Fifty Shades of Crimson

Harvard is just the latest campus to sanction a kinky sex club, which students and experts say is a healthy and positive educational tool.

December 5, 2012

For all the ruckus it’s causing, you’d think the new BDSM club at Harvard University was actually a new idea -- and a controversial one, at that. Not so.

A lot of people seemed taken aback by last week’s widely reported news that – gasp – Ivy League students like kinky sex, too. But clubs for students interested in BDSM – short for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism – have been around for quite some time, at least on a handful of campuses (including Cornell, Tufts and Yale Universities). And sex educators say that’s a good thing.

That’s because students in those groups and the Harvard club, Munch, have said the groups provide them with a safe space during informal lunch or dinner meetings to talk about kinky sex and self-awareness. As with most student clubs, there’s an educational element to it.

Just like anyone of any age who has sex without understanding the risks – related to consent, sexually transmitted infections, or unintended pregnancy – students practicing BDSM without knowing what they’re doing could wind up in a bad situation, Debby Herbenick, an associate research scientist in Indiana University at Bloomington’s applied health science department and author of Sex Made Easy, said in an e-mail.

“Most people grow up without receiving adequate information about sexuality from either their parents or from their schools,” Herbenick, a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, said. “Certainly if college students are practicing BDSM as part of their own sexual lives, then having accurate information may help them to practice BDSM more safely and to communicate effectively about it with partners.”

Some of that information is important for all students engaged in sexual activity – how to give and receive clear consent, and how to manage pain and discomfort, for instance. But BDSM has some unique considerations. For example, Herbenick said, many people practicing BDSM create “contracts” between themselves and their partners – contracts that often are not legally enforceable.

And while not everyone wants to hear about or engage in BDSM, Herbenick said, attending a club meeting or workshop can help any student to think through “complex issues” related to communication, consent and sexual diversity.

One 2008 graduate, who was president of the kink club at a small college in the Northwest, agreed. She said that being able to talk openly about her preferences helped her get “a much stronger sense” of her personal identity, and learn how to engage and communicate with her partner in healthy and productive ways.

“I think people hear 'Fetish Club' and think it's about sex and leather and whips and chains, but a lot of times it wound up being more about cookies and philosophical discussion on the nature of power dynamics in relationships,” the former president, who asked not to be identified because of current employment, said in an e-mail.

J. Michael Bailey, the psychology professor at Northwestern University who last year caused a stir when guest lecturers that he'd invited demonstrated the use of a sex toy in an after-class presentation, lamented that anybody would question the legitimacy of the club in the first place.

“If you want to make people give an educational justification, then do it across the board. It certainly seems as educational and as useful to me as a ski club, or as a religious club, for that matter,” Bailey said. “Lots of people are hung up on sexuality, and so they don’t blink until somebody brings up some sexual version of something that they have heretofore accepted. And this is obviously an instance of that.”

According to its constitution, Harvard College Munch “exists to promote a positive and accurate understanding of alternative sexualities and kink on campus, as well as to create a space where college-age adults may reach out to their peers and feel accepted in their sexuality.” It notes that while students with other sexualities and orientations boast campus clubs (gender-based, gay and lesbian, queer, etc.), students interested in kink had not been represented.

“Standard dating questions like 'Will he respect me in the morning?' can be much more loaded when you’re playing with power balances and domination, and when it comes down to it, a lot of people who like kink do want to find love and family alongside their other preferences,” the former fetish club president said. “You take all that anxiety, add in the real physical risks that come with some BDSM activity, and I think it's clear that it's incredibly valuable to provide a place for young people to learn and discuss and feel safe and 'normal.' ”

Although these clubs do seem to be enjoying a surge in popularity -- perhaps thanks to the massively successful Fifty Shades of Grey book series, in which a college student discovers BDSM -- there’s a reason they’ve been around a while, the former president said.

“The college years particularly are a great time to explore what you like as long as you can do so without hurting yourself or others, both emotionally and physically,” she said. “Any group that is working to accomplish those goals is something that has a valid and useful place on campus.”


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