that we now call “social media” to aggressively promote my ideas, but I certainly did not expect my self-published book to captivate Germany. I don’t even speak German!

I am handling such complicated feelings. It is taking me forever to write this. But my first TV interview just aired — the channel is Taff on Pro7, and the German translation of my words has occasioned much discussion on my Facebook wall. Unfortunately the interview cannot be viewed from the USA, but there was also a recent article in a well-respected German newspaper, Zeit. (I hear that Zeit is analogous to the Sunday Times.)

There’s been other coverage too, plus a lot more on the way. So I guess now is the time to put this out into the world.

* * *

Where to begin?

The translation deal began with a piece of fan mail last year, early 2012. The message came from Jennifer Kroll, who bought Confessions on Amazon after the book hit #1 in two categories. She found me on Facebook and wrote: “I don’t think I have ever recommended a book that frequently to anyone before, and I work in publishing.”

We talked, and then we talked more. She flew me to Berlin, and then she flew me to Berlin again.

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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 2 Feb

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

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

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

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

Specifically, I wrote:

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

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

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

And now I want to talk about it some more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2011 31 Oct

[storytime] A Unified Theory of Orgasm

Before I post my article about orgasms, happy Halloween:

I discovered this tiny sculpture (easily fits in my hand) at a friend’s party this weekend. Apparently it is known as a “Halloween labbit”; it was created by Frank Kozik and produced by the designer toy company Kidrobot. This discovery might just be the highlight of my entire life. Seriously. Study questions include, “What would you do if that were a real animal that ran into the room where you’re sitting right now?”

… Aaand on that note, let’s move on to “A Unified Theory of Orgasm”. This article was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

I CAN’T COME.
and it’s poisoned
every romance
I’ve ever had.

masturbating doesn’t work. I don’t know why. I tried therapy too, but my smart, understanding, sex-positive, open-hearted doctor couldn’t help. drugs while fucking? check. I date attentive men who only want to make me happy, but no matter how fantastic they make me feel, I can’t get off. and believe me, I like sex. I love sex! how can it feel so good and not end in an orgasm? I tried experimenting, and I sure do love the kink. it feels great. but doesn’t get me off. I’ve tried everything. everything.

now I have the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. but just like every other one, he can’t get me off. big dick? oral sex? tons of foreplay? kink? it’s all there. nothing works. I used to lie to my boyfriends and say it was ok that I couldn’t get off. then at least they could enjoy sex without feeling guilty. but then they’d stop trying, of course. and this one is still trying … sometimes. I mean, it’s clearly never going to work. so I can’t blame him for not having the same passion for trying as he used to. and I keep thinking I should back off. after all, why put pressure on him to “perform”? he’ll just resent me if I keep asking for more, even if I’m gentle about it and compliment him and all that. since nothing he does works. it will never work.

and I try so hard not to get frustrated, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that I am fucked up, I must be broken. I mean, any normal woman would have come by now. so what do I do? I don’t know what I need. do I back off and focus on him? that’s what I end up doing, because I can’t face asking for a little more attention in bed anymore. what’s the point? he’ll just resent me when it doesn’t work again. so I back off. and I can’t help resenting him, just a little, for not noticing how much I’m hurting. and not trying, even if I am broken, and I will never ever come.

* * *

Contents:

I. Vaginal Pain
II. S&M
III. Frigid
IV. The Fight
V. Men’s Perspective
VI. S&M, Redux
VII. Figuring It Out
VIII. Study Questions

* * *

I. Vaginal Pain

When I wrote the above, I was actually pretty close to figuring out how to have an orgasm. But I didn’t know that. I’d dealt with the anxiety of being unable to come for so long — and I’d also recently begun to understand that my sexuality is oriented towards S&M — and so anguish just flooded out of me, into those words. I craved S&M, but acknowledging the craving made me feel like a “pervert”, a “freak”. It contributed to my already-overwhelming fear that I was “broken” because I couldn’t figure out how to come.

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2011 9 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, Part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

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2011 11 Apr

My top questions about dealing with multiple lovers

Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which people have multiple lovers, and are honest with each other about doing so. I have a lot more theoretical exposure to polyamory than personal experience, but I’ve been gaining more personal experience over the last year. It’s often interesting, sometimes painful.

Some recent experiences are making me think I am not nearly as smart or as on top of my emotions as I like to believe I am. I remind myself that I have to be willing to acknowledge when I don’t know what I’m thinking, but that’s harder than it looks … I don’t always take enough time to understand my feelings before speaking or acting.

Still. Through the stupid mistakes and the understandable ones, though my own failures to be sensitive and the little heartbreaks I’ve sustained, I’ve been learning.

One thing I think I’ve figured out is what I want: I want a number of different relationships that are ongoing, and one or two relationships that are primary, or especially committed. Ideally, in fact, I’d love to eventually have a permanent relationship with a primary polyamorous partner in which we have kids with each other, live together most of the time, etc, but are still polyamorous. That would be a while in the future, though — for now, it’s important to me to not feel as though my partners expect me to settle down or stay in one place or anything like that. It seems like any relationship I develop, even during this relatively early time in my life, could become a child-rearing relationship eventually — like, years from now — but if it does, I doubt I’d want to make it monogamous.

I recognize that we don’t always get our ideal world. In fact, we usually don’t. Although polyamory is a high priority for me, it may be something I eventually compromise on, given that the majority of people in this world identify as monogamous. (On the other hand, it’s worth noting that research shows 40% of young couples don’t agree with each other about whether they’re monogamous or not. How are these people communicating?)

Keeping all that in mind, my preference for polyamory presents some challenges, and questions that I worry about. Such as:

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2011 1 Mar

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

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

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

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

Well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010 26 Dec

Anger, fear and pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010 11 Nov

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, seriously. Donate!

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

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2010 19 Oct

[storytime] Guilt, failure and a pre-orgasmic feminist

This was originally posted recently at the blog Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction.

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I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.

This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)

In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:

[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.

I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.

But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.

Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:

I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.

But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.

I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)

The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:

Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)

A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)

Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)

Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.

But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:

You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?

This is especially complicated by the fact that along with the typical advice of “Take responsibility!”, the other typical advice is “Let go of control!” Over at Lady Sex Q&A, Heather Corinna writes:

Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.

I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!

I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?

Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:

I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!

I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.

This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?

Not okay.