Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

2012 7 Dec

The Future of S&M

If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by others — for their use and to your detriment.

~ a friend of mine in the S&M community

* * *

Back in 2008, I had just started writing this blog and curating my sex-positive film series, and I met the seminal S&M writer Gayle Rubin while volunteering at the Leather Archives. I was really excited to meet her. I remember trying to explain that I thought we were at a cultural tipping point about S&M and maybe sexuality in general. She asked where my film series was hosted, and I said I was working with Jane Addams Hull-House Museum — a famous and historic feminist site — at which point Ms. Rubin choked on her coffee. (I don’t know if she remembers this the way I do; maybe she doesn’t remember meeting me at all.)

I thought I was riding a wave, and at this point, I know I was right. My film series was only supposed to go nine months, but it succeeded massively and lasted four years (the final screening will be next Tuesday!). I’ve had other professional success too (buy my book The S&M Feminist!) … but what’s more important is that my topics become more legit every day, and there are lots of other people exploring them too.

Firstly, almost nobody is trying to ignore S&M or shut down public S&M discussions anymore. Secondly, the idea that S&M should be integrated with feminism and other gender/sex subcultures is not very controversial anymore. Not only did Fifty Shades of Grey grab massive sales this year; mainstream feminist speakers actually defended S&M when the commentary rolled around, and Bitch Media ran a series on S&M. There is surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of consent tactics in the mainstream; in late 2009, I even saw an article where the author said that she associated safewords with “humorless third wave feminists.” If I had been drinking coffee, I would have choked on it. Safewords? Humorless feminists? Wow.

The early battles with S&M focused on getting good information out into the world — information about health, safety, best practices, and so on. (You can see my resources list here.) Later battles focused on fighting negative stereotypes about S&M — and people like me focused on feminism. (An example from 2009: my post Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.) These are still important topics, but I think those of us who write and speak publicly about these matters should start thinking concretely about future messages.

A few years ago, Alan from Polyamory In The News posted his thoughts about this topic for polyamorous people. I’ll adapt his first four points to S&M, because they’re both basic and important:

A. Keep stressing that successful S&M requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;

B. Emphasize that S&M is not for everyone, and that many people will have a better time avoiding S&M;

C. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved”;

D. Expand that to not just “knowledge and consent,” but well-wishing and good intention for all involved.

So, yeah, definitely those. I’ve written about those. A lot. And my own pace of production has already slowed down, because I’ve figured out a lot of the basic stuff for myself, and because I’ve got a lot going on in other spheres.

But even so, I remain committed to serious thinking about this topic. I do have further ideas about the future, and maybe I’m totally out of this world, but I think these are worth thinking about:

1. Intelligent frameworks that show how S&M theory is relevant to other topics. And I don’t just mean the usual suspects. Those of us who know a lot about S&M and feminism already know that tons of recent “groundbreaking” work among anti-rape educators actually originated in the S&M community. That’s important, and I certainly believe that S&M practice can offer crucial insights into discussions about abuse. But we can think more broadly, and we can even break out of gender discourse altogether. This, for example, was one goal of my introduction for Violation: Rape In Gaming — to situate S&M as something that can give us insights about other types of play.

Of course, I don’t think we should talk about all-S&M-all-the-time. That gets boring for everyone. So let’s be smart about this. But when S&M is genuinely relevant, there’s nothing wrong with showing its relevance.

2. Public emphasis on the S&M community that includes public sponsorship, outreach, etc. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to joke that he wanted to see us sponsoring Little League teams. Right now, S&M groups tend to have very little money, and when they have money, they tend to keep it in the S&M community by supporting other S&M projects. That’s cool, but can we do more? Can we make ourselves more publicly available, and make positive contributions to our larger communities?

The S&M social networking site FetLife supports two great S&M organizations, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the Leather Archives. But what if they took up a holiday season charity collection for at-risk youth or something like that? That would be awesome.

As a side note, this may include more people coming out of the closet. And oh yes, I know how complicated that is.

