Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

2012 13 Nov

[review] Burning Man 2012

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was originally published at The Point, a Chicago-based print journal on contemporary life and culture. It will also be printed in Issue 6, and here’s the Issue 6 Annotated Table Of Contents.

* * *

BurningManWhen I wake up at the hotel in Reno, my memories are a messy pastiche. I reach for an image to encapsulate my review of Burning Man, but everything I grasp feels like a flat cliché. Dancing beside a fluorescent art deco bus and a fire-belching metal octopus. Bonding with a new friend by solving a maze’s secret doors. Randomly encountering a fake film crew composed entirely of trenchcoated noir buffs, who welcome me into their game. Accepting, with gratitude, the recitation of a poem about self-awareness and another about kissing. Walking to the edge of a desert dance floor to stretch and greet the dawn with an exhausted grin.

Each of these are all of it, and yet the smallest piece. So I’ll start at the beginning.

* * *

I am in a garage with a neuroscientist, a sales executive, a teacher, a bike co-op manager, and some dude whose deal I don’t know. Me, I’m a feminist sex writer specializing in S&M and moonlighting as a new media consultant. We’re loading a truck with toolboxes, barrels, bicycles, and more. This camp’s theme is watermelons; the garage is strewn with watermelon umbrellas, and we pack in a bike rack painted to look like a giant watermelon slice. Unknown Deal Dude doesn’t recognize it for a full minute. “Ohhh! It’s supposed to look like a watermelon!”

“Maybe that’s a sign that the theme has become too abstract,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

“Maybe it’s a sign that it’s become abstract enough,” he says serenely.

I wander into the back and pick up a plastic bag full of sequined watermelon pins. “Where did these come from?” I ask the teacher. She shrugs. In the corner, someone is wrapping a cooler packed with dry ice in a Mylar space blanket. The plan, apparently, is to transport an ice cream cake to the desert. Apparently, there will also be many watermelons.

The executive is “working from home” during the 40-hour drive, using a batch of car chargers and a cellular uplink. As he clicks away on his laptop, we discuss the philosophy of social networking sites; the neuroscientist’s latest research on rat brains, and her anxieties about handling her undergraduate mentees; the people in our lives who we wish we hadn’t lost touch with; the ethics of eating human meat; plus the spiritual usage of psychedelic drugs.

I learn a new phrase: “thinky thoughts.” The co-op manager tells me that it describes “thoughts one has on acid that seem really deep, and are.”

A few hours in, we pull up at the “World’s Biggest Truck Stop.” (Their words, not mine.) I wander through the place with Unknown Deal Dude. We are floored and astonished by this culture clash. I am so floored that I text my best girlfriend.

Me: Sold here: wolf and horse t-shirts; confederate flags, “don’t tread on me” snake flags, “mess with the best die like the rest” US marine flags; John Wayne DVDs; auto tags for “redneck girl”; infinite self help books

Her: I’VE BEEN THERE OMG

Me: Is there any vegan food?

Her: Haha.

Me: Fritos it is!

Me: Dude, on the way out I noticed the door says “support independent truckstops.”

I emerge, slightly shell-shocked. “That place is confusing,” I say to Bike Co-op Manager.

He grins. “Confusion is an important state of mind.”

* * *

Burning Man began in 1986 when the founder Larry Harvey decided, on a whim, to Burn a wooden Man on a San Francisco beach. Five years later, Harvey had acquired some dedicated co-conspirators and the event had morphed into a bigger, artier free-for-all in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Twenty years after that, it’s an internationally-famous camping-out festival that drew over 50,000 attendees in 2012.

I first heard about it as an Internet junkie in the 90s; one of my online friends enthused about the explosions and gun usage, another about the drugs. Apparently, when the Burner population got too large and a basic “no gun” rule was instituted, some folks felt this was an unacceptable infringement of their freedoms that made it not worth going anymore. But plenty continued to attend, and the sheer size of the crowd led to further mild regulations and infrastructure. This included the development of a circular layout with street signs, a medical station, a Department of Mutant Vehicles, a post office, radio stations, an airport, etc. The year 2000 marked the creation of the Temple, which became one of the most important structures: a space to meditate, reflect, and mourn loss. The temporary city of Burning Man — which is only fully-realized for a single week per year — is called Black Rock City.

In 2004, Larry Harvey tried to pin down Burner culture by laying out “ten principles.” These are:

Radical Inclusion: Anyone is invited and welcome.

Gifting and Decommodification: The event is devoted to “unconditional gift-giving.” Thou shalt not engage in commercial transactions, sponsorships, advertising, or barter.

Radical Self-Reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

Radical Self-Expression: Do as thou wilt, but don’t hurt anyone.

Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility: Collaborate, cooperate, and take care of each other. Oh, and don’t break the law.

Leave No Trace: Don’t hurt the earth, and especially not the federally-protected environment of the Black Rock Desert.

Participation: “We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Immediacy: “No idea can substitute for this experience.”

There are critiques to be launched. So many critiques. Perhaps those of you who share my Advanced Degree In Social Justice Snippiness, claws honed by hundreds of Internet catfights, spotted critiques in my first few paragraphs. For example, while Burners may Leave No Trace upon the surface of the desert, an awful lot of fossil fuels are burned to get there. Scarce resources are used when — say — transporting an ice cream cake in a dry ice freezer. And my spidey sense for “Third World exploitation” was tweaked by those cheap, beautiful, mass-produced sequined watermelon pins.

Plus, the Burning Man organization charges for tickets, which arguably puts a cramp in Radical Inclusion. To be fair, the event has enormous costs to cover, like a $750,000 land usage permit. There are also “low-income” tickets available for a mere $160 apiece (most 2012 tickets ranged from $240-$420), but the bigger individual costs are equipping oneself and getting there. You can already see certain demographics represented in the crew I drove out with — and in our reaction to the World’s Biggest Truck Stop. All my campmates had degrees from prestigious universities, and included a doctor and a Google engineer. Also: I can count the number of people of color I met on one hand.

According to 2010 statistics from the Burning Man census, 20 percent of Black Rock City makes over $100,000 per year (compared to 6 percent of the USA’s general population). A bit over 30 percent of the city makes under $30,000 (compared to a bit over 50 percent of the general population). As a writer, I myself wouldn’t have gone if my journey weren’t heavily subsidized and I hadn’t been given a free ticket by generous, well-heeled friends. And let’s face it: I may not be at my friends’ earning level, but I’m still in their social class. Offering me that access isn’t nearly as Radically Inclusive as offering it to Joe the Plumber would be. But here we have the perennial problem of class segregation: none of us know Joe the Plumber.

Burning Man came from San Francisco, and to San Francisco doth most attendees return. 1986-2012 has seen San Francisco shift from hippie beach town and radical sexuality haven to Silicon Valley boom times. If a bomb hit Black Rock City, then the Valley would need a new crop of CEOs. My understanding is that even the art of Burning Man reflects this evolution. The hippie and radical sex elements remain, but attendees who have watched for ten years say it’s shinier now, costlier, with an “engineered” feel to it.

A worthy comparison might be the super-hippie Rainbow Gathering, which stemmed from a late-60s San Francisco group and first came together in 1972. The Gathering moves from forest to forest each year, is free to attend, does not have a single leader at the helm, and is considerably more working-class than Burning Man. There’s less art at the Gathering and more environmental issues; the Burning Man organization purchases a permit that helps the government deal with its impact on federal land, something the Rainbow Gathering has apparently resisted. On the other hand, the Gathering seems to help genuinely down-and-out folks, like marginalized homeless kids.

With all that said: our Advanced Degrees In Social Justice Snippiness are important, but if I lay mine aside for a moment, I can’t help liking Burning Man. A lot of things are just plain cool, like the art. I love the whimsy of bringing an ice cream cake, even though it uses lots of resources. But most importantly, despite my considerable grumpy skepticism, the festival keeps surprising me.

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2012 6 Nov

Clarisse Thorn Talks Porn: Censorship, Sex Workers’ Rights, & More

A writer named Justin Cascio just interviewed me for an article about porn. I enjoyed answering his questions, so I thought I’d share my answers with you, too.

* * *

The Worst Part About Censorship is [scribbled out]How do you define pornography?

A famous lawmaker was once asked to define porn. He said: “I know it when I see it.” That definition makes me uncomfortable because it’s so unclear. Unclear legal definitions only serve the interests of people in power, and they create a bad environment for everyone else. Unclear definitions force creative people to guess whether their work will fall into an illegal category, and thus they create what activists call a “chilling effect” on free speech. This means that people censor themselves even when they aren’t doing anything wrong, because they basically don’t want to go anywhere near things that might be illegal.

It’s especially important to note that anti-porn legislation and censorship has consistently been used to silence a broad array of people, including sex writers like me who create theoretical or political material. Here is one very mild example: I get tons of emails from people who can’t access my blog because I’m censored by their university or whatever. That’s messed up; I mean, for God’s sake, I’ve lectured at some of these universities! If we must legislate porn differently from other types of media, then it should have a clear legal definition.

