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If you read this stuff in a novel, you probably wouldn’t believe it… Meet the real people who engage in BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & submission/Sadism & Masochism). Kinky will introduce you to a woman who can orgasm from being whipped, a man who likes to take a woman’s entire fist and forearm up his anus, and a Queer woman who likes to groom and train people who identify as “ponies.” As a professional sociologist and long-time member of “the Scene”—the social world of people who call themselves “kinky,” Dr. Fennell describes the lives of the many kinky people she has encountered with an insider’s unique brand of empathy and playful wit. Drawing from her extensive experiences interviewing, observing, and frolicking with kinksters throughout the mid-Atlantic, Fennell explains what it is that kinky people say they do, what they actually do, and why they do it. A tourguide who knows the scenery intimately, Fennell takes you to a world that is simultaneously exotic and unexpectedly mundane, but where the rules are just… different. It’s a world where the ties that bind are tighter than those of the outside “vanilla” world, and not just because there are usually ropes or chains involved. And it’s a world where love (and sex) can get very, very big, and very, very, very loud.
Sometimes truth is so much stranger than fiction.
Want to read more? Click on the 2 sample chapters linked below! If you want to see this book in print, please vote in the poll here, so I can encourage publishers to make it happen!
Editors and publishers: I’m still looking for a publisher for my book! If you’re interested, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll put you in touch with my agent.
Freaked out about your kid’s porn preferences? Chances are, they’re just kinky, not a future abuser. Dan Savage offers some great advice for parents who are worried about their kids.
It’s easy to mock and misunderstand kinky people. We’re weird. I know. Trust me, only kinky people know how really weird we are. But seriously, most of us aren’t that weird, especially compared to say, soccer moms. Everyone deserves to be laughed at for something, and it’s easy to poke fun at kinksters. But if you’re going to laugh, please laugh about the right things. The stereotypes and misunderstandings that “vanillas” (what kinky people call everyone else) have about us undoubtedly exceed the 8 things on this list. Lo, these misinformed stereotypes even recently appeared in a cracked.com article. We already have to deal with the fictional travesty that is 50 Shades of Grey, with its dubious conceptions of BDSM and its lexically challenged heroine. So please take a minute to learn how most of what you’ve learned about BDSM is wrong.
8. “What the hell is that acronym for anyway? Can I just call it ‘kink?’”
The acronym cheats: “BDSM” actually stands for 6 things—Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & submission (and yes, kink orthography traditionally capitalizes the “D” and doesn’t capitalize the “s”), and Sadism & Masochism. The acronym evolved over time from S&M to SM to BDS&M to just plain BDSM. Expect it to change again in 10 years.
And yes, you can just call it “kink.” Kinky people do. Just don’t be a judgmental prick about it.
For a good summary of the history, see CARAS research
7. “All kinky people wear leather. And are gay.”
Long, long ago, there was a “leather scene” primarily for gay men that involved many activities that we now tend to label BDSM. Then some straight-ish people saw what was going on and thought that that kinky shit looked fun and started building their own BDSM subcultures. To this day, gay men and… everyone else… functionally have two separate, albeit related BDSM worlds. Occasionally, we all get together at big events, but for the most part, the “pansexual” BDSM scene and the “gay men’s leather scene” are basically distinct.
Nowadays, all kinksters have the same flag, but the not-gay male kinky people are a lot less likely to wear leather.
6. “All people who do BDSM participate in ‘The Lifestyle’”
The public face of BDSM tends to be folks who are out, loud, and proud.
Cute pic, right? But in reality, you won’t find most kinksters at a pride parade or at their local BDSM “munch” or happy hour (those are kinky social networking events, FYI), or even at the local BDSM club. Despite the visibility of public kink, social scientists actually assume that the vast majority of people engaging in kink are not part of the public BDSM subculture (usually referred to as “The Scene” or “The Lifestyle”).
The BDSM subculture (which is most visible on the internet on the website FetLife) only represents a tiny fraction of kinky folks. Only a few kinky folks are lucky enough to live in a big city with a public BDSM scene. But even a lot of those people don’t like getting dressed up, going to parties, and doing kink surrounded by lots of other people. The public BDSM scene calls to exhibitionists and people who like doing weird things in the company of other weird people. These people also tend to be white and middle+-class.
