Posts Tagged ‘film series’

2009 23 Mar

Interview with Richard Berkowitz, star of “Sex Positive” and icon of safer sex activism

Our second film at Sex+++ was “Sex Positive”, a fascinating documentary about the history of safer sex. I’ll be honest: I was psyched about “Sex Positive” from day one, long before I’d even seen it. It was the first film I chose for my film list. In fact, the whole idea for the film series came out of a conversation I had with Lisa (our lovely Hull-House Museum education coordinator) in which I said that I wanted to see “Sex Positive”, and then added, “There are so many sexuality movies I want to see. You and I should have a regular movie night!” She looked at me and said thoughtfully, “You know, I bet people besides us would come to that ….”

“Sex Positive” tells the story of Richard Berkowitz — and how he was one of the first to spread the word about safer sex in America. Berkowitz, a talented writer, started out as a hot-blooded participant in the promiscuous gay bathhouse culture; later, he became an S&M hustler. When AIDS started decimating the gay community, Berkowitz was instrumental in teaching his community (and the world) about safer sex. As it became clear to some medical professionals that sexual promiscuity spread AIDS, Berkowitz tried to tell the world about their findings. But there was a huge backlash against him — because in those days, the promiscuous bathhouse culture was seen by many gay men as a huge part of identifying as gay and sex-positive … and anyone who argued against it, or tried to modify it, was therefore cast by many people as sex-negative.

You can read my “Sex Positive” followup blog post and quick semi-review here, and Richard Berkowitz himself did just that! He left a comment offering feedback on my review, and I was so thrilled and honored to hear from him that I emailed him right away. We talked a little bit, and met in person last time I was in New York City — and I practically begged him to let me interview him by email. Here’s the results: a discussion of Richard’s history with S&M; what he thinks about advocacy; his feelings about the gay community and its history; and where he finds himself in his life right now.

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Clarisse Thorn: In “Sex Positive”, you mention that you didn’t initially think of yourself as a BDSM type, but that you had partners who convinced you to do it. Do you think you would have gotten into BDSM if you hadn’t had partners pressuring you to do it? Do you think you would have gotten into it if you hadn’t been able to make money at it?

Richard Berkowitz: I was filmed talking in three- to four-hour sessions over the course of a year about difficult, often painful, personal history. At times I felt uncomfortable, I made mistakes, so there are moments in “Sex Positive” that I wish I could clarify — but it’s not my film. That’s why I’m thrilled that you’re giving me the first opportunity to address the moments that make me cringe when I see the movie — and what amazed me is that you nailed most of them.

Me — pressured into S&M? Hell, no. I stumbled across BDSM porn in college, and was both appalled and more turned on than I was to any other porn. I pursued a few experiences as a novice when I was in college, and I was completely turned off to the scene for years. The few Tops I met were clumsy, distracted by fetishes that bored me, and I was convinced a bottom could easily get hurt — so I walked away.

When I began hustling in NYC, I was an angry activist and it attracted S&M bottoms that were happy to teach me what I could do with my anger that was erotic and consensual. To that I added what I had learned that Tops did wrong — and presto! I got really good at it fast — and I loved it. I was doing two or three scenes a day, but because I could often steer a scene to what turned me on, it felt more like play than work.

If I hadn’t had been trained as a Top by older, experienced bottoms who were hiring me, I still would have had S&M experiences on my own. But I doubt that I would have gotten as heavily into the scene if it wasn’t for hustling. That’s where I earned my S&M PhD.

In 1979, S&M was considered the fallback scene for aging hustlers — it was what you turned to when you were losing your youth. There was such a dearth of good Tops. But I had the raw material to be a great Top at 23, and I built quite a reputation on word-of-mouth referrals and repeats. Many of my clients became close friends.

CT: Where do you place BDSM in your sexual identity and self-conception? Do you see it as deeply part of you, or something you chose? Do you think of your BDSM urges as coming from a place as deep, as intrinsic, as your gay orientation?

RB: I think it’s too late for me to answer that question. Turning my libido into an occupation at 23 changed me in both good ways and bad. It would take a book to explain — so let me just say that as a product of gay male sex in the 70s, there was an element of power intrinsic to the sexuality of the times. That shaped me. I don’t see vanilla sex and S&M sex as mutually exclusive because I believe in Tops and bottoms — and that’s the basis of BDSM. “Tops and bottoms” are not exclusive to BDSM; the terms are widely used for assigning roles of power in sex in general. Gore Vidal said, “There is no such thing as gay and straight — only top and bottom”. I believe both are true.

But one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a third of my living space for the past three decades was a sound-proofed dungeon.

I think that a culture like ours that’s based on competition, as opposed to cooperation, can be extremely sadomasochistic. I think bad S&M can be found in many aspects of our daily life, and good S&M is just eroticizing aspects of being human that can enhance sex immensely for some.

CT: What kind of BDSM advocacy have you encountered? What kind of sex work advocacy have you encountered? What did you think of what you saw? Do you have any ideas about how to make those movements effective? Do you have any fears about those movements? Would you consider being part of those movements?

RB: My only fear about those movements would be if they didn’t exist! My neighbor down the hall for the past 25 years built my dungeon and was a co-founder of Gay Male SM Activists, but I always had too much hot sex going on at home to be interested in meetings. Plus, I never stopped feeling like a pariah in the gay community because of the attacks on me and my writing since AIDS began. You reach a point where you just assume people hate you because it’s easier than trying to figure out who doesn’t.

I fiercely support BDSM advocacy, but mainly from a distance. There’s a limited number of body blows any activist can take before we just retreat. I had my fill — but the response to “Sex Positive” and the new Obama era is nudging me out of my shell. I had a breakup a few years ago that devastated me, so I’ve been out of the scene for almost three years. Now I’m trying to reinvent myself, find one person I can retreat from the world with. I’ve never lied about S&M being an intrinsic part of my sexuality, and because of my early bad experiences with BDSM, I’m thrilled and inspired by advocates for it. If there had been BDSM advocacy when I came into BDSM, then I don’t think I would have had the bad experiences I mentioned earlier. As a BDSM sex worker, I met so many men who had horrible tales of being hurt in scenes, and I did my best to be an antidote for that.

