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This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community, to be held at a local dungeon and facilitated by Sarah Sloane. The workshop will take place on February 12, 2011; feel free to email me for more information, or keep track of my Time Out Chicago “Love Bites” blog, where I will post a wide-release public description once it’s available.
* S&M is wicked, * abnormal, * a sign of mental or emotional instability, * inherently abusive, * or even antifeminist.
Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:
1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.
2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.
I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.
Tonight I had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her boyfriend. Some friends of my mother attended, one of whom is a lesbian who I’ll call Kay. Kay attended dinner with her mother, who is unaware of Kay’s sexual orientation. One of the reasons Kay’s mom doesn’t know about Kay’s sexual orientation is that Kay’s mom has already behaved quite badly towards Kay’s elder sister, who is an out-of-the-closet lesbian.
I knew this whole situation going in, and one thing that struck me was how much of a nice person Kay’s mom is. I mean … she’s really nice. I mean, she clearly tries to be a good person. She also tried really hard to help me do the dishes. (I didn’t let her because I wanted them all to myself.)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to engage with people who have done bad things, or who are currently doing things I think are bad (like shaming their lesbian daughters). It wouldn’t have been right to throw my sex-positive ideas on the table while talking to Kay’s mom — mostly because Kay specifically asked me not to, ahead of time. But. The most powerful tool for getting people to reconsider their stigma against alternative sexuality is personal engagement. Don’t I have some responsibility here? Is there something I can do?
Other examples of this are rife. One very intense, very important issue I grappled with this week was having a friend email me to inform me that another friend — someone I like and admire a lot — has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a person who will never press charges. This has come up before in my life … every time it’s a little different, and yet so many things are the same: a person is assaulted, the news gets out among friends, the survivor doesn’t press charges, there is confusion among the friends about how to act, eventually things die down, and I feel as though I should have done more.
When I was in high school, one of my closest male friends raped a female acquaintance of mine. She didn’t press charges and they later had a romance that was, to all appearances, consensual. I pieced events together slowly — he did acknowledge what he’d done, though never directly to me. I didn’t know what to do, at the time, and I still feel as though I should have done so much more. He and I were so close. I never had the nerve to directly talk to him about what happened, because — even though we never talked directly about it — I saw evidence that he felt terrible about it, and I was sure that I could devastate him by talking about it more. But still … I should have talked to him.
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.
Last week, I posted an interview with Tim Woodman, who’s a fetish porn director and an experienced BDSMer to boot. His interview raised fascinating questions of consent and industry standards within pornography, especially BDSM porn. Lots of people had questions and comments, so here’s a followup interview. Ladies and gentleman, once again … welcome Tim Woodman!
Clarisse Thorn: On the original interview, Alexa commented, “I agree wholeheartedly with the positions articulated on this in the interview, and I think it’s not going to stop unless some names get put out there in the public sphere so we can know who these assholes are. Tim can make these kinds of assertions all day long, but unless he attaches some names to it and calls them out, he’s not doing anyone a service and appears to be serving his own interests. Not that I doubt him at all (quite the opposite, in fact), but I’d like to know who they are so (A) I can avoid doing business with them, and (B) can let others know to avoid having anything to do with them, either as a consumer or potential talent.” What do you think?
Tim Woodman: Several responses to my previous interview asked me to ‘name names’ and call out the companies whose practices I disapprove of. Nothing would delight me more, but I was also pointedly reminded by an attorney friend just how much headache could be involved in a libel suit. I would likely win, but only after great expense.
I would, however, be very happy to recommend some companies whom I can vouch for personally as being conscientious and very good about respecting models’ limits and still producing quality content. The absolute best person I know in this industry is Lorelei, from bedroombondage.com – whatever your kink, whatever you want to search for, if you start at her page, you will only find links to high-quality companies run by good people.
by Yana Buhrer Tavanier in Skopje, Demir Hisar, Demir Kapija, Negorci and Negotino
Time stands still in residential institutions for adults with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems in Macedonia where the lack of care, abuse, filth and neglect are all miserably present.
This is the outcome of a months long journalistic investigation, conducted mostly undercover in all institutions for adults with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in Macedonia.
It’s not just the striking lack of care, the human rights abuses, the inhuman and degrading treatment, the stench, the filth. One of the fundamental things an institution does to you is to rob you of your identity, to erase who you are, to deprive you of substance, to crush you and leave you a hollow shell, to take away your face and replace it with a mask, the same one worn by everyone around you. Even worse, institutions also make the concept of time cease to exist. A permanent hell. Humans, null and void.
I met Tim Woodman and his partner this past weekend at an S&M party. Tim — whose business cards style him a Professional Villain — produces and stars in porn, so we had an interesting conversation about consent and porn practices. Porn has never been my thing, though I emphatically oppose censoring it. I’ve worked with and made friends with many sex workers, and sex workers’ rights are very important to me. And, of course, I’m an S&M activist who believes that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM (or any other kind of sex) as long as it’s 100% consensual — that BDSM deserves wider acceptance as a form of sexuality.
So it makes me sad when I hear stories and rumors about the fetish porn industry that imply that some actresses did not fully consent to the porn shoots they did. And I think that it’s important for porn consumers to push for responsible practices from the companies producing the movies they watch. It can be hard to tell whether a given company has responsible practices, though. I know that some porn companies have their actresses give interviews after the shoot, in which the actresses talk about what they experienced during the porn shoot. This seems like a step in the right direction to me, but Tim says some of those interviews are fake, which breaks my heart. It’s the kind of allegation I wouldn’t trust from an anti-porn idealogue, but Tim has real knowledge and contacts in the business — and he’s not pro-censorship — so he’s got a better perspective.
After listening to some of Tim’s thoughts, I asked him to do an interview with me. And here we are:
Clarisse Thorn: Can you introduce yourself to my readers, and describe some of your feelings about working in the fetish porn industry?
Tim Woodman: As a self-defined “Professional Villain”, my life is a paradox. I produce fetish porn videos depicting rape, torture, and sometimes murder, but my career depends on my reputation within the industry as a good guy, whom women will enjoy working with and would be willing to work with again. Fortunately, I have been in the BDSM lifestyle even longer than I’ve been in the industry, and I already know the rules. If you want to play in the BDSM scene, you can’t break your toys!
The rules about BDSM porn are not different from the rules about BDSM in the real world. Consent is never implied, and can always be withdrawn. Negotiation is critical, and must be done thoroughly beforehand.
Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.
One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.
Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)
The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.