Last week the blogosphere exploded with news that Harvard’s crimson was turning 50 shades of gray when it officially recognized a new student group, the Munch. The Munch is for students interested in “alternative sexual practices,” that is, BDSM and other forms of kink.
According to the staff at The Harvard Crimson,
Munch … marks the first time in recent memory that a Harvard student group has been founded to provide a safe and accepting environment for students with sexual interests outside of the mainstream. … Facilitating open dialogue on sexuality is essential in de-stigmatizing unconventional interests and practices, and Munch has certainly done just that.
What’s not to love about students’ having more sexual pleasure? Apparently a lot, according to the Love and Fidelity Network, a national group that supports sexual-chastity-till-marriage clubs like the Anscombe Society at Princeton:
The Love and Fidelity Network opposes Harvard University’s formal recognition and funding of a group that seeks to associate human sexuality with violence, oppression, and humiliation. … BDSM groups dishonor and degrade human sexuality precisely by associating it with violence and humiliation. … Our opposition … is about whether Harvard University should subsidize the promotion of violent and abusive behavior, which endangers all students, particularly women, both psychologically and physically. Consent does not make a violent, abusive, or humiliating act suddenly non-violent, non-abusive, or non-humiliating.
Fortunately, we have had these Sex Wars before, so we know which side wins. Kink vs. Purity ends with the victory of consumer culture and the delusion of endless choice.
During the first Sex Wars, in the 1980s, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” gave us the analytical tools necessary for understanding why certain forms of sex are sacred, like a monogamous, married couple engaging in conjugal pleasures in their own private bedroom, and others, like multiple-partner and public gay sex, debased.
But the most important thing Rubin taught us is that the sexual hierarchy is always in the midst of sex wars, with certain sexual practices demanding to be moved closer to the sacred center and others being marked out as even more debased than we previously thought.
Think about gay sex. Now it’s “good,” as long as it is like straight, married sex, even as it remains “bad” if it’s in a park with multiple strangers. The same can be said for “kinky” sex. It used to be in the realm of the secret, but like all sexual secrets, it must now be confessed publicly and vie for a place at the table of acceptable sexual practices.
Indeed, kinky sexual practices have gone from being pathological and private to so very mainstream that the BDSM relationship at the center of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is the biggest publishing sensation of the year, with a movie in the making and a board game! The commercial success of this tale of a young virgin who sells herself into sexual submission to a much older and wealthier man is just one indication that “kink” has gone mainstream. There are others. You can buy 50 Ways to Play: BDSM for Nice People at Amazon or wholesale kinky toys online. You can type “munch” in a search engine and find people who want to engage in BDSM practices.
But the real question is not whether “vanilla” sex is better than kinky sex, but why we as a culture imagine that sexual practices must be the basis of public identities, whether as virgins or as doms. The answer is because 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.
Whether you go to Purity Balls and buy a promise ring or go to a BDSM munch and wear handcuffs, your very worth depends on how you signify your sexual practices to a wider public. It’s not just between you and your partner(s), but between you and a culture of confession in which a variety of sexual subjects are born: the top and the bottom, the virgin and the slut, the good married gay and the bad promiscuous gay. And all of those identities come with costumes, fetish items, rituals, and a deep and abiding belief that we are what we do in bed.
Laurie Essig is an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards and Our Quest for Perfection (Beacon Press, 2010).