Saturday, May 5, 2012

(A)sexuality and Kink

I identify as asexual—that is, I do not experience sexual attraction (though I do experience other forms of attraction, such as romantic attraction). I'm also into lots of things that fall under the umbrella of "kink" or "BDSM" (which stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), which is often considered purely sexual (to the point where you often hear terms like "kinky sex" being used as synonyms for BDSM). There's a lot of misunderstanding about how these two orientations can coexist in one person, and so I want to write a bit about that. Much of this post is based on a discussion I led at a meeting of RACK, the student group at the University of Chicago for students interested in or curious about BDSM.

In this post I'm going to assume that you already have some familiarity with asexuality (as an orientation) and about BDSM—not all of the details, but the general gists of what each means. In case you don't, good starting points for learning about asexuality are AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network), the Asexual Awareness Week FAQ, and the Wikpedia entry on asexuality, and for a quick introduction to BDSM and kink I'd again suggest Wikipedia. (Just so there's no confusion, I should mention that I'll be using "BDSM" and "kink" as synonyms in this post.)

Why Do I Care?

Before I go into details about asexuality and kink, I want to say a few words about why I find this topic important. I've known I was kinky for far longer than I knew there was a term for it—I have memories going way back of having friends tie me up, and of plenty of other related things. I've also known for as long as I knew what sex was that it was something I didn't want. My understanding of my orientation has changed a lot over time, but the core of it, in terms of both asexuality and kink, has been there for a very long time.

When I was in college I was out about my asexuality, but I wasn't out about kink. The fact that I wasn’t out about kink might not seem surprising (after all, plenty of kinky people are very private about it) until you consider the kind of environment it was. Lots of people in my social group were completely out about it. It was a topic that often came up in conversations, and several friends of mine would fairly regularly talk openly about the kinky things they'd done (or were going to do). This was an environment where kink was common, and pretty much completely accepted even by the people who weren't kinky themselves. In other words, it would seem like the ideal environment for me to be out about being kinky... so why wasn't I?

The answer is basically that everyone seemed to consider it so closely tied to sex. Everywhere I looked, I was getting signals that kink and asexuality were just incompatible. When it was discussed, it was discussed in the context of sex. A friend of mine at one point even made a poll on Livejournal about kink orientation, with options like "top," "bottom," "switch," and "asexual"... but no way to select more than one! While I'm sure in retrospect that being out about both would have been fine, at the time it seemed like I was getting messages that one couldn't be both asexual and kinky, and I didn't really know how to reconcile that with the fact that I certainly seemed to be both. I dealt with it by not being out about kink to anyone. As a result, it was a really long time before I found the BDSM community, which is unfortunate.

Even since I've been out and about in the BDSM community, I've seen these attitudes a lot. I've been to presentations where the presenter has said "if it doesn't make your dick hard or your pussy wet, why do it?" (I'll answer that later!) Or "it's about the sex!" in a rope bondage demo. The website FetLife, a social networking site for kinky people, initially didn't include "asexual" as an option for orientation; when it was finally added (after the site had been around for a few years), the owner of the site wrote "Asexual is a sexual orientation that we have been asked to add to our list for a long time but I naively could not grasp why someone who is asexual would be on FetLife in the first place." And plenty of times on the site I've seen users tell others that someone who is kinky is, by definition, not asexual.

Clearly, there's still very much an attitude that asexuality and kink aren't compatible, and this attitude is likely to turn off others from the community as it did me, initially. And that, I'd say, is the main reason I care.

It's worth mentioning that these attitudes also turned me off from the asexual community for a long time. On my very first visit to the forums on AVEN, a major community site for asexuals, one of the very first posts I saw was one that seemed quite negative toward BDSM. I got the impression that that wasn't a community for me either, which was also unfortunate.

These days, fortunately, I'm surrounded by plenty of kink people who are completely accepting of asexuality, and plenty of asexuals who are understanding of kink (and a few other people who, like me, identify as both). It's taken a while, but I've finally become comfortable with my orientations and, for the most part, comfortable with the communities around them.

