Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

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 7 Oct

[porn] The Lone Villain Rides Again

Last week, I posted an interview with Tim Woodman, who’s a fetish porn director and an experienced BDSMer to boot. His interview raised fascinating questions of consent and industry standards within pornography, especially BDSM porn. Lots of people had questions and comments, so here’s a followup interview. Ladies and gentleman, once again … welcome Tim Woodman!

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Clarisse Thorn: On the original interview, Alexa commented, “I agree wholeheartedly with the positions articulated on this in the interview, and I think it’s not going to stop unless some names get put out there in the public sphere so we can know who these assholes are. Tim can make these kinds of assertions all day long, but unless he attaches some names to it and calls them out, he’s not doing anyone a service and appears to be serving his own interests. Not that I doubt him at all (quite the opposite, in fact), but I’d like to know who they are so (A) I can avoid doing business with them, and (B) can let others know to avoid having anything to do with them, either as a consumer or potential talent.”  What do you think?

Tim Woodman: Several responses to my previous interview asked me to ‘name names’ and call out the companies whose practices I disapprove of. Nothing would delight me more, but I was also pointedly reminded by an attorney friend just how much headache could be involved in a libel suit. I would likely win, but only after great expense.

I would, however, be very happy to recommend some companies whom I can vouch for personally as being conscientious and very good about respecting models’ limits and still producing quality content. The absolute best person I know in this industry is Lorelei, from BedroomBondage.com – whatever your kink, whatever you want to search for, if you start at her page, you will only find links to high-quality companies run by good people.



CT: A friend of mine emailed me to say: “Anyone interested in performing for these sites can take a look at the sort of stuff that they shoot and do some research in order to make an informed choice. If someone is totally vanilla, what is it that brings them to these companies? How do the sites recruit and screen folks?”

TW: Sadly, this problem is almost entirely in the hands of the talent agencies. Most mainstream adult performers use a licensed talent agent to get work. It provides a valuable buffer between them and would-be stalkers who might pose as producers. One has to register with the agency to be able to book their talent. A good agent can prevent a lot of bad experiences, and I know that they do. I had to provide a ton of references in order to get registered with some of these agencies, and I appreciate how cautious they are with their talent. Unfortunately, these agencies have to make money too, and can sometimes feel pressured by the larger companies to book any model they request, even if the girl may be in over her head.

With or without an agent, it is not always easy to spot a predator. Most predators can sound quite charming and conciliatory over the phone, until you show up. There’s a reason a well-fed wolf usually has a good set of sheep’s clothing nearby. What the models can do is check around with more experienced models before setting a first date with a new production company.

On the plus side, I know of several companies who do as I do and make it a point to sit with new talent and find out their limits and interests. They honor those limits, and explore those interests, and I really think they end up with better content this way. Certainly they end up with a better reputation within the industry.

CT: You said in the first interview that if a consumer wants to know more about the experiences of a BDSM porn model, then the consumer should ask around.  But as reader Sam commented, “I’m wondering whether he isn’t asking too much of a porn consumer. I don’t know – maybe people who are into fetish movies do know how to do that kind of research, but I can’t imagine a normal consumer, who’s either Googling ‘porn’ or walks into a video store and looks at 3,000 DVDs, to be able to tell the differences. I believe that such industry standards are important, but I [suspect] the expectation that each individual customer has the power to ‘vote’ is exaggerated, not necessarily because the customers wouldn’t, but because I imagine they can’t.”

And Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote on his blog, “Not everybody who wants to watch BDSM porn knows a bunch of kinksters who know people who do BDSM-themed porn and can get those answers. It’s not like the bad model experiences pop up in the Google searches.”  Do you have any more advice for people who really want to evaluate porn, but maybe don’t have as much access to the community?

TW: Most porn stars have a Twitter account. Many have their own websites, or at least a blogspot somewhere. I don’t honestly expect everyone to care enough, or to have the resources to do extensive research every time they wish to purchase a new video, but if you are curious to know which companies have the best reputations, read the comments of the girls who have worked for them. Read their Facebook entries, or note which companies they never mention again after working for them. That’s usually a warning sign too.

