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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is Kink ‘In’?

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Last week, one of the Tool Shed’s suppliers called us to say that they had picked up a new line of kinky gear we had suggested they carry. The supplier had seen this gear at a recent trade show. “The booth was mobbed. Kink is in!” she proclaimed.

I thought about this as I led a “Kink 101” workshop for a group of students over the weekend. As I was talking to the group, I made my usual statements about how kinky play is often misunderstood by the general public as harmful or “sick,” and I wondered whether this statement even seemed relevant to my youthful audience. In the sexuality education field, one often walks a fine line between dispelling myths and inadvertently reinforcing them by introducing them to people who would never have heard of them otherwise, and I felt like this might have been one of those occasions. Was I facing a gaggle of 20-year-olds who were all thinking, “Hold on—there are people who still think that tying someone up and spanking them is bad?”

On the other hand, when asked to give a general explanation of why they would describe something as “kinky,” two members of the group answered that kink was something that was “outside the mainstream” or “outside the norm” of sexual activity. So, if kink is “in,” does that mean that there’s greater awareness of it, but not necessarily more people engaging in kinky play?

A greater public awareness of any type of sexual identity or activity can potentially have one of two effects. First, it can allow people who are currently practicing those activities or claiming those identities to be more open about it. Second, it can create opportunities for those who were totally unaware of these activities or identities to try them out.

I don’t think we’ll ever be able to truly know whether increased numbers of people are becoming interested in kink or whether the numbers are staying relatively the same while the stigma of being kinky decreases or disappears. However, there’s certainly a lot of public awareness being generated. Milwaukee’s Young Kink Scene (MYKS) formed a group and began holding well-attended meetings at the Tool Shed over the past couple of months. FetLife, a social networking site that is often described as “Facebook for kinksters,” was founded in 2008 and currently has about 300,000 members. In my experience, the items that we most frequently get calls about or special-order for customers at the store are definitely kink-related, and our current art exhibit, which features kink and fetish photography, has garnered a lot of positive reactions.

Some people who identify as kinksters or BDSM practitioners may be annoyed at the concept of kink being “in,” as if it were a fad rather than a serious practice or a way of life. I see a lot of potential for good, though, as people who might previously have been afraid to seek out a kinky community now find their voices without fear or shame.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.