Behind the Curtain: Sex, Kink and Trauma

TW: This column discusses NSFW topics, and trauma such as sexual assault, pedophilia, transphobia, homophobia, etc. 

First off, I want to be absolutely clear: I support all CSA survivors. Nothing that anyone can do can change their status as a survivor of trauma; it’s how we deal with the trauma that’s different. I also know that my opinions are challenging for some, and that’s okay. You don’t have to agree with me. All I ask is that, if you’re in the right headspace, you listen.

“My trauma is not your kink.”

That statement is both completely valid, and full of a lot of assumptions. I’ve been seeing it a lot lately, and here’s the thing; I’m somebody who’s kinky, and who’s traumatized, and I hate seeing this kind of dichotomy. So let’s unpack it a bit.

First off, which trauma, which kink? In the context that got me writing this, the traumas involved were pedophilia/child sexual abuse and sexual assault. But we can’t just focus on those; trauma is a wide-ranging thing. When we’re talking about trauma, we have a tendency to collapse experiences – but what is trauma? Trauma is anything that leaves an indelible lasting mark on you; usually when people say trauma, they mean things like sudden death of a family member, abuse, injury, sexual assault, etc. Here’s the thing, though; they can also sometimes be talking about systemic trauma. The trauma of racism. The trauma of ABA therapy when you’re autistic. The trauma of transmisogyny and growing up as a closeted trans woman.

So immediately, you’re seeing where the lines get crossed. “Does it matter?” I can already hear. “Trauma is trauma.”

Well, yes and no. All trauma is valid, and real, and important. But different types of trauma need different responses. Abuse is an interpersonal thing; it functions in the micro, with interactions happening again and again and again. That’s why it’s so hard to identify abusers – because the abuse happens behind closed doors. Systemic oppression, on the other hand, is everywhere, all the time – which is what makes it systemic! Every time a person of colour interacts with a white person, even if race never comes up explicitly, it lingers in the air; same with anything else defined as systemic oppression, like fatphobia, disableism, queerphobia, etc. They take different shapes and forms, but they operate like background static.

This isn’t a clean divide. A lot of systemic oppression is enforced through abuse – physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and financial. Corrective rape against queer identities is frighteningly common, and that’s just one example of sexual assault as an enforcement tool. The separation of families at the border is an example of systemic racism and xenophobia being enforced through child abuse and neglect. Additionally, plenty of abusive interactions are micro/interpersonal examples of systemic oppression; abuse from a cis woman towards a trans man, or even the “stereotypical” depiction of domestic violence where a cis man asserts his dominance over the household to prove his masculinity.

So why bother separating them? A few reasons:

  1. Systemic oppression against abuse victims/survivors doesn’t exist. “Doesn’t exist” is a strong phrase, but bear with me. Abuse victims/survivors, especially CSA survivors, deal with an awful lot of crap. But plenty of it is ableism… or sexism… or queerphobia… or racism – basically, it’s our identities aside from our abuse that shape how we’re treated because of it. White allocishet women have much more safety around sharing stories of victimization than trans women of colour, for example, and “good” survivors are ones that aren’t visibly or clearly mentally ill or physically disabled. That doesn’t mean white allocishet “good survivors” fare well, by any means; it’s a matter of scale. 

But if all abuse survivors have experiences of being shut down or silenced or gaslighted, what does that make abuse? Which brings me to the second half of this point. Not every social issue is systemic oppression. Systemic oppression refers to a specific set of things, the boundaries of which aren’t always obvious – but it’s about marginalized groups who are discriminated against, stigmatized or erased from media, etc. Representation for experiences has to be considered separate from representation for identities. Which, yeah. A horrible thing that happened to us is not who we are. And that’s okay. 

