There It Is

This is a post by pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn, who blogs at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.

[Sexual abuse trigger warning on this post -ed].

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

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

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

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

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

How to reconcile being an S&M submissive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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98 comments for “There It Is

  1. LC
    October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

    At work and can’t write much on this, but wanted to say that it spoke to me a great deal. I think my last lover (for lack of a better term) was struggling with these ideas of communication and desire and consent and despite my best efforts couldn’t get out of that trap. (That’s the generous interpretation, and I want to be generous.)

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. October 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Marvelous as usual, Clarisse. You make a compelling case for the compatibility of feminism and BDSM, and for a broader understanding of what we mean by enthusiastic consent

    The trickier question, of course, is how we think about a pro-feminist man who is a “dom”. That ain’t me, I’d like to say — I’m pretty damn vanilla in my old age. It’s one thing to see women’s agency as being real enough and powerful enough to embrace BDSM as a healthy, life-affirming choice rather than belittling or pathologizing it. But a man who gets off, even in the most consent-centered ways, on hitting a woman?

    The outer form of what we do surely matters. And while I’m the last person to pass judgment on your feminist cred, Clarisse — I take you at your word and value your experience and your cando — I’m not sure how I, as a feminist man, would feel about one of my brothers in the movement for gender justice who got the greatest pleasure out of inflicting pain (however wanted) on a woman.

  3. October 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    *candor

  4. LC
    October 18, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Hugo, I would venture to say that it hinges somewhat on the fact that “dom” is a very ill-defined term with a wide variety of behaviours.

    Some view it as something of a guide/shaman role, where they are there to help their partner surf the kind of space Clarisse is describing. Others are more reaction junkies and get off on the intensity of a partner’s reaction – this doesn’t have to be pain, obviously. Some love the fantasy role of lord and master of all they survey, knowing full well that’s a role. Some do mean hitting in all of this, but even that can range from “joy in inflicting pain” to “pushing the limits in an extreme-sport/martial arts way”.

    I actually think very few Doms or Tops outside of ones who deliberately describe themselves as sadists get “the greatest pleasure out of inflicting pain”. The pain infliction is part of the tool set involved in getting to what is actually giving them pleasure.

    This doesn’t invalidate your contention that the outer form surely matters. It does. It is, however, neither the be-all or end-all of the thing.

    There are absolutely doms who are about as far from feminist as you can get, and I think Thomas and Clarisse have both written before on the issue of the kink community not calling its own members out on bad behaviour. There are reasons I tend not to trust most male tops or doms to be on the side of gender justice.

  5. Jadey
    October 18, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Hugo: I’m not sure how I, as a feminist man, would feel about one of my brothers in the movement for gender justice who got the greatest pleasure out of inflicting pain (however wanted) on a woman.

    There is a difference between a person (in this case, a man) who wants to inflict pain on someone who wants it and someone who wants to inflict pain on someone who does not want it.

    That distinction isn’t as simple as it sounds (for instance, it involves a lot of intentionality and imprecise words like “want”), and it certainly doesn’t negate the possibility of abusive dom men or mitigate the need to be aware of and active against sexism, misogyny and abuse within kink communities and relationships, and to recognize that men are at greater risk to be abusive and misogynistic because of the social power conferred on them by aspects of the kyriarchy and the social context of violent abuse of women in which we all live, but the distinction does exist.

    The core point really isn’t the integrity of a woman’s body so much as the integrity of her autonomy and humanity. Certainly, hitting a woman is a technique used by many to assault a woman’s humanity, among other techniques, but it isn’t synonymous with such.

    I’m not just thinking sex and kink here either, but physical contests and competitions as well (wrestling, martial arts, etc.), and the amazing thrill I get seeing men and women (on the rare occasion when both are allowed to compete against each other) beat the crap out of each other in consensual contests of physical skill.

  6. Anriana
    October 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Hugo: t a pro-feminist man who is a “dom”.

    Isn’t necessarily interested in hitting *women,* and BDSM is more than just hitting.

  7. October 18, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Hugo, I’m not able to give a male dom’s point of view, but I can give one male switch’s point of view on topping, which you may find interesting.

  8. October 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks for all these responses, and Tom, thanks for the very interesting link. I’m just still very suspicious of anyone who is primarily a “top” — and identifies as and was acculturated as a male. Something about the “outer form of misogyny” being incongruent with the “inner content of egalitarianism.” I’m an outsider to BDSM, obviously, so want to tread carefully here, but would love to hear from a male feminist who is also a top on how he reconciles his politics and his sexuality. I’m prepared to believe that they can be — the problem for me lies in what draws said male feminist to wanting to be a top in the first place.

  9. Jadey
    October 18, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Hugo: the problem for me lies in what draws said male feminist to wanting to be a top in the first place.

    I just want to make one last comment to the effect of please be aware that some people, including male doms/tops, do not experience their BDSM orientation as a choice (as you have framed it in this comment). Certainly all the actual behaviours enacted by anyone are choices, but the identity for some is akin to the more familiar sexual orientations like hetero- and homosexuality. So it’s not necessarily a question of a person being “drawn to” topping due to largely environmental and social factors. This is consistent with what Clarisse talks about with regard to being a submissive and reconciling that identity with a feminist identity, and she links to her post about BDSM as a sexual orientation in this post, which is a very nuanced perspective on the issue from an insider viewpoint.

    Topping and related aspects of BDSM are also incredibly complex in practice, much moreso than most non-practitioners are aware of, as other commenters have pointed out. “Topping” and “bottoming” are not contradictory to any but the most simplistic conceptualizations of egalitarianism. Misogyny itself is not a set of practices but an ideological structure which gives rise to specific practices (or meanings of practices) in specific contexts. To go back to simple examples, hitting a woman can be far less oppressive and dehumanizing than holding the door for her, depending on the context in which the actions are undertaken.

    That being said, and as another commenter also mentioned, a baseline suspicion of male tops and doms with respect to social justice issues is not uncommon or unwarranted among kinksters themselves. It’s the same basic suspicion that a lot of women apply to men in general and it’s for the same reason: don’t assume that a member of the privileged side of the equation is going to understand or be aware of the oppressed side.

  10. October 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Part of the reason that there is suspicion about het male exclusive tops and doms within some kinky spaces and communities is because, well, we don’t exist in a bubble outside patriarchy. Some of the predation and abuse outside operates within the BDSM universe as well, in spaces that are highly sexualized and where women let their guard down. On Fetlife, there is a 260 comment rape culture thread in a feminist group that is testimony that this conversation is needed among our own.

  11. October 18, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    ‘God yes, I hate that. And I hate the reality of rape and assault and harassment, almost always performed by men against women’

    I think Clarisse, thats the biggest stereotype about men and masculinity of your whole article. And I think it is false. I think rape and assault and harassment, even if you mean ‘sexual’ assault and harassment are much more widely spread between all genders than feminist ideology would have us believe. I don’t have the stats to prove it, because there is very little research commissioned into rape and harassment of men. But i believe my position to be correct. Look at prisons, look at gangs, look at relationships where we don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors, look at gay relationships, families- a lot of sexual abuse occurs within families, not just by men to women…

  12. October 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I think Jadey makes a good point:

    don’t assume that a member of the privileged side of the equation is going to understand or be aware of the oppressed side.

    I think it is somewhat harder to find actively feminist male tops than, say, feminist male bottoms, but I think that’s mostly because men who have more reason to question gendered social dynamics (like submissives) are more likely to be feminist, and not because male tops are less likely to be feminist.

    I tend to prefer feminist partners (obviously) and I can witness that feminist male tops exist, but again, since they’re rarer I think they may be less likely to comment here.

    I’ve had one or two brief encounters in which I realized afterwards that my partner had political opinions that made me a little uncomfortable. That was interesting. For the most part, though, I haven’t felt any anxiety about the respect and gender politics of my partners. Of course, many of them have been switches … but on the other hand, it’s just plain difficult to find any BDSMers in my generation who don’t identify as switch.

  13. October 18, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    @QRG, there’s been debate on the matter. I tend to stick with what I’ve read and experienced but it would not be impossible to prove me wrong. Either way, I did try to make an effort to debunk some masculinity stereotypes in this post, so I hope that particular bit doesn’t detract from the rest of it.

  14. October 18, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    And by “prove my wrong” I mean “make me seriously rethink my stance”.

  15. October 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I’m familiar with Clarisse’s assertion of BDSM-orientation as inherent identity rather than a choice. I’m not sure, but I’m open to that possibility. If so, for the reasons several folks have made clear here, I think I’d still have a hard time believing a hetero male who was exclusively a top was really following innate impulses rather than kyriarchal social conditioning.

    And yeah, this is a discussion for the kink community to have among themselves first. I want to be a thoughtful, supportive, but not unthinking outsider.

  16. October 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    QRG, the size of gang and prison populations are small compared to the general population, so one has to hypothesize very, very large numbers within the subsets to even it out. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail, for example, and 300 million people in America. If one in four women experiences a rape or attempted rape during life in the general population, that’s roughly 37.5 million, or about fifteen times the number of total incarcerated people in America.

  17. October 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    OK, sorry for the quadruple post, but a male dominant friend emailed me this and said that I could post it here on his behalf.

    For me (a straight male top with a “inner content of egalitarianism”, to use your words), issues of submission are not, in themselves, super tightly wound up with issues of gender (for instance, I imagine that if I were gay, I’d engage in the same types of activities, but with men). Where gender roles and feminism come into view is when I try to evaluate BDSM activities against a cultural or historical background, and this type of evaluation extends well beyond BDSM or even sex.

    To exemplify: If I hold the door for my girlfriend or carry her over a puddle, am I being a sexist pig, or am I just being nice? If my girlfriend cooks me dinner or picks the kids up from school, is she taking her fair share of household duties, or is she falling helplessly into role prescribed for her by the patriarchy? Regardless of what second-wave feminism would have you believe, the answers to these questions rely on context: Does my girlfriend also hold the door for me? What’s going on in my head? What’s going on in her head? Did we negotiate household duties, and if so, did our preconceptions of gender roles influence our decisions? I agree these cultural and historical backgrounds can be hard to escape — how we saw our parents interact will inevitably color how we interact with our partners. But that doesn’t mean that holding the door for my girlfriend or hitting my girlfriend in the face are necessarily sexist — all of the above contextual questions apply. What is going on in my head? What is going on in her head? Did we negotiate this (“consent”) and what preconceptions influenced that discussion?

    For a more sexual example: for much of history, men had sex with women in a manner we would now consider to be rape. At some point we decided this was not ok, and now, in progressive Western circles, sex is a shared activity that can be enjoyed by both parties. For feminists to reject sex because of its oppressive past would have been a mistake. What was once a tool of oppression and abuse is now, when wielded properly and carefully and in the right context, an activity of connection and enjoyment. Maybe even empowerment.

    Same thing goes for hitting.

  18. October 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    of course. its a great piece. Maybe I see it as a lot of the baggage women (and men) have about, for example, women being submissive to men dominants, is to do with our ‘assumptions’ about gender relationships and violence, as well as our own experience, rather than a wider ‘statistical fact’ of who wields power in society. I have changed my views a lot on this lately so they are not so well-articulated.

  19. October 18, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    In response to Hugo, I am one of those strongly feminist top/dominant men. You can read my writings (mostly on polyamory) over at http://www.freaksexual.com.

    Mostly I identify as an S/M sadist, though I also take the dominant role on occasion. I am not exclusive on either the pain or power axes, and I have one occasional lover that I pain bottom for every time we get together. I mostly top/dominate women because that is who I mostly date, but I’ve also played with men.

    As to how I reconcile my sadism/dominance and my feminist leanings, I mostly try to stay aware of my responses and motives – like any feminist man out there should be doing. I just have the added complication that some of my urges are violent and/or controlling. But again, that might not be all that different from a non-kinky feminist man.