3. More precise legal and pictorial standards. What, exactly, should happen if an S&M rape case goes to court? How, exactly, can we differentiate between photos of S&M and photos of abuse? This will be extremely difficult, and the S&M community won’t have central agreement on it, but if we don’t start thinking precisely about this then it will be imposed on us from outside. (To some extent, it is already being imposed on us from outside, because S&Mers don’t usually trust the established court system to handle our business.)

The current “answer” (such as it is) has involved a lot of ideas about intentions and personal ethics. To be sure, some really awesome and careful work has been done on those questions, like Thomas MacAulay Millar’s series about abuse in the community, and obviously I’ve written about it lots. There has also been some work done by porn companies, as for instance with the post-scene processing videos that are packaged with some S&M porn. Is it possible for us to give more precise standards for measuring this stuff? I actually don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.

At the very least, we should know how to explain the difficulties with legal and pictorial issues, clearly and concisely. I kind of tried to warn about this in my science-fiction story “Victory“; I don’t know how successful I was.

4. Speak publicly about the messy stuff. That includes the work about abuse in the community, and also essays like my recent piece I Can Be A Kinky Feminist And A Messy Human Being. It also includes the very edgy stuff, like Mollena Williams’s courageous work on playing with race. By “messy,” I’m not saying we should write without caution or control or compassion. But for a lot of people, S&M can get to some pretty dark places and can sometimes be harmful, and we should acknowledge that.

Can we talk about this without doing gross trauma-porn? Without putting ourselves on display for exploitation? While keeping faith and keeping the other truths of S&M — the beauties and benefits — front-and-center? If so, then let’s.

* * *

2012 30 Nov

[fiction] Near-Future Science Fiction With S&M Plus Moral Questions!

So a few years ago, I wrote this science fiction short story called “Victory,” about S&M and politics with a dash of feminism. When it was done, I felt very uncertain about it, and I left it alone on my hard drive.

And then last week I heard about a fiction contest, and I thought Why not?, and I cleaned up the story and sacrificed it upon the uncertain altar of popular demand.

* * *

 

A hazy image of a woman, viewed through a screen. This is how I think of the story’s main character, Serena.

* * *

If you like “Victory,” please do me a favor and click “Recommend” at the bottom (you need a Twitter account). Also, send it to your friends! Again, you can read the story here.

Commentary is, as always, welcome.

Image credit to freedigitalphotos.net.

* * *

2012 25 Nov

[storytime] Cat Marnell & “Fifty Shades”: Why I Can Be A Kinky Feminist and a Messy Human Being

This was originally published at The Frisky.

* * *

A few years ago ….

Today, in 2012, I avoid him as much as I can. But my friend (?) Richard used to joke (?) that I only called him when I broke up with my boyfriends. Kinda true, kinda false. Regardless — a few years ago — I don’t even call him this time, I just end up at his apartment for some small party.

He scents the pain in me, and suddenly we’re in a back room, alone. One of the reasons he’s so good at this is that he smells vulnerability like a shark smells blood. I don’t remember whether I ask him to hurt me, or he just grabs me. “Something’s close to the surface,” I tell him, while he leaves bite-shaped bruises on my upper arm. He knows me; he doesn’t leave bruises in places I can’t cover with a t-shirt.

“What is it?” he asks, and I choke on it. I’m already starting to cry. We’ve only been doing this for a moment.

“Red,” I say. The safeword. I’m sobbing. “Red.” Richard stops immediately. “Tears,” I say. “Tears were close to the surface.”

We’re on the floor now. I’m curled up in his lap. I tell Richard that the guy I broke up with last year — the worst breakup in my life — I tell Richard that this other guy met me two nights ago, specifically to tell me that he never cared about me. Almost a year after the breakup, my ex decided to inform me that he lied every time he said “I love you.” He could not have chosen a better way to re-break my heart. Why did he have to do that? Maybe he was doing it defensively, to mess with me … and the thought that he would go to the trouble leads me towards perverse, momentary relief. Then it starts hurting again.

“There are other fish in the sea,” says Richard.

“Thanks,” I say. I’m too devastated to say it with the sarcasm I intend. Yet I’m grateful for the attempt.

Richard’s quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I really enjoy doing S&M with you. Your reactions are so familiar.”

