Posts Tagged ‘stigma’

2013 12 Oct

Oral History of BDSM Experience: The Your Personal Kink project at the Leather Archives

Back in 2011, I volunteered semi-regularly at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago — the world’s only BDSM museum. The museum’s executive director, Rick Storer, knew that I had a strong interest in the history and culture of the BDSM community. He also knew that I was very interested in understanding different people’s experiences and perspectives on BDSM — the good, the bad, the surprising and fascinating.

So one day, Rick and I sat down and developed an oral history project that we named the Your Personal Kink project. Here’s how we described the project’s goals at the time:

The goal for the “Your Personal Kink Project” is to collect information about the experience of people who do not identify as part of the “BDSM community,” but who practice BDSM in their relationships. By “BDSM Community” we mean the wide network of dungeons, educational demonstrations, conventions, club nights, meetups, and other fora that function to socially network, educate, and acculturate many BDSMers.

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2013 8 May

How My Self-Published Book About Pickup Artists Made Me Famous In Germany

On April 27th, I returned from a week-long trip to Berlin, and I’m still kinda shell-shocked. Over that week, I spent hours every day being interviewed by all sorts of people: Europe’s biggest newspaper, for example. The German edition of Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview. Four different German television stations. (Seriously. Four.)

This is all because my first self-published book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, has been acquired by a “real” German publisher. The German translation of Confessions will soon be available in many German-language stores.

Perhaps oddly, this is my first deal with a traditional publisher. I started out as an obscure subculture blogger/activist, and then people started calling me an expert, and then I started selling articles and getting speaking engagements, but all my books have been 100% self-published and self-promoted until now. I used the constellation of platforms that we now call “social media” to aggressively promote my ideas, but I certainly did not expect my self-published book to captivate Germany. I don’t even speak German!

I am handling such complicated feelings. It is taking me forever to write this. But my first TV interview just aired — the channel is Taff on Pro7, and the German translation of my words has occasioned much discussion on my Facebook wall. Unfortunately the interview cannot be viewed from the USA, but there was also a recent article in a well-respected German newspaper, Zeit. (I hear that Zeit is analogous to the Sunday Times.)

There’s been other coverage too, plus a lot more on the way. So I guess now is the time to put this out into the world.

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Where to begin?

The translation deal began with a piece of fan mail last year, early 2012. The message came from Jennifer Kroll, who bought Confessions on Amazon after the book hit #1 in two categories. She found me on Facebook and wrote: “I don’t think I have ever recommended a book that frequently to anyone before, and I work in publishing.”

We talked, and then we talked more. She flew me to Berlin, and then she flew me to Berlin again.

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2012 11 Oct

Why I’m Not (Yet) Out Of The Closet About S&M

No one was surprised when Ricky Martin came out of the closet as gay.

Today is National Coming Out Day. I cried when I saw Milk and I think outness can be an important political act, but I’m not coming out.

Not yet.

I’ve been writing under a pseudonym for a long time.

In 2008, I decided to take all my theories about S&M — and all my confused feelings — and use them for sex-related activism. I started Sex+++, my sex-positive film series in Chicago, which was an unexpectedly huge success. I volunteered at the Leather Archives, the world’s only S&M museum. I began writing this blog. Soon I was getting speaking engagements. Then I started publishing articles in big outlets. Always under the name Clarisse Thorn.

I had several reasons for writing under another name:

1) I thought I might want to explore a career path at a conservative company. In fact, I spent the first two years of my Clarisse-Thorn-time working for bosses who would not have been okay with the fact that I’m a decently well-known S&M writer.

The social climate now is somewhat liberal — it’s mostly okay to be gay, for example, or at least it’s more okay than it has been for hundreds of years. But S&M is something else. Less than ten years ago, a prominent U.N. employee named Jack McGeorge was publicly attacked in the media because he was an S&Mer. And while you might think times have changed, a sex blogger who called herself The Beautiful Kind (real name Kendra Holliday) lost her job in 2010 when her boss found out.

BDSM — and sexuality in general — is still very stigmatized. People who write openly and personally about sex are taking huge risks with their employability.

2) I’m lucky because my parents are both very analytical, liberal thinkers; they’re deeply interested in gender politics, and they think my work is awesome. However, there are other people in my social network who would not be cool with Clarisse Thorn. For example, one of my closest friends comes from a hardcore religious family. I like her family. I’ve been to their house for Christmas. They’ve told me that they think I’m “a good influence” on their daughter, although they understand that I’m pretty liberal. But if they knew I was kinky, God knows how they’d react.

