Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

UPDATE 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

* * *

Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.

One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.

Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)

The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.

Recently I was going through the SM-Feminist archives looking for a couple of posts to cite in a piece that I’m working on, and I was stunned to see how much of it overlapped with things I’ve written — even though I’ve specifically tried not to recapitulate what’s already been said over there. Some examples:

* This post basically encompasses everything I said in my old post BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Complications of the Orientation Model, except that it’s more complicated, and also touches on some points I made in my more recent post 5 Sources of Assumptions and Stereotypes About S&M.

* The post How a Girl Learns to Say No elegantly makes one of the major points from my post on safewords and check-ins.

* This post on the term “vanilla” is a more complicated and interesting take on a question that I first started considering way back when I started blogging, in my post Vanilla: Dissection of a Term. It even encompasses all the things I meant to write when I wrote the followup to my post, you know, the followup that never actually happened.

And then there are the SM-Feminist posts that say things I’ve either never gotten around to saying, or that I simply haven’t bothered to blog about because I know they said it better. I’ve even cited some of these posts in lectures. Here’s a (doubtless incomplete) list of those posts:

* BDSM and Self-HarmI want to make this perfectly clear. I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point.

… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

* Why BDSM?Radical feminists are quick to point out to any kinky person who feels uneasy hearing that her fucking is just standard heteropatriarchy that they’re not trying to control what anyone does in bed. “I’m not trying to take your whips away,” etc. They’ll be extremely careful to mention this, and understandably irritated when someone goes “They’re trying to make me hang up the whips and go home,” given how clear they are that this isn’t what they want to do.

What I don’t understand is exactly what good the theory does at all, if they’re not trying to change people.

* OppressionIn discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

“People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you’re insulting people who really are oppressed. It’s as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. “

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we’re using. I realized that I don’t actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it’s used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don’t know an official definition, such that it’s possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don’t have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren’t close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

* Safer Communication PracticesThere are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like “safeword” or “safe, sane, and consensual”. And sometimes they’re tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they’re tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they’re attempting to express.

Last but not least, I’m just going to list the titles of some posts on BDSM and abuse:
* Wut About The Abuuuuzers?
* Not Your Usual BDSM and Abuse Story
* Confession
* The Nature of Abuse

The influences on my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse are obvious.

So there you go, folks. Right there, in the above links, are actually most of my major theoretical influences as a pro-SM feminist (and, indeed, as a general S&M practitioner). Someday I might find something to say about S&M and feminism that Trinity (and her fellow bloggers, occasionally) haven’t already said five times, better ….

… but I’m not holding my breath.

REMINDER from 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2010 18 Jul

[advice] How did I know that S&M was right for me?

I love it when people email me interesting questions. This letter is posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse —

I found your coming-out article on “Time Out” and I am both grateful and fascinated by your story. I apologize if this email is a bit personal, but I am unsure where to get honest non-judgmental advice. Recently a lover introduced me to SM and while I have always considered myself a fairly sexually tolerant and open person, I found myself unwilling to let go and trust with a scenario. On the surface, I feel I would very much enjoy what BDSM has to offer, but in practice I am unable to fully appreciate? the fantasy.

My questions to you are: did it take a bit a time for you to … hm … let go of yourself with this type of play?

It seems from your article that you recognized this lifestyle was / is a “fit” for you. How do you know if it is the right lifestyle for you?

Also, you mentioned some therapists who specialize in understanding the needs of alternative lifestyle folks. Could you direct me to some resources for additional information?

Here’s my response:

Hi there,

Firstly, and most importantly, here is the link to the website for the list of Kink Aware Professionals. You can read their FAQ and hopefully find a therapist to assist you there. I recommend that if you have the choice, you visit several therapists before choosing one. I wish you luck.

I can definitely say that once I had spent a little time doing S&M with Richard, the “main character” in my coming-out story, I was absolutely sure that it was what I wanted. It was undeniable, even though it was hard to adjust to it. But at the same time, I had trouble — that’s part of why I wrote up my coming-out story. It took me a long time — years! — to be totally okay with letting go and enjoying S&M. So, yes, it took me some time. And if you think you want to try it, then I think it’s important that you give yourself some time, as well.

But still, your question about “how do you know?” is a difficult one. When I first encountered Richard, I wasn’t very attracted to him. And if he had just asked me, “Would you like to try some S&M?” I might have said no. I had even encountered someone who tried to do S&M — holding me down and biting me — several years before I encountered Richard, and I wasn’t very interested at the time. But when Richard actually started hurting me, hard … I recognized it, and I knew it was something I had been seeking for a long time. So how did I recognize it when he did it, but not when the previous guy did it? I’m not sure.

