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Why Are Some Kinks More 'OK' Than Others?

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Illustrated by Anna Sudit
I was browsing in a Soho sex shop recently, contemplating investing in a sensory deprivation hood, when my musings were interrupted by the shrieks of two other customers. They were stood in front of the dildo display, and their eyes had travelled south from the ‘female friend’ mini bullets to the larger, more, shall we say, robust items.

‘Do people actually use that?!’ one customer asked loudly, pointing with dismay at a life-size silicone fist.

It took a fair amount of self control not to sidle over to my fellow shoppers and eulogise about both the effectiveness and durability of Mr Fisty™. But I am often struck, as I was in that moment, by the very subjective way in which we assess which kinks are good or bad, ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’.

Channel 4 recently broadcast The Great British Sex Survey, and despite acknowledging that the nation’s ‘top fetishes’ include things like body fetishes, watersports and cross dressing, there was still a prevailing sense in the programme that these activities are niche or strange. If you don’t believe me, just look at the name of the last series Channel 4 aired on the topic, The Bizarre Fetish Handbook.

In theory, we may recognise that human sexuality is a pretty broad church, but many of us still have rather fixed notions of certain sexual morays as weird or deviant. There’s no one answer to why these kinds of double standards exist, but things like social trends, TV and advertising can contribute to them.

Women are sold sex toys as a chic, luxury ‘solution’

Take sex toys. Since Sex and The City declared the Rampant Rabbit a fabulous new lifestyle accessory, a woman staying in her ludicrously unaffordable fictional apartment to use a toy all day was reclaimed as a positive thing – as well as a sassy excuse to miss yet another overpriced brunch. However, when it comes to male sex toys, general opinion is often that they’re the preserve of creepy losers. Sex dolls, fleshlights and sleeves, for example, are framed as either pathetic or creepy – an indication that a man must be desperate and sexually inadequate.

I’d like to imagine this is to do with female sexual empowerment, but the pragmatist in me recognises it’s more likely money-motivated. A recent study suggests that men reach climax 85% of the time during partnered sex, while their female equivalents experience orgasm at a lower rate, 63% of the time. The "orgasm gap" as it's often called, suggests that there’s more of a market for toys that help women to get off, and a 2014 Guardian survey confirmed this, finding that women are significantly more likely to buy sex aids than straight men.

Women are sold sex toys as a chic, luxury ‘solution’, the marketing of which revolves around making female masturbation seem the equivalent of going to a day spa. You need look no further that high-end sex shops for evidence of this, where "couture" glass dildos retail at £900. Is that really a price point your vagina can discern?

A similar change in the market took place after 50 Shades of Grey hit shelves. BDSM, which had previously been seen as marginal, unknown or a sometimes a bit sinister, was rebranded as both accessible and chic. Alongside Christian’s helicopter, designer suits and shiny tech, kink became not only acceptable but aspirational. In response to the books, branded fetish equipment like handcuffs, blindfolds and riding crops flooded high-street sex shops, and all of us were encouraged to stock up and get in touch with our inner goddesses. However, other iterations of power play were not given this new sheen of zeitgeist-y popularity; pegging, for instance, or sounding.
I spoke to Louise Futcher, a psychotherapist who specialises in issues around sexuality and kink/BDSM, about where these value judgements originate. She identified patriarchy and capitalism as key factors: “Anything that pleases the male gaze and gets straight men off is of course acceptable and desirable, and anything that doesn't fit in with that, such as that which involves female agency and anything perceived to be associated with male homosexuality, is deviant.”

Noticeably, then, it’s often acts in which a female partner is the top that are characterised as "abnormal" or strange. Perhaps this is because they don’t fit the same sanitised, gender-stereotypical understanding of kink presented in something like 50 Shades. This inequality was made particularly evident in the recent clampdown on the British porn industry, when government regulator ATVOD began a puritanical campaign to ban the depiction of certain (legal) sex acts from UK pornography - many of which pertained to consensual fetish play and female sexual dominance (Femdom).

British Pornographers were told they could no longer legally depict face sitting, certain types of anal penetration, wrestling or fisting – all acts which feature heavily in femdom and queer porn. Female ejaculation was deemed unacceptable, whilst a man coming on a woman’s face remained fine to show. ATVOD disproportionately targeted British sites depicting female dominance and paid far less attention to those showing female submission, suggesting that cultural understanding of "acceptable" BDSM is still predicated along dominant gender lines.

Many other kinks that have yet to receive a SATC or 50 Shades PR job are still typified as strange. Despite being common, many of us still view foot fetishes as "gross". It’s seemingly fine to fetishise body parts like breasts or bums, but god forbid someone’s interest should stray south of an ankle. Acts which we think of as dirty or unclean, like golden showers, are also maligned – even though urine poses less of a risk to your sexual health than ejaculate.

The point is, there are plenty of kinks out there that won’t float your particular boat, and that's fine. But castigating others for what they happen to like is different. It’s something I often hear in my capacity as a sex worker. A client will ask for a session featuring a particular kink – say, cross dressing and verbal humiliation – but look disparaging when I ask if he’d also like to incorporate some anal play or bondage. “Oh no”, he’ll say, “that stuff’s all a bit too weird”. I can rarely be bothered to point out that other clients of mine would be equally appalled by the acts he happens to find erotic.
And of course, certain kinks are still considered indicative of a warped and dangerous mind, when in reality consensual adult role-plays are a safe, responsible space in which to explore something taboo. Incest, age-play and rape fantasies are just that – fantastical, removed from consequence by the insulation of make-believe. Roleplaying as a nurse doesn’t imbue someone with a medical qualification, and nor does acting out a mother/son role play make two unrelated people ethically dubious. What adults do in the bedroom together doesn’t make them morally "good" or "bad".

We need to recognise that the values we imbue certain kinks with – whether positive or negative- are mostly entirely arbitrary: merely a reflection of of what society, or advertisers, or TV and film studios would have us think is "normal". For many of us, it can be a struggle not to internalise these ideas of normalcy, and view certain acts or desires as aberrant. As psychotherapist Louise points out, “these judgements can very much impact sexual expression, causing shame and distress which can lead to sexual dysfunction, and a feeling of being ‘other’ – perverted and wrong”.

In my capacity as a sex worker, a considerable percentage of my clients come to see to explore a kink that they’re incredible ashamed of, and don’t feel able to share with a loved one for fear of rejection. What few of them realise is just how often I hear the same request, prefaced by, "I’ve never been able to tell anyone about this". Good sex is the product of good communication, and feeling able to discuss our needs and desires without fear of rejection or humiliation. In order to encourage this, perhaps we ought to interrogate exactly where our assumptions about kink come from – and whether propping up ideas of acceptable vs ‘weird’ will ever actually benefit our sex lives.
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