Research Shows How Kink Identity Is Formed

Samuel Hughes is a psychological researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who studies the experiences of kinky individuals in the context of the social world. He investigates the role of identity, self-concept, personality, stress, and intersectionality on the development and enactment of kink, BDSM, and fetish desires. He also examines the impact of self-pathologization, discrimination, and stigma on kinky individuals’ mental health outcomes, as well as identifies strategies for combating depressive symptoms among kinksters.

Q: You presented research on kink/fetish identity development. Tell us more about your research and why it is important.

A: Broadly, I study the psychology of sexual minorities like kinky people and LGBTQ people. In particular, I focus on where kink-oriented desires come from, the impact of stigma and concealing one’s sexual identity on mental health, participation in sexual minority communities, and sexual identity development. I am also interested in how policies and rules set by powerful institutions like prisons, sex education, and psychiatric medicine can treat diversity in consensual human sexuality as a sickness that needs to be controlled and corrected.

My most recent project explored the stages that kinky people go through in order to come to grips with their kink interests, and develop a healthy identity around those interests. To identify those stages, I surveyed 292 people recruited from FetLife, the world’s largest social networking website for kinky people, and asked them to tell the story of their earliest memory of being interested in some kind of kink, as well as the story of when they first thought of themselves as a kinky person. Those stories were then content analyzed for what particular elements showed up in their stories, and then assessed using an exploratory statistical method to look for patterns in what order those story elements showed up. The ordered sequence we observed was then labeled as the five-stage model of kink identity development.

Identity development is critically important for sexual minority mental health. Failure to overcome stigma, and especially internalizing that stigma, can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Studying the identity development of kinky people can help us to better understand how kinky people develop resilience in the face of a world that often thinks of them as, at best, a joke, and at worst, violent criminals or mentally deranged.

​Q: In your presentation, you differentiated between kink and fetish. What is the difference between the two?

A: “Kink” is a broad term that refers to a wide variety of consensual, non-traditional sexual, sensual, and intimate behaviors such as sadomasochism, domination and submission, erotic roleplaying, fetishism, and erotic forms of discipline. “Fetish” is a more narrow term that describes people with an erotic or intimate interest in specific non-genital body parts, fabrics, smells, fluids, costumes and other non-human objects. I use both terms because I want to emphasize that many of these stages we describe apply not only to people who are into more traditional kinks, like spanking, bondage, and whipping, but also apply to people with fetishes that might not come to mind when we initially think of “kink”, such as balloon fetishists or people with an attraction to erotic hypnosis.

Q: You uncovered five phases of kink identity development, modeled on the Cass model of coming out. Can you briefly describe these five stages and how they compare or contrast to the Cass model?

A: The five stages we identified are:

1) Early Encounters: This stage encompasses early inklings towards kink, typically taking place before the age of 10, where kinky people experience an attraction, draw, or fascination with a kink or fetish interest, often without the words or concepts to understand it, and often without sexual arousal. Examples include always wanting to be captured while playing cops and robbers, or seeing television shows with superheroes in peril and feeling absorbed by the show.

2) Exploration with Self: This stage encompasses kinky people exploring their kink or fetish interest with themselves, typically between the ages of 5 and 14. This exploration typically occurs via fantasizing, seeking out erotic media, masturbating, and exploring material sensations on their bodies.

3) Evaluation: This stage encompasses the process by which kinky people evaluate what their kink interests mean for their identities and lives, and typically takes place between 11 to 14 years old, at the same time when other identity development processes are often in full swing. It can involve feeling stigma over their kink interests, feeling generally different, realizing that not all of their peers share their interests, worrying there might be something wrong with them, and sometimes actively engaging in research in order to try to label and understand their interests.

4) Finding Others: This stage encompasses the process of realizing that there are other kinky people out there and often takes place after the age of 11. The discovery of other kinky people often occurs via the internet, magazines, and is often accompanied by a feeling of kinship, such as finding their home, tribe, people, or family. This stage often includes a process of developing resilience against kink-related stigma and developing a positive sense of kink identity. Physically attending a kinky club, group, event, or conference also often comes up during this stage, though typically not until they are at least 18 years old.

5) Exploration with Others: This stage encompasses the process of actually engaging in kinky play and/or kinky sex with another person, and typically takes place after 18 years of age. For many kinky people, they only really felt kinky when they actually engaged in kink with another person.

