Is kink becoming vanilla? In the last 30 years, BDSM has lost its mystique, along with its revolutionary potential. Making something ordinary means making it safe for mass consumption. What have we lost?
Something’s been on my mind for a little while now, something that bothers me.
Kink is becoming… banal. Vanilla. What used to be a site of queer sexuality–gay leather, dykes on bikes–has been thoroughly domesticated, heterosexualized, and commercialized.
Yesterday I was reading the classic essay by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex In Public“, and I was struck by how much things have changed in twenty years. In the last section of the essay, they describe a performance they saw at a leather bar, an erotic vomiting scene performed by two men. The bottom, apparently, was straight.
We did not get to ask these questions, but we have others that we can pose now, about these scenes where sex appears more sublime than narration itself, neither redemptive nor transgressive, moral nor immoral, hetero nor homo, nor sutured to any axis of social legitimation.
When they say “axis of social legitimation”, they mean that the scene wasn’t about marriage, or family, or love, or anything that we believe is part of “normal” sexuality. These scenes seem to transcend, to exist outside and beyond, any kind of system that we live in, whether it’s heterosexuality or monogamy or anything else.
And then I asked myself, “when’s the last time I saw something like this?” And the answer was: “never”.
It could be that I am too old, that scenes like this are a relic of a past that we’ve happily moved forward from. But I wonder: what have we lost in the process? What have we done with the revolutionary, transformative power of kink?
I think the mainstreaming of kink started in earnest at the famous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Janet Jackson was suddenly under the media microscope, having to explain why she had a nipple shield attached to a piercing. Why would she pierce her nipple in the first place? This opened up conversations about bodies and sensations. Jackson talked about wanting to experience different things with her body.
Then Justin Timberlake sang “Sexy Back“. I remember feeling a little bit upset at the song: it was trivializing, commercializing something that was very important to my identity, something that, to me, meant more than a cheap attempt at being edgy.
I wasn’t in the community back then, and I had no experience with the kink party scene. I had nothing to support my discomfort, just a feeling that something was happening, that something that had been a secret pleasure and a hidden shame was being exposed. I didn’t like it.
Then there was 50 Shades, and Rihanna’s “S&M”, and the rest is history. Kink is now more mainstream than ever, with major news and media outlets talking about it as if it was just another Tuesday in a white suburban couple’s bedroom. The New York Times published “A Crash Course in Kink“.
We are officially ordinary.
Over the line
Some people may rejoice at the thought that we are finally not a gang of sick perverts anymore. But I’m not so sure that what we have gained makes up for what we have lost in the last 20 years.
In 1984, anthropologist Gayle Rubin wrote an essay that featured this image:
This was over 30 years ago, so many of the major areas of contest have moved into “good” sex: unmarried heterosexual couples, masturbation, and even long-term same-sex couples are now probably closer to the left than the middle.
In 1984, fetishists and sadomasochists sat at the far end, in the sinful and abnormal range of sexual activities. I doubt it still sits there today; it’s moved to the left. For heterosexual couples, kink is not really an area of contest anymore. It’s part of a couple’s “private life”. (Yet we are more likely to arrest and convict gay men for “violence” than heterosexual couples when kink is involved. For more information about this, check out this article by Canadian scholar Ummni Khan.)
I’m not well-versed in the history of kink, but I know one thing: that kink is a space where it is possible to break free from the demands of “good” sex, where it is possible to contest and protest against the norms imposed on our bodies. Heteronormativity demands many things of us: that we be heterosexual, of course, but also that we be heterosexual in the right way. That we seek to marry and have children. That couples live together in the same home. That you have sex at home only, and only with each other. That pleasure be mostly genital, or genital-adjacent, with maybe some boobs thrown in the mix. That penetration is always the end goal, and the man’s climax the finish line. That the man is mostly always on top, with the woman on top for variety once in a while.
You could make a very long list of all kinds of assumptions that come with the idea of what “normal” sex is. The power that kink had, that I think it has slowly lost over time, is the power to completely break down these assumptions, to break bodies out of the strict demands made on it by heteronormativity.
In other words, kink gives us possibilities with our bodies, with our pleasure, with our relationships with others, that are not possible under “normal” sexual activity. Kink threatens our view of what is normal and pleasurable, and what is not.
But, at least in the mainstream kink scene, I barely see anything like that anymore.
No wonder the traditional gay leather scene wants nothing to do with all the kink parties cropping up in every suburb from Saanich to Laval. It’s watered down. It’s domesticated. It’s commercialized.
In one word, it’s so… heteronormative.
There are now camps forming within kinksters as to what is “normal” kink and what is “too edgy”. The rhetoric around SSC, RACK, and PRICK attempts to limit the kinds of things that are “acceptable” at this or that party. I’m not against safety, but I’m also wary of any “system” that attempts to name right and wrong activities. Consent is the only principle that matters.
Another Gayle Rubin essay I read this summer features a major gay leather San Francisco institution, The Catacombs. (You will find this essay in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader.) This essay describes a place uniquely dedicated to anal fisting. I could not imagine a place like this would be acceptable today, at least in my community. I was stunned by how vanilla my own scene was, how… ordinary. How common.
In my community at least, kink has lost its power to disturb, to contest, to resist. Its pleasures and dangers, mainstreamed and negotiated to death, have been watered down into a slightly spicier version of normal sex. The only event I’ve ever attended that was close to this was a definitely queer woman-only party.
When something like kink is normalized, it doesn’t mean that more people are freer: it means that somehow we’ve been able to turn it into something that’s acceptable. For kink, that means showing heterosexual characters and couples (when’s the last time you saw a queer kinky couple on TV or in movies?) who are men-dominated (The Secretary, 50 Shades of Grey), white, and ultimately leading to marriage, children, and a “normal” middle-class heterosexual life.
For example, another article by Ummni Khan describes how the figure of the Dominatrix is always tamed, re-dominated by masculine forces like the law, or simply by a man. Female tops can exist only in a temporary state, with subservient femininity always forced back on them. Even the simplest of reversals, that women may decide how things go in the bedroom once in a while, is tightly controlled.
The potential for subversion offered by female domination or queer desire or pain has more or less been eliminated, replaced by nothing more than extended slap and tickle play for heterosexuals.
Beware of banality
Kink becoming banal means that it can be used for capitalist, patriarchal purposes. I remember once reading a Facebook post by Janet Hardy who was criticizing a short video from a kink convention, in which some leather-clad Domly Dom was flogging three or four girls, all bent over a table, at once. The display had no heart, not heat: it was just a man displaying his prowess at picking up pretty young girls and flogging them with precise technical skills. It happened in the stark neon light of a hotel convention floor, with people coming and going around it. No intimacy, no trust, no desire, no danger: a neutered kink, ready for consumption by the masses, safe, non-threatening and reaffirming of the “proper order of things”.
I long for a kink that embraces the carnivalesque display of unruly bodies and boundless desire. I long for the celebration of queer pleasure that kink used to be: bodies reaching out, breaking out of the heteronormative mold, refusing to limit themselves to genital and reproductive sex or to what “most people” deem acceptable.
I have yet to experience the kind of group ecstasy that Rubin describes in The Catacombs: The Temple of the Butthole, and honestly I don’t know if I ever will. But maybe I am looking in the wrong place.