The psychology of kink

I want to know how much they know, if anything, in the psychological sciences, about why some people–even otherwise normal and compassionate people–are turned on sexually by fantasies of torture. Are there any common causes to be found in at least a wide variety of if not all such cases?

I’ve heard that nearly every fetish is a variation of wanting to be in or out of control.

This sort of folk psychology stuff is almost always wrong, or nothing more than a misstatement of a theory that’s untestable, like a lot of Freudian analysis stuff.

There is literally a ton of literature in this area, with lots of conclusions. You aren’t going to get a truthful, simple answer why, because there isn’t one. Determining why a person has a preference is nearly impossible unless the person self-reports, and even then they might be mistaken or untruthful. For example, maybe you got a boner while watching Thundercats when you were a kid, then ten years later you see some furry art and it strikes a chord. You might not even know why. This is a simplistic example, but we’re still in the dark as to what sets people’s preferences, especially since it’s not a conscious process (Hrm, I think I’m going to develop a shoe fetish!).

People’s sexual preferences are formed by lots of different experiences and environmental factors. The only really certain thing is that people don’t choose their preferences, and that preferences can be formed without the holder knowing they have them. There were some 80’s studies that measured arousal in hetero males watching various fetish porn, and some of the participants who claimed a preference didn’t display more arousal, while some who claimed no specific preferences showed a strong reaction to certain fetishistic imagery. I don’t remember the authors, but ISTR it was a Stanford experiment.

As far as BDSM and such goes, from a physiological standpoint, arousal due to fear, violence, and sexuality are very similar. It’s probably easy to get the wires crossed during development. Many women report rape fantasies, which might be caused by the same thing. On the other hand, maybe someone just likes the outfits or they might just enjoy changing the power balance, or whatever. It’s really just difficult to tell.

I’ve read of a couple of general factors about porn that may have some bearing on this, although they aren’t specifically about BDSM porn.

One is that porn concentrates on going a step beyond what the acceptance level is in the mainstream culture. The underground culture of adult pictures in the 1950s seldom went too far beyond pictures of undressed, or simply topless women. As Playboy and others made those mainstream, the sellers found new areas that were taboo. Full nudity, pubic hair, pinkness, parted legs, lesbian kisses, an erect penis without touching, and finally pictures of actual sex, a level achieved in Penthouse before it went under. That was the order in which they appeared, in a logical progression.

Stag movies had sex in them from the earliest days and it’s hard to find as neat a pattern, but when movies started being shown in public theaters rather than at smokers and clubhouses, a similar progression started. Nudie films with no touching, oral sex, couple’s sex, lesbian sex, anal sex, group sex. Some fetishes could be found, especially in Europe, but were almost entirely kept out of the big American porn distributors. There was even a backlash period in the post aids days in which the films copied onto videotape would have scenes of pissing, bondage, and other fetishes removed, often just hacked out.

That cultural reaction is critical. If porn is what your girlfriend won’t do for you then porn has to change as those actions become accepted, even normal. Hippie chicks supposedly totally lacked the inhibitions about blow jobs that were legendary in the 1950s. (There a joke that’s been applied to many ethnic groups in which a bride tells her bridesmaid that this is the happiest day of her life because she’ll never have to suck his cock ever again.) Hippie girls would and did. They did wife swapping and group sex and outdoor sex and brought those into regular marriages. What was taboo still? Anal sex, doubly especially after AIDS. Anal sex was an occasional add-on that became ubiquitous in porn as soon as it became unavailable in mainstream.

The other factor is that boredom sets in. Most porn is pretty bad. Bad lighting, bad camerawork, bad makeup, bad actors, bad settings, bad everything. If fantasies drive eroticness having a camera pointed at the wrong body part can kill the mood. One cure could be better produced porn, which may be hard to find. Another direction that seemed to have been taken is that consumers looked for nastier, freakier stuff that was therefore more powerful and so less boring. Most of this stuff comes from the Internet although the DVD crowd makes bunches of it as well.

So what about torture? Well, BDSM is another fetish that is considered a legitimate lifestyle choice. Its advocates proclaim that between two consenting adults it’s no more to be sneered at than any other more accepted fetishes. The reality of BDSM porn is questionable as well. In some the acts are transparently phony. Whips are made of string and barely touch the bodies. That seems as if it’s being driven out of the market by the real thing, if real thing is defined by crews standing around to make sure nobody goes too far and the “model” has to appear at the end announcing how much fun she had. is the market leader. There have been isolated accusations that they do sometimes go too far but they get many girls to work for them over and over and are developing their own set of stars.

