20 Things You Can Take Away from “The S and M Feminist” Whether You’re Into S and M or Not

Clarisse Thorn is a heterosexual, sex-positive, extremely kinky feminist blogger with some amazing essays on loving pain and women’s rights at the same time. But that doesn’t mean you have to be exactly like Thorn (S&M-oriented, straight, etc) to learn some really amazing things about sex from her new book, “The S&M Feminist.” I read it and have proclaimed it A Staple. Here’s a list of things you can take away from this wonderful new book, no matter what kind of sex you’re having:

1. You can be a feminist and a masochist at the same time and it’s totes okay! So say you like getting slapped in the face and also equal pay. That’s totally cool!

2. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate with your partner, to learn your own way around your desires and to understand your partner’s sexual desires. Guess what. That’s totally cool! Sex doesn’t always have to be easy breezy. Sometimes it requires real work.

3. Sex education should tell people how to explore what they want, not just that they should explore, and that sex doesn’t look the same for everyone. Not all humans are turned on by the same things.

4. Communication fights rape and gives us all better sex. So even when it’s difficult, you should push through that shit and do it.

5. Safewords are a thing. You don’t have to be having kinky sex to enjoy the premise behind a safeword: the idea that any participant can stop the action at any time for any reason. Clarisse recommends (and I agree!) using a Red, Yellow, Green approach. Red for “halt immediately, let’s process these feelings,” yellow for “approaching my limits” and green for “FUCK YES!” She talks so much more about safewords and you should read about them because this is something everyone can adopt from the kink community, regardless of what kinds of things you’re doing in bed.

6. Check in with your partner during sex. Just be like, “Hey, everything going okay for you? Hitting the right spots? Giving you the right feels for what you want? Cool beans, carry on.” Except Ms. Thorn has a lot more theory behind why you should do that.

7. “Consent is always happening, and can always be negotiated or withdrawn.” Direct quote. The only thing that means you consented is consent.

8. The Sexual Inventory Checklist is crazy-useful. You can use this handy little guide to decide what your tastes are and discuss it with your sexy person.

9. “Gender is not a binary, and gender cannot be determined by a person’s outer appearance or behavior.” !

10. “Everyone fucks up sometimes.” No one has a perfect record of creating a totally, completely pressure free environment in bed. Amen, sister.

11. Porn is all good, as long as it’s ethically made.  Yup. This. Not all erotica and pornography are the same, and we are to be a) careful consumers, just as we are in every other area of our lives and b) free to explore! If you don’t like one thing, try another.

12. Sometimes you don’t have an orgasm. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. Orgasms aren’t the be-all-end-all of sex. Conversely, sometimes you orgasm and that doesn’t necessarily mean it was fun.

13. Exploring your sexuality doesn’t mean not having boundaries. You can still pay attention your warning bells and you aren’t necessarily inhibited just because you aren’t sleeping with 7 bajillion people. You can impose boundaries that make you happy and comfortable and still be sex-positive.

14. BDSM is not always abuse. On the other hand…

15. Abuse can happen no matter what kind of sex you’re having. Even in the kink community. Even if you’re having so-called “vanilla” sex. Even anywhere! So be vigilant and know the difference between a miscommunication (abusers may try to explain away their behavior with “miscommunication”) and abuse. Even one abusive relationship in a community is too many.

16. It’s okay not to have sex. You can go through a period of abstinence and still be sex-positive. Only you know what feels good for you right now.

17. THERE ARE VEGAN RECIPES IN THIS BOOK. And Thorn draws some interesting links between animal rights and believing whole-heartedly in consent that I have never heard before.

18. Cheating. Don’t do it. Cheating exists in all types of relationship models. And it means breaking an agreement you have with a partner. It exists even if you’re having sex with multiple partners.

