Susan Wright

The Rumpus Interview with Susan Wright

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While working diligently on my historical novel and watching sales of Fifty Shades of Gray skyrocket and take over the mainstream consciousness, I started wondering what in it, beyond the S&M relationship, was so compelling. What did it take to find a breathtakingly large readership—and could I, too, dig into our collective pathos in a way that meant something to so many women? What are women really doing in bed, I wondered. What do they want, and how is Fifty Shades of Gray giving it to them?

So when I heard that the terminology around acts that our culture considers to be “sexually deviant” was being changed in the May update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), I was curious. The DSM-5 is a field guide for the mental health community and it was being updated this month for the first time in thirteen years. There was considerable noise in the press over how the DSM-5 might newly characterize healthy sex versus deviant sex.

I looked around to understand what appeared to be a very confusing run-up to the May update, and found the activist and author Susan Wright to be the most eloquent commentator on the topic. Susan founded the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), a national advocacy organization for the BDSM, swing, and polyamory communities, in 1997. I asked if we could talk for an assignment I’d gotten for Details on the subject. But what I was chiefly interested in was writing a book that looked at women and sex in a way that might be counterintuitive.

We spoke on the phone at length one night in April, after my son went to sleep. Our conversation left me humbled. In 1991, when Susan got into the kink community, she got a lucky break to get her first book published. But when her editor discovered she was in a kinky triad with a married couple, he told her that if she wanted to get her book published, she would have to sleep with him, too. “I stood up and walked out,” she said. “It was one of the defining moments of my life, and it sparked the activist inside of me.”

I wanted to get her voice out in the world to color the hard-facts reporting that didn’t dig into the issues deeply enough. Susan had smart things to say about consent versus rape not just in “fringe” communities, but in the sexual lives of people of every persuasion. Her sharply-worded thoughts of media influence on the persecution of alternative sexuality gave me a serious education. But what hit me most was how much we yielded to contemporary notions about sexuality. Sexual deviance is a subjective thing. What was considered deviant decades ago (homosexuality) is no longer so. What’s still unacceptable in some countries and communities (pre-marital sex) is a given in the West.

What is our cultural moment, I wonder. Whatever it is, Susan makes it clear that talking about sex yields a different kind of intimacy than most of us have come to expect.

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The Rumpus: Since the third edition of the DSM, the manual defined “non-normative” sexual behavior as “paraphilias,” or sexual deviation. Back then, a “sexual disorder” included homosexuality—and that was removed in 1973. So there are different opinions about what’s considered “deviant” at each cultural moment. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) said they may add “paraphiliac disorder” to the manual to differentiate between healthy people who enjoy kinky sex and those who are mentally ill. How does that sit with you?

Susan Wright: The DSM’s rationale section for each diagnosis includes the APA’s thinking and possible language on paraphilia: clear non-normative sexual behavior that’s practiced by healthy people.” Paraphilia in general has been defined as “non-normative sexual behavior that is not solely focused on the genitals or breasts.” By itself, it doesn’t require psychiatric intervention. That’s different from what they call “paraphiliac disorder,” which is when someone is causing severe distress or inflicting harm upon themselves or others.

Rumpus: The language is cloaked in secrecy until May. What is the main issue?

Wright: How they’re going to define “distress” is the issue. There’s a lot of societal pressure because of the stigma around kinky sex.

Rumpus: How would you define distress or harm, say, if you’re in a dominant/submissive relationship? Is it distress or harm, say, if you’re a sub and your partner spanks and bruises you consensually? What is distress?

Wright: Distress is about the person who’s actually doing it. This is how the APA would like to diagnose mental illnesses: “Is this person suffering distress over the fact that this is happening?” Some people don’t at all, and some may overlap with sexual sadism, such as psychopaths who don’t suffer any sort of distress over what they’re doing. Those people also suffer “impairment” to themselves in that they can’t have real relationships with people and don’t have the social skills to form bonds.

The other important part concerns harm to others. I’m not sure if that should fall under mental illness, but that’s what sexual sadism as a paraphiliac disorder would be: someone who harms other people. And either they do it non-consensually or in a way that’s so extreme, that it actually causes damage to the other person.

Rumpus: So the language in the DSM-IV (TR), the 2000 update to the 1994 fourth edition, was vague?

DSM-5Wright: The line wasn’t drawn before regarding what is mental illness. They had a vague criteria, four out of five, that could have applied to anyone who was suffering some kind of distress because they weren’t out. Or distress because they hadn’t found the kink community yet. Or because they felt alone, ashamed, or confused about what they were doing. That kind of shame is not mental illness.

Unfortunately such diagnoses were used not only by psychiatrists but by people in the legal field who used the DSM without the qualifications to interpret what it really said. We need that hard, bright line and that’s what the APA said they were going to give us. A lot of persecution comes because people think that kinky people might be mentally ill. If we can disprove that, it gives them no reason to have a problem with us.

Rumpus: What did you wean from your conversations with the APA?

Wright: On behalf of NCSF, I was able to talk to the paraphilias sub-working group and educate them about the discrimination and persecution that’s going on because of the DSM. Frankly, they were quite surprised, and they didn’t want the DSM to engender that sort of discrimination. So I think the information that the APA released to the public—the distinction between paraphilia and paraphiliac disorders was a response to that. It was a way of saying: “Hey, listen, we’re not talking about healthy kinky people. They shouldn’t be discriminated against because they’re not mentally ill.” I’m really hoping they follow through.

Rumpus: Are there legal repercussions around the language they include in the manual? You mentioned that laws around “bodily harm” vary from state to state.

