Is BDSM a Sexual Orientation?

Jillian Keenan (Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

Jillian Keenan (Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

Is BDSM a sexual orientation? Jillian Keenan thinks so.

Two years ago, the New York City freelance journalist wrote a piece for Slate arguing just that. The fetish and paraphilia community cheered, while others were confused or even angered that she would suggest such a thing.

“When I try to tell [my] friends that I was a fetishist by the time I was age 5, that my sexuality was so deeply rooted in my paraphilia, then they start to get uncomfortable, they say, ‘Wait, hold on,’” she said. “I think we need to talk about this because children do have emerging sexual identities, including non-normative sexual identities. I certainly did.”

Since the article, she has written more pieces on kink and BDSM, including the book “Sex and Shakespeare,” which delves into how the Bard helped her understand her sexuality.

 

What was your motivation to write the piece?

There is a lot of misunderstanding about kink and, in my case especially fetishism or paraphilias. I wrote that article for the same reason that I write a lot of the articles that I do about fetishism or paraphilia, which is to open up conversations that we’re not really having and to help people like me who struggle with the same questions about minority sexuality that I did throughout my life to feel less alone.

 

Explain your argument.

Certainly there are some people for whom kinky sexual practices are just that, a practice. It’s something they do, it’s not something they are. But I think this is one of the misunderstandings. People do often in the mainstream tend to think of kink as a practice, not an identity, but the fact is for a lot us it is an identity and it is absolutely as deeply rooted as any sexual orientation.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it, I just thought I was really fucked up. The good news is that when I write articles like this, I get emails from other fetishists, people who grew up with the same paraphilia that I have or others, and say thank god someone finally said it. I got an email with the subject line, “You just saved my life.”

Not talking about the diversity of human sexuality is not only an omission, it’s a threat. When we don’t have these conversations, we put lives in danger and that’s why I like to have them.

 

What response did you get?

Certainly a lot of my friends in the fetish community were glad someone said it in the mainstream. However, that’s a conversation that we’ve been having in the fetish community for decades. Within the community people are excited to see these discussion getting more mainstream. Outside the community … there’s certainly a lot of confusion, and I understand why. We’ve settled into a place in national dialogue where we’ve really put the diversity of sexuality into some very small boxes. If you think about the vast range of options and identities and experiences and questions and practices, it really is rather remarkable that we have chosen to define seuxal orientation exclusively by our genitalia when there is so much more to sexuality and sexual identity than just our junk.

I understand the confusion and I was excited to have those conversations. I really value it when people push back at my ideas because it helps me with recognizing the weakness in my own ideas or it helps train to have the conversations necessary to defend my ideas.

 

How do you identify your sexuality?

I identified as bisexual for a long time because I am deeply attracted to both men and women, I play with both men and women, and so I just sort of assumed that I was bisexual because that is the best vocabulary that I could access. That is a term that society exposed me to that I could apply to myself. But then as I started to write and think more critically about my paraphilia, about my fetishism, I realized that it’s not quite accurate to say that I’m attracted to men as a group or women as a group. I’m attracted to thinking, I’m attracted to the object of my paraphilia, and gender is just irrelevant.

My husband is normative in every way that he can be . . . He has told me that he has thought about things and reconsidered ideas in ways that he never would have if he weren’t married to me because being in such a normative space, it never occurred to him to ask these questions whereas I’ve been asking myself these questions my whole life.

 

Do you still hear from people about your article?

Sometimes, every once in awhile letters do trickle in from people. I think that the issue of whether kink can be a sexual orientation is really politically and legally critically relevant. This is a perspective that I’ve gone after in other articles and certainly I dive really deep into this argument in my book.

 

As someone who associated spanking with sexuality at an early age, you’ve written against spanking children.

I have a big, big problem that this is legal in our country. There’s one demographic that’s it’s legal to assault and that’s children. When I say assault, I’m using the term that the law has already applied to this act. If an adult non-consensually spanks another adult, it’s assault.

If we talk more aggressively about the possibility that these non normative sexual identities can be orientation as well, it frees those people of the feeling that something is wrong with them, the feeling that they had an extreme or absurd reaction to something traumatic in childhood and I am trying to free people of that shame. There’s nothing wrong with having a non-normal sexual identity. There is something very, very wrong with a culture in this country that allows us to do these things to children. I’m just trying to focus everyone’s attention on what is really disturbing and what is really damaged, because it’s not kink.

 

What do you think about books like “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

I think it’s a really wonderful thing whenever a female writer has great success and as a female author myself, I want to support other women writers. I will say that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a fantasy, it is a fiction book, and it doesn’t purport to be a nonfiction, researched guide into the world of BDSM. It doesn’t claim to be a how to manual and it is not. It’s not a user’s guide to BDSM and because it is a fantasy, is it a very unrealistic depiction of the reality of this thing we do. But, I do trust that readers are smart enough to recognize the difference between a fiction fantasy and the many, many wonderful nonfiction books about the reality of BDSM that are in the market.

 

Originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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