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Why is self-harm from BDSM more suspect than from extreme sports?

Xtra interviews Ummni Khan, Ottawa author of Vicarious Kinks

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that same-sex marriage is accepted in a way that gay bathhouses are not,” says author Ummni Khan, “because the more you can fit yourself into that reproductive, private, monogamous model, the more acceptable on a broader, societal level people will find you.” Credit: supplied

Ummni Khan, who teaches law at Carleton University, is launching her new book, Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the Socio-Legal Imaginary, on June 11 at Venus Envy. Khan discusses the legal and social implications of being kinky and kink’s intersection with queerness in this edited interview.

Xtra: What is kink?

Ummni Khan: Kink includes everything that is kind of considered non-normative, so it tends to fall out of procreative sex, it tends to fall out of what we imagine to be romantic, genital-based sexuality. When people say “kinky” it’s self-identification, but it’s also a judgment that there’s something a little bit strange about what’s getting those people off.

What Canadian laws currently affect consensual adults engaging in BDSM?

There’s no law that says you can’t do BDSM, but in practice, if you engage in BDSM that goes beyond a threshold where the judge or the decision-maker decides that you’ve inflicted harm that they consider to be non-trivial, then you can get caught by the assault laws, which has happened to a number of people. Usually you don’t get caught because it’s happening in private and there’s no complaints, but if your sexuality happens in a more public place, if someone decides to make a complaint, they can use that activity as evidence of an assault even if the person consented.

Through our anti-obscenity laws, a lot of BDSM will be considered obscene because the decision-maker will see it as perpetuating a degrading or dehumanizing representation of sexuality or promoting violence.

There are people who lose their jobs because somehow it comes to the attention of [employers] that the person either engages in SM or looks at BDSM pornography. You can lose custody of your children if you get the wrong psychiatric expert because although the most recent psychiatric guidelines don’t see SM as necessarily pathological, many psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers do see it as inherently problematic for a parent.

What do you think of the fact that you can’t legally consent to something that harms you?

For me, what really stands out is the hypocrisy around why sexuality is seen as more suspect. People self-harm with extreme sports, for example, or wanting to be incredibly thin and self-harming by lacking nutrition, and we don’t criminalize them or the people who encourage them. 

Where did the assumption come from that someone who engages in anything outside monogamous, heterosexual sex must be an abuse survivor?

There’s an assumption — and what I believe to be problematic, so-called evidence — that links BDSM, being queer and doing sex work as an effect of childhood trauma. That is rooted in early sexology, like late 1800s/early 1900s so-called scientific literature that purported to study people like prostitutes, sadomasochists and homosexuals.

The assumption is that we’re naturally supposed to reproduce, so any kind of sexuality that deviates from reproductive sex means that something’s gone off course, either biologically or because of your experiences.

If you’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, it ends with marriage, it ends with them having children, they’re monogamous and their sexuality is kept private, so even though they engage in some kinky activities — it’s pretty mild, to begin with — it falls within [the norm].

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that same-sex marriage is accepted in a way that gay bathhouses are not, because the more you can fit yourself into that reproductive, private, monogamous model, the more acceptable on a broader, societal level people will find you.

Is a fear of sex motivating the social and legal attempts to control sex?

I think it’s fear of sex, but I also think there’s a pleasure in regulating. There’s a puerile, voyeuristic pleasure in articulating all the details in what these so-called perverts are doing. It’s interesting to see how gratuitous some of the details are when I read the kind of anti-SM stuff that can come out of some branches of feminism, for example.

I genuinely think people are worried about violence; particularly, the anti-SM feminists are genuinely concerned about violence against women and making choices that they’re not freely making, but it’s rooted in an essentialist perspective that sees certain activities as inherently wrong.

Do you identify as queer?

I definitely identify as queer to the extent that I’m drawn sexually and otherwise to multiple genders. I’ve had debates with people about whether being kinky in and of itself is queer, and people have very different reactions around that. I think the term queer is about rejecting categories and rejecting the compulsion to normativity. If we take “queer” as that, then I would also put many, not all, people who practise BDSM as queer, too, but there’s no consensus on that.