Why I Kept My Kinks a Secret

14 minute read
Kwon is the author of the novels Exhibit and The Incendiaries

For the past decade, while I worked on a novel, I clung to a lie. On most days, I recited this lie, out loud, as if praying, hoping to relax the panic that held me in its grip for much of that time, and still hasn’t let me go. It kept me writing, the lie, though it’s about to fall apart. I’ll let no one read this book, I told myself. It’s still what I’m saying. I’m writing this just days before the novel will publish. I think of that fact, which is inexorable, and panic’s harsh grip closes tight again.

I’ve spoken with friends and, at times, in public about this novel-incited panic. If asked what I’m afraid of, I’ve offered multiple explanations, all of which are true, fine, but partial. For one thing, Exhibit explores plural kinds of desire, including physical longing, much of it queer; having grown up Korean, Catholic, and evangelical, I can’t quite escape the triple helping of lust-prohibiting shame and guilt I’ve known since I was a child. I’ve left religion, but the old edicts have proved hard to forget. In addition, the book is peopled with fictional artists, most of them women, aiming high with their work: they’re fired by large ambitions. So am I. It can feel as though, just by divulging this, I’m inviting peril. (Isn’t the phrase “ambitious woman” code for “unlikable woman,” a friend once said; I asked if it was even a code.) Plus, one woman in Exhibit isn’t being faithful to her loving husband; a couple of the artists refuse to be parents. It’s as if I made a list of boxes a person might tick to explain why a woman ought to be disliked, perhaps despised, and then, writing this novel, I filled in each box.

I’m stalling again, though, as I have my whole life, finding it all but physically impossible to put words to it, a longing I depict in the pages most adept at provoking bona fide panic. In truth, the principal origin of my anxiety, the thing that can trap me inside hours-long fits of gasping, crying, and the false if no less potent belief I might be dying, has to do with a word I haven’t yet said here: kink.

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This isn’t my first time writing or talking about kink—in 2021, my friend Garth Greenwell and I co-edited and published a bestselling short-fiction anthology titled, well, Kink. To support that book’s publication, I also wrote essays refuting prevalent, harmful beliefs about kink, fallacies about it being abusive, malign to women, an illness requiring a cure; I spoke about kink for print, audio, the internet, and during panels and readings.

But in that deluge of words, I didn’t let slip a thing about my own proclivities. I kept the language general, usually plural: I referred to some people, many people, to groups, subcultures, communities. If I felt obliged to be specific, I alluded to what one might want. I turned fluent in talking about kink while eliding the personal; at least a few readers caviled that, as far as they could tell, I’d thought up and co-edited an anthology that spotlit kink despite having no interest in it apart from the fictional. It was, I felt certain, what I required: to hide. Or, that is, to publish the book, but while I stayed veiled in fiction’s opacities, a disguise integral to the form. I relied on Ronald Barthes’s motto, larvatus prodeo: I advance pointing to my mask.

Now, though, I’ve written an entire novel told from the position of a queer Korean American woman artist who, along with her other desires, pines to explore kink. People, I’m aware, will suspect me, a queer Korean American woman artist, of having lifted the book’s events in full from my life.

Even so, I might persist in hiding. It’s still fiction, after all. And isn’t it enough, or so I’ve thought, that I’ve told the world I’m queer? I love being queer; it’s also true that queerness is judged to be an illness by a lot of Koreans both diasporic and mainland. Not long ago—for much of Korea’s Joseon period, which lasted from 1392 to 1910—the law ordained that a Korean woman could be divorced for “excessive” talking, a so-called sin. Expelled, fending for herself, the divorced woman risked dying, a hazard my body has perhaps not forgotten, though here I am, talking about, of all things, sex. Queer sex, at that. But it’s possible this rigid mask, the passed-down fiats, aren’t helping me, let alone the writing, as much as I thought.

