Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

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 30 Apr

Inter-Generational Relationships; Another Pickup Artist Interview; Modesty; and more

In mid-December, I took on the role of editing the Sex + Relationships Section at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot. Role/Reboot is a nonprofit organization that is specifically designed to talk about gender issues with an audience that has little exposure to them.  This editorship has been a bit of an experiment for me, and there are aspects of it that I struggle with. The focus of the site has narrowed since I came on board; there’s less and less space for me to write and feature the kind of in-depth sexual analysis that I’m naturally inclined towards.

But these changes are part of the site finding its voice and its niche, and being accessible to a wide range of people. So while I struggle with it, I’m trying to go with it for now, and see what happens.

I don’t choose every piece that is published in the Sex + Relationships section, but I choose a lot of them. (My writers contribute to other sections, too.) Here are some of my favorites since early February, when I wrote my last post highlighting Role/Reboot articles:

* The Story of Leah and Vanessa, written by Rachel Swirsky (who is part of the team at Alas! A Blog). Rachel is an amazing feminist writer who actually won the Nebula award for one of her science fiction novellas. She writes with a lot of nuance; this piece is an examination of one cross-generational relationship that works, and the pitfalls of cross-generational relationships in general.

* I Taught Men to Pick Up Women: A Q&A with Former Dating Coach Mark Manson, by me! For this, I interviewed Mark, who features heavily in my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser. (Mark has his own site at PostMasculine.com). He’s a smart and empathic guy, and while I certainly don’t always agree with him, I always find his perspective interesting.

* Ask An Internet Sociopath, co-written by me and Internet Sociopath (who has a mind-bending Twitter account @AskASociopath). Internet Sociopath is one of my recurring commenters; those of you who have been reading for a while might remember some of his comments. I’ve never quite known what to make of him, but who could pass up a sociopath advice column?

* How Modesty Hurts Men Too, written by Sierra (who is part of the team at No Longer Quivering). I love Sierra’s work; she writes about her experiences leaving the evangelical Christian Quiverfull movement, and a while back I arranged for her piece on leaving for college to be reposted at Feministe. This article talks about how what she terms “the modesty doctrine” harms men as well as women. It follows her piece about modesty and self-harm, How Modesty Made Me Fat.

* Male Kindness Isn’t Always A Mask For Desire, written by a gentleman who called himself “Too Shy For This.” The gent asked not to publish the piece under his real name because he feels that it comes off as a bit arrogant. It’s a brief piece about how women often assume that male kindness = interest in sex, and what that might imply for many women’s wider perspectives.

Moving forward, Role/Reboot is specifically focusing on personal narratives and timely cultural critiques that are pegged to a recent news item. If you’re interested in pitching me your own work, or you know someone who is, please do get in touch with me: clarisse at rolereboot dot org.

2012 20 Apr

“50 Shades of Grey,” “Fight Club,” and the Complications of Male Dominance

This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

Much is being made of the highly successful S&M erotica novel 50 Shades of Grey. People are blaming feminism for making women into submissives, blaming feminism for preventing women from being submissives, blaming women for having sexual desires at all, and a whole lot of other boring and typical stuff that comes up in any conversation about women and S&M. News flash: it’s not the feminist revolution that is “causing” women to have fantasies of submission. S&M fantasies have been around since the beginning of time.

As an S&M writer, I hear a lot of allegations about how “all” (or “almost all”) women are sexually submissive and how this must Mean Something. This is echoed in the coverage of 50 Shades of Grey, in which everyone is demanding to know What It All Means About Women. I wrote a piece a while back called “‘Inherent Female Submission’: The Wrong Question,” in which I took on a lot of this stuff. But there’s another submerged question here — about men. There’s plenty of talk and stereotypes about how men are inherently violent, or more aggressive than women, or “the dominant sex.”

As I said in my previous article: I think it’s quite questionable whether women are “inherently submissive,” but my conclusion is that I don’t care. It doesn’t actually matter to me whether women in general are “inherently submissive” (though I really don’t think women are), or whether submissive women’s preferences are philosophically Deep And Meaningful (though I’m not convinced they are). What matters is:

1. How women (or any other people) can explore sexually submissive preferences consensually,

2. How women (or any other people) can compartmentalize submissive preferences so that their whole lives are safe and fulfilling and happy, and

3. How women (or any other people) can be treated well in arenas that aren’t even relevant to their sexuality — like the workplace.

