Black leather, bondage, BDSM, Berkeley. What do these four B-words have in common? They’re all a part of the conversation that a group of undergraduate and graduate students endeavour to initiate among the members of UC Berkeley’s Kink Club.
We’re all aware of the multitude of student organizations on campus. Walking through Sproul Plaza, I’ve personally received fliers for business organizations, dance clubs and gaming groups, but what about the Kink Club?
How do a group of students provide a serious discourse on an alternative, albeit somewhat popular, set of sensual and sexual interests?
“Education first, social second,” said UC Berkeley Kink Club’s founder and co-president Kylie Sammons.
The fledgling club, which is a little more than a year old, serves as a safe place for students interested in the many different aspects of what is considered kink; they discuss safe techniques, as well as sexual and physical well-being. While it’s not a hookup club, the education is hands on, and there’s no pretense surrounding the nature of kink.
“What we do is perfectly healthy and normal, as long as everyone’s consenting then no one should have issue with what you do in your private life,” Sammons said. “Sex is just something you do with a person, another thing you do in life.”
UC Berkeley’s location in the Bay Area lays a groundwork into the world of kink as it is. The country’s second-oldest BDSM organization was founded in San Francisco in 1974 in order to educate the community and foster a system of support, often against the medicalization of kink as a psychological disorder.
Prior to writing this article, my knowledge of kink in San Francisco was remedial. One day, as my mom and I walked down California Avenue on a particularly hot and sticky San Francisco afternoon, the crowded tourists, steep hills and smell of urine was not a deterrent to my mom’s faith in this city. It wasn’t until a pair of couples walked toward us, with the men holding the accompanying women on collared, leather leashes, that my mother uttered, “Only in San Francisco” — a refuge for kink in all its glory.
Kink is simply an umbrella term that covers numerous inclinations and appetites. BDSM, the most well known form of kink, is a a general acronym: BD (Bondage & Discipline), DS (Dominant & Submissive), and SM (Sadism & Masochism). Fetishes, a desire to incorporate an interest into your sex life, can fall under the umbrella of kink, along with various types of role play and extreme sensation.
“They all kind of fall under the umbrella of alternative sexuality,” said Sammons. “BDSM is more along the lines of playing with power and pain and sensation and feelings, both emotionally and physically.”
Whether this entails an appetite for leather or the peculiarities of pain mixed with pleasure, the community of kinky isn’t the seedy, dark underbelly of San Francisco that many believe it to be. Rather, it’s a burgeoning, underground foundation that has influenced culture and society above.
If it’s such a prevalent community, then what is kink and why is it inherently unusual? The broader spectrum of sexuality and desire is generally a topic of taboo, and these students are working to change that. In an effort to understand the kink community and the students involved, I interviewed a few of the students at the forefront of the club’s activity.
In what I gathered, the kink community is an open, accepting environment that encourages the formation of self-identity and the importance of consent above all else. Think less “50 Shades of Grey” and more 50 Shades of Negotiation.
I sat down with Sammons. Wandering among a sea of people at Caffe Strada, I followed her instructions to look for the laptop with a big condom sticker.
Sammons, who first experienced the kink community at Burning Man in 2014, was inspired to create the club after taking the Sex 101 DeCal: Topics on Sexual Health and Sexuality.
When asked about the culture of kink and how it may be perceived by those not familiar with it, she laughed and continued on like someone revealing that the big bad wolf was actually a kitten in a mask — a leather one.
“The thing about kink is that it’s very showy and can look very violent,” she said. “Especially if you, like, look up pictures of Folsom Street Fair. It can look very bad from the outside, but the culture of kink is basically … it can be summed up in negotiation style consent which is, like, where everything is discussed beforehand. Like, every element.”
“What we do is perfectly healthy and normal, as long as everyone’s consenting then no one should have issue with what you do in your private life.”
In the kink community, touching a person’s shoulder or giving a person a hug must be discussed and agreed upon before the action takes place. Therefore, gone are the strangers who think grinding is a form of introduction; in kink, negotiation is rule No. 1, whether it’s in a “scene” or simple conversation.
“And a lot of people actually say they feel safer in kink environments versus, like vanilla environments and bar scenes because everyone knows that everything needs to be asked for,” Sammons said.
The kink community often feels safer for most because of the strict negotiation and contracts. Along with a need for verbal consent, kink also relies on a freedom to identify as one chooses.
“People have the right to be called whatever they want. That also goes into our anonymity policy — no one has to go by their real name, because people shouldn’t have to.”
A common thread I found in my interviews was that these students already had an innate desire or interest for kink but needed a forum to explore and expose these curiosities. Sammons started the club in order to provide that space, but learning isn’t confined to a fluorescent-lit classroom.