However! For everyday folks who aren’t lawyers or judges, the definition of “porn” is quite fuzzy. (Definitions are often fuzzy with sex-related issues.) I don’t see a big difference between porn and erotica, or between porn and romance novels for that matter — except that they have different target audiences. In that sense, I suppose that I think of “porn” as “visual media showing explicit sex, which is usually (but not always) aimed at stereotypical heterosexual cisgendered men.”

I’ve been talking about my new anthology a lot lately, but I want to mention it again because it’s totally relevant here. I just collaborated with an amazing tech writer, Julian Dibbell, to create an anthology called Violation: Rape In Gaming. The anthology collects different essays and perspectives about sexual assault in all kinds of games — video games, roleplaying games, etc. (I also wrote an introduction that explains different types of games, so if you’re not a gamer, you can still understand the anthology.) I think that this volume really gets at the heart of some porn-related issues, and hints at some of the definitional problems; if you’re interested in problems of porn, you should definitely check it out.

What is the ugly side of the porn industry, and how are regular users responsible?

The important issues of porn are the same as the important issues in all types of sex work. Did the participants consent? Are they working in a respectful, safe environment? I recently read an excellent article about cam girls by Sam Biddle, and I love that article because it talks about both the super-empowered wealthy Western women who make great money and live a fairy-tale life … and also the women, often in the Third World, who are clearly unhappy and exploited.

One thing I particularly appreciate about that article is how it points out that exploited cam girls are much harder to speak with directly than rich, self-employed cam girls. I firmly believe that there are many sex workers who freely chose and enjoy their jobs, but the following facts must be acknowledged:

1) Less privileged sex workers — people who are at a disadvantage because of their race, class, gender identity, or whatever — are more likely to be exploited and abused and silenced, because their disadvantages will be used against them. For example, a poor person is obviously more likely to do work that they hate because they’re desperate for money.

2) Less privileged sex workers are less likely to have the time, education, or knowledge to effectively articulate their experience. Sidenote: please check out the Speak Up! trainings, which are intended to educate sex workers on how to deal with the media, and help sex workers describe their own experience.

3) As a result of these factors, the discourse is often dominated by privileged sex workers. This is a serious problem. The activist Audacia Ray, who is a personal hero of mine, has an article about this. When you look at porn, this means that a lot of the sex workers we hear from around the online gendersphere — maybe most? — are having an awesome time.

And I certainly think that privileged sex workers should talk about that as much as they want! Shout it from the rooftops! But I also think we must be cautious about drawing conclusions based solely on those voices. I particularly appreciate privileged sex worker writers who both love their jobs and make an effort to highlight less-privileged voices.

So, what are a porn consumer’s responsibilities? I would be absolutely thrilled if more porn consumers would boycott porn whose employees are exploited. I acknowledge that it’s not always easy to tell whose employees are exploited, and whose aren’t — especially given the three considerations I listed above. Years ago, I published a two-part interview with a BDSM pornographer named Tim Woodman, and the most interesting part was the second half, because that was where he responded to audience criticisms from the first half. Tim received questions like: “If some porn models are being paid hush money, then how are consumers supposed to know which porn is okay?” And his answer was, honestly, that it’s often difficult and nuanced. (The male feminist writer Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote a response piece called “I Can Never Tell.”)

I have often thought that it’s past time for “fair trade sex work,” where ethics becomes a selling point. I have also often thought the most feminist thing I could do would be to open a brothel where the employees are treated well. Honestly, if it weren’t illegal in my home country, I might have done this already. (Which, incidentally, highlights one of the problems of making sex work illegal: making sex work illegal mostly chases away ethical people, whereas unethical ones don’t mind so much.)

In the meantime, there are feminist pornographers who work really hard to put out ethical porn. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but it’s worth checking out the Feminist Porn Awards, as well as the documentary Hot ‘n’ Bothered: Feminist Pornography. Here’s a nice piece called “The Five Hallmarks of Feminist Porn.” And for those with an interest in BDSM, I recommend the challenging documentary Graphic Sexual Horror — it really gets at the meat of these issues.

Extra credit: the male porn star Tyler Knight has some excellent writing about his emotional difficulties, like this piece. Just in case you were thinking that everything is peaches and cream for male porn stars.

Can porn use become a problem?

Anything can become a problem. I don’t have time for people who claim that sex-related stuff is more likely to become a problem than other stuff that feels good.

When I’m with people who are capable of starting the conversation from an agreement that “sexuality is not necessarily bad” and “people have different sexual preferences,” I sometimes have interesting conversations about porn use being a problem. But you have to start there.

