Posts Tagged ‘feedback’

2012 25 May

My Mom’s Rape Story, and A Confused Relationship With Feminism

This was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

My mother is a rape survivor. In 1970, when she was in her twenties, she came home alone one day with the groceries. As she was opening the door, a man came up behind her and forced her into the apartment, where he violently assaulted her. For years afterwards, my mother had Rape Trauma Syndrome — a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that affects rape survivors — but neither RTS nor PTSD had yet been identified, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with her.

Later in the decade, my mother dumped one of her boyfriends. He then came to her apartment one night, broke in, and raped her. As he got in bed, she was in the middle of a flashback. She cried and said “No,” and he had sex with her anyway. When she tried to tell him later that what he’d done was unacceptable, he informed her that because she’d pursued him during their relationship — because she was the one who originally asked him out — a rape case would never stand up in court.

My mother met my dad many years after these incidents. Mom first told me that she’d been raped in my late teens, because she was considering telling her story to our church congregation, and she wanted me to know before she did that. The full stories came out during intermittent conversations in my twenties. I love both my parents with the fire of a thousand suns, and let me tell you, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about murdering the men who attacked my mother. I doubt I could find the first guy, but I could probably find the second, and in my early twenties I often imagined shooting him in the head. (Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t think about that anymore.)

Within the last few years, I started thinking about asking Mom’s permission to write about her experiences and my reaction to them. I always shelved the idea because I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Last year, the topic came up in conversation, and I finally asked permission; she said yes immediately. I double-checked her consent twice this year, and she said yes both times. Still, I was hesitant, and I only got around to it now — for Mother’s Day. I also asked her to review this piece, and to feel free to veto anything within it.

I am doing my best not to co-opt or appropriate my mother’s story. But her story and her life have shaped mine, intimately — including my views on gender issues, and my course as a feminist activist and writer. A few years ago, a widely-read Harper’s article by established feminist Susan Faludi asserted that the relationship between younger feminists and older feminists is like a battle between girls and our moms. I read the article with interest, but also with a sense of displacement. As a teenager I fought with my mom all the time, but she and I rarely argue anymore, and we never argue about issues of feminism or sexuality at all. If “young” feminism is about rebelling against our mothers, then I missed that boat completely.

In fairness, my mom’s not easy to rebel against. When I was 15, I asked her what she’d do if I ran off with a Hell’s Angel. She laughed. “I’d probably be jealous,” she said.

* * *

I started blogging in 2008 because I wanted to write about sexuality, particularly S&M. However, I identified myself as a feminist from the start, because I wanted to make it obvious that S&M and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The conflicts of feminism and S&M have been a major theme throughout the Feminist Sex Wars. I tend to repeat myself when I write about this, so I’ll just mention my favorite quotation on the matter; it comes from the German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, who said that “Female masochism is collaboration!”

When I came out of the closet to my mom, I had been freaking out about my S&M identity for a while — but quietly. I told my parents about my sexuality because I wanted to go into therapy, but I wanted a Kink Aware therapist who wouldn’t shame me for my S&M preferences. The specific therapist I preferred was out-of-network for my health insurance, which meant I needed help paying for it. My dad was cool with it, but he didn’t say much. My mother paused when I told her… and then she explained that S&M is part of her sexuality, too.

I was shocked. I was also incredibly relieved. If my brilliant, independent mother was into S&M, then suddenly I felt much more okay about being into it myself. It turned out that she had explored S&M late in life — and she went through the same anxiety about feminism and S&M that I’d felt. “You’re not giving up your liberation,” she told me.

Mom also acknowledged the stereotype that S&M arises from abusive experiences. “I once worried that being raped made me into S&M,” she said. “But I remember having S&M feelings when I was very young, long before I was raped. I was like this all along.” When she said that, I caught my breath in recognition.

This is another topic I often repeat myself about, but that’s because it’s important. As it happens, the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and being into S&M. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence within the S&M community that a lot of S&Mers, though not all, feel our S&M identities to be innate (sometimes described as an “orientation”). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with understanding or processing abuse through consensual S&M. The psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process their histories of abuse. However, abusive experiences should not be seen as the usual “creator” of S&M desires. (For more on this, check out my article on S&M and the psychiatric establishment.)

The stereotype that S&M “comes from” abuse is another reason I worried about writing this article. Basically, this is a prettily-wrapped gift to Internet commentators who enjoy writing posts or hate mail about how fucked up I am, or about how dysfunctional S&M is. I guess there’s no help for that.

* * *

“I’m fascinated that you’ve adopted feminism so thoroughly,” my mother told me once. “I never felt like I was into feminism like you are.”

“What?” I said. “Are you serious?”

