Sadomasochism Comes Out of the Closet

A year ago, Mark—now a senior in Currier House, then a junior with a pipe dream—sat before the executive officers

A year ago, Mark—now a senior in Currier House, then a junior with a pipe dream—sat before the executive officers of the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA). The meeting was the culmination of years of self-discovery, struggle and isolation. On this day, Mark (not his real name) was coming public with his secret, and he needed the BGLTSA’s complete support.

Over the last several months, he had decided the solution to his problems was to start a club. But this was not the sort of club you’d feel comfortable pitching to the Undergraduate Council. The BGLTSA was the safest way, Mark reasoned. The community was understanding, their philosophy tolerant.

Why wouldn’t they help him start a club for kids who get off on leather, sadomasochism and bondage?

He had already dreamed up the name: SHACKLE, an acronym showcasing the sadomasochist’s knack for wordplay, stands for Students of Harvard Allied for Consensual Kinky Lifestyles and Education. Mark had even drafted plans for specific lessons he’d give and support groups he’d offer. Everything seemed in place.

Except that one year later, SHACKLE still doesn’t exist. Sitting before Mark, the executives gave his proposal to start SHACKLE under the umbrella of the BGLTSA a definitive, “no.” They supported his cause, but they didn’t want to make SHACKLE a subgroup of the BGLTSA.

“We’re our own group,” says BGLTSA co-chair Jordan B. Woods ’06, who attended the meeting last year. “The only subgroups we have are specific committees within our organization. If the group starts, we’d be willing to cosponsor events. But we’ll have no official affiliation.”

Had the BGLTSA’s organization-of-one policy not been in place, Mark still may have had trouble forming an official alliance.

Some members of the BGLTSA first became acquainted with Mark at a BGLTSA-sponsored bondage workshop the year before. Patrick S. Kelly ’05, who organized seven of the nearly 40 BGLTSA events held during “Gaypril,” says he arranged the introductory workshop to demystify sadomasochism—known to insiders as SM, not S&M—to a beginning audience, but Mark, in attendance, had his own agenda.

“With the audience we had, I didn’t think they would be comfortable going as far as he went,” says Kelly. “Mark pushed the envelope. And that’s his right. Some of those things he said were like, ‘Whoa’ to me, but I’m not part of that community.”

Reactions like this are the reason for Mark’s request to remain anonymous in this story. Today, a senior knee-deep in the job hunt, Mark doesn’t want his sexual preference turning up on a Google search. For the same reason, he chose not to disclose the names of the multiple other undergraduates he says are also in the SM scene—people he might recruit for SHACKLE once it gets off the ground, if it ever gets off the ground.

The story of the club begins two years earlier, before Mark sat before the BGLTSA board and begged for help, when he was just a freshman, just beginning to identify as a sadomasochist.

Mark, chubby and pale, stood just a little shorter than average height. When he first met up with others in the SM scene, they were often taken aback by his round baby-face and glasses.

“How could you ever be evil?” they would ask him, using one of sadomasochists’ favorite word plays. Within the scene, evil—like submission, dominance and kink—is a good thing. Sadomasochists like to reclaim “bad” phrases as good ones.

Mark considers SM a sexual orientation, something that has always been a part of him. He prefers women as partners, but says that the partnership could only work within certain parameters—the parameters of what is known as the “BDSM” scene.

BDSM comprises three parts: Bondage and Discipline; Domination and Submission; and Sadomasochism. A guy who likes to be tied up isn’t necessarily interested in inflicting pain on his partner; by the same token, a dominatrix might not enjoy being smacked. Mark says he enjoys all three, but he identifies as a sadomasochist.

By the BDSM community’s definition, SM combines sadism—pleasure from inflicting pain—and masochism—pleasure from receiving pain—into one word, a combination intended to suggest you can’t have one without the other, members of the community say. The person being whipped wants to be whipped as much as his partner wants to whip him. That is why they leave out the ampersand.

