“The College does not endorse the views or activities of any independent student organization,” said Harvard College spokesman Jeff Neal in November of last year, after the College granted official recognition to Harvard College Munch, Harvard’s kink and BDSM (bonding, discipline, sadism, and masochism) club.  Originally started as a casual support group over a year ago, Munch now hosts private parties complete with paddles and canes.

Here in Princeton, you may have seen the posters hung over urinals or in bathroom stalls advertising a group new to campus this semester: PINS (Princeton in the Nation’s Service), a BDSM/kink support group.

After a few messages to the group’s email address, we were able to secure an interview at around nine one evening in March.  Spring was here, but outside it still felt like winter.  Out of the cold, we sat somewhat secluded at a white table in the sterile-feeling café downstairs in Lewis Library.  Considering none of us knew one another’s names, the atmosphere between us and the three people we talked to—two female, one male— was unexpectedly relaxed.

“We only got started this semester, actually,” said the group’s founder, now a junior, who says he’s wanted to see a group like PINS on campus since his freshman year but never met the right people or felt the campus climate was conducive to a kink support group.

“Harvard’s MUNCH organization just got recognition from their University this year,” said another group member, “And I guess we just thought the time was right.”

They read the campus climate well.  Roughly two months old, the group has had 6 meetings and has built a mailing list of roughly 25 people.  Mystery and fascination surrounds kink culture, and no one here at Princeton quite knows the mission or purpose of PINS.  None of the three members we spoke to provided a clear, concrete definition, but their responses to our question about their definition of kink helped us to gain a better sense of their group’s nature and mission.

“Rule number three is something like ‘We respect other peoples’ kink identities’.  We don’t call them out for being not kinky enough, and we don’t say that they’re too kinky or too weird,” said the group’s founder, “So long as it’s nothing dangerous or consent is being violated.”

“I would say that kink is imagination,” said another member, a female.  The group defines kink very broadly, and they didn’t provide us with examples.

Kink and BDSM have a variety of definitions.  BDSM generally involves two sexual partners exchanging power, with one being the dominant, or top, and another being the submissive, or bottom.  Often times the submissive partner is bound in some way and hit or hurt (with a paddle, for example) by the dominant partner.  Many are concerned that BDSM is unsafe both mentally and physically, but “safe words” are a common practice in BDSM culture—when a partner is in extreme duress, he or she says a pre-determined safe word, and the dominant partner responds accordingly.  Kink has a broader definition: it can be any sort of role-play or activity beyond “vanilla” standard intercourse, even if it doesn’t involve the definite power exchanges of BDSM.

Princeton’s group seeks to define kink as broadly as possible, and their goal is to be open to any definition of kink.  While Harvard Munch has hosted kink parties, Princeton’s group hasn’t reached that point yet.

“We have not been doing any things that you might have read about Harvard MUNCH doing, like demonstrations or play parties or anything like that,” said the group’s founder, “And those are typically the parts that people latch on to when you read about these sensationalized versions in the media.”

Citing liability concerns, the members said they don’t plan to host parties even in the future.  They explained that the group is mainly for discussion, and that alcohol sobriety is strictly enforced.  Yet, in its coverage of Munch’s recognition by the University, the Harvard Crimson wrote that the group started by “informally meeting over meals to discuss issues and topics relating to kinky sex.”  In a Huffington post article, one Munch member reported having been hit by a cane at a recent meeting.  Over the next year, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of PINS to see if it gives birth to the kind of kink parties reported at Harvard.

As of now, they’ve spent their first few meetings figuring out their rules and deciding what their mission would be, and they decided to be a social rather than an advocacy group.  The goal is to create a safe environment “without the support group vibe,” as one group member put it.

Regardless, kinky people undoubtedly benefit from the group’s existence.  While in larger communities kinky clubs and sex shops are becoming more readily available, in small, insular Princeton, it can be hard to find others interested in BDSM and kink.  Social networking sites such as FetLife, which has close to two million members, can help kinky people meet each other, but using sites like this may be uncomfortable for some on campus.  It would be difficult and likely unsuccessful to use this site to meet people without any on-campus social infrastructure for kinky people.  The site is full of strangers who can be into dangerous things, and joining the site involves coming out as kinky, a difficult process for college students who could be tentatively interested in kink but unsure and uncomfortable.  While anonymous social networking sites are impersonal and full of people of all ages from around the world, PINS provides a more reliable environment.  It is a safe space for Princeton students interested in kink, to whatever extent, to meet others for socialization and possibly more.

