Posts Tagged ‘storytime’

2010 19 Oct

[storytime] Guilt, failure and a pre-orgasmic feminist

This was originally posted recently at the blog Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction.

* * *

I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.

This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)

In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:

[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.

I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.

But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.

Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:

I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.

But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.

I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)

The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:

Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)

A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)

Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)

Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.

But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:

You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?

This is especially complicated by the fact that along with the typical advice of “Take responsibility!”, the other typical advice is “Let go of control!” Over at Lady Sex Q&A, Heather Corinna writes:

Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.

I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!

I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?

Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:

I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!

I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.

This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?

Not okay.

2010 17 Sep

The return

I’ve returned from Africa.

I’ve been back for a while, actually, but it’s taken me a while to write about it here, because I wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. Resigning from my job was a really tough decision: I had wanted to go abroad for years, I am very interested in doing HIV/AIDS work, and I had raised the stakes by leaving a lot behind when I departed Chicago over a year ago. My job in Africa was often difficult and incredibly frustrating, but I worked with some amazing people and I learned an amazing amount. My resignation-by-telephone with my boss — who I loved — ended with me curled up in a ball on my boyfriend’s couch, sobbing, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

It was also a really tough decision to break up with my now-ex-boyfriend, whom I unfortunately seem to be in love with. Oh, well … these things happen.

So why did I leave?

Because my job was fundamentally limited and conservative. Because I wasn’t developing the way I needed to develop. Vague reasons, I know, but the specific ones are personal and/or too contextual for me to discuss on my highly pseudonymous blog.

Right now I’m on an extended vacation in San Francisco, because this is where I come when I need to figure myself out. But don’t you worry — I will go back to beautiful Chicago before the end of the year. I may not settle back in Chicago just yet, depending on how my employment opportunities pan out, but you may be sure that I will spend a bunch of time in my adopted city at the very least.

I am now available again to schedule workshops and lectures at USA universities, museums, and so on. If you’re interested in having me do an event at your venue, shoot me an email: clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com. (Obviously, it will be easier to schedule an event — and pay me for it — if you’re close to San Francisco or Chicago. I do plan to visit New York at some point, though, because I have family there — so that’s another place where you wouldn’t have to pay my travel costs.)

I also plan to attend the upcoming Alternative Sexualities Conference, September 23, hosted by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities in San Francisco. Unlike the 2009 Chicago conference, I won’t be speaking, just volunteering there. I highly recommend it! In fact, if you work in a field like therapy or social work, you may be eligible for continuing education credits if you attend.

And if you’re new to my blog, here’s a list of posts I’ve written about my time in Africa. It makes a small but tidy pile by now, huh?

2010 16 Sep

[Africa] Male circumcision and colonized libidos

Some recent pieces of mine on CarnalNation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 16 Aug

[storytime] Sympathy for the Anti-Porn Feminists

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I really felt uncomfortable with and uneasy about porn. I believed it was something that “all men watch” and “all men like”. I didn’t yet realize that there are lots of different kinds of porn out there, and so I believed that the mainstream porn I’d seen represented “all men’s desires”. Given that I didn’t look like women in mainstream porn and I didn’t want to act like women in mainstream porn, this made me suspect that I couldn’t possibly be awesome in bed; so I couldn’t help feeling pressured and threatened by porn’s very existence, because it seemed to be fulfilling “all men’s desires” in a way that I couldn’t. (I felt even more uneasy when I first came across SomethingAwful’s hentai game reviews around age 18. The reviews were so funny that I laughed out loud, but I also literally cried — right in a public computer lab, actually.)

But I accepted that the men in my life watched porn, and I made it clear that although I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t mind — that I certainly didn’t expect them to give up porn while dating me.

Except one. I dated one man who insisted that he didn’t use porn, and I believed him. Keep in mind that I had told him I didn’t mind if he used porn, so his insistence that he didn’t came entirely from him, not me. And then one day I was going through our computer’s search history looking for something I’d been reading the day before, and I came upon rape-fantasy porn. And I was heartbroken.

