Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

2011 3 Apr

[storytime] Fear, Loathing, and S&M Sluthood in San Francisco

The following meditation on “sluthood” anxiety first appeared in December 2010 on the women’s site Off Our Chests. I’m reposting it here today because San Francisco loves me and I love it.

* * *

Since I was small, I’ve loved the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night.” I loved the cypresses in particular: winding spiral trees, hallucination trees. They were so unlike other trees I’d seen that I thought Van Gogh made them up, and so when I first saw cypresses years later, I was stunned: the hallucination trees had been imported into my world. I’d like to think that my world turned a little bit sideways forever, when I first saw cypresses, but I’m probably being melodramatic.

San Francisco has cypresses, and a lot of other hallucinations, too. The city is full of angles, vantages, transitions, unceasing changing views: it feels, at times, like an unsolvable puzzle. A forested path leads darkly under a bridge, suddenly opens upon a manicured lawn with a white lace conservatory. A cement staircase rises through a narrow outlet, resolving itself step by step into a slice of brightly painted Victorian façade. I walked once with a friend alongside an ocean road, pacing through thick fog, and arrived at a dirt path that I insisted on following; thirty seconds later we stumbled upon extraordinary ruins.

San Francisco. Halcyon city, heartbreak city. Cypress city. The place I come to recover from being torn apart and, it seems, sometimes the place where I get torn apart again. This is okay with me, because nothing is more fun than overanalyzing strong emotions. I am not even kidding.

* * *

I returned from Africa recently; paused briefly in my adopted city of Chicago to collect my thoughts; and then went to the Burning Man Arts Festival, thence to San Francisco. This is my version of emotional decompression, and it worked! I feel much more centered now. But part of decompressing, for me, was specifically going out to a lot of dates and BDSM parties and pushing my own boundaries, which carries its own potential decompressable risks.

At the time of this story, it had been a couple of months in San Francisco, and I was leaving soon. I’d had an assortment of adventures, but there were two guys in particular who I was excited about. Not necessarily in a long-term way — I’m not in this for the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids — or at least… not yet. But definitely I felt excited in a wow-I-have-to-control-myself-or-I’ll-come-off-as-kind-of-puppyish way. New Relationship Energy: it is such a mind trick, such a delicious head-trip. You are the perfect drug.

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2011 23 Mar

Ethical Pick-Up Artistry

UPDATE, March 2012: I have now released my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, and people seem to like it. Buy it here! And now for the original article …

* * *

As some of my readers know, I’m fascinated by the pickup artist subculture (a community devoted to advising men on how to seduce women). It’s a very mixed bag. My feeling is that there’s good advice in the community for genuinely kind shy guys. But sometimes, it’s so mixed with misogyny and cold-heartedness that wading through it feels like panning for gold in a sewer.

By the end of this year, I plan to release a book called Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, all about my experiences in that subculture. In the meantime, here’s my attempt at a summary:

There are small communities of pickup artists all over the world, and there are message boards all over the Internet, and expensive pickup coaches are always popping up. Some of these folks are not so bad; some of them are really bad. Many have awful cynical and negative attitudes about people; many hold particularly awful stereotypes about women. And most of them care a lot more about what works (i.e. how to get their penis in someone) than about what’s ethical or how we can treat women like human beings.

A good friend of mine recently told me that he’s been reading the blog of a misogynist pickup artist who I absolutely loathe. I was appalled. I provided a detailed feminist critique of this guy’s blog. My friend listened and understood, but in the end he said, “I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with you. The guy is an asshole and his advice is permeated with terrible opinions of women. But a lot of it is really good advice, and I don’t know where else I can find such good advice about women.”

Here’s the thing: the current pickup artist subculture has a monopoly on effective advice for how to break down social interactions and talk to women. Not all of it works, but enough of it works that it draws guys in. As a pickup artist instructor once told me, “When I first found the community I was horrified by how sleazy and gross it is, but I had never had a girlfriend and I told myself: dude, if you don’t learn this stuff you’re gonna die alone.”