One of the many club activities is taking a field trip to San Francisco, one of the largest kink scenes in the country. The Citadel, for example, is a popular sex-dungeon in San Francisco where members of the club have participated before, and it’s where Kylie found herself within the community.
And what is a sex dungeon?
“It’s basically a place, they typically have a social area and a play area,” Sammons said. “In the social area, people eat snacks and talk, and there’s the dungeon area where people can use their furniture, which is typically, like furniture you wouldn’t have at home, to do their scenes. As well as being a voyeur. You can be an exhibitionist, a voyeur, and watch what’s going on. It’s just a place where you can talk to people in the scene and do your scenes.”
UC Berkeley’s kink club is in collaboration with Stanford’s kink club, the 4-year-old “Kardinal Kink.” The clubs don’t deny the hilarity in participating together in kink events as rivals (they’re currently in talks over a special “Big Game”-themed event.)
“(Stanford) had a huge problem getting started because Stanford is generally more conservative, but they fought to get started. We didn’t have as many barriers, the campus was just emphasizing not to have orgies in their classroom, which wasn’t the plan at all,” Sammons said.
In UC Berkeley’s Kink Club’s short existence, it has organized numerous kink discussions and workshops. The public meetings display the practice and technique of spanking and flogging, (the use of whips or other tools) and the private meetings, reserved for vetted members, provide guest speakers and in-depth education sessions.
The club prefers to hold workshops that are most popular for a common kinky crowd and for their members. This usually includes bondage and rope, anything with impact and then the less popular aspects such as blood play and costume play.
Sammons also emphasized the importance of education on a lot of the popular kinks because, while they entice the largest crowd, they can deceivingly be some of the most dangerous.
“Everyone loves the aesthetic of rope,” she said.
It just looks easier than it is. Rope is actually super complicated because, knots, to do them very quickly takes a lot of skill and to not accidentally tie off nerves is also another skill.”
To Sammons, this community is like any other mutual interest community. Comparing it to board game clubs or sports enthusiasts. It’s a social group, as well as one that allows people to destress and live out their fantasies and desires.
“You get drilled into your head, like in order to have a healthy relationship everything has to be equal and everything has to be loving. … It’s the ability to experience different emotions and feelings in a way that isn’t actually dangerous, you know? Oh, everyone has a stage where they like bad boys, and it’s getting to experience all these naughty different things without actually the emotional risk. I was always, you know, the good kid. Get into Berkeley. So I get to experience what it’s like to have all of these different lives almost, without missing out on being a good little student.”
V, Sammon’s co-president of the club, has never felt uncomfortable talking about sex. It seems like a natural topic of discussion, not an instance of taboo.
“V” is a kink identity; she introduces herself that way to others at sex parties, dungeons and other kink events, and no one questions it.
“In the future, if I want to come out, I want it to be on my own terms, not because of an employer googling me,” V said. “If someone finds out, it’s not the biggest thing in the world, but I don’t want it to be readily available.”
V hasn’t been a part of the kink community as long as Kylie; she joined as a new member last semester and has quickly been absorbed into the community. She came from a conservative town where asking someone for their pronouns, for example, was a completely alien practice.
After running into a member of the Kink Club dressed as a penis on Sproul, V decided to attend a club social and has since accomplished her transition into a community she can call her own.
“It’s just, consent is very well-explained in the regular Berkeley community, but then you go into the kink community and learn this whole new definition of consent,” V said. “You kind of start realizing that there is this high level of consent, there’s this other level of freedom that comes with it. You’re not uncomfortable, I mean sometimes you still are but not uncomfortable to ask for what you enjoy. Not just in a sexual sense but in a life sense.”
All in all, the community of kink preaches a required ease of access where everyone is welcome and everyone must respect the rules of consent.
“I can go to a dungeon or a party almost half, or completely naked, and I have not a single worry in the world.”
In her first experience with a sex dungeon, at Citadel, V didn’t make too many kink interactions. She was social and spoke to people but didn’t engage in any scenes or play. That is until she saw a man standing with a collar and a leash. She was intrigued, asked him what it was, and he asked if she’d like to try it on. She did, kind of enjoyed it, but still wasn’t sure what her identity was.
“I found myself saying I don’t know a lot that first time,” she said. “People would ask, ‘Oh, so what are you?’ and I would say I don’t know, and people respected that boundary so well.”
After some experience, the only blanket identity that V has come to identify herself as is a “switch.”
“It’s interesting because when you identify yourself as these things, you have to think about what it is that you do enjoy,” she said. “My masochist and sadist don’t go together. When I’m hurting, I’m doing it for me, and I’m doing it for you, because you enjoy it. My sadist on the other hand is very selfish. I want you to be in pain, I want you to scream and cry — of course, we talk about all of this ahead of time.”
