Several years ago, I raised the question on this blog about whether kink could be considered a sexual orientation. Since that time, the issue has gained traction, due in large measure to the notorious "Fifty Shades Effect". Slate writer Jillian Keenan wrote this blog post in the affirmative, which prompted Huffington Post to do an online video conversation on the subject, and the discussion has been picking up steam ever since.
Of course, no conversation about human sexuality wouldn't be complete without a few folks waving their hands frantically and raising objections. And just saying "kink is an orientation" doesn’t by itself make it true. So, in this blog post, I'll address some of the more common objections to the idea of a kink orientation, and then present a new model of sexual/affectional orientation for consideration.
Objection # 1: Sexual orientation is about gender
Basically this constitutes a tautological argument that, since certain authorities have officially defined sexual orientation as "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes," then anything outside of this definition should not be equated as an orientation by, um, well, definition. Essentially, this is the same as saying that a nontheistic religion is not really a religion because, well, religions must believe in a deity "by definition" – similar to an argument a Texas official used to try to deny recognition for Unitarian Universalist congregations in that state.
Aside from that parallel (and the fact that there are more expansive definitions of sexual orientation) there are two other reasons for overruling this objection. The first is the reality of asexual people, who experience no sexual attraction to anyone. They don't necessarily hate sex – indeed, not all asexuals are celibate – they just don't feel the same way about it as the rest of us. Asexuality is being regarded as a sexual orientation, a sort of "none of the above" category, and the asexual community has asserted that sexual orientation is distinct from affectional or romantic orientation (including an aromantic identity). Which raises the question: How do we reconcile both tying orientation to gender or sex and recognizing an orientation where one may be attracted to neither/none?
The second reason is rooted in a challenge of the gender binary, including the idea that we are strictly divided into "male" and "female" categories of biological sex. Both intersex and genderqueer identities defy such categorization, as well as being distinct from one another (a genderqueer person may be born biologically male or female, yet refuse to accept either gender; an intersex person may not "fit" into medical definitions of male or female biological sex, while presenting and identifying as either or none). Now imagine someone who does not feel attracted to people who present clearly as masculine or feminine, but who does experience attraction to individuals who present as androgynous or genderqueer? Do we create a new gender label for non-male/non-female people, and a new orientational label for people who are attracted to them? What about genderqueer folks who are attracted only to men, or to women, or either one but not other genderqueer people? The fact is that there are people who, recognizing their attraction to multiple genders and not just two, identify as pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual and/or just plain queer. But this raises a question similar to the previous one: How do we reconcile tying orientation to gender or sex when even these categories are not as cut-and-dried as we originally thought?
Objection #2: Sexual orientation is about who you are and/or who you love, not what you do
Okay … In order to address this, I'm going to have to engage in some rather frank mention of sexual/erotic activity. If that offends you, I suggest that you skip over to the last paragraph of this section. That warning now said, let me present a couple of somewhat hypothetical examples. I am a heterosexual cisgender man. My romantic/sexual partners are thus women who are attracted to men (and hence self-identify as either hetero-, bi-, pan-, poly- or omnisexual). Such attraction includes the desire to spend time with one another, to hold hands, to kiss and cuddle, and specifically to engage in vaginal intercourse. Now, if orientation is in no way about "what we do," then how is my desire to put my penis in my partner’s vagina, or her desire to have my penis inside her vagina, separate from each of us being attracted to members of the other sex/gender?
Similarly, I identify as kinky, and more specifically as a dominant or service top. As a hetero kinky dominant male, I am most attracted to kinky women who identify as submissives, bottoms or switches, and who are attracted to men. Our mutual desires may include a whole range of activities including bondage, spanking, fantasy role-play, et cetera. But that raises the question of why we’d want to engage in such play, especially when it meets such strong social disapproval. If "what we do" is not based in "who we are" and who we're attracted to, then why do we fantasize about them?