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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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2011 13 Jul

[random] Lost And Found Man

This piece has basically nothing to do with sex and gender. I originally wrote it a while back, pondered trying to get it published, made some desultory attempts at doing so, failed, and then forgot about it for a while. I still like it, though, and I’ve got no idea what else to do with it, so here it is. Maybe I should set aside one post each month for Random Non-Sex, Non-Feminism, Non-Gender Tangents.

* * *

My friend Ryo Chijiiwa turned down an offer from Facebook to work at Yahoo, and later moved to Google. Then, in 2009, he bought an isolated plot of land in the northern California woods — 6 hours by car from San Francisco — and built his own small house. His property, which he calls Serenity Valley, is positively covered with gorgeous trees and attractive outlooks onto the mountains. The nearest Internet access is in a town half an hour away, where Ryo occasionally goes for supplies.

Ryo has shoulder-length hair and wide dark eyes, and he wears no-nonsense clothes full of pockets. I first met him in August 2010 at the San Francisco meetup known as Burning Man, but I already knew him by reputation. Our mutual friends spoke admiringly of his intelligence and — unusually — frugality: his apartments had always been Spartan, and he built his own bedframe, even when he was receiving an excellent salary as a software engineer. (Ryo later insisted he’s not actually that frugal: “It’s just that I spent all my money on easy-to-miss things, like travel and guns.”)

Burning Man, in all its chaotic artistic glory, was my reintegration into America. I’d just returned from working in rural southern Africa, and I was a bundle of confused emotions. [1] I loved the brilliant lights, libertine community, and sheer creative energy of Burning Man — but sometimes it was a bit much to deal with. Sometimes I wanted someplace more peaceful and less self-consciously hedonistic. If I hadn’t been drawn in by Ryo’s good-natured intelligence, then the minute he spoke about living quietly in the woods I would have been hooked. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I thought he was cute.

* * *

I’m still not sure how I convinced Ryo to take me to Serenity Valley, but here we are, driving out. Rather, he’s doing most of the driving, and I’m asking questions about his childhood across three countries. Ryo was born in 1980, and his family moved from America to Japan when he was 7. When he was 10, they went to Germany, and there he stayed until age 18. The family always spoke Japanese at home.

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2011 9 Jun

In Praise of Monogamy

There are lots of different ways of approaching non-monogamous relationships, such as:

+ Polyamory: Usually emphasizes developing full-on romantic relationships with more than one partner. Lately I’ve been pondering and working on a number of tricky questions about implementing polyamory. (I’ve been researching polyamory since my teens, but only in recent years did I decide to actively pursue it.)

+ Swinging: Usually emphasizes couples with their own close bond, who have relatively casual sex with other partners. (Another difference between swinging and polyamory is that swingers tend to be more at home in mainstream culture, whereas polyamorists tend to be geeky or otherwise “alternative”. Here’s a great, long piece on poly culture vs. swing culture.)

+ Cheating: One partner does something with an outside partner that wasn’t accepted or understood in advance. In monogamous relationships, cheating usually involves having sex with an outside partner. Cheating exists in polyamorous or swing relationships as well: for example, a person might cheat on a non-monogamous partner by breaking an agreement — an agreement such as “we don’t have unprotected sex with other partners”.

Just in case it needs to be said: I never advocate cheating, ever. As for the first two, I know both poly people and swingers that I consider totally decent and wonderful folks! I have more personal experience with and interest in polyamory, though.

Yet one thing that often gets lost in conversations about all these options is the advantages of monogamy. Of which there are many. Although I don’t currently identify as monogamous, I had a very strong monogamous preference for years. I knew that polyamory existed, and I thought about it a lot, because it’s interesting — but I just didn’t feel like it was for me. (In fact, my most adamantly polyamorous friend used to call me his “reasonable monogamous friend”. He said I had examined polyamory enough to reasonably reject it, whereas he felt most people never consider polyamory deeply enough to have a thoughtful opinion.)

And lately lots of my monogamous friends have been getting married. So I’ve been thinking about the positive aspects of their relationship choices as I dance at their weddings, devour mini-quiches, flirt with their brothers and try to avoid offending their parents. (Okay, I’ve actually only flirted with one brother. So far.)

A Few Advantages of Monogamy (this is not a complete list)

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2010 26 Nov

Social responsibility, activism, and giving thanks

Tonight I had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her boyfriend. Some friends of my mother attended, one of whom is a lesbian who I’ll call Kay. Kay attended dinner with her mother, who is unaware of Kay’s sexual orientation. One of the reasons Kay’s mom doesn’t know about Kay’s sexual orientation is that Kay’s mom has already behaved quite badly towards Kay’s elder sister, who is an out-of-the-closet lesbian.

