Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

2010 28 Oct

[litquote/storytime] There It Is

This was originally posted on October 18, 2010, over at Feministe. The comments on the original version are mostly excellent, though some are ridiculous.

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A quotation from Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, a memoir about her experiences as a sex worker:

Marina [a sex worker] had been abused by her dad when she was a girl, and she’d do coke and tell [a client] about it as he jerked off.

Marina! I gasped.  I was astonished.  She didn’t really care.  It gave me flutters of anxiety, her blasé admission, the idea of the creepy man getting off on the rehashing of a child’s abuse.  Maybe the anti-sex industry feminists were right, maybe this was evil work, work that tore the fragile scabbing of every wound a girl ever got, again and again, till pain felt regular, felt like nothing.  Maybe we were encouraging the worst of men, helping blur their already schizophrenic line between fantasy and reality, what they’re allowed to have and what they’re not.  I knew that some girls thought we were actually preventing rape and incest by giving the men a consensual space to act out their fantasies, and it grossed me out beyond belief to think that I was fucking would-be sex criminals, but I believed them.  What I didn’t believe was that any of us, with our cheesy one-hour sex routines, would be enough to keep these men from hurting a female if that’s what they wanted to do.  And what I secretly wondered was, were we empowering them sexually to go and do just that.  Go and do just anything they wanted.

I love this quotation (I’m loving this whole book and I’m not even done yet).  Here’s why: because I can relate.  Oh yes, I think it’s full of problematic negative stereotypes about men, so I’ll note that up front.  (Though this book sure makes it easy to understand where those stereotypes come from.)  And I’ve never done sex work myself, so I don’t want to come across as co-opting Michelle Tea’s experience, or saying things about it that she didn’t mean.

But I believe I recognize those anxieties, because they come up for me sometimes, as a sex-positive feminist woman who can’t stand the idea of actual non-consensual sex.  Hell yeah, I get angry about sexual abuse, and it hurts to think about it.  Hell yeah, it kills me to think about sex workers who are trafficked or abused or desperate, who don’t get into the industry willingly (unlike so many sex workers I know who freely chose, who enjoy their jobs).  And this quotation, its worries about cultural masculinity and sexual power dynamics, most reminds me of the unease I once felt so terribly about my own S&M sexuality.  Unease that still surfaces sometimes, somehow, against my will.  Surfaces, for example, when I hear about tragic cases like abusive relationships that masquerade as BDSM relationships.

How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?

Encouraging the worst of men.  Fucking would-be sex criminals.  Empowering them to go and do just anything they want.

Those words have their teeth in my heart. Have always haunted me whenever I thought of BDSM, sex work, sometimes even sex itself … things that can be warped into something so very damaging.

Like any woman, I’ve got my stories of male sexual co-option.  My experiences have been mild compared to the rape and abuse that are too many people’s awful reality, but my experiences are also real, and shaped me profoundly.  The stereotypes of sexuality that made me into a teenage girl who couldn’t seem to think or communicate my way out of giving blowjobs to a man who categorically refused to return the favor.  Who faked orgasms because I couldn’t figure out how to have them, and because I felt that I had to give the fragile male ego the all-important reassurance that I was coming “for him”.  Who just smiled when a boyfriend I’d actually been honest with told me how convenient it was that I didn’t know how to come: I was good in bed, he informed me, partly because “I don’t even need to give you an orgasm.”

(Those exact words, he said them.  And the crazy thing is that I do believe he was in love with me; he thought he was giving me a compliment.  Somehow, being in love with me still didn’t enable him to see what kind of bind I was in, what kind of screwed-up encouragement he was giving me to suppress and wound myself, when he told me something like that.)

I wrote a whole 20-page paper at age 18 about what I referred to as the “self-guilt-trip”: what many women end up doing to ourselves in a society where sexual stereotypes have nothing to do with what we want.  I spent so long guilt tripping myself into having — even initiating — sex I wasn’t that into, because that was the image of sexuality that I had.  What I thought was expected.  What I thought I had to do, had to be, in order to be sexual with another person; to be sexually liberated; to “earn” a sexual relationship.

