Fringe Benefits

This is the final post in my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

A joke: What do you do with knotted hose? You let the kinks out.

I. In the Closet

I came out publicly about ten years ago; probably four or five (or six?) years before that, I wrestled with coming out to myself. I’ve spent nearly half my life figuring things out–what makes me tick, how I relate to myself, to God, to others… and I still don’t have all the answers. Even if I did, as the world changes, as I change, as the ways I relate with God and others change, then those answers would also change.

A rabbi, very close to me, said it best: We are constantly in a state of becoming.

The belief in only one closet can also be misleading: Coming out isn’t a singular event celebrated with pomp and circumstance. Coming out is a never-ending series of interpersonal and public disclosures, some of which make the paper’s front page, many of which end up somewhere lost on page two. Nobody ever reads page two.

Coming out is an action, but being out is a state of mind: a willingness to disclose personal details at the risk of potential rejection or even violence. And although I’ve been out for a long time, the number of times I’ve had to come out continues to grow.

I came out to family. I came out to friends. I came out to my students…and then my students again when I taught a new class. I came out to coworkers. I came out again and again. I came out as gay. But that isn’t the only closet; it’s just the only one with windows.

II. Standard Deviation

Being gay, for me, felt like this: an opportunity to inspect and even reject the norms society had imposed upon me. If the messages I’d been told about what love looks like and how men or women should behave were misinformed and biased, why should I blindly trust what society says other things should look like or be like?

Politically, this has made me a radical centrist–on the one hand, I question everything and try to learn all the facts about an issue, so I tend toward middle-of-the-road perspectives. And yet because I don’t hold convention in high regard, I tend to favor robust and liberal policy goals above more nuanced, momentary fixes.

Sexually, this has made me deviant.

The connotation of the word deviant is negative, but the denotation is far more bland: departing from the usual or accepted standards. If the accepted standards are heteronormative, then by virtue of being gay, I am by definition deviant.

But the if and who of sex aren’t the only facets of our sexuality, and they’re surely not the only facets with a set of standards decided to be acceptable by the societies and cultures we live within, often without any real scientific support for why those standards are best.

Being a mathematician, being an educator, I am a creature of quantifiable data, creative analysis, and innovative engineering: I seek first to understand, then I dissect, and then I reassemble what I broke apart with a more efficient and elegant design. I take only what’s necessary and sufficient; the rest is left to shrivel and die.

Restricting love by virtue of physical sex and gender identity is too narrow and ignores the experiences of too many people–myself among them–so I did away with that convention and accepted a new paradigm: Love is love.

Restricting sex because it should be sacred and selective ignores the reality that sex can be enjoyed purely for pleasure with proper consent: Sex is sex (and sex is coffee).

Those ideas deal nicely with the if and who of sex–but what about the how?

What about the how many?

This is where the flow of water gets knotted up, and what do we do with knotted hose?

We let the kinks out.

Kink, fetish, non-monogamy–these are the fringes of the queer community. None of these things are specifically queer, though: Straight people enjoy all the same kinks, fetishes, and non-monogamous activities as queer people, and not all queer people engage with any of these. And yet, it seems (quantitative proof withstanding) that these practices are more common–or at least more commonly talked about–in the queer community.

A few weeks back, a few of the other teachers and I grabbed a couple drinks between the end of the school day and the graduation ceremony that evening. We ended up talking about sex (honestly, I have no idea how the conversation got there), and a coworker asked, “Why are gay guys so promiscuous? Is it just because guys are hornier?”

Yes would be an easy answer, but it’s also wrong: studies suggest that men and women think about sex equally, but society says it’s more acceptable for men than women to talk about it. Further, the mere act of men having sex with other men is what makes homosexuality so threatening to traditional constructs of gender and sex–so there is, to an extent, societal pressure for gay guys to not have sex. And yet, it happens. Why?

For me, at least, and I suspect probably others as well, the fact that I already exist outside the norms and conventions of what relationships “should” look like makes it easier to question and explore the further reaches of what goes beyond norms and conventions.

