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What Is Kink?

Kink behaviors generate a power dynamic through sexual activities.

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The writer Jillian Keenan reflected, “Kink can be such an orienting force that, for many of us, it even overpowers gender. The term BDSM might be more familiar than kink to readers, especially those older than millennials. BDSM refers to 'consensual practices that involve, but are not limited to, bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S), and sadomasochism (S&M) … [and] comprised of a power dynamic between partners enacted through various activities.'” (Gemberling et al., 2015.)

Today’s youths and young adults generally call BDSM kink: “engaging in behaviors that generate a certain power dynamic, experiencing attraction towards acts with a certain power dynamic, and adopting an identity that conveys a certain power dynamic.” (Keenan, 2014.) Kink thus contrasts with vanilla, conventional, or normative sex. Kink groups have formed on many college campuses to provide support and social activities to kinksters, and to provide information to the larger audience, including college administrators. Many groups give educational presentations to college classes and groups (e.g., sororities, fraternities, athletic teams) and to the community.

According to a large-scale survey a decade ago by Susan Wright, the most frequent kink behaviors engaged in by 75% to 90% of practitioners were bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, spanking, leather, role-playing, exhibitionism, polyamory, clothing fetish, and voyeurism.

In the public mind, kink is often equated with “weird sex,” which they don’t understand and usually don’t approve of. However, it is critical from a kink perspective that what kinksters do is not just about sex but, more importantly, about enhancing intimacy between partners. Thus, kink is usually a partnered rather than a solo activity. The sex heightens not only pain/pleasure but also the intimacy between partners. And, it is essential to remember that kink sex is always consensual sex.

The general public sometimes views such power-oriented activities as a sign of mental illness, a history of sexual abuse, bad parenting, or adherence to cultural crazies. As a result, some respond with harassment, violence, and discrimination. Kinksters report considerable negative effects from exposure to others who share adverse views that range from shaking heads to physical violence. In the Wright study, nearly 40% of respondents indicated that “they had either been discriminated against, had experienced some form of harassment or violence, or had some form of harassment or discrimination aimed at their BDSM-leather-fetish-related business.”

Science has yet to reach a consensus on BDSM’s nature and development. As psychologist Tess Gemberling and colleagues summarized:

"Specifically, although theories describing its origin abound, it remains unclear whether BDSM is best conceptualized as a sexual behavior, sexual attraction, sexual identity, and/or sexual orientation for those who practice for sexual purposes … Consistent with a sex-positive framework, BDSM may be best conceptualized as another form of sexual orientation for a percentage of practitioners."

Representing the prevailing view that kink is an orientation, Keenan argued:

"Kink is often so fundamental to our sexual identities that it has to be, at least in some cases, an orientation … Our orientation is so deeply rooted that many of us feel we were born with it. For us, kink mixes language, ritual, trust, power, pleasure, pain, and identity in a way that can’t be captured by a stereotype … If you accept this definition, then my kink is my sexual orientation. It’s not my choice. It’s not my illness. And it's definitely not my hobby."

That is, kink is both an identity (if recognized and accepted as such) and an orientation, which means one can hide it, not practice it, and renounce it—but it’s not going away. The implication for non-practitioners is that they need not fear being lured into a kink lifestyle.

The fact that kink appears so developmentally early in the lives of individuals is one piece of evidence suggesting kink is an orientation. I interviewed the 19-year-old Tait about his earliest memories—it was a dream he had at age 5 that he now sees as early proof of his adult kink.

"So I’m in this weird hospital room … It wasn’t explicitly sexual. Nothing actually sexual was happening, but I would file it under that. It was kind of this clean sterile hospital room. There were these hydrant-like things with these nozzles. Call it phallic if you want. Whatever. All very kind of alien and clinical. And there were these people who were walking around with these surgical masks and running things. There was me, he was a little small thing, and a bunch of other people. And we were all somehow on these toilet seats or something. And there was this plastic webbing that was keeping us there and we were stuck … But it was this really weird feeling that came over me. Like I wouldn’t necessarily say it was arousal but it was some kind of a stress mixed with fear and apprehension. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?' … And even to this day, the image, I have no clue where it came from necessarily."

References

Gemberling, T. M., Cramer, R., & Miller, R. S. (2015). BDSM as sexual orientation: A comparison to lesbian, gay, and bisexual sexuality. Journal of Positive Sexuality, 1, 56-62. Quote p. 56.

Keenan, J. (2014, August 18). Is kink a sexual orientation? Outward: Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/08/18/is_kink_a_sexual_orientat…

Wright, S. (2008). Second national survey of violence & discrimination against sexual minorities. National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. Quote p. 19. https://ncsfreedom.org/images/stories/pdfs/BDSM_Survey/2008_bdsm_survey…

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