Truthfully, I feel like I could write pages and pages on my experiences in kink and BDSM. I jokingly say that I’ve been kinky since I was 5 (which is only partially a joke), but in all honesty, kink has been such a vital part of my life, particularly in the past 6 years.
Completing our three-part series, “Sacred, Not Secret” on Thursday, January 19th, Robin and I will talk more from an educational and spiritual perspective on kink and BDSM. So today, I just want to write about what I have learned from kink, both from the community and from my sexual partners.
Before I get into that, though, a few words on language, semantics, and assumptions: “kink” and “BDSM” are often used interchangeably, although they mean different things. “BDSM” is a multifaceted acronym that means “Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, Sadism/Masochism.” There are other dynamics that can fall under this heading (for example, M/s relationships are “Master/slave” relationships, rather than Masochist/Sadist dynamics), but in general, BDSM is describing certain intentions behind actions. S/M implies an intention of pain applied/received, D/s implies a level of emotional power exchange, B/D implies an intention of physical power exchange.
“Kink,” on the other hand, is more of an action, a thing you do. “My kinks are…” is a common beginning of a sentence, followed by a list of things a person likes doing. They may or may not come with a BDSM intention (For example, someone might have a kink for sex in public (exhibitionism), but only when it’s done in an established D/s relationship. Someone else might just have a kink for exhibitionism, but no interest in a D/s relationship.)
So, the two certainly overlap (think of a Venn diagram), but they are not synonymous. The other big assumption I want to tackle before diving into my own lessons learned is this: not all kink and BDSM is sexual. This is probably the hardest one to grasp, because I think non-kinky people (usually referred to as “vanilla”) can understand that some people need certain things in order to have an orgasm. Here we get into the distinction between “kink” and “fetish”: a fetish is defined as something someone requires in order to have sexual arousal. Fetishes are inherently sexual; kinks are not.
I tend to define kink as “anything that is used to help deepen and further your connection to yourself and/or your relationships with others.” Which is a really big and nebulous definition, but it incorporates kink as catharsis, kink as spirituality, kink as sexuality, kink as art, kink as community. Which brings me to…
If you can think it, you can kink it
It’s cheesy, but I have absolutely learned that anything (and when I say anything, I mean anything) can be a kink. From glitter to food to leather cleaning to smoking cigars to drinking coffee to cleaning to body painting to… the list is endless. And maybe this seems silly, but it has given me a place to allow my creativity to flourish. You think it would be fun if we ran around a field and play-wrestling and smacking each other with glitter? Let’s do it! I think it would be awesome to inflict pain via direct impact (e.g. kicking and punching someone) while periodically stopping to drink shots of coffee? Hey, let’s make this happen! You want to find a way to face a difficult and traumatic situation in your life by recreating it in a safe way? Let’s talk about what that means to you. It brings you great joy and peace to do someone’s dishes as a way of expressing your care for them as well as quiets your own thoughts and helps you feel calm? I have a sink and plenty of dishes.
More often than not, kink isn’t about whips and chains so much as it is about finding a way to creatively express who you are. It’s silly and goofy and absurd and sometimes it’s hard and difficult and powerful, but it can just be… fun.
Learn yourself, know yourself
In kink, similar to poly, it is of the upmost importance to know what you want and, I would argue, work to understand those desires. If you like pain, great! What kind of pain? Sharp, stingy, thuddy, dull? How much pain? Rate on a scale of 1-10 the level that you enjoy experiencing. Do you want to stay at that level, or get pushed beyond it? Do you like small amounts of intense pain or long, slow amounts of a steady buildup of pain?
You like being restrained? Great! Do you enjoy the feeling of being unable to move? Or does it help you feel more present in your body? Does it make you feel afraid or safe to be tied up? Do you only want to be tied to furniture (e.g. a bed) or would you be interested in doing artistic rope?
Knowing and understanding your desires not only helps you be able to talk about and ask for the things you want, but it also helps you understand what similar things you might also be interested in trying. For example, if you like being restrained because you enjoy the feeling of not being able to move, you might also like certain types of rope suspension (and not just handcuffs to the bed). If, however, you like being restrained because it helps you feel more present in your body, then you might also be interested in experimenting with different stimuli (pain, sensation, etc.) to see how that might contribute (or detract) from the feeling.
