A Thorn by Any Other Name: BDSM as a Sexual Orientation

Building on my previous post about #QuAKE — a term that performatively utters a sexual discourse outside the parameters of gender — I’d like to expound upon an argument within the BDSM community. The argument contends that, rather than augmenting an LGBT-driven praxis, BDSM is its own, separate, distinct form of sexual orientation, and ought to be treated as such.

I first came upon this argument in mid-2011, reading the blog of Chicago-based sex-positive activist and BDSM theorist, Clarisse Thorn. Her blog is required reading for anyone with an interest in the topic: her ideas are strikingly original, beautifully composed, and disarmingly approachable.

Clarisse references the idea in her post, “BDSM versus Sex, part 2“, writing,

We currently conceptualize sexuality through ‘orientations’: we have built a cultural ‘orientation model’ focused on the idea that ‘acceptable’ sexuality is ‘built-in’, or ‘innate’. Some BDSMers consider BDSM an ‘orientation’ — and I, myself, once found that thinking of BDSM as an orientation was extremely helpful in coming to terms with my BDSM desires.

My own experiences bear this theory out. Since as young as three, I have crawled into bed before drifting to sleep, visiting an erotic universe of my own creation. The place, if you can call it a place, reads like the juicy bits of a Terry Goodkind novel: vast dungeons, powerful magic, endless methods of confinement and torture, elaborate mechanisms of hierarchy and power, and a cornucopia of underworlds, shadow worlds, and alternate universes.

Sometimes I play a figure in these worlds; sometimes I observe omnisciently, twisting an outcome this way or that. (Curiously, I descend into the world as a dominant sadist, while in the flesh I veer towards submission.)

One night, years ago, something changed. Tucked under the covers, drifting into a dungeon-panorama-du-jour, I noticed that my cock had stiffened. The same thing happened the next night, and the next after that, until a clear pattern ensued. This started in middle school; I can’t recall quite when. It was a nonchalant affair.

At around the same time I became aware of “kink” and “S&M” as terms, but when it came to my personal sexuality, I failed to connect the dots. Doing so may have led to more usual patterns of masturbation, when in fact it took me until the ripe old age of eighteen to experience a self-induced orgasm.

In terms of my earliest experiences with sexual orientation, I inhabited a different planet altogether from the parameters defined by LGBT. My first hard-on, and the many to follow, stemmed not from a reaction to a particular gender (or a particular person), but from a shifting bodily response to an entrenched, deep-seated psyche-world.

And while, during high school and college, I started experiencing physical attraction to men, and then women, and then people in between — and as these attractions then led to hookups, dating, and all the rest of it — I’d often secretly return to my fantasy world to find the source of arousal that would otherwise be missing, when it wasn’t present in the bedroom itself.

BDSM invokes each of Bataille’s three categories of erotism — sex, violence, and religious ecstasy — situating the practice firmly in the realm of desire. BDSM may not merely be sexual — indeed, it is far more than that — but it also cannot not be sexual; and cannot thus not be a sexual orientation.

2 responses to “A Thorn by Any Other Name: BDSM as a Sexual Orientation

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