The Origins Of Kinks Are More Complicated Than You Thought

by Emma McGowan
Originally Published: 
Normal People

Hulu's Normal People, an adaptation of a novel by young Irish writer Sally Rooney, features a lot of kinky sex. While critics have found the show to capture a believable, intimate depiction of young love, others argue that Normal People follows the same old sex-negative tropes about kink that you've heard for years. Regardless of your take, the debate brings up the question: Can your personal life and family history lead you to develop a kink in adulthood? Where do kinks from come?

The short answer is: No one is really sure.

Defining kink is trickier than it seems. says it’s “bizarre or unconventional sexual preferences or behavior,” which is pretty kink-negative. Wikipedia defines it as “unconventional sexual preferences,” which is much more neutral. But neither quite hit the mark.

“‘Kink’ is a construct and the meaning is subjective,” sex therapist and sexologist Stefani Threadgill tells Bustle. “There are no defining factors that deem one ‘kinky.’”

With that said, there are some sexual practices that are commonly put under the “kink” umbrella. For example, bondage, sadism (pleasure from giving pain), masochism (pleasure from receiving pain), spanking, foot fetishes, and role-playing are all well-known kinks. Some less well-known ones might include food play, mummification, and blood play.

So, if kinks are just different ways to enjoy sex, where do they come from? Up until fairly recently, being kinky was considered a mental disorder. In fact, kink was only removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the guidebook for psychologists and psychiatrists — in 2013. When you think about the fact that that’s only seven years ago, it’s pretty amazing that we’re able to have such an open discussion about these days.

Clinical sexologist Rena McDaniel tells Bustle that one way people form kinks (specifically fetishes) is by creating a sexual connection where there wasn’t one before.

“Sometimes kinks come from our brains pairing an otherwise non-sexual, neutral object, body part, or situation with a sexually relevant context,” McDaniel says. “These pairings can happen at any point in our life. For example, if you happened to have a really great masturbation session on a blue couch, then suddenly, blue couches might start making you a little hot and bothered.”

She also points out that our fear responses and our arousal responses are very similar — and that our bodies can’t always tell exactly what’s happening when we’re turned on.

“Kinks also play on body responses like our adrenaline system that release endorphins (feel-good hormones) when activated,” McDaniel says. “Your body can't tell the difference between a sharp knife and a credit card when you are blindfolded. The rush of energy flooding your body from having a credit card dragged over you helps increase blood flow to the genitals, which increases arousal.”

When it comes to kinks that center around rough sex play, the shorthand for which is BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism), "there are so many misconceptions it drives me bananas," Dr. Britney Blair, PsyD, CBSM, AASECT, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist, and founder of the sexual wellness app Lover, tells Bustle.

"This is really one of the most common sexual fantasies," Dr. Blair says. "Maybe it's not fair to say 'most' people, but many people have experienced some form of bondage play or have had fantasies about it. It's much more common than people think."

One common myth about people who are interested in BDSM is that they were abused in the past.

"There are certainly people in the BDSM community who have experienced abuse in the past and are working that out," Dr. Blair says. "Most, however, are not."

Dr. Blair points out that studies have actually shown a correlation between people who regularly practice BDSM and higher levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction. And when asked where the kink might come from, if not an abusive past, Dr. Blair says that many people are drawn to BDSM through a desire for sexual novelty.

“I also think sex is a way that adults play," Dr. Blair says. "It’s a way to disconnect from reality.”

In short, it's almost impossible to know where a specific person's kinks come from. The simplest answer is that it varies from person to person. Some people might be able to trace their kink to a specific blue couch they masturbated on once, while others might have no idea why getting spanked gets them going. But, ultimately, does it really matter?

“Honestly, as long as you are playing in a safe, sane, and consensual way, who cares why you like getting tied up or bitten or spanked?” McDaniel says. “There's a reason it’s called ‘playing.'”

So instead of worrying about where a kink came from, go out and enjoy it! Because couldn’t we all use a little more play in our lives?


Stephanie Threadgill, sexologist

Rena McDaniel, clinical sexologist

Dr. Britney Blair, PsyD, CBSM, AASECT, clinical psychologist, sex therapist

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