Gentrifi(Kink)tion: Sex Writing Goes Literary, Again
By Daniel FelsenthalMay 27, 2021
Kink by R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, Garth Greenwell, and R. O. Kwon
The dungeon was up a narrow flight of slush-slicked stairs, and in order to ensure that all of the attendees were capable of consenting, there was no liquor served behind the bar. We drank Diet Cokes like they were cocktails and sat on the large, leather couch in the front room while, in the back, men in leather masks tied women in bodices on the ground, hung them from St. Andrew’s crosses, and whipped them. I think everyone was straight, besides me. There were tops of local renown, experts with ropework. There were bottoms with widely admired corset piercings. The community we brushed up against had its own history and culture, and however gracious the attendees were to outsiders, it was clear that my friend and I would never belong here, that we were merely passing through on our way toward adulthoods of our own. Ultimately, we rang in 2014 at the Irish pub across the street, drinking shots of whiskey while the Times Square ball dropped on the big-screen televisions in the corners of the room.
The after-party took place in the well-appointed Wicker Park apartment of a white-collar kinkster. We hitched a ride with a guy who had driven down from Wisconsin, something he did every few weeks, whenever a BDSM event coincided with his off-day. In the living room, a submissive, intrigued by my lack of experience, asked me to hit her. She made a small noise when I did. I hit her a few more times, but my performance felt unconvincing, so we sat on the couch and talked. I told her about my own sex life, how I tended to be attracted to men several decades older than I was. She looked at me with a gaze that was all too familiar: like I was crazy, perverted, not the person that she expected me to be.
“Should we go?” asked my friend. We surveyed the room: a guy cut up coke on the coffee table, but only offered lines to girls. A man in crotchless chaps puffed a joint in the corner, and we considered asking him for a drag, but instead we called a Lyft. Having done the bidding of our youth, the closest thing we had to a Master at the time, we returned to our vanilla existences with a story to tell.
Kink, which refers literally to a “bend” in something, is a nebulous and unstable term in the context of sex, described most easily by negation. It can include basically anything besides whatever straight, gay, or trans sex acts one might consider “ordinary,” or vanilla, and kink has a special focus on incorporating a degree of fantasy into the sexual act.
Like many people, I used to associate kink with leather and BDSM, and consequently I engaged in many kink acts during my early years of having gay sex without any knowledge of the circumstances informing what I was doing. Men stuck my foot into their mouths. They asked me to wear white crew socks to their apartments. My natural submissiveness invited them to literally choke me with their mammoth cocks, or they commanded that I not come when I wanted to. There was roleplay, too — all the “daddy” and “son” stuff that intergenerational sex can lend itself to. For a few days, I fell in love with a Norwegian tourist who one night pretended that I was a four-year-old while he was fucking me, and rather than have a conversation about my sexual boundaries, I left his room and never spoke to him again. I was so naïve that I didn’t believe people had desires like his — people who weren’t pedophiles, that is.
I’d spent my life wondering, in my moments of shame, whether I had a sexual disorder, a so-called “paraphilia,” and the world seemed to say, “Yes,” just like that woman at the party. If I opened up to people about sleeping with much older men, they asked me about my relationship with my father, whether I had been abused as a child, or they joked about the bodies of the elderly. But when I was 25, I began to date someone who was very involved with kink, and a few major shifts occurred. Now that I had a boyfriend — a nice, presentable, sociable, accomplished, intelligent man in his late 60s — my sexuality was less and less often subjected to sidelong glances and ignorant jibes. There were more invitations to parties and family functions than there ever had been.
Simultaneously, I understood how complicit I had been in my own alienation for the last quarter-century, allowing others to turn my sexuality into a joke and a disease. My only tool for righting this history was writing, and I found myself replacing the language of Freud and the middle American mores of my adolescence with queerness, leftism, and, increasingly, kink. As a language, kink is complicated and limited: each variety has its own dialect, and communicating across the range of sexual multiplicity requires more than the right lingo. Linking us kinksters of different persuasions is often only the fact that we share a distance from the perceived center of the sexual universe. We need enough empathy and imagination to understand that, unless assimilation is our goal, none of us will ever stand among the throngs in Times Square, waiting for the ball to drop and begin another year.
