It started in the fall of 2017. I was staying at an artists’ residency in New Hampshire, and I was thinking about what it can mean to be afraid of one’s own desires, to feel ashamed of what the body wants.
It wasn’t long ago that kink was so forbidden as to go largely unmentioned. We hope our book will help in the work of destigmatizing kink by making it more visibleRO KwonTue 9 Feb 2021 09.00 GMT
I had just published a story in Playboy, Safeword, about a couple arranging a first-time session with a professional dominatrix. By then, I’d published short fiction for almost a decade, but the story was by far the most sexually explicit piece of fiction I’d written, and I’d tried to brace myself for the odd, hostile notes I would surely receive from titillated strangers. As it turned out, I did hear from a lot of readers, but the notes weren’t hostile – instead, for the most part, people thanked me. The story had helped them feel less alone, they said.
Then one night after dinner, while I sat in the residency’s library surrounded by the novels, collections and memoirs previous writers in residence had published over the past century, I stumbled upon a story by Garth Greenwell in the Paris Review about two men meeting for a sadomasochistic hook-up. I had also just read Melissa Febos’s memoir Whip Smart, about her experiences with sex work, and it occurred to me that these stories could live together in the same book, the kind of book that might live on these library shelves.Advertisement
And what if I were able to bring this book to life? If I could help make space for such a book on shelves like these – if I could repudiate, and push back against, the terrible fear that had made publishing my story so difficult? I wrote to Garth to propose we work together on an anthology featuring a multitude of stories having to do with kink, written by some of the writers we loved and admired. I couldn’t really think of a book like this, at least not one published in recent memory.
And no wonder, for it wasn’t long ago that kink was so forbidden as to go largely unmentioned, and varieties of kink, including sadomasochism, have been classified as disorders in the United States and by the World Health Organization. It’s only since 2010 that the American Psychiatric Association has declared fetishism, as well as BDSM – a wide umbrella for interests including bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism – to no longer be a pathology. Especially before 2010, people lost jobs for being kinky. Parents were declared unfit because they’d evinced an interest in BDSM.
More recently, it seems to have jumped from taboo to joke: insofar as kink shows up in books, movies or television, it’s chiefly as a jest, a punchline, often as a risible flaw that either illustrates or helps explain a character’s villainy. A sufficiently high number of fictional serial killers in TV have also been kinky that I now all but expect it. (This might be even more peculiar in light of the fact that, in kinky sexual encounters, the giving and adjusting of consent is usually expected to be central, and explicitly foregrounded.)
Another unappealing yet pervasive fictional trope is that of depraved billionaires who are also kinky: a cliche so ubiquitous, at least since the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, that a friend who is a romance-novel aficionado says she sometimes finds it difficult to locate kinky books that don’t feature billionaires
In these stock portrayals, kink is routinely pathologized, and depicted as a self-evident result of severe trauma, a cartoonish manifestation of a character’s greed and evil, or both. In other words, as used to be true of queerness, kink is most often represented as a desire with an attendant cause; to posit a cause can also be to start looking for a cure. Meanwhile, kinky proclivities are so widespread that, in a 2017 report from the popular dating app OkCupid, 71% of 400,000 OkCupid members said they were into kink.
For a lot of people, kink is less any kind of a choice than a lifelong orientation
If you can imagine a kink, chances are that it exists. And if you happen to be in possession of a kink and you feel alone: quite possibly, you have counterparts in the world, people whose desires might consensually suit yours. For a lot of people, kink is less any kind of a choice than a lifelong orientation; for some, kink can be so central to the experience of sex as to be not just requisite, but also, itself, sex.
In the meantime, despite its increasing visibility on social media and dating apps, kink is still generally thought to be unfit for the public eye. Unfit for children, especially, as in the recurring argument that kinky attire should not be visible at Pride parades, which echoes the old, bad argument that any signs of queerness should be kept out of sight of minors. But consider what it might do to a person, whether child or adult, to primarily see one’s sexual desires represented in the flattened form of a punchline or stock villain. To see and hear, in the books and shows and movies that can constitute much of our experience of the world, that one either doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t.
What can result, of course, is a lot of shame. A lot of hiding and denial, a lot of misery, of loneliness. My co-editor and I are on the side of increased openness, and when we talked about what our anthology should look like, we realized it was of high importance to us both that we refrain from defining kink. Instead, we hoped to include as large a variety of perspectives as possible, and to open, to expand, rather than to close any gates.
Soon, we had initial promises of contributions from writers we admire including Melissa Febos, Kim Fu, Roxane Gay and Carmen Maria Machado. We reached out to more people, and in time, almost everyone we solicited said yes; the enthusiasm was as startling as it was moving. As still more writers sent us work, and as the collection came together, I loved how wide-ranging the stories turned out to be, how vast the theater of human desire.
Even so, while working on this book, I found I often had to quell, ignore, bully and shove aside fears sharp enough to manifest as panic. Every writer I know seems to experience alarm upon publishing a book – it is an act of profound vulnerability, and how much more so, I have at times thought, to publish a book centered on what has historically been judged unacceptable. Has, so often, been considered filth.
“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings,” says Audre Lorde in Uses of the Erotic, her foundational essay on power and bodies. A little later, she adds: “The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance.”
One of our great hopes is that the book will participate in the work of destigmatizing kink by making it more visible, and encouraging people to listen to their desires, to seek whole sexual lives. I haven’t fully learned yet how to stop fearing my desires, but I’m working on it. If you haven’t learned yet, either, you’re not at all alone.