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Kink Shaming: How Did We Get Here?

Taking a look back so that we can move forward.

Atrom/Adobe Stock
Source: Atrom/Adobe Stock

To accurately understand the nuanced lived experience of a person who practices or engages with kink, it is vital to reflect on how deeply rooted the problematic stigmatizations and stereotypes truly are.

The concept of intentionally invoking shame in others for their erotic desires is not new. The problematic ideological view that sex should not be pursued solely for pleasure is reflected in the various past attempts of erasure of sexual freedom and expression and, frankly, has contributed to the assault against any form of sexual expression that is deemed “abnormal.” It is important to note that kink and sexual practices that are perceived to deviate from the norm only make up a fragment of the dense history of pathologized sexual behavior as the judgments extended past partnered sex and included masturbation, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more.

While varying opinions about erotic desires have existed over centuries, there appeared to be a monumental shift in the late 1800s. In 1886, when Psychopathia Sexualis, the groundbreaking yet profoundly problematic work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing was published, the pathologizing of sexual behavior took off. It was not only that he “opposed homosexuality and fetishism but [he] linked them to genetic degeneration” and believed that “those who took part in unapproved sexual activities were said to be born “degenerate” and [were] to pass the bad seed on to their children” (Shorter, 2014).

Before his work, the perception of fetishism and alternative sexual practices were viewed as expressions of “insanity” and while he intended to argue against that point, he created a new and very dangerous narrative that these desires or behaviors were pathological and could be altered through psychiatry. This work became the spark that lit the flame for unwarranted policing and attempted controlling of sexual behavior and expression.

In the many decades to follow and even to this day, views of sexuality and erotic desires have remained incredibly polarized. The focus often remains glued to what is happening in our current time, but to look back and understand the history of the toxic sexual narratives provides a much-needed context for why these beliefs are so fundamentally grounded in the minds of so many. Beyond the work of von Krafft-Ebing and Freud, two of the most influential yet problematic individuals who have contributed to the way that we view sexuality, it can also be helpful to look at the shifts that occurred in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

From the 1950s—when the DSM was first published—to today, there have been massive shifts in the way that sexual behavior and desires were viewed. Many of the changes have come from remarkable and unshakable efforts by advocacy groups, most notably the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. They fought to shift the focus away from pathologizing these desires and move towards normalizing them. While many positive changes have been made to the DSM, there still is significant controversy and rightful resistance to the DSM’s current standards for a Paraphilic Disorder diagnosis, and many of us in the sex-positive sex therapy world hope for continued changes to the DSM.

The diagnostic standards and the sex-negative history that has ravaged our views of eroticism have created significant roadblocks for those trying to shift to a sex-positive narrative. Rather than working solely towards acceptance and normalization of erotic desires, we are working against judgment, shame, and often, hatred. When false narratives are continuously pushed regarding the kink community, the work remains that much more challenging. The lack of readily available resources and further, the deep shame that surrounds even attempting to access those resources, keeps folks who are struggling stuck in their pain without the room or opportunity to receive the help they need. Further, the mental health system in which those of us who are advocating for this community are in is so immersed with false information that to navigate through it requires a level of education on the topic of kink/BDSM that was not nearly sufficient in any of our training or graduate programs.

As modern-day sex therapists, educators and advocates continue to fight to dismantle the deeply rooted problematic belief systems surrounding eroticism, it is crucial to remain vigilant in our pursuit of quality research and education about the kink community. It is also vital that we create an environment that feels safe and non pathologizing to those who walk through our doors (or log in to our virtual sessions). We must also face our own biases and confront them head-on, leaning into our discomfort and addressing the ways in which we are actually contributing to any shame for not only our clients but for people in general.

We have all been taught something about sex, whether explicitly through conversations with friends or family, through media, schools, or by personal or vicarious experience. Each of those modes of learning has shaped our worldview for how sex is supposed to look, and when confronted with practices that do not align with our views, it is easy to step into a place of judgment. It is in that place where we must fight to free ourselves. Judgment hurts more than just the target of the negative beliefs. Hurtful words and actions rip through people’s lives and can end up hurting so many more folks than we can imagine.

The work starts with all of us. We must look in the mirror and process whether our reflection is a person who is helping to change the narratives around sex and eroticism for the better or is contributing to the problem.


Shorter, E. (2014). Sexual sunday school: The DSM and the gatekeeping of morality. Journal of Ethics, 16 (11) 932-937.

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