The American Psychiatric Association has a different definition. By their standards, as published in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), SM is a disorder—or rather, two disorders: paraphilia 302.83 (sexual masochism) and paraphilia 302.84 (sexual sadism).

Under the category of “paraphilias,” the DSM also lists pedophilia, exhibitionism and fetishism. All are understood as mental disorders along the lines of depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.

Mark is quick to point out that each so-called disorder is only understood as such if the drives and behaviors impair normal social interaction. No disorder exists, then, unless the “fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” the manual explains.

Mark also notes that it was not until 1987 that the DSM removed homosexuality as a deviance requiring psychiatric diagnosis.

SM, in Mark’s eyes, deserves the same treatment; like homosexuality, it is a sexual orientation, not a disorder or deviance.

“If I were in a relationship, I would want to be in a BDSM relationship,” Mark says. “I don’t think I could be in any other type.”

At 18, finally legal, Mark entered the SM scene by tapping into Boston-area BDSM message boards. He attended beginners’ meetings in domination and social events that hooked him up with others interested in leather.

His liberation had begun, but it was not finished. His roommate knew, his mother knew, his closest friends knew, but in his everyday life Mark was still in the closet.

At Harvard he lacked a forum where he could be open about his sexuality, a place where he could relate to like-minded people.

In Boston, the BDSM community he had just joined was in the midst of a legal crisis. The year before, police busted a BDSM kink get-together in Addleboro, Mass., charging the party’s host with 13 offenses, including possession of “instruments of masturbatory use.” Another guest was charged with assault for slapping a consenting woman’s behind with a wooden spoon.

Activists in the New England area fought to dismiss the charges, part of a larger battle against state laws that insist SM is a form of assault.

It was a painful time to be part of the BDSM community. But in the SM scene, pain is another one of those bad words that they can turn good. The community was more mobilized then ever.

Smile If You Need a Spanking

When he’s not sitting before the executive board of the BGLTSA, Mark keeps his sexuality hidden.

“You’ll notice that I’m a pretty normal guy outside the bedroom,” he says. “I enjoy sports and go to dance clubs, for example.”

Mark’s dorm room exemplifies his ability to compartmentalize.

On one side of the room, a full-sized American flag is draped across the wall beside a collection of New England Patriots gear—a poster, a hat, a pennant. Up above, the legs of a stuffed toy M&M dangle from the ceiling. Below, Mark’s desk supports the computer he built himself, ready for the most demanding of multi-player online games.

On the opposite side of the room, the BDSM-Leather Pride Flag, decorated with black and blue stripes, stretches from one end of his bed to the other. Next to that is Mark’s “Wall O’ Kink.”

“Basically,” Mark says, “it includes every BDSM place that I belong to, every store that I’ve bought from, and any events that I’ve gone to, or want to go to.” That includes magazine photos of girls in tight leather, pictures of people tied up and posters with titles like “Got Sodomy?”

On his bureau, Mark has a button that reads, “Smile if you need a spanking,” and another that reads, “You’ve been bad, go to my room.” Punning, or taking items from the real world and, to use a BDSM term, perverting them, is the sadomasochist’s way of poking fun at conservative society, Mark says.

Beside the buttons sits a leather jacket-clad teddy bear named Master Mark. A friend in the scene gave Mark the bear when he first started three years ago. Mark makes it a point to note, however, that while the bear holds the title of master, he has never adopted the title for himself. “Master, I think, is a title that needs to be earned,” he says.

Nearby is a hollow black ottoman packed with BDSM books—from technical manuals to historical works of literature. Mark knows how BDSM fits in to any culture you can name. He can tell you about the Christian flagellants who whipped themselves in the name of God and experienced intense endorphin rushes in the process. He can explain the story of SM’s rise in America: a population of gay men left the military after World War II but held onto that structure and order, and then, in tight leather pants, let biker bars act as their camouflage. He’ll tell you all of this without a moment’s pause.

He doesn’t want to hold any information back and, in a perfect world, he wouldn’t. But Mark’s world isn’t perfect.

