College Kink: Teaching about BDSM in Higher Education Women, Gender, and Sexuality Courses

Undergraduate women, gender, and sexuality (WGS) programs have been important sites for imparting knowledge of feminism and social justice to generations of learners (Macalister, 1999). Through instruction on topics ranging from women’s history to gender inequality and sexual orientation development, WGS programs examine the ways in which concepts such as biological sex, gender, and sexuality converge with social power structures (Levin, 2007; Macalister, 199). The National Women’s Studies Association describes the current state of the WGS field as an “interrogation of identity, power, and privilege that go far beyond the category ‘woman,’” and additional assessments put forth that WGS studies programs are activist in nature, aimed at challenging traditional paradigms and inspiring conversation around diversity and difference (Levin, 2007; Reynolds, Shagle, & Venkataraman, 2007). Addressing BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/submission, Sadism/masochism), a sexual practice and identity that has historically been misunderstood and stigmatized, would provide an exemplary opportunity for critical thinking and social understanding within WGS studies. Because BDSM sexuality eroticizes social taboos, such as the desire to be physically restrained or to relinquish power and control to another person (and conversely to restrain or exert control over another person), studying BDSM can serve as a uniquely useful vehicle for deconstructing social power norms, thus carrying out some of the main goals of WGS studies. Yet, while many WGS programs do not shy away from difficult or controversial issues such as sexual assault and pornography, the subject of BDSM sexuality rarely makes it onto the syllabus. One explanation for the lack of attention towards BDSM in such programs may lie in the fact that instructors are not properly equipped to present content and facilitate learning around the subject of BDSM. This post aims to provide WGS instructors with a primer of methods for teaching about BDSM in the college classroom in hopes that more instructors will view this as a socially and sexually relevant topic deserving of increased visibility.

BDSM logo triskelion

Knowing Your Learners: BDSM for College Students

Since the college classroom is an experience of voluntary adult study, the way in which BDSM is taught in higher education must be learner-driven and personally relevant to learners (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson, 2012). In order for learners to feel that they are driving their own learning process, the instructor must consciously invite students to be active participants in the discussion of BDSM. Active participation is not a foreign concept in WGS studies, as these courses tend to be more participatory than other college classes (Levin, 2007), but in cases where the subject matter is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, it is easy for an instructor to fall back on lecturing and focusing on content (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). To avoid this and to encourage active participation among learners, one can use the following inductive technique:

Invite learners to share their existing ideas about BDSM. What do they think BDSM is? Where did they find out about BDSM? What forms of media have the come across that they perceive as having elements of kink or BDSM?

Introducing the topic of BDSM by posing these questions to learners allows for the instructor to gauge learner’s standing level of knowledge and comfort with the topic, while simultaneously allowing learners to generate class discussion with one another and influence subsequent content.

To aid in making BDSM content relevant for learners, the instructor should take into account that most of the learners in the WGS classroom are considered within Erikson’s early adulthood stage of psychosocial development (ages 18-24). Learners in this stage of development often prioritize achieving intimacy and maintaining relationships (Newman and Newman, 2012). As a result, understanding the interplay of personal intimacy within BDSM and societal expectations allows learners to reflect on their own perceptions and experiences. For example, have learners consider the following:

 How does mainstream society frame intimacy? How do BDSM relationships convey intimacy? How do BDSM relationships reinforce or dismantle traditional gendered ideas around intimacy?

Likewise, comparing and contrasting BDSM relationship styles (such as Dominant/submissive, Master/slave, Owner/pet etc.) with traditional relationship expectations also serves to expand learners’ ideas about the function of personal, or even professional, relationships within society and within their own lives.

Teaching about BDSM, like teaching about a majority of other WGS studies topics, requires learners to go through a values clarification process (as a class, in small groups, or through independent reflection), in which learners identify their preexisting attitudes (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Considering the stigma and misconceptions around BDSM, conducting values clarification exercises towards the beginning of the unit or course can prove especially useful. Providing students with examples of sexual behaviors and having them determine whether those behaviors are kinky or not is one suggested approach for aiding learners in identifying and reassessing some of the gray areas of sexuality.

