Chicago celebrates sex-positivity

By HermineBloom

“Sex is still a very touchy subject. Pun intended!” said Ursala Orelse, laughing while lighting up a cigarette outside of Villain’s Bar and Grill, 649 S. Clark St. A member of the Chicago-based Pleasure Salon and the Sex Workers Outreach Program Chicago branch, Orelse celebrated the Pleasure Salon’s first anniversary on April 6 with about 20 other members who share a similar sentiment.

The Chicago Pleasure Salon was conceived by Clarisse Thorn in April 2009. Ultimately, Thorn and six other leaders in the sex-positive activism scene developed a series of meet-and-greet events for people interested or involved in sex-positive communities in Chicago. Due to the success of Thorn’s “Sex-Positive” film series, in which participants watch what’s called a sex-positive film and have a discussion afterward, the Chicago Pleasure Salon was born.

“Being sex-positive is keeping an open mind about different sexual communities and different practices,” said Serpent Libertine, director of the Sex Workers Outreach Program, sex-positive activist and one of the original hostesses of the Pleasure Salon. “I work with sex workers, and a lot of those sex workers are very stigmatized because what they’re doing is an exchange of money for sex, and people look down on that.”

The salon was organized, however, to bring together members of different sex-positive communities, such as sex worker, pornography, BDSM, swinger and polyamory, as well as invite newcomers who aren’t familiar with any of these practices and lifestyles to educate themselves. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich hypothesized that historically, many traditional Western societies seek to repress open sexuality. Activists including, but not limited to, Libertine and Thorn have attempted to combat a society that generally stifles sexual differences and possibility.

Modeled after the New York Pleasure Salon, the Chicago branch encourages networking, developing friendships and learning about other communities opposed to having romantic encounters.

“There’s no agenda with these salons,” Libertine said. “There’s so much going on in Chicago and everyone hangs in their own communities. This is a way to hang out with everyone in the same spot. It’s certainly not a hook-up event.”

Thorn, who belongs to the S&M community, or people who specifically engage in sadomasochism, said that people in different communities have encouraged the Pleasure Salon to incorporate explicit demonstrations such as how to tie someone up. She has advised against this, though, because she believes that a comfortable environment for newcomers who just want to talk is important.

Currently, Thorn is doing HIV/AIDS work in South Africa and plans to return to Chicago sometime next year. Still, Thorn separates her professional life from her sex-positive activist life, which is fairly common for members of these types of communities.

Orelse, for example, said many of her friends and neighbors don’t know what she does and for some she’d like to keep it

that way.

“Prostitutes are human beings too,” said Orelse, who also volunteers for Howard Brown and Recovery Alliance. “I’m still the person that would watch your cat on vacation and get together with you for dinner. I’m still a productive member of society.”

Aspasia Bonasera, a 29-year-old DePaul University student, is on the Sex Plus Plus Plus Film Curation Board and was asked by Thorn to help organize the Chicago Pleasure Salon’s meet-and-greet events after reading Bonasera’s blog.

Having been involved with the salon from the beginning, Bonasera said the events are intended for meeting a lot of great,

friendly people.

“It’s based in the notion that if we do veer on the topic of sex, we don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, I can’t say something because that person might be offended,’” Bonasera said.

Regarding Chicago’s progress in accepting sex-positive communities, opinions vary. Libertine said she thought Chicago has always been more on the conservative side while Thorn said the city lags behind New York City and San Francisco, of course, but not as much as one would think.

“I know people who claim to be very liberal, but as soon as it turns to the topic of sex or something out of any hetero-normative model, they sound like any conservative from Alabama who goes to church six times a week,” Bonasera added.

Being an activist, Thorn said she hopes that the Pleasure Salon eventually becomes a way to politically organize, but she would never push for that.

For more information about the Pleasure Salon, visit