How to Write About Kink Without Going Full “Fifty Shades”
R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, editors of "Kink," on the importance of taking sexuality seriously
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
It is hard to talk about sex and literature without making some sort of Fifty Shades of Grey reference. But where Fifty Shades shows a caricature of S&M, the new anthology Kink is a celebration of the range of human desires. From the power of control and the titillation of voyeurism, this collection is a toe in the water that is sexuality.
With Kink, editors R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell sought to gather a diverse collection of stories which speak to the complexity of kink and human interactions. With stories from Brandon Taylor, Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Chee, and more, this collection shines in its moments of small intimacy, especially in a time when touch and connection are so hard to find.
Parrish Turner: What does it mean to center kink when having conversations about sex, especially in literature?
R.O. Kwon: I have trouble answering that question in part because I have been just shying away from definitions of kink. I think especially with an anthology it does feel important for the definition to be as open as possible to however people want to define it.
Garth Greenwell: It’s definitely true that from our first conversations, Reese and I were both really clear that the last thing we wanted to do was start drawing lines and saying “this is kinky and this isn’t.” We made it really clear that we were interested in work that writers felt was centered on kink, whatever that meant to them.
I too really shy away from trying to define what “kink” is. Whatever definitions I find myself reaching for are objectionable for different reasons. Like, if I say “non-normative sexual practices,” then that falls into the trap of a paradigm I don’t really believe in. I do think that something that is true about kinky practices is an understanding that sex is something that is staged and can be negotiated and potentially theatrical or have elements of ritual. Just that sex is something that doesn’t just happen. It is something that we are agents in staging and negotiating.
ROK: One result of centering kink maybe can help demonstrate something that I very much believe, which is that there is no such thing as normative sex and that the norms are bogus and largely harmful.
GG: And community that forms around certain sexual practices and that that was something that was interesting to us. Seeing those communities on the page was exciting to us.
PT: Part of what interests me about centering kink in sex is that I see this as part of a shift in the way that we talk about sex in literature. What we define as pornography or erotica is kind of shifting. How did that impact how you approached an anthology of sex stories?
ROK: I feel as though Garth will have a closer viewpoint on this. I do feel as though there has been and continues to be more pushing back against the idea that there are any genres at all and the idea that genres have to be separate. It feels as though Garth’s writing is very much a part of this as Garth has been such a stalwart and eloquent defender and champion of the place sex has in literature. And it’s wild that anyone thinks it doesn’t have a place.
GG: One of the things I find myself pushing back a lot is against easy notions of pornographic as a term of derision. That supposed dichotomy. That there is something about serious literature that prevents putting sexual bodies graphically on the page is something that I think is dumb and I utterly reject.
PT: Tied to that is the impact that having so many queer perspectives in the anthology. Part of what you are referencing is what is “okay” to portray and as a wider variety of queer lives are being portrayed in “mainstream” literature. I often felt as a teenager that anything I did was kinky just because I wasn’t straight.
GG: We’ve been fielding a lot of questions about an overlap of kinkiness and queerness, which clearly there is no easy identity between the two, but I think it is true historically that queer communities have been amenable to kink practices and kink communities have been amenable to queer people. One thing I hope the anthology does is multiply our sense of what both of those terms mean. If someone has an easy idea of kink as just bringing whips or handcuffs into the bedroom, which is certainly part of kink, but the anthology makes clear that’s not the only way to think about what kink is. And I hope the anthology also makes clear that there is not just one paradigm for what queerness looks like either.
ROK: The anthology is predominantly queer. Which I love. I think it’s so queer that at some point Garth and I were looking at our list like “Wait, do we even have a single straight person?” We ended up with one or two, but barely any. It was really important to us that the anthology be as inclusive as possible. It happened so organically too, it just happened.
PT: That makes sense when trying to get a variety of perspectives on kink and sex, of course queer people are going to be involved with that. I am also curious about the range of ethnic identities represented in this collection. That diversity should be standard practice, but I am wondering the impact that had on the specific stories in the collection, especially given the intersection of race and sexuality. I am thinking along the lines of stereotypes about various groups and their sex lives.
ROK: A general rule for myself is that, when I’m spearheading a project or event, I try to never have more white people than people of color involved in a project or event.
Instead of generalizing, I will speak for myself. I didn’t read any Korean writers until after college and I didn’t get serious about it until after graduate school. A large part of it was that I didn’t know there were any of us out there. And when I was getting out of college, there were far fewer of us than there are now. There is always that consciousness that, in putting out a story with S&M with a Korean central character in it, I haven’t read much of that so there is always that doubled consciousness. That said, I know when I’m writing, I try to never think about stuff like that. I try to never wonder about the weight that that puts on the story that I’m trying to make. For me, I’m conscious of it, but I try to not let it bother me.