CT: A couple of people have pointed out that it’s a tad self-interested for a self-described “small porn company” to critique the “big companies” that, you admit, are putting you out of business.  How do you respond to that?

TW: Guilty as charged. It is totally in my own self-interest to rant and rave about such companies. I was here before them, but I didn’t start out rich. I didn’t have the resources or short-sightedness to flood the market with free promotional clips, drowning out the smaller companies along the way. I watch them fuck up my industry and feel powerless to stop them. I took this opportunity to speak largely to vent my own frustrations. None of this changes at all the fact that I speak the truth. Anyone is welcome, as I said before, to do their own research on both my competition and myself, and draw their own conclusions.

CT: Another friend writes: “There’s also the issue of juggling the demands of a larger operation (which tends to put more pressure on creating new content on a fixed schedule) and making room for the individual performers. This is something that happens in a lot of porn and it’s easier for a smaller company to flex than a bigger one. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be one of the costs of success.”  What do you think about this?

TW: I’d like to think that if God forbid I was ever able to call myself a larger operation, I would be even more willing to lose a dollar or even a whole day’s work rather than risk my hard-earned success and reputation by disregarding the feelings, limits and rights of my models.

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Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, ProVillain.com and BondageBlowJobs.com. Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.

2010 27 Sep

[porn] A Lone Villain working within an Evil Empire

I met Tim Woodman and his partner this past weekend at an S&M party. Tim — whose business cards style him a Professional Villain — produces and stars in porn, so we had an interesting conversation about consent and porn practices. Porn has never been my thing; I do emphatically oppose censoring porn, though. I’ve worked with and made friends with many sex workers, and sex workers’ rights are very important to me. And, of course, I’m an S&M activist who believes that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM (or any other kind of sex) as long as it’s 100% consensual — that BDSM deserves wider acceptance as a form of sexuality.

So it makes me sad when I hear stories and rumors about the fetish porn industry that imply that some actresses did not fully consent to the porn shoots they did. And I think that it’s important for porn consumers to push for responsible practices from the companies producing the movies they watch. It can be hard to tell whether a given company has responsible practices, though. I know that some porn companies have their actresses give interviews after the shoot, in which the actresses talk about what they experienced during the porn shoot. This seems like a step in the right direction to me, but Tim says some of those interviews are fake, which breaks my heart. It’s the kind of allegation I wouldn’t trust from an anti-porn idealogue, but Tim has real knowledge and contacts in the business — and he’s not pro-censorship — so he’s got a better perspective.

After listening to some of Tim’s thoughts, I asked him to do an interview with me. Here we are:

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Clarisse Thorn: Can you introduce yourself to my readers, and describe some of your feelings about working in the fetish porn industry?

Tim Woodman: As a self-defined “Professional Villain”, my life is a paradox. I produce fetish porn videos depicting rape, torture, and sometimes murder, but my career depends on my reputation within the industry as a good guy, whom women will enjoy working with and would be willing to work with again. Fortunately, I have been in the BDSM lifestyle even longer than I’ve been in the industry, and I already know the rules. If you want to play in the BDSM scene, you can’t break your toys!

The rules about BDSM porn are not different from the rules about BDSM in the real world. Consent is never implied, and can always be withdrawn. Negotiation is critical, and must be done thoroughly beforehand.

I know too many models who have been paid “hush money” to keep quiet about their injuries at the larger fetish porn companies. I know too many who have had their paychecks withheld until they do a positive interview. They are forced to lie on camera, telling how they enjoyed it and would do it again, when in fact the opposite was true. I know too many girls who have worked for these larger companies, and when they refused or even objected to activities that were beyond their limits, they were told that they were a “problem girl” and that they would not get much work with an attitude like that.

This kind of business practice is reprehensible. In the BDSM community, if you play like that, word quickly gets around that you are an asshole and are not to be trusted. But in the adult movie business, you can threaten and cajole women by withholding their pay. You can intimidate them by warning that nobody will hire them if they have self-respect, and are unwilling to bend or break their personal limits. That is rape. That is illegal.