Another example: a former boss of mine is very, very conservative. In fact, he’s a Tea Party member. This boss has always been incredibly kind and generous to me; I visit him occasionally even though I don’t work for him anymore, and he’s told me that he thinks of me like a daughter. Would he “disown” me if he knew about Clarisse Thorn? I don’t know.

Some people who work in sexuality say: “Well, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who can’t accept me as I am,” or “I wouldn’t want to be close to someone who wouldn’t be okay with my sexuality.” Maybe that’s true for them. But people are complicated, and the world is a nuanced place, and I’ve drawn a lot of comfort and joy from these relationships, even if I disagree with those folks in some ways.

3) I hope to have kids at some point. In USA culture, the most efficient way to go about that is usually to get married. I don’t want a potential husband to be in a position where people will assume he’s perverted just because he’s marrying me; if he wants to be out, then that’s fine, but I don’t want outness to be a precondition. I don’t want to risk his employment along with my own. And if I’m going to meet a fiancé’s family, I’d rather they had the opportunity to get to know me as a person before they Google me and discover this. I mean, I’ve dated men whose families would have had trouble adjusting to the relationship because I was white. Imagine if they knew that I was a pervert.

And my poor potential kids! I mentioned Kendra Holliday earlier; her son has definitely caught some flak at school. I’m pretty sure the famous S&M writer Janet Hardy stayed in the closet, writing under the name Catherine Liszt, until her children were grown — I seem to recall seeing something she wrote where she described kids as “hostages to social stigma,” although I can’t find it now. (Update: Janet did stay in the closet until her kids were grown, but she doesn’t recall saying anything about hostages; see comments.)

There are other reasons for being closeted. I am, in fact, nervous about having everyone in the world know details about my sex life (even though my writing is fairly vague and emotional and political, compared to most sex writing). Personal safety worries me, too.

There is something shadowy and romantic about having a “secret identity” — and as a dedicated child of the Internet since 1996, when anonymity was the norm, I always liked playing identity games. But this is more inconvenient and stressful than romantic. I mean, earlier this year I spoke at the biggest new media conference in the world. Imagine attending a four-day social media convention while preventing yourself from being photographed or identified. It was intense.

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2012 6 Oct

[classic repost] Lawrence of Arabia: Heavy Masochist

Lawrence of Arabia film posterT.E. Lawrence — also known as “Lawrence of Arabia” — was a British war hero, widely lauded in the early 1900s. He was the subject of a famous 1962 film biography that won seven Academy Awards (and was nominated for ten). One day in 2009, I was volunteering at the Leather Archives and I discovered that they have a file on Lawrence. Because he was deeply, unmistakably, provably a sexual masochist. Yeah!

There were a couple of in-depth magazine articles included in the file. One, authored by Jack Ricardo, was published in the July 1990 issue of Stallion. The other, by Joseph W. Bean, was printed in The Advocate on April 11, 1989.

Here’s an excerpt from Bean’s article ….

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In his years at Oxford (1907-1911), Lawrence may have had no actual sex life. Vyvyan Richards, a Welsh undergraduate who was very much in love with Lawrence and shared a great deal with him in other ways, believed “that he was sexless”. His sexuality was either so covert as to go unnoticed or consisted entirely of the vicarious satisfactions found in homoerotic literature.

… Anyone rash enough to accuse Lawrence of heterosexuality does so without the slightest trace of evidence. By the same token, anyone who denies that Lawrence was homosexual and a masochist does so by ignoring not only evidence but Lawrence himself.

… [Apparently a bunch of documents related to Lawrence’s sexuality became widely available in 1968, including some personal stuff that had been held by his family.] There was, as it turns out, an actual conspiracy of silence about the parts of Lawrence’s life that, if they became known … “only … would benefit … the owners of the juicy Sunday papers” [in the words of old friend Mrs. Shaw]. … The new pieces of the Lawrence puzzle primarily filled in the years back in England, after his Arabian adventures. This final period turned out to be the strangest and suddenly the best-documented phase of Lawrence’s sex life. For a time he was attending flagellation parties — sexual but not strictly homosexual — arranged by a man called Bluebeard. When these parties came to the attention of the authorities, Lawrence risked his reputation by attempting to defend Bluebeard. He was unable to help.

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2012 9 Sep

Super-Gonorrhea Is Here

This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot.

