Are Any Kinks Actually Off Limits? 

Photographed by Erika Bowes
Since news broke at the start of this year of explicit messages allegedly sent by the actor Armie Hammer to several women which centred around sexual fantasies including cannibalism and BDSM, there has been much talk – be it via cannibal-themed memes or serious debate about the power dynamics at play in BDSM – about the ethics of fetishes.
Perhaps it was to be expected that there would be heaps of sensationalism around discussions of the cannibalism fetish in particular but the fascination and distaste overshadowed a vital part of the conversation: the issues of consent, abuse and boundaries highlighted by Hammer’s highly publicised case.
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It all begs an important question: are some kinks – such as cannibalistic fantasies – completely off limits? Or, when practised between two consenting adults, is any sexual activity fair game?
It is important not to demonise the practice of BDSM as a whole but crucial to ask these questions. Sex educator Lola Jean separates 'off limits' kinks into two categories: those which are unethical to certain individuals and those which are illegal to practise. For the latter, Jean also brings cannibalism fetishes forward as an example. "Cannibalism kink is not inherently bad," she tells Refinery29. "It’s not also entirely impossible. A lot of it will have to exist in fantasy, though with willing and ballsy individuals with a penchant for masochism this can be done ethically. Indeed, [professional submissive] Subbie Cupcake recently executed a scene where she cooked a piece of her own flesh and shared it with her tops as a meal."
While nobody is obliged to see this act as arousing, the legality of consensual cannibalism is blurred. Three years ago, a Reddit post went viral when one user revealed that after his leg was amputated following a motorcycle accident, he and 10 pals cooked and ate the meat in tacos. Because there was no physical harm to anybody and everybody consented to the meal, the act was lauded as not only legal but ethical too

Are some kinks completely off limits?  Or, when practised between two consenting adults, is any sexual activity fair game?

With this case in mind, why would a cannibalistic act between consenting adults, where sexual gratification is also derived from the practice, be looked down upon? And can the same logic be applied to any other kinks that fall under the 'off limits' label?
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Aside from the legality or, rather, criminality of different fetishes, Jean brings the conversation back around to the kinds of kinks that are unethical to different individuals. "Certain fetishisations of race or identity can be very problematic. Although we should not erase individuals of a certain minority whether it be trans, Black, Asian who derive pleasure from this type of play or fetishisation, it is important to note that others will find this type of play traumatising," she explains. "People’s pasts and traumas can, rightly, make certain kinks off limits. Where incest play can be arousing to many, it can be completely off the table for others and rightfully so."
Kali Sudhra, an adult performer, dominatrixxx, educator and sex work activist, sees identity fetishism as more complex than that. "When you fetishise someone's identity, you aren't actually treating the person as a human being, just as their identity, and you are getting off to that. It's often that also the people who fetishise another's identity are usually from a group who hold more power than the person being fetishised. This power imbalance (because it's not consensual) isn't okay," she tells me.  
Kali elaborates: "When there are set agreements between people in BDSM, for example, consensual non-consensual play, the power play is agreed upon and therefore isn't unethical." Consent is paramount to being able to practise kink safely. From check-ins to safe words and appropriate aftercare, the lines do not have to be any more blurred than they are in vanilla sex – which is to say that consent needs to be completely confirmed by both parties, repeatedly, during any sexual session. 
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However, there are red lines. "Any fetish that would involve anyone not being able to give clear consent – like necrophilia, bestiality, necrozoophilia, nonconsensual sex and somnophilia – should absolutely be off limits," the fetish and BDSM experts behind the bondage brand Uberkinky tell me. "Fetishes and kinks are all about exploring sex in a safe way where everyone has given their full consent and can stop at any time. In those listed above, this just can’t happen," they add. 
The Uberkinky experts go on to explain that while some fetishes have their dangers (such as bathroom control, asphyxiation, forced feeding and hematomania [a sexual preference for drinking blood]), when practised properly there is no reason why these kinks should not be practised at all. 
Fairy Filth Eff, a professional dominatrix, XXX performer and content creator, thinks that not only does consent need to be prevalent when performing taboo kinks but that both partners must be getting off on the pretence of the act, rather than fantasising about performing the act in real life. This is a crucial distinction. 

