Posts Tagged ‘pro-sex outreach’

2012 7 Dec

The Future of S&M

If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by others — for their use and to your detriment.

~ a friend of mine in the S&M community

* * *

Back in 2008, I had just started writing this blog and curating my sex-positive film series, and I met the seminal S&M writer Gayle Rubin while volunteering at the Leather Archives. I was really excited to meet her. I remember trying to explain that I thought we were at a cultural tipping point about S&M and maybe sexuality in general. She asked where my film series was hosted, and I said I was working with Jane Addams Hull-House Museum — a famous and historic feminist site — at which point Ms. Rubin choked on her coffee. (I don’t know if she remembers this the way I do; maybe she doesn’t remember meeting me at all.)

I thought I was riding a wave, and at this point, I know I was right. My film series was only supposed to go nine months, but it succeeded massively and lasted four years (the final screening will be next Tuesday!). I’ve had other professional success too (buy my book The S&M Feminist!) … but what’s more important is that my topics become more legit every day, and there are lots of other people exploring them too.

Firstly, almost nobody is trying to ignore S&M or shut down public S&M discussions anymore. Secondly, the idea that S&M should be integrated with feminism and other gender/sex subcultures is not very controversial anymore. Not only did Fifty Shades of Grey grab massive sales this year; mainstream feminist speakers actually defended S&M when the commentary rolled around, and Bitch Media ran a series on S&M. There is surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of consent tactics in the mainstream; in late 2009, I even saw an article where the author said that she associated safewords with “humorless third wave feminists.” If I had been drinking coffee, I would have choked on it. Safewords? Humorless feminists? Wow.

The early battles with S&M focused on getting good information out into the world — information about health, safety, best practices, and so on. (You can see my resources list here.) Later battles focused on fighting negative stereotypes about S&M — and people like me focused on feminism. (An example from 2009: my post Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.) These are still important topics, but I think those of us who write and speak publicly about these matters should start thinking concretely about future messages.

A few years ago, Alan from Polyamory In The News posted his thoughts about this topic for polyamorous people. I’ll adapt his first four points to S&M, because they’re both basic and important:

A. Keep stressing that successful S&M requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;

B. Emphasize that S&M is not for everyone, and that many people will have a better time avoiding S&M;

C. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved”;

D. Expand that to not just “knowledge and consent,” but well-wishing and good intention for all involved.

So, yeah, definitely those. I’ve written about those. A lot. And my own pace of production has already slowed down, because I’ve figured out a lot of the basic stuff for myself, and because I’ve got a lot going on in other spheres.

But even so, I remain committed to serious thinking about this topic. I do have further ideas about the future, and maybe I’m totally out of this world, but I think these are worth thinking about:

1. Intelligent frameworks that show how S&M theory is relevant to other topics. And I don’t just mean the usual suspects. Those of us who know a lot about S&M and feminism already know that tons of recent “groundbreaking” work among anti-rape educators actually originated in the S&M community. That’s important, and I certainly believe that S&M practice can offer crucial insights into discussions about abuse. But we can think more broadly, and we can even break out of gender discourse altogether. This, for example, was one goal of my introduction for Violation: Rape In Gaming — to situate S&M as something that can give us insights about other types of play.

Of course, I don’t think we should talk about all-S&M-all-the-time. That gets boring for everyone. So let’s be smart about this. But when S&M is genuinely relevant, there’s nothing wrong with showing its relevance.

2. Public emphasis on the S&M community that includes public sponsorship, outreach, etc. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to joke that he wanted to see us sponsoring Little League teams. Right now, S&M groups tend to have very little money, and when they have money, they tend to keep it in the S&M community by supporting other S&M projects. That’s cool, but can we do more? Can we make ourselves more publicly available, and make positive contributions to our larger communities?

The S&M social networking site FetLife supports two great S&M organizations, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the Leather Archives. But what if they took up a holiday season charity collection for at-risk youth or something like that? That would be awesome.

As a side note, this may include more people coming out of the closet. And oh yes, I know how complicated that is.