This is also how I feel about these ideas of “inherent male violence.” I don’t buy that men are “the dominant sex” or that men are “inherently violent.” Based on what I’ve read, it seems quite clear that individuals with higher testosterone levels — who are, incidentally, not always men — often experience more aggressive feelings. Yet that’s a far cry from large-scale generalizations, and it’s also frequently irrelevant to questions about how people can best deal with those aggressive feelings. Plus, psychological submission can be a very separate thing from physical aggression levels.

Much of the time, when it comes to aggression, anger management is the answer, the same way a naturally shy or submissive person needs to learn to set boundaries. But there are circumstances where catharsis is completely acceptable. Lots of perfectly decent men have urges towards violent dominance; what do they do about it? How much do they agonize, like Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey, and how much do they explore their desires in a consensual and reasonable way?

I always thought that the late-90s movie Fight Club was fascinating primarily because of its lens on masculinity and violence. It’s not just about the violence men to do each other, but to themselves. Quotes include “You have to give up; you have to know that someday you’re gonna die,” and “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.” I first watched it before I knew much about S&M, but now whenever I think about it, I think about how the idea of a fight club — where people would get together and fight, for catharsis and community — is so very reminiscent of how a lot of people experience S&M. Fight Club even has safewords. Someone says stop, you stop. I obviously don’t support the endpoint of the Fight Club story (i.e., blowing up buildings), but the idea of establishing a men’s community via a fight club seems reasonable to me.

So, what are the practicalities of dealing with aggressive or dominant tendencies in the sexual arena? As an S&M person, I’ve experimented with dominance as well as submission, but because violence is so associated with masculinity, I turned to some egalitarian male S&Mers for advice. I believe that even for non-S&M people, their perspectives make a really good lens for ideas of gender and violence and power. Of course, the first thing one of my friends told me was: “I’m not sure I really see dominance in general as being particularly masculine. I don’t really think it’s a gender associated thing.”

That gentleman, who comments around the Internet under the name Scootah, went on to add: “I’ve certainly worried about my kinks in the past. I mean fundamentally, I get really, really turned on by grabbing someone by the hair, throwing them into the wall, backhanding them, etc. That’s a pretty disturbing thought for an egalitarian who’s worked with abuse victims. I spend a lot of time considering the ethics of my kinks; my partners’ enthusiastic consent is a major priority.”

Jay Wiseman, author of the famous S&M primer SM101, talks about his own early fears towards the beginning of that book. He writes about how he began having sadistic fantasies, and went to the public library to research them. All he could find was portraits of serial killers, which scared the hell out of him. He writes:

I decided to keep myself under surveillance. I made up my mind that I was not going to hurt anybody. If I thought I was turning into someone that would harm somebody else, then I would either put myself in a mental institution or commit suicide. And thus I lived, waiting and watching to see if I was turning into someone that I needed to shoot.

Fortunately, Wiseman found partners who were open to exploring S&M with him, and went on to write extensively about safety and consent and communication within S&M. Trying to communicate in an egalitarian way is arguably the most complicated part of any S&M encounter; as Scootah told me, “There are certainly elements that could potentially unbalance a relationship in my favor. I’m a big reasonably strong guy. I do usually make more money than my partners. I also have this whole sense of position in the local S&M community. I mostly just try to be aware of those things. I try to be very careful about not taking advantage of that and negotiate clearly and not pressure people.”

There are lots of ways to do clear negotiation, including asking open-ended questions before any S&M actually happens: “What are you interested in? Could you go into that more?” There’s also a huge emphasis on talking through the S&M encounter afterwards, as part of the post-S&M processing we call aftercare. As another gent who goes by Noir said: “It really helped me to have a few great, feminist S&M partners. Having that echo of ‘it’s OK, I want this,’ as well as the honest feedback when I do wrong really helped shape how I experience S&M, and with who. It’s meant I learned how better to read and grasp the people in my, er, grasp.”

Noir also noted, “I strive to use dominance and submission as a tool for helping my partners become stronger, in ways that also feed my S&M preferences. For example, I tend to form long-term interests with women who want a ‘safe space’ to extend and explore their ability to be sluts, with all that can imply. But in the process, we also explore how becoming more confident in one’s sexuality also can reflect into everyday life. Also, just coming to spaces in the S&M community can be a goldmine of information. All a dominant man has to do is read, listen, open up and understand. One thing I learned was that my fears about reenforcing our messed-up society were shared by women into kink… but also that my ways of approaching the topic, as ‘oh, we’re so controlled by society!’ were themselves pushing too much agency out of women’s choices. There’s a balance there that we guys who identify as both feminist and kinky have to respect, and that can come from listening to feminist women struggle with these issues, themselves.”