Way beyond the fact that the man I loved had outright lied to me — which, I think, legitimately entitled me to be angry — my reaction went something like this:

A) The only man I’ve ever met who I thought truly didn’t like porn was lying to me, which means I can’t trust men who say they don’t like porn, and probably indicates that men who have told me they don’t like rape porn were lying too.

B) Porn indicates real preferences, right? So what this means is that all men secretly crave to rape women, but that they are either too afraid of the legal consequences or care too much about the women they love to actually do it.

In other words, I thought something like: I can’t trust men to be honest about their sexuality, and their sexuality is scary and predatory.

This was a highly overwrought and almost totally wrong read on the situation! But that’s how I felt at the time. I couldn’t figure out a way to talk to my boyfriend about the porn without causing a fight (it was a rather non-communicative relationship, and I’m glad it’s long over). So I never talked to him about it, and it took me years to unravel all the incorrect assumptions I had wrapped up in my reactions to porn.

* * *

In the circles I run in today, saying that I’ve got sympathy for anti-porn feminists is kind of like saying I’ve got sympathy for the devil. But the truth is, I’ve got quite a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong: I emphatically do not support censoring porn. I screened some documentaries on feminist and alternative porn when I curated my sex-positive film series. And I often point out that, despite what anti-porn feminists say, there’s absolutely no evidence that porn increases sexual violence. In fact, there’s reason to think that increased porn access reduces sexual violence.

These issues have been highlighted lately with the release of Pornland, a book by anti-porn zealot Gail Dines. I haven’t read it, but from the reviews and excerpts and interviews I’ve seen, it’s obvious that Pornland is breathtaking in its lack of evidence. (My personal favorite coverage is this interview, in which Dines’ own former research assistant — who is now a porn performer — disputes Dines’ claims.)

So how can I have sympathy for anti-porn feminists? Only because I remember how I felt just a few years ago. I remember that I felt so confused about my own sexuality; I remember how resentful I felt, that sex seemed so easy for men — that the world seemed to facilitate their sex drives so thoroughly, particularly by providing all this porn!

I remember how hurt I felt by porn, because I believed that it represented “what men want”, and that therefore I was “supposed” to act like porn women — even though the way women acted in porn didn’t appeal to me at all. I remember how scared I felt, when I believed that rape porn reflected “all men’s desires”, and concluded that “all men secretly would love to commit rape”. The porn that I’d seen felt as though it set the standard for my sexual behavior, and I hated that standard, but I didn’t see a way out. Because even with all my liberal, sex-positive sex education, there were serious flaws in my knowledge about sex. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the concept of fully-negotiated, 100% consensual rape fantasy sex.

And that’s really the heart of the problem with porn: that is, the problem is not porn in itself at all. The problem is bad sex education. The problem is that all Americans are subjected to sexual mores that shame sex; that refuse to talk honestly about sex; that claim we shouldn’t be having sex at all. The problem is that millions of people are too ashamed and afraid and repressed to talk or think seriously about their sexual desires. That millions of people don’t recognize the diversity of sexual desire. And, therefore, that millions of people’s primary source of information about sexuality is highly stylized mainstream porn.

* * *

Anti-porn folks are shaped by society’s irrational sexual fears and stereotypes:

1) There’s a stereotype that male sexuality is inherently dangerous, unwanted, or predatory and that it must be contained or restrained at all costs. This means that porn cannot be allowed to thrive, especially if it seems to cater to men. This is also, I suspect, the source of the claim that porn access increases rape (again, false). Anti-porn activists rely on the societal belief that men’s sexuality is hard to control, scaring us into believing that allowing porn will enable uncontrollable men.

2) There’s anxiety about alternative sexuality. Almost everyone in the world can be freaked out by some form of sexuality, and most people are freaked out by very predictable taboos. This freaking-out reaction doesn’t actually mean that there’s anything wrong with that form of sexuality — because, folks, nothing is wrong with any form of sexuality as long as it is 100% consensual! — but most people don’t think past their immediate freakout. So anti-porn folks often use images of extreme sexuality to alarm people who aren’t prepared to see those images. In other words, they often rely on freaking people out to make their case — possibly because otherwise they haven’t got a case.

