Monday, June 6, 2011

Kink: My Perspective. Part One.

Reflecting on polymorphous perversity and the entire body as an erogenous zone leads to a consideration of kink. Kink in my understanding is roughly equivalent to what has been referred to as "paraphilia" amongst psychiatrists and includes a wide range of erotic interests that are beyond the usual genital couplings of a man and a woman. At one point homosexuality was considered a paraphilia, but no longer is; it seems the new volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the major reference manual of North American psychiatry) is removing most of what is considered kink from that classification as well. That change is due to the fact that, as with sexual orientation, there seems to be no widely accepted evidence that those drawn to kink in its many manifestations are any more likely to suffer from psychological aberrations than is the general population.

How we come to have the particular erotic attractions which compose our sexuality is one of the least understood areas of sexual research. There is some indication that those erotically drawn to corporal punishment, such as spanking or whipping, were more likely to experience such punishment as children; however, that doesn't seem to have been the experience of the majority of those so attracted. That is the only exception in research of which I am aware that indicates any differences in childhood experience between those attracted to kink and those who are not. In fact, the only difference I've seen reported in several studies between those drawn to kink and the rest of the population is that the former tend to be more intelligent than the latter.

Among the more widely practiced erotic interests associated with kink are sadomasochism and fetishism (including erotic arousal toward specific body parts and specific materials). Sadomasochism (S/M) involves a power exchange through which one individual dominates another, though that exchange may include a group activity in which more than one person plays the dominant or submissive roles. In a one on one exchange the dominating person is usually referred to as the dom or master and the dominated individual as the slave or sub; the power exchange may focus on one or more elements: control, infliction of pain or discomfort and humiliation being the predominant ones. For myself, most other health professionals and the vast majority of those who practice S/M a power exchange in the context of erotic play must include two conditions: it must be consensual and any harm caused to the sub must not be lasting or permanently debilitating.

The same actions present in an S/M session, when practiced without consent could be considered as assault. Even with the presence of consent, actions that result in permanent harm or maiming to the sub would call into question the psychological health of both participants and in the opinion of many would justify legal interdiction. The simple exercise of control and verbal or physical humiliation in the context of a consensual interaction are not likely in themselves to cause harm. Fetishism, as well, is not in itself likely to cause harm; being turned on by substances such as rubber, leather, PVC or silk or by specific body parts, such as feet, does harm to no one and may bring considerable pleasure. The exception occurs in situations where the fetishist himself feels shame regarding his fetish or finds it limiting or restrictive in relation to the enjoyment of his sexual life as a whole.

Kink is in the process of emerging from legal sanction in most Western countries, as well as from being regarded as psychologically pathological. It is increasingly present in popular culture; from Madonna to Lady Gaga fetish wear and mock sadomasochistic behaviour have become the staples of music videos. Piercing, tattooing and scarification, more often associated with sexual excitement than is acknowledged, are increasingly popular. I experience that increasing social acceptance with the same ambivalence I feel toward the increasing co-optation of diverse sexual orientations by the dominant culture. Kink represents the most striking practice of non-genital and non-reproductive sexual expression. Sadomasochism includes the entire body as a potential locus of pain/pleasure and often has as its objective an experience of pleasure which need not even include orgasm. For those of us who were sexual liberationists, the social acceptance of kink should have been incompatible with the organization of capitalist society. Instead, what seems to be happening is that kink is becoming simply another opportunity to expand consumption; its social acceptance seemingly quite compatible with the basic values or our society remaining unchanged.

In spite of that increasing social acceptance, S/M continues to be widely condemned and that opprobrium continues to be a source of shame and guilt for people drawn to its practice. I believe the persistence of strong, negative attitudes towards S/M is largely due to the assumption that those who enjoy being sadists or masochists in sexual play are sadists and masochists outside of that context; a seriously wrong-headed assumption. It is essential to the understanding of S/M that it takes place in the context of fantasy and play. People may find enacting a particular fantasy erotic without being in the least bit drawn to it as a reality. A particularly striking illustration is the fantasy of rape, which remains one of the most common sexual fantasies of women; yet almost no woman would want to actually be raped. When a couple acts out that fantasy within a consensual relationship the man is not thereby a potential rapist nor the women drawn to being actually raped; the context of the act is essential to its significance.

