Gay Men and Kink: Sensory Enhancements to Sex – An Overview of Materials, Circumstances, Fabrics – (PART ONE)
Since becoming an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist in 2021, even after many years (30 in 2022!) as a gay men’s specialist licensed psychotherapist (in California) and life/career/relationship coach (worldwide) as the founder of GayTherapyLA.com, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to provide information, support, and validation for gay men’s healthy sexual expression, including their kink interests, as well as helping them work through problems, either single or in a relationship, through therapy, coaching, and the occasional speaking event.
But in my daily, full-time private practice based in Los Angeles/West Hollywood, California (working via the Zoom webcam platform or over the phone), more and more guys want to work with me because it seems that nationwide, and worldwide, there is a shortage of gay male specific, affirmative therapists/coaches in general, and an even greater shortage of ones who can (or are willing to) discuss kink sex in particular.
I’m happy to serve in this role, but it gives me pause when I hear about a certain sense of isolation that my gay male clients share with me. It’s almost as if they have overcome being secretive about being gay, they’re “out and proud,” but the kink part is still left back in the closet somewhere with much less public acknowledgement or discussion.
Some of this, obviously, is just discretion and privacy. That’s fine. But another part of it comes from the same thing that has kept gay men in the closet for hundreds of years, and that’s stigma. So, I’d like to share some thoughts about kink for gay men here and share just a certain generalized light on some aspects of kink that might serve to either validate a curiosity or interest that you already have, or introduce you to some considerations for options for enhancing your sexual expression.
That’s the term that came to me recently: enhancement. It’s not like kink is a truly “necessary” component of sex; the definitions of sex can vary from a days-long orgy to a flirtatious glance across a crowded room. But for those who enjoy a kinky, “edgy,” “unusual” approach to sex (although I don’t mean to “other” kink by saying that), you might find this (admittedly incomplete) overview helpful.
Overview of Kink for Gay Men
This overview could get you thinking about sex – including your own sexual expression – in a different, perhaps more fun, playful, validating, and affirming light. Sometimes kink can make your life feel more expansive, and to help you realize other things in your life, such as knowledge about yourself, your partner(s), your professional identity, world cultures, and things that just make life more robust. I often say my work is about helping you improve your quality of life, by improving the quality of your sex life (although my practice goes way beyond sex therapy, as I provide therapy and coaching for many other topics and challenges, such as the usual depression, anxiety, dating skills, relationship improvement, substance challenges, and trauma recovery).
When we talk about sex, and more specifically kink, one place to start is to understand that whatever your kink interest is, whether you actually act on it or not, is that you’re not alone. One of the greatest take-aways from my (long) training in sex therapy is that straight people are just as kinky as gay people, and that they probably did it first. And while there is nothing wrong with “vanilla” sex that ignores kink, it can be interesting, fun, exciting, and rewarding to learn more about the options available to you that other gay men worldwide participate in and enjoy.
I find there is a certain overlap in the kinds of materials, circumstances, and even fabrics used to enhance sex.
Here in Part One of this article, we will discuss Materials and Circumstances. In Part Two, we will discuss Fabrics. Let’s discuss those first two in more detail:
- Urine – You could say materials, or substances, or even “products” when we talk about what humans generate in everyday life that can be put to a kink purpose. And some of these materials come right from us, our bodies, and don’t need to be purchased, assembled, or concocted.
Let’s look one “material,” urine.
When I was at the annual International Mr. Leather contest and gathering in Chicago over Memorial Day Weekend in late May (2022), I noticed the excitingly elaborate commercial vendor mart. Frequently, items to wear and accessories had “coded” colors that indicate a particular kink interest, such as black leather pants with a yellow stripe down the side. Yellow is the color of urine, and the kink play associated with urine is called Water Sports.
Enthusiasts with way more experience than I could add a lot to this, but the kink is that while urinating is simply the body’s way of excreting unneeded products from your system and bloodstream, it can have others. Apocryphal stories about someone peeing on a jellyfish sting at the beach will serve as a pain reliever and disinfectant. People drinking urine when lost at sea for days has saved lives. Soldiers peeing on their buddies’ wounds in war helped to cleanse the wound and possibly save lives there.