“Even when I break so quickly? Even when I safeword in less than a minute?” I ask. I’m feeling the masochist’s insecurity: I thought I could hold out. I’m so pathetic.

“Even then,” Richard says gently.

It’s these moments that make me think it might be safe to trust him, but the moment never lasts. For years I’m relieved that I never made the mistake of actually dating him, that I don’t rely on him for anything. Every time he stomps on some girl’s heart I shrug and say, “That’s how he is,” with a secret and shameful tinge of pride. And then one day I will realize that I do expect his support, when I’m almost killed in an accident and he outright ignores me. I will feel betrayed and simultaneously blame myself. I’ll decide that we are just fucking done.

But on this night, that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m surprised by how close I feel to Richard. I wipe the tears from my cheeks, then go to the bathroom and wash my face. Pull myself together so I can return to the party. My eyes meet my reflection’s; I’m not sure what I see.

I think I feel better than I did before Richard broke me down, but I don’t have time for genuine emotional processing right now. My chest feels heavy. Did he do me a favor?

* * *

The S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is full of bad messages about romance and S&M. The drugs-and-beauty writer Cat Marnell had a recent and spectacular public breakdown, which has been profiled all over the media. You might think that I’m cynically exploiting Hot Google Trends by bringing the two together — and okay, maybe I am. But for me, they’re similar because they both make me jealous.

Sure, I’m jealous of Marnell’s fragile beauty and James’s million bucks. But that’s the least of it. The writer Sarah Hepola says she’s jealous of Marnell’s writing skill, but me, I’m jealous of what those two get to write. They get to write about a self-destructive edge; about putting oneself in danger.

For the last few years, I have written mostly about S&M. I write about other things, too, but I’ve focused on S&M because I know it well. Because it’s important to me. Because I believe that S&M can be life-affirming and intimacy-building and can coexist with feminism, with justice. Indeed, the available psychological research shows clearly that consensual S&M is not, in itself, harmful.

But as I’ve written about feminism and S&M, I’ve also known the rules about what I get to write. I’m not sure how I internalized these rules, but I know them like I know my face in the mirror. When I write, I’m supposed to emphasize the emotional health of my relationships — both with my lovers, and (separately) with my parents. I’m supposed to emphasize my physical health, decent diet, and exercise habits — although it’s okay to mention it if I’m injured, because that’s not my fault. I’m allowed to mention being an outcast in high school, but God forbid I talk too much about the emotional impact. I must stress excellent communication with my partners. I always, always have to mention safewords.

I am a politician. The arenas for debate are both my mind and my body. The personal is political, indeed.

I didn’t know I was waiting for it until it came, in Cat Marnell’s most recent column: doing S&M and then blaming it on drugs and self-destruction. She writes:

This is amphetamine logic: I am eroticized by pain. And that’s a lie. How turned on could I have actually been?

Marnell describes being hit in the jaw until she saw stars (and by the way, folks, there are safe ways to slap people and then there are unsafe ones; if a person is seeing stars, that’s a bad sign). In Fifty Shades, it’s a similar dangerous narrative: the dominant guy is scarily stalkerish, the relationship is packed with bad communication.

Fifty Shades was written to let people enjoy the hotness without taking responsibility for emotional safety. Without asking the dangerous question of whether S&M might be part of a loving relationship.

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2012 6 Nov

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can porn use become a problem?

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

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

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2012 23 Sep

[postsecret] Beauty, and the Horror Of It

Physical beauty is such a massive, overwhelming force in people’s lives — especially women’s. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable just thinking about it. Uncomfortable, yet driven. Obsessed and despairing. The anxiety of it comes out especially when I’m thinking about getting older, these days, being as I’ve made it to the ripe old age of 28. (Might as well be dead!)

I’ve been occasionally featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following images; they could have come from any time, because I’ve always been so freaked out about this. And so has everyone else, apparently.

“I am more worried about aging than I am about dying.”

Me too, postcard. Me too.

