Content Warning: The following article discusses rape, sexual abuse, murder, and other graphic topics.

Last month, headlines broke out that a man by the name of Brendt Christensen kidnapped and potentially murdered Chinese grad student Yingying Zhang. What was most noteworthy about this particular case was that Christensen was a user of the popular kink social networking site Fetlife, and in particular had frequented forums such as Abduction 101 and Planning a Kidnapping. Now it is indisputable what happened to Zhang was of the utmost moral repugnance and that Christensen be made to make restitution for this vile act by whatever remedy the courts choose to prescribe. Such notions are not the focus of our discussion today. Rather, I wish to challenge the sentiment seemingly held by many that Christensen isn’t an outlier. That all kinksters who participate in hubs like Fetlife are amoral scoundrels who are proving to be the very decay of the social fabric of society. Such proof that my remarks are anything but hyperbole can be found in readers’ responses to the story. To cite some:

The FBI knows about such sites. They should be keeping their sights on the frequent visitors. They should know what kind of cars they drive, where they live, where they work, and if they own or frequent other properties.

All because of this man’s deviant requirements to achieve ejaculation. What a waste of a young life!

Why can’t websites like this that promote horrors be taken down? Those hosting them or giving this man advice should be held as accessory to the crime.

What we see here is that while Christensen is rightfully the object of moral ire given the unconscionable acts he committed, what is problematic is that Christensen is perceived as emblematic of the kink community as a whole. If we are to truly have this discourse we must recognize that not only is Christensen the furthest thing from representative of the kink community, which possesses a rich and varied spectrum, but that Christensen is far more emblematic of patriarchal violence, male entitlement, misogyny, and the other attitudes and social ills that terrorize women of all kinds on a regular basis. As a result of Christensen’s toxicity, marginalized voices became the fodder for the moral outrage, rather than the socialization of the idea of woman as Other, as an object to be possessed and conquered rather than an agent of freedom, desires, and flourishing should we take a more Kantian approach.

When I say that Kinksters are marginalized, one needn’t look further than the language invoked in the quotes I posted. People were calling for surveillance of kinksters, some described Christensen’s desires as deviant, and others said that those who host sites like Fetlife should be held to a similar accountability as Christensen himself. This commentary brings to mind Foucault, who wondered aloud if we really had become a more sexually progressive society. Sure, in many ways we’ve moved beyond the teleological boundaries of sex as merely an act of procreation whose end is ultimately the nuclear family, but it seems in many ways we as a society have much un-learning to do when it comes to what has been socialized and what we have internalized, as sexually moral or taboo and immoral. Because the fact is Christensen’s desires are not what make him deviant, how he actualized them is.

But if I am going to put forth a rigorous philosophical defense of kink and by extension the kink community, it is imperative that a definition of kink be put forth that is more robust than what is derived from tragedies such as Zhang’s kidnapping or popular but terribly misinformed media such as 50 Shades of Grey. My definition of kink, which I make distinct from fantasy which I will return to later, is the act of transgressing socialized boundaries of sexuality and more pertinently, the destruction of the Other and re-imagining of the body through sexual means. This to me, is what makes kink and hubs like Fetlife so distinct from acts such as consuming pornography or being on the consumer end of sex work. In these instances the Other is not destroyed but reaffirmed, the body of the Other being nothing more than an object for pure consumption and often times, a recipient of non-consensual violence. Where kink separates itself is that it begets community. Kink destroys the Other because the spaces that are created by the bodies involved to manifest their kinks are manifested on consent, with both parties being cognizant of what their relationship with each other is and what ends that relationship looks to attain. It is the highest degree of intimacy possible because it necessitates a strong sense of communication, care, etc. with the people involved. With sex work, the bridge between the two bodies is capital, with pornography, an internet connection that breathes life into a screen, yet with kink there is no bridge because both bodies must actively recognize each other within the space they’ve created. For longstanding relationships say between a Dom and Sub couple of so many years, you could say what was once the Other has been annihilated and in its stead is an extension of self. To put it another way, the Sub has become integral to the personal identity of the Dom and vice versa. The project of kink is inherently a communal one whose aim is most immediately the satiation of desire, but more broadly is the destruction of the socialization of what is sexually permissible. Regarding this last bit, I reaffirm again that if it is not consensual and if it is not mindful in the way I describe above, it is not kink but violence and is rebuked by myself, all kinksters, and hubs just like Fetlife.