People who participate in the public BDSM scene tend to participate in a lot of overlapping and adjacent subcultures as well, most notably the geek subculture, the pagan subculture, and the polyamorous subculture. Polyamory??? You know, that crazy thing where people get to sleep with people who aren’t their spouses, but don’t lie about it… or have meaningful relationships with lots of people… or some combination of the above.
Most people who participate in the public BDSM scene in the main urban areas around the U.S. are non-monogamous, while we’re pretty sure the people who like to play at home have more traditional monogamish relationships.
In the public BDSM scene where I live, monogamous kinksters were so rare that they tried to set up their own dating group. But there were so few of them that it rapidly vanished.
5. “Kinksters and swingers are all part of the same subculture”
Au contraire, there is actually a longstanding subcultural war between kinksters and swingers, even though—nay, perhaps because—they often have their events in the same venues on alternating nights. The hostility is so common that the primary group for swingers on the kinky social networking website FetLife is defensively named, “’Swingers‘ is not a dirty word!”
To be clear, kinksters like to play with power and pain; swingers like to have sex with lots of people. These desires occasionally overlap, but mostly don’t.
Many kink gatherings forbid sex; sex is what happens at swinger parties. Most kink events enforce strict rules about consensual touching; most swinger events operate with a “touch unless swatted” attitude. Many kink events are extremely Queer-friendly (despite a decidedly heterosexual male/bisexual female bias); most swinger events strongly discourage two men from staring at each other’s asses, let alone fucking.
Reference: Morton 2010
4. “All kinksters live in 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationships and do crazy shit like play with enemas and let people pee on them.”
Whoa, there, friend! Um, some of us do… but actually, the vast majority of us don’t.
Just like the gay guys who make the news are often wearing rainbow tutus with sparkly underwear, the people who are conspicuous among kinky folk tend to live at the extremes—but neither is really representative of “most gay guys” or “most kinksters.” Most kinky folks aren’t in 24/7 relationships, have never signed a contract that lets someone else “own” them, and wouldn’t let someone else pee on them.
Sure, lots of kinky people have done all of these things, but your average kinky person likes being tied up and beaten with a flogger on weekends, not wandering around on a leash and eating from a dog bowl in their spare time (not that I’m judging those people—those people totally hot and cool, and I sleep with plenty of them, but they’re still not the average). On Fetlife, discounting oral sex (#2) and anal sex (#5), the 10 most popular “kinks” are: bondage, spanking, hair pulling, blindfolds, biting, talking dirty, handcuffs, discipline, collar lead/leash, and lingerie.
Reference: for Sweden: Carlstrom 2012
3. “All kinky people were abused as children, or have been raped or molested.”
This one just won’t go away: the great kinky romantic comedy Secretary actually opens with the main character being released from a mental hospital; meanwhile Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey has some sort of tortured past of non-consent. Just like psychologists used to try to expend a lot of energy and imagination trying to figure out the experiences in someone’s past that “makes them gay,” the culture still tends to assume that some experience “makes them kinky.”
Despite the persistent idea of kinksters with haunted pasts of abuse and molestation, in fact, psychological research has found over and over again that kinksters are pretty damned normal and as likely to have been raped or abused as anyone else. A lot of kinky people say they were just born this way, with some suggesting that “kinky” is a basic sexual orientation the same way “straight” or “gay” is.
References: Meeker Connolly 2008 Wismeijer & van Assen 2013 (the Netherlands) Richters et al. 2008 (Australia)
2. “All Doms are men” OR “All Doms are women”
Both of these misconceptions manage to float around simultaneously. The idea that all Doms are women is fueled by the fact that most professional dominatrixes are women.
The idea that all Doms are men is driven by sexist assumptions about women all being submissive and having a deep-seated biological urge to spread their legs whenever anyone with a penis tells them to.
Nevertheless, the idea that men are Doms and women are subs turns out to have a little validity: inside the BDSM subculture, women are much more likely to be submissive than dominant. However, in defiance of popular imagination and BDSM imagination both, about a third of men identify as submissive, and switches (people who like to be dominant and submissive) of both genders are quite common.
1. “It’s all about sex”
This pseudo-myth actually gets debated a lot among people in the BDSM subculture themselves. Witness the following:
In wild contrast to the porntastic popular portrayal, many kinksters say that BDSM isn’t about sex at all, and it’s common for public kink parties and gatherings to forbid any sexual activity. When I interviewed American east coast kinksters, about 25% of them said that kink wasn’t sexual for them personally, and that they didn’t think it was sexual in general.