3) Does porn create certain desires? Or does it merely cater to existing desires? The answer is probably “a little bit of both”, but anti-porn activists rely on the idea that porn makes its viewers want certain kinds of sex or certain kinds of partners. Many of us (like me, years ago) are afraid that we can’t “live up” to our partners’ preferences, and many of us (like me, years ago) tend to believe that “all men” or “all women” want the same thing. So there’s an anti-porn fear that if we allow porn to flourish, those of us who don’t enjoy acting like [mainstream] porn stars will be unable to satisfy our partners.

Again, I got sympathy. I understand these fears because I used to feel them; I felt them so strongly that it made me cry in a public computer lab. But the solution isn’t getting rid of the porn, it’s getting rid of the fears. The solution is:

1) Reframing male sexuality so that we aren’t so damn scared of it all the time. Men can and will control themselves sexually, and they’ll only get better at it — not worse — if we encourage honest, non-scary, open-minded dialogue about male sexual desire.

2) Encouraging people to see alternative sexuality as just another human preference, rather than something weird and/or freakish. Encouraging people to accept and come to terms with their own sexuality, though this can be a tough and hard-to-recognize process — it certainly was for me. Once people feel comfortable in their own sex lives and recognize their own weird fetishes, they’ll be much less likely to judge other people’s sex lives.

3) Making it incredibly clear that everyone has different sexual desires, that different kinds of porn express different desires, and that “all men” and “all women” don’t want the same thing. Porn can be a wonderful tool for exploring particular desires, and allowing people to explore their particular preferences makes it easier for everyone to find sexual satisfaction, not harder — because it means that people with particular preferences can find each other, rather than ending up in unhappy partnerships where those desires are ignored.

4) Giving more airtime to alternative porn, especially feminist porn, to make it obvious that all porn isn’t the same. [1]

5) Oh, and of course we need to encourage people to recognize that violent sex isn’t necessarily bad sex; that even something as extreme as a rape scene can be 100% consensual. One key idea that I’m trying to push is writing about the amazing variety of sexual communication tactics derived from S&M — tactics that enable some awesomely extreme, awesomely consensual sex.

* * *

I have a theory about how porn affects men in bed. I don’t have any data, I’ve just got my experience, and that means I’m on the same level as Gail Dines (so maybe I should publish a book). I’ve had a pretty fair number of sexual partners at this point, and it’s true that, in my experience, men who don’t like mainstream porn are often better in bed: more attentive and less likely to make assumptions, for example. Perhaps they’re better off because they never learned or believed in the stereotypes of mainstream porn — then again, some guys who don’t like porn are horribly repressed and terrible in bed, so obviously the issue cuts both ways.

However! There’s another group of men who are excellent in bed. Often, they’re even better than men who don’t watch porn. And that group is men who have watched a lot of different kinds of porn and who have thought carefully about their reactions to it. They have learned how many different flavors of sexuality are out there in the world. They are men who have gotten over their sexual repression and learned to talk about sex in an open, accepting, honest way. Those men are fantastic in bed.

And they’ve probably got more exposure to porn than any of the men cherry-picked by anti-porn zealots who talk about the horrors of porn.

* * *

* Footnote: This point (#4) was added in February 2011. It’s late for me to add it in, because this piece has already been republished in multiple venues across the internet, but it’s an important point and I’m mad at myself that I left it out of the original version of this post. I think I take too much sex-positive theory for granted sometimes ….

2010 3 Jul

Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins

Everyone knows about BDSM safewords … or at least, everyone thinks they know about safewords. But one of the initial moments that really impressed me about my current boyfriend was when I asked him, many moons ago, if he knew what a safeword is. He paused, then answered, “I think I’m familiar with the idea, but I probably don’t know much more than a stereotype, so I’d like to hear you define it.” Humility and open-minded curiosity are so incredibly hot!

Righto. Hot boyfriend aside, I’m here to explain safewords and check-ins, and how those concepts can exemplify excellent sexual communication for everyone — not just S&Mers — in a world that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to communicate sexually.

When two (or more) people have a BDSM encounter together, generally they set a safeword — a word that anyone can say at any time to stop the action. (Sometimes people don’t use safewords. This is their choice and I totally respect it. I would not recommend going without safewords for anyone who doesn’t know their partner extremely well, and I would be seriously sketched out by anyone who pressured a partner to go without safewords.)

