The Kink-Poly Confluence, part 1

While there is very little academic literature that’s been published on the intersection of polyamorous- and kink-identified individuals, there are numerous mentions of people who identify as both kinky and poly in research on one or the other of the two communities. The overlap of kink and poly tend to be acknowledged, accepted, and depathologized in both communities, and consensual nonmonogamy (CNM1) or polyamory are sometimes considered the norm in certain kink subcultures2,3. 

Following is an overview of this common confluence of identifications, and a discussion of approaches in therapy specific to the kink-poly dynamic.  For clarity’s sake, I’ll be referring to “kink-identified individuals” in terms of to those who self-identify as kinky or BDSM-oriented, and engage in BDSM as their main form of erotic and/or sexual expression; those who may or may not identify as kinky, enjoy vanilla sex, but also incorporate BDSM into their erotic and/or sexual interactions; and those who identify as being in a BDSM-oriented relationship that extends the relational power dynamic beyond erotic and sexual interactions into lifestyle4,5,6,7. “Poly-identified individuals” will refer to those who self-identify as polyamorous, and self-define their intimate, romantic, erotic, and/or sexual relationships as being or having the potential to be consensually nonmonogamous with the awareness and agreement of all partners involved6,8,9. 

Also in the interest of clarity, it’s important to note that polyamory falls under the umbrella term of CNM, though polyamorous individuals self-define their relationship structures in a variety of ways, and can closely resemble other styles of CNM such as open relationships or swinging1,10. Kink-identified individuals who are also poly-identified likewise self-determine their relationship structures, though because the emphasis in successful kink-poly relationships is often on transparency and connection, their focus might tend to be on cultivating deeper emotional intimacy, whether those interactions are frequent or infrequent, consistent or inconsistent, and/or short- or long-term7,9.

There are common themes in the academic literature that notes an overlap in the kink and poly communities, including: 1) the central tenets of transparency, negotiation, and communication; 2) a greater openness to sexual and gender diversity and other non-mainstream identifications; and 3) a willingness to challenge social norms2,8,11. The literature emphasizes consent as a defining characteristic of both poly and BDSM lifestyles—it’s what distinguishes BDSM interactions from abuse, and polyamory from infidelity10,12. That’s not to say that abuse never occurs in kinky relationships and that infidelity cannot occur in a polyamorous relationship, but unless action is taken, the persistence of these behaviors indicates the potential disintegration of a functional kinky and/or poly dynamic.

The literature also references common motivational themes in kink-poly-identified individuals. As noted above, communication, transparency, negotiation, and consent are central tenets of both the poly and kink communities; therefore, individuals who practice BDSM tend to have cultivated a set of ethics and skills that dovetail well with the practice of polyamory, and vice versa2. Other avenues for crossover can be described in terms of direction. For example, in the direction of poly expanding into kink, many poly-identified individuals decide to do so because they want to avoid constraining their capacity for love or eroticism9, and this relationship structure provides the ideal context in which to explore erotic or sexual interests that cannot be met within their current relationship2,7,11,13. In the direction of kink expanding into poly, during BDSM scene negotiations, a discussion around shared common interests, hard limits, and logistics might organically, and in some cases necessarily, include how many individuals and who will be involved2. BDSM interactions are designed to challenge conventional sexual norms, therefore the challenging of conventional relationship structure norms, or mono-normativity2, often seems a logical progression8,14.

Research indicates that polyamory is more common in the kink community than BDSM behaviors are in the poly community2,3,13, and is common to the point of being a cultural norm in non-straight subsections of the BDSM community2,3. For example, in leatherdyke and dyke + (i.e., self-identified dykes, queers, and trans individuals) BDSM communities, an individual who identifies as monogamous might have difficulty in finding another monogamous partner2,3. This, combined with an abundance of role models in an environment of depathologization, might strongly influence a historically monogamous individual to entertain polyamory as viable and perhaps necessary2,3.

Another common motivator for the expansion of a monogamous relationship into a kink-poly-oriented relationship relates to the vastness of sexual diversity—individuals may find themselves in an otherwise highly functional partnership that cannot incorporate important aspects of their sexuality, such as in the case of partners who have unshared BDSM interests or conflicting sexual identities or power role orientations2,13. Examples of such relationship configurations might include a kinky and a non-kinky member; two dominant- or submissive-identified individuals; a dominant- or submissive-identified individual and one who is a switch, i.e. fluid in their power role preference5; or a partner who identifies as monosexual (i.e., exclusively hetero- or homosexual), and one who identifies as bisexual, pansexual, or queer7,11. Additionally, a relationship might have a partner who remains monogamous while another partner is nonmonogamous7. For example, because there tends to be more submissive- than dominant-identified individuals in the kink community, a kink-poly-oriented relationship might consist of a nonmonogamous dominant with multiple monogamous submissive partners3,7. Alternately, in the kinky/non-kinky relationship, the non-kinky partner may choose to remain monogamous, while the kinky partner is nonmonogamous, and seeks out other relationships only to satisfy their BDSM desires7.