    Here’s some concrete examples of the kind of self-policing I do:

    1) I’m very aware of the dominant streak in my personality. In social or group situations, I purposefully stay quiet, tone down my language, make sure others are heard, apologize for interrupting, and so on. I know that others listen to me more than they should, both because of my gender and this dominance aspect, and I try to counteract this.

    2) When I’m with lovers I have a D/S dynamic with, I don’t let it out when in public except when I am pretty sure that others in the room understand what D/S is and that they are seeing a pre-negotiated dynamic. Sometimes this is very difficult because a lot of this is unconscious. I had one (very feminist) woman lover who habitually walked behind me and followed me though doors, and I had to be aware of my physical presence to counteract that.

    3) I won’t watch certain things, because I’ll get turned on by them due to sadism. I don’t have the sort of sadism that necessarily requires a willing partner – people getting hurt (including me) can turn me on, period. So for example I won’t watch graphic newscasts, because I think it’s inappropriate to get aroused by them.

    4) Along the same lines, I’m very aware that I have urges that should never be fulfilled, or should not be fulfilled with certain partners who are not up for them. During sex, part of my brain is keeping control and making sure that I don’t cross any lines. I almost never have sex while intoxicated. This constant awareness makes me a somewhat clinical lover, but I almost never “slip up” in any respect because of it.

    5) While my personal urges seem to be gender-neutral and perhaps did not arise from general sexism in the culture, I’m well aware that sexism is in no way divorced from how we practice kink, and I’m busy out there in the community calling people on their sexism and trying to set up egalitarian processes.

    While I have a stronger feminist consciousness than most people I know (kinky or not), the top/dom men I know out in the scene are generally more anti-sexist than the overall population, and there is a low background hum of gender equality in my local community, much more so than the mainstream.

    I actually wish I had discovered the frameworks provided by BDSM much sooner. In my teens and early twenties I did some things I regret. They were relatively minor, and it’s hard to say if they were due to being kinky or just a clueless guy. But in any case, if I had had access to a decent kink education some of that would have been prevented. I was definitely practicing kink before I understood BDSM as a concept.

    I will try to follow this thread, but if anyone has follow-on questions and I do not respond to them here, feel free to email me at pepomint@gmail.com.

  20. October 18, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Clarisse Thorn: For a more sexual example: for much of history, men had sex with women in a manner we would now consider to be rape. At some point we decided this was not ok, and now, in progressive Western circles, sex is a shared activity that can be enjoyed by both parties. For feminists to reject sex because of its oppressive past would have been a mistake. What was once a tool of oppression and abuse is now, when wielded properly and carefully and in the right context, an activity of connection and enjoyment. Maybe even empowerment.
    Same thing goes for hitting.

    Great quote! I might have to quote that forever more!

  21. Rachel S.
    October 18, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. You articulated something I have experienced but never really understood. Thank you.

  22. October 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Thinking both about Hugo’s question and Pepper’s response/comment, I’m thinking a lot about my own experience topping.

    I was a living as a queer identified kinky bisexual man before I transitioned. I was, and am, a feminist. As much as I believed it was possible for me to top a woman and have it not be problematic, there was an emotional level on which I could never really relax and let go and play heavy like I did with the boys.

    Reading the political essays in Coming to Power helped an awful lot, but I never really did feel resolved about it until I stopped living as a man. I dealt with it by topping women less. I topped women differently. I avoided scenarios that pushed those buttons more strongly. There was definitely a link between the things that were annoying to my feminist consciousness and the things that were irritating my emergent understanding of my gender. I don’t know how useful my perspective is for most people, but it is something I have thought about plenty.

  23. October 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Lots for me to think about; thanks Clarisse (for your friend’s contribution), thanks Tom, thanks in particular to Pepper.

    In my writings about faith-based sexual ethics, I’ve always stressed the distinction between “form” and “content” (a notion I borrowed from Marvin Ellison) to argue for a more inclusive vision of sex. I’m challenged in a really good way by what I’m reading here from y’all, and I appreciate this important post and the wonderful comments.

  24. Andrea
    October 18, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I just wanted to say that this post, and this comment thread have been amazing. It’s such a great thing to see people really listening to each other, learning from one another and acknowledging one another’s viewpoints. Well done.

  25. PrettyAmiable
    October 18, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Clarisse (and Thomas, perhaps?), I understand if the answer is no, but do you know of any blogs or sites that treat the BDSM community with respect that are safe to read as an assault survivor?

    I want to be a good ally and friend to people who are part of the community, but it’s hard to get resources that don’t end up unintentionally triggering me. I’ve danced around these posts a lot – really wanting to read them because I know that I can better myself as an ally, but stopping myself because of known self-trigger issues (that is, I took your warning very seriously, and I thank you for it) – and want to learn more to be a better person.

    I know this is pretty much a voice of privilege asking someone who is marginalized for help and how ridiculous that sounds, but the mental health stuff gets a little tough to handle.

    Feel free to ignore this, in light of that.

  26. LC
    October 18, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    I am shocked entirely none that Pepper would come on this thread and be wonderfully eloquent about this particular subject matter.

    I had to go to rehearsal and so only got back now. Hugo, I hope some of your questions have been answered. I don’t particularly identify as a top (although that turned out to shock at least one friend of mine not too long ago) but have certainly played that role. Pepper and Thomas have both pointed to some of the complexity involved, Clarisse’s friend has also pointed out how much context plays into it.

    Clarisse, thanks again for broaching this topic in a way that provoked such open and interesting responses.

  27. Jadey
    October 18, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Thank you to everyone who has shared their personal stories. It is much appreciated.

  28. ellefromtheeast
    October 18, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    PrettyAmiable – I’m a practicing kinkster, and I don’t think your request sounds like it’s coming from an annoyingly privileged place at all. I think it’s a really generous question, and I really appreciate that you want to be a BDSM ally enough to keep looking for resources even after you’ve run into triggers. Thanks.

    It’s hard for me to recommend resources that will be safe for you without knowing your personal triggers. That said, here are two possibilities: Pro-SM Feminist Safe Spaces and Pervocracy.

    Pro-SM Feminist Safe Spaces is written mostly by a female top (with occasional contributions from another sub-identified woman). It’s more theoretical/abstract, which might help it be less triggering.

    Pervocracy is written by a female bottom. It’s more practical, about what she does and what she likes, and more individual rather than about a BDSM community.

    Hope they’re interesting.

  29. Scootah
    October 19, 2010 at 12:09 am

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

    Wow, that’s about the most upsetting sentance I’ve ever read. Like must process and respond to this sentance or some kind of incredible aenurysm will make my brain explode upsetting. It took a cup of coffee and a few minutes of calm breathing between seeing that snippet in the RSS feed preview and being able to read the rest of the article. I’ve had to leave this comment in progress and come back to it a couple of times to be able to respond reasonably.

    Lets try talking about comments first –

    @Hugo –

    I’m not sure how I, as a feminist man, would feel about one of my brothers in the movement for gender justice who got the greatest pleasure out of inflicting pain (however wanted) on a woman

    However Wanted is the key concept here. As a sadist – I enjoy hurting people. I primarily enjoy hurting women, but my sexual preference isn’t gender constrained and I get off on hurting men too. If I were hurting partners who didn’t want to be hurt, I’d certainly be a very bad person doing a very wrong thing – but since my partners are masochists who have sexualized their enjoyment of pain – my refusing to hurt them would be equivalent to refusing to participate in any other act that brought them sexual pleasure. It would at worst make me sexually incompatible with them and more likely make me a selfish lover. Is there really any conflict in your mind over the appropriateness to a feminist ideal, of a man bringing sexual pleasure to his female partner? Do you think it’s reasonable, as a feminist, to disaprove of the adult, consensual activity that a woman might engage in to bring herself pleasure? Imagine for a moment that you had a personal distaste for say oral sex, and you were saying that you weren’t sure as a feminist man, how you might feel about one of your brothers in the movement for gender justice getting pleasure from perforrming oral sex (however wanted) on a woman? Wouldn’t that be ludicrously inappropriate and presumptuous? I imagine it’s something that you’d never even think to voice, regardless of your own personal opinions. Masochism is less common than enjoying recieving oral sex – but does that somehow make your view more enlightened?

    @LC –

    It feels a lot like you’re trying to cast ‘Doms’ who aren’t sexual sadists as more enlightened/less counter to femminism than those of us who are sexual sadists. I think it should be fairly clear at this point that I am a sexual sadist. I get off on a complex set of conditions and circumstances – and consent is a central requirement to any expression of my sexuality – but fundamentally – I’m physically aroused by other people’s pain.

    I don’t think however that being a sexual sadist, provided that mutual interest in the activities and mutual consent is in place, is even remotely contradictory to gender justice. As an equalitarian, I firmly believe that we all have the right to decide what gets us off. I have no more right to negatively judge a woman who enjoys being hurt than I have the right to negatively judge a woman who enjoys casual sex, or same gender partners, or a woman who enjoys giving or recieving oral sex. When I find a partner, male or female, who’s sexual interests match mine – I’m of course delighted. Especially if they view me as a potential suitable partner for those sexual activities.

    While it is easy to view women as ‘victims’, especially in the case of submissive, masochistic women, I would argue that doing so with any kind of broad brush is in fact a paternalistic, patrichal and likely mysogynistic point of view. When two adult partners consent to a sexual act, either they’ve both sinned, or neither has. If a sexually sadistic ‘Dom’ is distasteful simply because of what he is, surely his partners are equally distasteful.

    Personally, while I might enjoy the fantasy of my partners as victims from time to time, while I enjoy hurting them (and in some cases humiliating them), my joy is that they are consenting and enjoying the activities and are in no way victims – but rather strong and powerful people exercising their right to choose.

    @ Anriana

    Isn’t necessarily interested in hitting *women,* and BDSM is more than just hitting.

    I’m probably beating this point beyond it’s consensual limits… But while BDSM is more than just hitting, there’s nothing wrong with hitting someone who wants to be hit. There’s a lot wrong with negatively judging a consenting, adult woman who wants to be hit, or a consenting adult man who enjoys doing something that his partner also wants, enjoys and has consented to.

    @ quiet riot girl

    Look at prisons, look at gangs, look at relationships where we don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors, look at gay relationships, families- a lot of sexual abuse occurs within families, not just by men to women…

    I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but almost all of your hypotheticals would still imply a man as the agressor. I’d just stress at this point that in many cases, non consensual sexual acts are perpetrated by women. And while all the well known and documented challenges that apply to any survivor of nonconsensual sexual assault still apply, there are huge additional challenges before a victim of assault at the hands of a woman. I’ve heard otherwise intelligent people deny that it’s even possible for a woman to rape a man. I’ve heard otherwise reasonable people joke that even if it is possible for a man to be raped, it’s a laughing matter, something to be looked forward too or envied, not something to be treated seriously. etc. I think it’s important to remember that women are just as capable of being predators, and men suffer just as much as victims.

    Coming back to my original point…

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

    If you think that sexually dominant men are the worst of men, I think you’ve got blinders on. The worst of men are the warmongers, and the worst amongst them are the ones who never see the war they send others to die in. In the worst cases – sexual sadists might be really, really bad – but in any high security jail or high level political gathering – you’ll meet far, far worse.

    It’s equally misleading to cast sexual sadists in a single mold. You might as well paint workaholics or depression sufferers or train enthusiasts with the same mass generalization. Typing ‘Doms’ is even more flawed and inaccurate. Casting all Doms or even all Sexual Sadists as ‘would be sex criminals’ is insulting, but more relevantly – sloppy thinking and detractant from the real threat of would be sex criminals.

