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OPINION: IU had a BDSM demonstration at SexFest. That's a good thing.



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IU canceled the final night of SexFest after a student shared a video of a BDSM demonstration taken at a workshop on Wednesday. Madelyn Powers

Alfred Kinsey, IU’s famous biologist and sexologist, reported in 1953 that 12% of females and 22% of males he interviewed responded erotically to sadomasochism. More than half responded erotically to being bitten. 

More than 65 years later, BDSM, an umbrella term for bondage, dominance, submission and masochism, has entered the mainstream on colleges campuses, making educational programming about how to do it safely more important than ever. 

Students involved with Sexual Health Advocacy Group, a registered student organization, and staff working with IU Health Center responded to this trend by organizing a “kink workshop” for IU’s fifth annual SexFest last week. The workshop, which took place Wednesday at Willkie Auditorium, garnered international attention and criticism from conservative media outlets after a student recorded a video of an instructional demonstration and posted it online.

After initially defending the event, the university canceled the final night of SexFest, citing the threat of a "disruption." In a statement Friday, the provost seemed to legitimize conservative commentators’ concerns by calling the BDSM demonstration “inappropriate, disturbing and offensive.”

Despite blowback from those who disapprove of BDSM, the university, which has a long history of innovative sexual health education, should stand by the event and redouble its efforts to meet the modern needs of students. 

Sexual Health Advocacy Group and the health center invited local group Bloomington Kink to give demonstrations on safe use of sex toys at the workshop, which also offered free HIV testing. Matt Ahmann, a sophomore, took photos and recorded video of the event with a friend and sent a video of a safety instruction involving a BDSM toy to the conservative news blog Campus Reform. 

Singe, the leader of Bloomington Kink who has worked in BDSM education for nearly a decade, said Ahmann and his friend recording immediately made the volunteers uncomfortable.

Over the course of an hour, several volunteers at the event reportedly asked Ahmann to stop recording, citing the need to protect the privacy of the volunteers and individuals being tested for HIV, Singe said. After Ahmann refused to stop recording, Singe attempted to obscure his camera’s view by holding up a T-shirt.

“I’m into some REALLY kinky stuff like…CONSENT,” the shirt read. Bloomington Kink printed educational materials on consent and had them at every table, Singe said.

Singe said Ahmann called her an immoral degenerate trying to corrupt his generation.

Ahmann said in an interview he was respectful but confirmed he shared his views with the volunteers. He called the demonstration “morally reprehensible.”

He said he took issue with the demonstration because he thought it involved "sexually gratifying" people in public and compared it to "soft-core porn."

In actuality, the demonstration bore little resemblance to pornography. The 6-second video Ahmann posted online shows a fully dressed volunteer lightly hitting another member of Bloomington Kink, wearing a shirt, underwear and socks, with a thin paddle, telling onlookers about "gauging where you're at."

Singe stressed that the purpose of the event was to teach students about consent and how to avoid physical, emotional and psychological harm. The educational aim did not satisfy Ahmann.

"In theory you could have a sex education class and the teacher could be having sex in front of the class and educating them on how it works, but that doesn’t make it right," he said.

However, conservatives like Ahmann miss the point. Offering wide-ranging health education free of charge is an important mission of a university health center, and IU does it well.

IU has a long history of innovative sexual health education, discussing BDSM even as early as 30 years ago. William Schendel, a student in the early 1990s, said he participated on panels organized by health center staff that answered questions on BDSM, among other sensitive sexual topics. The need for BDSM education has only increased since then. 

Before IU canceled the final night of SexFest last week, university spokesperson Chuck Carney defended the SexFest events by referencing increased demand. He told Campus Reform on Thursday that instruction on performing BDSM safely was one of the most requested topics from students.

“Our public health researchers have found some evidence to suggest that people are engaging in a broader range of sexual activities, and as a result, it is the IU Health Center's mission to make sure they practice it safely, following the BDSM community’s principal tenets of ‘safe, sane, and consensual,’” Carney told Campus Reform.

A nationally representative 2017 survey by IU’s Kinsey Institute showed 1 in 5 Americans found playing with restraints during sex appealing, and 1 in 3 liked spanking. This, along with the increased prevalence of BDSM in mainstream media, suggests the university has an obligation to help students be safe when engaging in these activities.

“BDSM education is important because people are curious about it — people are doing it,” Singe said. “If anybody’s ever pulled somebody’s hair or spanked somebody, they’ve done BDSM.”

The university’s original idea was right. The provost’s subsequent statement, however, seemed to legitimize the concerns from Ahmann and the conservative sites.

“I want to make absolutely clear that we did not condone, support, or approve of the demonstration that took place,” the provost said. Ahmann praised her statement on Twitter.

It’s disappointing to see the university disassociate itself from such valuable work and imply blame toward Bloomington Kink or the students and staff who invited them.

Sexual health education is an important mission, and IU’s Health & Wellness Education program works hard to be innovative in its approach with engaging activities, such as its annual Cupcakes and Condoms event.

IU Health Center's vision statement says it strives to create a healthy and safe community by "empowering students" through effective and innovative programs.

SexFest, including its BDSM events, is among of the best of those programs.

“The thing that has always drawn me to BDSM and kink is that it is all about self-empowerment,” Singe said.  

IU and the public must do better at empowering students in their sexual health moving forward. Those who label BDSM as disturbing or reprehensible risk spreading ignorance about an increasingly consequential topic. I hope IU offers more events like this year's SexFest in the future.

Tom Sweeney (he/him) is a senior studying economics and mathematics and is the treasurer of IU Student Government. He plans to pursue graduate studies in economics.

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