Folks may be exposed to certain things, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to like them; some people hate the taste of cilantro, while others clearly enjoy it. Likewise, people who are exposed to something later in life may enjoy it even when they have been raised to find it distasteful; a generation ago, sushi was considered not just exotic but potentially hazardous and "just plain gross," and even after being more widely embraced there are still Americans who dislike it. So if our gustatory tastes transcend our cultural upbringing, and thus are likely rooted in our individual makeup, then why not our erotic tastes as well? In short, "what we do" depends very much on the totality of who we are.
Objection #3: While some kinksters think their sexual desires are an orientation, others do not.
This may be true, but by the same token, some people do not regard their gender-based attraction as an orientation. The question is what paradigm best explains the range of experiences that people report. For gender-based attraction (gay/lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual) a continuum paradigm not only explains the range of desires, but the relative fluidity with which people perceive and interpret their inner experiences. So a person who is primarily heterosexual with incidental same-gender attractions may engage in same-gender eroticism "experimentally" or "for fun" while still identifying as "straight" or "heterosexual". Also, many non-heterosexual people have often said that, while they were not consciously aware of their same-gender attractions, they were aware at an early age of feeling “different” from other people, making the connection only later on.
Likewise, an individual may experience incidental desires towards certain activities labeled as "kinky" and enjoy engaging with them on occasion or even on a fairly regular basis, yet not consider their desire for kink at the same level as someone with a more deep-seated desire for such interactions. Also, some people may have learned to suppress certain desires or fantasies, or may not have been able to connect a need for intense sensory input and/or role-based relational models with specific fantasies until later in life. Combine this with the significant number of kinksters reporting explicit fantasies or other awareness of their desire at an early age, and we have to consider one of four models:
That kink is not an orientation, despite the strong resemblance of experience with non-heterosexual people;
That kink is “an orientation for some but not for others,” again in spite of the resemblance with gender-based attraction;
That kink is either an orientation like gender-based attraction, suggesting that people have multiple sexual/affectional orientations;
That sexual/affectional orientation is a multifaceted phenomenon, of which both gender-based attraction and kink desires are recognizable elements.
In my mind, this last model is the most parsimonious explanation that fits with the growing body of evidence. And with that said …
A holistic model of sexual/affectional orientation
Alfred Kinsey originally proposed sexual orientation as a two-ended continuum, with exclusive heterosexuality at one end, exclusive homosexuality at the other, and a range of intermediary positions in between. Later researchers, such as Fritz Klein, proposed a more multidimensional paradigm of orientation and identity. The emerging awareness of asexuality as an orientation added even more complexity to the concept of orientation well before members of the BDSM/kink/fetish and polyamory communities began to propose that the orientation model as an explanation behind their respective experiences.
How to bring it all together? Let me propose a metaphorical parallel. Imagine that your understanding of music is based on vocal performance. You recognize a range of vocal types – soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass – with finer gradations within each general category, and even some individuals able to express themselves outside of a single range, or to shift in range over time. But music is not limited to vocal range, just as sexual desire is not limited to gender-based attraction. Even vocalists more often than not perform with instrumental accompaniment, adding another dimension to our experience of music. Thus a holistic model of orientation would embrace the full range of sexual desire and experience, not just gender-based attraction, just as an orchestral score includes layers of vocal and instrumental melodies and harmonies.
With that in mind, we may see gender-based sexual attraction as one dimension of this holistic model, often in line with a gender-based affectional/romantic attraction. Another dimension (or "stave" if we follow the musical metaphor) would be the level of sexual attraction, from asexual through demisexual and onwards; similarly, there would be a dimension for levels of affectional/romantic attraction. BDSM, kink and fetish sexuality would most likely be expressed in multiple staves – intensity and/or type of sensation, attraction to power-based roles, foci of attraction, and so forth. Even monogamy and polyamory may be rooted in a continuum of some type.