    And empowering them to go and do just anything they want is actually laughable. While I don’t doubt that domestic violence and date rape is as common in the relationships of fetishists as it is anywhere else, the tiny fraction of lunatic fringe types who move from fetishism to unrestrained sexual crime are almost always unpartnered and usually comment that they were rejected and excluded from the fetish community as much as from the other communities that they participated in. While I’ve met one or two extreme cases who might well have moved to sex crimes were it not for the outlet of consensual fetishism – my observation is that with the outlet of consensual fetishism – they were able to direct their negative impulses to a healthy and harm free chanel. It’s an incredibly rare circumstance – as fetishism has so little to do with sexual crime – but my on balance, my belief is that consensual fetishism reduces sex crime and prevents people with pathologies that might have led them to criminal acts from losing control. But I really can’t stress strongly enough, just how few kink active people, letalone kink active dominant males have any kind of pathology that might lead to them becoming dangerous sex offenders.

  30. polly
    October 19, 2010 at 1:19 am

    He did a few things I don’t even normally like, but everything else was so right, I’d gone far enough under not to care. (Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did. Oh yes, consent can be complicated.)

    No, that’s what ‘anti-sex’ feminists are complaining about. Right there. (since when did sex = BDSM by the way?).

    The idea that ‘no means yes’ has been one that rapists and child abusers cherish. The idea that “she says she doesn’t like it, but she still really want’s it” is one that rapists and child abusers cherish.

    If you want to have BDSM sex, the sex itself affects no one but you. If you spread, encourage, affirm and enable, ideas like this it affects everybody. Can you enable and encourage a child abuser or rapist by telling them their world view is correct? Can you make them more likely to enact their fantasies for real with someone who doesn’t consent? ABSOLUTELY. Ask anyone who works in the field. The primary characteristic of most abusers is DENIAL. Denial that their actions/desires are wrong. Everyone who tells them they’re ok in any way, shape or form, enables them.

    All other arguments aside.

    I don’t expect anyone to like this, but it’s the truth. But feel free to go on lying to yourselves.

  31. bellareve
    October 19, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I’m a female submissive, and I really haven’t experienced this sort of stigma/hate/fear that many others with similar orientations constantly bring up. I am NOT denying the experiences of other women or making any generalizations about how a marginalized sexual community is treated, but when these issues come up it is hard for me to relate to personally. As oppressions go, I feel significantly more stigmatized for being disabled, poor, and (to a lesser extent) queer. I’ve never received as much as a sideways glance for my bdsm-related desires, mostly because they are not visible except to my partners. (And occasionally doctors/psychologists, who have been remarkably sensitive to it thus far). But if someone were to judge me based on what I like in bed, I would have very little interest in engaging, listening to their justifications, or in having that person in my life at all. I mean, it’s absurd for a woman to even have to explain or defend her sexual proclivities.

    In terms of men getting to do whatever they want sexually – that is true, but it is NOT the fault of female submissives or sex workers. This distinction matters. (I know Michelle Tea wasn’t saying this, but I suspect some people believe it). The sexual desires and behaviors of women, kink or no kink, have zero bearing on the incidence of male violence and abuse.

  32. PM
    October 19, 2010 at 2:00 am

    I used to be very uncomfortable with my desire to be physically dominant with my female partner and inflict pain on her until I realized the difference between “hurt” and “harm.” I enjoy hurting my partners, but I never, EVER want to harm a partner, just as I have no desire to harm anyone in general. This is going to differ for each partner – some women I’ve slept with/may sleep with in the future want me to hurt them plenty. Some don’t want to be hurt at all. But even the ones who do want to be HURT don’t want to be HARMED. The same is true of myself. While I generally like to be the one taking control and inflicting pain, I do like to be hurt from time to time. It really gets me going! But there is a certain level of pain that HARMS me, and I want no part of it.

    It’s all about context, which brings up another point – the same thing that can HURT a partner one night can HARM zher (I don’t know the gender-neutral pronouns, sorry) the next. Sometimes your partner just doesn’t want to be hurt that night – and you better fucking respect that, or you’ll harm your partner. Which brings up a final point – kink can be a difficult road to walk, and you shouldn’t be walking it if you and your partner can’t communicate. There was one instance in which I hurt a partner more than she liked, but she didn’t tell me until the next day (she tended to be timid, which would have worried me more if she wasn’t the one to introduce me to kink in the first place). Our kinky relationship cooled off for about a week, because I had no intention of harming my partner and was worried that she wouldn’t tell me when I was doing so. Fortunately, we were able to talk to each other about it and it made things better in the future.

  33. PM
    October 19, 2010 at 2:07 am

    One more bit, sorry. Just as you can say “I love you” with words, with a kiss, with a massage, with just a smile, there are some partners who want you to say it with a slap, with a choke, or with a bite. And I am happy to be able to use that “language” to tell a partner that I love her.

  34. October 19, 2010 at 3:24 am

    Grateful for this post, and for the incredibly refreshing, thoughtful, sincere comments by so many people. I feel like this kind of thread is the reason I fell in love with feminist blogs in the first place, and lately I’ve been missing this level of conversation.

    This discussion is particularly timely and helpful for me, as I had a recent conversation with a male comrade who expressed to me his feelings of guilt and confusion around getting off on hitting women partners in the face during sex. On multiple occasions, partners he has dated have given consent, but weeks or months later requested that “we not do that anymore.” He worries that the initial consent was false, offered just to please him (and to ‘perform well’ according to patriarchal standards), not because the hitting gave the women pleasure. Furthermore, he has difficulty conceiving of how the act of a man hitting a woman during sex can be anything other than fundamentally patriarchal, given the society we live in and the ways it conditions our sexual desires.

    What an honor that he trusted me, a feminist, enough to engage with me in this vulnerable conversation. It makes me feel even more fortunate to have encountered and learned from feminist educators like Clarisse, who love and humanize men in their diverse sexualities, while at the same time (and, in a way, by the same means) fighting to end gender violence.

    I’ll be sharing this thread with my comrade; I hope and believe he will find it helpful. I certainly have. Again, thanks.

  35. October 19, 2010 at 5:33 am

    @PrettyAmiable — No worries at all. I’ve often thought that I should be better about trigger warnings, actually. I can’t take credit for the one in this post — it was inserted by the fine folks at Feministe and not me.

    The emphasis in the BDSM community tends to be on people policing their own boundaries very strongly, since the community tends to talk about pretty out-there stuff. The expectation is that people who have triggers will leave or otherwise count themselves out of the action if they encounter something that bothers them, rather than that the community will give trigger warnings. I’m not saying this because I think it’s any better (or worse) than the way feminist blogs that are careful about triggers do things — it’s just that as a result, it’s not very easy for me to think in terms of warning people about potential triggers. (Another issue is probably that I am now so incredibly accustomed to very extreme conversations that my triggers are miles away even from average people, let alone assault survivors.)

    Are there any recommended resources on how to identify common triggers for assault survivors?

    I wouldn’t feel confident recommending most of my own posts until I saw such a resource. I also tend to write fairly theoretically about kink, but I often intersperse that with storytime-type elements like the ones in this post.

    @Scootah — If you think that sexually dominant men are the worst of men, I think you’ve got blinders on.

    Who is this “you”, dude? If it’s general, then what I’m about to say does not apply. If it’s directed at me as the original poster, well …. If you think that’s what I was trying to say with my post, then your triggers have put blinders on you.

    I quoted it to represent a stereotype. It’s an ugly and terrible and scary stereotype that feminist women such as myself are particularly vulnerable to falling for and worrying about. I posted this in a feminist space in an attempt to make one argument about why the stereotype is wrong and harmful. That was the point.

  36. FormerWildChild
    October 19, 2010 at 6:23 am

    I want to be very respectful here, and I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with anything being said here, per se. But I do want to speak to another point of view.

    For some of us, the idea of being hit by another person makes us want to jump up and run out of our skin. It seriously wigs us out. It is not a moral judgment; is a true phobia for another person. It reminds me of when we were at the un-civilized end of Grand Canyon with our children. All that stood between my kids and certain death was inches of loosely packed sand. When we were done sightseeing, I discretely walked behind the van and threw up until I could breathe again.

    I had that same terrified feeling when I read about your account of your last session. I wanted to go wrap a blanket around you, hold you in my arms and feed you tea and cookies until I can finally breathe again.

    And my fear is not because I fail to really “get” what you experience. It comes from an absolute recognition of what you describe.

    I have experienced what you described at the end of your BDSM session, the breaking and reforming of yourself around someone. I have felt exactly what you are talking about, that feeling of finally letting go, of surrendering, and the other person sensing that you are finally there, and then stopping. I have felt the sweetness of those moments of post-thrashing closeness when tenderness seems to hover in the room. I know the feeling of intense closeness which can follow the next day. The air is filled with a cathartic cleanness, the experience of inflicting pain and of receiving pain has cleared the air better than any southern thunderstorm. I can even imagine coming to crave that feeling in the way that you describe.

    But I experienced all of those feelings as a child. What you described is precisely what it feels like when an abuser truly lets loose and keeps going until “it” breaks, until there is that moment of catharsis for both the beaten and the person doing the beating. In my experience, those relationships are like playing along the end of the Grand Canyon: people fall in, and they die.

    Now, I am willing to believe two things: one, it is possible that my mother and other abusers are actually engaged in a form of BDSM rape when they beat the people that they love. Just as sex is the overpowering and taking of something that should be beautiful and intimate, so beating a loved one to catharsis might just be the same sort of thing. Perhaps that is something that abuse experts should look at.

    I am also willing to believe that you have an invisible fence as you play along the edge of your own personal Grand Canyon. I am willing to believe that you know how to be there without falling into the abyss. But if that is the case – that it is safe for you out there, and that I simply need to accept that. Then I will ask you to accept the fact that I will need to go behind the van and toss my lunch.

  37. October 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

    I think I’m going to end up writing a big post at A Femanist View responding to this post, but for now I’m just responding to Hugo (as many others have done):

    I’m not sure how I, as a feminist man, would feel about one of my brothers in the movement for gender justice who got the greatest pleasure out of inflicting pain (however wanted) on a woman.

    I self-identify as a sadist and a Dominant, and as being feminist. I don’t see a conflict in this when it’s understood that BDSM (certainly as I practise it!) involves negotiation and clear consent – something that too often consensual vanilla sex is rather vague about.

    And is it really such a problem when my current partner, while we’re having sex (or while we’re masturbating her) is begging me to hurt her, “crop my tits” or “flog my thighs please!”? This isn’t merely enthusiastic consent – it’s specific requests to help her get what she needs! Maybe if I were truly sadistic, I would assert my Domliness and say “no!”

    But even with things where I hurt her in ways she doesn’t like (yes, I am that kind of sadist) it’s negotiated, understood, and above all, she has a way to withdraw consent that I always respect; as it says in the OP, my partner often derives pleasure anyway: “Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did. Oh yes, consent can be complicated.”

    I am confident with my current partner because we talk things through, we talk about what is good and what isn’t so good, but most of all because she’s feminist too and I know she has the tools to say if something isn’t right with her, even while we engage in D/s control, SM pain, and bondage. It’s still “her body, her rules”, even when she’s giving control to me, even when she’s letting me inflict pain of my choosing on her.

  38. October 19, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Clearly, I underestimated the number of sadists (it’s still so hard for me to type that word in any sense other than the pejorative, but I’m working on it) among my fellow feminist men.

    I’m having one of those “Well, whaddya know?” moments. Most feminists work to find the sweet spot between advocating a simple “choice feminism” (the problematic assertion that whatever a woman wants is inherently feminist, without any consideration to the personal experiences and cultural forces that shape her desires) and a kind of radical feminism that denies the possibility for women’s agency, that sees every desire as potentially corrupted by the kyriarchal culture and therefore not to be trusted.

