While working diligently on my historical novel and watching sales of Fifty Shades of Gray skyrocket and take over the mainstream consciousness, I started wondering what in it, beyond the S&M relationship, was so compelling. What did it take to find a breathtakingly large readership—and could I, too, dig into our collective pathos in a way that meant something to so many women? What are women really doing in bed, I wondered. What do they want, and how is Fifty Shades of Gray giving it to them?
So when I heard that the terminology around acts that our culture considers to be “sexually deviant” was being changed in the May update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), I was curious. The DSM-5 is a field guide for the mental health community and it was being updated this month for the first time in thirteen years. There was considerable noise in the press over how the DSM-5 might newly characterize healthy sex versus deviant sex.
I looked around to understand what appeared to be a very confusing run-up to the May update, and found the activist and author Susan Wright to be the most eloquent commentator on the topic. Susan founded the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), a national advocacy organization for the BDSM, swing, and polyamory communities, in 1997. I asked if we could talk for an assignment I’d gotten for Details on the subject. But what I was chiefly interested in was writing a book that looked at women and sex in a way that might be counterintuitive.
We spoke on the phone at length one night in April, after my son went to sleep. Our conversation left me humbled. In 1991, when Susan got into the kink community, she got a lucky break to get her first book published. But when her editor discovered she was in a kinky triad with a married couple, he told her that if she wanted to get her book published, she would have to sleep with him, too. “I stood up and walked out,” she said. “It was one of the defining moments of my life, and it sparked the activist inside of me.”
I wanted to get her voice out in the world to color the hard-facts reporting that didn’t dig into the issues deeply enough. Susan had smart things to say about consent versus rape not just in “fringe” communities, but in the sexual lives of people of every persuasion. Her sharply-worded thoughts of media influence on the persecution of alternative sexuality gave me a serious education. But what hit me most was how much we yielded to contemporary notions about sexuality. Sexual deviance is a subjective thing. What was considered deviant decades ago (homosexuality) is no longer so. What’s still unacceptable in some countries and communities (pre-marital sex) is a given in the West.
What is our cultural moment, I wonder. Whatever it is, Susan makes it clear that talking about sex yields a different kind of intimacy than most of us have come to expect.
The Rumpus: Since the third edition of the DSM, the manual defined “non-normative” sexual behavior as “paraphilias,” or sexual deviation. Back then, a “sexual disorder” included homosexuality—and that was removed in 1973. So there are different opinions about what’s considered “deviant” at each cultural moment. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) said they may add “paraphiliac disorder” to the manual to differentiate between healthy people who enjoy kinky sex and those who are mentally ill. How does that sit with you?
Susan Wright: The DSM’s rationale section for each diagnosis includes the APA’s thinking and possible language on paraphilia: clear non-normative sexual behavior that’s practiced by healthy people.” Paraphilia in general has been defined as “non-normative sexual behavior that is not solely focused on the genitals or breasts.” By itself, it doesn’t require psychiatric intervention. That’s different from what they call “paraphiliac disorder,” which is when someone is causing severe distress or inflicting harm upon themselves or others.
Rumpus: The language is cloaked in secrecy until May. What is the main issue?
Wright: How they’re going to define “distress” is the issue. There’s a lot of societal pressure because of the stigma around kinky sex. ...
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