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My hottest epiphany was, in itself, not hot. It was the opposite of hot. It was the coldest that I had felt in my life up until that point, and it happened in my counselor’s office when I was rocking back and forth in a chair that was not designed for rocking, sobbing and doubled over from the psychic pain. But eventually it led to the best sex I've ever had.
Let me explain.
I had gone into counseling because I had cheated on my longtime partner, a woman, with a man. Although my awareness of my bisexuality had been sneaking up on me, to the point where I was starting to feel a little weird at office parties (I had a crush on my male editor at the newspaper), I thought I had it “under control.” When I subsequently went to a newspaper convention, drank two margaritas the size of my head, and rather aggressively pursued a male advertising sales rep from Sacramento… I realized I had nothing under control and sought out counseling.
There in the comfortably bland office, I dissected and discussed my craving for "male company," after nearly nine years of avoiding that shit like the plague. That was not the epiphany. I knew that I wanted cisgendered men back in my life, at least for the bouncy fun bits. The hard part was weighing that desire against everything else in my life.
Because I was still with my partner, and I still loved her, and I knew that pursuing my sexual desires was going to throw everything into chaos. She was already hurting, and I didn’t know how to make that stop. My new-found mantra for that period was You can’t unknow what you know, but saying it didn’t really help.
I felt guilt for what I had already done, and guilt for what I hadn’t even done yet, and deep, deep shame for all of it. It took me months and months to drill down to the core of it, something leftover from growing up in a large religious family with scarce resources and scarce love and sex being a perversion anyway: I felt that I wanted too much. I wanted more than I “deserved.”
Of course this goes back to always being a little bit hungry, and never being able to ask for more because there wasn’t more. But the current-day psychological upshot was that I felt that my wants, of any sort, were excessive. I was "greedy" for wanting what I wanted, and my happiness was nowhere worth near as much as other people’s. I could feel the desire—so profound that it transcended mere tingly bits—and at the same time I could feel my horrified recoil at my own selfishness, so I had been going around and around like a gyroscope, balanced in this endless push of lust and self-loathing.
I don’t know how exactly I broke that cycle. My counselor coaxed me down the path multiple times, as I made little baby steps and then waited for God to strike me down. I had to brace myself against the sure knowledge that yes, my choices would affect my partner, and try and fail and try again to be ethical, to be caring. I had to weigh, over and over, the risks and potential outcomes. I had to be at peace with the nature of my sexual self, and with the knowledge that it shifts and changes.
This is a process more than an epiphany. I still don’t always know how to proceed with my passionate pursuits. I still definitely worry about how those pursuits affect others. But at least I know that I must pay attention to my desires. I can’t always fulfill them right away or at all, because the world is not that kind of place, but my desires are valid and important, and they are definitely not too much.
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As I’m gearing up for more Smut Slams in Europe (get in touch if you want one in your city), I’m thinking again about the Smut Slam Code of Conduct and the idea of safe(r) space in performance contexts.
Specifically I’m thinking about what safer space looks like in my context and why I do it the way that I do, and why I’m really glad that I decided to do it that way because holy SHITBALLS things can get weird otherwise!
All Smut Slams have the Code of Conduct read out loud, a statement of community standards and beliefs that has gotten hashed out and elaborated over time (I think another review is coming soon, in fact). I wish I had kept records of what the Code of Conduct used to be at the beginning of Smut Slam; oh god, I learned fast on that one!
Behind every rule there is a story, they say, and this is especially true with the Smut Slam Code of Conduct. In this living, revise-able document, every specific type of “friendliness” that is explicitly stated, or line of text in the “what not to say” paragraph, every element included in the bit about consent, it is all there because someone told a story that skirted the spirit of the code, or got through some unspelled-out exception or loophole, and we are trying our best to lay it out as clearly as possible.
If we have any sort of “community standards,” then it is on us as creators, hosts, and producers to articulate those standards. I was in a performance room once where the host said specifically that it was a “safe space,” but that was all. Maybe they thought it would be obvious. In any case, one of the performers went on to do a racist bit that had some audience members looking at each other and shaking their heads and muttering. Even the host looked completely taken aback—they clearly knew it was a problem—but nothing in the their statement about “safe space” included any mention of racism, so in the moment the host didn’t seem to know how to even talk about it.
We have to articulate these things, but even more importantly, we have to put down a process for how to deal with those things when they happen. Because they will happen. Shit still gets weird.
Smut Slam is an open mic and it takes place in drinking environments mostly, and people arrive late and don’t hear the host reading the Code of Conduct out loud AND people have radically different and variable ideas about what constitutes consent, for example, and racism and sex-worker friendliness (“I want to tell you about all the wild hookers I met in Thailand” = probably not going to go well).
I can tell you, those are some of my least favorite moments about running a Smut Slam, when I can see the car crash about to happen, when I can practically smell the smoke coming off the opening lines of a story and I know a dumpster fire is headed for my stage.
But the great thing is, Smut Slam has community standards spelled out and they include our process for responding to violations and close calls (“educational moment from the mic” after the story is concluded).
