Posts Tagged ‘sex work’

2011 21 Jan

[litquote] S&M stereotypes, parenting, and community action

The following quotation is from an essay that tears apart awful BDSM stereotypes, and also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent,” and it was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.

The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.

In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.

This tragedy occurred because the pair had made a videotape of a scene they did at a dungeon party in a bordering state. A family member and friend who babysat for the children apparently unlocked the box where the tape was kept, revealed its contents to at least one of the Houghtons’ children, told them their father was abusing their mother, and sent a copy of the videotape to the police. No minors were featured in the videotape, and S/M activities did not take place in the Houghtons’ home. Nevertheless, the videotaped evidence of kinky sex was enough to bring down the wrath of Child Protection Services, who removed the 7- and 12-year-old and kept them in foster homes for more than a year. This was in spite of testimony by one of the law guardians, who told the court the children would be better served by returning them to their parents.

… It’s interesting to think about how we might feel about being parents if we lived in a society where S/M was not stigmatized. … One of the smartest things I ever heard about S/M was uttered by a gay man, Steven Brown, who used to pair up with me to do educational lectures about the scene. He once said, throwing up his hands in despair about the suspicious grilling we were getting, “I do this because I am a loving person. I love and respect the people I play with. And that includes being able to embrace parts of them that are supposed to be unlovable.” This foundation of acceptance and empathy seems to me to be potentially quite useful to a parent, who must be able to see things from a child’s point of view, and deal with a lot of behavior that is extremely trying.

As a top [i.e. a dominant/sadist], I’ve learned how to communicate in terms that will make sense to the other person. I’ve learned patience. I have a deep love for the vagaries of human nature and respect for the wisdom of the body. I am able to create a positive experience within a framework of limitations handed to me by another person. Of course, some idiot will probably assume that by making this list I am saying that I am going to somehow top my child. That would be asinine. I’ve learned how to keep my intense sexual experiences from spilling over into parts of my life where that kind of role-playing would not be appropriate. That is, if anything is, the First Principle of participating in these kinds of erotic fantasies. In order to be a responsible, safe player, you have to know when to be your scene-self, and when to be your mundane self.

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau [two famous BDSM novels] and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide. We are supposed to be content with existing as two-dimensional caricatures of vanilla people’s erotic paranoia, emerging from our warrens only after dark, always clad in body-hugging fetish gear, having no real lives outside of public dungeon clubs and “violent” pornography. What’s really sad is the fact that a number of us buy into this insane picture of how a “real sadomasochist” is supposed to behave. It’s a good way to end up burned out, disillusioned, and in exile from the realm of pervery.

2011 16 Jan

The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community — it will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, at a local dungeon.

* * *

BDSMers face a lot of stigma around our sexuality, and this can be a major problem when BDSMers are trying to deal with abusive situations. I’ve written before about generally negative conceptions of BDSM — they can briefly be summarized as:

* S&M is wicked,
* abnormal,
* a sign of mental or emotional instability,
* inherently abusive,
* or even antifeminist.

Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:

1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.

2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.

I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that point #2 sometimes reacts with point #1 in a toxic way — that is, it can ironically be harder for abuse survivors to talk about abuse within the BDSM community because the community is pushing back so hard against the stereotype of abusive BDSM. I’ve spoken to BDSMers who feel that the S&M community pushes back far too hard, and that survivors are being aggressively silenced simply because the rest of us are so invested in fighting mainstream stereotypes. I have never personally experienced this, but I would not be surprised if I did. And the fact is that I’m sure there are toxic dynamics in some BDSM communities — we aren’t a monolith, folks — and that even in 100% awesome communities, I’m sure there are at least a few abusive relationships. And even one abusive relationship in the community is obviously too many.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote when the most recent abusive BDSM case hit the media, “Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be substantive.” This is something we should be taking action on. But how?

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2010 24 Dec

[litquote] Sex workers and whore stigma in southern Africa

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010 17 Dec

Whore stigma makes no sense

(The above image is a slide from a presentation by Marlise Richter, a researcher at the AIDS Law Project, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. It is described at the bottom of this post.)

Stigma is an interesting beastie. Whore stigma is particularly interesting, in part because it makes no sense and falls apart the minute it’s exposed to any rational analysis whatsoever. Yet somehow, even though it makes no sense, it is a constant and often overwhelming social force that shapes the lives of all women.

There’s an old joke about a man who walks up to a woman at a bar and asks, “Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “What about fifty dollars?” and she snaps, “What the hell do you think I am — a whore?” He replies, “We’ve already established that you’re a whore; now we’re just negotiating the price.”

