By Lizzie Pan
"Why be ashamed of my fetishes when I can fetishize my shame?" (The eternally wise words of writer, humourist and ‘Gayasian BDSM muppet’ @thegaychingy).
I find it hard to disentangle my queerness from my kinks.
Kink, an umbrella term with fairly satisfying phonetics, is often used interchangeably with ‘BDSM’ - a multi-lettered acronym that Wikipedia helpfully describes as “erotic practices or roleplaying involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, and other related interpersonal dynamics” (phew). For some people, kink can be a proud identity politics. For others, it’s simply a sexual practice that they explore in private.
I have a love/hate relationship with kink. By which I mean, I’ll happily make fun of over-eager leather puppies at Pride, complaining that there isn’t a better representation of kink within the queer community, whilst feeling a deviant camaraderie when they begin to bark aggressively at police half-heartedly waving rainbow flags. I’ll excitedly attend a shibari night, only to be alienated by the fact that the men in attendance are all white het doms called Steve who work in IT, and the women are beautiful femme bi-curious subs in long-term relationships with them. I’ll greatly enjoy ironically kink shaming others, whilst simultaneously struggling to reconcile my own internalised kinky shame.
"There are many reasons why kink, and especially the intersections of kink and queerness, can be hard to navigate."
My kink enthusiasm ranges intermittently from a ‘take it or leave it’ indifference, to a complete lack of interest in vanilla sex, to a late-night spiralling analysis of the intersections of my masochistic, *occasionally* sadistic tendencies (dw I’m not a complete weirdo lol) and trauma history.
There are many reasons why kink, and especially the intersections of kink and queerness, can be hard to navigate. Firstly, kink itself can be (enjoyably, and not so enjoyably) exhausting. From the emotional highs and lows that can be experienced during and after a scene, including sub-drop, dom guilt and intense feelings of euphoria and emptiness, to the issue of trying to reconcile your desires with your politics - oh, the joy of being deeply aroused by something you find ethically and politically problematic - it can all be a bit of an emotional minefield. Kink holds the potential to be triggering to people in different ways, and certain practices of dominance and control can be misused by a minority of people with bad intentions. However, BDSM practices can also be incredibly affirming and fulfilling, offering the potential to explore previously suppressed desires, experience heightened states at the
ambiguous borders of pleasure and pain, and generally just get ourselves and our partners off in various unconventional and unnecessarily intricate ways.
Much like queerness, fluidity within BDSM can be hard to navigate, mainly because kink thrives off binary oppositions, power dynamics and archetypes such as Dom/sub, bottom/rigger, plaything/owner etc. Factor in gender, race and trauma, and you have a lot of different subjectivities to work through. There might be a large emphasis on the play element of kink, but it’s hard to turn on and off from certain power exchanges, especially when those power exchanges may be closely linked to participant’s identities.
Put simply, a lot of kink can be problematic or deeply dubious: age play, race play etc. For example, why do we not openly question the motivations and desires of white male doms who primarily seek out black female submissive partners? And why is the kink community not more critical of fetishes involving racial and gendered stereotypes? Sexual power dynamics cannot be simply isolated from wider societal power dynamics - we all learn about the mechanisms of power and agency within the same racist heteropatriarchy. As a cis white person, I am equipped to navigate the kink scene with more ease than a trans person or person of colour, as I don’t run the same risk of my gender or race being fetishised automatically or without my consent. But I still feel very alienated from the inherent
Directed by Lizzie Pan @lizzie_pan and Mia Maxwell @miamaxwelll
Shot by Bart @antibart
Styling by Mia Maxwell @miamaxwelll and Katie Harrison @katiegillh
Makeup by Bilan Sulliman @bilansu
Modelled by Julia Monae @juliamonae, Sade Alexis @powerfulcurves, Lizzie Pan @lizzie_pan, Eli Agrup @eliagrup, Ilhana V @gnasche, Katy Jalili @katyjalili
straightness of the mainstream kink community in London. Where are all the latex-clad lesbian femdoms?! The gorgeous, genderfluid, butch bottom switches?!
