Since I was a boy, I have been confronted with the maddening reality of being told to second-guess myself, that due to who I am (a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder) I can’t trust my own thoughts or feelings. Then I grew up and I learned that certain words do not mean to others what they mean to me. This has made me rather persnickety with regards to the lexicon of sexual speech.

Most people whom are more-or-less familiar with sexuality minorities tend to use “kink” and “BDSM” as interchangeable—that is, if they know what BDSM is. However, my experience is that those who are not already trained to think or speak in that fashion use “kink” dramatically differently. In thinking about this, I return, constantly, to Emily Rutherford’s sociological/historical musings on the same topic:

[T]o me “kink” was synonymous with “BDSM,” and I had to wonder […] where I, whose realm is primarily queer identity and politics, would fit in. […] As the LGBT community becomes increasingly mainstream and increasingly integrated into a “straight” (for lack of a better word) paradigm, what takes its place as the radical outlier? Maybe “kink” is the new “queer”; […] I don’t think it’s erroneous to draw parallels to gay liberation, when a minority sexuality community decided it was going to establish its own boundaries (or lack thereof), and not allow the law or the medical profession or anyone else to do that for them.

I also frequently cite and share Emma’s KinkForAll Boston presentation (shown above), “Defining ‘Kink’,” in which she says:

The idea that [kink] “practitioner[s] are … considered perverts by ‘outsiders'” either conflates Kink with BDSM and nothing else, or conflates it with Fetishism [but i]f we hold Kink to its definition as “a term used to refer to an intelligent and playful usage of sexual concepts” how can it become a pejorative that turns people into “perverts”?

In other words, certain colloquial usages of “kink” that are used to draw a line in the sand—to draw the speaker’s preferred line in the sand—reify the hegemonic formulation of sex as dichotomized into obscene or decent acts. Emma goes on to say:

We know as well about what Kink shouldn’t be – exclusionary, prejudicing. Kink is not BDSM and BDSM alone. In fact, there’s no reason that Kink should necessarily be opposed to conventional sex – think of it as Sex 201. […] One can do Kink just by talking, one can have a Kink just by knowing enough to know what it is that really gets your motor going.

When I have conversations like this with people, bringing this point up inevitably raises a frustrating question: “If one can ‘do kink’ just by talking, what do you say to be kinky?” It’s frustrating because it’s the wrong question, still caged in the antiquated notion that kink is what you do instead of why (or how) you’re doing it. It implicitly creates an “other” category based on activity, just as gays are currently demonized by bigots for belonging to an “other/not-straight” category of self-identity.

At the recent CARAS conference I attended, Dr. Marty Klein’s keynote touched heavily on the topic of “othering” with regards to sexuality narratives in culture. He writes:

The general impression of kinky people is that they are a special, identifiable group, different from the schoolteachers, dentists, grocery clerks, and bus drivers we encounter every day. Different from “us.” And unlike “us,” dangerous.

This idea hurts everyone.

[…]

“Kinky sex” is a vague, flexible category—and sexuality is by its very nature ambiguous. If you tingle when you’re playfully spanked, are you “kinky?” […A]s “kinky sex” and its practitioners are demonized, everyone is concerned—am I one of “those people?”

[…]

I’d like to destroy the idea of binary contrast—that kinky and non-kinky sex are clearly different.

Instead, I suggest that kinky and vanilla sex are parts of a continuum, the wide range of human eroticism. We all slide side to side along that continuum during our lives, sometimes in a single week.

(Emphasis mine.)

There’s a subtlety in the way he uses the word “kink” that many other sexuality educators don’t seem to pick up on. He isn’t using it as a synonym for any other word. He doesn’t use it as a literary device to inject variety when he’s talking about some specific activity like “spanking” (or caning, or flogging…). He doesn’t even use it to refer to a uniform group of people.

I believe very strongly that sexuality educators must develop an understanding of “kinky” that honors its inherent heterogeneity. Its diversity offers immense cultural power. Pigeonholing “kink” is a disservice to already-self-defined groups, but especially to those people in the equally-nebulous “mainstream” who desire “kinky things,” but who think of such things as, say, strap-on or anal sex.1

More plainly, ask a BDSMer if they think strap-on sex is “kinky” and the answer is often no. Ask a “vanilla” college student the same question and the answer is almost always “yes.” That’s a telling and important difference and I urge us to honor that reality, for our own benefit, and the benefit of the sexual freedom movement as a whole.

As Dr. Klein says:

Some people like being emotional outlaws. They’ll always find a way to get the frisson of otherness. But most people don’t want to live that way.

I don’t. Do you?

  1. I keep hearing some BDSM’ers, in their devout isolationism, question this usage. But my observations are, in fact, accurate. See, for example, “kinky” expressly used as a term for anal sex at the end of this article at Slate. []
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