Kink, a new anthology of short fiction edited by R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, intends to “[c]lose some of the distances between our solitudes” by collecting kinky sex-centered stories written by 15 authors of different races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and ethnicities. A quick look at the writers’ bios, though, shows how remarkably alike they are. Five of them graduated from, or currently teach at, the University of Iowa’s MFA program. Almost all are famous in the world of contemporary literary fiction — in addition to the editors, Kink’s contributors include Roxane Gay, Chris Kraus, Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Chee, and Brandon Taylor. The kink, too, is pretty one-note. There’s a lot of BDSM, most of it light: boot-licking, choking, spitting, and slapping. Blood and piss play pop up here and there, and several narratives are erotic but never touch on anything that most people would call kinky. The very slipperiness of kink as a term both informs the book’s open-endedness and questions the idea behind its curation. If kinky sex has a different meaning to different people, how can 15 stories do justice to its endless variety, to the different reasons people have for enjoying kinky sex, to the many ingenious aesthetic and formal approaches of erotic artists?
Kink’s approach, with a couple of exceptions, is to spotlight realistic narratives. Unlike so many entries in the history of erotic writing, these tales are hardly ever larger-than-life, never seeming to embody kink from the inside, so much as they depict it from the outside. There isn’t sci-fi BDSM here, or mythical beasts with six vaginas spurting Technicolor cum. The sex on display is thoroughly plausible, like something you could try at home. (Be safe, though!) Perhaps expectedly, the collection’s charms are entirely bound up in the MFA-vetted, sometimes hugely impressive technical skill of the contributors. Brandon Taylor’s “Oh, Youth” fits an astonishing number of characters into its 30-page span; Kim Fu’s “Scissors,” about the relationship between two actors in a sex show, builds tension through slow-rolling details; Vanessa Clark’s “Mirror, Mirror” captures the perspective of a black drag queen with a supple, increasingly stylized voice that never verges on stereotype; and R. O. Kwon’s “Safeword” begins its sentences in surprising places, with unsettling first clauses, giving us a wonderfully realistic sense of the narrator’s thought process.
Yet for all of Kink’s compositional thrills, it runs into a stumbling block of realism, and particularly the realist sex scene: language’s inadequacy. Kink brims with characters describing their inability to describe arousal. We have sentences in which time “dilate[s],” and others in which lovers suffocate “under the weight of inarticulable feeling.” This indication of description’s breaking point recalls the work of Mary Gaitskill, whose BDSM-oriented collection Bad Behavior (1988) spiked the American realist tradition with both complicated sexualities and an unwieldly emotional fervency. Yet the anthology is more conservative than Gaitskill’s sex writing, which presses on when a lot of writing would throw up its hands and declare a feeling impossible to pin down — she has the unusual ability to insert two adverbs into a sentence and somehow come off as more urgent and precise than flowery. Because she basks in the desires and reactions of her characters, Gaitskill allows some of her work to be read as erotic, and not merely artistic, or in the language of Kink’s editors, “literary.” And like a number of erotic writers, she intends to provoke, rather than dignify, the sexual lifestyles her writing delves into. Sometimes, she implicates her readers’ shame by condemning violent sex, such as in her 1997 story “Stuff,” or by having the narrative arc suggest that, however hot it may be to her characters, sadomasochism is also a reflection of their tortured psyches. For a girl to want a man who whips and binds her, Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) suggests at its alarming, erotic, and moving climax, she must be a very bad girl indeed.
Kink refuses to lead its readers into such risky, rewarding, and complicated terrain. In the introduction, editors Kwon and Greenwell bemoan how “Kink is often pathologized in contemporary culture.” They provide us with a volley of reasons for why kink writing might exist: “Kink in these stories is a way of processing trauma, and also of processing joy, of expressing tenderness and cruelty and affection and play.” The editors fail to recognize that provocation and intention can coexist in even the most radical work without the latter making its presence known. Dennis Cooper, for example, often luridly describes the torture and killing of teenaged boys in part to show the vulnerability of young gay men, while J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) explores the fetishization of American capitalism by presenting us with a world in which people initiate car accidents in order to get off. But while these motives are borne out in the texts themselves, viewed through the lens of erotica, such intentions are no less reductive than connecting my own experiences with “dad-son play,” say, to something that happened in my childhood. As erotic writers, Cooper and Ballard are using their books to create an extreme experience beyond what is morally possible in the real world.
Other artists explore kink with an eye toward safety and social responsibility, such as Nayland Blake, whose furry-oriented performances revolve around obtaining permission to hug visitors of art galleries and museums, as well as Patrick Califia, whose lesbian and later trans-oriented stories have charted out the ethics of dominance and submission over decades. But what unites these projects is the creation of a fantasy in which feelings, acts, and culture exist in exaggerated proportions. As in actual kink scenes and scenarios, these artists make their own rules and abide by them, enabling audiences to engage their own eroticism within limits that are established so clearly they can become invisible. Liberated from consequences, morals, and laws, art like this allows the mind and the body to play.