We are actors. Admittedly, we are not always very good actors, but we are not getting paid to violate each other’s limits or do actual harm — we are getting paid to make it look like we are. You say you want to see a “real reaction” to breaking someone’s limits? Then you are a criminal. Would you do this in real life? Would you ask your partner what they are absolutely unwilling to do, and then once you have them tied up, do exactly that? Not twice you wouldn’t!

Admittedly, this would be easier if fetish companies only hired models who are actually into BDSM. Lifestyle fetish models know the lingo. If her wrist is numb, she says so right away. If what you’re doing is too painful or beyond some other limit, she knows to stop the scene and have it dealt with. Mainstream models don’t necessarily know this. When a mainstream model is pushed too far, she’ll usually say “How much longer are we doing this?” to which a bad director will respond “Five minutes.” Twenty minutes later she’s scarred for life. Save the intense shit for the professionals — for the lifestyle girls who love to be tied up and tortured on-screen.

On the other hand, I make a lot of my career hiring mainstream porn stars to appear in rape and torture videos. It’s not because I’m rich and can buy a good reputation. Honestly, I’m dirt-poor and can barely afford to hire models at all. Those same large companies have flooded the Internet with “free samples” of their porn, and are slowly but surely strangling smaller production companies like mine. Fortunately I have a good reputation, because I can assure even a mainstream model that she will have a positive experience with me, and I have the references to back it up.

CT: So how would you describe the way you negotiate with your porn performers? Why do you do a better job of it than others do?

TW: How do you negotiate a porn scene with mainstream girls for whom BDSM is not a lifestyle? Same as you would with a new girlfriend who has not been tied up before, or who perhaps has only a little experience. Do you start at a full-on fisting? Pine cones up the ass while setting their hair on fire? No.

Whenever I am working with a new model, whether she is experienced in fetish or not, my rules are the same. We sit and talk, and I find out exactly what she is willing to do, what she has never done but would be willing to try, and what are her hard limits. I assure her that she will be paid, regardless of what her limits are. I would much rather lose a day’s budget and get no footage at all than have even one model come away from one of my shoots with a negative experience.

CT: How would you advise porn consumers who want to make sure they’re watching porn from companies that treat their performers well?

TW: Okay, so as a good customer, you want to be responsible. You want to vote with your dollar and only support companies who treat their models well. How does a consumer like you know a good company from a bad one? The same way you would with any other industry — whether it is plumbers or car salesmen, the same principles still apply:

1) It often seems the more money a company spends on PR, the worse the company actually is. When an insurance agency spends millions on advertising, don’t you worry that they are not actually paying out their customers’ claims? When an attorney plasters his billboard all over town, does it make you think he’s a little too desperate? This can be said for BDSM porn producers as well.

2) The larger the company, the greater the chance it is owned and run by assholes who do not treat their employees well. If you have a day job, you already know this. The small guy who is struggling like mad to keep his doors open and put a quality product on the streets is far more likely to treat his employees and customers really well. He can’t afford a negative experience. He can’t just pay hush-up money, or threaten “You’ll never work in this town again!”

3) In the BDSM lifestyle world, we depend on our reputations. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and other social networking media, if something goes wrong in Los Angeles, they know about it five minutes later in New York. You want to know you’re spending money on legitimate, honorable companies? Do the research. Don’t trust their own advertising. Ask around, just like you would with a potential new play partner in the real world. You can ask absolutely any model I’ve ever worked with and she’ll say only good things about me. Can the bigger companies say the same? They can pay to keep most of the “problem girls” quiet, but the truth always gets out.

Do I mean to imply that absolutely every video produced by the “big companies” in fetish porn is despicable criminal activity? Of course not. I know a lot of models who do enjoy working for the big companies. I know some of the talent who do the “topping” [i.e., domination and sadism], and they’re not all irresponsible.

But if you want to know the company you purchase porn from is really good, if you want to know that your favorite porn stars actually enjoy working for them, then do a little research and find out for yourself. Judge the BDSM companies like you would judge anybody else in the BDSM community. Hold them to the same standards. Make them live up to the Safe Sane and Consensual guidelines that we demand in the real world, and we can all enjoy high quality entertainment that was produced responsibly.

