Real Risk Analysis Beyond Shame
By Diana Adams, Esq., Executive Director, Chosen Family Law Center
Many of us have a vague anxiety about Coming Out, as if the world would crumble if people in our lives found out. For over a decade, I have supported my legal clients to evaluate the benefits and risks of Coming Out, whether as LGBTQ+, involved in BDSM/kink, or in consensually non-monogamous / polyamorous relationships (1). I’ve noticed that levels of this anxiety often don’t correlate with actual risks of negative repercussions, and may be more based in shame. For those who are considering whether to Come Out as poly or kinky online, this article will offer a summary of the risks I recommend contemplating.
Coming Out on the internet is different. While you may decide you wish you to Come Out to a few key friend or family members in person, Coming Out online presents the possibility of this information spreading to a much broader group of people than you might intend, so I recommend making this decision consciously while offering yourself Informed Consent about the benefits and potential ramifications.
Major risks to evaluate in Coming Out online:
Expect anything you put on an online profile to be publicly available. Do not expect anything you put on the internet to stay absolutely private. Online profiles could be accessed by those looking to harm you by disseminating the information or photos in the profile, whether they stumble upon your profile or make a fake profile on a site to find yours. Do not share any information that could harm you if it became public, and be especially conscious about nude or explicit photos, or discussion or lists of kinks that could sound unhealthy out of context to someone unfamiliar with BDSM. Just in my own casework alone, for example, I have encountered dozens of instances in which fetish website profiles have been printed and given to employers, presented as evidence in child custody cases, sent to the client’s parents to humiliate them, or nude photos from these sites posted online as revenge porn. Many people have lost their jobs or even custody of their children after these instances.
If you are a parent of a minor child: Could you face a Child Custody case? By far the greatest challenges for Out poly/kinky people I have seen come from custody cases.
If you have an active child custody case (including a divorce case that includes children) with your other legal parent; if the other legal parent of your minor child has been hostile, aggressive, abusive or seeking to harm or discredit you legally; or if you have a minor child and you could see any possibility that the other legal parent of your child could bring this up in a child custody case, being openly poly or kinky could be very damaging to your case.
Otherwise, if you are a parent of a minor child, the other people (beyond another parent) who could challenge your child custody are (in almost all cases) grandparents or the state.
If a grandparent could bring a case against you, you may want to keep them close and reassured, and address any of their concerns head-on. If they may find out, you may want to tell them and frame it for them yourself.
As for state involvement, Child Protective Services (or Administration of Children’s Services in NY, called by different names depending on your state) could be called if there are concerns of child abuse or neglect, which involves exposing children to inappropriate sexuality. Teachers and clergy are mandated reporters if they have these concerns. Disapproving neighbors could also make a report, as could police if those neighbors called the police on you for another reason such as a sound complaint. Children should not be made to keep secrets, and they are prone to sharing details out of context. Be mindful to come out to your kids in an age-appropriate way and not expose them to information you wouldn’t want them to repeat. If a state agency conducts an investigation, your status as openly poly or kinky could be damaging. However, some poly or kinky people have unreasonable fear that the state will come take their kids; unless someone is complaining about you, these state agencies usually have plenty of actual child abuse and neglect to investigate.
If you are already Out and you have child custody concerns, there is legal support for these cases. I have handled many cases related to a parent being poly or kinky.
Are you an employee or independent contractor? There is NO employment discrimination protection for poly or kinky people. We don’t even have federal employment non-discrimination protection for LGBT people in the US! If your status is ‘employment-at-will’, or you are an independent contractor, you could be fired for any reason that is not a protected class (like race or sex). You could absolutely be fired for being Out as kinky or poly, usually without recourse to your employer. This is more likely at conservative companies and in conservative regions. Assess your office culture.
Keep your personal sex life out of your workplace, especially if you are poly or kinky. Avoid sexually explicit websites, emails or documents while at work. Keep in mind that any emails sent or received on a company email address could be read by the company, and that your web activity on a company computer could be tracked or examined. Don’t use work facilities or resources like printers for explicit material or bring explicit materials to work. If you should be Outed at work and your employer is concerned, you want to be able to honestly state that this part of your life didn’t interfere with your work time, performance or focus.
Is being Out aligned with your professional brand? If you work for yourself, and you work in a gender or sexuality field or a very progressive field and serve clients who themselves are poly or kinky, this might help clients relate to you. On the other hand, if you work with children, work as a religious leader, or work in a conservative corporate profession, for example, this may be more professionally-challenging and distracting, and thus you may want to have more caution.
But if any of this happened, couldn’t we present studies that show that being poly or kinky are perfectly mentally health and don’t make me a bad parent/employee etc.? We have very little of this kind of peer-reviewed social science data yet. We need it. If this makes you angry, get involved and support groups like CARAS, Consortium on Academic Research on Alternative Sexualities. (I have no affiliation with them, but lots of appreciation.)
