At first, Lily Zheng saw kink as a way to have great sex. "I thought of it like an escalator: First I would do bondage, then this and that, and then at the end, I would have the most fulfilling, amazing sex ever," said the Stanford University junior, who is also co-president of the university's kink club.
But when the sex at the end turned out to be a disappointment — "I was just lying on the bed, checking out my nails and thinking, 'This is silly and not fun'" — she realized that she wasn't interested in sex so much as the dynamics of dominant and submissive relationships. For her, sex is a tool in service of those relationships, not something she cares about much for its own sake.
Zheng is part of a growing community of asexuals, or people who are not sexually attracted to any gender, who are attracted to the kink scene because they like touch, relationships, sensation, and power dynamics — all reasons that have nothing to do with sex itself. Many say that because kink focuses so much on negotiation and consent, this environment feels safer than traditional relationships, where sex is usually expected. Still, says Zheng, identifying as both asexual and kinky initially felt like "a huge contradiction" because of the stereotypes around both subcultures.
Kink is often broken down into the four categories — bondage, domination, submission, and masochism — and has become more popular recently, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. But while its roots were in explicit sex, it has become more about general "connection," with people "having entire relationships where explicit sexual contact wasn't a part of it," according to BDSM educator Mollena Williams-Haas.
Asexuals, or "aces," often divide attraction into three categories: aesthetic, romantic, and sexual, with the last one being the most self-explanatory. Aesthetic attraction means finding someone physically attractive without necessarily being sexually attracted. Romantic attraction or romantic orientation (often broken down into homoromantic, biromantic, heteroromantic, panromantic, and so on) means wanting to be in a romantic relationship with someone regardless of whether you want to have sex with them.
Aces don't experience sexual attraction but some aces have a sex drive and enjoy having sex, some are sex-repulsed and don't enjoy it at all, some really love touch and sensation but dislike penetrative sex, and so on.
Still, asexuality is often conflated with being celibate, prudish or, as Zheng said, pointing to another stereotype, "hating to be touched." So it can be confusing when people encounter someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction or isn't interested in sex, but is still very interested in the kink scene.
Lauren*, a writer in northern California, says she is involved in kink because she likes "sensation-play, interactions, complex human relationship, a balance of power and control and trust." Lauren has been "tying up my Barbies since I was about 3, which is probably a warning sign" but found later that she was not really into sex, and has since had many kink partners that she's never been sexually attracted to.
Instead of being into BDSM for the sex, she says, "I appreciate this ability to step outside normal social strictures and explicitly say, 'We are going to very carefully negotiate the way we interact with each other to be safe and careful with each other.'"
Not all contact during a kink scene is sexual because it often depends on the person and the context, according to Lauren. For example, cuddling with one person can be sexual, and not at all with another. And aftercare, or the contact after a scene, typically should not be sexual at all. "It's kind of like you picking up your cat, and you're hanging out and bonding — you're having very intimate contact, but very explicitly not sexual and sometimes to the point that being sexual would make that really uncomfortable and would be undesirable," she adds. ...
She leans over, and opens the bag. Her sharp, "I'm Not A Waitress" red painted nails glistening in the low light of the play space -- or what you might call a "Dungeon." She is a well-shaped woman of a certain age; and her male partner is tied to what is known as a "spanking bench." She could be a teacher, a nurse or lawyer when she isn't tied into a corset standing in five-inch heels. Her lips are ruby red, matching her finger nails. She removes something dark. Something long. Something leather. As she stands, it almost slithers from the bag. She steps up, lifts her arm, and that long, leather something whistles through the air ... a foot or two in front of my gaping mouth ... Crack! Like a gunshot, the sound permeates the space. Again, her arm moves, her breasts heave and the object of her affection is in bliss. I briefly wonder if they are married or just met here and if he might be a police officer or a judge in his day job. It really doesn't matter. What is clear is that they are ordinary people enjoying not being ordinary.
I move on.