I knew this whole situation going in, and one thing that struck me was how much of a nice person Kay’s mom is. I mean … she’s really nice. I mean, she clearly tries to be a good person. She also tried really hard to help me do the dishes. (I didn’t let her because I wanted them all to myself.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to engage with people who have done bad things, or who are currently doing things I think are bad (like shaming their lesbian daughters). It wouldn’t have been right to throw my sex-positive ideas on the table while talking to Kay’s mom — mostly because Kay specifically asked me not to, ahead of time. But. The most powerful tool for getting people to reconsider their stigma against alternative sexuality is personal engagement. Don’t I have some responsibility here? Is there something I can do?

Other examples of this are rife. One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life … every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.

When I was in high school, one of my closest male friends raped a female acquaintance of mine. She didn’t press charges and they later had a romance that was, to all appearances, consensual. I pieced events together slowly — he did acknowledge what he’d done, though never directly to me. I didn’t know what to do, at the time, and I still feel as though I should have done so much more. He and I were so close. I never had the nerve to directly talk to him about what happened, because — even though we never talked directly about it — I saw evidence that he felt terrible about it, and I was sure that I could devastate him by talking about it more. But still … I should have talked to him.

I also feel as though I should have supported her more, but I don’t know what I could have said. There were people who told her that she shouldn’t be having a consensual relationship with her rapist. It seemed wrong to tell her that — I felt like it eroded her agency, attacked her right to choose — so I didn’t say it. If I had said it, though, would that have been helpful to her? What could I have done to be a better resource for her? Especially given that I was such close friends with him?

I was young(er), but that’s no excuse. Then again, what am I excusing? I did nothing. But I should have done more.

Now, again, I have a friend, a good friend, who assaulted someone. It’s a friend in the local S&M community. I don’t know the survivor at all. I have to talk to my friend about it, but what do I say, and what happens next? Feminism instructs us that we should listen to the voices of survivors, that community mores and community condemnation are what stops rape from happening. I believe these things to be true; and there are people close to me who have survived rape, and I really want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to ensure that rape stops happening. But I intensely wish that I had more guidance on what exactly to say, how exactly to act, to change the mores.

I emailed my ex-boyfriend Chastity Boy for advice, because he’s got one of the finest ethical minds I’ve ever been lucky enough to engage with. Here’s part of what he wrote back:

I’ve tried to distill your messages into a few questions, and I ended up with “How does one parse a situation in which a friend, and an otherwise noble person, seems to have done serious wrong?” and “What are a person’s moral obligations in this case?”

Nobody is composed of unmixed goodness or evil, no matter how much of a paragon/fiend 1) they seem to be or 2) their principles require. People we respect and love are not forces of nature or avatars of their cause of choice, no matter how thoroughly they embody it to us. I don’t say this because I think you haven’t considered it, but because I know I’ve had a lot of trouble absorbing it over the years and think it might therefore bear restating to others, too.

As an individual, a person has a relatively large degree of freedom in action and association. I think where this case becomes truly difficult to consider is when we bring in justice and the community. Because the means of enforcement of the rules of these communities is so interpersonal, one’s interpersonal actions take on an unusual role of community-level justice as well as merely justice between two people. I can’t see how it could ever be good to allow things like this to just slide. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you can do but (as you suggest in one of your messages) politely ask your friend about their take on the story. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that people are paying attention to this thing and might give you some insight into their character and opinions of the issue.

He’s right. I agree. But. What now? How do I ask, what do I say? How can I tell if my friend has dealt with whatever healing has to take place in order for such assaults not to happen again?

UPDATE, 2012: There are a lot of resources out there on “restorative justice” or “transformative justice,” a phrase that describes initiatives that work with assault perpetrators outside the criminal justice system. Here’s a list of a bunch of those resources. End of update

* * *

Tough questions. But it is all Thanksgiving and stuff, and though I try to avoid mouthing pieties … thinking about these questions has reminded me that I truly do have an incredible amount to be thankful for. And how I want my work — sex-positive and otherwise — to be shaped by the things I’m thankful for.

+ I am thankful for how open and accepting my parents have been about my own sexuality, as well as my choice to engage in sex-positive activism; I can’t imagine how much more stressful it would be to engage in all my various sex-positive projects and writing if I didn’t have their support. I hope to contribute to a society where people can have more open, honest, and understanding conversations about sexuality with their parents. (There are limits, of course. I’m pretty sure my parents don’t usually read my blog, especially not the more intense posts. And it’s probably better that way.)

