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?

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

12 thoughts on “Is Kink (Ever) Wholesome?”

  1. Mi says:

    I guess when thinking of “wholesome kink” I think of softer dom(m)ing? More caregiver role than the stereotypical strict type. It’s definitely something to think more about! I’m also curious to see other opinions as well as I find myself newer to the community :]

  2. I love this conversation, and I wonder if some of it is a bit generational. I don’t think you’re much older than me ( 30 next month) but I hang out with a *lot* of baby kinksters who are in their early to mid 20s, and to them, ‘wholesome’ has nothing to do with that generic 1950s idyllic leave-it-to-beaver life. When my group of kinksters say something is wholesome we mean “PG” ” People doing kind things for one another for the sake of being a kind person” ‘fuzzy or cute animals’ “activities that are generally altruistic or innocent”. it’s not necessarily about well-being either. I do think of those same shows you listed though, along with The West Wing (maybe the word “idealistic” also can be added,there).

    But When we’re talking about wholesome kink, most of us don’t feel like it’s a phrase that fits- ‘wholesome kink’ activities could be re-described as ‘being a caring partner”. Even within what you’re saying that maybe wholesome kink could be the softer parts of kink, feels a little….false? a sadist can use a hairbrush to beat me, or to brush my hair. most aftercare activities folks seem to engage in in terms of running a bath for your partner, being snuggled, etc, could I guess be described as ‘wholesome’ but, it’s just expected. in some ways, I think ascribing something within kink as ‘wholesome’ sanitizes it? or somehow makes it seem like “oh ok i’m not a soft person so I don’t get to subscribe to these activities”

    dunno, just some musing as I thought about this essay

  3. Wholesome isn’t a word that I’d ever have associated with kink, but now you’ve brought it to mind it makes some sense, for me at least. I think the undertone of my dynamic is wholesome, the activities we enjoy are far from what is seen as traditionally wholesome, but the love, trust and respect exchanged even when I’m being stretched in the most cruel of ways, and the far reaching impact that has on the rest of my life, yeah… I can see that it could be described as such. Interesting essay, thank you for sharing.

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  5. I think so. When I meet couples who’ve had a longterm DS dynamic, their interactions, no matter how hardcore their play is, often seem very wholesome to me. The aftercare cuddle I saw a couple share the other day was super wholesome. What happened before that, not so wholesome but lots of fun.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I’ve been working through a bunch of stuff in therapy and trying to figure out the D/s parts of me as well. I think in both queer and kink spaces there has been a sense of loss around being more normalized, maybe somewhat more mainstream? It is safer to be more out, but in gaining safety you give up something too. If that is a need that a person has, then holding on to the idea of being unwholesome is important.

    But! If our deep sense of well-being is intrinsically tied to being our most authentic selves….and if kink is an expression of your journey of learning about your most authentic self, than there is no structure of kink that isn’t wholesome. As much as that word might not particularly resonate with someone’s badass self. :) I don’t know the answers. But I enjoy the marinating on the idea. So, thank you.

  7. Lady Brett Ashley says:

    I think about the idea of “wholesome” a lot, because I am always struck by the way the things that strike me as wholesome are *not* the things that match the conservative wholesomeness stereotype that lives in my head. To me, the word means “in line with my morals.” Or perhaps more accurately “actively celebrating my morals.” And as a queer, radical parent, I am always giddy to find things that celebrate the ideas that are priorities in my life. So, in the context of kink, consent and joy and getting your needs met and recognizing your own desires and allowing all of those things to be complicated and roundabout…are wholesome. And maybe it’s not always the right word (it wouldn’t be descriptive if it were), but I definitely think it has a lovely place.

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