The Slippery Search for Kinky Sex

By Julie Fennell

Despite the extraordinary popularity of the BDSM erotic novel and film 50 Shades of Grey, many people remain uncertain about what BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & submission/Sadism & Masochism) is. Classically, the term “BDSM” is intended to broadly encompass activities such as tying people with rope, beating them with floggers, or whipping them. Regardless of the specific activity, the defining features are usually assumed to be that (1) the activity is unusual for two people to engage in, (2) it is intended to emphasize power imbalances and/or pain, and (3) both people have negotiated and consented to the activity, and either person can make the activity stop whenever they want.

The last characteristic—consent—is the key feature that is generally assumed to separate “BDSM” from “abuse.” In the popular imagination, BDSM is generally assumed to include a fourth characteristic of being for erotic, sensual, or sexual gratification.

BDSM in popular culture looks both similar to and very different from BDSM or, more emically, “kink” practices within the kink subculture. The BDSM subculture, often known simply as “the Scene,” occupies a complex social position. It is a center for kinky pleasure and fun, as well as a center for norms and education about BDSM. In general, the Scene operates as the public-private face of “safe, sane, and consensual” BDSM practices.

Although the BDSM subculture thrives in many parts of the world, sociologists are reasonably certain that the vast majority of people who engage in kink do so privately. Consequently, we might reasonably expect that the subculture would cultivate very particular beliefs and values about kink. My research and experience with the BDSM subculture in the mid-Atlantic U.S. suggests that one of the most interesting and perhaps unexpected of these beliefs and values within the kink subculture is a persistent idea that kink can (and many say should) be separated from sex. Thus I set out to learn how a subculture that is usually assumed to be a “deviant sexual subculture” could attempt to re-define its focus as non-sexual.

I have been personally involved in the “pansexual” BDSM scene (that is, the BDSM scene that is not geared almost exclusively towards gay men) in the Washington, DC/Baltimore area since early 2010, and I started officially researching the Scene in 2012.

It is important to note that the BDSM subculture is not a monolithic entity: rather, it is a collection of micro-cultures that are loosely held together through the internet and a few large regional and national kink conventions or “events.” Throughout the summer of 2012, I interviewed 70 people in the mid-Atlantic BDSM scene about their identities as kinksters, how they became involved in the Scene, their relationship dynamics, and what it is that they enjoy and dislike about this subculture.

As I functionally immersed myself in the subculture that summer, I constantly attended kink parties, kinky happy hours, several days-long kink events, and observed online discussions; most of all, I looked for the largely unwritten social norms in this deviant subculture. I have remained deeply involved in the Scene since completing my official fieldwork, and at this point, I regularly teach at kink events and am a well-known blogger. This paper draws primarily from my ethnographic work, but also generalizes from my interviews, as I analyze the ways that the BDSM subculture has worked to re-define itself as non-sexual.

Bondage as performance art at Toronto's Morpheous Bondage Extravaganza '14. Rigger: Leon Monkey Fetish Model: Julie Fennell Photo: Patrik. A woman in bondage.

Bondage as performance art at Toronto’s Morpheous Bondage Extravaganza ’14. Rigger: Leon Monkey Fetish Model: Julie Fennell Photo: Patrik.

 

A Slippery Definition of Sex

Most sociological observations (including my own) of the BDSM scene have noted that remarkably little “sex” happens at BDSM parties. Although popular imagination usually assumes that kinksters and swingers occupy the same social space, that idea is only literally true (many BDSM clubs are swingers’ clubs on alternating nights). In reality, social relations between the two adjacent subcultures are so hostile that the main group for swingers on the primary kinky social networking website FetLife is called “‘Swingers’ is not a dirty word.”

Although the subcultural antagonism between swingers and kinksters is fairly pervasive, there is considerable geographical diversity in the sexuality of various individual kink scenes.

A large Maryland event posted an official rule that summarized the typical attitude in this part of the world which was: “If you are having unprotected sex, we will assume that you are fluid bonded with your partner(s) and not an idiot with a death wish.Please don’t prove us wrong.”

However, it is normal for BDSM clubs and parties elsewhere to forbid “sex” (and notably, those clubs do not label themselves “sex-negative” although the people who are annoyed by them sometimes do). The strictest anti-sex rules I have ever seen were posted in a New England dungeon which says that, “There is no sex allowed on the premises.This includes vaginal, oral, or anal,” and then adds, “If more than one people [sic] are in the bathroom, the door must remain open.” One large kink event I attended in New Jersey declared that “nothing organic may penetrate anything else that is organic” (which had the odd consequence of technically forbidding French kissing), and another in the same area declared that all sex was permissible, but “barriers” (condoms, gloves, dental dams, etc.) must be used for all forms of sex, even between people who were married.

Three things stand out about the social norms around these rules. The first is that “sex” is a very flexible idea in this context. Strap-on sex, any form of penetration with dildos or other objects, play with vibrators, and all sorts of manual sex like fisting are basically always permitted and fairly common—even in the dungeons that specifically forbid sex. Virtually all public dungeons will permit someone to be kicked or whipped in the genitalia, but many of them will forbid lips to touch those bruised genitalia.

The second is that many kinksters think that activities like whipping someone in the genitalia is obviously neither sexual nor erotic, while many others think that attitude is just plain funny. This controversy is ongoing and mostly very friendly within the subculture.

The third is that both formal and informal sexual norms in dungeons emphasize women’s sexual pleasure and largely ignore men’s.

