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Kinky Sex: When Did BDSM Become So Wildly Popular?

BDSM, once viewed as the exclusive fiefdom of really creepy perverts, has crossed over and become quasi-respectable, stylish and safe.

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Thus was Kink.com born. Thirteen years later, it has about 100 employees and is producing an estimated $30 million in annual revenue. “Peter Acworth,” declares Carol Queen, “is the Hugh Hefner of the 21st Century.”

The parallels are unmistakable. Hefner has his Playboy Mansion. Acworth bought the San Francisco Armory, a 200,000 square foot edifice in San Francisco’s Mission District that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, to house his corporate headquarters. Hef reframed our culture’s take on sexuality. Acworth is doing the same for kink, only without the sexism.

Acworth is totally committed to promoting BDSM’s consensual-sex ethos. “We go out of our way to make it clear that we are depicting play,” he says. “Each movie includes a before and after interview with the participants in order to show that the activities are negotiated and are for the enjoyment of all participants (not just the guy). In the absence of such an introduction, we feel that the activities could be misinterpreted by some people who are not used to seeing such material.”

Make no mistake about it: people tune into Kink.com to get turned on. Still, in its so-not-PBS way, it also provides a form of public education.

To be sure, it’s not all sunshine and floggers for BDSM practitioners. Discrimination and violence remain harsh realities. In a 2008 survey, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found that 38% of people who self-identify as kinky reported being harassed, discriminated against, or treated violently against their will. In part, says NCSF spokesperson Susan Wright, “This is because the more visible we get, the more backlash we get, too.”

A BDSM community member who blogs under the name Taw Preston fell victim to this discrimination. A Texas resident, he and his wife wanted to adopt two foster children. They were model parents, carefully keeping their sex play behind closed doors. Everything was going smoothly until, reports Preston, a Child Protective Services investigator “who was plainly an evangelical” tried to pull the plug on the adoption. The sole reason: their kinky lifestyle. For a time the children were removed from the Preston home. Two high-priced lawyers later, the kids were out of custody and the adoption went through. The ending isn’t entirely happy, though. Because it was either pay the lawyers or pay the mortgage, Preston is declaring bankruptcy and his family is losing their home.

It’s not only the family values crowd that has a problem with kink. Some feminists do, too. For them it’s like porn gone bad—which makes it doubly despicable, since standard-issue porn is seen as already degrading to women. People of this ideological stripe, reports Ernest Greene, are convinced that “no one could legitimately consent to this sort of activity. They believe submissive women are ‘re-enacting a patriarchal script.’”

Greene, who’s married to the porn star and ‘out’ submissive Nina Hartley, finds this framing laughable. “Nina is an extremely strong and independent personality,” he says. “She is submissive only when we engage in dominant/submissive role-play for sexual purposes. We do this by mutual choice within negotiated limits as an expression of our sexual creativity and a way of realizing our fantasies. It has zero impact on the structure of our relationship outside its erotic context.”

Kinkiness appears to be wired very early and not susceptible to change. “From a very young age, I knew this was my sexual identity,” says Ernest Greene. “Bondage fascinated me.” Similarly for Peter Acworth, who in 2007 told The New York Times that as a child, he “would get an erection while watching a cowboy-and-Indian movie where somebody was getting tied up.”

 
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