God yes, I hate that.  And I hate the reality of rape and assault and harassment, almost always performed by men against women — although other genders get raped too and their experience should never ever be erased.  But here’s the thing.  I also hate the fact that in this world, merely being okay with sexuality — and, for me personally, being okay with my BDSM sexuality — is such an uphill battle.  Rational arguments like “it’s all okay if it’s among consenting adults”, or “it’s stupid to stigmatize and criminalize marginal forms of sexuality because that just makes the situation worse for people who are abused and want to get out” … these arguments are so important, but they don’t always quiet my massive internalized fears.

I tell myself it’s just stigma, and that helps.  Sometimes.  Stigma is abstract and nobody’s fault, and it’s something I can think about and be interested by and thereby almost get past how it screws with me all the time, every single day.

You know what helps most, though?  Having a really good BDSM encounter.  If I go without intense BDSM for a while, I almost kinda sorta forget how incredible it can be, though shadows of it always weave through my fantasies and dreams.  After a while, I almost start to wonder why I want it so much.  I start questioning whether it’s worth doing all this emotional labor just so I can feel okay about wanting BDSM.  And then.

Recently I had dinner with a guy I met at a random event.  Not even an S&M event!  Not at all an overtly S&M guy!  He wears hipster clothing and he likes relatively mainstream music — not the typical S&M signifiers, obviously — and I went out with him more because he seemed smart and entertaining than because I expected fireworks.  Towards the end of our night out, I laid it all on the table: he’d mentioned S&M so I turned to him and asked, “What kind of experience do you have with that?”  And he knows about my writing, he’s read some of it, so I guess he compared himself to what he’s read and said: “Mostly playful.  Not really intense.”

I shrugged internally and offered to go home with him.  It was a Monday in San Francisco, so I figured: whatever, maybe we’ll talk for a while, maybe I’ll try making out with him and exit if there’s no energy.  In which case I’d still have time to go dancing at Death Guild!

(I mean, sure, I can enjoy vanilla sex, and I even seek it out sometimes.  It’s just that the best vanilla sex I’ve had was about ten zillion light-years away in awesomeness from the best BDSM sex I’ve had.)

I did not expect to come close to tears; to end up with bruises that forced me into t-shirts for several days.  (I don’t think he expected it either.)  His instincts are extremely good, and either he read me well or he has very compatible preferences.  And there it was.  As pain streaked brightly across my mind, as I spiraled down into the blankness of submission.  He did a few things I don’t even normally like, but everything else was so right, I’d gone far enough under not to care.  (Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did.  Oh yes, consent can be complicated.)

There it was.  I felt the tears building, gasps torn from my throat, I felt myself starting to fall apart and reform: around him, around his guidance and force and demands.  Almost unable to think.  Until finally he relented and said my name, and said softly, “Come back,” and ran his hand reassuringly down my hair.

There it was: the reason I want it so much.

(A lover asked me recently to describe how it feels when I go under.  It took me a long time to come up with words.  I feel blank.  I feel dark.  Desperate.  Engaged.  Transcendent.  If it’s good enough, I can’t communicate.  If it’s good enough, then it becomes hard not to fall in love.  “Huh,” he said when I was done.  “That’s a strange collection of words.”  I had to laugh, and tried to say I was sorry for my lack of clarity, but he didn’t let me apologize, which is just as well.)

I got dressed and walked home across the city, feeling as though I was on fire.  Alight.  It lasted the whole next day; a friend ran into me in the morning and I said “I’m in a great mood!” and she said, “Yeah, it’s pouring off you.”  I got home (well, I got back to where I stay when I’m in San Francisco), and I sat down on the couch and stared blankly at my laptop and I had to remind myself: I am not in love with this man.  I just met him.  It was only one encounter.  This is merely New Relationship Energy.  I’ll get over most of the effect within a few days.  But how could I help loving him, just a little, for where he’d taken me?

(And, since awful stereotypes of men are such a big part of typical anti-sex anxiety, I feel compelled to note that he was unprepared for the scene as well.  That he didn’t expect any of it either; that he had to stop a couple times to process what was happening, that I had to reassure him about what he was doing with me.)