A Note on Group Norms

For an instructor to truly be able to get to know their learners, learners must first feel comfortable enough to share thoughts, opinions, and experiences. The instructor can and should facilitate notion of the classroom as a safe and accountable space. If not previously established at the beginning of a WGS course, setting guidelines known as group norms prior to discussing BDSM can be particularly beneficial (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Some group norms include respect, use of “I” statements, maintaining confidentiality, and assuming good will in others. Because BDSM usually involves play with uncomfortable power taboos, creating a set of ground rules in advance can help ease learners’ anxiety or embarrassment around unknown or different experiences and beliefs, and enhance a sense of trust among the learners. Letting learners partake in identifying and selecting their collective group norms is also a way to create a learner-driven environment (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014).

Useful Techniques for Educating about BDSM

Sentence completion exercises can be particularly helpful in generating discussion and clarifying values on the topic of BDSM (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Possible questions for sentence completion can include “A sexual behavior is considered kinky if…” or “A woman who enjoys sexually submitting to her partner is…” Sentence completion can be done as think-pair-share, in which the learner first brainstorms their own responses, then shares responses with a fellow learner, and finally shares responses with the class. Once the responses are shared with the class, the instructor can address stereotypes and misconceptions that underlie popular beliefs about BDSM sexuality, especially emphasizing what elements of mainstream society have lent to popular beliefs on this subject. As misinformation about BDSM is dispelled and underlying influences of preexisting ideas are identified, learners ideally can approach new knowledge about the subject with an open mind.

A guest speaker who personally or professionally practices BDSM can serve as an effective resource for introducing new knowledge to learners. Hearing about the identity and culture of BDSM from within, personalizes the subject and allows learners to accommodate the knowledge of that personal experience into their existing schema of BDSM (Newman & Newman, 2012). Ensure ahead of time that speaker is knowledgeable, credible, engaging, willing to discuss (or omit) certain topics as necessary, and has experience speaking in college settings (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Refrain from selecting a speaker who is a student, faculty or staff member at the institution as outing oneself as being involved in BDSM/kink may have personal or professional consequences.

Since BDSM is becoming ever prevalent in the public eye, media is an invaluable method for providing a critical study of BDSM sexuality (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Screen films (or clips) like Secretary or Preaching to the Perverted in class and stop the film at critical points to discuss learner’s reactions as well as what is going on the film in terms of the plot and the characters (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). Assign readings from texts such as Story of O or The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, or even Fifty Shades of Grey and then encourage learners to analyze the text in regards to its portrayal of BDSM. For both forms of media, challenge learners to consider the following:

How are social identities such as gender, race, and class portrayed in these media depictions? Which social norms are being transgressed and which are being reinforced? How has the visibility of this media impacted mainstream society? What role does fantasy play in constructing and consuming this media?

If desired, have learners compare this media to nonfictional accounts of BDSM such as essays by community members or well-known BDSM guides such as Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Philip Miller and Molly Devon or Different Loving by William and Gloria Brame.

Educator Role in Teaching about BDSM

The WGS studies instructor plays an essential part in how BDSM content is presented and received within the classroom. As such, the instructor should take the time to recognize their own feelings and values about BDSM, and explore/resolve any misconceptions or blind areas. One way to do this is to consult with a BDSM-identified individual for clarifications as to why certain play is practiced and enjoyed. Be aware of body language and tone when instructing about BDSM, as these cues influence the learning equally, if not more, than the content itself being communicated (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Above all, teach the subject of BDSM with care and sensitivity, and do not assume you know the sexual experiences or desires of any learner in the room (Bruess and Schroeder, 2014). Some learners may be sexually uninformed, while others may have extensive experience with BDSM for pleasure or for profit.  Considering that the mission of many WGS studies programs involves fostering well-informed citizens who will go on to create social change (Levin, 2007), teaching BDSM content in a way that empowers learners is a key step to promoting sexual understanding and justice.

 

What are your thoughts about teaching BDSM in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs? What content or techniques do you think would be important for instructing on this topic?