The lights are low, but I can still see everything that is going on. Perhaps not in garish detail, but certainly well enough. Despite the throbbing, driving scene music, you can hear some of the moans, the sharp slap of toys. Look at all those people -- sharing, connecting ... playing! That one over there in a sexy flogging scene. This one here getting paddled. Another spread on a cross, tied tautly by the arms and legs. Dominant types reaching into their toy bags, pulling out some new article to create a different sensation. This is hot. This is what over 600 people traveled to Columbus, Ohio for ... and have taken over a perfectly ordinary hotel for a weekend of mischief and very sexy, sex education.
It's hard to fathom that Ohio's kissing cousin Michigan just passed legislation to outlaw oral and anal sex and I am standing in a converted conference room -- now dungeon -- where "Fifty Shades of Grey" in comparison seems so bland. I guess because this is real and so are the people. No Barbie and Ken Dolls here! They eat red meat here (prime rib served at midnight) and every other kind of snack food from donuts to Milky Way bars is always available to keep your strength up between spankings.
I pinch myself. Welcome to the edge of the Bible Belt and the not so undercover world of an emerging, kinky and incredibly diverse sex scene in the Midwest. You want spanking, bondage, rope play, LGBTQ, straight, body acceptance, age acceptance, sacred sexuality, tantra, bd/sm and everything in-between? It's right there in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio may be the country's "test kitchen" for fast food restaurants and it may also be the country's only "Test Kitchen" for what "everyday" Americans are wanting to experiment with when it some to sex. And they are showing up.
Meet Andrew "Barak" Gardinier and Trina "Brat Sheba" Gardinier, "Ordinary" Ohio Citizens By Day (or at least at their day jobs), and Sexual Super Heroes all the rest of the time. They are what most would call; "Sex Educator Pioneers." They have been married for about 14 years and together for almost 16. When I asked Andrew to describe their relationship he said this: "We are in a primary partnered, non-monogamous, married relationship with agreements. In other words we are married and ethically polyamorous."
They are also the founders of Adventures In Sexuality (AIS) which was formed on Jan. 13, 2006 and just celebrated its 10th anniversary. This not-so-little group with about 4,000 online members (many more visitors and voyeurs) and roughly 1,500-2,000 regular attendees, two widely attended kinky conferences where 600 kinksters show up from all over the country called COPE and Winter WIckedness. And there is more! To meet the growing need, there is now an addition of a new sexuality community center that is just opening called "The Space."
I asked Andrew and Trina why they do what they do?
"We primarily do what we do, because we want to create a safe and nurturing space for people to seek and discover/uncover their bliss. For us, it is essential for people to be free to experience their sexual aspect in an accepting environment. Here's the thing; all the other aspects of self -- emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual -- have outlets and facilities, and supportive environments ... but not so much with our sexuality. Sex is a part of ourselves, yet it lives a life of shadow, shame, and persecution. We want to change all of that. ...
In 2014, when he was first accused of sexual assault and hitting women, Jian Ghomeshi said he liked "rough sex" and BDSM, calling his sex life a "mild form" of 50 Shades of Grey.
This week, the former TV and radio host is in court facing allegations from three women, amounting to four criminal counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance to sexual assault by choking.
The case is one of the country's most highly publicized sex assault trials ever, and — thanks to the Ghomeshi's own Facebook posts — has already wandered into the grey legal zone around BDSM and consent. But it also underlines a rarely used, and very serious, criminal charge that could see Ghomeshi put away for life.
The choking charge, which comes from the same section of the law that prohibits date rape, could land Ghomeshi with a life sentence in prison if he's convicted. That's because, according to the prosecution, he allegedly wanted to do something worse than only sexually assault one of the women who took the stand on Thursday: He prevented her from resisting it.
But prosecutors must prove he had the intent to commit sexual assault for the charge to stick. And if Ghomeshi intends to argue that the choking, and other rough sexual acts, were consensual — as he's suggested in the past — it might raise the question of whether consent is even possible, and whether the choking was so severe that it inflicted serious bodily harm.
It's alleged that in 2003, Ghomeshi choked and slapped Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere. On the stand, DeCoutere described it as "a power thing."