I feel like my brain often goes through backflips, wanting to think about beauty but shying away from it too. I slammed up against this limitation a lot when I was researching and writing Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser — the pickup artist community is so obsessed with feminine beauty, and I felt so torn between hating that and wanting their validation. I think dealing with them made me more anxious about it, though it could also just be getting older.

I work so hard to see men’s perspective, but I can’t help resenting the way a lot of men talk about women’s beauty; for so many men, all they can see is power. So many men miss the slavery of it. A lot of men also miss the absurd schizophrenia, the way so many women trick ourselves into being unable to believe in our own beauty — because that would be vain and shallow and bitchy — so we trick ourselves into not-believing that we’re pretty. Yet we are simultaneously forced to believe we’re pretty in order to believe that we deserve to be out in public, because there is no greater crime than ugliness, for a woman.

A picture of Britney Spears, overlaid with: “I feel your pain. I was once beautiful, too.”

No greater sin than ugliness. Unless it’s being beautiful. Britney really epitomizes that. I made her the focus of an article that I wrote about men’s “visual sexuality” and women’s presentation, because she has taken so much punishment, been assigned so much blame — from both sides of the coin. Britney often comes across as bubbleheaded, but I feel like that’s how I’d come across too, if I had to balance such intense and conflicting imperatives. Sometimes, when I feel hemmed in by a man’s preconceptions about my appearance or my body or my sexuality, my only half-decent defense is to act like an airhead. Especially if I’m afraid of making him angry.

(It’s also a question I focused on in my short story “The End of An Age,” based on the ancient epic of the Ramayana: How much would the most beautiful woman in the world internalize her social punishments, believe that she deserved them?)

“I enjoyed being a beautiful woman … but it’s over and I’m glad because I feel free to be myself now.”

I’d like to believe that’s how I will feel as I get older and older: glad. They call it aging with grace, yes? Something women are expected to do, even as we are simultaneously expected to pull out all the stops to hide every advancing wrinkle. We must be beautiful, but our beauty must also be effortless and “pure.”

It would be nice to feel graceful every time there’s a change to my appearance. Breaking my neck imparted scars and a small amount of weight gain… an amazingly small amount for how much it makes me freak out over photographs on Facebook, which I shouldn’t be looking at because I’m not shallow or vain and don’t care about that stuff. Right? Right. Which is why I’ve never worn much makeup, except that now I feel like I’m behind the curve and I should learn how to do it properly, when I think about it, which I don’t because I’m not shallow. Right.

Not shallow.

I’m still scared, though.

(Shoutout to The Beheld, a smart feminist beauty blog that I follow sporadically.)

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

2012 18 Sep

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she said, and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In this neighborhood?” he asked.

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.

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

This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2012 4 Sep

[postsecret] The Triumph Of Discovering S&M

So! I’m back from Burning Man. A Chicago publication asked me to write a “review,” which is an interesting notion. Is Burning Man such a reviewable, consumable thing? Anyway, stay tuned for whatever I come up with (I often announce such things on Twitter). In the meantime, let’s have another PostSecret entry!

PostSecret is an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. Of course, I’ve always paid special attention to the postcards coming in from BDSMers.

Like this one:

“When my boyfriend spanks me, my inner feminist weeps, but it just feels so damn good.”

I was stunned when I started searching the Internet several years ago, and realized that there were other feminists writing and thinking about S&M. I think this postcard appeared around then — maybe 2008 — when every time I saw anything about the tension between feminism and S&M, I felt thrilled.

Things have changed in the intervening years. Major feminist writers now write open, accepting, and even somewhat nuanced articles about consensual S&M. Bitch Media just ran a long series examining BDSM and feminism — from a friendly perspective. I myself had a long guest blogging stint on one of the biggest feminist blogs in the world (and of course, I just published a best-of collection called The S&M Feminist).

Within mainstream feminism, we’ve reached the point where S&M is no longer constantly on the defensive. Which feels awesome.

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2012 17 Aug

S&M, Open Relationships, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and Me

LarssenCover2I just finished reading the third book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — it starts with the world-famous The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. They’re good books: incredibly detailed procedural mysteries starring a charismatic middle-aged journalist and a brilliant girl hacker. Actually, they’re a bit too detailed for me — at one point I realized I’d just spent half a page reading about the brands and styles of apartment furnishings that a character purchased at IKEA. Seriously. And no, it was not even a little bit important to the story. So I skimmed a lot. But I guess some people like that, and there’s plenty of other stuff about these books that I like.

