the comfort of confusion, or hey, baby, your kink looks hot in those genes

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the ways that “gay gene” studies have been trashed – and rightly so, in my opinion, though not necessarily in the right way or for the right motivations.

Now, so far, nobody’s tried to undertake a study of whether or not there’s such thing as a kinky/BDSM/fetish gene. (I’ll get to why I think that’s likely in a bit, though the very expression at the end of that last sentence should give a pretty good clue.) But unsurprisingly, the subject does pop up on a regular basis in discussions among kinksters – we just have far less scientific data (however dubious the science and the data) to go on in fuelling our arguments. Which in a way makes them more interesting, because it stops being about the people who are “proven right” versus those who are “hopelessly idealistic/delusional” and starts being a little more thoughtful.

My own position in this argument is, perhaps predictably, quite a lot like my position on homo/bi/queer sexuality. But interestingly, the kink argument helps me to articulate it even better.

The dominant culture likes to believe there are only two kinds of sexuality – gay and straight – and that only one of them is acceptable (you get three guesses). This culture often ignores the existence of variation – bisexuality, gender-neutral attraction, attraction to and on the part of trans and gender-variant people, the very possibility of an intersex person having a sexual attraction to anyone at all and what the heck you might call that. In fact the culture does such a good job of ignoring, suppressing, denying and devaluing those variations on the binary theme that they are consistently un-, under- or mis-represented in studies, when they’re considered at all, which is rare… and very few people other than those who live and experience those sexualities stand up for their existence. The common excuses are that straights don’t care and gay people have enough on their plate, thanks.

In short: the research that is produced about sexuality, regardless of its specific topic of interest, its methods, and its conclusions, often serves as a constant and consistent reification of the binary’s existence.

Now, the cool thing about kink/BDSM//fetish sexuality is that it completely transcends the idea of a binary. Okay, sure, some people still think that there are “tops” and “bottoms” and it all ends there. But even the most cursory glance at kink communities, literatures, practices, self-descriptions and even existing scientific and medical research will show that there’s a vast panoply of kinky behaviour and desire out there which simply confounds the idea of a binary, or even a scale or spectrum.

But I digress. I’ll lay that one out in a minute. First, the question of inborn vs. learned kink sexuality.

I’m an active member of a particular international online kink/BDSM/fetish/sexuality discussion group, and a recent debate there inspired me to think about this. Most of us on the list probably have a natural (inborn, whatever) tendency to become aroused by power dynamics, and/or intense sensation or pain (delivering or receiving it), and/or fetish objects. But I think it’s virtually undeniable that and our cultural upbringing, what we’re exposed to and so forth, determines the specifics of how that will look.

In certain countries where…

  • social factors have combined to create the circumstances under which the development of specific types of interest crop up frequently enough (say, a television show that regularly features women tied up and helpless), and
  • where the language exists to express those interests in some understandable way (say, English in all its glorious messy flexibility), and
  • where the technology and means of communication exist to link the people who are expressing those interests (say, print magazines with personals columns, or telephone dating services, or Internet chat rooms), and
  • possibly even (in some cases) when sufficient oppression exists for people to feel isolated or wounded by the world at large because of those interests (say, early SM activists and artists, particularly in San Francisco and New York, who inspired a growing BDSM/fetish culture that crossed the border into Canada)…

… then people create community around their interests, within which they can enjoy them with like-minded individuals, both in the positive sense – “wow, this is fun, people who do this thing I do!”, much like people who take an art class or play hockey – and in the negative sense – “here we can free of the persecution or misunderstanding of others,” an added layer you don’t get so much with art classes and hockey.

Then, group identification comes along as a pretty standard development, at least in a strong majority of societal models, and people start to see their identities as related to those proclivities, rather than seeing them simply as behaviours. Foucault explains this well, but so do many other queer historians, usually focusing on the way that prior to the mid-1800s, homosexual acts certainly existed, but nobody conceived of the people doing them as homosexual people. There was no such thing as a homosexual identity.