19. Privilege exists everywhere. Even in bed. This idea crops up everywhere in her book; Thorn is constantly discussing privilege and how it relates to her experience. To illustrate her point, Thorn interviews a sex worker and has a conversation about her specific privileges (e.g. was always highly paid, came from a middle-class background, etc.).

20. Her writing is strong and beautiful.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 sideways forever, when I first saw cypresses, but I’m probably being a little melodramatic.

 This book is such a vast resource that you will undoubtably have a totally different list of 20 top takeaways. Have I mentioned how much I love what e-readers have done for sex education? Y’all, you can read this on the bus and no one will give you the stink eye. Sex it up! Buy it for your Kindle!

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


      • Yes, but sometimes on public transport it is a thing to not want to give random strange guys one more reason to start trying to talk to you. You do you.

        • True story. I just borrowed my gf’s copy of Whipping Girl, and I’ve been a bit discreet about reading it while riding the bus to and from work.

  1. Clarisse Thorn is at least 90% of the reason that I expect all writing about S&M to be sensitive, SJ-aware, and graceful. Which, this is the internet, so that’s not always the case, but at least with her writing it is. I’m a fan.

    I’m glad you highlighted her points about communication because she makes so many great ones, and she doesn’t shy away from discussing failure and its consequences–whether things worked out in the end or they didn’t.

  2. Thank you for this. I’m not particularly SM oriented, but it’s been sort of dismaying/disturbing to see SM (and other kink practices) getting slagged off on all the feminist tumblrs recently. Like, have we learned nothing from Gayle Rubin and Susie Bright? Nice to see women like Thorn carrying the torch.

  3. This book. I finished it a few weeks ago and still find myself randomly thinking about certain essays or points Thorn makes. I’m actually a little sad that I got the e-book version because I love it so much I want a physical copy to put on my bookshelves.

  4. :) Thank you sooo much for this lovely review!!

    FYI everyone, you CAN buy the book in paperback … it’s just that it’s ALSO available for Kindle. In fact, you can buy it in any e-format you want.

    Thanks again! And thanks for the comments!

  5. Yeah. Porn is never ok. Sorry. As long as there’s “some porn that you think is ok” there will always be porn that is totally not ok. So is it ok to have one because you have the other?
    Do you really think all of those females in every porn are really feminists and excited about what they are doing?
    Even if it’s made by women for women, some man is still going to watch it and get off.
    If you are a woman helping a man get off in an fashion, that’s ok?
    THAT certainly sounds like S&M to me, getting a man off would be the most vile thing I could do as a lesbian.
    But I guess I’m not a feminist. more of a womanist. Men are good for nothing.
    S&M? do women really want to get off hurting other women? I mean really? I cannot imagine every getting excited by hurting another woman. I don’t even like to see females boxing!
    However, passion is passion. What you do and what you enjoy as long as everyone is willing.
    But porn? Guess I don’t know about the other S&M things because it is totally not my gig, but porn is never ok.
    I mean really think about it.

    • Um, wow, there’s a lot in your comment that I disagree with. But I’ll start by saying: womanism. I do not think it means what you think it means.

      • AHAHAHAHA I was just about to comment the exact same thing about womanism.

        As for porn: I’ve done porn. (Not under this name but it’s not exactly hard to track me down.) I don’t care which gender gets off on it, more power to them if they find it hot. It’s not like I have to interact with them specifically. It was honestly one of the best, most respectful working conditions I’ve ever had. I get that not all – not much, even – porn setups are that good and I was really lucky, but then that goes for EVERY INDUSTRY EVER. No need to throw babies out with bathwater and all that.

    • Hahahahha! This is the funniest response I’ve ever read! Where do you come up with this comic gold?!

    • What about doing porn and getting off on porn because we enjoy that, and fuck what men think because everything we do in life shouldn’t be structured around how men will or will not react?