Some kink-poly-identified individuals prefer hierarchical relationships, whereas some prefer more egalitarian relationships among partners2,4,15. Hierarchies can be expressed in terms of more intimate or emotional connections taking precedence over purely sexual or erotic ones, or in terms of power role orientations3,7. In kink-poly-oriented relationships that incorporate BDSM into lifestyle, the hierarchical prioritizing structure of primary/secondary/tertiary/ancillary partnership structure is common, with prioritization based on a variety of factors, including chronological seniority, legality (i.e., marriage), and/or emotional connection7. Incorporating hierarchy into relationships doesn’t necessarily translate into a devaluation of non-primary partners; the way that kink-poly-oriented relationships are defined is specific to the individuals involved, and might also fluctuate7.

Another overlap in kink and poly communities is the concept of “family” or ongoing group connections. These configurations might be called a poly or leather family, and may include partners who share connections that are emotional, erotic, and/or sexual, as well as include partners who engage solely on an emotional, erotic, or sexual level8,15. Both poly and leather families are “chosen families,” though leather families may or may not consider themselves to be polyamorous, and vice versa. Leather families are more often hierarchical than poly families tend to be, and are based on protocols and traditions originating around the 1950s from “Leather Culture”15.

Converging Kink-Poly Histories

There is evidence in the literature noting the existence of BDSM behaviors long before the adoption of the terms “sadism” and “masochism” by Krafft-Ebing in 1886, though nearly a century passed before BDSM communities began forming in the early 1970s16. Similarly, references to non-monogamy have appeared throughout much of recorded history3 and specific references to polyamory as a descriptive term are said to have begun circulating in the 1920s. Polyamory as a self-identification and community did not come into popular use until around 1990, and was finally entered into the Oxford English dictionary in 20068,12. 

A historical overlap between the BDSM and consensual nonmonogamy communities can be traced to progressive political movements in the 1960s, when activism around these and other unconventional lifestyles and belief systems gained momentum9. Though stereotypical beliefs around the kink and poly communities assume a male-dominant/female-submissive structure, it is much less common in both communities (relative to the general population) to incorporate this type of relationship structure, and both kink and poly communities are more likely to be profeminist14,17. Similarly, egalitarian relationships not only exist in the kink community, but in some cases are intentionally enacted to allow for power play that takes place solely within heavily rule-bound, time-delimited scenes8. McClintock’s19 exploration of the intersection between fetishism and gender power asserts that the parameters of a BDSM scene provide a safe space where any gender can adopt any power role, challenging the constraints of stereotypical gender expression.

An unfortunate historical overlap is the tendency for kink-poly-identified individuals to experience stigma and discrimination2,11,19. Individuals who practice BDSM behaviors and lifestyles have been pathologized since prior to the coining of the term sadomasochism by Freud in 1905. Pathologization and stigmatization continues today, recursively reinforced by socialization, media representation, and clinical and educational inertia. Though polyamory has not been pathologized in the literature to the extent that BDSM has been, academic, political, and popular discourses have historically presented essentialist mononormativity as the only morally correct relationship structure, and considerations for consensual non-monogamy are rare within mainstream psychology and therapy practices10. Those who are out (or outed) about their lifestyles might face consequences such as the loss of employment, housing, and custody of children, as well as rejection by friends and family11.

Born this way, or personal lifestyle choice?

Essentialist theories of identity assert that there are true essences in humans originating internally from or before birth20. Conversely, social constructionists argue that identifications such as gender and sexuality originate externally through the social construction of reality20. Because there is extraordinary diversity and fluidity in sexual expression within society, subcultures, and the individual, it follows that a wide variety of choices can be made in self-defining and expressing one’s kink-poly-orientation. This notion of self-defined identifications could be seen to conflict with the essentialist suggestion that these identifications might instead be inherent19,20. A study exploring BDSM participants’ initial awareness of their BDSM interests found more essentialist than constructionist narratives, and some noting an interactive effect, in that they believed their identification was inherent, but noted the influence of socialization prior to discovering an interest in kink19. The researchers note that these proportions—more essentialist than constructionist, and a smaller combined proportion—is common in research pertaining to atypical sexualities19.

In DeLamater and Hyde’s20 literature review of essentialist and constructionist theories of sexual identity, the authors suggest that the possibility of a combined effect is unlikely. In contrast, Ryan and Jethá’s21 book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality asserts that the truth behind genetically versus socially determined behavior lies somewhere in the confluence of these theories. Dynamical systems account for those who feel that their sexuality is innate and fixed, as well as those who feel their sexuality is more fluid and influenced by interpersonal relationships19. The authors of Sex at Dawn assert that Wilson’s introduction of the theory of evolutionary psychology in 1975 did not make absolute statements about the influence of genetics on psychological phenomena, the controversy that it spurred served to polarize scientific and academic absolutist beliefs21.