It may seem really counterintuitive, but lots of people do BDSM the way that other people climb mountains—like an extreme sport. Many people report the same kind of endorphin high from getting whipped, beaten, tied up, etc. that other people report from running, rock climbing, etc.
Other people really do engage in BDSM as a religious/spiritual activity, and psychologists have shown that participants’ bodies actually respond in ways that echo those of a person having any other type of religious experience to these rituals.
Please note: none of these photos except the diagram in the middle are original to me. All are live-linked back to their original sources. Enjoy!
If you’re into watching bondage, or into watching people being very strange in public, tune in to Morpheous Bondage Extravaganza’s live feed at http://mbeworldwide.com Saturday night! I’ll be rope bottoming at 8:15, 11:30, and 3:15 Eastern Standard Time as IPCookieMonster. I promise I’ll be sexy and pretty for the camera. I’ll also try to write a full report upon my return!
In one of the final scenes of the classic kinky rom com Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character tries to prove herself to the man she wants to become her Dom by remaining seated and unmoving for… a really long time. She’s haunted by various hallucinations while she sits there, one of whom asks, “Lee, are you doing something sexual right now?” Fiercely, she responds, “Does this look sexual to you?!” The question is left rhetorical in the film, and I’ve never been satisfied with my own answer to it. She’s sitting, fully dressed in her wedding dress, swaying with exhaustion, and the film even shows her peeing herself at one point. But my gut response to her question has always been an uncomfortable and unsatisfying, “Well, maybe-sort-of-kind-of-a-little-yeah.” I found the question so thought-provoking that I made it one of my research questions for my project on BDSM. I also meandered around the question a bit recently when I was interviewed by The People of Kink
But this post isn’t about other people, or what BDSM means to other people, or how different BDSM microcultures construct sex and sexuality. I just spent the last month frantically assembling that shit. This post is about me, dammit. Because the whole time I was putting that darned presentation together, I kept asking myself how would I answer the question–is BDSM/kink sexual/about sex–if I interviewed myself. And this post is what I would say.
When I first entered the Scene several years ago, it never in a million years crossed my mind that kink could be anything other than sexual. At that point, kink was all about sex for me: what could make me cum harder, what could make my partners cum harder, what could make them aroused and wanting to fuck me? Whether playing with violet wands, getting poked with needles, getting my clothes cut off with knives, or scratching people with my claws: it was really all about sex for me. The first time I got suspended in rope, I got fucked with a glass dildo; the third time I got suspended, it was so I could fuck a girl in the air. I really had no idea there were kink events that forbade sex, and I couldn’t really wrap my brain around the idea that there were BDSM activities that people engaged in for reasons other than sex. Once I started talking to people who claimed that they engaged in BDSM for non-sexual reasons, my brain tended to give them patronizing looks even as the rest of me sometimes tried to hang on to a poker face. Why the fuck were they doing this shit if not for sex?
Then one night I flogged a guy I wasn’t attracted to just because my fingers were itching to beat the crap out of someone. It was sexy to hurt someone like that, but I don’t know that I could really call it sexual. It made me excited, but I couldn’t really say that it made my clit hard. Pretty much the same thing happened a few weeks later when I got tied up in a really uncomfortable position for the first time: it was sexy and fun and exciting, but I couldn’t really say it got me hard. In both cases, the exhiliration I experienced wasn’t that different from doing other things that I find really sexy that are physically challenging, like poledancing or dancing with fire. The analogy is extremely apt for me: I’ve done competitive poledancing, which didn’t get my clit hard at all–it’s art and an athletic competition; it’s sensual and fun, but that’s it. But I’ve poledanced at kink events, and it’s an entirely different experience that leaves my pussy smelling like I’ve just been fucked. Ditto with firedancing. For both poledancing and firedancing, I will readily admit that I’ve jerked off fantasizing about doing those things in specific contexts, but they certainly aren’t inherently sexual. And I’ve learned to think of a lot of kink activities the same way.