+ I am thankful for the time I spent in Africa, for all the things I learned there, and for my relationship with Chastity Boy. People who put so much thought into morality are hard to find; CB challenged me in a number of ways, and I was thrilled by how seriously he engaged with my views on sexual morality (many of which were rather new to him). America’s views on sexual morality hurt so many people — from rape survivors, to sex workers, to alternatively-sexual people like me. I’d like to contribute to a society where deep moral thought is encouraged, and in particular, to a society with less harmful views on sexual morality.

+ I am overwhelmingly thankful for the privilege I enjoy — education, class, race, a huge number of safety nets. I hope that I can put that privilege to good use. It was scary to leave Africa partly because I was afraid I was giving up on a life path by which I could really do a lot of good, but now that I’ve been back for a while, it’s incredibly clear that it was the best personal choice I could make … and that there is a lot of potential good to be done here, too. I sometimes feel like I should be putting my effort into “more important” activist type things — as if, for example, the stuff I worked on in Africa “wins” over sex-positive activism in America, when we put things on some kind of social justice “scale”. Or sometimes I feel like I should be looking for the “biggest” issues to work on, such as global warming, which is an actual threat to our species. Or sometimes I even worry that sex-positive feminism is “too privileged” a field to meaningfully be described as “activism” …. (Yeah … in some ways I have privilege issues, I think.)

Still, while I feel committed to keeping my ecological footprint small and all that good stuff, it seems clear that my personal loves and interests and skills are best-suited to sex-positive feminism. I do hope that I can keep the big picture in mind, and stay at least somewhat humble about my approach; and at the very least, acknowledging privilege seems like a good place to start with that. I ought to be thankful that I have privilege that allows me to do things with my time that I find fascinating, rewarding, and important.

+ And hey, reader: thanks to you, too. I learn so much from people who read my work, especially the regular commenters. I heart all y’all. Thank you for your perspectives.

* * *

Part of 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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2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

UPDATE 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

* * *

Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.

One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.

Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)

The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.

Recently I was going through the SM-Feminist archives looking for a couple of posts to cite in a piece that I’m working on, and I was stunned to see how much of it overlapped with things I’ve written — even though I’ve specifically tried not to recapitulate what’s already been said over there. Some examples:

* This post basically encompasses everything I said in my old post BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Complications of the Orientation Model, except that it’s more complicated, and also touches on some points I made in my more recent post 5 Sources of Assumptions and Stereotypes About S&M.

* The post How a Girl Learns to Say No elegantly makes one of the major points from my post on safewords and check-ins.

* This post on the term “vanilla” is a more complicated and interesting take on a question that I first started considering way back when I started blogging, in my post Vanilla: Dissection of a Term. It even encompasses all the things I meant to write when I wrote the followup to my post, you know, the followup that never actually happened.

And then there are the SM-Feminist posts that say things I’ve either never gotten around to saying, or that I simply haven’t bothered to blog about because I know they said it better. I’ve even cited some of these posts in lectures. Here’s a (doubtless incomplete) list of those posts:

* BDSM and Self-HarmI want to make this perfectly clear. I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point.

… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

* Why BDSM?Radical feminists are quick to point out to any kinky person who feels uneasy hearing that her fucking is just standard heteropatriarchy that they’re not trying to control what anyone does in bed. “I’m not trying to take your whips away,” etc. They’ll be extremely careful to mention this, and understandably irritated when someone goes “They’re trying to make me hang up the whips and go home,” given how clear they are that this isn’t what they want to do.

What I don’t understand is exactly what good the theory does at all, if they’re not trying to change people.

* OppressionIn discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

“People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you’re insulting people who really are oppressed. It’s as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. “

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we’re using. I realized that I don’t actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it’s used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don’t know an official definition, such that it’s possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don’t have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren’t close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

* Safer Communication PracticesThere are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like “safeword” or “safe, sane, and consensual”. And sometimes they’re tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they’re tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they’re attempting to express.

Last but not least, I’m just going to list the titles of some posts on BDSM and abuse:
* Wut About The Abuuuuzers?
* Not Your Usual BDSM and Abuse Story
* Confession
* The Nature of Abuse

The influences on my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse are obvious.

So there you go, folks. Right there, in the above links, are actually most of my major theoretical influences as a pro-SM feminist (and, indeed, as a general S&M practitioner). Someday I might find something to say about S&M and feminism that Trinity (and her fellow bloggers, occasionally) haven’t already said five times, better ….

