Sex & Relationships

What Makes People Kinky?

Are we born kinky, or does life experience lead us down that path?

Photo Credit: Pepgooner/Shutterstock

If the 125 million copies of 50 Shades of Grey that have been sold haven’t made it obvious, kink is pretty cool. Some readers feel the book helped introduce them to kinky sex, while others feel it gave them the permission they needed to pursue it. While experts remain divided on what exactly leads people down the kinky path, a lot of us are left wondering whether kink is something we’re born with or something we pick up along the way. Perhaps the answer falls somewhere in between.

Clinical sexologist Joe Kort wrote an entire book about why some (straight) men seek out non-normative sexual experiences with other men. Most often, the reason boiled down to early childhood experiences, some traumatic, some less traumatic. But other experts see it as genetic. In his book Modern Sexuality, sex therapist Michael Aaron explores the possibility that an interest in kink roots back to the womb.

That’s not to say we’re all stuck in fixed sexual identities. As Aaron notes, most of human sexuality is fluid, and can change over time. But often, he argues, this has to do with “uncovering” our genuine sexual interests, not changing them as we go. Homosexuality, he reminds us, is largely considered a biologically driven identity. And many in the kink community argue their lifestyle belongs under that same umbrella.

A 2014 study found that men are much more likely have “atypical sexual interests” than women. Aaron suspects this has something to do with the fact that men are exposed to higher levels of fetal testosterone in the womb—a finding some researchers have used to explain why men seem more prone to autism than women. In a related study, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (Sacha's cousin) decided to collect a group of babies and show them a human face and an object, like a toy.

Overwhelmingly, the baby boys were more taken with the inanimate object, suggesting that males come into the world with a greater predisposition toward objects than females. That might help explain why objects are so often employed when exploring specific fetishes. Some examples listed in the book Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond include adult babies who “transform” into the role only when handed a specific teddy bear, ponies who can only “become ponies” when they are strapped into their tack and masters who feel more powerful when wearing a cap or holding a whip.    

Aaron reminds readers of an argument introduced by the psychologist Martin Seligman. He claims almost all men could be considered fetishists, but only those interested in objects beyond boobs and butts get hit with the title. But if all men come into the world potentially armed with a biological predisposition toward kink, how come not all act on it? One answer, Aaron says, revolves around something called epigenetics, a term he uses to describe instances in which “the environment triggers underlying genetic tendencies.”

One example he uses to describe the phenomenon revolves around a boy and a foot. Aaron asks readers to imagine a young boy playing with a young girl in a backyard. They start goofing around and flirting, and the girl ends up seductively rubbing her foot in the boy's face. Years go by, the boy becomes a man, and that man develops a foot fetish. “In this scenario, the environment clearly was a catalyst, but the fetish could never take hold if the boy didn’t have a vulnerability for a visual stimulation toward objects, in this case, the foot,” he writes.

But wait, where are the women in this discussion? Research has shown that while people who engage in BDSM tend to be men, a thriving community of female kinksters exists. And while we haven’t exactly nailed down the science behind their behavior in the same way researchers have for men, some theories suggest much of it comes down to personality.

In Modern Sexuality, Aaron reintroduces us to the five-factor model of personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Twin studies have shown that the first factor, “openness to new experience,” is most likely to be determined by heredity. And guess which of the “big five” are BDSM participants most likely to be assigned? That’s right, openness to new experience.

In the past, professionals have been quick to pathologize BDSM behaviors, tagging practitioners as perverted, traumatized and impaired. A 2008 study, however, found that those engaged in BDSM were no more damaged than their vanilla counterparts. Still, it wasn’t until 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association made a distinction between “paraphilia,” an umbrella term the clinical world uses to categorize atypical interests, and “paraphilic disorders,” a nonconsensual sexual behavior that causes harm and distress. 

That said, this discussion would not be complete without giving a nod to society and its evolving attitudes toward sex. These days, even “alternative” expressions of sexuality are starting to lose their stigmas. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found that out of 55 different sexual fantasies out there, just nine were considered unusual, and only two were dubbed rare. Submission and domination fantasies, it turns out, were pretty common for both men and women. Maybe 50 Shades really has helped mainstream the lifestyle. And maybe, just maybe, we’re headed for the day when coming out as kinky no longer lands you in the minority. 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.