CT: On my blog, you commented that “Of course BDSM was a source of joy in my life but I put it aside when it robs me from having a platform to champion safe sex to the largest possible audience, which BDSM often has.” Could you talk more about that?

RB: Smear campaigns are hard to pin down, and there’s no way to know how much of the contempt against me or my writing was due to my BDSM, my sex work, my safe sex evangelism or simply me. I’m just a dangling piñata for people who have issues with sex!

There are gay people of my generation who are as uninformed and rabidly anti-BDSM sex as homophobes are about gay sex.

I can’t think of anyone who has gone on film with such brutally honest testimony about their radical sexual history as I did in “Sex Positive.” It felt like a huge risk and you can see my anxiety in the film, but to me, this level of honesty is crucial to pro-sex activism. People are so dishonest about sex; many would never talk publicly about their private sexual behavior — and they don’t want others doing it either, so it’s not easy.

There was a doctor I saw once when AIDS began who heard I was into S&M. As he went to take blood from me, he stabbed the needle into my arm. I bolted out of the chair screaming, and he said coyly, “Oh, sorry, I thought you liked pain.” How can I not feel reticent talking about BDSM considering so many people I’ve met like that? And then I think, how can I not?

I’ve seen the most courageous pro-sex writers and activists attacked, pilloried and silenced because of their honesty in writing about their kinky sexual histories. I shudder when I recall the vicious smears against pro-sex feminists by anti-porn feminists back in the early 80s. I don’t want to invite that bile into my life, especially now, when my circle of gay male friends are no longer alive and here to support me when I go out on a limb with my personal radical sexual issues in public.

So why did I speak out? Why do I still speak out? Because I owed so much to the army of men who loved and supported me over the years and no longer have a voice, and because gay men were dying. It was no time to be squeamish about sex. It still isn’t.

CT: Do you have any regrets? — and, concurrently, what are you most proud of? Did the making of the film “Sex Positive” bring any regret or pride to the surface for you?

RB: I have a few regrets about “Sex Positive”, but they pale next to what I’ve gained. I’ve been to more cities with this movie in one year than I’ve been to in my entire life. Young people have been extraordinarily supportive and kind, and it helps me to let go of the past. I’ve been stuck in the past for so long — it’s deadening, but I finally feel that this movie is breaking me free, to finally let go and move on to write about other things. For that, I’m forever indebted to Daryl Wein, the documentary’s director.

What I’m most proud of is how much work I did on safe sex that no one even knows about. I’m putting it all on the Internet as a free archive, as soon as I can find or pay someone to help me with the technical stuff. I’m from the age of typewriters.

CT: Is there anything you’d like to add? Please feel free to also respond directly to points I made when I talked about “Sex Positive” on my blog.

RB: I loved S&M hustling before AIDS so much — sometimes, when I talk about it, I become the part of me that tied people up and dominated them; it’s like a mental erection. I get lost in the reverie of being an erotic, arrogant Top. I begged director Daryl Wein to delete me saying that clients would tell me that I could do whatever I wanted to them except fuck them, and then I would proceed to do just that. I said that when I was lost in a persona, and it makes me sound like a rapist!

The truth is, my most valued expertise as a hustler was teaching men who were afraid of getting fucked how to relax, how to douche, how to open up, how to explore the intense pleasures of receptive anal intercourse and anal orgasm without any pain. I would never rape or violate anyone’s consent — and certainly not customers I wanted to come back! I had tremendous empathy for how difficult it can be to learn how to get anally fucked because I was never able — or had the desire — to do it without being high on drugs. (You have to remember how pervasive recreational drug use was during the sexual revolution. There were articles in the gay press saying how cocaine was good for you. We didn’t understand addiction then as we do now. And we paid a heavy price for that innocence and ignorance.)

When I began hustling in NYC, the lesbian and gay liberation movement was ten years old — and about that mature. We grew up in such an intensely erotophobic and homophobic culture — there was no way to escape it, even after we accepted that we were gay. We didn’t always treat each other well, and it permeated our sexual expression whether it was vanilla or S&M.

You mention in your blog post that you are wary of how I talk about BDSM as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community. Yes — in S&M and in vanilla sex — I saw how we brought a lot of the culture’s contempt to what we did. But, as I say in “Sex Positive”, many of us came to realize this, and we understood that a lot of sexual fantasies are socially constructed by the times that shaped us. Many of us came to realize that sexual fantasies don’t diminish us as people — they can actually help free and enrich us when we understand what we’re doing.

I’m reluctant to put myself forward as a role model for BDSM and sex work, because of what happened to me after AIDS when I went back to hustling. I was furious that there was no place in the community for me to do safe sex education. I felt so hurt that some people only saw me as a sex worker/sadomasochist and that political differences got in the way of saving sexually active gay men’s lives. You can’t imagine the rage I felt that it took two entire years after we wrote and published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” for NYC to do its first safe sex campaign. I went back to hustling in such despair that I was an addiction waiting to happen, and that’s what did.

In the end, though, BDSM and my love for it is part of what saved my life. If I weren’t so busy hustling with BDSM before AIDS and safe sex, I would have spent much more time at the baths having high risk sex, and died long ago. I think each of us has a limit to how much sex and how many different partners our spirits can bear. Sex can become an addiction, and when you reach that point, people use recreational drugs to keep that level of hypersexual activity going. If I had found a place in safe sex education, my life would have been a much happier, healthier journey. But I never lose sight of how grateful I am to still be here, or how much joy and pleasure sexual freedom gave me until the world I loved started collapsing all around me and taking the men I loved along with it.

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Check out Richard Berkowitz’s web site to read more about him and order his book, Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.

If you’re interested in seeing Daryl Wein’s documentary “Sex Positive”, then keep track of the film’s website. It hasn’t been released yet, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be out to a wider audience later this year.

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

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2009 14 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #4: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think” and related shorts

I’m turning over a new leaf by failing to preface the post with a lot of text. This week’s Sex+++ documentary was pretty close to my heart ….