… but I’m not holding my breath.

REMINDER from 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2010 16 Sep

[Africa] Male circumcision and colonized libidos

Some recent pieces of mine on CarnalNation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 14 Sep

Sex worker sob story totally misses the point

Forget the voices of sex workers who genuinely enjoy their jobs and are tired of being cut out of the discourse on the sex industry. Forget arguments about how the Craigslist shutdown will end up harming sex workers who are genuinely trafficked or abused. No, let’s focus on Phoebe Kay, who’s mad because Craigslist made it easy for her to sell sex, and she didn’t like doing it. Therefore, she argues in a recent Salon piece, it is entirely right and proper that Craigslist has been pressured into removing its “erotic services” ads.

Wait, what?

Ms. Kay’s experience does sound unpleasant — just as any job a person doesn’t want to do will be unpleasant. And I do sympathize. She writes that before she even started working, she “felt like vomiting” and adds, “There was no question this gig didn’t come naturally to me.” Hey, I’ve felt like that about jobs before. Usually those feelings are a strong hint that I shouldn’t take the job! Ms. Kay, on the other hand, went right ahead — but it’s not her own fault, it’s Craigslist’s fault.

She notes that she’d sent out “hundreds” of cover letters to other jobs before trying her hand at escorting, but one wonders if she tried McDonald’s. Or was that too degrading to contemplate? What about selling the car she mentions in the article, or asking the parents she mentions for support? I’m not trying to mock the “desperation” Ms. Kay says she felt, but it’s hard to believe that a woman with such an obvious safety net truly felt that she had no choice at all. Not to mention, there are plenty of escorts who got into the business because they were strapped for cash, but who don’t disown the choice they made, even if they had a bad experience in the end.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Ms. Kay didn’t do her research. (Would she have done more research if she’d taken a less romanticized, less stereotyped, so-called “real” job?) Her knowledge of the sex industry appears to have been limited to watching an interview with Ashley Dupré (you know, that girl who become famous for the ruin of Eliot Spitzer). Ms. Kay complains that she thought high-end escorts had a better life than the one she was exposed to. Well, many of them do — but many of them also try multiple work avenues, enjoy their jobs, and work hard at building a career: “I was eating ramen noodles and buying my work clothes from Ross Dress For Less,” writes FurryGirl of her first few years. As for liking the job, enjoyment is a pretty important ingredient of success at any career, but especially high-end sex work. As Mistress Matisse notes, “Clients often prefer someone who is warm and friendly to a chilly bitch who can get that extra inch down her throat.”

In particular, you’d think that someone who decides to go into sex work would have tolerance for other people’s sexuality. But too many don’t, as Ms. Kay demonstrates when she talks about an S&M-oriented client: she calls him “the guy who insisted I dominate him and creeped me out so much I had to ask him to leave.” No wonder she didn’t earn much of a living: “I never made more in a week than I’d made in any other job I’d had — often a lot less.” She calls the advertisements offering escorts lots of money “false promises”, but in reality they’re more like similar ads from insurance jobs or other commission-based careers: some people are good at getting those promised high commissions, and some aren’t.

I’m being serious when I say that I’m sorry for what Ms. Kay went through. She made a mistake, she chose a job that didn’t suit her, and again, it sounds like she had a really bad time. But nothing non-consensual happened to her, no one abused her, except for one single client who stiffed her for a fee. And despite my sympathy, I’m furious that Ms. Kay is using her story to militate against visibility and acceptance for sex work. She even acknowledges that there was absolutely nothing non-consensual about her experience: “I was carded by my employers. I was never forced to do something I didn’t want.” Yet at the same time, she condemns Craigslist merely for making it possible, using overwrought language better suited to a 1930s pulp novel: “ads on Craigslist made it easy — yes, too easy — for a naive woman like me to slide into a dark and illegal lifestyle.” She ends her article by saying that she hopes the Craigslist shutdown will “prevent someone like me from going down this path.”

I am reminded of a moment from 2004, when I attended the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. As we cheered and sang and marched for abortion rights, we passed a (much smaller) group of pro-life protesters. One street was lined with pro-life women who had chosen to have an abortion; they regretted it and had decided that, because of their bad experience, other women shouldn’t be allowed the same choice.

My column of pro-choicers briefly fell silent when we passed those pro-life demonstrators. We were touched by their obvious pain. But as the truth slowly seeped in — that these women were hypocritically seeking to restrict our choices, based on their mistakes — a cry went up: “Your body, your choice,” we shouted.