3. More precise legal and pictorial standards. What, exactly, should happen if an S&M rape case goes to court? How, exactly, can we differentiate between photos of S&M and photos of abuse? This will be extremely difficult, and the S&M community won’t have central agreement on it, but if we don’t start thinking precisely about this then it will be imposed on us from outside. (To some extent, it is already being imposed on us from outside, because S&Mers don’t usually trust the established court system to handle our business.)

The current “answer” (such as it is) has involved a lot of ideas about intentions and personal ethics. To be sure, some really awesome and careful work has been done on those questions, like Thomas MacAulay Millar’s series about abuse in the community, and obviously I’ve written about it lots. There has also been some work done by porn companies, as for instance with the post-scene processing videos that are packaged with some S&M porn. Is it possible for us to give more precise standards for measuring this stuff? I actually don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.

At the very least, we should know how to explain the difficulties with legal and pictorial issues, clearly and concisely. I kind of tried to warn about this in my science-fiction story “Victory“; I don’t know how successful I was.

4. Speak publicly about the messy stuff. That includes the work about abuse in the community, and also essays like my recent piece I Can Be A Kinky Feminist And A Messy Human Being. It also includes the very edgy stuff, like Mollena Williams’s courageous work on playing with race. By “messy,” I’m not saying we should write without caution or control or compassion. But for a lot of people, S&M can get to some pretty dark places and can sometimes be harmful, and we should acknowledge that.

Can we talk about this without doing gross trauma-porn? Without putting ourselves on display for exploitation? While keeping faith and keeping the other truths of S&M — the beauties and benefits — front-and-center? If so, then let’s.

* * *

2012 31 Oct

Blog Hop: Q&A about Writing, plus Links to Other Writers

Richard Jeffrey Newman asked me to participate in a Blog Hop in order to intro­duce new authors to new read­ers. If you’ve come here from the link posted on Richard’s blog, wel­come! If you’re a reg­u­lar reader of mine or came upon my blog by chance, I’m about to talk about my upcoming projects and then link you to some other writers.

Oh and also, Happy Halloween! I’m Selina Kyle this year (the new Anne Hathaway version). And I get to be in San Francisco for Halloween 2012, which is my favorite place to be for the holiday, and also my favorite holiday. I’m in such a great mood. So before I answer questions about my writing, I want to show you one of my favorite costume pictures:

An image from Kirsty Mitchell’s Wonderland series of photographs. Click the image to embiggen, or go to her site to see much larger versions of many photos.

* * *

Now for questions!

What is the work­ing title of your next book?

The title is smartsex: S&M For Everybody or maybe smartsex: S&M Overview.

(Anyone have better title ideas? Let me know in the comments if you do! I’m so bad at titles.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s the first in a series of short ebooks, and I’m not writing them all myself — I’m recruiting some talented writers to work with. When I published The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn earlier this year, I went through everything I’ve written about S&M, and I was struck by how much I know about the topic that has never made it into my articles. I also sometimes present a long S&M Overview lecture, and people have suggested that I make it into a webpage or something.

Plus, I’ve had an interest in larger cultural issues for a long time — a lot of the essays in The S&M Feminist aren’t actually about S&M or feminism; instead, they’re about polyamory or HIV or manliness or some other gender/sex topic. So I’ve been looking for ways to branch out. For example, I just co-edited an anthology called Violation: Rape In Gaming that talks about both S&M and feminism, but mostly talks about Internet culture and game technology and virtual identities.

So I was thinking about my desire to branch out, and I came up with this idea for a series of short ebooks about sex and culture from various perspectives. The series is tentatively titled smartsex, and right now I’m working on the S&M overview essay, which will include S&M cultural observations and S&M history, and also the usual basic S&M communication questions, et cetera. As near as I can tell, there aren’t any comprehensive S&M 101 documents that cover all those different things at once.

And I want to do the same kind of thing for other sexuality topics — I won’t reveal what else is in the works right now, but I will say that I’m excited to see it all come together. I think that readers will be surprised by some of the topics I’ve chosen.