    We need to have a conversation about why we do what we do — and that goes for vanilla folks like me too! The radicals are partly right — most of our desires are shaped in some way by a fairly misogynistic culture, and we want to do what we can not to replicate that harm in our private lives. At the same time, what seems like acquiescence to the culture, or a pathological re-enactment of abuse, might in fact be deeply redemptive.

    I appreciate the distinction PM makes between hurt and harm very much, and that’s helpful on many levels.

  39. October 19, 2010 at 8:55 am

    I’m sorry to get all up in here and comment on something that’s not even the main subject of this post, but Clarisse, I strongly disagree with your friend’s statement that…

    … now, in progressive Western circles, sex is a shared activity that can be enjoyed by both parties.

    I realize that this is most likely mere nitpicking on my part, but… men I have been in love with? Not Western. No strong identification with progressive Western politics either. Me? Not Western, by blood. And my politics can be all over the place. So am I getting raped every time that I have sex, or something?

    In general, this idea that “all sex was rape” before nice progressive Westerners came along and fixed the problem for a select few is a bit odd, for me.

    Once again, I don’t mean to detract from the conversation that everyone is having here. I was just really enjoying reading all of the comments, including the comments of your friend, Clarisse, but when I got to that part of it, I was surprised.

  40. neda414
    October 19, 2010 at 9:50 am

    The one part I disagree with here is this notion that culture doesn’t affect rape or crime generally. Rape is not human nature or common sense. It is part of our culture and plays a role in our political-economy. To separate crime or rape from culture is to vilify those rapists to sub-human monsters which is unfortunately not true and doesn’t help anyone. If a crime is merely a representation of culture then shouldn’t stemming such crimes also be rooted in culture? Btw the defeatist attitude, the “they are going to do this anyway no matter what everyone else does,” really sucks for all those women who are currently being abused, however logical it is for those of us living without constant threat of physical harm.

  41. suspectclass
    October 19, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I don’t think it’s nitpicky, Natalia, and I do think it’s a simplistic view even if read as only talking about sex in a “Western” context while refraining from discussing other parts of the world. Sex is complicated, and having the Pill and a legal understanding of consent that doesn’t rest on how hard a woman fought back doesn’t mean that complicated can’t sometimes mean problematic or harmful. That’s not restricted or particular to any one community, be it the straight or queer BDSM communities, or vanilla relationships of any combination of genders.

    Further, while it may not have been the intent of the writer to imply that assault and rape are less of a problem in progressive circles than elsewhere, I read it that way. It wouldn’t have been the only time I’ve heard someone make such a claim, and that kind of talk helps protect abusers and rapists in so-called progressive circles. If it can’t happen here so long as everyone’s careful, then let’s look for it where it’s “really” a problem.

  42. October 19, 2010 at 10:20 am

    …that kind of talk helps protect abusers and rapists in so-called progressive circles.

    Yes. It’s unintentional, but I think it can and does have that effect.

  43. LC
    October 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    @Scootah,

    It feels a lot like you’re trying to cast ‘Doms’ who aren’t sexual sadists as more enlightened/less counter to femminism than those of us who are sexual sadists.

    Not my intent at all. Being a sexual sadist does not make you more or less enlightened about anything. That said, someone who is a sexual sadist is going to end up with a higher bar for me to friend them. It’s not that a sexual sadist can’t be a wonderful, enlightened, lovely person. I know some. However, since our society does a fair amount of supporting that type of behaviour without it being enlightened, I will not assume anyone displaying that behaviour is necessarily enlightened. I’ve seen too many people use “It gets me off” as an excuse for assholish behaviour to do otherwise.

    @PM – I think your “hurt vs harm” comment is spot on and I am adding it to my inventory of useful ways to talk about this.

    @Hugo – It is absolutely a discussion that should by no means be limited to the kink crowd. I’m not nearly as big on their being some bright, shiny line between kink and vanilla as most, anyway. I recently had the opportunity to be on a panel about negotiating consent in a BDSM context, and the inviter was a bit surprised when I wasn’t enthusiastic. I had to explain to her that I would have been if it was about negotiating consent in relationships, period. Partitioning off one from the other irks me no end, and implies that it isn’t needed in “vanilla” relationships.

    @Natalia – I don’t think that’s nitpicking at all. I think it’s very important.

    @suspectclass – The whole “we’re progressive, it’s less of a problem” is a real issue, even if the cover it provides is unintentional.

  44. Kristen J.
    October 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post and to the commentors who shared their experience.

  45. October 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Hugo, you’re hearing from a pretty select group here. There aren’t a huge number of self-identified sadists even in the kink community, much less male feminist ones. You’ve asked for a specific crowd, and so people from that crowd spoke up.

    As for the word “sadist”, it’s important to remember that it has sketchy origins in psychoanalysis and was then appropriated into feminist discourse as a sort of theory reference point. Which is to say, it’s been heavily misused in said theory for a good long time now. I think actual sadism (which is to say, the urge to hurt simply to hurt) is relatively rare, and even then most actual sadists don’t act on their urges. Most of the hurting that goes on is done for personal or political gain or control, and it is important to remember that. Using the term “sadism” to describe hurting-for-gain has the unfortunate effect of covering over people’s real motives when they harm others, which impoverishes an analysis of power.

    You mentioned desires shaped by a misogynistic culture, which means we are getting into the “where does BDSM come from” question. This question is relevant on some levels but not on others. We can see the effects of mainstream sexism within the BDSM culture to some extent, for example in the 60/40-ish split of men to women tops (or the corresponding 60/40 split of women to men bottoms) in the community. Presumably culture is having a partial effect there.

    But at the same time, I’ve known a number of kinky people with gender-noncomforming kinky desires who had those desires from a very young age, so I think that it is overly simplistic (and frankly dismissive) to assume that sexism is the primary source of kink. It exerts some influence, but it’s really not the core of what is going on.

    Also it’s not really a relevant question. Unlike most kinky people i know, I came to my kink late, so it is perfectly possible that my desires were largely shaped by cultural misogyny. But, I would like to think that what I am doing with those desires is not misogynist or sexist, and that is what really matters here. In a way, you can view BDSM frameworks as sandboxing techniques for dangerous desires, which means that they have wide applicability in the fight against sexism even outside the BDSM community.

    PrettyAmiable and FormerWildChild, I want to say to you that it is perfectly reasonable to be freaked out by BDSM practices and desires. In fact, most BDSM folks are freaked out by them. We have trouble talking about a lot of this stuff even in the community. I regularly go to pretty dark places during kink activities with my lovers, and that stuff mostly stays intensely private because it can be very painful to talk about in open social situations, or even on the net.

    So, by all means, take care of yourselves and avoid this sort of conversation if that’s what you need to do. I think you can respect kinky people without knowing the explicit details of what we are doing. You can assume that when it comes to the intersection of feminism and kink, or sexism and kink, that at least the feminist BDSM folks know what we are doing, and are working on the same struggles that non-kinky feminists are engaged in. Just when we pipe up and say something like “you’re using ‘sadism’ wrong” or “don’t dismiss the desires of submissive women”, please heed what we say. You don’t need an intimate understanding of kink to do this.

    We can see this in the example situation provided by kloncke above. In the event that ze was unable to talk to that friend due to a past history of abuse, the best thing that ze could do is probably refer said friend to BDSM community, or even better feminist kinksters. And in fact, that’s still probably the best thing even in the absence of a bad history.

  46. October 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I’d like to note Comment #30 by polly, which may get lost in the shuffle because it took a while to be approved. The Feministe moderators asked if I wanted it approved and I said yes, because I personally feel a great deal of distaste for censoring comments that aren’t outright obscene or directly insulting (and even then, on my own blog, I often let those through, possibly because I’m a masochist ;). At the same time, I think polly’s comment has a lot of potential to derail the conversation and reinforce some really negative stereotypes. I have really enjoyed how respectful and careful this discussion has been so far, and I don’t want to lose that.

    @polly, I thought someone might pick up on the point that you highlighted. Here are what I see as key points:

    (since when did sex = BDSM by the way?).

    Sex doesn’t = BDSM, or sex work for that matter. But sex doesn’t = vanilla, heterosexual, socially acceptable forms of sexuality either. I’ve written pretty extensively about how genuine sex-positivity should work to make space for any consensual sexual viewpoint, whether that means the decision to have non-normative sex or even the decision to have no sex at all.

    The idea that ‘no means yes’ has been one that rapists and child abusers cherish. The idea that “she says she doesn’t like it, but she still really want’s it” is one that rapists and child abusers cherish.

    I think that reducing what I wrote to “the idea that no means yes” is simplistic and even insulting. What I wrote was that sometimes, in carefully negotiated consensual situations, I enjoy doing things that I don’t normally like because it fulfills one of my sexual desires.

    If you spread, encourage, affirm and enable, ideas like this it affects everybody. Can you enable and encourage a child abuser or rapist by telling them their world view is correct? Can you make them more likely to enact their fantasies for real with someone who doesn’t consent? ABSOLUTELY. … I don’t expect anyone to like this, but it’s the truth. But feel free to go on lying to yourselves.

    By claiming that discussing consensual and negotiated power-play encourages child abusers and rapists, you are contributing to considerable stigma and shame for many women around their sexuality, especially other feminist women. You are silencing people who could share their perspectives for the benefit of other members of their community, or at the very least, for the benefit of others who share their sexual desires.

    You have no evidence that stories about consensual BDSM cause abuse or rape. (As a side note, BDSMers are often considerably more careful about negotiating our encounters than most mainstream people, and our communication tactics can profitably be deconstructed for the benefit of the mainstream.) Media is a tricky thing to analyze, and I would never say that it doesn’t matter or has no effect on society. But I assert with complete confidence that there is no evidence that consenting submissive women sharing our experiences contributes to rape or abuse. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that consenting submissive women such as myself can pull people into the BDSM community if we share our experiences publicly, and thus give those women access to tools that will help them negotiate their sexual experiences better (like the aforementioned communication tactics).

  47. October 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    @FormerWildChild — I am willing to believe that you know how to be there without falling into the abyss. But if that is the case – that it is safe for you out there, and that I simply need to accept that. Then I will ask you to accept the fact that I will need to go behind the van and toss my lunch.

    I accept your feelings and feelings, but I expect you to do the same for me. If you want to be involved in conversations about BDSM, then I expect you to respect us and not shame us by controlling your urge to vomit. If you can’t be part of these conversations without vomiting, then I expect you to respect us by removing yourself from them.

    I’ll echo what Pepper wrote:

    By all means, take care of yourselves and avoid this sort of conversation if that’s what you need to do. I think you can respect kinky people without knowing the explicit details of what we are doing. You can assume that when it comes to the intersection of feminism and kink, or sexism and kink, that at least the feminist BDSM folks know what we are doing, and are working on the same struggles that non-kinky feminists are engaged in. Just when we pipe up and say something like “you’re using ’sadism’ wrong” or “don’t dismiss the desires of submissive women”, please heed what we say. You don’t need an intimate understanding of kink to do this.

    @Natalia — Not nitpicky at all! I appreciate your perspective and I think you make a fair point.

    @LC — I’m not nearly as big on their being some bright, shiny line between kink and vanilla as most, anyway. I recently had the opportunity to be on a panel about negotiating consent in a BDSM context, and the inviter was a bit surprised when I wasn’t enthusiastic. I had to explain to her that I would have been if it was about negotiating consent in relationships, period. Partitioning off one from the other irks me no end, and implies that it isn’t needed in “vanilla” relationships.

