Updated: Aug 23
I have been asked several times in the past few months about what I think about the growing visibility of kink. With the massive explosion of 50 Shades and all the products marketed with that more people are aware that some people practice BDSM or dominance and submission. I listened to quite a few conversations about how the kink closet is the next closet to come to people’s attention and how increased visibility will allow kinky people to be who they are.
In all honesty, I am still very conflicted about kink visibility. My concerns stem from several different sources. First, I do not believe mass media is capable of realistically representing kink, BDSM or D/s. Second, my experience of being queer tells me that there are some good and some bad things that come with increased visibility. Finally, from what I experienced as being part of the growing visibility of LBGT folks tells me that kink invisibility may very well lead to a devaluation of the kink culture.
Kink and Mass Media
I have a strong dislike for almost all mass media outlets. It has been more than a decade since I have seen any news program, news station, morning program or talk show do anything more than exploit key words and images to increase click-throughs so that they can sell more advertising. The only adequate commentaries on anything cultural or political I have seen in the past decade come from comics. To me we are in a Shakespearean tragedy as a nation. When only the fool can speak truth to power the next thing that comes is lots of bloodshed and the fall of the kingdom.
To take on amazing example, Son of Baldwin (I follow him on Facebook) did a commentary about the video of Freddy Gray’s murder. He pointed out that media outlets were posting the video and generating millions of clicks on the video. However, across the board these outlets provided next to no analysis or commentary about what had happened. There was “reporting” in that there were often summaries of what was in the video and a few statements from police and official sources, but there was no critical analysis of any part of the event. He termed this obsessive promotion of the video of Gray’s murder “death porn.” Essentially people were watching the video to generate an intense feeling but there was no thought behind this and no concern for the man who was killed or the ramifications of yet another slaying by police caught on film.
To me, this typifies current mass media. Anything thoughtful that seeks to contextualize an event or a discussion is immediately dismissed in favor of the most sensational presentation that can be used as click bait. The fact that three studies have now demonstrated people who watch The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight have significantly more knowledge and understanding of political events, are much more likely to be able to place countries on a map correctly, and be more informed about a breadth of political debates than people who watch CNN, CSPAN, or any of the network newscasts confirms that modern news does not effectively inform the public about anything.
The fact that most major news outlets on television, print and online have done pieces about kink only raises the awareness of the terms associated with kink. While no studies have been done at this point, I doubt the average American could correctly define what the acronym BDSM stands for. I know that most Americans could not explain what a D/s dynamic is. My guess would be that most Americans believe that the only type of “play” in the kink community involves tying up a girl and hitting her with something. That is, of course, so heteronormative and reductive it is appalling.
So yes, most people are aware that some people like “rough sex” or “bondage” but I do not believe that kink visibility goes beyond that. I know there is a great amount of confusion about what signals kink. People expect to see women in dog collars and corsets, to be with men dressed in black leather, and that is about it. This is not awareness of the community, it is a stereotype generated by people who have no understanding of kink.
Kink has a community and it has its own cultures. It resembles the LGBT community in that way. We have meeting spaces. We have education spaces. We have our own vocabulary, our one ways of interacting with one another, our own special set of concerns, and our own unique relationship styles. We have subcultures: D/s.M/s, leather, littles, rope, 24/7, and so on.
Kink cultures, like those of the LGBT communities, grew out of our histories, our struggles to be allowed to exist, our art and music, and our love for one another. While I am the first to say not all parts of LGBT cultures or kink cultures should be preserved, I do think there are things that are worth fighting to keep. I see increased visibility as a threat to these communities.
I was part of the LGBT community beginning in the mid-1980s. I was there to see the episode where Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sit-com. It was such a big deal that I went to the local lesbian bar to be part of the community party of this landmark moment. I got to talk to key spokespeople in the movement to out gay politicians and celebrities. I worked in HIV/AIDS and watched the establishment of ACT-UP and the GMHC and the Shanty Project and others that helped fight to have HIV recognized, to get treatments, and to fight the discrimination against people living with AIDS.
I had a relatively easy time coming out queer and being visible in this community from an early age. Part of what made that possible was the fact that I found older queers to talk to, that I could discover queer history, that I could read queer writing and it resonated with me in a way that other writing did not. I knew I was not like my straight friends. I knew I had a different path. And I found my community to help be part of that world.