Kink is a large, shifting term, with outlines etched less by what it is than is not, this single word applied to an ever-changing negative space. Lina Dune, a prominent kink writer and podcaster, defines kink as any sexual act or practice diverging “one tiny step outside of what you were brought up to believe is acceptable.” So, bondage, sadomasochism, fetishes, and role play are examples of kinks, and these aren’t fringe penchants. By some measures, 40% to 70% of people might be kinky; given the stigma, this estimate could be on the low end.

For me, kink entails playing with control. Stated, explicit power dynamics; intense physical sensations, including pain; rules—these pursuits are so crucial to my body’s understanding of sex that, in their absence, lust also goes missing. It isn’t optional, a bit of pep to add on top of the chief act. Hence, sex lacking all signs of kink isn’t quite, in any personally significant sense of the word, sex. I’ve known this to be true as far back as I can recall desiring; for about as long, I believed I should keep it quiet, that I’d be thought aberrant, wrong, for craving as I did, the yes of desire paired with this I can’t. Friends spoke about lust in ways I found puzzling, alien. To be safe, I nodded. I feigned being like them. First kisses, initial forays into sexual activity: none of it felt fulfilling, and still, I played along.

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It wasn’t until I met the person who’d become my husband that, months into dating, with great trouble, I began trying to explain. Since kink figures as central a role in who I am as being queer, a woman, Korean, a person, a living being, I had to give him the chance, I thought, to run.

So what, one might ask. Kink is visible, in public, even stylish, to an extent I didn’t think possible while I was growing up, and kink-specific gathering places exist both online and, at least in big cities, in person. No one wishing to fulfill a desire for kink who is also in possession of a phone needs to be afraid, as I used to be, of lifelong failure. People mention kink in social-media bios, in dating profiles. In the milieus I inhabit, full of writers, editors, and artists all tilting left, to kink-shame—to deride a person’s kink—is itself often judged passé, risible. Why, then, as I write this, are my hands shaking, as though my very fingers are urging me to stop, to go back into hiding?

It wasn’t long ago that being pulled to kink was classed as being disordered. Until 2013, sadomasochism, along with fetishism, was pathologized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM—a ruling with legal implications for jobs, parental rights. While kink is depicted more than it used to be in popular culture, it’s still so often tied to grave psychic damage, evil, or both that there’s a futile, tiring game I play: if a character in film or television is, say, a serial killer, an appalling villain, I track how long it takes until they’re shown engaging in kink. It can take just five, ten minutes before I’m proven right again.

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It’s thus no surprise that lies about kink run wild. On the first day of the anthology Kink’s release, which, again, was a brief three years ago, the most indignant replies came from writers and editors I’d never met arguing that kink is abusive, misogynist, disordered. (Briefly, for anyone fresh to this dispute: a bright, wide line divides even the most physically rough kink from abuse—the giving and negotiating of explicit, detailed consent—and though some people do gain healing through kink, it has no more of a requisite etiology than do other kinds of sexuality.) In my own, less parochial circles, it’s still not unusual for people to question what the purpose of a fictional character’s kink might be, why it’s there, as though it has to be willed, optional, and not, as it is for me, vital.

If otherwise well-educated adults find kink confusing, it’s no wonder that youths might, too. Per a recent survey of 5,000 college students in the Midwest, conducted by Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, two-thirds of the women said they’d been choked by a partner during sex. While a longing for sexual asphyxiation is possible, and does fall under kink’s rubric, it’s also so dangerous that many kink aficionados consider it entirely off limits. One can’t safely choke a person; lasting damage can result, up to and including death. In the study, women spoke of partners choking them without having obtained consent ahead of time, a flouting of essential, first-priority kink practices.

Kink, as Dune says, isn’t about one person forcing their will on another: instead, it’s “an ongoing conversation, a collaboration between consenting equals.” Preludial talk of desires, limits; figuring out where there is and isn’t overlap; deciding on safewords; finding ways to check in along the way; segueing from a sexual encounter into aftercare, which folds in activities that can include talking about what took place, to bring oneself back to a less charged state—all this, too, is part of kink.

