The term “gender and sexual minorities” isn’t just sexual orientation and gender identity. It also includes relationship structures, like non-monogamy, and sexual practices. Perhaps the most common minority sexual practice is BDSM/kink. BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, submission/sadism, and masochism. The terms BDSM and kink are roughly interchangeable. For today’s article I’ll be using the term kink.
Kink is an activity between consenting adults for the purpose of creating intense physical and/or psychological experiences. The intense sensations can range from physical restraint (bondage) to tickling to pain. Psychological experiences can include role playing and voluntary power exchanges. Power exchange is where one person “takes control” for a period of time. Fetishes are common. Experiences are often called “play.” There can be significant overlap between kink, polyamory, sex positivity, and LGBT communities.
As many as 2-10% of people enjoy kink. Many more have thoughts of it. Some prefer kink activities over non-kink activities. Others identify as kink-oriented or kinky. Kink-oriented people see it as part of their identity, like being gay. Still others only enjoy it from time to time. They dabble but don’t feel strongly attached.
Unfortunately, kink is heavily stigmatized in the United States. As a result kink-oriented people are afraid of “coming out”. There is also minimal understanding or acceptance of kink in the medical community. In fact, it is often confused for abuse or intimate partner violence. Patients who practice kink may not be able to get the healthcare they need.
The Kink Health Project
So what about the study? Today’s study, the Kink Health Project, was a qualitative study. The researchers came together with community members and asked open ended questions. They collected the free-form information and found themes. Aside from the demographics, no statistics here, just concepts and idea.
The study was done in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. TASHRA played a huge role. The study was designed with input from 16 community members. Then there were large “town hall” meetings, small focus groups, and interviews. So participants could keep the level of privacy they wanted. Researchers asked about experiences and thoughts about health care and kink.
In total, 115 people participated. Although they were mostly non-heterosexual (79%) and white (81%), they were also diverse in terms of age, experience in kink, and gender identity. 19% were gender non-conforming. Preferred kink role (dominant, submissive, or switch) was evenly distributed across the participants.
Despite concerns of stigma, 44 participants had visited a health care provider for a kink-related concern. 38% were “out” to their provider about practicing kink.
When researchers analyzed the data, they saw five themes emerge:
- Physical health
- Sociocultural aspects
- Stigma’s impact on interactions with physicians
- Coming out to health care providers
- Kink-aware medical care
Physical health is perhaps the easiest aspect to grasp. Many of the practices in kink can impact health. The most common injuries in this study include bruising and related trauma, broken skin, nerve damage, fainting, burns, and needle-sticks (and other blood exposure). Despite these risks, some participants reported better physical health because of kink. They felt better about themselves. So they took better care of themselves.
As part of taking care of themselves, they wanted specific testing. Participants wanted the ability to have more frequent or complete STD or blood-bourne disease testing. They wanted testing based on their own individual risks. Not testing based on the population at large. Population risks often simply didn’t apply. It’s like pregnancy testing a lesbian who’s never had sex with a man.
Most said they got health information from their communities, not physicians. Why? Certainly they did want good health information. They especially wanted individualized medical care so they could play safely. So why get information from the community? Because they had a lot of fear of stigma from medical professionals. And because healthcare professionals don’t often know about kink, they could get better knowledge from the community. Groups like the Society of Janus exist specifically to spread knowledge.
Participants interacted with healthcare professionals differently because of the fear of stigma. They hid their activities. Some even gave false information. Others delayed appointments until bruises faded, or tried to hide marks from their play.
One area of particular concern was the fear that kink would be confused for domestic violence. Health care providers are often taught that “Bruises = abuse”. This is not always the case. Women in particular were afraid of this confusion. Delays in seeking health care were commonly reported.
Those who did come out to their health care provider, and they did have good experiences. However they were also in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco is well known for being an accepting place. So participants suspected their positive experiences were probably unusual.
How can health care providers do better?
Participants in the Kink Health Project brain stormed ways that the medical profession can serve their needs better. Here are some:
- Differentiate between domestic violence and consensual activities
- Ask open ended questions about sexual behavior
- Individualize screenings for sexually transmitted infections and blood-bourne infections
- Acknowledge alternate family structures, including multiple partners
- Provide non-judgmental counseling on decreasing risks
What can a kinky patient do?
So what can a kink-oriented patient do to potentially improve their experience in health care?
- Consider coming out to your provider. This is an incredibly individual decision, however. Only do so if you think you’ll be safe
- If and when you come out, give that provider resources. TASHRA is probably the best resource to start with.
- Emphasize your desire for safety and the consensual nature of your activities. A health care provider’s first concern should be your safety. They need to know that no one is truly causing you harm.
- If you need to, ask for a referral or seek another opinion. Not all providers are going to be comfortable treating kinky patients. It is, however, their responsibility to refer you to another provider if they’re not able to provide the care you need.
And remember: You deserve to have a health care provider who treats you with respect.
Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available