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Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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26 Responses

  1. NBarnes
    NBarnes October 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm |

    “I’m not like those people. It doesn’t matter if I, for example, write extensive rape fantasy fiction! That couldn’t possibly be BDSM! Because I’m not a BDSMer! Because BDSM is dirty.”

    We’re looking at you here, John Norman.

  2. Sam
    Sam October 9, 2011 at 7:59 pm |

    A kind of interesting thought that has cropped up in my head while reading this. For me, if it is BDSM, then it can be consensual and performative and queer and (rightfully) fulfilling. If it isn’t BDSM, it is oppressive, those involved have false consciousness, it traditional, and its patriarchal.

    So when the example of Taken in Hand came up, my instant response to a non-BDSM, religious group that was down with male domination was that that is not okay at all. Yet I have lots of room for BDSM in my feminism.

    Not quite sure what to do with this. Because I still feel pretty not okay with Taken in Hand for example. Maybe I need to set clearer line between “good” BDSM and “bad” BDSM in my head (not sure that you’d be an advocate of this) in the same way that I see “good” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship and “bad” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship.

    The hierarchy of good/bad is not particularly appealing, but I think that it’s pretty clear that as feminists, there are ways that oppression and patriarchy appear in our relationships that we should be critical of.

  3. Randomizer
    Randomizer October 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |

    Sex in my relationship definitely includes an element of power exchange and frequently some light bondage and a bit of flogging, etc. Still, it is worlds apart from the kind of hurting that I understand the OP to crave in her experience of BDSM and I expect in her world I would be considered vanilla.

    At the same time, others would probably consider what my partner and I do at least kinky, if not outright BDSM. Where you stand as ever depends on where you sit aas the saying goes.

    I am fascinated about what I have learned about the BDSM “orientation?” from CT and others and wondered betimes if in my intimate life I am just scratching the surface of a deeper itch. But really, I don’t think so.

    Certainly there is no clear desire for power play and pain apart from sex and if I were to go to a dungeon, I expect I would feel like a voyeur who really doesn’t belong.

    It is strange how people seem to want to find themselves in some convenient category where their intimate lives are concerned.

    My partner and I are very happy with how we do. Isn’t that the whole point?

  4. bpbetsy
    bpbetsy October 9, 2011 at 8:40 pm |

    I’m a “submissive” with pretty “extreme” sexual interests. But I don’t identify with the BDSM/kink community whatsoever. It just doesn’t resonate with me, and yes, part of that is the “jargon” and the “clothes.” Even some of the rituals and rules. That stuff feels cheesy to me, and not spontaneous enough. A dungeon or a fetish party is basically the opposite of a turn-on for me.

    It isn’t about not wanting to be dirty or sexual though. I actually have no problem with other people thinking I’m perverted or deviant or damaged, etc. Being queer & a sex worker, I already know what that is like and can’t be bothered with it.

    The “rules” of BDSM feel too circumscribed to me, the stuff about negotiating beforehand. I don’t want to plan sex like I’m planning a picnic or a baby shower, I want it to just happen. Probably because negotiating is too similar to what happens during sex WORK, so when I have sex for fun I don’t want any of that involved.

  5. Julian Morrison
    Julian Morrison October 10, 2011 at 5:47 am |

    What do you think about setting a not-BDSM boundary around the varieties that are more than a little cavalier about consent, especially when they don’t really view women as people who ought to have a right to say no? (Christian fundamentalists, “quiverfull”, “taken in hand” etc, I am looking at you.)

  6. Julian Morrison
    Julian Morrison October 10, 2011 at 5:51 am |

    Oops, I see you already answered that.

  7. saurus
    saurus October 10, 2011 at 7:20 am |

    Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” – of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

    I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s *totally* sexual.”

    Audre Lorde has discussed things in term of the “erotic”, not the “sexual”, which may (or may not!) be a useful distinction, but which also allows for an intensely political understanding eroticism. And I quote, in a mishmashed way, rather out of context:

    During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

    I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

    When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.

