Musing IV: The Stigma of Kink


We all see the pervasiveness of slut-shaming and the unfortunate debasing that many women face when they exercise the right to feel empowered about their sexuality. But there is also a shame that men face for their sexual preferences and choices. We must dispel that shame, promote more happiness, self-acceptance, and awesome sex in the world for all genders.

Take BDSM, for example. Often times, consensual BDSM and the proactive choice of female submission is viewed as a dysfunctional relationship; one that implies gender inferiority (instead of being seen as what it really is - a form of empowerment for both players). Consequently, I fear that some men who are turned on by male dominance might worry that their desires to be a dominant correlate directly to misogyny. A man who is sexually aroused by the idea of tying up a woman, spanking her, and then fucking her might very well be concerned that that arousal makes him a misogynist, unfeminist or, even worse, a sexual predator waiting to happen. The media tends not to help either. Men aren't given many positive sexual role models, and the ones they do have often carry an unrealistic standard of masculinity to which they can't hold themselves (damn you, Ian Fleming). Perhaps the male pornstar James Deen is a slightly more realistic example. He promotes consent-based dom play in his films and advocates for porn that is authentic and passionate, resulting in an inordinately high female viewership. However, even he is often portrayed unrealistically by the very nature of being in the porn industry. The debate about the effects on relationships of the unrealistic nature of porn is another matter entirely, but porn is meant to be entertainment fantasy so I'm not judging that here. But seriously, what prototypes does pop culture present for a man looking to model himself after a figure who is sexy, sex-positive, self-actualized, skilled in relationships, and not a brooding, self-destructive douche?

More often than not, the examples of male sexuality we see in the media are examples of male sexuality gone bad. The alleged adolescent rapists from Steubenville and Maryville. Woody Allen, and whether he's a pedophile. Various sports figures, and whether they're guilty of sexual assault. And to extend any sympathy toward the male populace in general when those topics come up is to open oneself to accusations of rape apology. But I think about these things because I want to study/understand the male sexuality and strive to cultivate empathy for their experiences on a transpersonal, apolitical level. I fear the cumulative effects on men of having so many prevalent examples telling them their sexuality is always wrong, and so few examples where it's right.

A recent article in Philosopher Mail talked about the speculation over the (then-possible, now-confirmed) lesbian relationship between Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez, and why it seemed to hold so many men in thrall:

One kind of answer begins with the residual guilt many men feel around sex. A good number of them spend the bulk of their formative adolescent years feeling that sex is something they want far more of, and far more urgently, than women. They would love to go further, try certain things, but the girls they know too often look straight through them and never call back. The scenarios in porn and in their imaginations seem incapable of being enacted with anyone available in the real world. The result is shame: it may end up seeming as though sex is an embarrassingly peculiar thing they made up themselves and can't persuade anyone else to partake in. Even outside of religious belief systems, even in this liberated age, it is only too easy for straight men to feel lonely, even dirty, about having a sex drive. Hence the relief of lesbianism for men. Here, at last, is incontrovertible proof of a point that should always have been, but isn't necessarily, obvious: that women want sex just as much as, and sometimes far more than, men; that women can be as uncompromising, imaginative and committed in its pursuit as any male.

Men are attracted to lesbianism because it proves to them that sex isn't only their idea. But here, then, is the tragic irony. The more misogynistic slut-shaming that occurs where women are judged negatively for their sexual desires and actions, the more afraid women will be to admit to claiming sex as their idea too, and the more men will feel alone and isolated in their needs for sex. Shaming hurts everyone.

This isn't the first time I've touched on the idea that a slut-shaming, low-number-of-sex-partners-praising culture causes women to be shy about expressing their sex drives, but do consider for a moment how confusing this behavior is for men who are trying to date them. If women face shame for expressing that maybe sex is their idea too, then they're going to be less likely to cop to it, and men are going to feel shame for thinking that they're alone in their wants. But that's just one end of the spectrum. Even worse perhaps in society's eyes than letting your masculinity run rampant is not having your masculinity hold up to a socially imposed standard, or doing things that run seemingly counter to it. Let's revisit the BDSM world. Men often feel ashamed to admit their kink to anyone in their everyday lives, often including their sexual partners. For a man to admit that he wants to submit to a woman dominating him is especially scary. Similarly threatening perhaps is for a man to admit he doesn't have an interest in sex with just any willing and physically attractive woman, or doesn't want sex as much as society feels he should.

I had a date recently with a lovely gentleman who has clearly been a victim of this line of thinking. He confessed that he experiences a great deal of shaming in his marriage, and I could see the self-doubt that that had caused in him, even in the way he emphatically pronounced his realization that he is actually an okay person, as though he was defending himself against some last haunting apprehensions still echoing in his mind. In my understanding, it wasn't even so much that his desires were in conflict with his wife's, but rather he felt that his desires were wrong and therefore there is something wrong with him for having them. (Sidenote: he gave me his permission and encouragement to share and reflect on his story)

I want to make it clear that I don't think that releasing shame or building comfort is a gendered responsibility. I don't think it is an inherent role of women to midwife their male partners into a feeling of safety; I don't think we're supposed to run around being Manic Pixie Dream Girls freeing the men in our lives from their psychological burdens (as much as I may sometimes fetishize that dynamic in the fantasyland of my relationships -- but hey, as famed psychotherapist Esther Perel says, "most of us get turned on at night by the very same things that we demonstrate against during the day — the erotic mind is not very politically correct."). However, I do think it is important for people in relationships to create a safe space for their partners to be truthful and authentic in talking about their desires, and to do so without fear of being shamed or judged. This will allow us to be truthful in our relationships and to lay the groundwork for accepting who you are; to honor your authenticity. Sharing your sexual fantasies is an act of generosity, courage, and nobility because of the trust and safe dialogue that it fosters, and, in the best cases, the amazing sex it creates.

From my own personal experience, I know that responding to my partners in consistent ways that honor their truths has allowed me to build up a safe space for them to feel comfortable with me. At my best, I pride myself on my lovers' knowing that they can come to me with anything and I'll listen to them and hear them out. And for me, that's really the crux of seduction. It's not just about getting someone to sleep with you, that part is easy enough. The greatest aspect of this level of intimacy is engaging your curiosity about another human being, and allowing that curiosity to open up a space for them to be their truest selves with you, without fear of judgment or repercussion. Only then do you get to truly know someone. That is both seduction's greatest gift and its greatest reward. In learning how to become better partners and better lovers, we also learn more about what we need from others in return. So, maybe this post is also about how to release shame in ourselves. Because it's not fun for anyone - male or female.


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© 2020 Grace Lee Riley