This page is Not Suitable for Work (NSFW) and includes pictures that may make you uncomfortable but are essential to demonstrate the diversity within the kink community. Kink encompasses a variety of practices, and while some parts of this might turn you on, for others it is what turns them on or brings them general pleasure.
When folks think of kink, they usually think of Fifty Shades of Grey, of fuzzy handcuffs, or perhaps, if academically trained, Michel Foucault. They might think of kink as synonymous with BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Domination & Submission, Sadism & Masochism). Kink is hard to define as anything more specific than sexual deviance – however, lots of what kink is about is not about the conventional definition of sex. Sexual deviance contrasts from the norm – heterosexual missionary position – lights off, quick, penetrative sex in a bed. However, sexual deviance does not even fully express what kink is. Sex does not have to be a part of kink. It can be but for many it is not. For instance, there are edge/knife players for whom pain is pleasurable – or for shibari (beautiful rope work) or nyotimori folks it is about the submission and control, but nothing sexual at all. For some, kink is about pain and control through a shared experience (Ross, 2011).
Consent & Scenes
There are many different levels of consent in the kink community. For Safe, Sane, and Consensual players kink is about affirmative consent, throughout the scene with nothing that could be considered not safe, or not sane (Jozifkova 2013, Barker 2013). For Risk Aware Consensual Kink players (most of my interviewees, and myself), Safe, Sane & Consensual does not apply – but RACK does, as for us, many of the things we do are things folks might not consider safe or sane, ever. For instance, some of the electric-play or erotic asphyxiation (breath play) may not by any conventional sense fall under safe, nor sane. However, in most cases, participants thoroughly discuss or even write out formal agreements prior to engaging in a scene. Participants set up safe words, explicitly describe what they want and expect from a scene, how to end a scene, and often care after a scene ends (Nielsen, 2010).
So, what exactly is a “scene” in the kink community? Kinkly, a sort of open-contribution BDSM website defines a scene as: “A BSDM scene is a pre-planned space where BDSM activities take place. It also includes the participation of BDSM related activities. Generally, the scene is discussed fully and consists of an agreed upon beginning, middle, and end. A BDSM scene may occur at a club or some other play space. A typical scene may or may not include sexual activity”. This is separate from a scene seen within subculture studies, which generally refers more to the subculture itself. Within the kink community, partners sit down and decide what they want in a scene and plan it out on as partners, even when one (or multiple) partner(s) will usually be more submissive. For some this might seem like it is taking the fun out of sex – there is no spontaneous scenes happening – but for those in the kink community, it’s about consent first and foremost, and also the idea that you can consent to something in the future and that there is always a safe word, or a way to get out of a scene.
Intersections of Identity
Kink has many themes throughout it, as it overlaps many different subcultures and communities (Newmahr, 2010). It spans ages, race, and gender identity. It reflects similar gender identities as mainstream community – while there is behavior that fights the norm of the patriarchy with female dominatrix and the diversity of what is found to be “attractive”, it reflects the community around it. To explore this, I did several interviews with people involved in the kink community across Iowa, Seattle, New York, and south Florida. For instance, in Iowa the community is more white than in Detroit where there is a huge black, gay, kinky community – some of my interviewees have been active in both of these communities! It reflects similar problems still – there is the stereotype of male dominator-female submissive, transwomen being asked to dominate and penetrate others, fat women, Asian women, and black women being fetishized (Ono, 2005). Men often do behave predatorily on FetLife – bodies are still objectified, but because the community is so exclusive and often hidden, it is often called out as such. However, kink does have an interesting relationship with race – particularly with race play. This kind of behavior is even deviant within the kink community but still falls under the overall kink community, though requires more explicit consent for people of color (particularly women of color) to be acceptable.
In addition, the secrecy from mainstream is hard because oftentimes victim-survivors of abuse cannot come forward with their experiences because folks do not understand that consent to kink is not always consent to anything (or everything) else.
For instance, Cliff Pervocracy states:
“A big part of the reason I told almost no one (and still haven’t told my parents and a lot of my friends) about being sexually assaulted is that it took place in a scene. I don’t want to change that story to make it more acceptable, but I also don’t want to have to preface it with an hour of BDSM 101 where I explain what a “scene” is and how “tie me up” doesn’t mean “do anything you want to me,” really it doesn’t. So silence becomes the path of least resistance.”
One example of this is when a submissive partner had their wrist cut open by dominant who was using duct tape, and then cut it off with a Swiss army knife; this led to the submissive’s wrist literally being sliced open and having to go to the hospital – which led to questions regarding self-harm that truly were not relevant in that situation, however the submissive did not consent to duct tape (do not do this – bondage tape exists for a reason) or using a knife to cut it off (one should use surgical scissors). This plays into the idea of what is okay in the community, or perhaps deviant. Oftentimes some kinks are looked down on in the community as strange, or a subculture of their own, such as foot fetish folk or piss play folk. However, there is an agreed upon norm against non-consensual harm, which this past example plays back to.