Understanding where we are coming from is crucial, not just because it helps us articulate what we want, but also because it helps inform and guide enthusiastic, informed consent.
Consent isn’t sexy; it’s mandatory.
Ok, so I think consent is also sexy. But it is mandatory to get consent before interacting in any way with another person. Different communities do this differently, but for me, I recognize that my lessons inside both radical and kink scenes (both of which, for me, were consent-focused) has made me more aware of the ways in which I interact with people outside of those settings.
I ask before I hug someone, unless I know them well enough that we have given one another permission to hug without asking. I ask before I touch someone else’s things- be it a book on someone’s book shelf, or sitting on someone’s bed. I am aware of how close I am standing to people in line at the coffeeshop, aware of people’s personal space, aware of body language signals that imply whether or not it is welcome to approach someone. I ask before broaching emotionally-loaded conversations to make sure that the person I’m talking to is in a space to have those conversations.
It comes from navigating spaces in which enthusiastic consent is expected. As I was saying above, knowing where a desire is coming from is a vastly important aspect of the kink scene because of enthusiastic,
informed consent. For example, if someone wants a situation (also called a “scene”) that will cause them a lot of pain because they like the endorphins, that’s a very different situation than someone who wants to do a scene that will cause them a lot of pain because they are dealing with a traumatic experience and want to find a cathartic way to deal with that. The person inflicting the pain might be fine with the former, but not able to deal with the emotional fallout from the latter (and that is completely fine). So we have to have consent- not just to be touched in certain ways or subjected to certain sensations and experiences, but also to decide what situations we want to engage in.
Kink is an amazing way to face all kinds of fears. For me personally, kink has truly helped me dismantle many of my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about my interactions with cisgendered men and allow myself to be physically and emotionally vulnerable and connected in a way that I had not experienced before. Allowing cismen to tie me up, for example, has been a really powerful experience for me- not just because I like the feeling of rope, but also because I put myself in a position where someone had power over me, and I had to yield to that feeling of vulnerability and learn to trust that I was safe.
I have utilized kink to deal with sexual trauma, fear of queer-bashing, internalized distrust of cismen, feelings of inadequacy, and fear of the unknown. I hope that I would have found a way to confront these fears outside of the kink scene; however, for me, the kink scene was immeasurably helpful in propelling my own healing in these areas, and I do not feel like I would be in the place that I am without my engagement in the kink scene.
I have a hard time imaging what kind of image this paints for someone who is not intimately involved in kink or BDSM (see Robin’s observations below). Kink is so many things to so many people, and the only blanket statement I can make about kink is that you can’t make any blanket statements. Every person’s experiences are different and come from a different place. Kink has taught me a lot about who I am and how I want to navigate the world. My way isn’t the only way, but it feels real and authentic to me. Kink has helped me be a better version of myself: more honest and open, better able to articulate and hold to boundaries, to understand the process the world that I live in. I celebrate who I am- the serious and the goofy, the sexual and the platonic, the spiritual and the embodied, and watch the lines between these black-and-white dichotomies slowly fade to gray.
About a year ago, as I sat at a meeting, a church lay leader told the group that she and her partner were in a dominant/submissive relationship. I was delighted by her honesty, her courage, and frankly also intrigued because she suddenly seemed like a more interesting person than I had imagined.
At that point I had no real knowledge of what she meant. What I was sure about is that she and her partner were not the only people in the congregation with those interests and practices in their lives. Her revelation was related to the discussion—namely how to talk about sex in a church context—and helped frame and explain her point of view, but it was not central to our main topic. Still, I now note with interest that I did not seek her out later to learn more, despite my usual interest in all things sexual.
There are several reasons for this, I think. The first may be that this whole subject felt scary to me. It certainly presses all my internalized buttons about feeling a need to appear “normal.” Not just in church, but in our society generally, dominant/submissive sex or life in general is not considered mainstream. Nice people avoid this, or at least avoid talking about it, and certainly do not admit to being interested or involved.