I think that sexuality is very affected by the way we have a given experience. Our mood before we start having sex; our feelings about our partner; our level of attraction to our partner; our satisfaction with our current relationship; the reasons we have chosen this sexual experience at this time …. All of these factors come together in how we feel about a given sexual act. And then, on top of that, there’s also the fact that the way a given sexual act is performed can change the way we enjoy it. For example, I often get bored (or irritated) if someone ties me up and acts nice, even if they give me oral sex. But if someone ties me up and acts mean — if they try to genuinely scare me, or hurt me a lot in the ways I enjoy, and then they give me oral sex — then I think that’s really hot. So I think that the moral of the story is that there’s a lot of different ways to have different kinds of sex, so it’s often worth trying things more than once (unless you really, emphatically didn’t like it the first time). Recognition can come late.

Finally, just remember the old saying — “The search is more important than the find.” My best sexual experiences happened after I gave up on “finding” something, or “being sure”, and I started simply trying different things and enjoying them for what they were.

I recently wrote a post on my blog about how to encourage sexual openness; maybe it will be helpful for you.

I had some more thoughts after I sent the letter, and they were complicated enough to deserve a blog post.

1) When we showed the polyamory movie at my sex-positive film series, I remember there was one particular woman who stuck around for the discussion afterwards. She was blonde and wearing a sports jersey, and she said that she really wanted to try poly, but there’s a problem: she likes sports, and she’s not interested in science fiction, gaming, comics, or other alternative nerd-type subcultures. A lot of people laughed when she said that because it precisely illustrates something important about the polyamory subculture: most poly people are hippies, geeks, nerds, etc. (For more on this, and particularly more on the demographic differences between polyfolk vs. swingers, you can check out this post from Polyamory In The News.)

The point I’m trying to make is that a person may not be well-suited for the subculture around a certain type of sexual expression, and yet want to practice that kind of sex anyway. I’m not sure what to advise in that case. I think that sex communities are incredibly valuable, and that it’s in a person’s interest to attend workshops, panels, and just generally chat with other people in a given sex community if they want to have alternative sex. One of the awesomest things about the S&M community is how a good S&M workshop will teach us kinksters how to be safer and more skilled at Whatever It Is That We Do.

But … even I would probably be less interested in the S&M subculture if the communities I’ve encountered didn’t contain a healthy number of science fiction- and fantasy-readin’, game-playin’, liberal-leanin’ weirdos just like me. I mean, BDSM workshops would still be valuable if I didn’t know any BDSMers who shared my hobbies and politics … but the group would seem much less interesting. I guess that for someone in that position, I’d still suggest attending the workshops and getting to know people in case you need advice. Unless you really dislike them!

I’d also suggest not making any judgments about your sexuality — about whether you’re interested in BDSM, or polyamory, or swing, or whatever — based on whether you like the local subculture. If you really hate the local S&M group, don’t hang out with them, but don’t assume you hate S&M either! You can learn plenty about S&M from books (like The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy) or even the Internet (the kinky social networking site FetLife has lots of great discussions).

Oh, and before I forget, here’s a fantastic calendar of Chicago BDSM subculture events.

2) It’s so weird (and wonderful) how enjoyment of sex can change completely from a different angle. And I don’t necessarily mean physically — sex is all about emotions and connotations, so different mental angles on sex can matter a lot. As I said in my response to the woman above, being tied up is totally boring on its own … but when combined with a partner I trust and who knows how to hurt me, being tied up becomes a hell of a lot hotter.

It is totally reasonable to feel uncomfortable with sex, or with a certain kind of sex. But figuring out where that discomfort comes from and how it ties into your desires will help you open new doors and broaden your sexual expressions. Figuring out what turns you on or makes you uncomfortable even at a very simple level can take a long freakin’ time, so don’t expect to know all the answers right away. And don’t be surprised if your desires are more fluid and changeable than you ever imagined!

Here’s some questions I’ve found helpful for identifying new angles on sexuality. Maybe they’ll be useful or maybe other people will hate them or maybe they’ll make some people feel uncomfortable. Always keep in mind that if you don’t want to have sex, that’s okay — so if you really hate the idea of doing something sexual, and you don’t feel like trying to figure out why, then suit yourself! Feedback and examples are welcome, as always.

A) If you’re interested in a certain act: What inspired your interest? Did you see or hear something that appealed to you? What elements of this kind of sex seem hot?

B) If you’re not interested in a certain act: Are you sure you don’t like it, or are you willing to try it? If you tried it and didn’t like it, can you tell what turned you off? Is there something that could make you more interested?

C) Just for fun, some basic exploration questions: What are the hottest things you’ve ever seen, read, experienced? Can you describe those things to your partner? How do they make you feel and are there elements of those things that you want to try with your partner?

2010 30 Jun

Love Bites: An S&M Coming-Out Story

My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.

* * *

I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.

I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.

Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.

I closed my eyes.

“Mercy,” I whispered.

* * *


2010 5 Jun

Gender-hacking and the big picture consequences?

I heard about Hack Gender (inspired by Hacking the Academy) earlier this week — both are awesome projects. But I don’t have time to write anything complicated, so this post is my own hasty contribution.

In my last post, Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it, I wrote up some tips on how we can facilitate our own sexual evolution — to create an environment more likely to turn us on to new sexuality. Do those tips hold true for gender identity? I’d say so — my two big factors were a pressure-free environment and exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education, and it sounds to me like those ideas easily port over to gender identity rather than sexuality. In fact, I suspect that I could replace all instances of “sex” or “sexuality” in that piece with “gender” or “gender identity”, and it’d work pretty well ….