For a lot of people, kink can be a less bewildering landscape to navigate than more orthodox types of sex. In lieu of abiding by fixed scripts of what sex ought to be, one listens to one’s individual body, following and articulating what’s desired. Zoë Peterson, a scientist and clinical psychologist who directs the Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Assault Initiative, notes that, with the U.S.’s dearth of sex education, some people might never be asked, “What do you like and not like?” It can be highly difficult for people to think about this, let alone speak it aloud, and to another person. Sex-related shame bedevils most of us, not just the kink-inclined. And so, Peterson says, she tends to “hold up the kink community as a good model of sexual-consent communication.” In other words, these consent practices can be useful to people at large.

I ask Peterson how she’d respond to a still-widespread objection to this kind of dialogue, that consent made so precise is off-putting, clinical, lacking space for abandon, spontaneity. Here, too, she says, kink communities provide a model. “I don't think anyone's like, ‘Kink isn't sexy,’” she says, with a laugh. “No one says that.”

I’m doing it again: referring to people, to one. Scientists pointing to kink as a benign model, the talk of detailed consent—it all sounds so logical, so calm that I almost forget the panic stifling each attempt I’ve ever made to voice my own desires.

But along with the pervading stigma, here’s what else I find terrifying: part of what I want, the shape of how I lust, could be mistaken as lining up with painful, absurd lies about women who look like me—that we’re docile, hypersexual, pliant, willing to be ill-used. It’s a myth distorting our histories in the U.S., codified in the 1875 Page Act, which stopped the immigration of Chinese women on the pretext that they were “immoral.” It’s also present in any number of violent acts toward Asian women, and people who present as women, including the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, which the killer tried to explain with a so-called “sex addiction,” a concept not recognized in psychiatric literature but one many people, not excluding the media, quickly accepted as a real disease.

Both after and before the Atlanta shootings, I’ve written and spoken about injustice from the vantage point of being a Korean woman, an Asian woman. I’ve heard from thousands of Asian people, most often women, about their own experiences of racism. It was, and is, a profound honor to be trusted with such griefs. I’ve also received death threats, rape threats, as replies to what I wrote; I’ve been chased down the street by men, had my ass grabbed in bars. Less violent, but also infuriating, are the times people have fancied it’s right to tell me what to do, have assayed to push me around. None of this is special. It’s not unique, is the problem. But as a result, for a long while, I’ve tried, with how I dress, talk, and hold myself, to project what others might interpret as strength, an effort that’s felt all the more urgent as I publish words that people read.

I’m afraid that, by unveiling desires I’ve kept hidden, I’ll spoil this effort. And that, given the nature of some of what I want, I’ll add to the terrible lies about us. Might, then, get more of us hurt, killed. On the one hand, this sounds histrionic, over-the-top: it’s just a novel, I tell myself, and I’m one person. Still, the bigoted and ignorant can be so easily misled, by almost nothing. Each novel births a world. Shame, guilt then spring up: what am I, a Korean woman, doing, talking about sex at all? I should hide again, back where it’s safe.

But this, but that: the abiding panic spirals, its coil tight. In the lulls, when its grip goes slack, I’m able to trust in what else I believe about books. The solitude I used to know, when I thought I was alone with strange desires, my body wrong, abnormal—that long isolation, too, twined me with the pall of something like death. Other people’s words, books, and art, by offering kinship, pulled me free, provided a refuge. It felt salvific, finding the solitude to be an illusion: learning that even I, at least in private, could live as my full self.

Despite the panic, I did write Exhibit, a chronicle of kinky, queer, Korean American women intent on pursuing what they want. Striving to bring to the novel all the skills I possess, I hoped to claim that this, too, the it I’ve often wished gone, belongs in literature. Which is also saying it belongs, period, as do I. Our bodies aren’t wrong. If allowed the option of changing, excising kink from my body, I’d refuse. For what else could I be, and why would I want to? Kink has brought me such delight. Exhibit’s narrator, Jin Han, spends much of the novel working to move out of hiding. I’m trying to follow her there.

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