Coming Out

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FAQs for Kink Coming Out Day (kinkcomingoutday.com)

My name is Sean Shannon, and I am kinky.

This is not news to most of you, I am sure. Although I was quiet about my kink for a few years between finishing graduate school and starting to promote The Prostitutes of Lake Wobegon, I’ve been relatively open about identifying as kinky since I first got on the Internet back in 1994. (Good grief, twenty years next year. I’m old.) That was in the wake of Madonna’s Sex book (and associated album Erotica), when she first began overtly appropriating kink imagery to titillate fans and haters alike. Although pop singers still dip into the world of kink on a regular basis — Rihanna and Lady Gaga are just two who come to mind right now — and there have been some advancements in the portrayal of kink, this is still a very touchy subject for many people, and I know that I put myself at great risk by publicly identifying as kinky.

Even if I had absolutely no interest in kink, though, I would still be involved in the politics of kink, and advocating for the rights of consenting adults to enjoy whatever sexual activities they wish. For me, advocating for kink is no different than advocating for the rights of non-heterosexuals to have sex with whomever they choose; I don’t think the government has a compelling interest to limit what consenting adults do with one another sexually in private spaces, and the movement to restrict people’s sexual freedoms — based on sexual orientation, or kink, or what have you — is based off of the belief some people have that their religious beliefs should govern what other people can and cannot do. Although that politics of kink has always been present, I think it’s become more evident in recent years as tolerance, if not acceptance, of non-heterosexuality has become more commonplace as we’re working through this huge generational shift. (Acceptance of non-cisgender people is still lagging a bit, but there have been some recent signs of improvement.)

The issue of kink identity is of high importance to me, because it’s one of the first components of my identity that I had a strong awareness of. We’re now finally to the point where people who argue that “being gay is a choice” are being largely dismissed thanks to the wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary, and as we learn more about the brain — particularly a part of the brain called the BSTc — we’re learning more about how gender identity and expression form. I didn’t grow up in an environment where I was encouraged to explore issues of sexual orientation and gender identity — the eighties were a horrible, horrible time in that regard — but I still remember, quite vividly, the first time I saw someone get tied up on a television show, and the immediate, strong compulsion I had to want to try “tie-up games” out. (The show was 3-2-1 Contact, so if conservatives are still trying to argue that PBS is perverted, I guess I just gave them some more ammunition.)

I’m not a scientist, but in my own explorations within different communities, I’ve found that the communities of kinky people that are out there are mostly full of people who only came to kink in their adult lives, whose kink identity is tied in closely with their sexuality, as opposed to a deeper, more fundamental level of identity that I feel my kink identity is located at. That would seem to indicate  a difference between being “born kinky,” as I believe I was, and “adult-onset kink,” to coin a phrase. As neuroscience continues to develop, it’ll be interesting to see if it determines a way to tell whether or not people are born with a predilection for kink, and if that is the case, how the larger culture will then incorporate that into their understanding and tolerance of issues relating to gender and sexuality.

There is a big difference between sexual orientation and kink when it comes to expression, though. Our culture has tolerated kissing in public, and hand-holding, and things of that nature for a long time, although we are still lagging when it comes to acceptance of those actions between people of the same sex. I don’t think there’s going to be a mass movement to advocate for allowing dominants to walk their submissives on leashes down the middle of a busy street in broad daylight — yes, some will argue for it because that’s their kink — because we’re talking about different practices here. Anything more than dry kissing in public usually gets people in trouble, and pretty much every kinky activity I can think of would fall into that purview as well. (Given that members of punk culture were wearing leather collars in public back when I was still in diapers, there are some small things that already “pass under the radar” that I think would remain at least as acceptable as they’re seen now.)

There are always issues of public perception involved when it comes to kink, and even now, over a decade after Hollywood finally portrayed kink as potentially beneficial in the movie Secretary, with all the kink-oriented plots that have pervaded the modern era of police procedural television shows, at a time when even the most non-kinky person knows what a safeword is, there are still a lot of misconceptions out there. Having read the Fifty Shades trilogy earlier this year, it’s not hard to see where those misconceptions come from, and fighting those misconceptions remains a huge struggle for many kinky people.

The most potent issue remains the legality of kink, because most kinky activities continue to reside in a very grey area where they aren’t really legal, but they’re usually not prosecuted because most police officers don’t want to be bothered filling out paperwork and going through rigmarole after rigmarole for what they usually refer to as “rough sex.” (As long as it’s consensual, of course; remember that kinky activities performed on someone who doesn’t consent to them are not “kink” or “BDSM,” but rather abuse and assault, and the people who perpetrate them on non-consenting people most definitely need to be locked up.) Still, even today, people have lost custody of their children for being kinky, even when their kids had zero knowledge of what their parents were doing. People have lost their jobs when others have “outed” them as kinky. People who identify as kinky have nearly no legal protections, and this creates unacceptable burdens for kinky people to deal with, both legally and socially.

Back when I first began teaching safer kink in 2002, there was a then-recent case in England, commonly known as “the Spanner case,” that weighed heavily on my mind as I began to not only teach how to practice kink in safer ways, but also advocate for the rights of kinky people. In that case. a police sting resulted in the arrests and convictions of several gay men who were videotaped performing consensual sadomasochistic activities in Manchester. Not only were the sadists convicted of assault, but the masochists were convicted of aiding and abetting in their own assaults. I can’t think of a better instance of the absurdity of prosecuting people for consensual sexual activities. Although we haven’t had anything this bad happen in America yet, the legal doors are still very much open for something of that nature to occur here.

Things have changed a lot in the past dozen years, though. It was around the time I first started doing kink education that actual conventions for kinky people were starting to pop up in some of the larger cities here in America. Now even smaller cities have their own conventions, and the insular kink communities of decades past are now much more open, with several social media websites available for kinky people to find communities in their area and people to play with. Most importantly, many kink organizations are now working together under The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom to advocate for the rights of kinky people, including their “Consent Counts” initiative to provide legal protections that will help make sure that we don’t have something like the Spanner case here in America.

What does this change in kink politics mean for me? Personally, although my kink is a strong part of my identity, it’s also a very small part. I’m far more interested in discussing my artistic identity and my queer identity and many other aspects of my life. I do think issues of kink politics need to be discussed more, though, so if I see instances where something in the news might occasion a blog on issues relating to kink, I’m going to try to be less hesitant in writing those blogs. As with other minority communities, kinky people need people who are brave enough to stick their own necks out on the line for the good of the larger community.

(I’ll save the details of my own kinky proclivities for my kinky friends, though. You probably don’t want to hear them, and I’m not interested in talking about them in a forum as public as this.)

I don’t know if Kink Coming Out Day will mean that much to the larger world five or ten years from now, but it does have meaning for me, and my kinky friends, at least at this moment. Widespread acceptance of kinky people may not happen in my lifetime, but that’s no reason to avoid starting the work, however difficult and dangerous it may be, to raise awareness of the issues kinky people  face, and argue for greater acceptance of who we are. Someone has to do it.

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