  1. There’s more survivors than you think. Even narrowing things down to victims of child sexual abuse, there’s always more people than you think who are victims of abuse. In fact, there’s so many, that the entire category as a concept is somewhat challenging. Consider, for example, the difference between horror as a genre, and “every book that has a dream sequence” as a genre. It’s not that the second isn’t a useful categorization, but it’s entirely different – because it is so broad.

I am too tired to pull up statistics, but especially depending on your communities and where you are, the chances that you’re talking to somebody with sexual trauma is so unbelievably high that it’s safer to assume you’re talking to a survivor. At the very least, never go into a conversation with somebody expecting them to tell you. It’s your job to assume they might be. 

This gets hard when you’re dealing with survivors who are doing things you find repugnant… but there’s no reason to call personal histories into doubt. They’re responsible for their actions in the present-day, and that’s enough.

  1. The way we talk about representation for abuse victims and the way we talk about representation for marginalized identities has to be different.

One of the big points of disagreement online in regards to depiction of abusive situations is about “fiction as reality” or “fiction as just fiction”. Not only do people have a frustrating habit of boiling down complex points into one or the other of these – representation is not a monolithic concept. There’s harmful representation, and there’s misrepresentation; there’s ‘we are more than these stereotypes’, and there’s #ownvoices depictions of stereotypes that examine where they come from. They’re all important to talk about!

This is complicated enough for systemic issues. (And even systemic issues can’t all be lumped into a pile, as I said earlier; the difference between a closeted queer person writing something #ownvoices and a visibly racialized person writing about their experiences is massive.) But when you get into something like abuse, where it seems like everybody’s been touched by it in some way? Oh boy.

What I see a lot of is people trying to make sense of abuse and trauma like it is a systemic issue. They’ll point at the other “side” and say, “well, they’re all white/straight/cis/etc.” without realizing that it just isn’t true. I’ve known just as many queer folk disgusted by certain types of fiction as queer folk who shrug and read or create it, for example. Ultimately, there’s no real way to break down abuse trauma along lines of privilege and marginalization – when you try, you get tangled up in every other marginalization involved. (That doesn’t mean that other marginalizations don’t affect analysis of trauma;  it’s just that trauma itself doesn’t fit that model.)

The reason I’m talking about this at all in relation to trauma and kink is because, functionally, before anything else, we have to distinguish between things like consensual non-consent and raceplay. Consensual non-consent trades on personal experiences and interpersonal interactions. Raceplay trades on discrimination, marginalization, and genocide. You cannot, and should not, use the acceptability or stigma of one to justify the other. 

So when somebody says “My trauma is not your kink”, when they’re talking about intergenerational trauma and systemic issues, listen. But when it comes to – as most people put it, rape and pedophilia – it’s a lot more complex. 

Then, obviously, we have to make another distinction that’s both obvious and not obvious: consensual non-consent, by definition, cannot be rape. Because, well, both parties are consenting. It’s just pretend. If I pretend to eat something I’m allergic to, I’m not gonna die from it. Same thing with ageplay; calling somebody into ageplay and caregiver/little play a pedophile is functionally the same thing as calling somebody who writes about murder a murderer. Nor do I want to entertain the idea that this is a false equivalence; plenty of murder, mugging and domestic violence victims are disbelieved, told they were asking for it, etc. especially if they were/are queer, female, and/or people of colour. (This is just as much to forestall the idea that I’m defending child abuse and pedophilia as anything else. That requires that a child be involved.)

Next part of the unpacking! What does it mean for something to be a ‘kink’? Sure, a lot of people are going to be responding to this with “I know what a kink is, don’t insult me”. But most of us have learned this through osmosis, or backchannels, and it’s already a hard topic to talk about out loud.

At its most basic, a kink is “an unusual sexual preference”. More than that, it’s something that turns you on or gets you aroused that doesn’t ping to others as sexual. A lot of the ones that come up are the weird but harmless ones; leather kink, for example, or a foot fetish. Moreover, they’re not the kinds of things you can switch on and off. I can try to tell people until my tongue dries out that I don’t have a thing for bondage, but when I start uncontrollably blushing every time I’m pinned down or even jokingly tied, it’s time to give it up and just be okay with it. 

