Defending my irresponsible, abusive, gender-stereotypical coming-out story

Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

I try to think seriously about about all comments on my work, but I usually just brush off the snide ones. Every once in a while, though, one arrows through and hits me where I’m vulnerable and shakes my confidence, and if it’s nastily phrased, then it hurts all the more. Seeps into me like poison.

Yep, this is another post about my S&M coming-out story, published in February by “Time Out Chicago”. (I’ve received some questions about when I’m going to start officially blogging for “Time Out” — the answer is that we’re still negotiating the terms of my blogging contract and I’m not sure when we’ll be done. I think we both really want this professional blogging gig to happen, so I’m confident that we’ll work it out, but it might take a while.)

Here’s a brief one-paragraph synopsis: my coming-out story talks about how I got drunk with a man named Richard at a party when I was 20; he started hurting me intensely; and I really got into it. I’d known a little bit about the existence of BDSM for a while — had experimented with light BDSM before, in fact — but this experience was much more intense, and in particular led me to the realization that I needed very dark and tearful masochistic encounters. As an independent, rational feminist, it was difficult for me to come to terms with my desires. It didn’t help that Richard and I weren’t well-suited romantically, although we were well-suited on an S&M level. Adjusting took a long time; but after seeing a Kink Aware therapist, coming out to my parents, exploring BDSM on my own terms, and having BDSM relationships with non-Richard men who suited me better romantically, I feel pretty much at peace with my BDSM identity.

I’ve gotten some great feedback on my coming-out story — primarily from submissive women who thanked me for articulating their experience. But here’s the comment that’s been upsetting me, from “emily”:

it’s great when people can come out, even under a pseudonym. but i have to say i have some real problems with the way the author has portrayed her “awakening.” should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? the presentation, not the content, of this story is irresponsible and reproduces stereotypical gender roles. is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? that’s the message i’m getting, whether or not it was intended

In a later comment, she adds:

whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why. i don’t have any problem with your experiences, as i said. i have a problem with the way you’ve presented these ideas without thinking what they might mean in another context. just tacking on your personal bit about feminism isn’t enough. how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues? as a submissive feminist myself, i have no problem with your lifestyle or how you conduct your affairs, and i dont care whether or not you’re a switch. i DO care about women (and men) who get into abusive situations that start out as “safe, sane, and consenual” bdsm play. i take this personally. it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ll do it in sections.

I. “Irresponsible”

Writing my coming-out story induced a lot of anxiety — not just because I was coming to terms with myself in the process, but also because I worried constantly about how readers might take it. Obviously, there’s always the saying “if you can’t please everyone then you might as well please yourself,” but with this … I guess I felt like there was a lot more than “pleasing everyone” at stake. It felt important to portray my experiences as accurately as possible — to write the experiences as close to how I felt them as possible — and yet I wondered how to angle them, too. Because what if a closeted BDSMer, new to everything, finds this and it’s their first exposure to the wider community? (Or what if an anti-BDSMer comes upon it looking for ways to use it as anti-BDSM ammunition?)

For instance, 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.

So the “irresponsible” charge, the charge of “not thinking about what [these experiences] might mean”, just kills me. It brings out something I feared so much, and maybe that I did not succeed in evading.

II. “Assuring them that they can ‘tell’”

should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? … is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? … whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why.

As it happens, I do think that the discovery of one’s sexuality is partly dependent on relationships. Relationships often define what sexuality you can enact, what sexuality you can emotionally access, and often what kind of sexuality you know about in the first place. This is a topic I plan to expand on some other time; for now I’ll just quote the brilliant Pat Califia: People’s ability to understand their own emotional and physical experiences and sensations is limited by what is safe to ask or know, what systems of interpretation they have received for screening that raw material, and whether they find it possible to connect with anyone who thinks differently about these matters.

But I think that’s a bit of a different topic from whether some BDSMers can “tell” that others are into it (or whether that’s gendered, as emily implies when she writes about women not knowing they’re submissive until a man figures it out). I’ve thought about this a lot — in fact, one of my first posts here, way back in 2008, was titled “BDSM-dar” (like gaydar, but for BDSM!). Here’s a quotation:

When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years. Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.

Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.

I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.

I don’t feel very confident asserting that BDSM-dar exists; I feel like I’ve seen it in action, but that could just be bias and superstition on my part. I think it’s reasonable to assert that some BDSMers can find each other by tacit means, whether it’s by a mystical “dar”, interpreting body language, dropping subtle spoken hints, whatever. I don’t think that’s the same thing as asserting (as emily accuses) that dominant men should “coax” women into submission.

Personally, I initially found Richard’s SM-dar claims to be an arrogant turnoff; they didn’t coax me at all, and I wonder if they’d coax anyone. What seduced me was how he flirted with me, then pulled my hair, then sank his teeth into my skin — not his later spoken assertions that he could tell all along. In my experience, sexual evolution happens best in a low-pressure environment in which options are offered freely, rather than one in which someone else is making assertions about what you should want (well, unless we’re talking about a consensual power exchange scenario …).

But I guess emily is less concerned with the actual verbal statement of “I can tell,” and more concerned that I’m encouraging people to “put the option out there” aggressively, if they think a potential partner might be interested in BDSM. And … I suppose that I am, at that. I’m not sure that’s dangerous, though, as long as the initiator will pull back if they meet resistance or suspect that their partner isn’t totally comfortable — in fact, in my coming-out story, I give two examples of Richard doing just that.

III. “Stereotypical gender roles”

emily starts getting into this topic above, as well as when she says that my “irresponsible” piece “reinforces stereotypical gender roles”. This is the accusation that I take least seriously, but I thought it was worth taking on because it reflects a typical radical feminist argument — that submissive women ought not to express our desires, or at the very least ought not to talk about them, because that fits into The Patriarchy and is therefore dangerous. (As a matter of fact, I personally identify as a switch, which means I sometimes take the dominant role. Which kinda throws a wrench in the typical radical feminist accusation that I’ve simply got Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome. But this is getting tangential.)

The most awful part about this argument is that it functions mainly to silence women — which is not a feminist thing to do. What space are we allowed to occupy if our sexual desires force us, by definition, into reinforcing stereotypical gender roles? The logical conclusion appears to be that, in order to Fight The Power, we’re obligated to make ourselves disappear.

emily seems to make a more nuanced claim — that she doesn’t care specifically about what I do; that the “presentation” of my story is the irresponsible part, not the “content”. She asks, “how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues?” But I’m not actually sure how my story could better have worked to change the status quo. I don’t represent myself as normative (do I?), and I give an example of a relationship that ultimately split up partly because my BDSM desires are so non-normative — were so much more hardcore than my boyfriend’s. If her fear is that people might generalize from my case to All Women, then I don’t see how that’s supported by what I wrote.

More importantly, although I’ll accept the criticism that I may have failed to adequately express feminist analysis with my story (much as it wounds me to the core!), I would never agree that submissive women are required to make every exegesis of their desires into a theoretical deconstruction of gender oppression. Because, again, telling submissive women that we ought to express our desires in One True Way borders on — can even function as — silencing us.

IV. “Abusive situations”

Finally, emily says she’s concerned about people who get into abusive situations that “start out as ‘safe, sane and consensual’ BDSM play”. I can only say that I did my best to represent how very non-abusive my experiences were. I noted that I never asked Richard to stop; I noted that he stopped on his own, more than once, when he felt that I wasn’t reacting in a way that made him feel safe as a dominant. In various places, the piece also links to Kink Aware Professionals, which includes BDSM-friendly doctors and therapists, and the Chicago Pansexual BDSM Calendar, which would enable anyone to enter the Chicago community and start getting tips on how to have consensual, well-informed, well-supported BDSM relationships.

How could what I wrote encourage abusive BDSM? Could I have represented it better?

V. Really?

it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

“Shouldn’t have left your friend circle”? Who is this girl, and is she dating one of my exes?

Yeah okay, I couldn’t resist. But the rest of my questions are serious!

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12 Responses to Defending my irresponsible, abusive, gender-stereotypical coming-out story

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    Irresponsible?