Over the past forty years the LGBT population has become much more visible. That has resulted in some additional rights and protections, but we are far from over the struggle to exist in the world, to be able to work, love and live without being targets of violence and discrimination. What has also happened is huge parts of queer culture have been co-opted by the mainstream, stripped of their meaning and significance, and then used to continue to dis-empower and harm queer folks.
If you look at modern slang, huge amounts of it have been co-opted from drag. Phrases like, “You go girl,” “shady,” “vogueing” and “any word + realness” are all directly out of drag culture. While straight people now use these terms with free abandon, they do so without any cultural or historic context. I hear straight people now call each other “shady” on a daily basis. If stopped and asked what it means, they will say it is someone being disrespectful or condescending. They do not know it stems from the practice of reading in drag culture, they don’t know what reading is, and they could never tell you the difference between a read and being shady. This popularization of the term then strips it of its power and historical context and continues to keep drag culture hidden from the rest of the world. I take issue with it when the majority steals something of significance from a minority, uses it incorrectly, and then continues to ignore and discriminate against the culture and people they just stole from.
I see the same thing happening with kink. The whole 50 Shades explosion fueled enormous marketing opportunities. Now, at most sex shops and on Amazon you can get the “50 shades starter kit.” This includes very cheap and poorly made materials for light bondage, a blind fold, and a man’s tie. Now I am all for people discovering their kink and having fun in bed, but what happens is people by the kit to try and “spice up” their love life, they never discover the power exchange that comes with D/s, they may or may not choose a safe word, and they probably never discuss safety or emotional needs that come with practicing kink for anything more than one night.
What has started to happen is that kink is being sanitized for marketing purposes. Sure, the masses can get behind blind folding their partner and maybe tying hands together. Couples do that, then think they are kinky. There is no further exploration of kink and the benefits of kink culture are never passed along. As the pool of people who say they are kinky fills with people who do not know kink history, who do not participate in kink culture, and who do not explore more than what pops up on the first two pages of their Amazon search, the really good parts of kink culture become diluted and eventually lost.
Co-opting Kink without Supporting Kinky People
What I see happening is that people by-and-large are co-opting very small parts of kink but will not do the necessary work to protect kinky people. In most states, being a member of a dungeon or play space gives your ex-wife or husband reason to request full custody. Airport security still demands that kinky people remove their collars before passing through the new scatterback machines. This is more significant than asking someone to remove a wedding ring. Many subs and slaves will not remove their own collars out of respect to their Master or Dom. This would not be acceptable behavior. Most collars present about as much of a problem for TSA as a wedding ring. However, subs and slaves will be harassed and threatened if they do not remove collars.
Kinky people still can be fired or, at a minimum, refused a promotion if their practices are discovered. While most kinksters, like most people, do not let much of their private life cross into their work realm, employers still fear kink and use it as reasons to hurt employment prospects. The last background check I underwent for a grant writing position delved into my kink work with my references. The woman I interviewed with had worked closely with me in my last position and knew that this was never an issue. However, the agency felt it necessary to quiz my references about me being sexually inappropriate at work and talking about kink and sex because I had published about kink since I left my last employer. Of course, the HR folks were too chicken to ever ask me about anything, but respect and honesty is never high in HR.
Medical professionals still harass kinky people in treatment. I have spoken to more than two dozen kinksters who saw a doctor while they had some type of marks from a play session. Even when they explained the play was consensual and that this is something they did for pleasure, doctors insisted on doing domestic violence counselling. In two cases, even when the patient insisted that this was consensual and offered references of friends and family, physicians called in domestic violence complaints to adult protective services. This leads to kinky people not going to the doctor or delaying appointments to avoid harassment when seeking treatment for physical ailments.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done to protect people’s right to engage in consensual, desired, and healthy relationships. Increasing the base knowledge of a few words associated with kink will not help secure the right for people to love and be safe in their relationships.
I think some visibility of kink is a good thing. I think the fact that lots of people saw or read 50 Shades and used it as a way to start exploring feelings and desires they have had but been afraid to act upon is a good thing. I am very reticent to embrace widespread visibility and acculturation of kink. Kink has a lot to offer most people. I fear that the way kink is spreading in the media fails to recognize the core values of respect, boundaries and safety. What I think will probably happen is that impact play will be come accepted, then used as a way to justify abusive behavior. That scares me. Kink is not abuse in any way. However, it is not abuse because people who practice it as a way of life think a lot about their actions. I do not see that thoughtfulness translated as kink gets co-opted by the mainstream.