In a Facebook post written in 2014, Ghomeshi said, "I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners."
After the alleged assault, DeCoutere wrote in an email, "You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck your brains out tonight." ...
Arya Popescue has a better elevator speech than you. Or at least an introduction that isn’t going to be easily forgotten. The School of Engineering and Applied Science junior is from Romania. She's kinky, trans, and genderqueer. She’s a mechanical engineer, and she leads Converso Virium, Columbia’s BDSM and kink club.
BDSM is a composite acronym standing for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Practitioners don’t necessarily participate in every aspect of BDSM, nor do they necessarily pick one. Kinksters often explore different sexual practices.
Sitting at a table on the Lerner Hall ramps, Popescue wears hiking boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather dog collar. She says the collar signifies her submissive role in her current relationship but explains that collars can mean different things for different people. She wears hers constantly.
“I’ve kind of known I was kinky forever,” Popescue says. She knew she was kinky—having untraditional sexual interests—before she knew she was transgender, but came out as trans before she came out as kinky. “I didn’t know there was a word for [BDSM] or a community for it until I came here at Columbia and I actually saw CV at the activities fair.”
“I don’t remember it like it was yesterday,” she says, but she does remember it was the third of Sept. 3, 2013. Popescue remembers details.
Popescue came out as kinky on National Coming Out Day in 2013. Since then, she has constructed her Internet presence as a kinkster. In her profile picture on Facebook, she peeks through her brown hair toward the camera, wearing her collar. She has a FetLife page (like Facebook, but for kinksters), where she can specify her interests within BDSM, who her play partner is, who her toy is, whose toy she is. She has a blog; among her posts are a pasta recipe and a video expose revealing why her Kindle stops working when she plugs in her vibrator.
Popescue has never missed a CV meeting. Well, maybe one or two, maximum. “President of Conversio Virium (CV), Columbia University’s Kink Club” is plastered on her résumé. CV meets on Monday nights in Hamilton Hall. It is the oldest BDSM club in the country, founded in 1994. It has even taken heat from conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
Popescue’s participation in CV, and the lifestyle as a whole, is driven by her personal inclination towards kinkiness and the fact that, well, she finds BDSM intensely erotic. “I find [BDSM] fun … I find it appealing … I find it hot as hell.” Her voice slows down as she says this last part.
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about whether BDSM is overtly sexual. Emma Bippart-Butler, a first-year at Barnard who attended several CV meetings but does not necessarily identify with the community, observes that kinky practices certainly seem “overtly sexual.”
Popescue adamantly disagrees. “It doesn’t have to be sexual,” she argues. She says that limiting kink to the realm of sex is a common misconception cast upon kinksters by vanilla, or non-kinky, outsiders. She points to “munches,” casual gatherings where kinky people “can talk about their jobs or the weather.” Popescue says that more often than not, her own kinky “scenes,” or BDSM encounters, do not arouse her sexually. Rather, she enjoys “the pure fun of the physical sensation and forming a physical connection.”
Susan Wright, the founder of and spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and Michal Daveed, media representative for The Eulenspiegel Society, the largest BDSM community in New York City, both see a strong correlation between kink and sex. But they do leave some wiggle room. Daveed knows several asexual people who participate in BDSM, but she also acknowledges the complexity of the asexual identity.
Wright knows kinksters who participate for “spiritual cathartic reasons” as well. She points to suspension, during which consenting participants hang from ropes fastened to their body piercings as an act of physical and spiritual endurance.
For Bippart-Butler, curiosity was the only draw to kink. At her first CV meeting, she was surprised by how many of the attendees identified as queer. Daveed confirms that there is a trend of young kinksters increasingly identifying as queer.
Wright also observes an overlap between the kinky and the LGBTQ communities. She points to the gay leatherman population as an example of overlapping identities and the intersectionality that permeates BDSM. “They’re part of the gay community, but they’re also part of the kink community,” she says.
