Lynne could not decide what color to wear to the stoplight party. An open relationship doesn’t come in colors red, yellow or green.
“Do I wear green because I can hook up with people or yellow because maybe I can’t?” she asked herself. Lynne is a female undergraduate whose name, like those of several other students interviewed for this story, has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
For the multitudes of alternative relationships and sexual practices on campus — including group sex, kink, open relationships and polyamory — there is no cruise control. These practices can be difficult to navigate or understand, because every experience is different.
“There is no such thing as normal sex,” said Anica Green ’17.
Instead of worrying about what color to wear, “why don’t you ask him?” Lynne’s friend suggested.
“Gossip Girl” warns, “Inside every threesome there is a twosome and a onesome,” but what about a fivesome?
In a dorm room, there are 10 condoms on the floor. When first-years walk by, they ask, “Is this the room where the orgy happened?”
For Dominic, a male undergraduate, that threesome was “the climax of a term where everyone is having meaningless sex,” he said.
For others, group sex is “the best thing that has happened in their lives,” said Andrew, a male undergraduate, or “their two favorite things at once — boobs and penis,” said Emma, a female undergraduate.
Dominic said the threesome was more relaxed than having sex one-on-one. When the responsibility of pleasure is shared by multiple people, there is not as much individual pressure to perform, he said.
For Emma, the threesome turned into a text message that made its way around campus. By daylight, everyone knew.
Andrew’s date and his friend’s date hit it off at the formal, he said. After the party, the pair of couples took a cab back to Andrew’s room — jazz, flameless candles and an L-shaped futon next to the bed.
“Sometimes you couldn’t tell whose lips were whose,” he said. “We didn’t know how much we could get away with.”
“There was no penetration involved,” Andrew added.
“During one-on-one sex there is clear intention,” Andrew said. During the foursome, “there was neither intention nor destination — you could be more present.”
When Oliver, a male undergraduate, opened a door at a party, he found three girls making out. One of them was his girlfriend.
Oliver and his male friend, whose girlfriend was also participating in the makeout session, decided to join.
While the friend performed cunnilingus on Oliver’s girlfriend, “it was difficult to wrap my head around it,” he said. But having the fivesome did not ruin the chemistry between Oliver and his girlfriend.
“It made our relationship more official, because we were part of (the fivesome) together,” he said. “We can laugh about it.”
Kinks and high jinks
In 2012, Harvard recognized Harvard College Munch as an official student organization.
Members of the group gather weekly in dining halls to discuss kink, consent and safe practices over lunch. There are around 70 students on the group’s mailing list and around 25 regular attendees.
“There are no trolls in our dungeon,” said group president Cleo, whose name has been changed for confidentiality. For the most part, the “liberal utopia” of Harvard Square offers students interested in kink “a positive and respectful environment,” she said.
Columbia’s Conversio Virium, which means “exchange of forces” in Latin, was the first kink organization for students recognized by a university. College Hill Kink — a subgroup of Queer Alliance comprised of Brown and Rhode Island School of Design undergraduates — also offers a safe space for students interested in kink. Other colleges in New England and across the country — including Tufts University, Iowa State University and Reed College — have similar organizations.
The New England Leather Alliance was established in 1991 under a different name, according to the organization’s website. This nonprofit organization strives to raise awareness and create a safe space for those interested in leather, fetish and BDSM, which Cleo defined generally as “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.”
After a leather dungeon operated out of a private home in Boston was raided by police and wrongly charged with prostitution, the organization formed to support and unite a leather community that was scattered and persecuted, its website states.
Today, the NELA sponsors the Fetish Flea Market, which features vendors and kink courses. The 42nd market will take place in Warwick March 7-9 and offer a variety of courses, including “Rope 101: The Knots and Bolts of Bondage,” “Intro to Rough Body Play,” “Kink and Disability” and “The Fine Art of Prostate Massage.”
With the mention of whips and handcuffs, many people assume kink is violent or dangerous for those involved, Cleo said.
But those in the kink community value “safe practices” and have “a wider range of interests than BDSM,” Cleo said, such as hair pulling, rubber and role playing.
Kink involves “people who are excited by things that are complicated, not easy or straightforward,” said Jordan, a female graduate student from Brown.
“My biggest kink is public places,” said Andrew. “We snuck up to Metcalf roof and had full-blown sex bent over the railing.”
Kink doesn’t necessarily involve sex, the Munch president added. “Some of our members are virgins and want to remain abstinent until marriage.”
