“Sometimes my friends and I stop each other mid-sentence and say, ‘Oh my god, you guys. We go to Harvard. This is so weird,’” Maria, a junior, said recently over Skype chat.
Harvard had been Maria’s dream school for years. (She requested a pseudonym, but not because she’s not proud of her alma mater.) A valedictorian of her New England public high school, she got in on the basis of a 4.0 GPA and started working toward an English major. Last year, she began looking around for some extracurricular activities to enrich her college experience. There were more than 400 student groups to choose from. Maria chose a group called Harvard College Munch. Her goal was to meet new people, to explore something new, maybe to release some of the pressure that comes with trying to compete in an intimidating hothouse of rampant overachievement.
Maria is petite, with honey-blonde hair and brown eyes. They widened as she ticked off a few of the areas she hoped to explore in her free time: “Bondage, handcuffs, ice play…”
Maria is, she said, less a masochist than a submissive. “So a lot of taking orders and stuff like that,” she explained. “I’m really into the whole exhibitionist thing, semi-public places, mirrors…” In addition to educational meetings on campus, Munch has hosted private events where members can get together and “play.” Since joining, Maria’s had a chance to explore some of her fantasies. “I’ve been hit with a riding crop, a belt, a paddle, canes, a flogger … floggers are my favorite.”
The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey has accelerated a mainstreaming of the BDSM subculture already underway—the initials stand for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism—and the trend has been especially pronounced in our more elite institutions of higher learning. Columbia has a BDSM group. So do Tufts, MIT, Yale and the University of Chicago. Brown, UPenn and Cornell have hosted BDSM educators for on-campus seminars entitled “The Freedom of Kink” and “Kink for All.” It looks like conservatives who have long viewed the Ivy League a bastion of depravity may have a point after all.
But some young members of such groups are finding the subculture is offering them more of an education than they expected, confronting them with serious issues involving consent, disclosure, anonymity, sexual violence, guilt and innocence, crime and punishment.
While the scene’s mantra—“safe, sane and consensual”—is heard so often it might as well be translated into needlepoint, violations of these maxims are common. In the last year, hundreds of people have come forward to describe the abuse they’ve suffered within the scene. The victims are mostly women, and like 50 Shades’fictional 22-year-old Anastasia Steele, many are also young, submissive and uncertain about their boundaries.
In December, and Victoria (not her real name), a 20-year-old English major at an Ivy League school, had decided to skip reading period, apply more makeup than usual and venture on her own to a kinky meet-upshe had read about on FetLife, a social networking service for fetishists. Victoria didn’t have any experience with submissive sex, but she had been drawn to it for years; she sometimes had fantasies about dungeons or about being restrained or embarrassed, and she recalled family trips to Medieval Times having given her an unusual erotic charge.
The meeting was fun. Victoria had interesting conversations about neurobiology and religion and, of course, about kinky sex. It was near the end of the evening when a man walked in whom she recognized; he had tried to form an S&M club on her campus a few years before. Eric had a doughy, impish face and slicked-back hair, and he wore his cell phone in a carrier on his hip. ...