Photo: Camila Kukulski

The science behind kink

In Features, Love & Sex by Features EditorLeave a Comment

By Karoun Chahinian

Kink. It’s not a dirty word. But whenever it’s brought up in a conversation, people often blush, change the topic or blabber in denial that they’re not into “anything weird.” But what often isn’t discussed is how common kink actually is.

According to a poll run by the dating website OkCupid in April 2017, out of 400,000 of their members, 71 per cent say they were into kink. Of those, 75 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women say they’re into rough sex, and 64 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women were interested in Bondage, Discipline (or Dominance), Sadism and Masochism (BDSM).

But what sparks most of the controversy or negative reactions whenever kink is brought up are mainstream misconceptions and lack of knowledge on what it actually is. In the most basic definition, kink is any sexual preference that is deemed to be unconventional—which can really be an endless list. This umbrella term includes fantasies, fetishes, paraphilias, BDSM and anything else that goes beyond basic “vanilla” sex, which a lot of people have been pretending to enjoy since high school.

One common question people both inside and outside the kink community have raised is why some people are kinky and others are not—and the reasoning behind that is complex. It’s a blend of biological, psychological and sociological factors.

Biology

There is evidence that shows that people are born with preexisting sexual preferences, similar to sexual orientation, but that doesn’t mean everyone is born into a fixed sexual identity. According Morag Yule, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist at the Toronto Sexuality Centre, kink is developed through a mix of nature and nurture.

“It’s so complex … when we’re trying to narrow down [sexuality] to something, it can be really challenging to understand it,” says Yule, adding that their role as researchers is to identify patterns in sexuality, rather than fixed answers.

Yule says sex research is vital so that she is able to educate and comfort clients, break social stigmas surrounding unconventional sex, and answer broader questions raised by the public. She says a lot of sex researchers analyze people’s neurological reactions to different sexual preferences through functional MRI scans—which detect changes of blood flow—by comparing kinky and vanilla participant’s reactions to different sexual stimuli. This helps researchers locate the different brain sectors and physiological reactions when a person is exposed to their sexual preference.

“For someone who’s kinky and they’re interested in this particular thing that this vanilla person isn’t interested in, their brain will be having these activations that are more elevated than someone who’s not interested,” says Yule.

Kathryn Klement, a sex and BDSM researcher and professor at Bemidji State University, says this also has a lot to do with differing pleasure and pain thresholds or tolerances. Compare it to people who need to eat very spicy food in order to taste it: some people seek out more extreme forms of pleasure because that’s the only way they can fully experience sex. This threshold is something that can be biologically inherited, but also developed over time, says Klement.

 

Compare it to people who need to eat very spicy food in order to taste it: some people seek out more extreme forms of pleasure because that’s the only way they can fully experience sex

 

“Some folks have a higher threshold for sensory experiences meaning that they need more sensory experience to feel it,” says Klement. “A person who eats a ghost pepper to feel something, in an extreme example, has a higher threshold for doing that.”

Psychology

While some people may feel a physical craving or inclination towards kink, upbringing and psychological factors also have a lot to do with whether or not these inclinations are developed.

Stigma and social context play a huge role in personal reactions towards kink. If someone grows up in a traditional home or town where kink is strongly stigmatized, the person may either be turned off by kink entirely, or internalize their attraction towards it, which would only build over time. But this idea of shame which leads to internalization of feelings is dangerous and is caused by the rigid idea of what is normal.

“The problem with current norms and how we think about sex is that they’re not really representative of what people actually experience or are interested in,” says Yule. “If we actually talked about these things and really understood everyone’s interests, and had it more on the table and open discussion, some of the stuff wouldn’t be as problematic as people think it is.”

With rigid norms also comes the cliché temptation to go against them, whether it’s publicly or privately depends on the individual.

But Klement also says outside of social context, kink can be developed through classical conditioning, a behaviour-based concept of repetition and reward. This can be applied into our everyday lives, including the development of kinks and fetishes. An example Klement gave included a thirteen-year-old boy masturbating in his bathroom to not risk one of his family members walking in. As he climaxes, he notices a pair of nylons drying on the shower rod. Because he saw that object at the perfect time, he now associates it with pleasure and arousal, and may develop a fetish for nylons. A combination of experiencing something at the perfect time and place.

 

If we actually talked about these things and really understood other everyone’s interests, and had it more on the table and open discussion, some of the stuff wouldn’t be as problematic as people think it is.

 

Personality also has a lot to do with interest in kink and BDSM. If someone has an open and adventurous personality, they may be more inclined to try new things in the bedroom, rather than someone who doesn’t like change. This may be a factor in why some people are kinkier than others.

Sociology

Maybe you’ve been walking around with your eyes closed your whole life and haven’t been exposed to kink at all to truly know whether or not you like it. Without proper conversation or positive media representation about kink, it’s difficult to gauge whether or not you’re kinky.

Klement says most people use their 20s to experiment and figure out what they enjoy sexually, but it’s also not uncommon for someone to be introduced to kink in their 40s or 50s by a partner, sparking a late sexual awakening.

Positive media representation plays a huge role in lack of proper conversation surrounding unconventional sex, such as with kink. A popular book/movie series that people in the kink community love to call out for being factually and representationally problematic is Fifty Shades of Grey. But with all the dangerous misrepresentations in mind, Klement says the fact that the relationship between the two lead characters Christian and Anastasia began after signing a firm contract which draws out limits, activities and other sexual preferences sends a positive message about consent and pre-sex conversation.

 

Without proper conversation or positive media representation about kink, it’s difficult to gauge whether or not you’re kinky

 

A lot of media representation of sex is subtle and vanilla, according to Klement. “All of a sudden it magically happens that he’s doing exactly the right thing to her body and she’s cumming seventeen times and it’s so wonderful but they never talk about condoms,” says Klement. “Sex requires some kind of conversation about it. You can’t just go into it expecting that everything is going to be non-verbal and everyone will be okay with that.” Even though it’s just a movie, it’s still a harmful representation.

Before you judge your kinky friends, take a moment to listen and be open to engaging in a conversation about it—even if it makes you uncomfortable. Because what you probably didn’t know about kink is that it actually contributes to a stronger state of mental health according to a 2013 study published in The Journal of Sexual Health. It increases communication and intimacy between partners and even reduces stress.

By shifting the tone surrounding kink, it may be destigmatized and nearly half the population won’t have to feel ashamed for what they enjoy in the bedroom. It should be less about what makes people kinky, and more on why it’s an issue to begin with.

“It’s more just about destigmatizing it, normalizing it,” says Yule. “Whether it comes from biology, family, psychology, it doesn’t really matter. Because here we are.”

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