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India’s Hidden Kinky Side Is A BDSM World Full Of Whips, Chains and Consent

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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me,” croons Rihanna on her 2011 single, “S&M”. The song alludes to a variety of practices like bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. Or “BDSM” for short. These practices have existed since the time of the French aristocrat Marquis de Sade and Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose last names we got S&M. Today, BDSM’s rapid popularity might well be courtesy of E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy. But in India, it continues to be dark-side-of-the-moon kinda territory. However, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The BDSM Community In India

From “House of Tears” by Harold Kane, 1950. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Their numbers may be small, but there is a thriving and ever-expanding community of ‘kinksters’ all around us. To get that point across is The Kinky Collective (KC), a close-knit community of BDSM practitioners active in New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Ranchi, and Bombay. I set out to meet some of the core members, and find out what it’s like to be a BDSM practitioner in a country known for multiple clampdowns on sexual expression.

Shiv* and Priya* are the first couple I meet, and they patiently walk me through everything kink. Shiv explains kink can be something as simple as covering your partner’s eyes during sex, or something more complex involving role-play and ropes. Now, defining BDSM and kink is the easy part. What’s hard is confronting the many myths about them.

As with the LGBTQ community, people think BDSM is a curable disease rather than an orientation,” says Shiv. And this is four full years after the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) rectified this view. In the same vein, Priya explains how many people assume kink is connected to childhood abuse, which then manifests as ‘sexual perversion’ in adults.

This tendency to pathologise non-standard sex (read: peno-vaginal baby-making) is just one among many ways that BDSM is stigmatised. According to Priya, another major myth is that kink is abusive. She says “I think that’s because people automatically associate kink with pain.

And though many of us make this association based off a stray lyric about “whips and chains”, it just isn’t true. “People don’t have to be masochist or sadist to be involved in kink,” argues Shiv. “Somebody has a foot fetish – where is the pain?

The BDSM Playbook

BDSM actively breaks out of society’s prescribed format for sex — heterosexual intercourse where men get the glory, and women are lucky to finish at all. So it’s no surprise that KC has members who are trans, gay, cisgender, and straight. But when Shiv and Priya mention two kinksters who identify as asexual, BDSM takes on a whole new dimension. “It’s not about sex, it’s a power exchange,” says Shiv. “I’ve been part of week-long sessions where I didn’t have the benefit of sex at all!

When asked if BDSM could be independent of sex, Mira*, one of KC’s longest-standing members, agrees with a laugh: “What is typically considered sex is the least interesting part of BDSM. It’s passé! The real charge is with power exchange or pain.” And it’s Priya who reminds me that penetrative sex is a ‘hard limit’ for a lot of people.

If that’s the case, what ­does one end up doing during play? Spanking, flogging, using gags and blindfolds, and speech and clothing control – those are your basics. Then there’s “edge plays” – higher risk activities that involve asphyxiation, drawing blood, using fire, needles, bondage and more. Of course, doing any of this safely requires learning the ropes – often literally! So KC organises a numbers of skill building workshops. Their bondage workshops teach you all the basic knots, where to tie them, and for how long. They also collaborate with kinksters from around the world – like in 2015 when they invited a couple from Belgium to teach needle play.

DomConLA, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Source: David McNew/Getty Images

Submitting, But Not To Gender Roles!

Kink and BDSM aren’t simply about ‘getting creative’ in bed. There’s many ways in which they strike terror into heart of patriarchy’s gender binary. For example, male submissives. We’ve all seen how men with non-masculine traits are routinely stigmatised.

That’s why it’s seen as cool to be a dom,” says Amit*, a marketing professional from Ranchi, “but, in my experience, it’s awesome to be a sub!” When he initially joined the community, he came across a popular social networking site for kinksters, where male ‘subs’ or ‘bottoms’ were the majority.

