Posts Tagged ‘orgasmic dysfunction’

2012 24 Oct

[postsecret] What It’s Like To Cheat

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating, mostly due to background info that I won’t write about today. I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

I have also always maintained that it’s entirely possible to cheat even if you’re polyamorous: cheating means breaking the relationship agreement, it’s not about the exact mechanics of the sexual act. So, for example, say that you agree with your partner that you can both have sex with other people, but not kiss them. In that case, if you kiss someone else, it’s still cheating!

With age, however, I have become less fierce about the topic. (I guess people get less fierce about everything, with age.) I am now more willing to listen to reasons that cheating might happen, and what it means to different people. I still don’t advocate cheating, and I don’t think it’s right, but I can understand it better now.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret. It’s an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following cheater-derived images ….

* * *

“I rationalized that having an affair was justified because my wife didn’t seem to trust me, whether I was faithful or not. I figured I had little to lose. I was wrong. I gave up being the guy who would never hurt her like that. Forever.”

This postcard resonates most with me, presumably because the writer seems to take the emotional harm he’s caused as seriously as I do.

* * *

“I’m sleeping with both of you so I can be both halves of who I really am: Innocent / Freak.”

Sometimes, a PostSecret card comes up that makes me wonder whether the writer is talking about cheating … or consensual non-monogamy. For example, maybe this person is being honest with all involved partners. I certainly hope so!

I have always figured that if there’s a sexual desire that can’t be met by a current relationship, then the first step should be to try and negotiate an alternative sexual outlet. For example, if this person wants some BDSM (as the image seems to imply), but has a partner who doesn’t want to do BDSM, then it’s totally legit to say “Honey, can I take on a BDSM partner outside our relationship?” — even if they’re monogamous most of the time.

I know that a lot of people don’t think that way, though. So one of the first “cheating sympathies” I ever had was this: if a person asks their partner for something they feel is important, but the conversation is shut down or ignored … or even if there’s good intentions on all sides, and many attempts have been made, but there’s no apparent compromise. I can understand why cheating happens, then.

* * *

“Because of my husband’s sexual dysfunction, I have been celibate for over a decade. I am not proud of my fidelity. I feel ashamed that I stay.”

This, right here. This seems like the perfect time for a careful conversation about sexual needs and an honest, straightforward request for an open relationship. But I understand why that would be incredibly hard, and I just feel so bad for everyone involved. No one should have to feel trapped in a sexually unfulfilling relationship, but some people are terribly hurt by the idea that their partner would sleep with someone else, and it can be so hard to talk about ….

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2012 5 Aug

[postsecret] The Despair of Missing Orgasm

Yes! It’s another entry featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for a loooong time, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date these images. I think these two are both pretty recent, though.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when the inability to orgasm leads you to consider suicide. But, that’s exactly where I am.”

I published a piece last year called A Unified Theory of Orgasm, which detailed my experiences figuring out how to orgasm. For a long time, being unable to “get there” was the most toxic secret I had, and it weighed on me. And I believe this is a depressingly common experience. I never contemplated suicide because of the orgasm thing, but I can imagine how and why someone would. It feels like a failure, and it feels like you’re missing out on what’s supposed to be a transcendent experience, and sometimes it feels like you can’t even share it with your partner for fear of making them anxious.

“I spent $10,000 on internal repairs in hopes that I’d have orgasms again … I got nothing.”

I also think some folks may underestimate the lengths to which people will go to “cure” orgasmic “dysfunction.” As I wrote in A Unified Theory of Orgasm, when I was still figuring my stuff out, my gynecologist recommended me to a place that charged literally $1,500 for an initial consultation. (The place in question has been criticized for contributing to ideas that differences in orgasm should be “medicalized” — i.e., reduced to categorizable symptoms and pills — which is arguably impossible and even harmful. Such topics are explored further in the documentary Orgasm, Inc.)

