Fear, Loathing, and S&M Sluthood in San Francisco
The following meditation on anxiety about “sluthood” first appeared in December 2010 on the women’s site Off Our Chests. It was written by Clarisse Thorn, a Chicago-based sex-positive feminist activist. She’s reposting it here today because San Francisco loves her and she loves it.
Since I was small, I’ve loved the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night”. I loved the cypresses in particular: winding spiral trees, hallucination trees. They were so unlike other trees I’d seen that I thought Van Gogh made them up, and so when I first saw cypresses years later, I was stunned: the hallucination trees had been imported into my world. I’d like to think that my world turned a little bit sideways forever, when I first saw cypresses, but I’m probably being melodramatic. (I’m good at that.)
San Francisco has cypresses, and a lot of other hallucinations, too. The city is full of angles, vantages, transitions, unceasing changing views: it feels, at times, like an unsolvable puzzle. A forested path leads darkly under a bridge, suddenly opens upon a manicured lawn with a white lace conservatory. A cement staircase rises through a narrow outlet, resolving itself step by step into a slice of brightly painted Victorian faÃ§ade. I walked once with a friend alongside an ocean road, pacing through thick fog, and arrived at a dirt path that I insisted on following; thirty seconds later we stumbled upon extraordinary ruins.
San Francisco. Halcyon city, heartbreak city. Cypress city. The place I come to recover from being torn apart and, it seems, sometimes the place where I get torn apart again. This is okay with me, because nothing is more fun than overanalyzing strong emotions. I am not even kidding.
* * *
I returned from Africa recently; paused briefly in my adopted city of Chicago to collect my thoughts; and then went to the Burning Man Arts Festival, thence to San Francisco. This is my version of emotional decompression, and it worked! I feel much more centered now. But part of decompressing, for me, was specifically going out to a lot of dates and BDSM parties and pushing my own boundaries, which carries its own potential decompressable risks.
At the time of this story, it had been a couple of months in San Francisco, and I was leaving soon. I’d had an assortment of adventures, but there were two guys in particular who I was excited about. Not necessarily in a long-term way — I’m not in this for the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids (or at least, I’m not for a long while yet) — but definitely in a wow-I-have-to-control-myself-or-I’ll-come-off-as-kind-of-puppyish way. New Relationship Energy: it is such a mind trick, such a delicious head-trip. You are the perfect drug.
I had to control myself less when I first hooked up with The Artist: possibly the most postmodern individual I’ve ever met, possibly the most creative, who I’ve loosely been friends with for six whole years, and who has never ceased to fascinate me. It is hard for me to meet people who keep me thinking, but The Artist never disappoints. If anything, our problem was shifting a cerebral connection into a sexual one: the first time we made out, I absolutely had to interrupt the proceedings because I’d forgotten to tell him about this great sociology paper. It was okay to show how much I liked him because we’d known each other for so long, it was easier to read the situation, easier to allow investment. Much harder with Mr. ThereItIs, who came out of nowhere, who I barely knew but had awesome chemistry with. In the beginning steps of this game, you can never let them smell your fear.
Saturday morning. I’d spent the night with The Artist, was checking my email while he made breakfast. (He actually likes cooking, which I have trouble comprehending.) I wanted to plan my week, and texted Mr. ThereItIs to ask when we’d see each other. My breath hitched as he texted back: he didn’t think it’d be a good idea to spend the night together again, but he wanted to have drinks and catch up. I closed my eyes, made myself breathe. Remembered how many times he’d pulled back, how much anxiety he’d expressed about the BDSM we engaged in. I’d tried to make it clear that he was doing awesomely, but dollars to donuts he was still freaking out about it. I was his first-time heavy BDSM partner. Why do I keep doing this to myself? Haven’t I learned my lesson about vanilla-but-questioning guys yet?
After giving myself a moment to calm down, I texted back that I was open to getting drinks, but wanted to understand his motives better before doing so. “Feel free to email or text,” I wrote, “I can’t talk right now,” then put down my phone and walked into an intense conversation in the kitchen. There’d been some uncertainty over my last month or so with The Artist, due to surprisingly divergent relationship priorities. We’re decently matched in terms of being BDSM-identified, and we have so much else in common, but there were some things I wanted to do that particularly freaked him out, plus he wasn’t feeling 100% comfortable with polyamory. Most of all, I’ve been surprised by his emphasis on settling down.
That Saturday, it ended with him deciding it wouldn’t work. “You and I are in such different places right now,” he said gently. “You’re still focused on having an interesting life. I’m not prioritizing that anymore. I would have been a much better match for you five years ago.”
