Tiresome debate around kink at Pride sends worrying message about sex and sex workers

Leather pups at Tapei Pride in Taiwain

Pride Month has kicked off, which can only mean one thing: the “kink at pride” discourse is in full swing once more.

Each year, the same conversation happens on social media. A small group of people who claim to be members of the LGBT+ community argue – mostly from anonymous Twitter accounts – that the kink community shouldn’t be allowed at Pride. Their reasoning ranges from the banal (“children go to Pride events and no one is consenting to seeing you in your kinky outfits”) to the outrageous (“kink is gross”).

It’s safe to say that most queer people are sick and tired of the conversation. Not only is it ahistorical and apolitical, it’s also offensive and exclusionary – especially for sex workers and members of the kink community.

The discourse is frustrating, but also a source of concern for Kate McGrew, a bisexual sex worker. She worries that the debate could ultimately lead to a “desexualised” version of Pride where sex workers – an integral part of the LGBT+ community – are no longer welcome.

“For people to be saying that kink has no place at Pride – which is essentially desexualising Pride – the unspoken part of that is that sex workers have no place, or people who are overtly there as sex workers talking about sex work have no place,” McGrew explains.

She finds the idea that Pride-revellers haven’t “consented” to seeing kink particularly egregious. The notion is tied to a type of “respectability politics” that “whitewashes” Pride. Kink absolutely has a place at Pride, McGrew says, and she would like to see it “accepted and respected” in queer spaces. “It doesn’t mean that we try and smooth the edges of it. We like the edges of kink,” she says.

However, McGrew also views the “kink at Pride” debate as a “red herring” that’s designed to distract from the real issues facing queer people. She doesn’t care whether people approve of how she presents herself at Pride – she’s more interested in labour rights for sex workers and advancing the wider goals of the LGBT+ community. 

“It’s just such a distraction from having a conversation about sex workers being able to safely exist in society and to be able to be valued for what we contribute to society,” McGrew says. 

Lydia Caradonna, also a bisexual sex worker, echoes this sentiment. She wonders where the “kink at Pride” debate ends – and what the implications could be for queer sex workers. 

“If we’re just excluding anything we find inappropriate, sex workers can’t be there, can we?” Caradonna says.

She first came across the “kink at Pride” discussion around a decade ago, back when she was a “Tumblr teen”. “Every year it would come up, ‘We need Pride to be non-sexual.’ I find it really frustrating, especially because so often, the way people talk about ‘kink at Pride’ and regulating how we are at Pride is essentially about making it more acceptable to advertisers.”

The debate, she says, is also intimately tied to issues of class, fatphobia, racism and transphobia.

“What people consider to be appropriate for Pride is never going to be separate from their own prejudices. The second we start regulating it like that, it’s a slippery slope where marginalised groups no longer feel welcome.”

The result is a “whitewashed” and “pinkwashed” version of Pride that becomes “devoid of any recognition of sex”.

“It’s all about ‘love is love’ and gay people holding hands, being happy and being proper families. The queer community has always been far more diverse than that. So we’re really narrowing the inclusion of Pride down to this really small, privileged group. It’s just not representative.”

Kink is “safe and consensual”, Caradonna points out. “Anyone practicing responsible kink isn’t going to be wandering around completely naked to fulfil an exhibition kink. No one’s going to be doing that. What people are rebelling against here is the idea of queer people wearing things like harnesses, which don’t actually harm anyone. 

“What we’ve decided is inappropriate is really based on this old moralism,” Caradonna adds. “I don’t think there actually is a problem with people showing their kink at Pride because anyone who’s doing it responsibly isn’t doing anything inappropriate. Some people have kinky sex, and that’s not something they should be ashamed of.”

‘Puritanical’ debate around ‘kink at Pride’ sends a worrying message to queer sex workers

Jason Domino has worked hard to make sure sex workers are properly represented at Pride, so it’s not surprising that he finds the “kink” discussion frustrating.

In 2019, he organised the sex workers’ contingent at Pride in London, which saw those in the sex industry and their allies marching through the streets drawing attention to a wide-range of issues, such as the ongoing campaign for sex work to be decriminalised. Many of those who marched in the sex worker contingent wore Speedos and swimsuits, sending the clear message that their bodies and their sexualities were nothing to be ashamed of.

It was a momentous occasion for sex workers in England – which is why Domino is alarmed by the “puritanism” of the “kink at Pride” discussion.

“It feels like the argument boils down to people saying we as an LGBTQIA+ community are only acceptable when presented in certain ways,” Domino explains.

Central to the Pride movement is the desire to end stigma and fear of people’s bodies and sexualities, Domino says. Those who argue that kink should’t be allowed at Pride are “doing a disservice to our heritage and to the forepeople who got us to this place”.

“Why should sex workers be at Pride? Because we were part of what enabled Pride even being here,” he says, drawing attention to the fact that the Stonewall riots were started by sex workers. Domino argues that the conversation needs to focus on how queer people of different identities and backgrounds can work together to achieve their collective goal of liberation. 

“The idea of saying founding organisations need to be kicked out of the group, it’s really offensive and tone deaf to the community.”

He also believes much of the discussion around “kink at Pride” comes down to the fact that people in the UK are “terrified of talking about sex” and are even more afraid of “unpacking kink and the differences between fantasy and role-play.”

Domino would like to see people having those meaningful, long-delayed conversations instead of endlessly discussing whether kink has a place at Pride.

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