What do we do when facing bigoted behaviour in a subculture? Accepting people doesn’t mean letting them get away with bad behaviour just because they call it “kink”.
Let’s say you’re new to kink. Let’s say you show up on Fetlife and have questions about a fetish you have. Let’s say you post that question on one of the many, many groups on Fetlife, or as a personal post, and get an answer.
Let’s say you don’t like the answer because in the question you posted, you express illegal views, or you make racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist or ableist comments or assumptions, and people call you on it.
“But I thought this community was welcoming and accepting of everyone as they are!” you respond.
Yes, people have built the kink community on the principle of accepting people as they are. But accepting people as they are doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Today I want to talk a little more about what “accepting people as they are” really means, and how it differs from “letting people get away with any kind of shit because they call it ‘kinky’”.
Tolerance vs acceptance
One of the major issues with minorities and oppressed groups is that acceptance vs tolerance. We tolerate something that bothers us because the consequences of not doing so are worse; for example, we tolerate a partner’s snoring because not tolerating it means we have to kick them out of bed every night. Tolerance is about how others perceive us, rather than making a true inner change.
When we tolerate, we are still annoyed. We still have that line of thought: “But it’s so annoying, I wish they’d stop doing that so I could be comfortable.” Tolerance is simply not expressing our annoyance or disgust or hate for fear of social reprisals.
Acceptance is different. Acceptance is deeper. Acceptance means changing our hearts and changing our behaviour so that the thing that we accept is actually not an annoyance anymore, but a part of life that we see as normal. It is seeing the annoyance as not an annoyance anymore, but a thing that is justified and deserves full respect.
But acceptance is also about identifying what is worth accepting, and what is not. Acceptance rooted in compassion and empathy makes us see all human beings as flawed people stuck by the limitations of human experience. But acceptance also comes with a discriminating factor: there are things that are unacceptable. When what you are asked to accept are things like the exploitation of other human beings, discrimination against things like gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, justifications for oppression, you are allowed to say: “No, I will NOT accept that.”
You refuse to accept because it goes right against the values that make acceptance possible: empathy and compassion.
When you tolerate, you say: “I think you’re wrong, but I’m not going to challenge you because I think preserving the appearance of social peace and my own reputation is more important.” When you accept, you say: “I accept your fundamental existence as a human being, and I won’t objectify or treat you as less than. But it also means I won’t let you get away with doing it to others.”
When it comes to kink, a lot of people are under the impression that all of them are equal and that they are all okay. Sure, we have a saying: Your Kink Is Not My Kink. We also have another one: Your Kink Is Not Okay.
Kink shaming is bad. Most of us have faced it at least once: being described as strange or weird or broken for having them. And it most cases, there is nothing to be ashamed of, because your kink is okay.
But as a psychology teacher told me this semester, as with all human behaviour, the truth of all of this is that it depends.
There are some times when your kink is not okay.
There are some situations where people have good reason not to accept your kink. Kinks that objectify or fetishize an entire group of people are unacceptable because they dehumanize every member of the group. Having an Asian fetish or an amputee fetish or a black man fetish or a trans woman fetish is offensive because you only see the people for their particular feature you fetishize, not as an entire, separate person that has their own goals, needs and desires. Kinks that involve illegal acts with non-consenting parties are unacceptable.
I will never shy away from calling these Not Okay. Because they are not okay.
See, there’s a difference between thinking “I find (insert group) attractive” and “Because you are part of (insert group), you are a sexual object to me.” It’s intensely dehumanizing and objectifying to have someone attracted not to you, but to a feature of your body. No, you’re not attracted to me; you’re attracted to my fatness or my Asian-ness or my blackness or my transness. You do not see me as a whole person: you see me as a thing that excites you sexually.
So when someone comes on a board or writes a post about how they fetishize this group or that group, they often get called out on it. And then they wonder why, and get defensive, because, aren’t all kinks acceptable and okay?
Well, it depends. Most are, but some are not. A tentacle dildo doesn’t have feelings, but people do. Do you not see the difference?