Now that I have given my own definition of kink, I wish to discuss why hubs like Fetlife are so important. Their importance lies in something I stressed repeatedly in the preceding paragraph. Not only do hubs like Fetlife transgress these rigid boundaries of sexuality, but it also protects, loves, and amplifies the voices of those who stand outside of those boundaries. To give as straightforward example as I can, I have read many accounts from Subs who had become collared by their Dominant and how much being collared meant to them and what an emotional experience it was. They were elated because the collar signified not a crude power play, as it is likely to be perceived by the layman, but as the deepest sign of love and commitment imaginable. Places like Fetlife allow these stories to be told, and historically, we know the power and significance stories can have, so much so that in Plato’s Republic, he wanted to raise the youth of Athens on the kind of stories, so as to make them proper citizens. Conversely, stories such as Subs talking about the day they got collared or from a person discovering something new about themselves sexually, has quite a distinct effect, for what these stories do is force us to look within ourselves, and to challenge the very concepts we were bred with i.e. submission is weakness, that person is deviant, etc. I’ve also seen stories of such courage and emotion as people talking about being survivors of rape, at times from people who claimed to be kinksters but possessed not a modicum of understanding but instead, were brutish and ignorant. Such people not only do great harm to others, but perpetuate the stereotypes about kink that are so deeply ingrained in our society. But the kinksters who know that true realization of kink seeks consent, empowerment, love, etc. rally around the survivor and shower them with affection and love, which runs contrary to our societal response to blame the victim and to pity the abuser i.e. Brock Turner.

I said earlier that I would return to talk about fantasy and to put it succinctly, the dividing line in my mind between kink and fantasy is that while fantasy is pure abstraction, kink is praxis. Specifically, kink is a praxis of fantasy that seeks to ethically liberate the self and the Other by transforming their abstractions born of fantasy into community and discovery. Fantasy is crucial, it challenges us to critique what is with what should or could be. However, all theory needs practice and kink is the evolution of fantasy as well as its ethical, psychological, etc. dimensions, which in turn leads to a refinement of praxis. The praxis of kink is one that aims to be mindful of the constraints that necessarily bind fantasy mainly, the autonomy of the partner. Because kink that allows that body to devolve into Other, to be stripped of that autonomy in the name of unfettered fantasy is how we get tragedies like Christensen. That said, this praxis when conceived in a more positive direction, can also lead to a radical politics of sexuality.

The core ideology of kink is healthy sexual discovery and flourishing that promotes consent, community and empowerment of self and partner. We as a society are so emotionally and sexually stunted that when we hear positive expressions of whips, collars, etc. we perceive those who make them as agents of moral degradation and social decay. But in actuality it is these very people who are undertaking the project of sexual authenticity and honesty which can only lead to social prosperity. We as a country still do not have a streamlined sexual education curriculum, and abstinence only sex education comprises 23% of sex education in public schools. Transgender women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate, and despite the gains of the LGBTQ+ community over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. Kink is a praxis rooted in inclusiveness  and that is reflected in hubs like Fetlife where people of all types whether in regards to gender, race, body type, etc. come together. It is this praxis that can aid even if only in part in the fight against patriarchal violence, transphobic violence, and violence against the most vulnerable bodies in our society such as children through the violence of commodities like child pornography. Kinksters strive for a society that is sexually and emotionally healthy, for evils such as the ones I detailed are the products of sexual and emotional malignancy.

In closing, we continue the task of challenging the socially erected paradigms of biological and sexual normativity with an ethically sound and intellectually rigorous praxis. Kink and its very extensions such as Fetlife are that praxis. As a man with Cerebral Palsy, it was kink and more specifically Fetlife, that illuminated to me that the social attitudes of the disabled body as defective, undesirable, weak, were not only harmful and ignorant, but capable of being dismantled. Nowhere in my case was this proof greater than the existence of disabled Dominants, whose very existence to those with a rudimentary understanding of kink and its communities would prove utterly paradoxical. This is precisely the point, for these “paradoxes” serve to reveal the very deficiencies our socialized notions of other bodies and our relationships to them, with particular emphasis on sexual relationships. To my fellow kinksters, I love and adore every last one of you. I hope this essay did justice to your voices and may you never forget how beautiful you are or how significant the work we are doing is.

To Brendt Christensen, and to all those who wish to appropriate the resources of the kink community for their own ends just as he did, I speak on behalf of everyone who sees Fetlife and the kink community as a whole as a space for authenticity, love, and strength, that we unequivocally reject you and your actions. For what you perpetuate isn’t kink, it isn’t beauteous or radical and it doesn’t service the flourishing of anyone. It is violence and destitution of autonomous and beauteous bodies that furthers Otherness and causes widespread harm to so many. We want no part of it and never have, and we will keep working actively to promote safe and informed actualization of the sexual self through kink. Neither you Christensen nor shoddy media like 50 Shades define us, WE define ourselves and so long as people perceive you to be emblematic of us, we know that there is a discourse to be resisted and we shall resist it, by continuing to be ourselves no matter how maligned we may be. Because that, more than whips and chains, and leather and collars, is what being a kinkster is.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.