Like BDSM? R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell’s Kink Turns Erotica into High Art

When thinking about the intersection of kink and mainstream American media, a few unsatisfying milestones might come to mind.

There’s Steven Shainberg’s erotic black comedy “Secretary,” based on the Mary Gaitskill novella about a dominant lawyer and his submissive assistant. The film broke ground when it was released in 2002 but seems dated and only mildly titillating in 2021.

Then there’s E.L. James’ series of (atrociously written) Fifty Shades novels and the (equally abysmal) corresponding films, about a virginal college student who becomes an S&M plaything (and eventual wife) to a billionaire entrepreneur. The first book in the series is basically smutty trash. It contains so many cliched scenes, not to mention campy dialogue and preposterous plot twists, that it’s hard to take a lick of it seriously, let alone finish it.

Lest we forget the myriad TV shows, films and books featuring depraved businessmen or serial killers (Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” comes to mind) who just happen to have a soft spot for naughty behavior, as if that’s somehow a suitable definition of sexy.

For any connoisseur of BDSM — which can include erotic bondage, discipline, submission and other forms of sexual role playing — or person who favors non-traditional sex, such depictions of kink are not only too contrived, milquetoast or emotionally barren, they’re also incredibly shortsighted.

That’s where Kink comes in. This provocative, scintillating collection of literary fiction edited by R.O. Kwon (The Incendiaries) and Garth Greenwell (Cleanness) gives kinky sex its due. Yes, it features a healthy smattering of riding crops, handcuffs, bondage scenes and impact play. But it also explores the rich interior world behind the show — a place where honest conversations about consent happen in real time, where true pleasure can arise from humiliation or physical pain, and where a subtle shift in power dynamics can lead not only to fun, but also to a deeper understanding between humans, personal growth and love.

Kink comes out Tuesday, Feb. 9, and to celebrate its publication, Kink.com and Green Apple Books are throwing a virtual launch party at 6 p.m. Feb. 17, with readings by some of the authors and live demos and conversations from respected voices in the BDSM community, including licensed psychologist and coach Liz Powell and Nika Cherrelle, host of “The ‘It’ Cast: Real Talk on Sex” podcast. Of course, the event won’t be in-person because of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be appropriately stimulating.

R.O. Kwon co-edited the new collection Kink.
Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

The book’s genesis came in 2017 after Kwon published a story in Playboy, now reprinted in Kink, about a married couple — an ex-Catholic woman and her humdrum husband — who hire a professional dominatrix to help them explore BDSM.

It was by far the most sexually explicit piece of fiction Kwon had published, and she was anxious about how it would be received. But she needn’t have worried.

“People (were) really excited about the story,” Kwon told The Chronicle. “Plus, more importantly, I got a lot of notes (from readers) saying thank you. It helped (them) feel less alone.”

Around the same time, Kwon had come across Greenwell’s evocative story about a gay man’s sadomasochistic encounter with a stranger, “Gospodar” (also featured in Kink), in the Paris Review in 2014. She was so affected by the piece that she approached him about putting together an anthology.

Greenwell was immediately smitten with the idea. What began as those two stories blossomed into 15 reprinted and original selections penned by some of today’s most talented writers, most of whom are either queer, women, writers of color or some combination of the three. The impressive roster includes Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, Chris Kraus, Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Melissa Febos, Vanessa Clark and others.

“R.O. and I were really clear from the very beginning that we did not want to be in the business of defining ‘kink’ or deciding who gets to be in the kinky club and who doesn’t,” Greenwell said about the commissioning process. “We worded (the email we sent to prospective writers) as, ‘We are interested in seeing fiction that feels to you that it meaningfully engages with kink, as you understand that term.’”

As with any anthology, not all of the offerings hit their mark. Some, at least from this reader’s perspective, go long on physical descriptions (Spanking! Strangling! Golden showers!) but focus less on the emotional nuances of the encounter or stop short of investigating more complex questions, such as: How does fear influence desire, or what exactly is it about the loss of control that’s so alluring? Consequently, they feel shocking for shocking’s sake or overly clinical and bland, depending on your perspective.

In contrast, other stories simultaneously illustrate just how fulfilling and potentially destabilizing kinky sex and kinky relationships can be, often in the same paragraph. Two that do so beautifully are Chee’s “Best Friendster Date Ever,” about two men on the heels of the AIDS epidemic acting out their sexual fantasies over the course of one marathon evening, and Taylor’s “Oh, Youth,” about a seasonal rent boy caught in the middle of a wealthy white couple’s complicated marriage.

For Kwon, it was important that Kink convey a portrait of reality where all forms of desire could be embraced and celebrated, not feared or denied. While working on the book, she used this quote from Audre Lorde as inspiration: “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. … The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance.”

Kink co-editor Garth Greenwell
Photo: Max Freeman

Greenwell was intent on including stories that explored the effects of shame or trauma on the mind and body and, as he puts it, used kinky sex as a “powerful technology of transformation … whereby we can become subjects of those phenomena and use those experiences in ways that are positive and not allow those things to just be negative forces in our lives.”

Both Kwon and Greenwell worked hard to ensure the book included believable and fully articulated scenarios involving people who are uninhibited when discussing sex and what they want and don’t want.

“I do feel that this is like a real gift that kink communities can offer our culture more broadly,” Greenwell said. “Conversations about consent are at the heart of kink culture, and not just knowing how to have the conversations, but also how to value those conversations, (and) how those conversations are in themselves sexy.”

At a point in American culture when sex too often translates to the oh-so-vanilla missionary position and talking openly about desires can be mistaken for “interrupting the mood,” Kink presents a real potential shift for intimacy.

“Kink: On & Off the Page:” 6 p.m. Feb. 17. $20-$22 ($22 includes a copy of the book). Hosted on Zoom. bit.ly/kinkzoom

Kink: Stories
Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
(Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; $17)

Originally posted in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 8, 2021