Posts Tagged ‘storytime’

2010 16 Feb

My S&M coming-out story — published at last

“Time Out Chicago” has published my S&M coming-out story to their website. It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever written, at least on a personal level, and it’s a little strange to see it finally out there.

I wrote the first half — everything up to the line, “Still, for a moment I wished …” — in early 2006. I wrote it for catharsis more than anything else, though I did submit it to one venue for publication on a whim — but after I submitted, I sharply regretted it. I remember that I was totally terrified it would be accepted. What would it mean if I published something like that? At that point I had no real experience in the BDSM community; I was finally starting to break out of my near-continuous freakout from discovering my sexuality, but I was still drowning in stigma. And I’d simply never written anything so personal before. When I received the rejection letter, I felt the typical burn, but I also heaved a sigh of enormous relief.

I left the piece alone on my hard drive for a long time, healing and adjusting all the while. In late 2007 — towards the end of my relationship with Andrew — I decided to add the second half, though I had no real idea what I’d do with the finished product. I was living in a huge building with communal kitchens at the time, and I remember that at 2AM one morning I went downstairs for a bagel. In the kitchen I came upon another artist, a filmmaker. He’d been living there for months, but we hadn’t talked much. Still, in each other we instinctively recognized the stamp of late-night obsessive artistry. “You’re a writer, right?” he asked. “What are you working on?”

“I don’t talk about my work,” I said. He was very insistent, so I finally told him, “I’m working on my S&M coming-out story.” I figured that would shut him up, but it didn’t — he started wanting to read it. “I don’t talk about my work,” I said firmly, and left the kitchen with my bagel.

“Wait!” he shouted after me. “I’m not done with you yet!” I didn’t look back. A few minutes later, after I’d settled myself in my room — lying across my mattress on my stomach, reading a book — he showed up.

Unmoving, I rested my chin on my hands and looked up at him. He crossed his arms. “Send it to me,” he said. “You know you’re going to need feedback and criticism and stuff.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

A few weeks later, I finished the piece. Then I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while. Had there been any goal besides catharsis? What was I going to do with the damn thing? I couldn’t figure it out, so I sent it to the filmmaker.

He was a remarkable man. Is, I should say. He was the first reader of my coming-out story, and he sent me pages upon pages of the most brilliant critical feedback I’ve ever received. I was stunned when I read his emails — had I really been living with this guy for months? How had I failed to notice him? I think he, upon reading the piece, had a similar intense reaction; and his reaction helped convince me it was good. Maybe it was inevitable that we’d fall terribly in love. Or at least that I would fall for him. I owe him a lot; our relationship was confusing and dramatic and the breakup was awful, but when we were done, I found that he’d really helped release me from my remaining BDSM-stigmatizing patterns. That was when I established myself in the wider Chicago BDSM scene (though I’d obviously been practicing BDSM for some time, I’d only made brief forays into various communities before, usually in foreign cities), and began to volunteer at the Leather Archives. And soon after that I started the Sex+++ film series, and this blog.

After my experience with the filmmaker, I became nearly promiscuous with my coming-out story. I sent it to a lot of new partners so they’d have an idea where I was coming from, and I also showed it to number of friends for feedback. I considered publishing it in a feminist anthology. My comfort with sharing it skyrocketed. Indeed, as I finally started to seriously research the subject of SM, I discovered that pieces like mine are practically old hat — even “Ms. Magazine” will apparently publish “I freaked out about being a submissive feminist, but now it’s okay!” pieces.

So at this point, it’s nearly an anticlimax to have my coming-out story in public. No bated breath, no terror about what it means. Thank God.

* * *

I’m just coming home from a visit to Chicago, and towards the end of my visit I hung out with Richard. To me our relationship feels fragile and fraught, just as it always has, but maybe it is stronger than it was. He’s definitely a friend — a good one — and we’ve even continued to do BDSM together on a very occasional basis. He has joked that I call him whenever I break up with my boyfriends, which is kind of true.

He’s so smart, and he’s very interesting to talk to, and I am still attracted, but even though I’ve adjusted to my BDSM identity — even though I’m no longer so angry, or in denial, about my attraction to him — it can be hard to be around Richard. I sometimes feel as though we are still constantly renegotiating our relationship, even now. I remain afraid of emotionally attaching to him, although these days we can sit around and talk very openly for hours; although we’ve had a few, a very few, BDSM encounters in recent years that felt like there was no distance between us at all.

I sent Richard himself my coming-out story only about a year ago. It took some nerve, but not a lot — it had been such a long time since those events, and by then I’d already shown it to a number of people. At the time, he responded with a rather brief message, saying that it was interesting to get my perspective and that his own sense of that time had been very different. When we talked a few days ago, though, “Time Out” had just published and I got a better sense of Richard’s feelings. I guess the piece is a bit difficult for him — understandably; it’s not easy to see yourself at the center of someone else’s panicked and agonized identity crisis, especially when (he says) it wasn’t clear to him how I felt at the time.

I’ve often thought that of everything I’ve written in my life, this is probably the most unflattering to someone who’s important to me. I tried to be fair to Richard when I wrote it, and in fact — as I’ve aged and my perspective has evolved — it’s undergone a number of edits to make it fairer. But my coming-out story is about me and my panicked agonized identity crisis. It’s true that I don’t want to objectify him, but to some extent, that piece has to be about the way I experienced him. Not about him.

I’ve asked Richard to write something about how he felt when he read it, and maybe about our experiences together as well; I’d like to give my readership his perspective. He said he’d think about it. I really hope he takes me up on it.

* * *

Publishing this piece with “Time Out” is a personal triumph. It’s online, which means it’s widely available and I can link people to it whenever I want. It’s in a mainstream publication, which means that it might educate or assist people who’d be unlikely to encounter it in a feminist anthology or sex-positive site or whatever. It also marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful relationship with “Time Out”: we are negotiating the terms of a contract by which they intend to hire me as a freelance blogger. Basically this means that I’ll be writing the same stuff, but more frequently and probably in a more luser user-friendly way (like, I’ll probably start using pictures more and attempt to shorten my posts, though that’s hard for me). Not sure when that transition will happen — probably a month or two.

I’ve always got a backlog of ideas to post, and I’m reminded of some of them by my coming-out story. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about stigma: where did I absorb BDSM stigma? How does our culture express it? Why did I freak out so much about my desires when I live in a world where even “Cosmopolitan” winks about whip usage? I’ve also been meaning to write a piece about angles: I think our sexual desires are often, largely, defined not by the acts themselves, but the angles by which they come at us. What was the difference in slant between the man who tried to do light BDSM with me in 2003, and Richard? Was it Richard’s forcefulness, his greater grasp on dominant dynamics? How have my BDSM desires evolved since then? And what are the implications of these things?