Kink isn’t really about playing. It’s about being “literary,” a marketing term used by publishers that the book’s editors have conflated with the word “artistic.” The only story in the anthology that has erotica’s carnivalesque sweep is Carmen Maria Machado’s glimmering “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror,” which locates a lesbian love affair in the Grand Guignol horror shows of early-20th-century Paris. Machado’s luxurious, anticipatory pacing and inhabitation of an historical epoch has all the fun of a bodice-ripper, her sly engagement with the genre indicating a writer who not only enjoys reading erotic literature, as Machado has mentioned in interviews, but also one who has internalized something of its past — a distressingly rare gesture in Kink.
The collection’s cool, finely wrought stories undoubtedly have a space in sex writing, and ultimately, Kink’s shortcoming is not its aesthetics or its curation. The issue is how Kink denies both the validity and even the existence of other forms of erotic literature. In the introduction, Kwon and Greenwell write that “[a] book like this hasn’t been published in a long time,” a statement Kwon reiterated in a recent Guardian essay. A misguided gesture no matter the context, the editors’ assertion of being sui generis seems particularly irresponsible in a book published by a large publishing house like Simon & Schuster, plush with the funds to bankroll an extensive publicity campaign. By virtue of its resources for distribution and marketing, Kink might actually convince some of its ludicrous claim to be completely without precedent, simply because the sort of readers the anthology attracts may be “literary” and have no familiarity with erotic literature.
Historically, erotic writing has been condemned to obscurity, when it wasn’t being literally condemned by legislation such as the 19th-century Comstock Laws, which prohibit sending “obscene” material through the mail. For every smash hit — such as Anne Desclos’s Story of O (1954) or E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) — there are scores of novels and collections about sex that never reach readers because of legal and economic suppression. Publishers and retailers that deal in erotic literature have been regularly harassed by the police and subjected to raids and litigation, even when successfully prosecuting a case is impossible: the intention of law enforcement, it seems, is to make the owners of such businesses so miserable that they eventually close their doors. Legal harassment has historically been worse for purveyors of kinky erotic content — and, of course, for those who traffic in any kind of queer stuff.
The internet has in many ways democratized erotic culture, yet the monopoly of tech behemoths like Google and Amazon regularly opens new routes for censorship. Amazon removed erotic content from its best-seller lists in 2018, only to restore this function after a large public backlash. A couple years earlier, Google deleted a decade’s worth of blog posts and internet art by the aforementioned Dennis Cooper, claiming that one of his posts depicted child abuse. Letters from prominent literary organizations and publicity from The Guardian and The New Yorker forced Google to restore Cooper’s stuff, but one can only wonder about the outcome for a less famous writer, whose censoring would not have garnered the interest of prominent voices in mainstream media. And the federal government, predictably, has shown indifference and even hostility toward independent producers of erotic content and sex workers in the digital age. FOSTA-SESTA, a bill ostensibly protecting children from sex trafficking, has in practice shuttered many pro-sex haunts and havens online.
Even the historical success stories of erotica point to the harrowing obstacles its proponents faced. Sex-positive feminists in the 1980s and 1990s — such as Susie Bright, who edited her own influential series of erotic anthologies, Best American Erotica — endured public pillory and death threats from anti-porn campaigners. John Preston, former editor of The Advocate, saw his BDSM novels confiscated by Canadian customs officials. And gay bookstore owners such as Karen and Barry Mason, proprietors of Los Angeles’s famous, now-closed Circus of Books, were harassed, indicted, fined, and nearly imprisoned in the 1990s because they stocked erotica.
The editors of Kink would have done well to at least acknowledge that they were aware of this legacy of oppression, as well as some of their predecessors and contemporaries who have thrived. But because Kink believes itself to be “literary,” the book imagines that it emerged from a different lineage entirely — if it comes from any lineage at all. Perhaps the most baffling counter to Kink’s claims of originality is how many kinky novels and story collections that are marketed as literary have come out in the past five years alone. Several of the best include Dana Spiotta’s novel Innocents and Others (2016), which explores the fetishes of a phone sex operator; Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker (2016), a collection that delves into a number of kinks, including animal play and prison sex; Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill (2020), an anti-coming-of-age novel about a gay teenager who moves out of his parents’ house as soon as he turns 18 and dives into a BDSM relationship with a stranger; and Lidia Yuknavitch’s Verge (2020), a suite of experimental stories about mistreated children and lonely adults that sends out feelers into the kink world. A laudatory blurb by Yuknavitch even appears on Kink’s jacket, making the editors’ belief in its lack of artistic parents, as if it came into the world by immaculate conception, all the more puzzling.