(more…)

2012 15 Apr

Sappy Reflections

So, firstly, you can now buy Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser in physical form. Yes! A real paperback! It took a lot of work to fix Confessions up for print, but it was worth it. I’ve got the first copy on the table next to me right now, and it looks lovely. Buy it!

Also, over the last week, I’ve given a bunch of lectures, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit my old college campus and talk to my old advisor. And I’ve been working on formatting my upcoming Best Of Clarisse Thorn. (You can download a free electronic sample over at Smashwords; I included 12 of my favorite articles. I’ll eventually be selling a version with a lot more articles, both in electronic form and paper form.)

It all leads me naturally to thinking about how far I’ve come, and the people I owe thanks to.

By now, I’ve given my lectures and workshops in a lot of venues, from museums to conferences to universities. Different people have worked to bring me in, but it’s actually most common for university students to raise money to bring me to their campus.

And these students floor me. Seriously. When I was an undergraduate, I spent all my time daydreaming and playing Dungeons and Dragons and hanging out with my friends. (Okay, I did schoolwork too.) I had so little interest in activism or organizing. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I love my college friends, and my college experience was good for me. It helped me fix myself up post-high school, which was the worst period of my life. But I feel like I was pretty different from the students who are hiring me now, and I admire them.

I get the most amazing comments. I’ll meet students who stun me with their poise and drive, and then they’ll say things like “Clarisse, I can’t tell you how much your writing means to me,” or “I read your coming-out story every three months because it makes me feel okay about myself.” It’s amazing and, in a way, it’s nerve-wracking. I kind of feel unworthy, because I mess up my relationships plenty … I mess up my activism plenty, too. Sometime I feel like I shouldn’t be writing about anything, ever, because I don’t really know what I’m talking about. When I started running lectures and workshops and other events, I did it for free or super cheap; I was grateful for the opportunity to practice, to create more conversation around topics I believe are important. At first, I never imagined that I’d get to the point where people fly me in, where I charge money for it, where I’m selling books and articles.

But what’s really astonishing is that I’ve gotten legitimately good at it. I was especially happy with how my sexual communication workshop went down, this week — it was such a good group, such a good discussion. I felt so much pride, both in myself and in the people who were attending. Later, I went to my old campus and walked through the library and had lunch with my advisor, and I felt nothing but gratitude. (My advisor, by the way, is totally amused that I’m a feminist sex writer now. No one saw that coming.)

And yeah, I guess I’m different from these students who bring me in, but I’m so like them, too. The same way I’m so like a lot of my readers and commenters and the other bloggers I’ve worked with over the years. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if I didn’t have their support. Your support. Not just financial and organizational, but intellectual too. So I wanted to give you all some sappy reflections. I appreciate it so much. Thank you.

2012 26 Mar

Help Me Choose Past Blog Entries For My Upcoming “Best Of”

Aaaaaall riiiiiiight. I’ve been doing basically nothing but boring formatting work and promotion for Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser for weeks now … (By the way, it’s now available in every possible e-format over on Smashwords, and I’m working on formatting paper copies now.)

Next, I want to release a “Best Of” my blog so far — both as a nicely-formatted ebook, and a paper book.

I’m curious to know what you, my readers, think is the “best of” my blog. Or, alternatively: are there any posts that you think were good, but never got the attention that they deserved? Please do comment and let me know! If you’ve been reading for a while and aren’t sure you can remember it all, you might try glancing at my extensive Greatest Hits page. Thanks in advance.

Also, this:

The above image was created by Luke Surl. It depicts a page from one of those classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books: “As you journey along the path you meet an old man. He tells you that modern neuroscience has proved that all our actions and decisions are merely the machinations of a predetermined universe and that our concept of ‘free will’ is naught but a comforting illusion. If you agree with his hypothesis, turn to page 72. If you disagree, turn to page 72.”

2011 22 Dec

On Change and Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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 6 Apr

How to start your own local sex-positive meetup

I’ve been reminded that tonight is the one-year anniversary of Pleasure Salon, the sex-positive meetup I co-started in Chicago; a reporter from Columbia College Chicago called me (all the way in Africa!) to chat about it. And over the last few months, I’ve received a number of inquiries about how people can start their own Pleasure Salons in their own cities. Which means it’s time for a blog FAQ!

I obviously haven’t been to Pleasure Salon in quite some time. It sounds like it’s still going strong, at least from what people tell me, but I don’t really know. Still, I remember the process of starting it pretty well ….

* * *

PLEASURE SALON: THE FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS!

(Readers may also be interested in the FAQ I wrote about Sex+++, my sex-positive film series, which gives advice about how to start your own!)