But one thing that I wonder about gender-hacking is … well … much as we rail against restrictive and coercive definitions of gender — and while as a feminist I’m not only concerned with the limitations placed on women, but also try to be sensitive to men’s limitations — isn’t it strange that many of us who attack gender so violently also tend to play with its manifestations most passionately?

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I think it would be awesome if gender stereotypes stopped negatively influencing the way we hire people, make friends, treat lovers, and so on. But it’s also kind of awesome when, for example, drag queens dress way more femininely than I do. I love that kind of display; I love almost all subversive, or sexual, or just plain playful deliberate usage of gender ideas. I would be kind of sad if all gendered associations disappeared from the universe. I would be kind of sad if we so thoroughly encouraged gender-bending and gender evolution that gender distinctions blurred out of existence.

I’m not saying that my sadness is an argument against the destruction of gender. I understand and acknowledge that, sometimes, nostalgia is the enemy of necessary progress. I recognize that saying, “Well, drag queens are awesome and so maybe we shouldn’t try to destroy gender distinctions” could be as blind and flawed an argument as, say, the women who argued against women’s right to vote because “I like to convince my husband to vote the way I want him to.” I recognize that I could be making an argument similar to one that I’ve deconstructed about BDSM — an argument I hate that goes, “Let’s not destigmatize BDSM sexuality because I think it’s hot for S&M to be transgressive.” The fact that we can work within — and even enjoy — The System does not mean that The System is not fucked up.

Still ….

I’d like to believe that we can hold on to what’s beautiful, surprising, and hot about The System. Can we keep the stereotypes and have justice too? Is that possible? Or does the whole thing have to burn and be reborn? This question is probably academic, because it seems unlikely that it’s even possible to Destroy All Gender and make something new. My question is about utopia, and I tend to get pretty bored with these kinds of questions pretty fast — I like to think about actions we can take in our world, now. But I am sort of curious about whether utopia truly would be genderless, or whether it simply wouldn’t judge who wears femme nail polish and/or a man’s button-down collared shirt.

I apologize if anything I’ve written here offends LGBTQ readers or other gender warriors. I don’t often write about this — it’s sex that is my bag, really — and I hope that if I wrote something questionable here, you’ll let me know.

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 11 May

Am I evolving away from monogamy?

I’m just getting back from vacation, and during my trip a friend turned to me and asked, “So what’s up with you and polyamory?” So it seems like as good a time as any to post this rambling ….

Many alternative subcultures — including my main squeezes: science fiction and fantasy, gaming, and goth — overlap considerably with radical sex subcultures. That is, if you’re in one subculture, you’re likely to be familiar with the others. There’s an especial lot of overlap with consensual non-monogamy, particularly polyamory. (The other “main” sex subculture for consensual non-monogamy, swing, is better-represented among the mainstream.) The famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a fierce proponent of polyamory; indeed, when I first read his book Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, I felt super frustrated by how negatively he portrayed monogamy.

As I got older and started integrating into alternative subcultures, I got more and more exposure to polyamory. I also got more and more exposure to “polyvangelists”: people who, like Heinlein, scornfully dismiss monogamy as “less evolved” or “less intelligent” or “more selfish” than polyamory. It enraged me. “Honestly,” I always said, “I really don’t care if you want to have multiple boyfriends and/or girlfriends, but quit telling me I’m wrong because I don’t!”

I toyed with poly — over the course of my first and longest-running relationship, I took a semester away in Europe, and my boyfriend and I decided to have an open relationship while I was on another continent. During that time, I started dating a European, and I was basically as monogamous as you can get while having another boyfriend across the ocean. I wasn’t remotely interested in dating other locals. My version of poly was as monogamous as possible, and when I returned to America I assumed my boyfriend and I would return to our previously-mono ways. He, however, didn’t assume the same thing. He wanted to stay poly.

Unfortunately, this became one of the biggest contested points in our relationship. We went back to being monogamous, but it was an uneasy dynamic. I tried to find compromises; I was comfortable saying that he could hook up with men but not women, for instance, which he did. At one point, I even said that although I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being poly, I thought I might be able to handle it as long as he could assure me that he wouldn’t fall in love with his other sexual partners; he decided that he couldn’t promise that. He then cheated on me, which did not help the situation at all. (Responsible polyamorists don’t advocate cheating, by the way — if either partner is dishonest, most polyfolk will bristle and say “that’s not poly!”)

Being fascinated by sexuality and relationships, I’d already thought a lot about polyamory and monogamy, but the situation with my boyfriend threw my brain into overdrive. I tore myself apart trying to figure out why, although I was okay with other people being poly — I even argued in defense of poly when mainstream people stereotyped it! — I couldn’t stand the idea of being poly myself. I felt attacked, under siege, like I constantly had to defend or justify my preference.

