Work It! Clarisse Thorn: Sexuality Educator, Sex-Positive Blogger, Kinky Feminist

Work It! is an interview series on MsBehaved featuring fascinating folks who work outside the traditional 9-5, to amuse, inspire, and light a fire under your butt to start pursuing the career of your dreams.

Name:  Clarisse Thorn

Age: 27 going on 28

Location: Chicago, mostly

What do you do, in your own words, and how long have you been doing it?
Right now, I am primarily a writer. I also give lectures and workshops, and I run events like the Sex+++ Documentary Film Series (more on that in a moment). I manage to make a living at it now, but it’s a very precarious living; I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants anything resembling stability or security. But I love it.

I’ve been writing in various venues for years, but I started blogging as Clarisse Thorn in 2008, which was also when I got into sexuality-related activism. I didn’t think of these things as my job at first. I just wanted to get my ideas out there on the topic of sexuality, especially S&M. But my writing really took off, and so did the film series, and people started asking me to speak publicly. I even got a call from Oprah’s office! After a couple years, during which I had other jobs, I realized that I might be able to support myself this way instead of working for other people. So I tried it, and I’m still trying it.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?
My resume is such a mess. Or maybe it’s fascinating. I get mixed reactions. I guess one of the more interesting jobs I’ve done is freelance calligraphy. I’ve always had a talent and love for calligraphy (I did the header for my website  myself), but it’s not exactly a strong moneymaker. So I’ve never put much effort into advertising myself as a calligrapher, but occasionally work comes my way through social networks. Recently, a couple of friends who were getting married had me produce a Quaker-style wedding certificate for them, which was fun.

What led to you pursuing your current career? Did you have mentorship or special training for it?
As I said, it arose out of personal interest, and a desire to get my thoughts and beliefs out there. At first it was just that I had a hard time adjusting to my S&M identity, and I wanted to help other people deal with that anxiety and shame. I haven’t had any special training, exactly, although I’ve worked in fields that were relevant and gave me plenty of insight into sexuality issues; for example, I spent a year working in southern Africa on HIV mitigation, which taught me an enormous amount about sexuality and public health, as well as alternative cultural conceptions of sexuality. I wrote about it at the time for the now-defunct website CarnalNation.com, and my favorite pieces were reprinted in my recent collection THE S&M FEMINIST: BEST OF CLARISSE THORN.

Tell me about the SEX+++ Documentary Film Series. How did this come about?
I’m so proud of Sex+++! In late 2008, my dear friend Lisa and I went to see the documentary PASSION AND POWER, which is about the history of the vibrator. Afterwards, I was like, “Man Lisa, that was awesome. We should have a regular sex film night.” And she was like, “You know, I bet people besides us would come to see that.” Lisa is the Education Coordinator at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she pitched the idea to her boss, who took me on as the volunteer curator for the brand-new Sex+++ Documentary Film Series. I originally planned for the series to last nine months, but it was so successful that it’s now in its fourth year. Running the series has taught me so much about sexuality, public programming, education, and how to facilitate a good discussion. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to do it.

You can see the current film series calendar here.  I also wrote about the history of Sex+++ in my old manifesto post, “There Is No ‘Should’ and the Sex-Positive ‘Agenda.”

You recently published a book about about your experiences researching Pick Up Artist subcultures from the viewpoint of a sex-positive feminist. What led you to pursue this topic?
In 2009, a pickup artist instructor started hanging around the Chicago S&M community, and he also attended Sex+++ a few times. We talked a bit, and I thought he was smart and interesting, but I was about to leave for Africa so I kind of forgot about him. Then, while I was in Africa, I wrote a series of blog posts about masculinity. The series totally exploded, and got a huge amount of attention around the blogosphere — and some of the people who commented were smart pickup artists. So between the guy I’d met in Chicago, and these guys that I was meeting on the Internet, I got interested in the subculture because of what they had to say about masculinity and sexuality. Then, as I sniffed around the subculture some more, I realized that they had a ton of fascinating stuff to say about human behavior in general, and specifically about communication and seduction. I got completely obsessed — so obsessed that I ended up giving a lecture at a seduction convention. And so of course I had to write a book. It’s called  CONFESSIONS OF A PICKUP ARTIST CHASER and I promise it’s awesome.

Tell me about your new book, THE S&M FEMINIST. Have you faced any challenges writing about sex and BD/SM sexuality as a woman in a highly sex negative and anti-BD/SM culture?
I published the new book because I’ve done so much writing about S&M and feminism; I know my archives are large and unwieldy, so I wanted to get the best of it out there in one easy package. At the suggestion of one of my readers, I also included “study guides” for each section. And it’s available in paperback, so people who aren’t so into the Internet can read it, or buy copies to give to their friends.

I’d say that my biggest challenge has been legitimacy.  S&M, sexuality, and “girl stuff” are all topics that are frequently seen as either silly or transgressive.  I tried shopping a book proposal that was very similar to THE S&M FEMINIST to some “legitimate” publishers last year, but while some responded positively, even the most positive response told me that it was “too edgy.”  I’m not even trying to be edgy!  It’s so frustrating.  I’m never-endingly bothered by the way we as a culture don’t take sexuality seriously.  So I self-published THE S&M FEMINIST instead, which means I make more money off each sale anyway.

What is one of the most memorable moments of your current career? What are you most proud of?
There have been so many memorable moments …. This is going to sound corny, but I’m most proud of the feedback I get when people say I’ve helped them on a deep, personal level. It really is that simple.

What advice would you give to other women building careers outside of the mainstream?
It’s a struggle. You will have many moments of exhaustion, burnout, and “why the fuck am I doing this anyway.” You might not “make it,” and you might have to go back to the “straight world.” But your passion, drive, and independence will also win you transcendent moments of awesomeness. It’s up to you whether you want to make that devil’s bargain. I particularly recommend that everyone with an interest in sex education read Sarah Sloane’s “Letter to a Sex Educator.”

Like Clarisse on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter.

Buy THE S&M FEMINIST:
Paperback — Amazon Kindle — Other ebook formats

Buy CONFESSIONS OF A PICK UP ARTIST CHASER:
Paperback — Amazon Kindle —  Other ebook formats at Smashwords 

Read more Work It! interviews:
Sunny Megatron: Sex Educator, Weird Tour Guide, Kinky Blogger
Kelly Shibari: BBW Porn Star and Marketing Consultant
Kenna King: Feminist Scholar, Promotional Model, and Hairless Cat Breeder

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