    Absolutely. The wonderful sexuality commentator Dr. Marty Klein recently spoke and wrote about this very topic:
    http://carnalnation.com/content/58684/98/there-such-thing-kinky-sex

    @Pepper — We can see the effects of mainstream sexism within the BDSM culture to some extent, for example in the 60/40-ish split of men to women tops (or the corresponding 60/40 split of women to men bottoms) in the community.

    Out of curiosity, does this statistic have some basis in research or are you estimating based on experience?

  48. October 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Clarisse Thorn: Out of curiosity, does this statistic have some basis in research or are you estimating based on experience?

    I’m partly estimating based on experience, and partly using gathered statistics. My hard numbers are from Trevor Jacques’s late-90’s unpublished internet study of kinksters, which found an approximately 2-1 ratio on both sides (i.e. 66%). The ratio stretches up to 3-1 if we are talking exclusive tops and bottoms. My own personal experience in SF would put the ratio much closer to 50/50, but still not there. Because of internet collection techniques, I suspect that Trevor’s sample may have been more heteronormative than general BDSM culture, or at least the SF culture I’m used to. Drop me an email if you want the presentation slides I’m quoting.

  49. FormerWildChild
    October 19, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    @Clarisse, obviously I was ineffective at conveying what I intended to say and I need to apologize. Throughout the reply, I had been using the experience of my children on the edge of the Grand Canyon as a metaphor for how I felt hearing about someone do something that to me, feels incredibly dangerous. As I mentioned, when my kids were finally away from the edge, I threw up. That was a moment of sheer terror, and when the adrenaline left, I got sick. There was no shaming or judgment about my children. They were on that edge with my permission, but still the adrenaline accumulated so that when they finally moved away, I was overcome. I am told that some people faint or crap themselves or freeze; I throw up.
    But while that reaction didn’t seem to bother anyone when I had it to my children’s danger, it seems to have made more than one person feel as if I was expressing disgust for you. To be very clear, I was not talking about getting sick from disgust, I was talking about the effects of adrenaline. I feel very bad that I was not more clear about that. I do not hold judgment about BDSM, and I cannot tell you how much it would grieve me to think that I caused anyone to experience shame.

    What I was trying to say is that while I *think* that BDSM is a valid lifestyle and sexual choice, I still feel frightened and an urge to rescue. What I was trying to work out is how to be kink-friendly while still being pretty wigged out.

    But I deeply apologize. Again, I never meant to convey disgust, disapproval or contempt. And I am sad and sorry that it came across that way.

    For what it is worth, I have been thoroughly chastened. Some of that is on socialmusings’ blog about sexual bigotry today. She points out that my fear is really an assumption that I know more than you do about the risks of your situation. She seems to think that eventually fear can easily slide into judging and that can become bigotry. If I don’t want to be a sex-bigot, I had better “get over it.”

    So that is what I plan to do.

  50. Kate
    October 19, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    By claiming that discussing consensual and negotiated power-play encourages child abusers and rapists, you are contributing to considerable stigma and shame for many women around their sexuality, especially other feminist women.

    Clarisse, even your own discussion of BDSM does not include only consensual and negotiated power-play. In your BDSM coming out story, you wrote the following (and yeah, I’m going to add a trigger warning:

    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…. “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.

    This is a non-negotiated encounter that took place when you were drunk (and thus legally unable to give consent). You were unsure that you wanted it at the time described above (“I do?), but at some point decided that you didn’t want him to stop.

    Presumably, a lot was going on in your head at the time and later on that makes this, to you, a consensual encounter. Because those are YOUR feelings inside of YOUR head, they are not accessible to others, even those who are reading you describing this encounter in your own words. To someone on the outside, the bare description looks like rape, or at the very least, not significantly different from the occasions you describe above of going along with a sexual encounter because you felt it was what was expected of you, when you couldn’t bring yourself to say no. Similarly, later on in the same essay, you discuss an encounter between you and the same man:

    “How did you know about me?”

    “I can tell,” he said, and grinned. “With you, it was obvious.” He paused, added quietly, “You were begging for it.”

    “Can we clarify something?” he asked gently. “Do you really want me to stop when you say no?”

    No, I realized, I don’t, and something vital in my psyche seemed to snap.

    So verbal consent and active participation isn’t necessary if the dude “can just tell” that you want it. So even “No” is negotiable. And yes, this essay is describing specific circumstances that happened at a specific time to you, who sees these encounters as consensual, but still–these are rape culture ideas, and the fact that this was an explicitly non-negotiated encounter without verbal consent given, the idea that in different circumstances this behavior would be harmful rather than desired is referred to only when you write that you fear others will think you’re describing “a near-rape.” You don’t clarify that, in general, it’s not good practice to just assume that somebody is “begging for it,” to grab someone while they’re drunk and start biting them, to take a lack of “no” for consent, to take a “no” as room for negotiation. Maybe you take it as read, but for you, it all worked out. You did want it, your “I do?” meant yes, your silence meant yes, your “no” meant yes, the drunken encounter where someone didn’t even bother to get consent because he could just tell that you wanted it woke you up to your sexuality. The fact that to other people, in other circumstances, that doesn’t just “look like” rape, but actually *is* rape, isn’t acknowledged.

    So no, I don’t think that discussion of “consensual and negotiated power-play” is necessarily harmful, but that clearly isn’t the only discussion of BDSM that is happening on the web, or even the only kind of discussion had by you.

  51. October 20, 2010 at 3:08 am

    @FormerWildChild — No worries. Thanks for being so willing to work on your phrasing. Can you link to the other discussion you read about this (you mentioned “socialmusings”)? I don’t think I’ve seen it.

    Actually, if anyone links to this post or otherwise discusses it on their blog, please let me know. I don’t have access to the Feministe analytics, so I won’t necessarily know if you’re talking about this post.

    @Kate — (For everyone else’s reference, she’s referring to my coming-out story, which was originally published by Time Out Chicago and is available here: [ http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/love-bites-an-sm-coming-out-story-mirror/ ] I wrote a number of follow-up posts to that article, which are linked at the end of the above link.)

    This is a non-negotiated encounter

    The fact that I didn’t explicitly say “I consented out loud” doesn’t mean that it wasn’t negotiated. People negotiate encounters in a lot of different ways. I tend to think that it was at least successfully if not very well-negotiated, and I know that Richard didn’t do anything that I did not consent to. Could it have been more explicitly and more directly negotiated? Yes. Would that have been safer on his part? Yes. Does that mean it wasn’t at all negotiated? That it was non-negotiated? No, it doesn’t.

    You were unsure that you wanted it at the time described above (“I do?”), but at some point decided that you didn’t want him to stop.

    I did not intend the “I do?” to come across as representing that I was unsure whether I actually wanted it. I intended it to come across as representing surprise and confusion. This is one example of assumptions you are making about me, and my experience, in your comment.

    If you want to discuss how my personal writing could be misread, fine; I’m open to that and willing to talk about it. But don’t tell me how I felt.

    To someone on the outside, the bare description looks like rape, or at the very least, not significantly different from the occasions you describe above of going along with a sexual encounter because you felt it was what was expected of you, when you couldn’t bring yourself to say no.

    I see a gigantic difference between rape and the times that I went along with sexual encounters because I felt that it was what was expected of me. I object vehemently to conflating those two things, or even putting them on some implied continuum the way you do above.

    So even “No” is negotiable.

    What?

    I never, ever, ever, ever said that “no” is negotiable (except in the extremely important and consensual case of a safeword that is set up in advance). I have never said that and I will never say that. I challenge you to find any time, any place in the entire world that I have said that.

    I think you quoted me out of context. What happens in your quotation represents a very narrow and somewhat misleading slice of the passage. Here’s a more representative quotation from my coming-out story, indeed from the same exact paragraphs that you quoted:

    After a while, I found myself saying, “No.”

    I felt him check himself, shifting his weight from my back. “Can we clarify something?” he asked gently. “Do you really want me to stop when you say no?” No, I realized, I don’t, and something vital in my psyche seemed to snap. The tears overwhelmed me. I couldn’t get an answer out through my sobs, but even if I could have, I haven’t the faintest idea what I might have said.

    “We should take a break,” he decided, and moved away.

    In other words, Richard stopped when I said no. After he stopped, I was unable to answer his question of whether he should continue, and therefore he did not continue. How does this represent the idea that “no” is negotiable? It represents the idea that when I said no, he stopped, which was the right thing to do.

    Kate, you wrote:

    You did want it, your “I do?” meant yes, your silence meant yes, your “no” meant yes, the drunken encounter where someone didn’t even bother to get consent because he could just tell that you wanted it woke you up to your sexuality. The fact that to other people, in other circumstances, that doesn’t just “look like” rape, but actually *is* rape, isn’t acknowledged.

    I’ll say it again: people negotiate encounters in all kinds of ways. Richard had my consent.

    One of the complicated things about rape is that we actually can’t decide that something is rape just because of what it looks like. Sex is not rape (nor is sex not rape) merely because it fits, or fails to fit, any particular script of acts.

    People have sex in all kinds of crazy configurations and circumstances without raping each other. In most of those cases, particularly non-normative ones as BDSM, it’s a good idea to negotiate each act very explicitly; in fact that’s the best way to ensure consent. However, the fact that it is a good idea does not make it a requirement: If partners are successfully negotiating consent without being very explicit, then I consider that to perfectly ethical as long as they’re both satisfied with how things are going.

    So no, I don’t think that discussion of “consensual and negotiated power-play” is necessarily harmful, but that clearly isn’t the only discussion of BDSM that is happening on the web, or even the only kind of discussion had by you.

    Negotiating consent can be a difficult and fraught process. If I’m representing that successfully, then I’m glad.

    In terms of drunken encounters, I’ll quote one of my followup posts to my coming-out story:

    I wrote about, not just one, but two relationships that had their origins in drunken hookups. Will that encourage readers to unwisely push boundaries while drunk — even to take advantage of drunk people? (Which is particularly dangerous when S&M-ish violence is involved?) And yet there’s no denying that, in our culture, it’s incredibly common for alcohol to function as a social and sexual lubricant. Yes, some people use alcohol to take advantage of vulnerable partners, and that is unacceptable. But millions use it all the time as part of their normal, entirely consensual dating routine. I don’t actually much like that, as it happens — I’ll drink, and certainly I’ve been known to get trashed, but I’m happier at events where I feel like we’re all having fun sober; still, it really is an endemic part of most youth culture in America. (In fact, one thing I like about the BDSM community is that many BDSM events encourage sobriety or even require it.) When I describe my experiences, including some drunk consensual encounters, I’m describing reality — not just my reality, but that of millions of other young women.

    I tried dealing with this kind of thing by shifting my tone at the end of the piece, pulling back and taking a more analytical stance rather than the up-close-and-personal moment-by-moment approach. For instance, I wrote: I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. … Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. It felt incomplete, and yes, it felt tacked-on too; but I also didn’t feel like I could stack on an infinite number of more disclaimers and clarifications without losing reader interest or muddying my most important goal: making people like me feel better about their terrible horrible BDSM needs.

    The bottom line is that consent is not always negotiated in the most picture-perfect and exemplary way. However, that doesn’t mean that consent in those situations is invalid or was non-negotiated. Is it my responsibility to specifically not talk about encounters I’ve had where consent wasn’t negotiated in the most picture-perfect and exemplary way? Or to load every piece I write that involves less-than-picture-perfect-BDSM with disclaimers? I don’t think so (but for the record, I do worry about it).

    Kate, I’m not sure what your goal was with your comment. I’m not opposed to exhaustive conversations about tactics to gain consent (I think this is pretty obvious from my blog archives). I don’t, however, intend to turn everything I write into an exhaustive examination of consent.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that you are trying to argue that there is a line past which a description of a given encounter becomes irresponsible or even harmful, unless that description contains certain disclaimers or examinations of what happened in that encounter. I’m not sure whether I agree with that idea, but even if I definitely agreed with it, I wouldn’t agree that my work in particular is irresponsible and harmful, for the reasons I have outlined above.