Some may object to such a paradigm as overly deterministic, yet I would argue that it provides a balance with individual volition. Each of us has a multitude of desires, just as an orchestral score reveals a carefully harmonized arrangement. How we act upon those desires, and identify with them, is our choice. We may deny some dimension of ourselves at a cost, or we may find a way to express it in accompaniment with others. Thus how our orientation is “scored” provides the foundation for how those desires may be expressed, which relies on (if you'll pardon the pun) how we conduct ourselves in the world.
A poly partner who now wants monogamy, an accidental triad, and more
by Dan Savage
QI'm a married 28-year-old male. My partner and I are conflicted over the level of openness in our relationship. She describes herself as "postmononormative." I consider myself GGG. While I know that she wants me to be her life companion, she has expressed a need for novel experiences that may not include me. While I accept that there is no essential link between erotic love and long-term partnership, I reject the polyamorous notion that love is limitless—when she's misinterpreted conversations and transgressed boundaries, it has always coincided with the neglect of our own relationship. I have given up seeking the moral high ground and just want to find a solution. Should I have polyamorous relationships of my own? Or should I focus on cultivating shared erotic experiences with my partner? And do her transgressions mean that the boundaries we've set are not explicit or generous enough? —Nonnormative Problems
AI don't think retaliatory polyamory is healthy or sustainable. ("I don't want to have other partners, but if you're going to have other partners, then so am I! Let's see how you like it!") And while you can focus on cultivating shared erotic experiences, NNP, your partner has made it clear that she needs—and intends to have—novel experiences that don't include you. And while her transgressions may mean the boundaries you've set aren't explicit or generous enough, NNP, it's likelier that your partner gets off on transgression. Some people do.
I think you're confused, NNP, and your confusion stems from the fact that your partner is negotiating with you about her nonnegotiable terms. She's going to do who and what she wants whether you like it or not, and she's going to hide behind "postmononormative" labels and claims that conversations were misinterpreted if that's what it takes. Accept her terms or divorce her ass, but stop deluding yourself. ...
This landmark law mandates that both partners issue "an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity." It acknowledges that fear or other factors may prevent a potential victim from saying "no" to sexual activity, so it shifts the burden to obtain consent to what would be the possible perpetrator.
So what does this mean, and what are the implications of the law? The Huffington Post's Senior College Editor Tyler Kingkade and HuffPost Live's Marc Lamont Hill on Tuesday spoke with Julia McCarthy, a sophomore at UCLA, and Northwestern University student William Altabef about how to make consent sexy, and what the law means for students.
Despite criticism, students like Altabef believe it's totally realistic to ask for consent in a sexy way, as he explains in the video clip above. ...
Kinky sex is back. Again. As Laura Antoniu, author of popular erotica series The Marketplace puts it, "the mainstream media 'discovers' kinky sex every 10 years or so." This time around, the discovery has been linked to more than a few sources: Rihanna, "the Internet," smartphones, and almost inevitably, the 100 million copies sold worldwide of 50 Shades of Grey.
That depends on whom you ask. The issue with understanding vanilla—the supposed "standard," mainstream version of sex—is that its definition is relative. Initially used by the kink community to indicate (in what seems to have been a largely non-judgmental way) the "norm" from which they deviated, it is now widely used as a catchall phrase denoting sex free of the bells and whistles of kink. No toys, no power play, no costumes, no imagined identities, safe words, or porn. It is generally imagined as missionary-style sex in the dark between a monogamous, white, heterosexual couple, with minimal foreplay, some quick (but not too quick) P-in-V intercourse, and at least one (but certainly not more than two) orgasms. The kind of sex The Cleavers probably had, if they had it at all.
There's not much to work with because vanilla is defined by what it isn't, rather than what it is. It is perhaps because of this definition-ingrained lack that self-help books and relationship therapists and articles constantly suggest you "spice up" your vanilla sex life by taking a page out of EL James' terrible yet ubiquitous book. Feeling like things are lagging in the bedroom? Buy some silk boxers! Tie him up! Have you thought about handcuffs? In an especially hot take, the Huffington Post suggests: "be different" (this seems to mean the application of a temporary tattoo).
