Is repression necessary for kink?
That was the topic for discussion at last night’s Godless Perverts Social Club. The Social Club is now meeting twice a month, and we’ve been alternating the format: the third Thursdays are “Topical Thursdays,” where we pick a discussion topic that we announce ahead of time, while first Tuesdays are more casual and we discuss whatever’s on people’s minds that day.
So our topic last night:
Is repression necessary for kink? Imagine a world in which there are no boundaries on what is considered normal consensual sexual expression, a world in which sexual practices are openly discussed and fully accepted as personal preference without shame or recrimination. In this imaginary utopia, would kink exist? Is kink a response to repression and, if so, how has repression formed the current ideas of what is or is not kink? Would we always find a path to kink, regardless of the enforced societal standards? We’ll discuss how repression, whether societal or religious, has shaped the idea of kink and how our personal experiences have defined our understanding of and preferences for kink. Come talk about religion’s role in shaping your kinky (or non-kinky) choices.
We had a really interesting conversation, and I thought I’d blog about it. This post isn’t going to be a coherent essay on the topic, by the way: it’s just presenting some of the ideas that got tossed out and discussed, in no particular order.
The answer to this question depends somewhat on what we mean by “kink.” Does it include any non-conventional, marginalized form of consensual sexuality? Does it refer specifically to consensual sexual play with pain or power? Does it refer even more specifically to consensual sexual play with power and authority?
People can eroticize pain, even without the power or dominance aspect. Some people just have a different physical response to pain, a response that includes eroticism. So that aspect of kink would probably exist even without any power games being played.
Humans are hierarchical primates. We create dominance structures, and even in the most egalitarian society we could imagine (or at least, the most egalitarian society we could actually create), we probably always will. And we eroticize power in lots of ways, not just kinky ones: many people are attracted to people with money, people with political power, famous people, etc. So even in an egalitarian society, we would still have some sort of authority figures and figures of power — and some of us would probably still eroticize that power.
Humans are always interested in testing limits and breaking taboos. We like to create rules — and we like to break them. So even in an egalitarian society, we would still be drawn to crossing lines, including erotic lines (or the consensual acting-out of crossing lines).
Some religious teachers in some religions argue that sexual restrictions and obstacles and concealment increase lust and arousal: they argue that having modesty rules and so on make sex sexier, and that when nudity and sex are too widely available, sex becomes quotidian and less interesting. Most people in the discussion disagreed. There probably is some small kernel of truth to this: overcoming obstacles can be a central element of eroticism, and teasing and drawing things out and not showing everything right away can be arousing. But there are plenty of obstacles to sexual fulfillment without creating artificial ones — especially arbitrary religious ones that create shame and that inhibit honest discussion of sexuality and sexual desires. And talking about sex more often and more openly reinforces it in our minds, and can make it more prominent and more of a priority in our lives. (On this topic, I was going to add but didn’t have time to: This can be especially true as we get older. I suspect that open discussion of sex makes it easier to keep a sex life alive and healthy as we age, whereas silence and secrecy about it would make sex more likely to wither with time.) We agreed that this argument seemed to be just a rationalization for pointless religious taboos on sex. Also, it was pointed out that in our current culture, where sexual information and sexual imagery is more available than it’s been in the past, and where fashions often show a fair amount of flesh, people still seem to find sex pretty compelling.
Even in an egalitarian society, people would still have times in our lives when we’re overburdened with responsibility — and when that’s happening, some of us would still get erotic pleasure from letting go of responsibility, letting someone else run the show and take control of us for a while, riding a rollercoaster that someone else has created for us. Similarly, people would still have times in our lives when we’re overwhelmed and don’t have much control over what’s happening to us — and when that’s happening, some of us would still get erotic pleasure from getting to run the show and be the decider.
Some people seem to just be wired to enjoy danger, adrenaline, risk-taking (think about adventure hobbies or extreme sports). And there will probably always be some people who eroticize this enjoyment.
Even in an egalitarian society, people will still have anxieties, fears, frustrations, obstacles, things we want and can’t have. So there will always be the potential to eroticize those anxieties, frustrations, and other darker aspects of life.
Related to religion: It’s true that some religions are very fertile ground for kinky imagery and kinky tropes. Catholicism was mentioned more than once in this regard, with its emphasis on suffering and shame, and its connections between suffering and sensuality (e.g., vivid images of the nearly naked Jesus on the cross). But most people in the discussion seemed to think that we could find plenty of kinky tropes and imagery without religion. Again, see above, re: life in general already having plenty of anxieties, fears, frustrations, etc.
There’s a common trope in our culture that sex is dirtier — and therefore more fun — if you’re brought up in a sexually repressive religion like Catholicism. Most people in the discussion don’t agree, though — or rather, we recognize that this might be true for some people who are unusually strong-minded or independent or able to resist social pressure, but for many people, repression just represses, and makes sex less fun.
Related to this: Since our culture sees sex as dirty, secret, shameful, we sometimes tend to make this association in the other direction as well, and treat dirtiness, secrecy, and shame as sexy. And there’s a common belief that becoming more relaxed, comfortable, and guilt-free about sex, and treating is as an acceptable part of everyday life that we can communicate about freely, will make it boring, cold, or mechanical. But in the experience of many of us, this isn’t true: becoming more comfortable with sex makes it better, and doesn’t take away the passion or the intensity. We need to push back against this belief.
Related to that: There’s social pressure on people to stay within a very narrow range of “normal” sex — especially to stick with fairly conventional sexual varieties and to keep it within long-term romantic relationships. But there’s also an idea that this sort of “normal” sex is boring. We need to push back against this trope: we need to present images and stories of affectionate and loving sex that’s also raunchy and intense, and to break down the whole artificial division between “normal” sex that’s safe and acceptable but boring, and “abnormal” sex that’s exciting but dangerous and bad.
Even within the BDSM community, there are taboos, and forms of sexuality that are somewhat marginalized. (Furry play is one example, as is clown play.) And even within the BDSM community, there have often been forms of kink or sexuality that are seen as the right ones, and forms that are seen as the wrongs ones. Examples: there have been taboos on switching between topping and bottoming, there are ritualistic forms of dominance play, and some people who engage in them expect everyone to do them and look down on people who don’t; there is biphobia. Creating boundaries on what is considered acceptable consensual sexual expression happens even within sexually marginalized communities.
Folks who were there — is there anything I missed? Folks who weren’t there — thoughts?
Greta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.