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We are undeniably different from who we were before March 2020. From our familiar daily routines and creature comforts to the relationships that nourish us, it seems as if every constant in our lives has changed–including the way we kink.
As more in-person BDSM events resume, worry among community kinksters mounts; “What will happen to the culture we’ve created if we don’t come out of this pandemic the same as we were before?” Legendary dungeons and play spaces that served as kink community hubs have closed down. Nearly every major annual BDSM convention went dark in 2020 and most chose to skip 2021 as well. Many fear that the influx of novice, internet-educated “pandemic kinksters” flooding our newly reopened events won’t just kill the vibe, they’ll compromise safety too.
Our personal relationships and BDSM dynamics also suffered blows we never consented to. Play parties, munches, classes, and conventions were paused for the better part of two years, making the one-on-one connection so much of our play requires inaccessible. We miss skin-to-skin contact. We miss practicing our technical skills in challenging settings. We miss chit-chatting with leather-clad friends at play party snack tables to a backdrop of yelps and moans. Sure, there’s always online connection and virtual play but are they really the same?
Although most play spaces have reopened, not everyone is comfortable venturing out yet. Some that are say that post-lockdown kink events don’t quite feel like they used to. This leaves new kinksters, who’ve not yet mingled with the masses, fearing they missed the golden age of BDSM community.
Has the pandemic changed our local communities and greater kink subculture that profoundly? Did it destroy what’s taken us decades to build? Or did the creative ways we connected, learned, and played during isolation help us grow in ways we couldn’t have anticipated? We’re still waiting to see how everything shakes out, however, what we do know is quite telling.
As a BDSM & Certified Sex Educator, one of the ways I keep my curriculum relevant is by tracking trends in sexual behavior. Cultural shifts not only impact the mainstream’s relationship with sex and stigma, they also tell us a lot about the evolution of altsex communities. According to the experts, sex toy sales rose up to 300% during the pandemic, largely due to singles sheltering in place. Studies also revealed that although many embraced sexual diversity, we were still pretty lonely during lockdown. Unfortunately, most pandemic-focused sex research didn’t drill down enough to give insight into issues affecting sexual minorities and subcommunities. I wanted to know specifically how kinkster’s sex lives and community dynamics were impacted by COVID-19.
To find out, I partnered with Zipper Magazine and Clips4Sale to create The State of Kink Survey. Our 21 questions focused on how lockdown affected self-identified kinkster’s feelings of connectedness with community, partners, and their own kinky identity. In addition to gathering answers from over 500 anonymous respondents, I interviewed three BDSM practitioners, Lulu, Maurice, and Nix, about their experiences.
What I learned was reassuring. Spoiler: We resilient kinksters will be alright.
(Between March 2020 and May 2022)
With such a sharp decline in face-to-face encounters, how did already kinky BDSM practitioners manage to become even kinkier? Our data points to several culprits. Migration to virtual spaces, more time for personal development, and societal shifts in how we approach sex and kink were the main drivers.
Who that 52% is comprised of tells us a lot too. The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to get kinkier over the pandemic. Gen Z far outweighed other age groups at 80% which isn’t surprising. The prime time for exploring our sexual identity is early adulthood and that translates to more opportunities for growth. Curiously, among all ages, submissives were almost twice as likely to say they got kinkier than dominants.
Self-isolation triggered a society-wide shift that pushed us to reevaluate priorities and live our truth. We quit exploitative jobs, ended toxic relationships, ditched underwire bras, and focused inward on our own happiness. Kinksters used this time to reexamine their erotic identity and prioritize needs around pleasure, intimacy, and unconventional desires. 54% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “I am more in touch with my kink/sexuality now than I was before the pandemic.”
To BDSM lifestylers, “kinky” goes beyond engaging in role-playing, bondage, or spanking. Adopting a mindset that promotes emotional growth, self-acceptance, and healthy, consensual sexual exploration is very much a part of “being kinky” too.
22-year-old submissive, Lulu, began exploring BDSM after stumbling upon #KinkTok in 2020. She now documents her kink journey on TikTok. “Yes, I did [get kinkier] … I define kinkier as having more knowledge and experience of kink than I did previously.”
Lulu isn’t alone. Self-exploration and education were common themes shared by respondents. “During lockdown, there was more time to be introspective about every aspect of myself, including kink. That introspection has helped me express myself more and be more “myself” in the online world. I’ve brought those lessons with me now that we’re back to more in-person events.”
Another anonymous kinkster said, “It finally gave me time to explore the submissive side of myself that I had always suppressed. I found myself frustrated with the disconnection I felt from my authentic self. Scrolling TikTok reawakened parts of myself I had previously buried.”
16% of the kinksters surveyed discovered the BDSM/kink community during lockdown, the majority online. Nix, a 32-year-old switch from Indiana is among them. “I was aware of my kinks but never realized there was a community of people that were similar and actually celebrated that part of themselves! I was a newbie in all senses of the word before I joined the online community!”
Of those who discovered BDSM community during the pandemic, a.k.a “pandemic kinksters”:
Nix quickly integrated into virtual kink spaces garnering recognition for her humorous and educational TikTok series, “When Vetting Goes Wrong” and helping launch #BlackKinktokerAppreciationDay. “I found the greatest community online! Friends, education, fun, and camaraderie! I found that my kinks had actual names and I learned they’re mostly considered edge play lol. I can’t describe the comfort and peace I found upon realizing what went on in my head was something others learned and practiced. Because of the online community, I was able to attend my first fully vetted munch and play party, as well as speak on educational panels about the lifestyle.”