I finally settled on thinking of monogamy as a “sexual orientation” or a “kink”: I figured that monogamy was just wired into me, sexually, the same way homosexuality might be for a gay person. (And I’ve met others who feel the same way — who characterize their monogamy as “innate”.)

Time passed. I came into my BDSM identity. I finally broke things off permanently with my first boyfriend; then I had two deep, intense, happily monogamous relationships. I still thought about polyamory sometimes, because it’s interesting, but I no longer felt anxious while doing so. One of my aggressively polyamorous friends characterized me as his “reasonably monogamous” friend, and told me that — although he feels most monogamous people don’t think hard enough about polyamory to justify dismissing it as an option — he thought that I certainly had. I accepted this accolade with a smile.

Then I got my heart broken. Badly, and dramatically. And ever since then … I’ve been feeling less and less monogamous. I still identified so strongly with my “monogamy orientation” that I told people monogamy was what I wanted, and I had some monogamous relationships … but I felt mounting unease. I wanted to be conducting relationships with multiple people; not just that, I also found myself fantasizing about sex with multiple people. Cautiously, I started negotiating limited forms of polyamory (for example, my last relationship and my current one have both been monogamous in terms of “traditional” sex, but not monogamous in terms of S&M partners) … but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to start experimenting with full-on polyamory and/or maybe to swing. In fact … I still … do?

Me, of all people! The “monogamy oriented” girl! The “reasonably monogamous” one! The one who considered it all so carefully and knew exactly what she wanted! How did this happen?

I broached the subject with my current boyfriend a few months ago; he reacted with unease, and later wrote me an email that said: I do not want to come between you and your explorations.  My presence would not entirely hamper them (as I understand the things you’ve listed), but I think that I might well resist swinging or (particularly) polyamory. I’d hate to think I’d circumscribed you with regard to S&M, but I feel much more ambivalent about swing and poly, things less compelling to me, which conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner. If there’s one sticking point I have that’s actually (contrasted with apparently) going to be extremely difficult to negotiate, it’s monogamy.

“Conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner”: I read that with bemusement. Not because I can’t understand his perspective, but because the words sound exactly like something I would have said two years ago. Back then, my ideal partner was someone who would commit to me, monogamously; that’s reflected in everything I thought and everything I wrote during that time, including my recently-published coming-out story. But now ….?

How tempting, to blame my old heartbreak — maybe I’m still “really” mono, but I’ve got emotional baggage? Maybe I’m just afraid of commitment, afraid of putting “all my eggs in one basket”, in the wake of that experience? Maybe I’ve finally been (as “Moulin Rouge” would have it) cured of my ridiculous obsession with love, and I’m ready to take a more realistic view — one that doesn’t expect one person to be everything to me? Maybe I was only ever determined to be mono because I felt as though people were attacking me for being mono, and I had to resist? Yet this all seems so facile, so pop-psychological. My heart’s been broken before, for one thing.

Still, here’s another pop-psychological twist: recently, I’ve not only fantasized about sex with multiple people; I’ve fantasized about partners hurting my feelings by having sex with other people. Remember folks, I’m a submissive masochist, and when I’m in the proper mood I like it when my lovers make me cry — though it never occurred to me that I’d get turned on by the idea of so much emotional pain. Turned on by the idea of a lover savagely breaking my heart, leaving me for someone more beautiful, successful, etc ….

Most unsettlingly, I’m afraid that not only am I still “really” mono, but that going for poly relationships will end up screwing me. I’m afraid that if I were to fall blazingly, consumingly, totally in love again … the poly leanings would disappear. Here’s the scariest question: is this attraction to polyamory simply coming up because I’m not perfectly in love?

If my ideal partner would be monogamous, but I want to be poly because I’m not sure I can find my ideal partner, then that doesn’t just seem dangerous; it seems … dishonest. I know polyfolk who have been really hurt by newly-poly people who thought they were open to a poly relationship — but then the newly-poly person finds The One, feels a strong pull back towards monogamy, and dumps her poly partners. Certainly, if I were a poly person reading this, then — looking at my own reservations — I wouldn’t date me. But then again, what if this really does mark a sea change in my outlook, and I’d be perfectly happy being polyamorous indefinitely?

I know one smart BDSM educator who makes it a point to warn kinksters just entering the community that “desires change over time”, and that one should be prepared. I thought I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I want to end on one important point: just because I may be interested in poly now does not mean that it was the best thing for me all along. There’s a difference between these feelings and, say, my BDSM orientation. I recognize BDSM as something I’ve been looking for my entire life — but, for me, the same is not true of polyamory (although I believe that there are polyamorists out there who feel it as an innate identity, like for example Raven Kaldera). In fact, I’m sure that I would never have evolved into this interest in polyamory if I’d kept dating a partner who was pressuring me into it despite my doubts and anxieties. But this is a whole nother post, so I’ll end here.

2010 22 Mar

Defending my irresponsible, abusive, gender-stereotypical coming-out story

Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

I try to think seriously about about all comments on my work, but I usually just brush off the snide ones. Every once in a while, though, one arrows through and hits me where I’m vulnerable and shakes my confidence, and if it’s nastily phrased, then it hurts all the more. Seeps into me like poison.