But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do now that I’m back in Africa, too. It was a 40-hour journey. I am somewhat overwhelmed and jetlagged, and very hot. My trip to the USA was incredible — yet very hard, because it reminded me of all the things I miss (not many BDSM clubs in southern Africa). I have to settle in, get back into the swing of things here, and remind myself that I can survive without BDSM. We’ll see how that goes.

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: 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.

January 14: 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.

January 21: 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).

January 28: 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 they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2009 30 Dec

Sex-positive women aren’t out to steal your man

Note: This post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

Radical feminists* attack BDSM (and many other marginalized sexual identities) on a variety of ideological grounds — usually claiming that it’s Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome (an assertion that is not only unproveable but is also usually stated in really hurtful terms, thereby serving mainly to drive kinky people away from feminism or guilt-trip kinky people into suppressing their desires). But another tactic many radical feminists use against us is slut-shaming, including resentful declarations that sex-positive feminists are getting all the sexual attention. (They often patronizingly call us “fun feminists”, as if we wouldn’t hold our opinions if we weren’t trying to be fun! fun! fun! As if our opinions can’t be serious, and/or aren’t worth taking seriously.)

If I make the mistake of announcing that I’m into S&M in an unfamiliar vanilla group, then yeah — it’s true — I do get hit on more. Because the stigma around BDSM is particularly sexualized. But that kind of attention isn’t actually what I want, and it frequently takes really unpleasant forms. For instance, before I left Chicago I went on one of my friend Ken’s Chicago Sex Tours. Because it was a sex-related event, I introduced myself to the tour group as Clarisse the S&M activist. Immediately, people had questions, which is fine and great — that’s part of why I’m an activist: to answer those questions. But they also had assumptions — most obviously the man who grabbed my ass while I was ahead of him in a stairwell. Obviously, that dude’s tiny mind was thinking what most similar dudes (and many radical feminists — but I’ll get to this in a minute) think: “Woohoo! A girl who’s into S&M! She must have no boundaries at all! Clearly I can grab her ass with impunity!”

I didn’t want to make a huge scene at Ken’s event, so I just twisted away and told the guy in a freezing tone: “If you do that again without my consent, I’ll kick your ass.” And avoided him for the rest of the tour. (God, what a complete assmonkey. I get angry all over again just thinking about it. I’d like to believe that he realized he was being an ass and won’t do something similar again, but I’ve encountered too many asshole men like him to be sure that he internalized the point. In fact, I bet that if I had decided to make a scene and confront him directly, he would have been all injured innocence. “But you’ve been talking about crazy sexual acts all night! What do you mean I wasn’t supposed to grab your ass? You can’t blame a guy for being a little confused! She was wearing a short skirt, Judge!” Argh. But I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the main point.)

(edit Really, maybe I should have made a scene. To his credit, Ken read this post and Direct Messaged me on Twitter to say, “I am so sorry that happened on my tour! Had I known I would have kicked his ass. I had no idea.” At the time, I just didn’t want to disrupt the space because I was enjoying the event, etc. Who knows? Even in hindsight it’s hard to say. But again, back to the main point. end of edit)

Which is: so how was that dude similar to some radical feminists? Because there are radical feminists out there who describe sex-positive women as “freely sexually available” — usually in tones of rage, resentment and disgust. Yes, they use that phrase. They’re so angry at us for daring to indulge our badwrong sexuality that they fall into the exact same patriarchal trap that Tour Dude did. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that sex-positive women have boundaries and preferences, too. Radical feminists of this stripe are (as Renegade Evolution deconstructs in the aforementioned link) actually part of the problem, because they reinforce the awful dialectic around sexuality that they claim to oppose. They are basically stating that any woman who dares to freely express her sexuality thereby sacrifices her right to sexual boundaries. They are declaring us infinitely rapeable — throwing out our rights to bodily integrity just as Tour Dude did.

Why must they do this? Why?!

When I think back to my pre-BDSM days — the days when my opinions were considerably more stereotypical-radical-feminist than they are now — and when I look around the Internet, here’s one of the reasons I find: such feminists actually believe that we don’t have any boundaries, which — combined with some really awful social conceptions of men — makes them feel threatened. The ladies who call kinky women “freely sexually available” are freaking out partly because they feel like we’re setting up some kind of crazy “standard” for how to behave that they can’t match. One example collected from the Internet: these comments about how sex-positive women are stealing men from more virtuous ladies. But a better example comes from my own life:

I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.

It was awful. It hurt. A lot. I still remember all that mixed-up anxiety and pain with a shudder.

What cured me was (a) realizing that there are many different kinds of porn out there and that different people have very different tastes; (b) properly exploring my sexual needs — especially my repressed BDSM identity — and learning exactly what it means to have sexual fantasies that hold no bearing on how I feel about my partners. But I still remember feeling sick, watching those porn actresses enact a script that didn’t feel right for me. And I can imagine a very short jump from how I felt then to how a woman might feel, if she thought that “all men want the same thing” and her own sexual preferences didn’t fit that script — how such a woman might feel if she were confronted with women who professed to like those things, and even to like all kinds of crazier more perverted things …. Indeed, women who want “super-perverse” things would probably make such a woman feel like we’re setting an “even worse standard” than porn, because everyone knows that all men (those slobby hungry beasts) will always desire the most perverse possible thing, right? For such a woman, surely other women who enjoy the acts she doesn’t want to do would seem like a pressure-cage; the same way porn felt like a pressure-cage for me, once upon a time.

(I’m not saying all radical feminists feel this way. I’m just saying, I suspect that some feminists who attack sex-positivity are just trying to break out of those awful societal pressure-cages in their own way. And I sympathize. But that doesn’t make it okay to tell me I ought not realize my own sexuality in the way I want, the way I need to realize it.)

And this has brought me to the other big problem. Another thing disappeared by these awful ideas — women being “freely sexually available”; sex-positive women “stealing men”; men all preferring a certain stereotypical idea of porn — what’s disappeared here is the fact that men have different sexual desires. In other words, these attitudes can only persist as long as one has a really narrow view of men in general. Yes! A man who desires you, my lady, may very well not desire porn sex — or may very well not desire me, the crazy kinky girl! It’s true! People are sexually different! Even men are sexually different! Who would ever have thought?