Wright: A good example is family court, when you’re trying to get child custody. The judge evaluates the parents and if an accusation is made that one of the parents is kinky and that they’re not a fit parent, the judge will turn to the DSM. Then he might say, wow, you won’t give up your sex partner who happens to be kinky, so therefore you require this and you are mentally ill.

The language included in this new edition will have repercussions across the board—in psychiatry, in legal settings, and also in our understanding of what kinky sex is. It already has an impact. One out of three people in NCSF’s surveys say they have been persecuted. Some were attacked, some discriminated against. That’s a huge number.

Rumpus: What about accusations that kink can go too far? Since highly emotional events often take place around kink, what happens when someone goes over the edge? How do people differentiate within these gray areas?

BDSM 2Wright: If we can take away some of the stigma of this, it’s easier for someone to report something inappropriate. Say you meet someone and decide to have kinky sex and you get assaulted. Right now it’s difficult for the person to report that to the police because of the stigma around kink. They’re also afraid they’re not going to be believed. Removing the stigma will give us more access to the judicial and legal framework that’s in place so we can protect ourselves and get the education we need around this.

Of course there are limits. And there will always be legal limits in terms of what you can do to another person. If you enter somebody, and you damage them in way that injures an organ or you impair a limb, that’s absolutely harm. Even if it’s consensual, it’s harm. If you tie someone up and cause nerve damage in somebody’s arm, you harm them. And there are questions about the liability involved—and there have been cases about things like this. I’m sure in the future, as the stigma’s removed, we’ll be able to deal with these in the right setting and really grapple with these questions.

Rumpus: You’d prefer states follow the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code.

Wright: When people go to court over things like this, it varies from state to state. Some states already follow the Model Penal Code. Then you’ve got a legal interpretation regarding what is “serious bodily injury.” In appellate court cases, which set precedent, things like using a riding crop or dripping candle wax on somebody have, in the past, been considered serious bodily injury. But those are very old cases and I don’t believe that a judge or jury today would rule that a crop or candle wax used consensually is assault.

There are gray areas in all of this regarding consent. None of these court cases are clear-cut. That’s the problem when they create precedent—we’re left not knowing where those lines are. But the Model Penal Code lays out a very good framework for looking at these issues in terms of actual physical injury.

That said, most people who are kinky are not even into the extreme, intense things that people who do body piercing like to do with their bodies. Most want to be kinky in a power exchange kind of way, or they want to cross-dress or engage in some sort of role play. Others are kinky in a BDSM or S&M kind of way. Those people like really intense sensations. They are not harming each other—they’re giving each other intense pleasure through intense sensation. That’s the goal of BDSM. The people who do it non-consensually, they should be arrested. And the people who go over the edge, well, there are going to be penalties because they’ve harmed somebody and they, too, should be arrested.

Rumpus: An earlier piece in Salon addressed rape and sexual assault at “play spaces” in San Francisco’s kink and bondage community. It quoted Carol Queen, the co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture, saying she doesn’t go to commercial dungeons anymore because of this issue.

Wright: These kinds of stories are why NCSF has Consent Counts, an activism program we’re doing to decriminalize consensual BDSM that doesn’t result in serious bodily injury. We did surveys on consent in BDSM because we believe that’s the most important thing for the kink community to be talking about right now. We need to understand consent: what is it? What is it in a legal sense, in an ethical sense, and where do you cross that line?

BDSM 1

For example, we put out a guide, which we call a “fact,” called “Is This Assault?” “Was I assaulted” is a fact—people really have this question—that explains questions such as, “Was it assault if I said yes right up until I said no?”

These are basic questions that are not being explained to people—kinky or vanilla. Unfortunately there’s a gap in the sexual education of adults in America. The kink community is trying to fill that gap. There’s a lot of date rape out there. It’s often someone you know who crosses the line in a small way or in a major way. We need to do a lot more education to teach people this is the line you can’t cross. And we need to do more than teach people how to protect themselves. We need to draw the line ourselves.

At NCSF, we also have a Guide for Groups with a consent policy we’d love to see BDSM groups and clubs use—it says you don’t touch anyone or anything without the other person’s permission, you respect it when somebody says “no,” and you don’t renegotiate in the middle of a scene when someone’s all happy and will say yes to anything. We’re hoping that if we create hardcore lines, it will help form boundaries for people and give us all the education we need.

Rumpus: Besides the DSM-5 update, is there a larger cultural issue that needs to be addressed?

Wright: There’s not a single person out there whose life hasn’t been touched by the issue of consent. When do you consent, when are you coerced, pressured, or manipulated into doing things you don’t want to do sexually? We all need sex education about consent, and safe sex is what it comes down to. Perhaps the kink community is ahead of the curve because we do such complicated, interested games, that we have to understand each other and need to have a way to follow the rules in order to do this—because millions of people are doing this millions of times. That is important for everyone to hear because we aren’t hearing it from anyone else.

Rumpus: Has the Fifty Shades of Gray phenomenon helped make these issues more prominent? The book sold seventy-million copies worldwide.

Wright: You know why Fifty Shades of Gray is so popular? Because it’s barely kinky. It’s popular because they talked the entire time about what they wanted sexually. They negotiated, they compromised. It was a real lesson. Most people don’t even talk about it before they have sex. They don’t know what’s really turning on the other person. To be able to communicate in that way creates an intimacy like no other. And that’s what we have to teach other people. This is something that needed to be said and shown—here’s how you have a great sex life. And you get to confess your deepest, darkest secrets.


Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. @DianeMehta More from this author →