Housing and other discrimination: You could be denied a rental apartment or a bank loan or discriminated against in a variety of other ways, as there is little discrimination protection here either. This is much more likely in conservative areas.
Do you live in a conservative state or area? Unfortunately, the likelihood of many of these kinds of discrimination increases if you live in a more conservative area, and judges will often be more conservative as well. For some people on the LGBTQ spectrum especially, you may even face additional harassment, open hostility, or risks to your physical safety in some conservative regions.
Have you been stalked or experienced domestic violence or revenge porn? Is there someone who wishes you harm? In a number of my cases, information about being poly or kinky or sexually-explicit photos have been sent to employers, parents, and adult children as a means of harassment or shaming, and is a common form of domestic violence.
Tension with conservative families of origin. While it’s not a direct legal threat or threat to your safety, its worth considering how being Out will impact your personal relationships. I have many elderly conservative relatives, and when I Came Out as poly in media it changed their perception of me. Some support me, some don’t acknowledge it, and some have rejected me. In the decade since, my favorite uncle hasn’t spoken to me. The strain on these relationships has been one of the biggest challenges for me, and for many of my clients.
Being Out as kinky and being Out as poly have differences. While we can describe poly as a family structure and even a relationship orientation, and minimize discussion of sexual details, as I do in my own way of being openly poly in a way that fits into my professional brand as an attorney and professional, when people know you’re kinky its harder to avoid picturing the kind of sex you might be having, which might sexualize you to others more than makes you or them comfortable. It could be harder to be openly kinky with your employer because it could be considered bringing your sex life into a work environment in a way that makes people uneasy, whereas if you are openly poly it may just mean inviting two partners to the office party. Conversely, in some environments, being kinky might be less stigmatized because being poly might be more associated with disrupting the traditional family structure or queerness.
The impact of being Out will be affected by your other identities. Your race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and privilege all affect the ways being openly poly or kinky may be read. As a cis woman, being openly poly has exacerbated a continuous onslaught of sexual come-ons, which surely wouldn’t be as much of a challenge for a cis man. Women of color and low-income women often face even more sexualization, and being openly poly or kinky could play into those stereotypes. Conversely, a person who is already out as trans, gender-nonconforming, or queer may be already be a framework of disruption and questioning of the status quo on gender and sexuality, such that also being open about questioning monogamy or normative sexuality may not change the way you are perceived in the world as much as for a cis person with a conservative profession.
So why Come Out if its such a hassle?
Being Out stimulates social change and acceptance for people like YOU!
In order to make our world more accepting of both poly and kink, we need more wonderful people to Come Out! As we can see from the lessons of the LGBTQ movement, positive media representations help change culture, as did the social science data on the emotional health of same-sex relationships and the success of these couples as parents. But the ultimate driver of this change of consciousness often comes from knowing someone personally. If you have the freedom and safety to be Out, whether to some people in your life or on the Internet, this helps drive the social change we hope to see.
For your personal liberation and for our collective liberation! Not only does being Out about being poly or kinky or whoever you are help to reduce social stigma about these groups and create the social acceptance we hope to see, the freedom of being open about who you are can be personally transforming. I have been very openly polyamorous (and Bi+ and queer) for over a decade. I did significant media and it comes up immediately when you Google me. Nearly everyone knows by the time I meet them. I had the same concerns, and yes, sometimes I’d rather skip having elderly relatives or professional contacts knowing about my sexuality and romantic life. But I have gained tremendous freedom by living without shame, without hiding a secret and worrying that someone else will disclose it, and by presenting myself to the world in a more fully integrated fashion. Coming Out as poly was a decision I made consciously, while considering the factors included in this article, and I’m so glad I made that bold choice.
Furthermore, this personal liberation is tied to our collective liberation. We are building toward a world in which everyone is free and safe to be fully seen and acknowledged for their identities and sexuality, without stigma and shame. If you have privileges that support you to come Out without significant risk and you choose to take that brave step, you can be a model of a healthy consent-based person who is poly or kinky, and thus help reduce stigma and misunderstanding among those who know you. This paves the way for those who may be more marginalized to also be safely open, and create the cultural change needed so that someday my clients and community who are poly and kinky will no longer have to fear losing custody of their children or losing their jobs.
I wish you well in making the choice that’s right for you.
(1) In this article, I will discuss Consensually Nonmonogamous/polyamorous people (hereinafter “poly”) and those engaged in BDSM or Kink (hereinafter “kinky”) together, but do not mean to conflate them. Many people who are kinky are not poly, and many people who are poly are not kinky. BUT they occupy a similar place legally and socially, so for purposes of this article I will discuss them both together. Also note, I will use the term poly for brevity, but intend to refer to the broader swath of people who consider themselves CNM/polyamorous, and acknowledge the diversity among that group of people. I’ll also use “kinky” to describe the array of identities of people engaged in consensual, risk-conscious BDSM.
Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice. If you’d like help weighing the factors involved in deciding whether to come out online or in another forum in your specific circumstance, we welcome you to get in touch