As a matter of fact, my BDSM identity makes it considerably harder for me to find partners. Really! Yeah, it means that folks hit on me more, but that’s only because they’re operating on a stereotype that doesn’t truly come close to describing me. In reality, most men — like most women — are basically vanilla; and even if they’re into S&M, they’re into very mild S&M. I dated one man for two years who was initially attracted to me partly because I was just discovering BDSM, and he wanted to explore it with me … but ultimately, one of the sorest spots that developed in our relationship was that I needed experiences way more hardcore than he wanted to give. (This experience made me decide to never, ever again date a vanilla-but-questioning guy, because they don’t know what they want and they’ll only break my heart. I am not very good at following this dictum.)

To wind up this post, I’ll share one more example: a former friend of mine who I’ll call Bert. Bert was hitting on me aggressively after he found out about the BDSM thing; he was making all kinds of S&M-ish innuendoes. At the time I was lonely and confused and I’d just had a nasty breakup, so I thought, okay, why not? I told him to write me a letter describing what he wanted to do. Here’s what he wrote:

so i was thinking silk ties or scarves to bind the the other one’s hands and 10 minute intervals of hedonistic pleasure taking turns pushing, pulling and releasing each other’s buttons, knobs, valves, etc…? i.e. fingers do the walking, thar she blows, abc, cum here, hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, omg.

This letter had the effect of making me smile ruefully and shake my head. Why? Because it is not even close to what I’m into. Restraints don’t usually even enter my fantasies at all, but when they do, they ain’t flimsy little silk scarves — they’re being used to actually hold someone (often, me) down. Someone who’s screaming in agony. Someone who’s begging for mercy.

I wrote back:

Oh, dear.  I was imagining something significantly more painful.

… and Bert never hit on me again. Heaven only knows what would have happened if I’d explicitly told him what I’m into. He’d probably hide in the corner every time I entered the room.

* This is not to say that there aren’t lots of radical feminists who are careful, tolerant, open-hearted people and whom I really admire. Honestly, I have a lot of radical feminism in my own outlook.

** Indeed, when I finally got up the courage to say this to a partner in my late teens, he told me that he didn’t feel that assisting me with sexual exploration was his job and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen: the portrait of sexual entitlement. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

2009 9 Dec

Manliness and Feminism: the followup

In late October I posted a three-part series under the title “Questions I’d Like To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men” (Part 1: Who Cares?; Part 2: Men’s Rights; Part 3: Space For Men). These posts kicked up more of a furor than I anticipated, with a bunch of cross-postings and responses on other blogs.* It all gave me a huge number of new perspectives to synthesize, which is part of why it took me so long to post this followup … but here I am!

I really want this followup to be readable to people who didn’t bother with the initial three posts, so please let me know if I fail!

* * *

Introducing myself, and One Correction

Please allow me to introduce myself. I think those posts probably make more sense (as will large swaths of this one) if you know who I am, and they got linked around to so many non-regular readers that most of the audience now doesn’t.

I go by Clarisse. It is not my real name, because I am a sex-positive and, in particular, pro-BDSM** activist, and being all-the-way-out-of-the-closet about kink can have serious, long-term repercussions for someone’s life (the most pressing for me, right now, being employability: my immediate superiors here in Africa know about my BDSM identity, but the larger rather conservative organization sure as hell doesn’t). Identifying as feminist and pro-BDSM can be really fraught territory — many avowed feminists regard BDSM with suspicion and some, on the more extreme end, with outright hatred. (Famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer once said, “Female masochism is collaboration.” Many feminist spaces have a long tradition of excluding or marginalizing BDSM, like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which incidentally has a similar history with trans people. Nine Deuce, a popular radical feminist blogger, has been known to assert that sadists are morally obligated to either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. For example.) In her post “Healing My Broken Feminist Heart”, Audacia Ray talks about how much it hurts to identify as a feminist and yet be told, often, that the way you realize your personal sexuality is unfeminist; I’ve been meaning to write a response to that post for ages, because boy do I know how that feels. (I swear, I have the biggest crush on Audacia Ray. I want to be her when I grow up.)

I am Chicago-based in that I lived there for years before I moved here to Africa in order to work in HIV/AIDS mitigation, and I suspect I’ll move back there when my contract ends. In Chicago, I lectured on BDSM and sexual communication, and I created and curated a fabulous sex-positive film series and discussion group that it broke my heart to leave. (The film series was so successful that a group of loyalists gathered, formed a committee, and have continued it without me! Yes!)

My feminist history isn’t very “official”, though I was raised by two very feminist people. For instance, I haven’t read most of the classic feminist authors. My degree is in Philosophy, Religious Studies and Studio Art, not anything gender-related — and when I was in college I remember that I often viewed hard-line feminist assertions with suspicion. I would irritably characterize them as “conspiracy theories”: these people seemed to think there was some secret society of evil men sitting around and plotting to ruin their lives, which clearly was not the case! Ah, youth … :grin: The problem is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that definitions of feminism have become so varied and so many different issues have been attached to feminism by different people.***

In other words, almost my entire gender/sex background is idiosyncratic and self-trained. I certainly can’t hope to match the massive theoretical background that many Internet gender commentators have. And I am very familiar with having my experience discounted and dismissed in a feminist context (“Sorry, BDSM is abuse. Period. If you enjoy BDSM, you’re mentally ill or you have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome”). These are some of the reasons I tried to spend my entire Entitled Cis Het Men post series asking questions, rather than making assertions.

The posts weren’t intended to be prescriptive — I don’t have much of an agenda beyond “create more conversations around sex and gender”. There is of course my agenda (shared by almost every human alive) of “convincing people to agree with me” and “getting people to join my cool club or at least admire it from afar”, but I don’t personally have any pressing Grand Policy Goals. One commenter who went by Sailorman over at Alas said, on the third post: I read this thread with interest, but it is of course basically a very extended and well written TPHMT argument? I don’t know what the acronym means, but I’m honestly sort of annoyed by any attempt to boil those three posts down to a single argument, because I tried so hard to make it clear that a single argument was not my intent, with that series. I really am just interested in exploring various and often very discrete masculinity-related questions. No, really, I am. No, really, I am.

(more…)

2009 5 Nov

Withdrawing consent

While waiting for the firestorm over my three masculinity posts to die down (I’ll post a followup soon, promise), I want to parse out some recent thoughts on — you guessed it — consent!

I’ve been dating a guy here in Africa whom I will henceforth refer to as Chastity Boy.* I recently wrote a piece on my southern Africa experience that included descriptions of my relationship with him. I texted him, asking permission to write about him — which he granted — and then the next time I saw him in person, I had him go over the writing and specifically give consent for the piece itself. I warned him that the writing would almost certainly end up in a public place, though it would be under my scene name Clarisse.

