Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Introduction, Part II: Why Kink is Important

“The rich aren’t like you and me.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald

“They have more money.”  Ernest Hemingway

“Kink’ as used herein refers to consensual sexual variations.  The most common of these are BDSM: Bondage Discipline and Sadomasochism, and Polyamory. 

Sexual variation has been important in the past because of its importance in the sociology of certain helping professions, such as psychiatry and psychology, especially its relevance to theory construction and the scope and boundaries of professional practice.  As stated in my previous post, this blog seeks to expand the scope and competence of psychology and sex therapy.  Many upcoming posts will explore the history of social science thought about sexual variation.

Kink is also important because of the near universality of societal definitions of sexual deviance, so it has presented a problem of social control.  In today’s New York Times there is an account on the front page of three women, kidnapped as girls and held for a decade as slaves to three brothers in Cleveland, Ohio.  Expert opinion in that case suggested the men had paraphilias for dominating and controlling unwilling women.  This case reflects the social challenge of differentiating which sexual variations require labeling and control.

I am not going to talk very much about sexual variation as criminal behavior, although rape, child exploitation and prostitution are variant behaviors that are commonly criminalized. Those variant behaviors are not kinky in the sense employed in this blog, nor is kidnapping the unwilling.   We will talk some about criminal behavior in looking at the history of sexual deviation, and social science theories about it.  Criminality is fuzzy, because some kinky behaviors are criminal in some jurisdictions, even when they involve fully consenting adults.  Consent is by no means a firm legal boundary.  Since the notorious Operation Spanner case, The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1997 that Great Britain was within its rights to rule that consent was not a defense against assault charges brought against sadomasochistic behavior.  Ideas of consent and criminality vary widely across jurisdictions, and change over time.  This will be the preoccupation of many later posts.  Suffice it to say that kink is important because it involves human rights issues.

Although Kinsey’s research suggested that sexual variation was far greater than public assumptions admitted, prevailing social stereotypes create unrealistic expectations.  A history of ignorance means that sexual variation is a suspect field of study, and sexually variant clients cannot expect sophisticated, neutral and client-centered treatment approaches, even when their variations are benign.  We may not understand deviants, but according to Kinsey, we do not understand ourselves very well.

Social shame engenders psychological and social conflict, making it difficult for partners to negotiate sexual differences.  These dynamics isolate people with sexual variations, promote self-stigmatization, and interfere with kinky people finding community.  These assumptions are also a tremendous source of hurt, much of it unnecessary, for their non-kinky partners.

With changes in communications technology, kinky communities are becoming larger, more diverse, more politically and socially active, and more visible.  Considerable attention will be devoted to kink as a Western subculture.

Leo DiCaprio in the title role of the May 2013 release of The Great Gatsby.

I opened with a famous non-quote; Fitzgerald and Hemingway never sat down and said this to one another.  Hemingway replied to sentiments in The Great Gatsby, long after Fitzgerald penned them.  But they illustrate the process of turning strangers into the Other. 

Having concluded that Others are not like us, we can label, represent and manage them as we will.  What many have decried as ‘objectification’ is actually a process that goes well beyond routine treatment of strangers, and sets Others up for special aggression.  They become a symbol of what we are not, and need to be devalued.  Discrimination against the Other never feels arbitrary.  We shut down our native capacity for empathy willingly.

However comforting this position may be, it is not one from which psychotherapy can operate effectively.  Understanding kink is important so that we will not limit and misunderstand ourselves as healers.  The best way to avoid becoming an Other, is not to create them ourselves.

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 2013. All rights reserved.

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