Words by Alex Kamczyc
While unspooling the world of BDSM, one outsider learns the real intentions behind a misunderstood community
Wind blows through the windows of my car on a cool Wednesday evening as I talk to my girlfriend on the phone. Parked outside of Bowman Hall, I fidget with my notebook, quickly writing notes and questions I have prior to a K.I.N.K. meeting I’m attending.
She is not thrilled. At the very least, she’s cautious that I might be getting myself in over my head.
An acronym for Kent Is Now Kinky, K.I.N.K. is a student-run organization on campus focused on bondage, domination, sadism and masochism. The group’s goal is to educate and provide information about BDSM safety while also fostering a like-minded community.
Participants face countless criticisms and battle with stereotypes, dealing with outsiders who view their lifestyle as disturbed or demented. I admit I am guilty of this prejudice, but I’m also curious and open-minded.
Who are the people involved in the BDSM world, anyway?
K.I.N.K. isn’t an anomaly. Various other clubs on campuses around the country formed prior to Kent State’s iteration, including Conversio Virium, Columbia University’s BDSM group, which came to be in the ‘90s. At Harvard University’s club formed in 2012, Harvard College Munch, members meet to discuss kinky matters — even engaging in demonstrations.
I have my reservations about K.I.N.K., and as I walk into the classroom that houses the meeting, I’m greeted by two cheery girls with wide smiles across their faces.
The first, Makenzie Hornung, is short with blonde hair. President of the group, she wears a leather jacket, boots and blue short shorts with fishnet leggings. The other, Sarah Tothero, a senior majoring in fashion design and director of media for the group, is tall with pink dye in her blonde hair, donning circular, wide-rimmed glasses.
I shake their hands and sign a nondisclosure agreement that protects those who want to attend meetings discreetly.
“We were expecting you,” Hornung says, shaking my hand. “Grab a seat anywhere you’d like and we’ll get started soon.” Her politeness catches me off guard. I wasn’t expecting a somber tone in the room, but I definitely wasn’t expecting an upbeat one either. Sitting in an unsettled manner, I wait for the meeting to begin, fidgeting with my notes once again.
The room the meeting occupies is small, walls covered in white from side to side and tables arranged neatly in rows where attendees sit and wait patiently, some off-kilter in their seats. Clearly, I’m not the only one feeling the oddness of waiting in a classroom to learn about BDSM.
Others appear to be completely comfortable with the atmosphere. One student wearing cat ears circles around others in the middle of the compact room, undeterred by the slight awkwardness felt by some. In the front, the group’s officers casually talk among themselves.
The projector powers on, and the meeting begins with a warm welcome.
“Tonight we will be talking about how to introduce your partner to BDSM,” Hornung says, pointing to a slide about the topic. A PowerPoint presentation begins, walking everyone through initiating the BDSM conversation with an unsuspecting partner.
First, Hornung and Tothero make sure we understand what our kinks, or sexual interests, are. It’s vital that research is done on what interests participants’ harbor before a discussion can be introduced to a partner.
Next in the presentation is a how-to guide in explaining kinks to an unsuspecting partner. The advice is to explain how it would make you feel for your partner to participate in the act and to understand your partner may be “vanilla,” or uninterested in partaking in the same fetishes.
The PowerPoint transitions to instructions on what to do during and after a “BDSM scene,” which includes any interaction during role play and sex, including power dynamics and bondage, among others.
This is a conversation that many find hard to start, especially given the current social landscape in America. It’s not uncommon for those who participate in BDSM to be shunned. In 2013, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to remove cross-dressing, fetishes and BDSM from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Legal issues also cloud BDSM. Technically speaking, participants aren’t legally protected in cases of sexual assault and other matters. The lifestyle isn’t illegal, but committing violent acts on someone for sexual pleasure is a crime, regardless of consent.
“It’s ridiculous. I get the idea behind it, but I think we really need to look at the fact that everyone is an adult here and this is taking place in a safe environment,” Hornung says. “Americans can do way more stupid things than consensually hitting each other.”
Some believe these issues and disapprovals stem from religious beliefs.
“I was raised in a very strict Christian home, so a lot of the stuff outside of premarital sex was dirty and wrong,” Brittany Boord, a sophomore majoring in English, says, balling her hands up to fight back anger. “It’s a lot of that fear and disgust that permeates in society. It’s easy to see it as something wrong and taboo.”
Outside of K.I.N.K., Boord participates in clubs for line dancing and board games. She also likes to spend her free time writing short stories and poetry, calling herself a “hopeless romantic.”
“I’m super quiet about everything, and I don’t talk a lot, so when I tell someone that I’m interested in this stuff, the first thing they say is, ‘Really?’” she says. “They can’t believe someone so quiet and ‘innocent’ would be into this kind of thing.”