While water sports can evoke a certain “ewwwww” reaction when discussed in the mainstream, kink play offers us the question, “What if?” What if we took a different view of certain materials and made them a source of sexual enhancement in kink play? Vendors of sexual toys sell face masks with leather head straps that are equipped with plastic mini-urinals with a tube directly in your “sub’s” mouth. Plastic or vinyl “play sheets” protect your bed or furniture for water sports play. Rubber clothing (more on that later) can be associated with water sports. Drinking urine can be a kink sub activity, just as providing it can be a Dom activity. This kind of play can feel exciting because it deliberately exaggerates the dominant and submissive dynamics that can be thrilling in kink play beyond sexual arousal, stimulating arousal and adrenaline in the body.
The act of sharing any bodily fluid can reflect the idea of symbolic “bonding.” Kids in prior times might make a small cut in their fingers and swear a “blood oath” to keep a secret or to be best buddies forever. The Catholic Church’s Eucharist ritual (or the Protestant “communion”) symbolizes pledging one’s faith to Jesus Christ as if you were representationally and symbolically ingesting his body and blood with a type of wafer/cracker and wine (or grape juice). Many other world cultural rituals have implications that sharing something that “comes from the body” offers a chance to “fuse” the best qualities with another in a way that has symbolic, ritual, and cultural meaning. It can enhance sexual play by being a variation on bonding with another, like exchanging wedding vows or rings. Even the “pinky swear” reflects that “meaningful joining” ritual by using each other’s bodies to symbolize an emotional idea.
Urine just becomes one of the many materials that can be used for erotic play, but with an undercurrent of cultural and interpersonal meaning.
- Scat – Another name for feces or excrement, “scat”play involves somehow using or sharing this in kink play. Perhaps the most common “off limits” category in kink, I’ve worked with guys who are into this, but I do find it remarkably rare. There are certainly some health/safety implications for this, such as the risk of the spread of Hepatitis or other bacterial diseases, which makes this form of play very highly specialized, controversial, and even unpopular. However, sometimes the very appeal of kink play is that it is, indeed, specialized, controversial, and unpopular. Practitioners of this have described to me a certain “transcending” of the “ultimate barriers” in life, which can make them feel like nothing is insurmountable and feels illicit or “naughty” (as many of these materials or circumstances can).
There are other sexual ideas that can invoke this, such as terms like “perv” or “taboo,” but these kinds of acts can imply things like non-consensual incest, sexual abuse, sexual assault, or bestiality, which are considered the “outer limits” of sexual play, because ethically, they lack the critical component of consent. Consent is increasingly in the public awareness as one of the key elements of “healthy sex” (my article on the “Six Principles of Sexual Health as Applied to Gay Men” is here). In scat play, despite it being seen as “outre,” it’s still considered in an adult consensual context. Folx interested in this kind of play should consider a kink-savvy medical practitioner for detailed coaching from a “Harm Reduction” perspective.
- Semen (cum) – Since the age of PrEP (“pre-exposure prophylaxis, first via prescription Truvada, now Descovy and others), gay men have had the sense that cum/semen fluid exchange has been “restored” as an option in sex, after many years of this being considered taboo, as, next to blood, semen transmission was a relatively efficient vector for HIV infection. AIDS crisis. All of that. In short, bad news. But the advent of PrEP as an especially data-driven, effective means of HIV transmission prevention (along with TasP (“Treatment as Prevention”), aka “U=U” (“Undetectable equals Untransmissible”) in HIV positive people. For many gay men of the modern worldwide “scene,” condomless/”bareback”/”raw” sex is no longer seen as inherently “unsafe.” The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers condomless sex still “safer sex” when in the context of PrEP or TasP, but sexual health via Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention and management is still a multi-factoral part of overall gay-affirmative health care. Access to this varies widely depending on where you live.
Semen exchange has not only been a part of kink, but even more “vanilla” sex can value semen “giving and taking.” Semen give/take (“breeding,” “loading up.” etc.) has been an important cultural, spiritual, and relational ritual for all time. For cisgender men and cisgender women, it was the original (and for millenia, only) way to “make babies.” Semen exchange was equated with the creation of life itself. It’s easy to see why semen exchange in gay men has sexual, emotional, cultural, and spiritual symbolic meaning. When used in kink, where cum is used (ass, face, mouth, chest, pits, etc.) can eroticize an experience – “enhancing” it.