The alternative sexuality advocate Pepper Mint (who has his own blog) told me that in terms of putting gender on his experiences, “I am a bit genderqueer, and I personally experience dominance with either a feminine or masculine vibe from moment to moment. Certain activities — like punching — feel masculine, while others — like whipping — feminine in the moment. Also, I switch, meaning that I don’t always take the dominant role. Strangely, my most clearly masculine S&M activity is masochism. I always feel very manly while taking pain. I don’t think I can clearly explain why these things have attached to gender in my head, though presumably I’m being affected by cultural tropes to some extent.”

The consensus in general was that dominance, whether masculine or feminine, is something that happens in an encounter… not outside it. As Pepper put it, “New guys often want to play hard or do hardcore things, and will often boast and swagger. Kinky women almost always recognize this as dangerous bullshit. Learn to chill out and not take yourself too seriously, and learn to start with a light careful touch when playing with someone new. Learn to ask for help and guidance, both from others in your S&M community and from your partners.”

Scootah agreed: “The first mistake I see newbie doms make is trying too hard to be some kind of bad ass. Admit your inexperience. Be seen learning. Be modest and have a good time. Learn to communicate well, and to really be friends with your prospective partners.”

For me, the bottom line of these conversations is that questioning gender roles, and understanding gender complications, is an ongoing process. People have a lot of urges and preferences that are politically inconvenient and which we will never fully understand. Whether we’re shaped by biology or culture, those feelings will still exist for now, and we have to deal with them. There are ways to do almost anything such that people respect each other, though — whatever the implications for gender or power. Violence is complicated ground, but it can be used in balanced and consensual ways that end up bonding people together. 50 Shades of Grey and Fight Club are both examples, and I haven’t even touched competitive sports!

* * *

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

* * *

Linkbait time! Here’s what some other folks are writing about Fifty Shades of Grey:

(more…)

2012 17 Apr

Can We Make This More Complicated?

Things aren’t black and white. Life is complicated. I’d like to think that these are obvious truths, but how do we express them, how do we understand them, how do we work towards them? Especially while identifying as part of a movement that is, arguably, a blunt ideology … such as feminism?

Some of my most valuable feminist experiences arose from being trained as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Advocates are called in for crisis counseling and to help survivors understand the options they have for dealing with assault. My training instructed me to foreground three themes while interacting with a survivor:

#1. I believe you.
#2. It’s not your fault.
#3. You have options.

The point is to help survivors cope, and help them find resources. But while these principles seem clear, it’s never even close to un-complicated. A survivor’s story is never reducible to stereotypes or easy choices. The advocate’s role is to be there and listen without judgment — to try and help find a path through a thicket of pain, confusion, stigma, medical problems, and legal issues — and to support the survivor in their choices even if the advocate doesn’t agree with them. The point is to understand, not to judge.

I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of activism I am best suited for: understanding, communicating, building. Telling stories, where appropriate (and keeping confidence, where appropriate).

Of course, there are plenty of people that it’s very difficult to feel empathy for, as a feminist. Rape survivors are a group that feminists are expected to have empathy for, and expected to recognize as having complicated stories; we all know that’s crucial. On the other hand, I recently published a book about pickup artists (a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women), and I’ve taken heat from feminists who feel that I’m over-sympathetic to those guys. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not an “advocate” for pickup artists in the same way that I want to advocate for assault survivors. But I believe that there’s value in empathy here, too.

As one of my feminist friends observed while we discussed the pickup artist book, I am arguably providing a valuable service by giving the men in that subculture a non-judgmental space to look at feminism. Also, by giving them — as my friend put it — “space to be ambivalent about some of the problematic things they do.”

When trying to encourage a person to question what they’re doing, it helps to understand that person first — and to offer them a sense of that understanding. I think there are a lot of icky things about the pickup artist community, and some terrible people in it. But it’s not black-and-white, and there are decent guys who learn the tactics too. If a guy is trying to learn tactics for seducing women, is he doing it out of loneliness? Or perhaps out of desire for a strange revenge on the “opposite” sex? What about both? How would these different motives change my interactions with him, perhaps even enable me to influence the way he thinks about women? With me, could he have the space to heal the damage he himself has retained from our broken social norms around sex and gender? And how does understanding his perspective make my own richer — how does it make things more complicated?

* * *

One of the exciting things about being an Internet writer is that my old writing never goes away. It’s always there, cached and mirrored and easily found by both friends and enemies. Obviously, this is also one of the most un-exciting things about being an Internet writer. It’s rare that I completely disagree with an older article that I’ve written; but there are some old articles that make me feel self-conscious, because I understand the complexity of those topics much better today, and my opinions have become much more nuanced.