    You are responsible to the truth and to yourself. You are no more responsible for how people use the truth you tell than a gun manufacturer who follows the law is responsible for how a gun is used by it’s retail purchaser. People are responsible for their own actions and for analyzing and understanding the possible consequences. If something happens that they did not anticipate, that’s their responsibility and problem, not yours.

  2. 2
    Viola says:

    I’m always suprised by people who blithely inform kinksters about the possibly problematic aspects of their sexuality and how they live it out. Do they think we don’t think about this stuff? Do they think we’ve somehow never noticed the conflict between what’s hot in the bedroom and what’s immoral the rest of the time? The cognitive dissonance between what your conscience and your libido are saying is hard to overlook.

  3. 3
    Sebastian says:

    “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”

    Both sentences are true. And at some point it would be great if our society were a lot better at differentiating between the two.

    Some people definitely use alcohol to rape. But lots of people use it in their normal consensual routine. Being able to properly discern the difference is crucial in being able to talk about how alcohol really functions. I don’t envy the feminist who tries to tackle the issue, but I don’t think the tendency to go toward “all alcohol-related sex is rape” direction is helpful either.

    Which brings us to BDSM. I’ve been in and around and often of the community for years, and I’m still sometimes torn by some of the boundary issues. Like right now, I’m friends with a submissive who I’m about 90% sure is in an abusive relationship. But the Dominant talks a good talk to others in the scene and it drives me nuts. I’m in an interesting place because many of the people I talk to who see it say “oh its just their scene” while the few vanilla people I confide in about such things seem to think it just validates all their worries about BDSM. Ugh.

  4. 4
    Elusis says:

    Viola – I’ve definitely met kinksters (and for that matter poly people) who are very interested in talking about the political implications of their sexual practices. But I’ve also met many who aren’t, who deny that those implications exist, who get very defensive and angry when you try to talk about them, and who meet every attempt to bring up such implications with accusations of being a prude or trying to enforce conformity on them. It doesn’t justify treating all kinky and poly people in a condescending fashion that implies they just haven’t thought things through, but many are not open to even considering questions like the gender issues that are invoked by BDSM or multiple sex partners.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    many are not open to even considering questions like the gender issues that are invoked by BDSM or multiple sex partners.

    Do you find most people are open to considering questions like the gender issues invoked by the sexuality they practice, or by monogamy?

    (Personally, I find the historical implications of monogamy very disturbing, which is why my husband and I have a sort of technically open marriage, even though we’re both pretty monogamously inclined, so we may never actually effect that openness.)

  6. Clarisse,

    I read the original article earlier today and, for what it’s worth–especially since emily says she is critiquing your writing (your presentation) rather than your content–I think, at least based on the excerpts you have given of her comments (I did not bother to look for them), that she is misreading and projecting onto your essay, and also looking into it for, an agenda that isn’t there. There is a big difference between writing memoir–which is, in a slightly reductive sense, primarily about a writer giving meaning to her or his experience and which is what I think your piece is–and writing, say, a critical, theoretical (academic?) analysis of BDSM in an individual’s life and/or society. Not that memoir can’t be part of such an analysis, but the agenda of memoir as memoir is not the same as the agenda of that kind of analysis, even when it includes memoir-ish writing.

    Drawing these kinds of boundaries between genres of writing is always tricky and I am not trying to suggest that your piece is not at all analytical/critical/theoretical, but at no point did I feel like you as the writer failed to take responsibility, or tried to avoid accountability, for what you were saying. Of course, I might have missed something, but my point is that nothing about your essay struck as self-indulgent in the way that emily characterizes it.

  7. 7
    Elusis says:

    Mandolin – as a feminist couple therapist, I have to say you have a fair point.

    Maybe it’s that BDSM and poly are both (allegedly) so firmly attached to a platform of “communicate, communicate, communicate” that when the road blocks go up, it is more jarring? And the “la la la la I’m not listening” is louder, and has more of a tendency to turn into an attack on the person bringing up the point?

    I’m just asking myself: why have I found it more upsetting when I have seen, for example, a guy with thinly-veiled entitlement issues use BDSM or poly as a front for his abusive and controlling ways (and when the people around him refuse to acknowledge that’s what’s going on) than when I see a similar dynamic in a vanilla/monogamous relationship??