Yep, this is another post about my S&M coming-out story, published in February by “Time Out Chicago”. (I’ve received some questions about when I’m going to start officially blogging for “Time Out” — the answer is that we’re still negotiating the terms of my blogging contract and I’m not sure when we’ll be done. I think we both really want this professional blogging gig to happen, so I’m confident that we’ll work it out, but it might take a while.)

Here’s a brief one-paragraph synopsis: my coming-out story talks about how I got drunk with a man named Richard at a party when I was 20; he started hurting me intensely; and I really got into it. I’d known a little bit about the existence of BDSM for a while — had experimented with light BDSM before, in fact — but this experience was much more intense, and in particular led me to the realization that I needed very dark and tearful masochistic encounters. As an independent, rational feminist, it was difficult for me to come to terms with my desires. It didn’t help that Richard and I weren’t well-suited romantically, although we were well-suited on an S&M level. Adjusting took a long time; but after seeing a Kink Aware therapist, coming out to my parents, exploring BDSM on my own terms, and having BDSM relationships with non-Richard men who suited me better romantically, I feel pretty much at peace with my BDSM identity.

I’ve gotten some great feedback on my coming-out story — primarily from submissive women who thanked me for articulating their experience. But here’s the comment that’s been upsetting me, from “emily”:

it’s great when people can come out, even under a pseudonym. but i have to say i have some real problems with the way the author has portrayed her “awakening.” should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? the presentation, not the content, of this story is irresponsible and reproduces stereotypical gender roles. is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? that’s the message i’m getting, whether or not it was intended

In a later comment, she adds:

whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why. i don’t have any problem with your experiences, as i said. i have a problem with the way you’ve presented these ideas without thinking what they might mean in another context. just tacking on your personal bit about feminism isn’t enough. how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues? as a submissive feminist myself, i have no problem with your lifestyle or how you conduct your affairs, and i dont care whether or not you’re a switch. i DO care about women (and men) who get into abusive situations that start out as “safe, sane, and consenual” bdsm play. i take this personally. it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ll do it in sections.

I. “Irresponsible”

Writing my coming-out story induced a lot of anxiety — not just because I was coming to terms with myself in the process, but also because I worried constantly about how readers might take it. Obviously, there’s always the saying “if you can’t please everyone then you might as well please yourself,” but with this … I guess I felt like there was a lot more than “pleasing everyone” at stake. It felt important to portray my experiences as accurately as possible — to write the experiences as close to how I felt them as possible — and yet I wondered how to angle them, too. Because what if a closeted BDSMer, new to everything, finds this and it’s their first exposure to the wider community? (Or what if an anti-BDSMer comes upon it looking for ways to use it as anti-BDSM ammunition?)

For instance, I wrote about, not just one, but two relationships that had their origins in drunken hookups. Will that encourage readers to unwisely push boundaries while drunk — even to take advantage of drunk people? (Which is particularly dangerous when S&M-ish violence is involved?) And yet there’s no denying that, in our culture, it’s incredibly common for alcohol to function as a social and sexual lubricant. Yes, some people use alcohol to take advantage of vulnerable partners, and that is unacceptable. But millions use it all the time as part of their normal, entirely consensual dating routine. I don’t actually much like that, as it happens — I’ll drink, and certainly I’ve been known to get trashed, but I’m happier at events where I feel like we’re all having fun sober; still, it really is an endemic part of most youth culture in America. (In fact, one thing I like about the BDSM community is that many BDSM events encourage sobriety or even require it.) When I describe my experiences, including some drunk consensual encounters, I’m describing reality — not just my reality, but that of millions of other young women.

I tried dealing with this kind of thing by shifting my tone at the end of the piece, pulling back and taking a more analytical stance rather than the up-close-and-personal moment-by-moment approach. For instance, I wrote: I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. … Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. It felt incomplete, and yes, it felt tacked-on too; but I also didn’t feel like I could stack on an infinite number of more disclaimers and clarifications without losing reader interest or muddying my most important goal: making people like me feel better about their terrible horrible BDSM needs.

So the “irresponsible” charge, the charge of “not thinking about what [these experiences] might mean”, just kills me. It brings out something I feared so much, and maybe that I did not succeed in evading.


2010 16 Feb

My S&M coming-out story — published at last

“Time Out Chicago” has published my S&M coming-out story to their website. It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever written, at least on a personal level, and it’s a little strange to see it finally out there.

I wrote the first half — everything up to the line, “Still, for a moment I wished …” — in early 2006. I wrote it for catharsis more than anything else, though I did submit it to one venue for publication on a whim — but after I submitted, I sharply regretted it. I remember that I was totally terrified it would be accepted. What would it mean if I published something like that? At that point I had no real experience in the BDSM community; I was finally starting to break out of my near-continuous freakout from discovering my sexuality, but I was still drowning in stigma. And I’d simply never written anything so personal before. When I received the rejection letter, I felt the typical burn, but I also heaved a sigh of enormous relief.

