As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I am processing everything I learned a the CARAS conference this past weekend. It was truly a privilege to have been counted among such brilliant and talented presenters.
Of all the presentations I attended, what seems to stick with me most are the opening and closing plenaries on the nature of kink identity. There were two models presented at the plenaries; kink as “serious leasure” and kink as orientation. In the opening plenary, DJ Williams and Emily Prior discussed kink as leisure in conjunction with their Positive Sexuality framework, which I also really like. DJ explains the concept of kink as leisure in this paper. He writes:

We have noted that BDSM episodes are called play, and that the term play isaddressed in the leisure studies literature (e.g., Kelly, 1990). Like BDSM, the concept of leisure is difficult to define and various definitions may emphasize one or more of the following elements: behavior, setting, time, psychological state, autonomy, motivational orientation, or inner experience (Mannell &Kleiber, 1997). By considering these components, BDSM naturally falls within the designation of leisure.

At the very end of the conference, Dr. Richard Sprott grappled with the concept of kink as orientation, what orientation even is, and its implications for researchers, kinky folk, and mental health practitioners. He noted the fluidity of people’s orientation across the lifespan, and how people’s roles can change over time. However, with all the diversity captured in his research, there was one common response across the board. When asked whether they felt they could stop being kinky, just about everyone said something to the effect of “Well, I tried that, but it didn’t work.” To me that’s fascinating.
After the conference, I was asked whether I thought kink was an orientation or leisure. Here is what I came up with:
I think that, depending on the person, it could be either or some combination of the two. Kink is an umbrella rearm for such a diverse constellation of identities, it is probably wise to tease out and evaluate the various subsets of kink culture/identity.
Also, the concept of orientation in general is problematic for researchers/academics, because it’s not actually fixed. There is room for so much fluidity. Erica Moen of Oh Joy Sex Toy, and the author of robot-hugs spring to mind, not to mention all the kinky people I know who started out submissive and then became dominants or switches. Granted, I don’t think it’s wise or possible to consciously or deliberately change one’s orientation. At least not the way that reparative therapists lead people to believe (the concept of identity change they put forth is ineffective at best and severely damaging at worst).
The wibbly-wobbly nature of orientation is partly why I find the concept of leisure so appealing. Leisure, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, is actually an important component of the human experience. We social workers learn the hard way that if we don’t find ways of stepping away from work and connecting to something fulfilling, we end up broken and shredded. The activities involved in kink provide powerful conduits for connection, and that connection doesn’t always have to be sexual. Kink can be used as a form of catharsis, artistic expression, spiritual and religious rituals, to name a few. The leisure concept provides space for all of these facets of kink, whereas orientation does not. At least, not to me.

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