  8. 8
    Myca says:

    It doesn’t justify treating all kinky and poly people in a condescending fashion that implies they just haven’t thought things through, but many are not open to even considering questions like the gender issues that are invoked by BDSM or multiple sex partners.

    Sure, I think that’s true … in the same way that a lot of straight, vanilla, monogamous folks don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing their preferences either. There is a certain, “hey, I like what I like, leave me alone,” impulse in most people, I think. I don’t want to spend time justifying in detail my taste for blueberry muffins to anyone who feels like challenging me … and when you’re kinky/gay or bi/poly you get challenged a hell of a lot more than you do over breakfast pastries.

    Where it gets tricky is that it really is worthwhile to examine this stuff, it’s just frustrating when kinky folks get told “EXAMINE YOUR PREFERENCES” a thousand times for every time anyone suggests vanilla folk ought to do the same.

    And of course, the (usually) unstated implication is that if you examine your kinkiness/poly tendencies and find the political implications unpleasant, you should stop indulging them … and once again, just about nobody is telling vanilla people that they must stop being vanilla, because the political implications are just too negative.

    —Myca

  9. 9
    Jake Squid says:

    Everything that Myca says I agree with. I would only add that a person isn’t actually capable/ready to examine their preferences and the impact of those preferences at all times in their life. Some people are never ready. It’s a difficult thing to do to examine something about yourself that has been that way for as long as you can remember.

    What Richard said about the writing in the original piece was the way that it appeared to me, too.

  10. 10
    Clarisse Thorn says:

    @Richard — Of course, I might have missed something, but my point is that nothing about your essay struck as self-indulgent in the way that emily characterizes it.

    Thanks.

    @Elusis — why have I found it more upsetting when I have seen, for example, a guy with thinly-veiled entitlement issues use BDSM or poly as a front for his abusive and controlling ways (and when the people around him refuse to acknowledge that’s what’s going on) than when I see a similar dynamic in a vanilla/monogamous relationship??

    Maybe just because you identify more strongly with kink and/or poly, and maybe even because you think of kink and poly as avenues out of those kinds of dynamics? I’m speculating based on my own experience — I have a similar reaction, and I think that’s why.

    One of my favorite Thomas Millar (of Yes Means Yes fame) posts ever ever ever is called No Chosen People, in which he calls out the occasional BDSM community idea that We’re Just Better At These Things, Period. I’m a huge advocate for the idea that kink/poly/etc provide ideas about how to have more consensual and less entitled relationships, and I often argue that the related communities have better dynamics along those lines, but it can get dangerous to be too married to the idea that We’re Better At These Things.

  11. 11
    Elusis says:

    Clarisse – thinking about it more, it may be because often the entitled kinky/poly dude is *saying* “look how enlightened I am, look how much more openminded I am, isn’t it a shame that other people aren’t as advanced in their appreciation of sexual possibilities as I am” but what he’s actually *doing* is using his lifestyle as a beard for his desire to abuse and control women, or collect all the vaginas for himself. And then any criticism is met with a deflection of “well you just aren’t as enlightened as me, poor you.”

    At least the abusive or controlling guy in a vanilla or mono relationship has the weight of a bunch of privilege-obscuring, numbness-inducing cultural conditioning as an excuse, and generally isn’t touting his superior ability to escape the dull, unexamined life.

  12. 12
    hDcands says:

    Clarisse, thank you for making your story public. i found it very interesting.

    i think “emily” is off-base. It’s a thin line between telling someone your impression of their writing, and dictating how someone should write. i think emily is over the line. One of the tell-tales is that she says (emphasis added)

    you implied that some women won’t know…

    She labels you the problem, rather than assuming ownership of her own inferences. And of her concern that others less wise and discerning than she will draw the same inferences.

    it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

    Um, yeah. There’s a LOT of content on the Internet which should not leave people’s friend circles. It’s not much of a critique.

    And i didn’t see any place where you got self-righteous. She did, though.

    i drew from your writing that you were trying to explore, in a deliberate, thoughtful, nuanced way, your own BDSM history.