I’m going to reiterate my old argument… I firmly believe there are tons of people who fit the loose definition of “kinky” as your average member of the kink community might understand it (i.e. as I described earlier), but who would never come near a group or community like the mailing list I referred to earlier, not to mention a real-life event or group, and who don’t necessarily identify as kinky, behaviour notwithstanding.

This is true for any number of reasons – as many or possibly many more than the reasons behind the existence of plenty of people who exhibit homosexual desire or behaviour and never set foot in a gay bar or attend a Pride march or wear a rainbow necklace. We – queer folks, kinky folks and any number of other sexually-defined minority group – are a really specific cultural expression of something, or rather, many many many intertwined and overlapping cultural expressions of many loosely related somethings, and not everyone who has the proclivities connects with those communities, cultures and expressions.

This doesn’t mean the proclivities aren’t inborn. Like many, I am one of those people whose earliest sexual fantasies (and I can remember some back to when I was two years old!) were highly focused on power exchange or pain or other forms of kink. For me, in fact, that definitely predates any inkling of same-sex desire – though that didn’t take too terribly much longer (maybe age five or six). I wouldn’t attempt to guess what, but there’s gotta be something there. Some kind of inborn factor – perhaps a genetic or chemical propensity or likelihood that’s to a greater or lesser degree, like the ones that dictate whether we’ll have curly hair or wide hips – that plays a part, that in turn is triggered or released by outside factors to greater or lesser degrees of intensity or repetition. It fits with too many people’s stories and personal experiences to be entirely deniable in favour of a 100% social constructionist model.

But that being said, I highly doubt we’ll ever find a single consistent “kinky gene” of any kind – any more than we’ve been successful at finding a gay one – because sexuality just isn’t that simple.

And here’s where the kinky community is more helpful, in its persistent lack of deniability, than the queer one. Unfortunately, anyone can shrug off a bisexual as having not made up their mind yet, but that kind of dismissal gets a lot harder to apply when you’re faced with a world of impossibly wide-ranging kinks.

Who in their right mind could say that a person who likes being pissed on has the same sexuality as someone who likes to cut pretty designs into their partner’s skin? Who could find the right spots on a continuum for a latex fetishist and a person who gains sexual enjoyment from performing domestic chores for a strict supervisor? What does a person who gets turned on by amputees have in common with someone who likes the occasional back-thudding flogging?

Truly, the miracle of the modern BDSM/fetish community is that it has managed to bring this wide a range of people together to discuss their extreme differences as much as to discuss what they have in common. Sure, there are tons of small splinter groups catering to particular interests, but sufficient numbers from each of those groups participate in the larger whole to keep it endlessly variant (and fascinating).

The discussion list I’ve mentioned (just under 10,000 members) is a perfect example of this. The list represents a small fraction of the worldwide kink community, which in turn represents a small fraction (in my opinion) of the actual instances of kink out in the world. On this list you can find hardcore dominant/submissive players who don’t like pain, complete pain sluts who don’t like power exchange, looners, furries, leather fetishists, bondage enthusiasts, cross-dressers, sadists, shoe-lickers, people who like to be humiliated, blood players, adult baby/diaper players, piercing/tattoo/body modification enthusiasts, fire players… and that’s not even counting the people who combine multiple kinds of kink into their own personal brand. Further, it’s not even going near the genders, sexes, physical descriptions and personality traits of the people we prefer to experience these enjoyments with.

I mean come on, you’re gonna find me one inborn thing that explains all of those permutations? I doubt it.

Most likely, in my humble opinion, the “inborn” basis of this kind of thing is way more complex and subtle and multilayered and infinitely varied than we can ever hope to discern through even the most fine-tuned of scientific research. And anyway, it’s only by layering the infinite variation of culture on top of this infinite variation of innate proclivity that those tendencies are given expression and meaning and context, not to mention people to enjoy them with.

Again – while nature and nurture may exist as two different factors, I think they’re indissociable and irreducible. I’m not sure why people are so convinced it’s a valuable project to try and tease them apart; the idea seems to me not only pointless but impossible. I’ve quite had enough of beating that particular dead horse when it comes to the queer question, so I feel rather relieved to know that the whole paradigm becomes hopelessly confused when applied to kink.

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