In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), Samuel R. Delany’s diptych of experimental essays, the science fiction writer and master of erotic prose discusses the “redevelopment” of the eponymous swatch of New York City that happened in the 1990s as a kind of class warfare. This “class war,” Delany writes, “perpetually works for the erosion of the social practices through which interclass communication takes place and of the institutions holding those practices stable…” Following Delany, we can see erotica as an aesthetic means of cultivating interclass communication. Merging art, activism, pornography, and diversion, erotica offers an array of readers many different access points to sexual discourse and knowledge as well as art, without imposing the same bars to entry as books that are self-consciously “literary.” Similar to popular music, erotica neglects to sneer at the prospect of having a wide and diverse audience, while never denying itself the possibility of being artistically vital.
Kink’s method of constantly drawing our attention to its literary laurels, as though resting on them makes the anthology an artwork, reveals how “literary” can be synonymous with a certain sort of class maneuver. Those with the blessings of the establishment propose to “gentrify” erotica, an area that is healthy and thriving on its own, but whose population of readers and authors lack the same class pretensions as its gentrifiers. In their introduction, Kwon and Greenwell cite MacDowell, the ultra-prestigious arts colony where Kwon first came up with the idea for Kink. Her plan for assembling an anthology of sex writing was to produce “the kind of book that could sit on artists’ residencies’ library shelves.” I have no idea what kind of books artists’ residencies stock on their shelves, but Kwon and Greenwell treat this statement in the same way that they treat the word literary — to indicate a lifestyle that might scan as “prestigious” or “refined.”
Aside from an approving reference to James Baldwin, some of whose work, particularly Another Country (1962), was revolutionary in representing erotic acts to mainstream audiences, Kink’s editors acknowledge the existence of a wider world of erotic literature only to decry “popular work.” They create a strawman out of this non-specific genre, telling us, “In movies, television shows, and popular books, kinky people are often also serial killers, emotionally stunted plutocrats, and other stock villains or exaggerated figures of fun.” Never mind that Kink was published by a major house and is clearly gunning for as many readers as possible, or that Another Country, like several of Baldwin’s books, was a best seller. These, after all, are high-class works.
What Kink is doing is denouncing “low-class” culture. Take the prime contemporary example of a popular kink novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t believe E. L. James’s intention was to initiate a wider and less shameful sexual dialogue when she wrote a piece of Twilight fan-fiction, published it online, and later found herself with a major publishing deal and the biggest best seller of the last decade, yet her novel had a social effect that is virtually unheard of in contemporary literature. Fifty Shades accelerated kink’s coming out of the closet, and now glossy magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire publish guides to BDSM as though it’s a wellness treatment. And while this mainstream interest in varied sexualities may seem like a siren song of assimilation — a criticism well worth making — condemning it on the basis that sexual liberation is reaching readers by non-“literary” channels is elitist and absurd. Kink’s rising visibility indicates how a diverse population is having every sort of sex, a population as eclectic and ranging in their literary taste as they are in their educational levels, their class backgrounds, the TV shows they watch, and the personal philosophies they adopt, develop, or discard over a life. It’s encouraging that many different people can discover their interest in plushies or age-play reflected in clickbait lists online, and that syndicated advice columnists now write empathetic responses about how someone can learn to navigate their partner’s need to be physically abused in the bedroom. Assimilation comes with many problems, but introducing the possibility of a healthier and more expansive sex life to a larger swath of people isn’t one of them. You don’t need to read James Baldwin to have the right to fuck.
Condemning this development using the classist language of Kink’s editors is not only brazenly hypocritical, it also supports the sinister business motives of Big Publishing, which wants to entrench genre distinctions as a means of keeping a finger on their audience and maintaining a class-based status quo. These publishing companies would have us overlook the fact that erotic art has always been a bustling, diverse, and seedy neighborhood, one with residents of all different skill levels and persuasions, visitors who arrive for all sorts of reasons, and a beating heart that resists centralized control. Erotica’s flourishing is inconvenient to the corporate world: individuals, many of whom self-publish, can actually make a living writing erotica without negotiating one-sided deals with corporate gatekeepers, and trades that make money and do not serve a master will always be endangered.
Ultimately, Kwon and Greenwell are merely acting like redevelopers serving a complicated, corrosive, and familiar system of governance. They do not own erotic art, and if they want to move into its neighborhood, they would do well to act like neighbors, not gentrifiers. The streets of sex are public. All are welcome to hang out, have fun, and make a life among its diverse and ceaseless hubbub. It’s just that literary fiction is their kink. It’s not ours, not everyone’s.
Daniel Felsenthal is a music writer for Pitchfork and the assistant editor of NOON.
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