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Hey, you know what word should never have “super” in front of it? “Gonorrhea.” But super-gonorrhea is here. It’s far scarier than our former adversary, and it’s a serious threat, emerging from Japan and beginning to cross the world. News first started breaking in the public health community about super-gonorrhea years ago, but it’s finally hitting the mainstream, as for example in this recent article at RH Reality Check by Martha Kempner: “No Clapping Matter: Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea Is On Its Way, and We Are Not Prepared.”

As I think about super-gonorrhea, my mind inclines towards condoms and oral sex, and my experiences as a sex educator. As Kempner’s article notes, many gonorrhea tests wouldn’t detect an infection that came from oral sex. And plenty of people don’t realize that you should use condoms during oral sex to prevent disease transmission. The risks for most diseases usually aren’t as high as they are during vaginal sex, and certainly not as high as the risks during anal sex. But the risks are there.

I know this as well as anyone; I’ve worked as a sex educator both in the USA, and in HIV-rich populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Living in an area with an overall HIV rate of 25% taught me a lot about the statistics and issues surrounding safer sex, and also scared the hell out of me. But I’ve still taken occasional unwise risks when it comes to condoms and oral sex — or, when I was younger, other types of sex. And plenty of other health educators I know have taken unwise risks, too. The dirty little secret of sexual health promotion is that while health educators may be better at health stuff (?), we’re nowhere near perfect at the ideals we espouse. (Just watch for people standing, smoking like chimneys, outside the doors of public health conventions.)

Why do people risk their lives for a heated moment? One reason was articulated by Kerry Cohen at Role/Reboot, as she wrote movingly about her past experience:

Unless he reached for [a condom] — and he so rarely did — I was never going to put my physical health over the intoxication that came from owning him, from losing myself, from letting him lose himself in me. … as he moves toward me, I won’t think about my body as anything other than something that could hook him, reel him in, and make him mine. I won’t catch an STD that time, but I might the next time. And if I catch something, I will still strip down to my core, exposing everything to the other person, even the STD. The shame I have about that runs deep — for the desperation, for the selfishness, for the utter lack of care for anything other than my need.

The reasons people don’t use condoms (or dental dams) frequently start and end with physical pleasure. But there’s often an emotional component as well, with people associating lack of condoms with trust or intimacy — or hating to “break the moment.” There is also the self-conscious agony of disclosure, when one partner knows that they have a disease. This was recently shown in an interesting, anonymously-written piece at The Hairpin, “The Perks of Herpes.” The author talks about how uncomfortable it is to disclose her herpes infection to every partner, every time. She ends up concluding that herpes (which she contracted from oral sex, by the way) actually has an up side: it’s deepened her love life by forcing her to only date men who are committed to her despite the disease. But I will point out that she’s in the sought-after position of being an educated young lady. Her trade-offs might feel very different for other people.

Indeed, when people are poor or marginalized enough, the human motivations around these diseases can become hard for privileged people to understand. For example, there are cases of people deliberately contracting HIV. At one point, it was because France — in an attempt to contain the spread of HIV — extended citizenship to undocumented HIV-positive immigrants; some immigrants then commenced to deliberately seek HIV, reasoning that being undocumented was worse than HIV. Lest anyone think that this can’t happen in the USA, it’s been described in Detroit, albeit for different reasons.

When people talk about HIV in Africa, they often like to focus on the differences between various African cultures and USA culture. (They also like to talk as though Africa is one big country instead of an incredibly diverse continent, which I am trying to avoid in this piece; I apologize if I’ve failed.) Yet although culture matters — it matters a lot — humans are humans all over the world. The USA has better overall health than the hardest-hit areas of Africa simply because we have more resources, but as I’ve already shown you above, marginalized USA people can end up making health decisions that privileged ones find unthinkable. And even privileged USA people will screw up our condom usage, like in Kerry Cohen’s story (she notes in the piece that her mother is a doctor).

People want to believe that sexually transmitted infections can’t happen to them, saying that HIV or whatever only happens to “those other people.” But the truth is that although stigma, marginalization, and cultural differences make some groups much more vulnerable to disease, people also have sex with other people from all walks of life … and global networks are more interconnected than ever. The history of HIV shows millions of people dismissing it as “the gay disease,” or “that epidemic that’s storming across Africa,” etc. But plenty of folks have caught it who were straight, in the USA, or even believed they were in a monogamous relationship. Gonorrhea has always been easier to catch than HIV; with no treatment, super-gonorrhea will ravage us. I can only hope that some of us will keep in mind not just the physical risks at hand, but the emotional ones. I hope we will consider how to manage the risk-reward tradeoffs that everyone makes.