Of course it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even close to the most intense scene I’ve experienced.  I’m sure other things affected how it went: I’d been eating properly, was in good physical shape, I’d had a spectacular weekend vacation just before.  My mood and body were well-shaped to create a good scene.  And I sure as hell did my part in communicating my side of things to him.  But he was the one who took me there, and it felt like such a long time since I really got into that place.  Some people warn new BDSMers: “Be careful, you may feel like you are falling in love with your partner when you are really in love with the BDSM.  Be careful.”  This warning also applies to people who have gone without for a while.  Obviously, it applies.

And there it is.  There, right there.   In the way it makes me feel.  In the connection it creates.  That’s why BDSM is worth it.  Worth the stigma, worth the effort of explanation; worth identifying as my gin-you-wine sexual orientation.  It’s worth the emotional energy and determination required to maintain my wholeness when people try to tell me this is wrong, that it’s bad for you or bad for your partners or bad for feminism or bad for society.  This is one of the big reasons I believe that anti-sex feminists are fundamentally wrong, especially when they outright conflate consensual acts with abusive ones.  (The other one being that censorship and criminalization and other anti-sex policies actually end up putting women at risk.)

Because nothing consensual that feels so good, that creates such a connection, that is so genuinely transcendent … nothing with such potential should be so hated and feared.

2010 19 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not okay.

2010 15 Oct

The S&M Feminist Reloaded

UPDATE, 2012: In the years after I wrote this post, I actually released a whole book called The S&M Feminist. Read it and enjoy!

Original post follows:

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I’ve written before that I don’t typically directly discuss feminist issues, partly because I think other feminists are covering the bases better than I can. Recently I’ve been proving myself wrong, though.

Firstly, I got interviewed about BDSM and feminism on the adorable blogtalk radio show Casual Sex!
Show host David Ortmann is a San Francisco psychotherapist and founding member of the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities. He knows a lot about BDSM, has been around the BDSM community much longer than me, and asked great questions. You can stream my interview off the Internet or download it by clicking the extremely easy-to-miss iTunes icon on the streaming bar.

Secondly, I wrote a guest post at the awesome group blog Feministe called The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team.
The article is all about abuse in the BDSM community: toxic dynamics within the community, current anti-abuse initiatives within the community, and how I personally would go about building an anti-abuse team aimed at altsexual abuse survivors if I got a grant or something (keep dreaming, Clarisse). There are some great comments.

Thirdly, I also wrote a guest post at the awesome Ms. Magazine blog about the Anti-Porn Men Project.
I wanted to like the Anti-Porn Men Project, because although I’m pro-porn, I’m also all about discussing and analyzing the problems of porn. Unfortunately, the Anti-Porn Men Project seems to be intellectually dishonest and to disrespect the experience of many actual sex workers and porn models. I’m hoping that they’ll come to reconsider their current narrow focus and confront their biases.

Note that if you want to keep up with all my writing on other sites in real-time, you might consider subscribing to my Time Out Chicago blog, “Love Bites”. “Love Bites” disseminates bite-sized bits of sex & gender news, including the headlines of all my own projects.

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The above image of Trinity from “The Matrix: Reloaded” is from this gallery of girls in “The Matrix”. When this movie came out, my boyfriend and I drove nearly an hour to see it. I attended in a floor-length lace-up vinyl ballgown. I am not lying.

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2010 15 Oct

Manliness and Feminism 2: Judgment Day

This is a thread that exists solely to continue the comments on my now-classic post Manliness and Feminism: The Followup, because that post has 1,393 comments (many of them long and dense) and is starting to crash folks’ browsers.

Yeah, I called my own post a classic. I’m getting arrogant here.

Previous posts in the manliness series:
* Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?
* Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights
* Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space for Men
* Manliness and Feminism: The Followup

The above image from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” came from a site that discusses how the Pentagon is trying to design a shape-shifting chemical robot. Didn’t we learn anything from those movies?

2010 2 Oct

Available lectures, workshops and events from Clarisse Thorn

I recently told everyone that I’m back in America and available for lectures or events, but it’s come to my attention that it’s hard to know exactly what kind of sex-positive events I offer without going through my entire blog archive. Sorry about that! I’m fixing it right now by giving you a short list of what I’ve done.