We showed Erin Palmquist’s “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (check out the official website!) as well as two related shorts, “Leather” and “Cut & Paste”. I was heartbroken that technical difficulties prevented us from showing “Forever Bottom”, which I was really psyched about. Oh well. The “Forever Bottom” DVD worked when we tested it on a laptop; we’ll try to get it to interface properly with the system and show it with a later film.

“BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” is an unfinished film, but it’s definitely on the right track. It tries to describe what BDSM is — i.e., demonstrate that it’s more than a dominatrix in a catsuit with a whip — and work against anti-BDSM stigma by interviewing a bunch of kinksters about what they do, how they do it, how they feel about what they do. I loved a lot of the points it made — they’re obviously very similar to points I constantly make with my outreach presentation and such.

“Leather” is an absolutely gorgeous short film that’s very similar to “BDSM”; it was made in 1995 and specifically features members of the gay leather subculture. It’s less cautious than “BDSM” in avoiding transgressive imagery, and it is more personal and less political than “BDSM”. It features scenes between one specific couple that seem as though they must be choreographed, they’re so lovely. But I don’t mean to imply that it’s hardcore or anything — there’s some bootlicking and hot wax and clothespins and flogging, that’s about it. The whole thing feels more ritualistic and meditative than darkly emotional; these aren’t degradation scenes or fear scenes. This is another film like “Sex Positive” where I wish I’d written down some of the quotations about what the participants were feeling, because they were so beautifully said.

“Cut & Paste” is a BDSM coming-out story, and it’s a well-made one with adorable graphics. I love coming-out stories so much! Better yet, it’s a coming-out story from the point of view of a Black queer woman who uses the opportunity — not just to show what it’s like to come into a highly stigmatized sexuality — but what she absorbed about what Black women’s sexuality is “supposed” to be.

The discussion group after the films talked a little bit about a number of BDSM-related issues, but didn’t go too in-depth about any of them. One interesting question, raised by a gentleman whose name I regrettably do not know, was this: As BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in the media, does that make BDSM more mainstream? If BDSM is becoming more mainstream, then will that weaken ties within the BDSM community?

To the first question, I’d say that light BDSM is probably becoming more mainstream. More people are considering tying up their lovers with silk scarves today, than were 30 years ago. But I think that heavy BDSM play is still very, very stigmatized, and I also think that most people have no idea what forms heavy BDSM play can take. More importantly, I don’t think the mainstream has any real grasp on communication and consent tactics that are promoted in the BDSM community — beyond safewords, that is. Checklists? Check-ins? Simultaneous journals? These things are not being mainstreamed at all. (Although I’m doing my best to work on that with the sexual communication workshop I’ve been giving recently.)

As for weakening ties within the community … I don’t think that’s happening either, at least not yet. People are more open about BDSM now and that means that more people can come into the community — but a lot of people still don’t feel like they can talk about BDSM with vanilla people. So we have the benefits of people being able to find the community more easily, and we also have the strong bonds created when most of us feel like we can only talk to each other — no one in our outside lives — about the way we approach love/sex.

I doubt the community will collapse even if BDSM goes totally mainstream — if every BDSM act is totally acceptable, and information is freely available to everyone — because not everyone will ever be into BDSM. There will always be value to the community because it will always be the place to go to meet people who speak our erotic language. There may be some fragmentation as the scene gets bigger, of course — and to some extent this already happens, with different groups attending different clubs, for instance.

It’s worth noting that our August 11 documentary will be “Liberty in Restraint”, which is about a fetish photographer. So if you’re really interested in issues of fetish media, then you should attend that one!

But as for now: our next film night is March 24, and it’s a two-theme night. We’re showing “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability and Videotape” — about disability and sexuality — and “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” — about female masturbation and orgasm. See you there!

2009 1 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #3: “When Two Won’t Do”

The topic this week at my sex-positive documentary film series was consensual non-monogamy, and it went great! One of my priorities for the screening was to have a lot of people who actually practice consensual non-monogamy in the audience — and also sticking around to participate in the discussion group. I spent a huge amount of time calling both local polyfolk and local swingers before the screening, and in the end I felt like I succeeded!

One group I got in touch with was the organizers of the upcoming Chicago Polyamory Conference 2009, slated to take place March 28-29. If you have any interest in polyamory, you should definitely attend the conference. I also talked to local poly activist Cunning Minx, whose podcast is worth checking out (and not just because she interviewed me a couple weeks ago). It was harder to get in touch with local swingers because I know fewer swingers personally — but some did attend, which made discussion all the better!

So before moving on, let’s talk about Frequently Asked Questions …. What is swinging, anyway? What’s polyamory, for that matter? The Ultimates, a swinger couple, were kind enough to send me some links to FAQs about swinging: here’s one set, and here’s another. I already had some polyamory FAQ links lying around: here’s a great one I just heard about recently, and here’s the FAQ for an old-school Usenet group on poly. (The Usenet-derived page isn’t as shiny or well-formatted as the others I’ve presented here, but it’s the link I’ve sent out to everyone who asked me about poly for years, so I have a special attachment to it. I probably have some of those answers memorized.) If you’ve got questions about consensual non-monogamy, those four FAQ links will give you a lot of insight.

Now that that’s all out of the way: my review of the third Sex+++ documentary and discussion!

The film was called “When Two Won’t Do” (screening courtesy of Picture This Productions). It was a huge hit! The place was totally packed. 70 people maybe? I’m not sure. And at least 30 for the discussion. I guess word is spreading … we might have to start turning people away!

(Our lovely and talented Hull-House Museum education coordinator Lisa and I have talked about seeking out a bigger venue, but there are many serious complications that would attend that process. Another option might be to reprise the entire Sex+++ series again in a year or two. That’d be huge, and I would not be able to take care of the details myself — at least not next year — but I certainly think it would be worth doing. As a side note, I’ve gotten a number of inquiries from far-flung locales about whether Sex+++ will be traveling. It’s very flattering! You guys must all think I have so many more resources than I actually do. I’m just a lone sex-positive activist, my friends … I’m not an institution.

Speaking of resources, we’re still looking for sponsors … :ahem:)

Anyway ….