- Spit – Mouth saliva is pretty “vanilla” in that this is exchanged, obviously, in open-mouth kissing, which is perhaps the original sexual act that involves partner contact. But when applied in kink, spit can be used in a Dominant way, such as a Dom telling his sub to open his mouth (possibly with the use of a metal spider-gag toy to hold it open) and spitting into it from a short distance to establish dominance. You could see this as “risky” for transmission of colds, flu, or in this day/age, COVID-19. But kissing and even spit play would still be found to be quite common.
- Sweat – In mainstream discussions, sweat has a stigma. Aisles and shelves at grocery and drug stores sell countless sprays, sticks, and roll-ons to prevent armpit perspiration/sweat, and related scents (labeled, perhaps controversially, as “odors.”) But in kink play, just plain sweat can be seen as an enhancement that lubricates whatever area of the body we’re talking about, makes a body shine (perhaps sensually in dim light), and implies masculinity (the gay male sexual idealized archetype of the sweaty runner, wrestler, boxer, construction worker, laborer, etc. (Marlon Brando (a bisexual actor) in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (from gay playwright, Tennessee Williams) in the 1950’s offered us the raw sexiness of the sweaty white t-shirt in the Southern summer heat, catapulting him to a lifetime of sex symbol status). Sweat can be eroticized in the exertion related to sex.
When thought of it in kink, especially for gay men, licking pits or balls is enhanced by sweat, and unlike lube or poppers, it’s free and doesn’t really stain.
- Smoke – Smoke in the mainstream culture can be as stigmatized as sweat, if not more so. Smoking cigarettes has become socially taboo in most (not all) settings (especially in the United States), and for sound reasons due to its data-backed evidence of severe health risks and associations with the cause or outcomes of various diseases (lung cancer, other cancers, emphysema, diabetes, circulation, heart disease, etc.) that is overwhelmingly well-documented, while the smoke from marijuana joints, bongs, pipes, or tobacco pipes is far less stigmatized, in theory due to its relatively reduced health risks (and with marijuana, health benefits). Smoke from cigars is a notorious kink item in the gay male leather community, and can be a popular custom in leather bars worldwide. Gay men’s social events around cigarette or cigar smoking can be popular (especially in Europe in general and Berlin, which some consider the “Capital of Kink,” in particular).
When used in kink play, especially in the gay men’s leather community, smoke can add an allure to the leather “uniform,” and the use of smoke can be in Dom/sub play (such as blowing smoke into a sub’s mouth) or blowing smoke on a guy’s ass or cock that creates a sensuality, and again with a masculinized image that can imply “defying limits” (tobacco companies made a fortune advertising cigarettes with the “Marlboro Man,” an iconic Western cowboy image that defied the challenges of the plains or the wilderness with masculine grit, strength, and determination that implied American Exceptionalism). It is, in part, because these tactics caused extreme controversy that they can have “counter-culture,” “defiant” sexual appeal. From a Harm Reduction perspective, I know a number of gay men who only use smoke of any kind while wearing leather or rubber gear or in gay men’s social contexts (leather bars, events), but aren’t “smokers” in any other context, even though some research has shown that even the most limited smoking is alarmingly detrimental to long-term health. But smoke can certainly be a fetish.
In this discussion, of course, I’m deliberately omitting the smoke “play” of glass pipes for crystal meth use, as I contend, in my over-30-year career, I have never known of any use of that that falls into “harm reduction” range or leads to anything except alarmingly efficient heartache and chaos. As progressive and “liberal” as I can be on recreational drug use in a Harm Reduction cultural context, especially with my more conservative colleagues, I take a hard line in discouraging crystal meth use, despite the well-known uses of “chem sex” or “party-n-play” subcultures in gay men’s settings worldwide. Many guys involved in kink would say, and I agree, that using other materials/circumstances/fabrics to enhance sex is safer, more enduring, more fun, and just plain “better” than getting anywhere near meth use. That is a great “outer limit” to follow, even if you might use other recreational drugs from a Harm Reduction perspective among gay men (and, of course, straight people) worldwide.
