BDSM as an Orientation

by: Clarisse Thorn

Note: This guest post was originally posted at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.

A question that sometimes gets raised in BDSM contexts is: Is BDSM a “sexual orientation?”  I’ve spent rather a lot of time thinking about this, and at this point, I believe the answer depends largely on the individual — yet at the same time, the answer stands a strong chance of being politicized into something that could limit individuals.  And that scares me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already.

I remember the first moment it occurred to me to consider BDSM an orientation — the first time I used that word.  I believe I was writing up my coming-out story at the time. I was discussing the way I freaked out when I came into BDSM, and I wrote: “In retrospect, it seems surreal that I reacted so badly to my BDSM orientation.”

I remember that I felt vaguely electrified at what I was saying, a little scared … but also comforted.  I hadn’t had much contact with other sex theorists at the time and I thought I was saying something radical, maybe too radical to be taken seriously.  Since our culture mostly discusses the idea of “orientation” in regards to gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, it seemed to me that — if I dared refer to it as “my BDSM orientation” — then a comparison with LGBT was implied in my statement.

Would the world believe that my BDSM desires could be as “real,” as “deep-rooted,” as “unavoidable” as the sexual orientation of a gay/lesbian/bi/transgender person?  Would I offend GLBT people by implying that my sexual needs are as “real,” “deep-rooted” and “unavoidable” as theirs…by implying that my sexual needs are anything like theirs?

Still, as crazy as the concept seemed at the time, it also felt right.  When I looked back at my memories and previous actions, it was quite obvious that I have always had these needs, desires and fantasies.  Acknowledging this, and applying the word “orientation” to BDSM, helped me come to terms with my BDSM identity.  It cleared a mental path for me to think of BDSM as a inbuilt part of myself — like my bone structure or eye color.  BDSM became something to accept, to come to terms with, to even embrace.  It was a hugely liberating way of thinking about it: if I thought of BDSM was an orientation, that meant I didn’t have to worry about or fight it anymore.

Since then, I’ve been so buried in sexuality theory and I’ve talked to so many BDSM people that — well, now the idea of a “BDSM orientation” seems kinda old hat.  I am reminded that it’s a radical concept only when I talk to people who don’t think about these things all the time.  I think that the idea of BDSM as an orientation occurs naturally to people who think a lot about BDSM sexuality, because so many kinksters either know we’re BDSM people all along, or instantly recognize BDSM once we find it.

A recent article about a potentially groundbreaking new BDSM-related legal case quoted sexologist Charles Moser at the end, as he very eloquently describes how BDSM can be considered a sexual orientation:

When I talk to someone who is identifying as BDSM and ask them have you always felt this way, and they almost always report that ‘This has been the way I was all along. I didn’t realize it. I thought I was interested in more traditional male/female relationships but now I realize that I really like the power and control aspects of relationship.

They are very clear often that, ‘my relationships which were vanilla were not fulfilling. I always felt like there was something missing. Now that I’m doing BDSM, I am fulfilled. This feels really right to me. This really gets me to my core. It’s who I am.’

And so in the same way as someone who is homosexual, they couldn’t really change — they somehow felt fulfilled in the same-sex relationship — similarly in a BDSM relationship or scenario, they similarly feel the same factors, and in my mind, that allows me to classify people who fit that as a sexual orientation. I cannot change someone who’s into BDSM to not be BDSM.

That’s how I feel.  Absolutely.

And yet I disagree with Moser on one key point: not all BDSM people are like this.  I know that there do exist people who do BDSM, who don’t feel it the same way I do — who don’t feel that it’s been with them all along.  It’s not deep-rooted for them.  It’s not unavoidable, it’s not necessary, it doesn’t go to their core.  They can change from being into BDSM to not doing BDSM, because it’s not built-in; it’s just something they do sometimes, for fun.  And that’s totally okay with me — I will always say that I’ve got no problem with whatever people want to do, as long as it’s kept among consenting adults.

But what does the existence of people like that mean for BDSM as an orientation?  Are they somehow less “entitled” to practice BDSM, because it’s not as deep-rooted or important to them as it is for, say, me?  No, that can’t be true.  I’m not going to claim that my feelings are “more real” than theirs, or somehow more important, just because BDSM goes straight to my core but not to theirs.  They’ve got as much right as I do to practice these activities, as long as they do it consensually.

