4.03.2017

On Kink and Perversion

I've always been a fan of the keen distinction. For instance, simple and easy. It's quite simple to stop smoking: you simply don't smoke. But that doesn't make it easy. I find such a sensual pleasure in feeling those words and ideas, which are so readily conflated, differentiated. A distinction makes many where there was once one. There's a great joy in such a will to distinguish, an affirmation of life in all its difference.

Here's another distinction that was introduced to me of late by a here-unnamed genius: kink and perversion. In public discourse, these words are bandied about — when they are in fact bandied about which, to be fair, may be more common in San Francisco than elsewhere —anyway, when casually referring to sexual proclivities, one may find oneself conflating kinky and pervy when, in fact, the two could not be more different.

Kink is territorial. It often has a space — a dungeon, a "doctor's office," a boudoir. Of course, this is not a requirement but it is of note that the world of kink often claims a territory, even if only temporarily. And once inside that space, there are all kinds of rules. Behavior is rigorously controlled. Of course, within those controls, there may be plenty of opportunity for exploration and expression. Still, the kink is defined by the fact that it has definition, both spatial and regulatory stipulation.

The non-kink world — let's call it the vanilla world — has space and rules, too. It has the bedroom and, sometimes, the couch. It has unstated rules of behavior: we'll kiss for a while, touch, lick, then do it. During the act, there may be flourishes of surprise — an ass spanked, a throat grabbed, a thigh bitten. But any serious deviation is not tolerated.

The difference between vanilla and kink, then, is not immediately obvious. But the way I see it, the distinction lies in the word kink itself: rather than a straight line, there is a coiled, spiraling, kinky line — more fusilli than spaghetti. Or what Lucretius refers to as clinamen, the curve in the flow of atoms. If vanilla finds the erotic within the blindness of established rules — there is nothing natural per se about vanilla or kink; they are both contrivances and both expressions of the erotic — kink finds the erotic in other places, in other ways, in other rules. (It is, without a doubt, more complex than this; I am less interested in the psychology of it than in the social and semantic distinctions.)

Perversion is something else entirely. Perversion operates without any territory. In the words of Michel de Certeau, perverts poach. They find their pleasure in the territory of others. The pervert is, in some sense, a rhetorician always seeking erotic kairos — or is it kairotic eros? — within the everyday.

Let's take a subway ride. It is a common space in which there are all kinds of  rules, legal and social. For example, we don't sit on someone else's lap (unless it's a parent and child or, sometimes, two lovers). In fact, we usually respect a certain distance between our fellow travelers. This space is not dictated by state law but it is surely dictated and different country to country, culture to culture. We all know these rules.

On this subway, on this common conveyance, we go about our way, dressed for work or galavanting or what have you. And there, on the subway, is our pervert. Let's make it a she just for the goof. Her eyes scan the car looking for that opportunity, a crack in the everyday edifice through which eros flows — a look in someone's eye, a smile, a sandaled foot, and then....an exposed knee. Gulp! Her eyes trace the knee, linger over the bend, drift over the calf, perhaps explore to see if there's a thigh.

There are, of course, such cracks all the time. The doctor's office, for instance: it's a strange place in which being naked in front of a near-stranger is not illegal or even frowned upon. It's even demanded! This is ripe territory for a pervert. Now take all the sandals and skirts, all the exposed shoulders, all the shorts and yoga pants, all the eyes and smiles and scents and suddenly the world brims with erotic possibility, cracks through which eros — a profound and relentless force — can flow.


What makes the pervert so reviled is she doesn't ask permission: she searches, she looks, she finds her pleasure in that social crack (as it were) all without asking. Kink is all about permission. Kink loves contracts and safe words: Chattanooga! and everything comes to a halt — the ball gag comes out, the whip relents, the electrodes stop flowing.

The pervert, however, never asks for permission. For some perverts, this not asking may very well be the source of erotic delight — a kind of rape, even if only with eyes. When we think of perversion, we think of the man in an overcoat, flashing unsuspecting people on the street or the subway. It's icky, for sure. But, ethical judgment aside, what defines perversion is an exploitation of a moment within the everyday without asking for permission.

But this doesn't mean all perverts are criminals or are even icky. After all, how else are we to meet each other, find pleasure in new people, if we didn't take advantage of those propitious moments of, and within, the erotic? We used to approach people in caf├ęs and bars because we were attracted to them, because we felt the tug and pull of eros within the everyday. Is it perverse to note this then act on it? Of course not.

What distinguishes the pervert is that the tug and pull may very well be the limit of the play; she has no desire to ask out the knee. This, here and now, this gaze, the intersection of eye and knee, this play of energy, is itself the erotic moment. It's not foreplay; it's not an initiation. It is an act unto itself.

So let's imagine an ethical pervert, someone who finds the erotic within the everyday but doesn't want to be icky, doesn't want to be criminal, doesn't want to offend. She wants a kind of permission. But the very possibility of perversion is not having that permission. And so begins a complex negotiation of eyes and energies, a complex rhetorical reckoning within the delirious space of the erotic. Perhaps she lingers on that knee but when the person whose knee it is suddenly becomes uncomfortable, she turns her gaze — and her erotic energy — away. But maybe, just maybe, the knee enjoys that gaze. And maybe, just maybe, that knee begins to flirt back with those eyes and now there is an erotic transaction — silent, perhaps, but no less real, no less profound, no less erotic for it.

The ethical pervert has a hard time, for sure. The risks are enormous. There are legal risks — arrest and such — and then social risks: unspeakable humiliation. But perhaps the rewards are equally enormous. Perhaps riding eros flowing through the banal drift of everyday life is a delight worth the risk.

I, for one, have been known to be a social pervert (avec and sans eros). I like to disrupt the unspoken everyday order of things, usually out of boredom. For instance, when I step into an elevator, rather than turn my back and quietly regard the ascending or descending numbers, I face the crowd. It's so simple but it really throws people off. Which eases my own anxiety about being part of the herd. And maybe suggests, however slightly, that there are unspoken rules everywhere and we can break these rules.

For Marshall McLuhan, art is a kind of perversion that seeks to expose the terms of the environment — or what we might call the Matrix, all those invisible but insidious terms that define how we are to behave with each other and ourselves.

Perversion of a sort, then, is a revolutionary act precisely because it never asks for permission. Kink, meanwhile, tends towards the conservative in its will to rules. It may be way outside the everyday matrix but, to the pervert, it's just the new boss, same as the old boss. The pervert seeks to disrupt any terms, regardless of the rules. Of course, the flasher and frotteurist isn't a revolutionary. He's pretty icky. So maybe calling all of this perversion conflates too many unlike things. Perhaps we need more distinctions.