I only play when it's very clear that we are performing something that arouses us because it's fully consensual, fully controlled and because we are all aware that this is a play and not a reality.

Fairy Filth Eff
To illustrate the point, Eff describes how they were approached by a submissive who had a "thing for watching teenagers" in the hope that Eff could help with their predilection. Eff refused. "The problem," they explain, "was that the client at no time showed me that he was into creating a space to experience something. He didn't come to me talking about a precise fetish, like 'I want to do age play because of x y z'. Instead he told me about how he was fantasising about actual teenagers."
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"The difference to me," Eff concludes, "is that there is a difference between being aroused by minors and aroused by the idea of a role play. This client was talking about actual reality, about paedophilia, with no fetish framework or terminology or anything." Let's be clear: paedophilia is not a fetish. The situation Eff describes would be completely off limits in any sphere. There is no grey area on the ethics – or indeed criminality – of paedophilia.
More broadly, speaking to how she sees the boundaries when it comes to kink, Eff continues: "I only play when it's very clear that we are performing something that arouses us because it's fully consensual, fully controlled and because we are all aware that this is a play and not a reality."
When it comes to unethical kinks, Sudhra tells me that she sees kink as fluid. More importantly, Sudhra thinks that those with 'unethical' kinks should take the time to unlearn them.
To do this, in particular in the case of fetishising identities, Sudhra recommends that the individual "talks about it with trusted partners, friends and therapists" as well as doing the work on their own to "learn why it's inherently harmful to marginalised groups to fetishise them." On top of this, Sudhra says that those with minority identity-driven kinks should "examine their relationships with BIPOC/trans folk/disabled folks" in their day-to-day life and try to revise how their privilege comes into play both inside and outside the bedroom. 
Eff echoes this mindset, reminding us that when discussing ethics, we should think less about the fetishes and kinks themselves and more about how and by whom they are practised. "You're not born ethical so you have to learn about your own ethics in regards to sex," they explain. "You have got to create your very own mindset, where your values match with your practices."
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When it comes to having a preference for any kind of domination over another person, Eff notes that this can be challenging for people. "At first, being 'wholesomely' dominant or 'ethically' dominant sounds like nonsense," they explain, "but it's not if you are aware about the scene, the fetish, the benefits, the risks and getting the consent of the submissive partner."
It makes sense. This brings us back to Jean’s two key questions to pose when taking part in taboo fetishes: Is this legal? Or does this harm someone nonconsensually? Not solely in the sense of physical harm but also considering the wider impact of your kink and its connotations in a wider societal framework. 
If your fetish preferences play into any of your privileges in society – even if your partner is consenting to the session – all of the experts in this piece say that it’s important to start analysing the reasons why the power afforded to you by your privilege gives you sexual gratification and even reaching out to a sexual therapist to work through this mindset. 
But if you answer no to the above and still find yourself questioning your preferences, then it may not be that you need acceptance from those not involved in your fetish; it may be that you need to accept it within yourself.
To help come to terms with any kink or fetish you’re struggling with, Sudhra suggests keeping in mind that you aren’t weird for not being 'vanilla'. She also recommends trying to "find a local kink community. Fetlife may have an outdated interface but if you can see past that, maybe you can find a group that you really identify with."
"Buy some porn. Lots of it!" Sudhra enthuses. "Explore your kink and fetish by watching other people engaging in it. Maybe you learn something, maybe you pick up on their confidence and unlearn shame around that kink. Porn can be very educational, among other things."
All in all, when your fetish isn’t illegal and it isn’t harming anyone, the only limits are the ones that you and your partner(s) set. 

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