You’re one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, I wanted to say, how can you decide this? The night before, we’d had a conversation in which he’d described how incredibly stable he wants his life to be. Well-designed apartment, respected job, kids, the lot. How much he wants to get away from past days, when he thrived among bizarre subcultures, prioritized art above everything. He doesn’t even want to travel! I listened, heart sinking. Trying to understand. “Isn’t there anything you can’t walk away from?” I asked.
“S&M,” he said promptly. “But that bothers me, because I don’t know how I can make it fit.”
Stability; making things fit. Saturday at breakfast, The Artist mentioned that a friend had compared him to Alex, the main character in A Clockwork Orange: in the famous “lost” 21st chapter, Alex decides that it’s time to abandon ultraviolence and settle down. Obviously, The Artist was never even close to being the psychopath that Alex is, but it’s still an instructive parallel. And I, with all my desire to push and stretch myself, with all the boundaries I’m still seeking to subvert and hack and destroy — I don’t work with the desire to settle down. I may never work with that desire.
I understood. Of course I understood. I knew intellectually that it wasn’t about me, I knew it was just about the situations at hand, but of course it hurt anyway. Two awesome men, giving me the same message at once: This is too much, you’re too extreme. A matter of their boundaries. Not about me. Of course it hurt anyway.
“Is there anything else you want to add while we’re having this conversation?” I asked The Artist finally, as we wound things up.
He thought for a minute, took my hand. “Well, you’re wonderful and beautiful, but you know that.”
“Do I?” I asked, and made myself laugh to take the sting from my words.
* * *
Occasionally, my mother has tried to convince me that I am at emotional risk in part because of the fact that I am forward about my sexuality. Because — I think this is how the story goes, though she’s never explicitly articulated it — because it means that men will see me as a disposable toy; the hot edgy girl he likes but would never settle down with; the whore but not the Madonna. Cute enough to catch his attention and passionate enough that he’ll call her back but ultimately, not “the keeper”, not the girl he’d have any loyalty to in the end. I think my mom is afraid that I’ll stumble out the other end of this brilliant razor-edged fluorescent beautiful funhouse that is my “young and attractive” years, that I’ll come down like a girl falling through a distorted mirrored sheet of glass. That shards will burst everywhere and I’ll collapse, covered in metaphorical blood, and turn my eyes up to the harsh white stars and wonder how I let men use me and why.
This is the stereotype that I think she’s afraid of, on my behalf, the one that comes up on occasion when she comforts me through heartbreak. My mother is hardly a conservative slut-shamer, but she loves me and she wants to protect me, so she tells me this. And I’ll admit it — I fear it too, I feel those anxieties whispering behind me, thrumming through my veins during times like these. What did I mean to him? Did I matter, did I make an impression, does he give a damn? Would he be willing to Make A Commitment? He doesn’t care, God, I don’t matter, and I was just stupid because God forbid I allow myself to like or trust a man that I fuck, when everyone knows that men don’t ever have feelings for the women they fuck —
But actually those fears don’t make sense, do they — they don’t make any sense at all if I assume that men are complex humans who want to have relationships but aren’t always sure about it (much like myself), rather than sex-seeking-stereotype-activated-robots. The fears don’t make sense in the context of my own experience, which is full of friends and relatives and lovers who have been caring, self-aware, honest men. The fears don’t make sense given the fact that very often, I’m the one who prefers not to have a serious relationship right now, or who can only compromise up to a point.
And the fears especially don’t make any damn sense if we assume that I want to pursue my own goals, my own dreams, my own pleasures, my own sexuality on my own terms. If we assume that I have no intention of playing by the rules in a world that tells me women never have our own damn sexual needs; that it’s wrong or wicked or dirty for women to negotiate any sexual exchange for pleasure; that women are meant to trade sex for “commitment” or “support” (though, bizarrely, never outright for money). If we assume that I can get something great from sexual relationships without Being On The Path To Marriage. That I understand and honor my sexual desires, that those desires are worth fulfilling in themselves. And if we assume that men have something wonderful they could bring to the sexual exchange; that they aren’t always “using” or “exploiting” or “winning” some kind of sick war-of-the-sexes, every single time they fuck.
But even if the fears don’t make sense, sometimes they still come out and whisper at the back of my neck … I’m selling myself short. As if I should have bargained better, should have traded my sexuality for far more than “mere” pleasure with someone I “merely” liked, was “merely” attracted to, who “merely” respected my boundaries and “merely” was fun to hang out with. Would some people see it as ironic that I prefer relationships with real emotional heft, even when short-term or casual? Even with that said, though, there is no description of how reasonable, safe, or awesome my relationships are that will matter to our slut-shaming society — or to the fears it’s hammered into me. Society, whose judgment of whether a girl is a “slut” can be sudden and devastating, stupid and stereotypical; a lightning strike that lands based on absurd factors like how non-normative or straightforward or aware of her sexuality she is. And once I’m a “slut” — if I dare dance over that ever-shifting line — then I’m beyond the pale. The world always seems to be outdoing itself in finding new ways to tell me that once I’m a slut, no man will ever respect me again.
