Coming out BDSM: upsides and downsides
A lot of us kinksters use vocabulary similar to the kind of thing people are accustomed to hearing from LGBTQ folks. “Coming out” is a great example of this: a lot of BDSM people struggle with the question of whether to come out to our employers, our friends, our parents … all the people we love. And BDSM is stigmatized and frowned upon enough that most kinksters never come out.
Some professional fields are more BDSM-friendly: for instance, kinksters who work in computer science frequently don’t have any problem with coworkers knowing about their sexual identities. Some fields are less BDSM-friendly: schoolteachers who are into BDSM have to be incredibly careful. Likewise, some subcultures are more BDSM-friendly: kinksters in the goth subculture, for instance, don’t tend to have any problems within that subculture. But again, some subcultures are less BDSM-friendly: not just the obvious ones like religious evangelicals … there are also some feminist groups that are very intolerant of BDSM, and many liberal groups still exhibit prejudices.
When I came into my BDSM identity, it was a very sudden realization for me, and my circumstances effectively outed me to most of my friends. (It’s a long story.) I think that this was ultimately a positive thing, in my case — for the most part, my friends were totally cool about it, and I was able to talk to some of them about the panic and horror and shame I was feeling. (“I’m so screwed up! I’m such a bad feminist!” … that about sums up how I felt.) It was still really hard for me to deal with it, but thank God I didn’t have to do so in strict secrecy. (I really like hearing people’s personal stories of how they got into BDSM, by the way, so if you’ve got any — leave a comment, or send them my way by email!)
Later, I came out to my parents, and I was terrified when I did it … but I’m lucky: they were both really awesome and supportive about it. As for my boss … well, my boss likes me a lot, but I’m not sure his affection would survive if he learned that I’m such a sexual deviant. He might be okay with it, but he also might be horrified and fire me. I’ve never told him and I don’t plan to.
As I’ve gotten into BDSM outreach, I’ve become a weird kind of BDSM “public figure” among my vanilla friends. A lot of them already knew I was into it, but now pretty much all of them do, because it’s such a huge part of my life that I can’t have a conversation about what I’m working on without BDSM coming up.
There are some obvious pros and cons here. For instance: I feel happy that I can talk honestly about my relationships and my work with my friends, and yet I live in fear that my boss is going to find out and hate me! But there’s one big Pro and one big Con that I want to talk about today.
1) Pro: I’m available for comment! People with their own BDSM desires, who know me or have heard about me, have a resource they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Multiple people I know from my everyday life have taken me aside — usually in very quiet, furtive, ashamed ways — and asked for BDSM advice. Some of them have an idea what they’re asking about: they say straightforward things like, “I might want to try some BDSM. Where can I learn more?” Others are more confused. They ask roundabout, contradictory questions or lapse into pauses.
A female friend of mine asked me out to dinner a few months ago, soon after the first time I gave my BDSM Overview presentation to a bunch of vanilla folks I know. She started by saying that she didn’t really know what was going on, but that she’d always had these crazy violent dreams. She said she wasn’t sure what she wanted but that she was scared to ask, sometimes even scared to think about it. She said that was afraid of what this meant about being a feminist, and that was when I spotted the tears in her eyes.
It was heartbreaking to see how much she was hurting, but it was empowering, too. I saw so much of myself in her, and I realized how much I was helping her just by listening … and how much more I could help her by sharing knowledge and experience. I immediately told her that she wasn’t betraying the feminist movement, and I explained how I’d had feelings along those lines. We talked for hours and afterwards I sent her my own coming-out story, as well as a few basic BDSM book references. I explained how the BDSM community functions and how she can attend BDSM meetups and discussion groups. *
(I’ve thought about publishing my coming out story. It’s all written up, and I’ve received some great feedback on it from both kinkster friends and “normal” friends. In particular, I’ve heard from BDSM people — some of them people who are just learning about BDSM from me — about how helpful it was to read about my own process. I’ll be honest, though: I’m scared about publishing, because my story is so personal that even publishing it under my scene name — Clarisse — feels like I’m greatly exposing myself and my inner world.