On the very night that I first announced my sex-positive film series, Serpent Libertine of the Sex Workers Outreach Project got in touch. Serpent is really passionate and outspoken; it was delightful to talk with her about how we could collaborate. One idea that we began tossing around was, in her words, a low-key “bar night”. She fondly remembered sex-positive socials privately conducted by past community leaders; for my part, over the next few months I really got into the community discussions at my film series, and it always seemed a shame that we had to wrap them up within an hour or two.

On a trip to New York a couple of months later, one of my film contacts invited me out to Pleasure Salon NYC. Pleasure Salon was exactly like what I’d been picturing — and the name was pretty cool too — so I requested permission to use it and start a Pleasure Salon Chicago! (Note: I have edited the last sentence because it said that I requested permission to “license” the Pleasure Salon name, which confused some people. I did not need to get a license to use the name. I just asked Selina Fire for permission.)

The two big steps were:

1) Getting together a good group of hosts.
2) Finding a good venue.

* * *

Hosts

We wanted to recruit sex-positive leaders who would encourage their followers to attend the Salon. Selina Fire from Pleasure Salon NYC advised, in fact, that we at first promote the Salon entirely through our co-hosts and let it grow organically via word-of-mouth — the fear being that otherwise it could get out of control, fast.

In the end, we did do most of our promoting via the community leaders telling their friends; but we also posted the Pleasure Salon announcement to listhosts (for example, I sent it around some BDSM community listhosts, and I also posted it to the Sex+++ listhost), created a Pleasure Salon Facebook page using the Sex+++ icon (you are invited to become a fan!), and promoted the event in various other public online venues (for example, my favoritest swinger couple, The Ultimates, put an announcement on Meetup.com). And just recently, Serpent emailed to let me know that Pleasure Salon has an exciting new website and blog.

I think this approach should work fine if your area already has a bunch of different sex communities or sexuality discussions, but if it doesn’t — if it’s hard to get a lot of sex-positive community leaders — then you should choose a few hosts based solely on how well they can conduct discussions or get a group to gel. Then I guess you can just promote in alternative communities, liberal spaces, or whatever: odd bookstores, hipster coffeeshops, your local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, your local Unitarian church, your local Gender Studies university department — all good examples! You might consider having discussion topics, too, though this is something we never bothered with at Pleasure Salon Chicago.

* * *

Venue

Pleasure Salon NYC takes place in a really cool speakeasy-style space, with a nice little reception podium in front of a long corridor that widens out into a big room with booths and a bar. The hosts, including Selina Fire, chill out in front to receive new people, hand out nametags to everyone, and help confused new people figure out what’s up. Every night they pass around a jar for donations, and then use those donations to buy snacks and stuff (I think people pay for their own drinks at the bar). I don’t actually know the details of how they arranged this, so maybe Selina can leave a comment explaining.

In Chicago, our primary concern was that the venue be central — Chicago is pretty spread out, and we wanted the place easily reached by folks on the South Side, the North Side, whatever. We also didn’t want the organizers to end up responsible for details like snacks (we did intend to have nametags, but we kinda forgot …), so we wanted a venue that served food. And drinks too; some people have told me that they don’t attend Pleasure Salon because alcohol is served, but certainly when I was around it never got crazy or anything. (The time slot being 6 PM-10 PM helps with that, I think.)

Also important: the venue should have at least one night per month that’s quiet. That way they’ll be really glad to have you around, and — while a few non-Pleasure Salon people will probably show up (unless you can manage a setup like Pleasure Salon NYC) — it’ll still make a good safe space for pro-sex talk. And on that note, the venue should know what Pleasure Salon is and be cool with it. This is really key: don’t hide the subject matter from the venue. That could cause a world of trouble later. Chances are high that the venue really won’t care that you want a group of people to come around and chat about sex once a month as long as they know what to expect (that, for example, an attendee might accidentally leave her copy of Flogging For Beginners behind at the end of the night).

In Chicago, Villains Bar & Grill was great because it was super-quiet on Tuesday evenings from 6-10; it’s in the South Loop, right in the middle of the city; and they were already hosting a swinger meetup once a month, so they didn’t bat an eye when we told them what Pleasure Salon is all about.

It’s a good idea to have one or two backup venues in mind at all times, though. You never know when an awesome venue will suddenly start getting busier, or change management, or close its doors, or whatever — best to be prepared to move on, rather than panicking or (even worse!) having to shut down your Pleasure Salon!

* * *

That’s it!

On the night of Pleasure Salon, be sure that your hosts are ready and willing to stick around for the whole span of the event so that they can greet new people, introduce them around and help them integrate into the group, oversee the vibe, and (of course) get in some time relaxing with their friends.

