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  • Alexandra Gold

Kink, Subcultures, and Stigma

Kink is Everywhere and Nowhere: Kink, Subcultures, and Stigma

Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier produced sensationalized fetish fashion that is iconic to this day, Rihanna’s “S&M” and “Disturbia” made Billboard charts, and E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was adapted into a three-part movie franchise. Kink, BDSM, and fetish are found in every corner of current and past pop culture. And yet, our society instills kink negativity in all of its branches. Looking at the extensive supply of kink inspired media, we must ask—why are kink identified people continually marginalized?

There is a vast difference between a culture and its people performatively accepting something, and accepting it in laws, regulations, and daily living. Accepting Fifty Shades of Grey is not shaping a world that actively protects folks with alternative sexualities.

Thus, yes—kink and BDSM appearances have been adopted by the fashion, music, and entertainment industries. But with this, there may be a loss of accuracy, meaning, and emotional importance. To authentically understand alternative sexualities, an understanding of the nuances of varying practices must be solidified.

While the two terms "kink" and "BDSM" are often used interchangeably, kink is a term that comes from the community and has been used for over ninety years (Bienvenu, 1998), whereas BDSM is a more recent term from the 1990s created by scholars and researchers that has now been adopted by kink communities. Kink is understood by practitioners as unconventional sexual practices, and BDSM is understood by practitioners as a sexual practice that involves the use of physical or psychological control, power, and pain. It includes the components of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, or sadism or masochism, hence the acronym BDSM. A fetish, as often used in the phrase “fetish fashion,” is understood by practitioners as an obsession with a particular experience, body part, or object, such as rubber and PVC.

Kinky people face challenges not faced by those practicing vanilla sex. These challenges are left out in pop culture depictions of kink. This fundamental disconnect between reality and media puts kinky folks further at risk for medical endangerment—especially for those already jeopardized due to sexual orientation, race, or gender.

The negative assumptions that these sexual activities are intrinsically harmful stigmatizes the kinky individual’s identity. Such negative misconceptions have not been countered through high fashion runway shows and top 100 pop songs. Those in the media, if taking inspiration from kink, BDSM, and fetish communities, must reflect the authentic experiences of these communities—in all of their complexity.

Despite these challenges, for many, kink is affirming and provides a sense of self. The queer community has been historically intertwined with the kink community, and scenes provide individuals with a safe way to experiment with their gender presentation and identity. Safe, sane, and consensual BDSM provides an opportunity to further explore oneself. TASHRA’s 2016 Kink Health Survey found that 85.1% of folks who believe kink has impacted their mental health believe that it has impacted it positively. The majority of kink practitioners have had positive experiences, and yet, folks form misconceptions based on inaccurate media portrayals and research that is heavily focused on the frequency of mental disorders, psychological distress, and trauma among people who practice BDSM, rather than the extensive positive impacts. 

The risk of coming out as a kinky person is still prevalent in all walks of life. This stigma and the history of kink, BDSM, and fetish must not be lost in its pop culture adaptations. Kinky people are all around us—at all ages. Those who enjoy pop cultural adaptations may not even realize their origins. But nonetheless, they owe it to the kink community to fight for quality and compassionate care for all.

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