The Science of Kink
It’s not a pathological aberration, but part of the healthy spectrum of sexuality
In recent years, kink has become increasingly mainstream: whether it’s Rihanna professing a love of S&M or the Fifty Shades films bringing in hundreds of millions at the box office, it’s clear that there’s an increased appetite for sex that strays from the straight and narrow path.
Broadly defined as sexual interests that exist outside the norm, the boundaries of kink can shift depending on where, and when, you are in the world. For some, anal sex could be considered kinky, while others would dismiss that attitude as the height of prudishness. At present, kink is generally accepted to include BDSM (an acronym for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, and masochism) and fetish, where a particular object (such as feet or latex) is considering essential to a person’s sexual pleasure.
Even as many of us have become more comfortable talking kink, we’re still operating under a lot of misconceptions about what kink looks like, and what kind of role it plays in the lives of practitioners (see Fifty Shades, the success of). Kink is often assumed to be an all or nothing situation, where people can’t enjoy any sexual contact unless it involves their preferred “perversion,” and the specter of the “creepy fetishist” driven to unspeakable acts by their desires looms large in the public imagination.
Fortunately, our increasing comfort with the topic of kink has been accompanied by an increased interest in how it functions in people’s lives. “The research on kink started in the 1970s, and only in the last maybe 10 years has it begun really exploding in the literature,” says psychotherapist and researcher Ryan Witherspoon, who is co-authoring a book on clinical work with kinky people. “Now that kink is less stigmatized, it’s being taken up by more serious research teams.”
As those research teams have conducted their work, their findings have started to paint a picture that’s wildly different from what many of us have been led to believe.
For starters, having an interest in kink is far more common than many realize. “We now have some pretty good data on how many people engage in kink in the U.S. and Canada and some other Western countries,” says Witherspoon, putting the number at between 10% and 15%. But that figure, he says, accounts only for those who are comfortable disclosing that aspect of their sex lives in surveys.
And the numbers get much higher when you start factoring in people whose interest in kink has remained in the fantasy realm. “Up to 60% of people have kink-related fantasies,” Witherspoon says, citing bondage and flogging — a form of impact play where a submissive is repeatedly hit with a multitailed whip or flogger — as two common interests. “There’s a big discrepancy between people who fantasize about kinky things versus people who actually engage in them.”
One thing that does seem universal among people who are attracted to kink is a fascination with power dynamics and an interest in playing with power roles.
And among people who engage in kink, there’s a wide range of behaviors. While some people fit the lifestyle “kinkster” stereotype that many of us associate with BDSM and fetish, others are far more casual about their practice, mixing role play with vanilla sex, or dabbling only on rare occasions. “Kink behaviors are very normal. It’s part of the larger spectrum of sexuality,” says Witherspoon.
What’s less clear is what the source of kink is — though that may be in part because there isn’t really one clear, specific reason that universally explains the experiences and interests of every single person who has an affinity for it. “For some kinky people, their interests in kink start at a very young age, even before they become interested in sexuality,” Witherspoon says, noting that adults who enjoy bondage may recall having enjoyed childhood games that involved being “jailed” or tied up. In other instances, interest in kink doesn’t surface until well into adulthood, though coming to kink at a later age doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is less enthusiastic or authentic in their commitment to the practice.
One thing that does seem universal among people who are attracted to kink is a fascination with power dynamics and an interest in playing with power roles. Even interests that aren’t obviously about power, like a love of latex, leather, or feet, often have some element of power exchange, like foot worship, or the ritualized care practices associated with leather garments.
Witherspoon is quick to remind me, though, that this is not particularly unique to people who enjoy kink. “As humans, we’re very oriented towards power. Whether it’s social hierarchies [or finding] powerful people to be more attractive, power is really hot for us.”
What distinguishes kinky people from more traditional “vanilla” folk is the way that fascination with power is explored and expressed. Kinky people tend to enhance a natural power imbalance through the exploration of sensations and experiences deemed “abnormal” by mainstream conceptions of sex, like spanking, piercing, or other implements intended to cause pain.
Despite the salacious stories that position kink as a pathway to harm, there isn’t much evidence that unhealthy kink, in which one or more participants suffer lasting harm from the experience, is significantly different from other unhealthy relationships. “There’ve been a few high-profile news stories in the past couple of years about people who have been injured or even died doing kink stuff,” says Witherspoon. “When you dig into those, what you find is that they’re often involved in abusive relationships that happened to also be kinky.”
When Witherspoon is assessing the healthiness of his clients’ behaviors, “I look at how it makes them feel. Before, during, and after, and then in general. Kink is not supposed to psychologically harm someone,” he explains. That criterion is widely accepted: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) differentiates between having a fetish and suffering from fetishistic disorder, with the latter distinguished by “clinically significant distress or impairment.”
But Witherspoon doesn’t automatically assume that negative feelings associated with participating in BDSM activity are a sign that that practice is harmful in and of itself. “If kink is leaving a person with a great deal of shame, I want to look at that more,” he says. Some shame, he continues, is borne out of internalizing our culture’s kink-phobic attitudes. But in other cases, it may point to an issue with the role kink plays in that person’s life.
While some clients may be incapable of engaging in kink in a healthy matter, Witherspoon doesn’t see abstaining from kink entirely as a universal solution — in the same way that abstaining from sex entirely isn’t always the answer for someone who’s been engaging in unhealthy or self-destructive sexual behaviors. Instead, Witherspoon prefers to look at the underlying issues and work out how his clients can explore their kinky urges in a way that feels positive and healthy, unpacking and dealing with any internalized shame along the way.
Ultimately, understanding kink is really just understanding the vast diversity of human sexual behavior — and why different cultures happen to uphold some behaviors as acceptable and others as taboo.
“People have whatever their culturally-bound beliefs are about what sex is supposed to be, and everything else gets judged based on the distance of how far it is from that culture-bound norm,” Witherspoon says, noting that the label “kink” is often applied to behaviors that feel furthest from the socially sanctioned sex we’re taught to believe is “normal.”
And yet, Witherspoon continues, “the idea that there is just one normal or natural way to have sex is a myth. We know from research on sexual diversity that diversity is the norm, not the exception” — and that kink, rather than some pathological aberration, is actually just one more part of that beautiful diversity.
Or, as Charles Moser, one of the leading researchers on kink, brusquely told me over email when I reached out to him for comment on this piece, “Why are some people gay and some people straight? Same reason to be kinky or have fetishes. What differentiates healthy heterosexual behavior from destructive behavior? Same answer for kink.” The more research we have on the science of kink, the clearer it becomes kink is just one more aspect of being human.