    • October 20, 2010 at 9:28 am

      I see a gigantic difference between rape and the times that I went along with sexual encounters because I felt that it was what was expected of me. I object vehemently to conflating those two things, or even putting them on some implied continuum the way you do above.

      I just want to say here that for a lot of us, our experiences with “going along” with what was expected of us were rape. In those cases, there is often a lack of meaningful and enthusiastic consent, it is traumatizing, and it is rape.

      Now, to be entirely clear, I’m not saying that your experiences with this were rape. Clearly they were not — you’ve just told us as much, and I accept that 100%. And going along with a sexual encounter because you felt it’s what was expected of you actually describes a huge range of experiences, not just one exact scenario. It could in fact be used to describe both rape and non-rape experiences in my own life. So there are going to be a lot of different ways to talk about such experiences, because it’s a broad and unspecific description. Some of those experiences just suck. Some were rape. I fully support you objecting to your experiences being conflated with rape when they were not, but I just want to make sure that we’re not erasing experiences in either direction.

      Kate. I think your comments are just generally really out of line. Telling other people how they experienced something is just not on. Like Clarisse said, talking about how one’s words come across or could be misinterpreted is one thing. But straight up telling another person what happened to them, how they felt about it, etc., is just a no.

  52. October 20, 2010 at 3:13 am

    Slight modification to my comment above:

    I wrote,
    I never, ever, ever, ever said that “no” is negotiable (except in the extremely important and consensual case of a safeword that is set up in advance). I have never said that and I will never say that. I challenge you to find any time, any place in the entire world that I have said that.

    I would modify this to say,
    I never, ever, ever, ever said that “no” is negotiable (except in the extremely important and consensual case of a safeword or other communication tactic / relationship configuration that is discussed in advance). I have never said that and I will never say that. I challenge you to find any time, any place in the entire world that I have said that.

  53. machina
    October 20, 2010 at 4:46 am

    I like the wrestling and martial arts analogy brought up by Jadey. I used to do Muay Thai and I think there’s a similar dynamic to what Clarisse say, “Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did. Oh yes, consent can be complicated.” Do I want to punched in the face? No. Do I want my partner to not punch me in the face? No. I don’t want them to hold back, much. It can difficult being a man training with women though, because of being conditioned on the one hand to not hit women, and yet on the other to have a sense of physical superiority to women that you don’t like being punctured. I really appreciated a comment by one woman I trained with a lot, “I love training with [machina], he knows just how hard to go with me,” because I felt I was avoiding getting drawn into either assumption of gender.

  54. October 20, 2010 at 5:15 am

    People negotiate encounters in a lot of different ways.

    I think this is a very important point that often gets lost in the shuffle. It came up for me when I first encountered the concept of enthusiastic consent.

  55. FormerWildChild
    October 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

    @ Clarisse:
    Here is the link: http://socialmusings.livejournal.com/32210.html

  56. October 20, 2010 at 9:10 am

    P.S. Kate, having read your original comment, I’m honestly stunned by some of the things you’ve said to Clarisse here. It’s as if you don’t trust her account at all – or else don’t trust how she feels about the things she describes. There’s a whole lot of armchair psychology going on here, imho. If something like this were directed at me, I’d consider it fairly belittling. I bring this up, because it seems to be a common factor in such discussions.

  57. Kristen J.
    October 20, 2010 at 9:31 am

    (To echo what Natalia said)

    Kate – you might want to poke your head into Chally’s discussion on the Unreality and politics of experience. I understand that sometimes its hard to accept someone’s description of what happened to them when its contrary to your experience (I struggle with this myself when representing DV victims so I do understand), but its important to do so for their sake as well as yours.

  58. Tawny
    October 20, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Thanks for writing this. I’m always interested in reading experiences of those like me, and how they negotiate them. Feminism and BDSM seem so inherently incompatible to so many people, and it left me in deep conflict when I initially began trying to reconcile them.

    It’s posts like these that make me feel more grounded in the way I’ve reconciled. And thanks for your blog, too, which I will now begin devouring! =)

  59. PrettyAmiable
    October 20, 2010 at 10:57 am

    I just wanted to say thank you to all who commented on my question. You’ve all been super helpful, and thanks for putting up with the derail!

  60. October 20, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Good morning! Another very slight correction. When I wrote this:

    One of the complicated things about rape is that we actually can’t decide that something is rape just because of what it looks like. Sex is not rape (nor is sex not rape) merely because it fits, or fails to fit, any particular script of acts.

    I meant:

    One of the complicated things about rape is that we actually can’t decide that something is rape just because of what it looks like. Sex is not rape (nor is sex not not rape) merely because it fits, or fails to fit, any particular script of acts.

    Triple negatives in the middle of the night are hard. I shouldn’t have tried one.

    @Cara — Now, to be entirely clear, I’m not saying that your experiences with this were rape. Clearly they were not — you’ve just told us as much, and I accept that 100%. And going along with a sexual encounter because you felt it’s what was expected of you actually describes a huge range of experiences, not just one exact scenario. It could in fact be used to describe both rape and non-rape experiences in my own life. So there are going to be a lot of different ways to talk about such experiences, because it’s a broad and unspecific description. Some of those experiences just suck. Some were rape. I fully support you objecting to your experiences being conflated with rape when they were not, but I just want to make sure that we’re not erasing experiences in either direction.

    This is a really fine-grained and carefully-thought-out comment, and I appreciate it. I agree with you. Thanks for writing it.

    For what it’s worth, I support and believe in the concept of rape culture, and I think that centering a certain stereotype of male dominance plays a role in that. This is one of the reasons BDSM has always been so complicated (and in many ways scary) for me. I think there has got to be a way to successfully reconcile BDSM destigmatization and rape culture awareness. This is why I’m still writing about it. I do try to be careful about how I write. I’m not sure that I always succeed. I am open to criticism, or at least I honestly try to be. But I would appreciate it if that criticism made an effort to take my experience into account too … and not to throw me, and people like me, under the bus in terms of what we’re allowed to do or say.

    @everyone else — I really am so happy about how thoughtful this thread has been. Thanks again!

  61. Kate
    October 20, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Clarisse, I’m sorry that I misread your description. I didn’t intend to tell you how you felt. I thought it was clear enough in my comment that the entire thing was my reading of your post, and the events and feelings described therein; evidently I wasn’t clear enough as not only you but several people assumed I was trying to tell you how you felt or trying to define the encounter in a way that differs from your own definition of it.

    And that’s kind of the point. My feelings and intentions aren’t clear in text unless I explicitly make them so. Your description also wasn’t clear to me, the reader, and as much as my reading was a misreading, it wasn’t a deliberate misreading or a sloppy reading—it came from what was on the page.

    Similarly, my statement that the first encounter you describe wasn’t negotiated also came from what was on the page, or rather, what wasn’t. You say here that it was successfully negotiated; that is nowhere clear in your actual description. Absence of that description led me to believe that the negotiation itself was absent. Your consent, in your description, was clear to *me*, the reader, by the end of the essay. It was not clear in your description of the actual encounter, and it was not clear to me in your essay that it was clear to Richard. And as your post begins with your fears that your sexuality could be co-opted to justify rape and abuse, as your stated intentions as quoted in your comment to me are to “make people like [you] feel better about your BDSM needs,” the fact that it wasn’t made clear to me, the reader, that you weren’t actually advocating that men should necessarily feel better (or, god forbid, act on) their need to grab a drunk girl and start a sexual encounter based on their assumptions (accurate or not) about her desires without first obtaining some form of consent seemed somewhat relevant. If we lived in a culture where those actions always led to a happy and consensual outcome, as it did in your case, then neglecting negotiated consent and the possibility of non-consent wouldn’t be irresponsible. In my opinion, in this case, it was.

    I agree with you that discussion of “consensual and negotiated power-play” isn’t inherently harmful. However, as much as you don’t want to “stack on an infinite number of disclaimers” or “muddy your most important goal” every time you post, in my opinion, without actual discussions of consent and negotiation of consent, it’s already muddy. What you actually mean may be super-clear to you (as, again, it was apparently clear to you, the person who was actually there to experience and feel those things, that consent was negotiated successfully rather than ignored), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your intentions come across clearly in your text.

  62. BEG
    October 20, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    This is very interesting. I am primarily vanilla in my personal sexual life, but what immediately got me to understand the whole BDSM thing was the comparison to martial arts, which I *do* do, and do very seriously to the point where a lot of people don’t understand why I do what I do. So I think I get this, as much as an outsider does, because of that.

    Anyway, just wanted to say kudos for a very interesting article and a very interesting subsequent thread.

  63. delphyne
    October 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    It sounds like you were targeted by a predator Clarisse (he already knew your work) and you’ve written an elaborate justification for the harm he inflicted on you, even as far as accepting him doing things that you didn’t want him to do .

    You think he didn’t know what he was doing, and believed his little act when he pretended to be having a crisis of conscience (he carried on though didn’t he?), but to me this sounds completely planned.

    Of course violence can arouse strong feelings, which can seem important and powerful, and even transcendent. The body when it knows the mind can’t take any more, creates these feelings so we can endure the damage at the time when we have no choice. Those feelings don’t make being beaten up by a man a good and feminist thing to do, instead they should be respected as responses to trauma and harm, not something that can be used and used again to get cheap thrills from.

    In my opinion defenses of male sadism and brutality have no place on a feminist blog. It’s not as if millions of women are suffering and being destroyed by those things every single day of the year. Feminism was created to fight male harm towards women, not defend it. It’s shocking that feminism has been so perverted that this is seen as acceptable.

  64. October 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    @Kate — I respect your opinion and I thank you for your feedback. I have to say that given that your original comment quoted me out of context and asserted things about what I wrote that are easily contradicted by complete quotations, I am less inclined to take your critique seriously than I would be otherwise. But I am listening.

    I would like to know what you think of the recent Duke University “fuck list” events (here’s my link roundup: http://lovebites.blogs.chicago.timeout.com/2010/10/09/feminist-blogs-seem-uninterested-in-duke-university-womans-sexploits/ ). To summarize: a Duke University alum made a PowerPoint of her undegraduate sexual exploits (heavily involving alcohol), and it accidentally ended up all over the Internet. To me, this PowerPoint makes it pretty clear that my conduct is relatively tame, especially if you just put BDSM in the “sex” box without worrying about its particular issues.

    Less important than the comparison, however, I wonder whether some feminists would jump all over the PowerPoint author for failing to make it super-duper-clear that she consented to every one of the drunken acts she details — if she had published on a wider scale. Would that make her story irresponsible? Now granted, she didn’t intentionally publish on a wider scale, but she did disseminate her viewpoint to various friends. Why doesn’t that make her a proponent of rape culture, especially given Subject #5?

    @delphyne — Ah, and here I thought consent mattered. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

    I’m glad you commented though, because things were going so well beforehand. If you hadn’t come along, then I might have been in danger of forgetting that there really are self-identified feminists out there who will freely and unapologetically discount my experience, my analysis, and my character judgments merely because what I say is triggering or politically inconvenient for them.

    There’s nothing I can say that will convince you, delphyne, that I’m not a helpless child with Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome, whose inner life you can discard. Does it even make a difference if I note further details about my encounter with the gentleman in this post? Like the fact that once we got back to his apartment after the date, he kissed me hesitantly and gently — and then I pushed him away, took off my glasses and my shirt, and gave him explicit instructions on where and how to leave some bruises?