Your body, your choice, Phoebe Kay. Pick up the pieces, learn from your mistake, and move on. If you’re so concerned about other women, then don’t use your story to distract from the real issues: issues of free will, bodily integrity, social security, and oppressive gender dynamics. I’m just sick and tired of sob stories that ignore what’s important about sex work — like the all-important fact that decriminalizing sex work, decreasing stigma, and raising the profession’s visibility will make conditions better both for those who enter the sex industry voluntarily, and for those who want to leave it.

2010 23 May

Exciting new “Time Out” blog; reflections on blogrolls and blogospheres

I’ve been hired as a professional blogger! I’ll be keeping my personal blog here, but I’ll be posting quick links and even quicker commentary over at Time Out Chicago: Love Bites.

While setting up my Time Out blog, I found myself thinking about one of the more headache-inducing aspects of blogging: the Blogroll. You can see my blogroll on the right side of this page, and that’s where the Time Out editors put my Time Out blogroll as well. Blogrolls are sticky and interesting because there are definite social conventions surrounding them, but those social conventions are not well-defined, and different people use very different approaches.

* Some people just post links to whatever blogs they like or consider interesting. Some people work really hard to screen blogs for their blogrolls and figure out whether they really want to link them or not; others just glance over blogs and add them if they seem interesting. And others avoid the whole problem by not having a blogroll on their site at all.

* Some people are straightforwardly tit-for-tat about blogrolls: they do “link exchanges”, which means that you post a link to someone’s blog in your blogroll, and in exchange they post a link to you. This means that not only will people maybe find your blog through that other blog, but that hopefully your PageRank will improve. (PageRank is Google’s measurement of a given page’s importance. For example, my blog has okay PageRank, which is why it’s usually on the first or second page of Google results if you search for the name “Clarisse”, even though there are over two million total results for that name.) I’ve accepted offers for link exchanges occasionally, though I obviously only do it with sites that I appreciate.

The sex toy website EdenFantasys, which also has an online magazine known as SexIs, recently got in a big heap of trouble because the links from their sites have been modified so that they don’t increase recipients’ PageRank. This is particularly scandalous because EdenFantasys will often email sex bloggers soliciting link exchanges, so basically, the evidence indicates that they’re trying to scam us for publicity, being dishonest about what they offer in return.

* I remember that when I started talking to one popular sex blogger, I asked hir if ze would be willing to link to me. Ze hesitated, saying, “Well, I’d like to meet you in person at a convention or something, before I link to you.” As it happens, we have now met, and hir site now links to mine. But I’ve thought a lot about the privilege inherent in that particular approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, really — but it does profoundly limit the circle of people who will be publicized by that person. It means that ze only promotes people with the particular contacts and background to meet hir — and it also means that ze assumed I would have the money, time, etc. to end up at a sexuality convention.

* * *

So, what to do with my own blogroll? Up until now, I’ve played fast and loose with mine — I’ve linked to cool people when I remembered to do so, and I’ve often forgotten to link blogs that really deserved attention. But while I was thinking about which blogs to feature on my Time Out blogroll, I decided that I need a better process.

I want to link to people whose writing I like, but I want to acknowledge a wide range of people, too. Now that I’ve established my blog well enough to have decent PageRank, I feel as though I should Use My Power For Good and help lots of new voices gain exposure, whether they’re my friends or not.

And then there’s the fact that the blogosphere can get surprisingly insular. It’s not that sex and gender bloggers aren’t open-minded people, it’s just that a surprisingly small amount of crossover happens within all blogospheres. (I’ve even read scholarly papers about how very well-separated some Internet divides are — from what I can tell, progressives and conservatives never read each others’ blogs.) One reason I’m excited about my new Time Out blog is that it will help me reach out to a new audience that wouldn’t normally discover my writing, and to give them exposure to the things I think are important. I’d like to think of other ways to increase the linkages and crossover among different online communities.

But I also don’t want people to just ignore my blogroll because they see it as a morass of themeless “whatever”.

It’s so confusing! Positively anxiety-inducing, I tell you! But now I have two blogrolls … which increases my options!

Here’s what I’ve come up with. On my Time Out Chicago blog, I’m linking to sex & gender blogs that have seriously impressed me with their even-handedness and insight, including a number of sex & gender activists that I know personally. There’s probably a slight emphasis on S&M blogs … hey, I never claimed not to be biased.

But here, on my good ol’ personal blog … it’s gonna be a free-for-all. If you want a link, you got it. Even if you don’t want to do a link exchange, I’ll link to your blog upon request (although obviously, I would be pleased and flattered if you linked to me).

Unless you’re a spammer, of course. Real bloggers only, please.