It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
For today’s interview, I talked to badass activist Clarisse Thorn. Clarisse writes at her own blog, ClarisseThorn.com, about feminism, BDSM/kink and non-monogamy, among other topics. She has blogged for Time Out Chicago, is a regular contributor to Feministe, and has recently started editing the Sex + Relationship section at Role/Reboot. She’s also done a bunch of other awesome stuff, but I’ll let her tell you herself! Without further ado, here’s Clarisse!
You’re doing a lot of diverse work: most prominently, you’re a writer for your personal blog that mostly deals with BDSM and kink, you do in-person workshops, you’re a certified sex-educator, and you’ve done activism work in Africa. How did you come to each of these jobs? Do you see a common theme that sums up all of your work?
First off, let me correct a misconception here — I’m not a “certified” sex educator. The closest a person can get to being a “certified sex educator” is to be a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). But sex education is actually a fairly unregulated field, because sexuality is so stigmatized; our society simply doesn’t value sex education as an important profession. AASECT, while an important body, has a surprisingly small amount of pull because sex education is such culturally fragmented and contested territory.
I’ve only heard good things about AASECT. But for a number of reasons it hasn’t been possible for me to meet the necessary conditions to join AASECT. And it also hasn’t been necessary for me to be in AASECT to do the work I want to do. So, while many of my friends are in AASECT, I am not currently in it myself.
This leads me to the fact that the vast majority of people who work in sexuality or sex ed end up doing it in a kind of “starving artist” way. Either we have a totally different job that’s our “day job” and we do sex ed on the side; or we have tangentially relevant “day job” that allows us to occasionally work on issues of sexuality (for example, therapy or academia); or we have our fingers in a lot of pies and patch together a living from different outside-the-box, badly-paid activities. (My friend Sarah Sloane, who’s worked in a number of sexuality-related professions, once wrote a wonderful Letter to a Sex Educator that I always recommend when people ask me how to get into the field.)
I’ve always had a compelling interest in sex and gender. But the way I started as an educator was that I was struggling to understand my BDSM identity, and one of the ways I dealt with that was to start writing my blog. The original tagline for my blog was “BDSM Outreach”, because I knew that I wanted to destigmatize BDSM so that other people wouldn’t have to go through the kind of anxiety and self-hatred that I did. Around the same time I started my blog (late 2008), I was hanging out with a friend who works at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum — a historic feminist site — and we came up with the idea of Sex+++, a public documentary film series about sexuality. I’m proud and happy to report that the film series was a huge success and continues to this day… somewhat to my surprise!
Both running the film series and writing my blog contributed to a fast and furious self-education. Pretty soon, I started volunteering at the Leather Archives & Museum the world’s awesomest (and I think only) S&M museum, which happens to be located on Chicago’s north side. I designed an overview presentation on BDSM that was intended for audiences who knew nothing about it, and I started looking for places to present that. During that process, some venues asked me to design workshops on other topics such as sexual communication. It all came together in this incredibly organic way; as I came upon more and more opportunities, I learned how to keep an eye out for them or even actively seek them.
Africa was weirdly coincidental. I have wanted to do international development work for years, way longer than I’ve understood my sexual identity. I could have been pointed in a number of different directions, but I ended up getting sent to do HIV/AIDS mitigation. Which was actually 100% perfect for me, because working on HIV/AIDS is a whole nother education about sexuality. (Public health is one of those “day jobs” that people who are really interested in sexuality will sometimes take because it allows us to do what we love some of the time.) I was working in sub-Saharan Africa for about a year, and I learned an amazing amount. But I felt really disconnected from the communities that are important to me, and I also ultimately concluded that I was more valuable to the issues I cared about when I lived in the USA.
Over the years of writing, I changed my blog tagline from “BDSM Outreach” to “Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism”. This arose from my growing understanding that all forms of sexuality are culturally intertwined, and that those of us who work towards the acceptance of one type of consensual sexuality ought to seek allies among other sex-related identities and subcultures. As I learned more about feminism, feminist sexuality, and began to understand how thoroughly feminism is under attack, I also decided to front-and-center myself as a feminist and find ways to work on more “traditional” feminist issues. I’ve focused more directly on feminism in recent years, both online and in real life. For instance, one thing I did in 2011 was get certified as a rape crisis counselor and volunteer in that capacity.