“If the world accepted it, I would be happy to show it to everyone,” he says. “I would be happy at the Harvard Arts Fair to bind someone in a very beautiful way and suspend them if the rest of the world was okay with it. I would be happy to do that as my ability to be artistic. I can’t draw. I can’t sculpt. I suck at a number of other artistic pursuits. But, you know, rope bondage—my mind works that way.”

Becoming a Sadomasochist

Freshman year, before he perfected the art of bondage, Mark was just beginning to build up his arsenal of SM paraphernalia. He bought leather shirts, floggers—shorter, thicker versions of whips—and 25-foot strings of rope. He even strung his own cat-o-nine-tails out of parachute rope. All of these items he hid away in the closet of his room. The closest SM/Leather retailer to Harvard is Hubba Hubba on Massachusetts Avenue, but Mark puts his money elsewhere, calling Hubba Hubba “ridiculously overpriced.”

Luckily for Mark, there are a number of stores for those who list rope and leather on their shopping lists. The demand requires it. After all, one in ten Americans have had some sexual experience with sadomasochism, according to a 1990 study released by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex at Indiana University.

The most important item he came upon as he built his collection was his single-tale snake whip, the implement he says epitomizes BDSM. “The whip represents all the extremes of BDSM,” he says today, taking the snake whip from out of his closet and lightly flicking it toward the center of the room.

“It can be as soft as a puff of air, or it can be as loud as a crack of lightning,” he says. He cracks the whip to demonstrate. “It takes skill and control to do either.”

Mark says that for a sadomasochist, there is a difference between harm and hurt. Harm he tries to avoid at all costs; hurt, however, is good. “Pain and pleasure are not polar opposites to us. There’s painful pleasure; there’s pleasurable pain,” Mark says. “Pain to us is simply sensation that is very intense. Because it’s so intense, like a bright light, people normally might shy away from it. But people who enjoy that intensity will go towards it.”

Mark invokes the feeling of riding a roller coaster, or jumping out of a plane with only a bungee cord as protection. Some people like it, and some people don’t.

His freshman year, Mark was searching for people who liked it. The online message boards directed him to monthly meetings that introduce newcomers to the lifestyle. Called munches, the social gatherings are held in public spaces.

“I cannot tell you where munches meet, because that would cause the anonymity of people to be potentially compromised, as the munches are regular events. I will say they are commonly held in restaurants and malls,” he writes in an e-mail.

At the first munch Mark attended, he met no one his age, or even close to his age. “When you start out, you always wonder if this is right, because it’s dark, forbidden and thus kind of a taboo,” he says.

Though he grew comfortable in the community, Mark always wished his entrance into the scene had been eased by a peer his own age.

Still, he coped, discovering “play parties,” or fetish house parties hosted by local contacts, and meeting women, some of whom followed him back to his room in Cambridge.

“Just keep the noise down, and no problems,” his roommate today tells him. (Not a problem, according to Mark, who says Currier’s concrete walls are remarkably soundproof.)

As he began going out more often, Mark developed a system to help him play the play-party-scene safe.

“When I’m going somewhere, I say to a friend, ‘If I don’t call you by this time, and say this exact phrase, call the police, I’m in danger,’” he says. “The BDSM community focuses a lot on safety.”

Mark says he is lucky to have had friends and roommates who are open. “In my freshman year, there was someone in my dorm who was very accepting,” he says. “I was just starting out so that was very helpful. He knew me and he knew it wasn’t a bad thing.”

Mark also found support at the New England Leather Alliance (NELA), a BDSM advocacy group. During an internship there last summer, Mark got to know NELA’s board members, including Sandra J.M. Santiago, who he used as a sounding board.

“He told me he was interested in starting a club at Harvard, but he was not getting much support,” Santiago says. “He seemed discouraged.”

Santiago was a good contact to make. A few years earlier, she had been handed a similar setback and later rose above it.

One Wooden Spoon

Santiago, now 35, became interested in SM when she was 27. For three years, she kept her lifestyle under the radar. But in July of 2000, in the town of Addleboro, one disastrous night made her decide it was time to come out.

Santiago, then a student, was a guest at the party activists have come to call “Paddleboro.”

As the police entered the building, arresting the host and the woman who used a wooden spoon as a spanking implement, Santiago says guests became deathly afraid. “They were worried about losing their jobs. They were worried about their children,” she says.

Santiago was lucky. A 27-year-old graduate student didn’t have to worry about such concerns—at least not yet. But who knew what could happen in the future? Now, she decided, was the time to come out.

Six months later, Santiago became a BDSM activist, joining a movement that had been underway for a decade before Paddleboro made the fight more urgent.

Following the pattern forged by BGLT activists before them, BDSM advocates created groups like the NELA and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) in response to what they call widespread social and legal persecution. Like BGLT activists, they made the courts their battleground and education their weapon.

Today Santiago tailors her work and professional life around SM. She doesn’t apply for jobs that don’t know of her sexual preference. A social worker, she has made a career at La Red, a domestic violence support center. In her spare time, she volunteers at NELA, organizing meetings with doctors, police officers and social workers—anyone who might be likely to come into contact with BDSM and not know what it is—where she explains that SM relationships are usually consensual, not forms of domestic violence or abuse.

“We focus our education programs on those groups that have the greatest chance of a negative interaction with our community,” says NELA Chair Vivienne Kramer. “We appeal to them to not enforce the laws. The truth is, laws are selectively enforced—regardless of what they are.”

In California, New York and Florida, for example, SM laws are not enforced. Courts in those states tend to consider the consensual nature of the act and dismiss the charges, but the laws are still on the books, Kramer says.

Within the community, Kramer says, education is just as important. During their Fetish Fair Fleamarket, hosted twice annually, 4,000 members of the scene and 100 vendors from across the country come to meet, peruse and learn at 24 different SM workshops and classes.  

When news of Paddleboro reached Kramer, she sent the NCSF, which she also chairs, onto the scene. A political organization based in Washington, D.C., NCSF focuses on the same issues as NELA, but with a broader perspective.

NCSF’s efforts in Addleboro were a form of what Kramer calls “group incident response.” In this case, NCSF associates talked to local leaders, the district’s attorney general and members of the media to try to spin the story in their favor. “People in the SM/Leather/Fetish community are being persecuted,” Kramer says. Action was necessary.

Two years ago, UN Weapons Inspector Jack McGeorge was nearly forced to resign when the Washington Post exposed his connections to SM/Leather/Fetish advocacy groups. Last month, a Kansas City Holiday Inn shut down a costume ball for fetish enthusiasts 24 hours before the event after a Fox News reporter called the hotel with a question about the party.

This week, NCSF will go to court with their biggest initiative yet: a lawsuit challenging the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which prevents the Internet publication of anything understood as obscene by “contemporary community standards.” NCSF charges that this—the last remnant of an act whose other components were judged unconstitutional in a 1997 Supreme Court decision—is a free-speech violation.

If past performance is any indication, Kramer’s NCSF will put up a strong fight. After months of lobbying, group response and legal wrangling, none of those charged in the Paddleboro case have served time.

And Paddleboro may have actually attracted more people to BDSM activism, says Cecilia M. Tan, NELA’s media relations director.

Benefits aside, Kramer maintains Paddleboro should never have happened. “Two lives have been ruined, and fifty thousand dollars have been spent over a wooden spoon,” she says.

Following Paddleboro, the NCSF’s group incident-response program turned its attention to a college in Iowa where an organization called CUFFS, an educational and SM/Leather/Fetish social group, had been suspended. Last spring, the group held an introductory class on flogging. When administrators found out about the class, they shut the club down. NCSF’s appeals to the administrative board were unsuccessful. Now Kramer is reaching out to the board of regents and encouraging activists from across the country to send letters and petitions. As of yet, nothing has changed. The club remains at a standstill.

Kramer found it no surprise, then, that Mark’s club had met a similar fate.