Inherent in this joke, and in the slide I showcase at the top of this post, is the tension and confusion that happens pretty much automatically whenever anyone tries to point out the difference between a “nice girl” and a “whore”. It’s one of the best ways to show that whore stigma makes no sense: the difference is impossible to pin down.

What’s weird about these conversations, though, is that everyone almost always gets caught up in the question of who’s a whore and who’s not a whore — and in the confusion, very few people think to question whether whore stigma itself is ridiculous and divisive and harmful. This even happens during conversations that start with the intent of questioning the very concept of whore stigma, such as this post by sex work researcher Laura Agustín; the post’s whole point is that the concept of whore stigma makes no sense — but commenters on the post immediately start trying to define what a whore is.

Indeed, this even happens among sex workers. My friends at the Sex Workers Outreach Project have told me how complicated it can be to pull different sex workers together, in order to work towards legal rights and societal recognition. One recurring issue is how some sex workers will refuse to associate with other sex workers: for example, professional dominatrixes or strippers may refuse to associate with escorts because “You’re whores, and we’re not whores, and we’re not like you.” This is one more factor making it hard for sex workers’ rights advocates to achieve social momentum. Which may mean that when — for example — the law randomly decides that dominatrixes are actually whores (surprise!), those non-whore sex workers may find themselves without resources.

But of course it happens among non-sex workers, too. Because being an “actual” sex worker is in no way a requirement for being called a whore, or for having whore stigma slammed in your face. Any woman who carries condoms might as well be a whore, right? Not even thirteen-year-old girls are exempt from whore stigma or its twin, slut-shaming, as we learned from Hope Witsell’s suicide last year. Hope sexted a boy who betrayed her and sent her message all over the school — at which point she was punished severely, was socially ostracized, and killed herself.

Examples of whore stigma abound, and none of us are innocent from reinforcing it. I’ll cop to it: before I had a grip on how problematic whore stigma is, I myself called one or two women whores because I felt threatened by them. I hadn’t thought through how easily I myself might be harmed by the label; I hadn’t yet identified my fears of being labeled one myself. I was insensitive — and I was also stupid, because whore stigma could come get me as easily as it could get an “actual” whore. Contributing to it wasn’t just hurting other women, it was also shooting myself in the foot.

Plus, the more effort women put into distinguishing ourselves from whores, the less effort we can put into actually working on the issues that harm women. Or making common cause with, say, sex workers who aren’t women and therefore get completely disappeared during all this anxious finger-pointing.

When we will acknowledge that whore stigma makes no sense, that it’s ridiculous and divisive and harmful? What does it take? All women’s appearance and activities — especially our sexuality — are attacked, limited, and kept in line by the threat of “sluthood” and “whoredom”. In that sense, we all pay. We all have a stake in taking down these social structures.

And we can start by accepting and acknowledging sex work as an honorable job that deserves both legal and social recognition. Today is a fantastic day to do just that. December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and there may just be an event in your area. It’s also worth considering reading up on how to be an ally to sex workers and passing that information on to your friends.

Please note that The Wisdom of Whores, the awesome book by Elizabeth Pisani that I encouraged y’all to read for free on World AIDS Day at the beginning of this month, is still available for free download — all the way through the end of December. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. It’s free! What are you waiting for?

* * *

(The slide at the beginning of this post shows a straight horizontal line with an arrow at each end. At the top, the graphic is labeled “Sex-for-reward continuum”. The right end of the arrow is labeled “Illegitimate”, and the left end is labeled “Legitimate”. From right to left there are five points, labeled as follows:

* “Self-identified sex worker on a street corner?”
* “Woman who has sex at the back of a taxi in exchange for a ride into town?”
* “School girl has sex with her ex-boyfriend for cell phone airtime?” [Note: This slide was used in an African presentation. In Africa, or at least in the parts I’m familiar with, cell phone airtime is a somewhat expensive commodity. A school girl having sex in exchange for airtime is somewhat analogous to having sex in exchange for a nice piece of clothing.]
* “Student sleeps with her lecturer in order to pass?”
* “Wife has sex with her husband as she knows they are going to the mall tomorrow?”

At the bottom of the slide is a triangle pointing up to the line. It is labeled: “Who do we put in jail?”)

* * *

This post was cross-posted at Feministe. This version has a few small edits for the sake of clarity and sensitivity; those edits are lacking from the Feministe version. However, the Feministe version has a hell of a lot more comments.