An example would be the way that I’ve written about BDSM and abuse. I write a lot about my experiences with consensual BDSM — Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism — and I’m a feminist, but BDSM has always been a controversial topic within feminism. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough that BDSMer-feminists have been silenced: an editor at the iconic feminist magazine Ms. once threatened to leave if the magazine published an article by a masochistic woman, and thereby successfully buried the topic. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough to inspire non-consensual violence: a group of radical feminists literally attacked a lesbian BDSM club with crowbars sometime around the 1980s, claiming that they did it in the name of ending violence against women.

So being a BDSMer-feminist makes for defensiveness, and I began from a defensive position. My first post about BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence that the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse,” and outlined initiatives within the community that oppose abusive BDSM. Around the same time, I remember making comments I now regret, comments that I believed were critical but were actually harsh towards survivors — or comments that gave too sunny a view of the BDSM community, which is far from flawless. My next post on the topic, eighteen months later, was more empathic and complex. It was called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team,” and outlined how I would personally create an anti-abuse initiative that was friendly to alternative sexuality abuse survivors.

Now, these posts seem simple to me, but I was growing out of my defensiveness. I started feeling like I was genuinely moving the conversation forward when I wrote a post called “Thinking More Clearly About BDSM vs. Abuse,” in which I wrote specifically about examples of abusive behavior within the community, and used radical feminist theory about abusive relationships to reflect on how a non-abusive BDSM relationship could look. Building bridges; creating synthesis rather than antithesis.

Women with strong and different sexual desires exist, and especially with the Internet, we can’t be permanently silenced. (Although even on the Internet, there are still some attempts; my comments are often deleted on sites associated with radical feminism, such as the Anti-Porn Men Project, though I do my absolute best to comment inoffensively.) But I try to push aside my self-righteousness, because I really don’t want this to be a fight where all I do is scream “BDSM can be feminist!” I want to acknowledge and deal with real problems, like how BDSM might be used as a cover for abuse and how we can deal with that. I want to be established in cooperation, not resistance. I want to move things forward; I want to make things more complicated.

(more…)

2012 9 Apr

[classic repost] BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

I originally published this post in slightly different form back in 2009. I decided to edit it a little for clarity, because I’m going to include it in the upcoming Best Of Clarisse Thorn … so here’s the edited version.

* * *

I love this image:

(The image is a list with “Homosexual Agenda” written at the top. There follows a list: “1. Spend time with family, 2. Be treated equally, 3. Buy milk.”)

I love that because it so perfectly highlights how preposterous all those right-wing accusations about “the gay agenda” are. Actually, gay people just want to live their lives like everyone else; the to-do list for most gay people looks a lot like most other people’s. (Apparently the image originated at a site called TopPun, and you can buy it in stickers and keychains.)

In a way, that sticker also highlights some problems with the very concept of sexual orientations — the way we sort ourselves into groups based on sexuality and its apparent innateness. Why do people have to insist on being so different from each other? A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts: is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? And I have such mixed feelings about that question. I feel intense BDSM as an incredibly important aspect of my sexuality, perhaps an innate one, but I don’t want us to fall into the same traps that beset homosexuality.

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

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

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

I later found out that some LGBTQ people do get offended by it, and others don’t. Sometime you end up with ridiculous arguments like this one from a comments thread on an incredibly BDSM-phobic blog: one person says, “As a lesbian, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people comparing BDSM to homosexuality,” to which another person replies, “As a queer person myself, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people who claim that I ought to see my BDSM and my queerness differently.” As for me, Clarisse, I’ll be frank with you — I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a dog in that fight, and I’m staying out of it. I’m straight as the day is long, but I’ve also been invited to speak about BDSM at queer conventions and to write about BDSM on queer blogs. So I’ll hang out with the people who are cool with me, and everyone else can kick me out of their LGBTQ circles as much as they want.

But I used to feel a lot more worried about how I’d be perceived for talking about BDSM as an orientation. Still, as weird as the concept of “BDSM as an orientation” felt when I first thought of it, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity.

The “BDSM orientation” idea cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself, like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something that it was desirable to accept, come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM as an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

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

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

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

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

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

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

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

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

(more…)

2012 20 Mar

Remember Britney Spears? Men’s Visual Sexuality and Women’s Presentation

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

Remember Britney Spears? Oh, that’s right, Britney Spears: one of the most famous recording artists in the world. I gotta admit I don’t think about her much, although it turns out she’s still going strong — the music video for her latest #1 single even includes a dubstep-ish interlude during which she boxes a high-heeled clone of herself. But as absurd and/or awesome as that is, it’s not the reason I’ve been thinking about her. I’ve been thinking about Britney Spears in the context of male sexuality because I just read a deeply sexist 2008 interview written by Chuck Klosterman of “Esquire”. During the interview, she was photographed wearing little besides underwear and pearl necklaces — yes indeed, pearl necklaces — which sounds like fun times to me. (Dear “Esquire”: Anytime you want to photograph a woman wearing exquisite sexual puns, call me.) On the other hand, Klosterman is kind of an asshole to her, and every word he writes about her drips with contempt. So I’m in this conflicted place where the interview is deeply sexist, yet I also found it tear-jerkingly funny … and … possibly … even … illuminating?

