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.
Has your kinky group or business lost its ability to process credit/debit card transactions or has had (or currently having) trouble establishing any merchant service because of ties to kink? If so, please contact NCSF!
We have been discussing this problem with the Free Speech Coalition (which is actively searching for merchant service options for adult businesses) and have begun investigating effective options that would benefit our various alt sex communities.
Please email or call NCSF to share past/present issues and discuss what these adult-friendly merchant services might need to provide:
You and your BDSM partner and group members may be having a great time, but there’s a lot going on that you need to know about. On the one hand, prosecutors and courts across the country are bringing criminal cases, even against consensual BDSM. But on the other hand, NCSF is making real progress for our communities—helping to change the psychiatric profession’s DSM criteria so that we are no longer defined as mentally ill, preventing prosecutions and filing legal briefs, and pursuing a nationwide Consent Counts project to decriminalize consensual BDSM.
Richard O. Cunningham, B.S., M.A., J.D., has advocated for over 40 years on issues of gender, race and sex. He has played a leading role in landmark legal cases, including being the supervising attorney on the U.S. Supreme Court case to allow women in military academies and the initiating attorney for the lawsuit during the Vietnam War that resulted in the “Fairness Doctrine” to require balanced media coverage of political issues. He is senior international trade partner at Steptoe & Johnson, LLP in Washington, D.C. He is the former Chair of the Boards of the NCSF Foundation and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. Dick currently serves as NCSF’s Legal Counsel.
Judy Guerin is a well-known activist, writer, speaker and educator on issues of sexual freedom and gender expression. She is also a long-time practitioner of BDSM and sex educator on BDSM activities. She is a former board member of GenderPAC, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Forum 21 and the Black Rose. She is a former steering committee member of the National Policy Roundtable of GLBTQ/HIV groups, former executive director of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and advisor to the European Union Human Rights Commission on issues of sexual freedom and GLBTQ issues. She currently directs NCSF’s Consent Counts Project to decriminalize consensual BDSM in the U.S.
Advance registration required for dinner. Drinks and gratuity not included in ticket price. Event is 7pm-9pm.
***Please note: The BalMar's upstairs meeting room is accessible only by stairs.
This event is presented by the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture. Please go to TheFSPC.org for more information.
Working crisis intervention with adolescents was an area as a counselor I grew to love because of the diversity of clients I would get to interact with on a daily basis.Several years ago my passion for working with children and the area of crisis/trauma would open a new door for my professional and personal awareness.I had the opportunity to work with a young teen from a family who was struggling with what as a counselor I would expect to see in a teenage boy starting middle school, identity issues, bullying, and the usual horrible experience so many teens sadly go through.
However part of my counseling experience has shown that developing a support system is vital when working with children and teens, which is why family therapy is a necessity.During the first intake, we had gone over the typical counseling questions and discussed the importance of family counseling that we start after a couple of individual sessions between me and their son.Mom and Dad were extremely cordial about the process, extremely concerned about their son, and you could see their investment in helping him grow and survive this situation; yet something was still off.There was something mom and dad were holding back, and I could tell they were not ready to bridge that conversation yet.
So what did I do as a counselor? I left it alone.My therapeutic approach to counseling understands that this is a process where the client has to take the lead sometimes.When you work with children and adolescents he or she may be the primary client but the family is the overall client.After all they act as the support in creating environmental changes to help the kid or teen.
As time grew closer for our first family meeting the mother of my client called and asked if her and her husband could meet with me to discuss something important about their family.Now as a counselor at this point I had worked with many diverse families and as a counselor, my experience has always been there is more to learn from my clients then my client can learn from me.One of the first questions the parents asked me during our meeting with just the three of us was what I was required to report to the state about child abuse.As a counselor, this is not usually something you want to hear because you know the time that is going to be involved in having to make a report; however as a counselor who specializes in children and teens it comes with the job responsibilities.
I reminded the parents of the informed consent which we covered during the initial intake that I was required to report any suspicions of child abuse by state law.The questions that followed were similar to that of an academic inquiry on what was considered child abuse within our state.I will admit this had me concerned, and my direct approach was to ask “do you believe your son has been physical, sexually, or emotionally abused in some way?”The mom and dad instantly went to denying any occurrence of abuse, and I admittedly told them I was a little confused about their concern on the child abuse reporting laws for our state.
