Kinky people face a different kind of workplace discrimination

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For many folks in the BDSM or “kinky” community, how much you share about yourself is an awkward dance that can put you in danger

By Cynthia Farkas 

In 2010, Kate Thomas*, a third-year Ryerson English student, worked at a small office with a small group of very conservative people. One day, she returned from her lunch break with a pair of shoes in a shopping bag with a fairly nondescript name on it. One of her colleagues knew the store was a place where exotic dancers shopped, because her son had told her about the place. “She went down to HR and told them I was bringing sick stuff into the office,” Thomas says. “HR called me down and told me not to flaunt sex in the office. Pretty sure that went in my file.”

Most of us ask ourselves: “How much of myself can I share with my colleagues and employers?” For many, it’s not a very challenging dilemma, because the most embarrassing thing might be exposing your drunk photos from the cottage. But for many folks in the BDSM or “kinky” community—who take part in activities like bondage, domination or submission or sadism or masochism—the question can be far more complex.

Up until 2013, BDSM practices were found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental and Physical Disorders, meaning that if anyone knew about your involvement with BDSM, you could be considered mentally ill. Before BDSM’s removal from the manual there were serious consequences for kinky people, such as parents being deemed unfit as a result of their BDSM activities. From 1997 to 2010, 80 per cent of people who sought legal assistance from a BDSM advocacy organization lost their child custody battles because of this kind of discrimination.

Its removal was a huge step forward as the manual is a widely recognized authority on mental wellness for many institutions like medical, educational and legal entities. But while these policy changes were important steps to legitimizing the community, societal acceptance didn’t exactly follow suit.

Community members have condemned these damaging narratives, as they portray kinky people as sick and abusive

BDSM practices have recently made their way into pop culture through inaccurate depictions, such as the still-cringeworthy 50 Shades of Grey series which violates many rules about consent, and the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series, which often depicts BDSM practitioners as violent and dangerous. Community members have condemned these damaging narratives, as they portray kinky people as sick and abusive.

Thomas wants to eventually work as a prison librarian, but if she can’t secure her dream job, she’s worried her identity might jeopardize her options. “I’m concerned that, if I don’t get a position in the type of library I want, that I may have to rely on public or school libraries, where being out is a huge problem. So my options will be limited and more is riding on getting the type of work I’m targeting.”

It’s one thing to choose to share your private life with friends or coworkers, but many folks in the BDSM community experience anxiety and fear about being outed by someone else without their permission. Something as simple as catching a glimpse at your phone screen can tip someone off to one’s involvement with the community, and put them in danger. Thomas worries about this all the time. “No one, not even the people closest to me, can know every area of my life that might be impacted by being outed.”

Keegan Hobson, a second-year Ryerson social work student, says that while his current employer is aware of his involvement in the BDSM community, he still worries about how his identity might be perceived because his future employers may not be as accepting as his current one. “In many social work positions I could lose my job. It’s scary to know that what I do consensually in my private life may cost me stability in the future.”

He is not alone in this fear. In Keegan’s experience, many of his peers in the BDSM community share the concern that if an employer found out about their kinky lifestyle, they could lose a job or, “risk hostility in the work environment.”

A 1984 article by Gayle Rubin introduces the “Charmed Circle of Sexuality” theory, which shows how mainstream society ranks a hierarchy of sexual values. Ideas of “normal”, healthy or moral sex are at the top, while kinkier practices are at the bottom. Unfortunately, these attitudes still contribute to the prejudice BDSM community members face.

Keegan believes that there should be measures in place to protect the BDSM community from being discriminated against at work. “A large part of it is updating our views on humanity, sex and sexuality.”

It’s a common misconception that because “sexual orientation” is listed as one of the 11 protected grounds of Canada’s Human Rights Act, an employer or placement supervisor couldn’t get away with discriminating against someone in the BDSM community. But the definition of sexual orientation in the Act does not specifically mention sexual activities of any kind. It refers to “gay, lesbian, heterosexual or bisexual” people, but leaves sexual practices like BDSM unprotected.

Though some employers may have their own harassment policies, some workplaces require employees to sign contracts with “morality clauses” that put the livelihoods of kinky folks in danger. A morality clause essentially limits employees in their personal time by prohibiting them from activities that may bring controversy to the company.

Having to sign a contract with this clause is a practice used especially when a business is highly conscious of their public image, holds a lot of authority or if their employees interact directly with members of the public—especially with vulnerable members such as children. Unfortunately, what counts as inappropriate behaviour is still often based on what mainstream society considers acceptable.

While Thomas hasn’t had to sign a morality clause, she said “If I ever decide to, or need to look for work as a teacher librarian”—who works with kids from kindergarten to Grade 12—“I believe that is required. That would definitely impact not only my disclosure, but possibly my actual behaviour, depending on how desperately I needed the job.”

“In general, sexuality is still a very taboo topic—never mind specific sexual practices,” says Heather Elizabeth, a sexuality educator counsellor and coach. They say that labels like “pervert,” “deviant” or “freak,” all of which get applied to BDSM, tend to isolate or “other” those who partake in it. “Your sex life should really never have anything to do with your work life, but this can still be a point of discrimination.”

Unfortunately, what counts as inappropriate behaviour is still often based on what mainstream society considers acceptable

Of course, there are some employers who are more progressively-minded. Lori Kufner coordinates a youth harm reduction initiative called the Trip Project out of the Parkdale Queen West Health Centre, and supervises an average of two placement students per year. “If [someone’s personal life is] irrelevant to the work then it should be just another thing about the person, like if they were super into board games or played an instrument. And if it’s relevant to the work then it should be acknowledged as an asset but not outed to other staff/clients/etc.”

For kinky folks who are looking for jobs or placement opportunities, Heather Elizabeth advises keeping tabs on what is public and private on your online profiles. “Take some time to think in advance about how public you want this part of your life to be.”

Keegan hopes that employers will eventually come to understand that membership in the BDSM community is not a detriment to someone’s character. “What I do with my consenting adult partners does not correlate to the ways in which I am or am not qualified for a job.”

We should learn to embrace diversity in all forms, including sexual diversity, without an assumption that those who may be different from us are automatically dangerous. The last thing that should be on an employer’s mind is whether their staff member is breaking out a whip and handcuffs when they kick up their feet after hours. Even if it makes them uncomfortable, it shouldn’t matter when it comes to hiring somebody for a job or placement.

“Engaging in activity that brings me joy, and a community that supports me and keeps me safe, does not change that I have worked to be where I am and possess the skills to work alongside my community in any capacity. I am no less qualified because I like leather or rope, just as I am no less qualified for having tattoos or a hoop in my nose.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity

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