What genre does your book fall under?

I always have to put my books in categories for marketing purposes, and it can be surprisingly difficult. For example, I put Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser in Amazon’s “Feminist Theory” section, and then I wasn’t sure what to pick for the second section, so I picked “Sexual Instruction.” The book is about investigating a subculture of men who trade tips and tactics for seducing women. It’s also about my own concurrent and relevant experiences with sex and relationships. So it’s not like other books in the “Sexual Instruction” section … but the category kinda works? (The Smashwords version is easier to label, because they have a “Sex & Culture” section.)

Anyway, I guess the S&M overview will probably go in “Sexual Instruction” too. Not sure about other categories yet.

Which actors would you choose to play your char­ac­ters in a movie ren­di­tion?

I always thought that if a movie is made of one of my books, I want to play the main character myself. But I guess they probably wouldn’t let me do that. I suppose I’d settle for Nicole Kidman … especially if she wears that incredible red dress that she wore for Moulin Rouge. Or Anne Hathaway. You know, if you twisted my arm. ;)

What is the one-sentence syn­op­sis of your book?

Between Rihanna and Fifty Shades, it seems like S&M is everywhere we turn nowadays; learn the basics about its history, culture, and complexities from sex educator Clarisse Thorn.

Will your book be self-published or rep­re­sented by an agency?

I’ve been doing well with self-publishing (not that I’d turn down a major book deal). The smartsex series is also great for self-publishing because each piece will be short, yet thematically linked to the others. Incidentally, if you’re interested in self-publishing, then you should totally read my primer on how to do it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your man­u­script?

Still working on it. There’s a lot of awesome, intense stuff going on in my life right now — I hoped to be done with this by now! — but I really should be done with the first draft sometime next week.

What other books would you com­pare this to within your genre?

I have a list of recommended S&M books on my S&M resource page, and I continue to stand by all those recommendations.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

There are lots of amazing books and educators discussing S&M, and I owe a debt to so many of them. I try to give credit where credit is due, to thank the people who have gone before me, and to promote the work of others. But — this is going to sound so corny, but when I really have to thank someone, I try to thank my audience. I receive the most incredible feedback at my lectures, in comments on this blog, and from fans around the Internet. It keeps me sharp and motivated.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s inter­est?

People consistently say that my work is very interesting even for people who aren’t into the things that I’m into. (My favorite review of The S&M Feminist is titled “20 Things You Can Take Away From The S&M Feminist Whether You’re Into S&M Or Not.”) I have always believed that there are huge lessons to be drawn from S&M — general lessons about culture, relationships, and non-S&M sex. I hope that non-S&Mers will be willing to read and learn from this piece.

Here are the writ­ers whose work you can check out next:

Andrea Zanin — S&M, polyamory, general sex geek

Charlie Nox — feminist pickup artist guru

Kitty Stryker — sex worker, S&Mer, activist

Ozy Frantz — feminist masculinity writer

Peter Tupper — S&M historian

* * *

2012 18 Sep

Reaching People: A Parable with Bookstores, Libraries, Museums, and the Internet

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve worked in more than one bookstore. I read obsessively when I was growing up; I wrote constantly, and I wrote so compulsively that it didn’t occur to me to write professionally until my twenties. I didn’t see writing as work — it was just something I had to do. Stories were sacred. The name Clarisse came from Ray Bradbury’s classic anti-censorship tale of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451.

At my second bookstore, I was working behind the counter one day when a middle-aged Black woman came in. “Is this a library?” she asked.

“No,” I said. My tone edged on rudeness. Wasn’t it obvious that this was a bookstore and not a library? It was a city storefront — whereas libraries have nice façades and sometimes pillars, right? I mean, my library did. I had seen libraries without pillars, but I figured that at least they made an effort, perhaps with elegant doors or incised stone signage.

“Sorry,” she said, and left.

An antique postcard depicting the pillared edifice of Chicago’s Blackstone Library branch (only a few blocks from Obama’s house!). The image came from this Chicago postcard history website.