Priya has a theory about why this happens: “There is a change in the power equation and what you’re expected to do in your daily life. Sometimes people need to let go. Especially for men, the pressure to take control and look after everything is so huge that this is a space for them to just be.”

But among all these shifting categories, there’s one thing that’s like the Rock of Gibraltar for kinksters. And that’s consent.

Thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey”?
Shiv: As much as we hate Fifty Shades of Grey, it made BDSM talkable.
Amit: To be into BDSM, Christian Grey had to be extremely handsome, rich, well-educated, and have his own chopper. Which is absolutely wrong. Otherwise, you would have seen me in a movie!
Did you like “Khujli”?
Amit: It shows a good way to react. Jackie Shroff’s character tries to understand what is new to him, instead of rejecting it, and lets his wife take over and explain. It breaks the stigma.

The Best Approach To Consent Comes From BDSM

Take a seat, Robin Thicke, because there’s absolutely no room for ‘blurred lines’ in BDSM. Anyone who’s ever glanced at the community’s extensive vocabulary will know right off the bat that the first step to playing is setting your ‘soft limits’ (things you’d rather not do) and ‘hard limits’ (things that are absolutely not allowed). And a ‘safe word’ to indicate you don’t want to proceed further? You’ve got BDSM to thank for that.

We have tools that even people who are not into kink can use,” says Mira. For example, when her friend met someone through Tinder, Mira insisted that they follow standard protocol used in the BDSM community: “I got her date’s address and number, and we set up a ‘safe call’. I told her she had to call me at 8.30pm and tell me she was okay, or I’d come to the house. It’s something everyone should practice!

But in BDSM, consent is about more than limits, and saying “no”. Shiv and Priya explain how it gives you the ability to say “yes”.

As Indians,” says Shiv, “I feel we still don’t understand consent because in most of our lives it has never mattered. Papa ne bola hai toh kar dalo. Sawal puch lo, then you’re ‘talking back’!

In a sense, BDSM allows people to break out of that rut, and demand pleasure on their own terms. At its core, it’s about asserting your right over your own body. And it’s this approach that leads Shiv to say, “The most feminist people I have met are in the kink community.” Yet, we still see BDSM in opposition to feminism.

A Conflict With Feminism?

As a feminist, I’m consciously deciding I want to submit to a man,” says Mira. Since joining the kink community, she has written articles and made presentations in which she has addressed feminism’s relationship with kink. The most recent of these was in January, at the Indian Association for Women’s Studies conference in Chennai at which she presented a paper on this theme by the Kinky Collective. And while people have been receptive, BDSM is still largely perceived as patriarchal.

Mira actively disagrees with this viewpoint. She says, “I’ve been part of the women’s movement for the last 30 years, and for me there is no contradiction. I’ll fight for dignity on the streets, but maybe in my erotic life I want to be humiliated, I want to be spat upon, and have abuses hurled at me – whatever gets me off. I think BDSM has added dimensions to my feminism and my understandings of power, pleasure and consent.”

Kink And The Closet

There are lots of similarities and overlaps between the kink and LGBTQ communities. Both have been accused of soiling Indian culture. And, just as there is an apprehension about revealing one’s queerness, the same goes for one’s kinkiness. But the fact is that one community can have its Pride marches, and the other still can’t.

Demonstration at the Cologne Pride, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kinksters must necessarily be guarded about who they are. Shiv and Priya share two simple rules that KC members follow. First, if you see someone from the community outside, do not approach them. Second, don’t use your real names, or reveal your professions – and if you do, it’s at your own risk.

But even while observing these and other precautions, KC is still making its presence felt. It’s out there, hosting its workshops in universities, sensitising medical and mental health professionals, and providing information about safe, consensual BDSM practices.

In fact, KC has had a positive responses from all the colleges they’re had workshops at. As Mira says, “Kink is a really cool issue now.” There couldn’t be a better time to dive right into it. And it’s great to have a group like KC guiding us through it all.

*names changed to protect the identity of interviewees.
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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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