Kink is like art: hard to describe but you know it when you see it. But kinky sex is often not seen, particularly not in mainstream culture beyond the likes of 50 Shades of Grey or The Silence of the Lambs. The fact that rich men and serial killers are the best representation kink has in pop culture speaks volumes to our failure to understand it beyond tropes of whips and leather.
Perhaps best defined as an umbrella term for unconventional sexual practices, kinky sex is sex that doesn’t resign itself to easy, palatable definitions and, for this reason, has remained clouded in mystery, forced behind a curtain and deemed shameful.
Now, a groundbreaking new anthology of short stories is lifting the veil on kink. Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, Kink features some of American literary fiction’s most exciting writers: Brandon Taylor, Roxane Gay, Chris Kraus and Carmen Maria Machado to name a few. The result is a spectrum of kinky sex – from the hardcore to the lowkey – that tackles everything that comes along with it: power, play, desire, trust, love.
Over Zoom, we catch up with one of Kink’s editors, R.O. Kwon, and one of its writers, Zeyn Joukhadar, to discuss the demonisation of kink, the terrible violence of suppressing what bodies want and why sex in fiction is both essential and joyful.
Congratulations on Kink’s release! How does it feel for it to be out in the world?
R.O. Kwon: Thank you! A really lovely thing has been hearing from so many people who have said variations of: “I was waiting for this book” or “I wanted this book.” That’s meant so much to us. Putting out an anthology is very different from putting out a novel. The responsibilities feel different; it’s much more like a collective project for our communities.
Let’s start at the start. How did Kink come about?
Kwon: I was at an artist residency in New Hampshire and I’d just published a story in Playboy that I was really anxious about. It was the most sexually explicit piece of fiction I’d ever published – it’s a version of what’s in the anthology – and I’ve been a woman on the internet for a while, I know how things go down! I thought I would get weird messages but they were lovely, with people saying, “Thank you for writing this, for publishing it in a place like Playboy, I feel less alone.”
I was thinking about that when I came across a story by Garth and then across Melissa Febos’ book, Whip Smart. They made me think, wait, all these could be part of a book… I roped in Garth and we started approaching writers. It was so exciting. I might just have missed it, of course, but I can’t think of an anthology published in recent history that’s doing this with writers like this.
The line-up of writers is incredible – it’s a bit like the avengers of kinky literary fiction have assembled. It’s exciting that so many of these writers, who are literary award winners and beloved, are also writing so openly about kink.
Kwon: Absolutely, it’s incredible. Of course people have been writing about kink for millenniums and as long as sex has been around, people have been talking about it. But conversations around kink are often constrained. Even just today I was seeing talk on social media about how kink is used by sexual predators to cover their abuse. That’s so wild to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so angry in my life. We don’t extend that logic to anything else: abusers take advantage of X, therefore X is absolutely harmful. Is all sex then a cover for abuse? Are all families a cover for abuse? What about gymnastics class or church? That logic is so harmful and yet still very much exists. That said, something that has been valuable about encountering that pushback is that it’s confirmation of how important it could be to put out a book like this.
Zeyn Joukhadar: I agree! If someone is an abuser they’re going to abuse regardless of the context you put them in. There’s a perception, especially among the cis het population, that there’s a border between kink and other aspects of life. But where is that border when you belong to a population that is already hypersexualised or fetishised or your existence is deemed offensive to minors? For people who are queer and trans, and even more the intersecting marginalisations you add in to that, borders aren’t useful and they’re used to harm us. In exactly the same way that queerness and transness gets villainised, I have a big problem with someone entangling kink and sex in the same issue as abuse.
The mainstream representation of kink has been extreme: it’s either 50 Shades of Grey glossiness and a version of kink that involves white, hetero, rich people – or serial killers. Was that something you were conscious of pushing back against with the book?
Kwon: Very much so. Enough serial killers are kinky on TV that I actually play a game with myself to see how many minutes it’ll be before we find out a serial killer is also kinky. Kink is such an umbrella term covering many things but kinky practices generally foreground consent in a way that is often absent in particularly heterosexual relationships and sex. So why the serial killers? There was a OkCupid poll in 2017 that found 71 percent of their members indicated an interest in kink and 71 percent of people can’t be serial killers, so where is this idea coming from?
Zeyn, was your story ‘The Voyeurs’ written for Kink and can you talk about how you wanted to approach kink with it?
Joukhadar: Yes, it was written specifically for Kink. When Reese [Kwon] approached me about the project I was excited, especially for its open definition of kink. But when I sat down to think about what I could add to it, I immediately was panicking, thinking what do I feel pressured to have to engage with – not by anyone involved with the project, but by culture in general. My mind also goes to 50 Shades and serial killers. What gets mainstream attention is usually the thing that’s most palatable. Being trans, being of colour, being Muslim and from an immigrant family – my definition of what kink is going to be very different. I thought that deserves to be on the page.
There are people in the world who would define me already as kinky just for walking down the street or trying to find a place to pee or living. I felt, what I would define as, a particularly trans rage about that. How do I explore my own sense of desire and pleasure and my relationship with myself if I’m constantly subjected to this really dehumanising gaze? So, I wanted to turn that gaze back on itself and at the same time I wanted to think of an antidote to it. For the trans couple in my story, their gaze on each other is a sacred thing that’s reminiscent of a painting of the Virgin of Mercy by Piero della Francesca, which shows her covering her believers with her cloak. If we can see each other, we can protect each other and block out the harmful gazes that seek to define us.
Kwon: That’s beautifully put, Zeyn. I would say that if I’m working on a piece of fiction, I’m always centring myself or someone like me in some way. Of course if I’m writing for myself, the body that is being centred as a potential audience is then by default a Korean-American, immigrant, queer woman. This body has not often been centred in Anglophone American letters or in Korean letters. In many ways it’s already political if I’m centring myself. There’s something that Toni Morrison said that gives me a lot of strength: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”
When I was reading Kink, parallels between the practice of kink and the practice of writing stood out: the trust created, the importance of communication, the failure of language, the need for language to evolve. Did that stand out to you, K.O., as you assembled the book?
Kwon: Garth and I have seen a little bit of confusion around why kink isn’t defined in the book. It was so important to us not to define kink for anyone else. We never wanted to gatekeep, like you’re in the kink club and you’re not. That’s weird! We wanted to be on the side of openness and inclusion. We were so delighted when the stories came in, how different they were in content and emotional register. It was so exciting that that came about with us providing no direction other than do you want to write a story that engages with kink?
Every so often, someone tries to make the argument that sex has no place in fiction. Why does sex matter in fiction?
Joukhadar: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier: where do you draw the imaginary border between sex and life? That border is just used to demonise queer and trans people who are seen as inherently sexual beings. Also sex is a really human experience and to block it out denies us a lot of richness that we deserve to explore, especially for people whose writing is often kept out of literature by gatekeepers.
Kwon: As a fairly avid reader of contemporary fiction, I just don’t understand the logic of trying to keep sex out of literature. Sex often involves maximum vulnerability and how is that not the richest fodder for writers? Why do people try to shut themselves off from that?
I think the place of kink in literature is the same as sex in literature, which is the same as love, grief, even fucking war in literature. All these things are never questioned and yet sex is. That’s baffling. Anytime I see someone make the argument that sex has no place in literature, I automatically assume they’re having terrible sex. Join the rest of us who are having more fun! Of course there are so many societal pressures that make it hard to claim your desires and the more marginalised you are the harder it is. I don’t want to diminish how hard it is when we deny ourselves things that our bodies clearly want. That’s a terrible first violence from which a lot of other violence can arise.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Kink edited by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell and published by Scribner is out now.