Kink: A Question of Play

Whenever there’s a norm, there’s a way to break it … and someone willing to do just that. The same rule applies for sex. Wherever we find socially-accepted ideas about what makes for “normal” or “healthy” intercourse, we also find people who are defying those rules, testing boundaries, acting in ways the world at large may consider “strange,” or just “sick.” In short, these are people performing kink. But kink – as a concept and as a practice – can’t exist without a predominant, normative sexuality from which to break away. Lucky for kink, sex is everywhere.

In real life, plenty of people are kinky in plenty of ways. The possibilities are endless. Maybe they like to be tied up and flogged; maybe they prefer to roleplay as children; maybe they’re just really into enacting rape fantasies. Such people walk among us. And sometimes we read a “true story” piece about them in a magazine, or walk past a collared sub on the street and wonder, what is that thing around his/her neck? But, for the most part, real-life kinks are kept quiet, either locked up in the closet or ignored by more proper society. Despite the efforts of individuals and organizations to educate the world about kink, the world doesn’t seem to want to know.

The internet, however, is a whole other story. Kink thrives online. Some might even say it rules. Whatever it does, it doesn’t have to do it quietly. From chat rooms to message boards to web sites, from erotica to photo shoots to sex shops, from porn to porn to porn, the internet is a kink fan’s dream. It can offer everything except the actual lashes landing on your back. Of course, that’s where virtual worlds come in; MMOGs like Second Life, where a few clicks really can have you splayed, strapped to the wall and whipped for bad behavior. Or good behavior. Whatever your fancy may be.

Not that there’s any shortage of vanilla (i.e. plain, non-kinky) sex on the internet. For those with more traditional tastes, there will always be sites and other users oriented toward a hetero-normative canoodle. But it can be surprising, wandering a world like Second Life, just how many people have kink on the brain. This preoccupation doesn’t just limit itself to sex. Kink has inspired building and business of all kinds: clubs, clothing, communities. Here, kink is more than just an act, it’s a way of life.

From subbies to furries to orgies
In virtual worlds, as in real ones, kink can take on many different forms. Innumerable variants inevitably crop up. Some are more popular than others. All are uniquely transgressive.

Perhaps the most common – or at least the most basic – of all Second Life kinks is a penchant for BDSM: bondage, discipline, submission, mastery (or sadism, masochism). Maybe it’s because, as a sub myself, I unknowingly seek such people, or maybe because a dash of BDSM goes nicely with many so other kinks, but it seems that every person I meet in-game is already a self-declared top or bottom. Whatever the reason, the interest appears pervasive.

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Virtual BDSM can manifest itself in a number of varying ways. Some doms take pets, players attached to them as submissives through a sort of long-term agreement. These pets may wear ball gags, refer to themselves in the third person, or be forbidden to have virtual intercourse with, or sometimes even speak to, other players. Other BDSM enthusiasts take a more casual approach, allowing themselves to be bound and beaten without such permanent commitments – though free, un-collared subs may run into trouble from would-be masters. On the other end of the spectrum sits Gor, an increasingly popular system of willing slavery, with character death as the potential punishment for defiance.

Furries – animalistic avatars with often equally animalistic sex drives – make up another popular sub-category of kink in Second Life. These players wear the skins of foxes, skunks, horses – you name it. They dot the landscape of a busy dance floor with the bob of their bushy tails. In the sack, they, too, have many different ways of going about things. Some engage in rather “normal” sex, while referencing their non-human parts. Others are more focused on animal-associated acts like urine play, or “water sports.”

Other popular Second Life pastimes might be described less as kink and more as plain old kinky. Homosexual intercourse, while more common in some areas than others, is hardly something to bat an eye at. Orgies, too, though harder to coordinate and so a bit more sparse, largely follow the same pattern. And selling – or purchasing – sexual services for money… All of these less than socially-acceptable real-life possibilities become run of the mill in the sexual openness of a virtual world.

The advantages of cyber kink
Why does kink flourish online? Internet experimentation does offer certain advantages that can make it more appealing than testing the waters non-virtually. For one, it’s more accessible than kink in the real world, and cheaper. Purchasing real-life, quality BDSM equipment, for example, if you can even find it, will set you back a whole lot further than purchasing similar equipment in Linden dollars. Plus, with Second Life sex, you don’t ever need to leave the comfort of your desk chair. Or, if it’s safety you’re worried about, what could be less risk-free that not actually being smacked or cut or forced into submission, but witnessing it happen to your avatar instead? As for the guilt of performing these normally taboo sex acts, where better to watch your worries and social hang-ups wash away than the anonymity of the internet?

Also, certain kinks, by their nature, lend themselves to virtual worlds for more reasons than convenience. Think of bestiality, which, in many countries, is illegal. Because bestiality can’t be practiced in real life – or at least can’t be talked about, photographed and publicized as if it’s happening in real life – it automatically enters the domain of the imaginary, and, specifically, the realm of the textual. Online chat and online stories; these are the forms, in effect, left for the expression of bestiality. BDSM, too, has something in common with virtual worlds that could never be expressed as strongly in the real world: an obsession with aesthetics. In Second Life, not only equipment and clothing but also bodies can be altered to create the perfect look, the perfect sub as visual object.

A question of play
Kink on the internet isn’t just about recreating a virtual version of kink in real life. After all, a whip swung in Second Life will never hurt. No number of physical upgrades or interactive bits will change that. There must be something else.

The key, perhaps, lies in the very idea of play. In the language of real-life kink, the idea of performance dominates. Participants don’t just perform sex acts, they enter into “scenes.” Different types of interaction are labeled as “play”: cutting becomes blood play, submergence becomes breath play, so on and so forth. Individuals themselves are said to take on “roles,” roles that they will discard at the end of a scene, or if a partner utters a safe-word, allowing him/her to stop the performance and reinstate the safety and logic of the real world.

Videogames, too, another center for play, exist on the basis of performance. Virtual environments like Second Life are not mirror images of real life, but an enacted, self-conscious recreation of life: a play. Here, our actions are not real actions, but the performance of actions. We are very familiar with the idea of roleplaying in games, with the innately dual nature of both being and playing through our avatars. We are also familiar with taking on new personas, new personalities, new desires by way of the characters we control. We know that play – whether sexual, technological or both – is not life, but something much like it.

In entering the game space of a virtual world, we also enter the possibility for play. And wherever there is the possibility for play, there is the possibility for kink. Even if we keep our cybersex entirely free from BDSM, from furries, from orgies, from whatever else might be out there, we are still being kinky. Because what is sex in a videogame, in the end, but the biggest kink of all? Any time we engage in sex online, be it vanilla or otherwise, we do not use our bodies to enter into the act, but our minds to recreate it. We play out a scene, with the monitor as our stage and the power switch as our safe-word. We perform kink by playing in the game.

Bonnie Ruberg is a sex and games writer, a MMOG researcher and an all around fun-loving dork. Check her out at Heroine Sheik.

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