    • I can’t do something because a man might derive pleasure from it? Do you only mean sexual pleasure or any kind of pleasure? Does this mean I can’t make art that men might enjoy? Write books that men might read? What about erotic fiction that isn’t necessarily pornographic but is available for men to read and from which to possibly derive sexual pleasure? Can I not make a movie about women for women which a man nevertheless then watches and the enjoys?

    • “do women really want to get off hurting other women?”

      I should introduce you to my ex-domme sometime.

    • What if it’s gay porn with two guys? Or, say, anime hentai, yuri manga, or yaoi manga? Or if you watch television and fantasize about Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart or Alexis Bledel?

      Uh, not that any of that applies to me, of course. I’m asking for a friend, yeah. >.>

  6. Can’t wait to read this and then quote it in response to social-justice blogs on tumblr which make ill-informed claims about S&M and feminism.

  7. Btw, Autostraddle, there are anti-porn feminists still around. We exist. We don’t like having our position immediately discounted. We have evidence on our side. We are not crazy, and really hate the way that the lesbian community at large treats us. I think I am going to avoid this website from now on. I don’t enjoy being constantly told that my values and beliefs are inconsistent. Though I disagree with the above poster, I agree that porn is not okay. This is neither the place nor the time to get into why, but don’t dismiss my (perfectly valuable) opinion because you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture.

    • “because you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture.”

      you are 100% entitled to your opinion, and it’s valuable to discussion, of course. however, please choose your words carefully. telling someone how to enjoy their body, or not to enjoy their body, by associating their conduct with rape culture is a shitty way to shame people re: their sexuality and their bodies.

    • Okay, I had to think about a response for awhile because your feelings and opinions are something you’re entitled to, and I was totally with you until “because you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture.”
      First let me say that I don’t think this article was about porn at all. It was about knowing your boundaries and being comfortable with exploration. One small part suggested that as consumers we have an obligation to seek out or demand ethical porn that we’re comfortable watching. It never said you HAD to watch porn. I’m not a monster for watching porn, and you’re not better than me for not.
      I think it’s unfair to say porn perpetuates rape culture. I agree that there is a lot of horrible porn out there that is the opposite of empowering, but back to Ali’s point that there is ethical porn out there too, and if you agree with it, should be supported.
      Porn doesn’t support rape. That’s like saying if you’re willing to participate in sex you might get raped. A culture that doesn’t demand an open and honest discussion about sexuality, libido, and the complications of human emotions, creates space for assumptions and abuse of what sex should be and shouldn’t be.
      So I agree that you don’t have to watch porn, you can disagree with porn. But exploring your sexuality and yourself should not make people think it opens them up to be raped. That’s kinda messed up.

    • “This is neither the place nor the time to get into why, but don’t dismiss my (perfectly valuable) opinion because you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture.”

      Do you… hear yourself?

      1. Victim blaming. I don’t get to exist in a rape culture free vacuum, do you? I don’t see anyone saying that there aren’t legit criticisms about the way a good percentage of porn is done, but if you think folks on the receiving end of rape culture are to be blamed because they’re such horny sluts that they can’t just make people stop being rapey fucks, you’re wrong. You’re backwards and wrong and also repeating the same rape culture-y sexist crap you say you’re against and that makes me like hulk level fucking angry.

      2. Anti-porn feminism craps on a ton of women and other folk who do sex work for survival. It also craps on a ton of folks who do porn and sex work because they like it, or because they’re good at it and it’s a fine, interesting way to make a living. THAT’S why we don’t tend to like anti-porn feminists. Because instead of addressing structure-level problems (and that’s where 99% of the unawesome part of sex work originates from) you criticize the people who have the rules handed down to them. That’s bad feminism, and I really don’t care who decides to get in my ass over calling people shitty feminists. Because you are.

    • Oh, Mona. Mona Mona Mona. I was about to say that I although I don’t agree with the thesis that porn is not okay I can certainly respect those who do, and that it was the ludicrous stuff the poster above was saying that was creating the instant dismissal, not her disagreement with porn in itself.

