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Everything you've heard about BDSM on the Internet is 50 shades of wrong

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Note: This post features frank discussions of sexuality and may be NSFW.

Kink—a mysterious, murky, wondrous land of whips, chains, and corseted women in high heels, right? The limited mainstream understanding of kinkiness, mediated through pop culture and online conversations where kink is about porn, mocking 50 Shades of Grey, or reading about creepy sex dungeons, leads to a disconnect. Two different conversations about kinkiness are happening: One within the kinky community and one among the so-called "vanilla" community, consisting of individuals who aren’t interested in role-play and complex explorations of sensory and power dynamics as part of their sexuality. Can the twain ever meet?

Over at Slate, Jillian Keenan brought a subject of complicated kinky discussion into the mainstream by asking a seemingly simple question: Is kink a sexual orientation? To many members of the kinky community, the answer might be an obvious yes. Keenan explains: “In recent years, as I explored my own sexuality more, I’ve realized that [identifying as bisexual is] not quite accurate. I’m not attracted to men or women as a group—I’m attracted to ‘tops,’ or sexually dominant people, as a group; their gender is irrelevant. Many kinky people describe similar feelings.”

But to those outside the community, who aren’t familiar with it at all, the very idea of kink—sexual playfulness, exploration of the body and its limits, and complex psychological interactions with partners—as a sexual orientation might seem unexpected and even radical. It upends notions of sexuality and attraction, raising questions about an identity that feels poorly defined to people who’ve never forced themselves to think about it: What does it mean to be kinky? Is kinkiness just about enjoying pain, humiliation, or fetishes, as part of a larger sex life? Or is it a sexual orientation in its own right?

Questions about kinkiness as a sexual identity are becoming the subject of research, indicating that at least some people are thinking about the issue already. Writers like Clarisse Thorn, who has written for BuzzFeed, Feministe, and Role/Reboot, have been exploring this issue and talking about it for years, and articulating their own clear answers to the question:

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that—well, now the idea of a 'BDSM orientation' seems kinda boring. I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time. I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it.

There’s a reason that kinky people have their own dating sites and social networks, like FetLife, a site that allows kinky people to find partners, exchange information, and find community fellowship with like-minded people. Many kinky people identify closely with members of their community. It’s not simply a question of marginalized sexual practices and a desire to find solidarity, a community defined by how it is treated by outsiders: It is a community defined instead by commonality between its members and how they relate to each other.

Most kinksters aren’t walking around in 24/7 scenes—but they wouldn’t want to be in relationships with vanilla people, either, because it would be such a fundamental mismatch. Kink isn’t just about continually performing kinky acts any more than being gay is about constantly having sex with men; both are about a larger and more complex relationship with a partner or partners. Many, though not all, would say that kink is about a larger cultural, sexual, and personal identity.

In an interview with Feministing in 2012, Natalie Zina Walschots made a sharp comment about vanilla perceptions of kink, especially feminist perceptions of kinky people:

BDSM can be something that people enjoy in passing, certainly, but for others, it is their entire sexual orientation. For many people, being a dominant or a submissive is as important as being gay or straight, the absolute keystone of their sexuality and a crucial component of their health, happiness and self-actualization. In these cases, the statement that submission is an extension of socialization is inadequate, and is similar to saying that someone becomes gay or straight because of the way they are socialized. There is so much more to it than that for someone who profoundly identifies as submissive (or otherwise).

Despite the wealth of information about what it means to be kinky, including direct testimony from kinky people about their lives and relationships, the Internet is a web of misinformation and bizarre understandings of kinkiness. Many people’s views are informed not simply by 50 Shades, an appalling depiction not just of kink but also of human relationships, in which a misogynistic man engages in a highly imbalanced and dangerous BDSM relationship.

They’re also influenced by scaremongering about kink, such as articles arguing that BDSM is to blame for misogynistic violence against women, and it’s perhaps not surprising that vanilla audiences shrink from a kinky world. The horror stories of those who violate consent, negotiated boundaries, and other norms of the kinky community become all that people read about, not the positive side of kinky identities.

When communities that have been historically poorly understood go public and attempt to assert themselves, outsiders often feel frightened and threatened. It can make outsiders uneasy to conceptualize kink as its own valid sexual identity, just as the mainstream struggles with the out and proud identities of other sexual minorities.

“Some people who fought for the LGBTQ community have dismissed kinky people as having, at most, a sexual hobby,” Keenan notes, hitting on one of the core ways the kinky community is depicted in media and pop culture. Kinkiness is set apart as something outside the individual—a fancy for model trains, or a love for riding horses—rather than an actual orientation, something deep within the individual, a source of both attraction and pleasure. In pop culture, kink is depicted as something limited to the bedroom (or the play party), when in fact, that’s only a small facet of kinky identities and how mechanisms of attraction work for kinky people."

Just as there are a wide range of relationships involved with other sexual orientations, kink is incredibly diverse and complex, but online, it’s commonly reduced to whips, chains, horrifying kidnappers, or creepy rapists, a sickness rather than a legitimate orientation. In pop culture, it’s about “getting rough,” even though not all kinksters are into BDSM, something which is actually only one facet of the kink community.

It’s not necessarily as simple as insisting that kink is an orientation, as not all kinky people feel that way, but part of the dialogue around the question is clouded by the fact that vanilla people aren’t actively interested in seeking out, or making space for, genuine information about kink.

To be fair, there are some kinksters who don’t consider ‘kinky’ to be their sexual orientation. But plenty of others do,” writes Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky in her response to Keenan’s piece. “And I suspect most kinky people don’t publicly identify their sexual orientation as such because of a lack of precedent (in addition, of course, to the legitimate concerns about repercussions for doing so). Lots of folks who are into BDSM feel forced to keep some or all of their sexual desires private.”

Taking the conversation about kink as a sexual identity public, as Keenan did, brings the private into the public eye. She’s introducing a different framing of kink to a wider community with her question, and she’s sparking a digital conversation as those like Wakeman respond to her prompt. Could the push for acceptance of kink as a sexual identity also result in a change in how people relate to the kinky community.

Photo via forayinto35mm/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)