“We have similar things in common, like the discrimination and the persecution we’re fighting,” Wright continues. “The success of gay marriage, I think, also had an impact on the kink and non-monogamy community, because it’s even more accepted now that your personal, private life really is no one else’s business. … The LGBT community has really paved the way and opened the doors to allow us to be moving forward now, kind of talking about sexuality more.” ...
About 50 people attended back-to-back interactive lectures on sexual health Wednesday evening as part of the annual Sexpertise conference on sexual health, hosted by the University Health Service. The events, titled “Seeing Other People: Open Relationships, Polyamory, and More” and “Kink Outside the Box,” took place in the Michigan League.
Public Health graduate student Tahiya Alam coordinated the Sexpertise conference this year. She heads the Sexpertise committee, which is a part of Sexperteam, a group that promotes sexual health through various campus events. She said the conference is largely based on student recommendations from last year.
“We look at what the students are looking for in terms of sexual education and what’s available in terms of resources in our community,” Alam said.
Amy Jacobs, a clinical social worker at the University of Michigan Health System, presented “Seeing Other People: Open Relationships, Polyamory and More.” She discussed different types of consensually non-monogamous relationships and discussed her own experiences with open relationships.
Jacobs emphasized that consensual non-monogamy is not cheating because these relationships are based on communication and honesty.
“You’re negotiating those kinds of things with your partner to find out what’s important to you,” Jacobs said. “What do you need out of our relationship so that I make sure that I’m respecting that relationship when I’m with other people?”
Jacobs provided responses she often got when she told people she was non-monogamous, such as questions about how open relationships work and why she had gotten married. Overall, she said the decision to be non-monogamous is dependent on an individual’s definition of a relationship.
“What is your definition of a relationship that works? Is it being together for a long time? Or is it being happy?” Jacobs said. “To me that’s not a great marriage, just staying together.”
Jacobs also said being honest about her relationships is a positive for her daughter, in that she gets to experience alternative family styles and know she has options for future relationships.
Public Health graduate student Emma Sell-Goodhand and local sex educator Tori Renaud presented “Kink Outside the Box.”
“Kink,” according to presenters, is defined as non-normative sexual activity, like bondage or role-play.
Sell-Goodhand and Renaud incorporated various cell phone polls for the audience with questions about kink, misconceptions concerning kink, different roles and implements in sex play and areas to avoid in a more hands-on style presentation.
They cited studies that expressed the physiological and psychological benefits of kink, including having a more open perspective on sex and other aspects of life. Renaud said she believed communication among partners may lead to benefits from kink.
“These activities require a lot of communication,” she said. “A lot of psychological problems stem from suppressing things — whether those be your emotions, your desires. If you are communicating with your partner, you have better lines of communication to talk about what your needs are in other areas as well.”
The presenters also discussed safety in these situations. Renaud emphasized the importance of awareness and safe sex. ...
Rachel Ruvinsky thought she was a lesbian. As a teenager, she’d fallen into a serious relationship with her best friend. She was one of the few students at her high school to be out; she joined the school’s gay-straight alliance but quit because the group was too cliquey. “I didn’t feel like I fit in,” she recalls.
When she gradually realized she was also attracted to men, she was surprised. “I remember being very much in denial,” the now-22-year-old says.
Then about a year after she and her girlfriend broke up, Ruvinsky felt ready to look for a new relationship, and to try dating men as well as women.
When she created her first OkCupid profile at age 19, she listed a few of her interests, such as art and video games, and included a poor-quality photo of herself. Back then, she says, she responded to every message in her inbox.
One of the first was from Bennett Marschner, a 23-year-old video-game technical artist who described himself as a “shameless vehicular vocalist.” He seemed funny, she thought.
Ruvinsky wrote back, saying she also enjoyed singing while driving. They met for dinner at an Indian restaurant in Germantown, Md.
“I was really nervous and trying not to fidget,” she recalls. But she quickly felt comfortable around Marschner. After dinner, they watched a few episodes of “Firefly,” a sci-fi television show they both like, until well after midnight in Ruvinsky’s parents’ basement. They kissed.