    The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

    [T]he erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

    Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex…

    I find it interesting that at “cuddle parties”, it’s (supposedly, I’ve never been) understood that physical arousal is common, but that doesn’t mean it’s the purpose or focus or nature of the event, and it can be cast aside entirely just as one might cast aside a case of tickles during a physiotherapy massage. The tickles don’t become the focus, they aren’t seen as a red flag indicating one’s “real” experience of the massage or “true” interests all along.

    If someone asked me, do you have an “acting like a cat” fetish? Is that part of your sexuality? I would say, emphatically, no. Because it isn’t. But if they said, Would you like to spend today just lolling around the house having people fetch and carry for you, stroke your head and bring you pizza, and otherwise behave as though you have no human responsibilities or human obligations, particularly to make small talk, and even when you’re contributing nothing they still love you and think you’re cute – I would say…yes. Holy hell yes.

    So what is *that*? Other than lazy, that is. :)

  8. someone
    someone October 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |

    OP wrote:

    I’ve heard of plenty of dungeons where sex is not allowed — sometimes for legal reasons, but sometimes because there is actually a social standard against it: people are like, “Dude, let’s not get our nice pure BDSM all dirty by including sex.”

    As a former pro-domme, I can think of another good reason to not allow sex in the dungeon: worker well-being. It’s about recognizing that pro-dommes don’t want their clients touching their private parts, and that a client doing so is a serious violation of the boundaries that allow the domme to do her work and enjoy it. Not because sex is dirty or whores are bad, but because we’re not attracted to our clients for the most part so they don’t have our consent to touch us. In theory, you could have those boundaries be up to the individual domme, but in practice it’s way easier to have some baseline hard rules so that we’re not constantly “negotiating” (read: fending off unwanted advances).

    Personally, I was never once attracted to a client when I worked in this field–I was often turned on by the scenarios we played out, though. The “no touch above the knee” rule allowed me to feel secure that my personal space would not be subject to attempts to violate it, thus allowing me to relax and get into the scenes.

    I just wanted to point that out because, while whore stigma is wrong, so is trying to pressure or shame non-prostitute sex workers into doing things we’ve already refused to do.

  9. someone
    someone October 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm |

    Thanks for the edit!

  10. Passing Reader
    Passing Reader October 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |

    ///It is my experience that (cisgendered) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. ///

    Did you mean “cisgendered” straight women here? Because that statement sure doesn’t apply to or acknowledge lesbian / woman-loving-woman views of what constitute sex.

  11. Logoskaieros
    Logoskaieros October 13, 2011 at 9:39 am |

    I’m gonna try to push the Taken in Hand example from another angle.

    “…But when your site has posts with titles like “When rape is a gift,” well … I’m just saying.”

    Is this conflating rape with rape fantasy? My impression of the Taken in Hand group is that they think it’s okay for husbands to rape their wives in order to encourage/enforce submissiveness in the wives. My impression was that the wives consent to this practice on moral grounds, but they won’t (necessarily?) consent to or enjoy the experience. Therefore, it’s not (always?) rape fantasies, but actual rape. Am I misunderstanding/oversimplifying this group?

    With BDSM, my impression is that activities can look like (for instance) rape, but it is not actually rape (or participants don’t want it to be actual rape?), because BDSM fosters robust consent and enjoyment between participants. Is that an accurate characterization?

    Tl;dr: I didn’t think Taken in Hand was part of BDSM culture because TIH thinks it’s okay to rape people, which is distinct from thinking it’s okay to engage in rape fantasy.

  12. saurus
    saurus October 13, 2011 at 11:13 am |

    The impression I get from Taken In Hand is not that they’re actually pro-rape – in fact I find they often emphasize consent in their writings if not in their actions, which I don’t know about – but they believe that the woman can (and if it’s a TIH relationship, will) consent in advance and across the board to her husband, not unlike agreeing to be the “the one who does the cooking”. They understand that the woman can withdraw consent (and if so, her husband must respect that), but that she shouldn’t.

