Here’s what we think.

Learning is growing

“Sexuality is one of the ways that we become enlightened, actually, because it leads us to self-knowledge.” Alice Walker

black leather BDSM cuffs with white condom packets in each one, against a gray background

Why We Should Talk to Young People About Kink & BDSM

approx. 5 minutes reading time

Did your heart just seize up a little reading that title? It’s not surprising—we live in a society where we’d rather give kids fear-based “abstinence only” propaganda than comprehensive sex ed, where queer people who professionally interact with kids or teens (teachers, for example) risk being labeled pedophiles or groomers, and where kink is still equated with abuse and mental illness.

If we can’t teach young folks what a vibrator is, how do we even begin talking with them about something as complex as BDSM?

But here’s the thing: They need us to do it.

As with any area of sexuality, young people are 1) curious and 2) exposed to a lot of bad clichés and misinformation. They need trustworthy, informed adults who have their best interests at heart and who are prepared to answer even difficult or embarrassing questions without overreacting.

Many people are convinced that BDSM is a topic that shouldn’t even be touched until a person is 18 at minimum, and until then we should just…pretend it doesn’t exist? Close our eyes and hope it never comes up? Unfortunately, sometimes even mental health practitioners who aren’t kink-informed allow their own biases to cloud their professional opinions, and they’ll accuse kink-aware therapists of promoting abuse or unhealthy sexuality. (Ask us how we know.)

Just as it’s both possible and important to be able to talk to young people about sex in a way that’s matter-of-fact and helps them make informed decisions about their bodies and their safety, it’s entirely possible to talk to them about BDSM and kink in ways that ultimately protect them from harm.

It’s also important to know that a lot of adults who decide to explore their interest in BDSM will find their way early on into a local community-based kink organization that centers around education, consent, and safety—but for obvious legal reasons, those groups have a minimum membership age of 18 or even 21. That means that the very places where adults have free or low-cost resources for education as well as a peer network to help them learn social norms and safety, are not available to teens with questions.

So if there are no community education groups to talk to, and no resources in school, and the adults in a young person’s life treat the subject with horror or disgust, where else is there to turn?

You guessed it: The internet.

To be clear, there’s a lot of good, helpful, and accurate information about kink on the internet. Scarleteen is a frequently-cited source of high-quality sex ed including topics like BDSM for young people. But you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s equally possible for someone to stumble across a lot of questionable stuff—novels like 50 Shades of Gray, kinky fanfic with very unrealistic BDSM scenes, or poorly-produced kinky porn.

What’s more, when young people are sexually active, it’s not unheard-of for their equally young partners to want to experiment with kinky stuff they heard about, and those partners may or may not know what they’re doing. Worse, although kink is not abuse (just as sexual assault is not the same as sex), there are abusers who will co-opt BDSM language and activities as tools of gaslighting and abuse. Giving young folks access to age-appropriate, accurate information about kink helps them know what consensual, safety-informed BDSM looks like and how to identify red flags. It gives them important questions to ask partners and tells them what to avoid. It helps empower them to say no to anything they don’t want.

Tips for having those awkward conversations less awkwardly

Do you have a young person in your life who’s starting to ask questions about sex? Here are some tips to equip yourself to have conversations with them about kink and BDSM:

  • Educate yourself first. Learn some basic terminology, the difference between power exchange and pain/sensation play and bondage; learn about SSC vs. RACK and other safety frameworks, and about safewords. If a young person asks you about something outside your knowledge, don’t fake it—admit you don’t know, and look for good information to give them.
  • You don’t have to bring it up with them! Let them know that you’re available to answer any questions they have about sex no matter what they are, then prove that you’re a safe person to talk to by handling their initial questions with calm grace and nonjudgmental information. Build enough trust to make it possible for them to ask you about BDSM, which can be embarrassing even for adults to admit to being interested in, let alone young people.
  • If you see something kink-related in mainstream media that you’re watching or listening to with them—a movie, TV show, news story, audiobook, podcast—you might remark on whether it was realistic or consensual or not, or you could simply let them know that if it gave them questions, you’re there to answer them.
  • Emphasize that responsible kink is always consensual (and that consent can be revoked at any time), and always done with education and sometimes training to learn safety issues, proper use of equipment/proper techniques, and with a plan for aftercare. Those are topics you can address without getting into uncomfortable details.
  • If BDSM really isn’t your thing, try not to let your personal feelings color what you say. It can be really helpful to simply own your discomfort—“I want to give you the information you need, and I want you to know that it’s okay to be interested in BDSM, so you should know that if I seem uncomfortable, it’s just that it’s a little hard for me to understand it myself.”
  • Prepare yourself with some age-appropriate resources to share with them that you’ve looked over and vetted. The young folks in your life might be too embarrassed to have a conversation and prefer to have things to read or watch.
  • If they’re struggling with being interested in kink and it’s causing them distress, reassure them—it doesn’t mean they want to be abused, it doesn’t mean they’re an abuser, it doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill or deviant, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. If the distress is more than you can handle, seek out a kink-informed therapist for them to talk to. Kink and Polyamory Aware Professionals is a good place to start (or you can contact us for recommendations).

A few resources to get you started:

  • As mentioned above, Scarleteen has a page devoted to kink resources, that are curated for appropriateness for teens.
  • This O School article lists a number of sex education resources for teens, some of which include kink-related information.
  • Kinkly’s BDSM section includes articles, Q&A’s, webinars, and tons of information, and they support quality sex education for young people. This might be a good place for you to search for specific information or learn some basics.
  • This article on BDSM consent for beginners by Teen Vogue is a great conversation resource.

It’s never easy to think about the best way to give young folks the sexuality info they need to make the right choices for themselves as they enter adulthood. Making the effort, however, is one of the most responsible things you can do for them.

 

Do you have a young person in your life who needs more support around their sexuality than you can give them? Contact us about queer, polyamory, and kink-informed therapy for teens.

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