Although the interview makes me cry with laughter, I could give you a whole column on Klosterman’s obvious, deep-rooted resentment for Britney Spears in particular — and, probably, women in general. But let’s take the embedded misogyny as a given, and examine the main point he sought to communicate with the article. I present to you a quotation:

Over the next ninety minutes, I will sit next to a purportedly fully clothed Britney and ask her questions. She will not really answer any of them. Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton: Regardless of the evidence, she does not waver. “Why do you dress so provocatively?” I ask. She says she doesn’t dress provocatively. “But look what you’re wearing right now,” I say, while looking at three inches of her inner thigh, her entire abdomen, and enough cleavage to choke a musk ox. “This is just a skirt and a top,” she responds. It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about. She doesn’t disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once.

“That’s just a weird question,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about that. That’s strange, and I don’t think about things like that, and I don’t want to think about things like that. Why should I? I don’t have to deal with those people. I’m concerned with the kids out there. I’m concerned with the next generation of people. I’m not worried about some guy who’s a perv and wants to meet a freaking virgin.”

And suddenly, something becomes painfully clear: Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way, way savvier than any of us realize.

Or maybe both.

As one of my (male) friends observed upon reading the above passage:

The article makes me think Britney Spears is kind of awesome. Two quotes: “Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way, way savvier than any of us realize,” and “Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton.” I don’t think Chuck Klosterman quite realizes what high praise that is.

Chuck Klosterman came out of this encounter and described it as “deeply weird.” But is it? Look at the comparison to Bill Clinton. Say what you will about Clinton, but even his detractors recognize that he’s a political genius. Why would talking to Britney about her sexiness be like deposing Bill Clinton?

A person might argue that Britney is an unparallelled master of strategic ambiguity, which some theorize is a crucial component of flirtation. A person might also argue that if Klosterman aggressively and snidely hit on Britney even half as much when he spoke to her as he did when he wrote about her, then it would make sense if she decided to “play dumb” and ignore it. I sometimes choose to ignore men who hit on me snidely and aggressively, because often, when they realize that they can’t get a reaction, they leave me alone.

But here’s a third way of thinking about it: Bill Clinton faced enormous penalties if he didn’t say exactly the right thing during his deposition. Britney also faced enormous penalties if she said the wrong thing about her sexiness.

There’s a high-profile radical feminist blog called “I Blame The Patriarchy,” with which I frequently disagree, and which has occasionally attacked sex-positive feminists somewhat like myself. (I have only once tried leaving a — very careful — comment there, and the comment never appeared, from which I infer that my slutty kinky self is Not Welcome.) However, “I Blame The Patriarchy” can still be a great source for scathing feminist critiques. That Britney Spears interview made me think of one post that ends thusly:

There’s a femininity tightrope that all public women are forced to walk …. Whenever a public woman fails to balance the following factors just right, then splat she goes. To wit:

Public women should be X amount feminine, X amount motherly, X amount hot, X amount beautiful, X amount young, X amount confident, X amount helpless, X amount exotic, X amount educated, X amount intelligent (required: the last two values < the men in the office), X amount gay (the last value almost always = 0). The ratios are fluid, shifting from day to day at the whim of public sentiment, so that a woman may think she’s got it pretty well sewed up, only to wake up one fine spring morn to discover that the parade being thrown in her honor has suddenly vanished. Later she finds out it’s because she stupidly forgot she was a member of the sex class, and had dared to imagine that she would be judged on merit rather than her ability to do femininity right. Eventually we all fall off the rope.

Britney’s been on this tightrope for a long time. She’s had a whole lot more of these conversations than Bill Clinton.

(more…)

2012 27 Feb

Feminist S&M Lessons from the Seduction Community

This article was originally published in three parts over at the Good Men Project. I’m really close to finishing my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men, and believe me, you will all know as soon as it is done. The book is way awesomer than anything you can imagine. It also has many more fun anecdotes and is less academic in tone than this article.

Update! The book is out now!

Before we get into the article, here’s my absolute favorite comic on the topic of seduction. Description and transcript at the end of this post. Click the image to embiggen:

There is an enormous subculture devoted to teaching men how to seduce women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground “pickup artists” have burst into the popular consciousness, aided by Neil Strauss’s bestselling book The Game and VH1’s hit reality show “The Pick-Up Artist.”