* * *

2010 1 Dec

News Flash, Pay Attention: HIV Is About Sex

Today is World AIDS Day. I don’t think about HIV as much as I did a few months ago, when I was still in Africa and my job was to help with the epidemic. But today, I’m thinking about it, and I have something very simple to say:

HIV is about sex.

One of the big lessons I learned about HIV in Africa is that many, many people will do amazing mental and rhetorical backflips to avoid talking about how HIV is actually spread. It’s astonishing. You’d think that when talking about HIV, you’d have to talk about sex; you’d be wrong.

In the areas where I worked, a massive percentage of people were infected with HIV. In a number of places it was about 25%. In some populations, it was more like 40%. Think about those numbers for a second — and remember that many people who had contracted HIV had already died. In other words, uncountable numbers of people had already died of AIDS-related causes, and among the people who remained alive, the percentages still got as high as 25% and 40%.

And yet I got the message over and over and over that we mustn’t talk about sex! For example, I was told by some school authorities that I could not give safer sex information to their students because that might “encourage the students to have sex”. In other words: God forbid we tell students where to get condoms and how to use them, because that might encourage them to think sex isn’t wrong and dirty. What the authorities were really telling me is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sexuality, than it is to protect people from HIV.

Another example of this phenomenon is highlighted when we look at how the USA’s HIV charity money is spent. The President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) places rather elaborate restrictions on how the money is spent, and while there’s nothing wrong with restricting aid money in principle, these restrictions include a provision that states that no PEPFAR money may fund an organization that doesn’t actively oppose sex work. In other words: God forbid we support sex workers and help them stay safe while they do their jobs, because that might make sex workers feel like they’re accepted members of society. What PEPFAR is really saying is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sex work, than it is to protect people from HIV.

PEPFAR also demands that none of its money go towards condoms or initiatives that promote condoms; there are rumors that Obama will fix that, but I haven’t heard any confirmation of that yet. Maybe things are getting better on that score? And in one of my articles about Africa, I wrote that:

I can’t help noticing — with an occasional ironic smile — the phoenixes arising from these ashes. Firstly, it turns out that the best way to shut down sex-negative arguments against explicit sex education is to invoke the specter of HIV. One 2008 report from a well-respected local organization argued that AIDS prevention efforts should include straightforward lessons on pleasurable acts, such as oral sex or sex toy usage!

A 2004 “New York Times Magazine” article on HIV in southern Africa made the case that while “many experts contend that sexual-behavior change in Africa is complicated because women’s fear of abusive partners inhibits private discussions of sex, condom use and HIV,” the crisis also contributes to a better environment for those discussions. One researcher is quoted pointing out that, “young South Africans are much more likely to talk about sex and are developing ‘a vocabulary for discussing feelings and desires’.” Furthermore, southern African movements for women’s empowerment invariably cite HIV as a reason change is necessary now. Because gender oppression is acknowledged as a driver of the epidemic, gender equality is an explicit goal of both governments and major HIV organizations. Even admirably sane laws about sex work are being discussed — considerably saner than most Western ones, in fact. The laws probably won’t pass, unfortunately, but at least they’re on the radar.

In other words, in a weird way, the existence of HIV can be a positive thing because it’s a major factor forcing society towards honest, open, respectful conversations about sexuality. I believe those conversations to be good for a variety of reasons, but here’s why they are crucial to stem the tide of HIV — they make it much, much easier for people to both learn about the disease and take steps to avoid it. (After all: if you can’t talk to your partner about sex, then how are you going to communicate well about condom usage? If you don’t understand your own sexual desires or those of your partners, then how are you going to keep yourself out of sexually vulnerable situations?)

But we are not out of the woods yet. We’re not even close. And there’s ample room to slide backwards. I have read that HIV rates in America were falling for a while but are now rising again. And there are so many issues with which America is not doing much better than Africa — for example, our awful societal ideas about sex work. It seems to me that we Americans marginalize sex workers almost as much the African nations where I worked; and when sex workers are marginalized, they become more vulnerable to HIV. Indeed, just about any population whose sexuality is ignored, stigmatized, and swept under the rug is likely to be more vulnerable to HIV; history has shown this over and over, as for example with the gay community.

As long as we can’t have reasonable conversations about sexuality, we will never understand HIV. As long as we can’t have open, honest, non-judgmental conversations about sexuality, we will be hamstrung when we try to cope with it on both the individual and the community level. HIV is about sex. To deal with HIV, we have to be able to deal with sex.