More than just providing a safe space for kinky people, PINS also seeks to improve the sex climate on campus.  Hoping to eventually gain formal recognition by the University, a group member wrote in an email to Connor and me after the interview, “Education and community is so important because the worst thing that could happen is if kinky person, out of ignorance or neglect, ends up harming other people or themselves, or violating principles of consent. In this sense, I believe that PINS is a positive contribution to the conversation about sex and consent on campus by representing practices that are not commonly discussed.”

While now a social group shrouded in secrecy, PINS could make a significant contribution to sex safety on campus.  In the email, the group member explained, “SHARE [Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education organization] does not specifically train their peer advisors to be knowledgeable in handing kinky consent and safe-words, and nowhere in the enthusiastic consent conversation on campus (Sex on a Saturday Night, etc.) are we taught that there are Good and Bad ways to practice kinky consent, or that ignoring a safe-word IS ASSAULT.”

Beyond improving kink culture by making it safer, PINS has the potential to raise awareness and improve the broader campus dialogue on sex.  Not much is known about BDSM/kink culture; it isn’t a common conversation topic on campus, and the group feels the lack of discussion is reflected in the incomplete university policies they mentioned.  The group hopes to improve and broaden the dialogue about sex on campus, and they add themselves to a growing national chorus of voices on the issue.  Harvard Munch’s recognition received mixed responses, one of which came from the Love and Fidelity Network criticizing Harvard for allowing sexuality to be associated with “violence, oppression, and humiliation.”  Yet kink groups would likely call this a narrow-minded view.  Look to the responses of the Princeton group’s members: their definition of kink is as broad as “imagination,” and they don’t discriminate on the basis of someone being too kinky or not kinky enough.  PINS members portrayed themselves as a relatively tame group, if not relatively tame in their definition of kink.

Regardless of what the Love and Fidelity Network might have to say on the matter, kink is moving into the mainstream.  Much of the rhetoric about kink is shared by the gay rights movement, with discussions of the “leather closet,” cited by the PINS founder in our interview.  The New York Times wrote in February that kinky people are looking for a way to “come out and begin living more open, integrated lives.”  The Times also reported on Paddles, a club in New York dedicated to creating a safe space for kinky people—they serve no alcohol, and while there are rings and chains in the corners of the club for demonstrations, intercourse in the club is banned. The article cites the BDSM trilogy “50 Shades of Grey” as generating more interest in kink.

Groups like Princeton’s and Harvard’s, much like Paddles, are helping to stimulate broader conversation about sex.  They provide support for kinky people, and they ride the wave of “Fifty Shades of Grey” to bring kink closer to the mainstream.  Whether we like it or not, Laurie Essig, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Middlebury College, writes, “We really and truly believe we are what we do in bed, a lesson drilled into us with modernity, played out with identity politics, and now packaged and sold to us as a series of consumer choices.”

And so the Nassau Weekly runs a story on PINS and BDSM culture, and people talk quietly about the PINS advertisements on the walls of bathroom stalls.  Essig’s reasons, along with the women’s and gay movements, brought sex and sexuality into the public eye.  Kink is no exception.  In some ways kinky people are quietly fighting for societal recognition, recognition and comfort they need because sex and sexuality have become so publicly discussed.  They need to be comfortable in their own skin precisely because what happens in the bedroom is so tied to our identity that it can’t stay in the bedroom.

Yet the task of PINS to improve the dialogue about sex on campus and make Princeton and the world more accepting to kinky people is a challenging one.  BDSM and kink provoke discomfort in sexually liberal and conservative people alike.  Those who believe that sex should be tender and soft between two people who were happily married in a church in front of their parents, married for half a century themselves, are going to be uncomfortable with the idea of power exchange with handcuffs and a paddle.  Along the same lines, liberals who favor equal rights for those who are gay or polygamous or of some other non-mainstream sexuality, tend to believe strongly in equality, which is in some ways the antithesis of a BDSM culture based on power exchanges.  The challenge of talking about BDSM is that it lies outside the liberal and conservative sexual mainstream.  While clubs like Paddles and groups like Munch and PINS are helping to change that, they have the power of socio-sexual norms up against their goal to foster meaningful dialogue and the acceptance of kinky people.

As an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained recently, in the mid-20th century, Princeton and the world lacked the vocabulary to talk about homosexuality in a constructive way, if at all.  The scene was entirely underground.  And it’s still sometimes uncomfortable for me to talk about my homosexuality, but I do so because it is tied so fundamentally to my identity.  In many places, the LGBT community has moved into the mainstream despite having its insular pockets.  Kink is still in the shadows, and many see it as taboo and lack the knowledge to talk about it constructively.  PINS and Munch through their very existence bring kink into the dialogue and raise awareness.  The challenge now is overcoming social and sexual norms and pushing people outside of their comfort zones in a seemingly never-ending conversation about sexual acceptance.

Conor McGrory contributed reporting to this article.

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