      But then you had to throw in that last bit about “you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture” and it became clear you’re just another slut-shaming bastard, so fuck you.

  8. porn is popular because sex is popular. quality porn is rare. quality lesbian porn is unicorn rare.

    if porn is rape then both parties are getting used. men and women in porn are doing the same exact thing. fucking. their personal reasons have nothing to do with the viewer. legit, legal porn is consensual. it’s the only porn i watch.

  9. I feel like AS commenters have been especially derogatory towards radical feminists in the last month or two, and it’s very off-putting because, as a radical feminist, I still like to read things I disagree with and then talk about them to keep forming my ideas…if I just read radical hub I’d never grow and change. Calling people shitty feminists? Really? This kind of venom and mocking of other viewpoints is really uncool and makes me want to abandon this website forever, even after reading it for almost two years.

    • So is there no such thing as a shitty feminist at all then? I agree that it’s not nice to call names sometimes, especially when it’s undeserved or attacking someone unnecessarily, but sometimes calling someone a shitty feminist is just speaking truth.

      And I think a comment like “because you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture,” is pretty vile rhetoric. If we always politely respond to such harsh words, we keep getting controlled by those oppressing ideas. Sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire. Obviously, there are limits, but I think calling someone a “shitty feminist” is still not as bad as saying that someone is “participating in rape culture” for completely normal sexual practices.

      • But that’s the disagreement- radical feminists tend to believe that porn isn’t a completely normal sexual practice. Under that branch of feminist theory, porn inherently leads to the degradation of women, and though that’s not the fault of the women who participate in the sex work industry, it is something that I personally believe is a patriarchal, anti-feminist structure. Porn is a part of rape culture, in that mainstream porn normalizes non consent and treats women like objects. So, by participating in that, you would be participating in rape culture. (I’m not the one who made that comment, I’m just trying to clarify.)

        That being said, I don’t think you’re a shitty feminist, I think we just have divergent ideas. I don’t think my saying that the male-dominated porn industry (which isn’t queer feminist porn, I think liberal feminists often get wrapped up in their own world where all porn is like the crash pad) is wrong is an oppressive idea, unless you believe that everyone has the absolute right to watch any and everything and feel totally awesome.

        • I don’t normally comment here because I’m straight and I want to check my privilege, but this *is* a thread about my book, so ….

          From the SM perspective, it often feels like I actually *can’t* participate in radfem discussions because I am so unwelcome, even when I am trying to be friendly (I have tried leaving comments on I Blame The Patriarchy, for example, but they never appear on the site). I also wonder whether most rad-fems are aware of how hurtful it can be to be told that something as deep-rooted and personal as sexuality is a “betrayal against other women.” But this does happen on all sides, and it’s sad. There’s just so much vitriol being spoken by a few people and it poisons the conversation for everyone.

          Personally, I do try to engage with radical feminist critiques and ideas, and I did some of that in my book. In particular, I think it’s really important that feminist anti-rape activism and anti-abuse activism incorporate SM theory, because it will make both sets of ideas stronger. Here is an example of an article where I have done my best to work honestly with all sides of the issue: http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2012/06/16/sm-aftercare-or-brainwashing/

          (That article is also reprinted in THE S&M FEMINIST, as it happens.)

          • Thanks for the link Clarisse! I’ve read some of your articles before; even when I don’t agree, you do present very logical and straight-forward arguments. Always gives me lots to think about!

    • Hi. I feel like a lot of negative comments on Autostraddle in response to radfems are to do with the hateful, evil transphobia many radfems seem to positively delight in. Are you transphobic? Because if you are I don’t really care if you abandon us forever. And if not, then surely you can understand the problems many of us have with radfems who are.

      I’m not even going to start on the slut-shaming bullshit Mona posted above, but in my experience that’s not uncommon among radfems either, and equally just cause for negative commentary.