The question arises, however, since kink and fetish and non-monogamy are not strictly “queer,” how much do they belong in Pride celebrations and queer spaces?

The answer, of course, lies in the math of it: Behold the sexiest Venn diagram ever!

Venn diagram showing equal overlap of three circles labeled "LGBTQIA+," "Kink and Fetish," and "Ethical Non-Monogamy"

The closer you get to the center, the more open you become.

(And as before, I’m a radical centrist.)

The area of overlap between these three spheres is significant because someone’s placement among them determines where they belong in a Pride celebration: Any space that intersects the LGBTQIA+ sphere has a rightful place in Pride celebrations.

Any space outside the LGBTQIA+ sphere may earn a place in Pride celebrations, but it’s a privilege for these people, not a right: There are kinky people and non-monogamous people who are heterosexist and cissexist and they do not deserve a place at the party. This isn’t to say they aren’t welcome; it’s simply that their pride is not what we want to celebrate–it’s exclusionary and harmful to those in the LGBTQIA+ community.

It’s as simple as that, really.

…yet it seems like much ado about nothing, doesn’t it? So why bother talk about it?

I said before that being gay felt like a closet with windows: I could see the world outside me, and though more scarce at the time than presently, I saw role models and allies who were supportive even as I was still wrestling with myself trying to accept my identity. That openness, limited as it may have been at the turn of the century, played a crucial part in my development as an individual and my ability to muster the courage to come out. If not for that visibility, I may have stayed in the closet forever.

And if we learned anything from Harry Potter, no one deserves to live in a closet.

So what exactly are these other closets?

I think of them as the fringes of the queer community, our standard deviations, the edges of this tapestry we all weave together by our very existence, and for me they fall into two broad categories, answering the sex questions how and how many.

III. Multiplicity

Most likely, we have all been raised to believe that love should be withheld for a single person and sex should be confined to a monogamous relationship. Infidelity and cheating result when that vow of trust is broken–the trust that two people will forever be emotionally and sexually exclusive with each other.

Ethical non-monogamy (which I refer to more succinctly as non-monogamy, ethical behavior being implied in every interaction, sexual or not) is founded upon the belief that love and sex do not need to be confined to a single, two-person partnership.

Pretty wild, am I right?

Non-monogamy takes many forms: There are swingers, couples who party together and “swap spouses” for a night of fun and frolic. There are people who like threesomes, and foursomes, and by mathematical induction, entire orgies. Some non-monogamous people share sex with others, but remain emotionally exclusive. Some non-monogamous people are asexual and simply have multiple romantic partners. There are non-monogamous relationships in which all partners are in a relationship with each other, such as a triad, and these can be either open (non-exclusive) or closed (exclusive); and there are non-monogamous relationships in which one person may have multiple partners that are not in relationships with each other–think of how a hydrogen atom bonds with two oxygen atoms but the oxygen atoms don’t bond with each other (that analogy can make anybody wet, if you know what I mean). Some non-monogamous relationships are hierarchical, with primary and secondary (and so on) partners, while others are not and everyone in the relationship stands on a level field with the others. And there are probably many more variations than I’m aware of or wouldn’t want to take the time to enumerate.

When I discuss my own experiences in non-monogamous relationships, nine times out ten the first response I get is, “But don’t you get jealous?” or “How can you trust them?”

And then they reveal their true motives: “I would get jealous; I couldn’t trust them.”

We are cultured to believe trust in a relationship means monogamous exclusivity, and it follows naturally that non-monogamy implies no trust, but the reality is it’s simply different parameters regarding what one partner trusts the other(s) to do or not to do. For example, a primary pair might agree that they only play with others together, not separately; or they might agree on the condition that they only have unprotected sex with each other and use appropriate protections if anyone else is involved; or they might… well, the conditions will vary infinitely from one relationship to another, and these conditions are hardly ever unchanging (at least, they shouldn’t be).

What makes non-monogamous relationships “work” is effective communication: Partners must communicate their needs and desires with each other and agree on what parameters they’ll follow, and that agreement must be reviewed regularly to ensure that all persons are getting from the relationship what they need from it. This is also true for monogamous couples, of course, but it tends to happen regularly in a smaller percentage of monogamous couples than it does in non-monogamous relationships.

