THE BLOG
10/25/2016 08:57 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2017

The Uncomfortable Language Of Kink

Hans Neleman via Getty Images

A couple of years ago, at a local dungeon, I watched some people do a Nazi-themed scene. Full uniforms, swastika armbands, goose-stepping, etc. I've seen a lot of unusual things at dungeons (and I certainly don't mean "unusual" in a bad way), but this was the first time I'd seen something that pushed my boundaries a little bit on a socio-political level. I'm all for people engaging in any consensual activity whatsoever in the privacy of their homes, but things get a little trickier in a semi-public space.

Kink is about fantasy, yes, but people also base their play on some very harsh realities. From rape play to Nazi fetishism to slave auctions, to extreme scarification, gun play, bone breaking, domestic abuse scenes, prison beatings, and plantation retreats -- events where black "slaves" go to actual plantations to serve white "masters" -- kink is no stranger to ideas and activities that are potentially offensive and triggering.

In many cases, it's possible to keep these activities private among the participants. But what happens when we bring them out of the bedroom and into the larger world? With such a vast array of kinky identities in existence, it's inevitable that some people's identities are going to step on other peoples' toes. Rape survivors might not be keen on the idea of "play" based on their very real suffering and trauma. People of color dealing with the lingering effects of slavery and colonialism might find the idea of a plantation retreat sickening. These clashes exist not just between vanilla people and kinksters, but among kinky people too.

My latest novel is called Slave Hunt.

In kink, a slave hunt is an outdoor event where participants are divided into hunters and slaves (or predators and prey, or doms and subs). The hunters track the "slaves" through the woods, and, when the slaves are captured, they might be strung up on whipping posts or put in some kind of enclosure to be (consensually) tormented by the hunters.

In history, "slave hunt" is the term given to the Confederate invasion of the North with the aim of rounding up fugitive slaves (and free blacks), torturing them, and returning them to slavery. This included raiding parties that would burn the homes of anyone suspected of harboring fugitives. The legacy of that time period continues to give rise to very real pain and violence today.

So yes, Slave Hunt is a comedy in which a group of kinksters use "slave hunt" to describe a fun, sexy Saturday afternoon activity. But the term carries with it some major historical baggage. I've seen slave hunts in the kink world referred to as "sub hunts" or simply "hunts" (kinky slave hunts are not typically modeled after historical slave hunts; they just share a name with the historical atrocity), and I considered Sub Hunt for the title. But I went with Slave Hunt -- not only because that's the term I've seen most commonly used, but because if I'm inviting readers into this world, then I want to be honest about what the world looks like. About the way kinksters use history, language, and politics to shape our identities, and how we navigate the potential of those identities to cause harm and offense to others.

Words like submissive, slave, master, owner, property, etc. have different meanings in the kink world than they do in the real world, absolutely. But these words get their weight and their power from a larger context. And to be very clear, in kink, it's not always a matter of creating a "game" or a "fetish" around a serious issue. Often it's about using kink to confront that issue, and reclaiming power over an event or legacy that has held power over you. A rape survivor may use rape play to reclaim a sense of agency -- to explore the idea of being helpless and brutalized in a context where they do have ultimate control over the situation. A black submissive or bottom might use race play to subvert real life racist institutions by being the one who sets the terms and limits of a racially charged scene.

The trouble is, what feels like smashing the kyriarchy to one person may look a lot like eroticizing trauma to another. There are no easy answers here. Most people who are serious about kink are very aware of the kind of fire we're playing with, and have spent time unpacking dynamics like male dom/female sub, white master/black slave, etc; and thinking about what it means to use sexist language, racial slurs, or dehumanizing practices in the context of a scene. And kinksters who have "difficult kinks" often face backlash and shaming for engaging in them.

But people who bring up concerns about the social ramifications of kink are often shut down on the grounds of not being sex-positive or kink-positive enough.

Black kink activist Mollena Williams, who's very open about her involvement in race play, once said: "I show my respect [for my ancestors] by living fearlessly. I firmly believe the people who fought and died for our freedom weren't sitting on the front lines worrying about how that freedom would be used."

To which the blog Womanist Musings responded by suggesting that Williams is the victim of internalized racism, and that there is never a justification for playing with the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. How does Williams's right to participate in a lifestyle that empowers her work with or against the broader desire for a world where sexism, racism, and other power imbalances aren't fetishized? What happens when a term like "slave hunt" is taken out of the confines of private kink groups and used as the title for a work of fiction?

The simple answer might be that kink is consensual and the business of its willing -- and equal -- participants. That these words and practices have meanings specific to kink and contextually separate from historical injustices. But can kink ever actually be separate from the societal and cultural influences that drive it? Is it smashing taboos to eroticize imagery based in real life injustice? Or is it legitimizing harmful power structures?

It's not an easy discussion -- but it's one worth having.

For more on this topic, I recommend checking out Mollena Williams's blog, Catherine Scott's article for Bitch Media about the right to play with race in BDSM, Pervocracy's post about kink and feminism, and Womanist Musings. There are many people doing great writing on this subject, but these are some starting points.