This step accomplished, I sent the piece to some friends for feedback. One of those people was a mutual friend. Chastity Boy heard that she’d read it and wasn’t happy; he asked me about it, saying things like, “Well, it wasn’t quite a red flag, but close …” Naturally, with him talking about red flags, I felt scared that I’d transgressed a serious boundary. My ears perked up, I sat straighter and I tried to figure out why I’d failed to sense that boundary.

We talked for a while. “I don’t understand,” I eventually said. “You knew those pieces could end up in public. That’s why I thought it was okay to send them to her.”

“Well, but that’s different … I knew it’d be in public, but I didn’t expect people I know to see it,” he said. He thought about it some more. “I guess it just took me by surprise.”

“Do you want me to edit some parts of the pieces, or not post them?”

“No,” he said. “You can keep writing whatever you like about me.”

I asked if he was sure. He assented. I asked if he was really sure. He assented again. I asked if there was anyone in particular he didn’t want knowing about my identity as Miss Clarisse Thorn. He told me, and with that understanding, we closed the topic.

The whole incident got me thinking, though. Eventually, if I publish those pieces, he won’t be able to withdraw consent. I myself won’t be able to, either: after all, once published, it’s published. Even if circumstances change drastically, even if I’m outed, etc. etc. etc. … it’s out there: end of story. Especially in today’s highly backed-up and mirrored world, it’s nearly impossible to bury something once it’s been tossed into the public arena.

The ability to withdraw consent is one of the cornerstones of BDSM communication. (In a hypothetical world that did a good job of teaching vanilla relationship communication, I’d think it would be one cornerstone of that, too.) Hence our most basic tactic — safewords, which even most mainstream folks have heard about by now. There are some tricky aspects of using safewords well: you want to ensure that the safeword is easily pronounced, for instance; you want to ensure that both parties have access to some kind of safeword-signal at all times, even when (for example) gagged. Most importantly, you want to ensure that all parties feel comfortable safewording. This is often the hardest part, since (for example) bottoms can have a ton of pride wrapped up in not safewording, or be so desperate to please the top that they’ll feel guilty for safewording. (And tops may feel as though, since they’re “in charge”, they have no “reason” or “right” to safeword.)

Ultimately, I think all those issues come down to mastering good communication tactics and learning to read one’s partner. For instance, I’ve had a number of tops stop the scene before I safeworded because they accurately sensed my distaste before I was sure we should stop (and I’ve done the same myself, while topping).

But the situation with Chastity Boy isn’t like that. His consent is bounded by factors beyond my control, which any amount of good mutual communication can’t change. Past a certain point, he can’t withdraw consent.

It reminds me of a situation I once saw outlined on a FetLife discussion board. A fetish model who’d had a relationship with her photographer was posting. She said that she’d signed a model release (that is, a document giving up all rights to his pictures of her), and that they’d taken photographs together for years. Now they’d broken up, and she wanted him to take down the pictures, but he wouldn’t do it. She was asking the group if she had any recourse.

My initial reaction to her question was to feel indignant on her behalf. Obviously, I thought, her ex was being an ass! She might have no legal recourse, but I figured that at the very least she might be able to ruin his reputation in the BDSM community, and I said so. Then, however, I read some of the other comments, and I reconsidered. It’s true that her ex was perhaps being a jerk, but he also might not have been; it’s impossible to tell without his input. As a photographer, those photos were part of his livelihood, and was it reasonable for her to demand that he lose that money just because they’d broken up? Too, there’s the fact that models who sign model releases with other photographers would never be able to “take back” the pictures: those photos aren’t theirs and never will be. It might arguably be different for a fetish model than it would be for, say, a Nordstrom model, because leaving fetish photographs public could affect her future relationships in ways that a Nordstrom photo shoot wouldn’t. But the basic commercial framework is the same.

So here’s the question that came out of this, for me. What are my responsibilities in a situation where consent, ultimately, will have to be permanent? What were the photographer’s responsibilities?

Hmm. But maybe I should back up a bit! Maybe the situation of the model and of Chastity Boy can be compared, if not to a heated BDSM encounter itself, then to a BDSM encounter that has lasting effects: for instance, one that leaves bruises or scars. In such a situation, I think the top has the responsibility to ask the bottom ahead of time where it’s okay to leave marks (and what kind of marks are acceptable). A top who deliberately marks a bottom in a place where the bottom doesn’t want to be marked has violated that bottom’s consent. But if a bottom gives permission — with full understanding of what the marks will look like and how long they could last — then there’s no way to withdraw consent once marked.

True, the bottom could have “morning after” regrets, just as the model had regrets upon breaking up with her ex. But those regrets do not a violation make. The only potential violation would arise from a top’s (or photographer’s) failure to clarify the consequences of their acts. I do think that it’s incumbent upon all partners to be open to feedback, of course! The good tops I know are open to discussing a bottom’s morning-after regrets, if the bottom has any. But it’s also incumbent upon a bottom to take ownership of their own responsibility for those regrets.

One might argue that the responsibilities of a writer are different from the responsibilities of a kinkster. Must I as a writer be as careful as I am during BDSM, in gaining consent? After all, there are plenty of writers out there who aren’t anywhere near as cautious with their muses as kinksters try to be with our partners …. Still, I think any artist who plans to portray a sexual partner explicitly should observe the same care with that person’s boundaries as they would while actually having sex with them. Other personal information (for instance, writing about how my boyfriend drinks his coffee) may require less care; but sexual boundaries are as sensitive when portrayed in a memoir as they would be in person, and deserve the same respect.

So, here are my responsibilities — as both kinkster and sex writer: not just to get consent ahead of time, but to be very sure that my partners know exactly what the long-term consequences could be.

* * *

* This moniker arises from the fact that he’s got a vow of chastity going — yeah, I know, it’s beautifully ironic that a sex activist is dating such a man! And I do, of course, have his consent to call him that.

2009 16 Jun

So yeah, I’m going to Africa for years … starting next week

So it seems I’m leaving Chicago soon — very soon! — and going to Africa.

When I try to tell the story of the sex-positive activism I’ve done here in Chicago, it’s kinda difficult. A lot of it snuck up on me. A lot of it was rather a surprise.

I’ve been on a career track towards going to Africa to do AIDS education for the last two years. I was never sure when I was going to be sent away, though — in fact, my departure was delayed twice. In the meantime, I was solidifying my BDSM identity; I came into that four years ago, and the learning process has only accelerated recently. I was also running lots of events for fun; I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but in retrospect, that was an incredibly helpful learning experience. And I’ve always been extremely interested in sex and culture.

Last year, I briefly dated a documentary filmmaker. Dating him both got me more interested in documentaries — I had previously been far more interested in fiction — and gave me a small window into what the film festival process is like. When I heard that “Passion and Power” (a history of vibrators and female sexuality) was screening in Chicago, I dragged my favorite gender studies friend Lisa to come see it with me.

