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What Makes Something Kinky?

What Makes Something Kinky?

This is the first article of an ongoing series on BDSM by Morgan.

BDSM is a big umbrella term that describes lots of activities that fall roughly under descriptions of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Under this, we could talk about hierarchical power structures, intense and sexual stimulation, role-playing, fantasy, and sexual gratification.

But I prefer a simpler approach: does everyone involved mutually understand what they are doing as kink? Then, it’s kink.  

There are more obvious practices of consensual caning, whipping, flogging, spanking, skin cutting and piercing with knives and needles, and physical restriction through bondage, gagging, tied ropes or other implements. But also, other—perhaps unexpected—activities can be incorporated into power dynamics and mutually understood as BDSM.

This is how folx can understand activities like household chores as kink practices of power exchange, even though in other contexts, they are mundane. 

Even body-based practices like massage may be understood in different contexts depending on the space it takes place in. For example, a massage in a clinical setting is understood differently by recipients than a massage that occurs in a dungeon or a bedroom, even though the physical actions appear to be the same.

Because of the component of “play” in BDSM, the same bodily movements become charged with different signification.

Why does it matter what’s BDSM and what isn’t? Because I want us to consider some kink practices as other-than-sex to allow for an expanded potential for queering pleasure.

Pleasure and Other-Than-Sex Potential

BDSM can help radically redetermine the possibilities of sex. In their wide variety of form and function, kink practices do not always seem like sex and are not always sensationally pleasurable, helping to broaden the heteronormative understanding of the purpose, function, and constitution of sex.

Reimagining sex away from only genitals is important. But even further, claiming sources of queer pleasure that are other-than-sex means that the possibilities for pleasure are even further expanded.

Power that operates through all levels of bodies and knowledges—including the mechanisms of sexuality—is possibly disrupted, or at the very least, reorganized, with bodily pleasure.

Pleasure is even more politically important because of the historical and contemporary situation of some bodies have less access to the capacities of pleasure.

I’m Not Sold – Isn’t BDSM Just Kinky Sex?

I understand why you might think that, but not entirely. As BDSM practices become more ‘mainstream’, some kink is now considered allowable under the tutelage of a ‘healthy’ sex life.

But by limiting understandings of BDSM to only kinky sex, there is an inextricable tie between pleasure and sex. And the way we understand what counts as sex (including who does what and how) is culturally and socially constructed.  

The dominant reading of BDSM as kinky sex has led to normativizing discussions about its moral permissibility. This has meant that some practices, and more importantly, some people are excluded from acceptable norms.

Are you a heterosexual, monogamous couple that wants to spice up your sex life after the kidlings have gone to bed? Great – try reading Fifty Shades of Grey or watching Netflix’s Sex/Life for some nifty ideas! Are you a gender non-conforming queer that wants to play with your human pet? Get out of here, you pathological pervert!

Neither of these configurations should be considered more valid. Pleasure is pleasure. But according to norms and the social construction and morality of sex, the former scenario is more likely to be considered palatable.

Folding all BDSM practices into a framework of kinky sex does little to challenge normative constructions of sex because it still prioritizes a certain type of productive pleasure for privileged bodies, even if it moves beyond the script of penetrative penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex.

Rather than fitting all BDSM practices into a normative script of kinky sex, I instead propose the imagining of an alternative mode of the way bodies may relate to one another.  

This queers notions of bodily access that are usually restricted to sexual activities, and acknowledges that the potential of BDSM allows for a new way for bodies to relate to each other in consensual pain/pleasure, trust, and intimacy.

I am not trying to take the ‘sex’ out of queer or normatively limit what definitively constitutes sex.

By claiming that some BDSM practices are other-than-sex, I am also not denying that BDSM is intensely sexual for some practitioners or that all BDSM practices are not sex. Depending on the practices and who they are with, my own experiences of kink radically vary from being a core part of a sexual encounter to something that is done with friends without sexual intentions.

The “other-than” attempts to engage with the in-betweenness of a binary (sex and not sex).

Rather than jamming all kink and its potentials into an existing understanding of normative sex, let us instead claim more sites for pleasure and intimacy.

 

About the writer

Morgan Oddie

Morgan (she/they) is a labour activist and academic based in Katorokwi/Kingston. While their PhD thesis was broadly on the cultural politics of kink, they are also interested in SFF fiction, working class history and politics, and revolutionary socialism. They also like to consensually beat up humans. Sometimes this happens in the MMA circuit.

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