    Actually, however, I’m not interested in going down that path. Partly because I know that no matter how much I emphasize my own agency, you’ll just find ways to believe that he manipulated or forced me. And frankly, this is one reason arguments like Kate’s are something that I will always take into account but never fully believe 100%. Because no matter how clear I make it that I was in control of what happened, that I consented, that my partner was a decent guy, there are always going to be feminists who tell me that writing about my experiences with BDSM are a straight-up “defense of male sadism and brutality”.

  65. October 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    We may be pretty much through with this, but the discussion has stayed with me the past couple of days, and on reflecting I noticed that my first comment may have contributed to a subtle shift in focus from (a) supporting women and gender-oppressed people with submissive sexualities (I read this as the primary intent of the OP) to (b) supporting men with dominant sexualities. I think (and it seems clear that most of us agree) that both/all are important, so in the interest of balance, I wanted to share a quick women-focused experience with a kink community.

    When my best friend first moved to San Francisco a year ago and was looking for a place to live, one candidate was a queer, kink-friendly co-op of sorts. From talking with her, it was clear she was excited about this place and the people in it, and they were excited about her, but one thing worried and scared her. When interviewing with the housemates, they let her know that a number of them participate in “daddy” relationships, and bring these relationships into common spaces in the household. The relationships sometimes include women housemates manifesting as seven-year-old girls having sexual, friendship-based, and pseudo-familial dynamics with their daddies/partners.

    In short, the idea of having house dinners with people manifesting these specific roles was difficult for my friend to handle. Not because she had suffered abuse from her own father, thankfully, but because it rubbed her feminist sensibilities the wrong way.

    Luckily, being the caring, committed, boundary-skilled person she is, she was able to determine for herself that this discomfort was not a deal-breaker for her and that this living space appeared to have enough feminist foundation and healthy communication norms to make her feel safe and able to support others’ diverse sexualities.

    Within a few weeks of her move-in, it was clear that the daddy issue wasn’t going to be a problem. (Partly, to be honest, because the daddies turned out to be self-i.d.’ing queer women, which brought my friend a higher baseline comfort level.) Her housemates were and are lovely, and she felt proud of herself for, as FormerWildChild puts it, working through some of her sex-bigotry.

    So, again, this is an ally story more than a coming-to-terms-with-one’s-own BDSM sexuality story, but I wanted to share it because it seems a little closer to the core of the original post. My friend’s roommates neither encourage nor condone child abuse or rape through their participation in consensual sexual relationships.

  66. October 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    As a final thought, as we remind ourselves and each other that our consensual sex, no matter how it looks, does not support rape culture, for me it’s important to remember the systemic elements that DO support rape culture. That way, we have a clearer sense of what we’re up against.

    For example, one of the strongest supporters of rape culture in Western society, especially since the dawn of capitalism, has been the State (along with its sometime-synonym, the Church). Not only has the ruling-class-run State relied on rape as a weapon of war between nations, and supported it as a program for domestic terrorism and economic control under slavery, colonization, and now mass incarceration, but at times its members have also strategically decriminalized rape, especially against poor women, in order to divide and conquer rebellious workers and uprisings of the poor.

    The State and its arms continue to enable rape indirectly, too. Take the police. Known racism, misogyny, transphobia, threat of deportation, and most importantly *the systemic imperative to protect property, not people* all deter us (especially highly oppressed people) from turning to the police for help when we are in danger or have been harmed. Meanwhile, politicians use racist and/or homophobic rape-scare discourse to justify expanding protective forces.

    To me it seems imperative that we not only refuse narratives that blame rape on BDSM and other scapegoat sexualities, but also *positively identify and attack* the structural, material scaffolding (not just ideological strongholds) that upholds contemporary forms of rape culture, and which racist rape culture, in turn, justifies.

    Here in the Bay Area, for instance, I’d love to see/learn about more collaboration between explicit feminist/queer/kink/BDSM groups and the wave of police-brutality organizing following the killing of Oscar Grant.

    Anyway, sorry for the length; thanks again for the thread.

  67. RD
    October 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Cara: I just want to say here that for a lot of us, our experiences with “going along” with what was expected of us were rape. In those cases, there is often a lack of meaningful and enthusiastic consent, it is traumatizing, and it is rape.Now, to be entirely clear, I’m not saying that your experiences with this were rape. Clearly they were not — you’ve just told us as much, and I accept that 100%. And going along with a sexual encounter because you felt it’s what was expected of you actually describes a huge range of experiences, not just one exact scenario. It could in fact be used to describe both rape and non-rape experiences in my own life. So there are going to be a lot of different ways to talk about such experiences, because it’s a broad and unspecific description. Some of those experiences just suck. Some were rape. I fully support you objecting to your experiences being conflated with rape when they were not, but I just want to make sure that we’re not erasing experiences in either direction.Kate. I think your comments are just generally really out of line. Telling other people how they experienced something is just not on. Like Clarisse said, talking about how one’s words come across or could be misinterpreted is one thing. But straight up telling another person what happened to them, how they felt about it, etc., is just a no.  (Quote this comment?)

    I think some of it depends on the reason you are going along. As in, are you going along because you are scared of this person, because they’ve previously been violent to you when you haven’t gone along with what they tell you or you have reason to believe they would be, because they are weilding their power over you (ie your older male relative or just older man, cops, employer, pimp, etc.)/there would be consequences to not going along, because they have threatened you, because they are taking advantage of you……..or are you going along because you haven’t figured everything out and neither have they, because you haven’t come out to yourself and are following society’s norms, are other more innocent reasons? I think there is a big difference (but I do also sort of think there is a continuum, with some of those things being generally worse than others).

  68. RD
    October 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Also…this feeling that you are responsible for letting abusers get away with things, emboldening them, is familiar to me, but only in the context of feeling responsible for an abuser who is actually abusing me, that they will hurt other girls or women and it will have been my fault. But I think at some point you just can’t take responsibility for what other people choose to do to people. And I actually have not felt that from doing BDSM-stuff with someone who loves me.

    PrettyAmiable…I think the best thing for triggers is baby-steps controlled exposure to them. Some things that used to trigger me (shaving-from being shaved without my consent-, locations, other stuff)…don’t anymore because of that.

  69. RD
    October 21, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Oh to the list of innocent reasons for going along that are not rape, I would like to add “consenting just to get paid.”

  70. S
    October 21, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    RD,

    That’s a strange blanket assertion to make. What about if she’s consenting just to get food to feed herself? What about if she’s consenting to get money to buy food, and the man knows it? What if she is of a race/age/socio-economic class/geographical location where she has no other means to make money? Is it valid “consent” then?

  71. bellareve
    October 21, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    RD – some women would in fact experience that as rape.

    I think the thing to take away from this discussion is that only an individual woman can name her experiences as far as consent is concerned.

  72. RD
    October 22, 2010 at 1:39 am

    S: RD,That’s a strange blanket assertion to make. What about if she’s consenting just to get food to feed herself? What about if she’s consenting to get money to buy food, and the man knows it? What if she is of a race/age/socio-economic class/geographical location where she has no other means to make money? Is it valid “consent” then?  (Quote this comment?)

    HAVING BEEN IN THAT SITUATION YES.

  73. RD
    October 22, 2010 at 1:40 am

    bellareve – experience what as rape? which thing that I said?

  74. RD
    October 22, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Ok, bellareve, I think you are talking about “consenting just to get paid”? That was kind of a…side point? And we just had that conversation, and I am annoyed. So I am gonna refer you and S to that one.

  75. S
    October 22, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Well, RD, maybe you experienced your own situation as valid consent, but shame on you for telling other women that THEY consented under similar circumstances.

    • October 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

      Hey, so this is Clarisse’s post, so I’m going to let her be final arbitrator … but this current conversation seems to me to be a pretty big derail. And I think it comes down to a basic lesson, anyway — it’s wrong to make blanket, universal assumptions/assertions about the consensual or non-consensual nature of other people’s sexual experiences in either direction. In one direction is erasure and denial of autonomy; in the other is erasure and rape apologism. However unintentional. Both of these are bad. It’s much better to acknowledge and leave room for the diversity of experience than to enforce our own ideas about those experiences on other people.

  76. delphyne
    October 22, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    “Ah, and here I thought consent mattered. Well, it was nice while it lasted.”

    OK, did you read what you actually wrote or have you forgotten already?:

    “He did a few things I don’t even normally like, but everything else was so right, I’d gone far enough under not to care. (Even to enjoy those things because I didn’t want them, but he did. Oh yes, consent can be complicated.”

    What you’re describing isn’t consent, it’s submission and acquiescence – “not caring”. If somebody is doing things that you don’t like and don’t want, you aren’t consenting, you are not liking and not wanting something.

    And yes consent matters, but do you know what matters a fuck of a lot more – ending male violence and sadism, particularly sexual sadism towards women. How about you get on that bandwagon instead of singing the joys of a man doing things to you you didn’t want and didn’t like, whilst sticking the little bandage of “consent” over the top of it, and pretending it makes it all right. All you’re doing is encouraging sadists and abusers of women. I mean do what the hell you like in your private life, I don’t care, but as soon as you start promoting it publicly, you make it political and you can’t be surprised that there will be the feminists who are going to have something to say about it.

    “I’m glad you commented though, because things were going so well beforehand. If you hadn’t come along, then I might have been in danger of forgetting that there really are self-identified feminists out there who will freely and unapologetically discount my experience, my analysis, and my character judgments merely because what I say is triggering or politically inconvenient for them.”

    I analysed what you wrote too. You interpret your experience one way, but you ignore a much wider context it exists in – the context of male domination and violence against women that women don’t “consent” to and are forced into. Me, me, me-ism isn’t feminism, it’s narcissism. Have you thought about trying not to confuse the two?

    “Because no matter how clear I make it that I was in control of what happened”

    In what way is him doing things that you don’t like and didn’t want you being in control of the situation? Rewriting history after the event doesn’t make it true.

    “that writing about my experiences with BDSM are a straight-up “defense of male sadism and brutality”.”

    You do know that the “s” in BDSM stands for sadism don’t you? You’ve described being brutalised by a sadistic man and writing about how it’s a good thing. How is that not a defense of male sadism and brutality? The fact that you think that this is what is important in feminism and this is what you are banging the drum for is just depressing as hell. Can you think past your orgasm and bruises to what other women are going through?

    • October 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm

      Delphyne,

      You are welcome to continue commenting on this blog and on this thread, but please note our comment policy. Comments that are clearly not left in good faith, or that are ad hominem or attacking, will be deleted. You are welcome to disagree with what bloggers post here; you are not welcome to call bloggers narcissistic, and you are not welcome to be rude and condescending (“Can you think past your own orgasm?” etc). Please make sure that your comments are productive.

  77. October 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I think the experiences of sex workers who feel that they are being told by feminists they didn’t consent to what they did actually are relevant to, say, my experience of being told by a feminist that I didn’t consent to what I did. I don’t mind conversation along those lines. I would hope that people keep it civil, of course.

    The key to my own approach to feminism is that I think women need more choices. Period. In fact, everyone needs more choices. One step towards that is acknowledging the choices we already make every day. I dislike initiatives/arguments that seek to erase the choices sex workers have made as much as initiatives/arguments that seek to erase the choices BDSMers have made.

    Also, I thought kloncke’s comments were awesome.

  78. RD
    October 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Shame on me? Shame on me. Awesome. You know, when I meet another person who has been in that situation (and I have met many, many who see it the same way I do) but sees that as rape, then I will reconsider (but I will probably still see their view as an exception, a valid exception but an exception, given all the people I know who disagree). Everyone I have ever met or heard of who felt that way also had some kind of external coercion outside of being poor/homeless/etc. IE, a pimp, or something like that. Having had a pimp, and having not had one, I believe those are very different situations. Until that happens, I will continue to see this point as a “gotcha” theoretical that people with no experience bring up solely to discredit me and push an idealogical agenda.

