On Matters of Taste

Whips, chains, gags, restraints, and atmospheres of supposed cruelty and duress, these are the trappings of what is commonly referred to as “S&M”, or “kinky sex”. To the uninitiated, and to the naive, these are shocking, frightening things, invoked usually as some inevitable extension of “pornography addiction” (a final point of debauched chaos on the addict’s errant journey) and occasionally in the same breath as the most twisted, barbaric varieties of sexually infused murder and torture.

The bizarrities of some people’s sexual lives are held up to others, or perhaps it is better to say waved frantically in front of them, as a warning. Tread not this path, brothers and sisters, or like this you shall become; lost, debased, and capable of anything. I, for one, am sick of being referred to in that tone of voice.

I am sick of being equated with serial killers and psychopaths, or of having it even implied that they come from the same place as me. I am sick of the implication that only my personal brokenness and misguidedness could account for my affection and taste for these modes of erotic interaction. And I am sick of the idea that I slid into my current state, down a slippery slope of self-destructive, poisonous hedonism, and that I need to be redeemed.

What I can’t help feeling when these subjects are raised, as invariably they are when the topic is publicly discussed, is a sense not of defensiveness or guilt or embarrassment, but of anger, alienation, and disgust. I feel insulted, offended even, and deeply mischaracterized and misunderstood. I feel accosted and plagued by Philistine ignorance, and I feel too that those who make such equivalences and assumptions have no business commenting in the first place.

But since a large number of people seem to find these characterizations and assertions convincing, compelled as I think they must be by disorientation and fear, and because these attitudes are perennial, exhibited with unsurprising ghastliness whenever the prudes and Puritans deign to afford my ilk the time of day, I feel that I should take a minute or so to confront them. While I’m sure it will make little difference to the attitudes of those who would like to see the world subsist on the sexual equivalent of hard tack and gruel, I think that I can at least make the subject clear to those who might be willing to accept what other people do if they could be sure that those people weren’t withering or imploding before their very eyes. As distasteful as it is, I can believe that a great many people think and feel the way they do about the way people like me have sex because they are worried about us, and I would be more than glad to put their minds at rest.

To begin with, I really do believe it’s a matter of taste. Put simply, we all have to start taking for granted the assumption that some people are different than us, and that they might respond differently than we do to things that we perceive in different ways. This much, I think should be easy.

In other matters we are perfectly happy with this. “I don’t like spicy food,” we might say, but we hardly think of people who do as having a corrupt moral character. In matters such as these however, you can imagine someone driven to distraction by the concept. How on Earth, we can imagine them saying, can anyone subject themselves to that sort of thing? It hurts! Food is supposed to be lovely and sweet! It’s disgusting! In this, we neglect a number of things, important things, about the consideration of those who do.

To say first, I think we can all acknowledge that there is a difference between a person who likes eating a nice jalapeño or habanero, and a person who wants a diet that involves molten lava, or broken glass. The serial killer Albert Fish, for example, took frequently to hammering rust-covered nails and other unsavory objects into the area around his groin, and this habit is generally considered to indicate his masochism. I realize that, as yet, there may be no word or term to distinguish the sexualized pleasure he derived from the practice and what one gets out of being spanked or trampled by a loving partner, in the way that there certainly is for the fact that his urges also revolved around children rather than adults, but it should be clear that there is a distinction to be made.

I think we are safe in calling someone like Fish a pervert, in a way that we are not in describing sexual masochism itself as a perversion. What’s more, I don’t believe the two are even remotely similar except in ways that are ultimately meaningless. While there may be formal parallels between the sexualization of pain and distress, there is no extent to which I would find it adequate to describe the pain of an act like that and the “pain” of some forms of kink in the same way, and, importantly, I refuse to take for granted that the pleasure is similar as well. When dealing with a character like Fish, we are talking about extreme pathology that extends far beyond what enabled him to get his rocks off, and it is flippant simply to say that he “liked” or “needed” extreme pain in order to get to the same place as the rest of us when his needs came calling. It should be clear, and it’s safe to say, that someone like that needs things none of us would want or choose, even if they were offered to us on a silver platter.

Even Ghost Pepper aficionados and people who like experimenting with the famed Carolina Reaper or the Trinidad Scorpion (the world’s two hottest peppers, which are said to induce “thunderclap headaches” and cardiovascular distress in those who ingest even the smallest of doses), while perhaps a bit foolhardy, can’t usually be accused of a psychologically dysfunctional constitution. They may be causing themselves pain, yes, even, at the extreme levels, putting themselves in danger, but we concede that for them there is something worthwhile about the experience, and even if we call them crazy we don’t really mean it. We think of these people as perfectly capable of making what to us is an abundantly stupid decision, and I think at some level we also believe they must have gotten something out of it. We validate the experience itself, and we show respect to the ability of these people to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be involved. At worst, we tend to think, and say, something along the lines of, “That’s nuts. Must be a crazy experience. I certainly wouldn’t do something like that.”