The Cass model is an example of an early, typical model of gay identity development (though lots of other, better-developed models exist). Many of the themes of our stages, such as dealing with stigma, developing a sense of pride and positivity in one’s identity, and comparing themselves to one’s peers, also show up in Cass’ model. However, lesbian, and gay folks are often aware (at least in many contexts) that other lesbian and gay folks exist before reaching puberty. So, much of gay identity development focuses on negotiating their own identities in the face of those existing social identities. On the other hand, kinky people often experience kinky desires without knowing what kink is or having the words to describe it, so that role of finding others who are also kinky may be especially important for kinky people to develop positive identities.

Gay and lesbians folks often experience stigma from explicitly, highly politicized, personal sources, such as conservative religious institutions and families, homophobic bullying, and stigma over gender non-conformity. On the other hand, the stigma experienced by kinky people is often less publicly politicized or personal, framed by conservative religious institutions as “lust” and “perversion”, as criminality by representations of “perverts” in popular media, or as a mental disorder by psychiatric medicine. Kinky people also reported much less of a desire to “come out” than we see in gay and lesbian populations, likely because it is much easier to hide an interest in kink in a relationship than it is to hide a relationship with someone of the same gender.

Folsom Street East 2007 – New York, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Folsom Street East 2007 – New York, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons

​Q: Did most of your participants discover their kink interests when they were small children? Is there a difference in development depending on the age of discovery?

A: Yes, the vast majority of the survey participants had an earliest memory of their kink interests that took place before the age of 18, with the most common age group for those early memories being between 5-10. Not all of the participants discovered their kink interests very early on, however, especially for those who discovered kink during a sexually unsatisfying relationship, or for those who found kink as a way to feel young and virile in their older years.

​Q: You describe several types of variations, including situations where individuals came to kink as a means of overcoming hardship. What is this process all about?

A: Some kinky people, though certainly not the majority, have experienced trauma and hardship in their lives. Many of those who reported trauma and hardship talked about kink as a way to relive that hardship with a sense of healing and mastery over it. For example, a sexual assault survivor might initially feel afraid, weak, and powerless during their actual sexual assault. However, simulating that assault via consensual roleplaying with a trusted partner can help them feel powerful (because they consensually negotiated and agreed to it, and can use a safeword to stop the scene), strong (because they feel they can get through whatever physical pain or intensity comes their way), and brave, for facing what can often be dark times in their past head-on. It’s very common for kinky people to engage in “aftercare” after a scene, which often involves cuddling, talking, rehydrating, and “recentering” oneself, which can help those who are using kink to overcome hardships process their experience in a healthy and safe environment.

Other participants reported kink as a way to overcome other types of hardships in their lives, such as people on the autism spectrum who enjoy kink because it allows intimate sexuality and non-verbal communication to be laid out, scripted, predictable, understandable, and enjoyable. Likewise, some kinky people even reported using kink to help them process through depression and other mental illness.

Q: Finally, you mentioned that kink-pathologization is a typical part of kink development. Why is it so typical and how does it affect development?

A: Just like LGBTQ adolescents, many kinky adolescents also experience a sense of internalized stigma, worrying they are a freak, bad, crazy, sick, evil, or something is wrong with them. It’s largely because kinky people live in a world that often silences their experiences (no sexual education program in the country I have been able to find covers kink-related topics), makes them feel isolated, and pushes pathologizing narratives through media, the law, medicine, religion, and other institutions. What’s strange is that currently, the DSM-V recognizes most kink interests as disorders only if the person experiences clinically significant distress. However, it is normal for many kinky people to experience clinically significant distress stemming from social stigma, the need to conceal their identities, worrying about job loss, or potentially the loss of custody of their children. These social factors are not taken into account in the definitions in the DSM. There is also a historic parallel for this issue of societal sources of clinically significant distress in the DSM. In 1987, we eliminated ego-dystonic homosexuality from the DSM, because most clinically significant distress over same-sex attraction results from social stigma. My work suggests that there is a similar problem with the way that kinky interests are treated by the DSM, if the clinically significant distress experienced by kinky people is the result of societal forces, that brings into question whether any consensual form of kink should be considered a disorder.