After “Passion and Power”, the conversation went something like this:

Me: That was great! You and I should have a regular sexuality film night.
Lisa: You know, I bet people besides us would come to see that ….

Lisa works as Education Coordinator at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she has way more experience running events than I do. Our ideas about the film series grew and grew! What started as nothing more than “let’s see fascinating movies and have interesting discussions!” became a Huge Awesome Activist Project. Lisa pointed out that it could bring a bunch of different sexuality communities together. I realized that it would be the best platform ever, not just for adult sex education, but alternative sexuality activism of all kinds — including my personal favorite, BDSM outreach.

So we created the Sex+++ film series and convinced the Hull-House Museum to host it. I took what I’d learned from dating the filmmaker / running events / spending years thinking about sex and culture — and I spent hours upon hours researching appropriate documentaries, tracking down filmmakers and distributors, begging for sponsors, calling everyone in the city who might be interested in sex events, generally driving myself insane …

… but it’s all been worth it, because the series really took off. Really, I was stunned by how much everything — not just the series, but my life — took off.

And then, of course, after the film series exploded and my BDSM outreach exploded and I started doing things like lecturing at the Museum of Sex, or fielding calls from reporters and talk shows, or inspiring others to create their own incredible sex-positive projectsthat was when the African AIDS education program called me. Oh yeah, remember them?

I had a moment where I considered staying here in Chicago. Actually I had more than one moment like that, and I worry that I’m being an idiot by leaving. Not just because leaving halfway through the Sex+++ film series is like planning an incredible all-night party, then leaving at 11PM ….

I’ve been lecturing and leading workshops around the city — around the country! I’ve had multiple opportunities to write professionally about these issues! It seems likely that if I came out (scary as the concept is) and took the time to promote myself, I could develop into a badass sex-positive activist / lecturer / writer. Am I being an idiot by departing now? Maybe. Maybe I am. Maybe I’ll be kicking myself for the rest of my life.

But I have wanted to go abroad for a long, long time. I believe that doing AIDS education in Africa is an unmatched opportunity to do work that needs to be done, to learn many things about sexuality and sex education — not to mention, to learn about being human … stretching myself to the max … existing in ways I never thought of. I know it’s going to be difficult and depressing, and I’m going to be lonely and miserable for large swaths of the experience, and I’m scared that I — the Internet geek, American culture-analyzin’, alt sex-lovin’ girl — totally do not belong in darkest Africa. But hey, I heard somewhere that I’m a masochist. Plus, if I’m going to be thinking about my career, this program will lend me a lot of professional legitimacy — more legitimacy that I can put in service of the sex-positive agenda. (What, you thought I didn’t have an agenda? Damn straight I have an agenda. Fear me!)

So I’m still going. In fact, I’m going next week. If all works out as planned (I never assume that it will), I won’t be back for years. My access to the Internet will probably be irregular; indeed, for the first few months, I most likely won’t have Internet access at all. I will post if I can, and I’ll send back whatever interesting sexuality information I come across. I’m sure I’ll still think about BDSM all the time, even though I’m also sure I won’t have as many opportunities to practice it; I hope I’ll have time to post some of those thoughts as well.

The film series will continue in my absence; I’ve put in many hours — and I’ll put in many more hours for the rest of this week — creating an infrastructure so that the Show Does Go On. (I also intend to post a Sex+++ FAQ this week, so as to make it easier for others to steal my idea and do the film series elsewhere.) Pleasure Salon will continue, hosted by the same great people who have been hosting it all along. I hope it’s still going when I get back!

Worst comes to worst, this opportunity doesn’t pan out and I come running home with my tail between my legs. Yeah, it could happen. But I’ve got to try.

It’s been a great ride. And I’ll be back.

2009 3 Jun

BDSM as a sexual orientation, and complications of the orientation model

UPDATE, 2012: I cleaned this up, edited it a bit and reposted it in 2012. You can read the new version by clicking here.

* * *

A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation”? I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals. And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word. I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time; I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted. I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously. Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real”, as “deep-rooted”, as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person? Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real”, “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs … by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right. When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies. Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity. It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color. BDSM became something to accept … come to terms with … even embrace. It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it. A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

… They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

… And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel. Absolutely.

And yet … I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this. I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along. It’s not deep-rooted for them. It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core. They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun. And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation? Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me? No, that can’t be true. I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs. They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us? It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others. I’m fine with that. Does that mean we’re done here? Well, no ….

… because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition. In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable … but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic. Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults. If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!” In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality. We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception … rather than trying to change the rule. We are calling BDSM a “fault” … rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”. We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold. If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation … then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings. I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post. I’m pretty sure books have been written about it. But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold. And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language. I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

… But …

… there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model”. I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture, because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay. Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore. If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it? Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM. It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself. I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes. But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

* * *

edit After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation! The post and comments are definitely worth reading. /edit

double edit The excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness. /double edit

2009 9 Apr

[storytime] Switching — have I always been a domme?

I spent last night (that is, Tuesday) at the very first Chicago Pleasure Salon, which went incredibly well! I had an amazing time, and from the feedback I got, lots of other people did too. Pleasure Salon will continue on every first Tuesday, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Planning all these sex-positive events keeps me busy, and my non-activist life is eventful, too. Lately, that’s made it hard for me to find time to actually … you know … have romantic encounters and process what’s going on in my head. (I guess that’s ironic, huh?) But although keeping up with myself has been challenging, there’s been an unmistakable shift. Namely, I’ve gone from being “pretty sure” that I’m “mildly” interested in topping, to “dead certain” that I love topping. I thought I might be a switch; now I’m sure. And the way that’s playing out is making me rethink all my previous relationships. (For those unfamiliar with BDSM terms: “switch” refers to a person who feels comfortable either as a top — that is, a dominant and/or sadist — or a bottom — that is, a submissive and/or masochist.)

I’ve written before that I always had sadomasochistic fantasies — since I was very, very young. Apparently, I was wired for BDSM since day one. (I don’t think everyone who practices BDSM feels it as quite such an intrinsic identity, but there are a number of us who do. I’ve had the “you mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls when you were a child too?” conversation many times!) In my early teens I had a bit of a freak-out and repressed it all; then BDSM came and found me almost a decade later. With a vengeance.

I came back into BDSM as a bottom, and it was a crisis. It was impossible to deny how much I wanted it, but I hated it too. On some level, I thought, “Well, this makes perfect sense” — it felt right. But on another level, I was horrified. I couldn’t reconcile my integrity as an independent, rational feminist with my need to be subordinated and hurt. It was a confusing, incredible time. I cried a lot, and I drank a lot, and I didn’t sleep much. I hated how fulfilled my bruises made me feel. It took a while for me to find some semblance of balance.