I’ve theorized that maybe feminists should provide good pickup advice, in an attempt to counterbalance some of the awfulness of the existing community. In the meantime, however, I figure the next best thing to do is to provide a list of less-misogynistic pickup artist instructors and sites, and a few very basic critiques.

First, the basic critiques. These are very, very basic; if you get me started then I’ll provide ten thousand more. But please, if you are going to investigate pickup artistry, at least keep these things in mind:

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2011 28 Jan

Manliness and Feminism 3: Rise of the Machines

New open thread on manliness and feminism. What will we do when we run out of Terminator flicks?

As Cessen says,

The manliness followup thread was a bit over 450 thousand words long.
The second followup thread is a bit under 200 thousand.

So, counted together as a single thread (as it should be), we’re at about 650 thousand words.

For comparison, the bible is a bit over 770 thousand words long.

If we yoink out the intra-thread quotations then these threads are probably a couple hundred thousand words shorter than 650. But still. This is a seriously epic thread. It should be preserved for posterity. It’s amazing what joint authorship can accomplish.

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

The above image is available in poster form from movieposter.com, or would be if they weren’t out of stock. Gotcha!

2011 2 Jan

Men Who Don’t Deserve the Word “Creep”

The article below was originally published on October 1, 2010 by AlterNet; the AlterNet editors titled it “Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs?” I have no idea how many people linked to it, but it caused enough of a stir that I got hate mail from a man on the very same day it appeared, and also some of my sister feminist bloggers became upset. I have linked to my favorite responses around the blogosphere at the end of this post. I’ve also included some minor edits in this version of the article, for the sake of clarity.

* * *

This is an article about men, but I’m going to begin by talking about women’s experiences. Many of us women go through our daily lives fending off unwanted male attention; most of us have worried about being attacked by men. So it’s completely understandable that we’re all on high alert for predatory expressions of male sexuality.

But, while certain situations and certain people deserve our disdain — like, say, the guy who once leered at me as I walked out of the public library and whispered, "I can smell your pussy" — most guys really don’t. The pressure put on men to be initiators, yet avoid seeming creepy or aggressive, leads to an unpleasant double bind. After all, the same gross cultural pressures that make women into objects force men into instigators; how many women do you know who proposed to their husbands?

So how can a man express his sexual needs without being tarred as a creep? After all, the point of promoting sex-positive attitudes is for everyone to be able to be open about their needs and desires, right?

When I was 23 years old, I was still coming to terms with my S&M orientation, and so I posted to an Internet message board about how "illicit" desire was messing up my life. Soon, I received an email from a guy in my area. He accurately guessed the cause of my anxieties: “If I had to guess as to your kinks, I’d guess that either you want some BDSM play, or you maybe want to add other partners into a relationship. How close am I?” He then offered to fulfill all my wicked, dirty lusts. In fairness, the guy actually referred to himself as creepy during our text-only conversation — but I still feel guilty that when I told the story to my friends, we all referred to him as "the creep."

I obviously had every right to turn down my Internet Lothario. Still, I shouldn’t have called him a creep; all he was doing was being overt and honest about his desires, and he did it in a polite — though straightforward — way. If he’d emailed me with "Hey bitch, you obviously want me to come over and dominate you," then that would have been impolite and unpleasant. But he emailed me a quick and amusing introduction, then asked what I wanted. After a few rounds of banter, I called a halt, and he respected that.

I think the word "creep" is too vague and prejudiced to mean anything anymore. But if I were willing to use the word, I’d say my Internet suitor was the opposite of a creep.

* * *

Although I’ve become more aware of it recently, I think I’ve always had the sense that men are particularly vulnerable to the judgment of “creep." Over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems of masculinity, and in Part 3 I noted that — unlike men — "I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep."

Of course, I could be labeled a slut, which could damage me quite badly. There’s a reason I do all my most explicit writing under a pseudonym. We feminists often say that men’s promiscuity is lauded while women’s is stigmatized, and one point of this argument is purely linguistic: "stud" is a complimentary word for a promiscuous man, while "slut" is a hurtful word for a promiscuous woman. Besides, our culture hates sex, no matter who’s doin’ it — even vanilla, consensual, heterosexual, private sex between cute white married adults is hard for some folks to acknowledge!