Here’s the thing about me and bondage, though. I have some extremely traumatic memories around being tied up. I’m not going to disclose them – they’re not the point – but the human brain has two options with trauma. Avoid it forever, or find a way to turn it into something palatable. Sometimes the brain does both! But being turned on by something you’ve been traumatized by isn’t a bad, or even particularly abnormal reaction. It’s the brain choosing between paralyzing, horrific panic attacks and sexual pleasure- essentially, fight, flight or freeze. Like with everything else here, it’s not an easy line to draw – the human brain is wonky as it is, and something can cross from “fun kink” into “PTSD flashback” very quickly. That’s one of the many, many reasons safewords are so important. It gives the sub in a BDSM situation a quick, easy out when something crosses back over that line from ‘pleasure’ into ‘panic’. Simply enough, though, the brain doesn’t like trauma. It’ll change it into something you can handle, if it can, and if it has the right tools.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who get off on things for all the wrong reasons. Child abusers exist, and not all sadists are the type who want consent. But there’s a lingering undertone to discourse around ‘acceptable’ types of kink, where the image of some pervert jacking off to Awful Things pervades – despite the number of abuse survivors who engage in kink as therapeutic and healing. Not everybody even knows that they’re doing it.

It’s also relevant to look at what the actual attracting factor is. For a lot of consensual non-consent, it’s the roughness, and/or having somebody else Make The Decisions. For caregiver/little (the roleplay kink in which one person takes the role of father, mother, parent, etc. and the other takes the role of a child), it’s often the sense of being looked after and taken care of. It sounds gauche to say that it’s because we didn’t get enough love in our childhoods, but, well… often it is! If you grew up isolated and neglected, wanting that sense of care and protection isn’t a bad thing, and it sure doesn’t make you an abuser. Sometimes it’s about rewriting a narrative with a better ending, or sometimes it’s about trying to reconcile an adult’s sense of sexuality (or lack thereof – plenty of aces and aros are kinky) with memories of childish powerlessness.

The big thing, though, is that for the most part? This isn’t your business. When is it? That’s where we get into Part The Third, which is –

– what do we have a right to put publicly?

This actually is a fairly frequent discussion in BDSM circles once you take fiction itself outside of it. It’s heavily, HEAVILY discouraged to do public scenes, because participants themselves aren’t the only people who need to consent – people seeing and watching also need to consent to it. (This came up in Pride discourse, which I’m not touching here, but if you recognize it, that’s where from.) But if your scene is in, say, a private room, and everybody coming into the room knows what’s going on, or you’re in a BDSM club and that’s the theme of the night, then participants have consented. 

That’s for real-life interactions, though. How does it apply to fiction? The problem is, fiction isn’t one and done. You write it, and it’s still there. That’s not a bad thing, most of the time! But it means that consent needs to be a running thing, and you run the risk of people who don’t understand the rules coming in at random times. 

Fiction can be just as useful a tool for processing as BDSM and kink; more so, in some cases, since there is such a thing as unsafe kink. Consensual non-consent is a fun fantasy, but it’s very hard to do safely offline. You and your partner need to know each other well, trust each other and have a good sense of each other’s limits – otherwise things can turn bad very quickly. Fiction, on the other hand, is something you can’t (physically, in the moment) hurt somebody with, and it only requires one person: you. That doesn’t mean that what’s useful and healthy for you can’t hurt somebody else, or be profoundly invalidating. I hate Glee with a burning passion, but a lot of young queer kids felt seen by it. I absolutely adore Envy from Fullmetal Alchemist as a queer icon and fellow abuse survivor; many are triggered by them. All of these reactions make sense, and none of them are fake or wrong.