Not a notoriously imaginative bunch to begin with, the vanilla-identified sex havers of the world are buying the suggested sex toys and other accessories in droves, reinforcing the time-honored truth that making people feel ashamed of themselves is a great way to sell basically anything.
The problem, of course, is that buying a riding crop for a night doesn't make you enjoy getting spanked. Sexual preference can't be faked (at least not well or to everyone's mutual pleasure), and the couple playing around with a set of fuzzy handcuffs might get some thrill out of feeling "bad" for an evening, but those cuffs will quickly end up in the junk drawer with the all the crumpled receipts and paint stirrers (incidentally a fantastic DIY stand-in for spanking paddles) if it's just not their thing.
The absolutism of the fight against vanilla sex (it's never just like "have fun with it!") suggests a total lack of awareness re: the actualities of the kink community. As even a light bondage enthusiast could tell you, 50 Shades of Grey is not an accurate representation of BDSM, let alone a reliable representation of the entire realm of kinks out there. To say someone is either kinky or vanilla is to ignore the incredibly varied world of fetishes and preferences nestled under the umbrella term "kinky." It's a logical extension then, that the same is true of vanilla. Not everyone who is into power play is into water sports; not everyone who likes it missionary likes it with the lights off. ...
The odd life and psyche of the man who invented her
Wonder Woman did not grace the very first cover of Ms. magazine (spring 1972), although many remember it that way. That honor went to the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, holding a frying pan, a typewriter, a mirror, and other tools of the hyper-multitasking modern woman. The most popular superheroine ever had to wait for the next issue to stride through the sky in all her 1940s Amazonian glory under the headline “Wonder Woman for President.” Below her is a divided scene—one half a war-torn landscape, the other a pleasant street featuring a billboard that reads Peace and Justice in ’72. William Moulton Marston, the inventor of Wonder Woman, would have loved that cover. He believed women were superior to men and should run the world—and would do so in, oh, about a thousand years.
In her hugely entertaining new book, Jill Lepore sets out to uncover the true story behind both Wonder Woman and her creator. Make that creators: not the least of Lepore’s revelations is that Marston had a lot of help from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway (we have her to thank for “Suffering Sappho,” “Great Hera,” and other Amazonian expostulations), as well as from his former student Olive Byrne, with whom he and Holloway lived in a permanent ménage à trois that produced four children—two from each woman. And Lepore adds another catalyst to the mix. Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, whose youthful brand of romantic, socialist-pacifist feminism was formative for Marston. Sanger’s influence is perhaps the most important of the connections that Lepore teases out between Wonder Woman, the early-20th-century women’s movement, and Marston’s fascinating life and odd psyche, in which the liberation of women somehow got all mixed up with bondage and spanking.
The only scion of a once-grand Boston family, Marston was equal parts genius, charlatan, and kinkster. As an undergraduate at Harvard just before World War I, he was thrilled by militant suffragists like the ones who chained themselves to the fence outside 10 Downing Street. Maybe that’s where his fusion of feminism and bondage started—imagery of slavery and shackles abounded in the movement’s demonstrations and propaganda. His experiences in the psychology department left their mark, too. Marston was a lab assistant to the prominent Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, a rigid German who opposed votes for women and thought educating them was a waste of time. Münsterberg would surface in the comics as Wonder Woman’s archenemy, Dr. Psycho. (“Women shall suffer while I laugh—Ha! Ho! Ha!”) Busy strapping Radcliffe students to blood-pressure machines in Münsterberg’s lab, Marston invented the lie detector—a forerunner of Wonder Woman’s golden lasso, which compels those it binds to speak the truth.