Nix discovered BDSM community during lockdown. “I got ‘kinkier’ [during the pandemic] because I’ve learned to accept others’ kinks as valid. As a result, I’ve been able to expand the things I’m willing to try. I don’t think acts themselves make me kinkier, but my willingness to try out new things enthusiastically.”
Fledgling kinksters weren’t the only ones who turned to online communities. Among all respondents, those who rarely or never engaged with virtual community before the pandemic decreased by 25%. Frequently/occasionally rose by 24%. Many revealed they engaged daily, something they never did pre-pandemic with in-person community. “I lost a great connection with my local community, but gained family in my digital scene,” was a recurring sentiment.
44-year-old, sub-leaning switch, Maurice, is an experienced lifestyler who unexpectedly found a welcoming community of like-minded kinksters online. “I followed a person on Twitter who was into a kink that I shared. He used the new Spaces feature to host voice chat rooms for people into similar kinks. Spending several hours in the chat nightly, I gained the chance to talk about my kinks, spread my wisdom advising not trying certain things without actual education, and learned a lot. The wide range of kinksters in the room from across the world was a great sense of open and honest friendship, a little flirting, and very informative.”
Like Maurice, many found kinky connections on mainstream social media. While Fetlife remains the top site for community interaction, with 72% saying they frequent it, Twitter, Discord, and TikTok are rapidly gaining popularity. Younger kinksters are the ones setting this trend. 64% of Gen Zers regularly use TikTok to connect to other kinksters versus just 62% who use Fetlife.
Maurice interacts with kink community on Twitter Spaces. “I have an account on FetLife that’s vastly underused. I don’t remember my password or the last time I logged on. The site is slow and cumbersome and the layout and design have a hard time holding my interest. I’ve never really messaged or talked with people on the site.”
The Uncertain Future of In-Person BDSM Community
Since the early 1990s, we’ve been an in-person community with a virtual component. In the 2020s will we become a virtual community
with an in-person component? If so, how will that affect education, safety, consent, and the values that are cornerstones of the BDSM lifestyle? Some survey respondents wondered the same. “The pandemic brought our local events to a complete halt. People drifted away from the online communities too. They found no point in connecting with others they couldn’t meet in person.
For others, isolation was difficult to cope with. “It was hell not being able to dominate in person, over 20+ yrs in the BDSM community, I’m old school, online doesn’t do it for me!” Another shared, “It was a horrible time for me. I used to attend munches and events several times a month. Since the pandemic, I’ve only been to one event and even then I didn’t scene because the energy felt off.” Others stepped away altogether. “Between stress and depression killing my libido and having to isolate, I’ve essentially stopped interacting as a kinkster.”
Approximately two-thirds of those surveyed prefer face-to-face community. Almost half also believe in-person communities and relationships are more genuine than their virtual counterparts. On the flip side, many are thriving in the virtual BDSM scene. Over the course of the pandemic:
Does this mean in-person BDSM community is going the way of the dinosaur? Not necessarily. To put things in perspective, community kinksters are a small slice of the kinky pie. A 2015 study published in the Journal Of Sexual Medicine found that the vast majority of kinky people practiced BDSM at home with only 4.4% going to clubs or other community spaces.
The lockdown-triggered online BDSM community boom may have another explanation. 70% of adults have BDSM fantasies but only 20% act on them. The phenomenon of the virtual pandemic kinkster could have been fueled by validated fantasizers and at-home dabblers who accidentally stumbled upon digital kink spaces. While they value community support, education, and play, they’re also less likely to seek out in-person connections. The silver lining is that lone kinksters and curious newbies now have access to BDSM resources and guidance they wouldn’t otherwise.
As for our local communities, they may have yet to go through a period of recalibration. Just as we’ve done before, however, we’ll adapt and carry on (remember when we were convinced that Fifty Shades kinksters would tear the fabric of our kinky universe?). Some online-only folx will eventually join local communities. Like Lulu and Nix, many will bring in fresh new perspectives and work to keep our communities safe, strong, and fun. Others will remain happy just as they are, connecting in cyberspace with newfound friends, D/s partners, and chosen kinky family around the world.
However it shakes out, I’m certain that the resilient, creative, adaptable BDSM community at large will not only survive, it will thrive. As they say,
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Sunny Megatron is an award-winning BDSM & Certified Sexuality Educator, Certified Relationship Coach, and media personality. She’s the host and executive producer of the Showtime original television series, SEX with Sunny Megatron, plus co-hosts AASECT Award winning American Sex Podcast and Open Deeply Podcast. Sunny was also named XBIZ Sexpert of the Year 2021 and is Editor-in-Chief of Zipper Magazine.
Known for her one-of-a-kind build-your-own-adventure approach to sex, kink & relationships, Sunny coined the BDSM community catch-phrase, Kink is Customizable™. In her sell-out workshops, her unique brand of “edutainment” seamlessly combines her humorous lecturing style, interactive exercises, and the latest sexuality research. Sunny’s passion is helping others overcome shame and find power through play and pleasure. Currently, she’s working on her first book, “Customizable Kink: A Strategic Guide to Adult Play.”