Tweet It’s the end of a long night out, and you decide to have your partner over for a night cap. As they mindlessly wander around the living room while waiting for their vodka soda, they notice a pair of fluffy, pink handcuffs (cliché, I know) sticking out of a drawer. Immediately stricken with embarrassment, you quickly write it off as a gag gift, make a joke about fifty shades of grey, and hope to all that is mighty that your partner doesn’t think you’re into that sort of thing.
So what is “that sort of thing”, exactly? Substitute the handcuffs for a leather whip, bondage tape, candlewax, etc. and the result is the same: a kink. Of course, kinks are not limited to the use of objects. In simple terms, a kink may be described as any “unconventional, sensual, erotic, and sexual behaviours” (Rehor, 2015). This may also include BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism), Voyeurism, Exhibitionism, Fetishism… the list goes on. As you can imagine, this term encompasses a wide variety of activities and behaviours, all of which have one thing in common: they are not considered “normal”. In fact, certain behaviours or fantasies that fall under the category of kink were historically pathologized, deeming the individual engaging in these behaviours or fantasies as mentally ill.
Let’s take a second to think about what is considered normal. In a heteronormative society such as the one we live in, sex is often conceptualized as being between one man and one woman, and involving penile-vaginal penetration; this assumption reflects the historical belief that sexual intercourse was intended solely for reproduction. As such, there was a point in time—just six years ago—when behaviours that diverged from this socially accepted sexual script were constituted as markers of mental illness, according to previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (Gerson, 2015). Behaviours associated with BDSM, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism were included in the diagnostic criteria of certain paraphilias—or unusual sexual behaviours—thus implying that these behaviours were abnormal. Although these inclusion criteria are somewhat worrying, it is not entirely shocking, considering that homosexuality was once too considered a mental illness according to previous versions of the DSM (Gerson, 2015). Similar to the eventual declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, kinky behaviour associated with BDSM, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism was subsequently depathologized in the DSM-5 in 2013 (Gerson, 2015), with the distinction that a paraphilia may be defined as an unusual sexual interest whereas a paraphilic disorder is characterized by clinical distress (or harm to others) associated with a paraphilia (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Sounds like a win, right? Now individuals are free to tie each other up, engage in cross-dressing, share their affinity for feet, role-play their wildest fantasies, and so on, without fear of being viewed as “not normal”. Unfortunately, the reality is that these kinky behaviours—despite their declassification as mental illness—still carry a negative connotation. The stigma associated with these behaviours likely results from their previous inclusion in the DSM and misinformation, and although the DSM criteria have changed, the attitudes that many individuals have towards these behaviours seemingly has not (at least not publicly). Just as we might hide our fluffy, pink handcuffs in a drawer, many individuals who engage in kink behaviours try and keep their practices on the down-low and may be associated with a sense of shame, guilt, confusion, and secrecy. They may start to question their desires and fantasies: “Why do feathers turn me on? I am so weird!!!” And that’s that. We lock these “weird” desires up in the back our mind and throw away the key. We believe that if we do not address or admit to these kinks, we will be exempted from the judgement of others, as well as our own self-judgments.
By not addressing or admitting to having these kinks, one deprives oneself of the potential pleasures that may result from them. It’s not that one is lacking the desire to experience this kink, it is that this desire is not considered socially acceptable. As such, an individual’s sexual preferences and actions can be affected by society and its standards. This “hiding” does not seem fair; one’s sexual preferences and fantasies are subjective and personal, not to be prescribed by others. So how can we change the narrative regarding sexual behaviours that deviate from the “norm”? Open communication with partners about one’s sexual preferences, fantasies, desires, and limits is arguably the best place to start. Discuss and explore your desires in a safe space-you may even find that you share a kink or two! Looking for like-minded individuals who share your love of BDSM? The Internet is a great resource for accessing communities who share your kinks, or may introduce you to some new ones (check out fetlife at https://fetlife.com/). On a similar note, the Internet can act as an educational tool for those who wish to further explore their kinks and desires.
Another important aspect of sexual kink play is that of consent. Many behaviours—especially those associated with BDSM and Sadism/Masochism—may be viewed as physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive. Consent is the magic ingredient that allows two (or more) individuals to explore these behaviours in a safe way. Obtaining enthusiastic and continued consent from all parties involved, and educating each individual on the risks associated with these behaviours, is required. As well, it should be supposed that an individual can opt-out at any point in time by using a safe-word, since nothing is more sexy than yelling “octopus!” while getting hot and heavy!
The important thing to realize is that there is no such thing as normal. Jack Morin offers a paradoxical perspective, which posits that sexual preferences and responses are complex and multifaceted, resulting from biological, psychological, and environmental influences (Nichols, n.d); these sexual preferences and responses are natural and will ultimately differ—sometimes greatly—among individuals. As such, it is not possible to determine what sexual preferences, desires, fantasies, or responses are “normal”, since they vary among individuals. Furthermore, this paradoxical perspective “sets aside judgements about consensual adult sexuality [and] acknowledges…efforts to understand the human sexual response” (Nichols, n.d).
In our journey to understand sexuality and all it encompasses, we all have experiences, likes, or dislikes that vary. Each individual has their own preferences, and they are entitled to hold these without feeling judged, ashamed, or guilty for them. The mentality that alternative sexual behaviours—or kinks—are abnormal and “weird” must be changed to one that is accepting and understanding of such behaviours. Whether one prefers fluffy, pink handcuffs or a leather whip, their pursuit of pleasure is their own. As long as every individual engaging in these kinky behaviours is doing so voluntarily and happily, feel free to bust out those handcuffs from the drawer and take them for a spin.
Isabella Di Iulio, BscH, Psychology, Queens University.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Paraphilic Disorders Fact Sheet - DSM-5. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Paraphilic Disorders Fact Sheet.pdf
Gerson, M. N. (2015, January 13). BDSM Versus the DSM: A history of the fight that got kink de-classified as mental illness. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/bdsm-versus-the-dsm/384138/
Nichols, M. (n.d.). Psychology & BDSM: Pathology or Individual Difference? Retrieved November 3, 2016, from http://www.ipgcounseling.com/sites/ipgcounseling.com/files/content/pdf/3psychology_bdsm.pdf
Rehor, J. E. (2015, March 21). Sensual, Erotic, and Sexual Behaviors of Women from the “Kink” Community. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 44(4), 825-836. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0524-2