A year later, someone else came in and asked the same question. This time, it was a Black gentleman. I was less snide this time, and more puzzled. He, too, left when I said “No.”

There were other differences in how many (though not all) Black customers interacted with the store. For example, Black customers would often ask for Philosophy but leave empty-handed if I showed them the gigantic section containing Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger. One of my coworkers eventually solved the mystery by asking which authors the customer sought; we learned that when most Black customers came in and asked for Philosophy, they’d be looking for authors we shelved in our tiny New Age & Occult section.

After years of working at that store, I thought I knew all the bookstores in the neighborhood. We even kept a directory of neighborhood bookstores on the counter, so that people could do a bookstore tour of the area. But one day I was out with a boyfriend grabbing brunch at a place we didn’t usually go, and we passed an entirely different bookstore. When I went in, I discovered that it stocked crystals and incense and books by authors I’d never heard of; a lot of the authors were New Age. I browsed for an hour. Not a single other White person came in.

That store? Was maybe four blocks from the store where I worked. It wasn’t in our bookstore directory. My boss had never heard of it. And it had been around for years.

A while after that, my boyfriend and I were driving across an area of the South Side where we didn’t normally go, and we passed a book-lined storefront that sported a laser-printed sign: LIBRARY. “Oh my God,” I said. “Pull over right now.”

“In this neighborhood?” he asked.

“Pull over,” I insisted, and I jumped out of the car before he was even done parking. I ran into the storefront. “Is this a library?” I demanded at the counter, although I could already tell from the spines of the books on the walls.

“Yes.”

“This is a branch of the Chicago Public Library?” I couldn’t believe it. It was a storefront.

“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.

I left, exhilarated by the discovery, but also humbled. I wished I could go back in time and apologize to the woman who’d asked: Is this a library? I hadn’t said anything overtly rude, but my entire demeanor had been rude. I’d thought that my answer was obvious, but she’d been accustomed to libraries in storefronts, whereas I’d never heard of such a thing. The truth was, I had responded to a perfectly reasonable question by being patronizing and cruel.

This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.

* * *

I told this story to my friend Lisa, who works at the amazing Chicago social justice site Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (which incidentally hosts my glorious Sex+++ Documentary Film Series). In return, Lisa told me a story she’d heard about the Smithsonian, one of the most famous and established museums in the world. The Smithsonian offers free admission and it happens to be located within walking distance from some very underprivileged neighborhoods. But the museum collects demographics from attendees, and people from those underprivileged neighborhoods almost never go to the museum.

Lisa was recently involved in curating an exhibit (now open) about the history of a Chicago gang, the Conservative Vice Lords. Brilliantly, the exhibit was placed — not at the Hull-House Museum — but rather in an urban activist gallery that has neither a nice façade nor any pillars. The exhibit includes “pop-up” sections that move around to different places in the Conservative Vice Lords’ original neighborhood. In other words, it goes to the community whence the Conservative Vice Lords came. This is especially important because that’s not a community which is accustomed to having space in a museum, and isn’t likely to go visit one.

So here is a useful moral about making something accessible: outreach is part of accessibility. If an exhibit, or a piece of art, or whatever is really intended to be reached by the public, then sometimes it has to seek out the public.

The Conservative Vice Lords exhibit did not yet exist in 2009, when I went to work in sub-Saharan Africa. But I’d already heard Lisa’s parable of the Smithsonian. It was much on my mind as I spent time in one semi-rural African town; I sought out their library within my first 24 hours. I started feeling like something was wrong as soon as I looked at their books.

The books were mostly in English. That made sense, for that particular area, because books in the local language were scarce and the local language was rarely written anyway. (The newspaper was in English, too.) But the actual books that were stocked … well, there were some African writers, like Chinua Achebe. But the majority of books in the library were donations from the USA.