UPDATE, September 2012: A recent New Yorker article apparently stated that super-gonorrhea is actually bred in the throat, which means that oral sex may actually be riskier, STI-wise, than other forms of sex. Food for thought.

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The image at the beginning of this post shows a model wearing a 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.

Also, Tracy Clark-Flory wrote a good recent article: How Risky Is Oral Sex?

And! There are pieces about my experiences in Africa in my 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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2012 7 Jun

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

At long last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 18 May

Who Enjoys Casual Sex, Anyway?

A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared at Role/Reboot.

The above image is from the art site PostSecret.com. People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “Since I joined a gay men’s chorus, I haven’t had casual sex. Singing is better.”

I can be a pretty brazen lady. Sometimes it surprises me how much this will give people the incorrect impression about my sexual habits. I actually dated one guy (monogamously!) for two years who, towards the end of our relationship, asked me about “all those one-night stands.” I was like, what are you even talking about? and it turned out that he’d gone through our entire relationship thinking that I’d had a ton of one-night stands before we dated. Two years!

I am not so into casual sex. This is not because I think there’s anything wrong with it — and in fact, if you are a lady who’s thinking of going for lots of casual sex, then I highly recommend Adaya Adler’s article on awesome casual sex for single girls. But personally, I’m not so into it.

How to define casual sex, though? I’m taking a polyamorous approach to my relationships these days, and I’m okay with having multiple ongoing sexual relationships at different levels of intensity. So when I say I’m not so into casual sex, am I avoiding one-night stands, or does the phrase cover more than that? I’ve concluded that (for me at least) casual sex is casual as long as there seems to be little potential for a deeper emotional relationship. I don’t have to feel True Love for every guy I have sex with, but I want us to care about each other, to have some kind of ongoing understanding. At the very least, we’ve gotta be able to go out to dinner and have a nice heartfelt conversation.

I mean, for one thing, the sex is just plain better if you care about each other. Anecdotally, this seems to be true for people of all genders, although there are probably exceptions. (When it comes to sexuality, there are always exceptions.) I will point out, however, that research appears to show in multiple ways that women are less interested in casual sex than men. For example, women tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would probably be no good, while men tend to estimate that sex with a stranger would be average. Which is quite reasonable, given the fact that research finds that many men acknowledge not caring about their partner’s pleasure during casual hookups. For another example, as the FAQ for the Kinsey institute tells us, “Many women express that their most satisfying sexual experiences entail being connected to someone.” There could be a lot of different reasons for this — I’m rarely interested in the nature vs. nurture debate — but I think that whatever the source, the general patterns are worth noting.

Back in 2008, when I first started blogging about sex and S&M, one of my first blog posts analyzed my feelings about both casual sex and casual S&M. I had already concluded that neither really works for me. And yet it seems like sometimes I have to re-learn this lesson. I end up “trying it on for size” again, like a sweater unearthed from the back of my closet, whose dullness I forget until I see it in the mirror. I find myself brushing my hair the next morning next to someone who feels like a stranger.

It’s not that casual sex is valueless, exactly — I learn something from almost all my sexual encounters. And I’ve had one or two casual encounters that worked quite well for my goals at the time, and were quite pleasant. But although I haven’t had a whole lot of casual sex, it’s usually been so boring. Plus, after casual sex I get hit with the additional payload of automatic, socially-induced questioning of my own self-worth, being as I’m a lady who just had casual sex. I’d like to say that I’m a Perfectly Independent Modern Girl whose self-esteem is never challenged by this kind of thing, but I’d be lying, and I think that stereotype of the Modern Girl is a problematic stereotype anyway.

Plus, there’s an old stereotype that if a lady has sex on the first date, she “ought” to be treated as “slutty” and “disposable” and “not relationship material” because she did so. This stereotype is dying, but it’s a slow death. And one thing I wonder is whether a relationship is more likely to develop as “casual” if it starts with first-date sex, as opposed to escalating more slowly. Is it really true, that men “won’t respect you in the morning” if you have sex right away? Is it true, subconsciously, even when men say it’s not true — and believe that they’re being honest?

I’ve wondered a lot what it is about casual sex that makes some people react with mild distaste, the way I do, while others react with glee and abandon — and others react with virulent hatred and aggressive rejection. Aside from the apparent gender split, what are the characteristics of people who experience casual sex as usually fun, those who experience it as usually boring, and those who experience it as usually destructive?

