Updated: Feb. 15, 9:39 p.m.
Arya Popescu has a better elevator speech than you. Or at least an introduction that isn’t going to be easily forgotten. The School of Engineering and Applied Science junior is from Romania. She's kinky, trans, and genderqueer. She’s a mechanical engineer, and she leads Converso Virium, Columbia’s BDSM and kink club.
BDSM is a composite acronym standing for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Practitioners don’t necessarily participate in every aspect of BDSM, nor do they necessarily pick one. Kinksters often explore different sexual practices.
Sitting at a table on the Lerner Hall ramps, Popescu wears hiking boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather dog collar. She says the collar signifies her submissive role in her current relationship but explains that collars can mean different things for different people. She wears hers constantly.
“I’ve kind of known I was kinky forever,” Popescu says. She knew she was kinky—having untraditional sexual interests—before she knew she was transgender, but came out as trans before she came out as kinky. “I didn’t know there was a word for [BDSM] or a community for it until I came here at Columbia and I actually saw CV at the activities fair.”
“I don’t remember it like it was yesterday,” she says, but she does remember it was the third of Sept. 3, 2013. Popescu remembers details.
Popescu came out as kinky on National Coming Out Day in 2013. Since then, she has constructed her Internet presence as a kinkster. In her profile picture on Facebook, she peeks through her brown hair toward the camera, wearing her collar. She has a FetLife page (like Facebook, but for kinksters), where she can specify her interests within BDSM, who her play partner is, who her toy is, whose toy she is. She has a blog; among her posts are a pasta recipe and a video expose revealing why her Kindle stops working when she plugs in her vibrator.
Popescu has never missed a CV meeting. Well, maybe one or two, maximum. “President of Conversio Virium (CV), Columbia University’s Kink Club” is plastered on her résumé. CV meets on Monday nights in Hamilton Hall. It is the oldest BDSM club in the country, founded in 1994. It has even taken heat from conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
Popescu’s participation in CV, and the lifestyle as a whole, is driven by her personal inclination towards kinkiness and the fact that, well, she finds BDSM intensely erotic. “I find [BDSM] fun … I find it appealing … I find it hot as hell.” Her voice slows down as she says this last part.
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about whether BDSM is overtly sexual. Emma Bippart-Butler, a first-year at Barnard who attended several CV meetings but does not necessarily identify with the community, observes that kinky practices certainly seem “overtly sexual.”
Popescu adamantly disagrees. “It doesn’t have to be sexual,” she argues. She says that limiting kink to the realm of sex is a common misconception cast upon kinksters by vanilla, or non-kinky, outsiders. She points to “munches,” casual gatherings where kinky people “can talk about their jobs or the weather.” Popescu says that more often than not, her own kinky “scenes,” or BDSM encounters, do not arouse her sexually. Rather, she enjoys “the pure fun of the physical sensation and forming a physical connection.”
Susan Wright, the founder of and spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and Michal Daveed, media representative for The Eulenspiegel Society, the largest BDSM community in New York City, both see a strong correlation between kink and sex. But they do leave some wiggle room. Daveed knows several asexual people who participate in BDSM, but she also acknowledges the complexity of the asexual identity.
Wright knows kinksters who participate for “spiritual cathartic reasons” as well. She points to suspension, during which consenting participants hang from ropes fastened to their body piercings as an act of physical and spiritual endurance.
For Bippart-Butler, curiosity was the only draw to kink. At her first CV meeting, she was surprised by how many of the attendees identified as queer. Daveed confirms that there is a trend of young kinksters increasingly identifying as queer.
Wright also observes an overlap between the kinky and the LGBTQ communities. She points to the gay leatherman population as an example of overlapping identities and the intersectionality that permeates BDSM. “They’re part of the gay community, but they’re also part of the kink community,” she says.
“We have similar things in common, like the discrimination and the persecution we’re fighting,” Wright continues. “The success of gay marriage, I think, also had an impact on the kink and non-monogamy community, because it’s even more accepted now that your personal, private life really is no one else’s business. … The LGBT community has really paved the way and opened the doors to allow us to be moving forward now, kind of talking about sexuality more.”
Kink has served Popescu in exploring other facets of her identity—for example, her transness. She explains that her first interests in kink involved latex fetishism. “I was really into things that would obscure and hide my figure.” She now understands that latex coverage “[facilitated] my ability to perceive myself as non-male, even though I didn’t realize that’s what it was.”
She says that her collar, too, does more than pin her as kinky. “It’s kind of a queer accessory that I can wear to signal more that I’m queer, considering that most of the time I wear boots, jeans, and a T-shirt.”
Beyond sexual and gender identity, though, Popescu has noticed “a lot of overlap between the geeky community and the kinky community.” Wright, too, acknowledges an overlap between kinky queer communities and the sci-fi community.
Many find that the kink community is more accepting of identities across the board than society at large. “The kink community can be very sensitive to people who have complicated and nuanced identities, particularly sexuality and gender, but more broadly from there,” Daveed says. “I think that because we’re already violating certain social norms by allying ourselves in this way, it makes people more open-minded from the outset.”