When I give advice about setting safewords, I usually offer the following:

A) Some people like to say that it’s good to use a safeword that’s jolting, and is likely to make your partner feel totally unsexy. Isn’t there a “Family Guy” episode in which Lois & Peter’s safeword is “banana” or something?

B) In my experience, the generally accepted safewords in the S&M community are “safeword” and, more commonly, “red”. I consider it useful to go with the “public standard” because that means that in the future, you’re likely to be attuned to the correct word if you practice BDSM with other partners as well. (It also means that if you ever do S&M in a public space such as a dungeon, everyone in the place will recognize your safeword if you scream it.)

C) At first I wasn’t that excited about this, but I’ve grown to love the fact that the safeword “red” also sometimes encompasses “green” — and “yellow”. That means that if I’m in the middle of an S&M encounter, I can say “red” and my partner will stop; I can then catch my breath and say “green”, which means “by God keep going!” Or, if I’m a little uncertain about the territory but don’t actually want my partner to stop — if I just want my partner to be a little bit cautious — then I can say “yellow” (and, of course, I can move to “green” if I become really psyched, or shift to “red” if I really want my partner to stop).

I know that this probably doesn’t sound sexy at all, but it totally can be! Consider the following example: during my last vacation to America, I had an S&M encounter with a dude I’ll refer to as Klark. (It’s not my fault. He requested the pseudonym.) At one point, Klark was experimenting with hurting me, and I had my eyes closed and was whimpering / crying out in a totally glorious way. (The poor overnight desk clerk. He was only one short flight of stairs away from us.) I think Klark was legitimately having trouble detecting whether I was enjoying myself, though — understandably, because we had only just met, and I enjoy sinking myself into dramatic masochistic misery — so he leaned over me and said, in a low dark voice, “Red, yellow, green.” Immediately, I gasped back “Green”. Because he spoke in a gritty and dominant voice, and the check-in was quick, we were able to maintain the mood — and it was actually kind of hot in itself.

Which brings me to the other thing: check-ins. Sometimes, you want to check in with your partner. Which can be easy: you can just say, “Hey, how does this feel?” or, as a more precise example, “Give me a rating of 1-10 on how good this feels (or how much this hurts).” But if you want to do it quickly and without shifting the mood, you can do it as I outline above in the Klark example. Or even quicker, as for example with the hand-squeeze system, where the participants agree ahead of time that you can squeeze another person’s hand twice and expect two squeezes back — and if there aren’t two return squeezes, it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going wrong. (Squeeze system: also very helpful when gags are involved.) (And here’s a literary example of check-ins in a vanilla encounter.)

Sometimes submissives will have a hard time safewording — whether out of pride, inexperience, or eagerness to please — and that’s another reason check-ins can be good even when there’s a set safeword. If you aren’t sure how to read your partner’s reactions and you suspect ze may be uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you might consider checking in even if ze hasn’t safeworded, because your suspicion may be right.

What I love about safewords and check-ins:

1) Hypothetically, mainstream society acknowledges that anyone could say no at any point during sex, but in practice, this is really hard. A variety of forces — girls socially pressured not to be so-called “cock-teases”, boys socially pressured to supposedly “prove their manliness”, and everyone anxious to please their partners — work against people’s capacity to say no; and while there is a vague understanding that “no means no”, that vagueness is as far as it gets. There’s no explicit framework in place for how to say “no”, and no understanding of how to continue an encounter (or relationship) after one’s partner says no. Even worse, there’s an assumed linear progression of sexual activity — the best example is the “base system”, which places sexual interaction on a metaphorical baseball diamond where “first base” = groping and “home base” = penis-in-vagina sex. Have I mentioned that I hate the base system?

So anyway, the biggest moral of the story with safewords and check-ins is that consent does not only happen once. Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn. Adapting my understanding of sexuality to reflect this — even in my non-BDSM sex — might have been the best thing that ever happened to my sex life.

