comingoutkinky

How I Told My Parents, Friends and Employer That I Have a Robot Fetish

Coming out as kinky — with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation

Sam Hughes, 26, is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research is also his lifestyle: kink. While it’s easy to point to the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies as evidence of our increased acceptance of kinky sex, kink was also still considered a disorder as recently as 2013. As such, kinky people are often unwilling to disclose their sexual preferences and lifestyles, fearing that such transparency will negatively affect their friendships, family dynamics and employment opportunities, among other things. Even Hughes, who’s made kink his life’s work, struggled with the decision to openly discuss his sexual fantasies, essentially using his academic pursuits as a way in to those conversations.

* * * * *

I’ve known I’ve had an interest in all sorts of kinky things since middle school. While there were inklings before that, they were never clearly sexual. But looking back on my childhood, I would do a lot of role-play things with my friends from a fairly early age. For example, I had a close friend who I would play robots with. One of us would pretend to be a robot, and while it wasn’t a sexual feeling for me as a child, it was this feeling of something being very special and different.

Today it’s definitely my kink: That is, I have a robot fetish, which typically involves role play where one or more participants are taking on the role of a robot, a cyborg or some sort of humanoid machine.

I’m also interested in every material under the sun — spandex, latex, rubber, leather, neoprene and more. I have interests around forced exercise play as well — e.g., engaging in kink play or a kinky scene in which one person is forcing another to engage in physical exercise. Imagine the really mean drill instructor whose making somebody workout.

Those are probably the main ones. But I enjoy all sorts of traditional domination and submission and sadomasochistic activities and bondage, too. I’m very much a switch, so basically I do both sides of all the things I’m describing.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with these sexual interests, though. In particular, because my parents raised me as a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian, I had a lot of stress over my desires. I thought I was sick, and that I was possessed by the devil. It wasn’t until high school that I was able to put an analytic lens on my sexuality and think about things in new, critical ways. This mainly happened after I joined the debate team and learned about logic, reason and evidence. That opened up my thinking about faith as well as my thinking about sexuality.

Still, I didn’t disclose any of the specifics of my sexual interests until the summer after I graduated high school. I had two very close friends, and we spent many, many hours taking these car trips where we’d go park somewhere and talk about our sexual fantasies and interests with one another. I found it to be a really liberating experience — to finally have someone that I could talk to about such things.

In college at the University of Minnesota, I found out about a kinky group on campus, and I spent my first two years there thinking about going to it, physically sitting near the door and watching people go in to see if I might feel comfortable there, too. I had a lot of fear about what the people would be like.

I finally went in after I formulated a paper for a politics class about the group. I was like, “I’m gonna write a paper, and as a part of that paper, I’m going to do an academic survey of people at this group,” which was partially about my intellectual curiosity, but also very much about me being able to see what this space was like without having to openly identify as kinky.

Unsurprisingly, when I got there, I had this realization like, “Duh, kinky people are just people. They vary, and they have lots of different interests.” Nonetheless, hearing people talk about kinky topics was a really welcoming experience for me.

I spent the next two years as part of the group — my last year I was even president of it — which helped me build my identity and come into my own. Around this time, I also realized that I was finally ready to tell my parents. I knew they’d be totally accepting of the fact that I was gay. They’d told me many, many times throughout my childhood, “You know, if you’re gay, it’s okay, right?” I was more worried about the kink part, which we hadn’t talked much about.

I was always a debate nerd, so public speaking was one of the ways I felt most comfortable communicating my ideas. As such, I set up a PowerPoint in the living room and came out via PowerPoint presentation. My brother was there — I’d come out to him first — to help click through slides as we were going through all the different topics. I had text on my slides, as well as charts and graphs. I even had academic citations.

I’m lucky to have received the positive reaction I got from my parents. My dad wanted to know more about what I was sharing. He had a little intellectual curiosity and was more interested in talking about it. My mom was loving and empathetic, but at the same time, she feels sexuality is private — my sexuality isn’t necessarily something she wants to hear all the intricate details about.