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There is now a Lone Villain Part 2! Check out Tim’s responses to the comments below, and others.

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Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, ProVillain.com and BondageBlowJobs.com. Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.

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 10 Mar

Interview with Daniel Bergner, author of “The Other Side of Desire”

I was all set to dislike Daniel Bergner. As a member of the BDSM community and an advocate for greater societal acceptance of BDSM, I was unimpressed by the reviews of his new book, The Other Side of Desire. I get annoyed when I see media depictions that play into BDSM stereotypes or create other problems for the BDSM community image; it seemed to me that Bergner had written a book that did just that. At best, it sounded naïve — at worst, cynical and insensitive. I requested an interview with him, wondering whether we’d end up at each other’s throats … and then I read the book.

The Other Side of Desire is far more complex than I initially gave it credit for. There’s too much silence around alternative sexuality, and it breaks that silence — not by promoting an agenda, but with a plea for personal understanding. I found myself believing that Daniel Bergner really had done his best — not to put us deviants on display like animals in a zoo, but to give profiles of human beings thinking about human concerns. Still, there were gaps in the book that I found very troubling, and I wanted to see if he could defend them.

I arranged to meet Daniel at the Leather Archives and Museum, a museum devoted to leather / fetish / BDSM on Chicago’s north side. There, I found him looking over the Archives’ BDSM history timeline. As he greeted me, I was impressed by his measured speech and unexpectedly dark eyes. There was an openness to him — even, perhaps, a vulnerability — that didn’t come across in photographs. I could see how he’d gotten so many people to open up about their sexuality, and I warmed to him instantly.

The most obvious question to start with was what fetishes Daniel has, personally. But he’d already told other interviewers that he’s totally vanilla …

* * *

Daniel Bergner: (laughs) Did I say totally vanilla? I think I’ve — I think vanilla-ish, let’s go with that.

Clarisse Thorn: There was a part of your book’s Introduction that made some kinky readers wince a little bit. It’s at the beginning, where you compare your coverage of sexual fetishists to your previous journalistic experiences … one experience was interviewing convicted prisoners on death row, and another was covering war in Sierra Leone. Do you think it’s problematic that you compared alternative sexuality to a war zone in a foreign country?

DB: Now, I think that comparison was misunderstood. I do not see the erotically unusual as comparable to criminality or to utterly damaging violence, like in a war zone. What I was trying to say was that in each of those previous books I’ve gone to a very extreme place in order to learn about things that are universal.

Here, with sexuality — again, not comparing criminality to alternative sexuality — but I was comparing journeys of looking at lives that might fall outside “the norm”, and I’m putting quotes around “norm” because I think that whole concept of normal is suspect. Looking at lives lived outside the typical boundaries might help me, might help readers understand more about the lives we live sexually, how we come to be who we are sexually, and what we do with our sexuality.

CT: I’m interested to know what you knew about alternative sexuality before you started this book. What did you think of alternative sexuality? What stereotypes did you have? In particular, what kind of experience did you have with BDSM?

DB: I think I’ve come to all the writing I’ve done with a very open mind. Some people would say “too open”. It’s not just that I hesitate to judge. I think I’m missing the judgmental gene somehow.

I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. I had no, or little, direct contact. It was new.

CT: You wrote on the blog for Powell’s Bookstore that you met fetishists for your book through “friends, therapists, and the Internet”. Can you shed some more light on that?

DB: I met the sadist I profiled — The Baroness — through a writer friend who very much admired The Baroness. Others I met through therapists who knew my writing and trusted me to be careful in my perspective. Ron, who’s the central figure in the last story —

CT: The amputee fetishist.

DB: — the amputee devotee, yes — I met him very indirectly through the Internet; I was having conversations with people in that community.

CT: In a comment on the blog “Sex in the Public Square” you said that you are “not, primarily, an advocate.” In other words, you didn’t see yourself as writing this book in order to advocate for alternative sexuality. Making alternative sexuality more acceptable was not a major goal for you. Is that right?