Pickup artists — also known as the “seduction community” — exchange ideas in thousands of online fora, using extensive in-group jargon. One pickup artist site lists “over 715 terms, and counting.” There are pickup artist meetups, clubs, and subculture celebrities all over the world. There are different ideological approaches and theoretical schools of seduction. Well-known pickup artist “gurus” can make millions of dollars per year: they may sell books; they may sell hours of “coaching”; they may organize training “bootcamps” or conventions with pricy tickets; they may run companies full of instructors trained in their methods. The community even generates its own well-thought-out internal critiques.

I am a sex-positive feminist lecturer and writer. I write primarily about my experiences with sadomasochism, but I have a general interest in sexuality. I first encountered pickup artists when smart ones started attending my educational events and commenting on my blog.

Some aspects of pickup artistry are hugely problematic; many parts of the community showcase and encourage misogyny. While exploring the PUA jungle, I observed things that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. On the other hand, I had to admit that some pickup artist perspectives were very interesting. Some had fascinating insights about gender theory and social power. I also felt drawn by their exploits. Learning seduction, and watching hypothetically-dazzling Casanovas run a courtier-like game, sounded like an extremely fun way to spend my time.

I started my journey by talking to a few pickup artists and reading their fora. By the end, I had given a lecture at a seduction convention, and I had decided against developing my own coaching business. Within the next few months, I plan to release a pop-feminist book online titled Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men. In the meantime, I can offer a quick synopsis of my own history, and why I became so interested in PUAs. I will break down some elementary distinctions among the men of the seduction community. Finally, I will offer a few PUA-influenced thoughts on feminist goals.

* * *

I was an awkward little bookworm of a child, but at least I was creative. I liked to draw, invent games, and run amateur social experiments. When I was in high school, most of my friends were on the Internet; I did not date a real-life boyfriend until college. I was inevitably teased by my peers, but even when treated well, I rarely engaged with the social hierarchies around me. I had difficulty grasping how social mechanics were “supposed” to work. A lot of things seemed obvious to other people that were not obvious to me.

For example, in sixth grade, a female friend of mine teased me about flirting with a boy. “What was I doing?” I asked. “Come on, you were flirting!” she responded. While I thought I almost understood what she meant, I was unsure — so I set out to poll everyone I knew about what constitutes “flirting.” Responses were inconsistent. One person said, very definitely: “Giggling.” Others cited examples such as “intense looks” or “making jokes.”

By the end of this experiment, I concluded that no one seemed able to explain “flirting” in terms of consistent behaviors; there were few commonalities in my final list. From what I could tell, flirting could only be explained in terms of invisible interpersonal dynamics. I found this both entertaining and frustrating.

I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if the modern pickup artist community had existed back then, and I had discovered it. PUAs devote a lot of time to understanding seduction in terms of observed behaviors. They have terms for social tactics that run the gamut from creating rapport, to encouraging trust, to building sexual tension, to shifting social power. But although the purpose of these social tactics is to manipulate emotion, the tactics are typically described as concretely as possible. Some PUA coaches provide long memorized “routines,” but it is more common to talk about particular social actions or broader strategies.

One famous PUA tactic is called the “neg.” “Neg” stands for “negative hit”, and one site defines a neg as “a remark, sometimes humorous, used to point out a woman’s flaws.” Like many PUA terms, the deeper meanings and usage vary from PUA to PUA — but there is an especially dramatic range of meanings with “neg.”

Some PUAs see negs as friendly teasing: a way for the PUA to show that he is paying attention to the girl, without appearing needy or overeager. I can offer a cute example of this approach from my own life. I was sitting in a café with a former PUA, and he gazed deep into my eyes.

“Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “Are your glasses held together by epoxy? It looks like you had to repair them at the corners.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

He grinned. “Everything about you just screams ‘starving artist’, doesn’t it.”

This made me laugh for quite a while. I think it worked because he understood that I have chosen (for now) to be a broke writer — but he also recognized the tension I feel about that choice. So this gentleman was demonstrating that he correctly discerned my priorities; that he is not bothered by a choice that makes me feel self-conscious; and that he is confident enough to tease me.

Also, at a moment when I thought he might compliment my eyes, the former PUA shook up my expectations by breaking the romantic pattern. Often, effective flirting involves offering the right mixture of confidence plus charming novelty plus paying attention.