I’d say that “When Two Won’t Do” is a fantastic, detailed, educational portrait of a newly polyamorous couple and many problems that face beginning polyfolk! There was only one thing that outright frustrated me: the film felt pretty anti-swinger. As curator of this film series, I’ve put a lot of effort into finding films that don’t come off as being opposed to any given type of sexuality. There are so many documentaries that exoticize alternative sexuality or treat it in really problematic ways — particularly marginalized sexual subcultures such as poly, swinger, BDSM. I’m watching some of these films ahead of time in order to make sure that they don’t add to that marginalization, but I didn’t watch this one, and I wish I had. If I had, then I would have made a pre-screening announcement to the effect of: “This documentary is a nuanced picture of a polyamorous relationship, but it doesn’t cover swinging very well — don’t judge the entire swinger subculture from the very narrow picture given by this film.”

I recognize that part of the film’s anti-swinger bias is simply the fact that the couple who made it, Maureen and David, didn’t feel that the dominant swinger model works for them. (In general — and this is of course not true of all swingers, but it’s a definite theme in the swinger subculture — in general, swinging emphasizes couples who are emotionally intimate with each other and have love-free sex with others. The polyamory subculture, on the other hand, generally emphasizes building emotionally intimate relationships with multiple sexual partners.) So, it’s not necessarily that Maureen and David intended to judge swingers or anything … they just aren’t into it. But the two filmmakers could easily have cut in some footage of swingers talking about issues of communicating with their main partners — that would at least have leavened the “wild, crazy and emotionally irresponsible!” portrait they painted of the subculture, a portrait totally lacking in nuance. Or Maureen and David could simply have filmed themselves saying, explicitly: “What we saw of swinging doesn’t work for us, but we can see why it works for others, and as long as other people are having fun with their consensual non-monogamy, we won’t judge their model.”

Fortunately, there were swingers at the discussion group — mostly represented by the very eloquent Ultimates, who do a lot of work in the swinger community — who were able to comment and respond to questions. And not only were there both polyfolk and swingers at the discussion; there were also lots of people who had no real exposure to either subculture, which meant that they got newly educated about both! Yay!

For me, one of the most telling moments of the discussion for me was when one person asked, “Could we define polyamory vs. swinging?” Both were defined quite beautifully by audience members who practiced those respective approaches — and both definitions were, I thought, pretty similar. I understand that the polyamory community prefers to distance itself from swinging, and vice versa is probably true as well. But at heart, both swinging and polyamory are obviously about finding a way out of the conventional monogamous paradigm; both approaches, when practiced well, emphasize excellent communication skills and distancing from jealousy. I could list an awful lot of commonalities among those four FAQ pages ….

It makes me think that the really big difference between swinging and polyamory is not so much in the practices themselves, but in the people who comprise those subcultures and the cultural mores within those subcultures. Loosely speaking, I see this in the stereotypes applied to swinging vs. polyamory: stereotypes like “swingers are older suburban couples with otherwise normal, white-picket-fence lives”, or “polyfolk are younger, pagan, fantasy-reading hippies with long hair”. Those stereotypes don’t speak for everyone in the swing/poly communities, but they really do describe some major general demographics. (And I say this in the most loving possible way. I love suburbs, hippies, and fantasy fiction myself … :grin:) There are also huge differences in what’s culturally accepted within swinging vs. polyamory. For instance, I’ve noticed that swingers tend to be much more into plastic surgery than polyfolk.

In turn, this leads to the question: How does the urge towards consensual non-monogamy manifest itself in other groups, other cultures, other subcultures? Both swing and poly are extremely weighted with white, privileged Westerners. Are there consensual non-monogamy subcultures that I’ve never heard of among, say, lower-class Americans? It would make sense to me if privileged people are more likely to create these subcultures — privileged people tend to have a lot more time and money to devote towards questions of sexuality. But then again, maybe I’m just narrowed by my own surroundings, my own associates, my own subcultures, my own privilege.

Anyway, that question is tangential, and highly theoretical to boot. To return to “When Two Won’t Do”: again, I thought it was a nice portrait of beginning polyamory and the polyamory community. It showed a lot of heartbreak, a lot of negotiating and re-negotiating, a lot of “we screwed that one up so let’s try it again” — things that are so important in any committed relationship, really. It also showed some beautiful moments of love and intimacy and great communication, plus excellent relationship ideas and advice. It didn’t explicitly ask a lot of questions, but I think it created a great framework to discuss some really important ones.

Here’s one I’ve pondered a lot: is consensual non-monogamy better considered an intrinsic identity/ sexual orientation, or a chosen lifestyle? I find myself coming down on the vague side of, “Both.” I think some people are simply wired for consensual non-monogamy in ways that other people definitely aren’t. Maureen, the “main character” in the documentary, seems to know for sure that poly is what she wants; her partner David, though he’s open to experimenting, is just as clearly not into it. David’s someone I would think of as “monogamy-identified”; I consider myself to be that way. But I remember over the New Year, I had a conversation about this with one of my favorite people in the world — who happens to be poly — and she scoffed at the idea that it’s an identity/orientation. She feels that she can switch back and forth … that it’s a choice for her, not that polyamory or monogamy is an intrinsic need.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t seem to do well with messages that depend on tricky concepts like context or individual differences. So I’m not sure how best to propagate the viewpoint of “it can be chosen or an identity! whatever makes people happy!” I guess I could always just keep saying that there is no “should”.

Well, there’s more to say (as always), but I think I’ll wrap this one up. If you’d like to buy the film, you can purchase a copy on the website for Picture This Productions.

Our March 10 documentaries will all be on the subject of BDSM — my favorite! This should be fun. We’re starting with “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” by Erin Palmquist, whose title explains it all really. From there, we’ll move on to “Leather” (members of the leather community describe it), “Cut & Paste” (a personal documentary that explores the historical contexts of race, gender identity and sexual agency) and “Forever Bottom” (a clever look at the stigma attached to being on the receiving end in gay male relationships). I’m so excited!

