Last week I keynoted the annual conference of CARAS (Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities). I presented “Clinical, cultural, and personal narratives about alternative sexualities.”
My goal was to examine the common ways people think about “alternative” (or “kinky”) sexuality—and how that affects everyone, no matter what kind of sex they’re into.
The general attitude about kinky sex and its practitioners among the media, civic organizations, and medical-psychological professions is pretty negative. They accept or even promote horrible misinformation (“Perverts want to recruit teens into their lifestyle”). They use glamorous but bizarre cases to condemn ordinary choices (“S/M scene leads to murder!”). Too many shrinks assume that people are into kinky sex because they were abused as children—a popular idea with no basis in fact.
The stereotype is that people into kinky sex:
• Fear intimacy
• Can’t enjoy non-kinky sex
• Do kinky sex constantly
• Intensify their desires over time
• Are into pain
• Aggressively recruit others
• Have no boundaries
• Are psychologically broken
While each of these is certainly true of one or another individual who’s into kinky sex (as it is in any large group of people), it in no way characterizes the entire population. But this stereotype does accomplish something: it creates an other. Just like Islamic terrorists are a foreign “other” (appearing just in time to replace Communists as America’s favorite demon), people into kinky sex have been constructed as a domestic “other.”
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. It obviously hurts self-identified kinky people. It undermines their health care, their legal rights (it’s used against people in custody battles and zoning hearings), and their self-esteem.
Negative stereotypes of kink also hurt people who don’t identify as kinky. “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?” What about a couple who like to pretend that one of them is forcing the other to do something? What about calling your partner “daddy” during sex? Aye, papi, aye, aye, papito!
But if practicing kinky sex makes you “other,” not one of “us,” if it has non-sexual implications, if it means you’re defective or dangerous—who wants that? And so as “kinky sex” and its practitioners are demonized, everyone is concerned—am I one of “those people?” It makes people fear their fantasies or curiosity, which then acquire too much power. It leads to secrecy between partners, as people withhold information about their preferences or experiences.
In contrast to negative and inaccurate ideas about kinky sex, practitioners themselves and specially-trained, sympathetic professionals tend to have more positive attitudes about kinky sex, describing it as:
• Not dependent on gender roles
• Not dependent on ideas of what’s “normal”
• Involving lots of communication
• Involving lots of imagination
• Helpfully expanding the definition of “sex”
In truth, this characterizes some kinky sex some of the time. Otherwise, it’s often just, well, sex. A little hair-pulling, a playful dare, a toy here and there, maybe a finger in the butt and some nasty whispering (all consensual, of course—if it isn’t consensual, it’s violence. That’s Kink 101).
It’s really important to get more accurate information about kink into the hands of doctors, journalists, politicians, and TV producers. And it’s equally important to educate everyone about how common these kinds of alternative sexual behaviors are (there are tens of thousands of sex clubs, leather retailers, and kinky sex classes out there, all trying to make a buck; you do the math).
In addition, here’s a more radical approach: 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. We don’t need to fear our fantasies, curiosity, or (consensual) sexual preferences. They don’t make us bad or different, just human.
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.
So ending kink’s status as dangerous and wrong, and its practitioners as “other,” is the most liberating thing we can do—for everyone.