No, it has nothing to do with mental illnesses or trauma.

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kink myths
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For most people, kink is easier to describe than define. There are some people who like to get tied up (bondage or rigging), some who like to hit and be hit (impact play), while others may enjoy choking (breath play), or role-playing in gorgeous latex catsuits (rubber fetish). Even though these behaviors and erotic practices vary considerably, most people can identify them as kinky. But what even is kink?

Kink, simply put, is consensual, erotic behavior that engages power in some way. However, it's not always easy to imagine what an exchange of consensual power looks like, as most times, it's considered something that is done to someone without their consent. With kink, however, it's different. Power in this form is used with an individual or group to create meaningful interactions, communicate effectively, and provide desire and safety. Oftentimes, this use of power looks like BDSM. BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadism-masochism) is an acronym used to describe some common categories of kink and power exchange.

Bondage, for example, may look like two participants coming to an agreement about who has their hands bound. One partner agrees to use the power of restraint on another, while the other partner agrees to give their power of free movement in order to be restrained. This is a simple example, but what makes this kinky is that each participant talked about what would happen, consented to it, and exchanged power through an erotic behavior—aka the use of bondage.

Kink and BDSM can be used pretty interchangeably, but it's important to note that BDSM is not an exhaustive list of all the kinks out there. Kink, like all play, requires imagination, novelty, and a refreshing irreverence for what desire is "supposed" to look like.

As a lesbian sex writer with a degree in gender and sexuality, I'm tackling the top five myths around kink and breaking them down one by one (so you don't have to).

Myth #1: Kink is a sign of mental illness.

Consenting adults were often considered mentally ill for choosing to participate in kink, either privately, or in community with others. The DSM-5, first published in 1952, has long been used as a weapon against all "sexual deviants," including kinksters, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, and trans people. The results were devastating: Kink and BDSM practitioners are harassed, pathologized, shamed, deemed mentally ill, and in some cases, struggle to maintain custody of their children in family court.

Although updates were made to the DSM-5 to soften the language around sexual deviancy and absolute mental illness, The American Psychiatric Association still has a long way to go. Kink is a natural part of human sexuality and variance. The way humans connect with one another is often expansive, beautiful, and confusing—but that doesn't mean what fails to be "normal" must be pathologized.

Myth #2: Kink is the result of trauma or abuse.

The myth that kink is the result of trauma or abuse is one of the most harmful myths about why people engage in kink and BDSM. Many, many people engage in kink, and each person has their own reasons for being drawn to the practice.

One 2020 study by Phillip Hammack, professor of psychology at University of California Santa Cruz, and sex researcher Sam Hughes found that 72.7% of their survey respondents indicated their personalities were the reason for their kinks, while less than 19% indicated that trauma was related to their kinks.

Although there is little evidence that past trauma is an indicator of future kinkiness, this myth also fails to acknowledge that any group of people will include victims of abuse and trauma. Claiming that people who were abused or traumatized "turn" kinky implies that victims can't find healthy, "normal" relationships and that it's their fault they can't do so. In reality, many people find strength and healing through BDSM, or just enjoy being vulnerable and freaky with others.

kink myths
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Myth #3: Kink means believing you deserve pain.

This myth is very much related to myths one and two but does deserve its own special mention as it comes up very, very often when disclosing to others your erotic tastes.

Not all kink is about pain. Much of it is, but it's perfectly possible to be kink without any physical pain. For many, however, it is preferred. But what people don't see when they accuse kink practitioners of being self-hating freaks is the work before, after, and during each and every kink session to ensure safety and care is taken.

For the partner who desires pain (the masochist) and for the partner who desires to give pain (the sadist) a lot has to happen to set the stage. Negotiations are a critical part of all ethical BDSM dynamics. During negotiations, participants share pertinent information like boundaries, previous injuries, likes and dislikes, and much more. They agree on how to check in during pain play to ensure consent, comfort, safety, and enjoyment of all parties. And finally, participants agree on after-care.

After-care refers to the practice of caring for participants after a scene has ended. It may look like talking, drinking water, cuddling, holding hands, going for a walk, or any number of considerate, tender actions that can be offered and received.

The process of ethical pain play isn't just about the pleasure in pain—it's about the experience of being heard, respected, and taken care of and believing you deserve care and safety and pleasure, not just pain.

Myth #4: Kink means hurting or abusing others.

Abuse happens everywhere there is power. Abuse happens in the most vanilla and mainstream of relationships, between family members, colleagues and bosses, friends, and lovers. Yes, abuse can happen in the kink community, but kink is not inherently abusive.

Unlike most typical relationships, kink and BDSM practitioners emphasize negotiation and agreed upon power dynamics in order to prevent abuse. It's also common practice to ask for personal and kinky references in order to vet a potential partner's safety and experience beforehand. There is much to be learned about safety, community, care, and risk management from the kink community.

Unfortunately, there will be those who are drawn to kink for its potential to hurt others. That's why, like in all relationships, it's important to communicate, be cautious, and know your boundaries before engaging in kink with a new person.

Myth #5: Kink is inherently sexual.

The myth that kink is inherently sexual is held by people both in and outside of the kink community. But there are many asexual people who enjoy and participate in the world of BDSM, fetish, and kink.

For Rodeo, a 30-year-old queer ace top, some of the best sex they've had wouldn't even be considered sex by most people. "Kink is about deprioritizing climax and P-in-V sex just as much as it's about whips and chains. It's about subverting the senses and making us reconsider how we engage with our bodies and sexualities," they told HelloGiggles.

Remember the most determining kink factor is power, not sex. For some folks, kink is about sensory abundance or deprivation, perfectly timed role-play, the skill and satisfaction of a beautiful rig, or the feeling of a skin-tight mask. For Rodeo, "It's about the responsibility that comes with power and how I tend to it.

The ethos of kink community is expressed in this common motto: Safe, Sane, Consensual (SSC). So no matter what you like in bed (or out of it), there is no shame in exploring your desires responsibly.