When people come in the venue door and stand around awkwardly, they’re probably looking for you.

* * *

What’s next for Pleasure Salon?

The reporter who called me today asked an interesting question — So this is the one-year anniversary. What’s next? Obviously I no longer consider myself to have much power over Pleasure Salon, being as I live in Africa and all, and I won’t be back in Chicago for a while. But I do have opinions that I will, as always, happily share.

I’m a pro-sex activist — I obviously think it’s important to destigmatize sexuality in as many ways as possible. Pleasure Salon does a bit of that, I think. But I’ve also said before that I think it would be cool if the sex-positive community had more of a group consciousness; if BDSMers and sex workers and polyamorists and swingers and LGBTQ and, well, all of us pro-sex people saw ourselves as being on the same side. If Pleasure Salon fosters that kind of community attitude, I think that’d be awesome. If Pleasure Salon creates a kind of grassroots political will, I think that’d be cool too. I know that Pleasure Salon NYC has done very limited sponsorship-type stuff — for instance, I do believe they’re a sponsor of CineKink, the Really Alternative Film Festival. I would hope that Pleasure Salon could be the kind of place that doesn’t just sponsor events but politically supports sex-positive change, et cetera.

But (as I emphasized on the phone with the reporter today) I also think that if Pleasure Salon becomes political at the cost of being friendly and approachable, then the cost is too high. Because the biggest strength of Pleasure Salon, to my mind, is the fact that it not only networks and connects different sex-related community members but creates a safe space for hesitant new folks to come learn more. It works best as a low-key conversational space that’s open to everyone, where people who wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a sex club or a BDSM workshop — or even a sex toy store — can just show up and chat (or listen) about sexuality.

For the same reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Pleasure Salon to start offering sex-related demos or sex parties — at least not as part of Pleasure Salon itself. If people promote, say, upcoming bondage demonstrations at Pleasure Salon then that sounds good to me; even if there’s a string of Pleasure-Salon-sponsored bondage demonstrations, that’d be awesome (though Chicago already has a fair number of BDSM events); but I think that if people conduct bondage demonstrations there, that stands a good chance of wrecking the approachable-to-newbies vibe.

* * *

Read the comments!

I’ve asked Serpent, Selina, and the rest of the Pleasure Salon crew to leave comments here if they think of anything I didn’t cover — and if you’ve started a similar sex-positive meetup group in your area, please feel free to leave a comment as well! Even if you don’t have any advice to give, I’d love to hear about your group and how it’s going — or any questions you may have. If you’d prefer to ask questions via email, I’m always available at [ clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com ].

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.

(more…)

2010 19 Mar

Chicago feminist sex ed paper focuses on LGBTQ students’ needs

I recently received this interesting and, of course, incredibly flattering letter, and offered to give the project more publicity by publishing the letter to my blog. (Which isn’t to say that I need flattery to give good projects publicity, but I am human, you know?) I’ve already connected Stephanie with some people who can help her, but if you know anyone else who can, or are in a position to assist with her project yourself — or are simply interested and want to be kept informed of its process! — then you should totally email her: [ sgoldfarb at luc dot edu ].

Dear Clarisse,

My name is Stephanie Goldfarb and I am a graduate student at Loyola University. I am currently working on a research project that is focused on assessing the Chicago Public School’s sex/health education system. Specifically, I am interested in learning whether or not this system meets the needs of LGBT students. I also aim to formulate a working definition of “feminist sex/health” education. Though this will ultimately be a 25-30 page paper, it may evolve into my Masters thesis. As a leader in the sex positive community in Chicago, I thought it might be good to ask your opinions on this matter. Also, I am currently on the search for primary documents (such as CPS sex education curriculum and/or lesson plans) and I wonder if you might be able to point me in a good direction. Some of the articles on your wordpress site, especially “Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing” might be approved as primary sources for me, so I might end up citing you. Anyway, thank you for all the incredible work you do Clarisse. You are truly inspiring, and the sex positive community is beyond lucky to have you organizing, writing, and speaking out about the issues that are important to us.

– Stephanie Goldfarb
Loyola University Chicago
MSW / MA Women’s Studies Gender Studies Candidate
sgoldfarb at luc dot edu

2010 31 Jan

[advice] Masculinity & African activism

I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse,

A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.

I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?

Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.

best,
Zoe

I wrote back:

Hi Zoe!

Firstly, thanks for this letter.  If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this.  And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question.  I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”).  I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism.  But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….

As for Africa.  I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.

Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships.  Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult?  Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them?  If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities).  It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.

If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first.  Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university?  Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.

I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.

Thanks again for your letter.  SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!
Clarisse