Is Kink a Sexual Orientation?


Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Photo by Shutterstock.

It’s summertime, so of course the anti-sex crowd has decided to cool down with a fresh wave of sexual hysteria. The latest panic is that kinky people will lure vanilla children into our sexual hellscape through trendy pop cultural depictions of BDSM, such as Fifty Shades of Grey. This nonsense is annoying, but it’s also nothing new.

It does, however, raise a question that is often discussed in sexual subcultures but rarely mentioned in the mainstream: Is kink a sexual orientation? I think it is—and if I’m right, the pearl-clutching mobs’ concern that fictional depictions of BDSM will lure sexually normative people into our lifestyle are as absurd as the fear that Brokeback Mountain would tempt straight people into the subversive fringe lifestyle it portrays. (Shepherding, of course. What did you think I meant?)

Many people, including Dan Savage—who, to be clear, is a vocal and consistent source of advice, support, and advocacy for kinky people—have questioned whether kink qualifies as an orientation. As Savage argued, “While some kinksters identify strongly with their kinks and are open about their sexual interests, being into baby bonnets or bondage isn’t about who you love, it’s about how you love.”

That’s more or less true—I suppose BDSM is technically how I love my husband. But, with respect, to reduce the orientation of love to a physical technicality is every bit as reductive (and ultimately inaccurate) as it would be to argue that homosexuality is not an orientation, because penis-in-anus is merely “how” a gay man loves his husband.

Put another way, and with apologies to every relative, teacher, and religious leader who influenced my development: Sexual orientation is far more about who is putting his penis in your butt—or who is spanking me with a belt—than it is about how either activity occurs. 

Kink can be such an orienting force that, for many of us, it even overpowers gender. One survey from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that 35 percent of BDSM practitioners identify as bisexual—a rate that is much higher than the 1.8 to 2.8 percent rate reported overall. There are many theories about why bisexuality is so common in the kink community, such as the strong possibility that the kind of people who participate in a BDSM survey are more likely to be open to sexual experimentation. But I have my own theory about this phenomenon.

For years, I identified as bisexual because I’m sexually attracted to both men and women and have acted on that attraction. But in recent years, as I explored my own sexuality more, I’ve realized that’s not quite accurate. I’m not attracted to men or women as a group—I’m attracted to “tops,” or sexually dominant people, as a group; their gender is irrelevant. Many kinky people describe similar feelings.

This orientation doesn’t only, at times, overcome gender; it also overcomes the strong evolutionary human impulse to avoid pain. Perhaps this should go without saying, but kink hurts. It’s physically painful. (Sometimes extremely so.) Anything that can swim upstream of such a forceful tide must be rooted in something more fundamental and legitimate than merely what’s trendy.

The question of whether kink qualifies as a sexual orientation has been a source of friction between the BDSM and LGBTQ communities for a while. A few months ago, rage erupted when a party promoter scheduled a prison-themed event at a local kinky dungeon during San Francisco’s Pride weekend. Although it wasn’t an official Pride event, some said it was disrespectful to the trauma experienced by LGBTQ inmates in the U.S. prison system. The subcultural infighting sparked by that event echoed debates that have simmered for years.

“As a lesbian, I would like to say a sincere ‘fuck you’ to people comparing BDSM to homosexuality,” a commenter once wrote on a blog.

“As a queer person myself, I would like to say a sincere ‘fuck you’ to people who claim I ought to see my BDSM and my queerness differently,” replied another.

I have no interest in playing Oppression Olympics with the LGBTQ community. To be clear: LGBTQ people face far more institutionalized oppression than kinky people do. It’s always tricky to compare groups. My point is not that our experiences are the same, because they’re not. My point is that some shared truths about the experience of sexual and romantic marginalization can be illustrated by acknowledging the places where our paths cross.

Both LGBTQ and kinky people have been irrationally and unfairly accused of preying on children. We’ve both been told to keep our romantic lives private and to not “shove things in people’s faces.” We’ve both been told that our expressions of love, which feel so natural and necessary to us, are damaged, broken, unholy, or less valuable than vanilla, heterosexual, cisgender love. Kinky people, like LGBTQ people (although with less frequency), have also been fired, physically attacked, arrested, or had parenting rights revoked because of our orientations. (One study found that roughly 30 percent of BDSM practitioners reported violence, harassment, or job discrimination because of their sexualities.) Both communities have been told our sexual identities are mental illness.