I found a cheesy thriller featuring a suburban housewife who falls for a handsome kidnapper. I found an obscure novel by my favorite fantasy author, Tanith Lee. I found old books by the early-1900s British humorist P.G. Wodehouse; he sets many of his novels on gently rolling lawns with golf, or in high-class townhouses with butlers. I sat around that library a lot, and my instincts were confirmed when I did not see a single local person read those books. They came in for shade, and conversation, and for newspapers and magazines.

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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 9 Apr

[classic repost] BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

I originally published this post in slightly different form back in 2009. I decided to edit it a little for clarity, because I’m going to include it in the upcoming Best Of Clarisse Thorn … so here’s the edited version.

* * *

I love this image:

(The image is a list with “Homosexual Agenda” written at the top. There follows a list: “1. Spend time with family, 2. Be treated equally, 3. Buy milk.”)

I love that because it so perfectly highlights how preposterous all those right-wing accusations about “the gay agenda” are. Actually, gay people just want to live their lives like everyone else; the to-do list for most gay people looks a lot like most other people’s. (Apparently the image originated at a site called TopPun, and you can buy it in stickers and keychains.)

In a way, that sticker also highlights some problems with the very concept of sexual orientations — the way we sort ourselves into groups based on sexuality and its apparent innateness. Why do people have to insist on being so different from each other? A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts: is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? And I have such mixed feelings about that question. I feel intense BDSM as an incredibly important aspect of my sexuality, perhaps an innate one, but I don’t want us to fall into the same traps that beset homosexuality.

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. At the time, I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists, and I thought I was saying something radical. I was scared that my words might appear too radical to be taken seriously. Also, since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender/queer, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBTQ 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/queer person? Would I offend GLBTQ people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real,” “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs?

I later found out that some LGBTQ people do get offended by it, and others don’t. Sometime you end up with ridiculous arguments like this one from a comments thread on an incredibly BDSM-phobic blog: one person says, “As a lesbian, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people comparing BDSM to homosexuality,” to which another person replies, “As a queer person myself, I would like to say a sincere fuck you to people who claim that I ought to see my BDSM and my queerness differently.” As for me, Clarisse, I’ll be frank with you — I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a dog in that fight, and I’m staying out of it. I’m straight as the day is long, but I’ve also been invited to speak about BDSM at queer conventions and to write about BDSM on queer blogs. So I’ll hang out with the people who are cool with me, and everyone else can kick me out of their LGBTQ circles as much as they want.

But I used to feel a lot more worried about how I’d be perceived for talking about BDSM as an orientation. Still, as weird as the concept of “BDSM as an orientation” felt when I first thought of it, 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.

The “BDSM orientation” idea 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 that it was desirable to accept, come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM as 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 boring. 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. Here’s an article about a BDSM-related legal case that quotes 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 people exist who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do. They 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. There are also plenty of people who have equally strong feelings about their BDSM sexuality, but who have different BDSM preferences from mine. 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 ….

(more…)

2011 27 Oct

Free Tix to CineKink Chicago AND Group Discount to Reeling Film Fest!

November is an awesome month for sexuality-related films in Chicago. First of all, there’s the ongoing Sex+++: my sex-positive film series at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Sex+++ is pro-sex, pro-queer and pro-kink. The films are all totally FREE to attend, and we serve enticing snacks and delicious conversation. Our next screening is November 8, and you can read the full 2011-2012 film calendar by clicking here.

November is also when CineKink: The Kinky Film Festival brings its annual national tour to Chicago, November 18-19 — and I’m offering free tickets again this year!

Plus! November features Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, November 3-12 — and this year, I can offer a group discount to one of the screenings.

For more information, keep reading ….

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2011 17 Mar

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List: 2011-2012!

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

a FREE documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn and the awesome Sex+++ Committee!

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

* * *

OFFICIAL FILM LIST: 2011-2012
2nd Tuesdays at 7PM
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted

Sex+++ is a film series and discussion group that’s open to all, where we discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun. When I started the series in 2009, I thought it would only last 9 months (here’s the original film list) — but Sex+++ ended up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams!

