the book shining a spotlight on sexual subcultures and diy fetish
From erotic fan fiction to niche kinks involving shaved heads and sneezing, Katharine Gates' revised tome Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge peels back the curtain on the more obscure side of sexual subcultures.
Niche kinks, sexual misfits and DIY fetish -- American anthropologist, curator and writer, Katharine Gates gets turned on by the boundlessness of the human erotic imagination. Her interest was first piqued in the 80s, when she started collecting niche erotic zines like Yankee Clipper (about women with shaved heads), Splosh! (wet and messy fun) and Equus Eroticus (pony play). “I was very curious about these odd turn-ons,” says Katharine. “What is it about jumping into mud puddles in rubber raincoats that gets people hot? How do would-be ponyboys meet trainers?” To satisfy her curiosity, she decided to write a book on it.
Published in 1999, Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge broke ground, as a comprehensive study of sexual subcultures, jam packed with “tempting descriptions, illicit photography, intriguing character studies and genuinely useful tips -- in case “vanilla folk” find themselves in any unusual roleplaying or kink-related scenarios”.
Nearly a decade on, the sexual climate has evolved; scenes that were in their infancy in the late 90s have flourished, meanwhile in the deepest darkest depths of the internet, people are finding new and obscure ways to get off. But sadly, so too has internet culture. While the internet has facilitated a greater awareness of people’s diverse sexual desires, this kind of exposure has given way to a rise in kink-shaming. Keen to once more challenge the misconception that people who have unconventional fantasies are somehow dangerous, Katharine is releasing a revised version of her original bestseller. Fresh from the launch, we caught up with her to talk sexual side plays and fetishes that involve sneezing.
What is it about sexual fetishes that turns you on?
To me, no matter how seemingly obscure and incomprehensible people’s turn-ons might be, they all illustrate something about the nature of the human erotic imagination. So, like a traditional anthropologist, I am using the exotic to explore more universal issues of what it means to be human.
What’s the biggest misconception about them?
People sometimes assume that anyone with an unconventional fantasy is somehow dangerous to themselves or others, or that they don’t understand consent and limits like “vanilla” folk do. As if once you step off the straight and narrow there’s a slippery slope to “anything goes”. In fact, it is the sexual non-conformist communities like the BDSM scene that have really done the most nuanced and clear thinking about consent and limits. Most vanilla types would do well to learn about negotiation, safety and sanity from kinky people.
How do you think Deviant Desires has aged over time?
The first edition was the first book to cover kinks like pony play and sploshing and furries, so it was very much about breaking new ground. Now anyone with a cable subscription or internet access is aware of these kinks (in fact I helped many TV shows find their subjects). Where the original book still stands strong is in the interviews with the founding mothers and fathers of certain communities. It’s great to see how these scenes have grown, changed and thrived over the years.
Why reissue it now?
powerHouse Books called me the day after the last presidential election, saying it was time to rewrite and reissue. They felt that Trump might usher in a new era of sexual intolerance and confusion about consent and responsible behaviour. So the book is timely again in that it argues that the enemy is not erotic diversity, but those who would keep us from having honest open, fearless conversations about what we do and do not want. No still means no, no matter how kinky you are!
What can we expect from the new edition?
It’s a major rewrite. There’s a new introduction, two completely new chapters, (Gas Pedal Pumping and Cannibal Play), new “sidekinks” -- quickie coverage of some interesting less prominent scenes, like sneeze fetishes or hairy women; and almost every chapter has brand new interviews with some original people as well as new people in the various scenes.
How has the stigma surrounding sexual fetishes changed over time?
Thanks to pop culture and the internet, people are definitely more aware of the diversity of people’s sexual fantasies and turn-ons. Yet with this kind of exposure there has also been an unfortunate backlash of kink-shaming. The mayor of New Milford Connecticut lost his job last year because he was exposed as a furry. That’s just ridiculous. Why would being a furry negatively affect his ability to serve his town? I also think the recent very important re-appraisal of consent violations in the vanilla world has unfortunately led to some prudish, panicky people to want to condemn all forms of power play, even when it is 100% negotiated and consensual and between people who do not have real-world economic or political power over each other. The problem is not the desires themselves, but the challenge of clearly communicating and listening to each other.
How has the rise of digital culture shaped the erotic climate?
It’s certainly easier now for kinky people to find like-minded partners. No one has to go through their entire lives thinking they are the only human being that gets off on popping balloons or whatever. Before the internet I think a lot of people got their impressions of kink from the fashion industry, actually! They thought it was about the clothing. They thought you had to be a white fashion model in order to be kinky. Now it’s pretty clear that anyone and everyone can be kinky and that all body types, shapes and colours are worthy of desire. I’d say in the last 15 years in particular, the rise of the sexy fandoms (furries, cosplayers, etc.) has changed people’s sense of kink as well. It’s clear that the erotic is about, as my friend sex educator Midori puts it, “Childhood joyous play and adult sexual privilege and cool toys. It’s cops and robbers with fucking.”
What’s the most surprising sexual fetish you’ve come across throughout your research?
Honestly, nothing surprises me anymore! My favourite kink is always the most recent one I’ve learned about. A few months back I met a person who gets off on drawing anatomically-detailed pictures of dripping, muscular tongues.
Deviant Desires by Katharine Gates is published by powerHouse Books.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.