I adjusted: I took ownership of myself as a bottom. I believed it, accepted it, and gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. Let me say that again: I’ve gained a huge measure of fulfillment from it. I love feeling agony I can’t escape; I love feeling as though I’m enduring shocking brutality; I love being hurt until I cry …. I love it. I love it.

And yet. I’ve always been a bit controlling, a bit fierce, a bit challenging. (More than a bit, really.) As I began to think of myself seriously as a bottom, I needed a way to mentally slot those personality traits into my new identity. Thus I concluded that I’d “always” been a bottom, but that part of that had “always” been challenging people in an attempt to get them to smack me down. The “bottom” label helped me adjust and figure out what I wanted, but perhaps it limited me, too. I decided that the dominant parts of my personality had always been an attempt to find strength in others; to provoke viciousness; to encourage others to lash out at me and subdue me. I did do some minor topping — but it was very minor. I never saw it as important, as necessary; I didn’t recognize that need the same way I felt my masochistic urges, which were a desperate near-overwhelming craving. I never thought of it as serious.

Still, at the same time, the energy between myself and my significant male partners was always such that outsiders were routinely shocked if they found out that I was the submissive. I guess it was evident that I took on a lot of power in my relationships. When I fell in love, it was with men who focused on me; who poured energy into me; who put a lot of thought into what I wanted, listened closely when I talked, admired me as much as they wanted me. The biggest thing I’ve sought in my lovers has been vulnerability, openness. To feel like they craved me, needed me. To feel like I could shape them. Arguably — to feel that I had a significant measure of actual control.

So.

Recently, I met the first male submissive where the energy between us felt compelling. He got my attention by offering me the gift of his fear … simply saying that he was scared of me. Intrigued, I focused on him, started to watch. Over the course of months we would see each other occasionally at social events; every time I saw him, I felt him more strongly. All we did was talk, but magnetism hung in the air around us like heavy perfume. I remember one conversation we had — our words were so charged that several people around us at the dungeon stopped talking and just watched. When I finally set my nails into him weeks later, it was like I’d been holding my breath. He closed his eyes and flinched against my hands; I finally exhaled.

It was so intense, so different. But as I got into it more, I started seeing how similar it is to the way I’ve acted in the past; and as he started telling me how he thinks about submission, I felt my viewpoint on my own power shift. He told me about how he thought of some childhood fantasies — dreams of being controlled by women in apparently powerless positions … and I thought about some of my own fantasies, of being a captive or a courtesan or in some other overtly powerless position where I nonetheless would have emotional dominance over my captor. He mentioned that he’d thought about dominating, but only as a submissive — taking control only because his partner wanted him to … and I thought about one of the most affecting BDSM encounters I ever had, where my partner reduced me to tears and then put his arms around me and said he’d done it only because he loved me.

You have to be careful with these after-the-fact realizations about selfhood. It would be easy for me to go back and edit all my memories and say: “Ah, I see now; at all these points, I thought I was bottoming, but really I was in control. I thought I dreamed of submitting, but really I wanted power.” I still think I’ve always been a bottom, but I wonder at some of the dynamics I’m remembering now. Perhaps one could say that I have also, on some level, always been a domme.

Bottoming is heavy, deep. When I’m doing a good scene as a submissive, I go under. I can barely speak …. Everything blurs into darkness. Doing a good top scene is so different. It sparkles. I laugh. All my words are precise as scalpels. Everything is clear. It’s true that both topping and bottoming make me lose myself, go blank, in a similar sensual-sexual way, and I see commonalities between them. I don’t act the same in both roles, but I want similar things: as a bottom, I dream about bleeding; as a top, I crave blood on my hands. Still, the difference in how I feel when topping vs. bottoming is significant.

So, yes, of course I see why we’ve come up with the top/bottom breakdown. I feel no need to question its existence, or call it unnecessary. Most gender and sexuality theorists these days acknowledge that sex and gender exist on a continuum, rather than as black-and-white absolutes, and I bet there are people out there asserting that there’s no reason for the black-and-white top vs. bottom; but I think that the black-and-white top vs. bottom is useful even if we can’t quite parse it all out. The distinction helps us draw the map, create these acts, decide what exactly will happen between us.

But.

He makes me cry because he loves me. Is he the dom or the sub? I’m a princess locked in a tower, with a strong knight defending me. Does he serve me, or do I belong to him? I’m a beautiful courtesan with haunting eyes, charging fabulous prices for my favors. Am I bending men’s hearts, or doing their bidding?

I still think it’s true that my provocative tendencies can be submissive. That I sometimes seek to create a combative dynamic in the hopes of losing. Craving to fight and be defeated. Craving to be broken, tormented, enslaved — to belong to him ultimately and completely. But I also crave his devotion — I want to own my lover. I crave power over his desire, the agony he endures for me, his ultimate submission. And I crave a shifting dynamic. I pull his head back, laugh low in his ear, I smile as I hurt him until he — overwhelmed — breaks out of my hold and takes control.

Top. Bottom. Switch. Both. All.

I want it all.

2009 25 Mar

[storytime/advice] On Collars

I received a lot of really great positive feedback after I gave my BDSM Overview presentation at the Museum of Sex. One of my favorite letters was this one. I swear, I should start an advice column ….

Her letter (posted with permission):

Hello Clarisse,

I attended your lecture at the Museum of Sex on Friday and I just wanted to say that it was very helpful for me. I’m very new to the BDSM scene and I guess I’m being mentored by a dominant who I am dating. He’s very patient and understanding with me, but I’ve had quite a difficult time accepting even the fact that I am submissive. As I once told him, to me submissive equates weak and helpless. I’ve always wanted to think of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman so I am having a hard time with this. It definitely made me feel better to hear you talk about your similar struggle. I am not being coerced, or lured into anything I don’t want — I am definitely submissive and interested in BDSM and exploring that whole path — but it took me a while to accept that I am submissive, and I do have issues with it a little still. I just want to make sure you understand that it’s not an issue of being forced or asked to do anything I don’t want to do.

But I did want to ask about the use of collars. I don’t know if this is more of a personal preference, but he is interested in buying me a collar and I just can’t shake the association with pets, slaves, a.k.a. degradation! He is the most charming man I know and treats me better than any “vanilla” boyfriend I’ve had, so I know he would never want to degrade me, but I just can’t shake those associations and a collar means a lot to him. Do you have any advice?

I answered:

Of course I can’t tell you whether it’s right for you to let your boyfriend collar you. Of course only you can make that decision. You already know those things, I hope! What I can tell you is about my own experience.