Regardless of how an individual’s atypical identification is formed, those with atypical identifications face difficulties that those with typical identifications do not. For example, because kink-poly-identified individuals have the ability to pass and are therefore often assumed by those outside the communities to be non-kinky and mononormative, they may suffer effects associated with having a concealable stigmatized identity due to anticipated stigma (i.e., the fear their sexual interests will be revealed) and cultural stigma (i.e., the risk of social devaluation), which have been found to contribute to increased risk of depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms22,23. Fortunately these symptoms can be mitigated by a strong social support network, which exists for kink-poly-identified individuals in kink and poly communities. Social support can also exist within a kink-poly-oriented relationship, in that when the relationship is successful, it allows for and perhaps forces personal growth by virtue of the high level of communication skills and self-awareness that such relationships require. Therapy can also be helpful when kink-poly-identified individuals experience problems associated with negative external influences, as well as in dealing with relational struggles within the kink-poly dynamic.

Read more: The Kink-Poly Confluence, part 2

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1 Rubin, J. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Conley, T. D. (2014). On the margins: Considering diversity among consensually non-monogamous relationships. Journal für Psychologie, 22(1), 1-23. Retrieved from http://www.journal-fuer-psychologie.de/index.php/jfp/article/view/324/355

2 Bauer, R. (2010). Non-monogamy in queer BDSM communities: Putting the sex back into alternative relationship practices and discourse. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 142-153). London, UK: Routledge.

Deri, J. (2015). Love’s refraction: Jealousy and compersion in queer women’s polyamorous relationships. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

4 Green, R. (2007). Total power exchange in a modern family: A personal perspective. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 292-296). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

5 Moser, C. & Kleinplatz, P. J. (2007). Themes of SM expression. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 35-54). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

6 Ortmann, D. M. & Sprott, R. (2012). Sexual outsiders: Understanding BDSM sexualities and communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

7 Taormino, T. A. (2008). Opening up: A guide to creating and sustaining open relationships. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.

8 Klesse, C. (2011). Notions of love in polyamory—Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium, Russian Review of Social Research, 3(2), 4-25.

9 Sheff, E. & Hammers, C. (2014). The privilege of perversities: Race, class, and education among polyamorists and kinksters. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(3), 198-223. doi:10.1080/19419899.2010.537674

10 Barker, M. & Langdridge, D. (2010). Whatever happened to non-monogamies? Critical reflections on recent research and theory. Sexualities, 13(6), 748-772. doi:10. 1177/1363460710384645

11 Sheff, E. (2013). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

12 Pitagora, D. (2013) Consent vs. coercion: BDSM interactions highlight a fine but immutable line. New School Psychology Bulletin, 10(1), 27-36.

13 Labriola, K. (2010). Love in abundance: A counselor’s advice on open relationships. Eugene, OR: Greenery Press.

14 Barker, M. (2005). On tops, bottoms and ethical sluts: The place of BDSM and polyamory in lesbian and gay psychology. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 6(2), 124-129. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/17267/2/5470E82F.pdf

15 Rinella, J. (2011). Partners in power. Gardena, CA: SCB Distributors. Kindle Edition.

16 Sisson, K. (2007). The cultural formation of S/M: History and analysis. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 10-34). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

17 Kleinplatz, P. J. & Diamond, L. M. (2014). Sexual diversity. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.), APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1, Person-Based Approaches (pp. 245-267). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. xxviii, 804. doi:10.1037/14193-009

18 McClintock, A. (1993). Maid to order: Commercial fetishism and gender power. Social Text, 37, 87-116.

19 Yost, M. R. & Hunter, L. E. (2012). BDSM practitioners’ understandings of their initial attraction to BDSM sexuality: Essentialist and constructionist narratives. Sexualities, 3(3), 244-259. doi:10.1080/19419899.2012.700028

20 DeLamater, J. D. & Hyde, J. S. (1998). Essentialism vs. social constructionism in the study of human sexuality. The Journal of Sex Research, 35(1), 10-18.

21 Ryan, C. & Jethá, C. (2012). Sex at dawn: How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

22 British Psychological Society (2012). Guidelines and literature review for psychologists working therapeutically with sexual and gender minority clients. Retrieved from www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/rep_92.pdf

23 Quinn, D. M. & Chaudoir, S. R. (2009). Living with a concealable stigmatized identity: The impact of anticipated stigma, centrality, salience, and cultural stigma on psychological distress and health. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 97(4), 634-651. doi:10.1037/a0015815

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