Taking about sexuality and kink

In our culture there tends to be an idea that there's a clear line between what’s sex and what isn’t. This idea is even built into terms like "virgin": the assumption tends to be that a person either is a virgin or isn't, and that there's no ambiguity. This idea is completely false, of course: while so many people seem to believe that there's a clear line between what's sex and what isn't, any two people you ask are going to put that line in a different place! There are some actions that pretty much anyone would agree count as sex and others pretty much anyone would agree aren't, but there’s also a large grey area where it can depend on individual definitions.

In the same way, there's an idea in the kink community that BDSM play can be sexual or not, and that again there's a clear line between the two. But as in the case of sex itself, I really don't think that's the case; in fact, from reading posts in online discussions, it's clear that once again different people will draw the dividing line in very different places. Rather than trying to define what exactly would count as "sexual" or "non-sexual" in the context of BDSM, I want to talk a bit about the "landscape" of kink and sexuality. This isn't intended to be a complete list of the ways kink can or can't be sexual, but instead it's intended as a few examples that will give us reference points we can use. (An analogy I like is that these are "cities" in our landscape. Not everyone lives in a city, of course; but knowing about them still lets someone say, for example, that they live "an hour north of Chicago." The labels that are part of our vocabulary don't need to fit everyone (or even anyone) to be useful!) It's my hope that a better understanding of this landscape could be useful not only in talking abstractly about sex and kink, but also in discussing desires with partners.

Let's start with an example of what, I imagine, nearly everyone would consider a sexual kind of BDSM play: where we have two people who are having sex (by whatever definition you want!), and bringing kink in as a way of enhancing their sex. (This is certainly what comes to my mind when I hear terms like "kinky sex.") Here the actions are clearly sexual (in that the people are having sex), and the intent is sexual (what's happening is happening for the sex, with BDSM being secondary).

On the other hand, you could imagine two people engaging in BDSM play, but where neither is experiencing any arousal and neither has any intentions about sex, and no sex is happening. (Later on I'll talk about why people might want to do this!) It would seem to me that if anything should count as "non-sexual kink," it would be something like this.

And then we have things in the middle. Imagine two people playing, and not actually having sex, but still having intentions relating to it. Perhaps they're both very sexually attracted to each other, and both experience sexual arousal from their playing and are in fact playing mostly because of that arousal. This is a case where we could consider the intentions sexual even if the actions don't involve any actual sex.

A similar kind of situation, more toward the non-sexual side, would be play in which there's no actual sex, and while there might be arousal it's not very important—the people involved might not even realize it during the fact, and arousal is certainly not one of the reasons they're playing. Here, even though there may be arousal, the intentions aren't particularly sexual.

Can we have play with sexual actions but not intentions? I'd say so. I have a friend who is a sadist. He's not extremely fond of sex, except in that it can be used for sadism—it increases people's pain tolerances, for example. In his case, when he's engaging in BDSM play that involves sex, while the actions are certainly sexual he's primarily motivated by sadism. In other words, sex is being used as a way to enhance kink, rather than the other way around.

We can also have play where the intentions are different for the different people involved. In a scene with sex, one person could be doing it for the sake of the sex, and the other primarily for the kink. In scenes without sex, one person might be doing it entirely because it's arousing to them, while their partner might find it entirely unarousing and have entirely different motivations. This can all get really complicated fast!

If it's not for the sex, why do it?

Now that we have some idea of the ways in which kink can be sexual or not, let's talk a bit about motivations people have for kink. My impression is that, for most people, arousal (even if not sex) tends to be a (if not the) primary motivation. But for people for whom it's not, why do it?

It turns out that there are a myriad of reasons, aside from sex and arousal, that people might want to engage in BDSM play. I'll list a few here, but this is by no means a complete list:

  • Enjoyment of pain. For plenty of masochists, pain in the right circumstances can be a pleasant sensation. It also can cause the release of endorphins, leading to a pleasant sort of "high" from the pain.
  • Other kinds of tactile enjoyment. Many people who like bondage, for example, find the feeling of being restrained pleasant in itself. (Many people who enjoy corsets enjoy them for similar reasons: the restrictive feeling can be very pleasant.)
  • Intimacy. This, for me, is a big one. A big part of most forms of intimacy is voluntarily exposing oneself to vulnerability to another person; in many kinds of BDSM play, that vulnerability is made very explicit. Many asexuals still have a strong desire for intimacy and close personal connections with other people. In a culture that often views sex as one of the most significant forms of intimacy, asexual people can often feel somewhat left out. BDSM, for some, provides another avenue other than sex for intimacy.
  • Fun! Nobody would ask “if sports aren’t sexual for you, why do them?” because it’s understood that sports, for many people, are a lot of fun in their own right. Kink can be exactly the same way. Sometimes it can be fun because it’s a challenge—perhaps a challenge of endurance, perhaps a challenge of escaping from bondage, perhaps a challenge to try to one-up the person you’re playing with in witty banter as you play. Sometimes it’s fun because it’s downright silly. Sometimes, especially when done in playspaces where others can watch, it can be a performance to some extent. (I’ll add that I really like that “to play” has become the “to do BDSM” verb, because so often BDSM really is so playful!)
When someone plays, it can be for any combination of these (and many other) reasons. Whenever I hear people say things like "it's about the sex" or "if it's not arousing, why do it?" I wish they'd think about what they're saying a little bit more: chances are many of them are doing it for plenty of reasons, only some of which have to do directly with sex!

Sex as a kink

Earlier I talked about some of the reasons that people might enjoy BDSM, aside from sex. To many people, though, no matter what the motivations are, sex (or at least arousal) is always among them. So even if they can understand that there are reasons aside from sex to enjoy BDSM, many people still have trouble imagining how anyone would want to have kink without sex.

I think that one good way to think about it is to treat sex as "just another kink"—one that most people in the world happen to be into, but a kink nonetheless, and one that it’s perfectly fine not to be into. (This is an idea others have had as well; see
this blog post, for example.) Nobody I've met is into everything, and plenty of people have things they're anywhere from vaguely disinterested in to actively repulsed by. This doesn't mean they think it's inherently bad, just that it's not for them. Pretty much everyone is disgusted by something!

For several of us, sex is just not one of our kinks. We enjoy plenty of things that fall under the umbrella of BDSM, but when it comes to sex... it can be anywhere from uninteresting to disgusting to us. Again, this doesn't imply thinking that sex is a bad thing in principle; just that it's not for us. The way I feel about sex is a lot like the way I feel about a bunch of the kinks I’m not into: it’s fine that other people like them, but it’s not for me. But sex—just as with any other kink—is not required by everyone to be happy, nor is it necessarily required for a relationship to be fulfilling, and it’s completely fine to like it or not.

What now?

As I said in the beginning, the idea that “kink is necessarily sexual” is still pretty widespread within the kink community (and our culture in general). This is unfortunate, because that attitude can be alienating—not just to kinky asexuals, but to anyone who enjoys kink but doesn’t necessarily want it to be too sexual. Attitudes often change slowly, but they can change—and in my experience at kinky social events, people are very curious about kink outside of what they’re familiar with. (Mention to someone at a kink event that you’re asexual and you’ll get a lot of questions... but I consider that a good thing, because in my experience they’ve generally been open-minded, non-judgemental questions from people who seem to genuinely want to learn more.) With the asexual community becoming more visible and prominent, it’s my hope that the kink community will start to become more aware that BDSM doesn’t have to be sexual for everyone, and will be more inviting to people who just aren’t that interested in sex with their kink.


  1. Matt this is fantastic! I'd been kicking myself for not taking notes during that RACK meeting. Thank you! ^_^

  2. Got here via

    Great article. :)

  3. This is wonderful. I had straddled this line for a long time and the way you break it up is very thought provoking. Thank you.

  4. In our culture there tends to be an idea that there's a clear line between what’s sex and what isn’t. This idea is even built into terms like "virgin": the assumption tends to be that a person either is a virgin or isn't, and that there's no ambiguity. This idea is completely false, of course: while so many people seem to believe that there's a clear line between what's sex and what isn't, any two people you ask are going to put that line in a different place! There are some actions that pretty much anyone would agree count as sex and others pretty much anyone would agree aren't, but there’s also a large grey area where it can depend on individual definitions.