The students look as motley and unremarkable as a macro discussion section. Though one guy rocks a pair of crimson cowboy boots, most sport the normcore uniform of baggy sweatshirts and Converse. If you happened to wander past this Annenberg classroom, you would never guess that these students are here for a meeting of the NU Kink Education Society.
After about 30 minutes of talking, laughing and eating Chips Ahoy, a man with a mop of brown hair shuts off the music. The topic for the hour-long meeting is consent and negotiation, the best ways for people to set sexual boundaries and limits on what is and isn’t acceptable, and Erik* the group’s co-founder and co-president is ready to get started.
“Generally, [you] have to ask someone for consent if you’re gonna have sex with them,” Erik starts to say.
One girl wearing a baby blue fleece jumps in with an amendment: “Uhh, 100 percent of the time,” her fingers tracing the digits in the air with an assured swoop. Everyone laughs, and plunges in.
The NU Kink Education Society, or NUKES, is not for everyone. The club, which first met last May, seeks to educate and build community for students interested in kink. Such clubs are far from unusual; in fact, Northwestern’s embrace of kink lags behind schools like Harvard University and Columbia University, which have had kink-centric clubs for several years. NUKES aims to help Northwestern catch up, to dispel or at least illuminate the misconceptions and debates over kink’s motivations and acceptability that remain rampant on campus.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid 50 Shades of Grey, the meaning of “kink” might be a little murky, but it generally refers to any sexual behavior that society deems unconventional or beyond the norm. Fetishes, or objects that cause sexual desire in some individuals, fall under the kink umbrella.
So does BDSM (Bondage/ Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadomasochism), which embeds sex with power exchanges of varying intensity, from handcuffs to practices like “blood play.” (It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.) Not everybody who likes kink likes BDSM, and not everybody who’s into BDSM is into every kind of play.
“[Kink] doesn’t always have its expression in sexual ways,” says Bruce,* who runs the Chicago-based kink convention Kinky Kollege and often speaks to university kink clubs. “That is one of the wonderful things about the kink community. It is wide open to lots of different expressions. It isn’t strictly sexual and it isn’t strictly BDSM-related.”
Never heard of these definitions or distinctions? You’re not alone. Many of the Northwestern organizations associated with sex education skirt the topic of kinky sex practices altogether. When asked, one Sexual Health and Peer Education (SHAPE) leader declares simply, “We don’t do kink!”
“That’s not their primary mission,” explains Lisa Currie, director of health promotion and wellness at the Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE). CARE advises and supports both SHAPE and Men Against Sexual Assault (MARS), so both groups fall under Currie’s supervision. MARS, she says, solely addresses sexual violence prevention and educating men about consent. SHAPE, meanwhile, has a broader mission and aims to also tackle healthy sexuality.
But while SHAPE’s peer educators learn about kink in their own training, “they’re not gonna become in-depth experts on any one topic,” Currie says. “We try to include it, but it’s not something that’s a dominant part of their curriculum.”
Beyond SHAPE’s occasional foray into the topic, Northwestern’s kink-interested students are out of luck when it comes to University resources. Yet as kink emerges from the shadows, both in people’s personal lives and in pop culture, more and more students will likely have questions.
“The way that our society views BDSM and kink has changed a lot in the past few years, partly because we’ve had a cultural moment that was sparked by 50 Shades of Grey,” says Laura Haave. “What it did is bring the idea of kinky play and BDSM into the mainstream consciousness and spark a huge amount of dialogue about, ‘Is this good or bad? What does authentic desire mean? Can kinky relationships be healthy?’”
Haave is the director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College in Minnesota, but she served as Northwestern’s coordinator of sexual health education and violence prevention until the 2014-15 academic year. She frequently mentors students of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
“Prior to 50 Shades of Grey coming along and changing the national discussion on the issue, I would have people who felt like there was something wrong with them. ‘I’m sick.’ ‘I wish I didn’t have these desires.’ That’s lessened a lot.”
Haave, who also worked as SHAPE’s adviser during her time at NU, recalls Northwestern students as possessing a fledgling understanding of kink. When she held programs related to kink or BDSM, she could usually expect a solid turnout. Kink-involved students often showed up to offer themselves as a resource.
“People who identify as kinky want to welcome other people to that space and ensure that people are safe and healthy,” Haave says. “There’s a long tradition of people being like, ‘As a community, we’re gonna teach each other, because there’s not a lot of information available about this in mainstream society.’”
NUKES, it seems, is here to join that tradition.
Jessica Castellanos can’t remember a time before she liked kink. At 14, she realized she wasn’t cut out for conventional, or “vanilla,” relationships. At 16, she delved into her first dominant-submissive relationship. She is now in a new relationship, with a man she often describes as her “master.”
Her partners have always accepted her desires but explaining and sharing them with her family and friends proved a little more difficult. Even at Northwestern, which Jessica sees as “very sex-positive,” the Weinberg sophomore faces criticism.
“There was a week where my master was restricting what I ate, and when everyone was having dessert, I told one of my closest friends, ‘Oh no, I actually can’t eat that,’” Jessica recalls. “She was like, ‘You’re letting him tell you to do what?!’”
Like many NUKES members, Jessica is far from the imposing, black-leather-clad stereotype of kink devotees. She wears clunky glasses beneath side-swept bangs and laughs frequently, her voice chipper and welcoming. Maybe that’s why Jessica sometimes hears kink dismissed as “Stockholm Syndrome, but with sex” no one would guess the reason she wears long sleeves is to hide her bruises.
