Conversio Virium’s revival is expanding conversations about sex and consent on campus.
By Andrea Contreras
Content warning: This feature contains content related to sexual violence.
“This is going to sound really bad but …” A pink-haired first-year pauses to laugh, slightly red-faced. The awkward laughter is a nod to our yet more awkward environment—an overlit Butler study room on a Monday—but the five other present members of Conversio Virium chuckle along with her. We’re about half an hour into the meeting and the phrase “this is going to sound really bad but …” has been said several times. But as our members are growing comfortable with each other, the nervous edge to the conversation is wearing off. No, just say it, they coax her. She uncrosses her fishnet tight-bound legs and leans forward towards the group to continue divulging details about her introduction to BDSM. Her fears subside, because no one thinks it’s weird, no one thinks it sounds “really bad.”
Since the beginning of 2023, Conversio Virium (Latin for “exchange of power”) has met every Monday night to discuss all things bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
Conversio Virium’s revival comes after a five-year gap in kink representation on campus following the cessation of a previous iteration of the club in 2018. When this year’s incoming students realized that CV was no longer active, a group of first-years—Christian, Sophia, and Lily—began a Discord server with the intention of reopening the club. Right now, their main focus is on “building community again,” says Sophia, CC ’26, CV’s treasurer. Last semester was dedicated to planning: deciding what they wanted meetings to look like, establishing a safe club culture, and getting the word out. CV’s return to the broader Columbia community has been a slow process, partially because the club is not formally affiliated with the University. This means they are unable to officially reserve event space or receive University funding, leaving them to congregate in reserved Butler study rooms. As of early spring, they have six consistent members, an executive board of four, and the Discord open to any interested S&Mer. “I would love it to be something where people on campus know that it exists and that it’s a place you can go if you’re interested in experimenting,” says Lily, CC ’26, CV’s secretary.
Conversio Virium’s current incarnation is modeled after the lore of the club’s debaucherous prime. The oldest student-run university kink club in the country, Conversio Virium was founded at Columbia in 1994 as a radical space for sexual self-expression and liberation. Beyond BDSM discourse, the early iteration of the club was known for its lascivious hands-on events: flogging demonstrations, dominatrix presentations, and rope-tying basics, among many others. Unsurprisingly, CV became a target for bemoaned moral conservatives looking to attack what they perceived as the liberal university agenda.
Immediately upon its founding, a campus Christian group petitioned the University to expel the club from campus for “promoting unjustifiable violence.” When Columbia acquiesced, groups across the city rallied behind CV. Robert B Chatelle, board member of the UAW National Writers Union, wrote to the club to condemn the University’s censorship in December 1994. “I am not part of the BDSM community myself, but as a 52-year-old gay man, I know well the pain and indignity of discrimination. I have a great many friends within your community, and they are good, caring, and decent human beings,” he wrote. Columbia reinstated CV the following year, but its controversial status on campus remained.
In 2006, an undercover reporter for the New York Daily News sat in on one of Conversio Virium’s flogging demonstrations to craft a salacious article on academia’s kinkiest elite. The piece catalyzed immense national discourse, largely questioning Columbia’s institutional ethics for funding a club dedicated to sex. Ann Coulter, Fox News darling, admonished CV members as the “biggest losers on campus” seeking to “coarsen the culture.” She even encouraged Fox to run a poll of CV’s members to see how many of them “grew up sleeping in the same house as their father,” implying the club existed as a coping mechanism for childhood abandonment.
The subsequent media eruption had major impacts upon CV’s public nature. According to the current e-board, the uproar forced CV to go underground, which eventually led to its demise in 2018 as the club lost traction. Now, a central goal for Conversio Virium’s revival is returning to the early days of unabashed openness. “I want people to be touring the school and I want their dads to get pissed off. Like, ‘Oh my God, this school is sex positive,’” says Lily.
In the ’90s and 2000s, Conversio Virium was a symbol for sexual liberation and free speech on campus. But beyond Morningside Heights, CV’s location grounds the club in New York City’s radical queer history. Barely 25 years prior to Conversio Virium’s founding, The Eulenspiegel Society (TES), the country’s first nonprofit BDSM and fetish organization was established in New York. Members convened in private homes and makeshift locations such as theaters and churches to discuss and practice BDSM with others. But beyond kink, TES’s roots were distinctly political. A central figure in New York’s LGBTQ+ activism and the 1970s sexual revolution, TES operated under the philosophy that “sexual liberation [is] a prerequisite for a ‘truly free’ society,” with a strong emphasis on the liberation of sexual minorities. In addition to sexual play, TES created a variety of social communities across the city, tightening queer solidarity.
