Media & Culture

Why The Harvard “Munch” Club Is Not Actual News

December 2, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Last week, the Harvard College Munch became an official student organization on campus. The goal of this group is to provide a forum for students who are interested in “kinky” sex to discuss their interests with like-minded individuals and to build a community. As soon as word of the club’s approval hit the street, the national and international news media picked it up and ran story after story about the new “sex club” at Harvard. This became such a huge media frenzy that the Munch was a top story on all weekend, snatched headlines around the globe, and prompted heated debates on some of the biggest political talk shows. But is it really a more important point of discussion than the “fiscal cliff” or any of the actual newsworthy events going on in the world right now? No. And here’s why…

First, although “kinky” sex is a term that means different things to different people, it is most commonly used to refer to BDSM (i.e., bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism). As it turns out, BDSM is not a rare practice. Prevalence rates certainly vary across studies, but somewhere in the range of 10-15% of adults in national surveys have reported some prior experience with sadomasochistic sexual activities (see here for more prevalence information) [1]. Thus, the fact that some college students have an interest in this is not at all shocking, and there are likely to be students with these same interests at every college and university across the country. In fact, most media reports have failed to mention that Harvard isn’t even the first university where such a club has been organized.

Second, when people hear terms like “kinky” or “BDSM,” their minds immediately jump to extreme activities involving torture devices. However, the reality is that among people who engage in BDSM, the preferred type of pain is typically mild or, in some cases, it may only be symbolic [2]. Thus, people usually have the wrong mental picture when it comes to what BDSM is really like.

Third, there is a widespread stereotype that people who are into BDSM are social deviants like Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey. However, research has found that BDSM is not linked to psychological distress among adults [3]. Also, contrary to popular belief, there is no association between childhood sexual abuse and adult BDSM behaviors [3]. Many people are under the impression that because sadism and masochism are listed in the DSM (the book of clinical diagnoses used by psychiatrists and psychologists) that it is necessarily pathological—but this is not the case. Sadomasochism is only considered a true disorder of behavior when it causes harm to the self or to others. When it consists of consensual activities that do not harm either partner, it is not something that requires psychotherapy or something that we should even be concerning ourselves with.

Finally, in addition to all of these general misperceptions about the nature of BDSM, some in the media have jumped to the conclusion that a student interest group focusing on kinky sex is tantamount to a university-sanctioned, on-campus orgy. In fact, Bill O’Reilly joked on his show the other night that Harvard would soon be purchasing handcuffs for students. Some news outlets have also taken to juxtaposing pictures of a peaceful campus with whips and chains, further reinforcing this idea. Again, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that students will meet up, maybe share a meal, make friends, and talk. These meetings are just that—they’re meetings, not sex parties where flogging devices are handed out as door prizes like the sensationalized media reports have implied.

In short, despite all you’ve heard about college sex clubs over the past few days, it is important to keep in mind that these stories have been blown completely out of proportion. It’s well past time we move on and get back to covering real news.

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[1] Janus, S., and Janus, C. The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. 1993. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17, 39-54.

[3] Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, ‘sadomasochism’ or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668.

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**Disclaimer: All views in this post are my own and not those of Harvard University.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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