Devising the lie detector was the high point of Marston’s rather erratic pre-comics career. He seems to have lost every job he held. His venture into business ended in an indictment for fraud; his brief stint as a lawyer saw the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reject lie-detector tests as evidence. In 1929 Universal Studios hired him to give its films psychological realism and let him go a year later. His academic career, pursued alongside these and other ventures, went swiftly downhill; he plummeted from chairman of the psychology department at American University to roving adjunct. His brash egotism—and his affair with Olive Byrne, his student at Tufts and Columbia—may have been part of the reason for his academic failure, but so was the fact that the only psychological theories that interested him were his own. And the only people who took his mishmash of matriarchy and masochism seriously were Holloway and Byrne. His 1928 tome, Emotions of Normal People, defended “abnormal” sexuality—homosexuality, fetishism, sadomasochism, and so on—as not only normal but fixed in the nervous system. (He may have been a bit of a charlatan, but he was also way ahead of his time.) The book received little notice, except for a rave by Byrne, writing under a pseudonym. As with his other academic work, Byrne and Holloway were mostly uncredited collaborators.
Marston had a sweet thing going: two remarkably smart, adoring women to cater to his every need, each apparently believing she’d landed in feminist heaven. Indeed, it was Byrne’s hero worship that rescued his career. As a staff writer at Family Circle, she frequently interviewed him as a great expert on child psychology (without, of course, revealing their connection). One article, “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” caught the eye of Maxwell Charles Gaines, the head of what became DC Comics. Hired in 1940 as a consultant to head off attacks on comic books as harmful to children, Marston saw his chance to advance a cause: the problem with comics was simply their “bloodcurdling masculinity.” As he put it a few years later in an essay in The American Scholar, “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics”: ...
LAST month it was California, this month New York. States across the country are trying to figure out how to address the problem of sexual assault more effectively, and more often than not, they are looking to redefine the scope of sexual misconduct.
California’s new law requires universities receiving state funding to switch from a “no means no” approach to a “yes means yes” standard, requiring partners to make an “affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” before having sex, and making clear that silence or a lack of resistance cannot be interpreted as consent. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced that the State University of New York would similarly define consent as an affirmative act on all its campuses, one that requires “clear, knowing and voluntary” participation.
With an effort also underway by the American Law Institute to reconsider when an assault becomes rape, some legal experts predict that changes to criminal laws in many states may not be far off.
As a social issue, sexual assault has seen a significant uptick in attention over the past year or so. There have been a flurry of federal actions, for example, aimed at countering rape in the military, prisons, immigration detention centers and on campuses.
But there is still little uniformity on how to define rape, which makes counting rapes, and countering and even discussing the issue, difficult. In many contexts, such as the major federal law on prison rape, “sexual assault” is used instead of “rape” because it covers nonconsensual acts like kissing and groping that fall short of many people’s definition of actual rape. Until 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation still considered rape a crime committed solely against women, a definition that has since been expanded.
Over all, states have broadened the definition of rape and assault more than the federal government, according to a survey of the legal system conducted by AEquitas, a nonprofit group that provides prosecutors with resources on violence against women.
Clarifying consent is a common stumbling block. “Is the fact that the victim murmured, whispered, cried or moaned ‘no’ sufficient to establish nonconsent that a reasonable sexual partner should understand to be nonconsent?” asked Mary D. Fan, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. The role of alcohol in rape cases is another subject of scrutiny, especially since drinking is often voluntary.
Stephen J. Schulhofer, a New York University law professor, said many states still require proof of physical aggression, though a growing number no longer do. Instead, they focus on the need for consent and therefore include situations such as assaults of people too intoxicated to give consent. Even so, most of these states do not specifically define genuine consent.
Some states, like New York, ask whether a reasonable person would believe that intercourse was consensual, considering all the surrounding circumstances. Meanwhile, some states follow the “no means no” rule, while others — including New Jersey — have adopted standards requiring affirmative, freely given permission by each person. ...