The Willful Misunderstanding of Kink

What does it mean to conflate a sexual practice with abuse?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

The word “kink” is a slippery term, and depending on whom you ask, it can have varying, even competing, definitions. But while speaking in the aggregate about all kink practices can be difficult, I don’t think I’m overgeneralizing when I say that consent is central to kink, so much so that it is very often foregrounded, explicit, and detailed, with clearly established, agreed-upon protocols for withdrawing or adjusting one’s consent. It isn’t at all unusual for sexual partners to write out physical contracts about what is allowed and what is not.

Earlier this month, Garth Greenwell and I published Kink, an anthology of fifteen writers’ short stories centered around kink, desire, power, sex, and bodies. Garth and I started dreaming up this anthology in 2017, with the central hope of creating a book that might stand in opposition to the widespread tendency to reduce kink communities and practices to pathologies, jokes, or caricatures. Such reductive tendencies can seem especially odd given that one shared characteristic of kink practices is that they don’t take for granted what sex can look like. Given those pathologies, jokes, and caricatures, I’d steeled myself for the ignorance that would surely attend the book’s publication, so I shouldn’t have been surprised (though I always am, no amount of preparation ever being enough) when ignorant people made themselves heard on Garth’s and my social-media feeds.

Some abusers, these people claimed, deployed kink as a cover for harming others; therefore, they said, kink itself was bad and dangerous. It’s possible the conversation was especially heated because the performer Marilyn Manson has been in the news recently following allegations that he terribly abused former sexual partners, including actors Esmé Bianco and Evan Rachel Wood. The actor Armie Hammer has been in the news recently for similar reasons, with multiple former partners alleging that Hammer abused them. (Manson has denied the allegations. Earlier this month, he was dropped by his talent agent and booking label. He is currently under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for alleged domestic-violence incidents. Hammer has also denied the allegations against him and has also been dropped by his talent agent and publicist.)

Bianco says that during what was supposed to be a music-video shoot, Manson turned violent: He tied her with cables, repeatedly hit her with a whip, and applied electric shocks to her wounds. Some have claimed that Bianco’s story is evidence that kink is harmful, because it describes how one common manifestation of kink, BDSM — an umbrella term which includes bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism — could be used to hurt women.

But what Manson allegedly did to Bianco, as Bianco herself has noted, wasn’t BDSM. What Hammer allegedly did to his partners wasn’t BDSM either. As the Cut reported, Manson and Bianco “hadn’t discussed consent or safe words, which she knew from both personal experience and the fetish performers in her circle were crucial for safe power dynamics.” Consent is both the foundation of kink and its front door: The fastest way to be expelled from a kink space is to violate someone’s consent. This often extends to actions elsewhere thought acceptable, like touching another person without clear consent.

As a result, a lot of people — women very much included — have found that kink spaces and kink communities can feel markedly safer than other, less consent-prioritizing spaces. Consider, for instance, the consent violations that could (and often did) take place in a single evening in a predominantly heterosexual sports bar, back when we could go to bars. Consider the reality that many people who take part in submissive roles find that, with consent made so explicit, they can have even more control in a kinky sexual encounter than they otherwise would. Accordingly, many kinky people feel that the person truly in control in such encounters is the submissive.

It is of course possible that, especially given how ignorant society can be about kink, some abusers might use that ignorance as a shield for their activities. But Manson’s alleged abuse of Bianco no more belongs under the auspices of kink than assault belongs under the auspices of sex, and surely the best way to help demystify what kink is, and what consensual kink should look like, is through education and destigmatization.

Meanwhile, the argument that kink is morally suspect because abusers hide behind it makes no sense. Just imagine if we applied that same logic to other activities. Should we, for instance, likewise interrogate all gymnastics lessons? Or what of churchgoing, given the prevalence of clerical abuse? Most abuse takes place in families: Are families inherently harmful? Should we be suspicious of any social space that has ever contained a bad actor?

This line of thinking is, of course, highly reminiscent of what bigots have said — and still say — about queerness, conflating the occasional bad actor with an entire population of humans. It is not an intellectually serious argument; it is not even an interesting argument, sustained as it essentially is by the old, stale logic of bigotry.

This argument also attempts to pass judgment on what is allowed into the public eye, whether it’s out on the street or in books, movies, and television shows. Even the slightest, least overtly sexual indications of kink, including attire, are often judged to be unfit, obscene. These lines are drawn, however, based on what one considers to be acceptably sexual. When you hold hands with a partner while taking a morning walk, that can be sexual; if you kiss someone on the street, that is sexual; if this isn’t obvious, think of how difficult it can still be for same-gender couples to hold hands or kiss in public.

And the more marginalized a body is, as one of our Kink contributors, the writer Zeyn Joukhadar, points out, the more prevalent such judgments can be: “One of the problems with respectability politics around what kinds of consensual sex are okay to talk about, and particularly around the line between what is considered sexual and what isn’t, is that these conceptions are often formulated to consign queer and trans people (especially queer and trans people of color) to the realm of the hypersexual and the fetishistic, a tactic designed to prevent us from talking about our lives, fighting for our basic human rights, and existing in public spaces — let alone writing about the ways we experience love, pleasure, and care.”

If I were to say that a scene in a movie contains a naked man “repeatedly stabbing himself into a woman while crushing her,” that could sound terrifying, but it is also, of course, a fairly straightforward description of heterosexual sex in the missionary position. While we might live in a world that largely finds any activities exceeding the narrowest possible definitions of sex to be threatening and immoral, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I don’t think we should have to live at war with our bodies. I think less misery is possible, and it shouldn’t have to be as suspect as it so often is to simply exist as oneself, to take part in consensual activities, to live one’s life. It can be so lonely to wish to stop wanting what one often cannot help wanting; it was part of why we collected multiple writers’ stories, to gather and offer a kind of fellowship.

Kink itself, between consenting adults, does not cause harm. What provably, definitely harms us — and generally hurts us the more marginalized we are — are obligatory scripts about what our bodies should want, are allowed to want. I ask this sincerely: Wouldn’t it be airless to live in such a closed mind? It must be like shutting oneself in a very small room, one in which artificially raised walls are mistaken for truths. Meanwhile, the rest of us will foray out to breathe good air and try to live.

The Willful Misunderstanding of Kink