Of course, in another sense this is nonsense. We live in a world where we are dominated in one way or another, and many, maybe most, if not all, of us, are dominant sometimes. Just think about our current political realm. I doubt I need to use names of some dominant people very much in the headlines these days. Those of us who are parents, not to mention bosses or owners of various enterprises, have certainly dominated others at times. The truth is we, or at least I, live in denial about the place of dominance and submission in life.
And I am aware, now, that I had a preconceived idea about what dominant/submissive meant—mainly that one put the other through pain. I am not a big fan of pain of any sort.
The reality, as I am learning, is that being “dom and sub” is not so simple. Yes, some activities are about physical pain. But others can be more about psychological needs—as Malachi has told me, for example, being submissive can be an opportunity to let go of all your needs to meet some internalized standard or set of standards about your looks or behavior, standards that for many of us are heavy burdens to bear through most of our lives.
So, as Malachi and I prepare to lead an online discussion on kink/BDSM, I am learning more about this way of sharing and celebrating lives and bodies. I know that people engage in activities that meet their needs—emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual—and that is good for them, and for the rest of us, too, when people are finding personal satisfaction and fulfillment. What I also know is that I can learn from them about what they do and why they do it, and in the process I will learn more about myself. I may even discover something I want to do that I never knew about, or even knew I wanted.
So far, I have only delved a little, with Malachi’s help, into the world of what practitioners usually call “kink,” what I and others, if we are feeling particularly sophisticated, may call BDSM (activities, often sexual but not always, involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomacocism), I have read articles and watched a lecture and visited a website, fetlife.com. It is all very educational for me.
As I perused fetlife.com, I did not think there would be anything to catch my fancy, but I have discovered that exhibitionism is a popular activity. That certainly is something I have long known was part of me and as part of my education I am seeking to learn more.
What I am already learning is that there are many kinds of exhibitionism; and as I continue looking around, I discover that the larger world of kink seems almost limitless. Malachi told me, “if you think it, you can kink it,” and I am beginning to see that truth.
This raises up a positive attribute I am seeing in my explorations, namely that “kinksters” know what they want and they say so. They also appear to know how much of it they want and how often, and any limits they need to set. I think many of us could learn from this, especially perhaps when it comes to sex. Frank conversations with our partner(s) are, I observe, too rare in many more traditional relationships. Many of us are victims of an old attitude of “don’t talk about it” when it comes to sex. Frankly, our sex lives, and the world, would be a better place if many of us were more honest about sex, if we really named our needs and desires.
The other thing I am observing is the centrality of consent and trust. Kinksters know that for their needs and desires to be met they need others whose needs and desires also are deserving of respect. And this means honoring limits as well as dreams and fantasies. All of this builds trust. And trust is key to good sex, as in all forms and venues of intimacy.
Imagine if our entire world could learn that while sex can often be playful, it is not a game of one getting something from another or one lording it over others. It is about satisfaction and joy and deep feelings of wellness and pleasure for all involved.
And then there is play. BDSM people often enact what they call “scenes,” meaning that by dreaming and planning together they create shared time for pleasure and intimacy—time that involves their bodies as well as a setting and often some sort of equipment or toys. Costumes can be involved, too. If the scene is complicated, or involves new types of activity to one or more of the participants, practice may be necessary. This can sound serious, but like much satisfying play, sexual or otherwise, organization can be important, and even practice can be pleasurable.
There is so much more to kink than these few notes. I am learning that it is not all about sex. Some rope tying I watched did not seem sexual to me and I was even bored through much of it. But it seemed satisfying to the participants.
So, I am beginning to see that this is all more involved than I could have imagined—and very rich and satisfying for those whose needs and desires it satisfies.
What seems clear to me is that once again I can learn from others whose desires, attitudes, and activities are different from my own. There is no room for judgment, no need for fear. Instead, we can affirm people who are consensually pleasing, supporting, and even stretching each other. The world needs more of that, not less.
I hope you will join us next Thursday, January 19 online for further remarks from Malachi and me, and a time for participants to share their thoughts and feelings, too. Details below.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
Who has impacted your understanding of how you navigate the world as a sexual and/or queer person? What people have had an impact on your experiences and pushed you to be the best versions of yourself? What was it about those people that made such a substantial impact? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part 3: Beyond the Norm
We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.
Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.