And of course, it’s easier to feel alienated from your own desires when you don’t belong to a community of people who share your weirdness, or indeed see any satisfactory representation of kink in the media that isn’t a cheap joke (or, *cough* the premise of a stylish but ultimately lifeless franchise that tries to pass off rampant misogyny and abuse as a healthy BDSM relationship). Recently, representation has improved: we now have a few sensationalist but well-meaning Vice documentaries on kink culture and BDSM sex work, as well as a brief scene of Freddie Mercury walking through a leather club fully clothed (but making VERY QUEER EYE CONTACT) to the soundtrack of Another One Bite the Dust, in the recent film Bohemian Rhapsody.
"I decided to ask a range of people I know a variety of questions about how they navigate BDSM in relation to queerness, gender and race."
Perhaps Britain just doesn’t deal with kink very well. Mainstream media is awful at discussing issues like sex or race, and hyper-capitalist Paperchase feminism would have us believe that putting a fluffy Ann Summers blindfold on your husband every Saturday night is like, totally empowering and crushing the patriarchy. And we definitely don’t have anything like an equivalent to Folsom Street Fair.
However, as cliché as it may sound, I’ve learnt to find some degree of solidarity and representation amongst my queer and kinky friends, despite feeling alienated from the mainstream BDSM community. Starting dialogues around kink, and especially open and sensitive conversations around kink and queerness, is something that needs to happen more frequently and with less taboo.
With this in mind, I decided to ask a range of people I know a variety of questions about how they navigate BDSM in relation to queerness, gender and race.
All answers below published with interviewees’ consent
QUESTION 1: Do you see kink as being something you DO (a sexual or psychological practice) or something you ARE (an identity)?
Katy: I think I’ve felt differently about this at different points in my life. When I started it was Who I Was! And now it’s something I sometimes do.
IV: It’s not an identity for me at all. I think this has changed for me, it has never been an identity but in the past from ages 18-24 I would have stressed how important kink was to me, and how I needed it to be a necessary part of my sex/dating life. Lately I find that while I do enjoy it very much, I could take it or leave it if I really had to make a choice.
N: I see it as something you do. Identities like submissive/ masochist/ brat exist within my BDSM practice, but it is a practice. If I'm not doing it, those identities become irrelevant.
Sade: Something I do, but it has the potential to be part of my identity.
R: For me it is something I do. My partner is not as into kink at this time, but I’m hopeful. So it is not a core part of my identity - I don’t want to hold myself to one concept.
Izzy: More an identity than something I do I believe, especially considering the (in)frequency of my BDSM practice. I'm deeply sadomasochistic, I have a complicated relationship to pain and violence that may or may not have to do with having being brought up in a geographic conflict zone. Eroticizing pain and fear was some kind of twisted survival mechanism that developed into an academic interest, critical lens, and the most fulfilling intimate language I have found. For some time I didn't want to see my body as anything more than a vessel for pain and pleasure, I wanted to dissolve my multiplicity of selves into this one function, a form of escapism and a rejection of traditional utilitarian roles under capitalism. I still find myself slipping into this state of mind occasionally, but I have learned that it's not the kind of thing I am able to healthily explore with a partner with whom I have a relationship outside this fleeting transcendent space.
QUESTION TWO: Are the BDSM dynamics you experience/have experienced solely contained to a scene (or occasions you have sex), or are they a 24/7 dynamic (or somewhere in between)?
Katy: Not really part of a scene, because it has always been more personal. I have done 24/7 dynamics before, and very casual ones, and they’re just both fulfilling in different ways.
IV: I don’t personally feel comfortable with a 24/7 dynamic. I don’t think the constant exchange of power is constructive or fair to either person within the dynamic itself. It involves a lot of checking in, trust and time. Mostly time, as kink is trust and communication based anyway. I have a lot of other things going on in my life and would feel exhausted having to be in a 24/7 kink status.
N: I have experimented with 24/7 dynamics but I mostly keep my play within the confines of a scene. I wouldn't write off a 24/7 dynamic again, depends on the other person and what feels right for us.
R: I first experienced kink on the scene and it was confined to this space for me for a long time. I would go to FEMDOM spaces mostly and that was where I would give this part of myself. It felt safe for it to remain there, however with the joining of an online community, my view around sex, dynamics and power have evolved and so I would say that now I am somewhere in between. For example, sometimes I will message my sub at my work desk.
