Posts Tagged ‘orientation’

2009 3 Jun

BDSM as a sexual orientation, and complications of the orientation model

UPDATE, 2012: I cleaned this up, edited it a bit and reposted it in 2012. You can read the new version by clicking here.

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A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals. And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously. Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real”, as “deep-rooted”, as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person? Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real”, “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs … by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity. It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something to accept … come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet … I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

… because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition. In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable … but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic. Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults. If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!” In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality. We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception … rather than trying to change the rule. We are calling BDSM a “fault” … rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”. We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold. If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation … then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings. I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it. But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold. And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language. I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

… But …

… there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model”. I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture, because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay. Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore. If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it? Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM. It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself. I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes. But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

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edit After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation! The post and comments are definitely worth reading. /edit

double edit The excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness. /double edit

2009 17 Apr

My KinkForAll NYC presentation: Outreach, media management, privilege, BDSM orientation, more!

Back in March, I attended a sex-positive unconference in New York City called KinkForAll; it was mostly slanted towards BDSM, but there was a lot of generally sex-positive talk as well. (You can read my post-KinkForAll followup thoughts by clicking here!) Part of the deal at KinkForAll was that everyone contributed in some way to the event, many of us by doing 20-minute presentations. I loved the loose, quasi-anarchist conference model. It worked very effectively (and if you’re interested in that kind of thing, I encourage you to read more at the KinkForAll website about how such events are organized).

At KinkForAll New York City (KFANYC), event organizer Maymay felt strongly that he wanted all the available information made further available to the general public, so he recorded all the presentations to be posted on the Internet. I don’t post images of myself, so he just took an audio recording of my quick talk on BDSM outreach strategies. You can download the recording by clicking here.

I had less than 20 minutes, and I didn’t have much time that week to prepare for KFANYC … to my ear, my talk sounds rushed and disorganized. I guess that’s how it goes. Certainly, expect it to be informal when you listen to it!

Now let me give some references and clarify some points:

References

+ Most importantly, check out my sex-positive documentary film series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum!

+ Here’s the interview I did with Daniel Bergner, who wrote a “New York Times Magazine” article on female sexual desire as well as The Other Side of Desire, a book profiling four sexual fetishists.

+ I describe Pleasure Salon NYC during the recording, and there’s an interchange with Selina Fire. A month after that presentation, I got a committee together to start a Chicago version of Pleasure Salon, and it was awesome! If you’re in Chicago, come out to the next Chicago Pleasure Salon — they’re on first Tuesdays, 6-10, at Villains (649 S. Clark).

+ On the recording I quickly note that I attended a Chicago Bloggers Meetup, but I don’t mention the coolest thing that came out of that meetup: Arvan Reese, who organizes the thing, was inspired to start a new community blog on Sex / Gender / Body! One of my favorite things about doing this sex-positive outreach activism has been seeing my message inspire other people to go out and do similar projects. This movement is gaining some serious traction, people. The Sex / Gender / Body community blog goes live next month, and I’m psyched.

Followup Thoughts and Clarifications

+ I think I was a bit disingenuous about tactics on getting out a diverse audience — because that’s not something at which I am succeeding very well. That is, I think I’ve definitely succeeded at getting people with a huge range of sexual experience out to the Sex+++ Film Series, though the crowd is still a bit slanted towards the BDSM community (of course, that’s the community I’m most personally involved in, so this makes sense). But I have not succeeded at getting out — say — lower-income people. In other words: I’m doing well at some kinds of inclusiveness and outreach, badly at others.

Maymay wrote a great followup KFANYC post, and in the comments I talked about how I think these events are awesome but I really want to see more efforts to get different kinds of participants in on the mix. The sex-positive movement is overwhelmingly white and middle- to upper-middle-class; how can we make the information we offer accessible to other demographics? After I left my comment on Maymay’s post, there were a bunch of really great comments. My favorite was one from subversivesub:

To me, the solution is neither outreach nor (necessarily) changing one’s project but identifying what the absent demographic groups are already doing, or considering if there’s a good reason why those groups aren’t presently part of your group — and may not want to be. I think the question is not so much “how can we get more people involved” but “how can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity.”

… to which I responded:

I think that the way we develop our communities is, or at least can be, separate from the way we choose to spread information. I also think that we can expand the audience to which we make our information accessible, without changing our community. Indeed, for me, it’s not really a question of getting more people into our community (though that does frequently seem to be a collateral effect of my approach). It’s more a question of ensuring that more people (a) know our community exists in the first place, (b) are not under false impressions regarding our community, and (c) can easily access the information we have to offer.

Of course KFA is a community-building event as well as an information-spreading event. But I am under the strong impression that it is designed and intended mostly an an information-spreading event. This is certainly how I would promote it if I had time to organize one in Chicago.

I think that the approach you suggest — “How can we act in solidarity with people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?” — is not actually very different from the approach I am suggesting, which might be summarized as: “How can we frame the information we’re offering such that it is accessible to people who may not want to organize/act with us but with whom we share some sort of affinity?”

So my answer to this question is: I don’t know, and I’m always open to suggestions and conversations about it. In fact, I’m due to have lunch soon with someone who wants to start a kink group for people of color … hopefully I’ll have time to blog about that when it happens, though the list of topics I want to blog on is already as long as my arm ….

I don’t necessarily want everyone to agree with me about everything regarding sex, although I must admit I think it would be super awesome if everyone agreed there is no “should”. But I do, at the least, want everyone to have access to information that can help form healthy, safe, consensual sexuality. I want everyone to know where they can go for that information, and to feel welcome if they seek it out.

+ Another thing I may have been disingenuous about: my immense privilege. I try to be as aware as I can of the incredible privilege I carry through my life: I’m white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, mostly heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, naturally slender, with live parents … there’s probably others I’m forgetting. The reason I bring this up is that I think privilege was a hugely important factor in my ability to start the Sex+++ Film Series, and I didn’t acknowledge that enough.

For instance, the most obvious factor: I am privileged to have the familial and personal financial support that enables me to work at an extremely flexible part-time job; I would never have been able to do this free series if I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time. The same goes for a lot of my other activism.

But I still think there’s a lot that everyone can do, even if they don’t have a ton of time or resources! Support local sex-positive events and groups. Write letters to the editor opposing sex-negative press coverage. Try to be frank, open and tolerant about all forms of consensual sexuality in your everyday life — for instance, don’t insult furries at the local BDSM meetup. Outreach and activism aren’t just the domain of dedicated activists: they’re attitudes; they include small habits everyone can get into, small actions anyone can take.

+ Lastly: I stand by my comments on “the orientation model” of sexuality. I still think that our biggest message should not be, “I can’t help my sexuality!” but should rather be, “Whether or not my sexuality is ‘built in’ or a choice, I have the right to do whatever I want with my body and with other consenting adults!”

But we probably shouldn’t entirely abandon the orientation model, because it’s got a lot of legal and cultural power. For instance, check out this recent British Columbia case that could determine whether BDSM becomes a legally protected sexual orientation … i.e., whether it becomes illegal in British Columbia to discriminate against people based on their BDSM choices. My favorite part of that article is the end, which quotes sexologist Charles Moser as he lays out a very clear, eloquent case for BDSM as a sexual orientation.

I’m unwilling to outright reject a powerful potential tool for social acceptance. So on that level, I think it’s cool to talk about BDSM (and all types of alternative sexuality) as an orientation. I just also think that a good priority for the sex-positive movement would be shifting the discourse so that it’s less about whether or not we choose our sexuality, and more about the fact that we have the right to make whatever sexual choices we want.

2009 23 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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