What is the nature of identity? We have so many parts of our identities, but those we talk about, and those we feel strongly about, can shift and change in a healthy person. Some we will keep for a lifetime: “I’m a quilter.” “I’m a cop.” “I’m a feminist.” “I’m a Democrat.” If you know us, you’re will often know those things about us pretty quickly, because we consider them so important to who we are. But which ones we lead with—those we talk about, own, pride ourselves in, or discuss–shift as they move in and out of importance to us, or up and down our list of priorities.
Isn’t it fascinating that at various points in our lives, we may feel that a particular aspect of ourselves is strong enough to warrant a place in our identities, but later these pieces seem to drop off in importance?
As an addictions professional for most of my young career I observed that people in early sobriety tend to identify strongly as a recovering addict or alcoholic. They may think of themselves “as a recovering alcoholic first”, and even proclaim it to others outside of the recovering or 12-Step community. Though anonymity is a strong value in this community, those who are newly sober or clean often eschew this anonymity in favor of holding fast to this new identity.
As people stay sober or clean the recovery identity, though it may still be a very important part of their lives, may become less primary. People start to say, “Yes, I’m an alcoholic, but I’m also a human being.” They stop referring to non-recovering people as “Earth-people”, or “aliens” (a common in-joke in recovering communities), they often begin to have a broader base of friends, and they often connect more strongly and more often with family.
Similarly with orientation, those who understand sexual orientation in deeper ways tend to talk about it as a fluid state throughout the lifetime, with people falling into points on a spectrum—some remain fairly consistently attracted to one sex or another throughout life, but many people find that their orientation shifts about as they age, whether or not their behavior follows suit.
Although orientation is not an illness like alcoholism, it has historically been stigmatized in similar ways, there can be a pattern similar to the above in identification as gay, lesbian, bi, pansexual, and even transgendered folks. When people first come out, their orientation is a very important part of their identity, and it may be a big part of their discussion as well as a way they easily identify with others. Part of this is how hard-won the queer identities often are. People face prejudice and discrimination, even violence, so perhaps strong identification is also a part of this process—pride in our bravery, our courage, and our persistence in the face of adversity. It’s also strength in numbers. If I identify, I may be able to join a community with those identities, and garner much-appreciated support.
Later in life, LGBTQ folks may focus on orientation or gender identity less when they meet a new person. New acquaintances may be surprised to find out they are queer because it doesn’t necessarily come up right away. It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just that it’s not quite as primary in many people’s identities as time goes on. They may focus more on career, or family. They can get tired of people never being able to see past the queer or trans aspects of themselves to the other interesting parts of their personalities and their lives.
As these aspects of ourselves become less primary in our self-image, we may allow any natural fluidity to surface more readily. I have so many gay and lesbian friends over 40 who have shared with me that if they came out now, they would come out at bisexual or pansexual. They have found themselves attracted to multiple sexes as a natural part of their development, and the gay/lesbian identity does not fit as exactly as it did. I’ve seen it happen the other way, as well, where previously straight people are suddenly in a same-sex relationship.
People who identify as kinky have a similar path in many instances. When people first allow themselves to be openly kinky in any space, they may talk about it all the time. They may spend hours discussing their kink within trusted circles, attend alt-conference after alt-conference, or spend hours on FetLife. They also frequently own a role in conversation or online, such as “top”, “Dom”, “sub”, or “switch”. They ask people how they identify. If you are close to this person, you may hear about it a lot when they’re new to the scene—even if you’re not part of that scene. But I’ve also seen that once people feel more comfortable and accepted, this identity can move more into the background.
Something I’m keenly interested in is kink-fluidity. Even more than with orientation, I see kinksters as often fluid—both in behavior and in identities. While it’s not necessarily most people, many people who initially come out as submissives—and identify that way strongly– end up as tops or Doms part-time, or even primarily. The reverse can also be true.
Apart from roles, kink itself can also be a transitory state. A friend once confided to me that she’d been in the scene so long, vanilla sex felt “kinky” to her, and she was craving it then. She’s still kinky, she probably always will be. But her natural flow was away from kink at that point.
Some people are kinky for a time, and then more traditional in their sexual practices. Relationships, too, can begin as kinky and end up more vanilla over time–and is it really so surprising? Healthy human beings change and flow over a lifespan. Our needs change, our partners change, our relationships to ourselves and our communities change.
This flow, this fluidity, can be unnerving for those whose identities may be shifting a bit. It can even become a full-blown identity crisis. Like queer folks, kinksters have often fought long and valiantly against being pathologized and demonized. The fight is still on for acceptance in Western society. Some people attend kink conferences who haven’t been actively kinky for quite some time, but they still feel safer and more normal in BDSM communities. So what happens when I’m a kinkster who doesn’t feel so kinky anymore, or moving from a top to a bottom? It can be terrifying. Do I have to leave the communities where I feel so accepted when my identity starts to shift and kink is no longer at the top of the “Who I Am” list? If I’m getting the urge to dominate after years of being a sub, do I have to leave my partner or partners behind?
Perhaps part of our jobs as professionals in the sexuality field is to recognize the natural ebbs and flows of not only orientations, but also gender, kink and other alt identities. These shifts and growth spurts are all part of being healthy, whole human beings. We can normalize the fluidity of identity. We can support people’s current identities strongly, while also supporting their rights to relax or change their identification as they feel so moved. Isn’t that what allies are for?
Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo