i grew up with the boom in technological advancement we call the Internet Era, so i am one of the so-called “lucky ones”. In my time, laptops and phones have become thin and the speed of the internet has grown fat, in something of an exponential graph. By the time i was 15 i had access to Recon, YouTube and internet blogs, and a whole variety of apps lived in my pocket giving me 24-hour access to the world.
How does this ever-changing landscape of the way we communicate using technology colour sexual orientation identity formation theories, in the context of BDSM subcultures and our highly connected online world?
i want to take a look at Cass’s (1979, 1996) and Fassinger’s (1998) sexual orientation identity formation models. In particular, i want to look at how we might be able to apply it to our BDSM identities.
Perhaps by looking at these normative sexual orientation identity models, there is something in them that can let us better manage our sexual deviancy, giving us the agency to live a balanced and healthy life as a kinkster.
i know that sounds heavy, so i’ll break this into two parts to prevent anyone’s head from exploding. This article will explore the Cass Identity Model (1979, 1996) and i’ll follow it up with a second article exploring Fassinger’s Model of Gay and Lesbian Identity Development (1998).
THE CASS IDENTITY MODEL
In venturing into seeking a kind of alternative sexual identity theory, Cass’s sexual orientation identity formation model has been “the first model to remain in use for a period of time” (Evans, et al., 2010, p. 307).
In brief, the Cass Identity Model suggests that homosexual identities surface and develop through six identifiable stages: identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis. Followed by the idea of “identity foreclosure” whereby that individual may decide to stop the developing stages at any time.
- Identity Confusion: characterized by feelings of turmoil, in which one questions previously held assumptions about one’s sexual orientation.
- Identity Comparison: characterized by feelings of alienation, in which one accepts the possibility of being gay and becomes isolated from non-gay others.
- Identity Tolerance: characterized by feelings of ambivalence, in which one seeks out other gays, but maintains separate public and private images.
- Identity Acceptance: characterized by selective disclosure, in which one seeks out other gays, but maintains separate public and private images.
- Identity Pride: characterized by anger, pride and activism, in which one becomes immersed in the gay subculture and rejects non-gay people, institutions, and values.
- Identity Synthesis: characterized by clarity and acceptance, in which one moves beyond a dichotomized worldview to an incorporation of one’s sexual orientation as one aspect of a more integrated identity (Fassinger, 1991).
Of course, Cass’s model has its limitations, and one that’s often leveled against it is that it presents itself as “universal truth”, and sexual identity development is quite often subject to each individuals’ societal context. In simpler terms, a kid growing in the US in the 20th century may not encounter identity confusion; due to the rapid growth in societal acceptance towards the LGBTQ community. While Cass’s model is widely accepted among scholars, the model is developed upon the subject position as:
supposed to be heterosexual; they consider themselves more or less part of the majority group (heterosexuals) or recognize that they should be, and they understand that heterosexuality is desirable and acceptable and homosexuality is stigmatized and has minority status. (p. 233)
APPLYING THE CASS IDENTITY MODEL TO BDSM SEXUAL OR NON-SEXUAL IDENTITY
Cass’s model might be criticized for its essentialist approach, but nonetheless it does provide a working foundation for us, as we attempt to explore our own identity development.
In my opinion, many kinksters also go through several phases of identity challenges growing up, despite the advancement of communicative technologies. Perhaps we could employ Cass’s model to better acknowledge the stages that we are trapped in as we proceed in developing our BDSM identities of Dom, Master, slave, sub, pet, etc.
Here’s my attempt to re-situate Cass’s model in the BDSM context:
- Identity Confusion: characterized by feelings of turmoil, in which one questions one’s non-normative sexual desires. i.e. is it normal that one gets aroused by feet, kidnap, violence or other activities which fall outside sexual normativity?
- Identity Comparison: characterized by feelings of alienation, in which one accepts the possibility of being an individual who is “different” from the sexual-norms. i.e. in comparison to the sexual norms, i accept that i get turned on being tied up or tying up others, and in comparison. In this comparison, i am “the others” and “alien” to the “societal-norm”
- Identity Tolerance: characterized by feelings of ambivalence, in which one seeks out other like-minded kinksters, but maintains a distinct separation of kink life, private life and public life. i.e. I go to munches or parties and get tied up by other kinksters who are like-minded, but i keep this life a personal secret and maintain a separation between my kink life and my everyday life.
- Identity Acceptance: characterized by selective disclosure, in which one seeks out other kinksters, but maintain some level of separation between kink life and the everyday life. i.e. i might feel more comfortable and achieve some level of coming to terms with my kink, have started to “come out” to some selective friends who could understand Sadomasochism, and begin to accept that being a slave or a Master (in a BDSM subcultural context) is fine. However, some level of separation between the kink life and everyday life is still necessary.
- Identity Pride: characterized by pride and activism, in which one becomes immersed in the BDSM subculture and rejects non-kink-friendly people, institutions, and values. i.e. one might feel the impulse to detach from everyday life and become that “Master” or “slave” 24/7 in a societal space that allows such lifestyle practices to happen.
- Identity Synthesis: characterized by clarity and acceptance, in which one moves beyond a dichotomized worldview to an incorporation of one’s sexual orientation as one aspect of a more integrated identity. i.e. being a Master or a slave isn’t the only thing that makes up one’s world, being a Master or a slave is part of a more integrated identity, and hence, one’s kink life in some way merges with everyday life in a non-invasive manner that co-exists harmoniously.
Metaphorically speaking, I perceive my own journey as a kinkster, as something like having to discover a treasure map when I was 14 years old. Having that map is something of a curse, perhaps because no one would encourage me to follow it in search of the rewarding treasures while taking the risks that are part of the adventure.
Having the “six stages of identity development” is kind of like “six check points” in that treasure map, in case you get too lost in the foggy woods and need some guidance out.
Hopefully these “six magical dots” appear on the map of your BDSM journey too.
artwork in post by Gio Black Peter
- Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), 219-235.
- Cass, V. C. (1984a). Homosexual identity: A concept in need of definition. Journal of Homosexuality, 9(2-3), 105-126.
- Cass, V. C. (1984b). Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. The Journal of Sex Research, 20(2), 143-167.
- Cass, V. C. (1990). The implications of homosexual identity formation for the Kinsey model and scale of sexual preference. In D. P. McWhirter, S. A. Sanders, & J. M. Reinisch (Eds.), Homosexuality/heterosexuality: Concepts of sexual orientation (pp. 239-266). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Cass, V. C. (1996). Sexual orientation identity formation: A western phenomenon. In R.P. Cabaj & T. S. Stein (Eds.). Textbook of homosexuality and mental health (pp. 227-251). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.
- Fassinger, R. E. (1991). The hidden minority: Issues and challenges in working with lesbian women and gay men. The Counseling Psychologist, 19(2), 157- 176.
- Fassinger, R. E. (1998). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual identity and student development theory. In R. L. Sanlo (Ed.). Working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender college students: A handbook for faculty and administrators (pp.13- 22). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Fassinger, R. E. & Miller, B. A. (1996). Validation of an inclusive model of sexual minority identity formation on a sample of gay men. Journal of Homosexuality, 32(2), 53-78.