Katharine Gates’s Anthropology of Kink

Katharine Gates’s Anthropology of Kink

Explicit Interests

The republication of Deviant Desires provides an opportunity to consider notions of sexuality that are often ignored or minimized elsewhere.


Much has been written about how Fifty Shades of Grey , the book and movie phenomenon revolving around a young woman’s romance with a rich and powerful man with a penchant for inflicting pain, depicts abusive behavior under the guise of kink. (For one thing, he makes her sign a nondisclosure agreement about their sex life.) And yet Fifty Shades remains popular: An entire feature-length film now in theaters depicts how the novel revitalized a group of older women’s sex lives. Less attention has been paid, however, to books that take the rules and practices of unconventional sexuality seriously, while still painting a vivid and intriguing portrait of the multifaceted ways that people express their explicit interests.

One of the ways that mainstream, story-driven media can misstep in depicting kink and fetish play is by not showing the whole picture: the discussion of desires, the negotiation of limits, the establishment of “safe words,” and so on. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine investigated the role of pornography as “the de facto sex educator for American youth” and mentioned BDSM and rough sex frequently, focusing on how their prevalence in porn can lead young people to imitate what they see. And as the porn performer Stoya noted in a subsequent Times op-ed, such behavior needs to be discussed with the proper context. Porn makers (and, ideally, the porn itself) should take pains to acknowledge “all the things [that viewers] don’t see in the final product,” such as planning and “aftercare,” Stoya argues, because even adult viewers might be seeing a particular sexual practice for the first time. One must learn the rules before understanding the ways in which they can be broken.

One such attempt at offering useful context was made in Katharine Gates’s book Deviant Desires, which was initially published in 2000 with the subtitle Incredibly Strange Sex and reissued last December with a new one: A Tour of the Erotic Edge. It could be argued that our society has become more open-minded in the intervening years, and in many ways it has. But the acceptance of those who engage in unconventional practices is still difficult for many people. In January 2017, the social network FetLife removed thousands of fetishes deemed “immoral” by the site’s credit-card-processing company, including those for needles, incest roleplay, and rape fantasies. Should consent supersede any other moral consideration? Gates argues that with the proper communication, it is possible to enact many of these kinks in a way that’s consensual and even empowering (she notes that “carefully negotiated scenes with trusted partners can be a means of transforming childhood trauma” for some).

Moreover, Gates acknowledges, “some kinky people do seek out sexual activities that put them at risk,” such as trampling or knife play, but these more extreme acts must follow a rubric called RACK, or “Risk Aware Consensual Kink,” which prioritizes “knowledge and skill” and accepts that some agreed-upon acts may still hold inherent risk. RACK “makes it possible,” Gates notes, “to talk about edge play…without shutting the conversation down as fundamentally unsafe.”

A few pages into this large, vibrant tome lies a disclaimer: “Some of the activities described in this book are dangerous, and a few are illegal. Readers should not attempt any of the acts described herein. The publisher, author, and interview subjects accept no responsibility for any injury or damage caused by readers ignoring this warning.” Though it’s a bit confusing for a book that claims to be nonjudgmental, the warning feels more like the sort of intrusive—but easily dismissed—pop-up notice on a website asking you to verify your age. Once you click past, there’s no further finger-wagging. Rather, quite the opposite.

Deviant Desires presents some of the most detailed information on kink’s behind-the-scenes requirements that I’ve encountered in a book not written explicitly as an instruction manual. In addition to items of general education—such as the difference between kinks (anything that turns someone on outside of the “normal” parameters) and fetishes (a preference so strong that it’s almost necessary for a person’s sexual fulfillment), or the multistep process required to execute a scenario consensually—Gates also offers safety tips tailored to these niche practices.

The book uses different narrative modes, such as character-centric reporting, taxonomies, and practical advice, to demystify kinks and fetishes that the average person may not have heard of and to add a humanizing context to behaviors that one may know only through movies or memes. Gates devises a range of terms to organize her book: “Core kinks,” like feet or leather, are raw materials that create the foundation for more specific scenarios; “major themes,” such as power play, are common presences in various kinks and fetishes; “the erotic equation,” which can be applied to any of the practices described in the book, theorizes that the combination of “desire + obstacle” and/or “pressure + resistance” creates “excitement.” Lastly, Gates includes “briefs” at the end of each section to summarize major and minor themes, terminology, sub-kinks, and more. Deviant Desires reads like a textbook crossed with an edgy tabloid (complete with plenty of shocking images), but this seemingly unlikely combination has resulted in an engaging and engrossing book. “My goal was to listen to individuals with messy, complicated, and idiosyncratic erotic needs, and learn how they have had to be inventive in order to meet these needs,” Gates writes. “Like most works of cultural anthropology, it is an attempt to enlist the exotic to illuminate the universal.”