* Leadership in the Bedroom: A Sexual Communication Workshop. Down-to-earth tips and ideas on how to communicate clearly about sex. This workshop was originally requested by the University of Illinois at Chicago, but I’ve given versions of it at other venues as well. It was one of the first workshops I ever designed, and I’m currently working on streamlining it and making it more interactive. I can do it in an hour, but prefer longer.

* BDSM Overview. Imagery deriving from bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) is becoming commonplace — and we all know (or think we know) what a dominatrix is — but most people don’t have much idea of what BDSM actually involves. Although it is increasingly accepted as an alternative sexual orientation, BDSM remains surrounded by stigma, scandal and occasional legal action. This presentation covers the basics of BDSM (however, it’s not a how-to lecture — you aren’t going to learn how to use a whip, though you’ll learn where to go to find out!). I prefer to poll the audience to see what they want to cover on top of that — BDSM history? cultural landmarks? BDSM & feminism? legal issues? I’ve got it all! I have given this lecture at New York’s Museum of Sex and Chicago’s Northwestern University; it was actually the subject of my first-ever blog post. It can be squished into an hour, but I prefer two hours, or even longer.

* Sex-Positivity for Everyone! Including the Mens! What is masculinity or male advocacy as a movement, and how is it in dialogue with contemporary feminism? Can it be incorporated into feminism, or can the values of the sex-positive feminist community speak to its concerns? What does positive, productive talk about masculinity sound like? I talk about all this in a short lecturette and then facilitate small discussions on kinky male sexuality, men in the pickup artist community, and men who buy sex. This workshop was originally requested by the University of Chicago, and based on feedback from that experience, I have been adapting it slightly for my upcoming Reed College appearance on October 5. It should take about 90 minutes.

* The Sex+++ Film Series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and related film screenings. I have now overseen many many screenings of sex-positive documentaries, and facilitated followup discussions afterwards. In the past I have done this primarily to accomplish my own activist educational goals or to raise funds for deserving institutions, but I’d be happy to run a screening or two upon request. Please note, however, that I don’t own the rights to all the films I’ve screened, and so if you want me to run a screening for you, you may need to budget extra in order to cover the rights. Here’s a list of the original film line-up for Sex+++.

I would certainly be willing to design a new workshop or lecture upon request — in fact, two of the above events were created at the request of the institutions that invited me. If you ask me to create a new event, though, please keep in mind that it will be an event I’ve never field-tested before! Still, feedback on my events has generally been good, even on the brand-new ones. And I am planning to start handing out feedback forms to everyone who attends one of my workshops, so I can get ever-more-precise input.

UPDATE: Right, my location! Currently I’m in San Francisco (and about to travel to Portland to give this talk at Reed, obviously). I will probably be here for about another month. If you’re anywhere near California and want me to travel to you, then it would be in your interest to schedule now, since my travel costs would be lower. I will return to Chicago in about a month, probably, after which I’m more available to the midwestish area. And I have family in New York, so I’ll head out that way by late December if not before.

If you represent a super-deserving group, like for example a domestic abuse organization that wants advice on differentiating abuse from BDSM or on being alternative-sexuality friendly, then we can definitely negotiate my honorarium.

2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… but I’m not holding my breath.

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

2010 16 Aug

[storytime] Sympathy for the Anti-Porn Feminists

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I really felt uncomfortable with and uneasy about porn. I believed it was something that “all men watch” and “all men like”. I didn’t yet realize that there are lots of different kinds of porn out there, and so I believed that the mainstream porn I’d seen represented “all men’s desires”. Given that I didn’t look like women in mainstream porn and I didn’t want to act like women in mainstream porn, this made me suspect that I couldn’t possibly be awesome in bed; so I couldn’t help feeling pressured and threatened by porn’s very existence, because it seemed to be fulfilling “all men’s desires” in a way that I couldn’t. (I felt even more uneasy when I first came across SomethingAwful’s hentai game reviews around age 18. The reviews were so funny that I laughed out loud, but I also literally cried — right in a public computer lab, actually.)