References

Bruess, C. E., & Schroeder, E. (2014). Sexuality education: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: New York University Press

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R.A. (2012). The adult learner (7th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Levin, A. K. (2007). Questions for a new century: Women’s studies and integrative learning. A Report to the National Women’s Studies Association. Retrieved from http://www.nwsa.org/files/WS_Integrative_Learning_Levine.pdf

Macalister, H. E. (1999). Women’s studies classes and their influence on student development. Adolescence, 34(134). 283-292.

National Women’s Studies Association. “What is Women’s Studies.” National Women’s Studies Association. Retrieved from http://www.nwsa.org/content.asp?pl=19&sl=21&contentid=21

Newman, B. & Newman, P. (2012). Development through life: A psychosocial approach (11th ed.). New York: Cengage Learning.

Reynolds, M., Shagle, S., & Venkataraman, L. (2007). A national census of women’s and gender studies programs in U.S. institutions of higher education. National Women’s Studies Association. Retrieved from: http://www.nwsa.org/files/NWSA_CensusonWSProgs.pdf

Advertisements

12 responses to “College Kink: Teaching about BDSM in Higher Education Women, Gender, and Sexuality Courses

  1. Ashley, I really appreciated your note on group norms. I think, especially in the context of BDSM the establishment of ground rules around how to respect the various points of view in the room is important. The group norm “don’t yuck my yum” could work well in such a workshop/class. This creates an open atmosphere where each student or participant can feel comfortable speaking about their own desires and/or experiences without the fear of judgement. This also pairs well with your suggestion of “I-Statements.” Thanks for the great suggestions!

  2. I agree with Joli wholeheartedly. BDSM can be a touchy subject for so many people and for such diverse reasons. Setting ground rules for how people are expected to approach the subject is so necessary so as to promote an atmosphere of open dialogue and safety.

    Also, the acknowledging of misconceptions. Especially in the wake of “Fifty Shades”, there are bound to be people in the room who have preconceived notions of what BDSM is. How the educator deals with them is incredibly important as their approach will likely flavor how that person approaches BDSM moving forward.

  3. Personally, I do not know about the BDSM community as much as I would like. This post and the resources your used are an excellent starting point for me. You wrote, “If desired, have learners compare this media to nonfictional accounts of BDSM such as essays by community members or well-known BDSM guides”. This is an great suggestion! A teacher will be able to acknowledge the media’s portrayal of BDSM as well as biases/beliefs students in the class may have. Utilizing essays by community members would give realistic accounts of BDSM to help debunk any myths or misconceptions. I loved your point about, “empowering learners”. Though it is essential in all fields, empowering learners in the field of sexuality can create a much more impactful experience.

  4. I particularly like your suggestion of using a think-pair-share sentence completion activity to explore values. I can see this being effective and thought provoking for this age range. Comparing popular media depictions with essays written by member of the BDSM community is also a great idea! I’m going to come back to this post (and to you!) when this topic comes up next for me.

  5. Thank you Ashley! You have been my Kink Educator since I met you and this blog seals the deal. I want to know how we can educate around BDSM before college. Don’t ya think? What would that look like? As I was reading your post, I was thinking how I can make this appropriate for Juniors and Seniors in High School. I think these conversations need to stop being paused and played again in college. Thank you for writing this blog as I do know it is a major missing piece in our sexual health educations.

  6. Ericka, I appreciate you bringing up the idea about talking about BDSM and kink in high school because this is a topic that I have heard talked about and debated quite a bit. The biggest issues surrounding this is the age of consent around a topic that is considered more “mature” and “explicit” aspects of sexuality. I would bet that proposing lessons on BDSM and kink in sex education settings for minors, such as public or private school, for instance, would be shot down without a second thought. Considering the social biases around BDSM and sexuality as a whole, this is not surprising and, in picking which battles to fight in K-12 education, this may not be the wisest or most pressing thing to pursue. In fact, age restrictions are even enforced within BDSM culture and communities. Most play parties, social gatherings, and educational spaces are limited to individuals age 18+. In some cases, those looking for a partner to engage in BDSM may also require that their partner be 18+ for legal and maturity reasons.