The point is that we don’t think of these people as inherently disordered, least of all morally, and it’s also that we don’t accuse people who like spicy food in general of participating in Carolina Reaper-level behavior. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t even know that such peppers even exist, in the same way they would be unacquainted with the many extreme acts and behaviors available to people of kinky persuasions. Those who are overwhelmed by a simple green chile are unlikely to comprehend how far what’s out there really goes.

But even at the fringes, we don’t consider the thrill-seeking, daredevil recklessness of the devotees of spicy food to be the result of some inevitable progress which began with the person’s first exposure to Tabasco sauce. We don’t think of people as being hopelessly addicted to spicy food, seeking out (as the accusation goes) greater and greater pain like a drug because they’re sick enough to like it.

To whatever extent they do it’s because they are curious and open, and willing to find their own limits and to explore the varieties available to their experience. Because what must be said of all of this is that eating and liking spicy food doesn’t just revolve around different levels of capsaicin and the accompanying endorphin rush that is produced upon consumption; there’s flavor too.

A jalapeño and a habanero don’t just burn differently, they taste different too, and there is a whole cuisine the world over that has evolved around the subtleties that separate serranos, poblanos, chipotles, Thai chilis, even paprika or cayennes. You have to concede that, in forgoing spicy food because you can’t take the heat, there’s something you are missing which not only involves the (often) comparatively minor sensation of pain but also a range of pleasures that have nothing whatsoever to do with the pain itself. You have to concede that to those who can stand it, these things might be more than a head rush; they might actually be delicious.

The point also raises another, which is that all of these peppers and their distinct qualities have connections to other, non-spicy foods, which have, again, encouraged the development of all manner of recipes in which the spice is indispensable. What would pico de gallo be if it was just chopped up tomatoes and onions? What would pho or pad thai be like without what most would say is the key ingredient? Fine, I’m sure, but to those who like it, something getting dangerously close to bland, or boring.

And there’s nothing wrong, of course, with liking bland and boring food. I’ve had many great meals that revolved around cabbage and potatoes, boiled this or that, and I’m not immune to the pleasures of a simple bowl of oatmeal on occasion. But that’s always been part of the confusion. No one says you must like or involve yourself in the eating of spicy food, just because other people relish it immensely. No one is forcing you to enjoy or even pretend to enjoy things you find aversive. But it’s important to stop pathologizing and insinuating nasty little things about those who do.

Which leads me, unfortunately, into the territory that contains my impetus to construct this piece in the first place. The next time you hear about the innocent victim of a murder who was hogtied and violated before being killed, be very careful before confusing the perpetrator of such a despicable act with a member of what might very loosely be described as the kink community.

Ted Bundy was not one of us, no matter what kind of porn he liked, and whatever may have thrilled the awful bastards that can do that sort of thing has nothing to do with kinky sex. Liking spicy food has nothing to do with what might prompt a monster to shove a Carolina Reaper down the throat of a 13 year old girl, and you won’t find anyone who approves of or relates to that impulse, not even amongst the weirdest in our rank. While we might all, ourselves, regularly tolerate a bit of indigestion, every one of us maintains the ability to have our stomachs turned, and don’t you dare suggest that that that kind of rot and filth is a part of our buffet.

Kink is an element of humanity, of culture, and if you’re confused by or uninterested in that aspect of our world you are more than within your rights to say so and act accordingly. But it is more than just unfair to suggest that, Man, those people will eat anything. It’s worse to say that someone who likes food you don’t is capable of chugging gasoline, and it’s terrible to suggest that, when someone found doing something evil had a twisted, perverted sexual side, they have anything in common with the legitimately sexually adventurous.

We don’t know, yet, what drives the despicable to do the horrible things they do, any more than we know what makes someone enjoy spicy food. But to grab a pile of festering shit and wave it in front of someone, saying, “How about it, pervert? You want some of that?!” is very nearly as disgusting as the act implied. And suggesting that it’s where we all might find ourselves if we stray beyond white rice and crackers is pathetic.

We need to stop using the kinky as scapegoats, just as we need to stop using them as bogeymen. Being kinky isn’t the same as being twisted, and it’s wrong to pretend that it is.


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