What really kills me about all this orgasm agony is something I learned only after I’d figured out how to come: orgasms aren’t my favorite part of sex. Who knows … maybe someday I’ll do some serious tantra, and experience one of those five-hour orgasms they’re always on about, and get my mind blown. But right now, all I know is that when I finally started being able to have orgasms regularly, my feeling was basically: oh … is that it? I realized that I’d already had sexual experiences that were way more mind-blowing than an orgasm — and that they came from just following what felt good; from exploring my boundaries; from reveling in the connection to my partner, rather than focusing on mechanics and goals. I understand, however, that others may have really different experience with this. As always, everyone is welcome to share experience in the comments.

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 28 Feb

Errata! Also, Hilarious Cartoon on Female Orgasm (and Reproductive Rights).

Yesterday I published a post called Feminist S&M Lessons from the Seduction Community. There was a formatting error in the post that removed three paragraphs from the first section and created an incoherent sentence where they used to be. Should’ve caught that in my initial edits, but I’ve been running my brain into the ground lately trying to finish up some stuff in time for my awesome upcoming panel appearance on pickup artists and feminists at the SXSW conference! I fixed the error yesterday evening, and the correct version of the post is available here.

And with that … I have little interest in mainstream politics, but this made me dissolve in laughter. I hope that on the off chance I actually have any conservative readers, y’all aren’t too offended. I present you with an episode of the political cartoon “This Modern World” by Tom Tomorrow (click the image to embiggen):

Does that remind you of my article A Unified Theory of Orgasm? Me, too! Also it is such a perfect send-up of the ridiculousness going on these days around reproductive rights. If it amuses you, maybe consider donating to Planned Parenthood.

Description of the comic:

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2011 31 Oct

[storytime] A Unified Theory of Orgasm

Before I post my article about orgasms, happy Halloween:

I discovered this tiny sculpture (easily fits in my hand) at a friend’s party this weekend. Apparently it is known as a “Halloween labbit”; it was created by Frank Kozik and produced by the designer toy company Kidrobot. This discovery might just be the highlight of my entire life. Seriously. Study questions include, “What would you do if that were a real animal that ran into the room where you’re sitting right now?”

… Aaand on that note, let’s move on to “A Unified Theory of Orgasm”. This article was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

I CAN’T COME.
and it’s poisoned
every romance
I’ve ever had.

masturbating doesn’t work. I don’t know why. I tried therapy too, but my smart, understanding, sex-positive, open-hearted doctor couldn’t help. drugs while fucking? check. I date attentive men who only want to make me happy, but no matter how fantastic they make me feel, I can’t get off. and believe me, I like sex. I love sex! how can it feel so good and not end in an orgasm? I tried experimenting, and I sure do love the kink. it feels great. but doesn’t get me off. I’ve tried everything. everything.

now I have the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. but just like every other one, he can’t get me off. big dick? oral sex? tons of foreplay? kink? it’s all there. nothing works. I used to lie to my boyfriends and say it was ok that I couldn’t get off. then at least they could enjoy sex without feeling guilty. but then they’d stop trying, of course. and this one is still trying … sometimes. I mean, it’s clearly never going to work. so I can’t blame him for not having the same passion for trying as he used to. and I keep thinking I should back off. after all, why put pressure on him to “perform”? he’ll just resent me if I keep asking for more, even if I’m gentle about it and compliment him and all that. since nothing he does works. it will never work.

and I try so hard not to get frustrated, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that I am fucked up, I must be broken. I mean, any normal woman would have come by now. so what do I do? I don’t know what I need. do I back off and focus on him? that’s what I end up doing, because I can’t face asking for a little more attention in bed anymore. what’s the point? he’ll just resent me when it doesn’t work again. so I back off. and I can’t help resenting him, just a little, for not noticing how much I’m hurting. and not trying, even if I am broken, and I will never ever come.

* * *

Contents:

I. Vaginal Pain
II. S&M
III. Frigid
IV. The Fight
V. Men’s Perspective
VI. S&M, Redux
VII. Figuring It Out
VIII. Study Questions

* * *

I. Vaginal Pain

When I wrote the above, I was actually pretty close to figuring out how to have an orgasm. But I didn’t know that. I’d dealt with the anxiety of being unable to come for so long — and I’d also recently begun to understand that my sexuality is oriented towards S&M — and so anguish just flooded out of me, into those words. I craved S&M, but acknowledging the craving made me feel like a “pervert”, a “freak”. It contributed to my already-overwhelming fear that I was “broken” because I couldn’t figure out how to come.