    I do believe it’s a valid form of consent – i.e., “look, even if I’m tired or don’t feel like it, tell me you want it and I’ll supply it” in which it’s kind of like “sex as a chore”. Frankly, I think that kind of sex happens in lots of relationships and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although as a consent model it certainly opens the door on rape more than some other models, imho.

    I don’t really find TIH very insidious – it seems to me like a pretty cut-and-dry BDSM community that just doesn’t like the trappings (clothes, jargon) and is really, really into traditional gender roles. In other words, people who get off on the whole “the husband holds dominion over the woman” Biblical stuff.

    That could not be farther from my cup of tea for about 3000 reasons and for all their “it’s just more effective to have one person steering the ship!” language they certainly don’t investigate very deeply why the dude is apparently the best relationship leader in every situation, but meh.

  13. » BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel? Clarisse Thorn

    […] The orientation model is one of the cultural factors that makes it hard to discuss sensory, sensual experiences without defaulting to sexuality. As commenter saurus pointed out on the Feministe version of part 1 of this post: […]

  14. Sharing the love « The Lady Garden
    Sharing the love « The Lady Garden October 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm |

    […] (“just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting”) on BDSM vs Sex. What, actually, IS “sexual conduct”? I (Emma) am really looking forward to the second […]

  15. Cara
    Cara October 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm |

    THANK YOU, Logoskaieros. That comment from Clarisse disturbed me greatly. What the fuck does something as terrible as “when rape is a gift” have to do with BDSM? If they’re not talking about actual rape, they’re rape apologists for using the word “rape” to talk about consensual activities that may be rough or involve role-playing or BDSM elements and pretending that they’re the same. If they are talking about rape, that’s even more fucking disturbing, because then Clarisse just essentially said that BDSM is pro-rape … while also actively supporting it. Either way, that paragraph is fucked up. I can’t find a way around it not being really, really fucked up and also triggering to us rape survivors who realize that rape FANTASY is really, really different from rape, and that rape itself is never a fucking “gift.”

  16. Autumn
    Autumn October 19, 2011 at 1:11 pm |

    Clarisse Thorn:
    I keep thinking about it and wanting to say more, because false consciousness can be such a powerful thing, and that “fog” that abused partners can enter into is so overwhelming too; Autumn wrote us a powerful guest post about this recently [ http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/08/08/i-can-handle-it-on-relationship-violence-independence-and-capability/ ].But I also really have trouble taking a stand that actually denies anyone the right to define their own consent, right now, in this moment.

    I think that avoiding minimizing/denying/blaming also has a lot to do with honestly making space for a partner’s objections….

    My experience with BDSM is pretty limited, but my experience with abuse has shown me that people will tell themselves all kinds of shit to not believe that what’s abuse–and what’s nonconsensual–is okay, because *they’re* okay, and *we’re* okay, and everything’s okay, right? From what I know of BDSM, people generally find it on their own–they see images, feel a stirring, and follow up on their own. The emphasis on boundaries within BDSM communities, to me, illustrates that whatever manipulation occurs within play is done consciously as a part of the play, and that parties are aware of what’s going on. (I may be wrong.) So then when there are lifestyle movements that are specifically designed to be all-encompassing and limiting (cults, Taken in Hand, etc.), yeah, issues about how consensual it can really be come into play. “Not everyone is strong enough for Taken in Hand” (from their FAQ) seems like it’s giving uninterested parties a way out, but what it actually creates is a refrain for questioning people within it to be punished for not being “strong enough” to take it.

  17. Autumn
    Autumn October 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm |

    That’s exactly it–the manipulated communication in those communities points to a lack of true communication, which needs to be a part of BDSM for it to “work.” The reason, as I see it, that the BDSM community exists is for people to have a truly safe place to explore desires that seem unsafe. And the minute the baseline of safety is called into question–not the form that the desires take, but the baseline–there’s going to be exploitation.

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