QUESTION 3: Do you agree with kinky cis het people identifying as queer because of their non-normative sex lives?
Katy: Absolutely not. Just because you’re a straight couple who likes to experiment with pegging, it doesn't make you queer. It’s ridiculous that people would even say that. Straight people can be kinky but they’re still straight when they do it, and will not ever experience the same oppression for something they do in the bedroom. Feeling misunderstood because you’re into kink is not the same as being scared of kissing your girlfriend in public. This ideology also implies that queerness is all about sex, and it hypersexualises us queer people which I find deeply offensive.
IV: Fuck NO. Kink is not a sexual orientation. That’s all I have to say about that.
N: I don't think practicing BDSM in cis-hetero relationships makes a person queer, but I'm also not in the business of policing queerness, if someone feels they're queer it's not for me, or anyone else, to say they are not, so I'd be a bit wary of challenging someone's queer identity. But if someone explicitly were to say, for example, 'I'm kinky therefore I'm queer' I would probably challenge what they meant by that.
Sade: Not at all
R: My initial response to this is no. There is something about this question that makes me feel very uncomfortable: queer identities are constantly being fought for and so I don’t feel that you can just opt in to what you feel is fashionable without acknowledging the struggle.
Izzy: I take issues with the way 'queer' is defined in the West, because identity politics/queer politics can really differ in how they are constructed outside of a western context. I've come across a lot of 'kink tourism' and 'queer tourism' amongst westerners - what is 'edgy' or 'fashionable' in one part of the world can have dire consequences in places where people are forced to form close-knit underground communities, in order to have a 'scene' at all. It's not my place to decide who is queer and who isn't, and I have no ownership over the term 'queer', especially as a non-western queer person who does not feel very comfortable in 'queer' safe spaces where a specific language and code of conduct is expected.
It should also be noted that 'cis het' women who are kinky can experience a lot of specific forms of violence because of this fact, and therefore should have access to supportive communities where sexual dissidence and its associative risks and social-political parameters are discussed. There's a hell of a lot of men on the BDSM scene who seem to only be interested in playing out misogynistic fantasies and traditional gender roles taken to their grotesque extremes.
Ideally in my opinion, 'queerness' should encompass a critical, disruptive view of sexuality and sexual norms, and that conversation should absolutely include women who primarily sleep with men because they are vulnerable to so much intimate-partner direct and indirect violence.
QUESTION 4: Have you ever felt conflicted or ashamed about your kinkiness and has this affected your mental health?
Katy: Only when I sub! And I rarely sub or feel comfortable talking about it. I have felt ashamed of not being in control, and sometimes intense kink dynamics both as a sub or Dom have messed up my mental health and that’s when I’ve learned that boundaries are the most important thing.
IV: As a teenager and even a bit of adulthood, very much so. It’s ironic because I come from a heavily Christian background, so to me it makes total sense that I’m into things like impact play, church sex fantasies. I generally felt very guilty about all sex related things from masturbation to even thinking sexual thoughts. I thought I had gotten over this earlier than I actually had, and I have now (have been over it for about three years). But it was difficult, and I would sometimes feel ashamed having to bring it up to a new partner who was not familiar or into kink. I have managed to work around this and learnt how but I do still feel apprehensive when suggesting new things.
M: Conflicted, but only in relation to satisfying partners needs/ my own. Never ashamed. In regards to mental health that's probably a question for my therapist!
Sade: Nope, not yet, but with the way my mental health is the more I explore the more I’ll need to work on not feeling shame for my desires.
R: No. OK, yes, I have felt shame about some of my kinks and the ways I like to play, but I feel this is always temporary, irrational and comes from a well establish self-concept of ‘I’m not good enough’ and that I don’t belong. Largely kink has improved my mental health, opening a space for me to interact with negative feelings about myself in an organised and agreed way. I can be humiliated whilst being stimulated, making a new connection in my mind with pleasure - a pleasure that I am worthy of.
Question 5: Have you ever felt excluded from the kink scene in London because of your race or gender?