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2011 8 May

Towards my personal Sex-Positive Feminist 101

There’s an aphorism from the early 1900s literary critic André Maurois: “The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.” Even though I identify as an activist and genuinely want to make a real impact on the world based on my beliefs … I often think that much of my blogging has been more an attempt to figure out what I believe, than to tell people what I believe. And sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be consistent more than I want to understand what I really believe — or more than I want to empathize with other people — or more than I want to be correct. We all gotta watch out for that.

But I’m getting too philosophical here. (Who, me?) The point is, I am hesitant to write something with a title like “Sex-Positive 101”, because not only does it seem arrogant (who says Clarisse Thorn gets to define Sex-Positive 101?) — it also implies that my thoughts on sex-positivity have come to a coherent, standardized end. Which they haven’t! I’m still figuring things out, just like everyone else.

However, lately I’ve been thinking that I really want to write about some basic ideas that inform my thoughts on sex-positive feminism. I acknowledge that I am incredibly privileged (white, upper-middle-class, heteroflexible, cisgendered etc) and coming mostly from a particular community, the BDSM community; both of these factors inform and limit the principles that underpin my sex-positivity. I welcome ideas for Sex-Positive Feminism 101, links to relevant 101 resources, etc.

This got really long, and I reserve the right to edit for clarity or sensitivity.

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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 19 Oct

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not okay.

2010 28 May

[advice] Sexual Openness: 2 ways to encourage it

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that went into my sexual evolution. People have always seen me as sexually open-minded, and I had an extraordinarily liberal upbringing … but at the same time, I think I spent a long time surprisingly buttoned-up. For example: I didn’t explore S&M properly until my twenties, and I didn’t figure out how to orgasm until after that.

Part of it was the men I fell in love with, the partners I had. Monogamy felt right to me, and that effectively meant that once I was in a relationship, it was hard to explore sexuality beyond what my lovers were comfortable with. I’ve often looked back in frustration at sexual shame and inhibitions that I feel were imposed on me by some past partners. But at the same time, there’s no denying that — even when my partners were relatively inhibited — I was with those men partly because I felt comfortable with them. I recall conversations in which I felt frustrated at a lover’s unwillingness to explore or discuss certain things … but I also recall times when I felt relieved that they were willing to leave those things alone.

How did I evolve through that balance and come into the place where I am today, where my sexual boundaries have shifted dramatically? I’m up for trying things just to see what they’re like; I routinely have fantasies that would have appalled me in my teens; and I routinely have orgasms as well …. But why is it that, for example, I’m very interested in having multiple partners now, but wasn’t at all interested a few years ago? Why did I initially swear I’d never wear a collar, then end up associating collars with profound sexual love? How is it that I initially considered myself solely a submissive but later transitioned into an enthusiastic switch (i.e., both a sub and a domme)?

Here are the two factors that, I think, facilitate sexual evolution and openness:

1) A pressure-free environment.

This is key! A person can be pressured into sexual exploration, but in my experience it won’t “take”. Many people (though not all) who feel pressure react by becoming defensive and unwilling to change; even if they do try the experiment, they’re less likely to enjoy it. And someone who has a bad sexual experience will often have trouble enjoying that kind of sex in the future.

Take me, for example — there were a lot of reasons why I felt less willing to experiment with polyamory (multiple relationships) when I was 20, but one of the big ones is that I felt lots of pressure to be poly. Because I ran in highly “alternative” social circles, I was meeting “polyvangelists” who argued that polyamory is the “best” kind of relationship and that anyone who doesn’t want to try poly is just being selfish or close-minded. General social pressure exerts an influence, so it helps to have open-minded friends who accept different forms of consensual sexuality — which doesn’t just mean that “vanilla” people would do well to accept those of us who are “non-standard”, but also means that even people in “alternative” circles have to accept “mainstream” sexuality.