2009 11 Feb

Sex-positive documentary report #2: “Sex Positive”

edit: 3.23.09 After writing this entry, I got in touch with Richard Berkowitz — star of “Sex Positive” — and arranged an interview. You can read that interview by clicking here! end of edit

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Last night at my sex-positive documentary film series, we screened the documentary “Sex Positive”, courtesy of Regent Releasing. I thought it went really well — we had at least 50 people, and again, just about half the audience stayed for the discussion!

Firstly: great film! I was so floored by it that I had to take a few minutes to gather my thoughts before I even could start talking during the discussion group.

“Sex Positive” tells the story of Richard Berkowitz — and how he was one of the first to spread the word about safe sex in America. Berkowitz, a talented writer, started out as a hot-blooded participant in the promiscuous gay bathhouse culture. When AIDS started decimating the gay community, Berkowitz was instrumental in teaching his community (and the world) about safe sex. As it became clear to some medical professionals that sexual promiscuity spread AIDS, Berkowitz tried to tell the world about their findings. But there was a huge backlash against him — because in those days, the promiscuous bathhouse culture was seen by many gay men as a huge part of identifying as gay and sex-positive … and anyone who argued against it, or tried to modify it, was therefore cast by many people as sex-negative.

As someone who grew up in the late eighties and nineties, it’s stunning for me to think about a time when safe sex was considered a sex-negative idea. Everyone in the subcultures I run in takes the idea of safe sex for granted … including just about everyone I’ve ever met in my age group (though maybe we should keep in mind that I was raised in liberal New York). Sure, we aren’t always perfect about practicing safe sex, but we take it for granted that we should be — and we all know exactly where we can go to get information on how to have safe sex. In fact, safe sex messages bombard us so thoroughly that we’re practically bored by them (another point highlighted by the documentary).

This was one of the earlier points that came up during the discussion group — a lot of the younger people in attendance were humbled to realize just how much we owe Richard Berkowitz. (And it was so cool to hear the perspectives of our older attendees, who were having sex through the 70s and 80s and could offer further commentary.) The documentary made it clear that the first safe sex initiatives did not come from the government, or from any well-funded bodies — they came from activists who poured out their hearts and received very little in return. In fact, the film asserts that Berkowitz wrote the very first safe sex pamphlet (it was titled “How To Have Sex In An Epidemic”) on his own typewriter at home — and he struggled to find someone who would print it, even within the gay community. The eventual printer published it only on the condition that certain scary medical theories be removed (no matter how true those theories might be).

In a way, I find Berkowitz’s story inspiring. I grew up in the midst of lots of great safe sex initiatives, so obviously his movement — the safe sex movement — has had a powerful and important effect! But of course, Berkowitz himself is now broke and largely forgotten, and safe sex education is under attack from any number of conservative social forces … as well as the ennui of a generation that doesn’t get just how good we’ve got it. So his story frightens as much as it inspires.

I think that there’s a sweet little pre-packaged idea of activism that it’s easy to fall into, today: you know, the one where you attend all the correct cordoned-off marches, and sign all the petitions, and never sacrifice anything or shock anyone. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, and there’s lots of things right. But it takes some real willingness to go the distance if you want to have a bigger effect. Yet all your passion and drive won’t protect you or even necessarily work, no matter how true or important your message is.

So, the film raises personal questions about how important certain messages can be — how important we find certain messages, and what we’re willing to sacrifice to promote them when we know the task could be (a) totally thankless and (b) an eventual failure, partially or completely.

And here’s another activist-type question, arguably harder, raised by Lisa during the discussion: Obviously, Berkowitz was somewhat silenced by his community because his criticism was perceived as an attack … but his criticism was also necessary and important and, in the end, lifesaving. So how do we ensure that our communities allow space for tough criticism? How do we make sure that we ourselves give a fair chance to messages that could require us, and our communities, to change — change in major, identity-threatening ways — but that could be so important?

God, I’ve written all this and I haven’t even described most of the discussion, or talked about half the notes I took during the film. I feel as though I’ve only covered the most facile points — I can just imagine the Onion headline: “Wide-eyed young American totally floored by the idea that activism can be hard.” I’ve just written about a few activism-related questions, and there are so many others.

For instance, I thought representations of sex work and BDSM in the film were interesting. Berkowitz expresses reservations about his one-time career as a professional BDSM dominant. It’s unclear how much he thinks sex work is a bad thing in general, but he doesn’t come across as very happy that he did it. He talks about his BDSM activities, and those of his clients, as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community; it’s unclear how much he thinks BDSM in general arises from those things. As a BDSM advocate I feel very wary of such representations. I feel even warier of the way Berkowitz, at one point, smiles while recalling how he always made a point of doing the things his partners said they absolutely did not want him to do. Yikes!

(I am often interested in the way BDSM consent was negotiated in past times. The fact that Berkowitz specifically ignored some partners’ boundaries is obviously sketchy, to say the least. But I’ve heard people argue that the BDSM subculture didn’t have such clear-cut notions of exact consent and negotiation until feminists like Andrea Dworkin forced us to address those concerns. So I do wonder how unusual Berkowitz’s approach was, historically speaking, at the time when he lived. If anyone from the BDSM community who lived through that time would like to share some insights, I’d love to hear them.)

Still, it’s also worth noting that Berkowitz said some beautiful things about BDSM, how it made him feel, and how he connected to his BDSM partners. I wish I had written his statements down.

I’ve thought a bit about the way Berkowitz, in the documentary, discussed his coming-into-BDSM. He talked about how he didn’t initially think of himself as a BDSM type — but his partners convinced him that he was perfect for it, started giving him leather accoutrements and grooming him into a BDSM top. Berkowitz certainly describes liking BDSM play — again, there were some beautiful quotations in there — but he doesn’t seem to take a lot of ownership of BDSM as an identity. Which isn’t to say that everyone who does BDSM must own it as an identity! It just makes me wonder where he puts BDSM sexuality in his own self-conception.

The discussion group largely did not seem to feel that Berkowitz made a lot of moral judgments over the course of the film, and I think in the end I do agree … but I also wonder how much pride Berkowitz takes in the activities he once engaged in, and whether he would speak in favor of sex work advocacy or BDSM advocacy.