First, though, a side note. You might consider trying to find a different mentor, rather than relying on someone you’re romantically involved with. I mean, you might want to have this man stay your lover, but find a separate person who can mentor you.

For one thing, it’s a really good idea to have a mentor who is of your “type” — so for instance, as a bottom, I’d advise you to find a mentor who has experience bottoming. For another thing, it’s a good idea in any relationship to make sure that you have resources for advice and assistance other than your partner. And this is especially true of fledgling BDSM relationships, where there’s so much new to learn and understand! Of course, part of seeking an outside advisor is that you want to feel sure that you’re getting unbiased input. But it’s also worth noting that it can put a lot of strain on your relationship for your boyfriend to be, not just your lover, but your major source of BDSM information and understanding. That’s a lot of roles for one person to fill. That might feel okay now — it sounds like it’s a new relationship and you’re both excited — but after a while, being so dependent on one person could become a real problem for one or both of you. Or it might not. Again, I don’t know what’s right for you. This is just some general tried-and-true advice from mentoring groups I’ve encountered.

On to your actual question! There are lots of different feelings on collars, in general. There are people in the BDSM community who simply use collars to demarcate temporary roles. A while ago, I played with a man where we agreed that once he put the collar on me, I would obey him unquestioningly for the evening; then, at the end of the evening, he took it off and the encounter was over. That was just for one night, and in that case, the collar might be considered like a symbol, or a costume — putting us in a certain kind of space together for that time. But collars are also sometimes seen as a deep sign of love and commitment. I know people who consider collars to be as strong a statement as a wedding ring. They wouldn’t even think about wearing a collar just for one night, or for someone they met recently.

Personally, I have evolved a bit on my preferences, and collars mean something different for me from what they meant several years ago. When I first came into BDSM, I was very uncomfortable with it; I needed to take small steps to keep myself comfortable. Also, I was doing BDSM with a man whom I felt emotionally uncomfortable with — I think that I wanted to distance myself from him emotionally whenever we did BDSM. As a result, I believed (that is, I told myself) that I was only interested in the physical sensation: pain. I said that I wanted nothing to do with submission or ownership. I remember that I even told one friend, very emphatically, that I’d never ever wear a collar! Never!

Later, when I had my first BDSM-flavored relationship with someone I loved and trusted, I realized that I did want to wear his collar. I wanted to feel like he owned me and could do whatever he wanted with me. I started to understand that I did want aspects of ownership in my BDSM — I recognize now that I even want aspects of degradation. But I had to come into that slowly, because those things were emotionally very hard to accept for an independent, rational feminist such as myself. And it can be confusing to work out in practice, too, because I don’t want those things from everyone! For instance, I’m willing to do some BDSM with people I don’t know very well — but I need to trust someone a lot before I can enjoy a degradation scene with them. And obviously, since I top sometimes, there are some BDSM partners where it wouldn’t even enter my head to wear a collar. Every relationship has its own texture.

As for the statement, “You own me” — I don’t say that to someone unless I’m totally into them. It feels dark and a little scary, but it also feels real and important. It feels like I’m saying something even stronger than, “I love you.” If I were with a man who wanted to put a collar on me, and if putting a collar on me meant saying to him — whether aloud or silent — “You own me,” then I would have to be totally in love with him to do it.

Desires change over time. Sometimes people don’t like things that they’ll like later. Sometimes people stop liking things. But of course, sometimes people always like certain things … or never like certain things. Maybe someday I’ll wear collars casually. Maybe someday I’ll decide never to wear a collar again! Maybe I’ll even get bored of collars and wear them as nothing more than jewelry!

So maybe you’ll never want to wear a collar, and that’s fine. Just work on it slowly. Don’t rush. Certainly, if wearing a collar feels like degradation to you — and you don’t want to be degraded — then don’t do it! I know you don’t want to ignore your lover’s needs, though. So if this is so important to him, try asking him why it’s important. Does he want to degrade you? Or does he want to feel like he owns you? Or does he just want some kind of mark on you? Or does he just want you to carry a symbol of his? Once you know why he wants to collar you, maybe that’ll help you work out a compromise. For instance, if what he really wants is for you be marked by him or carrying a symbol, then he could give you another piece of jewelry that you always wear.

Hope this is helpful, or at least illuminating!

2009 16 Feb

Coming out BDSM: upsides and downsides

A lot of us kinksters use vocabulary similar to the kind of thing people are accustomed to hearing from LGBTQ folks. “Coming out” is a great example of this: a lot of BDSM people struggle with the question of whether to come out to our employers, our friends, our parents … all the people we love. And BDSM is stigmatized and frowned upon enough that most kinksters never come out.

Some professional fields are more BDSM-friendly: for instance, kinksters who work in computer science frequently don’t have any problem with coworkers knowing about their sexual identities. Some fields are less BDSM-friendly: schoolteachers who are into BDSM have to be incredibly careful. Likewise, some subcultures are more BDSM-friendly: kinksters in the goth subculture, for instance, don’t tend to have any problems within that subculture. But again, some subcultures are less BDSM-friendly: not just the obvious ones like religious evangelicals … there are also some feminist groups that are very intolerant of BDSM, and many liberal groups still exhibit prejudices.

When I came into my BDSM identity, it was a very sudden realization for me, and my circumstances effectively outed me to most of my friends. (It’s a long story.) I think that this was ultimately a positive thing, in my case — for the most part, my friends were totally cool about it, and I was able to talk to some of them about the panic and horror and shame I was feeling. (“I’m so screwed up! I’m such a bad feminist!” … that about sums up how I felt.) It was still really hard for me to deal with it, but thank God I didn’t have to do so in strict secrecy. (I really like hearing people’s personal stories of how they got into BDSM, by the way, so if you’ve got any — leave a comment, or send them my way by email!)

Later, I came out to my parents, and I was terrified when I did it … but I’m lucky: they were both really awesome and supportive about it. As for my boss … well, my boss likes me a lot, but I’m not sure his affection would survive if he learned that I’m such a sexual deviant. He might be okay with it, but he also might be horrified and fire me. I’ve never told him and I don’t plan to.

As I’ve gotten into BDSM outreach, I’ve become a weird kind of BDSM “public figure” among my vanilla friends. A lot of them already knew I was into it, but now pretty much all of them do, because it’s such a huge part of my life that I can’t have a conversation about what I’m working on without BDSM coming up.

There are some obvious pros and cons here. For instance: I feel happy that I can talk honestly about my relationships and my work with my friends, and yet I live in fear that my boss is going to find out and hate me! But there’s one big Pro and one big Con that I want to talk about today.