Online Community – FetLife
Kink overlaps heavily with the polyamorous community, the goth community, the pagan community, the atheist community, and so many more. However, the largest way one can see this community or get involved is by joining FetLife – the Facebook for the kinkster. It allows folks to upload their own videos and photos, have a relationship status, and post their own writings on kink as well. There are groups based on fetishes and locations, as well as groups based on age groups – for instance TNG (The Next Generation) groups, which are for kinky folks under the age of 30. It allows for private messaging, private groups that have admin oversight, and communication across the world; it also shows the networks of the kink community – something often mentioned is that the network seems to connect everyone; in many ways, this has made the community safer – as folks can assess others from their past communities and also give warning to communities when there is a predator within a community. in addition, many folks feel empowered to detail their mental health problems or body image problems, such as the addition of a line like this in a profile: “I am food restricted and if you mess with my body image I’ll fuck you up.” This empowers folks to find new partners and new communities, as well as choose how to identify in the community and to ensure that potential partners are safe.
Kink has shown up in pop culture recently through the Fifty Shades of Grey trend and then also in the last few years in politics and in crime (Weiss, 2006). It has even been written about within The New York Times. Fifty Shades of Grey starts with a young soon-to-be college graduate Anastasia Steele without much of a personality, who gets pulled into a kinky relationship with an older incredibly wealthy and powerful man, Christian Grey who introduces her to kink as it is the only way that he can have sex due to his abusive past with his mother. Fifty Shades of Grey has split the kink community in many ways because of the book’s abusive relationship and bad depiction of kink throughout the novels, as well as the stereotype of middle-aged lonely married white women reading the book and climaxing over the 50+ usages of “my inner goddess.” Fifty Shades of Grey was hated on through the BDSM blogosphere for the lack of a safe word, the non-consensual non-consent, and the continuous abusive and stalker tactics – especially with the uptick in kink-related accidents However, one of my interviewees pointed out that Fifty Shades of Grey got a national conversation started about kink community – and encouraged folks to get into the community – meaning more people asking questions and finding new things that they might enjoy. It also made it more socially acceptable to be involved in kink, which made it safer for folks to ask questions before playing. This is reflected in the fact that kink is not talked about in sex education – albeit sex education mostly just covers heterosexual penetrative sex – but this makes it more dangerous for folks getting into the community – leading to abuse and trauma because of a lack of knowledge of safety or consent (Bezreh 2012).
This is just one aspect of the authenticity policing in the kink community, while many other aspects come in from the perception of what a kinkster should look like or behave like. There’s the problem of over-performing – one that seems too into the community or claims to know too much is rejected by the mainstream kinksters as a fake or a fraud; the community prides itself on continued education and knowledge, so folks are constantly asked to prove themselves. This leads to boundary policing, but also allows for a safer community when done correctly.
With respect to politics and crime, there have been the usual satanic sex folk claims in mainstream news, though usually in more conservative news sources as well. However, many folks are rather hypocritical in their politics regarding sex – such as the senator who asked sex workers to make him wear a diaper while still campaigning on family values. In addition, there was an uptick in cases of autoerotic asphyxiation, leading to an unexpected moral panic in some conservative spheres– which led the discussion on whether individuals can consent to behavior that is harmful to oneself. Overall kink is seen as deviant but has its own internal hierarchy as well, and oftentimes what mainstream media and pop culture sees are the lightest and the worst of the community – either rape and death, or fuzzy handcuffs with a heterosexual white married couple.
Authenticity & Drawing Borders
There is a difference between kinksters and kinky folk, however there is no real agreement on what that difference is – but it is a huge break in the community of “us versus them.” For example, I interviewed a white late-20’s couple who have been partners for the past six years. Neither partner is straight and both have some formal education. Stacy is a pansexual cisgender woman, while John is a heteroflexible cisgender male. These names are not their real names. John and Stacy still disagree regarding what is a kinkster, versus someone who participates in kink:
Stacy: I think the whole like bondage in the bedroom… you know, the surveys that come back say that most people have tried that. Everybody’s tried it once in a lifetime. Those are just kinky folks.
John: I think with kinksters, it’s an umbrella term for people that are comfortable with dipping their toes into different things that are involved with kinky stuff… Like, there’s no shame in being like, “I only like being tied up by silk scarves to my bedposts during sex every once in a while.” That… there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s no big deal.
Stacy: Well, I would say that those people are kinky, but not kinksters. A kinkster is someone who comes to events and is active within the community.