The discussion of “pony play,” for example, will help readers learn how arm restraints and “hoof boots” function, and how “most ponies find that having the rider sit on the pelvis—rather than in the middle of the waist—helps to distribute weight over the legs and knees.” Readers will also learn about more general requirements, like the use of safe words or signals, which are, for good reason, stressed endlessly throughout the book and can be applied to any situation. There are even anecdotes about staying aware of your partner’s body language and checking in, since no one is infallible and safe words aren’t always used when they should be.

For all its compassion, Gates’s book runs the risk at times of portraying these fetish communities as utopian playgrounds, but she is critical of certain boundary-crossing activities: men who hit women in the face with a pie without their permission; “crush” fetishists who kill animals on video; “feeders” who gorge their partners to the point of extreme discomfort or even physical incapacity and then leave them.The unfortunate prevalence of abuse in the BDSM subculture is also briefly covered, as well as the difficulties of finding justice in an often closed-minded legal system for those who are assaulted or otherwise harmed.

Still, Deviant Desires offers a welcome alternative to the more common writing about kink and fetish practices. AskMen, the self-described “leading men’s lifestyle website,” published an article titled “Extreme Sex,” about the appeal of trying a little domination and submission. However, little to no time is spent in the piece articulating the need for proper communication: A section headed “the dominator” instructs men to become aggressive and ignore their partner when she “whispers no,” with zero mention of how consensual nonconsent scenarios actually function.

Though Deviant Desires isn’t written exclusively from a heterosexual and cisgender perspective, its focus is sufficiently narrow that it pushes some groups to the side. In the introduction, Gates writes: “It is outside of the scope of this book to address gender, sexual orientation, trans identity, and asexuality—all essential topics, but not mine.” Further, she argues that heavily involving trans and queer people in her book would add to the “misconceptions” straight people have about the LGBTQ community being largely composed of sexual deviants. This justification, however, is counterproductive for Gates’s larger goal of offering compassionate attention to misjudged communities. She also touches briefly on certain topics—such as the capacity of mentally disabled people to give “meaningful consent” (Gates merely suggests they cannot)—that aren’t treated with the nuanced or critical eye they deserve.

Nevertheless, the republication of Deviant Desires provides an opportunity to consider notions of sexuality, consent, safety, and expression that are often ignored or minimized elsewhere, whether within the pages of a lurid novel or in the words of a “how-to” website. As Deviant Desires demonstrates, there are myriad ways to express one’s sexuality, which means there are equally numerous ways of behaving badly. Gates’s book takes the time to dispense both hyper-specific instructions and general guidelines on how to engage in the filthiest of fantasies while maintaining an adequate level of rigor with respect to consent and safety.

Throughout Deviant Desires, Gates often discusses kink communities as they interact in the physical realm—a result, no doubt, of the fact that the book was written before the widespread use of the Internet. Nowadays, as with much else in society, kink communities have moved online, ideally allowing a greater degree of connectivity—one that transcends geography—as well as new levels of openness. When Gates does mention the Internet, she regards it as a multifaceted force, responsible for both shuttering the treasured print publications of the kink world (including titles like Equus Eroticus and Black Giantess) and enabling the creation of websites like Balloon Buddies (which gives “looners,” or balloon fetishists, a chance to know they’re not alone).

As a result, publishing a book like Deviant Desires might seem a hopelessly retro move these days. And yet it’s also unclear that the Internet provides a safer space for distributing information to a wide audience. Indeed, the proverbial Wild West of the digital age may soon become more restrictive. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed a willingness to prosecute porn, and President Trump recently signed FOSTA-SESTA, a set of bills allegedly intended to protect against sex trafficking by making websites legally responsible for third-party content if it is found to solicit prostitution—consensual or otherwise.

In addition to sex workers, who have repeatedly stated that these bills will further endanger the lives of an already at-risk population, FOSTA-SESTA has forced changes on other areas of the Internet that may host “objectionable” content, with even Google and Microsoft cracking down on the “adult” content present on their platforms. According to Vox, in addition to the Craigslist Personals, one of the first sites to shut down through an abundance of caution was Pounced, a dating website for “furries,” a subculture of people with a strong interest in anthropomorphic animals that Gates also includes in Deviant Desires.

So, while a book might seem like an outdated vehicle, these recent legislative efforts call into question the Web’s reputation as a safe and reliable haven for alternative communities. After all, you don’t need to remember to delete your browser history after a heated evening of page-turning, or worry that a book won’t be there in a week because it could be identified as promoting prostitution due to its explicit content. The Internet has been inarguably beneficial for fetish communities and other oft-maligned groups, but the Web’s curious corners shouldn’t be the only places that such benefits can be found.

“Untold numbers of people suppress their own nonconformist leanings,” Gates writes in her conclusion. “Yet honest and safe exploration is possible; other people have made this journey and left road maps.”

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