Another indication of the disconnect between the assumed role of a dom or a sub in sexual play versus a sadist or masochist in real life is found in the versatility of those roles in the S/M community. Looking recently at a popular website where gay men meet for consensual S/M encounters, I found that approximately seventy percent of on-line members specified in their profiles that they were versatile in their roles; within the versatile group 38 percent described themselves as having a preference for the sub role, twenty-three percent as having a dom preference and thirty-nine percent as being fifty-fifty; within the exclusive group fifty-four percent listed themselves as subs and forty-six percent as doms. While I don't intend my survey to be of any scientific significance, it is a clear indication of the versatility of roles in S/M play. In our ordinary life we usually consider sadistic and masochistic personalities to be distinct types and not interchangeable. It is clearly an error to draw an inference from a person's preference in sexual play to their personality or behaviour in ordinary life. Until that distinction is grasped, the social opprobrium connected to S/M will continue to be stronger than that toward a minority sexual orientation.

My professional practice as a therapist or counselor has been mainly with gay men, so my professional experience relating to S/M is largely limited to that community. Many gay men find themselves going through a second coming-out; one that involves accepting within themselves and sharing within their social circle their interest in S/M. In addition to working their way through the damage done through exposure to social disapproval of their sexual desires, some individuals have trouble reconciling sadomasochistic sexual desires with other, valued aspects of their personalities; a conflict not usually felt in relation to sexual orientation except in the case of some religious believers. The seeming incongruity between how a person sees himself in his everyday life and the desires he wants to live out in S/M play is often troubling for him.  Often submissives do not see themselves, nor are they seen by others, as being submissive outside of their preferred sexual role; doms often do not see themselves nor are seen by others in their everyday lives as people desiring to control, humiliate or give pain to others.

Some practitioners of S/M feel no particular need to reconcile the perceived incongruity between their preferred roles in sexual play and their characters in everyday life. They accept those inconsistencies as manifestations of a complex identity; different parts of themselves being actualized in different contexts. They tend to be people who have a heightened tolerance toward dissonance in their thoughts and feelings; sometimes seem to be characteristic of a strong personality.

Those who feel the need to reconcile their preferred sexual roles with their everyday personalities have various options available to them. One is understanding that discordance as a process of compensation: people who exercise a high degree of control and responsibility in their everyday lives finding a sense of release in their voluntary submission to another in a sexual encounter; while others may experience in a dominant sexual role a sense of power and control they feel is lacking in their everyday lives.

Another option towards reconciling sexual roles preferred in S/M play with the sense of self in everyday life is to appreciate the complexity of the power exchange itself. A dom, who sees himself in ordinary life as a caring person, not wanting to cause harm to others, can find continuity with his preferred sexual role through increasing awareness of his care for the submissive in their sexual play together; reminding himself that the submissive wants and enjoys the pain or humiliation he is given; taking pride and pleasure in using his skills to bring the submissive to the culmination of his experience without causing harm to his emotional or physical well being.

A parallel reconciliation by the sub can be found through attending more to his exercise of power in the choice of dom, in his participation with the dom in determining the nature of their encounter and in establishing clarity regarding the limits it is important for him to have respected by the dom. Some subs even take pride in their ability to "dominate from below"; a phrase often used with some derision by doms; but reflecting a reality often recognized in S/M play. Pornography sometimes illustrates that reconciliation through showing the dom and sub planning together of the scenario they want to enact; showing acts of affection between dom and sub during their session; and ending the film with an expression of satisfaction and affection between them.

I find there is enough that interests me in the practice of kink that I want to devote a second posting to the subject. I hope you find it interesting as well.

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