The stigma surrounding BDSM culture comes more from misunderstandings than rational distaste. This is something the group hopes its meetings will remedy on campus. “I think the fact that we really focus on community building really opens the door to the fact that this isn’t something worth stigmatizing,” Hornung says. “When we band together, we can look at the bigger picture and realize this isn’t a big deal.”
After a few more slides, I stop taking notes on the presentation and decide to scope out the audience. It’s a diverse crowd, interested and engaged in the discussion.
“BDSM is a binding culture; it’s all about finding acceptance,” says Brandon Jennings, a member of the group. “When you become incorporated into it, you become comfortable with the people around you, and it does bring you closer together just because you can talk about things with the people in a kink community that you can’t with people in your daily life.”
This shouldn’t be shocking. In a 2005 study conducted by condom company Durex, 36 percent of adults in America use many of the tools used in BDSM during sex. That number is only 20 percent globally.
“I think it’s a very welcoming subculture,” Tothero says. “A lot of times, just in daily life for a lot of people who may be discriminated against in various ways, it’s hard to put yourself out there. I think it says a lot about the community that all these different kinds of people feel safe coming and meeting one another.”
Nowadays, you wouldn’t be wrong to instantly associate BDSM culture with the popular “Fifty Shades” series. With more than 100 million copies sold worldwide, and a third Hollywood film adaptation on the way, many attribute the BDSM boom to the franchise. Others groan at the mention of it due to the violent nature of the relationship between its two main characters.
“It brought a lot of outside attention to the culture, but it didn’t bring a lot of good attention to it,” Tothero says. “It taught a lot of people, who had no idea what it was about, completely incorrect information. There were a lot of things that they didn’t show that are vital for making BDSM, BDSM and not just abuse.”
”Fifty Shades” fails to show the support and respect BDSM couples share for one another before and after a “scene.” There is no clear communication and understanding between the characters, portraying a negative power dynamic between the two. Power dynamics are some of the most important and misunderstood aspects of the culture.
As a fashion design student, Tothero finds herself focusing on things other than K.I.N.K. For her, she devotes most of her spare time to class projects. Outside of school, she also watches anime and creates costumes to wear at conventions with friends. “Even if one of my hobbies seems kind of strange to you, it’s not that weird,” she says. “There are lots of non-threatening people in the BDSM community.”
The most common thing I hear when talking to members is that BDSM is a culture about love and respecting one another, something that doesn’t seem quite right if you’re someone on the outside looking in. “The culture is very much about respect,” Jennings says. “At the very least, it’s about finding other people that understand so you can talk to them about it.”
Why do people think BDSM is such a taboo subject? It seemed so far from what people imagine or even what television depicts.
“When we think of relationships, we think of them on a single dimension,” Hornung says. “It’s about love and trust and companionship. [Some] look at it and ask how you can love someone when you’re hurting them.”
Despite being president, Hornung’s interests expand beyond K.I.N.K. “I spend a lot of time on art,” she says. “It’s a pretty big passion of mine; I do it every single day.” She also loves dancing, but with everything else she’s interested in, K.I.N.K. is still the focal point of most of her conversations.
“It’s probably hard to believe since my name is attached to everything, but I am a very private person,” she says. “People really do think that this is a big chunk of my life, and I know that when people talk to me about it. There’s always a shock factor to it.”
Things like that don’t prevent her from living her life and enjoying activities she loves, though. Like many other people who find themselves embedded in BDSM, it isn’t her whole life. She took on the leadership role for the polarizing organization without fully explaining it to her parents, telling them it’s mostly a relationship safety group, which she maintains, isn’t inaccurate.
The meeting ends and I walk down the stairs of Bowman and outside with a new perspective of an otherwise foreign culture. Since the club’s early beginnings in 2014, the group has seen many changes, primarily the growth in the number of attendees.
“A lot has changed about this club over the past couple years and I think at this point, we’re at our best,” Hornung says. “I think it’s really important for people to know that despite whatever posters you see with rope on them, we’re people, just like you. We may seem intimidating, but we’re just a nice bunch and we all want friends and companionship.”
I’ve returned for a few more meetings after my initial experience. A small sign in front of the classroom now lets curious passersby know what is going on inside. It’s written in a friendly font, with ropes decorating the top and bottom. Crowds are always the same, albeit the numbers differ depending on the day. The attitude, however, is always the same: light-hearted, optimistic and casual.
Not long after my first meeting, I recognize a K.I.N.K. member at a bar in downtown Kent. It was at Zephyr Pub, me with my girlfriend and some friends, him with a group of people I didn’t know.
We make eye contact, raise our beers and smile at each other in the crowded, stuffy room before each going our separate ways.
Alex Kamczyc is a writer, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for the Fall 2017 issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.