This is a companion piece to our previous article The Cass Identity Model: Mapping Our Journeys in Kink
In the same way that we looked at the Cass Sexual Identity Model, I’m going to attempt to re-situate Fassinger’s Model of Gay and Lesbian Identity Development in the context of BDSM subcultural identity formation.
Fassinger’s Model was developed to address some of the limitations of Cass’s model, which is often seen as an “essentialist approach”, meaning that the theory presents itself as a kind of universal truth. Fassinger’s Model addresses some of these issues by including two sets of sexual identity formation, namely individual and group identity development.
Fassinger’s Model includes two sets of overlapping “individual and group” processes. Each process includes four phases: awareness, exploration, deepening/commitment, and internalization/synthesis. A person will go through these four phases both in the individual realm, and/or the group realm, in their journey of sexual identity development. The following briefly summarizes the individual sexual identity development process (using females as the example):
FOUR PHASES OF FASSINGER’S INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT
- Awareness: This phase begins with the individual realizing that she may have desires or feelings that are “different from the heterosexual norm and therefore from the predicted self” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 522).
- Exploration: The authors hypothesized that women in this phase would have “strong relationships with, or feelings about, other women or another woman in particular…but will not necessarily involve exploration of sexual behaviours” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 522).
- Deepening/Commitment: During this phase, women can identify as bisexual, heterosexual, or as lesbians after exploring their sexual identity. For the emerging lesbian this phase causes her “to recognize her desire for other women as within herself and, with deepening self-awareness, will develop sexual clarity and commitment to her self-fulfilment as a sexual being” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 523).
- Internalization/Synthesis: In this phase, “a woman experiences fuller self-acceptance of desire/love for women as a part of her overall identity” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 523). McCarn and Fassinger (1996) acknowledged that although women in this stage may remain “closeted” in different areas of their life, they “believe it is unlikely that one could reach the final phase of individual sexual identity development without beginning to address the group membership questions in the parallel branch of the model” (p. 523).
FASSINGER’S INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY MODEL REPURPOSED TO BDSM
- Awareness: Kinksters in this phase realize one’s desire for any kind of fetishes that are “different from the societal norm and therefore from the predicted self” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 522). I.e. you may have arousals and instinctually reaching out for ropes, or masochistic tendency of any kinds, or perhaps, eagerness to become a furry, so and so forth.
- Exploration: The kinkster sets up a hypothesis, and explores the possibilities of engaging in BDSM-related activities… “but will not necessarily involve exploration of sexual behaviours”. This phase may include searching for kink-related porn and exploring the related fantasy stories online without having physical exploration.
- Deepening/Commitment: During this phase, the kinkster is capable of identifying oneself as a “kinkster” and what kind of “kinkster” the individual is. Pup play? Leather? Master and slave? Daddy’s little girl? For the emerging kinksters, this phase causes one “to recognize the desire for BDSM-type relationships and activities, and will develop sexual and/or identity clarity, and commitment to her self-fulfilment as a kinkster”.
- Internalization/Synthesis: In this phase “a kinkster experiences fuller self-acceptance of desire/love for other kinksters as part of their overall identity”. Although kinksters in this stage may remain “closeted” in different areas of their life, it is “unlikely that one could reach the final phase of individual sexual identity development without beginning to address the group membership”. Meaning, it is unlikely to reach a stage where kink-identity is fully integrated with the sense of self unless the kinkster starts to explore what “being a kinkster” is like “within a kink community” that isn’t just restricted to the bedroom. Perhaps that is the reason why kinksters from all across the globe save up all their earnings just to visit Folsom street fair, be it in Berlin, San Francisco or London. The group membership identity development will be explored in the following paragraphs.
FOUR PHASES OF FASSINGER’S GROUP MEMBERSHIP IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT
- Awareness: Women in this phase realize that there is a community of lesbian/gay people and that they have been living under the assumption that heterosexuality was the norm.
- Exploration: This phase “is characterized by the active pursuit of knowledge about lesbian/gay people, in terms of both the group as a whole and the possibility of one’s belonging in the group” (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 524).
- Deepening/Commitment: During this phase, women become more aware of the value and oppression of being part of the lesbian/gay community and commit to forming a personal relationship with the lesbian/gay community.
- Internalization/Synthesis: A woman in this phase “has moved through a process of conflict and reevaluation, identified herself as a member of a minority group, redefined the meaning of that group, internalized this new identity, and synthesized it into her overall self-concept” (Mc-Carn & Fassinger, 1996, p. 525).
FASSINGER’S GROUP MEMBERSHIP IDENTITY MODEL REPURPOSED TO BDSM
- Awareness: Kinksters in this phase realize that there is a community of kinksters out there living under the same BDSM roof.
- Exploration: This phase “is characterized by the active pursuit of knowledge about kinksters, BDSM subculture, and sub-groups of various BDSM tribes, in terms of both the group as a whole and exploring the possibility of one’s belonging to the group”. I.e. the kinkster might identify a sense of belonging to the established Leather Flag, or they might discover their puppy spirit and realize the sense of belonging to the pup play community.
- Deepening/Commitment: During this phase, kinksters become more aware of the value and oppression of being part of the BDSM community and commit to forming a personal relationship with the community. This may be becoming involved in munches, parties and events, maintaining educational, kink-friendly websites, taking on active roles in their local kink community or simply belongs to a leather household.
- Internalization/Synthesis: A kinkster in this phase “has moved through a process of conflict and reevaluation and identifies as a member of a minority, or non-normative group, redefined the meaning of that group, internalized this new identity, and synthesized it into their overall self-concept”. This means that the kinkster has found a sense of balance in real life, where being a Master/slave or (fill in the blank) no longer interferes with the daily life but becomes an integral part of it.
You may be able to see a pattern in the process of this model. You kind of explore internally, then look externally for validation, and explore (and accept internally) again, then look out to the community and get validation, and so on
The value of this model of how our sexual identity might develop is that if you find yourself stuck in a certain stage, perhaps it can give you a sense of empowerment and agency. It could be that you need to initiate the “deepening/commitment” stage to get to the final “internalization/synthesis” phase and be on good terms with your kinky self.
- 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.
- McCarn, S. R. & Fassinger, R. E. (1996). Revisioning sexual minority identity formation: A new model of lesbian identity and its implications for counselling and research. The Counseling Psychologist, 24(3), 508-534.