The image at the beginning of this post shows a model wearing an amazing dress made entirely of condoms; thanks to the gallery at the website for The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani’s incredible book about the HIV epidemic and the international response. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. Note that in honor of World AIDS Day, Pisani’s publisher is offering the book as a free download for the next month. Seriously, please read it. I have read very few books that I thought were simultaneously so entertaining, so well-written, and so important.

And, if you’re looking for someone to donate to in honor of World AIDS Day, then may I suggest Doctors Without Borders? Of all the organizations I dealt with in Africa, I was shocked by how little I felt like they wasted time and effort. They’re awesome.

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

2010 28 Oct

[litquote/storytime] There It Is

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 7 Oct

[porn] The Lone Villain Rides Again

Last week, I posted an interview with Tim Woodman, who’s a fetish porn director and an experienced BDSMer to boot. His interview raised fascinating questions of consent and industry standards within pornography, especially BDSM porn. Lots of people had questions and comments, so here’s a followup interview. Ladies and gentleman, once again … welcome Tim Woodman!

* * *

Clarisse Thorn: On the original interview, Alexa commented, “I agree wholeheartedly with the positions articulated on this in the interview, and I think it’s not going to stop unless some names get put out there in the public sphere so we can know who these assholes are. Tim can make these kinds of assertions all day long, but unless he attaches some names to it and calls them out, he’s not doing anyone a service and appears to be serving his own interests. Not that I doubt him at all (quite the opposite, in fact), but I’d like to know who they are so (A) I can avoid doing business with them, and (B) can let others know to avoid having anything to do with them, either as a consumer or potential talent.”  What do you think?

Tim Woodman: Several responses to my previous interview asked me to ‘name names’ and call out the companies whose practices I disapprove of. Nothing would delight me more, but I was also pointedly reminded by an attorney friend just how much headache could be involved in a libel suit. I would likely win, but only after great expense.

I would, however, be very happy to recommend some companies whom I can vouch for personally as being conscientious and very good about respecting models’ limits and still producing quality content. The absolute best person I know in this industry is Lorelei, from BedroomBondage.com – whatever your kink, whatever you want to search for, if you start at her page, you will only find links to high-quality companies run by good people.



CT: A friend of mine emailed me to say: “Anyone interested in performing for these sites can take a look at the sort of stuff that they shoot and do some research in order to make an informed choice. If someone is totally vanilla, what is it that brings them to these companies? How do the sites recruit and screen folks?”

TW: Sadly, this problem is almost entirely in the hands of the talent agencies. Most mainstream adult performers use a licensed talent agent to get work. It provides a valuable buffer between them and would-be stalkers who might pose as producers. One has to register with the agency to be able to book their talent. A good agent can prevent a lot of bad experiences, and I know that they do. I had to provide a ton of references in order to get registered with some of these agencies, and I appreciate how cautious they are with their talent. Unfortunately, these agencies have to make money too, and can sometimes feel pressured by the larger companies to book any model they request, even if the girl may be in over her head.

With or without an agent, it is not always easy to spot a predator. Most predators can sound quite charming and conciliatory over the phone, until you show up. There’s a reason a well-fed wolf usually has a good set of sheep’s clothing nearby. What the models can do is check around with more experienced models before setting a first date with a new production company.

On the plus side, I know of several companies who do as I do and make it a point to sit with new talent and find out their limits and interests. They honor those limits, and explore those interests, and I really think they end up with better content this way. Certainly they end up with a better reputation within the industry.

CT: You said in the first interview that if a consumer wants to know more about the experiences of a BDSM porn model, then the consumer should ask around.  But as reader Sam commented, “I’m wondering whether he isn’t asking too much of a porn consumer. I don’t know – maybe people who are into fetish movies do know how to do that kind of research, but I can’t imagine a normal consumer, who’s either Googling ‘porn’ or walks into a video store and looks at 3,000 DVDs, to be able to tell the differences. I believe that such industry standards are important, but I [suspect] the expectation that each individual customer has the power to ‘vote’ is exaggerated, not necessarily because the customers wouldn’t, but because I imagine they can’t.”

And Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote on his blog, “Not everybody who wants to watch BDSM porn knows a bunch of kinksters who know people who do BDSM-themed porn and can get those answers. It’s not like the bad model experiences pop up in the Google searches.”  Do you have any more advice for people who really want to evaluate porn, but maybe don’t have as much access to the community?