But in fact, men aren’t merely enabled to be promiscuous — they’re pressured to be getting laid all the time. This influences situations ranging from huge communities devoted entirely to teaching men how to pick up women, to tragically callous dismissal of the experiences of men who have been raped.

And while there’s immense cultural repression of all sexuality, there’s also a fair and growing amount of modern TV, movies and feminist energy that seek to enable female sluttitude in all its harmless, glorious forms. The stud vs. slut dichotomy is worth discussing, but it has one flaw: it entirely ignores the word "creep," whose function appears to be restricting male sexuality to a limited, contradictory set of behaviors.

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2010 24 Dec

[litquote] Sex workers and whore stigma in southern Africa

I read a lot when I was in Africa. One of the most interesting books available was Catherine Campbell’s Letting Them Die, which describes a community HIV/AIDS project that took place in a South African community called Summertown (not the community’s real name). It is really an exceptional description of the difficulties inherent in the promotion of sexual health. It’s also got a lot of interesting discussion and commentary on sex work and whore stigma, and the experience of sex workers who were interviewed for the study.

I want to emphasize right now that I don’t always agree with the writer’s approach, though I always find it interesting. This is a loaded topic, and there are some issues with the following quotations. However, I think there is a lot of wisdom as well. Quotations follow:

* * *

A key reason why people agreed to discuss their stigmatized work so openly in the baseline interview study lay not only in their growing fear about the epidemic, but also because, in setting up the interviews, much emphasis was laid on the fact that the interviewers regarded sex work as a profession like any other, and had no desire to criticize or judge anyone for their choice of work. [page 81]

* * *

How do people deal with having a spoiled identity, the stigma of a shameful profession? … One way was through a series of justificatory discourses. Predominant among these was the discourse of “having no option”.

S: “I give my clients respect by telling them I don’t like doing this job. I tell them I only do it due to poverty.”

W: “This is a job that lowers our dignity. We discuss this often, that we should look for other jobs. But the truth is that there are no alternatives.”

Virtually every woman said she had been “tricked” into starting the job. They all spoke of having been recruited by friends, who tempted them away from their rural homes with stories about jobs in Johannesburg, without telling them the nature of the work. They spoke of arriving and initially refusing to sell sex. Eventually they had been forced into it by a combination of hunger and the lack of transport money to return home.

… In a paper reporting on similar interviews with sex workers in Gambia, the authors use somewhat judgmental language, variously describing sex workers’ accounts of their lives as “lies”, “fiction” and accounts that “could not be trusted”. Possibly this was also the case in the Summertown study. Peoples’ stories of being tricked into sex work were remarkably similar.

… In relation to sexual health-promotion among this group, however, the objective veracity of their accounts is not the most interesting or key feature of the life histories. What is more important is how people reconstruct and account for their life choices, given that these accounts reflect the social identities that are crucial in shaping sexual behavior. In this context, the main interest of these stories of origin lies in the role that they play as a strategy of coping with a spoiled identity — the way they are used by women to distance themselves from this stigma in as many ways as possible.

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2010 28 Oct

[litquote/storytime] There It Is

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 15 Oct

Manliness and Feminism 2: Judgment Day

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

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

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

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

2010 2 Oct

Available lectures, workshops and events from Clarisse Thorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 16 Sep

[Africa] Male circumcision and colonized libidos

Some recent pieces of mine on CarnalNation:

This week: Making the Cut: Circumcision in Africa
Male circumcision is being heavily promoted as an anti-HIV measure, especially in Africa, where the disease is spread mainly by heterosexual sex. But as a sex-positive activist I can’t help but be aware of the very serious critiques of male circumcision. Here are my thoughts on what it means to value people’s natural bodies, yet also work against the HIV pandemic.

March (okay, not that recent …): Colonized Libidos
What do African gay folks and American S&Mers have in common? We’re both told that our desires are wrong because they were instilled in us by problematic power hierarchies, that’s what!

Also, if you missed my previous batch of articles about my African experience, here they are:

Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that condoms protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2010 16 Aug

[storytime] Sympathy for the Anti-Porn Feminists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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