In terms of friends and peers, none of the coming-out conversations I had with them were super surprising. It was more about getting them to understand that dealing with sexual fantasy as a sexual fetishist is very different than how non-sexual fetishists deal with sexual fantasy. For instance, I don’t experience sexual arousal around anything that doesn’t have to do with my kink interest. Vanilla or non-kinky pornography doesn’t do anything for me. Vanilla sexual contexts don’t do anything for me.

Overall, when it comes to being out as kinky, I’m pretty much 100 percent open. Most kinky people don’t have the same luxury. In large part because nowhere in the country is kink recognized as a protected class, so people are terrified of losing their jobs, not getting a job or not getting a promotion as a result of having a boss who may disagree with whatever it is that they’re doing in their bedroom consensually. Honestly, if I were in astrophysics or something, I might more strongly closet myself. But the academic institution I’m in is fairly liberal. And so, I don’t feel any pressure from people who think what I’m doing is deeply sinful and wrong.

Along these lines, I recently conducted quantitative and qualitative studies about kinky people. In the qualitative study, we had a lot of folks talking about how they love their kink identities and have really positive experiences. They said the only bad thing was the intense societal stigma around kink and concerns over having to conceal their identities, especially because of their offices and employment.

In the quantitative study, we asked just under 1,000 self-identified kinky participants a variety of questions about discrimination against them on the basis of their kink interest in promotions, employment and housing. We found that 6.9 percent of the participants said that they were denied a promotion on the basis of their kink interest. Three percent said that they were denied employment on the basis of a kink interest. Nearly two percent said that they were denied housing on the basis of their kink interest.

To date, there’s been no systematic study that’s tried to test this causally, so we only have the impressions of the people who say they’ve been discriminated against. Those numbers might, in reality, be much higher or much lower depending on how accurate kinky people are in assessing the reasons behind their own discrimination. Because something like housing discrimination is really hard to tell, right?

What that might be is you’re a tenant and you apply for an apartment, and then the landlord does a search for you, finds photos of you on a kink site and decides to discriminate against you on the basis of them. But you’ll never know that, so it’s tricky. We’re currently pondering a study where we’re actually gonna test to see if that happens using an experimental paradigm, but it’s still in the early stages.

Either way, we need to change how we pathologize kink. Before 2013, kink was still considered a disorder, whether a person was experiencing clinically significant distress or not, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the text that’s used in the U.S. to diagnose mental disorders, largely for insurance reasons. Now the definition has been changed so that it’s only considered a disorder if someone experiences clinically significant distress or acted on their kink with a non-consenting partner.

That’s an important step because part of the reason why people experience distress over their kink-oriented desires isn’t because it represents an inherent pathology or sickness, but because we live in a society that often treats it as inherently pathological and many kinky people internalize these values.

Sex education is part of it, too. Teachers are reticent to talk about kink or fetish when it comes up in anonymous question boxes and activities. But at the same time, we know that between the ages of 11 and 14 is when a lot of kinky kids begin thinking about their identities and evaluating what it might mean to their lives. Having that kind of information available in an age-appropriate way — a way that talks about consent, desires and fantasies — might be helpful for not only reducing kink-phobic attitudes in the general public, but also for helping protect the mental health of teenagers who are just beginning to explore their identities and fantasies for the first time.

After all, if you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts about yourself — thinking that you’re sick or a freak — that’s a recipe for depression. If you’re constantly hiding your identity and terrified of other people finding out, constantly being vigilant in order to make sure that everything stays concealed, that’s a recipe for generalized anxiety disorder.

After coming out, I definitely feel a lot less anxiety in my daily life. I feel like I have a more authentic sense of self. I don’t have to hide behind anything, and I can be who I really am. Now, I want to help others feel the same by changing the perception of kink to a kind of sexual diversity among many, and not something they — or we as a society — should be ashamed of.