The idea of publishing it is also complicated by the fact that I’d really want to publish the story in a vanilla venue: that is, a magazine or webzine or other place that’s not devoted to BDSM material. It would be relatively easy for me to find a BDSM-related venue for my coming-out story, but I think it’s important for mainstream society to be hearing these stories … partly because it will forward the cause of BDSM tolerance … and partly because scared or repressed or latent kinksters are more likely to read my story if it’s in a vanilla venue, and they’re the ones who can benefit most from that kind of encouragement and insight. But what kind of mainstream venue is going to publish a BDSM coming-out story?
Later edit: Time Out Chicago would publish it, that’s who! end of edit)
It has really inspired me to know that there are people out there who are having a terribly hard time dealing with their sexuality because of all the stigma against BDSM — and I’m helping just by being public and available to talk.
2) Con: I am exoticized and othered. People — sometimes even my friends — make stereotypical assumptions about me, or harass me in minor but frustrating ways.
I remember once that I told someone in the BDSM community that I’d come out to most of my friends already, and he said, “Did people start hitting on you more?” I couldn’t help laughing because it’s so true — it’s such a known effect! For some reason, there are lots of vanilla guys out there who think that a BDSM girl is just the hottest thing … I mean person … ever. I don’t know why that is, but I am here to tell you that the fact that I’m into BDSM does not mean I’m some guy’s hot sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.
I’m just another person, you know? I like sex, but sometimes I don’t want to have sex; sometimes I don’t even want to do BDSM, amazingly enough. I like going out to dinner and getting chocolate from my lovers, and watching good movies together. An evening reading in my room, or hanging out casually with my friends, sounds just as good as an evening of hot BDSM sex. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good. But really good.)
Plus, news flash: if you’re a vanilla guy, I’m not interested.You’re probably not into what I’m into. And no, I don’t feel like explaining exactly what I like to you. If you want to know about BDSM, I can recommend some books. If you want to know about me, you can become friends with me … just keep in mind that “being friends” means “having fun hanging out, maybe talking about science fiction or other interests we might share”, rather than “asking me questions about my sex life all the time”.
Some people seem to think it’s okay to openly speculate about my sex life or even ask me really invasive, personal questions, just because I’m into BDSM. I know people who comment about my sexuality at every opportunity … and I mean every opportunity. I’ll stub my toe and they’ll say, “Is that good pain or bad pain?” and leer. Or I’ll ask them not to do something and they’ll say, “Ohh, sorry,” throw up their hands in mock surrender, “I guess you’ll just have to beat me up.” This wouldn’t be annoying if it happened every once in a while … and hey, I make my own jokes about BDSM. But when a person literally mentions my sexuality multiple times every time they see me, and it’s always totally out of the blue … it starts feeling like I’m some exotic creature behind glass in a zoo. They wouldn’t do it to someone else; I know, because a lot of them didn’t do it to me before they knew I’m into BDSM.
I recognize that people who act this way are a blessing, compared to the people who think I’m a psycho in need of therapy … or the people who think BDSM people really ought to just go ahead and kill ourselves. I know it could be a lot worse, and I’m lucky it’s not. I just wish more people would be more sensitive, and would think about the stereotypes they’re applying to BDSM people.
It’s worse when people start judging the “reasons” they think I’m into BDSM. I’ve heard people suggest that I only talk about BDSM because it gets attention, or because I want to seem like everyone’s fantasy sex-crazy nympho dreamgirl.
I’m not into BDSM because I want to appear edgy or dangerous or adventurous or sexy or scary. I’m into BDSM because that’s how I express my sexuality. That’s it. That’s all. I didn’t choose it and I don’t know why I am this way … but I am. I’m certainly not complaining … but I can’t help it.
I think that there are people who get into BDSM just because they’re curious and want to try new things, not necessarily because BDSM is a huge part of their identity … and there’s nothing wrong with that! I see these people as similar to — say — people who identify as straight but are totally willing to make out with the same sex. Personally, I’m cool with the fact that such people exist; as long as they’re having fun, more power to them. But I’m not like that. BDSM is an undeniable, overwhelming, central facet of my sexual identity. For me, telling me that I’m into BDSM just because I “want attention”, or because I’m “just in a phase” or “like experimenting”, or because I’m “dramatic” or “attracted to danger” … that’s like telling a gay person that she has sex with girls just because she “wants attention”, etc.
So that’s what I don’t like about being partly out: the way people judge me for my sexuality. But hey, that’s why I’m doing BDSM outreach in the first place, right? — because that’s the only way we’ll ever get away from these assumptions and stereotypes.