TW: Most porn stars have a Twitter account. Many have their own websites, or at least a blogspot somewhere. I don’t honestly expect everyone to care enough, or to have the resources to do extensive research every time they wish to purchase a new video, but if you are curious to know which companies have the best reputations, read the comments of the girls who have worked for them. Read their Facebook entries, or note which companies they never mention again after working for them. That’s usually a warning sign too.

CT: A couple of people have pointed out that it’s a tad self-interested for a self-described “small porn company” to critique the “big companies” that, you admit, are putting you out of business.  How do you respond to that?

TW: Guilty as charged. It is totally in my own self-interest to rant and rave about such companies. I was here before them, but I didn’t start out rich. I didn’t have the resources or short-sightedness to flood the market with free promotional clips, drowning out the smaller companies along the way. I watch them fuck up my industry and feel powerless to stop them. I took this opportunity to speak largely to vent my own frustrations. None of this changes at all the fact that I speak the truth. Anyone is welcome, as I said before, to do their own research on both my competition and myself, and draw their own conclusions.

CT: Another friend writes: “There’s also the issue of juggling the demands of a larger operation (which tends to put more pressure on creating new content on a fixed schedule) and making room for the individual performers. This is something that happens in a lot of porn and it’s easier for a smaller company to flex than a bigger one. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be one of the costs of success.”  What do you think about this?

TW: I’d like to think that if God forbid I was ever able to call myself a larger operation, I would be even more willing to lose a dollar or even a whole day’s work rather than risk my hard-earned success and reputation by disregarding the feelings, limits and rights of my models.

* * *

Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, ProVillain.com and BondageBlowJobs.com. Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.

2010 27 Sep

[porn] A Lone Villain working within an Evil Empire

I met Tim Woodman and his partner this past weekend at an S&M party. Tim — whose business cards style him a Professional Villain — produces and stars in porn, so we had an interesting conversation about consent and porn practices. Porn has never been my thing; I do emphatically oppose censoring porn, though. I’ve worked with and made friends with many sex workers, and sex workers’ rights are very important to me. And, of course, I’m an S&M activist who believes that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM (or any other kind of sex) as long as it’s 100% consensual — that BDSM deserves wider acceptance as a form of sexuality.

So it makes me sad when I hear stories and rumors about the fetish porn industry that imply that some actresses did not fully consent to the porn shoots they did. And I think that it’s important for porn consumers to push for responsible practices from the companies producing the movies they watch. It can be hard to tell whether a given company has responsible practices, though. I know that some porn companies have their actresses give interviews after the shoot, in which the actresses talk about what they experienced during the porn shoot. This seems like a step in the right direction to me, but Tim says some of those interviews are fake, which breaks my heart. It’s the kind of allegation I wouldn’t trust from an anti-porn idealogue, but Tim has real knowledge and contacts in the business — and he’s not pro-censorship — so he’s got a better perspective.

After listening to some of Tim’s thoughts, I asked him to do an interview with me. Here we are:

* * *

Clarisse Thorn: Can you introduce yourself to my readers, and describe some of your feelings about working in the fetish porn industry?

Tim Woodman: As a self-defined “Professional Villain”, my life is a paradox. I produce fetish porn videos depicting rape, torture, and sometimes murder, but my career depends on my reputation within the industry as a good guy, whom women will enjoy working with and would be willing to work with again. Fortunately, I have been in the BDSM lifestyle even longer than I’ve been in the industry, and I already know the rules. If you want to play in the BDSM scene, you can’t break your toys!

The rules about BDSM porn are not different from the rules about BDSM in the real world. Consent is never implied, and can always be withdrawn. Negotiation is critical, and must be done thoroughly beforehand.

I know too many models who have been paid “hush money” to keep quiet about their injuries at the larger fetish porn companies. I know too many who have had their paychecks withheld until they do a positive interview. They are forced to lie on camera, telling how they enjoyed it and would do it again, when in fact the opposite was true. I know too many girls who have worked for these larger companies, and when they refused or even objected to activities that were beyond their limits, they were told that they were a “problem girl” and that they would not get much work with an attitude like that.

This kind of business practice is reprehensible. In the BDSM community, if you play like that, word quickly gets around that you are an asshole and are not to be trusted. But in the adult movie business, you can threaten and cajole women by withholding their pay. You can intimidate them by warning that nobody will hire them if they have self-respect, and are unwilling to bend or break their personal limits. That is rape. That is illegal.