Whether from whipping or vibrators or fisting or more conventional sexual activities when allowed, women’s (loud) orgasms are celebrated, and the focus of considerable interest, attention, and desire. Meanwhile men’s orgasms are largely ignored or sometimes even reviled.

Consequently it is much easier for women to orgasm within the (anti-)sex regulations of many kink dungeons than for men.

Even as parts of the BDSM subculture have attempted to define the focus of the subculture as non-sexual in part by utilizing a narrow definition of sex, both individuals and whole groups within the subculture have often strongly resisted these attempts. Events that do not allow sex usually are subject to anger, irritation, and sometimes flat-out boycotts by many kinksters. By contrast, I have never seen an internet war erupt saying that an event that allowed sex should stop doing so. The majority of people that I interviewed said that BDSM was always or mostly sexual for them, but the subculture as a whole is still wrestling with the relationship between kink and sex.

Anything Can be Kinky if You Try Hard Enough!

Although many BDSM microcultures narrowly define “sex,” the BDSM subculture as a whole tends to adopt a very generous conceptualization of “kink.” Many people in the BDSM subculture refer to “what it is that we do” (a common phrase in the subculture used to describe kink) as “the Lifestyle,” suggesting that it goes far beyond bedrooms and becomes an integral part of who they are.

In addition to all of the traditional things most people would usually think of as “kinky,” such as flogging, whipping, or bondage, I have also seen people at kink events regularly engage in and teach classes on: fire cupping (the same tools used by acupuncturists), “sadistic massage” (often taught by actual massage therapists), wrestling, waterboarding, and once even fire walking (walking over hot coals). “Pervertables” are also a popular concept, which consists of taking regular everyday objects (especially kitchen utensils) and re-purposing them for sadism. I attended a class on “sacred body modification” held by a local kink group, where it was taken for granted that (professional) tattooing, piercing, branding, and scarring for spiritual reasons were obviously “kinky” (people were confused when I eventually asked how this related to BDSM). The community overall cultivates a spirit of, “anything can be kinky if you try hard enough!”

Most importantly, the kink subculture typically frames “service submission” as an obviously important part of BDSM, but rarely frames it as sexual. Service submission traditionally primarily consists of tasks that “submissives” do for their “dominants,” doing the sorts of tasks that might traditionally be done by cooks, maids, or valets. In general, the subculture regards obedience (or the “discipline” part of BDSM) as very important, but this obedience can encompass everything from submissives wearing what their dominants tell them to, eating what they are told to, or cleaning the toilet and going to bed at a particular time. It may also include (or sometimes solely consists of) sexual obedience or submission, so that the submissive is expected to provide sexual pleasure for the dominant. But on the whole, the kink subculture in general envisions “service submission” and “discipline” as much broader than just sex.

BDSM Turns into Art and Religion

Although many activities that most people would probably not think of as “kinky” are often adopted as kinky in the BDSM subculture, the converse is also true for other activities: there have been movements among some groups to effectively de-kinkify certain traditional BDSM activities in specific contexts. Most notably, there is an incipient movement to create bondage as a performance art. Some “riggers” or “rope tops” have begun labeling themselves “bondage artists,” and work in both dungeons, mainstream clubs, and public art spaces.

For example, the British pop star FKA twigs recently employed the bondage artist Wykd Dave to tie her up for one of her music videos. Attempts have been made to launch a Bondage Circus for a mainstream adult audience, and an incredibly popular art bondage event called Morpheous Bondage Extravaganza occurs annually in multiple locations and is broadcast on the internet. “Rope bombing” is also a popular activity, and consists of people quickly tying (usually clothed) people up in (usually deserted) public places, taking photos, and leaving.

Many people talk about using BDSM for catharsis, meditation, spiritual connection, transformation, transcendence, and even “nirvana.” There is a complex crossover between the BDSM subculture and the Neo-pagan subculture such that many large BDSM events often host Neo-pagan style rituals, and some Neo-pagan events set up “sacred spaces” specifically for BDSM play.

In interviews, several people noted the spiritual history of BDSM, and its use in Catholicism, Native American shamanic ordeals, and other world religions as well. Although BDSM rituals do not always separate BDSM from eroticism and sexuality, they often do. The collective mystical experiences sought from people in those rituals are hard to characterize as “kinky” in any conventional sense of the word.

Social Legitimacy or Legitimate Personal Experience?

My research strongly suggests to me that outside of the BDSM subculture, people almost entirely engage in kink for sexual or erotic reasons. Respondents (matching my own personal experience) often told stories of arriving in the BDSM subculture believing that kink was entirely sexual and then discovering that there were more non-sexual possibilities and associations as they became more heavily involved.

My own personal experiences as well as my research observations suggest to me that people engage in BDSM for a wide variety of reasons, only some of which are sexual or erotic. By sometimes narrowly defining sex, usually broadly defining kink, and cultivating both artistic and spiritual uses for BDSM, the kink subculture is often successful at persuading members that BDSM is much more than “deviant sex.”

However, I believe that the subculture tends to deliberately emphasize the separation of BDSM from sex in an ongoing project of mainstream legitimation. Despite its gleeful celebration of deviance, the BDSM subculture as a whole remains conscious of and affected by mainstream heteronormative attitudes about the meaning of sex, including a sense that BDSM may be more socially acceptable when separated from sex. As long as that perception remains, it will be very hard to determine if people who say “kink isn’t about sex” mean that sincerely, or if they are trying to create an awkward compromise between a kink-positive subculture that exists in a larger sex-negative culture.

Return to May 2015 Issue

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