This year, we’re exploring some new themes:

+ Activist Sex (how sex and activism intersect),
+ Sexual History (how sex has been viewed in the past),
+ Love And Sex (how romance and relationships shape sex),
+ and Sex Everywhere (how people think about sex outside the USA).

You can RSVP by phone if you like: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

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MARCH 8, 2011: “Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” (1992) + “Jane: An Abortion Service” (1996)
#1: Highlights Margaret Sanger’s pioneering strategies of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of birth control, and discusses some of her early-1900s arrests and trials.
#2: Tells the story of “Jane”, the Chicago-based women’s health group who performed nearly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973 with no formal medical training.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

APRIL 7, 2011 — THURSDAY: “A Jihad for Love” (2007)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, April 7 rather than the second Tuesday in April, because the filmmaker is coming into town for a talkback!
+ Fourteen centuries after the revelation of the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, Islam today is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels the many worlds of this dynamic faith, discovering the stories of its most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims. After we screen “A Jihad for Love”, Sharma will talk about his more than a decade of work and experience in countries like Egypt, where he filmed in secret, without government permission, during Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.
+ Note that there will also be a brown bag lunch with Parvez Sharma at noon on April 8, on the topic of race and identity.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sex Everywhere

MAY 10, 2011: “Sister Wife” (2008) + “The Love Bureau” (2009) + “Muslims in Love” (2010)
#1: A fundamentalist Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage explains how she feels about it.
#2: Profiles a modern-day mail order bride service that specializes in matching Eastern European women with Italian men.
#3: Shows devout American Muslim young people pursuing love and marriage, searching for alternatives to arranged marriages common to traditional Muslim culture.
+ themes: Love and Sex, Sex Everywhere

JUNE 14, 2011: “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papi’ and Wil” (2008)
A unique, sexy, thought-provoking and above all touching portrait of an interracial, polyamorous, transgender couple. The film involves several personal interviews and three explicit sex scenes: the first with Papi’ and Wil; the second involving an extra partner; and the third an S&M role play scenario.
+ themes: Love and Sex

JULY 12, 2011: “Outrage” (2009)
Examines the issues surrounding closeted homosexual politicians and their hypocrisy in voting anti-gay on measures from HIV/AIDS support to hate crime laws — and how they have harmed millions of Americans for many years.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

AUGUST 11, 2011 — THURSDAY: “The Canal Street Madam” (2010)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, August 11 rather than Tuesday. It will also take place at the Everleigh Social Club, 939 W. Randolph St., rather than at the Hull-House Museum, because we are partnering with the Sex Workers Outreach Project on their upcoming sex worker film fest!
+ “The Canal Street Madam” follows the story of Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. When she was busted by the FBI and torn apart in the press, they escaped censure, so after her trial she set out to fight back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

(more…)

2010 11 Dec

Call for Sexy Documentaries: Sex+++ Has Five New Themes!

I hate to post two press releases in a row, but I’ve been very caught up in some Chicago community issues lately, so I haven’t had time to write anything more personal. I’ll bore you all with details about my life soon, I promise! In the meantime, please feel free to repost this …

SEX+++
pro-sex, pro-queer, pro-kink

Contact:
Clarisse Thorn :: clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com

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

The Sex+++ Documentary Film Series is now entering its third year. We want to make it bigger and better than ever — and take it in new directions! We’re still discussing next year’s film line-up, and we’ve got a lot of ideas, but we also want to throw open the floor. We’re looking for suggestions and submissions: documentaries that are pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-kink.

In 2011, Sex+++ will focus on several themes. We’re still discussing these themes, and they are subject to change as we research documentaries and develop the program, but here’s what we’ve thought of so far. We’re open to hearing more about any and all sex-positive documentaries — but in particular, if you’ve encountered documentaries that fit within these themes, please let us know!

+ THEME: Sex Everywhere

We want to explore how sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure are recorded, experienced, and understood outside the USA.

+ THEME: Love And Sex

We want to explore the many ways sex happens within romance, dating, relationships, marriage, and love.