Dads’ response was “we are polyamorous.”I had in my personal experiences learned about polyamory and fortunately knew through some great resources the terminology; however, I value the importance of report building with my clients, and I wanted to continue building trust with my clients’ family.It was also important to understand what polyamory meant to this family.I was aware that poly can mean and look different to individuals and family units.For the remainder of the hour, we talked about their amazing family which included six adults who their son and other 3 children got to refer to as parents.Mom and dad’s greatest fear was that as a professional, this would be reportable, and they could have their children taken away from them because their life views are one of growth of love among the family unit.Our next family session all 6 adults attended, and it became very apparent to me as a counselor the opportunities we had to work really as an amazing support structure for this teen and help him through this difficult time of his life.
While this is a very short account of my beginning experience working with poly families which I have continued to work with over the past several years, this particular family and several others.However as a counselor it was an important learning experience to remind me the fear and concern which can often be with individuals because of societal expectations.If my life is outside of what society wants what does that mean for me? For my family? For my children?
I also am reminded that there is a need to acknowledge our clients as the experts in what is occurring in their life.This family had lived as a family unit, with their ups and downs, like every relationship for the span of over 20 years before stepping into my office.My job is that of acceptance and protection.There was no harm occurring within the family and if anything this family was making something that “society” driven relationship between two individuals often struggle doing.But as a counselor I had to be willing to learn.
I worked with the family for over a year and during that course of time they educated me on not only their family but resources, books, articles, and even polyamorous meetups in the area with other families and individuals interested in relationships.I had to be willing to grow and because of that and this particular family I believe I am not only a better professional but individual because I stepped outside of my box.
Communication is important, as a professional, as an individual, and as someone considering going to a professional for guidance.We should not be afraid to talk to our professionals about our lifestyles, and likewise as professionals we shouldn’t be afraid to listen to our clients about their lifestyles.We need to advocate continued expression and freedom because we hold the balance in making it “ok” and not a big deal.
I have been pleased and amazed to be able to present this particular client case to colleagues in past trainings who in the beginning struggle with the idea of working with a poly family and often I see many skewed views of what this means for the family and children.However, after we talk about and demonstrate the work we were able to do in family therapy and how the family having multiple parents actually strengthened my work with the teen, colleagues often leave with a changed view.As a professional that gives me hope and I appreciated for the opportunity this particular family had given me to work within the poly community as a counselor.
NEW ORLEANS, LA — The world’s first Swinger Pride Parade will take place on August 6th, 2014 on Bourbon St. in New Orleans. The parade is part of the annual event “Naughty in N’awlins,” which caters to a variety of couples who are swingers, polyamorists, into BDSM and/or open relationships.
The parade will feature a police escort, a second line marching band, Mardi Gras floats and masks, bead tossing and over 1,000 marchers. It will start in the 100 block of Bourbon St. and end at 735 Bourbon St. where a Roaring 20’s theme party will commence.
The event has been hosting a parade since 2003, but this year the event organizers have changed the name to add “Pride” to the name of the parade. Susan Wright, Spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, said, “This is an important step in the sexual freedom movement, for couples in open relationships. It’s important for us to stand up in pride and say we deserve our rights and we don’t deserve to be persecuted for our relationships.”
The Swinger Pride Parade allows this community to establish a presence, and create an awareness that hopefully stimulates intelligent discussions. For a lot of attendees, it will be their very first step out of the closet. It is also an opportunity for attendees to participate in one of the biggest swinger event of the year and share their experience.
Naughty in N’awlins (http://www.frenchconnectionevents.com/nawlins-couples-convention.php) will kick off with the parade on Wednesday and feature seminars, demonstrations, workshops, private parties on Bourbon St., nightly erotic theme balls and a hospitality floor where couples can be free to explore and expand their sexuality with other couples.
Contact: Bob Hannaford
1025 Bienville St. Suite 7 New Orleans, LA 800-304-4493800-304-4493
You CAN go to law enforcement to report assault even if you’re kinky. I get so mad when I hear people say, “You can’t go to the cops,” or “They’ll treat you badly because you’re kinky.” Really? You tell your friend to crawl in a hole when they’re assaulted? Why don’t you offer to go with them to report it to law enforcement or to a hospital? Or call NCSF so I can work with the local victim services and help them report it.
Since I took over NCSF’s Incident Reporting & Response program, I’ve made a lot of phone calls to professionals around the country in order to find good people who won’t discriminate against us. And you know what? Our advocacy efforts are working. Even in the most conservative areas, there are judges, lawyers and social service workers who are already educated about kink and nonmonogamy. They know that what we do is consensual, and that assault is assault regardless of the way we have sex.
In January, I was contacted by several victims of a perpetrator in Maryland. These victims ended up reporting their assaults in two different counties in Maryland. The State’s Attorney in one county moved forward with the case. The trial only took half a day. The victim testified, but she wasn’t outed in the media, even though the incident in question was fairly sensational and took place at a camp event in front of other kinky people. The event where it happened wasn’t harassed by law enforcement, and neither was the kinky club where the perpetrator then worked. The State’s Attorney was only interested in the assault, not in harming the victims or the BDSM community. In fact, the victims were treated very well by everyone they dealt with.
Today the perpetrator was convicted of 2nd Degree Assault and was sentenced to a year in jail with two years probation and ordered by the court to attend an intervention program for intimate partner abuse.
If someone assaults you or your friend, then this is what can result if you go to the police. NCSF can help you. You don’t have to stay quiet. Prosecutors will typically take on cases where there are witnesses, so assaults that happen at events are actually more prosecutable in their eyes than something that happens in private at home. Prosecutors also look at the physical evidence - if you were hurt in an assault ALWAYS go to the hospital or to your doctor or a community assistance center so they can take photographs of the damage that was done to you. Even if you don’t know if you’ll report it, you'll have the evidence if you do decide to report it later.
Also, prosecutors take it more seriously if there is more than one victim. When you report an assault and you don’t have any physical evidence or witnesses, prosecutors may decide to wait to see if another victim comes forward. Multiple accusations carry more weight. But that can only happen if you report it.
You can quote all the stats you want to about the small percentage of assaults - especially sexual assaults - that go to trial. But when we don’t even try to get justice, then zero convictions will take place. If we don’t try to stop someone who is a serial predator, then they will go on to commit more crimes.
Our community can’t keep people safe. We can’t give out all the names of everyone who violates consent or somehow protect everyone at risk. That’s why yelling names from the rooftops doesn’t work. But reporting it to the police does work. That’s why in this case, many of the group and event organizers quietly banned this person and pulled their events from the club while the perpetrator still worked there. They had to keep things quiet so the victim could pursue their case through the judicial system - remember that witness tampering is a serious charge.
I’m so proud of the victims for standing up for themselves and stopping the cycle of repeated assaults. I’m proud of the Mid-Atlantic community of organizers for how they handled this difficult situation. It’s been a learning experience for a lot of us, and I think that reporting assault to the police was the way to properly deal with this problem.
At its annual General Assembly onJune 25-29, in Providence, RI, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) overwhelmingly ratified amendments to its nondiscrimination rule, including "family and relationship structures" to its list of specifically protected groups.
The language was introduced by Desmond Ravenstone, a delegate for the Arlington Street Church of Boston, Massachusetts, and Jasmine Walston of the First Unitarian Church of Louisville, Kentucky. Ravenstone is also Moderator of Leather & Grace (L&G), an educational and support organization devoted to promoting awareness of BDSM, kink and fetish sexual identity; Walston is Secretary of Unitarian Universalists of Polyamory Awareness (UUPA).
"Leaders of our two groups have discussed what kind of language we'd like to see added to the new rule," Ravenstone explained. "Jasmine and I felt that 'family and relationship structures' covers a wide range, especially regarding polyfolk."
The UUA's previous General Assembly had begun the two-stage process of replacing the nondiscrimination language in its bylaws with a broader and more positive "inclusion" language, while retaining the old language in a supplementary rule which would be easier to amend. There had been discussions of what changes would be introduced to the rule, but no concrete proposals until this year's Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island.
Delegates at a "mini-assembly" where final revisions may be incorporated approved three such amendments: replacing "race" with "racialized identity" as proposed by anti-racism activists; expanding "gender" to "gender expression, gender identity" and "sex" at the urging of the UUA's transgender community; and "family and relationship structures" introduced by Ravenstone and Walston. The mini-assembly voted to approve all three changes as a single incorporated amendment to be brought to the full Assembly during its seventh session two days later.
At the General Assembly session, the full amendment was discussed and overwhelmingly approved. "There was no one debating against," Ravenstone recalled, "and no questions about the poly-inclusive language that Jasmine and I had brought forward. Looking at the delegate voting cards going up and down, and the results of 'off-site' delegates voting remotely over an Internet connection, I only saw one vote opposed."
Ravenstone also believes the new language may be embraced by other groups as well as polyamorous individuals and households. In particular, many relationships identified with BDSM could be considered as falling under this description. "We still have a ways to go assuring that kink-oriented people have equal standing in our progressive faith, but this is definitely a positive step towards right relationship."
Leather & Grace, a Coalition Partner of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) remains committed to education and advocacy among Unitarian Universalists to build upon the success of this recent collaboration with their UUPA allies.