But in my experience, the actual sexual relationships are the most relevant aspect of life that must be sexually pressure-free. They’re also one of the most difficult, especially when the stakes are high: if one or both parties are helplessly in love, if they are married, if they have children, if they live together … then it becomes very hard to make the relationship pressure-free. A husband who is afraid that his wife might leave him is more likely to do sexual things for her that make him uncomfortable because he wants her to stay, for example — even if she doesn’t ask him to. A girl who is totally in love with her boyfriend is more likely to acquiesce to sex that she’s not really into, because of course she wants to please him — but she is simultaneously unlikely to tell him outright that she’s not into it.

And then there’s the fact that what feels like “pressure” for each person will be different depending on that person’s triggers, the relationship, and the time in their life. Today, I feel totally comfortable setting limits and clearly telling my partner “no” if he asks me to do something I don’t want to do … but it wasn’t so long ago that I’d feel anxiety-inducing pressure to do something if my boyfriend merely mentioned that he liked it. Which brings me to my next point: there’s a fine line between sharing and pressure. One must be careful when bringing up one’s own preferences and desires — which isn’t to say one shouldn’t bring them up! Merely that it’s important to recognize that these are difficult topics, and when we discuss them with people we love or admire, there’s lots of potential for accidental anxious pressure.

Okay, I’m talking pretty theoretically, right? So here’s some actual concrete advice on how to avoid imposing sexual pressure:

* Don’t demand that people explain their preferences. A person doesn’t have to explain, examine, or “figure out” why they’re gay, straight, kinky, polyamorous, or whatever if they don’t want to. Even your sexual partner doesn’t have to explain why they don’t want to do something if they don’t want to.

In fact, it may be very helpful if you merely make it clear that your partner doesn’t have to explain from the beginning — because they may feel as if they ought to, even if you don’t ask. I so clearly remember an encounter I had a few years ago in which my partner asked what I was up for and I said, hesitantly, “Well, I’m not really up for sex tonight … I can’t really explain it, I –” and he held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain it,” he said — and I was totally shocked at the gratitude, relief and comfort that poured through me.

I later felt proud and thrilled to “pay it forward” when I had my first serious encounter as a dominant. Towards the end of the encounter, I asked, “Do you want me?” and my submissive stiffened, saying awkwardly, “Yes, I do, but … I don’t want to have sex so soon, it’s just one of my own boundaries, I –” and I saw how much the words were costing him. Saw the same anxiety I’d felt once. And immediately I covered his mouth and said, “Shh, it’s fine, you don’t have to explain it,” and I saw him relax with the same terrible relief I’d once felt. And then we made out for many hours and it was unbelievably awesome.

… Of course, sometimes people will want to examine their own preferences, which is obviously fine! But if your partner or friend is examining for their own mental well-being, that’s very different from demanding that they examine to satisfy you. Bottom line: they don’t owe you an explanation, and asking for one may just make them tense up and feel totally unsexy in all ways.

* Express preferences gently. I once attended an incredible BDSM workshop by the author Laura Antoniou in which she offered an outline for bringing up your filthiest, scariest fantasy with your partner: “Buy ice cream. Sit down at the kitchen table and describe your fantasy. Then say, ‘Don’t say anything now. I’ll give you some time to think about it — now let’s eat this ice cream and maybe go out for a movie.'” I love this advice because (a) everyone gets ice cream and (b) it’s so perfect for lowering tension. And as Laura said, “The worst thing that can happen is that they’re not into it.”

It’s important to emphasize from the start that, “This is something I’m interested it, but it’s not a requirement and I don’t want you to do it if you’re not into it.” In fact, it might help to begin by saying those exact words.

And if your partner doesn’t want to do something now, it’s often worth giving time for them to grow into the idea. Perhaps by exploring other sexual angles, they’ll come around to yours. I remember that when I was in my late teens, one boyfriend asked me if I’d be up for a certain kind of sex, and I refused. (He asked very gently, and didn’t pressure me when I said no, which made me feel much safer and happier with him!) At the time I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do it. Then a few years later — after I’d gained a lot more sexual experience — I ended up asking my boyfriend to try it! I’m convinced that if my previous partner had pressured me, I wouldn’t have come around to it so easily years later — and if he and I had still been together, then maybe we would have even done it together.

