Orientation, Identity, Kink, Practice

It’s hard to talk about sex. It’s even harder to talk about the penumbra of stuff that is kinda sex but also kinda its own thing.

Where does a sexual preference become a kink? An identity? An orientation?

I’ve been searching for words to talk about myself, and realising that every term is the result of some political battle of the past or the present. Reclaimed slurs, claims for legal or social status, attempts to join a coalition or escape association with another group.

The result is that we have a language twisting around the contours of past disagreements. Take “sexual orientation”. The term was a weapon of the 80s, pushing against the medicalisation and criminalisation of homosexuality. In that context, it was valuable to present being gay as something innate and stable – which captures the experience of some people, but certainly not all.

The innateness, embedded in the word ‘orientation’, became a key part of the fight for GLBT rights. You can’t punish somebody for being ‘born this way’, and so ‘orientation’ is written into all kinds of anti-discrimination laws and policies.

But…what if I’m not born that way? What if I’m just, as the doctors would say, a ‘man who has sex with men’? Can I claim the same protections?

This problem becomes more acute when we widen the perspective to look at BDSM or polyamory. There are kinksters who consider themselves ‘submissive’ in the same innate, essential, inescapable way that somebody else could consider herself ‘lesbian’. There are others who find bondage a pleasant pastime, but one they could abandon without losing an essential part of themselves. So we end up with claims that kink or polyamory is a sexual orientation.

Either side of that binary feels a bit off, to me. I couldn’t make a convincing argument either that kink is an orientation, or that it isn’t. The framing just doesn’t fit. And the reason it doesn’t fit is that it’s conflating the type of a thing with the legitimacy of the thing with the innateness of a thing.

I didn’t discover my bisexuality until my early 20s. I could imagine a world in which I never made that discovery, loved only women, yet still had a fulfiling life.

Kink has been part of me since childhood, and it’s hard to imagine myself without it.

You could say I’m an obligate kinkster, and an opportunist bisexual. But I don’t want a world in which that distinction has any bearing on the legitimacy or acceptance of one over the other.

It’s helped me to realise that the terminology is an artefact of politics. Whether we count claim kink as an orientation is merely a tactical question, and has no meaning outside of a specific political context. Wondering what is an orientation does little to help me understand myself or the people around me, so I can safely stop doing it.

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