The Line: You’ve written extensively about Sex Positivism. Where do you see the role of sex positivism in feminism today? In your own work?
I’ll start by saying that I think it’s a good thing that feminists have historically questioned and debated sex. This is good! But it gets out of hand when people start telling each other that consensual sex is “bad” or “wrong”. I like to direct people to this amazing article by Susie Bright, a pioneering sex-positive feminist.
It was written when Andrea Dworkin died; Dworkin was a famous feminist activist who had a real problem with sex-positive feminism. I’ve heard that Dworkin did some things that I think are really wrong, such as publicly revealing the sexuality of certain sex-positive feminists in ways that she knew would damage their reputations, lose them their jobs, etc. Susie Bright has written a lot against Dworkin, and yet when Dworkin died, Bright felt a sense of loss because of the incredible contributions Dworkin had made to feminism. Bright felt as though she and her opinions could never have existed without Dworkin, and she stated as much.
I think that sex-positive feminism has become, in a way, mainstream feminism. Although I think a lot of feminists my age have emotional difficulty reconciling some types of consensual sexuality with feminism — see, for example, my own S&M coming-out story — I have the strong impression that most of us see it as a priority to do so. Admittedly, I’m biased, but on the other hand I often see sex and sexuality front-and-center in feminist media.
My fear is actually that important old-school feminist insights might get lost in the scuffle. Again, even Susie Bright said someone like her couldn’t have existed without Andrea Dworkin. And for example, I don’t agree with most anti-porn feminists, but I don’t think porn gets a free pass from feminist analysis, either.
I’m really excited about the feminist initiatives that have emerged in recent years that try to meld sex-positive ideas with important “classic” feminist activism like anti-rape activism. The 2009 book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape is an important and groundbreaking example of this. I’m also really into the recently-formed Chicago group Sexuality Health Education to End Rape (SHEER). I’ve tried to do a bit of this in my sex-positive film series, too. Where, as it happens, we screened “The Line” just a couple months ago — which I also think is an important example of this work. For example, although “The Line” is a film about Nancy’s experience with sexual assault, there’s also a part where Nancy goes to talk to some sex workers about how they set boundaries and understand bodily integrity.
If anyone’s interested, I’ve attempted to write my own version of Sex-Positive Feminist 101. Also, a student recently emailed me a bunch of basic questions about sex-positive feminism that I then republished in interview form.
Your main theme in your blog is BDSM and kink, and you have had some negative reactions to your writing on those topics. How do you integrate your feminism with these topics? How do you feel about the idea that submissive sexuality is problematic from a feminist standpoint?
To be blunt, I think most of the ideas that BDSM is problematic are born out of sexual stigma and fear. Some people who practice BDSM see BDSM as a sexual orientation; others see it as just another way of understanding or interacting with our bodies. It’s true that sometimes, questions of sexual consent can become complicated when we talk about BDSM. But questions of sexual consent can also become complicated when we talk about other sexuality-related topics such as sex work or asexuality. Ignoring these topics, or saying that they’re terrible, won’t make them go away. Sexuality is more complicated, persistent, and powerful than that. When we stigmatize consensual forms of sexuality, we just drive them underground and make people feel awful about themselves. And for what? We prevent people of all genders from enjoying enthusiastic sex with consenting partners. I cannot accept that as a feminist act.
Also — as a result of these complexities, BDSMers have a lot of really interesting and obsessive conversations about consent — just like feminists! I try to bring those conversations into feminism whenever I can. One of the best things I ever wrote was actually co-written with another feminist BDSMer, Thomas MacAulay Millar (whose writing was published in Yes Means Yes, the book I mentioned earlier). It’s a post about safewords, consent, and sexual communication.
I don’t think the BDSM community is a perfect ideal place. There are messed-up aspects of the community, and I’ve written about some of them. I think a lot about abusive BDSM relationships and what can be done about them, for example. It’s not like abuse doesn’t happen in the BDSM community; abuse happens in all communities.
I can feel my tone becoming defensive when I write about this. It’s a very personal topic for me because it took me a long time to deal with my own internalized shame around my sexual identity. I don’t want to dismiss the opinions of other feminists out of hand. But the plain fact is that I now have years and years of experience practicing BDSM in a joyful, consensual way. I’ve learned so much about myself, about gender, about sexuality from the BDSM community and from my own BDSM experiences. I want to share those insights with feminism! I want to integrate them into feminism!