Larsson, the author, was apparently a feminist anti-racist journalist who did some pretty interesting work himself. He clearly had a lot of revenge fantasies against men who abuse women, and he liked creating powerful female characters, but those aren’t my favorite parts of these books. I do enjoy how he represents some subtleties of how abuse happens. For example, he shows quite clearly how disabled people (or people who have been designated disabled by the state) are vulnerable to abuse by those who are in charge of them. (Apparently the movie version is more graphic than the books, when it comes to rape scenes; I haven’t seen it.) But those aren’t my favorite parts either.

Mostly, I like how he represents S&M and open relationships.

I’ve said before that if I could get my dream representation of S&M in the media, then I’d want a couple who does S&M … and it ain’t no thing. This is true in the Millennium novels, and I love it. The characters have relationships, some of which are awesome and some of which aren’t. Some of them break up, some of them don’t. The author doesn’t bother being graphic, detailed, or generally concerned about the S&M. It’s not portrayed as a sign of dysfunction, anxiety, or self-esteem problems. It’s just something that the main characters do, and it’s not even a big deal.

Better yet: one of the characters is raped and later does consenting S&M with a consenting partner, and it’s still okay! Amazingly, we have an author who truly gets that consensual S&M is different from abuse! (As I pointed out in my piece on S&M and the psychiatric establishment, there are even people who use consenting S&M experiences to work through past abusive experiences. That doesn’t happen in any of the Millennium books, though; I just wanted to make a note of it.)

LarssenCover1I’ve been thinking lately about how, for me, S&M isn’t something that I personally obsess over anymore. I mean, of course I think about it. I’ve got so many years of experience doing S&M, researching S&M and teaching about S&M that I have a kind of S&M-lens that fits over my vision at all times. I believe it’s really important that we think clearly about S&M, and I think that S&M theory is relevant to a lot more things than most people think. Yet it’s not a thing for me, you know? It’s just something I do. I remember that a few years ago, I knew some experienced S&Mers who told me that they felt this way, and I was like “huh?” Now I get it. And it’s awesome to see it portrayed.

And open relationships. Larsson never uses the term “polyamory,” but there’s an ongoing open relationship between the journalist character and a colleague, and I like that, too. I also like how Larsson doesn’t downplay the difficulties. Jealousy is a problem more than once, and it’s dealt with in a variety of messy ways. In my upcoming erotic romance Switch Seductress (I plan to release it next week!), I’ve been working to portray both functional polyamory and problems that can arise during polyamory. It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re aiming to be accessible to a general audience, and Larsson gets my heartfelt applause for trying.

The books made me think a lot about where I want my relationships to go. I’ve written before that ideally, I’d love to someday have a primary relationship with one person who I live with, raise kids with, et cetera. I’d also like to have secondary relationships with other people when that happens. In the Millennium books, the journalist has a relationship with killer sexual chemistry and extreme intimacy, which is nonetheless a secondary relationship: his partner is married to another man. I want that.

But one thing I’ve been wondering lately is: how much can I develop a relationship like that before I have a stable primary relationship in place? I’m not asking whether people in general can do this; I’m wondering about it for myself. This year a relationship fell apart with someone I care about a lot, mostly because he’s not primary relationship material — and yet he’d be fantastic secondary relationship material. In theory, there’s no reason not to date him, but it’s just that if I don’t have a primary relationship in place, I can’t seem to prevent myself from wanting to escalate the relationship I have with him. It’s difficult and painful territory; and I’m not sure what to do about it, except stay away from it for the foreseeable future.

How much does it even make sense to have a secondary relationship with someone I’d consider having a primary relationship with? But on the other hand, if a man isn’t primary relationship material, then why is he worth having a secondary relationship with? There are so many contextual factors shaping the answers to these questions, and personal factors too: how much chemistry do we have, how bonded do I feel, what’s going on in the rest of our lives.

