How do we reconcile the parts of ourselves that seek to command in public spheres with the parts that crave submission in private?
When is the last time you thought critically about what turns you on? About the specificity of your arousal, your cravings, the darkest corners of your sexual nature?
Do you get off on sweat? On skin? On a few dirty phrases whispered in the throes of passion? Do you require total darkness to relax, or stark, naked light? A tender kiss on the neck, or a brusquely bitten collarbone?
Perhaps (and stay with me), you find sexual stimulation in the symbolism of trees? That is, you enjoy having sex in the woods, or require physical contact with plants or foliage in order to climax (also known as dendrophilia). Maybe you harbour a secret arousal to stuttering (psellismophilia), or the thought of hellfire and damnation (stygiophilia), or feel frisky when enveloped in fog (nebulophilia).
If ruminating on the full gamut of sexual desire feels a far cry from your usual water cooler chat, well, you’re not alone. Despite all the societal advances towards acceptance of sexual freedoms, fetishism, kink and erotic fantasy still linger in the realms of the conversationally taboo – stories and longings to be shared only with a few like-minded peers or via anonymous reddit threads.
Coming clean on the nuances of our physical humanity can be uncomfortable for many reasons.
A general lack of education in the erotic equates to a fairly primitive sexual vocabulary and, coupled with feelings of vulnerability or shame, fear of rejection and fear of the unknown, creates a perfect storm of silence and secrecy.
It’s a communication gap that research psychologist, writer and director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in Dunedin, Jesse Bering, explores in his 2014 publication Perv: the Sexual Deviant in All of Us. “What usually gets out is what we want others to know,” he writes of our culturally engrained aversion to the erotic. “The problem with zipping up on our dirtiest little secrets, however, is that others are doing exactly the same thing, and this means that the story of human sexuality that we’ve come to believe is true is, in reality, a lie.” What’s more, he argues, it’s an incredibly dangerous lie – one that manages to convince us that we are isolated, alone in the world as ‘perverts’, should we ever deviate in some way from this falsely conceived pattern of the ‘normal’. And it has affected our psychological evaluation of humanity: “A lot of human nature has escaped rational understanding because we’ve been unwilling to be completely honest about what really turns us on and off … We know one another only partially.”
There is an aspect of the erotic sphere, however, that has managed to manoeuvre its way into the public mindset in the past 10 years, courtesy of E.L. James’s unprecedentedly successful book trilogy and subsequent film series, Fifty Shades of Grey. Initially penned as a fan-fiction homage to the teen-centric Twilight series, Fifty Shades explores, albeit clumsily, the world of BDSM: bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S), and sadism and masochism (S&M).
Despite its critical panning (“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel ... or something”), the franchise’s $1 billion-plus profits emphasised something we have known, but perhaps were ashamed to admit publicly, for years – there are many women who are turned on by the thought of being dominated in bed …