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Sarah likes it when her hands are tied to the bedpost and a bar is secured between her knees, spreading them apart. During sex, her boyfriend dominates her roped body as she happily calls him “sir” and “master.” She asks her boyfriend to objectify her and call her derogatory terms.
For Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, the pain from the ropes is not what turns her on. Sarah is kinky, which for her means enjoying losing control of the situation, and even control over her own body.
Within the kink community, Sarah identifies as a “sub,” short for submissive, and she thinks it’s hot when her body’s movements are in someone else’s hands. She says having kinky sex allows her to escape “from the pressures of having to be this Madonna-whore thing, where I’m supposed to know what I’m doing but I’m also not supposed to want to do any of it.”
Sarah says she openly discusses these desires with Harvard peers who have similar kinks during “munch,” an informal lunch meeting for kinky people.
Sarah and other members believe participating in and discussing kinky sex is a way to deconstruct what they dub the “sexual script”: making out, taking off clothes, having intercourse, and going to sleep. For them, it peels away the taboo cloaking students’ ability to freely analyze and critique rules about sex.
Last semester Michael, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, noticed that he was having the same conversations about kinky sex with different people. He knew that munches are hosted in the kink community at large, and decided it would be a good idea to bring these students together over lunch. He began organizing events for kinky Harvard students and is currently in the process of trying to form a recognized student group.
Michael says there are twenty students on the fledgling group’s email list, and that most members’ kinks fall on the BDSM spectrum—an initialism that stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
“Or, as my crude definition states, it’s tying people up, telling them to do stuff, and hitting them with things,” Michael says jokingly.
Justin J. Lehmiller, a lecturer in Harvard’s psychology department and a sex columnist, says that this is a normal part of human sexual expression. He says he believes that students should learn about the diversity that exists in sexual behavior.
“People are by no means limited to performing one sexual act,” Lehmiller says. “People like to pretend that [kinky sex] doesn’t happen, but the reality is that it does.”
But the members’ interests do not encompass the broad spectrum that is kink. Indeed, the word “kinky” means to participate in unusual sexual behavior which, Michael explains, can entail anything from having sex in a location other than the bedroom to having a fetish. A fetish, while may be part of a kink, refers to an obsession with a particular object, idea, or body part conventionally not viewed as sexual.
Michael identifies as a “dom,” short for dominant. He likes to be the one tying the ropes, talking dirty, and “punishing” his partner. Jill, a student who regularly attends munch and whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, says she’s a sub and has had rape fantasies since she was young.
Kinky people also include furries, who, according to Michael, dress up or identify with anthropomorphic animal figures “either as a lifestyle thing or as a sexual product.”
There are also “eaters and feeders” who derive pleasure from, as the name suggests, eating and feeding. But interaction can be more than simply feeding your partner chocolate covered strawberries and can entail force-feeding or feeding someone with the intention that they will gain weight.
Michael and Jill say sexual role-play is more about power dynamics in the bedroom than actually deriving pleasure from pain. Jill says that for her, being a sub includes cooking and dressing up for her boyfriend, not because those acts are sexually arousing but because she knows they will make him happy.
“There’s a conceptual line that gets drawn,” Michael says, about what constitutes a kink. As an example, he says that a man who likes his partner’s feet is often characterized as having a fetish, whereas a man who likes his partner’s legs is not.
“You begin to question where that line comes from,” he adds.
‘YES MEANS YES’
Sarah remembers freaking out during kinky sex only once. It was the night she and her boyfriend were using more ropes than usual and, she says, she was not in the right mindset.
“That’s why you keep scissors right there, to cut people out fast,” she says, adding that her boyfriend helped her as soon as she appeared distressed.
Sarah says that when she has kinky sex she enters “sub-space”—a mental state a sub may enter during role-play. Sarah says that in sub-space, she ceases to feel physical pain.
“It’s important to check in about limits before you start playing,” she says. “If someone doesn’t feel comfortable with something beforehand, they might agree to it in sub-space.”
At that point, it is up to the dominant partner to respect previously agreed upon boundaries.
For kinky people, communication and trust is key in determining what risks to take and boundaries to set, as well as maximizing pleasure.
“BDSM is not an acceptable cover for abuse,” Michael says, explaining that consent is the key ingredient that differentiates it from abuse.
Mollena Williams, an educator in the kink and BDSM community for 15 years, says that kinky sex increases self-awareness because it forces individuals to be transparent with themselves and their partners about what pleases them. Williams, who refers to herself as “The Perverted Negress,” will discuss safe kinky sex at Harvard during Sex Week in late March.
“Sometimes what I deserve is a really nice spanking because it turns me on,” Williams says, explaining that she is the ultimate authority on what gives her pleasure. “It’s hot and it’s sexy.”
That self-awareness allows kinky students to negotiate seemingly conflicting parts of their identities.
Jill says she is fully aware that being submissive to her boyfriend during sex can appear to be anti-feminist. But Jill says she believes her sexual interests have nothing to do with her ideological beliefs or her opinions outside of her sexual interactions.
“The way feminists talk about how consent is really important to sex, well it’s really important to kinky sex too,” Jill says, adding that she considers herself to be a feminist.
Kink sex, for her, is an expression of affection.
“I like being told that I’m a slut or good for nothing but sex...But when you tell me I’m a whore, what you’re really saying is I love you,” she says.
Williams also identifies as a sub and says that being a feminist is having the capability to operate outside individuals’ designated roles in society.
“There’s nothing easy about saying ‘what fulfills me is being submissive,’ but that doesn’t mean I’m submissive to the world,” Williams says.
REMOVING THE TABOO
At the time of the interview Sarah had come back from having sex with her boyfriend in Widener. For her, having sex outside the bedroom, as well as the thrill of potentially being caught made the experience kinky.
She says that having kinky sex increased her confidence because it allowed her to be comfortable owning and articulating her needs and desires.
“There’s also the very straightforward confidence you get from being treated like someone’s sex toy,” she adds. “Being able to turn someone else on in a very primal and objective sense...feels great.”
Members of the kink community say that participating in, and talking about, kinky sex can open up the discussion about sex on campus. In doing so, they say they hope to deconstruct the notion that sex has to proceed in a particular direction.
“Teaching yourself to talk about [variations in sex] can be helpful and meaningful,” Michael says.
At the same time Michael, Jill, and Sarah say they understand that their friends and family may not care to know about their sexual practices. All three asked to remain anonymous to protect their friends, not because they are ashamed.
“Everyone is secretly kinky,” Michael laughs.
—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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