  79. October 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    @delphyne — In what way is him doing things that you don’t like and didn’t want you being in control of the situation? Rewriting history after the event doesn’t make it true.

    BDSMers sometimes do things we don’t normally like (and if you missed the “normally” part, reread that paragraph). We often feel like it’s hot to be pushed into doing things that we don’t want to do. Because we recognize that these situations can be difficult to control, we do them within carefully negotiated frameworks. I set up the situation, I gave him tips about where and how to start, I had a safeword, I set several hard limits ahead of time — and he respected the boundaries that I specifically outlined. In the cases where he did things I don’t normally like, they were things I never told him not to do; and when he did them, I didn’t stop him because they ended up being hot.

    Sound complicated? Well, desire is complicated; that’s why consent can be complicated. BDSM often involves being caught between wanting and not-wanting. Negotiating consent in that situation is difficult and requires care but is ultimately worth it. It’s not actually all that different from negotiating vanilla sex. Easy example: plenty of women wouldn’t want any random person off the street to kiss their stomach, and yet if a partner does it in the bedroom, it can be hot.

    This is something I really don’t get: I’d think that BDSMers and feminists would be best friends. The two subcultures obsess more about consent than any other communities I’ve ever seen. Do you really think it’s useful for feminism to erase people’s experiences in complicated consent negotiations? Do you really think it’s progressive to flat-out ignore the various approaches and tactics BDSMers use to talk about consent? How does that help?

    Shouldn’t we be trying to understand why and how people consent to sex if we really want to get rid of rape?

    The fact that you think that this is what is important in feminism and this is what you are banging the drum for is just depressing as hell. Can you think past your orgasm and bruises to what other women are going through?

    I’ve put a hell of a lot of time into working on other feminist issues as well. Maybe you’d be interested in the articles I wrote about my time in Africa, for example. In your worldview, when do I earn the right to count my sexuality as a feminist issue? When do I earn the right to help other feminist BDSMers negotiate their sexuality? Or is it just that I’m supposed to deal with BDSM stigma, ignore it, and fail to help other people like me deal with it?

    Has it ever occurred to you that if feminist BDSMers don’t talk about our sexuality, we cede the field to non-feminist BDSMers? What happens then? Will that be good for feminism?

    • October 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm

      Fair enough, Clarisse!

      And delphyne, your comment is just wildly out of line. Essentially calling someone a rape apologist for doing nothing more than talking about how it’s okay for her to enjoy her own consensual sexual experiences is not okay. And Clarisse is a saint for being as patient and civil towards you as she has been.

  80. RD
    October 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    This is something I really don’t get: I’d think that BDSMers and feminists would be best friends. The two subcultures obsess more about consent than any other communities I’ve ever seen.

    I wish this were true for all the BDSMers I know…it’s not…..

    Shouldn’t we be trying to understand why and how people consent to sex if we really want to get rid of rape?

    Totally. I think this is really, really, really true.

  81. October 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    @RD — I wish this were true for all the BDSMers I know…it’s not…..

    Well, no. It’s not true for all feminists either, though. I meant that the communities (BDSM and feminism) both have a lot of general standards and endemic thought about consent. Not that all BDSMers or all feminists are perfect about it.

    @Cara — Thanks! I respect your work a lot and I’m super grateful to have your support on this one.

    Also. To build on my previous point — here’s what I think happens when feminism doesn’t make space for BDSM (or for other forms of marginal sexuality):

    (a) People who identify with those forms of sexuality become alienated from feminism. This is bad for feminism as a movement because it loses people who might otherwise identify with it and work towards its most important goals, such as, you know, more and better choices for women. It’s also bad for the individuals involved, or at least it is if they’d otherwise find feminism to be personally helpful in their lives, which I think many would.

    (b) A feminist framework for dealing with those forms of sexuality isn’t developed. This is bad both for feminism, which loses access to a major facet of gender discourse, and for the individuals involved, who lose access to feminist conversations about their sexuality.

    Some of the smartest, most creative, and most energetic BDSM people I know (and sex workers, in fact) specifically don’t identify as feminists because they feel that their experiences have been so thoroughly attacked and erased and undermined by feminists. This can’t be good for feminism — we’re losing those smart, creative, energetic people!

  82. Kate
    October 22, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Clarisse, I have no idea how feminists in general would respond to your hypothetical situation. (Predicting how “some feminists” would respond is somewhat easier–“some feminists” will happily “jump all over” other women for doing pretty much anything that doesn’t live up to their interpretation of Dworkin, while “some feminists” will happily deem any choice or action to be feminist or good just because a woman made it. The fact that “some feminists” will, regardless of circumstance, endorse some opinion doesn’t mean that everybody should just give up the ghost and stop engaging in debate, or decide thateverything is just so ambiguous and hazy and dependent on personal choice that it’s impossible to make any sort of judgment about anything.)

    If you’re asking me how I would respond, that would depend pretty much completely on context–are we talking an entry in an online journal kept for the benefit of her own memory and maybe shared with some friends, an article in an magazine, a post on a political or social blog, a Betty Dodson-style sex advice column? How would she be presenting it—neutral, positive, negative? In what context would she be discussing it? What point would she be trying to make with her account?

    (If she was touting blackout sex as spectacular, then yeah, I think that would be irresponsible, and she would be perpetuating rape culture. Also probably a victim of it, but celebrating the idea of having sex with a woman who is so drunk that she passes out or blacks out is definitely perpetuation. You yourself call it a “potential rape story” in your linked article, which kind of makes my point that affirmation, not assumption, of consent is important for other people to decide whether or not something is sex or rape.)

    Your goal, with your article, was to “make people feel better,” to legitimize their feelings and desires. Clearly, you believe that your article can influence people’s attitudes. Your intent in publishing it is to have precisely that effect. You’re advocating on behalf of BDSM as a healthy, legitimate choice that is defined by, in your words, “consensual and negotiated power-play.” Negotiation, as well as consent, is central in your definition. Your original reply to polly objected to the idea that discussion of BDSM, defined as “consensual and negotiated power-play” could possibly serve as encouragement to rapists.

    My argument is that if you’re just discussing consensual power-play but leaving out the negoitation, essentially making consent itself assumed rather than affirmed, that can be damaging. Particularly when that idea is supported by describing how a guy “can tell” when you’re “begging for it”, and by a guy questioning whether “you really want me to stop when you say no” (he assumed that “no” meant “stop” but still questioned whether your statement of desire was an accurate reflection of your actual desire), and being correct about it.

    It’s great that he was correct in those instances and that he was able to intuit your needs. And as you stated in your earlier comment, these experiences didn’t just involve his intuition and assumption of your consent, but also successful negotiation of that consent. That isn’t in your article, though. His correct assumption of your desire, even in response to your verbal statement to the contrary, is. Your article affirms that your actions and desires are acceptable. That is the goal of your article, and you succeeded in it. My question, though, is: does it affirm that Richard’s actions and desires (as you describe them, not as they actually took place) are acceptable? Does it affirm that negotiation of consent is a side note in deciding whether or not someone is really “begging for it”? Does it affirm the idea that when a woman says no, she doesn’t actually mean it?

    When you make your sexual experiences public and affirm them as unquestionably good, they stop just being about you. They become part of a public debate about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t consensual, what is and isn’t a “potential rape story”. In particular, when your personal experiences conform to harmful narratives, I think it’s important to at the very least acknowledge that the harmful narrative exists. The idea that men can “just tell” when a woman is begging for it, and that when a woman says no she doesn’t really mean “no,” are used as justifications of rape. In your case, there were other circumstances–such as, again, the negotiation of consent–that subvert that narrative. The subversive elements weren’t actually in your article, though. The narrative was.

  83. LC
    October 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    @Clarisse:
    <blockquote cite="Shouldn’t we be trying to understand why and how people consent to sex if we really want to get rid of rape?"

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    @kloncke – I am in a similar situation as the person in your first comment. In fact, I no longer have any idea how much of what went down was “acquiescing” to “perform well”. That relationship is long over, but it still haunts me.
    As for your other comments later, those were fantastic, thank you.

    @Clarisse: Thanks for the link.

  84. October 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    @Kate — Particularly when that idea is supported by describing how a guy “can tell” when you’re “begging for it”, and by a guy questioning whether “you really want me to stop when you say no” (he assumed that “no” meant “stop” but still questioned whether your statement of desire was an accurate reflection of your actual desire), and being correct about it.

    I think this is part of our disagreement: I read my coming-out story as, partly, a negotiation of consent and a discussion of what that means. Again, it wasn’t well-negotiated, but there was negotiation. You seem to think that the point where he stopped when I said no, but wasn’t sure I wanted him to stop, is an affirmation of rape culture. I see it as a non-affirmation of rape culture because he didn’t just assume I wanted him to keep going (which seems to me to be how rape culture is often expressed — with assumptions and scripts).

    My question, though, is: does it affirm that Richard’s actions and desires (as you describe them, not as they actually took place) are acceptable? Does it affirm that negotiation of consent is a side note in deciding whether or not someone is really “begging for it”? Does it affirm the idea that when a woman says no, she doesn’t actually mean it?

    I suppose that it could go in the wrong direction on these questions, but I think people are capable of misinterpreting pretty much anything that comes their way (case study: delphyne).

    I definitely could have been more explicit about the various conversations about consent I had with Richard. I could have talked about setting a safeword. I could have talked about our discussions on where to leave marks. Etc. I mention in my coming-out story that I never told him to stop until later, and that when I did, he stopped. At the time I wrote that, I thought I was being careful to represent my consent. I’m willing to re-think it now and be more careful in the future, but I want to make it clear that I think I did express those ideas within the story, especially in the context of a culture whose mind is blown by the idea of more complex conversations.

  85. LC
    October 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Wow, I failed on the blockquote rather dramatically.

  86. Kristen J.
    October 23, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Clarisse Thorn: I’m willing to re-think it now and be more careful in the future, but I want to make it clear that I think I did express those ideas within the story, especially in the context of a culture whose mind is blown by the idea of more complex conversations. Clarisse Thorn

    I just want to respond to the idea that you are obligated to reframe your experiences. I’m sure you don’t need me saying all this…but as a show of support if nothing else I want to put it out there. First, its not possible to communicate in a way that cannot be misinterpreted. Communication is not a bullet that can fired into another person’s brain transmitting all the nuance of an experience to that other person. Where someone is looking for contrary meaning in your words, they are almost certain to find it.

    Second, its not your responsibility to make your experiences fit into a certain “acceptable” narrative. The objection that you are supporting rape culture is wrong and inappropriate. Of course it is immoral to express your experiences in a way that marginalizes others or contributes to their marginalization. But nowhere in your article did you talk about what *women* want or what *men* are entitled to or what people *should* do. Instead you related your desires and your confusion and your experience. That your experiences may be part of or similar to a narrative that oppresses *women* does not mean that who you are or your expression of who you are is responsible for that oppressive narrative. You are person and entitled to the full expression of who you are. Full stop.

  87. October 24, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I mean do what the hell you like in your private life, I don’t care, but as soon as you start promoting it publicly, you make it political and you can’t be surprised that there will be the feminists who are going to have something to say about it.

    Where have I heard this type of argument before?

    … Surely not from virulent homophobes, and assorted other “do what you want behind closed doors, but don’t promote your nasty deviant ways in public”-types.

    Surely.

  88. October 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Kristen, thank you.

    Natalia, yeah — surely!

  89. Jo
    October 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Some feminists make young women say ‘I’m not a feminist by the way!!’, which is a sad thing. Maybe it’s because they give the impression that they want to control everyone.

    Clarisse, I loved the description you wrote about – it sounds like the sex I always wanted to ahve and never did. It certainly reaffirms that longing. Ah me…

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