In addition to the above things I’ve called “materials,” let’s look at what I call kink play “circumstances.” These are activities and behaviors that are part of sexual/erotic/sensual interpersonal play that can enhance being together in intimate situations.
- Bondage – Rope, leather straps, chains, cords, and other materials are used in kink play to bind or restrict movement in your partner in Dom/sub play. Bondage again holds the theme of enhancing sex by deliberately manipulating interpersonal forces like control to a sensual purpose. The idea that your sub is “powerless” against your erotic energy to stimulate them in various ways can be thrilling. Devices such as the St. John’s Cross or a “f— bench” can be used in this, or handcuffs (often fleece-lined for erotic comfort, unlike their use in law enforcement), zip ties, silk neckties, or leather cuffs equipped with buckles or metal D-rings. Online resources that sell erotic toys would be flush with these, as well as blindfolds or gags. The idea of restriction of your sub so that you as Dom can “inflict” stimulation can be fun.
Some of my psychotherapist colleagues, and certainly lay people, have had criticisms of all BDSM and kink play as being “re-enactments” of childhood trauma and that these activities are inherently “harmful” for all, but this has been debunked. In fact, in sex therapy training curricula, it’s mentioned that BDSM and kink play can have a therapeutic effect of coming to terms with “restriction” that is very unlike non-consensual sexual crimes a person might have experienced in the past. The key word there is “consensual,” where the act is an expression of playfulness, eroticism, wanting to please your partner, trust, intimacy, and love, which are the very opposites of sexual crimes. This is a key distinction that is taught in sex-positive and LGBT+-affirmative trainings for sex educators, counselors, and therapists, and this is sadly lacking in most graduate programs that train psychotherapists.
So the dialectic or paradox of “cruel to be kind” applies here; that in our state of bondage, we become freer. As we dominate to overpower others (again, in an erotic, sensual, and certainly consensual way), we learn our skills for attention, focus, concentration, compassion, and love. Part of the fun of kink play is in getting up close and personal to these dynamics, which ironically enhances not only sex (such as with casual partners) but also intimacy in long-term relationships. In hookups or casual play, it can enhance a sex of brotherhood (among gay men) or the broader idea that in exploring our differences, we unite in our humanity.
Another fun aspect of bondage and its related materials and techniques is learning. It’s not unlike learning rope tricks and knots in the Boys Scouts or sailors’ knots. Much of kink play involves a certain skill-building process, and there are many books and videos that help initiate the novice. Part of safe, sane, consensual play is knowing how to do these things erotically, but also safely. (I was at a workshop in Los Angeles given by AvatarLA.org that urged participants that use rope play in bondage to always have a good, sharp Bowie knife on hand in case of a sudden Southern California earthquake to release your partner very quickly. There are also “quick-release” knots that can be learned also for this purpose for any emergency, such as a house fire or any situation that requires a fast “reversal” of the kink “scene.”)
- Electricity – Sexual toys that use electricity (such as a chiropractor’s office might use in electrical muscle stimulation therapy with “pads” and leads) can be another kind of “pain for pleasure” device. The “violet wand,” a glass wand blown into various shapes with a pale purple electric charge in it, can be used to give gentle (or strong) electric shocks to your partner when it makes contact with skin. However, this also requires a skill knowledge, as electricity play can render a risk to a person’s cardiac system if used improperly, so, like many of these “circumstances,” tools, or devices, expert/professional consultation on their safe-r use is important.
- Constraint/Confinement/Mummification – Like in rope and other bondage, confinement (such as even in a metal cage) or constraint in a “sleep sack” (which could be nylon, leather, or inflatable vinyl) can induce that “helpless” state in your sub. Mummification under a “shrink-wrap” table device or even in materials like plastic wrap can induce this (although, again, instructions on safer use are always essential). Sensory Deprivation can be a part of this, where a sub’s body is constrained in a sack (or possibly cloth or leather straitjacket), then blindfolded, gagged, and ear-plugged, which can induce a non-sleep, non-wake, non-hypnotized altered state and the Dom can then use sensory stimulation from outside the sack, and the sub might experience hallucinations in a pleasant state that does not involve any exogenous substances to achieve.