I left the piece alone on my hard drive for a long time, healing and adjusting all the while. In late 2007 — towards the end of my relationship with Andrew — I decided to add the second half, though I had no real idea what I’d do with the finished product. I was living in a huge building with communal kitchens at the time, and I remember that at 2AM one morning I went downstairs for a bagel. In the kitchen I came upon another artist, a filmmaker. He’d been living there for months, but we hadn’t talked much. Still, in each other we instinctively recognized the stamp of late-night obsessive artistry. “You’re a writer, right?” he asked. “What are you working on?”

“I don’t talk about my work,” I said. He was very insistent, so I finally told him, “I’m working on my S&M coming-out story.” I figured that would shut him up, but it didn’t — he started wanting to read it. “I don’t talk about my work,” I said firmly, and left the kitchen with my bagel.

“Wait!” he shouted after me. “I’m not done with you yet!” I didn’t look back. A few minutes later, after I’d settled myself in my room — lying across my mattress on my stomach, reading a book — he showed up.

Unmoving, I rested my chin on my hands and looked up at him. He crossed his arms. “Send it to me,” he said. “You know you’re going to need feedback and criticism and stuff.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

A few weeks later, I finished the piece. Then I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while. Had there been any goal besides catharsis? What was I going to do with the damn thing? I couldn’t figure it out, so I sent it to the filmmaker.

He was a remarkable man. Is, I should say. He was the first reader of my coming-out story, and he sent me pages upon pages of the most brilliant critical feedback I’ve ever received. I was stunned when I read his emails — had I really been living with this guy for months? How had I failed to notice him? I think he, upon reading the piece, had a similar intense reaction; and his reaction helped convince me it was good. Maybe it was inevitable that we’d fall terribly in love. Or at least that I would fall for him. I owe him a lot; our relationship was confusing and dramatic and the breakup was awful, but when we were done, I found that he’d really helped release me from my remaining BDSM-stigmatizing patterns. That was when I established myself in the wider Chicago BDSM scene (though I’d obviously been practicing BDSM for some time, I’d only made brief forays into various communities before, usually in foreign cities), and began to volunteer at the Leather Archives. And soon after that I started the Sex+++ film series, and this blog.

After my experience with the filmmaker, I became nearly promiscuous with my coming-out story. I sent it to a lot of new partners so they’d have an idea where I was coming from, and I also showed it to number of friends for feedback. I considered publishing it in a feminist anthology. My comfort with sharing it skyrocketed. Indeed, as I finally started to seriously research the subject of SM, I discovered that pieces like mine are practically old hat — even “Ms. Magazine” will apparently publish “I freaked out about being a submissive feminist, but now it’s okay!” pieces.

So at this point, it’s nearly an anticlimax to have my coming-out story in public. No bated breath, no terror about what it means. Thank God.

* * *

I’m just coming home from a visit to Chicago, and towards the end of my visit I hung out with Richard. To me our relationship feels fragile and fraught, just as it always has, but maybe it is stronger than it was. He’s definitely a friend — a good one — and we’ve even continued to do BDSM together on a very occasional basis. He has joked that I call him whenever I break up with my boyfriends, which is kind of true.

He’s so smart, and he’s very interesting to talk to, and I am still attracted, but even though I’ve adjusted to my BDSM identity — even though I’m no longer so angry, or in denial, about my attraction to him — it can be hard to be around Richard. I sometimes feel as though we are still constantly renegotiating our relationship, even now. I remain afraid of emotionally attaching to him, although these days we can sit around and talk very openly for hours; although we’ve had a few, a very few, BDSM encounters in recent years that felt like there was no distance between us at all.

I sent Richard himself my coming-out story only about a year ago. It took some nerve, but not a lot — it had been such a long time since those events, and by then I’d already shown it to a number of people. At the time, he responded with a rather brief message, saying that it was interesting to get my perspective and that his own sense of that time had been very different. When we talked a few days ago, though, “Time Out” had just published and I got a better sense of Richard’s feelings. I guess the piece is a bit difficult for him — understandably; it’s not easy to see yourself at the center of someone else’s panicked and agonized identity crisis, especially when (he says) it wasn’t clear to him how I felt at the time.

I’ve often thought that of everything I’ve written in my life, this is probably the most unflattering to someone who’s important to me. I tried to be fair to Richard when I wrote it, and in fact — as I’ve aged and my perspective has evolved — it’s undergone a number of edits to make it fairer. But my coming-out story is about me and my panicked agonized identity crisis. It’s true that I don’t want to objectify him, but to some extent, that piece has to be about the way I experienced him. Not about him.

I’ve asked Richard to write something about how he felt when he read it, and maybe about our experiences together as well; I’d like to give my readership his perspective. He said he’d think about it. I really hope he takes me up on it.

* * *

Publishing this piece with “Time Out” is a personal triumph. It’s online, which means it’s widely available and I can link people to it whenever I want. It’s in a mainstream publication, which means that it might educate or assist people who’d be unlikely to encounter it in a feminist anthology or sex-positive site or whatever. It also marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful relationship with “Time Out”: we are negotiating the terms of a contract by which they intend to hire me as a freelance blogger. Basically this means that I’ll be writing the same stuff, but more frequently and probably in a more luser user-friendly way (like, I’ll probably start using pictures more and attempt to shorten my posts, though that’s hard for me). Not sure when that transition will happen — probably a month or two.

