BDSM As A Sexual Orientation

The idea of sexual orientation is a complicated one. There’s a certain comfort in believing that you’re “hard-wired” to be a certain way, especially for minority or stigmatized groups who can justifiably say, why would I choose this given how hard it is to be this way? I think this also connects to how in the Western world, identity is seen as something stable and intrinsic; yeah, people will change over time, but you are who  you are at your very core and you were probably born that way.

Sex activist Clarisse Thorn has promulgated the idea that BDSM (a configuration of activities including bondage and domination, sadism and masochism, domination and submission) is a sexual orientation. This may seem strange at first, especially if you’re used to hearing that being gay or straight is a sexual orientation. But Thorn draws parallels to other sexualities, for whom their orientation is something they simply cannot change, regardless of whether they’re in a relationship or not. It’s a little more complicated for some BDSM practitioners, however, for as Thorn observes, it is experienced as an ingrained orientation for some, yet as a take-it-or-leave-it fun activity for others. While acknowledging that the term “orientation” is problematic, Thorn retains it, stating: Because so many people, at this point, have accepted the LGBTQ orientation as something that should not be stigmatized — the word “orientation” can really help them understand what BDSM means to us and why it’s not okay to stigmatize that, either.

I find this all really interesting and thought-provoking, but it’s also a little abstract. That’s why I was so excited to see this post which details the author’s coming to terms with a BDSM orientation using personal narrative. It’s a brave and scary thing to put one’s personal experiences out there, and it can help others to understand how people process and put labels on their experiences.

The author noticed that arousal stemmed “not from a reaction to a particular gender (or a particular person), but from a shifting bodily response to an entrenched, deep-seated psyche-world,” which eventually became translated in the external world to BDSM. This is fascinating and wonderful, as it shows just how multifaceted human sexuality can be.

I’m inclined to agree with Thorn that BDSM is a sexual orientation; or at least, it’s close enough to be used as one to help individuals negotiate the social and sexual challenges they face. And since figuring out one’s sexual desires can be tough work, I’m in favor of having all of the possible tools at one’s disposal.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.