I guess we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned, folks, as always.

Final note: Larsson gets into sex trafficking a bit during the various plotlines, and so I’d be interested to know how sex worker activists would review the story. All I know about Sweden is that they have a particular set of laws around sex work that some feminists claim are awesome; but I also know that many actual sex worker feminists (and people who study sex work) believe the laws are harmful and bad. It’s one of those situations where certain feminists who are Utterly Appalled by certain types of sex have made legislation that affects the lives of women who are actually having those kinds of sex. And in these situations, the bogey of sex trafficking is often held up as a banner for why that legislation is necessary, even though the legislation is hurting women. So when I see super-dramatized representations of sex trafficking, especially set in Sweden, I kind of automatically feel skeptical. But maybe in this case, I’m jumping the gun. (If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities of the trafficking debate, then I can’t recommend this paper by Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson enough. It’s incredibly nuanced, detailed, and smart.)

LarssenCover3Larsson died before these books were published, and apparently he planned more. That’s pretty clear from the sudden ending of the third, which left loose ends. I’ll also say that the first book, as is so often the case, is just generally better than the other two. Still, they’re all a fun read:

1. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

2. The Girl Who Played With Fire

3. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

(Full disclosure: the above Amazon book links contain my referral code, so you’re kicking me a tiny commission if you buy through one of those links. If you don’t want to do that, then search for the books on your own.)

2012 29 Jul

Rapey Pickup Artists: Analysis Of A Field Report

UPDATE, September 2012: The Field Report that I linked below was just modified in response to criticism. (The author showed up at my blog and talked about it with us here at Comment #80.) I still have serious problems with the author’s attitudes, but I will admit that the post is better than it used to be; he’s trying to build a career, so perhaps he took my point that asshole PUAs will be frozen out of the market. The excerpts that I quote below were accurate when I quoted them, and I stand by everything I said.

* * *

When I wrote my awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I did my best to present a relatively balanced picture of the pickup artist (PUA) subculture. I tried to show good facets, bad facets, and shades-of-grey facets. Perhaps inevitably, a lot of people — some of whom I respect — felt that I was over-generous to this strange mix of analytical nerds, hedonists, entrepreneurs, and misogynist assholes. Others felt that I was over-judgmental.

Many feminists claim that the culture, mores, and/or tactics within the PUA community encourage rape. In my book, I quote one feminist who said: “I’m just going to come right out and say it: PUAs rape women through coercion and manipulation. Full stop.” I think that’s an overblown blanket statement rooted in a simplistic view of the community. But also in my book, I described a written report from one PUA in which he basically documented a date rape. And after I published the book, a reader sent me a link to one of the more unsettling PUA forum threads I’ve seen (thanks Jon).

I would’ve broken this thread down in the book if I’d seen it before publication. I didn’t, so I’m breaking it down for you now. I do want to start with two important caveats:

A. This does not represent all PUAs. Some guys really do get into the community because they’re having trouble figuring out answers to questions like, “How do I ask that cute girl in class for her number?” This kind of thing is, however, one reason that lots of guys who found decent advice in parts of the community won’t associate themselves with the community as a whole.

B. PUAs are not the only people who do this. PUAs did not invent this. Other people are doubtless out doing this. PUAs are just the ones who have jargon for it and document it publicly on message boards.

Here’s the thread. (It’s posted on the forum for Real Social Dynamics — for those of you who read The Game, that’s Tyler Durden a.k.a. Owen Cook’s company.) If you usually stop reading when there’s a trigger warning, you should probably stop reading now.

Let the games begin:

Thread title: Lie your way inside a womans vagina (People with morals DO NOT READ)

First sentence: When i pull girls and fuck them, i cheat, i lie, and i steal (their booze). And i feel good about it, cause in the end girls like to be outsmarted and physically and mentally dominated.

We’re off to a good start, and by “good start” I mean “this thread already makes me want to shoot myself in the face.” Sidenote: when I see words like “dominated” used in this context, I feel the immediate need to give everyone involved a lecture on S&M 101. Yes, some women are sexually submissive, but not all; also, submissive women still want to be respected, not generally treated like garbage. And since we’re talking about submissive heterosexual ladies, I’ll throw in a link to a piece of mine about men and feminism and dominance, too.