* * *
I went home. It was raining, all across my cypress city; raining so hard, I had to take the bus instead of walking. The rain struck me as an insultingly obvious metaphor, as did the fact that I was scheduled to attend a wedding that afternoon. It seemed strange that hallucinatory San Francisco would throw such tired tropes at me. (I should have trusted the city more. It was with me, still.)
I was sad. Not devastated. Just sad, and a little bit scared. I’m such a screwed-up perverted slut, no man will ever care about me. However, I’m an adult, so I tried to recognize my emotional baggage, give myself some time to process, then eat a proper lunch and get some work done.
I took a very dear, very blunt friend out to dinner recently. (Yes, I paid, and yes, he felt objectified.) Over Indian curries, I tried to explain my fears that All Men (who are of course a monolith) will pigeonhole me as “too much”, “too extreme”. A “slut”. Whatever. My friend listened, savoring his delicious lassi as he thought about what I was trying to say. Then he said, “Look, you shouldn’t worry about it. You’re extreme. You’re also tall. You couldn’t be un-tall for a man, and you can’t be un-extreme. There are men who will like you just fine for it, so just keep an eye out for those men.” I could detect the edge under his words: Come on, Clarisse, you’re the one who always says that People Are Different, why do I even have to tell you this? A fair point, but I can’t help it — stories like this still shake me.
As it happens, though, this story has a happy ending.
I was about to head out to the wedding when I received an email from Mr. ThereItIs:
So my txt was not really well-considered. I was delaying writing you because I’ve got mixed and confusing inclinations about all this and was hoping I could figure them out before writing. So I spent last night drinking too much and ranting with friends about unrelated topics, which surprise turned out to not have helped me figure my shit out at all.
I’m just feeling intimidated and uncertain about our kinkiness. On one hand I’ve been feeling “aaa this is weird, run away”. But I’m also feeling like this is fun and new and hot and fascinating, and I should get over my bs and try it again. So if you can forgive my impulsive txt and my erratic emotions …. I’m free on your free nights this week.
And if I’ve spooked you or your schedule has filled up, then I would be disappointed … but I’d understand. Sorry about the drama. I’m usually drama-free, I swear.
It was amazing how much further my internal anxieties resolved themselves upon receipt of this email: it was not only concrete evidence that men are human beings who are frequently just as confused as I am; not only concrete evidence that men are different from each other, and assumptions should not be made about how they’re feeling; but also, it was concrete evidence that a man (a vanilla-but-questioning man, no less!) might not inevitably fall into the stereotypes that feed my fears.
I was still a little bit spooked, of course, but I did indeed see Mr. ThereItIs later that week, and it turned out great. And as I was pulling myself together to leave his apartment, I raised my eyebrows at him. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again,” I said, fishing. I didn’t have any nights open before I was due to catch my plane out of the city, but maybe some other time ….
“You’ll see me again,” he obliged.
I zipped up my backpack. “I wonder why we have so much chemistry.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’ll read about it on your blog when you figure it out,” and he laughed and caught my wrists when I pretended to punch him. It was such a stupidly adorable moment that I am almost ashamed to write it down, but it was also such a cypress moment, I’ve got to mention it.
As for The Artist, we went to a charming museum a few days before I left, and had a fine old time. There was almost no tension at all. Right before we parted, we inevitably ended up discussing our brief romance, and the conversation was gloriously friendly. “No hard feelings,” I said as I walked him to the bus, and meant it.
I then tried to walk away from the bus, but it turned at the same corner I did and chased me down the street. Ack, I couldn’t help thinking, so much for a nice clean exit. I was suddenly possessed by ridiculous performance anxiety, knowing he could see me, so I paused and took a drag of a passing gentleman’s cigarette, and then deliberately zigzagged away from the bus again.
The Artist texted me fifteen seconds later: “That puff of a cigarette looked mighty tasty.”
“I needed it to relieve my feelings of being watched from the bus,” I texted back, then added impulsively, “Take care, handsome, and have lots of wonderful children.”
“You too,” he replied. “We’ll see if I become okay with poly first, or you gain these ‘adult’ preferences ….”
I shook my head and laughed over my phone, walked home with a spring in my step.
San Francisco had done what I needed it to do.
The writer would like to note that both The Artist and Mr. ThereItIs gave their consent for the publication of this piece.