Europe has a much harder culture of whipping movies, stemming partly from the English vice, i.e. flagellation, and partly from the nastiness of the secret police in Eastern Europe, turning it into power games rather than lust and domination. A fascinating book on the subject is Dances with Werewolves by Niki Flynn, someone who goes as far as you can into that culture both in real life and as an actress, although she never has sex on camera with a man. She has her limits.

You won’t find very much in there about slavering degenerates. The people in the industry become friends and lovers. The customers, especially the ones who email her, are occasionally a bit creepy but are mostly fans in the same way that Lost fans are fans and seem to be entirely normal for porn lovers. You can see a lot of that in the comments for a novel she wrote under the name of Fiona Locke, Over the Knee.

The community appears insistent in not being demonized more than other fetish enthusiasts are. They insist on safe words, on knowledge of how to yield a whip properly and safely, on not causing any lasting damage. In other words, they are not torturers but purveyors of controlled pain to people who seek it. The worlds described are male and female, gay and straight, which is oddly less power-based than other subcultures.

And no, I am not part of it. I just read absolutely everything, especially if there’s a book and publishing and popular cultural connection. There was a flourishing market in the subgenre for a while that seems to have gotten killed by the internet. I don’t know where the Internet culture will evolve.

Part of it may be simple boredom. People get tired of the straight “missionary position” and try to liven it up a little. Also, pain produces endorphins, so pleasure may be enhanced. One of my very straight girlfriends likes to have me pinch and bite her nipples and she really gets off on it, but I wouldn’t describe her as kinky. I am sure if I brought out a riding crop she would look at me like I was crazy.

/saves the riding crop for the kinky GF :smiley:

Depends on what realm of psychology you come from.
Psychodynamic views tend to be more Freudian in nature.

However, a behavioralist view point can simplify it to easier methods.
Give a believer an of conditioning enough time with a normal person and he should easily be able to induce a few kinks into the system especially with something as interesting as sex.

Let’s not pretend the viewpoints are in any way equivalent. The ‘‘pscyhodynamic viewpoint’’ has about as much scientific credibility as the ‘‘astrological’’ viewpoint.

Behavioralism, on the other hand, is supported by decades of experimental controlled studies.

I think this is a bit harsh. If you read any erotic writing, you’ll notice that the kinkier stuff almost always spends a lot of time and detail describing who is in and out of control and what level of control they have. From my own personal experience, levels of control are involved in all the stuff I get off on, and most of my partners have had fantasies that are ultimately about control/lack of control.

The whole “desensitization” thing doesn’t answer why kink tends to go in such particular directions. I mean, if it was just a matter of wanting to escalate thing, why wouldn’t it escalate into more candlelight and roses as often as more ball gags and riding crops?

Because your real world partner would readily agree to more roses. It takes fantasy to get them to go for riding crops.

You seem to be defining kinkier as BDSM-type stuff. Power games are certainly a large part of many people’s likes and dislikes (and I suspect there is a bit of self-selection in your reading habits). But here’s the thing. Let’s say your kink is popping balloons, or you like furries, or you’re into feet or spandex or whatever. It’s certainly possible to ascribe some sort of power balance dynamic to each of those, but it’s not required, and it is unprovable as well. The claim that every sexual preference is about power goes even further into the unprovable – it’s just made up. Of course, you can claim that every social interaction, period, is about power. That might be true. But ascribing that as the sole or even primary factor in every interaction doesn’t have much explanatory power and oversimplifies the issue.

I think there is some of that in the “bodice ripper” genre.

What a great post -thanks, Exapno Mapcase.

If I read Dances with Werewolves on the plane, will the person beside me leave me alone?

I just read the reviews; they look fascinating.

The origin of fetish is an intriguing question, and I wish we had more answers. Niki Flynn states she’s had these feelings ‘‘since she was a teen.’’ For me it just seemed endemic to my personality, always. I remember as a kid, 5 or 6 years old, having my ken doll tie up my barbie doll. It’s weird, but that seemed the natural order of things to me, in no way did I view it as abnormal.