And both groups have been marginalized or belittled by people who could have been natural allies: Some men and women who marched for interracial marriage rights have mocked the LGBTQ equality movement, just as some people who fought for the LGBTQ community have dismissed kinky people as having, at most, a sexual hobby.

We don’t choose kink. Yes, there are vanilla people who, inspired by popular books or movies, choose to experiment with BDSM. (There are also straight people who choose to experiment with same-sex attraction, as anyone who went to college on a coast can attest.) And some people find BDSM later in life, don’t feel that it’s an orientation they were born with, and yet are full and equal members of the BDSM community (to the extent that such a thing even exists) in every way. But that doesn’t minimize the fact that, for a huge portion of kinky people, BDSM is not a choice, a hobby, or a phase. Kink is often so fundamental to our sexual identities that it has to be, at least in some cases, an orientation.

From the outside, “this thing we do” seems like nothing more than weird sex stuff. I understand that. But, from the inside, kink is so much more than merely physical. Our orientation is so deeply rooted that many of us feel we were born with it. For us, kink mixes language, ritual, trust, power, pleasure, pain, and identity in a way that can’t be captured by a stereotype.

You know what else mixes language, ritual, trust, power, pleasure, pain, and identity? Love. Every kind of love.

Frankly, I think that to reduce sexual orientation to genitalia does everyone a disservice. A gay man whose husband was castrated in an accident would still be “oriented” toward his man. A lesbian whose wife lost her breasts to cancer would still be “oriented” toward her partner. A heterosexual firefighter who was disfiguringly burned would expect his wife to still be “oriented” toward him. Clearly, all sexual orientations are about more than just genitalia. (Chromosomes fail as a simple explanation for sex or sexuality, too.) Perhaps we’d all benefit from an approach to “sexual orientation” that is more nuanced and complex than just which set or sets of genitals one prefers.

So let’s imagine that an orientation toward “men” is not an orientation toward genitals or chromosomes but, rather, an orientation toward some kind of intangible, supra-physical “”male identities.” Let’s imagine that the same is true of orientations toward “female identities.” If that’s the case, is it so strange to imagine that some people might be oriented toward identities that are neither male nor female but, rather, dominant or submissive?

“How” a hetero- or homosexual couple has sex is merely one aspect of their orientation, just as “how” a kinky couple has sex is merely one aspect of our orientation. As its core, orientation is about “who” we love for kinky people, too. We’re all oriented toward identities.

To fully argue that kink is a sexual orientation, I’ll need a definition of what “sexual orientation” is in the first place. But I’m dissatisfied by the ones I’ve seen. So I’d like to propose a new definition, stolen from Shakespeare: Perhaps sexual orientation is “an ever fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Orientation is any sexual identity that is so fixed and unshakable that it defies choice, reason, and even, at times, simple evolutionary explanation.

Some friends have told me that kink should not be considered an orientation since that could open the door for any deeply felt sexual identity to claim that status. Is sexual orientation a slippery slope? Are we two clicks away from a strong preference for nerdy-Jewish-tech-guys-with-dark-hair-and-an-athletic-streak being called an “orientation”? Personally, I don’t think it really matters—I doubt that preference could become a legally protected category, so if someone wants to say that’s her orientation, what do I care?—but, for the sake of conversation, let’s say there needs to be some mechanism to limit what can qualify.

Maybe it’s those “tempests” that Shakespeare mentioned. Maybe to qualify as a sexual orientation, an identity must not only be innate, unshakeable, and unchosen, but also stigmatized. Maybe my kink will only remain my “orientation” for as long as people continue to blog that I’m a threat to children, tweet that I’m “damaged and repulsive,” and email that I should be forcibly institutionalized. (I could link to examples of all three, but I don’t want to feed the trolls.) Maybe “orientation” could be a kind of shelter from the storm only for those sexual groups, or individuals, that need it most.

If you accept this definition, then my kink is my sexual orientation. It’s not my choice. It’s not my illness. And it’s definitely not my hobby.