2) On a related note: Good sex is not about entitlement. If we acknowledge that anyone can safeword out of any sexual act at any time, then we acknowledge that no one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — ever. If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice. If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice. Those two are easy, I think, but how about these?

+ If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you are married to your partner, but ze doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.

+ If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.

By the way, if you (like I once did) feel as though your partner is entitled to sex of any kind, I encourage you to re-examine that feeling. Ditto if you’ve got a little voice in your head telling you that you “ought to” be up for sex all the time just because you don’t get it very often … or that you “ought to” be up for sex if you’ve done it with your partner before … or whatever. The other best thing that ever happened to my sex life was when I finally, finally, finally internalized the idea that my partners don’t ever “deserve” sex for any reason — that there’s no reason I ever “should” be having sex — and that the only reason I should ever, ever, ever do anything sexual is because I legitimately want to.

Of course, if you truly believe that you need a certain kind of sexuality in your life, then you’re absolutely entitled to ask your partner to consider it — and you’re entitled to leave the relationship if ze isn’t up for it. But this doesn’t mean that you “deserve” to do that act with that person, or that your partner “owes” you a certain act.

And hey, if your partner isn’t down with one specific sexual act, then that means you’ve got the chance to explore all kinds of other sexuality. Another other best thing that ever happened to my sexuality? Quite possibly, it’s my current boyfriend — whose religious adherence has drastically limited our physical sexual options.

* * *

Check out the previous post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists, not to mention the next post in this series, Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping.

* * *

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.

* * *

2010 30 Jun

Love Bites: An S&M Coming-Out Story

My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.

* * *

I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.

I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.

Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.

I closed my eyes.

“Mercy,” I whispered.

* * *

(more…)

2010 11 May

Am I evolving away from monogamy?

I’m just getting back from vacation, and during my trip a friend turned to me and asked, “So what’s up with you and polyamory?” So it seems like as good a time as any to post this rambling ….

Many alternative subcultures — including my main squeezes: science fiction and fantasy, gaming, and goth — overlap considerably with radical sex subcultures. That is, if you’re in one subculture, you’re likely to be familiar with the others. There’s an especial lot of overlap with consensual non-monogamy, particularly polyamory. (The other “main” sex subculture for consensual non-monogamy, swing, is better-represented among the mainstream.) The famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a fierce proponent of polyamory; indeed, when I first read his book Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, I felt super frustrated by how negatively he portrayed monogamy.

As I got older and started integrating into alternative subcultures, I got more and more exposure to polyamory. I also got more and more exposure to “polyvangelists”: people who, like Heinlein, scornfully dismiss monogamy as “less evolved” or “less intelligent” or “more selfish” than polyamory. It enraged me. “Honestly,” I always said, “I really don’t care if you want to have multiple boyfriends and/or girlfriends, but quit telling me I’m wrong because I don’t!”

I toyed with poly — over the course of my first and longest-running relationship, I took a semester away in Europe, and my boyfriend and I decided to have an open relationship while I was on another continent. During that time, I started dating a European, and I was basically as monogamous as you can get while having another boyfriend across the ocean. I wasn’t remotely interested in dating other locals. My version of poly was as monogamous as possible, and when I returned to America I assumed my boyfriend and I would return to our previously-mono ways. He, however, didn’t assume the same thing. He wanted to stay poly.

Unfortunately, this became one of the biggest contested points in our relationship. We went back to being monogamous, but it was an uneasy dynamic. I tried to find compromises; I was comfortable saying that he could hook up with men but not women, for instance, which he did. At one point, I even said that although I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being poly, I thought I might be able to handle it as long as he could assure me that he wouldn’t fall in love with his other sexual partners; he decided that he couldn’t promise that. He then cheated on me, which did not help the situation at all. (Responsible polyamorists don’t advocate cheating, by the way — if either partner is dishonest, most polyfolk will bristle and say “that’s not poly!”)

Being fascinated by sexuality and relationships, I’d already thought a lot about polyamory and monogamy, but the situation with my boyfriend threw my brain into overdrive. I tore myself apart trying to figure out why, although I was okay with other people being poly — I even argued in defense of poly when mainstream people stereotyped it! — I couldn’t stand the idea of being poly myself. I felt attacked, under siege, like I constantly had to defend or justify my preference.

