WHAT’S WITH THOSE LABELS, ANYWAYS?
Hello, blossoming kinksters! Today, we’re going to shift gears a bit, and instead of chatting about how to be kinky (for that, look to the other articles in this excellent series!), talk about what it means to be kinky. Entering the vast world of BDSM is in a lot of ways like jumping down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland – all of a sudden, a party isn’t just to celebrate a birthday; that temptress, the Queen of Hearts might need to punish you (though, she might not get “off with your head”- or maybe she will!), and before you know it, you, like Alice, will find yourself in a world where the most wild fantasy is a reality limited only by imagination.
But in all of this newness, this excitement, it’s important to take a moment to step back and reflect. What do BDSM and kink have to do with identity? Maybe it seems like an even more basic question, but what does it mean to call yourself “kinky?” That’s one of those devilishly tricky questions, because everyone is going to have a different answer. “Kink” is a bit like “queer” – a broad term signaling many different types of people and identities, many of which haven’t even been invented yet. Where “queer” encompasses everyone from your average, business suit wearing Joe walking home from Wall Street to his equally mainstream husband, to pansexual aromantic transgender activist Joanie, “kink” encompasses a similar range of sexual preferences, from the almost-vanilla, to the hardcore lifestylers. Where “queer” engenders a certain sense of the counterculture, the different – and to some, a feeling of being more evolved and critical, “kink” has many of the same qualities, just… a little sexier. For some, being kinky is simply a way to spice up their sex lives: a little light bondage here, perhaps some wax play there: tiptoeing out of the vanilla is indeed its own kink. Simply doing kinky things once in a while, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to consider yourself a full-fledged kinkster. You get to choose that! And you pretty much get to choose what your own version of “being kinky” is. Where identifying as “queer” means you’ve thought a lot about what exactly gender identity and sexual orientation mean, for many, being kinky represents that you’ve thought a lot about what exactly sex means to you, and what your own preferences are – especially if they are preferences that fall outside of what the media and your parents told you you’re supposed to like. For those that identify as kinky, perhaps there’s a certain sense of enlightenment that comes from feeling like they’ve really thought deeply about what all this stuff means to them, that draws people to thinking of kink as more than just practice, but self identity. As a result, kink can be as much what you do in the bedroom (or in the park or that particularly spacious dressing room on the second floor of the department store) as it can be a way of identifying yourself as having really thought about your own needs and desires, and how to fulfill those of other people.
Why would such a thing matter? Well, let’s start with everyone’s favorite buzzword, “labels.” If you’ve started exploring Fetlife, you know that when creating a profile, you’re asked to label your sexuality – some of the categories include: straight, heteroflexible, gay, and fluctuating/evolving, among others – and identify your “role”. You can choose from: Dominant, switch, master, slave, top, bottom, ageplayer, brat, fetishist (among others) as well as “unsure,” which is an excellent option for the kinkster-in-training. I recently interviewed several members of a university kink group (isn’t college charming these days?) that meets, not to actually engage in BDSM play with one another (they can do that on their own time), but to talk about what it means to be kinky — and get bulk discounts on ordering rope. One member of the club described these labels as making it easier to talk about kink. Since there are so, so many ways to be kinky, it’s easier for the community to have its own terms to narrow things down. Another described the labels as a way to understand the community (Fetlife, and beyond) more quickly.
I think as a culture in general we prefer labels, not necessarily for ourselves, but to help us classify other people. For Fetlife in particular, I think it can make people more comfortable talking with and meeting a stranger online if they have this little bit of information that can allow them to make [sometimes incorrect] judgments about the stranger and “know” what they might be looking for. Also just practically speaking, if you identify as a sub and you’re looking specifically for a Dom, it makes things much easier for you to narrow your search.
This does, however, get at one of the tricky parts of labeling yourself in the BDSM community: what if you’re not just one thing? What if your thing changes? At every point in your kink career, but especially when you’re just starting out, you should absolutely be welcome to try on any label that intrigues you, because how else will you figure out what really tickles your fancy? (Feathers might do the trick, though!)
Fear not, though: for many people, labels aren’t static: they evolve due to time, or partner, or situation. Adopting a new one (a sub dabbling in topping, for example) is often a way to explore other sides of your personality or desires or relationships. Another member of the kink club summed this up excellently in their own life: “When I started out in the BDSM world, I thought I was just a sub – it’s what naturally fit and what I gravitated towards. When I started dating my current partner a couple years ago, I experimented a bit with topping them and grew to like it, so now I’m a switch. I also took a bit of a break from kink for about two years before I got together with my current partner. When I started up again with them, it became clear to me how much I had missed kink in my sex life and how big a part of my identity I felt it was; it was no longer just a fun thing to “spice up” sex, it was a necessary component.” This sort of shift in role identity is incredibly common, though for some people it may be world-changing. This is one of the many benefits of having a whole community of kink: way beyond simply facilitating kinky meetups, the many kinky groups – online and face-to-face – are places to ask questions, to find people that have had similar evolutions, and to learn about what kink identity means to other people.
Perhaps the most important part about learning about how to be kinky is that there is absolutely no one “right” way to have any sort of kink. Some of the Fetlife labels might be so specific that they might seem to imply only a particular way of being kinky. Really, it’s the opposite that makes them so exciting: you get to own them, and make them… submit to you. For example, another member of the kink club described her label as “‘brat,” but on my profile I’d put “slut” if there were an option – I think it merges my kinky and general identity: In sexual situations, I like degradation and humiliation, and in my day-to-day life I’m proud and open about my sexuality.” For most people, BDSM roles don’t translate directly to day-to-day ones: many subs have little interest being dominated outside a scene, and vice versa, but there are still ways that BDSM can, and will, become a fundamental part of everyday identity, regardless of whether you enjoy being a slave or a slut, brat or a bottom. A kinky identity is one that has thought long and hard about what it wants, and what it enjoys. It has considered the effect it will have on others, and what kind of role in the satisfaction of others it will have. It has carefully discussed limits, and how to say – and hear – no. It has experimented, if it wanted to, and remains flexible for future exploration. Being kinky doesn’t “mean” any one thing (because wouldn’t that be boring at parties?) but at its core, it is a way of communicating, of imagining, of playing, that elevates everyone involved.