Kathryn walked through the dark streets of San Francisco. In heels and little else, she traversed the hills unsure if she was ready for what she would find. Finally stumbling upon the red door she was looking for, she got past the bouncers, grabbed her girlfriend’s hand and walked in. As she opened the door, she was met with screams. “Oh lord,” she told her girlfriend, “I am going to die.”
Her first kink play party is one she reflects on fondly, but at the time it was a new world she didn’t completely understand. Now a second-year at UC Santa Cruz, Kathryn, whose name has been changed, has been attending kink group meetings on campus for almost her entire college career.
“We’re not an encyclopedia on kink,” Kathryn said about the group. Instead, members create a space for people to cut through the stigma and learn what kink is really about. The group meets weekly and is an open, nonjudgmental space for anyone to talk about their desires and fetishes. They have show and tell where members can show off their toys, and it’s not uncommon for people to stay hours after the official meeting is over, talking about anything from Ovipositors (a device used for depositing gelatin eggs into body cavities) to the latest video games.
Kink has a wide definition, in which any unconventional sexual practice, fetish, desire or fantasy is preferred. According to a 2005 survey, 36 percent of Americans use bondage tools or other BDSM — bondage, discipline and/or dominance, submission and/or sadism, and masochism — gear during sex.
“When you find [the group], you just don’t want to let it go,” Kathryn said. She has been going to meetings consistently since joining the group, discovering new kinks along the way.
“It’s important to create awareness and community around anything, so people don’t feel so isolated and alone,” said Amy Baldwin, a certified sex educator and co-owner of Pure Pleasure, an adult pleasure store in downtown Santa Cruz. “It’s kind of sexy that you can find other people who are into what you’re into.”
There are many ways for kinksters to find a safe and supportive environment. Munches (casual, plainclothes gatherings for kinksters) like the ones at UCSC can introduce people to the world of kink and teach them safe practices and new ways to explore their desires. Play parties, on the other hand, are gatherings where kinksters can put their knowledge to action.
Kathryn initially discovered the group at UCSC through its online page, which is on a social site designed specifically for kinksters. People use the site to post information that isn’t covered in the meetings. If a group member wants to know more about rope play or Daddy Dom (Dominant) and little girl (DDlg) relationships, then an info page will be put up so the group can collaborate. In this way, the group can continue conversations outside of meetings free from worry.
Several group members agreed many kinksters are afraid to “out” themselves, in fear of the stigma that is attached to kink. The American Psychological Association considered kinks like crossdressing and BDSM mental illnesses up until 2013, and admittance of them could be used in family court. There have also been multiple occurrences of firings because employers have discovered their employee’s kinks. Many are even afraid to share their kinks in vanilla (non-kinky) relationships, for fear that they may receive an adverse reaction and be outed to others.
“For some people it’s erotic, for some people it’s sensual, and for some people it’s none of the above,” said Sam Hughes, a first-year doctoral student in UCSC’s psychology department studying kink and other atypical sexual behaviors. “There’s something new all the time, and even within each kink ‘skill,’ there’s so much to learn within that.”
Kink isn’t always sexual, and a more complex dynamic can emerge between partners in these relationships. Doms and subs (submissives) play their respective roles in the bedroom, but may also do so in everyday interactions.
“Our idea of sexuality is pretty subjective. When we call something sexual or erotic, are they the same thing?” Amy Baldwin asked. “Sometimes someone can just feel a charge of energy from an action, and it might not be sexual, but it’s just this really electrifying charge.”
Kathryn and her girlfriend are attempting to make their kink a part of their day-to-day life by establishing a more rigid relationship structure, which she refers to as Momma Doll and little girl (MDlg).
“I love the idea of having this dynamic, because it would really get some structure to my life, taking care of someone else,” Kathryn said. “Then I would draw back on me and see if I’m taking care of myself first.”
Hughes studies how people’s daily lives can influence their kinks. He finds people tend to lean toward desires that are contrary to events they stress over.
“When [people] view sexuality as a way to relieve stress,” Hughes said, “people tend to sexualize the opposite of what causes stress.” For example, CEOs or others in positions of power might prefer to be submissives in sexual relationships because it counters their daily lives.
Despite its positive effects, the world of kink is still taboo to many UCSC students. The group doesn’t advertise its meetings for fear of who will show up or who will think differently of them for knowing.
“Sexuality pushes people’s buttons because we’re all sexual beings … we have an essence to us that’s a part of our identity that has to do with sexuality,” Baldwin said. “It pushes people because it always triggers people’s own stuff.”
As a member of the kink community, Hughes said these groups can help those confused about where to go when they’re questioning their sexuality.
“Being a part of the kink community plays a huge role in having that [sense of belonging],” Hughes said. “It can help build different cultural narratives that are different than the narratives handed to them by society.”