Maybe because on TV I saw all these ‘‘women in peril’’ stories and got my hands on some age-inappropriate books (like VC Andrews) that I just let the particular media I was exposed to influence my idea of normal sexuality without thinking about it. Yet – did I develop the kink because I read so many of these books, or did I read so many of these books because I had the kink? I remember reading the vanilla stuff and finding it painfully boring. Still do.

So maybe I was born kinky.

Either way, being an adult, I am more fully aware of cultural attitudes and expectations about women as submissive. I’m conscious of the horrible reality of rape. I think of gender roles as largely socially constructed. And yet, with as much knowledge and relative maturity as I have obtained, I am still hopelessly turned on by bondage and submission. It seems no matter how much I change philosophically or ideologically, I still have this basic desire.

Although considering up to 57% of women may have rape fantasies, maybe it’s not really a kink.

Well how do you do! :wink:

My first (male/male) sexual fantasy was at the age of 5, and was definitely a dominant/submission scenario. But even years later, after I became sexually active, I resisted acting on these fantasies for a long, long time . . . unable to completely separate the fantasies from reality. Now I have a partner with whom I have total freedom to act out any fantasy I may have, and it’s so liberating! I can do things with him that I’d never dream of doing “in the real world,” things that would be considered sociopathic . . . yet with my partner’s total permission and trust (and he enjoys it too), there’s no problem whatsoever.

The line that needs to be drawn involves issues like permission, responsibility, safety and mutual trust. These are not considerations in “real-life” situations like rape.

This is a strange thing to say. Unless your “partner” is also your “imaginary friend,” then you are doing things in the real world.

Oh, don’t do that.

It’s nasty to do that.

Then, you do it. Well, shoot, it wasn’t that nasty. In fact, it felt kind of good.

So, next time you are told, Oh, don’t do that, the seed is already planted. Hmmmmm.


Yes, but “raping” my partner is a far cry from committing an actual rape, in the usual sense of the term. It can be the same physical action, but it’s not at all the same thing.

Honestly, sometimes I think there might be a direct relationship between those kinds of awareness and kink fantasies, rather than an inverse one as a lot of people tend to assume. I really think that for a lot of people, their feelings about certain things thought of as fantasies are completely different, even opposite, to their feelings about them as realities.

The most obvious sign of phoniness I’ve seen is when the spankee/bottom/sub’s cries of pain are all out of proportion to the force of the spank or whip stroke. I mean, come on, a light hand smack to the bottom should not result in an ear-piercing, blood-curdling scream. It also becomes apparent in that kind of BDSM/spanking porn that the models/actors are just that: models/actors. They’re not honest-to-goodness “kinky”; rather, they’re usually run-of-the-mill B- or C-list porn performers simply performing a different kind of scene. I get the impression that a lot of them were probably never spanked for real in their lives, and so have no real idea of what an appropriate reaction would be. OTOH, I came across one site that was remarkably convincing, and all of the participants seemed to be truly into “the scene”, and the responses to the whippings and such were realistic … except that after a while I started to suspect that the implements being used were somehow dummied up. Specifically, they seemed to be made out of some kind of light rubber that looks and moves like leather and makes a satisfying sound on impact, without imparting much pain. My suspicion was based on the obvious force behind the blows coupled with the fact that there was no, or very little, marking. (There were some exceptions - two or three specific models were the only ones who ever appeared in caning scenes. Caning would seem to be nearly impossible to fake; any material hard and stiff enough to make a thin, straight rod 3-4 feet long from is going to hurt when it hits.) As far as whippings leaving no marks, to be fair, video formats like Real or WMV are frequently low-quality enough to simply render the marks very difficult to see.

Thank goodness.

I know (and I’m sure you do, too) that a lot of what they do is done for legal reasons. For example, in the stuff I’ve watched (not nearly all of it, admittedly), they never mixed “torture” and actual penetrative sex in the same scene. There was always a break in between. For example, the male dominant might whip the bound female submissive in one scene, and then leave the room. The scene fades out, and when the picture fades back in, the sub is alone, often in a different room, and the dom comes back in and then they have sex. Rough sex, to be sure, but still separated scene-wise from the “torture” segment. As I understand it, this is to avoid the implication that the sub is being beaten until she consents to sex.