    Yet, from research we know that many individuals who later identify with BDSM sexuality and/or behavior, develop these desires as early as childhood and adolescence. With that said, what can we do to give this the attention it deserves within K-12 (particularly high school) settings? Here is what I think: While we can’t necessarily explicitly teach about BDSM and kink in high school, we can acknowledge the topic sensitively and open-mindedly when it is brought up by a student. When it is brought up, we can refrain from pathologizing or stigmatizing these sexual desires as abnormal, and instead we can acknowledge that this is part of the great variety of sexual experience that exists. It is not unlikely that high school students have some idea or exposure to BDSM content from the vast media attention and pornography that exists on the subject, so if this is mentioned by a student in sex ed conversations, it may be equally useful to address harmful misconceptions (such as the difference between BDSM and abuse) and help students distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality in sexuality. Finally, framing conversations about kink in terms of sensuality may also be a valid approach. So for instance if a student mentions that they have heard of someone enjoying being tied up, helping students understand what someone might find erotically pleasurable about this (the rough sensation of rope, that feeling of letting go of control and responsibility) could be less taboo or frowned upon. I believe that the best we can do in high school settings at this point in time is be supportive of students’ explorations and sexualities without engaging in unethical educational practice.

    • You make a really really good point. I think one of the overall issues with sexual education is the stigmatism especially in public schools. I think that creating an open and safe place for people to talk about whatever is incredibly important, and if BDSM or kink comes up the students should feel free to talk about it. However, it’s sadly often really hard to get that kind of open space. It’s a circle, those open spaces can be created through sexually positive environments, but you need to have those sexually positive environments to open students to the idea of discussion.

  7. Informative post Ashley! It made me think about a conversation that we had in Dr. Crane’s History and Ethics class last weekend. She is afraid that women’s/gender studies will become the prominent programs in the future of sexology – the reason she is afraid of that is because those programs are mostly scholarly (studying history, ethics and theories) and not focused on “applied” sexology. Her point was that strictly scholarly programs are not necessarily teaching their members to educate/train/counsel about sex (like Widener), they are teaching their students to study about sex. I like your idea of pushing the envelope and getting WGS programs to not only teach about BDSM but also do their own values clarifications. I doubt that the instructors get that direction very often. I really liked your advice about watching your body language and vocal tone. I think instructors sometimes forget that. I also really appreciated your suggestion of a sentence finishing activity. I think it would be important to write those questions thoughtfully and tactfully, I could see “A woman who enjoys sexually submitting to her partner is…” become a hot topic (no pun intended) in a college classroom.

  8. I love when you’re talking about student participation. I think it’s so important to open up a discussion for everyone to feel comfortable and free to ask questions, even if they might be embarrassed.

  9. So informative and I really appreciate the specificity of WGS classrooms. My undergrad experience with WGS included heavy implications, or outright statements, about what a feminist could or couldn’t be/do, which seemed to contradict the entire message of feminism. Then recently, peers shared with me their experiences of identifying with the BDSM community and being told that “true” feminists could not be subs, so I think this is a very important topic for a WGS class to dissect and discuss.
    In regards to K-12 education, perhaps not a direct lesson plan about BDSM, but this could potentially be used when discussing the nature of consent in sexual assault vs. kink (i.e. the behavior doesn’t matter as long as it’s between consensual adults).

  10. Ashley, Thank you so much for writing on this topic. I took several WGS courses throughout my undergraduate career, and never learned a thing about BDSM until entering into Widener’s program. A lot of your suggestions hit close to home, as they were implemented in some of my courses at Widener to discussion BDSM and kink. With BDSM interests becoming a bit more mainstream these days, your information and resources are incredibly relevant. I love that you suggestions could probably be adapted for all sorts of learning environments. I also really appreciate your literature and film suggestions paired with activities to question certain themes and topics presented. I’m looking forward to looking at some of the materials suggested and coming back to your blog to help me analyze and question the information!

  11. Pingback: College Kink: Teaching about BDSM in Higher Education Women, Gender, and Sexuality Courses | Ashley Robin Netanel·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s