The argument that kink is queer — made most recently by Huffington Post Queer Voices after tweeting about adult babies, most notoriously by spanking fetishist Jillian Keenan in Slate, and sporadically across the internet — hinges on a few key ideas: Queer people are an identity-based sexual minority with sex and relationships and lives that are not normative. Kinky people are an identity-based sexual minority with sex and relationships and lives that are not normative. We are all sex outlaws together. We can all fight together for equality. Therefore, kink is inherently queer.
Except that it isn’t.
Sex acts alone aren’t what make someone queer. Many queer people know they’re queer long before ever having sex with someone of the same gender. That doesn’t make them less queer. Many other queer people might never have sex with someone of the same gender, whether because they’re also asexual, because they’re non-monosexual but in a monogamous relationship with someone of a different gender, or for other reasons. That doesn’t make them less queer. And many straight people — “actually” straight, not “haha give it a few years and some queer theory and we’ll see” straight — have had sex with people of the same gender. That doesn’t make them less straight.
Kinky acts alone aren’t necessarily what make someone kinky, either, though they can be. Kink can be a practice, an identity, or some of both. Both are valid. Both are irrelevant. What is relevant is that looking to sex or play to make statements about sexual identity is a bad place to start.
“The beauty of the word ‘queer’ is in its rejection of binaries and boxes, but so is its danger.”
Instead of the act of queer sex, what makes someone queer is an identity that includes the possibility of sexual and/or romantic relationships with someone of a gender that could be but isn’t necessarily limited to the same as yours, and/or a gender identity that does not align with your sex assigned at birth. It’s a departure. It’s not that you’re gay and/or trans, precisely; it’s that you’re not straight and/or cis. The beauty of the word “queer” is in its rejection of traditional binaries and boxes, but so is its danger. Stay with me.
Because of that departure, queer people (and relationships, and sex, and lives) are non-normative. They can obviously contain normative elements — like marriage, like monogamy, like obedience to capitalism, like arguing in Ikea — that can make it easier to fit into existing social structures and access the privileges and comfort they can provide. But compatibility with some structures isn’t the same as congruency with all of them.
As a result of that incongruence, queer people inherently face social, cultural, legal and political challenges that straight cis people just don’t. Teen suicides, the genocide of trans women of color, hate crimes, familial homophobia and transphobia, job and housing discrimination, an increasingly hostile legal landscape and so much more are unavoidably part of life. We are not equal legally, and we are not equal culturally, and that inequality is borne out across queer bodies and communities, some far far more than others.
Straight cis kinky people (and relationships, and sex, and lives) do not make that departure. They’re normative. They can obviously contain non-normative elements — like power play, like dungeon nights, like who only gets to take a sip of water with whose permission — that can make it harder to fit into existing social structures and access the privileges and comfort they can provide. But the binaries stay intact.
Straight cis kinky people, too, can face social, cultural, legal and political challenges. But there is not the same onslaught. Other factors being equal, straight cis kinky people are equal legally to straight cis people. Queer people are not equal legally to straight cis people. Having a few intersecting oppressions doesn’t make you part of the same group.
Queerness is hard to hide. You can hide the type of person you’re in a relationship with to some extent, but it’s much harder to hide their gender. It’s a lot easier to dance over the fact that you’re dating a dom than it is to dance over the fact that you’re dating a woman. And one of those things stands out more than the other. But you can hide your kinks. And, in public spaces, with non-participants present, you should. Kink involves consent. Everything from a years-long power dynamic to some light morning spanking requires consent and negotiation between everyone involved. To visibly bring those dynamics into public spaces is to involve other people in play without their consent. It crosses real boundaries, including those of other kinky people, in a way that two women holding hands could never.
But at the core, this is really an argument about language. “Queer” has a long etymology and history. It’s important to remember that part of that history is straight cis people using it as a homophobic slur. But the way it usually works now, the beauty of “queer” is that it isn’t necessarily about anything. As David M. Halperin argues, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.” So why not have it refer to (straight cis) kinky people, too?
What this conversation comes down to is not “queer is an identity and kink is also an identity” or “queer is used in opposition to the ‘normal’ and kink is also ‘not normal’” or oppression olympics or even “why can’t we all just be sex outlaws together.” What this comes down to isn’t even the word “queer” itself; it’s what happens when it’s used.
“Queer” already nods to false unity and erases differences of gender and race and class and ability and orientation. It masks inherent imbalances of privilege. It’s easily co-opted. It’s easily, in Halperin’s language, de-gay-ified. And when it’s used to refer to straight cis people, whatever their additional sexual identities or practices, and when straight cis people want to make it theirs, that’s what’s happening. The imbalances become greater. The gay becomes smaller. The unique challenges that queer people face are erased.
“Straight cis kinky people do not have the right to call themselves queer. They already have a word: ‘kinky.'”
“Queer” is a sign of resistance. Claiming it, with its specific history (of hate crimes), is a means of resistance, from people whose identities somewhere transgress the sex and gender binaries, against the context and culture and people who created them.
Straight cis kinky people do not have the right to call themselves queer. They already have a word: “kinky.” Kinky people can be queer or not, and queer people can be kinky or not, but that doesn’t mean all kinky people are queer.
We need better ways to talk about identity, sexuality, sex and power. More nuanced ways. Discussions of kink identity and practices and problems aren’t valid based on whether or not they count as queer; they’re valid because they’re part of how people live their lives. Setting up a dichotomy with cis white middle-class able-bodied monogamous thin heterosexuals having vanilla penis-in-vagina sex on one hand, and everyone else on the other, intentionally or not others the everyone else, removes nuance from the conversation and wilfully dodges inquiries into systems of power.
And here’s the other thing about power. Kink is a way to intentionally engage with systems of power. As a kinky person, you can opt in, you can opt out, you can play, you can exchange, you can give, you can take, you can end it at any time. Power is everywhere, whether or not you’re practicing power play. It is yours to leave or to take. But as a queer person, you can’t opt into or out of those systems of power. You can’t end them at any time. There’s no safeword for your parents kicking you out before you’ve finished high school. For your new grandma-in-law getting homophobic and transphobic at your wedding reception. For your government telling you whether or not your partnership can have legal protection, telling you it can, and then taking it away. Whether or not you engage with kink as an identity or as a practice, being kinky means you get to manipulate and objectify systems of power. Being queer means you are subject to them.
Kink and queerness can overlap. But kink is not queer.