What about the impact of fiction on people who read it – specifically, fanfiction? This is somewhere the rapidly-changing online world hasn’t been able to keep up with itself. When fanfiction was limited to small social circles, mailing lists, etc. it was easy to keep erotic processing to its intended audience. Even within fanfiction.net, the lack of real filters meant that the best you could do was rate it correctly, but nobody would ever really find it, and as such the people who read it would largely be the people you allowed to. Archive of Our Own is a wonderful database, but one of its major downfalls is one of its great triumphs; visibility. If I write something about a deeply personal trauma, it’s no longer guaranteed that it’ll drift to the bottom of a massive pile of anonymous, increasingly-bizarre work. The very act of filtering that keeps people safe also keeps fictional accounts that were intended to be semi-hidden alarmingly visible. This isn’t helped by the new wave of authors who aren’t ashamed of their fanfiction pasts. So many of us currently breaking into publishing had our pasts in fanfiction; should we be ashamed of it, or learn from it? Is destroying everything we used to write the only way to move forward? Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like that. It was always risky processing our traumas in unusual ways, but now we have to be even more careful. Explicit-rated fanfictions don’t have special passwords, and you don’t need to ‘know somebody who knows somebody’ to find darkfic. It’s there for anybody to stumble on and get hurt by.

(A sidenote: Some of you have read my other article about the MAP cult. It’s worth adding that, while I understand that there are definitely terrible people on AO3 as there are anywhere, predators and pedophiles who are part of a network post their fiction elsewhere. I would love to unknow this, but my experiences have proven useful from time to time. I have an additional article coming up going into more detail about this.)

Up to this point, I’ve been quite vague and/or mostly focused on consensual non-consent/rape fantasies. Underage stuff is even more triggering for a lot of people, and there isn’t a one-to-one comparison between underage content and the caregiver/little kink like there is for rape fantasies and consensual non-consent. That said, I’d claim that trauma plays even more of a role here. There’s a common assertion that it’s “obvious” which stories are written for trauma purposes and which ones are “just for kink”, but it’s never that simple. It’s also common to conflate loli/shota art with writing, which ignores the separate audiences and purposes of the two mediums. You can’t get away from the fact that most of the users of AO3 are marginalized, in some way or another. A horrible amount of women and queer folk have been molested by the time they reach 18, or otherwise exposed to content too old for them. (That’s without getting into the background static of sexual abuse and objectification that a lot of female and trans kids absorb.) A lot of media criticism absolutely still applies, but frankly: a lot of people haven’t read whatever fic is in trouble, and don’t want to. And that’s fine! Like I said at the beginning, I’m not making this about any specific case. But if you run across a fic with underage characters, there’s a few things to remember: one, just because the text is romanticized doesn’t mean that the author feels that way. Is it tagged? Is the author admitting, out loud, that there’s something very screwed up about it? Then the author is aware; even if the text is a love story, the author knows it isn’t. This kind of cognitive dissonance underlines a lot of how we process through fiction. (Frequently left out of these discussions: Nabokov was himself a survivor of child sexual abuse. He never intended for Lolita to be read the way it was, and it haunted him to his grave.) There’s still a lot of discussion and soul-searching to be done when it comes to comfort and responsibility around these topics, but – to be blunt for a moment? Calling people pedo-sympathizers has got to stop. A vast majority of underage-tagged fics include the aftermath. One that I remember particularly vividly (I wasn’t that old when I read it) was told from the abuser’s perspective at first, and then showed him being sent to prison and the victims’ gut-wrenching healing process. That’s not for titillation. It isn’t a one-off, either – another had somebody being abused by their mother, and again: the first chapter was from the abuser’s perspective, and the rest was about the victim. 