DB: I rely on and am indebted to advocates, because those who advocate for — in this case, sexual freedom, in other cases, for a more humanistic vision of convicts or what it means to live in a West African village — that kind of advocacy allows for what I do. I couldn’t do what I do without it, because it causes people to be open-minded and take an interest. What I do is try to tell complex stories about complex human beings in a way that makes us feel our humanity intensely, and deepens our humanity.

I think it’s very hard to create politically driven art. There are some examples of it that succeed, but I think often, people have to make a choice. I think it’s really difficult to do both.

CT: I guess those of us who are more concerned with advocacy just thought that it seems strange, even heartless, to write a book like this without making advocacy a goal. You must know that there’s a battle on — there are people out there, like the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, who are working really hard towards alternative sexuality acceptance.

So on the one side we have the NCSF. And then there are people on the other side who do nothing but tell us kinksters that we are sinful, or sick, or deluded, or otherwise screwed up. Anti-BDSM activists are not always religious evangelicals, either. They can come from surprisingly liberal circles. For instance — I identify strongly as a feminist, and there are lots of feminists out there who think that practicing BDSM and feminism are not irreconcilable — but there are also anti-BDSM feminists. Just recently I encountered a popular radical feminist blogger who outright stated that sadists should either repress their sadistic desires, or kill themselves.

We deal with this hostile environment all the time, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who would write a book like yours and then say that he’s outside the conflict. Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m saying. Suppose a foreigner came to the U.S. and wrote a book about four soldiers on the front in the Iraq War. And suppose his book was a huge hit in his country. Suppose that for lots of people in that foreigner’s home country, his book is the only exposure they have to the lives of Iraq War soldiers — that’s all they ever read about those stories. And then suppose that author said, afterwards, “I just wanted to write a book about these particular four soldiers, and their lives as soldiers. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Iraq War, and I didn’t mean to shape people’s perceptions of what being a soldier is like in general.”

What would you say to that author?

DB: That’s a great example, and it makes me feel bad.

CT: (laughs) Sorry!

DB: That’s fine; it’s your job to complicate things and ask difficult questions.

I have certainly read about the legal thinking that surrounds BDSM. Still — I hope this will not sound like too rarefied and irrelevant a thought — I have always been protective of the impulse to tell stories, to render people within nonfiction or journalism. So there’s a part of me that says: Wait. We don’t want all nonfiction, all journalism to become advocacy, because we’d lose something — we’d lose a depth of human investigation. We’d lose a depth that language itself can bring us. We’d lose a level of emotional resonance.

With the prison book, of course that book was in part an effort to have people see human beings that our society has rendered completely invisible, and to have our society see them as human beings. I think a lot of readers did in fact react that way. So when I would speak to groups about that, on the one hand I was protective and I said that I was telling stories about particular people, but that didn’t mean that underneath wasn’t an impulse to make people see in a way that starts to change their minds. Understand on an emotional level that makes them reconsider on an intellectual level.

You’re right: it would be ridiculously callous for me to say, “I just wanted to tell some stories, great, I’m done, goodbye.” Of course that’s not true. Of course I’m concerned with the boundaries that are placed on the erotic, and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t feel that. That was an original impulse behind this book — feeling those boundaries in all kinds of forms, and questioning them. The entire book, in a way, is an attempt to chisel away at those constraints.

Let’s circle back to your radical feminist voice, who wrote that all sadists should either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. There’s an example of politics run amok. That writer is so engaged with her own political viewpoint — from her perspective, she probably sees BDSM as a threat to a feminist sense of independence. But by applying those politics to the realm of eros so extremely, she renders herself absurd. So there, again, I think your point sort of — if not proves mine, at least bolsters it a little bit. Eros is such a complex place, such a place for individual exploration. I almost want to clear politics out of it altogether. It’s difficult enough for us to be us as human beings when it comes to the erotic, without politics getting in there … once politics gets in there, I worry that we’re going to distort things even more.

In any case, I certainly get your point, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I don’t care about sexual freedom. I hope there is an undercurrent of tacit advocacy that runs throughout my book.

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