The next morning, Marschner texted, saying he wanted to be upfront: He wasn’t looking for anything serious.
Ruvinsky didn’t want anything super- casual, so she figured that would be it. But Marschner persuaded her to keep seeing him, reassuring her that it wouldn’t be a booty-call thing. They could both see other people. “I was like, ‘Okay, I like hanging out with you,’ ” she remembers saying.
The next time they discussed their relationship status was a few months later. Marschner told her his other relationships, with two other women, weren’t so casual; there was an emotional attachment. He’d been reading about polyamory, he said, and he thought it applied to their situation.
Ruvinsky did, too: “We knew it was more than casual, but we didn’t have a word for it.” Since then, the two go out with other people separately or hang in a group. “A lot of times,” Marschner says, “if you get more than one of us together, we’re going to sit on a couch and cuddle and make out.” ...
They were high school sweethearts, sort of: Britt and John met in middle school right outside of Houston, the kind of place where the person you end up marrying is someone you’ve known your whole life. They flirted later in the halls of one of those big Southern high schools that boasts pro-football players as alumni. When John moved to Mississippi for a while they stayed in touch, writing letters; Britt was bonkers for him the whole time. When he returned and they got together in earnest, she didn’t have eyes for anyone else. They got hitched at 18.
“I thought it was happily ever after,” she says. “I wanted to go with him anywhere he went.”
Fast-forward three years: their marriage is no longer and Britt’s OkCupid profile acts as a one-two punch of invitation and warning. If you’re into hiking, Little Miss Sunshine, or The Bible, message her. If you’re into one-night stands or want to be monogamous, please don’t. Britt, an aspiring comedian, doesn’t fit stereotypes of countercultural swingers, opting instead for a modern Texan bombshell look (high heels, sundresses, red lipstick). But she’s patently uninterested in spending her life dating a lone dude. Not that she doesn’t want a relationship; believe her, she’s trying. She’s just learned a couple of lessons in the last few years.
Non-monogamy—the consensual, upfront kind—is a dizzyingly diffuse practice. The terms of these relationships vary wildly in scope and level of detail. Its practitioners come in configurations of one or three or 16, living as families together or keeping separate houses even after going steady for years. There is, to date, no overarching survey of how many people practice consensual non-monogamy in the States; academics told me the number could range from one to nine million, depending on one’s definition of “polyamorous.” But nearly everyone for whom the arrangement works secretly believes their way of being non-monogamous is superior—much like two people in the early stages of romance might believe they have made fools out of the rest of the world.
Despite decades of cyclical media attention, these so-called “poly” arrangements, open relationships, and monogamish marriages are conflated, side-eyed, and gawked at along predictable lines. In the early ‘70s swinging was decried in Time Magazine as a “troublesome addiction” among people who were “incapable of intimate relationships”; as recently as 2009, social scientists in the New York Times speculated that people in open relationships simply “haven’t found the right person yet.” Readers still ogle these easy objects of attention: the throuples, quads, group marriages that redefine the two-parent household. Either that or they feature breathless 30-something couples spilling about “our experiment,” as if non-monogamy were a weird appendage to tack onto a nice, normal relationship instead of a practical, individual choice.
In her wide-ranging Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz points out that it’s only through the 20th century that sexual satisfaction, the consolidation of resources, domestic bliss, and romantic love were rolled together into the imagined ideal of a Western partnership. In some tangible ways, that ideal has been slowly unraveling. Polyamory is making a cameo even in the conversations of otherwise straitlaced young people like Britt. We live in a world where platonic college students play at BDSM and “pretend to be a couple just to spice things up”; where OkCupid reported such an uptick in users interested in non-monogamy that they added features allowing partners to link their profiles together or set up a profile as a couple.
When I spoke to Elizabeth Sheff, who has been studying polyamory for more than a decade, she told me that older generations are learning to practice above-ground non-monogamy from the internet. People coming of age now, however, are hearing about it from friends. “Look,” she told me, “if monogamy were natural we probably wouldn’t need to have so many rules about it.” ...
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