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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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Taboo’s Ernest Greene agrees. “Most of the people who are into kink use it as a way to enhance conventional sexual practices,” he says. “It’s not all that different from what other people do. There’s a little bit of bondage, a little bit of spanking, and then fucking.”

Our entertainment culture’s fascination with BDSM isn’t new. Early references tended to be very indirect, though. “Emma Peel’s catsuit in the television show The Avengers, back in the 1960s, is a perfect example of what would now be viewed as fetish garb,” says Carol Queen, staff sexologist and chief cultural officer for Good Vibrations, a chain of sexuality boutiques. Other benchmarks along the way include Sex, Madonna’s 1992 made-to-shock coffee-table book, the 1994 bomb Exit to Eden, in which Rosie O’Donnell garnered a RAZZIE nomination for her role as a dominatrix, and the 2002 BDSM-themed indie movie Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. “Secretary had an impact because sweet Maggie Gyllenhaal was in it,’” says Queen. “Everyone expects James Spader to be kinky.”

There’s a predictable pattern to how movies treat people whose sexual behavior is out of the mainstream. “Gays’ emergence from the closet traced a clear narrative arc,” says Queen. “Early on, gay protagonists pay a price for their sexuality. Something bad happens. They die or lose a loved one. And then, as their behavior becomes more culturally acceptable, they get to have a happy ending.”

In Secretary, submissive Maggie and dominant James get married. In The Wedding Crashers, too, “The kinky girl gets the guy,” notes Queen. Which suggests that in addition to being out of the dungeon, BDSM is out of the ‘you’ll be punished for your sins’ phase, too.

It’s not just Hollywood that’s seeing kink differently. So are professional psychologists. “Things are in a positive transition here,” says Neil Cannon. “Most sex therapists don’t pathologize BDSM behavior unless it’s having a negative impact on the patient.”

There are still some judgmental apples in the barrel, though. “A great deal depends on the therapist’s professional and religious training,” continues Cannon. “I was at a cocktail party recently and a psychologist said to me, ‘All kinky people are sick.’ When I asked how she came to that conclusion, she said, ‘I just know.’ I’ve had clients come to me because they’d been seeing a therapist who told them they were sick.”

The shifting take on BSDM will be reflected in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatric community’s diagnostic bible. DSM-IV, which was published in 1992, defined kinky behavior as a “paraphilia,” a fancy word for any path to sexual arousal that’s not standard foreplay. The language of DSM-IV “is unclear and sometimes contradictory about whether a paraphilia is a disorder,” says Susan Wright, spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an advocacy group for the BDSM, swing and polyamory communities. Although the language hasn’t been finalized, it’s looking as if DSM-V, which will be published in 2013, will make it clear that a person can be kinky without having a disorder.

BDSM is making the transition from creepy to okay for lots of reasons, starting with all the kinky people who are out there. The statistical studies are all over the place, according to Wright, ranging from a relatively modest 5% of the population to a whopping (or is it whipping?) 50%. It’s totally understandable if this range inspires skepticism, and in fact, research in this area is fraught with difficulties. It’s hard to get funding for this sort of study, and it’s also the case that people resist telling the truth about their bedroom behavior. There are definitional issues, too. If you ever smacked your partner on the behind (and liked it), does that make you kinky? But even if we practice safe statistics and go with the most conservative estimate, that’s still 5% of the populace—a sizable number by any measure. “On any given day,” says Taboo magazine’s Ernest Greene, “one million people are looking at or engaging in kink.”

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