by Jillian Keenan
It’s summertime, so of course the anti-sex crowd has decided to cool down with a fresh wave of sexual hysteria. The latest panic is that kinky people will lure vanilla children into our sexual hellscape through trendy pop cultural depictions of BDSM, such as Fifty Shades of Grey. This nonsense is annoying, but it’s also nothing new.
It does, however, raise a question that is often discussed in sexual subcultures but rarely mentioned in the mainstream: Is kink a sexual orientation? I think it is—and if I’m right, the pearl-clutching mobs’ concern that fictional depictions of BDSM will lure sexually normative people into our lifestyle are as absurd as the fear that Brokeback Mountain would tempt straight people into the subversive fringe lifestyle it portrays. (Shepherding, of course. What did you think I meant?)
Many people, including Dan Savage—who, to be clear, is a vocal and consistent source of advice, support, and advocacy for kinky people—have questioned whether kink qualifies as an orientation. As Savage argued, “While some kinksters identify strongly with their kinks and are open about their sexual interests, being into baby bonnets or bondage isn't about who you love, it's about how you love.”
That’s more or less true—I suppose BDSM is technically how I love my husband. But, with respect, to reduce the orientation of love to a physical technicality is every bit as reductive (and ultimately inaccurate) as it would be to argue that homosexuality is not an orientation, because penis-in-anus is merely “how” a gay man loves his husband.
Put another way, and with apologies to every relative, teacher, and religious leader who influenced my development: Sexual orientation is far more about who is putting his penis in your butt—or who is spanking me with a belt—than it is about how either activity occurs.
Kink can be such an orienting force that, for many of us, it even overpowers gender. One survey from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that 35 percent of BDSM practitioners identify as bisexual—a rate that is much higher than the 1.8 to 2.8 percent rate reported overall. There are many theories about why bisexuality is so common in the kink community, such as the strong possibility that the kind of people who participate in a BDSM survey are more likely to be open to sexual experimentation. But I have my own theory about this phenomenon.
For years, I identified as bisexual because I’m sexually attracted to both men and women and have acted on that attraction. But in recent years, as I explored my own sexuality more, I’ve realized that’s not quite accurate. I’m not attracted to men or women as a group—I’m attracted to “tops,” or sexually dominant people, as a group; their gender is irrelevant. Many kinky people describe similar feelings.
This orientation doesn’t only, at times, overcome gender; it also overcomes the strong evolutionary human impulse to avoid pain. Perhaps this should go without saying, but kink hurts. It’s physically painful. (Sometimes extremely so.) Anything that can swim upstream of such a forceful tide must be rooted in something more fundamental and legitimate than merely what’s trendy.
The question of whether kink qualifies as a sexual orientation has been a source of friction between the BDSM and LGBTQ communities for a while. A few months ago, rage erupted when a party promoter scheduled a prison-themed event at a local kinky dungeon during San Francisco’s Pride weekend. Although it wasn’t an official Pride event, some said it was disrespectful to the trauma experienced by LGBTQ inmates in the U.S. prison system. The subcultural infighting sparked by that event echoed debates that have simmered for years. ...