The word ‘kink’ in its original sense means a twist or bend, although by the 1800s it was also used figuratively to mean “odd notion, mental twist”. In the context of sexual and fetishistic activity, kink falls the realm of the sexually deviant. There’s a great deal of subjectivity involved here but, as a general rule, having sex against the wall doesn’t automatically make you kinky. Kink is often considered synonymous with BDSM – Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission (D/s); and Sadism and Masochism (SM). BDSM covers a broad spectrum of activities and types of play, but at its core is healthy and consensual exploration of power dynamics. ‘Vanilla’ is generally considered anything outside of the realm of BDSM.

The underlying principles of healthy BDSM are those of informed consent, SSC (safe, sane and consensual) and its more modish cousin RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink). ‘Safe words’ such as orange and red are used to tell people to stop or ease off during play, and hard limits (things you absolutely don’t want to do) are established. It’s common to have a negotiation checklist for someone you play with, to work out what you’re both comfortable with doing at that moment in time.

Representations of BDSM in the media vary from the glorification of abusive relationships, as seen in 50 Shades of Grey (there’s a hilarious yet disturbing chapter-by-chapter deconstruction at, to the outdated portrayal of kinky people as mentally scarred, despite a 2008 study concluding that its kinky participants were no more likely to have been abused or coerced into sexual activity than their vanilla counterparts. The media’s love of sensationalism and fundamental misunderstanding of BDSM is completely alien from the reality.

Although BDSM can be a very private thing, many kinky people form communities based on their shared interest, including in Oxford. Munches, initially named because their participants would meet up for food and conversation in American diners, are usually relaxed local pub meet-ups with a mixture of vanilla and kinky chat and occasionally a few board games. People also host rope bondage tutorial workshops, play parties, and more large-scale events. One of the biggest misconceptions about BDSM is that it always involves sex – sure, it can be sexually stimulating, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play platonically – or that its participants can’t just sit down and have a normal conversation over a cup of tea. Communities are often very welcoming and supportive, seeking to protect their members and guide them in safe kink practice.

Kink is a spectrum. It ranges from those who like being tied up and spanked in the bedroom to heavier forms of play and even D/s relationships. Often people’s preferences evolve and change over time. Healthy BDSM practice emphasizes the importance of enthusiastic consent, not implied or reluctant consent. It values negotiation and personal space. These are all basic, principles that that the vanilla world can and should learn from. It’s not unusual to come across prejudice and stigma for being kinky, but what consenting adults choose to do should not be the subject of ridicule. No, participation in kink can open up a whole new realm, an opportunity for the discovery of, as sexologist and psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz said, “the transformative potential of intense erotic intimacy”.