A lot of people have talked about the importance of tags and trigger warnings, but it really can’t be emphasized enough. While tags and trigger warnings have their downsides – mentioned above – they’re also a desperate attempt to signal that something is inappropriate, dark, etc. The tag ‘dead dove, do not eat’ isn’t widely used anymore, but it’s an all-purpose tag for “seriously, there’s grossness inside, if you try to eat it that’s on you”. Human curiosity wins out far too often, and people end up reading things that upset them. That’s not anybody’s fault, really! We see something that says ‘okay, this is a bad idea’, and we’re darkly tempted to do it anyway. (I’m triggered every time I watch anything with bugs, but guess who loves the first Men in Black movie anyway? This guyyyyyy.) And it’s a totally natural response that, when we’re triggered, we get mad at the trigger, and the person responsible for it. But you don’t know why that fanfiction was written. You don’t know the person on the other side. And even now, a lot of fanfiction is written with and by and in the company of friends; AO3 is a convenient database, nothing more and nothing less. 

As far as when fanfiction is dug up after the fact, for somebody with a career – it’s voyeuristic, ultimately, to expect somebody to either cower in fear from their own writing or to spread their trauma out there for all to see. Sometimes we just have a shrug response, and that should be okay. That’s our past. Especially when we’re dealing with old, old work, asking somebody to dig up how they were feeling at the time and give you a Correct Justification is, more often that not, asking somebody to retraumatize themselves. And if they are a creep and/or pedophile? There’s going to be a pattern outside of what they write – of them sending their work to teenagers or carrying on inappropriate relationships with people under 18. If somebody’s a predator, truth will out. 

So back to the phrase that started all this: “My trauma is not your kink”. If we’re talking about white people who engage in raceplay, or straight size people fat-fetishizing, then absolutely. That isn’t theirs to touch. But when it comes to sexual assault, for both children and adults? So many people have those experiences that talking about one person’s singular trauma is reductive – it zooms in on a single person looking at a practice/practices and feeling hurt. In reality, it’s so much more likely that participants are working out their own trauma, and you can’t tell that from the outside. Moreover, if you’d like to be the one to ask random strangers whether or not they’ve been raped, I can’t stop you, but don’t be surprised when you have a hard time making friends.

Ultimately, what’s being said so often, is “Your trauma can’t be your kink.” Because, well, what I write and what I do in the bedroom don’t have anything to do with other people’s traumas. I’m coming from a very specific place, and the expectation with fic is that people are going to meet me halfway. You don’t write something on AO3 about sexualized rape/child abuse because you’re trying to convince people it’s a good thing! You write it because you expect the other survivors, the ones who feel the same way as you, to get something out of it. Validation, comfort, the ability to – at least for a little while – shrug off the shame of being a survivor. A consensual version of child/adult sex, which in the real world is always rape and always a crime, in writing is a way of reframing something that’s already happened; you don’t have to be ashamed and broken if it was Normal and Good. (A particular note on ‘rewriting trauma to be safe’ – it’s a very common technique for repeated nightmares. You write out the dream, and then you change the ending. Interestingly enough, people do this even when they’ve never been told about the technique – it’s impulse.)

Sure, other people might use that work to do horrible things. But here’s the thing – if somebody’s going to be an abusive asshole, they’ll use anything they can find. I was groomed with loli and shota art; but somebody I know was groomed with Disney movies. An abusive partner might force somebody to read darkfic to make them uncomfortable and unhappy – or they might play A Serbian Film or Irreversible. Somebody might be using darkfic specifically to self-harm – or they have other ways to hurt themselves. If we were, theoretically, to scrub all dark and problematic fanfic from the internet, it wouldn’t solve anything, because the societal issues that cause rape and pedophilia aren’t born from darkfic. It’s the other way around – darkfic is a consequence, not a cause. 