I’ve always got a backlog of ideas to post, and I’m reminded of some of them by my coming-out story. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about stigma: where did I absorb BDSM stigma? How does our culture express it? Why did I freak out so much about my desires when I live in a world where even “Cosmopolitan” winks about whip usage? I’ve also been meaning to write a piece about angles: I think our sexual desires are often, largely, defined not by the acts themselves, but the angles by which they come at us. What was the difference in slant between the man who tried to do light BDSM with me in 2003, and Richard? Was it Richard’s forcefulness, his greater grasp on dominant dynamics? How have my BDSM desires evolved since then? And what are the implications of these things?

But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do now that I’m back in Africa, too. It was a 40-hour journey. I am somewhat overwhelmed and jetlagged, and very hot. My trip to the USA was incredible — yet very hard, because it reminded me of all the things I miss (not many BDSM clubs in southern Africa). I have to settle in, get back into the swing of things here, and remind myself that I can survive without BDSM. We’ll see how that goes.

2009 30 Dec

Sex-positive women aren’t out to steal your man

Note: This post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

Radical feminists* attack BDSM (and many other marginalized sexual identities) on a variety of ideological grounds — usually claiming that it’s Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome (an assertion that is not only unproveable but is also usually stated in really hurtful terms, thereby serving mainly to drive kinky people away from feminism or guilt-trip kinky people into suppressing their desires). But another tactic many radical feminists use against us is slut-shaming, including resentful declarations that sex-positive feminists are getting all the sexual attention. (They often patronizingly call us “fun feminists”, as if we wouldn’t hold our opinions if we weren’t trying to be fun! fun! fun! As if our opinions can’t be serious, and/or aren’t worth taking seriously.)

If I make the mistake of announcing that I’m into S&M in an unfamiliar vanilla group, then yeah — it’s true — I do get hit on more. Because the stigma around BDSM is particularly sexualized. But that kind of attention isn’t actually what I want, and it frequently takes really unpleasant forms. For instance, before I left Chicago I went on one of my friend Ken’s Chicago Sex Tours. Because it was a sex-related event, I introduced myself to the tour group as Clarisse the S&M activist. Immediately, people had questions, which is fine and great — that’s part of why I’m an activist: to answer those questions. But they also had assumptions — most obviously the man who grabbed my ass while I was ahead of him in a stairwell. Obviously, that dude’s tiny mind was thinking what most similar dudes (and many radical feminists — but I’ll get to this in a minute) think: “Woohoo! A girl who’s into S&M! She must have no boundaries at all! Clearly I can grab her ass with impunity!”

I didn’t want to make a huge scene at Ken’s event, so I just twisted away and told the guy in a freezing tone: “If you do that again without my consent, I’ll kick your ass.” And avoided him for the rest of the tour. (God, what a complete assmonkey. I get angry all over again just thinking about it. I’d like to believe that he realized he was being an ass and won’t do something similar again, but I’ve encountered too many asshole men like him to be sure that he internalized the point. In fact, I bet that if I had decided to make a scene and confront him directly, he would have been all injured innocence. “But you’ve been talking about crazy sexual acts all night! What do you mean I wasn’t supposed to grab your ass? You can’t blame a guy for being a little confused! She was wearing a short skirt, Judge!” Argh. But I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the main point.)

(edit Really, maybe I should have made a scene. To his credit, Ken read this post and Direct Messaged me on Twitter to say, “I am so sorry that happened on my tour! Had I known I would have kicked his ass. I had no idea.” At the time, I just didn’t want to disrupt the space because I was enjoying the event, etc. Who knows? Even in hindsight it’s hard to say. But again, back to the main point. end of edit)

Which is: so how was that dude similar to some radical feminists? Because there are radical feminists out there who describe sex-positive women as “freely sexually available” — usually in tones of rage, resentment and disgust. Yes, they use that phrase. They’re so angry at us for daring to indulge our badwrong sexuality that they fall into the exact same patriarchal trap that Tour Dude did. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that sex-positive women have boundaries and preferences, too. Radical feminists of this stripe are (as Renegade Evolution deconstructs in the aforementioned link) actually part of the problem, because they reinforce the awful dialectic around sexuality that they claim to oppose. They are basically stating that any woman who dares to freely express her sexuality thereby sacrifices her right to sexual boundaries. They are declaring us infinitely rapeable — throwing out our rights to bodily integrity just as Tour Dude did.

Why must they do this? Why?!

When I think back to my pre-BDSM days — the days when my opinions were considerably more stereotypical-radical-feminist than they are now — and when I look around the Internet, here’s one of the reasons I find: such feminists actually believe that we don’t have any boundaries, which — combined with some really awful social conceptions of men — makes them feel threatened. The ladies who call kinky women “freely sexually available” are freaking out partly because they feel like we’re setting up some kind of crazy “standard” for how to behave that they can’t match. One example collected from the Internet: these comments about how sex-positive women are stealing men from more virtuous ladies. But a better example comes from my own life:

I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.