+ THEME: Sexual History

We want to explore the history of sexuality, sexual culture, sexual identity, and sexual pleasure; we want to learn about sex-positive heroes.

+ THEME: Activist Sex

We want to explore sex-related activism and how sex-positivity intersects with other social issues such as class, race, labor, health, justice and the environment.

Sex+++ will continue at its current amazing venue, Chicago’s own Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Click here to learn what’s up with Sex+++ right now. And again — if you’ve got any documentaries to recommend, please get in touch! The primary contact for Sex+++ is Clarisse Thorn, who can be reached at clarisse.thorn at gmail dot com.

(Note, as of February 2011: The fifth theme, Talking Sex — about how we discuss sexual pleasure, desire, and consent — was ultimately dropped due to a lack of corresponding films. We’ll cover related stuff, though.)

2010 3 Dec

Introducing :: Project “What Are You Into?”

Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’ll be helping out at the friendly neighborhood museum again! Here’s one of the projects I’ll be handling. Please feel free to repost this!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Contact:
Clarisse Thorn
773.761.9200
clarisse at leatherarchives dot org

The Leather Archives & Museum, a cultural center in Chicago devoted to preserving the history of alternative sexuality, is seeking to compile resources about fetishes that we don’t usually hear about. We hope to expand our collections to include toys, magazines, videos, recordings, websites and other objects that cover a wider range of alternative sexualities.

We are interested in anything that has to do with unusual fetishes — objects, stories, pornography, erotica, websites, conversations — really, anything! Fetishes we don’t have much experience with include feet, fursuits, amputations, robots, dolls, balloons, tentacles, sneezing, crushing objects — but there are simply too many fetishes in the world for a comprehensive list.

We at the Leather Archives & Museum have plenty of experience with coming to terms with unusual sexual desires. Our goal is not to exoticize alternative sexuality, nor do we intend to shame anyone who discusses alternative sexuality with us. Our goal is to preserve the history of alternative sexuality — all alternative sexuality.

We respect your privacy. Anything you send us or tell us can be kept under your real name or a pseudonym, as you prefer.

The point person for this project is Clarisse Thorn, who can be reached by email at [ clarisse at leatherarchives dot org ]. You can also leave her a voice message if you call the Leather Archives at 773.761.9200.

ABOUT THE LA&M: The Leather Archives & Museum is devoted to preserving the history of alternative sexuality. By sharing your experience with the Leather Archives & Museum, you will be helping us document sexual practices that are not widely recorded or understood. The Leather Archives & Museum is located at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL, USA; you can visit the website at www.leatherarchives.org.

2010 11 Nov

[classic repost] Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing

This was originally posted on January 19, 2009. I am reposting it today in honor of Scarleteen, the best sex education website ever, and as part of the awesome Scarleteen Sex Ed Blog Carnival.

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I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into some sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype (but to be clear, it’s not okay that I did that). As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies is that it helps people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. When I developed my first sex education workshop, it was all about describing good communication strategies. I listed questions that all sex partners could benefit from asking each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?”

And I talked about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I took a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I told people that they could try filling out those checklists and giving them to their partners. (The amazing sex education site Scarleteen later implemented the same idea, in a much more comprehensive way than I had!) I suggested that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, or write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

(By the way, I still offer a much-improved version of that workshop on my list of events, lectures, and workshops, just in case you’re interested in bringing me in ….)

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the wonderful sex-positive anthology Yes Means Yes!:

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.

POSTSCRIPT: Scarleteen does a really great job of dealing with my five points above. It’s also a grassroots effort, and needs donations to keep running. Please consider donating to Scarleteen. From the donate link: “Scarleteen is an independent, comprehensive and inclusive sexuality clearinghouse for young adults which receives no federal, state or local funding. We serve around 25,000 users daily, providing accurate, nonjudgmental and compassionate sexuality information and education via static content, as well as one-on-one advice and counsel via our highly-moderated message boards, our advice columns and our new SMS service. Tens of millions of teens and young adults have found the help or information they were seeking at Scarleteen.”

So, seriously. Donate!

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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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