I finally settled on thinking of monogamy as a “sexual orientation” or a “kink”: I figured that monogamy was just wired into me, sexually, the same way homosexuality might be for a gay person. (And I’ve met others who feel the same way — who characterize their monogamy as “innate”.)

Time passed. I came into my BDSM identity. I finally broke things off permanently with my first boyfriend; then I had two deep, intense, happily monogamous relationships. I still thought about polyamory sometimes, because it’s interesting, but I no longer felt anxious while doing so. One of my aggressively polyamorous friends characterized me as his “reasonably monogamous” friend, and told me that — although he feels most monogamous people don’t think hard enough about polyamory to justify dismissing it as an option — he thought that I certainly had. I accepted this accolade with a smile.

Then I got my heart broken. Badly, and dramatically. And ever since then … I’ve been feeling less and less monogamous. I still identified so strongly with my “monogamy orientation” that I told people monogamy was what I wanted, and I had some monogamous relationships … but I felt mounting unease. I wanted to be conducting relationships with multiple people; not just that, I also found myself fantasizing about sex with multiple people. Cautiously, I started negotiating limited forms of polyamory (for example, my last relationship and my current one have both been monogamous in terms of “traditional” sex, but not monogamous in terms of S&M partners) … but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to start experimenting with full-on polyamory and/or maybe to swing. In fact … I still … do?

Me, of all people! The “monogamy oriented” girl! The “reasonably monogamous” one! The one who considered it all so carefully and knew exactly what she wanted! How did this happen?

I broached the subject with my current boyfriend a few months ago; he reacted with unease, and later wrote me an email that said: I do not want to come between you and your explorations.  My presence would not entirely hamper them (as I understand the things you’ve listed), but I think that I might well resist swinging or (particularly) polyamory. I’d hate to think I’d circumscribed you with regard to S&M, but I feel much more ambivalent about swing and poly, things less compelling to me, which conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner. If there’s one sticking point I have that’s actually (contrasted with apparently) going to be extremely difficult to negotiate, it’s monogamy.

“Conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner”: I read that with bemusement. Not because I can’t understand his perspective, but because the words sound exactly like something I would have said two years ago. Back then, my ideal partner was someone who would commit to me, monogamously; that’s reflected in everything I thought and everything I wrote during that time, including my recently-published coming-out story. But now ….?

How tempting, to blame my old heartbreak — maybe I’m still “really” mono, but I’ve got emotional baggage? Maybe I’m just afraid of commitment, afraid of putting “all my eggs in one basket”, in the wake of that experience? Maybe I’ve finally been (as “Moulin Rouge” would have it) cured of my ridiculous obsession with love, and I’m ready to take a more realistic view — one that doesn’t expect one person to be everything to me? Maybe I was only ever determined to be mono because I felt as though people were attacking me for being mono, and I had to resist? Yet this all seems so facile, so pop-psychological. My heart’s been broken before, for one thing.

Still, here’s another pop-psychological twist: recently, I’ve not only fantasized about sex with multiple people; I’ve fantasized about partners hurting my feelings by having sex with other people. Remember folks, I’m a submissive masochist, and when I’m in the proper mood I like it when my lovers make me cry — though it never occurred to me that I’d get turned on by the idea of so much emotional pain. Turned on by the idea of a lover savagely breaking my heart, leaving me for someone more beautiful, successful, etc ….

Most unsettlingly, I’m afraid that not only am I still “really” mono, but that going for poly relationships will end up screwing me. I’m afraid that if I were to fall blazingly, consumingly, totally in love again … the poly leanings would disappear. Here’s the scariest question: is this attraction to polyamory simply coming up because I’m not perfectly in love?

If my ideal partner would be monogamous, but I want to be poly because I’m not sure I can find my ideal partner, then that doesn’t just seem dangerous; it seems … dishonest. I know polyfolk who have been really hurt by newly-poly people who thought they were open to a poly relationship — but then the newly-poly person finds The One, feels a strong pull back towards monogamy, and dumps her poly partners. Certainly, if I were a poly person reading this, then — looking at my own reservations — I wouldn’t date me. But then again, what if this really does mark a sea change in my outlook, and I’d be perfectly happy being polyamorous indefinitely?