1) Pro: I’m available for comment! People with their own BDSM desires, who know me or have heard about me, have a resource they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Multiple people I know from my everyday life have taken me aside — usually in very quiet, furtive, ashamed ways — and asked for BDSM advice. Some of them have an idea what they’re asking about: they say straightforward things like, “I might want to try some BDSM. Where can I learn more?” Others are more confused. They ask roundabout, contradictory questions or lapse into pauses.

A female friend of mine asked me out to dinner a few months ago, soon after the first time I gave my BDSM Overview presentation to a bunch of vanilla folks I know. She started by saying that she didn’t really know what was going on, but that she’d always had these crazy violent dreams. She said she wasn’t sure what she wanted but that she was scared to ask, sometimes even scared to think about it. She said that was afraid of what this meant about being a feminist, and that was when I spotted the tears in her eyes.

It was heartbreaking to see how much she was hurting, but it was empowering, too. I saw so much of myself in her, and I realized how much I was helping her just by listening … and how much more I could help her by sharing knowledge and experience. I immediately told her that she wasn’t betraying the feminist movement, and I explained how I’d had feelings along those lines. We talked for hours and afterwards I sent her my own coming-out story, as well as a few basic BDSM book references. I explained how the BDSM community functions and how she can attend BDSM meetups and discussion groups. *

(I’ve thought about publishing my coming out story. It’s all written up, and I’ve received some great feedback on it from both kinkster friends and “normal” friends. In particular, I’ve heard from BDSM people — some of them people who are just learning about BDSM from me — about how helpful it was to read about my own process. I’ll be honest, though: I’m scared about publishing, because my story is so personal that even publishing it under my scene name — Clarisse — feels like I’m greatly exposing myself and my inner world.

The idea of publishing it is also complicated by the fact that I’d really want to publish the story in a vanilla venue: that is, a magazine or webzine or other place that’s not devoted to BDSM material. It would be relatively easy for me to find a BDSM-related venue for my coming-out story, but I think it’s important for mainstream society to be hearing these stories … partly because it will forward the cause of BDSM tolerance … and partly because scared or repressed or latent kinksters are more likely to read my story if it’s in a vanilla venue, and they’re the ones who can benefit most from that kind of encouragement and insight. But what kind of mainstream venue is going to publish a BDSM coming-out story?

Later edit: Time Out Chicago would publish it, that’s who! end of edit)

It has really inspired me to know that there are people out there who are having a terribly hard time dealing with their sexuality because of all the stigma against BDSM — and I’m helping just by being public and available to talk.

2) Con: I am exoticized and othered. People — sometimes even my friends — make stereotypical assumptions about me, or harass me in minor but frustrating ways.

I remember once that I told someone in the BDSM community that I’d come out to most of my friends already, and he said, “Did people start hitting on you more?” I couldn’t help laughing because it’s so true — it’s such a known effect! For some reason, there are lots of vanilla guys out there who think that a BDSM girl is just the hottest thing … I mean person … ever. I don’t know why that is, but I am here to tell you that the fact that I’m into BDSM does not mean I’m some guy’s hot sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m just another person, you know? I like sex, but sometimes I don’t want to have sex; sometimes I don’t even want to do BDSM, amazingly enough. I like going out to dinner and getting chocolate from my lovers, and watching good movies together. An evening reading in my room, or hanging out casually with my friends, sounds just as good as an evening of hot BDSM sex. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good. But really good.)

Plus, news flash: if you’re a vanilla guy, I’m not interested. You’re probably not into what I’m into. And no, I don’t feel like explaining exactly what I like to you. If you want to know about BDSM, I can recommend some books. If you want to know about me, you can become friends with me … just keep in mind that “being friends” means “having fun hanging out, maybe talking about science fiction or other interests we might share”, rather than “asking me questions about my sex life all the time”.

Some people seem to think it’s okay to openly speculate about my sex life or even ask me really invasive, personal questions, just because I’m into BDSM. I know people who comment about my sexuality at every opportunity … and I mean every opportunity. I’ll stub my toe and they’ll say, “Is that good pain or bad pain?” and leer. Or I’ll ask them not to do something and they’ll say, “Ohh, sorry,” throw up their hands in mock surrender, “I guess you’ll just have to beat me up.” This wouldn’t be annoying if it happened every once in a while … and hey, I make my own jokes about BDSM. But when a person literally mentions my sexuality multiple times every time they see me, and it’s always totally out of the blue … it starts feeling like I’m some exotic creature behind glass in a zoo. They wouldn’t do it to someone else; I know, because a lot of them didn’t do it to me before they knew I’m into BDSM.

I recognize that people who act this way are a blessing, compared to the people who think I’m a psycho in need of therapy … or the people who think BDSM people really ought to just go ahead and kill ourselves. I know it could be a lot worse, and I’m lucky it’s not. I just wish more people would be more sensitive, and would think about the stereotypes they’re applying to BDSM people.

It’s worse when people start judging the “reasons” they think I’m into BDSM. I’ve heard people suggest that I only talk about BDSM because it gets attention, or because I want to seem like everyone’s fantasy sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.

I’m not into BDSM because I want to appear edgy or dangerous or adventurous or sexy or scary. I’m into BDSM because that’s how I express my sexuality. That’s it. That’s all. I didn’t choose it and I don’t know why I am this way … but I am. I’m certainly not complaining … but I can’t help it.

I think that there are people who get into BDSM just because they’re curious and want to try new things, not necessarily because BDSM is a huge part of their identity … and there’s nothing wrong with that! I see these people as similar to — say — people who identify as straight but are totally willing to make out with the same sex. Personally, I’m cool with the fact that such people exist; as long as they’re having fun, more power to them. But I’m not like that. BDSM is an undeniable, overwhelming, central facet of my sexual identity. For me, telling me that I’m into BDSM just because I “want attention”, or because I’m “just in a phase” or “like experimenting”, or because I’m “dramatic” or “attracted to danger” … that’s like telling a gay person that she has sex with girls just because she “wants attention”, etc.

So that’s what I don’t like about being partly out: the way people judge me for my sexuality. But hey, that’s why I’m doing BDSM outreach in the first place, right? — because that’s the only way we’ll ever get away from these assumptions and stereotypes.

Note: I get that this post has an awful lot of whiny upper-middle-class white girl privilege in it. For a post that’s more political, maybe you’ll like this one.

* Hey Chicago people: if you think you might want to explore BDSM and you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, your best resource is The Next Generation Chicago. Join the mailing list — it’s right there on the webpage. And if you are older, don’t fret! There are groups for you too, including The Lost Generation. You can learn more about meetups, groups, and so on by looking at the Chicago Pansexual BDSM Calendar.