Throughout the following years, New York became populated with legendary S&M spaces, predominantly serving gay, lesbian, trans, and polyamorous leather folk. The Hellfire Club, the Vault, the Anvil, and the Mineshaft in the Meatpacking district became havens for radical sexual expression. In the midst of the AIDs epidemic, these clubs also became support networks for open community discussion and the promotion of sexual safety. But in 1985, as AIDS ravaged the city, most of these clubs shut down when NYC mayor Ed Koch ordered for the forcible closure of any spaces where sexual activities occurred. The criminalization of sexuality in the midst of a public health crisis devastated sexual subcultures and their safe havens. Most of New York’s most iconic BDSM clubs were unable to survive the ’80s and ’90s crackdowns, and the growing gentrification of the area has made most spaces nearly impossible to revive.
While BDSM is perceived as a subculture of mostly white, gay muscle men, BDSM also has strong importance to sex-radical feminists and Black communities who were interrogating the dynamics of power in sexual play. The Eulenspiegel Society’s first president, Black leatherman Jack Jackson, was credited with making kink and BDSM accessible to queer people of color at a time when it was a predominantly white space. In Paddles, Manhattan’s oldest BDSM dungeon, Black women and femmes made it a point to challenge the boundaries of the body in their exploration of domination, performance, and the oppositional gaze in their sexual lives.
BDSM spaces have long been established as important havens for community-building and action for sexually marginalized people. In its early days, Conversio Virium was known to collaborate with the Eulenspiegel Society, although the extent of their integration is uncertain. Today’s CV engages with the same practices and philosophies of BDSM’s subversive history. Conversio Virium always has been, and still remains, largely queer. Some members spoke about finding the club through Columbia’s queer newsletter, as well as the large overlap between CV and GendeRevolution, the gender non-confirming student organization on campus. CV hopes to boast a diverse club population. “There’s not a lot of representation of people of color or queer people; even switches aren’t represented. It’s a very specific way of looking at things that I think is very fetishized for the male gaze,” says Lily. CV’s co-president Christian, CC ’26, agrees that full, diverse representation is essential for creating an equitable dynamic among CV’s members. “It’s very important to me that we have queer people, women—like there’s not a power structure where there’s men telling us what to do,” says Lily.
Today’s Conversio Virium has big goals for its revival, many of them embedded in the rich history of BDSM history. But CV is also entering a new social landscape, where college students have developed vastly different philosophies on their sexual practices and behaviors. A 2019 study revealed that between 40 and 70% of adults had fantasized about BDSM, and around 30% regularly engage in kinky practices. Another 2021 study showed that among female college students, 58% reported having been choked during sex, with a quarter having been choked by age 17. No longer a monster of the margins, breath play, roughness, and kink are seen as a normal part of having sex—however, with that normalization comes a frightening casualness which ignores the details of consent. One third of men who reported participating in “rough sex practices”—choking, slapping, gagging, and spitting on their partner during consensual sex —mentioned that they wouldn’t ask whether their partner was into it, either before or after sex. Women regularly reported not being asked before being choked, and that sex with men often involves an “inability to negotiate nuance” within otherwise consensual interactions.
Conversio Virium is the only club at Columbia that is dedicated to conversation and community building around sex. On campuses across the country, conversations about sex are confined to topics of sexual assault prevention and consent. While these are crucial conversations, they create an environment where our understanding of the dynamics of sex are defined by fear, violence, and trauma. The desires of many students, particularly women and femmes, to explore their sexualities in college are often dampened by the ubiquitous, prophetic notion that one in five students will be sexually assaulted on campus before they graduate–statistics which have not improved despite the increasing prevalence of discourse about sexual assault prevention.
Consent as it is understood today pretends to engage with sexual autonomy. Research on sexual interactions on Columbia’s campus has proved the landscape to be laden with unkind sexual interactions, even when they are, by definition, consensual. This is because the University's (and society’s) definition of consent is reduced to a yes or no question, often attached to the status of sobriety. Because sex at college is so often casual, conversation about how it will go, beyond establishing consent, is often cut off. Framing consent as a yes/no binary reduces sex to a commodity, one in which conversation and exchange is cut off, one in which sex becomes mechanical and scripted.