A fascinating character, Berkowitz!

In the end, I give “Sex Positive” five stars — I’m so glad we got to screen it as part of the series. Regent Releasing tells me that they’re not sure when or how the movie will be released for a wider audience, but if you want to keep track of that, you can always check their website (here it is again).

Our February 24th documentary will be “When Two Won’t Do” — made by a polyamorous filmmaker and her boyfriend, it covers all manner of consensual non-monogamy and will give us all a lot to think about in terms of love, fidelity and the ideal relationship. The screening is courtesy of Picture This Productions. See you there!

2009 28 Jan

Sex-positive documentary report #1: “Kinsey”

Before I report on “Kinsey”, first things first: two of my blog posts have been listed in the most recent Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy. This Carnival was hosted by Sugarbutch Chronicles — check it out for at least a day’s worth of awesome sex-positive reading!

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks ….

The Sex+++ documentary film series premiere was last night! We showed the documentary “Kinsey” (2005), courtesy of The American Experience. I was completely thrilled by how well it went. We were reduced to standing room only during the film, and about 30 people stuck around for the discussion. Awesome!

Firstly, I am so lucky to be working with such great people. Sponsors Early to Bed, Women and Children First and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum all deserve yet another thank-you. Also, radical arts educator Lisa has been the best partner I could have imagined in this endeavor — and our unexpected amazing volunteer, Kim, deserves a big round of applause for all her help!

Secondly, I am so pleased that we were able to screen such a great documentary! Alfred Kinsey was a remarkable figure, and I felt both moved and inspired. I’ve read a lot of reviews that said that the documentary gave a nuanced portrait of Kinsey’s life — one that described his accomplishments fairly and also didn’t miss his flaws — and having seen the film, I totally agree.

And thirdly, the discussion was great. It was a bit loose, and we skipped around a lot of generally sex-positive topics without delving too deeply — I thought it was just what we needed to set the tone for the series. I was happy to talk with people I knew personally, as well as people I’ve previously encountered only through the blogosphere (Aspasia, I’m looking at you), but there were so many people I’ve never met — and that’s so cool!

There were a lot of BDSMers in attendance, at least at the discussion. It wasn’t all kinksters by any means, but there were a lot of us, and I worry that the discussion slanted a bit towards BDSM as a result. This partly has to do with my own resources — as someone who is involved in the BDSM community, I obviously have a better idea of how to promote it there than elsewhere. Additionally, members of the BDSM scene are more likely to know me personally and are therefore more likely to attend at my invitation.

I really did my best to contact non-BDSM people; for instance, I called every Unitarian church, gender studies professor, and AIDS nonprofit I could find in Chicago, and I invited them all. I sought out women’s centers and free speech groups. I had coffee with Serpent of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and got her advice on contacting sex workers. I also contacted a number of LGBTQ organizations, polyamory folks, swingers, and one furry listhost. And we posted fliers advertising the series all over Chicago. I will continue to try reaching out to everyone — I sincerely hope that the next groups are more diverse, and I ask that everyone invite all their friends, no matter how they might identify sexually! (They’re even welcome if they’re :gasp: straight, monogamous, vanilla, and “mainstream”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there ain’t nothing wrong with vanilla, it’s delicious!)

There were some great critiques of the documentary that came up in the discussion. My favorite was this: this documentary about Alfred Kinsey himself treated alternative sexuality in some pretty weird ways. Why is this film, of all films, still marginalizing some kinds of sex?

I introduced this subject by mentioning how the film described masochism (as a BDSMer, this was the first issue to leap out at me). The film implied that Kinsey’s masochistic experiences were fueled largely by depression, an idea that is at best problematic and at worst outright wrong. (If you’re interested in reading something by my favorite blogger ever, I recommend Trinity’s post on BDSM and self-harm.) The film also used an extremely harsh image of a straight razor during the voice-over describing Kinsey’s masochistic experiences. Yes, there are tons of people in the BDSM scene who play with razors, and that’s fine — but I personally would not choose a scary, gleaming, sterile razor to represent BDSM to a wide audience.

After I pointed that out, there were a couple of smart comments about the way the film dealt with other sexualities. One woman noted that the movie didn’t deal very well with consensual non-monogamy. Kinsey had a non-monogamous relationship with his wife, and although there was nothing overt, I think the documentary still managed to imply that there was something unequal and unhealthy about the couple’s relationship without going into it very deeply. On the bright side, though, Kinsey’s love for his wife — and her love for him — were both strongly emphasized.

Although the film was pretty good about homosexuality, there were a few weird moments nonetheless. This may partly be because of Kinsey’s own ideas about that, though. For instance, Kinsey was remembered as saying in his early sexuality lectures that homosexual women were “like men”. Obviously, not all gay women are like men. It’s unclear whether Kinsey continued to believe this throughout his life. It’s also unclear whether the documentary makers believed it.

Another topic I’m glad we covered in the discussion group was how issues of race and feminism, especially sex-positive feminism, intersect. The sex-positive movement is undeniably dominated by whites; I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and to talk about ways we can try to deal with it. I’ve made a definite effort to obtain films that incorporate race. Since the film list is not 100% finalized, I can’t guarantee how many of those documentaries we’ll actually screen, but here’s hoping! “The Aggressives”, for instance, has been confirmed — it’s a 2005 movie about a particular idea of butch lesbianism, and I understand that all the women covered in the film are women of color. (As a side note, I’ve also tried to incorporate other groups you wouldn’t “normally” find in the sex-positive movement. For instance, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to screen “Equality U”, which is about gay Christians and their activism at Christian colleges.)

For those who want to read more about sex-positivism and race, I recommend this blog post by Mighty Quare Dewd (it’s long, and complicated, and some points take a while to be made — but it deals with a lot of issues and it’s worth the effort). Thanks for the reference to Amber Rhea’s Sex-Positive Reference List.

There’s a lot more I could say, but let’s cut me off here for now. I’d love to hear from other attendees — feel free to leave a comment on this post or email me!