… But of course, the difficult part here is that sexual needs are important, and can’t be put on the back burner indefinitely. If you have sexual needs that are being routinely ignored — or can’t be fulfilled — by your partner, then it’s obviously not desirable to keep gently saying, “Don’t worry, I can do without this.” Still, I think that if you’re approaching ultimatum territory — for example, if you are tempted to say that “If you can’t satisfy this need, then I need an open relationship so I can find someone who can, or else we have to break up” — then it’s best to at least state the ultimatum gently, emphasize that you care about your partner and this is difficult, and steel yourself to act quickly in case you have to go through with your ultimatum. And, of course, to understand that this could make sexuality with your partner more difficult if you keep trying to date through ultimatum territory.

Sadly, sexual pressure can sometimes be simply unavoidable. Sometimes the best we can do is be gentle, understanding, and prepared to face the consequences.

2) Exposure to new conceptions of sexuality, sexual mentors, and sex education

Many gay people say they’re “wired” for a certain approach to sexuality, but there’s also others, such as some BDSMers, who consider ourselves to be innately kinky. And we often say that we would have come to those sexual conclusions and practices whether we had examples before us, or not. (Even so, it’s really helpful to have a community sharing tips and emotional support, especially when it comes to alternative sexuality. It might seem like sex will come naturally and obviously, but sometimes non-obvious things can really trip you up!)

Still, there are lots of sexual ideas are worth exploring and wouldn’t necessarily occur to us if we didn’t have examples before us: erotica, pornography, friends and mentors, workshops and educational materials. Here’s some concrete advice on how best to emotionally access those:

* Find a good mentor, or at least a friend or social group, to talk about sex with — who you don’t want to have sex with. Being able to honestly discuss turn-ons in a neutral environment is invaluable, as is someone who can guide and advise without inserting their preferences and desires into the conversation. Naturally, it’s entirely possible to have a good sexual relationship with a sexual mentor — and sometimes, mentor (or friend) relationships evolve in unexpectedly sexual ways. But it can be very useful to take that element out of at least some relationships.

One piece of advice that I love is for mentors to be the same “type”. That is, for example, if you’re a heterosexual female submissive, it’s awesome to have an experienced heterosexual female submissive mentor if possible. edit 5/31/10: Commenter Ranai pointed out that it’s not always a great idea to have just one mentor, though — and I agree with her. I think it’s helpful to have a range of voices who can give advice, if possible — not that there’s anything wrong with trusting one person above others, but all humans have their blind spots, and mentors are human too. This is one thing I love about the BDSM community, by the way (or at least, my experience with the BDSM communities I have been part of — not all BDSM communities are the same …). In many BDSM communities, there are many café meetups and other low-pressure gatherings that make perfect environments for getting this kind of advice! end of edit

* Not all BDSM — or porn — or whatever! — is the same. If you don’t like (or are even revolted by) something you see, then you can try watching (or reading, or talking about) something else. Me, I got really excited when I first learned about Comstock Films, because they’re so much more realistic and comfortably sexual than mainstream porn. And I really didn’t like mainstream porn. But then I found that I wasn’t that into Comstock Films themselves, even though I love the idea so much that I screened one of the movies at my sex-positive film series. So I concluded that I’m just not into porn at all, and that I’d be better off to focus on written erotica.

But then I finally saw some porn that turned me on at CineKink — and I hadn’t even expected it to turn me on! I’d just been watching out of academic interest! And these days, I find that I’m sometimes turned on by watching the mainstream porn I tried so hard to avoid in the first place. The moral of the story is obvious.

The bottom line is that mere exposure to new ideas about sexuality can bring personal sexual evolution — and that’s awesome. So if you’re interested in facilitating your own sexual evolution, the first thing to do is learn about sexuality by whatever means possible.

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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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