A kink is not a person
We also need to separate between not accepting a kink and not accepting a person.
Not accepting a kink is saying: “Your fetishizing of a group is wrong.” Not accepting a person is saying: “You are a bad person.” It’s the difference between not accepting a specific behaviour, and not accepting an actual person.
The problem is that we intimately link our kinks to our identity. It’s a very difficult proposition to separate calling out a kink from calling out a person. Being a submissive and a masochist are big parts of my identity, and someone questioning me or calling me out would make me feel terrible. It has in the past. I have felt ashamed of my kinks. Except shame (as we’ll see below) is not the same as guilt. Calling out a kink that’s dehumanizing to a group of people is not shaming: it’s guilting.
Accepting a person is different than accepting their kinks. Accepting a person, with all their foibles and failings, is different from accepting behaviour that dehumanizes, hurts and discriminates against other people. Every person deserves respect, but I don’t have to accept the behaviour of a criminal, a predator or an abuser. They deserve the basic respect we give to all human beings (the right to live with dignity, the right not to be assaulted, etc.), but we don’t have to accept and agree with the terrible things they have done. This is why we have a justice system and prisons.
Although I believe in the fundamental goodness of human beings, I understand that we can stray. Accepting people’s existence as human beings does not mean accepting their worst behaviour.
And refusing to accept bad behaviour is not shaming.
Guilt, not shame
The kink community is especially sensitive to shame. Many kinksters like to throw the “kink shaming!” accusation at those who don’t agree with them. I see it often enough in the more controversial threads and posts. “I’m allowed my kink! Isn’t this place supposed to accept people as they are?”
The problem with throwing the kink shaming accusation is that it deflects from having to account for your behaviour. By calling “I am shamed!”, you are trying to avoid thinking about how your behaviour may affect others.
And more often than not, people who get called on their kinks need to do a little soul-searching.
Here’s a helpful quote from Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me, who’s done so much to start conversations around shame:
Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation; however, that is where the similarities end. The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between “I am bad” (shame) and “I did something bad” (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviours.
Look: I’ve been guilty of kink shaming. I’ve often sat my computer and read stuff and thought, “Gross, how can people be into that?” I’ve believed people to be wrong and bad for kinks I didn’t agree with or whose appeal I didn’t see. I’ve written things that I wanted to believe weren’t shaming, but ended up being so.
I have no problem with you liking what you like. You’re allowed to prefer whatever your fetish is. What I have a problem with is going around expecting every member of the fetishized group to act as if you’re doing them a favour by liking them. What I have a problem with is approaching members of your fetishized group with “Hey there, I’m really into (group) and since you’re a (group), we should have sex.”
And just because you feel guilty for behaving this way, and maybe embarrassed because you’re being called on it in public, doesn’t mean you’re being shamed. It means you’re being an asshole—and acceptance doesn’t shield you from that.
When we reach out to the kink community, we are looking for acceptance. We are looking for validation. We want to be told that what we feel is normal, that what we feel isn’t wrong, that what we want isn’t criminal or insane. We want to feel safe.
But humans being humans, we can all do bad things. I do bad things. You do bad things. I’m a generally good person. I think you are too. But when I call out kinks, I’m not calling out the person: I’m calling out the bad thing. When I see racism, or sexism, or fetishizing groups of all kinds, I refuse to call it a “kink” and then call it a day. Calling it a kink does a disservice to the kink community.
As a group, we cannot let these behaviours pass just because people call them “kinks”. In a vanilla setting, you can’t justify these things as “kinks”, and they would called for what they are: objectification, bigotry, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny.
Because they happen in the kink community doesn’t change their nature. Because you call it a kink doesn’t make it so.
So next time you want to throw “kink shaming!” at someone for calling you out, maybe you want to take a good look at your behaviour. Am I doing something that can potentially objectify another human being? Am I behaving in a way that diminishes, dehumanizes or otherwise discriminates against a whole group of people?
Am I acting in a way that makes me seem like I don’t accept the fundamental humanity of certain people?