Before we included that component into the Code of Conduct, we had a really clear vision of what we did want and what we didn’t, but we had no way of enforcing it. Smut Slam hosts would have to step in the breach on their own, which is intimidating as fuck. I know I was pretty chickenshit for, like, the first four years of slamming.
But since then, Smut Slam has the institutional response built in. We know, as an event, as hosts, and as a community of sorts, how we deal. We know that stories may occasionally still slip through and go against our code, but we also know what will happen if they do.
(At some point I will write something about how those educational moments are actually a good thing. As someone pointed to me, that is actually where education takes place, if a storyteller isn’t clear about consent or why their specific behavior in an anecdote is misogynistic, for example, or involves nonconsensual objectification.)
For now, though, I will leave my readers with this: it’s not enough to set boundaries. You have to know, ahead of time, what you’re going to do if someone crosses them. Without the follow-through, “safe space” is only safe for the offender, not anyone else.
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FROM THE FUCKBUCKET: How and how soon do you bring up the relationship style/DTR question without putting the other person on the spot/under pressure?
I have written about the concept of “home” frequently and at length. As a touring artist, I am understandably a little obsessed, while at the same time trying to be chill about it. I’ve tried to be all, you know, I’m tough, I only need a couple of suitcases to get around. If I can make theatre out of a toaster oven and a cordless phone handset, surely I can make home out of my old Pike Place Market apron and a mini-screwdriver in my makeup bag.
This has worked. For the past seven years this has worked. Less well over time, I mean, I regularly have to fight off the undeniable appeal of knowing where one’s container of flour is, but mostly, I have been able to stay light on my feet, and have felt that to be an important part of my M.O., if not to say my actual identity.
Home was always the hardest thing to shake when I needed to travel: boxing the stuff, transferring the utilities, packing up the room, arranging the sublet, forwarding the mail, finding a foster home for my cat… it was all a source of additional gravity, holding me down, pulling me back. In many ways it was a relief to let those things go, bit by bit.
But all of this was predicated on being a solo agent, a person who, of necessity, had to move through the world and launch myself in various directions on my own. I talked like I wanted to, but the reality was, I had to, or so I thought. I had to hold my relationships lightly because I was never going to be there. What kind of lover would want to sign up for that? I had to learn how to be strong on my own, because no one would ever be there for me in the bad times. Yes, I found support among friends and a few lovers, both on- and offline, but for the deep-down core moments of both pain and joy, I did not think I could not expect anything more than that.
Sometimes I wondered if I was afraid to ask for anything more than that, if I was afraid that my new life was just too full of drama and complications for anyone else to really want to share it. I didn’t have much luggage, but I had a lot of baggage around my desire for home.
And now that all is changing again. I still have the baggage, but I’ve found someone to share it with. I still have the touring, but I am in a long-term, core-deep relationship with a man who thinks I’m a joy, not an inconvenient weirdo. I have met my match and my muse, who proofreads my posts and asks if I am drinking enough water and knows exactly when I am going on stage without having to ask more than once.
More of my stuff is in storage near him than is with me in Berlin. What if I need to get at that stuff, I asked when we moved it there. “I’ll figure out a way to get it to you,” he said, and I exhaled a sigh that felt like it had been held in for years.
What I call home of course includes logistics: it’s the boxes and the insurance source and whatever visa I posses that gives me access to being in a place. But “home” is so much more than stuff. It is where I want to come back to, at the end of a late-night, exhausting show, or a far-traveling tour. It is the cup of tea he will make for me. It is the joy in his eyes to hear my triumphs, and the strength in his hand holding mine when he listens to my frustrations and fears, and knowing that I can do the same for him. Home is, in short, everything that I already know how to do for myself, but I don’t have to do it by myself anymore.
The only shadow is we don’t have our physical home space yet. But the feeling is already here; that, at least, doesn’t take up any room in a suitcase at all.
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Were you always so open about sex and sexual experiences, or was it something you became more open about over time? If it was over time, why?
Neither our ability nor our desire to communicate about sex are things that come pre-installed at the factory. As kids we may be touching ourselves all over the house, or playing doctor back behind the shed, but actually talking about it?... Nah. We tend to absorb whatever our family does, for better or for worse.
With that in mind, I would have to say that I probably was more open and exploratory about sex stuff at an earlier age than anyone had a right to expect, given my background. Despite having been raised in the Mormon church, I still managed to find plenty of books with dirty bits by the time I was 10 or 11, and went looking for ways to experience dirty bits by the age of 14 or so. (Or maybe there was every right to expect that, because of that fighting spirit of opposition, but how come none of my siblings or cousins broke free?)
For a while in junior high school, I had one friend who was willing to share with me a lot of the details about her sex life. We would stare up at the Duran Duran posters on the walls and ceiling of her room, and she would tell me what she did with her boyfriend on those nights where she told her mother she was with me. (Yeah, I was the Alibi Friend.) At the age of 13, that definitely felt like a sort of open-sharing sex-ed outlet, but then I got bigger, both in tits and body, and crossed the line into plus-sized and focused more on school and our other friends turned on me, so I lost that. I was on my own.