But I accepted that the men in my life watched porn, and I made it clear that although I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t mind — that I certainly didn’t expect them to give up porn while dating me.

Except one. I dated one man who insisted that he didn’t use porn, and I believed him. Keep in mind that I had told him I didn’t mind if he used porn, so his insistence that he didn’t came entirely from him, not me. And then one day I was going through our computer’s search history looking for something I’d been reading the day before, and I came upon rape-fantasy porn. And I was heartbroken.

Way beyond the fact that the man I loved had outright lied to me — which, I think, legitimately entitled me to be angry — my reaction went something like this:

A) The only man I’ve ever met who I thought truly didn’t like porn was lying to me, which means I can’t trust men who say they don’t like porn, and probably indicates that men who have told me they don’t like rape porn were lying too.

B) Porn indicates real preferences, right? So what this means is that all men secretly crave to rape women, but that they are either too afraid of the legal consequences or care too much about the women they love to actually do it.

In other words, I thought something like: I can’t trust men to be honest about their sexuality, and their sexuality is scary and predatory.

This was a highly overwrought and almost totally wrong read on the situation! But that’s how I felt at the time. I couldn’t figure out a way to talk to my boyfriend about the porn without causing a fight (it was a rather non-communicative relationship, and I’m glad it’s long over). So I never talked to him about it, and it took me years to unravel all the incorrect assumptions I had wrapped up in my reactions to porn.

* * *

In the circles I run in today, saying that I’ve got sympathy for anti-porn feminists is kind of like saying I’ve got sympathy for the devil. But the truth is, I’ve got quite a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong: I emphatically do not support censoring porn. I screened some documentaries on feminist and alternative porn when I curated my sex-positive film series. And I often point out that, despite what anti-porn feminists say, there’s absolutely no evidence that porn increases sexual violence. In fact, there’s reason to think that increased porn access reduces sexual violence.

These issues have been highlighted lately with the release of Pornland, a book by anti-porn zealot Gail Dines. I haven’t read it, but from the reviews and excerpts and interviews I’ve seen, it’s obvious that Pornland is breathtaking in its lack of evidence. (My personal favorite coverage is this interview, in which Dines’ own former research assistant — who is now a porn performer — disputes Dines’ claims.)

So how can I have sympathy for anti-porn feminists? Only because I remember how I felt just a few years ago. I remember that I felt so confused about my own sexuality; I remember how resentful I felt, that sex seemed so easy for men — that the world seemed to facilitate their sex drives so thoroughly, particularly by providing all this porn!

I remember how hurt I felt by porn, because I believed that it represented “what men want”, and that therefore I was “supposed” to act like porn women — even though the way women acted in porn didn’t appeal to me at all. I remember how scared I felt, when I believed that rape porn reflected “all men’s desires”, and concluded that “all men secretly would love to commit rape”. The porn that I’d seen felt as though it set the standard for my sexual behavior, and I hated that standard, but I didn’t see a way out. Because even with all my liberal, sex-positive sex education, there were serious flaws in my knowledge about sex. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the concept of fully-negotiated, 100% consensual rape fantasy sex.

And that’s really the heart of the problem with porn: that is, the problem is not porn in itself at all. The problem is bad sex education. The problem is that all Americans are subjected to sexual mores that shame sex; that refuse to talk honestly about sex; that claim we shouldn’t be having sex at all. The problem is that millions of people are too ashamed and afraid and repressed to talk or think seriously about their sexual desires. That millions of people don’t recognize the diversity of sexual desire. And, therefore, that millions of people’s primary source of information about sexuality is highly stylized mainstream porn.

* * *

Anti-porn folks are shaped by society’s irrational sexual fears and stereotypes:

1) There’s a stereotype that male sexuality is inherently dangerous, unwanted, or predatory and that it must be contained or restrained at all costs. This means that porn cannot be allowed to thrive, especially if it seems to cater to men. This is also, I suspect, the source of the claim that porn access increases rape (again, false). Anti-porn activists rely on the societal belief that men’s sexuality is hard to control, scaring us into believing that allowing porn will enable uncontrollable men.