Does that mean it’s getting normalized? My instincts say no, only because if fanfic is what normalizes predatory acts in fiction, then we wouldn’t have books like 120 Days of Sodom. (Infamously written, I should add, by an actual predator. There’s definitely awful people out there.) We bring up famous books by white men not to say ‘if this is okay, then why not this?’ but to illustrate that fanfic really isn’t the driving force behind rape culture. The difference is that fanfiction is largely written by victims. Demographic matters; so does audience. It doesn’t mean that no fanfiction has ever put weird ideas into somebody’s head too young. But laying the abusive actions of somebody who was already an asshole at the feet of trauma survivors is extremely cruel. You genuinely can’t say, “I would not have been abused if it weren’t for weird fanfiction,” because abusers are abusers. Ultimately we’re just trying to fix ourselves. Point us in better directions, if you’d like; but anything that tries to shift the blame away from predators themselves is something that sits very uncomfortably with me. 

Nothing I’ve said or put forward means you can’t be uncomfortable. I don’t particularly want to hear about people’s kinks unless I’ve said ‘okay, yeah, I’m cool with that.’ The difficulty with fanfiction is that you can’t actually prevent somebody from ignoring the tags. I mean, plenty of people tell porn sites that they’re over 18. The reaction in particular of something similar to your trauma showing up in porn is – I’m never gonna shame somebody for that. But ultimately, most of us are in the same boat. Practicing good boundaries and understanding that nobody’s making direct comments on you, only their own lives, is basically the only way we can manage. Let’s not forget that we’re functioning in a society that is deeply broken for mental health; that grooms women and trans children of all genders to accept and be okay with sexual harassment; that ritually sexually and financially abuses disabled people while telling us that we clearly don’t have any sexuality at all; that manages to shame lesbians for not being attracted to men, gay men for not liking women, bisexual people for liking more than one gender and asexual and aromantic people for liking none in practically the same breath; and teaches people of colour that “you’re pretty for [X]” is some sort of compliment. 

We all have baggage around sex. It’s unavoidable. When there’s no material harm being done, sometimes the safest thing for everybody is to take a deep breath, choose not to talk to that person, and go about your own life. You won’t save any lives with your fury at somebody’s sex life or fiction, but you might save your own by walking away.

—–

 

APPENDIX:

 

A few thoughts that didn’t fit into the main column, but that I consider important enough to add:

  1. If you find yourself reading stuff that upsets you over and over again, that can actually be a form of self-harm. If you’ve had trouble with self-harm before, the techniques that help with more ‘standard’ forms of self-harm can help with this too. Remember: you’re not morally obligated to read or engage with media that harms you. The pressure to have an opinion should never, never outweigh your ability to have your own, safe space.
  2. There are absolutely abusers in BDSM, and people who use it in order to be abusive. Abusers appear everywhere; there are no abuser-proof spaces. Assuming that there are or that there should be is how you end up “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” – discarding or exiling entire communities because you think the community is what’s abusive – and/or enabling abusers in “safe spaces” because if they’re there, they can’t possibly be abusive. Challenging people on directly abusive behaviour is the only way to do it, otherwise you’re gonna hurt more people than you help.
  3. A last note on media criticism; criticizing media can’t just be about ‘this made me feel awful’. I absolutely understand that approach! But things don’t always go A to B. Good media criticism doesn’t say ‘this person is justifying X’ – it reads the content in question, takes biographical, historical and contextual information into account, and analyzes both intended and unintended messages. Wanting one specific topic to never be written about isn’t media criticism – and it’s lazy and offensive to people who do in-depth critique to call it that. Emotional response can be part of your critique or the catalyst for it – but it should go beyond that as well. And if you can’t safely directly engage with a piece of media, you’re not the one to critique it.
  4. To this day I have complicated feelings about people who write about kids in sexual situations. This column might indicate that I’m A-OK with it, but it’s not that simple. The main point of concern for me is that the act of pedophilia has to be separated from roleplay, fiction and fantasy, otherwise you’re equating two wildly different things that only look vaguely, cosmetically similar. That said, I have another column queued that talks specifically about the sexualization of children in broader media, its effects and ways to combat it. (It also touches on the fanfiction and writing that absolutely is coming from an abusive perspective, because it does exist… just not as much as people say.)

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