Coming Out of the BDSM Closet

Guest Columnist| November 2018

By Omar Beretta, November 2018 Issue.

I was recently in Perú interviewing transgender and nonbinary individuals for a piece about LGTBQ+ diversity. In doing so, I realized how much trans and nonbinary people know about themselves, compared to the standard cisgender gay male. One of them presented themself as a “trans guy, pansexual, atheist, nonbinary, anarcha-feminist and BDSM dominant.”

The BDSM reference got me thinking: When is it the right time to open up to those around us about BDSM practices?

It was not until 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association depathologized kinky sex, including BDSM. Anyone familiar with the BDSM world knows about the stigma. This is one powerful reason to keep one’s BDSM inclinations to oneself, and only live the life within its endogamic, often suffocating world. For some, this creates anxiety and shame. Coming out of the closet as LGBTQ+ can already be challenging; and coming out of the BDSM closet presents more complex considerations.

In honor of National Coming Out Day – observed Oct. 11 in the United States – I have asked people from various backgrounds (who engage in sane, safe and consensual BDSM practice), how much they share about it.

Andy, 53, is the manager of a store in the Netherlands. Andy is out of the BDSM closet to his husband, family, friends and work colleagues. The word “honesty” comes again and again as we talk. His husband of 10 years is not into BDSM, but they have agreed that Andy can have one BDSM lover, to whom he is faithful. Occasionally, the three socialize together. Andy’s lover has a husband of four years who has agreed to this arrangement. Recently, Andy’s lover expressed that he would like to explore certain BDSM practices of which Andy is not interested, so the four of them have agreed that Andy’s lover will find a new lover willing to integrate these practices, while keeping the rest informed.

Salvatore, 50, a high school teacher, lives in Southern Italy. He is single and has a few BDSM lovers. Although there is a solid BDSM community in his country, Salvatore shares that as many as half the men he meets in this community are straight or gay, cis men who are not out of the closet to anyone. Salvatore is out to close friends only. He pleads that his sexual preferences are private and that neither family nor work colleagues should be informed about his doings. We chat about his reasons for not coming out, and we agree that those were the same arguments for which many gays and lesbians resisted coming out of the closet in years past.

Alex, 45, a university teacher from Argentina, is only out to a few close friends, based on the same reasons as Salvatore. None of his (few) partners shared the BDSM life, and he concludes that it played a role in the breakups.

Pablo, 52, an author and advocate of BDSM in Argentina, is out to everyone. When I ask him if the BDSM life has ever made him anxious or unhappy, he replies: never, apart from the anxiety or unhappiness that may derive from love.

Although the BDSM practice has traditionally attracted older players, there is a steady increase of younger men and women in the scene.

Hova, 24, a university student from Argentina, is a heavy metal enthusiast. He compares the stigma around BDSM to that associated with heavy metal music, and concludes that the misconceptions are derived from lack of information. He is open to his closest friends, some of whom also expressed interest in experimenting with BDSM.

Iván, 33, a designer from Argentina, finds that BDSM empowers him to connect with others outside the social canon, thus enriching his life.

David, 30, a journalist from Argentina, says that he is “not yet” out of the BDSM closet because he has just started this road of discovery, but is willing to be open about it in the future.

Arturo, 24, a human rights activist from Perú, is angry about the moral sanctions imposed by church and state on all forms of dissident sexuality. He would be more open about his lifestyle if it did not entail undesirable consequences.

Niqo, 27, a producer from Paraguay, explains that the narrow views on any form of sexual dissidence are so ingrained in the Paraguayan society, that coming out of the BDSM closet would be met with contempt.

Fer, 27, an LGBTQ+ activist from Paraguay, finds that worrying about coming out of the BDSM closet is a privilege of the upper classes, to which I agree.

Disclosure seems to be integral to dating. Most people I spoke with acknowledged that not being honest with their partners about the BDSM life jeopardized the connection with them, and had a role in the subsequent breakups. The possibility of coming out to family, friends and work colleagues varies greatly, depending on how rights on gender issues have evolved and are integrated in the social fabric.

Diego, 30, a psychologist from Uruguay, reminds me that while BDSM sex provides a plethora of possibilities beyond genital intercourse, contemporary society still considers sex beyond coitus as taboo.

Is hetero (and homo) normativity blinding us? What is at stake here is not just a personal decision, but rather a radical transformation of the way in which freedom is exercised. As the normative/capitalist social relations erode all forms of sexual dissidence in order to reproduce itself, the BDSM closet will remain crowded.