From my experiences and observations, it seems to me that people who absolutely love casual sex often:

* Have a lot of physical turn-ons (as opposed to psychological ones).

* Are not carrying difficult feelings from abusive sexual experiences.

* Don’t tend to get attached to partners quickly, or know how to manage their experiences so that they don’t get attached. A friend once told me about a woman who never allowed herself to have orgasms during casual sex, because she had observed of herself that she started getting emotionally attached quite quickly.

But I’m very curious about the experiences of others, and whether anyone disagrees with my brief points above. Comments are quite welcome.

The next image is also from PostSecret … and I can tell you that for me it feels like a punch in the gut, so you might want to take a deep breath before you look at it:

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2012 7 May

The Psychology of S&M

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. It’s sometimes referred to as S&M, B&D, leather, or fetish. As an S&M writer and educator, I get lots of questions about the psychology of S&M. People ask whether it’s a disorder, how psychologists would describe it, etc. I’m an advocate, not a psychologist, but I’ve read up on the history and done my best to keep tabs on current research.

First things first: S&M is not a pathology, and people who practice S&M are not “damaged” in some way. There aren’t many S&M studies, but in 2008, this conclusion was supported by a large and well-designed survey that reached 20,000 people. The survey was done by public health researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and it found that S&Mers “were no more likely [than non-S&Mers] to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious.” Another recent study found that consensual S&M usually increases intimacy for a couple.

I’d like to note briefly that people have told me about using consensual, intimate, trusting S&M activities in order to work through previous non-consensual, abusive experiences that they’d had. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz once published a scholarly article called “Learning From Extraordinary Lovers: Lessons From The Edge,” which discusses how therapists can help their clients by studying alternative sexualities. Kleinplatz included a case study of a couple whose S&M experiences helped them process and deal with past abuse.

Still, as the 2008 Australia survey shows us, most people don’t practice S&M because they’ve been abused or because they’re unhappy. People who practice S&M have the same record of unhappiness and abusive history as non-S&M people. Yet S&M was first described as a disorder in 1886, when a doctor named Richard Krafft-Ebing published the manual Psychopathia Sexualis. This landmark tome hauled many sexual practices into the light, then attempted to categorize them. Of course, the doctor’s ideas hewed close to contemporary mainstream ideas of what was acceptable, and so he thought that basically everything was a disorder — including, for example, homosexuality.

It’s interesting to imagine what our mental health paradigm might be if Psychopathia Sexualis had never existed. It had a huge influence on psychiatry. Later, the psychiatric establishment began publishing a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The DSM doesn’t specialize in sexuality, but it includes quite a lot of it. The first edition of the DSM came out in 1952; it’s currently undergoing its fifth revision, and the proposed new language can be found at the DSM-5 website.

Like Psychopathia Sexualis, the original DSM called homosexuality a disorder. This changed in 1973, partly in response to gay activists. But subsequent versions of the DSM are still criticized for many reasons. Our cultural diagnoses of mental illness are shaped by lots of people with very different motives, and truth is hard to find. A 2010 New Yorker article by Louis Menand outlined many critiques of the DSM, such as the allegation that today’s psychiatry “is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different.” Naturally, the medical establishment has an incentive to do this, since it makes money selling treatments for illness, and more illness means more treatment.

S&M is currently in the DSM (heh, you see what I did there?). My understanding, however, is that S&M occupies a strange space within the much-edited manual. S&M is no longer listed as all-disorder-all-the-time, though it once was. But if a person has an urge towards S&M, and that person feels unhappy about it, then it is classified as a disorder. In other words, an S&Mer is labeled “healthy” if she’s happy about S&M, and “unhealthy” if she’s unhappy about it.

Actually, this is basically the spot that homosexuality occupied for a while. And the reason homosexuality was taken out is the same reason S&M should be taken out: because a person who wants a completely consensual type of sexuality, and who is unhappy about it, is probably better off working to change the unhappiness rather than the sexuality. Like homosexuality, S&M is stigmatized and misunderstood. A person who is stigmatized and misunderstood is likely to be unhappy, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her.

Within the S&M community, we have ways of working around this problem. Some people are campaigning to change the DSM directly. Others are more indirect. Years ago, the activist Race Bannon made a handwritten list of doctors and lawyers who were S&M-friendly, and began passing it around to his friends. Names were quickly added to Bannon’s list, and when the Internet became popular, the list migrated online. Now, the Kink Aware Professionals list is enormous and includes profession categories from accounting to web design — not just doctors. When I was going through my own complicated and difficult S&M coming-out process, I was lucky enough to find the list. My S&M-friendly therapist talked me through my anxiety and socially-created disgust, rather than diagnosing me with a spurious “disorder.”