GG: That’s so smart. Part of my proselytizing about what good sex can do in literature, I think it’s a really powerful way to talk about history and cultural situated-ness. Great writers of sex have always recognized that bodies are situated in history and much of the meaning of our bodies and therefore ourselves is not made by us but assigned to us. One of the things that kinky sexual practices can do, and several of the stories in the anthology show them doing, is try and take some of that assigned meaning, by making it theatrical, making it something that one has some control over. To sort of make that assigned meaning visible and therefore negotiable and a source of an assertion of agency. I also think that you see if you read Toni Morrison, who is a great writer of sex, James Baldwin, Raven Leilani… A characteristic of great writing about sex is an awareness of the fact that sex is historical and the meanings our bodies make is always historically and culturally situated. That is part of the pressure put on the scene just by the scene being fully written.
PT: So your book is coming out during Covid. Have you see the way that Covid has changed the way that we talk about sex and how this book might be talked about differently when it comes out?
ROK: Yes, the book comes out February 9, five days before the most wretched Valentine’s Day in the history of Valentine’s Days. I saw someone said on Twitter that the great thing about this book is that, because there are so many kinds of desire portrayed, a really fun thing to do is to underline passages with interests of your own and you could hand it off to somebody you might be getting involved with. This is glorious.
GG: That is a great idea. I am really shocked at how much the affective emotional power of literature has shifted for me. I was on a book tour for Cleaness when everything shut down. Cleaness became a radically different book after Covid for me. The idea of touch, the idea of intimacy. That is true of this anthology too. It is such a difficult time. This is true for a lot of queer people, [but] so much of my erotic life relied on the free circulation of bodies. That part of my erotic life has just shut down because it’s hugely unsafe. It’s not as though anything on the page changed, but the meaning of the book changed for me.
PT: I listen to Dan Savage’s podcast and early in the pandemic, he talked about the rise of financial doms post the 2008 financial crisis. He speculated on how the pandemic would affect fetishes. Like how will our fetishes change to respond to our tramas?
GG: Will there be coughing fetishes? There probably already are. Anything you can imagine, someone is probably turned on by it. It both horrifies me and gives me hope about humanity.
ROK: Years and years ago, I read this column by Dan Savage and someone wrote in to tell him about their specific scuba diving fetish and they just wanted to have sex in scuba diving gear. They were so ashamed and didn’t know how to bring this up. And there were so many lovely replies of people being like I would be so down, it sounds so nice and chill.
GG: It sounds great. Nobody gets hurt!
ROK: It warmed my heart; I almost cried. All these people saying “You’re fine.” I wish we lived in a world where people could experience more of that openness and far less of the shame and the punishment and sorrow and loneliness.
GG: Queer writers have been aware of the ways promiscuity and kinky practices are a practice in humanness. T Fleischmann talks about this kind of promiscuity as a kind of practice of sociality. I feel very grateful for promiscuity for that. There have been so many tender moments. There have been so many moments where a stranger has said to me “I’m into this weird thing.” And there is this kind of vulnerability and fearfulness in that, but it calls such a tenderness from me. I feel very grateful for moments when it has been possible to say yes to these things. There are so many things that people are ashamed of that do no harm. I love the idea of a world that is more accommodating to those things.
PT: Anthologies function as part of a conversation in and of themselves. What are your hopes for how this book fits into the narrative in ten years?
ROK: I can speak to one of my hopes. I personally am exhausted beyond belief by the ways that kink and S&M are portrayed in movies and TV shows. There are so many serial killers! The percentage of kinky people who are serial killers is just wild to me. There aren’t that many serial killers and there are so many kinky people. That kind of stereotype is incredibly harmful. I just think of the 11-year-old who thinks “the only thing I know about people that want the things my body seems to want is that they are serial killers.” I would love for that caricature to be gone.
This is only one book and we wanted the book to be as inclusive as possible, but there is so much that isn’t in here. I would love if in ten years there is nothing remarkable about this book being centered on kink.
PT: I feel like if people were given spaces to be honest about what they want, they would be way less likely to be a serial killer. Tina Horne has a podcast and she talks about how you can work through your shit through kink in this safe environment and if you need it to stop it can stop. And you can push yourself and you are better prepared for the real world. The therapeutic nature of being on good terms with your desire.
ROK: Oh, being on good terms with our desires. I wanna get there.