Despite being equipped with all the tools for radical sexual liberation, a 2019 study at Rutgers University on the sexual behaviors of Gen Z concluded that teens and young adults today are having comparatively less sex than previous generations. Media has given us the label of “puriteens”—and often, we hear of young adults self-identifying as “femcels,” and boasting their “celibacy era.” Social scientists have attributed this decline in sexual activity to a decrease in alcohol consumption, the pandemic, the growing prevalence of online dating, a decreasing stigma around virginity, and an increase of queer-identifying populations who differently define sex. However, some sex researchers such as Rachelle Hampton and Debra Soh attribute this shift to changing beliefs about the dynamics of power within sex among young people.
Growing up in the #MeToo movement has made many young women, femmes, people of color, and queer people reckon with the fact that the power dynamics of sex with cisgender men have not changed even decades after the sexual revolution. In an increasingly queer, radical, and socially conscious generation, considering how to change these dynamics while remaining liberated and sex-positive is complicated territory. Rather than finding triumph in the sole act of having sex, young people are increasingly questioning what sex is for, whom it serves, and what they aim to experience from it. Young people seeking pleasure often know they won’t necessarily find it through casual encounters—the orgasm gap reveals as much. But in looking at sex through an equity lens, women, femmes, and people of color are beginning to think critically about the normative power dynamics which have deprived them of adequate pleasure and sexual autonomy.
BDSM reimagines consent, power, and pleasure entirely. The yes/no question, while not thrown out the window, is greatly expanded through its two models: Safe, Sane and Consensual Kink, and Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. A primary aspect of BDSM is the process of sexual “negotiation,” which frames the entire sexual encounter through constant dialogue. S&Mers talk about sex before it happens; they negotiate and agree upon how they want to feel, what they want to experience, what they know they enjoy and what they might enjoy, what their boundaries or triggers are. During sex, after sex, the conversation continues. “It’s about feeling empowered to ask for what you want out of sex—without being shamed for it—so you can have the sex you want to have with the people you want to have it with,” writes Mallory Yu in conversation with kinksters at the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom. Through this model of understanding consent, autopilot goes out the window. Instead of a rote action, sex becomes an interpersonal experience filled with trust, improvisation, and imagination.
Since its founding, consent has always been at the forefront of Conversio Virium’s educational practice. CV’s early events include “Beyond No Means No and Yes Means Yes—Practices Consent Strategies,” “Negotiating Better Experiences,” and “Trauma Informed Kink.” In these events, CV members would participate in interactive workshops on the different models of consent in BDSM, as well as different ways to talk to their partner about their sexual interactions. Consent is practiced and discussed in many ways at CV: beyond sex, the club also uses these models to build a safe and comfortable environment for its members. “Talking about consent is very important within a club that focuses on BDSM activities,” she said. “So even though we’re all very familiar with the standards of consent … it’s still really important to all of us that we continue to talk about consent. What does consent look like within our meetings? What does it look like to consent to a conversation about sex? What does it look like to be aware of your ability to rescind consent as we talk about a lot of different things?” For example, to account for discomfort, trauma, or triggers, CV implemented a conversational “safe word” within their meetings to allow members more control over the discourse. “Bring that word (Prezbo!) in conversation and everyone knows that means it’s time to change the topic,” Lily explains.
In the future, CV hopes to become an official Columbia-affiliated organization. With funding and the ability to reserve space, the club would be able to restart educational demonstrations and expand their community. While Conversio Virium’s current membership is predominantly experienced kinksters, the club is seeking to make the space more accessible to the BDSM-curious and budding experimentalists.
Decades ago, when the media portrayed Columbia’s kinksters as a cast of debaucherous pleather-clad freaks, CV was framed as entirely at odds with Columbia as an academic institution. Salacious descriptions at the club highlighted the contrast between the Hamilton classroom as an educational bastion and the club’s activities within it as a desecration of the Ivy League. Today, while there is a certain hilarity to the image of six first-years doing a kinky show-and-tell in the stress-filled halls of Butler’s fourth floor, this is not the content clash it seems. Conversio Virium is, primarily, an educational club, filling an important gap in sex education and discourse with the alternative pedagogy of kink. The fact that they convene in an educational space aligns rather perfectly with their mission. They are not just having “wild sex,” as those articles profess, they are talking and thinking intentionally about how they are having sex, and how they are engaging with other people, in a way that is almost shockingly normal. Sure, there’s some laughter, some awkward pauses, some check-ins along the way, but isn’t that the way it all should be?