There’s a great organization called the Community-Academic Consortium of Research on Alternative Sexualities; one of their projects is an annual conference to sensitize psychologists and therapists to the needs of alternative sexuality communities. The next conference will be Thursday, May 24th, and this year it’s in Chicago. Also in my home city of Chicago, there’s a project based at DePaul University that seeks to change the representation of S&M in human sexuality textbooks. The Kink Representation Outreach Project involves talking to different S&Mers about their actual experience (what an idea!) and getting their recommendations about how these texts might better represent S&M. And finally, if you want some idea of the sparse and scattershot research that’s been done on S&M, the blog Kink Research Overviews is a good place to start.

Within the S&M community, there’s some talk of S&M as its own “sexual orientation.” I have mixed feelings about this, and I’ve written about those mixed feelings. I think it can sometimes be helpful, but I’d rather move to a paradigm where we encourage people to see any consensual sexual act as awesome, rather than talking like “orientation” is what legitimizes sexuality. Nothing legitimizes sex except consent.

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The image at the top of this post shows an old-school phrenology diagram from the 1800s. (Phrenology was a ridiculous pseudo-science that was nevertheless popular, back in the day.) I found the image at the BibliOdyssey blog, which showcases eclectic historic science and art prints.

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2011 9 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, Part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

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2011 2 Aug

Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

Years ago, when I first started thinking about BDSM and abuse, I was defensive. A lot of feminist BDSMers are defensive about it.

We get scared of the accusation that “BDSM is always abuse” … and we’re accustomed to accusations from certain feminists such as “those of you who pretend to like BDSM just have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome and don’t know what you really want” … and often, we’re also fighting our own inner BDSM stigma demons. We get angry that our sexual needs are seen as politically problematic, or unimportant.

And so, for a lot of people, our instinctive angle on abuse in the BDSM community is: “Shut up! That’s not what’s going on!” And that’s a problem.

Obviously, I don’t think BDSM is inherently abusive! Exploring my personal BDSM desires has given me some extraordinary, consensual, transcendent experiences and connections. I also genuinely believe that BDSM has the potential to control, subvert, and manage power.

BDSM can be a place where people learn to understand bad power dynamics in past relationships; it can be a place where people learn to manage or destroy bad power dynamics in their current relationships; it can be a place where people find glory, self-knowledge and freedom by manipulating their own reactions and responses to power. Here’s a great, complicated relevant essay by Pepper Mint, and here’s one of my favorite quotations on the matter from violetwhite:

It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

Still, I’ve seen things happen in the BDSM community that turned my stomach. Terrible manipulative behavior exhibited by people who have the greatest reputations. Blaming the victim when they try to speak up. Telling “rumor mongers” to shut up when people are trying to talk openly about problematic community members. The BDSM subculture has its own version of rape culture, where “lying bitch” and “drama queen” and “miscommunication” are used against abuse survivors.

Miscommunications do happen. But not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication.

Oh yes, rape culture can happen in BDSM just the same way it happens in the “vanilla” mainstream. And there are certainly people in my local community who I would never get involved with, because I do not trust them. (I like Asher Bauer’s old post, “A Field Guide To Creepy Dom“, which is all about how to spot predators — although, like Asher, I think the post has a few problems.)

Being defensive about BDSM and abuse won’t help; yes, BDSM is stigmatized and stereotyped, but the abuse is still a problem. So after I started blogging, I tried to move past my defensiveness and write more concretely — to write about what exactly the BDSM community does to work against abuse. One of my first posts on BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse“. It highlighted anti-abuse initiatives within the BDSM community.

As I learned more about BDSM and abuse, and my perspective got more nuanced, I wrote a more expansive post called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team“. It covered all the information I’d given in the earlier post, and also talked about how I personally would structure an anti-abuse initiative with alt-sex people in mind.

Looking back now, those posts still strike me as defensive. I was making good points, but I also think that I didn’t fully understand where some feminists are coming from when they react negatively to BDSM. This past year, I’ve learned a lot more about abusive gender-based violence, power, and control. And I’ve concluded that while BDSM is obviously not equivalent to abuse, we need better theory to describe the difference between BDSM and abuse, and we should try to avoid defensiveness while articulating that theory.

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