Posts Tagged ‘storytime’

2011 13 Jul

[random] Lost And Found Man

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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2011 22 Apr

Going under

“Come back,” an S&M partner said softly, the other day, pushing my hair out of my eyes. I blinked and shook my head in a futile attempt to clear it.

“That’s weird,” I said. “Someone else used to say those words to me when I was coming out of subspace. I … that’s weird.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s a natural thing to say to you. You go under so fast, and so deep. You’re so far away.”

“Not all the time,” I said. “And not with everyone. You’re good at putting me there.”

He smiled. “You bring it out in me.”

Subspace is so hard to describe. I’ve written about it before, in passing, in multiple posts, because it’s so important, but I’ve never come up with a good description for it; and when I Google for it I can see that other people have the same problem. When I’m starting to go into subspace it’s just soft and dark and slow. But when I’m really far under, I’m totally blank. Falling. Flying.

Somewhere else.

Come back.

What is it, where do I go? It’s just submissive, masochist headspace. But I don’t always get into subspace when I submit, and I don’t always get into it when I take pain either. I’m not sure what the other ingredients are: some amount of trust, of course. And strong feelings about my partner make everything more intense … way more intense. Orders of magnitude more intense. Still, I’ve had new partners put me under with surprising thoroughness.

It’s a lot like deep sexual arousal — hard to think, hard to process, hard to make decisions — but the deepest sexual arousal does not put me anywhere near deep subspace. Deep subspace is. More. Than anything else.

Some S&M teachers tell people not to drive after an S&M encounter, not for a while; not until you’re over the subspace. They compare it to an altered state, like being drunk. Some S&M teachers caution that it’s dangerous for the dominant partner to suggest a new activity in the middle of an S&M encounter — something that wasn’t negotiated beforehand — because the submissive may not be able to think clearly enough to consent. (And because in those moments, the submissive will have a harder time than ever saying no.)

I sometimes think that when I was younger and less experienced, I abandoned myself to subspace more easily. I’m better at pulling myself out of subspace now, but I think the cost may be that it’s harder for me to really get into it. (Safety first?) I trained myself to be able to say, “Don’t stop,” when I wanted my partner to keep going. (Sound easy? Trust me, it took a while.) Playing with unfamiliar partners, I trained myself to be on guard. (One of my sex worker friends told me once, “I don’t care how deep the subspace is, I can always come out if the client tries to fuck me without a condom.”) I got better at calling my safeword before I had to — asking my partner to do something else or give me a break, rather than suddenly stopping everything once I hit my absolute limit.

I am nowhere near perfect, of course. In particular, I can rarely answer complicated questions, and sometimes my partners literally can’t get me to answer any questions when I’m subspaced. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come out, and partners may get nervous while I’m surfacing. But I’m not sure these aspects can actually be eliminated from subspace. And I’ve gotten better.

I’m sure that in an emergency, I could talk and function straight out of heavy subspace. I doubt I would be optimally intelligent and thoughtful, however.

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2011 3 Apr

[storytime] Fear, Loathing, and S&M Sluthood in San Francisco

The following meditation on “sluthood” anxiety first appeared in December 2010 on the women’s site Off Our Chests. I’m reposting it here today because San Francisco loves me and I love it.

* * *

Since I was small, I’ve loved the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night.” I loved the cypresses in particular: winding spiral trees, hallucination trees. They were so unlike other trees I’d seen that I thought Van Gogh made them up, and so when I first saw cypresses years later, I was stunned: the hallucination trees had been imported into my world. I’d like to think that my world turned a little bit sideways forever, when I first saw cypresses, but I’m probably being melodramatic.

San Francisco has cypresses, and a lot of other hallucinations, too. The city is full of angles, vantages, transitions, unceasing changing views: it feels, at times, like an unsolvable puzzle. A forested path leads darkly under a bridge, suddenly opens upon a manicured lawn with a white lace conservatory. A cement staircase rises through a narrow outlet, resolving itself step by step into a slice of brightly painted Victorian façade. I walked once with a friend alongside an ocean road, pacing through thick fog, and arrived at a dirt path that I insisted on following; thirty seconds later we stumbled upon extraordinary ruins.

San Francisco. Halcyon city, heartbreak city. Cypress city. The place I come to recover from being torn apart and, it seems, sometimes the place where I get torn apart again. This is okay with me, because nothing is more fun than overanalyzing strong emotions. I am not even kidding.

