Photo by Ali Esposito / Wild Wolf Leatherwork
Brands like Savage X Fenty and Wild Wolf are marketing to curious millennials with pastel body harnesses and other softer-edged accessories.
In 2019, leather and kink aesthetics are everywhere-but they're evolving. Rihanna's lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty, carries lavender whips and riding crops. Billie Eilish makes industrial, BDSM-evocative chokers part of her regular wardrobe. In her 2019 single "7 Rings," Ariana Grande sings, "I'd rather be tied up with cuffs, and not strings." In a shift from its dark, industrial roots, kink is trending soft, feminine, and aspirational. It's not just more mainstream in fashion and pop culture, as has been reported of kink's increasing popularity year after year for decades. Now, BDSM looks softer.
There's a long history attached to BDSM aesthetics: collars, harnesses, and black leather hail from the Old Guard leather community, but have been appropriated by fashion for decades. In Madonna's Sex, on the runway, and beyond, Western culture has been obsessed with these tropes for a long time.
I first sought out the BDSM scene in my mid 20s, when I entered a 24/7 power-exchange relationship-I negotiate giving up a prescribed amount of decision-making to my partner in and out of the bedroom. Despite this high level of buy-in to BDSM, I felt-and feel-out of place among the black leather, metal fasteners, and flat-top caps that most widely define how my kink looks. I just want to get spanked, dominated, and restrained-why does everything have to be so severe-looking all the time?
Christine Gillette, the marketing coordinator for Stockroom, an LA-based leather brand, told VICE their Stupid Cute line of pink restraints and accessories was developed in 2017 to meet "the demands of younger kinksters for soft, pastel leather." The addition was so well-received, she said, that Stockroom is "in the works of adding more soft colors and bondage designs to cater to [their] growing young audience."
To the beginner's eye, the neophyte-friendly, pink-kink products sex shops are newly stocking may be less intimidating than Leather Daddy looks. "Designers are getting more creative as we begin to move beyond black patent leather," says Zoë Ligon, owner of Spectrum Boutique, a Detroit-based online sex toy retailer that sells both traditional-looking and softer-looking BDSM gear. In addition to seeing color changes among her accessories, her company is finding ways of representing kink experiences outside of 50 Shades of Gray, Secretary, and Rihanna's "S&M" video.
As BDSM becomes friendlier-feeling: Is it still the same kink? Can you still take this deviant sexuality seriously if you're getting flogged with a pink toy? Cory B., 23, a kink coach based in NYC, says many clients approach her asking if they can still get into the scene if they don't respond to "the typical look and feel of it." She applauds the new trends: "BDSM is a creative space, and no two kinksters are the same."
"BDSM is so frequently mistaken with things it's not," said Ligon. She thinks BDSM is often misunderstood because mainstream culture has used BDSM as a placeholder for "actual abuse, with consent thrown out the window." In reality, kink can be expressed in a myriad of ways, which Spectrum's marketing highlights. "Instead of rope and cuffs on a model," Ligon said, nodding to the ways kink products are normally packaged, Spectrum's photography features a "tied-up pillow" and "green plants in cuffs." Removing traditionally gendered representations from kink imagery and expanding the color choices available may suggest a BDSM that is available to people who are put off by the classic look associated with certain gender dynamics, thereby including people across sexuality and gender spectrums.
Wild Wolf Leatherwork, a harness and collar brand with over 30,000 Instagram followers, epitomizes this shift. Its marketing centers women of color and queer people engaging in kink play with soft-aesthetic equipment-a 180 from traditional black silicone ball gag or leather restraint packaging, which more often portrays a pouty cis woman as a sub and an angry cis male disciplinarian as a dom.
Ali Esposito, owner of Wild Wolf, is non-binary themselves, and they said that their representation of kink is very intentional: "I'm photographing my friends and lovers. As a trans- and non-binary-run operation, the imagery we create is transforming with those identities alongside us."
Real members of the BDSM scene appreciate this evolution. Maja, a 27-year-old sub who asked that her real name not be used for privacy reasons, says traditional BDSM fashion, like black leather chaps and harnesses, "scared [her] and was a turnoff." Now, with the emergence of BDSM products in different tones, she feels they make the practice "more approachable."
As more diverse representations of kink increase, BDSM safe-practices education still hasn't found mainstream standing. You can buy a lavender riding crop and pink restraints online and have them in your hands within three to five business days, but once you have them, how do you use said toys without causing serious damage to yourself or a partner? As Ligon put it, "You can't just wear a body harness and suddenly know how to navigate the nuances of BDSM." The aspects where BDSM partners negotiate boundaries and engage in post-scene aftercare, a hugely important practice for kinksters, aren't addressed in pop culture. If everyone who had a passing interest in wearing a collar looked into BDSM-style best practices around negotiation and maintaining active consent, we'll all be the better for it.
Stockroom's copy editor, Chris Hall, said, "People who previously would have dismissed kink communities are seeing that we've been wrestling with questions of consent for a long time." So go ahead and get that cute pink collar-just make sure you get your information from certified sex educators, not just your favorite pop songs. While the core practice of BDSM-and its attitudes about and emphasis on consent and respect-remain the same for me, softer aesthetics make me feel that, even though I didn't shop at Hot Topic as a teenager, I still belong. And if I can belong while wearing a cute pink harness? All the better.
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