So, where does that leave us?  It means that BDSM is an orientation for some people, but not for others.  I’m fine with that.  Does that mean we’re done here?  Well, no ….

…because if BDSM is an orientation for some people but not others, then we’re in a bit of a weird place when it comes to legal recognition.  In the case I cited above, Charles Moser is claiming that we BDSMers can’t change ourselves and that therefore, we don’t deserve to be stigmatized for our sexuality.

On the surface, this might seem reasonable…but when you start analyzing it, it’s deeply problematic.  Because, actually, whether or not people can alter their sexual needs, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to do what they want with other consenting adults.  If any of us phrase the argument as: “I can’t change myself, so please don’t hate me!” then we are implicitly saying, “If I could change myself, I would — but I can’t, so please have pity on me!”  In other words, we are implicitly saying: “BDSMers can’t ‘fix’ our sexual needs — it’s not ‘our fault’ — so please don’t hate us.”

And when we say that, we are accepting and validating the way our culture tries to shame our sexuality.  We are fundamentally agreeing with the opposition and begging for an exception…rather than trying to change the rule.  We are calling BDSM a “fault”…rather than stating that freely exercising sexuality is our “right”.  We are casting BDSM sexuality as something that we would “fix” if we could.

Also, using the orientation argument leaves the entire segment of the population that doesn’t feel BDSM as an orientation standing out in the cold.  If we go with the orientation model, and say that it’s okay for BDSM-identified people to practice BDSM only because we feel it as a deep-rooted orientation…then we are implying that it’s not okay for people to practice BDSM if they don’t feel it as a deep-rooted orientation.

(Something like this has happened in some gay/lesbian communities: people who have sex with folks of the same gender, but don’t identify as strictly gay or lesbian, have sometimes been stigmatized within gay/lesbian communities or even disallowed from gay/lesbian gatherings.  I understand that there are historical reasons that kind of thing happened, and analyzing the phenomenon would take up a whole post.  I’m pretty sure books have been written about it.  But the point is that when it did happen, it left bisexual people — as well as others who don’t fit neatly within the “gay/lesbian orientation” — out in the cold.  And I don’t want to support that with BDSM.)

This is why I find myself moving away from that kind of language.  I think it is important to move away from “I can’t help having these needs,” and towards “It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”


…there’s always a but …

I’ll admit that I feel anxiety about abandoning the “orientation model.”  I still haven’t taken the word “orientation” out of my BDSM overview lecture because it is useful for convincing people that BDSM is okay.  Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

Furthermore, there are obviously people out there (like Charles Moser) who are seeking to protect BDSM legally, as a sexual orientation — seeking to make BDSM a protected class, so that we can’t get fired or have our kids taken away or suffer other consequences for being into BDSM anymore.  If talking about BDSM as a sexual orientation means I no longer have to worry about those consequences, then is it worth it?  Maybe.

And, of course, I don’t want to forget how much the idea of an “orientation” comforted me when I was first coming into BDSM.  It made me feel so much better to recognize BDSM as an inbuilt part of myself.  I don’t want to take that comfort away from anyone else.

So, when I try to campaign for general sexual freedom and acceptance — “orientation” or no “orientation” — I imagine that I’ll still end up using the word sometimes.  But I’ll always try to be conscious of it, and I’ll always try to speak in ways that support this statement:

“It’s fundamentally unimportant whether we can change our sexual desires; the only really important thing is whether or not we practice them consensually.”

Further Reading:

* After I wrote this post, I discovered that Trinity over at SM-Feminist had also just written a post about BDSM as an orientation!  The post and comments are definitely worth reading.

* Also, the excellent Kink Research Overviews blog now has a great post on innateness.

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and universities across the USA.  She created and curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; she has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable BDSM institution, the Leather Archives & Museum.  Clarisse recently returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa.  Her writing has appeared across the internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, and Time Out Chicago.  She blogs about feminist sexuality with a focus on S&M at and Feministe, and she tweets @clarissethorn.

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