It was awful. It hurt. A lot. I still remember all that mixed-up anxiety and pain with a shudder.

What cured me was (a) realizing that there are many different kinds of porn out there and that different people have very different tastes; (b) properly exploring my sexual needs — especially my repressed BDSM identity — and learning exactly what it means to have sexual fantasies that hold no bearing on how I feel about my partners. But I still remember feeling sick, watching those porn actresses enact a script that didn’t feel right for me. And I can imagine a very short jump from how I felt then to how a woman might feel, if she thought that “all men want the same thing” and her own sexual preferences didn’t fit that script — how such a woman might feel if she were confronted with women who professed to like those things, and even to like all kinds of crazier more perverted things …. Indeed, women who want “super-perverse” things would probably make such a woman feel like we’re setting an “even worse standard” than porn, because everyone knows that all men (those slobby hungry beasts) will always desire the most perverse possible thing, right? For such a woman, surely other women who enjoy the acts she doesn’t want to do would seem like a pressure-cage; the same way porn felt like a pressure-cage for me, once upon a time.

(I’m not saying all radical feminists feel this way. I’m just saying, I suspect that some feminists who attack sex-positivity are just trying to break out of those awful societal pressure-cages in their own way. And I sympathize. But that doesn’t make it okay to tell me I ought not realize my own sexuality in the way I want, the way I need to realize it.)

And this has brought me to the other big problem. Another thing disappeared by these awful ideas — women being “freely sexually available”; sex-positive women “stealing men”; men all preferring a certain stereotypical idea of porn — what’s disappeared here is the fact that men have different sexual desires. In other words, these attitudes can only persist as long as one has a really narrow view of men in general. Yes! A man who desires you, my lady, may very well not desire porn sex — or may very well not desire me, the crazy kinky girl! It’s true! People are sexually different! Even men are sexually different! Who would ever have thought?

As a matter of fact, my BDSM identity makes it considerably harder for me to find partners. Really! Yeah, it means that folks hit on me more, but that’s only because they’re operating on a stereotype that doesn’t truly come close to describing me. In reality, most men — like most women — are basically vanilla; and even if they’re into S&M, they’re into very mild S&M. I dated one man for two years who was initially attracted to me partly because I was just discovering BDSM, and he wanted to explore it with me … but ultimately, one of the sorest spots that developed in our relationship was that I needed experiences way more hardcore than he wanted to give. (This experience made me decide to never, ever again date a vanilla-but-questioning guy, because they don’t know what they want and they’ll only break my heart. I am not very good at following this dictum.)

To wind up this post, I’ll share one more example: a former friend of mine who I’ll call Bert. Bert was hitting on me aggressively after he found out about the BDSM thing; he was making all kinds of S&M-ish innuendoes. At the time I was lonely and confused and I’d just had a nasty breakup, so I thought, okay, why not? I told him to write me a letter describing what he wanted to do. Here’s what he wrote:

so i was thinking silk ties or scarves to bind the the other one’s hands and 10 minute intervals of hedonistic pleasure taking turns pushing, pulling and releasing each other’s buttons, knobs, valves, etc…? i.e. fingers do the walking, thar she blows, abc, cum here, hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, omg.

This letter had the effect of making me smile ruefully and shake my head. Why? Because it is not even close to what I’m into. Restraints don’t usually even enter my fantasies at all, but when they do, they ain’t flimsy little silk scarves — they’re being used to actually hold someone (often, me) down. Someone who’s screaming in agony. Someone who’s begging for mercy.

I wrote back:

Oh, dear.  I was imagining something significantly more painful.

… and Bert never hit on me again. Heaven only knows what would have happened if I’d explicitly told him what I’m into. He’d probably hide in the corner every time I entered the room.

* This is not to say that there aren’t lots of radical feminists who are careful, tolerant, open-hearted people and whom I really admire. Honestly, I have a lot of radical feminism in my own outlook.

** Indeed, when I finally got up the courage to say this to a partner in my late teens, he told me that he didn’t feel that assisting me with sexual exploration was his job and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen: the portrait of sexual entitlement. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

2009 3 Jun

BDSM as a sexual orientation, and complications of the orientation model

UPDATE, 2012: I cleaned this up, edited it a bit and reposted it in 2012. You can read the new version by clicking here.

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A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals. And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously. Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real”, as “deep-rooted”, as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person? Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real”, “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs … by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity. It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something to accept … come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet … I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

… because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition. In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable … but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic. Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults. If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!” In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality. We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception … rather than trying to change the rule. We are calling BDSM a “fault” … rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”. We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold. If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation … then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings. I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it. But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold. And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language. I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

… But …

… there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model”. I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture, because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay. Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore. If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it? Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM. It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself. I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes. But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

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edit After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation! The post and comments are definitely worth reading. /edit

double edit The excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness. /double edit