Ask the Sexologist: Recommended reading on the sources of kink

Hi Ginny,

just spotted the new post on the Brunettes…. So, figured I’d ask a simple question, which is: what books would you recommend for a layman to get acquainted with the current state of sexology/sex research? I’m prompted to ask because I’d been reading this excellent article:

and reading the comments I came across a reference to A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Alas, even a quick check of that book & some online reviews (e.g. at Figleaf’s site) confirmed that it was pernicious dreck. So I’m left wondering what I SHOULD be reading…. In particular, I was curious about how people’s sexual identities are formed–how does one end up being “submissive” or having a particular fetish? And what about cultural differences–what does “kink” look like in other cultures? Are dom/sub, top/bottom binaries pretty much universal or do they have a more recent, specific history?

As you know, there’s a stereotype in popular culture that people who are into S/M have had damaged childhoods or were raped; I gather the BDSM community often hates this stereotype (perpetuated e.g. in the otherwise S/M-positive film Secretary). There’s probably a grain of truth to the stereotype (in my anecdotal observation, anyway) but I was wondering where to go for a more reasoned, empirical study of the topic.


Hi N,

“Why we like what we like” sexually is one of the toughest and — if judged by my cohorts’ research interests — most intriguing questions in sexology. It’s hard to study for a number of reasons: how do you recruit a good representative sample on such a sensitive topic? How do you measure all of the possible variables, both genetic and environmental? How do you gather reliable information about subjects’ childhoods, possibly including pre-memory stages of life? And how do you get funding for a study on the origins of fetishes in our sex-negative political environment?

To have a really solid answer even to the simple question “Does childhood abuse make one more likely to develop BDSM inclinations?” you’d want to do a longitudinal study, starting with a large sample of abused and non-abused children, and follow them through life, interviewing them about their sexual interests in adulthood. I can think of half a dozen reasons such a study would be hard to pull off, just off the top of my head.

SO. I’m sorry to say that I can’t give you a definitive answer, or even point you to resources that have one: as far as I’m aware, it’s not out there yet. But there are some theories being tossed around. One book I found interesting is Arousal, by Michael J. Bader. His basic thesis is that fetishes and fantasies all have the purpose of making us feel safe enough to be sexually aroused. Based on the different insecurities and anxieties we have, some people get that feeling of safety from exhibitionist fantasies, some from submissive fantasies, etc. It’s an interesting read and a valuable theory: I wouldn’t say I’m completely sold on it, but it’s a contender.

For cross-cultural information, Exotics and Erotics, by Dwight R. Middleton, is a great overview on desires, practices, and identities across cultures. The World of Human Sexuality by Edgar Gregersen is longer and more in-depth, and very scholarly in tone, but if you can handle a little dryness in your prose it’s fascinating reading. Neither one of these have a psychological focus: they describe rather than attempt to explain. However, knowing what sexual tastes and practices are considered normal or abnormal in other cultures helps to shed light on our own.

Good job rejecting the Ogas and Gaddam book, by the way. Their work is not entirely meritless, but their research practices are really lousy. I can sort of understand the temptation to do bad research when good research is so difficult and ridden with obstacles, but there’s no excuse for giving in to it.

Let me know if you have further questions!

New feature! Ask A Sexologist

(This, along with a few other posts, is being cross-posted at our new website, which has three active contributors and counting! I have a chronic problem with starting and trying to maintain multiple blogs; I’ve tried various solutions to this problem but nothing seems to be taking. For now, at least, I’ll be posting more personal stuff exclusively at this blog, more controversial stuff exclusively at the other blog, and a lot of things to both blogs.)

Several years ago, when I was frantically catching up on all the information on sexuality I avoided learning in my youth, I discovered Savage Love. I read through every single archived column, and then went back and did it again. It was around that time that I started to think, “This human sexuality stuff seems pretty endlessly fascinating to me… perhaps I will devote my career to it?” So now I’m about a third of the way through a M.Ed in human sexuality. It’s still early days, but I’m very happy with that decision so far.

So now I want to share the riches of my extensive knowledge. Got a question about sexuality? Ask away! If it’s a factual question, I either know the answer or know how to find it (or can tell you “we don’t know yet, but here’s the fascinating history of the investigation so far!”) If it’s advice, well, as Dan Savage points out, the only qualification necessary to give advice is having been asked for it. I will disguise any personally-identifying information, and I will be nice to you: as much as I enjoy Dan Savage’s caustic style, I’m constitutionally incapable of emulating it.

I’ll run the feature from one to three times a week, depending how many questions I get and whether I have a paper due. If you have a question email me: lirelyn at gmail dot com.