I know one smart BDSM educator who makes it a point to warn kinksters just entering the community that “desires change over time”, and that one should be prepared. I thought I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I want to end on one important point: just because I may be interested in poly now does not mean that it was the best thing for me all along. There’s a difference between these feelings and, say, my BDSM orientation. I recognize BDSM as something I’ve been looking for my entire life — but, for me, the same is not true of polyamory (although I believe that there are polyamorists out there who feel it as an innate identity, like for example Raven Kaldera). In fact, I’m sure that I would never have evolved into this interest in polyamory if I’d kept dating a partner who was pressuring me into it despite my doubts and anxieties. But this is a whole nother post, so I’ll end here.

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:

(more…)

2010 15 Apr

Blood, roses, and a better blog name

I’ve been negotiating a pro blogging gig for a while, and that has been keeping me from posting as much as I otherwise might. I’ve been trying to save my best ideas for pro work! But due to contract considerations, it’s looking like I’ll keep most of my content here, even if I do work as a pro blogger. (Those “rights”! They are so pesky.) It’s also been making me think about how I want this blog to look — I had a strong vision when I thought about blogging elsewhere, with the chance to start over and build an opus from the ground up — whereas this place is a little bit more of a hodgepodge. That’s okay. But I would like a unifying theme.

When I first started this blog, I styled it “Clarisse Thorn: BDSM Outreach”. I retitled it simply “Clarisse Thorn” later, as it became clear that I was going in a much broader sex-positive direction what with my sex-positive film series and my current work in Africa and all, though my main interest will always be S&M. And then there were the pesky gender-theory outposts, like my crowd-pleasing manliness series, which has nothing intrinsically to do with BDSM or sexuality at all. (Over 800 comments now on my final post in the series! And the conversation’s been going since 2009. I call that a success.)

So now, the title you see above. “Clarisse Thorn: Sex-Positive Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism”. I think that covers it.

This also seems like as good a time as any to explain my icon, the white rose in a pool of blood. Blood is, in fact, a serious fetish of mine. It’s certainly attracted me for years — since before I had any real clue how deep my S&M sexuality went. And then, I mean, what kind of romantic doesn’t love roses? (I assure you, despite any sarcasm or sadomasochistic cravings you may have noticed, I’m a definite romantic.) In college, years before I came into BDSM, I was seized by mad genius to do a quick series of ink pictures: roses in blood. The picture that’s currently my universal Internet icon was my favorite.

It’s funny to me, looking at it now, that I had no real clue how much I was craving hardcore S&M. But so much of it was buried. How could I know?

And then there’s that song from the Smithereens, one of those older rock bands that no one in my generation has heard of: “Blood & Roses”. The song didn’t inspire me so much as slot neatly into my mind when I first heard it, mid-teens. Here’s the chorus (and I promise, I will not make a habit of posting song lyrics!).

It was long ago, but seems like yesterday.
I saw you standing in the rain and then I heard you say:
“I want to love but it comes out wrong.
I want to live but I don’t belong.
I close my eyes and I see blood and roses.”

Sometimes I think the blood-and-roses were a mental shorthand: the back of my mind trying to tell me what I was looking for, despite all the repression and anxiety; despite the fact that I had no clue how to name it. I want to love but it comes out wrong. I wanted it so much, but it could never come out right until I understood what I needed.

2010 4 Mar

Huh.

In February I published two pieces that are way more emotionally personal than most things I toss out in public: my S&M coming-out story and my last post, about my recent history with saying “I love you”. And those pieces weren’t just personal for me, but also got more personal about my partners than I usually do.

What’s interesting about this is that although I got the consent of everyone in my life who’s involved in those posts before I published, and although I was sure that I’d already made my feelings clear to everyone involved as well (and that they’d made theirs clear to me), publishing the pieces still caused no fewer than three Serious Relationship Discussions with different people … venting emotions and clarifying stances. I can’t decide if writing so personally is something I should do all the time for Maximum Relationship Communication Power, or something that will drive me crazy in the end.