When Stigma Gets in the Way of Kink
People in kink communities need support and acceptance, not judgment.
Robert T Muller Ph.D.
Co-authored by Deanna Gisborne and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
“The only guilt I feel is the manufactured cliché guilt that society thrusts upon people who have weird kinks.”
Wilson (name changed for anonymity) has self-identified as part of the feederism community since elementary school. Feederism is a kink often involving a sexual interest in either feeding someone large amounts of food, termed a ‘feeder,’ or in being fed, termed a ‘feedee’ or ‘gainer.’ Weight gain is often an aspect of the kink but not a necessary component; some may just incorporate the pleasure of food into intimate relationships.
Having a kink can be quite difficult. It is common to self-pathologize and view one’s sexual preference as psychologically unhealthy or as symptomatic of a disorder. And of course, kink is surrounded by stigma. Until its fifth edition in 2013, American psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined kinks as mental illnesses, regardless of whether they were practiced safely and consensually. The International Classification of Diseases has recently undergone the same change in classification, with new diagnostic criteria appearing in the 11th version which will go into effect in 2022.
Sam Hughes is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, specializing in research on kink, BSDM, and Sexual Fetishism. In an interview he explains how stigma can lead to mental health problems: “Being rejected by partners, family members, or experiencing discrimination can lead to a great deal of mental strain. Worrying that one’s desires make one sick, crazy, wrong, possessed by the Devil, or immoral can take a heavy emotional toll on people, and in a process called minority stress, may be associated with depression and suicidality. Similarly, for kinky people who are closeted about their desires, worrying that their desires will be discovered can lead to hypervigilance and resultant anxiety problems.”
Wilson says that personally, he wouldn’t let sexually normative people know about his kink: “I never was openly into it with any of my friends growing up and I’m still not with anyone I know in real life. I’m sure if someone found out I would move to Alaska.”
Involvement in a kink community and viewing one’s kink identity as a journey of growth and exploration may reduce self-pathologization. As Hughes describes it, “People in kink communities report these communities as providing a space to combat loneliness, engage in creative play, receive and provide social support, and help dispel the internalized stigma around kink. Similarly, our research has shown a positive relationship between kink community involvement and resilience, especially in the face of stigma. For highly resilient people, there is very little connection between the anti-kink stigma they experience and negative mental health symptoms.”
But decreasing social stigma is complicated. As Hughes explains, there are three main areas where we can work to decrease stigma and create systemic change. The first, he says, is positive media representation: “The stigma around kink can be perpetuated when kink is represented largely for shock value, as the source of psychotic serial killers, or always shown in conjunction with a criminal. There currently seems to be a shift toward representing kink more positively, but we still do not have many well fleshed out characters to represent kink.”
Second, Hughes notes that the problem can be tackled on a structural level through anti-discrimination legislation: “Your boss should not be able to fire you because they find a photo of you with a latex suit online and are prejudiced enough to think it makes you a ‘pervert’ who deserves to be fired. Similarly, many state and federal laws do not recognize consent as a defence for assault or battery outside of professional sporting contexts. Modifying those laws to recognize the legitimacy of kink may also do some important work to destigmatize kink interests.”
The last way to decrease stigma is on a personal level. Hughes says, “By kinky people being willing and able to come out, it can help their friends and family to better understand who kinky people really are — as varied and human as all people. Coming out is often one of the strongest political acts that one can engage in to help decrease stigma for any hidden minority group to which you belong.”
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.