No Pain, No Gain

In Mark’s vision, SHACKLE was going to be a group dedicated to supporting those students who are members of, or are interested in, the BDSM community. This was going to be a place where people who were afraid to let others know about their preference, people who worried about public rejection, could feel welcome. It was Mark’s chance to tell others—especially those just entering the scene—that they are not alone.

Mark had planned on organizing a number of workshops on playing safely. Playing safely means knowing boundaries, and knowing them with absolute certainty, he says. For instance, he would tell his peers about safe words.

“Many people like saying no—that’s what gives them the feeling of helplessness. A pre-negotiated safe word is what you say when you really mean stop,” Mark says. “For example, the color system. In this case, red means stop. If you say red, everything stops. There’s no misunderstanding. Communication is valued extremely highly in a BDSM relationship.”

So is consent—which is the primary reason Kelly, the former BGLTSA co-chair, invited Randi Kaufman, a psychologist who works with the Fenway Health Clinic, to speak at the BGLTSA-sponsored workshop.

“Whatever you say about the BDSM community, they value a robust form of consent that other college students are missing,” Kelly says. “People [in BDSM] relationships talk beforehand. They can even have written and notarized contracts about what they will and will not do. Each and every step is detailed. They set boundaries that can be shrunk at any time for any reason, which is just insanely good.”

The following year, the BGLTSA held another SM forum during its “Gaypril” programming. This time, Sabrina Santiago moderated a discussion among several other NELA associates.

BGLTSA officers agree with Mark that BDSM advocacy falls in line with its philosophy of sexual freedom and tolerance. When the board members established with Mark that the BGLTSA could not start his club for him, BGLTSA co-chair Margaret Barusch ’06 says they offered him complete support in establishing SHACKLE independently.

But Mark needed official sponsorship. Before his club could be recognized by the College, he needed to find a faculty sponsor. He tried talking to several professors, but none of them agreed. Mark declined comment on the number of professors he spoke with and would not identify them.

He knows as well as anyone that SM is dicey political terrain—after all, it is illegal—and supposes this is the reason he’s had so much trouble. However, Mark doesn’t see the law as a good enough reason to deny a BDSM presence on campus. “Gay marriage is illegal. Forms of stem cell research are illegal,” he says. “But there are groups dedicated to advancing the cause of both of these things. So even though it’s illegal, advancing the cause to make it legal is perfectly reasonable.”

Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby, a novel the New York Times called “the most beautiful book ever written about sadomasochism,” says that clubs like Mark’s are absolutely necessary as a matter of health and safety.

“People can be driven toward really self-destructive behavior if there isn’t a forum. That’s why college organizations are so important,” he says. “If someone ties you up and doesn’t know how to get the knots out, you can suffocate. Those needs aren’t going to go away. If you don’t condone people tying people up, they’re not going to stop doing it. We don’t know where these desires come from, but they’re here. The question is whether you’re going to fulfill them in a safe or an unsafe way.”

Today, to the chagrin of people like Elliott, Mark’s plans to start a BDSM student organization are shackled. However, Mark’s individual sense of an SM identity continues to grow.

Mark calls himself a student of the aesthetic qualities of bondage. He particularly admires a form adopted from Hojujutsu, the art of restraining and transporting prisoners in Medieval Japan during the Tokugawa period. Mark says that when Japan modernized, the technique evolved into an art form. “Bondage,” he says, “is just a very powerful experience.”

Mark has not given up sharing that powerful experience with a BDSM group at Harvard. Despite the numerous setbacks, Mark remains confident—perhaps for good reason.

Just this week, Vivienne Kramer picked up a lead on a faculty member who might be able to help. “I was going to call Mark this week and say, ‘Have you talked to that particular faculty member?’” Kramer says.

Meanwhile, with SHACKLE on hold, Mark does his best to keep an eye out for peers in need of support. “I still try to reach out—looking for certain symbols that say, ‘Yes, I’m into this,’” Mark says. “I’ve brought them into the Boston community so they [can] know they are not alone.”

It’s not SHACKLE, but it’s a start.