Many, if not all, of your posts are intensely personal. Do you draw any lines in what to reveal and what not to reveal? Is the personal always political do you, or are there things that you do not share, and why?
I anonymize everything. If I think the chances are too high that certain information will reveal my identity (or that of one of my partners), then I don’t write about it. Even though everything is anonymized, I also try to be careful about my partners’ boundaries, especially since I might come out of the closet someday. It’s tricky, because my sexual experiences don’t just belong to my partners, they belong to me too and it’s important to me to write about them. But I don’t want to hurt anyone, and sex in particular is such a personal thing. I try to work with my partners to understand what they don’t want revealed.
Sometimes I’ll publish something that involves someone without running it past him first. I will do this in the following circumstances: (1) If I made a reasonable effort to get in touch with him, but can’t. (2) If whatever I’m writing about is public knowledge among our social circles. (3) If I’m reasonably sure that whatever I’m writing about him is totally not identifiable, or so vague that it wouldn’t reveal anything if he were identified, or if it happened so long ago that it’s water under the bridge. (4) If he’s a long-term partner who has given me blanket consent to write whatever I want. Actually, a lot of my partners do this before I ask whether I can write about them — they’ll be like, “By the way, you can write whatever you want about me.” It’s funny. But even then, I’ll usually run the first piece or two past him, just in case.
I’ve heard a saying that “Writers are assassins.” The idea being that when you write so personally, you’re bound to do harm, or to give a certain shape to people’s reality that changes their self-conception. In some ways that’s true, and I think in some ways there’s no getting around it, but I really try to mitigate the effect.
There are things I don’t share. Some, because I’m still processing and it will be a long time before I can write about them. Some because … I just won’t. Sometimes it’s a big thing, but sometimes it’s small, or it seems small to others. I remember once I was in bed with one partner, and I was telling him about a BDSM encounter I had with someone else. I mentioned that I’d created a new name for my other partner to call me during BDSM encounters. So this guy I was in bed with, he asked, “What was the name?” And I said I wouldn’t tell him and tried to change the subject, but he wouldn’t let me. He was like, being playful, saying c’mon c’mon — and I was like, “No, it’s too personal.” I remember he was surprised by that, but then he said, “Wow, I’m glad to know that I’ve got your confidence on really personal things.” And I said, “You’ll always have my confidence.”
What blogs do you follow? Do you have any new projects in the pipelines that you would like to tell us about?
It’s really important to me to try and bring together different voices, to publicize excellent work that isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and to put excellent work that’s well-known to certain gender-related or sex-related audiences in front of new audiences. This is especially relevant because I was just recently hired as the new Sex + Relationships editor at the gender-focused website Role/Reboot. I want to use this position well, and I want to branch out from my comfort zone and my usual circles, so I’m doing my best to earmark time specifically for seeking good and interesting material across the Internet. This is harder than it sounds. Hey writers, if you think you’ve got something cool to say about this, then you should totally email me about it — I’m available at clarisse at rolereboot dot org.
I’m so behind on reading blogs. I have so much going on that I just can’t keep up with everything in my Google Reader. I grab stuff off Twitter sometimes. I get a lot of stuff through various email services and listhosts, too. I’m so overwhelmed with media, but at the same time it’s really important that I have an idea of what’s out there ….
My biggest upcoming project is that I’m completing an eBook on the “seduction community” or “pickup artist subculture” Now that is a whole nother thing, but I’ll try to summarize it quickly. It’s a subculture devoted to figuring out how to seduce women. I’ve spent a couple years on-and-off talking to pickup artists, learning their techniques, and eventually even giving them (feminist) tips on how to interact with women. I ultimately decided that the subculture was too much of a mess for me to participate — it was just too damaging and problematic — but it’s fascinating too, and I learned a lot. My upcoming eBook is titled Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men and it is going to be super awesome. I just published a three-part article on the Good Men Project about it, actually: here’s Part 1, here’s Part 2 and here’s Part 3.
Thanks again for this interview opportunity. I appreciate it! Sorry it went so long! I love “The Line” and your questions were so thorough — they were too much fun to answer. Anyone who wants to keep track of my work can visit clarissethorn.com or follow me on Twitter @clarissethorn.
Thank YOU, Clarisse!