* * *

I returned from Africa recently; paused briefly in my adopted city of Chicago to collect my thoughts; and then went to the Burning Man Arts Festival, thence to San Francisco. This is my version of emotional decompression, and it worked! I feel much more centered now. But part of decompressing, for me, was specifically going out to a lot of dates and BDSM parties and pushing my own boundaries, which carries its own potential decompressable risks.

At the time of this story, it had been a couple of months in San Francisco, and I was leaving soon. I’d had an assortment of adventures, but there were two guys in particular who I was excited about. Not necessarily in a long-term way — I’m not in this for the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids — or at least… not yet. But definitely I felt excited in a wow-I-have-to-control-myself-or-I’ll-come-off-as-kind-of-puppyish way. New Relationship Energy: it is such a mind trick, such a delicious head-trip. You are the perfect drug.

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2011 11 Mar

[storytime] Sex communication case studies

In the wake of my last post, which was basically a meditation on one relationship with bad sexual communication, I want to offer some positive examples of sexual communication from my life. [footnote 1]

* * *

1) Low pressure and leather belts. Years ago, when I was pretty inexperienced in the community, I had a single BDSM encounter with a gentleman in his home. We met at a BDSM discussion group, arranged to meet later at a café, and went home from there; as we exited the café, I took his driver’s license and texted his full name and license number to a friend. (I think more people should do this, frankly — in fact, more non-BDSM people should do this when they go home with strangers from bars.)

We sat together on the public transit and quietly discussed the upcoming scene: he asked me many, many questions about what I was okay with and not okay with. Questions like: “What do you have experience with?” “Could you go into that more?” “What do you like?” “What makes that fun for you?” “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” He asked a lot of the questions twice, too, which I think is a really great strategy especially with new partners. People don’t always have their heads together enough during these conversations to answer an S&M question properly the first time, especially if it’s a broad and open-ended question like “What are the things you really don’t want to do?”

I made it clear that I just wanted a BDSM encounter, that I wasn’t up for oral sex or vaginal sex or anything like that. He’d never had a BDSM encounter that didn’t involve orgasm, so it was a new concept for him, but he was cool with trying it.

After our long discussion of boundaries and limits, we made it to his apartment and settled in. He got out some equipment, including a collar, and he said: “While you’re wearing this, you will obey everything I say. Do you have any final boundaries to set? Anything you really want me to do? Anything else you don’t want me to do?” I said no, and he snapped on the collar. (We did have an agreed-upon safeword, though — so I had a way of interrupting the proceedings if I really needed to.)

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2011 1 Mar

[storytime] How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

A reader recently sent me an email in which they said:

i know you have always had clear boundaries with yourself (at least how you have described yourself)

Well.

I guess I’ve had a pretty good sense of my boundaries, historically, but there have been times when I have not set them well. This is hard to write about, because it happened years ago, and the memories aren’t fun, and I don’t like writing negative things about people I know unless I think there’s a good reason for it. But there are few people in my life, now, who are likely to identify the person I’m discussing. And I’ve asserted before that we should be more willing to write about our screwups; I was writing about BDSM at the time, but I think it’s true of all kinds of relationships.

There was a gentleman in my life, lots of years ago, who I was extremely in love with. We had an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted a very long time. We had an extraordinary mental and emotional and creative connection. We understood each other very well. There is zero doubt in my head that he loved me too.

Our sex life was really terrible, though. (It was not a BDSM relationship. I hadn’t yet come into that part of my sexual identity.) And there were some emotional boundaries he simply wouldn’t respect. At first I was too inexperienced to really recognize how bad it was, though I knew some things were messed up — then, as I got older (and dated other people in the interstices of our relationship), the problems became clearer and clearer to me. Want some examples? Here’s a blatant one: he never went down on me, though I regularly went down on him; he never even offered to try and figure out something else I might enjoy equally. Oh, I knew that was messed up from the start, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-esteem to negotiate something different.

I tried — believe me, I tried to discuss our sex life, in a hesitant and confused way — but he found ways to shut me down, every time. Sometimes the shut-downs were blatant and aggressive and involved shouting. Sometimes they were very subtle, like the time he told me sadly, “You know, occasionally I get worried that you don’t really like having sex with me, but I know that’s just insecurity on my part and I need to get over it.” What a masterful way to say: “Part of me knows you’re not getting what you need, but please don’t bring it up, because that would make me feel bad.”