Katy: Yes and no. I have been told by gay men that I’m appropriating their culture, which is just hilarious. White gay men think they own kink when they don’t, trans people and lesbians have just as much ownership over kink history. But I’ve also had experience within safe queer kink spaces that made me feel belonged. I still feel like the kink scene can be exclusive, but also I’m a big advocate for claiming and creating your spaces. I won’t beg men for inclusion.
I think a lot of white people love being dominated by people of colour, there’s a lot of unspoken racism that contributes to this, and as a Dom you should be able to consent to participating in the play or not. A lot of times people forget that Doms are also entitled to consent and safety! It’s really hard to separate race and gender from any sexual kink scenario.
IV: Constantly, and also because of my sexuality. There is no real space for women only (trans included of course) or excluding cis men to play. I know things like SWEAT exist, but that’s one event in this huge city, that has events like Club Antichrist, Toppers Club, Torture Garden and Killing Kittens that cater to straight rich people, who are also mostly white. I also find it difficult to meet people who are into kink that I want to be with, aka queer people! I have found it very hard to find someone in the London queer scene itself to do kink with. I don’t know if that’s a personal issue and I’m doing something wrong, but the idea of cruising for non-gay men is still not really normalised for every else. Luckily I have found someone who I am dating to practice it with but it’s still a problem that I’m sure other people are frustrated about.
R: Yes, I have felt excluded as I have been to events/parties and not seen black queer people that look like me. I feel saddened that the scene is expensive often and so I may be missing out on someone I would like to play with because they cannot afford it. Strict costume rules etc are a barrier to entry.
Question 6: Has your race or ethnicity ever meant that you are uncomfortable with a power dynamic in a BDSM situation?
IV: Yeah - I have felt uncomfortable with older white men in general who I slept with in the past. There’s a sort of air of condescendence sometimes.
Sade: As a black femme, sleeping with white people and being in the submissive role has caused me some anxiety. I don’t see myself being comfortable with certain language and certain dynamics due to slavery.
R: Yes, there are times when I see groups such as black owners and I feel completely fetishized - like that isn’t all I am. However, when I am in a dominant role and I have a white sub I’m loving life being black and queer. What a strange turn of events this is, a white cis man is taking orders from me. I’m in charge. It’s empowering, I love to fuck with the roles. This being said I play less and less with cis white men. I see the reality of their power in society daily and so I wish to limit my interactions with them in my kink time.
Question 7: If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, how does your trauma affect your navigation of BDSM?
M: Ooof. Another one for my therapist. I recently came to terms with a past sexual trauma through a BDSM interaction. Since then it’s been difficult and v touch and go navigating practices that used to feel very safe. Constant checking in (with myself and partners) as well as well-defined boundaries and lots of talking through safe sex practices has helped.
Sade: It’s hard because there are things that I’m interested in doing that could be triggering. So it makes me very wary and limits the people I would play with.
P: My trauma makes sex in general difficult to navigate at times, and psychologically certain power dynamics don’t feel safe to me - they might get me off, with certain precautions, but I would feel really sick and triggered afterwards. Trauma contributes to me feeling detached from my body and the idea of myself as a sexual person, which is an issue, as being present and able to communicate is very important for safety in kink. However, BDSM has also helped me to reconnect with my body and desires, which as a survivor is a very powerful thing.
R: I am a survivor of sexual abuse and sometimes I steer into this. I like to fuck with this dynamic, to be hurt in ways that I once was before - but this time it can stop when I use the safeword. I do not play with people who ask of me sexual acts that I am clear I don’t do. I’m not interested in these boundary pushers. I’m also aware of my experience of abuse but it doesn’t feature in all aspects of my kink life.
Question 8: Has your experience of gender intersected with your experience of kink? Does your kinkiness empower your gender, or vice versa?
Katy: My sex life definitely contributes to my gender affirmation. It’s a very big part of it. But also it’s again about consent, it’s important to be aware of your energy, and making sure everyone is consenting. Sometimes when we use sex as a tool to affirm our genders it can turn toxic very quickly and make the other person feel uncomfortable. For example, treating someone in a feminine or masculine way to make yourself feel more affirmed, when that person may have never consent to that. Especially for masculine people, but femmes are guilty of this too.
M: Definitely. I think my gender expression empowers my kinkiness.