Some PUAs see negs more strategically, as a way of passing a woman’s “tests” or breaching her indifference. They argue that this is necessary for women who are very high-status, very beautiful, etc. They argue that some women develop a kind of immunity to compliments, and that some women actively prefer feisty, faux-adversarial flirting. Most PUAs only advocate using negs on women who meet a certain “minimum” level of attractiveness, or who seem particularly feisty. Neil Strauss, a famous PUA and author of the bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, once wrote that:

(more…)

2012 8 Feb

Manliness; Casual Sex for Ladies; Islamic Sexuality; and of course S&M

In mid-December, I took on the role of editing the Sex + Relationships Section at the gender-focused site Role/Reboot. Role/Reboot is a nonprofit organization that is specifically designed to talk about gender issues with an audience that has little exposure to them.  In fact, this is one of the things that excited me about working with Role/Reboot; like my sex-positive film series, it’s intended to create new conversations, to bring new people and new perspectives into the gender discourse.  The managing editors at Role/Reboot identify as feminist, although they explicitly prefer to position the site outside existing gender discourses.

This editorship is a bit of an experiment for me, and I’m interested to see how it will go. It’s an opportunity to highlight some work that I think is both excellent and accessible. I don’t choose every piece that is published in the Sex + Relationships section, but I choose a lot of them. Here are some of my favorites from the last six weeks:

* Mica: A Strange Binary, written by me! This is a storytime-type article in which I talk about how it feels to start a relationship with a gentleman who’s new to submission, and isn’t sure how to talk about it. And in the end, he and I switched BDSM roles, too … (I later reposted this article to my blog under the title, “The Strange Binary of Dominance and Submission”.)

* Virginity and Sexual Realization, written by Nahida (who blogs at The Fatal Feminist). Nahida is a really interesting writer whose main focus is the intersection of Islam and feminism. This piece is about her understanding of Islam and female sexuality, and her feeling that her Islamic culture is fundamentally more sex-positive than the Western culture in which she grew up.

* Born This Way: Black Box Sexuality, written by Noah Brand (who’s part of the blog team at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?). This is an exquisitely constructed, hilarious piece about why we should treat sexuality as a “black box” — we don’t know why personal sexuality is the way it is, and it arguably doesn’t matter. (I’ve covered similar ground in my old piece on BDSM as a sexual orientation.)

* Picking and Choosing from the “Act Like A Man Box”, written by Charlie Glickman. Charlie is one of my favorite writers on issues of masculinity. This piece follows his earlier piece, The Performance of Masculinity, and it’s a wonderful discussion of the narrowness of our conceptions of manhood — plus ideas on what it means to create a “new masculinity.”

* Awesome Casual Sex for Single Girls, written by Adaya Adler (who blogs at My So-Called Polyamorous Life). If you’re a lady interested in trying casual sex, you couldn’t find a better place to start than by reading this article. Which is not to say that I think you “should” try casual sex; I’m not too interested in it myself. But if you want to, you know where to start reading!

If you’re interested in pitching me your own work, or you know someone who is, please do get in touch with me: clarisse at rolereboot dot org.

2012 30 Jan

Some Transformative Justice Links

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

In the wake of recent conversations, I’ve been looking around for further resources on transformative justice. I haven’t been able to do a lot of intense follow-up on the topic lately, because in mid-January I had major spinal surgery (after breaking my neck in an accident back in 2011); this obviously has involved many painkillers and a lot of sleep and not-working as much as possible. However, I have been able to do some reading, and I want to share some of what I’ve found most compelling.

Since I’m in recovery, I may take a while to moderate/participate in comments on this thread.

* The most thorough overview of community accountability issues and strategies that I have found was created by INCITE!: Women Of Color Against Violence. Here is an awesome Community Accountability Working Document: it’s full of important principles, incisive questions, organizational ideas, and references to groups that are doing this kind of work.

* Over and over, for the past year and especially recently, people have directed me to Philly Stands Up:

Philly Stands Up is small collective of individuals working in Philadelphia to confront sexual assault in our various communities using a transformative justice framework. We believe in restoring trust and justice within our community by working with both survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault. We believe that sexual assault comes in many forms and we are doing what we can to actively combat it.

We work with people who have assaulted others to hold them accountable to the survivor(s) and restore their relationships within their communities. In dealing with perpetrators, we seek to recognize and change behavior, rather than ostracizing and allowing future assaults elsewhere. We support their healing process, and challenge them on their behavior in order to prevent future assaults.

We also work to educate ourselves and others on issues that contribute to sexualized violence. To encourage awareness building, we provide support for other groups and collectives as well as host workshops in Philly and elsewhere.

On the Philly Stands Up site, here is a post about their Points of Unity; here is a more detailed post called “Our Approach, Our Analysis”.