For example, in one of my monogamous relationships, if I had found myself physically attracted to someone other than my partner, I would have felt shameful (because I was doing something wrong) and my partner would have felt jealous and hurt–especially if I had acted upon that attraction. Furthermore, because monogamy was assumed and that implies perfect exclusivity, trying to talk about these feelings–simply acknowledging that I had found someone else attractive–would have been the same as actually cheating.

In my non-monogamous relationships, however, this did happen, and I was able to talk about it with my partner without feeling shame and without his feeling jealous (and because we’re both gay men, we could even share in the attraction). Furthermore, if (or when) I engaged physically with the other man, I would likely share the story with my partner, not only vicariously giving him the experience, but also providing a vehicle to talk about things I like sexually that could further enhance our relationship. Rather than being a source of shame or jealousy, being able to openly talk about these feelings not only respects both of us, but may in fact also become something we celebrate together.

That celebration of another’s happiness, experiencing joy by witnessing the joy of others, is technically called compersion, but many people in the world of non-monogamy call it frubble instead–a much more pleasant and happy-feeling word. Frubble, then, is the opposite of jealousy–which refers to a feeling of discontent or resentful longing because of someone else’s belongings (or, more generally, their happiness). Jealousy can also refer to the fierce protectiveness of one’s own possessions that a person demonstrates when these possessions are threatened. (And in the context of a relationship, that means one partner is implicitly treating the other as an object that can be possessed–fully owned by one person without its own individual agency. Yikes.)

The foundation of jealousy is scarcity, that if someone else receives something I need–such as the love, care, and attention of a romantic or sexual partner–then I will be denied that sustenance. However, scarcity is an illusion, not just economically, but also emotionally: love is boundless and infinite, and while time constraints may play a factor in how frequently that love can be shown to a partner, that love itself isn’t necessarily withheld from one partner when it’s being shared with another. And if one partner feels it is, then they should have a conversation to address and resolve those feelings.

All of this doesn’t mean a non-monogamous relationship is one without bounds. Quite the opposite actually, except these bounds are discussed and agreed upon when the relationship begins and revised as time requires it. Infidelity and cheating can still occur; however, what constitutes infidelity might look different in a non-monogamous context.

In the end, though, it’s important to recognize that having more partners doesn’t mean there will magically be more cheating–and because non-monogamous relationships are built upon open discussions about what’s expected within the relationship, cheating seems to happen far less often than in monogamous relationships. Some people even argue that monogamy itself encourages infidelity–but that’s a talk for someone else.

IV. Dynamics

Let’s start with an honest observation: Until I was well into my teens, I thought the only way to have sex was missionary–and why is it even called that? Missionaries are sent abroad to proselytize and convert others, so what sort of violent control are we layering upon sex if the way we do it is called “missionary”?

That’s besides the point: Missionary is what people in the kink and fetish world might call vanilla. It’s basic: at times precisely what you’re craving, and at other times bland.

So let’s taste the chocolate.

Kink and fetish are related, with one crucial distinction: kinks are optional, while fetishes are not. If you have a foot fetish (how did foot fetishes become the poster child for fetishes in the first place?), it’s impossible for you to feel sexual pleasure, even sexual arousal, without being stimulated by feet–touching them, smelling them, tasting them. Anything about feet. Without feet, there is no fun and no satisfaction.

If feet enhance the experience or provide a different yet equally pleasurable experience, then it isn’t a foot fetish–it’s just kinky. I suppose kinks could eventually turn into fetishes, and vice versa, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to call them all kinks.

And, man oh man, do kinks come in all shapes and sizes! First are the kinks about “non-sexual” objects–such as non-sexual body parts (feet, hands, etc.), materials like leather or lace or latex, or even foods like cucumbers and bananas (nope, nope, cucumbers and bananas are definitely sexual). Any “non-sexual” thing can inspire its own world of kink.

There’s also a broad subset of kink called BDSM–bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism–and, no, Christian Grey and all his fifty shades is not an accurate representation of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM. In fact, most kinksters I know who have read the book say it’s a prime example of what not to do to be kinky.