Conversely, I’ve done scenes that I didn’t expect to get my clit hard that did. One of the first fetish photography shoots I did was mostly just me, naked, doing sensual and sexy things that I enjoy for three enthusiastic photographers. Totally unattracted to anyone there, I was startled when I got dressed later and realized that I smelled like I had been having sex. I didn’t just smell like I was aroused; I smelled like I had actually been having sex. The same thing happened when I just observed at a kinky wrestling party (I reeeeeally like to watch sexy people wrestle sexily…). Then another time, a couple of years ago, I bought a single-tail, and my friend InspiredIniquity gamely volunteered to let me hit him with it, even though I’d never wielded one before. I was really a downright lousy whip top, and he was being very good about letting me know what I was doing wrong and what I needed to modify, and he and I were just friends… but somehow, whip practice devolved into something that felt supiciously like a scene that definitely left both of us panting. There was absolutely nothing overtly sexual about what we were doing–we were standing a good 3 feet apart–and yet both of us left with hard-ons. We both like single-tails a lot, but much more was happening than a shared kink: there was chemistry in that interaction that had nothing to do with the whip. (He quipped that he could have been teaching me to sautee vegetables, and it still would have been arousing, because that’s what the best chemistry does).
The weirdest point of convergence for me happened just a couple of weeks ago at Winterfire. I arrived there wicked horny because my pre-birthday orgy got genitalia-blocked by a snowstorm. I started asking around for “Trouble” (it’s my generic term for kink and/or sex), and B offered me rope. Now, a sensible person would have said, “Could there be sex first, please?,” but I’m not always a sensible person. I’m a spoiled slut, and I’ve learned that sometimes, sexy, weird, and delightful things come my way when I don’t ask for what I want (it’s not a strategy I’d recommend to other people. I live a strange life). The thing was, I’d never done a rope scene with him when I was that horny since he and I started sleeping together, and I wanted to see what it would feel like. And…alkalgohotgih… that’s not a typo. That’s my brain on rope. It’s just a scramble of unwords…
He was fully clothed and I was still in my underwear, but whatever it was we were doing felt far more intimate than sex. I’m not normally a twue rope slut (people who space out just from the pleasures of rope on their skin), but the moment his ropes touched my flesh, I felt like I was being completely encased in his body. I started spacing out from a simple TK, which is a tie I don’t even like very much. In no time, I found myself wishing that he would choke me, and without me ever saying a word, he did. I don’t really have a clue what that tie consisted of. It started out with me hanging low, then hanging higher, then higher still, with my back got arched at some fairly outrageous angle. But while I usually let myself have an energy orgasm in rope like that, this time, I kept holding back, torturing myself with energy and desire and letting myself be relatively gently tortured with rope and manipulated desires that I couldn’t control. By the time he let me down onto the ground, still very tied, I found myself desperately grinding my crotch into the top of his boot. I never did quite orgasm from all of that, but when all was said and done, I felt like rope had been a dizzying and intense substitution for sex. “Substitution” is a major disservice there. Maybe I should say that it was a dizzying and intense “upgrade.”
…And so that is the gamut of my experience with the relationships between sex and kink: from obviously kinky sex to not particularly sexy kink to kink that just plain felt like sex. To this day, 99% of my non-rope bottoming is sexual, and the idea of taking most forms of pain without getting to cum is just awful, and I can take a lot more pain when I get to cum. However, about 80% of my rope bottoming is not-very-sexual (although I usually have energy orgasms from it, which certainly calls the “non-sexual” part into question). Pretty much 100% of my switching is sexual. I actually mostly refuse to wrestle people I’m not at least minimally sexually involved with because it feels too much like sex to me (although I feel the same way about most forms of partner dancing as well). At the same time, about 75% of my (unswitchy) topping is not-very-sexual. I’ve even made people cum by hurting them without getting a particularly sexual thrill out of the experience (although it was certainly enjoyable for other reasons).
Does it look sexual to me? Much of the time, yes. But so does wrestling, massage, most forms of dance, many sung duets, and lots of other creative and sensual things that people do together. I still mostly do kink because of sex and because of the intimate and sexual connections I feel with people when I do it. Even ostensibly “non-sexual” scenes almost always lead me to just go off and fuck somebody else. When I kink with people I have sexual chemistry with, the scenes pretty much always make me obviously aroused; when I kink with people I’m not sure if I have sexual chemistry with, the scenes often leave me feeling vaguely aroused; and when I kink with people I’m definitely not attracted to, the scenes often leave me feeling excited, but not particularly aroused. So I guess my final answer my own question is: kink isn’t inherently sexual, but it’s mostly sexual for me most of the time.