While kinksters are often multifaceted, identifying with numerous groups, there is some debate over whether or not it is appropriate to conflate a kinkster’s BDSM practices with their day-to-day identity.
“I don’t think I know anyone for whom it is a play or an act or a persona, other than performers, who do that because they’re performing,” Popescu says. In general, during a kink scene, she is “the exact same person” as the mechanical engineering student, blogger, and fake-ID enthusiast she is at any other given moment.
Yet Daveed warns that the blurring of sexual and nonsexual personas can be “thorny,” as kinksters espouse varying relationships with their sexual personas. “It’s polite and courteous to err on the side of someone’s sexual identity is not linked to anything beyond that.”
Daveed herself is a sexual submissive and a feminist. Submission in itself, she says, could be a counterintuitive indication of sexual agency. “Some people find it empowering to choose within finite circumstances to give up agency, which is way of celebrating that agency in the first place.”
Popescu has noticed that vanilla acquaintances tend to assume that BDSM practitioners follow a conventional consent model—two people meet at a bar, gaze at each other, and leave to have sex. The rules are implicit. These vanilla outsiders see kinksters hitting each other, choking each other, sans permission, and project upon the scene their own consent model. They do not see the thorough negotiations, the conversations, or the aftercare.
“If this person is horrified applying their consent model to kink, why aren’t they horrified applying their consent model to sex?” Popescu wonders.
In kink, the rules are explicit. In general, BDSM practitioners follow what Wright calls “affirmative consent”; they do not assume that the absence of “no” means “yes.” They need that “yes.” Consent in BDSM, Daveed says, is usually outlined before a scene and reiterated throughout. Often, participants engage in aftercare, during which they debrief and talk about the scene.
“Negotiations can take many, many different forms, but the common thread is that it’s taken very seriously and it’s not skipped,” Popescu explains. Popescu, Wright, and Daveed all agreed that consent in BDSM is near “ritualized.”
CV provides rigorous consent workshops that Popescu herself favors over the workshops Columbia offers—particularly, she says, those offered by Under1Roof, a mandatory program at Columbia designed for incoming students that hosts events centered around inclusivity on campus.
Popescu describes an exercise in CV in which participants ask to touch different parts of a partner’s body (an elbow, for instance). The partner’s response exceeds “yes” or “no,” as they go on to outline more acts they are OK with (“You may also touch my thumb,” for instance). In such an exercise, “Consent goes beyond ‘no means no,’ beyond ‘yes means yes,’ and beyond a person just hammering the other person with questions, and starts becoming a collaborative two-way exchange,” Popescu explains.
Some kinky practices present consensual complications. Hypnokink, for example, places kinksters in realistic and sometimes frightening scenarios through the employment of hypnosis. Yet Daveed believes that many people misunderstand the nature of hypnosis. Ultimately, “Hypnosis does not remove agency,” she says. Rather, it can “play with the fantasy of removing agency, which for some people is a very enjoyable part of BDSM.”
“A big part of hypnosis is you wanting to be hypnotized,” Popescu notes. She recounts one of her own experiences with hypnokink. Her partner wore fake claws and ran them over her body while she was under trance. She describes the excruciating pain of open wounds induced by the hypnosis paired with the claws. In reality, her partner barely left a mark. Popescu found joy in experiencing “such an intense thing without actually being in any danger.”
“There’s a degree of trust and letting go in a power exchange,” Daveed acknowledges. And she means any power exchange in BDSM—not just in hypnokink.
Wright draws an analogy between these kinds of altered mindsets and a “roller coaster ride.” When a person enters into these scenes, they are to some extent making a commitment—trust is key. But more than anything, it is “extremely important to pre-negotiate everything,” Wright says. “It can’t be a surprise if it involves sex.”
For Popescu, exploring her consensual limits with partners has been enlightening. “I know myself much more after being involved in kink for so long.”
“You really do kind of have to know who you are in order to tell the other person and to set those boundaries,” Wright adds.
“[Kink is] all about interpersonal connection,” Daveed says. Wright agrees: “It really is about trust and the intimacy that is built between the partners,” just as in a vanilla relationship.
Wright points to a study that found more than half the population has kinky sexual desires. What most of those people don’t have is a ritualized consent model or the modes of communication inherent to kink. “It really is in some ways the advanced communication that makes [something] kinky,” Wright deduces.
Wright affirms the importance of groups like CV in the increasing acceptance of the BDSM community. “When people come to a group like Conversio Virium, they are shocked that suddenly they can speak these things that they’ve kept inside themselves for so long.”
BDSM has a long tradition of being viewed as deviant sexual practice, but Wright hopes that kink will one day be seen as just one of a multiplicity of sexual communities.
“In a perfect world, [vanilla outsiders] would see [kinky] people who are self-empowered and exploring their sexuality with a consenting adult. In a perfect world, it would be everyone. It wouldn’t be ‘the BDSM community,’ it would just become standard fare that consent would be taught to people, they would learn how to draw their own boundaries, how to negotiate about every sexual encounter they’re having. So in a perfect world, there is no intersect anymore, because it’s completely unneeded.”
A previous version of this article misspelled Aria Popescu's last name. Spectator regrets the error.