“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 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 members have occasionally gotten together in private to “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, 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.
A week later the two went to a “play-party.” After some reluctance, Victoria agreed to negotiate some tentative participation, defining safe words and off-limits actions. But once the two were alone in a corner, she said, Eric put a knife to her throat and began groping her. Victoria was shaken, but she couldn’t help doubting herself. Maybe this was how it was supposed to be, she figured.
The next day, when Eric asked her to send him an email stating what had happened and describing it as consensual, she complied. “At the time, I felt like this must be normal,” she said. “Now it seems obvious he was just building up a defense.”
The BDSM scene can be violent by nature. Physical and psychological power, and the lack thereof, are at the heart of the erotic experience. As a result, sexual assault can be harder to define and harder to prove. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Indeed, awareness of the problem seems to be growing, and controversies around the issue have been roiling the tight-knit fetish community all year.
Kitty Stryker and Maggie Mayhem were up late one night, chatting online. Both are known as sex-positive activists and celebrities within the sadomasochism world. That night, they began to swap sexual-assault stories and realized the experience was more common than either had known. The pair began collecting similar tales online, and it wasn’t long before they had amassed more than 300 anecdotes. The stories ranged from more benign assaults (unwanted groping) to tales of being drugged and raped. Many of the victims described abusers who were well-known members of the community, people who hosted parties or helped to organize the scene.
“What we found is that the abuse was systematic,” said Ms. Stryker, who regularly goes by a pseudonym. “People had these stories, but when they went to report them to community leaders, they were dismissed as drama. Not only that, but people were ostracized for reporting. It becomes clear how easy it is for an abuser to swoop in on a newbie.”
Meanwhile, Andy, a 24-year-old law student who lives in New York City, also began collecting abuse stories, publishing them directly on FetLife. Andy is something of a New York scene fixture, known for throwing massive BDSM galas that include such attractions as “glitter bathtubs” and fake-blood tableaux modeled on the TV series Dexter. A transgendered male, he quickly collected hundreds of anecdotes, many from fellow New Yorkers, some of which called out abusers by FetLife username. “I knew the people they were naming,” Andy said. “There were party organizers and influential people that users were saying had done horrible things to them,” he said. Publishing these accounts on the social network had a galvanizing effect. Every time someone “loved” a post it showed up on their feed. Soon, everyone on the site knew who was being accused of what—though they didn’t always know the identities of the accusers.
When FetLife employees caught wind of the posts, they began removing usernames. Employees warned that lodging criminal accusations against users violated the site’s terms of service. CEO John Baku then got involved, stating that he was sorry for everyone who’d experienced abuse and suggesting that victims go to the police. (Mr. Baku declined to comment for this article.) The CEO’s involvement spurred hundreds of comments from users, many siding with the site’s administrators and warning of an epidemic of false accusations. Others backed Andy, arguing that the community should police itself and support victims. BDSM is illegal in some states, and many practitioners do not feel comfortable going to the police.
“The types of abuse that happen when you are new and vulnerable are happening to us now,” Andy said. It was a fall afternoon, and he was sitting in an East Village cafe, wearing a fedora, white suspenders and a black Janelle Monae shirt. “There are people in the New York scene that everyone knows are bad news, and people tell you but no one does anything about it. Since FetLife has emerged, we’ve had this giant influx of young people coming into the scene who haven’t been around long enough to hear the whispers.”
As word spread about the multiple accounts of consent violation, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) launched a survey. “We haven’t closed it yet, but so far we have 5,000 responses, and over 30 percent of them had have their previously negotiated limit violated, which I think is horrific,” said spokesperson Susan Wright. “There is still confusion between consensual BDSM and assault.”
As the debate around naming abusers wore on, FetLife stuck to its policy.
Things got more complicated when Mr. Baku himself was accused. The story came to light on the personal blog of a woman named called SinShine Love. “Let it be clear,” she wrote, “the reason John sees no problem with any of this rape apologist bullshit is because he has a foggy ass notion of consent and acceptable behavior himself. And because he personally benefits from people like me staying silent.”
Mr. Baku issued an apology for his behavior on FetLife, stating that he was drunk the night in question, though he didn’t specifically admit to abuse.
“We enforce the idea that you can say no to anything,” said Holli, a leader of Columbia University’s BDSM group, Conversio Virium. “There are a lot of young, inexperienced people that come to us for guidance and an introduction to the scene. A lot of them become easy targets for people to prey on at play parties. Sometimes young people like to say ‘Yes, yes, yes’ to everyone they encounter at a fetish party or event, but if you say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘I’m not so sure about this,’ the lines about whether actual consent was given start to blur.”
Samantha Berstler, a student at Harvard who had studied the scene, supports Conversio Virium but questions the group’s willingness to admit non-students. “Why not just put a big neon sign on the door that says, ‘Vulnerable young nubile college students, many without strong support networks in the city yet, please come take advantage of them?’” she wondered.
Every time she logs into FetLife she sees the same story, Ms. Berstler added. “Someone else I know is writing that a relationship was completely abusive, and of course she was young and a college student and pretty and new.”
Consent is paramount at Harvard’s BDSM group, Munch, said the group’s leader, who asked to be identified as Michael. Right now, the university is considering giving the group its official backing, provided it adopts specific policies to educate members on how to deal with abuse. “We are working on developing standardized policies,” he said. “Right now that mostly exists with the function of an email list—anyone who joins the list gets a spiel.”
Victoria could have used the support of a good student group. After she and Eric broke up, she told her friends about the darker elements of their relationship—how he would repeatedly threaten to rape her and how maybe sometimes what he did actually seemed like rape, and how he once casually suggested he might be a serial killer. She said she had sometimes felt forced into sex acts, including electrocution and “fire play.”
Everyone agreed that this was abuse, but when she talked about reporting it, they waffled.
The NCSF has been working on new community guidelines about what constitutes consent and what doesn’t. Ms. Wright says she’s also been developing an app with FetLife that will direct members who have been abused to the authorities, as well as a new program that helps victims report to the police in general.
Meanwhile, despite FetLife’s best efforts, alleged abusers are still being publicly identified. A tech-savvy member of the BDSM community named MayMay recently developed an app that puts a yellow square around the profile photo of anyone who has been accused of abuse, along with a description of their alleged misdeeds. The yellow square can only be seen within the app, a free download.
After her breakup with Eric, Victoria sought out the help of a therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD. Eventually, she decided to press charges.
“I met a lawyer and we just picked the three most obvious instances of rape,” she recalled. “He said it wouldn’t make sense to file a report of 20 instances. I was worried that if I made the report, Eric would come attack me or kill me, and I didn’t want to put my life in danger unless I was certain something would come of it.” Victoria’s lawyer went to a friend who was a DA and asked what he would do with such a case.
Victoria was sitting in the school library weeks later when she received the email from her lawyer. The DA said he would throw the case out. BDSM scenarios are just too complicated to prosecute, he said.
One afternoon, Michael again met with school administrators about Munch gaining official recognition as a student group. Michael and two other group leaders sat and waited for their turn to be seen. Other student group leaders had arrived late and were wearing shorts. Michael and the other Munch members had worn suits. They were nervous.
The meeting was tense, but Michael felt it went well. “One of the big concerns that they had were issues of consent, and I’m proud to say we did a good job of representing ourselves as a group that takes consent very seriously,” he said. He hopes that Munch can become a leader in larger discussions about sexual abuse on campus, taking its consent-is-paramount model to the “vanilla” world. Harvard will make a determination about the group’s official status at the end of November.