Onward! Next, the writer describes his main type of lady target: The retarded, drunk and fucking hot 18 years old. … Dont let the friends see you.

Pick someone drunk and inexperienced, and isolate her from her friends? I’m amazed how blatant this dude is about being an asshole. People, this is one reason we keep an eye on our drunk friends at nightclubs. While it’s not your fault if your friend gets in trouble, sometimes there’s a chance that you could provide support at a crucial time.

Also! A broader note on the nature of abuse: abusers very commonly seek to break their targets’ social connections.

Pace it a little bit so a vibe actually forms but never let her time to think, otherwise shea going to see her friends, and you’re done. Once you pulled her away from the friends, made out, and have a somewhat chill vibe going on (takes 15 -30mins), you say “this bar sucks, lets go to another bar”.

Based on this self-reported evidence, this guy is somewhat charming. Charming people can still be assholes and/or predators. And people, this is one reason that if a friend disappears at a nightclub, even for 15 minutes, we make sure we know where she is.

If she wants to know where it is, you say 2 min walk. … Once youre out, walk 2 blocks away from the bar. get in a cab and go to your house. If she objects, say its too cold/hot to walk./ Its just 5 min/i just wanna kiss/ can we kiss?/ ignore what she says and physically force her. If you cant verbally and physically dominate a drunk 18 yo girl that likes you, please kill yourself.

Outright lying in order to get a girl home is not an uncommon PUA tactic. It’s happened to me; I wrote about it in Confessions. (Spoiler: the PUA did not succeed in his goal.)

To get inside your house, tell her you need to get money before you guys go to the bar.

To all the women who might find themselves in this situation: If a guy tells you you’re going one place and you mysteriously end up in another with zero discussion, then firstly, let me tell you that it is not your fault. You don’t deserve to be dealing with this.

I suspect that for a lot of people in this moment, the big question would be “How the fuck do I get out of this in the lowest-stress way?” So, here’s a tactic for you: “Okay, you go up and get the money. I’ll stay here in the cab.”

Later in the thread, a PUA actually asks for advice on what to do if a woman does this. The original writer says that he would stay in the cab and make it a waiting game, basically. But it’s a cab, so he can’t make it too much of a waiting game, and you always have the option of saying “Look dude, I think I’m just gonna take this cab back to meet my friends at the original bar.”

(more…)

2012 23 Jul

[postsecret] Manliness, Relationships, and Erections

Those of you who have been reading for a while will know that I kind of love PostSecret. It’s a community art project; people send in postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I first heard about it when an ex emailed me the URL in 2004, saying that he was certain I’d love it. Since 2004, I’ve graduated university; gone through a number of jobs; come into my S&M identity; lived in three US cities and two countries overseas; broken hearts and had my heart broken. And I still occasionally read PostSecret.

At some point I started saving the postcards I really liked to my hard drive. I’ve done it sporadically and I have no idea which year each postcard is from. But! New feature around these parts: I will be sharing PostSecret postcards occasionally, with a tiny dollop of commentary. And of course all are welcome to share thoughts in comments.

“Every time you lose an erection, I panic for our future.”

(Based on the picture, and probably also because I’m a heterosexual cisgendered lady, I am assuming that this postcard was written by someone who identifies as a woman. But that might not be true, and alternative interpretations or extra layers are welcome.)

This postcard strikes me as sad and fascinating not just for what it says about men’s gender roles, but about women’s. A man who can’t get an erection risks being seen as “unmanly” … but there’s also this terrible cultural message that men aren’t attracted to women if they lose an erection in bed with them. Also, there’s a pervasive idea that “real” sex must include a man’s erection, and that sex/eroticism doesn’t really exist without that. Stir in the fact that women often feel as though the only real way we can prove our worth or contribute to a relationship is by being sexy. And somewhere among all those threads is the woman who wrote this postcard. I imagine her feeling unwanted and desperate to prove her worth — and I also imagine her partner feeling both inadequate and guilty about how she feels.

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)