Our February 10th documentary will be Daryl Wein’s “Sex Positive”! Starting in the 1970s, “Sex Positive” “unflinchingly tracks the progress of gay activist Richard Berkowitz as he went from cocky S&M hustler, to angry AIDS activist, to broken but proud harbinger of a message too volatile, scary and true to be heard” (Frameline). The screening is courtesy of Regent Releasing. See you there!

2009 15 Jan

For Immediate Release: New Sex-Positive Documentary Film Series

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PLEASE DISTRIBUTE FAR AND WIDE!

SEX POSITIVE
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a free documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn

* * *

+ Q. “What is being sex-positive?”
+ A. “Defining sex on my terms.”
+ A. “Understanding my sexual needs.”
+ A. “Being in charge of my sexual experiences.”

Explore sexuality in a new way by joining us for a series of films about positive sexuality and sexual identity. This free documentary series will create a new space to discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun! Each film will be accompanied by delicious snacks and followed by relevant conversation. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is pleased to host this series as a new expression of the Hull-House Settlement’s historic advocacy for sex education.

We spice up every second and fourth Tuesday by screening another documentary with a positive, informative spin on human sexuality. The series will showcase diverse experiences, orientations, and choices. Planned films cover:

+ bisexuality,
+ S&M,
+ polyamory,
+ swinging,
+ trans,
+ homosexuality,
+ heterosexuality,
+ the history of sex,
+ and so much more!

The 2009 film list is available here, and the 2011-2012 list is available here.

We want you to come to these screenings — whether you’re

+ a free speech advocate,
+ an AIDS worker,
+ a progressive pastor,
+ a sexuality activist,
+ a radical feminist,
+ a sex worker,
+ a pornographer,
+ a student,
+ not at all studious,
+ skeptical about our politics and aims,
+ or just someone who likes talking about sex!

All are welcome. Sexy prizes will be given for regular attendance!

Please note that cameras and other recording devices are not allowed at these screenings.

+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

* * *

This series is supported by …

CHICAGO SPONSORS:
+ Early to Bed Feminist Sex Toys
+ Women and Children First Feminist Bookstore
+ Galleria Domain Two: The Center for Expressive Roleplay
+ Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health
+ Polyamory Weekly Podcast
+ Comstock Films: Real People, Real Life, Real Sex
+ EdenFantasys SexIs Online Magazine
+ We’re seeking more Chicago sponsors — please get in touch if you’re interested!

CHICAGO PARTNERS:
+ Center on Halsted: Chicago’s LGBT Community Center
+ Sex Workers Outreach Project, Chicago Chapter
+ SexGenderBody.com
+ Creativefilth.com

FILMMAKERS AND FILM RESOURCES:
+ Picture This Productions
+ Erin Palmquist, filmmaker
+ Seventh Art Releasing
+ Sensory Image Pty, Ltd.
+ Cinema Libre Studio
+ Women Make Movies
+ Sam Feder, filmmaker
+ Beyondmedia Education
+ Regent Releasing
+ Indie Pictures
+ Marianna Beck, filmmaker
+ Comstock Films
+ Becky Goldberg, filmmaker
+ Frameline Distribution
+ Accord Alliance

SEX +++ FILM SERIES
2nd & 4th Tuesdays at 7PM

beginning January 27, 2009

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted
312.413.5353
FREE
All are welcome!
Hull-House Museum is wheelchair accessible. To request accessibility accommodations, please call the museum two weeks prior to the event.

For more information, contact Clarisse Thorn: clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com.

UPDATE: There is now a Sex+++ FAQ! It will hopefully answer any questions you might have. Also, it will help you start your own sex-positive film series, should you be so inclined!

2009 15 Jan

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List … finally here!

SEX POSITIVE
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a free documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn

+ Read the Press Release for a description of the film series and discussion group!
+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

* * *

OFFICIAL FILM LIST

YOU ARE ENCOURAGED TO RSVP BY PHONE TO HULL-HOUSE MUSEUM FOR EACH FILM: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

* * *

JANUARY 27: “Kinsey” (2005)
Assesses famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s remarkable achievements, while examining how his personal life shaped his career.
+ Read the followup blog post!

FEBRUARY 10: “Sex Positive” (2008)
Starting in the 1970s, unflinchingly tracks the progress of gay activist Richard Berkowitz as he went from cocky S&M hustler, to angry AIDS activist, to broken but proud harbinger of a message too volatile, scary and true to be heard.
+ Read the followup blog post — including a comment from Berkowitz himself!
+ Read my interview with Richard Berkowitz!

FEBRUARY 24: “When Two Won’t Do” (2002)
Made by a polyamorous filmmaker, this film explores the alternatives — illicit affairs, swinging and polyamory — to a traditional monogamous relationship.
+ Read the followup blog post!

MARCH 10: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (2008) + “Leather” (1995) + “Cut & Paste” (2007)
#1: Confronts the stigma and stereotypes surrounding kink and fetish play through leading voices within the BDSM community.
#2: Members of the leather community discuss the freedom that surrender can provide, the trust implicit in the activity, and the quasi-religious ritual it can attain.
#3: Personal documentary that explores the historical contexts of race, gender identity and sexual agency.
+ Read the followup blog post!

MARCH 24: “Doin’ It: Sex, Disability & Videotape” (2008) + “Orgasmic Women: 13 Selfloving Divas” (2005)
#1: Tags along on a date between a woman with a disability and her able-bodied boyfriend, exploring their relationship issues over a candle-lit dinner.
#2: A rare gift of intimacy, a spirited sharing of erotic practices and a document of women’s authentic orgasms.
+ Read the followup blog post!

APRIL 14: “Bi The Way” (2008)
Attacks bisexuality from several angles: wondering if anyone is actually equally attracted to both sexes, if bisexuality even means that you’re equally attracted to both sexes, and asking ourselves … is everyone bi?
+ Read the followup blog post!

APRIL 28: “It’s Still Elementary” (2008)
Examines the incredible impact of the 1996 film “It’s Elementary”, which aimed to teach kids about LGBTQ issues. Follows up with teachers and students featured in the first film to see how those lessons changed their lives.
+ Read the followup blog post!