Bondage is what it sounds like: being bound. It might simply mean a partner holding you down, or it might mean handcuffs or neckties turned into blindfolds, and hell, for the talented, maybe you’re tied up in ropes and suspended from the rafters. Or perhaps you’re the one tying up someone else? It’s all a matter of preference.

Domination comes in many forms and may be roleplay contained in a single scene or it may be persistent roles that do not stop when the sexual activities end. Domination can be reduced to playing with power dynamics: the level to which the submissive concedes power to the Dominant varies in extent and type. Some common Dom/sub tropes include Daddy/son or Handler/pup or Master/slave or…really, well, the list could be endless. Note that the Dominants’ titles are often capitalized while the submissives’ titles are not; the surrender of power is represented grammatically, too. (I know, I’m such a nerd.)

Regardless of the nature of the power exchange, the conditions are always negotiated ahead of time, and for more long-term relationships, entire contracts are drawn up–not only outlining the roles each partner will play, but also when and how the conditions of the relationship can be revisited, revised, or annulled.

Sadism and masochism fall into a broad category you might call pain play: Sadists like inflicting pain, and masochists like feeling it. Pain and pleasure are, after all, closely related, and some kinky people like to dance upon the fine line between them.

At the heart of all these things is consent–kinky play without consent can very quickly cross the line into intimate partner violence and abuse. So kinksters must be able to talk about their interests and have safe ways to make connections with others who have similar interests. This is just one reason why kink visibility matters–because if Grey is all you know of kink, you’re more likely to find yourself in a dangerous situation than a safe and pleasurable scene. Just like we need gay role models, we need kinky ones too.

You might be reading this and thinking, why? Why would anyone want to yield their personal power and agency to another person–why would anyone want to be somebody else’s slave? And why would anyone willingly consent to being physically harmed? Are these people just basket cases with undiagnosed mental disorders?

Fun fact: People who participate in kinky activities are generally more mentally healthy than their non-kinky peers. I haven’t read much of the academic research for myself, but the reliance upon communication (which entails better understanding yourself as well as your partner) and the fact that kinky people likely don’t feel ashamed to explore these more deviant aspects of their sexuality are likely the biggest factors contributing to this sense of emotional and psychological wellbeing.

As for why people are interested in it, well, why are we interested in anything? Sometimes I like to be submissive; it’s comforting to let someone else take care of me and eases my anxiety when I know I’m not the one who has to be in control. Sometimes I like getting flogged; each strike is like the concussive bursts of live concert music shaking me to my core, terrifying yet elevating, the endorphin release purely euphoric.

But that’s just me. Others have their own motivations.

V. Kink in the Community

For me, when I think of the kink and non-monogamy communities I’ve been part of, they’ve all existed almost solely within the LGBTQIA+ sphere–subsets of subsets, if you will–so seeing kink and non-monogamy celebrated during Pride feels natural to me.

However, I also have friends who’ve had painful experiences with kink and non-monogamy communities that weren’t queer, and these groups have room to grow.

Regardless of whether or not every kink or non-monogamy group should or should not be represented in Pride parades and other events, the fact remains that saying “I’m kinky” or “I’m not monogamous” feels like coming out of the closet again every time I have to say it–to my straight friends in casual conversation, sure, but also other gay guys I talk to on dating apps. People shouldn’t feel shamed into hiding any part of their identity–whether it’s who they love, how they love, or even how many they love.

Pride is about affirming our own worth, and I am worthy of love and respect and dignity whether I sleep with one person or a hundred, whether I’m vanilla or kinky as fuck.

The fringes are the first to fray, and if we don’t take care of the fringes, the whole tapestry may fall apart. It’s our responsibility to accept everyone–no matter their kinks or the sizes of their relationships. The unity of the queer community, I feel, depends on embracing each other wholeheartedly. Sure, not every queer space needs to be kinky, but we also can’t exclude queer people from queer spaces because they’re kinky.

After all, whether or not kink is queer, we’re here, and that matters.

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