- Flog/Whip/Paddle – Sex toy vendors can make an art form out of selling various hand-held flogs, whips, and paddles. The smart, sharp, consensual-pain-inducing effect of any of these can make the brain release endogenous opiates that then feel pleasurable, with no illegal Oxycontin consumption involved! But again, skilled use of these devices is a must, because issues like whether a Dom “leaves marks” on their sub for “a few minutes, a week, or permanently” are an extremely important discussion (that last phrasing I got from my colleague Guy Baldwin, LMFT, who has, for many years, been one of the leading experts on kink play, and the author of a number of groundbreaking and important books on these subjects, himself a former International Mr. Leather and one of our LGBT/gay male community’s heroes).
- Weight/Suspension – While I’ve only seen this a couple of times, more extreme kink like a person being literally suspended in the air from a sturdy frame with instruments that look like giant fish hooks through the skin of the shoulders/back, has been an activity. But even just a sub being suspended in leather/rope sling can involve weight/suspension play. The sensation of weightlessness or even “flight” can be thrilling, such as when Mary Martin (and, later, Sandy Duncan) starred as “Peter Pan” in the Broadway musical that allowed them to “fly” with a harness system, or certain theme park harness suspension rides, or bungee-jumping. Just like a roller-coaster can be fun by manipulating the body with speed and centrifugal force to induce a “scary/fun” thrill, suspension in kink can have the same effects put to an erotic purpose.
- Breath Play – Again, controversial, but “breath play” in kink can be eroticized, such as using gas masks, a Dom partner (lightly!) choking his sub, or even exchange of breath (such as in some kissing, or the aforementioned smoke play) can be an erotic thrill. However, since breathing is a primary human function necessary for life, these options can be dangerous. Deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation have occurred, and it’s important to “do your homework” to study what options you might have in the area of breath play, and be able to cite accurately what kinds of play are reasonably safe (but just have an erotic “edge” to them), versus which ones can be (deceptively) dangerous. Certain kinds of choke play have been associated with inducing heart attacks. Milder forms of this play might be kissing someone and holding their nose for as long as they can stand (but still relatively briefly), then releasing the nose or mouth “grip” in the moment for air.
- Fisting – In this play, your partner uses his fist (in a horizontal traditional fist, like a fight, or a more “vertical” version with the fingers closed together like a flower) to penetrate the anus, using an especially slippery and specialized lubricating gel. This stimulation is known to be more intimate than penile-anal intercourse alone, with the wider surface of your partner’s hand providing more surface-area stimulation to the sensitive anal beyond (and beyond). Again, the area inside the anus and rectum can be sensitive and even vulnerable to tears of the internal tissue, so no sharp fingernails, rings, or even sudden movements. This is a folk-knowledge skill that is sometimes thought of as a folk tradition among gay men into this practice.
This is, of course, just an overview of options, and I’m probably missing some good ones! Leave a comment on ones I might be leaving out, or your favorites!
All of these materials that induce “circumstances,” and of course many more, can be explored, recruited, used, and adapted for kink play. Word of Caution: Some of these activities can involve risk, so nothing I say here (or products with links) can be construed as medical advice. Always seek out more information and consult your health care provider for how you might indulge in kink play safely for your particular circumstances.
In Part Two of this article, we will identify and discuss the role of “fabrics,” or communities in kink/fetish built around things like leather, rubber, neoprene, uniforms, and others, and how they can enhance sex by way of kink/fetish identities that we wear and use as “signals” to the broader community of who we are, what we do, and why that’s culturally and socially important.
If you would like help or support for how to experiment with kink, or any aspect of your sex life or life in general, consider therapy (for California residents) or coaching services. Speaking services are also available. Ken Howard, LCSW, CST has been a gay men’s specialist therapist for over 30 years in 2022, and is also an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist, as well as former academic (adjunct associate professor) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and author/activist. He has been living successfully with HIV/AIDS since 1990. He lives in West Hollywood, California, with his husband of 20 years, and was one of the first 18,000 same-sex couples to marry in California in 2008. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.