What Is Kinky Sex? Does It Matter?

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What Is kinky sex? Does it matter?

There’s actually no exact definition of kink, so feel free to say that what you do is or isn’t kinky.

On the one hand, it doesn’t matter; your sexuality is an experience, not a category. Shakespeare had it right—a rose smells the same no matter what you call it.

On the other hand, you might be more willing to smell something if I told you it was a flower rather than a skunk. And so some people stay away from exploring sexual behaviors they might enjoy just because they think the activities are “kinky”—“and,” they emphasize, “I’m not a kinky person.”

It’s like going shopping, seeing a pretty red dress, and saying “I like it, but I won’t buy it because I’m not the kind of person who wears red dresses.” That’s a shame. Because no one is a “kind of a person”—we’re each an actual person who creates meaning out of the world around us every single day. If you like how you look in that red dress, it shouldn’t matter what kind of a person you are.

Of course, no one should be doing sexual things they don’t want to do. But why would someone be attached to their self-image as NOT a kinky person? After all, everyone is kinky to someone else. Sex with the lights on? Sex completely undressed? Talking during sex about what you like? Making noise when you climax? Depending on whom you ask, all verrrry kinky. Yes, every one of those is unfamiliar and rather odd to at least a billion people, according to sexual scientists.

So what’s meant by kink, anyway? Here are a few considerations:

* Sex that people think is unusual (and often isn’t)
* Sex that involves imagination (“imagine we’re being watched while making love tonight…”)
* Sex that involves equipment (like blindfolds)
* Sex in which people deliberately increase the intensity, using mild pain (like hair-pulling)
* Sex that involves role-playing (“what if I just met you at the supermarket today, and now we…?”)
* Sex that involves teasing (“you better not plan on kissing me tonight…😉”)
* Sex that doesn’t make traditional or common assumptions about arousal, genital focus, orgasm, or maybe even monogamy.

If you’re thinking ‘wait a minute, I’m involved with some of that stuff!’, you can decide you’re kinky, or that your sex is kinky, or that kink isn’t what you imagined it is. None of those ideas has to change what you do.

Indeed, a large number of couples enjoy bedroom games that could be considered kinky, but they just don’t think of it that way. They may hold down their partner, physically tease their partner, deliberately do something that’s slightly physically uncomfortable (biting too hard, nipple-pulling, etc.). If more people talked about this, maybe “kink” wouldn’t seem like something that only others (or crazy others) do.

In a perfect world, psychologists would know all about this, and they’d be educating patients, TV producers, and policymakers about kink. But unfortunately, most therapists get no training about this at all. In fact, you can become a licensed marriage counselor without ever hearing the word vibrator in your training. Handcuffs or dildoes? Many therapists-in-training would rather be ignorant about such things.

So let’s list some myths about kinky sex that many people (including therapists) believe, which undermines both sexual enjoyment and effective therapy.

Myths about kinky sex:

~ Wanting to submit during sex shows childhood trauma
~ Wanting non-monogamy shows a fear of intimacy
~ A desire for things like spanking and hair-pulling shows low self-esteem
~ In BDSM one person objectifies another, so it can’t be healthy
~ “Non-kinky” sex is the most mature sex
~ It’s all about inflicting or enduring pain
~ No healthy person would want to experience pain or domination during sex
~ No healthy person would enjoy exhibitionism (that is, safely being seen or watched during sex)

People who like kinky sex have no boundaries, can’t enjoy non-kinky sex, and their preferences intensify over time until they only want extreme experiences.

None of these is true. There’s no data showing that people who enjoy kinky sex come from more troubled backgrounds, or are less emotionally healthy, or are less self-regulated than everyone else. Of course some kinky people are wounded personalities, but that’s true in every group of people, regardless of how they like sex (or whether they like sex at all).

When anyone—therapist or civilian—says that people who like kinky sex are unhealthy or are overcompensating for childhood abuse, what they’re really saying is “I disapprove of people having sex like that.” This is fine, of course, but people—especially psychologists with large followings—should be honest about their disapproval, rather than claiming they know something about the mental health of a large and heterogeneous group like people who enjoy kinky sex.

So if kinky sex isn’t about tormenting someone or being tormented, or low self-esteem or echoing one’s sexual abuse, or just unpredictably acting on wild sexual impulses, what’s it actually about?

BDSM is a particular kind of kinky sex. It stands for bondage-domination-sadomasochism, which focusses on the dynamics of domination and submission. That’s why I prefer the expression erotic power play—playing with power in erotic contexts.

Of course, people who do this want an environment that feels both emotionally and physically safe. These are hardly activities you do with someone you just met—you need plenty of communication and trust, which take time to develop.

While stereotypes of BDSM involve whips and chains, screams and blood (thank you, 50 Shades), for most people erotic powerplay is what I call BDSM Lite—such as:

  • Hair-pulling
  • Spanking
  • Biting
  • Teasing/withholding
  • Holding someone down
  • “Forcing” someone (to do something they actually want to do)
  • Playing a little rough

What makes these things so satisfying? People who enjoy BDSM-style activities typically mention one or more of the following, which can make power games—when you feel safe—exciting and satisfying:

  • Trust
  • Intensity
  • Trance or spirituality
  • Communication
  • Imagination
  • Violating taboos

As you can see, it’s about the connection between the two people involved, and the chance to explore unusual states of human experience.

And it’s always consensual.

Want to experiment with a bit of this? Mention it to your partner, perhaps when you’re in a non-sexual context, like having lunch or gardening. If your partner seems interested, you can try one or two small things the next time you’re sexual together—maybe holding down one of his wrists (make sure you look at him so he knows you’re playing a new game). Or maybe abruptly turning your face away when you’re about to kiss (followed by a look that says “well, if you want it, come and get it”).

And sometime while you’re getting into bed together, do whisper “if either of us says ‘dinosaurs’, we stop the game.” When people are using words like “stop!” and “no!” and “yes!” playfully, it’s important to have a safeword that’s unambiguous.

Other kinky domains involve role-playing and consensual non-monogamy. We’ll leave those for another day. For now, here are some truths about kinky sex, especially BDSM:

It isn’t violence, it’s consensual
There are no victims, it’s consensual
It isn’t anti-woman, it’s consensual
It isn’t exploitative, it’s consensual

Pain isn’t the point—intensity and trust are. And as one of my patients said recently, “BDSM doesn’t feel like how it looks.”

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