Today, I would reply: “Sorry if it brings up insecurities. I’m here to talk about those if you like.  But it’s also true, and we need to address it.” Back then, I accepted what he’d said, and felt roiling confusion and pain, and stayed silent.

I’ve got sexual-emotional baggage from that relationship to this day. And yes, I do resent it. Still. Despite knowing that he loved me, and despite valuing many memories from that relationship — when I look back on my time with him, it feels clouded and toxic. I remember that one night, years after I broke up with him, I had one of the worst nightmares of my life: merely a dream that he and I were back together. I woke up shaking, almost in tears.

During an argument, he once said to me, in a voice both angry and wounded: “I just want to feel that you love me more than you love yourself.” And my reaction was not to walk away. My reaction was not to laugh incredulously. My reaction was not to dump him on the spot. My reaction was to cry, and tell him how hurt I was. Hurt: because how could he think I didn’t love him more than I loved myself? Of course I did. What did I have to do to prove it?

For the record — just in case it needs to be said — that is ridiculous. Anyone who demands that you love them more than you love yourself does not have your best interests at heart. My reaction was just as ridiculous. I should not have been looking for ways to prove that I loved him more than I loved myself. I should have been out the fucking door already.

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2011 7 Jan

[storytime] Predicament Bondage

Note: This entry is more explicit than my entries usually get. You have been warned. Also note: In all of the following anecdotes, I arranged a safeword in advance, and I would have used my safeword if I’d wanted my partner to stop.

* * *

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and/or Masochism. These 6 activities are somewhat different from each other, though they’re intertwined, which means that individual BDSMers enjoy some things more than others.

For example, some people are masochists (who enjoy pain) but not submissives (who enjoy, well, submitting). Some people are really into discipline (with lots of punishment) but not bondage (rope, cages, etc). Some people are sadists (who enjoy inflicting sensations) but not dominants (who enjoy being in control). Some people are switches, who find that they can switch between roles — they can be dominant or submissive; sadistic or masochistic … I am an example of a definite switch.

Me, I get bored if someone takes a long time tying me up. For other people, 45 minutes of elaborate knotwork = really hot foreplay. I don’t understand this, but that’s cool; plenty of people don’t understand my preferences and we all coexist quite happily anyway.

So yeah, “bondage” — rope, cages, etc. — is not my thing. But there’s one phrase I absolutely love: “predicament bondage.” Predicament bondage is usually presented in a very elaborate way: For example, a submissive might be tied up with ropes binding him such that his arms are in pain — but if he moves his arms then his legs will be in pain.

It’s a predicament! And it’s bondage! Whee! Predicament bondage!

However, it doesn’t have to be elaborate to be predicament bondage. I’m not into rope obstacle courses, but I started loving the phrase “predicament bondage” after a friend went to a workshop run by Fetish Diva Midori and reported back. He said:

Midori had two pitchers of water, or maybe a pitcher and a glass. She told us, “This is the simplest form of predicament bondage,” and she had the demo submissive hold his hands straight out at shoulder height. Then she placed the water in his hands. The submissive had to keep holding the water; if he failed, he knew he would be failing Midori. But there was never any threat of “Midori’s wrath” if he failed her. In fact, she spoke as if she was on his side, part of his team. In many ways, her sympathy for his plight made it all the more cruel, because she was the one doing it to him.

She explained this. She knew that his sense of disappointment in “failing” her was worse than anything she could actually do to him.

So, the predicament in that case was the submissive’s increasing arm agony vs. his fear of failing Midori. For me, that concept is infinitely hotter than a rope obstacle course. Although for me, in practice, I’d also want the pain to be a bit more … um … personal.

* * *

The first time someone flogged me, I had no idea what he was going to do beforehand. He and I had the strongest dominant/submissive dynamic I’ve ever felt, and I put myself in his hands with almost-total trust.

A night came around when I felt that itch under my skin, the dark burn in the back of my mind … I knew I had to go see him. I wasn’t hugely experienced, but I knew exactly what that slow burn meant.