Kink is more than sexual, and it’s important to understand and respect the physical, psychological and emotional boundaries in a kink relationship. In fact, kinky relationships don’t even need to have a sexual element.
“I once heard a nice comparison on kink and sex that I really like,” V said. “One is vanilla ice cream and one is chocolate cake. You can enjoy both separately, or you can enjoy them together. That’s kink. You don’t have to enjoy one to enjoy the other.”
V explained that kink is simply a term for non-normative sexual and sensual relationships; it is, overall, a focus on sensations.
“There are a lot of asexual people that are in the community. Yeah, if someone is telling you that you have to have sex in order to be kinky, like, no. False.”
What then is in a kinky relationship if not sex?
“I can go to a dungeon or a party almost half, or completely naked, and I have not a single worry in the world.”
The complexities of emotions and physicality within kink is not impossible to navigate. Love and sex can exist on separate planes of human consciousness, but for V, the two are not estranged.
V is currently struggling with monogamy versus polyamory in her kink relationships. Her current primary partner is male-bodied and polyamorous; she’s comfortable with him and with his other girlfriend. Their relationship is known as a 24-7 D/s (Dominant & Submissive), and it goes beyond a sexual relationship.
A 24-7 D/s relationship means that for 24 hours, seven days a week, V’s primary partner is Dominant and she is Submissive. That means that if V is late for class, she’ll let him know and he’ll take on the Dominant role.
“He tells me to shut up, gives me a reality check sometimes,” She said.
He’ll give me commands, tell me to go to class an hour early to get my homework done.”
Sometimes, V and her partner will take walks around campus with her on the leash as the pet — a sassy pet that talks back, but one nonetheless. Those are just their roles.
“What’s big in our relationship is that cute give and take. The, ‘Oh, I’m gonna punish you,’ but you’re going to enjoy it.”
Their kink relationship expands into the classroom as well as the bedroom, and it’s relatively similar to other non-kink relationships. They watch movies and cuddle, make dinner and generally hang out.
For Enrique Camacho-Rico, kink had always spoken out to him; it appealed to his senses, it was something he wanted to seek out.
“We had a speaker once that kind of I think did a good job of explaining kink,” said Camacho-Rico. “He said, ‘If you got it, I guarantee someone gets off to it.’ ”
A third-year chemistry major, he also made a quick transition into leadership alongside V and serves as a member of the club’s board of directors. One of his main goals on the board is to build a diverse community of kink among college-aged people.
He recently attended a kink party called Bent, which is a youth party centered on people under 40 — considered young in the kink world.
Camacho-Rico identifies as a polyamorous switch. While there are stereotypes within the community that place male-bodied people in a dominant role, Camacho-Rico works to defy that and notes that there is a pushback against these archetypes.
“A sad reality of the kink community is that it is a very homogenous demographic of people,” he said. “They’re usually white urban professionals. I would love to see more people of color. What I really want to focus on is engaging with kink people of color, a focus on color and queer. It’s a space that I think that we should not only feel allowed in, but we should be able to make it a space of our own.”
His introduction to kink was through the media, mostly television and the internet. Unfortunately, the representation of kink doesn’t quite fit the experience that Camacho-Rico and others have envisioned.
“My masochist and sadist don’t go together. When I’m hurting, I’m doing it for me, and I’m doing it for you, because you enjoy it. My sadist on the other hand is very selfish. I want you to be in pain, I want you to scream and cry — of course, we talk about all of this ahead of time.”
What all three of the interviewees seemed to agree on was the devastating effects of “50 Shades of Grey” on the perception of the kink community.
“Essentially like everything is wrong with it. There are parts where the male ignores safe words, ignores consent; that’s not ethical at all, that’s abuse,” said Camacho-Rico.
How, though, can the kink community work to break the stereotypes and connotations associated with their lifestyles? For Camacho-Rico, by simply existing and creating this conversation, they’re educating.
He knows that it may come off as weird to some people and that not everyone is interested in kink, but their club is to educate those who are.
“It’s OK to have these feelings. It’s OK to be different. We just want people to be educated.”
The community generally appears to be hopeful. In a climate of intense liberal versus conservative, where parts of the country have legalized sex dungeons and other parts outlaw transgender bathrooms, the division is certainly visible. But the kink community continues to thrive.
“Generally, I feel like people are more accepting of alternative sexualities,” he said. “There’s still a lot of baggage there, but I think a lot more people are going to be more comfortable with sexuality in the future.”
If you’re one to explore your curiosities, check out UC Berkeley’s Kink Club and ride the wave into the kinky future.