2) There’s anxiety about alternative sexuality. Almost everyone in the world can be freaked out by some form of sexuality, and most people are freaked out by very predictable taboos. This freaking-out reaction doesn’t actually mean that there’s anything wrong with that form of sexuality — because, folks, nothing is wrong with any form of sexuality as long as it is 100% consensual! — but most people don’t think past their immediate freakout. So anti-porn folks often use images of extreme sexuality to alarm people who aren’t prepared to see those images. In other words, they often rely on freaking people out to make their case — possibly because otherwise they haven’t got a case.

3) Does porn create certain desires? Or does it merely cater to existing desires? The answer is probably “a little bit of both”, but anti-porn activists rely on the idea that porn makes its viewers want certain kinds of sex or certain kinds of partners. Many of us (like me, years ago) are afraid that we can’t “live up” to our partners’ preferences, and many of us (like me, years ago) tend to believe that “all men” or “all women” want the same thing. So there’s an anti-porn fear that if we allow porn to flourish, those of us who don’t enjoy acting like [mainstream] porn stars will be unable to satisfy our partners.

Again, I got sympathy. I understand these fears because I used to feel them; I felt them so strongly that it made me cry in a public computer lab. But the solution isn’t getting rid of the porn, it’s getting rid of the fears. The solution is:

1) Reframing male sexuality so that we aren’t so damn scared of it all the time. Men can and will control themselves sexually, and they’ll only get better at it — not worse — if we encourage honest, non-scary, open-minded dialogue about male sexual desire.

2) Encouraging people to see alternative sexuality as just another human preference, rather than something weird and/or freakish. Encouraging people to accept and come to terms with their own sexuality, though this can be a tough and hard-to-recognize process — it certainly was for me. Once people feel comfortable in their own sex lives and recognize their own weird fetishes, they’ll be much less likely to judge other people’s sex lives.

3) Making it incredibly clear that everyone has different sexual desires, that different kinds of porn express different desires, and that “all men” and “all women” don’t want the same thing. Porn can be a wonderful tool for exploring particular desires, and allowing people to explore their particular preferences makes it easier for everyone to find sexual satisfaction, not harder — because it means that people with particular preferences can find each other, rather than ending up in unhappy partnerships where those desires are ignored.

4) Giving more airtime to alternative porn, especially feminist porn, to make it obvious that all porn isn’t the same. [1]

5) Oh, and of course we need to encourage people to recognize that violent sex isn’t necessarily bad sex; that even something as extreme as a rape scene can be 100% consensual. One key idea that I’m trying to push is writing about the amazing variety of sexual communication tactics derived from S&M — tactics that enable some awesomely extreme, awesomely consensual sex.

* * *

I have a theory about how porn affects men in bed. I don’t have any data, I’ve just got my experience, and that means I’m on the same level as Gail Dines (so maybe I should publish a book). I’ve had a pretty fair number of sexual partners at this point, and it’s true that, in my experience, men who don’t like mainstream porn are often better in bed: more attentive and less likely to make assumptions, for example. Perhaps they’re better off because they never learned or believed in the stereotypes of mainstream porn — then again, some guys who don’t like porn are horribly repressed and terrible in bed, so obviously the issue cuts both ways.

However! There’s another group of men who are excellent in bed. Often, they’re even better than men who don’t watch porn. And that group is men who have watched a lot of different kinds of porn and who have thought carefully about their reactions to it. They have learned how many different flavors of sexuality are out there in the world. They are men who have gotten over their sexual repression and learned to talk about sex in an open, accepting, honest way. Those men are fantastic in bed.

And they’ve probably got more exposure to porn than any of the men cherry-picked by anti-porn zealots who talk about the horrors of porn.

* * *

* Footnote: This point (#4) was added in February 2011. It’s late for me to add it in, because this piece has already been republished in multiple venues across the internet, but it’s an important point and I’m mad at myself that I left it out of the original version of this post. I think I take too much sex-positive theory for granted sometimes ….

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:

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2010 22 Mar

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

Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

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

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

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

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

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

In a later comment, she adds:

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

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

I. “Irresponsible”

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

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

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

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

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2010 19 Mar

Chicago feminist sex ed paper focuses on LGBTQ students’ needs

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

Dear Clarisse,

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

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