Is Kink (Ever) Wholesome?

Have y’all come across the phrase “wholesome kink” lately, or at all?

I’ve noticed a rise in it, personally. And I’ve been thinking a lot about whether it’s the right phrase to describe some of the things I/we do, or want to do, or whether “wholesome” is just the wrong word, and that it is inherently an oxymoron to call any kind of kink “wholesome.”

Let’s start with the dictionary.

Part of the problem is in the definition of “wholesome.” Most folks — in my circles, anyway — associate it with a 1950s cisheteronormativity that enforces white supremacy culture and racial capitalism. And, often with some flavor of Christianity, and top-down power structures that dictate what is “good” and “moral” and right, and what isn’t.

The actual dictionary definition of wholesome is “conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being.”

This definition I can work with. The stereotypes around it, or the particular groups who mostly use the word “wholesome” and the connotations that it therefore picks up along the way, are harder to get around. And perhaps my question to you all is, can we do it? Can we reclaim “wholesome” from the suburban, Christian, nuclear family conservatives as kinksters, as queers, as trans and nonbinary folks? Can we, too, use wholesome, and intend it to mean something that goes along with our radical values of liberation and freedom and care for each other?

I don’t know, really. I mean — I think we can. I really like the idea of “wholesome kink” in general. But when I use this phrase with folks, sometimes I have seen big resistance to it.

What I mean by “wholesome kink” specifically

There are so many different kinds of kink — and I don’t necessarily mean the actual physical acts, like flogging, bondage, wax play. I mean, the feeling and tone behind the activities. Flogging could be done in a completely menacing way, or tender and playful, or boring and so neutral it feels devoid of any feeling. (I often think of Mollena Williams-Haas’s video Impact when I think about this — watch it if you haven’t already, it’s pretty short, a little more than 6 minutes.) Some kinds of kink are more tender and sweet, with a tone of nourishment, play, and kindness. Those are the ones that I’m thinking of when I think of “wholesome kink.”

Of course, there are mean, “dark,” even violent kinks, too, and there’s nothing wrong with liking those. Those are legit and fantastic in all kinds of ways. Personally, I tend to play there more than I play in wholesome kink, in my private life, but I also value the wholesome connections that I cultivate, the ones that are just very clearly about being “conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being.” Maybe it’s a cathartic, sensual beating or sweet, slow, connected sex. I need those, just as much as I need the riskier scenes where I push edges, humiliate, devalue, or guide someone through a struggle.

When I think of “wholesome,” I also think of TV shows like The Good Place and Ted Lasso and Pushing Daisies. I don’t know if there’s a particular name for this genre now, but they strike me as somehow child-like (not child-ish), with their bold, bright colors, saturation, costumes, and sometimes over-the-top optimism, and yet they are balanced with very real, very deep human experiences of pain, loss, confusion, death.

I’m sure there are many other examples of media like this, but it doesn’t tend to be my genre really, so there is probably much that I’ve missed.

I’m very curious about what y’all think of using “wholesome” for something like kink, particularly when it seems like kink has been stereotyped as the most unwholesome thing, as a practice, by those outside of our communities. But, for those of us within kink, doesn’t it make sense to think about the areas of this community that really are wholesome? And separating that from the areas that are a little more intentionally about playing with the shadow side of the psyche, “dark” emotions, or dangerous experiences.

I’m open to using other words, if this word is just the wrong fit. But what are those options? Nothing quite captures things the way “wholesome” does, for me.

What about you?

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