There is a local comedian in Sacramento who does a great joke. She starts with the premise that her parents used to spank her. Now, she is into weird sex, so, she wins! [If you get a chance to see Jaclyn Wieland, do it. She is really funny.]
I love the joke. Its well crafted and well delivered. However, it does beg the question, are kinky people born or are they made? This is a complex question. There are many, many types of kinky folks and people discover kink for a myriad of reasons. Ultimately, I don’t think there is one answer.
What Do The Experts Say
BDSM is growing in popularity as a research topics for academics. In fact, there are a number of academic departments in the United States where professors and grad students have produced a number of great papers on the topic. In a brief literature search of academic databases, I have found very little literature on the origins of individual kink.
It is reasonable to think that some people develop into kinksters. The basic psychological concept of reaction-formation could explain a desire for certain types of play. Yes, your parents could have spanked you as a kid for being bad. You had a significant emotional reaction to those interactions. As an adult you might develop a reaction that turns that emotional reaction into something that makes you aroused being spanked as an adult.
There are definitely other ways reaction-formation could impact kink. If you were raised in a very strict religious household and were repeatedly told sex is sinful, you may develop a desire to incorporate religious imagery into your sexuality. Religion and sexuality overlap for enough people there is a whole line of dildos and butt plugs based on religious iconography.
Sublimation, another psychological coping skill, can lead to kink. Sure, some people who engage in self-harm (cutting, burning, etc.) to deal with overwhelming emotions may turn to BDSM to try and sublimate these urges. That is not the case with me. You can read more here on cutting and submission from my perspective. Nevertheless, I can see how some people believe that BDSM is a reasonable alternative to self-harm.
Some people have a high need for extreme experiences. They seek out intense physical experiences to trigger the release of brain chemicals in order to get a psychological high. Some people love bungee jumping, sky diving, and fire walking for these reasons. Others could reasonably seek intense BDSM scenes to trigger the same psychological high. It is well known in the kink community that there are people who chase cathartic scenes. When they play, the prefer intense beatings, or needle play or hook suspensions to get that rush others get from jumping out of a plane for fun.
There is not enough study of people who have pursued BDSM to say for sure that these psychological processes are prevalent in the community. I can point to people I know who I suspect are made kinksters, but I am not a trained psychologist nor have I interviewed a broad enough sample to state that most or even some kinksters are made.
Born That Way
Other kinky folks may just be born that way. I have told the story on a number of occasions that I used to leave Ken in the Barbie Dreamhouse while Barbie would go out on a date with Darth Vader. Its true. I don’t know where I figured that out, but by the age of five, I knew that Sport and Shave Ken was definitely not Barbie’s type.
Even before I discovered kink, I was aware of some of these predilections. When I was in sixth grade, Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant” came out. Listening to it, I had a deep resonance with the lyrics, knew what they were talking about, and it was the only thing that triggered those “funny feelings in my bathing suit area.” I never was interested in the basic sex that was the staple of my friends. That always seems a little dull and never too titillating. For me, the power relationships were what turned me on. Sex did not necessarily have to be a part of the relationship. I was attracted to the structure, authority, and control exhibited in D/s.
I have other friends that remember tying themselves up as kids as a way to get aroused. Some remember liking wrestling or boxing in gym class not for the sport of it but because it caused sexual arousal. So, for some people, I think certain parts of kink are inherent.
For people with inherent attraction to D/s and BDSM, as they develop sexually, they often feel something is missing. I have spoken to many vanilla people who feel unfulfilled by a vanilla sex life. They often have just a single kinky thing they want to incorporate into their play. However, they are with a partner who either does not enjoy their kink or their partner is vanilla and believes that kink is wrong. Their sex life may be great in many ways, but without fulfilling this ingrained need, the person goes largely unfulfilled.
Some people opt to ignore and suppress their kink. For many people, there is shame and disgust tied to their desires. They believe the popular messaging that BDSM is wrong, that it is abusive, that it is dangerous, that it is anti-feminist. They opt to ignore their desires and cater to the larger world. This may work for some. Others, the need is still there and leaves a gap in their relationships.
For people like me who have embraced their kink, the desire for D/s relationships and BDSM can become very core to who we are. Anymore, I do not pursue non-D/s or kink relationships. There is too much missing from those relationships to make me feel happy and fulfilled. Like many submissive masochists, there is something very grounding about participating in a BDSM scene. I have a group of friends and we all acknowledge that without regular BDSM scenes we become untethered and a bit loopy. The physical, psychological and emotional fulfillment from our kink is necessary for a healthy and full life.
As a corollary to all of this, I also think some people are born vanillas. For many people I have spoken with, there is no desire for anything BDSM related. Some people have tried a few things and it either did nothing for them or turned them off. I don’t believe these folks are more or less emotionally healthy or sexual beings than kinksters. I think a lot of what they experience is in their wiring.
Like asking a kinky person to abandon their kink for a “normal” relationship, I think asking a vanilla person to engage in kink is wrong. We are all individuals with unique desires and needs. The trick is finding someone (or someones) who can help meet those needs.
More Research Needed
There is a great need for more research on this topic. Most people struggle with intimate relationships. Addressing sexual needs and desires is a big part of relationship therapy. Helping people understand their needs and their kink (or lack thereof) should be a big part of any relationship therapy.
I also know from personal experience and talking to others that the submissive brain is different than a vanilla brain. Submissives talk about “sub space.” This is a psychological state that some of us experience during certain D/s and kink interactions. It can manifest in a lot of ways, but generally includes an altered state of consciousness. For me, I am much more emotional, agreeable, and more likely to bond. It physically affects me by increasing my pain tolerance and I get a little wobbly on my feet (I have to abandon the 4″ heels in sub space).
I have yet to meet a vanilla person who enters an altered state of consciousness during or after a sexual encounter without drugs and alcohol. Sex without sub space is very different. We know that orgasm releases chemicals which encourage bonding and care. Sub space is something different than this.
Sub space is complicated in that every person enters it and experiences it differently. For some of my friends, it comes through intense physical interactions. For me, there has to be a combination of respect for the other person, a core belief that I am there to serve him (mine is very gender-specific), a certain amount of protocol and position play, and pain.
I would encourage the researchers out there to look at the chemical compositions before and after a BDSM scene to see how these differ from the chemical releases after sex. I think there is a need to conduct fMRI’s of sub brains in and out of sub space. These will not be easy studies to do, but as academic departments develop their sexuality studies departments, I think there is room for a lot of amazing work.