“It’s isolating to not have anybody who understands the nature of your relationship,” Jessica says. “It’s nice to have people to talk to that aren’t going to think that you’re in an abusive relationship just because it’s different than the norm.”
But friends’ confusion and strangers’ dismissal pushed Jessica to realize that Northwestern was missing something: a safe space for people who happened to enjoy, among other things, being tied up every now and then. Jessica posted on FetLife, one of the most common and reliable social networks for kinksters:
“Hey wildcats! Freshwoman here. I’m officially trying to start a BDSM club. I figure it’s been done at Tufts, UChicago, Harvard, Columbia, University of Minnesota, etc. so we can sure as hell do it here. In my mind, it would be a place people could go to talk about experiences, explore interests, get advice and talk about how to stay safe and sane (but also insane and unsafe in all the right ways).”
“My fear at first was that I would be the only person who would actually want to meet in person,” Jessica says. “But once I started sending messages on Fet, I got like ten responses back.”
Erik sent one of those responses. Like Jessica, the Weinberg sophomore knew he liked kink long before he ever stepped on Northwestern’s campus. Unlike Jessica, he kept his interest carefully hidden in his Chicago-area high school.
“I didn’t want to piss anyone off,” he says. “I didn’t want to anger anyone.”
He started heading to munches casual social gatherings for the kinkily inclined and kink clubs in Chicago, learning how to engage in kinky practices, or “play,” both pleasurably and safely. When he saw Jessica’s Fetlife post, he was instantly intrigued.
“‘Oh, that’s something I would really like to join when it begins, as a member,’” Erik remembers thinking. “Then I thought, ‘What the hell did I have to lose by helping people, even if it’s a little delicate? What do I have to lose by helping people have fun?’”
Jessica and Erik soon joined forces as co-founders of what became NUKES. Around 25 people showed up to their first meeting, held May 6 of last year.
“We actually ran out of chairs,” Jessica recalls with a small laugh.
Each NUKES meeting starts with a munch, before launching into a more formal discussion. The topics range from everything from kink in media at
a meeting last year, members
debated the sexual innuendo of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! to post-play aftercare. Afterwards, members often stay and chat. Then everyone goes home to do their homework, just like every other Northwestern student.
“Whether students are actually involved in the group or even just on the listserv, having a group present on campus helps people broaden their understanding that there are other forms of sexuality out there, that are real and are normal,” says Currie, who offered to serve as NUKES’s adviser once the group receives University accreditation (a process Erik and Jessica say is ongoing). “They don’t have to remain behind a closed door, just because the majority of people don’t engage in it.”
The definition of kink remains an open debate. It can be called an activity, a community, an identity, an orientation. Even experts, like Haave, lack answers. And they don’t particularly want to provide them.
“Those [thoughts] can all be valid for different people, and I think they can all mutually coexist,” Haave says. “There’s not just one way to engage in kink or be a kinky person ... [For] any marginalized sexual or gender identity, with any marginalized community, that faces some kind of stigma by society, there can be a struggle to figure out what that identity means to you.”
College Feminists, Northwestern’s feminism club, discussed this very question at a meeting last year. According to some members, it got a little heated.
“Someone brought up that they believe that kink is queer,” recalls College Feminists President and SESP junior Sydney Selix. “I had never even considered that.”
Even Jessica and Erik, the resident authorities on the subject, are split. Jessica labels her kink interest as “definitely an orientation,” while Erik admits he “[doesn’t] know what to call it, honestly.” What they do know is this: Be careful who you tell.
“I’m very open with my friends about this. But I’m always someone who’s looking towards long-term ramifications,” says one senior who attended four NUKES meetings last year. While he confesses kink fantasies to friends, he did not want to be identified, because future jobs “very much care about public image and what’s ‘morally corrupt’... It’s not fair, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong if it’s between consenting people.”
Until this year, NUKES lacked even a Facebook page to respect members’ privacy. The page, which describes NUKES as “a confidential social and learning environment for the sexually curious,” advises readers that it’s alright if they don’t want to publically “like” the page.
“It’s okay to not come out or to come out as much as you want to,” Jessica says. “But also I tell people, ‘You’re probably going to hear a lot of ignorant things.’”
Castellanos came out to her mother around the time NUKES was started. Her master had just moved to Portland, so Castellanos purchased a $300 ticket to visit. Her mother called her, frantic, at 7:30 in the morning, believing the card had been stolen Jessica decided to tell her the truth. Now, Castellanos says her mom is “completely fine with it.”
“I’ve just always been a hugely sexual person,” she says. “It’s such a big part of my personality that if I didn’t talk about it, nobody would really know me.”
Ask Currie about how Northwestern as an institution, as individuals can help, and she holds her hands inches apart to demonstrate how society conceives of human sexuality as “this narrow little band,” a short list of preferences and practices.
“It’s way wider than that!” she exclaims. “Some people think you have to take people on the fringe and bring them into the center, and the reality is we have to take people from the center and bring them out to the fringe. Not necessarily to engage in it, but to open their eyes, understand and raise awareness.”
We need to have conversations, she says. We need to remember our similarities and respect our differences. We need to accept one another, so no one needs to live in fear.
“Most people want to be healthy,” Currie says of sex. “Most people want it to be safe. Most people want it to be consensual. Regardless of what people are engaging in, there’s common ground there.”
* Last name withheld.