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Demystifying Kink


Before we jump in today, a warning - the next eight minutes we'll be having a frank discussion about sex that might not be suitable for all listeners. Over the last few weeks, we have been bringing you stories about sex - the conversations we have about sex, the ones we don't and how those conversations shape society. We have heard about LGBTQ sex education, waiting for marriage, and porn literacy. Today, my co-host Ailsa Chang brings us a story about a community we rarely hear about on public radio or otherwise.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The kink community - kinksters, as they're known. Specifically, we're looking at what the rest of the world can learn from kinksters about sex and communication. And again, we're going to be spending the next seven minutes talking frankly about sex, which might not be suitable for all listeners. And NPR's Mallory Yu recently sat down with a group of these folks. She joins me now. Hey, Mallory.


CHANG: All right. I just want to get some terms out of the way first, starting with the word kink.

YU: I'm going to let Evan, who is part of my roundtable, handle this one. We didn't use last names of several of the people at this roundtable because they were worried about current or future employment. Anyway, here's Evan.

EVAN: Kinky is anything that is outside of the, you know, fictional narrative that we have of the norm of sexuality.

CHANG: Outside the norm.

YU: Exactly. So we're talking about things like BDSM, which is a subset of kink. And people might be familiar with some of those terms from the movie "Fifty Shades Of Grey," which was very controversial in the kink community.

CHANG: Because they felt it misportrayed a lot of things in that community.

YU: Exactly. But it was a lot of people's introductions to that kind of sex. And then there's vanilla, which is sex that's not kinky.

CHANG: Wait. Vanilla - is that like a put-down, like anybody who's vanilla is boring?

YU: No, not necessarily. It's more just a way to differentiate between what is kinky versus not kinky.

CHANG: All right. So a lot of our series is about how we talk about sex, how we don't communicate enough about sex, or when we do communicate, we do it very badly. And that is exactly why you and I wanted to focus on the kink community here.

YU: So something that I heard a lot in my reporting was this idea that everyone is a little bit kinky, right? And I think that's supported in the research because there's this guy, Dr. Justin Lehmiller. He's with the Kinsey Institute. He interviewed 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies. And what he found was that a vast majority of them, both men and women, had fantasized about some form of BDSM.

CHANG: Not surprised.

YU: So it's just something that a lot of us have at least thought about. Plus, our series, like you've said, is about talking about sex. And kinksters talk a lot about sex. They have to because the kinds of sex they're having is really specific. And what one person wants might not exactly be what another person want.

CHANG: Absolutely.

YU: So here's Julie Fennell. She's a sociologist and kinkster in the Washington, D.C., area.

JULIE FENNELL: Ultimately what it seems to come down to more than anything is not, like, how many whips and chains are involved, but rather, how openly are you willing to talk about the sex that you're having in the most blatant of terms?

YU: So what she's saying here is if you're doing it right, you're figuring out what you want, what you don't want. You're hashing out boundaries. You're agreeing on what's about to happen before it happens. In other words, consent.

CHANG: Consent, something that so many people - regardless if they're into kink or not into kink, if they're vanilla - need to be thinking and talking about. So I'm so curious. I know that consent was a big part of what you guys talked about at that roundtable. What did they say about consent?

YU: So a lot of us think of consent as being like a yes or no question.

CHANG: Like a binary thing.

YU: Exactly. But for people who are participating in kink, consent goes beyond that. So I'll let Ren explain a little bit of this. She organizes kink events in the D.C. area.

REN: I've started only working with what I refer to as enthusiastic consent. It's opt-in consent as opposed to what the vanilla world works with is opt-out consent. If you don't say no, it's fine - versus what I go for is, if you say yes, it's good.

YU: So she's saying that, in the vanilla world, it seems like anything goes until no is said. But for her, she'd rather hear an enthusiastic yes before anything happens. The other thing about this is that there isn't just one moment of, quote, unquote, "getting consent" and that's it. You're done. You've got consent. Consent is something that is ongoing, and it can be revoked at any time.

CHANG: Which sounds complicated to me because I feel like that leaves even more room to misinterpret the other person.

YU: Right. None of the kinksters that I talked to said that there's a perfect script. There is no step one, two, three to quote, unquote, "getting consent." But there are some best practices and guidelines that they use.

HEATHER: I tell people - I print out this little card which is a - just a short checklist on negotiation. I always tell people, this is not a comprehensive list but is a great conversation starter for both sides.

YU: So that was Heather. She works with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, which is an advocacy organization for kinksters. She also does a lot of consent workshops around the country. And I have that little card in front of me.

CHANG: That little checklist for negotiation. Oh, my God. It's like the size of a grocery store receipt (laughter). Just slip it into your wallet.

YU: Yeah, really easy to keep in your wallet. So here's a couple of the conversation starters that this little card suggests. What is each person's level of experience? What are their hard limits, triggers? What kind of touching is OK? But the first one at the very top of the checklist is mood. How do we want to feel?

CHANG: Mood. Wow. How do you even get at mood? I mean, what does that mean?

YU: So that is tricky because everything is subjective. Every person is different. So the kinksters that I talked to also think a lot about how to talk about the sex they're having. Here's Evan again.

EVAN: One of the most useful pieces of advice, though, for a new person is not just negotiating what's going on but negotiating what things mean.

YU: What Evan is saying here is that, yes, saying I want to do this with you - the act - is important.

CHANG: Yeah.

YU: But it's not just the act. It's about how...

CHANG: It's not just the physical things that are happening.

YU: Exactly. It's about how you want to feel by participating in that act. What do you want to experience? What do they want to feel emotionally?

CHANG: Emotionally.

YU: Exactly.

CHANG: Honestly, I guess what impresses me the most out of everything we've been talking about is the level of communication and sort of like mutual understanding that people in the kink community strive for when it comes to sex.

YU: Exactly. And, you know, I should note that the community isn't perfect. We spent a lot of time at this roundtable talking about the ways in which the kink community fails at this because, again, nobody is perfect.

CHANG: Sure.

YU: But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to have these conversations. In fact, it means that you should try harder. Here's Heather again.

HEATHER: Talk about sex before you have sex. Talk about sex during sex. Talk about sex after sex. It's OK to have a discussion the next day or the week after and say, I liked this, but I didn't like that, or can we try this next time? Et cetera. Et cetera.

I think that vanilla society are missing out on a lot of feelings and emotions and satisfaction that they could get if they would be more open and honest with each other and more willing to communicate about these things.

YU: Communication might be awkward because we've been conditioned by society to feel like it's awkward or embarrassing or we should feel ashamed for what we want, but it's not. Talking about sex is about empowering you to have the sex that you want with the people that you want to have it with.

CHANG: Precisely - lessons on consent and talking about sex from the kink community. That's NPR's Mallory Yu. Thank you so much, Mallory.

YU: You're welcome.

CHANG: What you just heard was the final element in our series Let's Talk About Sex. You can find this piece and all the others on npr.org. The series was produced by Alyssa Edes, Kat Lonsdorf and Mallory Yu. And we want to give a major shoutout to our editor, Jolie Myers, who made this series happen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.