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Sexuality

How Being Kinky Can Actually Help Mental Health

The word kink has myriad associations — leather, spanking, corsets, whips, maybe even a ginger root. While its depictions in popular culture are abundant and eager, they are hardly ever accurate. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, is perhaps the most famous example of kink, specifically Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism (BDSM), in mainstream pop culture — except it gets kink wrong. BDSM practitioners have called the movie more vanilla than BDSM, or dangerous, because of its superficial understanding of violent sex, horrifyingly portrayed without context.

The kink sexual preference is a greatly stigmatized one, and the psychology behind it misunderstood. Kink is believed to stem out of trauma, which is false; it’s perceived to bastardize the tender idea of making love, again false; and it’s considered ‘freaky’ and ‘not normal,’ guess: false. Understanding how kink develops and what kinky people get out of it are initial steps toward normalizing an integral aspect of human sexuality.

Kink can develop innately in childhood, or be adopted later in life

Individuals may gravitate toward kink in two ways; the journey is either innate and realized as a child grows up, or an acquired taste later in life for others wanting to explore their sexuality. Children, even before age 10, can develop initial engagement in kinky behaviours, such as wanting to be captured while playing cops and robbers, or seeing television shows with superheroes in peril and feeling absorbed by the shows. For some, these initial excitements could graduate to exploring those desires with their bodies, through fantasizing, seeking out erotic media, masturbating, and exploring material sensations on their bodies.

Between ages 11 and 14, kids come to terms with their interests. Once they realize there might be people like them out there, they can attempt to find others who share their interests, through the internet and popular culture. The last stage of kink development includes engaging in kink interests with others, which usually happens after a kinkster passes 18 years of age.

If this identity development doesn’t occur early on, then it leads to internalized shame, causing anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Young kinky people often feel like they are freaks, sick or evil for entertaining their desires. This is mostly due to the stigma and silence around kinky behaviours, which leads to rampant pop psychology pathologisation of kink in media and the law.

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Social stigmatization of kink can be a detriment to kinksters’ mental health

Let’s take the example of age play, one of the most stigmatized kink expressions, as it can involve adults dressing up/behaving as babies or toddlers in a sexual situation. It is classified into “ephebophilia, or attraction to older post-pubescent adolescents; hebephilia, or attraction to pubescents; paedophilia, or attraction to prepubescents; infantophilia, which is often considered a sub-type of paedophilia, used to refer to a sexual preference for infants and toddlers (ages 0–3, though some raise it to 5).

A majority of the stigma against age-play arises from the conflation of paedophilia with child sexual abuse. The former is a sexual preference, while the latter is an illegal practice that harms minors who cannot consent. In age-play, the consenting, adult sexual partners act an age different from their own, for various reasons: those who act younger may want to be cared for, or disciplined or simply play an age that they feel most familiar with. For those who gravitate toward older ages, their instincts might arise from wanting to act as caregivers or protectors of their partner, fulfilling their partners’ desire to be disciplined, and myriad other reasons.

There needs to be more research into the kink origins of age-play, which has historically been difficult to accomplish owing to the silence of the community that doesn’t trust outsiders easily. Normalizing the kink for the person, and helping them find a like-minded or accepting partner, is most important. With those steps come self-acceptance, less anger, better sleeping habits and better relationship patterns for those involved.

In addition to understanding the motivations of the sexual players, it is also important to destroy the myth that BDSM encourages unwelcome violence against partners. In sexual play that involves intense sensation (sometimes, pain), for example, the players seek to achieve pleasure and challenge their boundaries.

People choose to harm themselves for a variety of reasons: to alleviate negative emotions, to direct anger at themselves, to elicit affection from others, to interrupt feelings of being empty, to resist suicidal urges, to generate excitement, or to feel distinct from others. The bodily harm from when an individual inflicts injuries on themselves outside of a sexual context — what is called non-suicidal self-injurious behavior (NSSI) — is different from BDSM, mainly in the ways an individual feels after the hurting has happened. NSSI can arise out of wanting relief from overwhelming feelings and wanting to distract emotional pain with physical. After inflicting pain for these unhealthy reasons, however, the individual feels broken or damaged, and more alienated from others.

In BDSM, the motivation to indulge in NSSI in a sexual context emerges from desire, hunger, eagerness to start. While indulging in the kinky behaviour, feelings of excitement, pleasure, connection abound. After, players feel satisfied, content, calm, secure, and fulfilled. Researchers state that most individuals who engaged in NSSI eventually stopped harming themselves after they sought the feeling through BDSM.

For others, engaging in kinky behaviour may help in dealing with past trauma. While the trauma itself doesn’t serve as a catalyst for developing a kink (which is a popular misconception), it can be alleviated through play. A major part of it is “aftercare,” the word for the time and space kinksters use for emotional and mental health, often with their partners, after having engaged in BDSM. It involves cuddling, talking, rehydrating, and ‘re-centring’ oneself, which can help those who are using kink to overcome hardships process their experience in a healthy and safe environment.

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Kink can also help build an inclusive environment for queer folks. Experts compare the identity development for kink to the way in which kids can realize their queer identities. The emotional stages are similar, including dealing with stigma and making positive associations with those realizations. Kink can also help marginalized communities feel more comfortable in their own skin. For trans people, their relationships with their bodies are coloured by dysphoria, awkwardness, and trauma. For a group whose bodies and existence are unabashedly questioned, fetishized, or who are made to feel unwelcome in societal institutions, consent in a sexual scenario holds utmost importance.

Trans or gender non-conforming folks can greatly benefit from this structure, as they may not have been accorded the opportunity or the language to communicate their sexual needs. Through using safe words, they can feel protected and respected; and through tight-knit local BDSM communities, they can encounter people who will respect them and their boundaries.

It is a shame, then, that some forms of kink, and within it BDSM, are regarded as detached, cruel and violent. In reality, kink can be a vehicle for people to embrace their vulnerability, maintain intimate bonds with various people, and learn to communicate and negotiate varied sexual preferences in a non-judgmental way. Kink is not “weird,” or something to sensationalize. When we achieve a greater understanding of non-normative sexual practices, we normalize identities that are otherwise marginalized, and who knows — might even learn a thing or two instead, both in and out of sex.

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