MAY 12: “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” (1999) + “Forever Bottom” (1999)
#1: Interspersed with clips from vintage sex education films and humorous cartoons, men — young and old, gay and straight, large and small, virgin and porn star — offer personal revelations that are honest, humorous and often poignant. Discussion ranges over puberty, power, impotence, circumcision, sexuality, myths and perceptions, growing old, and, of course, size.
#2: A clever look at the stigma attached to being on the receiving end in gay male relationships.
+ Read the followup blog post!

MAY 26: “The Aggressives” (2005)
Butcher than butch, these dykes of color have coined a new term to define their identity: Aggressive. Identifying as women, but looking and acting like men, from their haircuts to their suits to their swaggering behavior, the Aggressives have powerful personalities that buck traditional societal restrictions on women’s roles.
+ Read the followup blog post!

JUNE 9: “Boy I Am” (2006)
A look at the experiences of three young Female-to-Male transpeople addresses the way conversations about trans issues can run into resistance from the many queer women who view transitioning as a “trend” or as an anti-feminist act that taps into male privilege.
+ Read the followup blog post!

JUNE 23: “On The Downlow” (2007)
Creates a portrait of Cleveland’s underground black gay scene including coming out to one’s parents; black homophobia; and the persisting rumor that only gay people spread AIDS.
+ Guest facilitator: Lisa Junkin, Education Coordinator at Hull-House Museum

JULY 14: “Filming Desire” (2000)
Female directors talk about the reality of an explicit women’s point of view, the desire in their films to “fantasize and dream a new image of themselves”, and how their depictions of sexuality and relationships are correctives.
+ Guest facilitator: Aspasia Bonasera, blogger at La Libertine’s Salon

JULY 28: “Hot & Bothered: Feminist Pornography” (2003) + “Bill and Desiree: Love is Timeless” (2008)
#1: A rare and empowering look into the pornography industry and feminist community to see how they intertwine within the politics and poetics of female sexuality.
#2: One of Comstock Films’ award-winning erotic documentary films about real couples having real sex. Bill and Desiree’s story starts in the second half of life: a chance meeting, a powerful attraction, a carnal connection, and a deep, sensual love. Pleasure is ageless, and love is indeed timeless!
+ Guest facilitator: Serpent Libertine, vlogger at Red Light District: Chicago

AUGUST 11: “Liberty In Restraint” (2005)
Profiling the life of fetish photographer Noel Graydon, this film gives Graydon’s perspective on the BDSM community, describes some BDSM practices, and shows how he creates his photographs.
+ Guest facilitator: Balthasaar

AUGUST 25: “Equality U” (2008)
Follows a group of 33 young activists on the Soulforce Equality Ride, a first of its kind, two-month, cross-country tour to confront antigay discrimination policies at 19 conservative religious and military colleges. While most of the young Riders identify as Christian, not all of them do so in the same way, if at all.
+ Guest facilitator: David M.

SEPTEMBER 8: “Yellow for Hermaphrodites: Mani’s Story” (2003)
Intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell tells her poignant story of growing up in rural New Zealand. Subjected to genital surgeries at an early age, Mani takes viewers through her life, discussing both the difficult times she considered suicide and her path to healing, reconciliations, and service.
+ Guest facilitator: Ben Graham

SEPTEMBER 22: “Queens of Heart” (2006) + “All Women Are Equal” (1971)
#1: The first psychological study of drag performance, set in the oldest surviving female impersonation club in the United States, shows how the work of drag requires a deep understanding of human psychology.
#2: We see Paula, an early 1970s transperson, fixing her make-up and discussing the difficulty of living as a woman and meeting other transpeople. Offers incredible insights into both the time and Paula’s individual psyche.
+ Guest facilitator: Rae Wright, from the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health

OCTOBER 13: “We Are Dad” (2005)
Two white HIV-negative gay men have a family of five kids. Four of the kids have AIDS, three are black, two come from a backwater cult in Oregon, and one of the children has been in the middle of one of the most hotly debated issues in this country: gay adoption.
+ Guest facilitator: Steve C.

CONTINUED: Amazingly, the film series was continued!
Clarisse initially programmed only 9 months of films, and went to Africa in the middle of the series. After she left, though, a group of community members who had been regular attendees volunteered to continue Sex+++! So, the film series was run by this committee for over a year, and films were scheduled month by month. When Clarisse returned in late 2010, she and the committee created new themes and a whole new film list.

* * *

SEX +++ FILM SERIES
2nd & 4th Tuesdays at 7PM

beginning January 27, 2009

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted
312.413.5353
FREE
All are welcome!
Hull-House Museum is wheelchair accessible. To request accessibility accommodations, please call the museum two weeks prior to the event.

* * *

This series is supported by …

CHICAGO SPONSORS:
+ Early to Bed Feminist Sex Toys
+ Women and Children First Feminist Bookstore
+ Galleria Domain Two: The Center for Expressive Roleplay
+ Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health
+ Polyamory Weekly Podcast
+ Comstock Films: Real People, Real Life, Real Sex
+ EdenFantasys SexIs Online Magazine
+ We’re seeking more Chicago sponsors — please get in touch if you’re interested!

CHICAGO PARTNERS:
+ Center on Halsted: Chicago’s LGBT Community Center
+ Sex Workers Outreach Project, Chicago Chapter
+ SexGenderBody.com
+ Creativefilth.com

FILMMAKERS AND FILM RESOURCES:
+ Picture This Productions
+ Erin Palmquist, filmmaker
+ Seventh Art Releasing
+ Sensory Image Pty, Ltd.
+ Cinema Libre Studio
+ Women Make Movies
+ Sam Feder, filmmaker
+ Beyondmedia Education
+ Regent Releasing
+ Indie Pictures
+ Marianna Beck, filmmaker
+ Comstock Films
+ Becky Goldberg, filmmaker
+ Frameline Distribution
+ Accord Alliance

* * *

For more information, contact Clarisse Thorn: clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com.

UPDATE: There is now a Sex+++ FAQ! It will hopefully answer any questions you might have. Also, it will help you start your own sex-positive film series, should you be so inclined!