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.”