We are actors. Admittedly, we are not always very good actors, but we are not getting paid to violate each other’s limits or do actual harm — we are getting paid to make it look like we are. You say you want to see a “real reaction” to breaking someone’s limits? Then you are a criminal. Would you do this in real life? Would you ask your partner what they are absolutely unwilling to do, and then once you have them tied up, do exactly that? Not twice you wouldn’t!

Admittedly, this would be easier if fetish companies only hired models who are actually into BDSM. Lifestyle fetish models know the lingo. If her wrist is numb, she says so right away. If what you’re doing is too painful or beyond some other limit, she knows to stop the scene and have it dealt with. Mainstream models don’t necessarily know this. When a mainstream model is pushed too far, she’ll usually say “How much longer are we doing this?” to which a bad director will respond “Five minutes.” Twenty minutes later she’s scarred for life. Save the intense shit for the professionals — for the lifestyle girls who love to be tied up and tortured on-screen.

On the other hand, I make a lot of my career hiring mainstream porn stars to appear in rape and torture videos. It’s not because I’m rich and can buy a good reputation. Honestly, I’m dirt-poor and can barely afford to hire models at all. Those same large companies have flooded the Internet with “free samples” of their porn, and are slowly but surely strangling smaller production companies like mine. Fortunately I have a good reputation, because I can assure even a mainstream model that she will have a positive experience with me, and I have the references to back it up.

CT: So how would you describe the way you negotiate with your porn performers? Why do you do a better job of it than others do?

TW: How do you negotiate a porn scene with mainstream girls for whom BDSM is not a lifestyle? Same as you would with a new girlfriend who has not been tied up before, or who perhaps has only a little experience. Do you start at a full-on fisting? Pine cones up the ass while setting their hair on fire? No.

Whenever I am working with a new model, whether she is experienced in fetish or not, my rules are the same. We sit and talk, and I find out exactly what she is willing to do, what she has never done but would be willing to try, and what are her hard limits. I assure her that she will be paid, regardless of what her limits are. I would much rather lose a day’s budget and get no footage at all than have even one model come away from one of my shoots with a negative experience.

CT: How would you advise porn consumers who want to make sure they’re watching porn from companies that treat their performers well?

TW: Okay, so as a good customer, you want to be responsible. You want to vote with your dollar and only support companies who treat their models well. How does a consumer like you know a good company from a bad one? The same way you would with any other industry — whether it is plumbers or car salesmen, the same principles still apply:

1) It often seems the more money a company spends on PR, the worse the company actually is. When an insurance agency spends millions on advertising, don’t you worry that they are not actually paying out their customers’ claims? When an attorney plasters his billboard all over town, does it make you think he’s a little too desperate? This can be said for BDSM porn producers as well.

2) The larger the company, the greater the chance it is owned and run by assholes who do not treat their employees well. If you have a day job, you already know this. The small guy who is struggling like mad to keep his doors open and put a quality product on the streets is far more likely to treat his employees and customers really well. He can’t afford a negative experience. He can’t just pay hush-up money, or threaten “You’ll never work in this town again!”

3) In the BDSM lifestyle world, we depend on our reputations. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and other social networking media, if something goes wrong in Los Angeles, they know about it five minutes later in New York. You want to know you’re spending money on legitimate, honorable companies? Do the research. Don’t trust their own advertising. Ask around, just like you would with a potential new play partner in the real world. You can ask absolutely any model I’ve ever worked with and she’ll say only good things about me. Can the bigger companies say the same? They can pay to keep most of the “problem girls” quiet, but the truth always gets out.

Do I mean to imply that absolutely every video produced by the “big companies” in fetish porn is despicable criminal activity? Of course not. I know a lot of models who do enjoy working for the big companies. I know some of the talent who do the “topping” [i.e., domination and sadism], and they’re not all irresponsible.

But if you want to know the company you purchase porn from is really good, if you want to know that your favorite porn stars actually enjoy working for them, then do a little research and find out for yourself. Judge the BDSM companies like you would judge anybody else in the BDSM community. Hold them to the same standards. Make them live up to the Safe Sane and Consensual guidelines that we demand in the real world, and we can all enjoy high quality entertainment that was produced responsibly.

* * *

There is now a Lone Villain Part 2! Check out Tim’s responses to the comments below, and others.

* * *

Thanks again to Tim Woodman for this interview. Tim runs two sites, ProVillain.com and BondageBlowJobs.com. Those two sites that I just linked to are porn sites! They are not work-safe in the slightest, and they are not intended for people who don’t like porn! If you don’t like porn or don’t want to see porn images right now, then don’t click the links to those sites! You have been warned.

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.