From that point forward, my approach seems to have been:
- fumble toward “bliss”
- fuck up, sometimes hardcore
- learn and integrate that learning OR take a huge reactionary swing in another direction
Eventually, over time, I got better with the various steps of this process. I started sitting down and thinking a little more in advance about what constitutes “bliss” for me. Additionally and where possible/necessary, I learned to think about other ways to get that bliss, some of which may be better for me and other people than just being led on a wild goose chase by my cunt.
I got better at dipping my toe in. Paradoxically, I also got better at plunging into the deep end, keeping my eyes open and committing to the dive. Sometimes that’s the thing that fucks you up.
And so, as I got better and more confident at following my (sexual) bliss, the learning curve became less harsh, less steep, considerably less fraught with explosive arguments and confused tears and occasionally lab tests and actual danger. (I should say that the curve has only really gotten shallower in the last seven years. I'm a late bloomer in so many things!) My mistakes aren’t so big now that I’ll feel the urge to run screaming in the opposite direction. And I am managing to find people who can walk and talk with me through the learning.
Now, as back when I was 13, my path seems to unfold right out in public view; I have never been very good at hiding my explorations for long. I don’t know if it’s because I’m stubborn or an exhibitionist or what, but no matter how difficult or weird it gets, wanting to be up front about sex stuff seems to be part of my personality.
Eventually, that led me to creating various shows around sex and sexuality because that’s what interests me. In performing around the world, I started to see that whatever attitude I have seems to be good for other people to witness. Authenticity in sex, especially in areas that don’t have societal support like kink or queerness or alternative relationship approaches or even as basic to me as asking for what I want… most people want more of it, but they don’t know how to get it.
I don’t know that I do either, but I’ve been trying to for a while, so it seems worthwhile to share my experiences with others. It feels like a way that I can make a difference.
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I’ve talked about silence in dirty talk before, where we leave spaces in the narrative stream to let the heavy breathing and grunts and sexual tension do some of the work. But before we even get to the juicy bits, there are often other conversations that must be had, with silences that aren’t nearly so sexy and are, in truth, a bit scary for most people.
These are the conversations that make the juicy bits even possible, the ones in which we bring up opening the relationship for the first time, or asking to close the relationship temporarily because we need to catch our breath. We are asking our lover to prioritize our relationship in the middle of crisis, or telling them that we are a little or that we like their boots way more than we let on, or that actually we are asexual. We are telling them that things felt weird at the dungeon last weekend, and we don’t want to go again until we figure out why.
I have had so many of these conversations in my life. Sometimes I think I would be happy if I never again had to have another one, because they are tiring and time-consuming and yes, terrifying. And yet, that is the cost of being a person in deep connection with other people: tough things sometimes need to be said. This means that we need to leave room for those things to be said.
I am not ashamed to say that I got some of the best training in how to do this from taking long calls with one of my most challenging clients, Rollercoaster Man. He was very uneasy in his own fantasies, and incredibly cautious in picking his way through them. He was sometimes depressed to the point of death ideation, and brought that to our calls. And when he was in either of these headspaces, he left silences that you could drive a truck through.
At the beginning of my time with him, I remember talking a lot. The long silences made me nervous. But the more calls I took from him, the more I saw that filling in those gaps only made him talk less. If I wanted him to participate in some way, I had to just shut up and wait.
I got reasonably proficient at sitting with silence, and then I learned to take that to my own tough conversations with partners because dealing with polyamory and touring and distance, and individual and mutual life dreams is tough. Oh, how I wanted to push all kinds of words and counterarguments and banal encouragement and my own sadness and guilt and fear into those spaces. But those conversations were not only mine; they were for my loved ones as well.
So I held my tongue, or tried to, and just focused on slow, deep breathing, if it felt like the person I was talking with had more to say. I checked in occasionally with “how does that feel?” and “do you want me to stay here?” or “that sounds awful, I’m sorry.” The slow pace kept me more present, kept me from flying off the handle or running away from the discomfort or making assumptions. The conversations stayed good, or at least friendly and workable.
"Slow talk" can work in both face-to-face and written exchanges. During our first year or two of long-distance relationshipping, my partner and I had limited real-time face-to-face communication, but lots of texting; we also had a lot of challenging relationship stuff to work with. Thankfully, we developed a convention to “ask for asterisks,” which means we put an asterisk at the end of our comments when we are done with that thought, and then, and only then, can the other person start talking. The asterisk allows the person expressing to get their whole idea out, but it also is a gift to the person listening: even if parts of what our partner says are challenging, we get time to take it all in as a whole. (We have occasionally found ourselves saying “asterisk” during face-to-face conversations as well, it’s that useful.)
I should mention that slow talk doesn’t really help with the fear in the short run; those long silences can stretch out to seeming infinity. But in the medium- and long term, I find it builds trust and space for all the explorations and feelings that otherwise have no place to go. So give it a shot, the next time your partner turns to you and says, “There’s something I want to tell you.” Breathe deep, exhale, and give them room.
The closest I get to self-help is stuff I learned from phone sex. It's a funny old journey, and if have a bit of money and you'd like to hear more about it, please consider becoming a patron of mine over on Patreon!