And here is a personal testimonial from a member of the collective. I personally found these paragraphs especially powerful:

We do not have a magic “perpetrator-free” stamp that absolves someone from whatever pain they have caused another person or community; we work to build an honest and accountable space with perpetrators. This demands a good faith effort from both directions. I have friends who upon finding out about the subject of my Sunday night meetings, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? why perpetrators? none of those programs ever work.” Valid response. But PSU isn’t a program. No one is more aware than we are that we can’t work with every perpetrator. In some cases, perpetrators are also survivors of other situations. We try to see the whole person and the whole situation, however complex, and remain aware of our limitations.

It isn’t easy to go step-by-step through our process, since it’s different each time. Typically, we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator either through a referral through [another group] or because someone will email us directly and ask for help or resources. We meet weekly, and commit to “tasks” — whether it’s contacting someone about a workshop, working on an article for a zine, doing research, working on a situation, or being the group’s email checker for the week. We do a decent job of checking our mail, and it’s the responsibility of the email checker to not only check the emails, but to respond based on the time sensitivity of what is emailed (either a “do you need to talk so someone in an hour” or a “can we check in about your request at our meeting on Sunday, which is four days away” type of response). Every meeting starts with a personal check-in and ends with a check-out, and includes a mixture of debriefing current situations and “tasking” new situations, discussing or planning upcoming workshops, projects, or proposals, or doing internal educational work. Committing to work on a situation depends upon what information we know, who can do the work — not only logistically, but also with respect to personal limits and triggers.

… Working with perpetrators, situation by situation, requires that we are continuously checking in with ourselves (individually and collectively) about where we are at, what we need, how we feel, what hurts, what is too much, where is the wall? We can do, feel, and trust this more when we operate in real time.

My commitment to PSU is the healthiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with an activist collective. I don’t have to feel guilty about my time limits — for example, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to go to an actual meeting in at least a month because of my work schedule, but my ability to commit to write this article and pull together resources for this zine is internally embraced as a valid part of our work. My emotional boundaries are respected — and furthermore, my efforts to even articulate my boundaries in the first place are appreciated as necessary. People step up and step back on a week-to-week basis. Literally. I was a little dubious that this function of the collective was actually the truth, but I personally have been proven wrong multiple times. I have learned that working with PSU demands a lot of honesty. I have to be honest with myself about my own triggers, limits, boundaries, needs. I have to trust my friends in PSU to help me both identify and respect what I can and cannot do. I have to be able to hear each of their own capacity for our work. I think our commitment to healthy activism works because we centralize it at our meetings (by framing with personal check-ins and check-outs), we have pre-existing/outside-of-PSU friendships and shared/local social networks that are incredibly powerful, and because there is a shared common and radical analysis of power and oppression — which informs not only our Points of Unity, but also our ability to just be there for each other and create a safe space (which isn’t to say that we don’t work to develop that space and challenge ourselves). I can only speak for myself, but I know I approach relationships (whether platonic, intimate, or somewhere in between) in a fundamentally different way since I joined PSU.

(more…)

2011 31 Dec

[open thread] OK, it’s time to deconstruct “Tangled”

I saw “Tangled”, the 2010 Disney Princess flick, over my Christmas holiday. Where to start? I don’t know, so I’m gonna do one of my all-too-rare open threads. (Also, I have concluded that I should catch up on work and email and past comment threads and make sure to thoroughly enjoy New Year’s Eve before I write another of my famous long posts. Also also, happy New Year, folks.)

Feel free to post things that aren’t about “Tangled” too. But like … the movie is a freakin’ goldmine. Here are some discussion prompts:

1. I guarantee that “Tangled” has already birthed many, many BDSM fantasies. I mean, see above. But recalling my frequent injunction that BDSM can be “love sex” too, I like this picture much better:

Disney’s always been good at that sudden, sweet, swoon-inducing moment of intimacy.

2. Obligatory gender roles analysis! How do we feel about these in “Tangled”?

3. Did we learn any lessons about manliness (or even pickup artistry) from Flynn Rider?

Why, it’s almost like the guy is both cocky and funny! But you know what else he is? Vulnerable. Flynn’s character kinda made me think of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché.

P.S. That “Blade Runner” reference towards the end. This isn’t even a question.

I am just saying. They can deny that they intended to reference “Blade Runner” all they want, and I’ll still be here, just saying.

(Images above show various characters from “Tangled” — including two in which Rapunzel has tied up the male hero, Flynn, using her hair. Please note that the image of the “unicorn moment” from “Tangled” is here via the fuckyeahtangled tumblr. Because there’s a fuckyeahtangled tumblr.)