      Negative comments about radfems on AS do not appear out of a vacuum, and it’s disingenuous to pretend they do.

      • How is it slut-shaming to say that porn is not okay? That seems to be all she said…I don’t think women who participate in porn are sluts, I don’t think it’s possible for women to be sluts, however, I do think that the mainstream porn industry does exploit and abuse the women in it. My beef here is with the men who have created these structures, not the women who participate in it for one reason or another.

        Again, I think as queer women we tend to get caught up in our own world where much of our porn is women-centric and made by and for women – I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about mainstream, heterosexual pornography, which is what most radfems have a huge problem with.

        • Two things: 1) She said “you can’t control your libido enough to stop participating in rape culture”. That is some slut-shaming bullshit in black and white. In a one-paragraph comment, how did you miss it? And unfortunately it’s rare to see an anti-porn viewpoint that doesn’t disintegrate into that at some point.

          2) No answer to the transphobia question = no further response from me. Significantly too important an issue to continue without an answer on that.

        • For someone who says she’s read Autostraddle for 2 years, I’m surprised you don’t understand how attacking people for watching or participating in porn is slut-shaming and how that is against the core Straddler value of “You Do You”.

    • Opinions and ideas stop being abstract talking points for people to civilly discuss when they start having material consequences. So as long as people’s (and I never said radfems, but we can totally take it there) attitudes stand in the way of me and mine getting, say, safe working conditions I’m really not sorry for being heated about it.

      Also, didn’t your crew write the BITCH Manifesto, or is it only okay when radical feminists are aggressive about points that affect them?

      • Do you really think radical feminists are the ones protesting women’s safe working spaces in the porn industry? That’s our fault? That’s why we are against mainstream pornography – because women cannot participate in it without being exploited by the men who create it! Trust me, if we lived in a post-patriarchal society where men didn’t objectify and abuse women, and where sex workers could participate in porn healthily and without being subject to male dominance, I’d have NO problem with porn.

        Also I’m 18, so I’m pretty sure “my crew” wrote that before my mom was born.

        • I’m saying that the attitude that porn and other sex work are wrong outright and that we’re wrong for participating is not conducive to the “discourse” that gets necessary measures made so that sex workers can continue working and be safe. In short: we have problems and you’re either not helping or you’re straight up exacerbating them.

          I’m also saying that radical feminists have a legacy (including that manifesto) which you can’t divorce yourself from if you choose to use that title. I don’t hate everything that radical feminists have ever done (Hi bell hooks) but the mainstream impression that movement left had a lot of hate (towards trans people, sex workers, POC and lesbians to name a few) raveled in it. If you ever wonder why you see a generally negative response to radfem thought, maybe you should take that into consideration.

  10. ”Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically.” – audre lorde (who was btw a scary radical feminist for everybody who thinks radical feminism is the worst thing in the world everrr)

    although i think some of the above posters came across as overly judgmental i would really really like to see autostraddle talk about sex/ porn from a different point of view sometimes… i know lots of people here see being sex positive as embracing sex work/ sadomasochism etc. but there are so many feminists who feel differently

    • Hi! You know, I admire Audre Lorde a lot, but I think she was wrong about that.

      I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that, just because people are critical* of radical feminist theory or radical feminist praxis, that we think radical feminism is the worst thing ever. Personally, I find radical feminism a useful, if flawed, theory, like most political theories.

      *I just wanted to point out that there’s a difference between using “critical” to mean, engaging with the different meanings and seeking to point out their uses, contradictions and vulnerabilities, and using “critical” to mean, quite plainly, hating. You know, for the “trans critical” out there.

  11. *pop in* I just want to say this book is going on my to read list. Excuse me while I watch the L word Sharmen scenes.

  12. This book = instant add to my Amazon wishlist. If my gf and I hadn’t already bought our gifts for each other, then I’d totally have gotten this. HOWEVER, CHRISTMAS IS COMING, KIDS. =D

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