In addition, there is a huge split in the kink community regarding what qualifies as abuse, what qualifies as consent, and how to make spaces safe. In some spaces, kink community is incredibly protective and exclusive – the word of a submissive is the law regarding what is abuse and who is a predator (Williams, 2009). Some communities require new members to sub for others before they can dominate others within the community; most always the community at least requires new folks to go to a “newbie munch” or a lunch within the kink community that is outside of any type of scene. This is one reason why many abuse victim-survivors and others might feel safer with kinky folk. For one to be respected and trusted within a community, they need to have years if not decades of work in the community. However, I am not saying the kink community is perfect – oftentimes there are abusers in the community, and folks who call them out are excluded from the community overall or seen as weak.
For instance, within the leather community there are levels of trust that are physical markers at community parties – leather clothes are gifted from others in the community for their dedication and work in the community. Oftentimes those who are “capped” (are given a leather cap – the last of the leather markers) are folks who have written books, taken care of others in the community for years, made gear for others, and taught courses for several decades on what they are experts on. The community reflects dedication and time, rather than money or perceived influence and outspoken confidence.
Methods and Resources
Throughout this piece I cite several different interviews that were conducted in the past two weeks. As a member of the kink community for the past six years, I have expertise and insider knowledge of the community – thus, I interviewed many of my friends – some of whom are well-known within the community and thus provided access to others within the community for this research. No names are included in this piece but the experiences described are either from my own or from others within the community – in Iowa, New York, & Seattle – ranging from small towns to large towns – and diverse in gender identity, race, and their own involvement in the kink community – either as kinky folks or as “kinksters” depending on their personal identities.
Culture & Resources
- An incomplete but thorough list of different kinks.
- Introduction steps to the kink community
- Overall BDSM 101 (includes above post)
- The Pervocracy, a blog talking about feminism, kink, and consent
- FetLife, the social media of kinksters
- Folsom Street Fair, the largest outside kinky fair in San Francisco each year
- Kink.com (Especially NSFW – the largest provider of kink-related porn)
- The Daily Flogger, a sort of tongue-in-cheek news blog on kink
Janet W. Hardy: Author of The Ethical Slut and considerable literature about alternative sex lives.
Gloria Brame: Author of Different Loving, and Different Loving Too
Molly Devon, Author of “Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns”.
Cliff Pervocracy, renowned blogger on feminism, queer life, consent, and kink
Scholarship & References
Devon, Molly, and Philip Miller. (1995) Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism. 1st ed. N.p.: Mystic Rose
The first book to start a newbie with in the kink community – while a bit outdated, it’s still a useful introduction to get into the kink (especially the BDSM) community.
Friedman, Jaclyn, and Jessica Valenti (2008). Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape. Berkeley, CA: Seal
This book talks generally about consent and sexual power, which overlaps into general kink and tries to address kink consent.
Ono, Kent A. 2005. A Companion to Asian American Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
This book doesn’t relate directly to kink culture overall, but discusses the fetishization and sexualization of black and brown bodies, often seen within the kink community.
Barker, M. 2013. “Consent Is a Grey Area? A Comparison of Understandings of Consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM Blogosphere.” Sexualities 16(8):896–914.
Bezreh, Tanya, Thomas S. Weinberg, and Timothy Edgar. 2012. “BDSM Disclosure and Stigma Management: Identifying Opportunities for Sex Education.” American Journal of Sexuality Education 7(1):37–61.
Jozifkova, Eva. 2013. “Consensual Sadomasochistic Sex (BDSM): The Roots, the Risks, and the Distinctions Between BDSM and Violence.” Current Psychiatry Reports Curr Psychiatry Rep 15(9).
Moser, C. 2006. “Demystifying Alternative Sexual Behaviors.” Sexuality, Reproduction and Menopause 4(2):86–90.
Newmahr, Staci. 2010. “Rethinking Kink: Sadomasochism as Serious Leisure.” Qual Sociol Qualitative Sociology 33(3):313–31.
Nielsen, Morten Ebbe Juul. 2010. “Safe, Sane, and Consensual—Consent and the Ethics of BDSM.” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 24(2):265–88.
Ross, Amy Danziger. 2011. “Revisiting The Body in Pain: The Rhetoric of Modern Masochism.” Sexuality & Culture 16(3):230–40.
Rubin, Gayle S. 2011. “Afterword to ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.’” A Gayle Rubin Reader Deviations 182–89.
Stone, Amy L. and Jill D. Weinberg. 2015. “Sexualities and Social Movements: Three Decades of Sex and Social Change.” Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research Handbook of the Sociology of Sexualities 453–65.
Weiss, Margot D. 2006. “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in US Popular Media.” Journal of Homosexuality 50(2-3):103–32.
Williams, D. J. 2009. “Deviant Leisure: Rethinking ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’” Leisure Sciences 31(2):207–13.