Despite the acceptance of kink interest groups on college campuses, the kink community faces discrimination in the classroom and the workplace. Some people call this community “disgusting, mentally ill or handicapped,” Cleo said. Many students feel that being open about their involvement in kink could jeopardize their job prospects, especially if they are pursuing careers in education or health care, she said.
“There have been scare tactics against these communities for decades — conservatives linking gay or kink culture to pedophilia,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s future husband revealed his interest in kink after dating for five years.
“I was the first person he came out to,” she said. “He didn’t know about kink communities.”
Jordan has embraced her partner’s interest. They are developing skills slowly, taking classes and exploring kink literature and websites together, she said.
“Dan Savage (a relationship and sex advice columnist for “The Stranger”) saved my marriage. I called him and he tweeted back at me,” Jordan said.
Jordan knew she wasn’t good at monogamy.
“You are taught to believe that you are some crazy monster, that there is something wrong with you if you want to have a lot of sex,” she said. “I didn’t know how to talk about it.”
After listening to around 300 episodes of Savage’s podcast “Savage Love,” Jordan developed a vocabulary for discussing these issues, she said. The podcast helped her gain the courage and confidence to tell her partner, “I’m interested in exploring sexual connections with other people.”
Jordan is not emotionally available to partners outside of her marriage, but she is open to sexual encounters outside of wedlock, she said.
Because people are socialized to believe monogamy is the only valid form of relationships, “most people think open relationships are doomed to failure,” she said. “They only hear about it when it fails.”
Successful open relationships are built on communication, Jordan said.
Participants in the relationship must negotiate terms, use protection to prevent STIs and frequently check in with each other, said some students involved in open relationships.
Jordan’s husband meets each candidate in person, without her in the room, she said. He has the right to veto any one of her sexual partners, no questions asked, if he feels uncomfortable. “Part of the adventure for me is sharing the experiences with him,” Jordan said. Even though he is not physically involved in the sexual encounter, “he can participate in the adventure and excitement,” she said.
For Emma, an open relationship helped her transition from high school to college.
“He was my rock,” Emma said, of her high school sweetheart. “I couldn’t imagine coming to college and not having him to share it with.”
Having sex with new people in college did not change her love for her high school boyfriend, Emma said. The relationship saw its demise due to fights about communication.
An open relationship gave Lynne the freedom to seize sexual opportunities without the complications of commitment, she said. But being in an open relationship “doesn’t necessarily mean I hook up with all these people all the time,” she said.
After being in an open relationship with the same partner for most of her first year, Lynne wanted to make it exclusive. Increased communication would have raised her self-awareness and brought forth this realization sooner, she said.
“In the process of being in an open relationship, we hurt each other,” Lynne said. “That was the sacrifice we were going to make.” But at the end of the day, being in an open relationship “proved that we can be honest with each other,” Lynne said.
Lynne and her boyfriend from her first year are now exclusive.
More to love
“I found myself diving into it without knowing what I was doing, without even knowing the word,” Andrew said.
Polyamory — the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the consent of everyone involved — “was something every movie and book told me was wrong,” Andrew said.
“How can I be in love with more than one person at once?”
Andrew’s girlfriend is drawn to monogamy, a notion that he believes is is destructive and “the root of a lot of problems in relationships.” Andrew has fallen in love with people outside of their relationship, flirting on the boundaries of polyamory, but is afraid to tell his girlfriend.
“She would think I’m crazy,” he said, even though falling in love with other people “doesn’t mean my feelings for her are any different or less real.”
If people in relationships were honest and open about their feelings for other people, instead of keeping secrets and hating themselves for their emotions, there wouldn’t be as much cheating and divorce, Andrew said.
In an Italian cafe, crowded with young people by night and old men playing cards by day, James, a male first-year, kissed his girlfriend on the dance floor.
James left to get a glass of grappa, a grape-based brandy. When he returned, she was kissing another girl.
“Everyone was talking about it,” said James. “Even the bartender asked me about it.”
But this did not bother James, because he had been in a triad with these two girls for a little over a month. One of the partners was Maria, his former girlfriend — “a hippie from Canada who smelled like cigarettes and always had leaves in her long brown hair,” he said. The other partner was Maria’s friend, a girl James knew but rarely interacted with.
Though James and the girl were not sexually or emotionally involved with each other, “we were aware of each other and okay with the relationship,” he said.
But Maria felt guilty about the relationship. “She felt as if she was using us or not giving us all of herself, but I felt like what she was giving was enough,” he said.
Though at times James wanted the relationship to be more defined, he did not want to put anyone in boxes.
“When you love someone, you have to adjust your way of thinking and accept the way they are,” he said. “When you love someone, none of the little things matter.”