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2010 26 Dec

Anger, fear and pain

I like pain. I like submission. What do these things actually mean, though? I don’t like it when I stub my toe, for example, and there are quite a lot of authoritarian situations I don’t like either. My emotional reactions, in particular, can get really complicated. So I need more precise words than “I like pain” and “I like submission.”

This is not a new problem, and around the BDSM subculture there are more precise terms that are frequently used. But when I was first exploring BDSM and didn’t yet have access to the community, I started coming up with my own vocabulary for what I liked and what I didn’t like. The primary words I came up with — words that I still use a lot in my own head, and that I sometimes try to explain to my partners — were “clean” pain and “dirty” pain.

I think of some pain as “clean” because even if it’s intense, I usually … like it. (For lack of a better word.) This is the kind of pain I fantasize about when I’m really craving BDSM. There are certain places on my body that take pain more cleanly — my upper arms, most of my back, my thighs. There are certain types of pain that are inherently more clean — needles come to mind. Wide, deep, blunt bites are good too. Heavy whips made of weighty materials, like suede. Pulling my hair right above the nape of my neck.

On the other hand, I think of some pain as “dirty” because it’s … harder to take. I don’t think of it as dirty because I see it as scandalous or perverse — rather, dirty pain is complex and hard to process. I never fantasize about it. Pain where my bones are close to the surface of my skin, like my collarbone, is dirty. Pain on top of scars is dirty. Pinches and small, narrow bites are dirty. Pulling my hair anywhere besides the nape of my neck is dirty. Electric shocks are extremely dirty.

But this whole “clean” and “dirty” thing, it doesn’t make any sense outside my own body, my own head. It’s hard to explain it. It helps that the BDSM community tends to frame pain in terms of techniques and less-subjective adjectives, using words like “sharp” or “sting” or “thud”. (A lot of people think of “sharp” and “sting” as the same sensation. I usually separate them a bit more, but I’m not sure how many other people separate them.)

Franklin Veaux defines “thud” as “sensation of heavy, dull impact” and defines “sting” as “sensation of quick, sharp pain”. These words are most often applied to floggers (implements for hitting people, e.g.: “this is a thuddy flogger”), but sometimes the words are used for other things too. I’ve found that I generally prefer thuddy-type pain, for example, but it took me a long time to figure that out, because there are so many specific sharp sensations that I love.

Okay. Now for emotions. This is the really hard part.

A while back I got an anonymous comment on my coming-out story that I absolutely love. Here’s a quotation from the comment:

When it came to it, very little about the reality [of BDSM] matched my fantasies. Oh, sometimes what we did matched the way a real-life even can match a fantasy. There were moments that were … Transcendental.

But there were many more moments that … were deeply, deeply conflicted. I NEVER expected to feel that much … anger … toward someone dominating me and inflicting pain. I expected it to be a relief. I didn’t expect to wrestle with hatred.

He liked to slap my face. Everytime he did it I would feel this burst of pure hatred. At one point he asked if I liked it. I said, “No. I hate it. But I don’t want you to stop doing it.”

I can’t remember right now if any other “coming out” story I’ve ever read included such a visceral description of anger. Of course, I think the last time I read one I hadn’t experienced it myself. Maybe I never noticed it before, but noticed it this time because it resonated with me. But mostly I remember those stories mentioning fear, shame, worry, and embarrassment.

The events in my coming-out story took place years ago, and my feelings about BDSM are really different now. I remember that I was conflicted, furious, resentful. But at the same time, I have often thought that much of my anger and resentment was due to the fact that Richard — my first intense BDSM partner — was not emotionally available. I needed support that he didn’t give me. (To some extent because neither he nor I recognized how much support I needed.) And, of course, much of that anger was due to the fact that I couldn’t deal with BDSM. That I was fighting back against, was unable to take ownership of my sexuality.

As I settled my feelings, reconciled myself to my sexual identity — my emotional reactions became a whole different ball game. (It helped that I dated a string of men who were more emotionally available and assisted me with emotional processing, too.) It turned out that the rage that I had suspected was inextricable from BDSM was, in fact, entirely possible to separate. I entered a stage where I learned how to avoid that anger. To work around it. I learned to sink myself into fear and desperation, which I love, and which are easier to work with.

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2010 26 Nov

Social responsibility, activism, and giving thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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2010 11 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, seriously. Donate!

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

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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.

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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.